This month: 184 - Grace and truth
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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One of the greatest gifts that I received from growing up in the Churches of Christ is being taught a love and respect for Scripture from an early age. My father and the teachers at my little rural church made the Scripture come alive, and I saw the text lived out among the people around me. I had always considered myself to be a “Christian only” but one day at the lunch table in junior high a fellow student called me a ‘Campbellite.’ By the tone of the other student, I did not take this moniker as a compliment. I went home that evening and asked my father what my interlocutor meant by the accusation of ‘Campbellism.’ It almost sounded like some dreaded disease. My dad explained to me on a very basic level that Alexander Campbell was a man that lived in the early 19th century that helped restore New Testament Christianity. He informed me that I did not follow Alexander Campbell because he was a mere man, but we follow Jesus. I was happy with that explanation and continued unhindered until my college years. In my college years, the challenges to my faith came from more robust and nuanced arguments. During that stage in my life, I became ‘self-aware’ that I had certain biases when I read Scripture that differed with other people that claimed to be followers of Jesus. I also realized that I had a method of interpretation that differed greatly from my Roman Catholic and Episcopalian friends.

I remember reading F. LaGard Smith’s book The Cultural Church during that period, and that reading made me more aware that my interpretive grid for reading Scripture was something I had taken for granted. As I have gotten older, I have grown to respect my heritage in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Part of respecting one’s faith heritage means to celebrate the good but also challenge the parts that are lacking, and that can be improved.

Alexander Campbell came upon the religious scene in America in a very exciting and liberating time. Along with the freedom and optimism of a new nation, the religious leaders of the early 19th century were also experiencing a new freedom and optimism as they approached the Bible. The freedom that came at the end of the 18th century and the dawning of the 19th century opened the door to religious possibilities that were unheard of just a generation before. Alexander Campbell came to America from Ireland and Scotland during this exciting time and was a visionary when it came to unity and the challenging of long-held religious traditions. Campbell published his book The Christian System in 1839 and in that volume, he laid out his view of the Bible and his method of interpretation. Much of the vision that he gives in that volume is still very influential among members of the Churches of Christ today. In this essay, I will discuss the influences upon Alexander Campbell in his views of interpretation, and I will provide an analysis of the worth of Campbell’s method for the church today along with some critique.

Alexander Campbell’s view of the Bible did not occur in a vacuum. Campbell’s view of the world was one of order and reason. Campbell shared the Enlightenment period’s optimistic view of the objectivity and power of reason. One can see that the early 17th-century thinker Sir Francis Bacon’s method of scientific inquiry and view of empirical epistemology was part of Campbell’s mental map. Bacon’s methods revolutionized how people in the Western world understood how they gained and organized knowledge. Probably the greatest philosophical influence upon Alexander Campbell was John Locke. John Locke began his work in the 17th century after years of religious wars and strife in Europe. Locke was searching for a systematic way to look at government and the Bible that would bring about peace and an end to the religious conflicts of his time.[1] Locke believed that government had no right to enforce religious orthodoxy upon its subjects. Locke also proposed that religion be reduced to a minimal set of principles that could be deemed as essentials. Locke believed that Christianity could be defended through evidence and that it was reasonable especially in the areas of Jesus’ Messiahship and obedience to His clear commands. One could embrace other doctrines outside those core essentials, but those nonessential doctrines could not be used as a basis to coerce others. Campbell differed with Locke on what he considered to be the essentials of the faith but took the Lockean principle of rationality and unity. Campbell was also steeped in the Scottish Common Sense method of Biblical interpretation that was especially popular in the Presbyterianism of his day. Scottish Common Sense proposed that words are a direct representation of the objects they represent. The strong connection from sign to referent may not sound revolutionary, but this tenant of Scottish Common Sense is in direct opposition to some of the concepts laid down by Jacques Derrida in postmodern deconstructionism.

When one reads Campbell’s view of interpretation in The Christian System, they can observe strong rationalistic influences upon his thought. Campbell states that the Bible is the “full and perfect revelation of God and his will, adapted to man as he now is” (Campbell, 3).[2] Notice that Campbell endorses the Protestant Reformation ideal of the perspicuity of Scripture. The knowledge of Scripture is attainable by all. Campbell’s anthropology shows the role of reason in his thought. Campbell viewed man as an animal, intellectual, and moralistic in his constitution (Campbell, 3). Campbell observed God’s revelation to be two-fold in that it is displayed in nature and in the special revelation of Scripture (Campbell, 2). Because man is an intellectual being, Campbell believed that reason should be employed equally in the study of nature and the study of the Bible (Campbell 2–3). One can observe that Campbell is espousing an almost scientific view of interpreting the Bible. Just as Sir Isaac Newton had reduced the universe to predictable laws, one could use a systematic approach to the Bible, and through that approach, all could come up with the same conclusions. Through Baconian logic when scientist stuck to the facts of natural revelation, all scientists came to the same conclusion and Campbell reasoned that the same should be true of the Bible. If one applies a systematic approach, then consensus in biblical interpretation can be attained. Campbell believed unity would be achieved by honestly applying reason to the text.

In The Christian System Campbell lays out seven principles for proper and rational biblical interpretation and these seven principles are based on the bedrock belief that one should build their practice and belief on a specific command from Scripture or an approved precedent (Campbell, xi). Campbell’s seven rules of interpretation have a lot in common with today’s historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. In this essay, we will only examine a few of Campbell’s principles. Campbell’s first principle dealt with the historical situation of a specific book of the Bible (Campbell, 4). The historical concerns included the following: the historical order of the book, the title of the book, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion for writing the book (Campbell, 4). Another principle of Campbell dealt with examining the people addressed in the book (Campbell, 4). One should consider the addressee’s prejudices, historical situation, and religious beliefs when interpreting a biblical text (Campbell, 4). Campbell also believed that if a word had multiple meanings, then the context of the passage and other usages of that word in the Bible should be considered (Campbell, 4). In a sense, Campbell was applying Occam’s Razor to biblical interpretation.[3] Campbell’s seventh rule emphasized humility in the reader as they come under the lordship of the text (Campbell, 5). In his last principle, Campbell put great import in a humble disposition in the reader of the book (Campbell, 5).

