Monday, December 30, 2013

This Year In Books

Like last year, I wanted to evaluate what I've read through the course of the year. I intended to do a review of all the books I read, but I just didn't get that done for a variety of reasons. Anyway, here are the books that I read this year.

  1. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. This is a must read. Read my review.
  2. In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Another must read. I also reviewed this one.
  3. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. MUST READ. Go get it now. I started it in 2012, but finished it in 2013. It is simply an amazing book. NT Wright stated several things that I have believed for quite some time and just didn't have the words for. He put what I had already been thinking for quite some time to words, and he did it with a scholarly background that I simply cannot ever attain. This is one of the best theology books ever. This prompted me to read a few more NT Wright books and I will read more as he writes them. He is simply a great author.
  4. Simply Christian by NT Wright. Great book.
  5. Simply Jesus by NT Wright. Ditto.
  6. How God Became King by NT Wright. If you forget that Jesus was a Jew and came to Jews and lived among Jews and lived in Jewish culture, you'll miss the story the gospel authors were trying to tell. We talk an awful lot (rightly so) about the birth and the crucifixion and resurrection. But this book examines what happened in between the birth and death.
  7. The Shack by William Paul Young. I have overlooked this book for so many years because I simply didn't want to hear about the God who loves everyone. This book is about the God who loves everyone. Mark Driscoll and other Calvinists and fundamentalists would discourage you from reading this book. Don't listen to that advice. Read this book. It's beautiful.
  8. Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard - Keith Livingstone. I was working my way through a Lydiard cycle. I didn't make it through because I injured my calf, but a buddy of mine did and had a breakthrough. I had to give it another read to be sure I understood what he was saying. It turns out that I can teach this stuff better than I can execute it. (That sounds so familiar. I'm a much better at teaching most everything, including the Bible, than I am at actually practicing it.)
  9. Daniels Running Formula by Jack Daniels. I am experimenting with his marathon training principles on my own body. His 5k training principles did wonders for me, so I'm trying his approach to the marathon. So far, my body hasn't been able to do what he asks me to do.
  10. The "Gender-Inclusive" Movement among Churches of Christ by Kyle Pope. I really hoped this book would offer something besides the same tired old proof texts and same tired old explanations for the passages that show women in leadership roles. It did not. There is nothing to this book. If you've sat through a Bible class or a few sermons about women's roles in a church of Christ, you've heard everything this book has to offer. I really have nothing positive to say about this book. Not surprisingly, churches of Christ are doing everything right, according to Pope. Women can't preach or teach if even one man is present and women can't serve the Lord's Supper or lead a song, but women can talk and make a point in a Bible class and ask questions in a Bible class. Turns out that the church of Christ has been doing it right all along. Sigh.
  11. The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. This is a much better book on the subject of gender roles. McKnight starts by devoting nearly half the book to hermeneutics. Then he gets into a specific application of hermeneutics to gender roles. This is good stuff.
  12. Conviction Versus Mercy by Gardner Hall. I had such high hopes for this book and it let me down. It is very well researched, well written, and well edited. But it has some big flaws. You can read my review of this book.
  13. Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank. This book is the terrible awful. It's poorly edited and it has an arrogant tone and it would be better titled "Why the Church of Christ is Right and Everyone Else Is Going to Hell". It is full of straw men, grammatical errors, and outright false teaching. If the churches of Christ had a Watchtower Society, this would be their first book. It's a conservative church of Christ tract rack put to narrative. Read my review
  14. Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd. Brilliant. If you've ever struggled with the tension between faith and certainty, this book can be extremely helpful. Also, Boyd emphasizes the crucial difference between contract (how most Americans think) and covenant (how Bible authors talked). This is a very good read.
  15. Love Wins by Rob Bell. Rob Bell has a way of saying just enough to make you ask a question or to make you think without saying enough to answer the question or think for you. God is love, and we need to be busy proclaiming that to the world.
  16. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This was an interesting read and an interesting approach to improving relationships. I found it a little difficult to execute, but definitely worth considering how you can learn your spouse's love language and speak it with them.
I didn't read as many books as last year, but still got through enough by my standards. I didn't read some on my planned to read list, but maybe I will in 2014. Also, I continued to read the bulletin of Eastside church of Christ in Athens, several articles from Pepper Road church of Christ in Athens, Rachel Held Evans' blog, Greg Boyd's blog, The American Jesus blog, and a few articles from Al Maxey. So, as you can see, I read a lot from folks I disagree with. I also followed the podcast of Eastside church of Christ in Colorado Springs, CO and read Patrick Mead's blog while it was available and I'm glad to see it back.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Bible Says It; That Settles It

I sometimes hear "What I say doesn't matter; it's what the Bible says that matters." A close cousin to that is "I didn't say that; the Bible says that," or "I didn't say that; God did." And there are other ways of expressing this sentiment. "I don't interpret the Bible; I just read it." "You're not rejecting what I say; you're rejecting what God says." And so on.

Or one of my favorites... "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." Or just "God said it. That settles it."

That's nice except when that doesn't settle it.

Sometimes the Bible says to do things that we don't do. At other times, we do things that the Bible doesn't say to do. Still at other times we do what the Bible says not to do.

So when someone says about his church, "We just do what the Bible says," what that may mean is that he believes that his church has figured out what the Bible really means and if you were humble, honest, and informed enough, you would agree with them.

The problem with claiming to do just what the Bible says, no more and no less, is that it's only a matter of time before you're forced into saying... "The Bible says... But that doesn't mean..."

Let me illustrate what I mean with some examples of things that the Bible says that directly contradict the beliefs and practices of the churches that I have been affiliated with for most of the past 20 years (the non-institutional churches of Christ). I don't think I'm pulling any tricks with these examples. They're not prophecies or figurative or obviously limited. These are passages where the context supports the obvious reading. They are texts that require substantial explanation to explain the difference between the obvious reading of the passage and what many Christians teach and practice.

  1. The Bible says that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in John 2:7-10. But that doesn't mean they drank wine at that wedding.

Now, I know some of the explanations for this. I've read them, studied them, and even taught them. They involve a detailed description of why "wine" means "grape juice" and explaining why the best "wine" really isn't wine at all. You have to dig up Old Testament passages, lean on some atonement theology, and know something about the meaning of Greek words and the fermentation process to even make a stab at explaining why this doesn't mean they drank wine as part of this celebration. My point isn't to argue whether or not drinking wine is right or wrong. My point is "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" doesn't really work here for people who oppose drinking alcohol. The obvious reading of this story indicates that they drank alcoholic wine at that wedding with Jesus' approval. Any other reading requires quite a bit of explanation and even some extra-biblical sources. To prohibit alcohol, you have to say, "The Bible says that Jesus served wine at a wedding, but that doesn't mean that Jesus served wine at a wedding."

Hang in there with me. I can think of more than 30 more of these examples. I'll stop at five examples in this post. Again, I'm not arguing either way on any of these examples. I'm simply making the point that despite claims to the contrary, no one just "does and teaches what the Bible says." No one truly "speaks where the Bible speaks and remains silent where the Bible is silent." No one always and only follows "commands, examples, and necessary inferences" (CENI).

  1. John 13:14 says "wash one another's feet." But that doesn't mean we should "wash one another's feet". In fact if you do wash one another's feet as part of a worship service, you've added to the commandments of God because there are only five acts of worship. If you teach others to wash feet, you're a false teacher.
  2. 1 Timothy 2:8 says "men should pray with hands uplifted." But that doesn't mean to ever lift your hands when you pray. In fact, if you do lift your hands, you will likely be asked not to do that any more. So, in addition to not following this simple, clear encouragement to pray with uplifted hands, many forbid following this verse.
  3. For the fourth example, I'd like to give an example of a prohibition that many ignore. The Bible says to abstain from blood and from things strangled (Acts 15:20, 29). But that doesn't mean that medium rare steaks are prohibited or that I need to buy my meat from a Kosher butcher that ensures no strangulation. I know only a very few Christians who abstain from rare steaks for this reason. I don't know any who take any effort to ensure that their meat was slaughtered in a way that guarantees no strangulation.
  4. The final example for this post... The Bible says as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup (1 Cor. 11:26). But that doesn't mean "as often as". It means "when you do this on Sunday each and every week," because any other day or frequency is sinful. Never mind that instruction was originally given during a Passover supper (THIS bread) or that instruction was probably originally given on a Thursday (definitely NOT a Sunday). I wrote another post in June and shared my thoughts on the only every Sunday requirement.

Again, my main point is this: "God says it; that settles it" is not a workable approach to scripture. It's actually rude and disrespectful to say that. It's understood in a Bible discussion that both parties want to understand God's will. But for one to outright say "I just believe what the Bible says" is a jab at the other person. It's a way of saying, "I have figured out God's will because it's clear and obvious and I'm unbiased and those who disagree are obtuse or dishonest or ignorant." It's an attempt to gain superiority over another person, which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught His followers to do. Beware of entering into a Bible discussion with someone who repeatedly says things like, "My opinion doesn't matter and yours doesn't matter either. What the Bible says is the only thing that matters." The question generally isn't, "What does the Bible say?" The question under consideration generally is "What does the Bible mean and how does it apply to us?"

