Friday, December 28, 2007

My Final question of the Year

To close out the year, I want to restate a post from a few months back (Does Religion Make People Better or Worse?). This question fuels the reactor that drives my brain and my behavior. It's very simple - ask yourself, "Does this belief make me less rationale and less kind, or more rational and more kind?"

Last year Islamists kidnapped a young lady who was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. Remember? For weeks her family did not know what happened to her. Kidnapping is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable because kidnappers treat their victims as less than human. And yet, before taking her picture, these men covered her head and her hands so that no female skin would be exposed. In the perverse thinking of these men, God is more concerned with men being titillated by female skin than He is with kidnapping (not to mention beheadings and bombings).

This is why fundamentalism is twisted. It doesn't matter what kind of fundamentalism - religious, social, political - it's all twisted. This is why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees. They deified insignificant details. It's why I clash with modern Pharisees. The legalism that fundamentalism produces is, in my opinion, the worst sin - it causes people to act unkind and even commit evil in the name of God. When you think about it, Islamo-facism and the most conservative elements within Christianity are ideological twins. It is tyranny over the mind, and sometimes actual tyranny over people.

So, if a belief causes you to be less rational and less kind, please change that belief.

Monday, December 24, 2007


In 1980 Ruel Lemmons wrote the following article in the Firm Foundation. It is one of the best articles on the meaning of Christmas I have ever read. Enjoy:

"We are again at that time on the calendar when the western world pauses to acknowledge that Jesus Christ was born in the world. The date makes little difference. We heartily agree that some other time of year suits the occasion best, but that makes little actual difference. We also agree that the celebration of a special religious holiday has no foundation in scripture, and that it had its sources in pagan rites and apostate festivals.

Personally, I am glad that the world, bent on carnage and drunk on hedonism takes time out to acknowledge that God sent His Son in to the world. Even atheists, like the stones on the ground, cry out. We deplore the fact that men make merchandise of the occasion – as the moneychangers took advantage of the opportunity in the temple – but even they help the world to stop and take note of God’s gift to man. In a world of war they talk about peace; in a world of hate they talk about love; in a world of sorrow they talk about joy. All the advertising, all the decorations, all the plans for family gatherings call attention to the fact that there is something better in the world than the rat race.

A lot of attention is given in the Bible to the birth of Jesus. The gospels abound in details. The numbering, the birth, the stable, the flight into Egypt – there was a lot of excitement in both heaven and earth when God sent His Son into the world. Without controversy the greatest event in all human history was heralded by the star that shone over Bethlehem. One might argue the merits of the cross as the greatest, but had there been no manger there would have been no cross. With the coming of the Son of God in human flesh a love was born that the world had never before known. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” With all we think we know about love, we can grasp but a very small concept of that love. No wonder the angels sang!

The eloquence of tongue and pen have been exhausted in paying homage to the babe of Bethlehem, the man of Galilee, and the lamb on the cross. Limited as we are in our humanism it is impossible for us to grasp the full significance of what God did in Christ at that time. About the best we can do is acknowledge that if he had not come into the world we would die without hope of heaven. He was the light shining in the dark place. “They that sat in darkness saw a great light.” We can understand the love of a mother for her child. We can even understand the love of a man who might give his life for his country. But it is beyond us to understand the love of a God who would rob heaven to bless earth; empty glory to fill us with glory. It was no natural affection that made God send Jesus into the world. What He did at Bethlehem matured until it became what He did at the cross. It is fitting that we should pause and take note that we didn’t earn it; it was an act of grace.

History is sometimes turned around by the smallest of events, and destiny is balanced on the point of a pin. The almost totally un-noticed event of Bethlehem has affected the world more than all the battles that were ever fought or all the governments that have ever convened. For four thousand years sin-cursed man had hoped for the seed of woman that would bruise the serpent’s head, and the two thousand years the Jews had looked for a Messiah. But when he came they didn’t recognize him. He came in the seclusion of a stable, in the darkness of night, and in the guise of a man. The greatest forces of all time do not come with powerful explosions or the noise of racing chariots; they come on silent wings. The power of love is such a force. And grace and goodness make little racket.

In a night without light, came the Light. In a world without hope, hope was born. In the midst of despair, there was the singing of angels. They had but a star, but we have the Light of life. The hopes and fears of all the years were pinned, whether the shepherds realized it or not, upon a little baby in a young mother’s arms. That is where hope still lies. Wise men brought him gifts. But their gold, frankincense, and myrrh have long since turned to dust. It was the best they had, and they set precedent for our giving gifts, but they gave only gifts that perish. We have an opportunity to give a living sacrifice. If giving is the test of loving, then let us give the consecration of our lives. He himself has said, “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man would lay down his life for his friends.” After all, it isn’t the gaudy tinsel in which the gift is wrapped, nor is it the extravagant price paid for it, it is the heart that is given with the gift that really makes the gift worth receiving."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Human Sacrifice and the Atonement

My brain works in strange ways, making odd connections at random moments. A few weeks ago I watched Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto (I should have been in bed, but couldn't sleep). The thesis of the movie is a quote from the very beginning: "A civilization cannot be conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The obvious sickness of the Mayan civilization was their total disregard for the value of human life. The scenes of sacrifice are some of the most bloody I've seen on film. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the communion table talk was a typical retelling of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. I don't know why, but I bristled at the story. And finally, as we were driving home last night I saw a church on LBJ freeway brightly decorated with Christmas lights, but they also had a cross brightly lit up. That really didn't seem right to me! You just don't display crosses at Christmas time - there has to be etiquette about that - surely! So here's what I've been thinking, and I want to pose it as a question (and please, THINK about it! Don't yell "heretic" right away):

God detests human sacrifice. Deuteronomy 12:31 says, "You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods." The practice of human sacrifice is one of the reasons God commands Israel to wipe out much of Canaanite civilization. Is this ironic? Maybe. It's really clear that God does not approve of human sacrifice. It's also clear that human sacrifice, as it evolved in primitive societies, reflects a morally degenerate understanding of an angry god who needs appeasement with blood. This is a naturalistic rather than a supernatural way of understanding the divine.

Okay, here's the question: If God detests human sacrifice, why is the central pillar of Christian theology a human sacrifice? What is articulated in Colossians 1:20 "peace through his blood shed on the cross" is the primary thesis of Christianity - that humans sinned, God was angry, and Jesus' death on the cross (a violent, painful, bloody death) appeased that anger by meeting the requirements of justice, and so we are no longer guilty. We call this "atonement." This is why Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was as bloody as possible. It represented a particular Catholic view of Jesus' death. This is why I'll never understand why so many evangelical Christians took this movie as an opportunity to evangelize. This cannot be how we reach the lost? Does anyone else see a problem with this? What is the answer? I think I have it, but you go first.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

EVIL (Part 2)

In my post (and sermon) on evil, I said that evil is shallow. It’s banal. It is the failure to see the interconnectedness of all humanity. A lot of my reading material comes from Richard Beck’s "Experimental Theology” blog. He did a series called “Everyday Evil,” where he argues that all of us are capable of evil. Like with the Eichmann example, most of the evil in the world has been and still is committed by people just like us. Evil isn't a malevolent force with horns and a pitchfork, that randomly attacks people.

Excuse the psychobabble, but he talks about “fundamental attribution error” (FAE). This means that we tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people - good people, bad people, strong people, weak people. But all these labels are examples of this error. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior. But we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that.” This is precisely what sets us up for evil. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a potentially costly one. We can mismanage situations.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, time management and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Lots of “good” people who love their spouses have cheated on them. The history of evil is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done . . . (fill in the blank). I’m not like that!”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Anonymous Comments and Pornography: Equally Destructive?