Many times, we practice intellectual snobbery as we look back from our postmodern high tower and cast aspersions at Campbell and his rationalistic methods. I find it humorous to consider that the same rationalistic thinking that influenced Campbell was what produced much of what we take for granted like modern medicine and many scientific advances that we hold dear. As I wrote this essay I kept coming back to the question, “why have we made rationalism such the bogeyman of the Churches of Christ?” I don’t know many people that want to go back to premodern medicine because we feel that rationality is a bad thing. The problem of throwing out rationalism is that when one wants to get to the original meaning of the text as the author intended, we must employ many of the tools of rationalism. I also find it hard to believe that ancient interpreters did not use the same tools of rationality without modern labels. I can read the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and his dialogue with Trypho the Jew and see rationality in his argument. I can look forward in church history and see robust rationality in the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Is rationality as bad as some make it out to be? Should we abandon the approach bequeathed to us by Alexander Campbell? In answering that question, I believe it is important to look at Campbell with a sense of charitableness that comes from a sense of thankfulness for our Stone-Campbell heritage. Some things that we have in common with Campbell is our love for Jesus, respect for God’s revelation in Scripture, and a desire for unity.  These commonalities make this venture a family discussion that is worth having.

Even though I see a lot of strengths in Campbell’s rationalistic approach, I can see many blind spots in his method as well. One place of improvement is to consider the prejudices and assumptions that the modern reader brings to the text. The realization of reader bias is a blessing that postmodernity brings to us by making us aware of our preconceived notions. It is foolhardy not to believe that our socioeconomic, educational opportunities, and theological grid of interpretation does not affect how we read the text. I found this principle to be true when I read Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne demonstrates that many 19th century interpreters reinterpreted Jesus to be a type of paleo-liberal scholar of his day that had more in common with them than He did with a 2nd Temple Judaism Jew. In my ministry, I have noticed how the bias and prior conceptions of the people I minister to work as a sieve through which they read the text. For example, many people I have ministered to over the years filter the Apostle Paul’s anthropology through the lens of platonic Greek thought. They fail to realize the integrated view of the human person that a Jew in the first century would have. Because of this predisposition to Greek categories, the reader deemphasizes the value of the human body as an integrated whole and misses the power of what the Bible teaches about the resurrection. The point of this is to emphasize that Campbell’s method lacked this view of reader bias. Campbell’s concept that one could be a truly objective reader was a bit naïve. I am not saying that because of this one can never find the truth behind the text but I am proposing that to find that true teaching we must be aware of our bias and frailties.

I would propose another critique of Campbell’s method is its weakness in dealing with the Old Testament. One of the weaknesses of our heritage is a very minimalist approach to the role of the Old Testament in the life of a Christian. Just the phrase ‘New Testament Christian’ betrays that weakness. I propose that we should become ‘whole Bible Christians.’ It is very naïve to think that the church had the twenty-seven books of our New Testament in a Tommy Nelson leather-bound Bible by the end of the first century. The Scripture of the early church was the Old Testament. The earliest Christians learned to read the Old Testament Christocentrically. I am not advocating for bringing back the sacrificial system or Solomonic Temple, but I am advocating for understanding that the New Testament was written with the understanding that the reader is steeped in Old Testament terms, motifs, and theology. Our hermeneutic has been robbed by our lack of respect for the validity of the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are writing with a shared economy of words and thoughts that originate from the Old Testament. The entire Bible should be read as God’s grand narrative of rescue for humanity. N.T. Wright has done great work in this view of the Old Testament. Wright makes the point that to correctly interpret how to use the Old Testament in the life of the Christian is to understand what act of God’s drama that you are a part of in the story. If you are in the ‘church’ act or the ‘age of the Holy Spirit,’ then there are certain parts of the Old Testament such as Hebrew ceremonial law that doesn’t apply to you or they have been fulfilled in the work of Jesus. This method is much better than the watertight categories that I grew up with such as the Patriarchal Age, Mosaic, Age, and Christian Age.

There have been many advances in biblical scholarship in the last century when it comes to the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. It is easy for us to make this critique of Campbell’s lack of nuance in interpretation as it relates to the Old Testament now because of the more recent contributions of scholars like Richard Hays and Michael Fishbane when it comes to the study of intertextuality. Intertextuality means that the New Testament writers used words and phrases that anchor the New Testament text to the Old Testament. Some early restoration leaders advocated that we should read the Bible as if fell from the sky. We are finding now that that is impossible. There is a shared currency that the New Testament writers have with the antecedents in the Old Testament. There are many echoes of older texts within more recent texts of the Bible.

It is easy for the interpreter to pick up direct quotes from the Old Testament that are given with introductory formulas such as ‘this was done to fulfill,’ but it is much more difficult to pick up on quotations that flow naturally in the text. For example, Philippians 1:19 has a section that is a direct quote from the LXX version of Job 13:16. When Paul quotes from Job 13:16 he is not saying that his suffering is a fulfillment of Job’s suffering. He is embedding an older text into his writing of Philippians to take the reader back to the situation of the writing of Job. Job was a fellow sufferer who was vindicated. The interpretation of Philippians 1:19 is enriched when the reader realizes that Paul wants you to take part in the ‘great conversation’ with the Old Testament text.

Another aspect of Campbell that I find lacking in his work is the absence of developed pneumatology. In the Churches of Christ, we have a great strength of being Christocentric in our theology of the church, but we have been sorely lacking in a theology of the Holy Spirit. I believe that it is almost unbiblical to champion a very individualistic reading of the Bible that takes it out of the heart to the Spirit-filled church. Biblical interpretation that endorses a radical individualism fails to take into account how communal the New Testament is. Even when John is bearing testimony of the veracity of his Gospel he does so with communal language when he states, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24 ESV).” When one reads the Pauline epistles, it is staggering how much the ‘you’ admonitions are in reality ‘ya’ll’ exhortations. In other words, much of what we have read to be individualistic instructions are written to entire groups of people.

We quickly forget that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul states, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple  (ESV).” The ‘you’ of verses sixteen and seventeen are plurals. The church is filled and animated with God’s Spirit. I believe that the interpretation of Scripture is best done in the heart of the church alongside other believers. This no guarantee that we are interpreting the Bible correctly but it does safeguard against fringe readings and interpretations. It is powerful to consider that the early church gathered for the communal reading of the text and the same Spirit that inspired the text of the Bible imbibes and animates the church.

