This month: 190 - Legalism & Progressivism
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If you are holding to an ideology that doesn’t bring you closer to God, then you need to rethink your ideology.

It is far too easy to make an idol out of our theology. Healthy theology will bring you closer to God. Unhealthy/unbalanced theology will fill you more with yourself. And that is true to the left and to the right.

Theology for theology’s sake does us little good. Being liberal or legalist for its own sake does us little good. Far too often a theological label becomes a symbol for something deeper – being a person who cares or a person who takes God more seriously than other people often in contradistinction or comparison with others.

It is important that we assess the heights to which we elevate theological labels and what we tell ourselves about the labels we adopt.

In the Bible idolatry almost always came from the outside. It came from the Egyptians. It came from the Canaanites. There are a few exceptions like Gideon’s ephod in Judges 8 but by and large even the idols that cropped up among the Israelites came from outside influence (golden calf of Exodus 32-34 for instance).

The same is true today – theological idolatry comes from the outside, and depending on which influences sway you most (your theological leaning will be determined) – modernism, post-modernism, post-post modernism, secular humanism, etc..

In the Bible, Idols serve various purposes and it is important that we tune into their purposes so we can identify if we are committing theological idolatry:

1 – Idols become a visible explanation of past success

We see this in Exodus 32 with the golden calf when it is the calf who was said to have brought them out of Egypt. Do we attribute our salvation with our methodology or theology rather than God?

2 – Idols blend secular and sacred, again coming from outside pagan influence

We see this when things like modernism or post-modernism upend our faith in one direction or the other. We don’t even know we are doing it – it is so natural to us to blend cultural biases with our faith. It is very hard NOT to do this! And it is a misnomer to think that the past is always better and more bias free than the present. We see this in the Bible in places like Isaiah 44 and Habakkuk 2 where idols are and wood to warm your food are cut from the same tree. It is a non-discerning blending of the secular and the sacred. The reality is BOTH pieces of wood are being used to fill your belly, not just the one you set on fire but also the one you worship.

3 – When you place anything above God in direct or indirect worship

People aren’t bowing down to wooden and golden idols in church so much but it can be done subtly. We must ask who and what we are putting before honoring God and being faithful to him. One of the things we see in these passages in the prophets and Judges 8:27 is that idolatry is spiritual adultery. We must be faithful to God in all things.

4 – Looking for an object for future hope.

We want to control our future but we cannot. So we do things to manipulate the outcome and often forget to seek God’s help in the process. Like an idol, that is spiritual magic and manipulation rather than faith. Again, see Judges 8. Maybe we seek a bigger budget rather than God’s daily provision in order to secure a vibrant congregational future?

5 – When you cling to visible representations of invisible things

This is a big sign of spiritual immaturity – people want Sunday to look just right. If the visible is out of line so must the invisible, the feeling goes – the bread must be set correctly, the giving baskets separate and apart – little discernment that your life is out of order 143 hours a week…it must look right! In some assemblies, removing an American flag would cause an uproar amongst some.

6 – And if you really want to tell if you are worshiping an idol take note of the 2nd commandment – do not worship or serve them, God said.

Take note of who you serve…who you put first and WHY. Do you serve the rich above the poor, take their advice over the other? Are you serving nationalism or Jesus? The purpose of the church is to worship and serve God. He never comes second. Second is idolatry. Pay attention!

In all things we must declare our fidelity to God and serve him only. We must be faithful and avoid the spiritual adultery that is idolatry!

If you would like to hear more thoughts on this, I encourage you to watch today’s video on the Wineskins YouTube channel!

These are musings and nothing more. I do not claim to have the answers.

It is no secret that not only Churches of Christ in America but churches across the board are losing people rapidly. The vast majority of CofCs are congregations of less than 100 people. But this reflects a trend in ALL Christian denominations. The question is why and what can we do about it.

I personally think this “crisis” has been going on throughout my entire lifetime. In 1973 Dr. Tom Olbricht wrote a short article in Mission Journal reflecting on this exodus by the (then) younger people. He wrote “It is no secret that a whole generation born between 1930 and 1950 has become Church of Christ drop-outs. Visit churches in St. Louis, in Houston, in Nashville and you won’t see them” (“Is there a Message?” Mission [June 1973], 357). In 1966 Robert Myers edited a volume titled Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism that reads as if discussing contemporary issues.