I don't know anyone who "just does what the Bible says." In fact, I don't know anyone who even "just does what the New Testament says." We all pick and choose. Hermeneutics is where the rubber meets the road in how we determine what to pick and choose and how what we pick and choose applies to us today. And I'm learning that hermeneutics is quite complex and ambiguous at times. Thanks to Doy Moyer, I've learned that CENI isn't a hermeneutic at all. We're not so much trying to find the commands, examples and necessary inferences. The CENI are given to us. We're really trying to figure out which of those are meant for us to follow and how do we apply them. Let's not say "we just do what the Bible says" because you don't and I don't. We all have our "but that doesn't mean" exclusions from the Bible. A better conversation to have, instead of whether we do what the Bible says or not, is why don't we do what the Bible says sometimes.

If the examples that I've shown above aren't enough to cause you to at least stop and consider that you and I don't "just do what the Bible says", stay tuned. I have several more examples. I want to share these examples because before we can have a meaningful discussion of hermeneutics, we have to remove the false moral high ground that pretends to do just what the Bible says.

Friday, November 29, 2013

You Can Have My Spot

In Romans 9:1 Paul says something that really catches my attention. See if it catches your attention, too.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
Why would Paul so strongly say that he isn't lying? This seems very close to Paul saying, "I swear by God (the Holy Spirit)."  Besides that, if he's inspired, why does he need to remind us that he's telling the truth? This verse has always intrigued me. 

In normal conversation when I hear something like "God knows I'm not lying," I immediately think that something unbelievable is coming soon. That's exactly what we have here. Paul is about to say something shocking. Notice Rom. 9:3.
For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:
Wow! Did Paul just say that he wishes he could give up his own salvation for the sake of his Jewish friends? Paul in essence says, "I love these people so much that I wish I could go to hell for their sake." Let that sink in for a moment. Wow! What an outrageous claim! Indeed, he needed to precede that with "God knows I'm not lying".

If the essence of the gospel is "you can go to heaven," then Paul's willingness to give up heaven for someone else amounts to a rejection of the essence of the gospel for himself. Going to heaven isn't what it's all about.

In another place, Philippians 1:23-24, Paul says something similar. Rather than wishing himself accursed for someone else, Paul decides it's better to stay out of heaven a little longer to continue to serve people who are already believers. This context in Philippians 1 shows that it's good to desire heaven, to desire to be with God. Paul had a strong desire to be with the Lord. Heaven is good and important and something to desire. But getting to heaven was not Paul's top priority. His top priority was serving those around him.

He continues to expound on this idea in the next few verses, especially Phil. 2:5-8. In the same context of chapter 1 where he says "I'd rather stay and help you than to go be in heaven right now," Paul points us to Jesus's example of doing a very similar thing. Jesus was in heaven and He left that. Jesus left heaven at great risk. (If there were no risk, then the temptations are meaningless). He did not view heaven for Himself as top priority. No, His top priority was serving others.

And Paul says in very, very strong terms that we should think this way (Phil. 2:4). He basically says in Phil. 2:1-3 that if following Christ means anything, if love means anything, if God means anything to you, then put others above yourself. Putting others above yourself so you can get to heaven is one thing. It's paying a small price in the here and now for a huge payoff in the by and by. If getting a reward or avoiding punishment is our primary motive, then our primary motive is selfish. But to give up our spot in heaven for someone else? That's the depth of the service that God asks from us. Serve others because you genuinely want to serve them. Love others passionately even if that means complete self-sacrifice. That's the gospel call.

I admit. This is shocking to me. So often when we give and serve, it's for our own good in some way. Truly loving and serving takes our reward out of the picture and just loves and serves because loving and serving is good for others.

What happens after death is important. It's a beautiful promise that God has given us and it shows His love for us to give us such a promise. Part of faith is trusting God to make good on His promise. But when we make the gospel all about what happens after this life, we miss the point. By placing so much emphasis on getting ourselves to heaven, we change the focus of the message from others-oriented love to a self-serving something-for-nothing bargain contract. Reducing the message to "Jesus died so you don't have to go to hell; believe and be baptized so you can go to heaven" cheapens the gospel and it downgrades God. It turns the gospel into sin management to avoid punishment. It turns God into a petty tyrant who cannot forgive without legally extracting blood for every sin. This simplified message is unbiblical. The gospel message is a shining light that drives away darkness by enemy-loving others-oriented self-sacrificial love. It turns conventional wisdom upside down by teaching that it's better to give than to receive. It teaches of an almighty Creator who didn't use His power to force His will but rather demonstrated true power by radical self sacrifice and gave us a guarantee of the truth of this power by raising from the dead.

Peter Rollins tells about a friend of his who left the church. This friend told a parable upon his leaving the church. The exit parable goes like this (paraphrasing from memory).
I dreamed that I had died and was at the gates of heaven. I saw Saint Peter there and he said, "Hello and welcome in!" Just as I was about to step in, I noticed some of my friends there just outside. Some of them Buddhists. Some of them atheists. Some of them God knows what. And I said, "Peter, what about my friends?" Peter said, "Well, you know the rules." And just as I was about to step in, I remembered my reference point. Jesus. Jesus the friend of sinners. Jesus the friend of outsiders. Jesus who left heaven and became an outcast. And I said, "You know what, I'll just stay out here with my friends." Peter then looked at me with a huge smile and said, "At last! At last you understand! For God so loved the world that He forsook heaven!"
You see, following Jesus isn't just about getting myself to heaven. It's about driving darkness away and bringing heaven down to earth, like He did. I pray that I can be more about serving others for their good and not for my own good, more like Him.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Anchor Texts

Sometimes disagreements over Bible topics lead to one or both of the parties in the discussion questioning the other's commitment to Scripture. Unfortunately, I've been on both sides of this. Some think that if you reach a different conclusion on some topic, then you don't have a high regard for Scripture or you're dishonest or biased and that prevents you from seeing or accepting truth. I know some think this because I once thought this and I was taught this.

I must confess that I'm not always as committed to Scripture as I should be. I'm not always honest. And frankly, I read the Bible with bias. However, I also believe that describes everyone else that reads the Bible, too. I'm not saying that we should ignore blatant disregard, dishonesty or bias. But let's not be quick to throw out these types of accusations. People know these dangers and typically want to avoid them. Let's be optimistic about others' motives.

Bible discussions should be actual discussions of the text instead of accusations toward those who don't agree with us. We can't have loving discussions if we're going to turn the discussions into righteousness contests. If we're going to get into a righteousness contest, I probably lose. I know myself and my weakness and selfishness and darkness. I lose. And even if I happen to win the righteousness contest, I still feel like I lost for even being in a righteousness contest. It would be so much better if we discussed the text and the theological and doctrinal issues involved and seek to learn from one another instead of seeking to prove the wrongness and faithlessness of anyone who disagrees.

With that admonition in mind, I think I've stumbled upon a reason why people disagree that has little or nothing to do with one's honesty or commitment. Understanding this may lead to more thoughtful discussions, more seeking to understand, and less questioning of others' motives or faith. I think that the key is understanding the concept of what I'm calling "anchor texts". I've never heard or read this anywhere else, so take it for what it's worth. But I'd really like to try to I explain what I mean by "anchor texts".

Anyone who has studied the Bible seriously has noticed that there are some seeming contradictions. Some of these are trivial and easily resolved. However, other seeming contradictions are really difficult and diligent and honest study still leaves bona fide tension. Some Bible texts are not easily reconciled with other Bible texts. I don't know any Bible student who hasn't wrestled with Bible texts that are in tension.

One of the most classic examples of this type of tension is the tension between free will and predestination. Perhaps I shouldn't mention this one because it generates so much passion on both sides. But the passion and intensity in both directions of this tension set the stage for the character assassinations that so often happen, so maybe it is a good example to mention.

The most staunch 5 point hyper-Calvinist still has to deal with the fact that God changed His mind based on Moses' intercession in Exodus 32:14 (and several other instances of God changing His mind or course of action based on the actions of people). A Calvinist has to deal with the fact that the Bible presents people as having real choices, and the course of their lives and the lives of others and even God's actions are affected by those choices. On the other hand, the most convinced open-theist still has to deal with Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1-3 and the fact that Paul was a chosen vessel. There is tension between predestination and free-will. There are texts in the Bible that seem to support both ideas. Both sides of this have explanations for the texts that seem to support the opposing view. But each side anchors their belief on a set of texts and explains the passages that seem to support the other view in light of their "anchor texts".

That's not the only example. Consider women's roles (another one with quite a bit of passion on both sides). The most egalitarian or feminist among us still has to deal with 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Ephesians 5:22, etc. The most complementarian or patriarchal still has to deal with Deborah, 1 Cor. 11:5, Romans 16:1,3,7, Galatians 3:28, etc. Again, both sides have explanations for the seemingly opposing texts, viewing their own "anchor texts" as more clear and therefore a guiding light for interpreting the other passages.

