Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Progressive-Regressive Cycle of the Church

I've been thinking a lot about the nature of the church over the past several years.  I have spent a lot of time either reading about various church settings or traditions or actually spending time in them.  Mostly this has been a result (not uncommon to some) of attempting to find fellowship that reflects most accurately God's will for his church.  This, of course, assumes God has a specific normative for the church today beyond various moral requirements (although many today are, to their great harm, questioning even that).

In the book of Acts, immediately subsequent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a rag tag group of disciples in an upper room, we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It didn't take long after this point for things to begin to degrade in the neonatal church.  Perhaps Ananias and Saphira where more a portent then an example and maybe Simon the Sorcerer was the Adam of the modern day televangelists, but the fact is by the time we get to the letters and epistles we start seeing cracks in the wall.  Something was beginning to "bewitch" the church.  We can even see, in the letters to the seven churches in the Revelation of Christ to John, that the picture was grim, albeit still hopeful (See Revelation 2-3).

Persecution seems to have helped stem the decay, but not long after Constantine declared amnesty for believers and established Christianity as the new state religion the beast seems to have been let out of his cage and the cracks in the wall became something much more desperate.  By the time of the Great Schism between the east and the west in 1054 AD what was the "church" was barely recognizable from the the picture painted in Acts 2.   But then comes the reformation and things start looking up....then shortly after they start looking down as the Protestant edifice is shattered into thousands of pieces, each attempting to explain how their visage best reflects God's intention for his bride.   Not that they always claimed they were the "only one", but they at least claimed they were the best representation of the ideal for the "only one".

This cycle repeated and still repeats today.  The reformation gave rise to the radical reformation which gave rise to Hutterites and Mennonites, Amish, Swiss Brethren, etc.  Various groups springing or fracturing from others and then those others eventually giving rise to their own reformative break-aways and so on.

As I studied some of these different mini-reformations (understanding that the Reformation, even if the intentions were good as well as misguided, gave rise to something that really cannot be called a reformation for nothing was truly reformed) I discovered that a cycle seemed to be happening.  Good to bad to fracture, lather, rinse, repeat.  Is it good?  Bad?  Probably neither or both.  The Cycle shouldn't be happening.  It is bad that these "churches" become bad.  But it is good that some see it and want to make it better.  Yet it seems to me that it shouldn't be this way, that it is, although not unexpected, disappointing to our Father.

Now, I understand that some of these fractures are due to less than noble causes.  Malcontents and heretics will always be with us.  When the wolves come in they will scatter the flock if we are not vigilant.    But I'm not speaking of those events here.  I'm speaking of the continual attempt by some (is remnant too romantic of a word to use now or should I wait?) to get back to the root.  Getting back to the root is really what the word "radical" means.  Do these "radicals" have a case?  And how do they or we keep from going too far or not going far enough?

I also realize that most scholars today say that the book of Acts is not meant to be normative for church practice but rather the story of the Holy Spirit establishing the church.  Although I agree with them to an extent I pull up short of completely discarding it all together as a guide to God's original intentions for his church.  I would not promote Acts as the liturgical standard for the church, but I would feel comfortable asking some questions of it concerning how the church ought to appear to itself and the world looking in.  For example, it appears the the early church had a much simplified form of worship and meeting for the study of scriptures.  It also appears that they lived more as strangers in the world they were ministering to.  I don't mean here the antithesis to the state-church that formed later under Constantine but rather a real  "otherness" that seemed to follow the early church.  And so on.

Anyway, my point behind this post was to posit my idea and give myself a starting point for exploring it and anything related to it fuller.  The idea isn't original, but it is original to me and since this blog is also mine I'll feel free to write as though the idea is original.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Crucify him! (or, Party on!)

Shortly before Jesus was murdered he spoke the following words to his disciples,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice, You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy."  (John 16:20 ESV)

Here he was speaking specifically of his death, but I think we can see this played out in today's cultural climate.  Many today are proclaiming the death of God and they rejoice.  They are declaring the death or Christian morals and they are jubilant.  They see Jesus hanging on the cross and they are glad (even if Jesus is a myth).  On the cross means he is dead, and better to let dead prophets and messiahs lie, especially the one called the Lion of Judah.   

We weep, no longer because he is hanging on the cross, for we have seem our resurrected Lord, but because the world is rejoicing at his death and they can't see why his being alive is such a good thing. The world finished demythologizing but not finished patting themselves on the back for their own cleverness and so they party on.  But we weep and they call us party crashers.  And who would have thought party crashing would eventually be ruled illegal (Let me remind you that it soon will be, just in case you haven't gotten the memo). 