Whenever people point out negative aspects of the Internet, they are most likely to talk about the availability of pornography. How many kids, searching for some government information, typed in “” only to be greeted by pictures of naked women! (Don’t go there – the web site has changed hands.) But there is something as destructive that permeates the Internet - the lies, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks made by anonymous individuals on almost every website and blogsite that deals with public or religious issues. Sexual images are not new, but the ability of anyone in society to debase public discourse is new. Until the Internet came along, the public's only real venue for expression was the “letters to the editor” section published in newspapers and magazines. People either expressed themselves in a civilized manner or they were not published. Even those letters that were not published were written in a respectful way because the letter-writers had to reveal their real names and their addresses. Being identifiable breeds responsibility; anonymity breeds irresponsibility.

This is why people - even decent people - tend to act much less morally when in a crowd (the crowd renders them anonymous). This is why people tend to act more decently when they walk around with their names printed on a nametag. This is why people act more rudely when in their cars - they cannot be identified as they could outside of their car. There is no question that most people would write very different entries on blogsites if their names were printed alongside their comments. E-mail provides another example. It is very rare that a person sends a hate-filled, obscenity-laced e-mail that includes their name. It’s the same with regular mail. As a preacher, some of the most asinine things have been said to me in anonymous letters – which I throw in the trash immediately! The practice of giving everyone the ability to express themselves anonymously for millions to read has debased public discourse. Ad hominem attacks and the absence of logic characterize a large percentage of many websites' “comments” sections.

Some might argue that anonymity enables people to more freely express their thoughts. This is not true. Anonymity only enables people to more freely express their feelings. Anonymity values feelings over thought. Moronic comments chase away intelligent ones. The irresponsible, the angry, the obscene and the dumb have virtually taken over many Internet dialogues. This is why, as of today, anonymous posts will be banned from this blog. Some of the dumbest, most asinine things have been said on this blog by cowards. From now on you will have to register and identify yourself, otherwise just lurk in the shadows.

Friday, December 07, 2007


In the last thread of comments, Mark mapped out my sermon for this Sunday (12/9). Here's part of the sermon: (To my Kaufman readers - there's more, so don't skip Sunday!)

The trial of the century happened in the late 60’s – and it started with a daring kidnapping – Israeli agents went to South America and caught the most notorious Nazi not yet convicted of war crimes – Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the architect of the Holocaust – he came up with the idea of gassing Jews because even if one bullet could kill three people, that was still too expensive! Nice guy!!! They took him to Jerusalem to try him and hang him. David Ben-Gurion wanted this to be a show trial – to put all the horrors of Nazism on display for all the world to see. Watching that trial was an Israeli journalist – Hannah Arendt – who then wrote a book called: Eichmann in Jerusalem. But the subtitle of the book is what caught everyone’s attention: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt says that the trial would have been easy had Eichmann been a monster. We want him to be a monster. We need him to be a monster – but he’s not. He’s just a petty beauracrat! He’s not very smart. He’s ambitious in the way small men are. He doesn’t have much of a philosophy of life. He’s only anti-Semitic out of convenience. He’s petty. But that’s more troubling – that small, petty, insignificant, ordinary people can do such atrocious evil! But that’s Eichmann. That’s not us. We would never do that. We know better.

Back in the 60’s, psychologist, Stanley Milgram, came up with a fascinating psychological experiment. Milgram told his subjects that he was studying the effects of negative reinforcement on learning – does punishment make us learn better? So he had two people – a teacher and a learner – and the teacher sat at a control panel where a button produced electric shocks. The learner was sitting behind a glass partition, and every time they got an answer wrong, the teacher had to press the button, and give them a shock – and with every subsequent shock, the voltage was increased. But here’s what you need to know – the real test subject was the teacher – the learner only acted like he was being shocked. There was no connection. No voltage. Milgram was wondering if the teacher would keep giving the learner electric shocks just because someone in a lab coat told them to! Finally, the learner started yelling in pain. They would say, “Stop. I have heart trouble.” Finally the learner would quit making sounds altogether – which meant they were passed out or dead! How far would ordinary people go? 60% of people never stopped hitting that button! They did outrageous, immoral, murderous things because someone with authority in a lab coat told them to! Milgram labeled his results the “Nazi guard syndrome.” But we’re not like Eichmann, are we? We wouldn’t do that. We’re Americans! We’re Christians!

Here’s the point of the lesson: Evil is not deep. It’s shallow. It’s superficial. Evil is the failure to see clearly. The shallowness of evil is the inability to see below the skin. It is superficial. It is to see the world in terms of “us vs. them.” How is it that Eichmann, who had Jewish friends, could be the architect of the Holocaust, and ship off millions of Jews to be killed? Because they didn’t have a name! They were a problem to be solved! If we can boil life down to “us vs. them” we can demonize anybody. It’s easy to hate people if all they are is “The Russians” or The Chinese” or The French” or “Terrorists” or “Catholics” or “Baptists” or “New Yorkers” or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” You can hate anybody who has no face and no name. Evil is the failure to see that all people were created in the Image of God, and that God created them all for Himself, and He will not be satisfied until all people and all things are redeemed for Him! Evil does not recognize human connectedness. Evil is shallow.

I try to be optimistic and positive, but evil is winning. We have allowed ourselves to be broken up a thousand different ways into a thousand different groups – and Christians are not helping – because we are real good at seeing the world as “us vs. them.” God’s desire is that walls get torn down, and in a world of shallow tribalism, that is a powerful message – but our churches look too much like the world – petty and selfish and fragmented!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Face of Evil

Okay, this is not exactly more positive! But, this person features in my sermon this Sunday titled "EVIL." (next Sun the sermon is titled "GOOD" - so we do end the series well!) So, here's my question - Who is this person?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Airing of Grievances

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent - just four weeks till Christmas! So now let's turn our attention to Festivus. This holiday was born on an episode of Seinfeld (funniest show ever) called "The Strike." Kramer and Frank Costanza are talking, and the following conversation takes place:

Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.
Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!

The celebration of Festivus begins with the Airing of Grievances. It consists of lashing out at others about the many ways they have disappointed you over the past year. So, in honor of Festivus, let's gather around the aluminum pole, and air our grievances. Let it all out! I want to know what bugs you!

I'll go first. I spend a lot of time on the highways of Dallas. WHAT'S UP WITH PEOPLE WHO DRIVE SLOW IN THE LEFT LANE? When I come up behind someone driving 60 mph in the left lane on LBJ freeway, my blood pressure reaches stroke levels! It doesn't matter what the speed limit is - there is always someone driving faster than you. It's not your job to slow them down. You are required, by state law, to get out of the way! There are signs everywhere that say, "LEFT LANE FOR PASSING ONLY." Left lane blockers with their smarmy, selfish, inconsiderate, I can do what I want attitude force people to pass on the right. This is dangerous and gets people killed. MOVE OVER!

Okay, who's next?

Friday, November 30, 2007


Here is my bulletin article for this Sunday. It is also the basic thought for the sermon - in a nutshell.

According to the traditional Christian calendar, the fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of Advent. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is far more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation might be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. The season of Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation, anticipation, and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one – the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world right!

For the next four weeks we remember that God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” God has always been the Holy One in the midst of sinful people. The desire of His heart has always been to dwell with us. And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light. In a world without hope, true hope was born. In the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. The hopes of all the years were pinned, whether the shepherds realized it or not, upon a little baby in a young mother’s arms.

As we prepare for Christmas, let’s recapture this spirit of longing. Look past the hustle and bustle, the gaudy tinsel, and the crass commercialization. Remember that Israel’s prayer was answered that night so long ago in small Bethlehem, and our prayer remains the same: “Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Your View of God

Here's what I'm talking about in my Wednesday night class. Last year Baylor did a study on how Americans View God. This was a way that the folks at Baylor found to read American culture through the lens of religion. Here's what they found out:

Atheists: 5.2%
Certain that God does not exist.