Consider the doctrine of hell and this one has tension in three vectors. Eternal conscious torment proponents still have to deal with the passages like 1 John 2:2 and Rom. 5:18 that speak of salvation for all men. They still have to deal with the fact that the Bible provides two options, life or death and that destruction doesn't mean "kept alive for ever and ever in order to suffer". The annihilationists still have to deal with Matt. 25:46 and Rev. 14:9-11. The universalists have to deal with Matt. 7:13-14. And they all have their explanations of the other texts.

There are many more of these types of subjects. There is tension between faith and works. There is tension between pacifism and justified violence. There is tension between eternal security and the possibility of losing salvation, etc. The Bible is a work that requires interpretation and living in tension. Because of this variety of Bible teaching, "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it" just doesn't work. Interpreting the Bible is more than just getting your hermeneutics right. Exegeses are interrelated and application is cultural.

Something that complicates matters more is that most people have a theological and cultural framework and background that shapes how they read everything in the Bible. In other words, what someone chooses as an "anchor text" is very much influenced by his theological and cultural background, his faith tradition, his system of interpretation. These systems, in and of themselves, are not bad. In fact, they're helpful. Without them, we'd be forced to go back to basics every time we read the Bible. So, the result of a system is that almost every exegesis is influenced by the results of a number of other exegeses. To change one exegesis will likely have an effect on several others, and the relationships among them are not simple and changing one exegesis could threaten the whole system, and that's difficult, complex, and frankly very scary.

For example, a member of a church of Christ and a traditional Presbyterian have a completely different set of anchor texts because they have different systems. If one isn't familiar with the other's system, then an attempt to discuss a topic like infant baptism will be woefully unproductive. They're coming from completely different backgrounds and for a member of a church of Christ to change his exegesis of Acts 2:38 would have far reaching consequences on his system. Likewise, for the Presbyterian to change his exegesis of Eph. 1:4-5 would have many far reaching and complex implications to his system. If they're not familiar with one another's system or not willing to admit that they're using a system, then the discussion has the potential to end in attacks on one another's faith. Almost every exegesis depends on a large number of other exegeses. We must remember this in our discussions. These two don't disagree because one has faith and the other doesn't or one believes in inspiration and the other doesn't or because one is biased and the other isn't. They disagree because they have different systems of interpretation and therefore different anchor texts.

To be sure, I'm not saying that one theological system is as good as any other. I don't believe that at all. But I do believe a couple of things about these systems. First, I believe that if your system condemns all who don't accept your system, then your system is inherently not subject to correction and should be abandoned. This statement may not be immediately obvious, but think it through. Correcting a system means that it had a flaw. So, this brings a couple of options. One is that it is possible to have a flawed system and still not be condemned. That should beg the question of "Why is my flawed system acceptable to God, but others' flawed systems are not?" Another option is that the system itself must be abandoned because it is flawed, and you were condemned while you used that flawed system. Therefore, a system that condemns all who don't accept it cannot be subject to correction. Any system not subject to correction is dangerous.

A second thing I believe about these systems is that one's system determines one's anchor texts. Shifting anchor texts will require modifying one's system or abandoning it in favor of another system. It requires a huge amount of humility and courage to subject one's system to the test of reason and Scripture. Modifying or abandoning one's system can be extremely painful. I know this first hand because I'm still hurting badly from changing my system.  But we must subject even our system to Scripture so that the system can be modified or even abandoned. The best way I can think of for this type of testing to happen is for loving community discussions of these things among people who don't threaten one another if these discussions reveal a need to modify or abandon a system. And if someone isn't willing to subject his own system to this type of examination and test, then he has no right to ask others to do so.

So, when someone disagrees with me, it has much more to do with a difference in anchor texts than it does with a difference in integrity. Disagreement does NOT mean that they don't value Scripture. It does not mean that they're dishonest. It just means that they have a different theological system and therefore a different set of anchor texts to explain Bible doctrines that are in tension.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Judge Not

This is the second, and very much delayed follow up post to an image I posted on my Facebook back in June. The image is below and I think it communicates beautiful truths in a clever and artful way. It is from Greg Boyd's ReKnew ministry. You can read the first follow up post at this link. You can read the Facebook discussion at this link.
ReKnew Poster
A statement on the photo that caused caused some controversy was this: "Don't judge." I'm a little surprised it was controversial among some Christians since it's a direct quote from Jesus. Jesus at least twice says "Do not judge" (Matt. 7:1; John 7:24). Sure, there is a context to each of those statements, but I believe that each of those contexts support the obvious meaning of "Don't judge". I believe that we can take that simple instruction from our Lord at face value. Don't judge.

Regarding those two passages, I talked in more detail about John 7:24 in a post titled "Principles and Rules". Basically, I believe that John 7:24 teaches us not to judge people, but to carefully discern scripture, not seeking to condemn people. I wrote a paragraph about Matt. 7:1 in the second of a two part discussion of the relative weight of sins. I believe that the message of Matt. 7:1-5 is that we should recognize our own sins as big deal sins so that we don't become hypocrites, getting our righteousness from picking at others' sins while ignoring our own.

Do not judge people is a theme repeated in the New Testament. Several verses teach this. (Rom. 2:1, Rom. 14:4; Jas. 4:11-12; Luke 6:37). There are several others, too. The New Testament says multiple times, "Do not judge." To my knowledge, it never says, "Judge your brother." I do readily admit that sometimes righteousness demands pointing out and standing against evil. However, condemning people is not our business.

When you think through this simple prohibition, "Don't judge", it makes sense. I can't judge my brother for two reasons. First, I cannot know his heart and circumstances. Second, I don't have the power to save or to destroy anyone. Thank God that He alone has that power! I know I would get it wrong because I sometimes do judge and I more than likely have gotten it wrong. Don't judge is a fairly simple and a very fruitful commandment.

One may ask, "Doesn't Matthew 7:5 say to remove the speck after removing your own log? So, if I'm not guilty I can and should judge my brother." That's a fair question, and I understand how someone could read this passage that way. (I once did.) However, in this passage, Jesus is NOT telling us to judge others as long as our sins aren't worse than theirs. Jesus is not saying, "Get rid of your big sins so you can judge others for their small sins." When I think my sins are not as bad as others' sins, I become guilty of pride, one of the most deadly sins. If we are to remove someone's speck, how do we go about doing it? Jesus gives us advice for this just a few verses later when He recites the Golden Rule. I'm afraid that rather than providing my brother with the love and support he needs to make correction, I've been too busy proving that he's wrong and that I'm right. Then, I've played the "concerned for your soul" trump card which raised the stakes and caused me to justify all kinds of foul behavior, including whispering, backbiting, gossip, slander, withholding affection, and public humiliation. And that brings me right back to Matt. 7:3, where the one picking at a speck has a log in his eye. I can't count how many times I've seen and participated in gossip and evil speaking, justified by the "I'm concerned for his soul" line. I've learned that whenever I hear "concerned for your soul," I should prepare to see someone engage in foul behavior with the full blessing of his/her conscience. Judging people will lead to acting very ugly without the least bit of guilt or remorse to restrain the ugly behavior. That's the warning in James 4:11-12.

In the past, I've said, "I'm not condemning anyone to hell. I'm not issuing statements about anyone's eternal destiny." Then, I've followed that statement with, "I'm concerned for your soul." This is doublespeakHow else can someone interpret "I'm concerned for your soul," other than, "I think you're going to hell"? 

One reasonable concern with obeying the instruction "Don't judge" is that it can be taken to an extreme of never saying that anything is wrong. To be sure, that simply isn't what I believe or teach and I don't believe it is a necessary outcome of avoiding judging. We must call evil by its name. In fact, in this post I have said that slander, gossip, judging people, etc. are wrong. Sin is always destructive and if ignored will lead to destruction. We don't do well to ignore sin. "Don't judge" is not the same thing as "Ignore sin." That is a false dichotomy. However, we have no business judging the hearts of other people and absolutely no business issuing statements about the eternal destiny of others. In this post, I have called judging wrong and evil, but I have avoided judging people who practice those things. I believe one can have a pure heart and a strong desire to do good and right and still judge others. God can use those people and even their judging for good in ways that I can't predict. I don't believe judging is right or good, but I don't condemn the people who practice it and defend the practice. I don't know their hearts (I assume that they are pure) and I have faith that God is merciful.

Many, maybe even most, sins stem from pride. Judging, saying "I'm right and you're wrong", saying "God approves of me but He doesn't approve of you," saying "you're going to hell if you don't stop disagreeing with me because I agree with God," all of those things feed pride in an ugly way. Judging is a way to lord over our fellow man. It is a way to exert power over someone. That exerting of power is exactly opposite to what the kingdom of God is about (Matt. 20:25-28). Judging, in the sense of claiming to know motives and condemning people, is taking on a role that God has exclusively reserved for Himself. Judging is a destructive manifestation of pride.