But someday we will stop weeping and our own party will begin.  The echos of "Crucify him" will end with a crash and startled gasps - by all - and silence will fall like a curtain.  Rain will fall and wash away the red Solo cups and vomit and the sun will come out only it won't be the sun at all but the glory of the Father and the Lamb.  Then he will wipe away all of our tears.  Jesus comforted his disciples with as much when he wrote:

"So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy form you." (v. 22)

Many of us bought into a wrong idea of these events. Thanks to the Sunday school teachers who were filled with good, albeit misguided, intentions painting a picture of us sitting upon the groovy Jesus' lap and he wiping our tears away with his coat sleeve.   But the real picture is much, much better.  He will appear to us in all of his glory, perhaps like John saw him, on fire and burning brighter and whiter than anything we can imagine and our hearts will rejoice.  Not just because we see him but because he sees us.  He is looking at us and we aren't consumed by his wrath but welcomed with his love.  Tell me, what tear could survive that?

So, party on world.  Your days are numbered.  If you want to see what a real party looks like then take off your festal clothes and put on sackcloth and join us in our weeping.  Don't wait until the real party starts for then it will be much too late; the object of your rejoicing now becoming your undoing. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Welcome to the carpet

Sometimes rebuking someone publicly is needed in the church today.  Sometimes we forget that we aren't the only generation to have to deal with a proliferation of false teachers.  Whenever and wherever the truth is spoken, purveyors of lies are sure to be found in spades.  Because of this the church, if she is going to maintain her purity as a bride without spot or wrinkle, will have to get use to the idea of the public rebuke.

Paul was no stranger to controversy.  In 1 Timothy 5:20 he writes to his young charge:

  As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (ESV)

 There a few reasons to rebuke someone publicly.  Here we see that it is for the benefit of the congregation.  That they may stand in fear.  Why fear?  Because they will see that the man of God speaks with the authority from the Holy Spirit, backed by the written Word of God and that those things which are spoken in darkness will be exposed and laid bare in the light.

 Writing again to Timothy Paul instructs him to be ready to preach the word in any and every situation.  It is interesting to note why this is the case:

  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  (2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV)

We assume, erroneously, that everyone in our fellowship is a part of the church.  Not only has this never been true, but it will become even more prevalent in the last days that people will have a form of godliness and no true spiritual power.  Why?  Because they will be consumed with themselves wanting only to hear and do what makes them feel good.  Those speaking the truth will be of little interest to them. 

We are seeing this played out in our own times.  Book after book, movie after movie, video after video, all being vomited up from the very pits of hell, and even though these things clearly contradict or even add to scripture, gentle admonishments or loud peals of warning bells go unheeded by those calling themselves the church.

In Paul’s instructions to Titus concerning elders he writes the following.  Note the reason why he is to be a man of the Word:

  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

(Titus 1:5-9 ESV)

 But he doesn't stop there.  Continue reading.  

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

(Titus 1:10-16 ESV)

 Paul actually helps to identify the type of people the elder is to rebuke by giving an real life object lesson.  Of these Paul instructs Titus (and by extension the elders) to “rebuke them sharply”.  Why?  “That they be sound in the faith”.   In fact, Paul seems overly harsh here and I believe many leaders would shy from such language.  But Paul has in mind the damage these people are causing and against what and whom they are fighting.  Perhaps we don’t have a true valuation of what is at stake and whose honor is being impinged upon?

 Some will argue that these people being rebuked are a part of these congregations and therefore under their authority.  However this is not necessarily the case.  First, the context does not have to lend itself to this interpretation.   But more importantly, even if this were true, in our highly mobile society where traveling to the latest conferences and retreats is the norm, not to mention the use of the internet, “local” is a highly subjective concept.   As leaders it is important we address issues that are local in the strict sense of the word, but also keeping in mind that when people bring teachings in the way of books, videos, etc., into the congregation and promote traveling to conferences where heretics, false teachers and false prophets (in short, wolves) will be attempting to indoctrinate our fellow brothers and sisters, suddenly “local” takes on a much broader sense and we must respond appropriately.   

 As I have noted above, the response may need to be public and in the presence of everyone.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, when leadership in a fellowship takes a public stance against a false teaching or teacher there is an air of authority to it.  It is here, I believe, that the presence of our Savior is in the midst of two or three.  It is here that what is loosed or bound on earth will be so in heaven (Matt. 18:18-20).   

 Second, one person confronted alone about their favorite false teach will tend to see the confrontation as an attack on their teacher, even when done in love. And even if the person, at first, seems agreeable they are likely to walk away and after further reflection reaffirm their original sentiments. The final result can be a hardening that will be even more difficult to address later.  Additionally the person will be more likely to go and talk to others about why they think their teacher is good.  They may something like, “You should listen to so-and-so.  Oh, there are others in this congregation who don’t like them, but you should listen and judge for yourself.  I think they are from God, etc.”.   If you have an intimate relationship with this person, then the results may be different, however typically leaders are unable to have this sort of relationship with a majority of the congregation and even when they can the final results may be the same.