God is Authoritarian: 32%
God is highly involved in their lives and world affairs.
God helps them in their decision-making.
God is responsible for global events like tsunamis, for example.
God is angry and punishes those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

God is Benevolent: 23%
Less likely to see God as angry. God is grieved by our sin.
God is a positive force in the world, and helps people rather than condemn or punish them.

God is Critical: 16%
God does not interact much with the world. God looks on us unfavorably.
Few moral absolutes – or morality is defined differently – God is more concerned with starvation and genocide in Africa than He is with gay marriage in affluent America. Justice will happen in another life.

God is Distant: 24.4%
Deistic view – God is not active in the world, and not really angry either.
God is an impersonal cosmic force which set laws of nature in place, and has no interaction with the world at all.

I have been thinking about this a lot the past two weeks, and I have changed my mind on something. I used to say that how you read scripture will dictate everything else, but I now believe that how you view God even dictates how you read scripture. For example – if you have an authoritarian view of God you will talk about worship in the context of “doing it right” – and “doing it wrong” (whatever that means) will result in God being angry at you!

So let’s zoom in.
Two things have come together in Churches of Christ not quite duplicated anywhere else (Thank you, Randy Harris, for these observations):

1. Extremely high view of scripture
2. Extremely high view of human reason

Conservative evangelicals share our high view of scripture, but Calvinism has a low view of humanity. Catholics place tradition on an equal par with scripture, and also have a low view of human reason. Theological Liberals have a low view of scripture, but a high view of human reason. I can't think of another group with a high view of both.

When these two things come together, here’s the result: To be a Christian means to get scripture right, and, furthermore, you’re smart enough to do it! And once you have it right, your job is to defend it against those who have it wrong. This is our DNA, and it is a ticking time bomb.

For example, the most pressing and controversial issue in Churches of Christ today is the role of women in the public assembly. Both sides in this argument say that the Bible has to settle the matter. Both sides have sophisticated exegetical positions. Both sides believe the texts support their positions. Both sides have good people. And the primary spokespeople for both sides are well educated and articulate.

So we can continue beating each other up, or we can step back and admit some things. People come to different understandings of scripture for a lot of reasons:
Our religious traditions
Our upbringing
The culture we grew up in
Our education
Our gender
Our assumptions about the Bible
Our view of God
Our identity as fairly affluent 21st century Americans

We bring these things to the text whether we are conscious about it or not! So, here’s the point: The next generation, and our culture at large, will not understand love for God in terms of “getting it right,” but rather through experience and loving relationships.
What is your view of God? Any thoughts?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Here's the text I'll be preaching from this Sunday. Think about what it means to you. "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today" (Deuteronomy 8:10-18).

PS: Go Cowboys!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Swimming Upstream

It seems to some that this blog is fueled by animosity towards Churches of Christ in general, and more conservative churches in particular. Some people sense very personal pain. Well, yeah, there is that! There is also emotion. I have an intellectual approach to faith and history, but as a human being, I am necessarily emotional as well. I receive very interesting responses from readers. The posted comments are the mild ones. The emails are more personal and to the point! I have been called arrogant, divisive, petty, emotional, hateful, angry, judgmental, disrespectful, and immature. I have been accused of stirring the pot, feeding the fire, having impure motives, and wanting to introduce instruments into worship! And, that my blog is a tribute to Jefferson seems to be lost on almost everyone. Jefferson had complete disdain for the religious conservatives of his day, calling them “theocrats.” So, if I am so frustrated, the big, obvious question is, why stay? Why stay in a church that I have called “dysfunctional?” So many people have left already. We are losing our young people as well as the best and brightest. People very close to me have left. So why don’t I go? I don’t take this question lightly. I wrestle with it. Why do I swim upstream? Here’s my answer.

Firstly, I am not alone. There are many out there who send me encouraging messages, who feel many of the same things I do. We have seen too much and heard too much and been through too much. We feel the pressure of a prophetic voice burning inside. People see injustice, they know that things could and should be better, and they see an imperfect church - and pray for the perfection of Christ. These people want to speak out, but know there will be consequences. This reminds me of the prophet Jeremiah. We often idealize Jeremiah’s words about God’s word being a fire set in his bones that he cannot get rid of. We see this as a good thing, and assume Jeremiah is welcoming and thanking God. But who wants fire set in their bones? I believe Jeremiah’s words are words of complaint. Yet the fire is so intense inside of him he has to speak, regardless of what might happen. I believe many in Churches of Christ identify with the prophet (no, I don’t have prophetic delusions, I said “identify”). There is a burning inside of us to say something, to do something, that we know will rock the “establishment,” and perhaps even destroy friendships, family relationships, and employment. But we can’t shut up. It is as if God has put this unquenchable burning inside of us.

I am not the first to speak, or take risks as an agent of change. Our movement (Churches of Christ) was born out of prophetic love when good men and women would not be satisfied with the way things were, desiring the church to become something greater. Our movement was born out of a desire for Christian unity and recognition of our common humanity across denominational lines. We were not born to segregate ourselves from other Christians; we were born to call all Christians together to celebrate the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism we all share. But we quickly grew into rebellious adolescence, and alternate voices sprung up. People began preaching that we got it right and others have it all wrong; that we had finally “restored” the NT church in the modern day. This rebellious, arrogant voice grew and grew until the rebellion seemed to be the norm. Many believed that the segregation from the “denominational” world was the way things were supposed to be. For some of us, this is the norm in which we grew up. This was the doctrine handed down to us. Many unsatisfied with this rebellion believed that this was the only voice in Churches of Christ, and they chose to leave this tradition behind. And that’s why I don’t leave. I know this has never been the only voice in Churches of Christ. We were born with a different spirit, and that spirit has continued to live on, in spite of our greatest efforts to silence it through the doctrinal and hermeneutical tyranny of people who remind me more of the mafia than church leaders (SEE MY JEFFERSON QUOTE).

Though our movement has never been perfect, we have always been very diverse. Though one could tell the history of Churches of Christ by telling stories of fights, debates, withdrawals of fellowship, name-calling, church splitting and other forms of divisiveness, this is only one side of our history. Since our beginnings in a small Kentucky church in 1804, spurred on by a large charismatic revival, our movement has been a voice of hope. Though hope has at times been challenged by bitter and narrow-minded sectarianism and legalism, it has never died. It is the legacy of people who have had the courage to swim upstream that makes me proud to be a part of the rich and diverse tradition of the Churches of Christ.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Lesson of the Donatists

I love church history because there are lessons to be learned. Human nature has not changed in 2000 years. So I don’t try to reinvent the wheel every time a question comes up. If you have the patience to stick with me I hope the Donatist heresy of the 4th century can open your eyes to some things.

The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who had renounced their faith during the great persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303–305). The rest of the church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments (baptism and communion) and spiritual authority of the bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over scriptures to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“the lapsed”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid.

In 311 Caecillian was made a bishop in Carthage (North Africa) by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one of the three that elected him, was accused of handing over scriptures to the authorities during the persecution. A council of North African bishops met and elected a new bishop, Majorinus, to replace Caecillian. Majorinus soon died, and was succeeded by Donatus. Now here’s what happened: The church’s official position was that those who had lapsed during the persecution (denied Christ or handed over scriptures to the authorities) were to be forgiven and reinstated in the church – even to positions of leadership. Donatus and his followers believed that those who had denied Christ could never be forgiven. Only he and his group were the “true church,” and anyone who had lapsed during the persecution could not administer baptism or communion – and, furthermore, anyone who was baptized by one of the lapsed had received an invalid baptism. Therefore the Donatists practiced rebaptism. Donatist letters accuse the rest of Christianity of baptizing in “filthy water.”

The Donatists held that all sacraments administered by those not of their sect were invalid. So by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This position is known as ex opere operatis - Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working,” that is, the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and is): ex opere operato – “from the work having been worked,” in other words, the validity of the sacrament depends on the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work.