Another aspect that I find troubling about Campbell is his suspicion of traditional readings. I understand that the religious divisions of his day influenced his thinking, but I believe we should turn to the wisdom of ancient Christians to help in interpreting the text. We have a treasure trove in the Early Church Fathers. Extensive writings by men such as Iraneaus, who was a spiritual grandchild to John the Apostle, are still available to us today. I am not saying that the Early Church Fathers’ writings are authoritative, but I am proposing that their writings give us some guidelines to how certain passages were interpreted in the period closest to the lives of the authors of the New Testament. G.K. Chesterton once said that tradition is the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Just as the church should read the Bible communally, I propose we should read it with the entire great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us like the early Church Fathers.

In conclusion, much can be commended to Campbell’s approach to interpreting Scripture. I believe that members of the Churches of Christ should embrace and celebrate the heritage we have been given. Part of that celebration is to improve upon the methods of interpretation that we have been given. It is also imperative that we keep our spiritual ears open to the leading to the Holy Spirit. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “The Holy Book of the living God suffers more from its exponents today than from its opponents.” Let us prayerfully endeavor not to do violence to the text or misrepresent our Savior through poor exegesis. It is surely a noble endeavor to continue to strive to find the truth that God reveals to us in Holy Scripture. I can confidently say our brother Alexander Campbell would encourage us to do just that.

[1] For a good examination of John Locke and his influence on Alexander Campbell see C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes’s book Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ pgs. 78–80.

[2] All in text citations are from Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System.

[3] Occam’s Razor can be easily described as, “the simpler solution that requires the least speculation is probably the best answer.”

She is just like me, I heard myself say as I was describing my almost 2-year old daughter to a table full of male colleagues. She’s sassy and bossy and very opinionated. She runs the house. She tells her two older brothers what to do and I feel sure they will live their lives looking for her approval. She is also tender and nurturing. When my two boys (ages 6 and 4) have spent the last hour mimicking MMA fighters on the trampoline and the 4-year old comes in with a bloody nose because his older brother did a jack-hammer  on his face, she goes straight to him with deep concern on her little face and she gently kisses his cheeks and his hands. She tries desperately to stretch her tiny arms wide enough to embrace him, though he is three times her size. She loves people. She wants to take care of people. I went on describing the scene that I witness every morning to my table full of colleagues. The one where she comes in my bathroom and pulls open the drawers that contain my jewelry. There she stands and ponders the treasures before her for minutes on end, fingering every bead and mulling over each detailed strand of pearls. She carefully selects her earrings and necklace and bracelets. I have to explain to her every morning that she can’t wear mommy’s earrings, she doesn’t have her ears pierced yet.  My table crowd laughs jovially in response to my story and they begin to comment on the vast differences between boys and girls. There is just something innately different about those little girls, they say. It’s like they were made to be mamas. They are so “girly.” But I wonder if it is more than this. If you were to go to an orphanage or a group home in a third world country where little girls have been abused or neglected you don’t observe this kind of behavior. They don’t care for those around them with great compassion and empathy. They don’t naturally boss or sass their friends. And they don’t know to try on their mama’s jewelry set before them. These are not innately female qualities. It is my assessment rather, that this behavior is not so much natural as it is learned.

My daughter is not naturally “maternal” or naturally “girly.” She is mimicking the behavior of the parent that she sees herself in. That is me. She knows, even at her young pre-verbal age, that one of these humans giving me care and love is like me and one of them is not. She is identifying with me as a woman and dis-identifying with her dad as male. This is healthy and normal gender identification for her developmental stage.  She sees me and not her dad as the one she is to mimic. She sees me and she believes that this is who she is meant to be. She kisses the cheeks of her hurting brothers because she sees me do this. She bosses and sasses everyone because this is how I behave. She carefully selects her jewelry because she watches me get ready every day.

And this reality of my daughter mimicking me invites me to reflect on the Divine Feminine. The genesis account tells us that God created both male and female in the image of God. The fact that both male and female were created in the image of God means that when women look at God they should see their own unique female form. The Divine Feminine.[1]

In the evangelical church in the conservative South, there is a disconnect here. I don’t think most women see themselves in God. This could be for a variety of reasons but one is that we have been continually offered an image of God that doesn’t look anything like us. Our representations of God in the church, in art and music and stories are almost entirely male. Our church elder boards and ministry staffs and leadership teams who are making all the decisions are almost entirely male. Our religious leaders at nearly every level who represent God to the world are almost entirely male. And not just male. But white and old and male. As I look at this male image of God that I have been given I don’t see anything about myself. “He” doesn’t look like me, talk like me, or behave anything like me. “He” is something other than me. I don’t identify with this God.[2] And as a child who does not identify with the parent of the same gender as themselves will face developmental challenges, the same is true for Christian women who do not learn to identify themselves with the Divine.  They will face spiritual developmental challenges.

So I am inviting us, as Christians and as church leaders, to embrace the Divine Feminine. I am inviting us to look at God and see both man and woman. I am inviting us to look at God and see both mother and father. I am inviting us to look at God and to see both the lion and the lamb. I am inviting us to see God in our own reflection so that we begin to mimic and identify with this Divine Mystery of God. I am certain that this is essential for our own formation and for the formation of our churches.

Just like when my daughter looks at me, she can see herself, being created in the image of God invites me to look at God and see myself, one who is uniquely female.

Blessed is She who spoke and the world became. Blessed is She.

Blessed is She who in the beginning, gave birth.

Blessed is She who says and performs.

Blessed is She who declares and fulfills. …

[1] I am not defining “feminine” image in any particular way. I acknowledge that my experience with my daughter is not a universally female experience. Being female is entirely diverse based on one’s culture, geography, age, etc. Being female certainly does not mean we that all like to wear jewelry or we are all nurturing. I am simply reflecting on my own specific examples as a resource for theological reflection. I am  not saying that these characteristics are explicitly female. Instead my argument is that all females should see their own reflection in the Divine Feminine of God.

[2] My experience of God is as a Woman and a Mother. I am not reflecting on this here.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). Jesus looked at two people he dearly loved and said, “Friend, here’s someone who will love you through this. Sweet Woman, here’s someone to love you through this.”

Jesus is not only the Savior on a cross, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the one who gave sight to the blind, and made a path for the lame but he was also the baby in the manger as the star shone above him, and the child of the mother who would treasure all these things in her heart.