 Speaking to the whole congregation may not mitigate the hardening (although, people typically respond in a group setting differently than they would privately.  Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better).  However, speaking to the whole will help stop the person from going around and talking to others because everyone will know where leadership stands.

 Finally,  in a large congregation it is quite impossible to get to everyone.  In fact, it is unfair to expect a limited number of those in leadership to connect with everyone about a particular issue.  By the time you managed to get to everyone there will have been several other issues that need dealing with.  You would be, as it were, attempting to bale out the sinking ship with a spoon!

 So what is to be done?  If this is only one person and they are coming to you for council, then clearly you don’t need to bring it before the congregation.  However, it might help to teach on the subject and clearly delineate God’s position on the issue.  In this case let the person who came to you know you are going to do this so they won’t be surprised.

 However, I’m thinking of cases where false teaching is being spread around the church via media.  In this case it would be appropriate for the pastor/teacher/prophet to preach on the subject. If you believe you can simply address the Bible’s position (and thus God’s) without addressing the false teachers by name, then good.  However, if this is a serious error and one in which people may be unaware of the the false teacher's position, it is perfectly appropriate to quote this teacher and name them.  This can be used to both make people aware of the false teachers position as well as offering an example of what the antithesis of the biblical position might look like.  

Sunday, November 09, 2014

True Freedom

Today our fellowship showed a short video as a tribute to our veterans.  Before I say what I'm going to say please understand that I mean no disrespect to those who followed their consciences to serve our country.  I may not always agree with our country's political agenda, but I do have a lot of respect for those who have and continue to serve.

The video can be found here:

It was developed by the Beamer Films video company.  In keeping with the growing norm in the christian community this professionally produced video is very well done.  It states its point fairly well and is highly emotive.  It appears, at least in our fellowship, to easily connect with its target audience if the applause at the conclusion was any judge.  But I did take issue with one of its claims.  The narrator spoke about the freedoms that have been fought and bought for by our vets.  I won't argue with that.  But around 00:50 the narrator says,

"Which also includes the God given right to worship our Creator any time, any where.  Which leads us to the other type of freedom, a greater freedom that can only be found in Christ who died as a ransom to set us free. This is a freedom from a life of futility.  Freedom from the tyranny of sin, regret, hate and bitterness.  It is the freedom to love God and  love your neighbor."

Before I give my comment on the above paragraph let me state for the record that I understand this is a short video.  It is extremely difficult to explain yourself in two minutes.  I get that.  So I am not claiming these people are a bunch of heretics or something.  I really don't know one way or the other and given the chance they might be able to rebuttal my comments by clarifying what they meant to say.  I am only commenting on what they said in reference to what I see is the usual mindset in churches today.  In other words, I am not trying to be mean or judgmental.  I am only making some observations and hope these observations will help God's people check their hearts and shore up their theology where it needs shoring up.

There is a patriotism that is so embedded in the American psyche that it influences our theology in such a way that if we are not careful we can propagate something that is, at best, less than accurate.  At worse it can actually become another gospel altogether (although I don't believe that is happening in this video).  The above quoted narration says something that at first seems right but in actuality it goes beyond the Scriptures.  Do we have a "God given right to worship our Creator any time, any where?"   If this is speaking about a theological right, that is one which is the result of our relationship with God, then the answer is 'no'.  We have a command to worship God and him alone (Luke 4:8).  We also know that unless God intervenes we don't even have the ability to obey that command (Romans 3:9-18) let alone a right.  So it really can't be that we have a God give right theologically.  If anything we may rightly call it a privilege, for without God's grace we would never do it in the first place.

How about politically?  It may be the video is speaking about our right as in the freedom afforded us as citizens of this country.  I think an argument can be made that we don't have a right to worship our Creator anytime, anywhere.  Maybe once upon a time we did, but this is less true today.  And according to Romans 13 this lack of freedom is also God given.  What is my point?  We need to be careful to not make the assumption that our freedom to worship comes to us politically.  It does not.  Romans 13 also points out that all government comes from God.  The government of Paul's day was that of a conquering world superpower which gave rise to such people as King Herod, who ordered the death of all the children two and under in his hunt for Jesus, or Titus, who leveled Jerusalem in 70 AD.  War has typically only brought pain, suffering and more war (Someone once said, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword") and politics have typically served the politicians more than their constituents (by which I mean the "regulars" and not the rich corporations and and other special interest groups.  I also recognize we all, in some way, benefit, but that benefit is, as it were, runoff. But that will have to be a different post by a different poster).