As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. Constantine, as emperor, began to get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a council at Arles. The issue was debated and the decision went against the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council, and in 317 Constantine sent troops to deal with the Donatists in Carthage. More laws against the Donatists were issued by Valentinian. In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the group heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. They were harshly persecuted by the Christian Roman authorities. It is unknown how long this belief persisted into the Muslim period, but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made the military takeover of the region by Islam easier.

Okay, so what can we learn?

No sect or subgroup of Christianity has the right to declare their group to be the “true church” over an understanding of scripture, baptism, communion, or moral authority.

Such groups (and every restorationist group in Christian history has done this to some extent) have been labeled heretics and schismatics since the 4th century.

Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. And yet I have seen people baptized again because the right words weren’t spoken or an arm came out of the water. What about people administering baptism or Communion? Can a woman administer it? Can an unbaptized person administer it? Do we have rules about who can administer what?

Rebaptizing someone who has already been immersed is like spitting in God’s eye. Do we insist people from other denominations are baptized again into the “Church of Christ?”

Disunity among Christians is poison!

Any other observations or lessons?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What is "Sound Doctrine?"

I’ve often heard the phrase “sound doctrine” used in church. Typically, “sound” means the opposite of “false.” So it amounts to the age-old right/wrong, true/false dichotomy. Of course, in this context “sound doctrine” equals accepted conservative beliefs on any issue. If you don’t agree, then your beliefs are unsound, wrong, and false. Along with the “law of silence,” this fallacious way of thinking needs to be debunked.

The phrase “sound doctrine” certainly is scriptural, but what does it mean? It is used, most notably, in 2nd Timothy and Titus. “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The word “sound” comes from the Greek word we usually translate as “hygiene” or “health.” It is a medical term. So sound teaching/doctrine is healthy doctrine. What is the opposite of healthy? Unhealthy! Not false or wrong. The “unsound” doctrine being promoted on Crete was very conservative (Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law), but profoundly unhealthy for the body of believers. Paul’s view was liberal/progressive, but it was healthy or “sound.”

In the modern church, a lot of doctrine is unhealthy. Ultra conservative views about worship, music, marriage and divorce, woman’s role, leadership qualifications, etc. are radically sectarian, divisive, hurtful, and unhealthy for the body. This comes back to the questioned I’ve raised before: Does religion make people better or worse? If a belief or doctrine causes you to act less rational and less kind, then that belief is unhealthy. This is so ironic because some of the most unsound (unhealthy) doctrine I’ve ever come across thrives in church environments where they are constantly defending their “soundness."

Friday, October 12, 2007

The "Law of Silence"

The default hermeneutical position among conservative Churches of Christ is that biblical silence is prohibitive. This is a radical position that holds if God said nothing about some doctrine or practice in the New Testament, then that doctrine or practice is excluded, and to go against this “law of silence" is to sin and risk your salvation.

The obvious example (here I go feeding the fire again), is that there is no direct reference in the New Testament to instruments in a corporate worship setting. Therefore, according to this “law of silence," the use of instruments is sinful – not just a matter of preference, but sinful! The fact that these excluded practices do not dishonor God, or prove to be spiritually harmful to the church, is irrelevant. The only concern is the contention that the scriptures are silent with regard to the practice in question, regardless of the merit or worth of that practice. Period! End of discussion! Biblical silence equates to only one thing: exclusion! I grew up with this hermeneutical stance as my default mode of thinking. But now I repudiate this “law of silence.” It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and it is dangerous because it is necessarily divisive. Some people will say I am being argumentative, or calling names, or feeding the fire, but it is time to rise up and challenge the absurdities of this way of thinking. Here’s an example of the inherent inconsistency of this way of thinking – the four cups of wine in the Passover. (I want to thank Al Maxey for a lot of the research on this topic.)

Exodus 12 talks about the establishment of the Passover. After specifying when it would be celebrated, and the various elements of the meal, God said to Moses, “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11). Just three verses later the people of God are informed that it was to be celebrated “as a lasting ordinance.” God was very specific as to what He wanted included in this memorial feast. However, God never mentioned anything to drink. The Passover was constantly referred to in scripture as a feast during which Israel would eat the meal; they were never urged to drink anything. The Bible is silent about drinking anything during this feast. So, if we were to apply the “law of silence" to this situation, we would have to forbid as sinful any form of drink being added to the Passover feast. After all, I’ve heard it taught that hamburgers and coke are “unauthorized” for inclusion at the Lord's Supper. Would consistency not require the same conclusion regarding the addition of wine to the Passover? In addition to the command of God Himself regarding the Passover, we have several biblical examples of the Passover being celebrated by Israel. In none of these Passover observances is there any mention of wine. Even in 2 Chronicles 30 (in which the people of God “ate the Passover contrary to what was written”) there is still no mention of wine being consumed. There is not a single, solitary word anywhere in the Old Testament that speaks of wine being connected in any way with the Passover.

By the time of Jesus, however, things had changed. Rather than being eaten “in haste” (Exodus 12:11), it had become customary to eat it while reclining at a table. This is how Jesus celebrated it. Another innovation was the addition of drink to the Passover as part of the ritual. Four cups of wine had been added by the rabbis to the Passover celebration. These were not just for the purpose of washing down the food,” these cups of wine were purposefully added for their spiritual significance to the feast itself. The Jews themselves admit that these cups of wine were a rabbinic tradition, and thus were not originally part of the divine commands. The use of four cups of wine during the feast had become mandatory, and crucial to the significance of the feast itself. What exactly is the purpose and significance of these four cups of wine? They symbolize the four activities of God described in Exodus 6:6-7. The four cups represent God's saving activity, one cup for each of God's sovereign acts as He fought against Pharaoh. Clearly, the use of four cups of wine during the Passover celebration was not something that was prescribed by God. It was a human addition to a God-ordained commemorative feast.

If silence prohibits, and constitutes sin, we have a problem! Jesus embraced the practice of the four cups of wine! In the gospels it seems that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper by associating it with the third cup of wine. It was known as the “cup of redemption,” linked in rabbinic tradition to the third of the fourfold promise in Exodus 6, “I will redeem you.” Jesus associated this cup of wine with His atoning death. If the “law of silence” is valid, then Jesus violated it. If violation constitutes sin, then Jesus sinned by worshipping God in an “unauthorized manner.” Furthermore, Jesus worshipped in synagogues, and celebrated the Feast of Lights – both innovations that are not mentioned in the OT. And yet to this day people will, seriously, not celebrate Christmas as a “religious holiday” because it is not “authorized” in the NT!

Jesus embraced and utilized the four cups of wine, he worshipped in the synagogue, and he celebrated Hanukkah. Jesus demonstrated that innovation and addition are not necessarily wrong if that to which they are added is not negated or replaced or diminished by the addition. In other words, the four cups of wine in no way negated, replaced or diminished what God had prescribed in the Passover. The things which God commanded continued. The same is true with singing. By the addition of musical instruments, one does not, in any way, replace, negate or diminish the heartfelt expressions of devotion by those singing. Singing continues to occur. It still comes from the heart. It is time for this “law of silence” to be cast aside, and for rational minds to approach the task of biblical interpretation and application in a more serious and humble manner.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


People who really know me will tell you that I hate being called arrogant! I will snap your head off! I am confident, bold, opinionated, headstrong, perhaps stubborn, but not arrogant. I grew up in a culture of arrogance. Apartheid era South Africa was ruled by the worst kind of self-righteous arrogance. The "blacks," "Afs," "kaffirs," "terrorists," and "commies" would NEVER take over "our country." And then before we could say "Botha who?" Nelson Mandela was out of prison and being sworn in as president.