As he looks down from the cross, I would venture to say the pain on his mother’s face hurt worse than the nails in his own body. Jesus shows us that even when we’re in the middle of our own pain, even when we’re in our darkest moments, even when we’re struggling and hurting, we are here to love others.

Maybe love came naturally to your parents. Maybe they were good at it. Maybe it didn’t and they weren’t. Maybe love comes naturally for you. Or not. The Apostle Paul tells us in Titus that we need to teach each other how to love our families (Titus 2:4). We need to do a better job at learning how to love. Thankfully, Calvary offers a place to lay down our frustrations, grief, and the cycle of not loving well, not only with the world and our daily struggles but the deep secret heartaches we may carry from childhood.

Children, love your parents. Love them regardless of their mistakes. Love them regardless of their brokenness. Love them in spite of the many things they got wrong while raising you. Love them even if you feel they didn’t love you well. Love them well.

Parents, love your children. Love your average children, your below average, and your above average children. Love your faithful child and your prodigal child. Love your easy child and your rebellious child. Love your straight children, your gay children, your loud fussy, temper tantrum, teenage children. Love your three year and your thirty-three year old. Love them regardless of what they look like or how they act. Love them even if you don’t agree with all of their choices. Jesus does.

Church, stop trying to love people into who we want them to be and start loving people for who they are. We have to start loving people the way Christ calls us to. Nobody else is going to do it.

In a few more days, Mary would begin to understand how much this cross matters. In a few more days she will see he didn’t die in vain. In a few more days, this will make a little more sense.

If you struggle with how to love those closest to you, look at the cross and see how Jesus loved those closest to him. Fearlessly. Fiercely. Faithfully.

For every grieving child and grieving parent who stands broken and weary in front of Jesus, just remember, he is returning in a few more days.

Let’s love each other through this while we wait.

For years, I have endeavored to consult every lexicon, dictionary, and opinion about the term torah. The term is difficult to define for good reason. Sometimes torah is used for the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, or Pentateuch. Some define the writings from Genesis to Malachi as torah. Sometimes torah is a technical term for particular bodies of legal material that we read in Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In rabbinic literature, there were believed to be a written and oral torah which Moses received at Sinai. The written is mostly thought to be what we have in the Hebrew Bible. The oral was the interpretation and application of the written. We know from the Kings account that a torah scroll was found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah, which led to a major restoration campaign. Yet, we are not sure what was actually found—whether it was a copy of Deuteronomy or the Pentateuch.

The common definition of torah in Christian circles is “law,” most likely because torah was translated, nomos (“law”) in the Septuagint. Defining torah as law is certainly acceptable in many contexts, but understanding torah as law in every instance is too restrictive and does not allow for a full expression of the idea. There is no question that torah contained legal material but the bulk of torah is narrative and narrative can function just as much as a guide as laws. Some scholars have assumed a connection between the Hebrew word torah and the Hebrew verb yarah which means “to point the way” or “guide” and I would agree that the general idea of torah is a “guide” or “way of life.”

James Sanders in his book, From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, believes the multiple definitions of torah can be ranged under two rubrics: mythos (story or Haggadah) and ethos (laws or Halakah). His point is important because a healthy definition of torah is the balance between story and law. Overemphasizing law over story leads to a very poor understanding of Judaism and even Christianity. Further, the narrative seems to take precedent over the legal as some of the legal is bound to the context that the story tells.

Rather than taking you on a lexical journey of the multiple meanings of torah, I would rather show you an example of how the narrative parts of torah were used as a normative guide for the people. A couple of texts that might give us insight into how torah was used by Israelites are Pss 78, 105, 106, 135, and 136, but for time sake, we will look only at Ps 105. I would
argue that at least the last four of these texts were written after the Babylonian exile by Israelites trying to make sense of the loss of king, land, and temple.

Psalm 105 is a call to praise YHWH and remember the great wonders he has done for his people. The psalm retells much of the torah story from Abraham to the wilderness. However, the psalmist reshapes the story to make it relevant for the post-exilic community. The psalm is bookended with the “servant Abraham” and the land promise (6, 42). The historical
retelling follows Israel’s movement from Canaan (vv. 11-16), to Egypt (vv. 17-38), to the wilderness (vv. 39-44). The fortune of Israel changed with each location because YHWH was with his people in whatever “land” they resided. In addition to the “land” theme are two others motifs centered on the words, servant and chosen ones. Together, these three ideas work together to evidence YHWH’s provision—YHWH cared for Israel no matter what “land” they lived by electing certain “servants” and “chosen ones” to be his instrument for guiding Israel in these different locations.

At the end of the psalm, the psalmist tells us that YHWH gave land and possessions to his people in order that they might keep his statues and observe his torah(s). This is a torah psalm but not in the sense of rules, commands, or to-do’s. We can witness how the narrative of Abraham, Joseph, and Exodus functioned as a “guide” for the later community. For the postexilic community drew hope and peace from their past and found other times when Israel did not possess the land.

One of unique features of this psalm is the plague list. Psalm 105 lists the plagues in this order: darkness (9th according to Exodus), water to blood (1st), frogs (2nd), flies (4th), gnats (3rd), thunder, hail, and fire (7th), locusts (8th), and the death of the firstborn (completely omitting the 5th and 6th plagues). I find W. Dennis Tucker Jr. proposal the most persuasive explanation, believing the list can better be understood in light of the theme of “land.”[1] Tucker Jr. writes, “as the psalm progresses through its historical recital of key events within the history of ancient Israel, the emphasis on land remains steadily just beneath the surface.” In fact, Tucker’s observations provide perhaps the best explanation for the omission of the fifth and sixth plagues. The Hebrew word ארץ (“land”) occurs almost as a formulaic conclusion in eight of the ten plagues in the Exodus account.[2] He reasons that the emphasis on land in the psalm, coupled with the concluding formula that mentions “land” explains the omission of the fifth (livestock) and sixth (boils) plagues. His point is supported by the absence of ארץ in the fifth (Ex. 9:6) and the sixth plagues (Ex. 9:10): “Although the fifth and sixth plagues were no doubt horrific, for the psalmist, they were not about “land.”