Since the late 1960s there has been a “brain drain” in Churches of Christ. Young people by the tens of thousands have given up on church. Some blame liberal universities but that is an easy scapegoat. That is not what they themselves tell us. (See Flavil R. Yeakley’s, Why They Left: Listening To Those Who Have Left the Churches of Christ).

From my own generation, Gen X, there is a huge demographic missing. I have often wondered why I too have not given up. In my case (and most I know) this has nothing whatsoever to do with not loving Jesus and not believing the Bible.

Those departing believed there was no difference between those insisting on taking the Lord’s Supper every week and the culture around them (typically of the South). We were a worldly and very cultural church. We were not becoming either but already were. We mirrored the racial prejudice so rampant and even sanctified it. We often seriously mixed our American nationalism. We were lost in a maze of irrelevancies (institutional controversy, premillennial controversy, instrumental music, versions, clapping, Acappella Vocal Band, etc, etc) with no word on how a Christian should handle segregation, the raging war questions, how address poverty. At the same time churches have often (far more often then we care to admit) been places where predators on women and children have found both protection and victims to traumatize.

In short church offered no word on how to be different beyond claiming dancing, having a beer, or listening to rock would send one to hell. We typically cannot tell the difference between being an American and being a Christian. Or wrapping the cross in the “Stars and Bars” or “Stars and Stripes.”

So they left.

Most did not leave Christianity as such but they did leave Churches of Christ because they felt there was no place for them here. Many have simply concluded that the church is morally bankrupt.

I had a person say the following words to me less than a month ago, “If you want to hear hate towards gays, divorcees, homeless folks, aliens, non-English speakers, unwed mothers, people who have had an abortion, and Muslims then just go to a church.” In my growing up years I could add “Baptists, Methodists, Catholics,” and from the 1990s on, I could add “non-denominational churches” (oh the irony indeed).

What has to happen? Some will say nothing needs to happen. Good riddance! But for those of us who believe something can and should be done, what is it?

First. it is going to take a miracle of grace. It is going to take a miracle of grace for us to be what we are supposed to be. The Holy Spirit must fill us and we must choose to keep in step with the Spirit.

Second. We need to embrace and proclaim in word and deed the Story of God that empowers the Mission of God in the whole canon of Scripture. This means (as I’ve written elsewhere):

  • We need to emphasize the life, death, burial & bodily resurrection of Jesus the King of the Jews afresh
  • We need to emphasize the life of the Spirit
  • We need to model prayer, including lament, in our lives and assemblies
  • We need to be people who live and die by the “Jesus Creed”
  • We need to model compassion to the disinherited, our churches need to be concerned about the sound doctrine of ministering to the poor as a kingdom requirement, that is we live like we believe in the other Trinity: widows, orphans and aliens are the measure of our orthodoxy
  • We need to have consistent engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures as an antidote to the idols of our age
  • We need to take the entire Story of God which exemplifies the Mission of God seriously and paradigmatically
  • We need to finally believe in the priesthood of all believers and the giftedness of the saints, including women
  • We need to recover the spirit of non-sectarian Christianity and the doctrine of unity in our churches
  • We need to show how the theme of creation and redemption in Scripture addresses many of the pressing issues of our time from consumerism to racism to creation care
  • We need to recover the transnational vision of the kingdom, it is not American
  • We need deep emphasis on the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of God’s glorious new creation in the Jewish Messiah
  • We need to be a place where singles, single mothers, single dads, and the divorced are not merely tolerated but welcomed as full and valuable citizens of the kingdom
  • We need to be a place of safety and healing, a haven, for those who have suffered trauma from sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuse
  • We need to refocus the marks of the church on the marks of the cross, specifically in discipleship
  • We need to approach the world around from a posture of humility and genuine love, may the world know what we are for more than what we are against
  • We need to recover the truth of Jesus’s words that it is by love that the world will know we are Christians and that love is the litmus test of Christianity.

Third. We need to repudiate the notion that we are righteous, that we have it all figured out, and that we have infallible access to truth or that we have already determined the truth perfectly.

“No one is righteous, no not one!”

I do not see an exception clause to this in Scripture in either Testament. Old “sectarian” CofCs need grace. “Progressive” CofCs need grace. We all need grace.

When I/we confess our sin before the Father we know we are sinners and simply say “have mercy upon us.” When we know we are sinners and our best efforts are but filthy rags, we approach others from the basis of having been graced in order to give grace.