My religious upbringing was seasoned with the same kind of absolute certainty. We Church of Christ folks had ALL the answers and ALL the right doctrine. I had a sense of both implied and explicit superiority that only certainty can bring. Ever since I can remember, I have known we were the only ones going to heaven. I was never proud about it, but I knew it. I was a member of the "Lord's church." What a burden to be so chosen. I, like the zenophobic Jews of old, actually thanked God that I was born into a Church of Christ family!

I don't want this post to turn into a forum to debate instrumental worship, but it is the hinge on which my comments swivel. In the October issue of the Christian Chronicle, a group of Church of Christ preachers calling themselves "" took out an ad called "A TIME TO SPEAK." It is a statement opposing instrumental worship signed by over 300 preachers. Listen to these excerpts: "We are for a cappella singing because we are CERTAIN it pleases God." "We are for a cappella singing because we are CERTAIN that this was the practice of the early church." "It is right to use a cappella singing in worship. No one questions the practice of a cappella singing. The same CERTAINTY cannot be applied to the use of musical instruments. A cappella music is safe." "We refuse to move from a position of CERTAINTY to a position of UNCERTAINTY."

Here's a parable. (This is a true story) The Godfrey brothers grew up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. They loved the ocean. The sea was in their blood. They loved to go out in the bay to fish. They knew EVERYTHING about the sea. They knew the tides, the river mouths, the sand banks, the rock shoals, the currents, the way around bird island - these guys had certainty when it came to the sea. They knew it all. You couldn't tell them anything. Well, one day the cod were running out in the bay. So they rushed down to the docks, loaded their boat and took off - not knowing their fate had been sealed! They forgot to put in the 2 small rubber plugs at the back of the boat. While they were cruising, the water couldn't come in, but as soon as they stopped that boat and cut off the motor water poured through those holes and started flooding the boat. Before they knew it, the back was flooded and the motor went under, flipping the boat upright. Not being able to hold on, the 2 brothers decided to swim for shore. No one ever saw them again! Later the police found the tip of their boat bobbing on the ocean, and once it was towed in they soon discovered that a very small and seemingly insignificant oversight had killed these men who KNEW EVERYTHING about boats and fishing and the sea!

The lesson is a biblical one - pride always comes before the fall. Do not trust absolute certainty. Question your religious and political and military leaders who make hubris boasts. Rome would never fall, the Titanic could not sink, America will never lose a war, and we are the only ones going to heaven!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Necessary, but not Sufficient

Here's the class material from Wed September 26:

People are always looking for a single answer to complicated problems, but here’s a principle I want us to think about: “Necessary, but not Sufficient” So let’s look at some examples of what I mean. We’ll start easy and get harder with each one. Is oxygen necessary for life? Is it sufficient/enough? Obviously not. What about clinical depression – is a church environment necessary for happiness if you are a Christian? Yes, but it’s not sufficient? You need medication as well. Is love necessary for fulfillment in a marriage? Obviously, but there has to be more, so it’s not sufficient. Is scripture necessary to guide us and provide answers? Is it sufficient? I would say no. We deal with many issues that scripture does not address. Is a relationship with God necessary for peace and happiness? Is it sufficient? Most people want to say yes, but if all mankind needed was God, then Eve would not have been created as a helper for Adam. Clearly, God wasn’t enough for Adam! Is baptism necessary for salvation? Yes. But is it sufficient? No! Without faith, confession, repentance, and discipleship, you’re just wet, not saved!

So, concerning salvation, the church has typically “sold” salvation as a promise of heaven when you die – an escape mechanism from this world. The problem is that not once, in the gospels, does Jesus ever define salvation this way! Read these examples from Luke. Look at how Jesus uses the word “saved.” Luke 7:36-50; 8:40-48; 19:1-10. Salvation in the gospel is more than the promise of heaven when you die. It is not an escape from this world – it is peace, joy, healing, restoration of relationships, a new standing in the community! So what does salvation look like in our world/ culture? A divorced woman with 2 kids? A person in abject poverty? Someone dying of Aids in Africa? A busy couple in the metroplex who work 60 hrs a week? Someone abused as a child?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Christ and Culture

I know I'm way behind in posting my Wed night class material. Here's what we discussed last week. Over 50 years ago H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture. He outlined 5 ways in which the church interacts with culture. It was a good discussion in class. Here is a basic outline of those categories. Questions/comments?

Christ against Culture
Christ is the sole authority
Either/or choices
Emphasis on the “other world”
Rejection of culture and separation: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Christ of Culture
Christ is the fulfillment of human culture
Church accommodates the culture
Emphasis on this world
Church becomes “politically correct”

Christ above Culture
According to this view what is needed is not blank affirmation or rejection of culture, but a synthesis of Christ and culture.
Culture is subject to Christ
Romans 13 example

Christ and Culture in Paradox
Tension between Christ and culture cannot be reconciled
Luther’s 2 kingdoms – 2 side by side societies
Parable of the wheat and tares

Christ the Transformer of Culture
This last option is similar to the last one, except that it is more optimistic about the ability of Christians to improve culture
Culture can be converted
This leads to the idea of a Holy Christian community here on earth, visibly set apart from non-Christian culture
Christians as salt and light

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Reaching Popular Culture With the Teachings of Jesus

I'm excited! Tonight I'm starting a new class at the Kaufman Church of Christ called "Reaching Popular Culture with the Teachings of Jesus." The class will be very "outside the box" as classes go in Churches of Christ. We'll talk about the definitions of gospel and salvation, we'll look at texts, we'll talk about news stories and current events, we'll discuss entertainment, we'll look at case studies and role play. Nothing is off the table! If you can't be in Kaufman on Wednesday nights, this blog will cover the material I present in class each week, so you can still participate in the discussion. So, here is the opening class that I'll do tonight:

My parents were born in 1952. By the time my kid is an adult, that world will have vanished forever. Culture, technology, politics, communication, travel, religion have changed more rapidly than we can comprehend, and it aint slowing down. The world we were born into has already vanished, and it is never coming back! Historians and sociologists tell us that this kind of cataclysmic change has only happened three times in recorded human history:

1) The Fall of Rome: In the 5th century the city of Rome fell to barbarians, and everything Rome had built and accomplished in 600 years was destroyed within a single generation. Children and grandchildren of civilized Romans were born in what we call the “Dark Ages.”

2) The early 16th century: In 1492 Columbus discovered the New World, and suddenly Spain had an empire and Europeans began leaving for the New World. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, and the world changed overnight. The printing press was invented, scientific discoveries were made, the authority of the Catholic Church was first questioned and then rejected, national boundaries were torn out of the Holy Roman Empire – the modern world was born violently within 2 generations.

3) The late 20th century: The changes that have happened in the world since 1960 are as cataclysmic as the changes of the 5th century and the 16th century – those are the only other times in human history where the world has changed so much so fast. And we are living through it right now – and there is no going back to the “good old days.”

We’ve already discussed the terms "modern" and "postmodern." Modern thinking is the way you and I grew up. It recognizes that we no longer live in the Dark Ages. We no longer live in a time when magic and superstition make sense. We are a people of logic and reason. We believe that if there is a problem we can solve it through investigation, reason, and science. This is the foundation of American thought – progress toward a better life through science and technology, understanding and knowledge. Newtonian physics gave us the tools to make sense of the world.

And then the 20th century happened – WWI, WWII, communism, terrorism, genocide. In the world of science, the theory of relativity unraveled our sense of certainty, and now quantum theory has shown that there can be effect without cause. Human cloning and stem cell research has given us more problems than solutions.