Psalm 105 demonstrates how the narrative portions of torah functioned as a guide for the people. During this time in Israel’s history, the people knew the laws, they knew the covenant, and they knew they had broken both, but the legal portions of torah could not provide, in this instance, the much needed hope that the stories could. This instance gives us one of many insights into a broader understanding of what torah was to God’s ancient people and how it functioned for them.

As the biblical story unfolds, some of the specific laws were amended, reapplied, or eliminated altogether. One of our best sources for viewing the torah is the New Testament. The NT use of the OT suggests that NT authors saw the OT, in general, as a story of God’s great actions of creation, election, and redemption, and within that narrative, Torah is an expression of God’s will for how to live before him (Sanders 119). Does this mean that the narrative takes precedent or carries more weight than the specific laws? It appears so! This explains Paul’s appeal to Abraham in Galatians and Romans when explaining why circumcision is no longer the primary way to identify God’s people. Paul emphasized torah as a story of God choosing Abraham and his descendants and rescuing them in order to use them as his instrument for changing the world. Paul was thoroughly convinced that God’s work in Christ furthered the torah story and made that same election and redemption available to all humanity. Paul labored to preach this fulfilled torah story as he de-emphasized the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc) that were preventing the greater narrative from being accomplished. In other words, when Paul and the early church were faced with the Jew-Gentile crisis, they decided it was better to follow the greater ideal of the story (God would bless all nations through Abraham) won out over the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc).

Since I left full-time preaching for construction work, a tape measure, level, and string line have become my guides for work. It is of utmost importance that any project be level, plumb, and square. What I am arguing is that the torah narrative is a guide in and of itself. A healthy understanding of torah, as both law and story, is crucial for the church. Too many have either excused the relevance and importance of the torah in place of a skewed retirement sales pitch that is sold as the gospel message or have reduced all scripture to rules and the Christian goal is to follow them stringently. Our guide, or as some scholars would say our canon, for keeping us on track is the narrative of Scripture. When we read a specific passage, a rule, a poem, a psalm, a prophecy, etc, hold it against the story of Scripture to see where it fits into the greater scheme. When we learn to master this story, don’t be surprised if the story begins to master us!

[1] W. Dennis Tucker, “Revisiting the Plagues in Psalm CV,” VT LV, 3 (2005), 401-02.

[2] Exodus 10:22; 7:20-21; 8:6; 8:24; 8:17; 9:23 10:14-15 (all numbers from English texts. The MT numbering is different). Even the death of the firstborn contains the phrase “in the land” contra Psalm 78:51 which locates the plague “in Egypt.”

“The Holy Spirit Poured Out: For Restoration,
Reconciliation and Renewal”

A fresh filling of the Holy Spirit poured out is our chosen theme and comes from Dean of Bible Leonard Allen’s new book, “Poured Out.”  Join us for 3 days of dynamic messages, life altering classes, powerful praise and fresh encounters of fellowship with other believers—and with God himself.  We hope you’ll bring your gifts and passions and join us for an encounter you may never forget!

Some Speakers Joining Us Include:

* Rick Atchley               * Holly Allen                                 *Randy Harris

*Patrick Mead               * Christopher Jackson             * David Young

* Joseph Shulam          * Buddy Bell                                  * Steve Hemphill

* Rubel Shelly               * Jovan Barrington                     * Jamie Atchley

Join us on campus for Summer Celebration. 
Come expecting a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit

Register HERE.


Some are voiceless, some form a narrative, and others offer a response.

Psalm 19 is a meditative response to words that make no sound and written words that shape life. The Psalmist offers a meditation on how God encounters Israel through creation and Torah and how believers respond to such gracious revelation.

Creation’s Words

In successive synonymous parallelisms, the poet describes the impact of creation’s voiceless words.  One cannot read “heavens” and “firmament” as well as day and night without thinking about Genesis 1. The “firmament” is the protective barrier that shields the habitable earth from utter chaos. God’s glory is that God has crafted (God’s handiwork) a place that speaks without words.

Creation itself announces or proclaims, and it does this continually–day and night. Creation speaks unceasingly about the reality of God’s care for the creation. The intent of God’s glorious speech is to “reveal knowledge.”

In our post-Enlightenment world we might immediately think that this refers to some kind of deductive inference about the existence of God. In other words, some stress Psalm 19 affirms natural revelation, and that it assumes nature demonstrates the existence of God. That may be true to a point (and Paul in Romans 1:19-21 seems to think something similar), but “knowledge” here is more about relationship and encounter. The Hebrew conception of “knowledge” is more about intimacy than it is propositional information.

Creation is a place where God encounters humanity, and creation speaks in such a way that humanity experiences (“knows”) God. The kind of knowledge assumed here are not mere facts but the reality of God engaged with the human story. Many testify to their encounters with God through the creation. Whether it is a mountain top, a sunrise, or waves crashing against the rocks, many have experienced God within and through the creation itself. God communicates–creation speaks for God–in such moments.

That speech, though unheard, is unceasing, and it is universal as it is heard “through the whole earth” and to the “ends of the world.” Everyone has access to this speech or revelation; everyone may encounter God through God’s good creation.

The sun is a prime example. It is universal as it moves from one end of the earth to the other. The sun’s heat is not hidden from anyone or anything. Everyone feels its heat–whether it is warmth on a cold day or scorching heat in a dry summer. One cannot miss the sun, and the sun declares the glory of God–it testifies to God’s unceasing presence.

This glory is like the glory of a bridegroom on his wedding day. As he emerges from the wedding canopy (or wedding night chamber), he faces the future with joy, excitement, and hope. Like a champion who wins a race, the sun races across the sky in triumph. The rising sun brings a new day with all the potential excitement of a new adventure.

The Psalmist focuses on the sun, and perhaps this is a mild polemic against Ancient Near Eastern sun-worship, or perhaps it is simply the grandest example of God’s glory day-to-day. Whatever the case, the sun illustrates the grandeur, pervasiveness, and accessibility of God’s speech through the creation. Creation is God’s first act of self-revelation, and it is an act of gracious engagement. Humanity does not discover God as much as God speaks within and through the creation. God makes the first move.

During and after studying politics in grad school, I often heard variations of the statement that, if we’re to live together, we need to avoid political topics and focus on the things that unite us rather than divide us.

It’s a tempting proposition to be sure. Our political dysfunction has reached fever pitch, and our politics are defined more by screaming heads on cable news shows than even-headed discussions across the dinner table.