It just may be that Jesus’s words in Matthew 23 are directed not to scribes and Pharisees but to Evangelical and Restoration churches.

Grace is not “easy believism.” Grace is the great equalizer.

Just some thoughts on Manic Monday.

God’s Time

The Lord’s Supper. An important dimension to the Supper is eschatology. We might imagine eschatology as end time scenarios for the demise of world but that is only a small dimension. Perhaps we get a better insight into what eschatology is if we think of it as when God’s time washes over our time. When God’s time and our time connect the direction is backward to the past as well as forward to the future.

Festivals of Grace and Eschatology (God’s Time)

Israel’s worship, especially the sacrifices have this time machine (eschatology) quality to them. That is, they connect the present living generation with the “gospel” event from the past. For example, during the Passover meal we hear the question, “What do these mean?” The answer to that profound question is:

WE were slaves in Egypt but the LORD …”

“When the Egyptians treated US harshly …”

“WE cried out.

These answers come from the Exodus story itself. The Passover was God’s answer to Israel’s cry in the past and the present and God’s promise of the future.

Over and over, the living generation is connected with the past act of Yahweh’s grace through the festivals. All Israel’s festivals centered on the sacrificial meal, that is a supper with the Lord. The Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, even Purim, instituted by Esther’s authority, centers around the table and eating with God.

Thus, the Passover Haggadah states, “in every generation, each human must see himself as personally coming out of Egypt.” Through the meal we are the Passover generation. We are the ones coming out of the land of slavery, into life, freedom and forgiveness. Suddenly, at the table we are escaping with our very lives from the kingdom of death (Egypt) by the Lord of grace.

Psalm 116, God’s Time and Table

At the table we have entered God’s time of salvation and have koinonia with the Messiah and we have fellowship with all those being rescued. All those in the past, all those in the present, and all those who ever shall be rescued.

Remembering, in a Hebraic worldview, is far more than an intellectual recollection of the past. Remembering it is a reliving of the powerful God moment of redemption. The Passover becomes something like virtual reality.

Psalm 116 was used in the Passover liturgy long before Jesus was born. It was connected with the Passover because of this very Hebraic notion of God’s time. When Jesus sang Psalm 116 he was not only joining his fellow Jews at the table who also sang it, but he is identifying with all who have gone before, all who gathered presently, and all whoever shall gather. The Psalm says we were slaves, we were afflicted, God heard our cry. The Passover was God’s answer to the cry. Hear these words as they connect both to Jesus and all humans.

I love the LORD because he has heard me … (v.1)

“The snares of death encompassed me
[v. 3, read Ex 2.23-24] …”

“I called on the name of the LORD, ‘O LORD save my life’
…” (v.4)

In the Gospels, we read that great anguish came over Jesus after the meal. the meal that placed him in communion with all who had suffered before the threat of death at the hands of Pharaoh.

When we sit at the Supper, we too join not only those leaving Egypt but find ourselves with Jesus as if we have been taken in God’s time machine to walk with him, eat with him … and even die with him.

But the Passover is a time of Joy because it points to God’s victory. Passover preaches not God’s defeat but Yahweh’s victory over the agent of death, Pharaoh in all his manifestations. It points to God’s gracious response to our prayers. So, Psalm 116 has a middle “chorus” that all God’s children sing, from Egypt to the New Heavens and New Earth.

Gracious is the LORD,
and righteous
our God is merciful
[a loose paraphrase of Ex 34.6].

The LORD protects the simple;
When I was brought low,
he saved me …”
(vv.5-6).

This is the supreme confidence of biblical faith. We know we have been set free because we are part of the Exodus generation. But as Jesus is singing this song at the table, and on the way to the Garden with his disciples, it is also a statement of future faith. Because we share in the table, we know that the kingdom of death has been defeated. God has saved our life, now and forever more.

Saved Life, Future Life

This is not merely a matter of going to heaven when we die. When Jesus prayed this prayer with and in fellowship with his disciples at the table, he is pointing to the future in the faith that God will raise him from the dead. God has heard his prayer.

For you have delivered ME from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.
I kept my faith even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’”
(vv.8-11).

Jesus is living the Story.

The table is eschatology linking us to the past and the future. And we join our Messiah as we proclaim his death “until he comes.” Our Messiah is not a dead one.

But we live in the present. Jesus and the disciples, with the Israelites of old, sang “I am greatly afflicted” “Everyone is a liar.” We all know this sad truth from “personal experience.” Even those who sit at the table sadly, at times, share in the lies of the Evil One.