So, has the world gotten better through progress? Now that we understand so much about diseases, people don’t die anymore? Now that we understand so much about psychology, we don’t have crime anymore? Now that we have science and technology, and people are better educated, our world is more moral, right? No! And the postmoderns say, “Now you’re gettin it.” The postmodern mindset says life is not about getting smarter, or being more right in this world of rational thinking that has not delivered what it has promised. But we have even gone beyond a postmodern world – we live in a post-Christian world – the “Christian era” died during our lifetime. Christian thinking, and Christian values, and Christian morality are no longer the default mode of western civilization. It is evident all around us: Think of secular western Europe. People don’t visit those magnificent cathedrals to worship, they go to look at art. Closer to home, think of when most of you were children. There was nothing to do on Sunday but go to church. Everything was closed. Decent people observed the Sabbath and removed all temptation from those who did not. Holly and I were talking with her grandmother, and she asked us what we were doing on Sunday evening, and I said, “I’m taking Holly to see a movie.” She stared at me with a blank look, and asked, “a movie -- on a Sunday?” Now, contrast that with these facts: In 2006, only 21% of the population of the DFW Metroplex attended any house of worship at least once a week – that number drops to under 10% if you are under 25 years old!

Now, this is not all bad news. The sooner we can admit that we are no longer under the warm and cozy protection of culture and government, the sooner we can engage the world as a counter-cultural force and practice real evangelism and discipleship the way God intended for us to, and the way the early church did.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Happiness is a Serious Problem

I owe radio host and author, Dennis Prager, the credit for the title and the following equation: U=I-R (unhappiness = image minus reality).

Here's what it means. There are a lot of unhappy people in the world. And, oddly enough, money seems to have no bearing on a person's happiness. Many lottery winners are either broke or unhappy or both. I have seen profound unhappiness on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and profound happiness in the rural villages of Zambia. Basically, human nature is the biggest obstacle to happiness. Human nature is insatiable. Something in us longs for more. What we have is never enough. It's part of the human condition that the Bible speaks of. Ecclesiastes says that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men." Restlessness is part of the human spirit. We create idealistic images of what we would like our lives to look like. We create dreams in our minds where disease, death, and poverty do not exist. But rarely do the images/dreams match reality. Unhappiness is how we deal with the distance between our images and reality.

So, let's start simple. A young woman may have an image in her mind of the perfect husband with the perfect job with perfect kids - you know, the white picket fence kinda life. Then she marries, and after a few years she finds out that her husband is basically a jerk, her kids are brats, and they still live in some cheap apartment because of credit problems. Her unhappiness is the distance between the image in her mind, and the reality of her life. You can apply this equation to every aspect of life. A parent may have an image of their son as a doctor, but the son turns out to be a car salesman. The gap manifests itself in the parent's unhappiness. Or, you may have an image of yourself as a college professor, but your undergraduate GPA is a 3.0, so Ph.D programs turn you down. The gap becomes your source of unhappiness. Take people's unhappiness with God and religion - the same principle applies. One's image of what God is or what the church ought to be doesn't match reality, and people find themselves angry at God or angry at the church. Let's say you have an image in your mind of the ideal, loving relationship, but the reality is less than the image. The gap is unhappiness in your life. The images we create in our minds of what relationships ought to be hardly ever match reality. I have observed this to be the greatest source of unhappiness for people. NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE gets married expecting a divorce.

I could go on and on and on, but I want my readers to share. So let me be autobiographical. As a child I created an image in my mind of living in America as an American. But I was born in South Africa. The gap was highlighted by me putting up American flags everywhere and using American spelling. The day I became a U.S. citizen, the gap closed. Now I'm happy with my identity. When I was 18 I had an image that I would be a professional cyclist - then I moved to Texas, went to preaching school, was introduced to fried chicken and cheesecake, and all of a sudden, there was a huge gap between my image and the reality of my life. That's why I cried when I watched the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games. That image no longer exists in my mind, so I'm not unhappy being out of shape - yeah, yeah, I know I could lose some weight! Speaking of appearances - you see a magazine ad, or you watch Pretty Woman, and you create an image in your mind of looking like Julia Roberts. A lot of girls suffer eating disorders and depression because the gap between the image and the reality is a source of great unhappiness. This principle applies across the board - relationships, looks, health, career, home, finances, religion - you name it, this principle applies. Unhappiness = the gap between Image and Reality.

So, how do you become happy? It seems like there are 2 options. You could create a new, lesser image, or you could work hard to make reality closer to the image in your mind. Either way, for most people, happiness is a serious problem! Your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Does Religion Make People Better or Worse?

Dennis Prager tells about a young man who attended a Jewish institute he used to direct. When this young man first arrived at the institute, he was a kind and nonjudgmental person - and completely secular. After his month-long immersion in studying the Torah, he decided to become a fully practicing Orthodox Jew. When Dennis met him a year later he found that he was actually less kind and was aggressively judgmental of his fellow Jews, including those who had brought him to Judaism in the first place. In one year he had become, in his own eyes, holier than the teachers who brought him to religion in the first place. The religion's emphasis on legal observance enabled him to count the number of laws his fellow Jews did not observe and judge them accordingly.

Within Christianity, faith in Christ can lead one to live a life of extraordinary loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, but it can also, and has, led Christians to place so much emphasis on proper faith as to neglect equal emphasis on proper behavior. When you evaluate your own beliefs and practices (and you must do this before evaluating the beliefs of others), ask yourself, “Has this belief or doctrine made me a better person?” or, “Has this belief or doctrine made me less kind, less compassionate, less rational, and more judgmental?” If your answer is the latter, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that doctrine. I hate to beat this issue to death, but if your worship theology causes you to believe that someone will go to hell for worshipping God with a musical instrument, you have to re-evaluate that doctrine because it is not rational and it causes you to treat other believers in a disrespectful way. If you find yourself acting more like a Pharisee than like Jesus, then it's really time to rethink how you read and apply scripture, or how you engage sin and sinners in our culture. This is why Islamic terrorism is such a pernicious evil - it is killing innocents in the name of God. Their religion clearly has made them worse people! Faith has got to make us better people, not worse people – good and evil being defined by how we treat others.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pattern or Passion (Part 2)

In 1988 Ruel Lemmons wrote this editorial. From the day I read it, it has had a profound influence on me. So, here it is for your weekend's enjoyment: Pattern or Passion?

"In Egypt, near the banks of the Nile, I one time saw an ox hitched to a water-pumping device. The ox has a leader pole attached to the water mill. When the ox pulled the beam to which it was hitched, it in turn advanced the lead pole, and the pole pulled the ox forward. The ox wore a blindfold, and in total darkness he plodded, onward, day after endless day, not knowing where he was going. He had done it so long that the circle in which he plodded had become a rut so deep the ground level was well up the body of the ox. The ox knew the pattern alright. It had traveled on for years in the same circle and had never gotten fifty feet from where it started as a young ox years ago. Now it was a gaunt and grizzly old ox whose days were surely numbered. It knew the pattern alright, but it had no passion. And so it plodded on--aimlessly--all its life.

We have become a church noted for its pattern rather than its passion. We have turned inward and we consume our energies in going around in a circle. I have seen churches just like that ox. They meet every Sunday. They read the same book regularly. They are sticklers for the pattern. They boast of their soundness and their loyalty, but they are going nowhere. The rut they are in is belly deep, and they have blinders over their eyes--put there by cruel masters, usually elders and preachers who boast of their authority--and like dumb driven cattle, they pull the load which also becomes their lead pole--but they are simply wearing their rut deeper. One thing I decided early in life as a preacher: nobody was going to own me--no eldership, no membership, no boss, no brotherhood clique--no nothing. I developed several different skills for making a living just so that no one could cut off my thinking processes by intimidation. I do not have to parrot a party line. I count my freedom in Christ a precious thing and will be free to do so or die. I will not live in slavery. Any time I find myself in a situation where I feel my ability to act in good conscience is being limited, I will change it and do something else. I will wear no blinders. I will tread no mill. I still feel that way about it. I may be mistaken about what the Bible says, but I believe strongly what I think it says. And no man will bind upon me an understanding of the Scriptures further than I myself perceive them to teach. And I am bound to preach it that way. I have too little patience, I suppose, with those who have to be told how to do the details of everything and exactly what they can and cannot believe. I wouldn't hire a man who couldn't figure out how to do what he was told to do on his own.

