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?