Another objection to "Don't judge" is to explain away this simple instruction by saying that the instruction only applies to hypocritical judging. True enough, hypocritical judging is condemned in the Bible, and is a particularly ugly form of judging. But there are other condemnations of judging that do not refer to hypocritical judging, specifically Rom. 14:4; James 2:12-13; James 4:11-12. Judging our brothers leads to all manner of evil things and we are warned repeatedly against judging in the New Testament. To ignore that warning will lead to division, slander, gossip, hurt and divided families, arrogance, withholding affection, dangerous doctrines of exclusion and ungodly restrictions, and all manner of other sins that I can't foresee. Judging either leads to pride or comes from pride, and pride leads to destruction. We don't have to wait until the judgment day to see this destruction. I see it all around me right now and I don't claim to know how that's all going to shake out on the judgment day. Behave and speak like you will be judged by a law of liberty. Judgment is without mercy to someone who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

To be fair, some people may attempt to abuse this instruction not to judge. Some may say “Don’t judge me” meaning “Leave me alone in my sin. I like it here.” If we love them, we will not ignore their sin. On the other side of this coin, consider that many who say "Don't judge me" may do so as a defense mechanism because those who have judged them have been ruthless and harsh and arrogant in their judgment. There is a way to encourage people to forsake their sin without judging them, and the Bible gives us instruction about that in passages like Matt. 7:12 and Gal. 6:1.  Also, I'm NOT saying, "Don't judge me." Someone's judgment of me doesn't really make much difference. It may hurt my feelings, but that isn't really important. My point isn't "Don't judge me". My point is "Don't judge". It's not good to judge. It inflates the pride of some and discourages others.

It's fairly easy to say to someone, "You're wrong. You're dishonest. You're in sin. If you decide you'd rather go to heaven than continue what you're doing or believing what you're believing, you're welcome to join us again." It's a lot harder to look a person in the eye, see and try to feel their pain, empathize, and without condemnation say, "I believe in you. I know you're struggling, and I love you. I'm here for you no matter what." I pray that I can become much better at believing in people and overcoming sin with them, more like Him.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Salvation Is Now

I posted the following image on my Facebook page a while back, and it has attracted some interest. I think this image communicates beautiful truths in a clever and artful way. It is from Greg Boyd's ReKnew ministry.
ReKnew Poster
When I posted this image, I really didn't expect it to offend anyone who is a Christian. Apparently there were two statements on this poster that were more controversial than I ever thought they would be. I'll deal with one in this post and the second one later. You can see the image on my Facebook page and read the discussion at this link.

The first statement that caused some controversy was this: "Salvation is about your now life, not your afterlife." I think some people concluded from that statement that I don't believe in an afterlife. I really hate that confusion arose because of that. Let me be as clear as I know how to be. I believe in eternal life for the saved. God will raise the bodies of believers and give us an immortal body that is not subject to sickness, decay, or death. I can't really think of any other points that are more clearly set forth in the Bible.

So, what is the meaning of "salvation is about your now life, not your afterlife"? I believe that the reward of salvation is a very misunderstood concept. Yes, eternal life is a reward, but in what sense is it a reward? We often think of a reward as some sort of pat on the back for doing a job well. Whether that "pat on the back" is a bonus for going above and beyond at work or giving a treat to my cat for fetching (yes, my cat does fetch), we often think of a reward as something someone gets for doing something good. That is certainly a correct sense in which to use the word, "reward". However, when we consider the reward that accompanies salvation, that sense of the word falls incredibly far short, maybe even to the point of being inaccurate. When we treat the reward as arbitrary, as separate from the good work, we misunderstand both the work and the reward.

If your brain works at all like mine, there is something very distasteful about being a Christian just for the sake of what you can get out of it. When you consider what being a Christian is about, serving others expecting nothing in return, it makes even less sense to be a Christian for the "reward". And being a Christian just to avoid the punishment of not being one, that even approaches utter nonsense to me. It's a complete contradiction. How can self-preservation be the main reason I follow a Man whose ultimate act was completely giving of Himself for the good of others? It's nonsense. Being a Christian is NOT about self-preservation.

So, in what sense, then, can we say (as the Bible says, yes even as Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, says) that there is a reward to following Jesus? The reward of Christianity is organically, intrinsically connected to the work. I'd like to use a couple of analogies to help make this point.

First, consider marriage, and marriage is a prominent analogy for God's relationship to His people in Scripture. The reward of marriage is intrinsic to the relationship. I do good for my wife, not so that she will say, "Well done," or so that she'll do something good for me, but because I genuinely want to do good for her. The reward is in the doing! The relationship itself is the reward. And I enjoy when she does good for me, not primarily for the good I get out of it, but because I know she wants to do good for me and it brings her joy to work with me in our marriage for the good of our family. If she stopped doing good for me (something I can't imagine, but let me set it forth as a possibility), then I would still want to do good for her and would still find that rewarding. My marriage is NOT about me, and neither is my relationship with God.

Another analogy is my running. At my level, what is the reward of racing? I once won a 5k race and got a big trophy. I'll keep that trophy as long as I live. But that trophy, while a reward, is not THE reward for running. That trophy is not why I trained and competed. My reward is intrinsic to the running itself and the accomplishments that come with the running. And, this analogy is also Biblical. In 1 Cor. 9:24-25, Paul compares the crown of winning a race to the imperishable crown of working for the sake of the gospel. Just as the physical, perishable crown isn't the only (or even the truest) reward for winning a race, the imperishable crown isn't the only reward for working for the gospel. This is made more emphatic by considering that 1 Cor. 9:24-25 is in an overall context of giving up of oneself for the sake of others. That is a lesson that the Corinthians desperately needed, and chapters 8-10 are all about giving up yourself and your rights for the good of others. The reward of giving up yourself is intrinsic to the giving up of yourself.

The reward of being a Christian is not a disembodied soul fleeing to heaven. The reward is not an arbitrary pat on the back unrelated to the work that was done. As we have seen, the reward is in the doing itself and it is far and above any direct or equivalent payment for doing the work. And yes, being a Christian is work. It's a relationship, and relationships require work. Anyone who thinks that you can be a Christian without working at it misunderstands the nature of relationships and the nature of following Jesus.

The eternal reward, then, will include serving God and serving others and reigning and doing so in a resurrected immortal body. I don't know exactly what that will look like, but I know it will be much better than I can imagine. And there will be work to do and it will be rewarding. To be sure, what happens in our afterlife is extremely important. My intention isn't to set that aside. The Bible has a lot to say about the afterlife. But my point is that the afterlife is not an arbitrary pat on the back for doing good in this life. The afterlife is intrinsically connected to the now life. Here are a few verses to chew on that show that salvation is indeed about our work in our "now life". A half dozen passages come to mind without much effort... Rom. 6:4; 2 Cor. 6:2; Eph. 2:10; Col. 3:8-15; Gal. 5:25; 1 Cor. 15:58; etc.

Having clarified what I mean by "Salvation is about your now life, not your after life", I think that most of the confusion came from a figure of speech. By saying, "not your afterlife", the poster used hyperbolic contrast to emphasize salvation in the now. This is actually a very common figure of speech and it occurs often in the Bible, most often in a "Not... But..." construct.

Notice a very similar figure of speech that Jesus used. In Matt. 10:34, He said, "I came not to send peace but a sword." Now, we know that Jesus is the Prince of peace (Is. 9:6) and that He came to bring peace (Luke 2:14). But in this context Jesus is emphasizing that there would be strife within families because some would believe and some would reject Him. This is to be expected and is not a sign of defeat and the disciples on this limited commission need not be discouraged by it. Jesus likens this strife to the sword. "Not peace but a sword". Jesus wasn't saying that peace was not part of His message. Indeed it is and is a very important part of it. Similarly, rephrasing the statement on the poster to parallel Jesus's words in Matt. 10:34 yields "not your after life, but your now life." It's a figure of speech, emphasizing the truth that salvation produces tangible and radical change in your life right now.

This type of figure of speech appears throughout the New Testament and throughout language in general. Paul, after saying that he had baptized some in Corinth says, "God did not send me to baptize but to preach." Clearly baptizing was part of what Paul was to do. Peter told Ananias and Sapphira, "You have not lied to men but to God." Well, actually, they had lied to both. Jesus said "Do not lay up treasures on earth but in heaven." He didn't mean that we can't have a savings account. I could go on and on, but you should see that this is a very common figure of speech with biblical precedent.

I wish that hadn't caused confusion, but I really thought that was obviously a figure of speech. I had no idea that someone would interpret that to mean that I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't even know of anyone claiming to be Christian who teaches that.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

About This Blog

Apparently some things that I have shared on this blog are bothering some people and causing them concern. Please understand that is not my intent.

So, if I may, I'd like to warn you about this blog. I will occasionally tackle some difficult questions here and I may not have the answer to the questions before I write about it. I don't have all the answers, but that doesn't mean that I won't write about something for which I don't have the answer. To be sure, I won't have the answer in mind before I begin studying about it. If studying without the conclusion predetermined is uncomfortable for you, this blog will be uncomfortable for you. I don't have an answer key like I had in the back of my mathematics textbooks. I'm not trying to write about how to come to a predetermined answer.