Following the Scripture is not a circular walk. The Scriptures point a straight line to glory. We don't simply pull the mill in order to be led by the pole. We don't wear blinders lest we launch out in a new direction. We must not lose our passion in our obsession with the pattern. It is easy for us to become lulled into semi-unconsciousness by a false sense of well-being. We can plod in our circle, never knowing how wretched, poor, naked, and blind we really are; or we can stay awake and alive and aggressive and passionate and make progress not in a circle.

We will never produce the dynamic growth we need as we push into the twenty-first century unless we get out of our rut, cast off our blinders, and quit being led by the nose by a few who think they have all the answers. We need to double the number of congregations we now have. We will never do that going around in a circle. We need to see the lost with a world vision. We will never do that with blinders on. We need to blaze new pathways. We will never do that hitched to a pole. Planting new churches and saving souls is exciting work. World evangelism is thing of passion. Christians today are not being evangelistically oriented. It is basic to church growth that every individual be evangelistically trained and evangelism inspired. Obsession with the pattern to the neglect of the passion is destroying us. As long as Christians are vital and active, they are deterred from falling away. All the knowledge in the world will not substitute for passion. It takes a faith strong enough to make us alter our lives, get out of our ruts, and seek new pastures. By such a faith, Abraham left Ur, not knowing where he was going. It was passion, rather than pattern, that drove him. We desperately need to find some new ways of doing the things the Bible teaches us to do."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pattern or Passion?

I grew up in Churches of Christ. I have followed the restoration principle all my life. I have learned the “pattern” from childhood. But I can’t defend it! It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and inevitably divisive. In February I had one of those hinge moments – a small thing that changed how I think. I was teaching a class, and asked the question, “How does this ancient teaching manifest itself in the modern church?” I was hit with a barrage of objections to the phrase “modern church.” It’s not one of our authorized code words. They wanted me to say “New Testament church.” My answer was, “look around the room. There’s the modern church.” But we were talking on two different levels. The “NT church” is code for a church that has restored the pattern of worship, doctrine, and life precisely as outlined in the NT. I no longer believe we can do that. I still believe in faithfulness to scripture of course, but the history of restoration movements is so full of disunity, sectarianism, anger, and contention that I don’t want to perpetuate it. Anyway, common sense dictates that restoring the NT church in the 21st century is impossible! Which church should we restore? Jerusalem? Antioch? Corinth? Rome? Those are all different expression of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What about churches not listed in the NT record?

Thanks to Bobby Valentine for this research, here is a brief overview of the quest for the pattern among various Christians and what that pattern looked like to them. I think it is instructive to ask the specific questions of how and why the pattern they perceived has been different from what we have claimed the pattern to be.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was the great Swiss Reformer who sought to return to the purity of apostolic Christianity. Beginning in 1519 he announced that he would only be preaching from the New Testament. Zwingli soon became focused on the notion of "the law of Christ." With this in his mind he rejected vestments, images, mass, and introduced the primary motif for the Lords Supper that Churches of Christ still cling to – a strict memorial only. Zwingli introduced a hermeneutical principle that has had far reaching effects: the Regulative Principle. As used by Zwingli this principle simply states that whatever scripture does not explicitly command is forbidden. To illustrate how serious Zwingli was about this we need only look at his views on singing in worship. According to Zwingli the divine pattern only explicitly directs three acts of worship: preaching, prayer and the Lords Supper. But what of singing? Audible singing was to be rejected in worship on the same principle instrumental music was rejected - there was no authority in the divine pattern for it. After all, Zwingli argued, Paul commanded us to admonish one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" but he specified that the only music was to be "in your hearts." Zwingli felt that the pattern forbade public singing.

The New England Puritans were on a restorationist crusade. John Cotton (1584-1652) a leading figure in colonial American history was an ardent pattern seeker. His quest for the divine pattern was as strict as any in history. He wrote: “No new traditions must be thrust upon us but that which we have had from the beginning. True Antiquity is that which fetches its original from the beginning. If they have no higher rise than the patristic Fathers, it is too young a device. Live ancient lives; your obedience must be swayed by an old rule, walk in the old ways." (John Cotton, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Meter, 1640) Cotton was committed to finding and reproducing the biblical pattern. So great was his quest for doing it exactly as they did it in "true Antiquity" that he agonized over whether Christians were to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the morning or in the evening. In 1611 he published, "A Short Discourse of Mr. John Cotton touchinge the time when the Lordes day beginneth whether at the Eveninge or in the Morninge." In this volume Cotton argued that evening is the truest observance for the Lord’s Day and the Supper because it had been set forth in "the first institution of time" and thus was the “old and good way.” Moving to a morning observance was to innovate and to depart from the "practice and judgment of the primitive Church." Cotton finally states, "I see no footstep of Christ or his disciples . . . that go before us in this path." That is the path of morning to morning rather than evening to evening. It is clear that Cotton was a devoted restorationist in an honest quest for the pattern of the church. In Cotton's pattern a group of men would test each other for doctrinal soundness and relate their conversions before starting a local church. Then they entered a covenant pledging to uphold the laws of God and the purity of the congregation. The gathered church selected a teaching pastor; ruling elders and deacons. Future members would be examined by the ruling elders then asked to profess their faith publicly and sign the church covenant. One more example of Cotton’s understanding of the pattern is his understanding of singing. Cotton, like Zwingli, rejected instrumental music though not congregational singing as did Zwingli. Instead, Cotton rejected any song written in post-biblical times. The only "authorized" singing in worship was that of the Psalms. Man had no authority to lift up his own tainted and unholy words to the throne, for Paul had commanded that we sing Psalms. To go beyond what was written was dangerous, it was to depart from the pattern. John Cotton was convinced that the churches formed under his leadership in New England were in fact identical to the New Testament churches. He writes that the churches are exactly as they would be if "Jesus were here himselfe in person."

The Baptists grew out of the Puritan movement because they felt the Puritans did not go far enough in the quest for God’s pattern. The New England Puritans still accepted infant baptism but the Baptists rejected this as against the pattern. Two Baptist theologians wrote treatises to demonstrate the true marks of the true church: Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) and James R. Graves (1822-1893). Edwards book was entitled "Customs of Primitive Churches" outlining what he viewed as the unassailable Baptist position as being the true New Testament church. Graves engaged in mortal combat with Alexander Campbell, whom he believed to be a Bible denying liberal! For Graves the true pattern was found in the Jerusalem church. He wrote, "The Church which Christ himself organized in Jerusalem is an authoritative model to be patterned after until the end of time. The Catholic and various Protestant sects were originated and set up many ages after the ascension of Christ. They are therefore not divine but human institutions." Graves sought to confront all, "human traditions, and mutilated and profane ordinances, and those who impiously presume to enact laws in place of Christ, and to change the order of his church." Graves claimed that his brotherhood was the one true church and that they alone were Christians. Graves stressed that each element of the pattern was of equal importance. Thus if a congregation fell short in only one area it was no longer a true church.

In our own movement (Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ) Barton Stone was a primitivist, but Alexander Campbell had a different reason for restoring the pattern of the NT church. Campbell was an ardent postmillennialist (the view that human progress would usher in a utopian era that would lead to Christ’s return). That is almost a uniquely American view. Campbell believed that the church had to be restored before Christ could return. This extreme, motivated, argumentative patternism got out of hand a generation or two later. No one embodies this better than Daniel Sommer (1850-1940). He is responsible for the rabid, ultra-conservative, combative tenor and reputation of Churches of Christ since the split was recognized in 1906 – actually this man’s movement led to the split. In 1889 he held a meeting in Sand Creek Illinois, and issued a document called the Address and Declaration. It stated: “It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.”