In fact, this video is saying both.  Our right is theological and political.  At 01:28 the narrator says,

"We want to say many thanks to the veterans who have served to preserve our political freedoms which allow us to freely worship our creator who gives us that greater freedom we all so desperately need"

It is true that we do have more freedoms than many countries and that the ability to worship the way we do is, at least in our minds, better than being told we cannot.  But in the end there is only one true freedom and that freedom is found in Christ Jesus (John 8:36).  And that freedom means we are free to worship our Creator any time, any where.  Is this a right?  No. Most Americans will be horrified to learn that we have far fewer rights than we might think.  But it is a privilege and as much as I love our veterans and truly appreciate their sacrifices, we must, as Christians, make sure we understand clearly and can say without hesitation, that true freedom can only come through One who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.  Period.  Yes, let us tell our veterans we appreciate them. But at the same time let's be very careful how we try to mix politics and theology.


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Being the man with the moves

There is a passage in Genesis where Isaac, thinking no one is looking, takes an opportunity to make some moves on Rebecca, his wife.  I'm not a Hebrew scholar (nor am I the son of one) so I can't tell you what this passage looks like in the original language, but the English translations are fun.  The KJV tells us that Isaac was "sporting with his wife".   The NIV and NASB use the word "caressing".  The ESV tells us he was laughing with her.  J.N. Darby can't settle on sporting, laughing or caressing so he goes with "dallying" (Next time you are alone with your honey, ask her if she minds if you dally with her a bit).

Whatever the Hebrew word was intended to convey here is probably not as important as the fact that Isaac was doing something with Rebecca that sent a clear message to Abimelech that they were more than siblings (or really sick, but apparently that thought never entered the king's mind.  Good for him!).

 Issac married Rebecca when he was forty (25:20) and they had their first children - twins - when he was sixty (vs. 26).  Later in chapter twenty-five Esau sells his birthright to Jacob after coming in from hunting, half starved.  We aren't told how old they were but the impression is given they are grown men. I find it hard to believe Esau would have the authority to give away his birthright if they were just boys so let's make an assumption that they were around eighteen (although I think it likely they were older).

So it would appear Issac and Rebecca had been married for about thirty-eight or more years.  Never mind that Rebecca was still a looker at this time.  The important thing to note is Issac still took time out of his day to "sport" with his wife. There are a lot of reasons people stayed together in ancient times.  It would be a bit romantic to assume it was only for love or God they stayed together.  For the women security would have probably been high on the list of reasons.  But this is precisely my point.  Issac didn't have to pay much attention to Rebecca.  She probably would have continued to cook his meals and have his children.  But he didn't see it that way.  He still enjoyed being with her and he let her know it.

Many husbands today take their wives and their relationships for gratned.  Many women stay with their husbands for less than romantic reasons, even when he never gives her good reason to do so.  I remember stopping by a garage-sale with my wife and an elderly man and woman waited on us.  They were clearly husband and wife.  So, wanting to be friendly, I introduced myself to the lady and asked, is this your husband.  She said, "Who?  This a** hole?  Yeah, this idiot is my husband".   It actually got less pleasant the longer we stayed.  We made our purchase and ran away.  We both swore (not that kind of swearing) to not let our relationship get like that.  I think we have both secretly continued to pray, "God, please don't let us get like that!"

However, not getting like "that" takes work.  Getting like "that" is easy but avoiding the tragedy so many find themselves in today involves the man getting off of his (what she said) and doing something about it lest he become a (what she said).  One of the things I determined to do a long time ago is continue to sport with my wife.  Now, that is easy to say when you are first married.  But as time goes on it can take some effort.  Not because she isn't pretty or lovable, but because we are men and we get this stupid idea (O.K., we have more than one stupid idea, but I'm focusing on only one for now) in our head that we are super attractive and that every woman on the planet would want us so this one we are married to should count herself lucky to have a hunk like us.   Like I said, it is stupid.  We aren't that attractive, we are just plain lucky and the sooner we realize that without divine intervention we would still single, the better.

Anyway, my point is that lady we are married to deserves to be treated like the hero she is (for marrying us in the first place and for putting up with us in the second place).  Sport with her.  Flirt with her. Laugh with her. When you walk into a public place grab her hand and smile big so people think that the lady you are with must be famous or something.  Tell her she is pretty.  When you are out in public, catch her eye and make that face that let's her know you are currently fantasizing about her.  Sometimes I even write flirtations notes in church and pass them to her (nothing too steamy, it is church after all).   And don't forget to let your kids see what you are up to once in a while.  They'll squeal in protest, but with a little professional counseling they will get over it.  They need to see how a real man romances the woman of his dreams, even after twenty-plus years of marriage.

The fact is, if we want our marriages to last then, as men, we need to make it happen.  Will it always be easy?  No.  Will it be worth it?  That is entirely up to you.  As for me, I'm headed downstairs to superstitiously sport with my wife while the kids aren't looking.