Honestly, this is uncomfortable for me, too. I don't see where Jesus called us to be comfortable, so keeping myself and any readers comfortable is not a goal of any of my writing. Some of the topics may elicit an emotional response in you. Considering them and writing about them is emotional to me, too. But writing here is both cathartic for me and constructive to my faith.

I may quote people that I don't agree with. I may quote people that you don't agree with. Sometimes, I will tackle a question and come up with an answer that you won't agree with. If that can't be okay with you, if you can't stand for people to have honest disagreements about theology, then you won't like this blog. It may offend you and it may make you stumble, and I'd hate for that to happen to you. I don't want to offend and I don't want to cause anyone to stumble.

If I must agree with you or be considered a false teacher, please don't read this. If it makes your conscience feel better to warn others about me, let me save you the trouble. I'm warning readers now. I'll get some stuff wrong on this blog. It's not my intention to do so, but I can guarantee that it will happen. I guarantee that there is something false on these pages. I want to change my mind about whatever I have written that is false. But I don't plan to remove it. I'm walking by faith, and I'm sharing my walk with any who care to read. I know that makes me vulnerable, but it may be helpful to see where I was before I got to where I am and to see where I am before I get to where I'm going. If your only purpose in reading this blog is to find my mistakes, you will find them, and you'll find them aplenty. If the only time you ever talk to me or talk about me is to tell me or others how wrong I am, don't be surprised if I don't listen to you. Love that only criticizes is not love at all. (1 Cor. 13:4-5) If you're kind and gentle and show interest other than just to find my faults, I'll listen and I'd enjoy very much to discuss these things with you. However, if you only talk to me or about me to criticize me, you're not "speaking the truth in love."

If you're not comfortable with people changing their beliefs, then this blog isn't for you. If you're not comfortable with some people having beliefs that differ from yours, you won't like this. You don't have to read it. You've been warned.

And I want to be extra clear on this next point, I do not speak for any church or group of churches. This is my personal walk of faith and I'm sharing some personal things. They're just that. Personal. I'm not trying to change the doctrine of any church or any group of churches. I don't have the influence or the intelligence to do that anyway. I do not speak for anyone else, and I can't speak for anyone else on these matters. Do not assume that anyone that I go to church with agrees with anything I say. They likely don't. Don't assume my wife agrees, either. She probably doesn't.

So, read at your own risk. But if seeing a doctrine that you disagree with will make you stumble, don't read. I don't want you to stumble.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Upon the First Day of the Week

I think this is the most technical post I have written on this blog, but some of these technical details are necessary for reasons that may become apparent as you read. I got a couple of private questions about some comments I made about the Lord's Supper in the recent post, "My First Lent", so I thought I'd present my study on that topic. The day and frequency of the Lord's Supper may seem minor. Compared to love, mercy, faith, resurrection, etc., it is indeed less weighty. However, because of the questions and the importance that I have placed on day and frequency in the past, I believe it is worthy of consideration.

Many in churches of Christ insist that the Lord’sSupper must be observed on every Sunday and only on Sunday, no exceptions and are quite dogmatic about this. This is also a doctrine and practice that is peculiar, so it is often discussed when talking to people of other denominations. I wrote a post a while back about "restudying" and this is an example of what I was saying in that post. This doctrine and practice is part of the identity of churches of Christ.

I do not believe this issue is a big deal. This post alone gives it more attention than it really deserves. I believe that there is considerable liberty given to us as to when we may observe the Lord's Supper. So, to be clear, I do not believe it is wrong to observe the Lord's Supper only on Sunday and every Sunday. But I do believe it is a mistake to make only and every Sunday a test for fellowship. I am not encouraging changing the frequency or practice. I am encouraging less dogmatism on the frequency and day.

Every Sunday is surely an acceptable frequency, but so are a variety of other times and days. Jesus instituted it on a Thursday and said "whenever" (1 Cor. 11:23, 25-26). One group of Christians observed it on a Monday (Acts 20:11). (I'll build that case in this post.) It could be argued that the early Jerusalem church observed it daily (Acts 2:46). "Only and every Sunday" is not a litmus test to determine if a church is a true church. The Bible doesn't seem to place such limits on frequency or day of the week.

Acts 20:7 is the primary proof text for this "only every Sunday" doctrine and practice. It is the only verse that specifies the day of the week that a church took the Lord’s Supper. However, I believe the evidence that they actually observed the Lord's Supper on Monday is compelling, perhaps overwhelming.

Leaving aside the question of whether this or any example should be binding on all churches for all time, let’s examine this text. Can we be sure that this group of disciples actually partook of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week? There are a couple of things that need to be considered in order to answer that question. First, was Luke using Roman time or Jewish time to count the days? Second, does "break bread" refer to the Lord's Supper in this passage?

Roman or Jewish Time?
According to Jewish time, the first day of the week begins at sunset on what we would call Saturday evening and lasts until sunset on what we would call Sunday evening. Roman time, like our time, counts days from midnight until midnight. So, since this text mentions events before midnight and on the next morning, it is important to discern whether Jewish time or Roman time is used to describe the first day of the week.

It is more likely that Luke was using Roman time for two reasons. First is that Luke wrote to a Gentile audience (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) and would have used terms familiar to them. The second and more convincing reason is found in the context. Recall that a Jewish day begins at sundown the evening before. Paul began his speech before midnight and continued until midnight. His plan was to depart on the next day (verse 7). Notice that in verse 11, he departed after day break. That indicates that Luke considered the early morning to be the next day. When you also consider that the first day of the week would have been a work day for them, it is likely that they met in the afternoon or evening of Sunday and that Paul departed early Monday morning. If Luke were using Jewish time, then I can't figure out how to make that departure on "the next day".

Common Meal or Lord's Supper?
Another question to consider is whether or not the phrase “break bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper. I don’t know of a compelling reason to think one way or another. I see nothing in the text that requires either interpretation. However, if “break bread” in verse 7 refers to the Lord’s Supper, it seems reasonable that it would also refer to the Lord’s Supper in verse 11, too. I don’t see any evidence to shift the meaning of that expression in mid-context.

Let’s assume for this discussion that “break bread” here refers to the Lord’s Supper. Now, we have the question of exactly when they observed the Lord’s Supper. Admittedly, they came together on this first day for that purpose. However, did they accomplish that purpose on that actual first day? The text mentions a sermon that Paul preached. I don’t see any evidence in the text of their observing the Lord’s Supper before the Eutychus incident. We could assume that they did, but it would be only that, an assumption. The text simply does not say. The text actually answers the question of when they “broke bread”. It was after they came up from the raising of Eutychus as verse 11 states. The text specifically states that Paul took 4 distinct actions after raising Eutychus. These verbs are all joined by "and". First, he returned to the upper room. Second, he broke bread. Third, he ate. Fourth, he spoke a long while. This places the breaking of bread after midnight and before dawn, technically on the second day of the week, or Monday. (You may notice that I didn't include "departed". That's because it is not joined by "and" which could indicate that "departed" is the only one of those things that Paul did alone.)

Conclusion
When I read this chapter, it is astonishing that the primary point that is made from this text is every and only first day observance of the Lord's Supper. I realize that I may be a hypocrite for saying that while spending this entire post talking about the actual time/day that they broke bread. But I've sat in and taught many Bible classes on Acts 20 where the primary emphasis has been the "first day of the week." Why is so little attention given to the reunion of Paul with the disciples in Troas? Why is so little attention given to their zeal that kept them together all night before a normal work day? Why is so little attention given to miracle of resurrection from the dead that Paul performed? Why do many of our children know Acts 20:7 better than Acts 20:35? In Bible classes and sermons on Acts 20 through the years, I have heard very scant mention of those other topics. I have been guilty (and I suppose that I still am guilty of this) of straining the gnat and swallowing the camel in this chapter.
Eutychus falling. Image from visualbiblealive.com
Would I exclude from fellowship someone who disagreed with my exegesis of this text? Absolutely not! However, I believe that what I have provided here is a better exegesis than I have heard. But I do not believe this exegesis would be welcomed in a Bible class in many churches of Christ. I say this not as a blind supposition or baseless accusation. I say this because I have tried and have been disallowed from building my case. Many believe that this passage insists on only and every first day observance of the Lord’s Supper and they draw a line of fellowship on this issue. I view this drawing of such a hard line and the repeated emphasis on such a minor detail as a misapplication of this passage.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Labeled a Legalist

If there's one thing that you don't want to be, it's a legalist. If you want to make a blanket accusation toward someone in a public dialogue that almost immediately discredits them, legalism is a good word to use. And if the accused has mentioned obedience, the accusation is likely to stick. That's an almost sure fire way to win a debate these days. Convince the hearers that your opponent is a legalist, and you win because legalism is bad.