The call to civility usually means avoiding topics that appear insurmountable and that make us upset, like abortion, gay marriage, or immigration. While it’s true that we are called to a higher citizenship than our country — and certainly higher than our political party — I am in constant struggle with a single question that has followed me throughout my adult life:

Is Jesus political or not?

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the whole conversation by citing the infamous, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” passage (Mark 12:17), and Jesus certainly wasn’t partisan in any way that can be seamlessly transplanted into civic debates in 2019 America. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is not a Republican. Let’s start there.

But you don’t have to read far beyond the “Render to Caesar” passage to see that Jesus was constantly, sometimes belligerently, political. He cared about justice, he co-opted political language like the word “kingdom” for his own purposes, he rebuked political figures like Pharisees, he flipped tables in the Temple, he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes — members of two wildly different social classes — at the same time. Even the disciples were politically diverse. Religious sects such as the Essenes, Sadducees, and Zealots were as much political categories as religious ones. What were their dinner conversations like?

Jesus is obviously not a sideliner or a bland apolitical blob of kumbaya morality. He’s not surprised or offended by political difference. In fact, if we understand politics as the art of living together, Jesus spoke about nothing with more passion and grace than he spoke about politics. Turn the other cheek. Give to the poor. Love your neighbor. How’s that for a public policy?

The apolitical Jesus is as real as the loch ness monster or an unbiased media. It’s a cheap cop-out for those who want faux-agreement at the expense of the radical, inclusive, plural politics of Jesus.

Sometimes I read Scripture through a specific lens that helps me understand politics’ place in the Christian walk. Obviously, the Bible is not just a rulebook to follow verbatim. That’s one flawed lens through which to read Scripture. It is not merely a self-help book, a map to get to heaven, or a list of flawless individuals on whom to base our lives, either.

At its core, the Bible is a love story between an almighty, perfect God and humanity. Not just humanity the way we like to see ourselves. But humanity defined by dysfunctions so deep that it’s hard to be in the same room with them — with us. Leave-the-dinner-table-in-a-huff humanity. Tear-your-hair-out humanity. How-can-you-even … humanity.

To love a person — whether it’s your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend, your neighbor, or your enemy — is more rich, more real, and more sustainable when you can learn to love even the parts that are unpalatable. For the left-wing liberal to exhibit love toward the climate denier and to show them respect, not because they are correct, but because God showed grace to Peter when he was wrong — that is the Gospel. For the Trump supporter to love the democratic socialist destroying the country from within because active forgiveness and grace are not just peripheral issues but fundamental to the Christian life — that reflects a real understanding of the ministry of Christ.

For some reason, many liberal Christians talk about the radical inclusivity of Jesus when it comes to poor people or the queer community, but I don’t hear them talking about radically including  the Trump voter. Is that because they worship their own understanding of progress and justice more than Jesus Christ, who loved rich tax collectors, prostitutes, and blind beggars?

For some reason, many conservative Christians speak glowingly about Jesus’ love for unborn children, but rarely for the abortion seeker or the pro-choice activist. Is that because they cast stones first and seek reconciliation later, if at all? Surely faith is more than a checklist of social issues!

If you’re reading this and thinking: “Yeah, but one side is worse than the other,” you might be right, but you’re missing the point.

The more pertinent question is this: Assuming that Christians are not going to shed their political differences out of a flawed understanding of what civility means, how should we do politics? How can we live together, disagree, and have peace in our churches and families all at the same time?

Obviously there are many different responses to how love translates into the political arena, but there is one route that sounds simple but is actually a lifelong struggle: Disagree better.

Disagree fiercely. Disagree often. Disagree with the understanding that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump — FDR and Reagan — are made in the image of God, flawed beyond belief, and in need of constant redemption. Disagree with an eye for reconciliation and grace, knowing that the best way to understand God is to forgive like God forgives. Disagree knowing that politics matter, but that you could be wrong. Enjoy showing grace to the person who is rude to you as a small token of gratitude for a God who has shown you grace despite your many flaws. Treat political discourse like a game to out-grace the other. Find common cause, yes, but also find common love for Christ or humanity or cheese pizza — anything — even when there is zero ideological overlap.

Rebel against those who think the political divide is insurmountable by a God who has seen much worse. Rebel against the notion that political affiliation is identity and put forward the notion that radical love has a place in politics. And then disagree, Jesus-style. Ask questions. Tell stories. Reach out. And in the name of all that is holy, don’t debate politics on Facebook.

I have my views on policy to be sure. Ask me about environmental regulations, drone warfare, or corporate tax loops, and I’ll have a lot to say. And I do feel moments of resentment toward “the other side.” But if politics is the art of living together, and if the likelihood that political dysfunction will decline anytime soon is somewhere between “unlikely” and “never,” then politics represents one of the greatest opportunities to show the power of God in the face of massive dysfunction. In the same way that poverty presents opportunities to show God’s love to the disenfranchised, political dysfunction is a chance to show God’s love to the angry, to the broken, to the alienated, and to the demoralized — to continue God’s track record of making even the most dysfunctional people agents of God’s goodness.

Believe it or not, that sounds a lot like ministry to me.

Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

Can Christians avoid being political? One definition is “activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone’s status or position and are typically considered to be devious or divisive.” For instance, check out this text:
Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV [8] Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. [9] Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Doesn’t this apply to the unborn? It is right to speak out to defend the unborn against being killed, but not without being political. Dr. Devin Swindle, a Professor of Bible at Harding University, recently wrote, “If you preach this, you will be accused of being political, but remember this: if you claim citizenship in the Kingdom of God, you will be pledging allegiance to another King who makes political claims on your life, and those claims will be diametrically opposed to the kings and kingdoms of this world. Preaching the King’s politics does not make you a republican or a democrat; it makes you faithful”.

Some want to sit on the sidelines and criticize those who speak out on such issues as abortion. In doing so they are being political themselves. This should not be a surprise since Paul wrote, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

You would have to go into a monastery to avoid being political, and even in that move you could be political. A Pacifist is being political by refusing to join the military. Taking a non-combat role in the military is being political. Paying taxes to support our government is being political.

