Tag Archives: Scripture

“The Whole Counsel of God”

Cultivating and Celebrating a Faith
that is as Big as the Bible

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 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”
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“In the Old Testament Jesus is predicted,
in the Gospels Jesus is revealed,
in the book of Acts Jesus is proclaimed,
in the Epistles Jesus is explained
and in the book of Revelation Jesus is anticipated.”   

Our tendency is to think that the person and work of Jesus Christ is confined to just the 33 years of His life on earth to which the New Testament’s four Gospels bear witness.  The way we think and act, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Bible’s “Jesusy” books.  We think that they alone are where we are going to find Him in the Bible.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are where we go to hear Jesus speaking and to see Jesus acting.  But because the Gospels are about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past, the way we tend to approach them is as past history.

We think of Jesus in the same way that we think of Abraham Lincoln.  He lived. He mattered. But now he’s gone.  Oh, we still feel his influence.  We continue to be inspired by his example and we’re certainly grateful for his contributions, but now he’s just a dead, distant memory.  Our only access to Abraham Lincoln is through the historical records that we have that tell us something about what he said and did when he was here.  Knowing Lincoln is a matter of historical research.  But knowing Jesus it’s different.

“Dead as dead can be” on Good Friday afternoon, Jesus was “alive again and alive forever” come Easter Sunday morning.  That’s what the Gospel story tells us, and even this is not where the Gospel story about Jesus ends.  The way that many of us approach the Gospel story, Jesus gets up on Easter Sunday morning, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.   But the way the New Testament tells the Gospel story, the resurrection of Christ is just the prelude to His Ascension which in turn is the trigger for Pentecost and the outpouring of the empowering presence of God through the Holy Spirit who has been given to the church for mission and assurance. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are the three foundations to the church’s experience of the continuing presence and activity of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth.  But the book of Acts and the New Testament’s Epistles are the opening chapters on the Risen Christ’s continuing ministry in heaven that has now been underway for 2000 years.  And what this means is that the book of Acts and the Epistles are just as “Jesusy” as are the Gospels.  He was just as present and He was just as involved with the things that we find in the book of Acts and the Epistles as the Risen Glorious Lord in heaven as He was during the days of His earthly life as the historical Jesus.   We see Jesus and we hear Jesus everywhere in the Bible, and not just in the Gospels.  This is where I think “Red Letter” Christians get it wrong.

 “Red Letter” Christians are those Christians in the church today who, understandably weary of the disproportionate attention that has been paid to the book of Acts and to the Epistles of the New Testament by much of the church for so long, have consciously turned their attention back to the neglected Gospels, back to the “Red Letters” of Jesus’ teachings.  But rather than restoring a lost Biblical balance, the unintended consequence of this “Red Letter” initiative for many has been to now do to the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament what had previously been done to the Gospels. “Red Letter” Christians objected to the way that the Gospels had been marginalized in the preaching, teaching, and believing of some Christians and some segments of the church, and rightly so. But in their attempt to address this problem, many “Red Letter” Christians have now, in turn, marginalized the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament.

Whenever and however a pecking order for the authority of the books of the Bible gets created that excuses us from having to pay attention to their witness to the speaking and acting of God reduces the Bible by labeling some books as being “secondary” and “unnecessary.”  But we don’t need a smaller Bible, we need a fuller Bible.  We don’t want fewer colors in our crayon box to work with, we need more!  Any approach to the Bible that tries to convince us that there are parts of it that we don’t really have to deal with is going to finally restrict our knowledge of God and leave gaps in our spiritual experience because too much of the Bible has been pushed to the margins and left out of the conversation of faith.

What we need is a Bible that’s just as big as the canon of Scripture that has been placed in our hands.  What we need is a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t leave certain parts of it out, that doesn’t declare certain books in it to be irrelevant and unnecessary, that doesn’t diminish our expectation of being able to hear God speaking and to see God acting when we take up our Bibles, open them to any page, and read. The Bible’s library of the collected testimonies of witnesses to the presence and action of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ set the boundaries for the field on which the game of our faith gets played.  It’s big and expansive and rich and diverse, and deliberately so.  So, why would we want to settle for less?  Instead, let’s cultivate and celebrate a faith that’s just as big as the Bible.  DBS +

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“Building the Kingdom?”

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If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings.  A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position.  The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection.  The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.

baseballI once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field.  There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.

I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.

It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.

As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –

karlDear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.

Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.
http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=8096#axzz4oJdsPptR

Ouch!

That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –

breadThere is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)

In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.

Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  • When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.

francisIt was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.

pollSo there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)

Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.

Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this.  This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.

But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing.  No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.

We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine.   DBS +

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“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
_____________________________________  

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.   

DBS +

 

 

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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.

god small

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.

DBS+

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