Well, maybe you do want to be a legalist. At least some people do. I've heard some people unashamedly wear the name "legalist". I read this article, "Legalism: The Un-Sin" by Steve Klein in the Eastside church of Christ bulletin a couple of weeks ago. And, as an extreme example, Al Maxey posted this image on his Facebook page a few weeks ago (though Maxey certainly was not in agreement with the sentiment of the sign).
I wouldn't be comfortable saying that.
The original source of that image was a well written blog post by Josh Collins. I don't know Josh Collins and I haven't read much of his blog, but I liked that post.

And, to make things more confusing, Anthony Bradley suggests that "radical" "missional" Christians are creating a new legalism. This article makes that point, nearly suggesting that those who try to do big things in service to others are legalistic and narcissistic. I've heard similar warnings about Francis Chan, David Platt, Shane Claiborne and others who suggest a radical commitment to following Jesus. I never thought that the word "legalism" would ever be used to describe the likes of Shane Claiborne or Francis Chan.

But, hey, if you don't like someone, call him a legalist.

So, there are those who insist that legalism is evil, soul destroying, joy robbing. There are others who insist that the only way to please God is to be a legalist. Still others throw it around as a label for people who do extraordinary things. Which is it? I'm so confused.

Let's look at the definition of legalism from dictionary.com.
legalism
noun
1.strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
2.Theology
     a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
     b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
So, here's what I think. I think that when people suggest that legalism is okay, they are using definition number 1 (though they would likely disagree with the "letter rather than the spirit" part). When folks are criticizing legalism, they are using definition number 2. So, what we have here is a misunderstanding of the terms. So, this begs the question... How does the Bible use the word "legalism"? IT DOESN'T!

So, what are we to do? If we're going to use the term, I think we have to be very specific in how we use it, and we have to specifically state what we mean. But that's a lot of trouble. So, how about we just not use the term? I don't think that's really the answer, either. It is a word and it does have meaning. I've used it, and I believe it has its place. However, I believe I'll be much more specific when I use the term from now on.

What I've seen happen far too often is this. Someone says, "you're a legalist." The accused may say, "yes, I am and so was Jesus." Then, the two walk away from the discussion not having communicated at all. The accuser thinks that the accused legalist believes in salvation through good works. The accused legalist thinks that his accuser doesn't believe in obeying God's laws. And neither one understands what the other believes.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there is no such thing as legalism (definition 2 above). It is real and I have been guilty of it. I am not above it. There are times that I still trust in my own works. There are times that I think I am better than others because my works are better than theirs. There are times that I make rules that God didn't make and I attempt to bind those rules on others and judge them for not following my rules. That is what I mean when I say legalism. Legalism is real. It's hypocrisy. It's joy robbing. It's evil. But "legalism" doesn't mean "more conservative (or more strict or more demanding) than me".

So, here's what we do. We label anyone more conservative than us as legalists or Pharisees or bigots. We label anyone more liberal than us as digressive or lax or permissive. We label people close to us as good and right. But all too often what we want to do is create a label and stick it on someone and then we'll know what to think about them and we'll know that we're better than they are because they have a bad label. This isn't at all Christ-like.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Creeds

The quote below comes from a pamphlet written by Barton W. Stone sometime near 1832. Much of what he says still rings true nearly two centuries later in 2013.
There are two kinds of human authoritative creeds -- one is drawn up in articles, and written or printed in a book -- the other is a set of doctrines or opinions received but not committed to writing or printed in a book. Each of these kinds of creeds is used for the same purpose, which is to exclude from fellowship the man who dares to dissent from them. Of the two, we certainly give the preference to creeds written and published; because we can then read them, and form a more correct judgment of the doctrines contained in them.
There are some among us very clamorous against written or printed creeds who yet have a creed of their own of which they are as tenacious as any other sectarian is of his written creed; and they are equally intolerant against those who dissent from their doctrines or opinions.
Barton W. Stone - An Address to the Churches of Christ c. 1832
Brother Stone makes two great points in this passage. First, creeds do not have to be written to be real. When I defended an unwritten creed, I did not like to hear or think that I was defending an unwritten creed, but it didn't make it less true. And, what brother Stone says about creeds, whether written or not,  is exactly right. Creeds have as their purpose to exclude from fellowship anyone who dares to dissent from them.

Not long ago, I was having a private conversation with a friend during which he pointed out one of our (By "our," I am referring to my faith heritage.) unwritten rules. He then compared our behavior in this matter toward new converts to the behavior of the strict Jews in Acts 15. Wow. He was spot on.

The situation in Acts 15 is that there are some new Gentile converts in Antioch. Some Jews, claiming to have authority from Jerusalem, began teaching that the Gentiles had to be circumcised also. Faith in Jesus was good, they said, but it was just a start. Those Gentiles needed to become more like Jews.
The elders and apostles in Jerusalem, with much prayer, discussion, study, and guidance from the Holy Spirit wrote a letter (Acts 15:28-29) to distribute among the brethren at that time. I find that a fascinating glimpse at how inspiration might work. I had always thought that God's will would be made more directly clear to the inspired apostles. Apparently, however, there was sometimes more to it than a trance or vision or sudden clear revelation. This was an open discussion about the topic with input from several people, with the scripture being read, and all this in the Spirit's presence. That's an example we'd do well to follow.

Notice the gist of this whole meeting that produced the letter: "We are saved by the grace of Jesus. They are saved by the grace of Jesus. We shouldn't add to that. Therefore, they must give up idolatry, but they don't need to take on our rules." Wow! That's not very exclusive at all. The letter didn't even exclude the Jews who were insisting on circumcision. It did correct their teaching, but it did not exclude them. Later, because of their continued divisiveness in spite of the apostles and Holy Spirit making it clear that the Gentiles were included, those Jews who continued to exclude, were marked and excluded. But they were marked and excluded because they were trying to exclude!

The gospel invites and includes. Creeds, whether written or not, exclude. Huge difference. If my message is exclusive, should I not ask, "Is it the gospel, or is it a creed?"

Have you ever stopped to think, "Why did the Jews want to bind circumcision?" One possible reason is that they wanted access to God to be the same way they had received it. They wanted Christians to look like Jews, too. They didn't want wild pagans to have access to their God. There was definitely a culture clash between Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

Are we the same way? Do we want all Christians to look like us? Do we want to be sure that they dress a certain way (conservative, white, American, and please hide your tattoos), that they observe the Lord's Supper at a certain time and in a certain way (only every Sunday, and only a small pinch of pie crust and a teaspoon or so of Welch's, please, no singing or any noise at this time, and we'd prefer you to just pass the plate if you're not one of us), that they worship the same way we do (traditional songs, prayer, sermon, and offering, stand when we say stand, bow when we say bow, and sit when we say sit and don't make any unwelcome noise or ask any questions), basically that they do things the way we do them? Do we believe that to become a Christian (or at least to remain a Christian), you must do things like we do them? And if you don't do them that way, then do we say that you're not really a Christian?

If our attitude and practice is thus, how are we different from the Jews in Acts 15? How are we welcoming? How are we inclusive? How are we inviting the lost and troubled? Short answer, we're not. We're instead rehearsing and defending our comfortable creed while the world is suffering and dying.

Galatians 5:4 rings in my head loud and clear when I think of how I have treated new Christians and Christians outside of my own faith heritage. I have fallen from grace by binding rules and traditions that are contrary to grace. I've failed to be a conduit for God's grace to others by serving others sacrificially and proclaiming to them the resurrection Gospel. Instead of placing primary importance on the death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4), I've placed primary importance on "follow the rules like I do".

Rather than proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom's victory over evil, I've been telling people of the many barriers to entry into God's kingdom. Rather than tell a deeply powerful resurrection story and living a life that pushes darkness away, I have labored to convince people to be more like me, instead of more like Him.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Would you please bring my stuff?

I've been considering for a long time how I should read my Bible. I wish I had a nice 1-2-3 formula for how to read the Bible, but I don't. The difficulty with answering the question, "How do I read the Bible?" is the question itself. It treats the Bible as one big monolithic book. It's not that at all.

In sermons about the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, I've heard it pointed out that the Bible is a collection of writings by about 40 different authors over a period of 1500 years. I've actually verified those claims and they are more or less accurate and I believe they are evidence of inspiration and reliability. So, my question is this... Why have I not remembered this diversity of authorship and history when it comes to interpretation? Why have I treated the Bible like it's monolithic? Like there is no difference in how we should interpret First Corinthians, Acts, and Leviticus?

The Pentateuch has a purpose and an author (or authors or at least editors) and a historical and cultural context and various literary styles. The same is true about Joshua. Consider how different the collection of Psalms is from the other books. Then there is Isaiah which is beautiful and unique. Ruth stands out as different and was possibly written at a different time than the setting of the story it tells. Daniel is an astounding mix of history and figures and foretelling. Each of the Gospels has an author, an intended audience, and purpose. Acts... Revelation... I shouldn't read any of those books exactly the same way. I could go on thinking about these things for the rest of the books of the Bible. What I conclude is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to interpret all of them. Each of them is a unique book with an author and a purpose and a historical context and a literary style, etc.