Personally, I spent over 8 years in the U.S. Navy. Over 5 of those years was on/in the same conventional diesel driven submarine, the USS Trout (SS-566). I have served 28 days submerged in that “boat” with 100 other men (not very romantic). One year I was at sea, away from my wife and children, for nine months. Others have done so much more for our freedom. I can’t imagine life in a foxhole or eating the dust of a desert storm or jumping from an airplane into enemy fire. To speak up for our great Nation is political. I can’t be otherwise.

I am a Christian and I am political. I say I am independent but most of the time I vote Republican. I am in ministry working with women in addiction (John 3:17 Ministry for Women with Addictions) I am a supporter of our President. In today’s vernacular I am a “right-leaning conservative.” You may oppose what I have shared. If you do you are being political.

As our religious convictions become increasingly filtered through blue- or red-colored glasses, Christians in the United States seem to be more of a force for division than unity.

The problem isn’t the disagreement. The letters of the New Testament reflect that the church has been rife with disagreement since the ascension of Jesus. Paul and Priscilla, James and Junia — the early church leaders in the Roman Empire grappled with issues just as contentious and diverse as the questions with which Christians in the United States struggle today.

Taking our cue from the early church leaders, we should definitely care about how theologically sound orthodoxy reflects justice, righteousness, and mercy in our personal actions and in our national legislation.

But as we consider how to move forward as a politically divided body of Christ, we shouldn’t start with specific legislative or ethical questions about abortion, the death penalty, gun ownership, climate change, the wall, or whatever else. Starting here will only lead to more resentment and disunity.

First, we need to answer a more fundamental question about identity: Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?

The question may seem semantic, but it is fundamental to everything we believe, especially when we make those beliefs law. Are we Christians who happen to be American, or are we Americans who happen to be Christian? Which do we value more: our citizenship in the United States or our citizenship in heaven? What is more important to us: the blood we share with fellow Americans because of a shared ethnicity and history, or the blood we share with humanity because Jesus Christ died for all?

What is it: America first or kingdom first?

Paul certainly asked himself and the church in Philippi the same questions. False teachers had told the Gentile Philippians that they needed to become like Jews to inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clarified that these false teachers had it backward: They saw themselves foremost as Jews who happened to believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Instead, Paul says, when you make following Jesus the core of your identity, your earthly citizenships — the circumstances and affiliations into which you were born by chance — are of secondary importance:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Philippians 3:17-21 (NRSV)

“What is it?” Paul is asking. “Where is your citizenship?”

Sure, your earthly citizenship might be in Rome (or the United States). It might be in a specific denomination or biological family.

But your heavenly citizenship — if you take the call of Jesus seriously — is in God’s kingdom. Not just in the future, but right now. Both are important. But which one is the core of your identity?

There are Christians of all political persuasions who place their political, ethnic, denominational, or other “citizenships” over their kingdom citizenship; people who identify more closely with non-Christian Americans than with Christians of other nationalities; people who relate more to non-Christians who also happen to be fellow Republicans or fellow Democrats than Christians of a different political party.

So next time we see a news story or enter a debate about legislation, let us remove the plank from our own eye: Let us examine how we are placing our earthly affiliations over our heavenly identity.

Only then will the name “Christian” in the United States become less associated with political affiliations and legislative preferences and begin to reflect the radical choice that is following the ultimate citizen of God’s kingdom, Jesus Christ.

We need more Boanerges or sons of thunder in
the pulpit. … If Satan rules in our halls of legislation,
the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become
so corrupt that the very foundations of government
are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.
Charles G. Finney (1792-1875)
The Decay of Conscience

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in a letter to William Stevens Smith dated November 13, 1787, wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.” A true patriot is not one who flees from the foes that would enslave his fellow citizens, but one who is willing to stand, fight, and die to secure freedom for all. At times of crisis, true patriots step forward. They always have; they always will. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote the following memorable words in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

As Paine pointed out, there are “sunshine patriots” who talk a good talk, but then slither away when the storm comes. True patriotism is much different. Perhaps Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) stated it best in a speech in New York City on August 27, 1952: “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? … A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Among such patriots, and Jefferson, Paine and Stevenson most assuredly had these in mind, were the godly men within the early American colonies known as The Black Robe Regiment (aka: The Black Regiment), who truly epitomized and personified the meaning of self-sacrificial love for God and country.

These men, and there were a great many of them, were not just patriots, they were pastors. They were the leaders of their congregations, the moral motivators of the people, the spiritual shepherds of the flock of God in this new land. They were also a vital part of, indeed the voice and soul of, the movement to secure liberty from British tyranny. Thus, many of the government leaders were also leaders in the churches. The same was true of those who later took up arms to defend the colonies. Pastors would often go from pulpit to battlefield, leading the men of the congregation into war with the British troops. Their sermons were filled with a call to liberty. As the American Revolution approached, it was the pastors who called their members to take up arms, who would lead them in military drills following the Sunday services, and who would lead them into battle. These church members, who could be “ready in a minute” to confront the enemy, and who were recruited and trained largely by their pastors, were known as the “Minutemen.” Historians are quick to point out that had it not been for the influence of the early American pastors, both in their sermons from the pulpit promoting liberty, as well as their leadership on the field of battle, the history of our nation might very well have been written differently. One historian, Tom Barrett, observed, “I do not consider it a stretch at all to say that were it not for the pastors and churches of colonial America, our land would be a British colony today” [The Forgotten Holiday].

The British were only too aware of the power of the pastors in the shaping of public resolve against tyranny and in the people’s thirst for freedom. Indeed, when the British troops landed in America, it was the pastors, whom they had disparagingly named “The Black Robe Regiment” (because of the black robes they typically wore in the pulpit), that they went after first. Dr. David C. Gibbs, president of the Christian Law Association, observed, “The colonial pulpit was a major source of strength and inspiration both before and during the Revolutionary War for Independence. In particular, the ministers of New England played a pivotal role in calling for independence and for godly resistance to British tyranny. … The pulpits of New England were especially important in helping to bring about independence. Long before the general population understood the threat to American liberty, some colonial ministers saw what was coming and boldly spoke out about it from their pulpits” [One Nation Under God: 10 Things Every Christian Should Know About The Founding Of America]. These men saw themselves as the “watchmen on the wall” for God and country (Ezekiel 3:17-21), and they took their calling seriously.