How do we account for these radical differences? How do we evaluate one reconstructed pattern against the other? Should we be dogmatic like Cotton and Graves? Or should we dismiss these and others on the quest as dishonest? Should we claim they did not believe in Bible authority? What makes our pattern right and theirs wrong? What makes some things a mark of the church and other things not? Perhaps the pattern does not concern itself over the organization of the church but rather following the way of the cross in discipleship. Perhaps we should learn that often the pattern we recognize is more a mirror of the person reconstructing it than scripture itself. One lesson is that the quest for the pattern should teach us the virtue of humility. The quest for the pattern has resulted in harsh judgementalism rather than the love of Christ, which is the one pattern we must follow.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Who are the "Weaker Brothers"

I have always wondered about Paul’s references to “weaker brothers” in the New Testament, and how those arguments apply to the modern church. After a lot of reading, studying, and exegesis of 1st Corinthians and Romans 14 I am convinced that Paul is not talking about people who’d be upset that their narrow understandings were being violated. He isn’t speaking about them being offended. He’s addressing a very real possibility of falling away. They had come out of paganism. They remembered those pagan temples; they could recall the thrill of the meals; they still had memories of the way moral restraint was lifted in that environment. One smell of that meat might lead them down a road to their old lives. That's why he talks about their faith being "destroyed." The “strong Christians” might know that it isn’t a package deal; but these weaker brothers and sisters might be caught up into idolatry. It’s important to know what he’s saying. And it’s equally important to know what he’s not saying. These “weaker brother” passages have been used too many times to endorse the position of the person with the most narrow way. It has nothing to do with that.

Here is a very insightful comment from my favorite New Testament Scholar, N.T. Wright:
“Sometimes people from a very narrow background, full of rules and restrictions which have nothing to do with the gospel itself and everything to do with a particular social subculture, try to insist that all other good Christians should join them in their tight little world. But in a case like that the rule-bound Christians are in no danger of having their consciences damaged. They are not being ‘led astray.’ They are quite sure of their own correctness. Paul is dealing with a very different case.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Leadership (Part 3)

That last post generated a lot of discussion - some of it on the topic, and some way off topic. After venting and listening to some responses, I want to give an example of rising above this pettiness that can consume us if we're not careful. At a time when churches are cracking up, leaders are not respected, and feelings are seared, we need good examples. Here is my hero when I think of church leadership. T. B. Larimore.

Larimore was a wildly popular Church of Christ preacher in Sherman, Texas in the 1890's. This was a time in our history more turbulent than even today. The restoration movement was being ripped in half. Lines were drawn, sides were taken, and the fight was on!!! What were the issues? Instrumental music vs acappella singing, missionary societies vs local congregational support for foreign missionaries, special fundraising vs Sunday collection as the only way to raise money, acceptance of previous baptism vs rebaptism in a Church of Christ, located preachers vs "mutual edification." There were other issues, and, remember, the wounds from the Civil War were still festering. (Our revisionist tendencies say that it was ALL about instrumental music.)

In 1897 two ministers who had been former students of Larimore at Mars Hill College wrote him a letter urging him to speak out on these issues. They said, "It is not best, in our humble judgment, to be silent when we see our fellow men, and especially our own family, drifting apart. Please, therefore, answer the following questions according to your judgment . . . (instrumental music, organized mission work, conventions and lectureships, paid located preachers) . . . Thousands of your brothers and sisters believe it is your duty to speak out on these questions, and strive to unite the people of God. And surely when duty calls you will respond." To this challenge, Larimore replied, "Never, publicly or privately, have I expressed opinion or preference relative to any of these matters over which brethren are wrangling and disputing and dividing the church of Christ - never! I am sorry to disappoint any of my friends, but it is clearly my duty to leave the discussion to wiser, better, abler men, and just simply preach the Word, avoiding all questions that gender strife among the children of God. I shall simply do as I have always done - love the brethren. They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me; but I will NEVER refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them - NEVER."

Larimore never recognized the split that even the U.S. Census recognized in 1906. He preached in both instrumental Christian Churches and acappella Churches of Christ, and he felt comfortable in both. By the time he died in 1928, Larimore had planted more churches, preached more sermons, and baptized more people (over 10 000) than any other living preacher at the time! What an example. That's who I want to be.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Pain of Leadership (Part 2)

The last post on leadership generated some good discussion so let me take it a step further with a concrete example.

*** Disclaimer *** I love the people at the Baker Heights Church of Christ dearly, but sometimes I will talk about things that happened there that will, necessarily, make certain people look bad. Sorry. This cannot be helped.

Last year I taught a 6-month series of lessons on Church History. People loved it! I was presenting material most had never heard before. And I tried to make it interesting - exciting stories, great PowerPoint presentations, relevant application. One night I showed a video called "Christianity: The First Thousand Years." It was about how the church filled the power void created when Rome fell, and how that changed both western civilization and the church. The video was narrated, with soft, but typically dramatic documentary music in the background. After class, while people were milling around the auditorium, an older man, who wasn't even in my class, came up to an elder I was talking to. I could tell he was mad. Now keep in mind that this man was usually gentle and kind and soft-spoken. Holly loves his wife too - she's a sweet grandma type. This man ignored me, and said to the elder, "I hear there was a video in here with instrumental music! My brother couldn't take it - he walked out! What are you gonna do?" I'm standing right there, remember. So I said to him, "Let's not talk about this here." We went outside, and I listened to his concerns. As patiently as possible I explained to him that while I also believe worship ought to be non-instrumental, showing a documentary with background music in a Wednesday night class was different. He said, "You opened with a prayer, didn't you? So it's worship." I knew this man's intellect wasn't firing on all cylinders when he said, "You could have still showed the video, you could have just muted the sound." I ended the conversation by saying, "I really understand what you're saying, and I agree. We just apply it a little differently." His response: "My brother has just come out of a Christian Church. I don't want him to lose his soul, and if you feel that way, I don't want you preaching here!"

Later that night I vented to Holly, and let it go. What did he do? He went to some more elders and complained about "the instrument" working it's way into our church. I'm sure he also mentioned something about slippery slopes leading to hell, though I can't confirm that. So, how did the leadership respond? They came up with a new policy - under no circumstances could ANY form of instrumental music be played in any format in the auditorium of the church. Now, on what basis did they make that decision? Theological conviction? Solid principle? The overall good of the church? The strength of our witness in the community? NO. It was a decision based on calming the irrational fears of a small anxiety riddled minority!

So, come next quarter, an elder wanted to show a video in his class that had soft background music. What did he do? He had the class come back on a Sunday night, after everyone else had left, and he showed the documentary. It felt like we were doing something wrong, under the cover of darkness. It was like we were revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the traditionalists! No, not really! But here's the point. An ELDER was forced to show a documentary outside the regular time slot of his class because one immature man complained a month earlier! Is that leadership?

Here's what I posted in part 1: "Leaders who try to avoid pain will someday be confronted with the worst pain of all, the awareness that the end result of their perpetual pain avoidance is the collapse of the organization they were supposed to be leading. Are you called to lead? If so, and if you’re not ready to experience and tolerate some pain, then please say no to the call. Whatever organization you’re being called to lead will be better off without you in leadership. If you’re ready to deal with some pain, then step up and buckle in, because it’s gonna hurt."

What that elder should have done was go to the man who complained and said to him, "Look, I love you brother, but your immaturity and your attitude towards those who disagree with you in an area where scripture is silent, is divisive, it is damaging our witness in this community, it is sinful, and we are not going to tolerate it!" Now that would have been showing some leadership. Would that man have left? Maybe. Would he have taken others with him? Possibly. Could it have been painful? Yes. And that's exactly my point! Your thoughts.