Consider more recent literature originally written in my own native language by a single author and parts of this interpretive principle still hold true. I don't read all of C.S. Lewis's books the same way because I understand that they're different in style and purpose. Why, then, would I try to take a collection of writings by different authors over many centuries and force one single style of interpreting them?

It just doesn't make sense. It recently dawned on me that I was asking the wrong question. The question is not, "How do I read my Bible?" The question is "How do I read THIS writing?" Even with that, the question is still incomplete. Even though each book in the Bible is unique, I still have to also consider that it is a unique part of a whole story. Each book is part of a story that God invites us to join. There are various over-arching themes throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Those must be considered as well or I'll miss the point of what I'm reading. Reading the Bible is not a simple formulaic 1-2-3 process.

That absence of a simple formula doesn't mean the Bible is unintelligible or that its message is only available to the intelligentsia. Not at all! Its themes are quite accessible and I'm daily thankful for our unprecedented access to the inspired scripture. Jesus boiled ALL of  it down to this: Love God and love the people He made (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul, in describing the fruit of the spirit, claims there is no law against those virtues, love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23). Peter, discussing "Christian graces," tells us to grow in these, faith, knowledge, love, etc. and we'll never stumble (2 Pet. 1:10). It's really not difficult to get the message. God is exactly like Jesus and He loves, serves, and forgives and He invites us to join Him in this work. God sure has made Himself accessible, even in creation itself (Rom. 1:20). God's truth is not limited to the elite.

No, God's truth and love and freedom are not only for the elite. What this absence of a uniform hermeneutic formula means is that the Bible will provide you with more than a lifetime of challenge and discovery. It's simply beautiful! The best advice I know to give anyone about reading the Bible right now is this, and this is just advice, not a formula.

  1. Read it frequently and thoroughly
  2. It is about Jesus from beginning to end. Never forget that while reading any part of it. 
  3. Jesus is exactly what God is like and His nature is especially revealed on the cross. Therefore, read anything inspired by God with an extreme bias of love for the unlovable, forgiveness for the unforgivable, mercy over judgment, and with the knowledge that self-sacrificial love overcomes evil and hatred and bitterness and division and violence. 
  4. Remember that it wasn't written to you all at once by one person.

My coat and books
The realization that I was asking the wrong question dawned upon me as I was reading through 2 Timothy, sent there by a reference to Hymenaeus and Philetus. This verse, 2 Tim. 4:13 jumped out at me during the reading.
The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
Why on earth is this included for us? How is this part of God's story? What can I learn from this? That Paul was forgetful? That it was spring when he left Troas and he didn't need his coat? Or maybe that he was generous and loaned Carpus his coat? Is this why he wanted Timothy to come before winter (verse 21)? What were the books? Were they Scripture? What did Paul read anyway? Did he have notes he had written and wanted to review them again and the Holy Spirit couldn't just make those thoughts reappear in his mind? What is this verse and why is it here? And why did I forget this verse existed? If every word of the Bible is inspired why wasn't I ever tasked to memorize this verse or the dozens of greetings and personal notes in Paul's letters?

Maybe, just maybe, that statement is there to remind us that we've been given the privilege of eavesdropping on a personal letter. Second Timothy was just that. A personal letter from Paul (I believe) to Timothy. And by skimming over this verse and others like it throughout the epistles (Tell Olympas 'nem I said hi... Rom. 16:15, etc.) for years and years, I've missed the truth that I'm not supposed to read 2 Timothy or the other epistles like a novel or a history book or legal document or, worse yet, like a blue print. I'm supposed to read 2 Timothy like it's a personal letter from an older brother to a younger brother in Christ and close friend that he loved dearly and missed greatly and had cried with many times because that's exactly what it is. It is not a church manual. It is not a creed. It is not even a preacher's manual. It is "Timothy, I love and appreciate you. Beware, some mean people are going to do some awful things to you like they have done to me. Keep your faith in the resurrection of Christ with sincere love and a pure conscience. Keep on preaching that, regardless of opposition. Brother, I can't wait to see you again." And when I keep in mind that it is that type of letter, I realize that many situations that applied to Timothy in that time do not apply to me in my time. I stop looking for specific instructions not written to me and that don't make sense to me and I instead drown my heart in the love and appreciation and principles that guided their relationship. That's what really teaches me and causes me to grow closer to God and my brethren. (Please don't misunderstand this to mean that there are no specifics that apply to us. See my last post where I point out that fasting is a specific that I have overlooked. Baptism is quite specific, etc.)

Could that be why those greetings and personal details are included? As a reminder of what we are reading? And if that's not THE reason, shouldn't their presence at least remind us of the truth that we're privileged to read a personal letter?

Rachel Held Evans has some interesting comments on this verse and several others like it. I think she is onto something. Please read that blog entry of hers.

I believe the Bible is inspired, all of it. I believe it is one way that God communicates to us. I believe it is God telling us the story of His people. I do not believe it is "just" a story, but I do believe it tells a story. I believe God invites us to join in His story and become His people. If I accept the Bible for what it is and how He gave it to us instead of trying to make it what I want it to be, it will mold me, transform me, challenge me, and point me to His Son. It will make me more like Him.

Monday, April 1, 2013

My First Lent

Until this year, Lent never had any meaning to me. The environment and culture that has shaped me has never given any importance to Lent, so neither have I. It just simply hasn't been something that has ever been on my radar. I had always assumed that Lent was just something people did because some "religious authority" told them it was time to do it. I always thought Lent was a totally man-made idea and that it was kinda silly to give up something that wasn't sinful per se just to be giving it up. I always thought it was a self-righteous look-at-me-and-how-humble-I-am kind of thing. I simply couldn't imagine how Lent could have any real spiritual value.

Boy, was I wrong. And self-righteous.

Last year, I was on business travel during the Lenten season. A man that I was working with was observing Lent. His brother is a Catholic priest and he is a devout Catholic. I had a zillion questions for him. He graciously took the time to explain Lent to me. Mind you, I have not verified any of his explanation with a google or independent research. I just took him at his word and I'm going from a year old memory. So, what I say here may be an inaccurate restatement of an inaccurate description. But I don't think it really matters.

This is the gist of what I remember from him.
  1. Lent isn't supposed to be easy. (That, in and of itself probably gives it some value. Most things worth doing are not easy, so if it's nothing more than an exercise in doing something difficult, it probably still has value.) Giving up meat except for fish doesn't mean that you get fish and chips and sushi every day. The rules are not hard, fast rules. As a result, there are no loopholes. Sure, there is the Friday fish fry, but it's not quite that specific that you must give up meat and you must eat fish. You're supposed to overcome desires. It is a spiritual exercise in self-control.
  2. The 40 days comes from the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting. And 40 days is more or  less 40 days, not exact. Some people take Sundays off from lent. But the idea is to remind us of the fasting Jesus did for 40 days.
  3. The main point of Lent is to make you more humble. It is NOT "look at me fasting, praying, and giving." It is a deeply personal thing designed to humble you and draw you nearer to God. Humility is the key to Lent.
That totally re-framed my thinking on the subject. Instead of broadened phylacteries as I had thought, Lent is an exercise in self-control to obtain humility and closeness to God.
So, this year, I decided to give it a try. Now, some with a similar faith-heritage (American Restoration Movement) may think my trying this is odd, but please allow me to defend myself. Fasting is something that has been pretty much ignored in our heritage. I have heard rare mention in Bible classes and private studies. I have maybe heard a couple of mentions out of literally thousands of sermons over the years. That avoidance of this command seems odd for a group that claims to follow the New Testament pattern and claims to do exactly what the Bible says. Jesus said (paraphrasing Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19; and Luke 5:34-35) that when He leaves the earth, His disciples will fast. We see the early Christians fasting in Acts (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23) and Paul encouraging it for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 6:5). If I don't fast, I have to ask myself, "Am I a disciple of Christ?" Fasting is a characteristic of Christ's post-ascension disciples clearly set forth in the New Testament. No specific time or procedure is set forth in the New Testament for fasting, so I do not criticize or condemn anyone for not observing Lent or any other specific fast. However, speaking for myself, fasting is something that I had never given any serious consideration. I believe I was missing something good for me, given from God. Lent seemed as good an opportunity as any to begin to obey God in this.

Since the rules for Lent are not specific, you can choose what you will give up, but it shouldn't be easy. So, in choosing what to give up, I was looking for something that was not easy for me and something that would have a physical and spiritual benefit. I chose three fairly common things to give up: meat (except fish), chocolate, and ice cream. Sound easy? It was and it wasn't.

First, giving up meat is something that I have been working on for over a year now. I haven't completely given it up, mainly because I live in the South and it's sometimes just plain rude to be a vegetarian. Also, I do enjoy eating meat. Those two things combine to make it difficult for me to give up meat. But I want to abstain from meat as much as possible.