The Psalm assumes our participation in a future meal with God and his people. We lift up the

cup of salvation” (v.13)

and

offer a thanksgiving offering” (v.17)

and we do this

in the presence of God’s people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD” (v.15).

Microcosm of the Whole Story

The movement of the Psalm follows the movement of God’s time at the table.

Our union with those leaving Egypt. (Past)
Our present agony as we live in a faithless world. (Present)
Our standing in the presence of God joyously feasting because even now God has delivered us. (Future).

At the table we are bound to the past. At the table we have communion with Jesus in the struggle for faith. At the table we are escorted into the very presence of God. The book of Revelation ends with that promise. We are seated at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, our tears are washed away by the God who hears our cries, and God makes his home with us.

What “happens” at the table is a microcosm of the entire Story of God. Those who feast at this table share with those in the past, share in the present, and share in the future.

We are in God’s time at the table.

Choose one of each:  Alabama or Auburn.  Anti-Vax or Pro-Vax.  King James or NIV.  Republican or Democrat.  Liberal or Conservative. 

Personally one of the most difficult times in my life was when, in college, I was hired by a known “liberal congregation” as a campus ministry intern.  My history as an ultra-conservative-right-winged-speak-where-the-bible-speaks-and-stay-silent-where-the-bible-is-silent-church-of-christ-christian had been well known among my peers.  My friends had begun to sense that my allegiances to that side were changing, but the hiring made it official and those once very loyal friends began to tease me about going to hell, have late night heated debate sessions in my dorm room, or write me off altogether as a former friend.

This wasn’t anything new.  One could give different options in the first century.  Choose one of each:  Jew or Gentile.  Circumcision Group or Un-circumcision Group (Gal. 2:11-14).  Worship on this mountain or Jerusalem (Jn. 4:20).

What is it that continuously seeks to divide people from each other?  It certainly isn’t the way of Jesus.  At least not to the extent in which our own tribe (Churches of Christ) has continued to behave towards one another.  One might respond, “Well then, what about Jesus’ own words?”  Luke plainly states in Jesus’ own words, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-51 NIV).  One might also reference another passage in Luke where Simeon prophesies about Jesus, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…” (Luke 2:34).  At first glance this doesn’t seem to be the peaceful Jesus that scripture portrays.  I remember at one point in my life believing that these verses reaffirmed my legalistic viewpoints.  That was until I learned about prophetic tradition.  This tradition used by the prophets of old inserted itself in environments that called for an end to injustices, wrongdoings and cautioned against going in the wrong direction.  Therefore, these words of Jesus and the prophet Simeon speak more to the mission of Jesus than they do to a spirit of division.

Under the headship of King Jesus the church, regardless of doctrinal disagreements, ought to be able to unite for kingdom work.  I have always been deeply saddened by division within our own tribe even more-so than I am about division across denominational lines.  While I understand that these divisions will never fully be resolved until the return of Christ, I would strongly suggest we take Paul’s words to the Philippian church to heart.  “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  (Php. 2:12-13).  The “good purpose” speaks to the prophetic nature we discussed earlier – living out the type of kingdom life that seeks to stamp out injustices against the poor, the weak, the widows and the orphans, but that is not all.  Surrounding the entire passage is perhaps the greatest teaching on the type of spirit that Christ not only showcased, but one that Paul is mandating.  The spirit of humility.  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Php. 2:1-4).

As I’ve ministered through the years I’ve been heartened by the fact that many of my friends have been set free from the bonds of legalism.  I’ve often asked them, what happened?  Their answers have been about the same.  We found ourselves robbed of the joys of belonging to Christ, or they could no longer live under the yoke of perfectionism mandated by their local body of believers.  Since then, they had been ostracized by their home church and in many cases their own family members.  This is not the spirit of Christ.  This is not the division he said he was coming to bring.  Regardless of who we are and where we’ve been let’s all make an effort to return to the very scriptures we know so well and study them again and again through the eyes of someone who doesn’t seek to be reminded they are right, but to be transformed into the very image of Jesus.  (2 Cor. 3:18).

In the month of October we will be talking about two sides of a theological continuum…or are they? In some senses they appear to be quite opposite but in one sense they are really different expressions of the same underlying philosophy. The commonalities and differences of the two will be discussed this month. I am looking forward to the conversation and your comments both here on the website and on Facebook!