I believe that the meat we consume today makes its way to our table in extremely unethical and unnatural ways. It is not good for us physically because of the antibiotics and steroids and GMO corn based diet of the animals. Also, modern factory farms are inhumane. Finally, and most important to me is the mental health of the employees in factory farms and modern slaughter houses. Those people suffer greatly and my conscience disturbs me when I eat factory farmed flesh. Sometimes, though, I'm in a situation of choosing the lesser of two evils. Eating meat that would likely be thrown away otherwise seems less evil than directly insulting someone's loving and thoughtful effort to serve me. And sometimes, I just want a steak or a cheeseburger, so I order one. I don't judge you for eating meat. (Ok, I'll end my meat rant now and leave it at saying I wish there were something more I could do to improve the process of supplying meat to American consumers.)

So, a big spiritual benefit of giving up meat is that I daily prayed for workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Their plight was often on my mind and I prayed for them. I prayed for wisdom and opportunity to help. I prayed that more humane ways of beef, pork, and poultry farming would emerge. While I did eat meat twice during Lent, I did become more conscious of the life and freedom that was lost for my own pleasure.

Chocolate and ice cream were exercises in self-control that I needed. As I was tempted to partake, I reminded myself that this life is not about pleasure for myself. Depriving myself of pleasure is necessary to accomplish any worthy goal. I had become a daily consumer of ice cream and/or chocolate, and I was a slave to its pleasure more than I realized. Lent helped me to break those chains. Also, I cheated, three times during the six weeks. That's not a good record. It reminded me of Jesus in His 40 days and how infinitely more difficult it was for Him to resist making stones to bread. It made me appreciate His lifetime of self-control in a way that I hadn't before.

There were a few unexpected consequences of observing Lent. One was that I felt a connection to Christians throughout the world with other cultural and traditional backgrounds. Also, I felt a connection to history and sensed the value of church traditions that is sometimes lost in modern American evangelicalism.

The biggest unexpected consequence was that I longed to celebrate Easter. That seemed to me to naturally grow from the Lenten season. I gave special attention to the stories on each day of holy week. I read and meditated upon the accounts of the last week of Jesus' life. It was a very special time of study, meditation, and prayer for me. And I was rewarded and surprised with an outstanding telling of the resurrection story and an amazing sermon on the importance of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning.

Now, here again, this may seem odd to those in my tribe (American Restoration Movement). We are more accustomed to viewing Easter something like this... "Easter is not mentioned in the New Testament. Remembering the resurrection should not be just an annual event. We're commanded to remember the death of our Lord every first day of the week by observing the Lord's Supper." To that I respond this way... First, it is true that remembering the resurrection should not just be done annually. The resurrection should be ever present in our minds. Second, we're not commanded to take the Lord's Supper every week. There is an example of one church intending to observe the Lord's Supper one Sunday (Acts 20:7), but they didn't actually observe it on Sunday (Acts 20:11). Also, there's nothing that makes that mandatory for all churches everywhere. And the resurrection isn't really the emphasis of the Lord's Supper anyway. Third, if every Sunday is special, then no Sunday is special. Fourth, why would we miss an opportunity to talk about the resurrection? Paul sought every opportunity to talk about the resurrection. If people are already thinking about the resurrection of Jesus on a specific Sunday, why would we NOT talk about it? When is a good time to talk about the resurrection of Jesus? ANY TIME. ALL THE TIME. Finally, Easter is not like Christmas. In America, Christmas has become so commercialized that I can't imagine it ever overcoming the consumerism, avarice, and indulgence. Also, we don't know when Jesus was born. Easter, on the other hand, is not nearly as commercialized. And though there is some dispute between Eastern and Western churches about exactly which Sunday, we have a very good idea of which Sunday Jesus arose in relation to the Jewish calendar. While I never would insist that anyone observe any holiday, I totally reject the notion that it is a sin to observe Easter as a holiday. I am 100% opposed to condemning someone for observing Easter.

So, what's the point of all of this? What is the take-away? It's not, "Observe Lent," though you can and I'd recommend it at least once. It's not "We need to fast," though we do and I need to do it more. It's not "Easter is okay," though Easter is okay and is a great opportunity to talk about resurrection. It's not "Become a vegetarian," though that is a healthier and more sustainable choice. Those are all things that I learned through observing Lent, but none of those are the main point.

Here's the main point I learned. Do not assume that someone else's chosen way to honor God is less spiritual than your chosen way to honor God. Do not assume that others' traditions and customs have no value because they are not your traditions and customs. God can use a variety of actions to draw a pure heart closer to Him. I'm glad He used Lent this year to draw me closer to Him. I pray that I learned lasting lessons about self-control, prayer, and love so that I can be more like Him.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God Suffers with Us

I don't make any claim to be an expert on the topic of suffering. It's just a topic that I've thought about quite a bit lately. I feel a bit inadequate to even address this. Though I've experienced some suffering, I am really blessed beyond description. I have had a very easy life. Honestly, that bothers me some. I don't know what Paul meant when he said, "I know how to abound and I know how to be abased." I only have proof that I don't know very well how to abound. But, here go some of my thoughts on suffering, especially how that the presence of suffering does not imply that God is not good.

You probably remember the story of the young boy in Alabama who was held hostage in a bunker for 5 days. That story was bizarre to say the least. The boy was rescued and returned to his parents safely, but I wouldn't call anything about that story happy, not even the ending. The innocent bus driver was shot and killed when the boy was kidnapped. The angry and violent kidnapper was shot and killed when the boy was rescued. (No, I do not think that is happy.) The young boy had to suffer indescribable fear and anxiety for 5 days and saw too much death and violence. And the parents... I can't imagine their agony and worry. No, there is nothing happy here.

The day the boy was rescued, February 4, 2013, an atheist friend of mine posted something similar to this on Facebook.
I'm a little curious seeing all the posts about this rescue being an answer to prayers... Did god not see fit to protect the bus driver or prevent the child from suffering 5 days as a hostage?
Okay, Christians, we have to admit that he has a point. How do we know that his rescue was an answer to prayer? Yes, we know that prayers were offered on behalf of the boy. Yes, we know that God did not want the boy to suffer. But how do we know that God intervened in any supernatural or providential way to rescue the boy? Do we know that? No, we don't know the answers to those questions. Yes, prayer works and is helpful. But why did God not answer sooner? Why did God not prevent the murder of the bus driver as he valiantly tried to protect the children? Why did God not make a way for the boy to be rescued without witnessing the killing of the kidnapper?
I don't know. I don't know why that boy suffered. I don't know why his parents had to endure hell on earth for 5 days. I don't know why the bus driver was murdered.

Also, I don't know why my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's disease until he couldn't recognize his own children when he died. I don't know why my best friend lost his amazing dad when we were 12 years old. I. Don't. Know. I do know that prayers were offered in all of those cases. And I do know that God is good and He hears and cares and He is able to do anything that is possible. But apparently, eliminating suffering from this cosmos without re-creating it is not possible. (On a side note, re-creating it is something that God has promised He will do.)

Back to my atheist friend. I am always slow to think of what to say. I missed an opportunity because I'm slow. I didn't say anything because I was looking for the right words. If I had said something, this is what I would have said.
There have been times that I have looked at the beauty and the expanse of the universe we live in and said, "There must be a god." At other times, I've looked at the immeasurable suffering and said, "There can't be a god, at least not a good one." I confess, I don't have the answers for the suffering and evil I see. I don't understand why some prayers seem to be answered and some are not. And I even confess that I don't know whether the young boy's rescue was an answer to prayer or not. But I know that his rescue was good. And his capture and the bus driver's murder was bad. Even the kidnappers death was bad. The world is full of both good and bad. So, I can't believe in a God whose goodness is defined by the absence of suffering. That's contrary to mounds of evidence that I see. Some may accuse me of making God in my own image, but the only God I can believe in is one who knows what it's like to suffer. That's precisely the God that the gospel reveals, One who suffered immensely and unjustly and chose not to protect Himself from it. Even His own prayer for relief from suffering went unanswered. Yet He loved and did good for others and helped bring relief and comfort in their suffering. I want to love and follow a God like that.
I'm sorry that I missed an opportunity to share God's love with my atheist friend. I'd love for him to see and understand that God isn't really like many people say that He is. God is not a cosmic vending machine. Many portray Him that way, and it is an illogical turn off for skeptics.

A couple of weeks after this story, I was asked to choose my favorite passage from the Bible and read it to the congregation and make a short comment about it. This is what I chose and roughly what I said.
Mark 15:34. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
With all the suffering that I see and have experienced in the world, you can say I'm making God in my own image if you want, but I can't worship a God who keeps Himself above all the suffering. I can't worship a God who blames others for suffering and gives pat answers about what is good and takes no responsibility for suffering. No, I worship a God who knows exactly what it's like to feel God forsaken and completely overwhelmed with emotional and physical pain, and to even have His prayer for relief from suffering go unanswered (Mark 14:36). I worship a God who joins us in our suffering.
I don't have answers. I'm a miserable comforter to those who are suffering. All I know to do is weep with those who weep. Even what I've said here probably seems like platitudes and pat answers. But what I do when I'm suffering is trust. I trust Him who suffered not only for me, but so He can relate to me. I pray that I can learn to face suffering courageously and to gently and lovingly comfort those who are suffering, more like Him.