There are some who believe that pastors should never inject secular concerns into their preaching and teaching, that their pronouncements from the pulpit should only be expositions of Scripture pertaining to spirituality. We are citizens of Heaven, they argue, and thus should have no concern for what happens in some earthly nation. I believe such thinking is dead wrong, and so did the members of The Black Robe Regiment. Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), a member of this group, and one of its most profound thinkers (a graduate of Harvard and the pastor for West Church in Boston), clearly opposed such thinking. Robert Treat Paine, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and also an Attorney General of the United States, called Mayhew “the Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America.” On January 30, 1750, Jonathan Mayhew preached a sermon on Romans 13:1-7, pointing out that he firmly believed there was a divine imperative for pastors to speak from the pulpit about the ills of society, and about tyranny and oppression. He declared, “It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that ‘all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ Why, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the pulpit, as well as others?” The Scriptures speak of kings and governments, and the obligations of both rulers and those ruled. Thus, Mayhew reasoned, “politics” was just as appropriate a topic to be addressed from the pulpit as any other. An historian and pastor named Wayne C. Sedlak rightly observes, “The pulpits of that era were anything but neutral. And they certainly did not subscribe to that error of reasoning so dominant in the churches today which says that the only proper subject of concern for the pulpit pertains to individual salvation and one’s personal preparation for heaven.”

In the early days of our country, the pastors powerfully proclaimed liberty from their pulpits. The Black Robe Regiment stood boldly before the people and called them to throw off tyranny and embrace freedom. John Adams (1735-1826), our 2nd President, rejoiced that “the pulpits thunder and lightning every Sabbath against King George’s despotism,” and praised these pastors as being among “the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and the most influential” men of that day in the “awakening and revival of American principles and feelings” that led to our ultimate independence [The Works of John Adams, Charles Adams, editor]. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) said, “Pulpit oratory ran like a shock of electricity through the whole colony.” In 1864, the historian B.F. Morris wrote, “The ministers of the Revolution, like their Puritan predecessors, were bold and fearless in the cause of their country. No class of men contributed more to carry forward the Revolution and to achieve our independence than did the ministers” [Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States]. In 1898, historian Charles Galloway stated, “Mighty men they were, of iron nerve and strong hand and unblanched cheek and heart of flame. God needed not reeds shaken by the wind, not men clothed in soft raiment, but heroes of hardihood and lofty courage, and such were the sons of the Mighty who responded to the divine call” [Christianity and the American Commonwealth]. Yes, had it not been for these powerful pastors and their preaching, our history might have been written differently. In many ways, they were both the soul and the voice of the American Revolution.

Again, the British were not unaware of the significant role the pastors and the churches were playing in the coming Revolution. In fact, in the British Parliament the War of Independence was often referred to as “the Presbyterian Revolt.” The Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches were the leaders in this “sedition and treason.” Thus, as already noted, when the British troops arrived on our soil they wasted no time seeking out the pastors for special punishment. Many were rounded up and killed, and a great many of the church buildings were burned to the ground. This was because the church buildings were serving as meeting places for the Minutemen, who were made up of the church members, and the church grounds were used as training fields for these fighting forces, which were being led and trained by the pastors and deacons of the churches. In fact, the pastors generally led their members into battle. It is stated that at the time of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, all except one of the Colonels serving in the Colonial Army were elders in the Presbyterian Church. The spiritual leaders of the churches were also the military leaders during our war for independence!

The American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were in Massachusetts. The pastor for the church in Lexington was Jonas Clark. His sermons calling for liberty had been powerful, and he had been urging his members to prepare for war. Indeed, when the smoke of battle cleared that day in Lexington, the American dead were all from his congregation. Thus, the first blood had been shed in the cause of liberty, a cause promoted from his pulpit. “The teaching of the pulpit of Lexington caused the first blow to be struck for American Independence” [J.T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution]. James L. Adams observed, “The patriotic preaching of the Reverend Jonas Clark primed the guns” of the Battle of Lexington [Yankee Doodle Went to Church: The Righteous Revolution of 1776]. When Paul Revere made his famous ride, he rode to the home of Jonas Clark. Samuel Adams and John Hancock happened to be with Clark at the time, and when it was learned that “the British are coming,” they asked the pastor if the people of Lexington were ready to fight for their independence. Clark replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” Indeed, when the first shots were fired, Jonas Clark was there with the Minutemen of his congregation taking the battle to the British invaders. One year later, to the day, Jonas Clark would declare in his sermon, “From this day will be dated the liberty of the world.”

General John Peter Muhlenberg, who was also a Lutheran pastor in Virginia, preached a sermon one Sunday on Ecclesiastes 3, saying, “In the language of Holy Writ, there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!” At that point in the sermon he removed his black robe. Underneath he was wearing the uniform of a Colonel (he would later be promoted to the rank of General) in the Continental Army. He said he was leaving the pulpit to defend the cause of freedom, at which point many in his congregation chose to do the same (they would become the famed 8th Virginia Regiment). That moment in history, by the way, is to this day commemorated in a statue of Muhlenberg that stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The General/Pastor would later lead his brigade against Gen. Cornwallis at the Battle of Brandywine. Even the wording of our great Declaration of Independence is almost verbatim from the teachings of a pastor with the Black Robe Regiment named John Wise. For many years he had been preaching and writing about the very issues that would find their way into that document. In 1864, historian Benjamin Morris stated that “some of the most glittering sentences in the immortal Declaration of Independence are almost literal quotations from this essay of John Wise,” which was “used as a political textbook in the great struggle for freedom.” President Calvin Coolidge, in a speech he delivered in Philadelphia in 1926 (at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence), affirmed the same: “The thoughts in the Declaration can very largely be traced back to what John Wise was writing in 1710.” Thus, this pastor, and others like him from the Black Robe Regiment, through their many sermons and writings, “laid the intellectual basis for American Independence.”

One of the accounts that shows the spirit of these noble men is of James Caldwell (1734-1781), who was known as “The Fighting Chaplain,” and also “The Fighting Parson of the Revolution.” He was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. His wife was shot and killed during one of the battles. His real fame, however, comes from his actions during the Battle of Springfield in June, 1780. As supplies were running low, Caldwell and his American forces, who were greatly outnumbered, needed wadding for their weapons. Caldwell grabbed some of the hymn books from a nearby church, ripped the pages out of these hymnals, and passed the pages to the troops for wadding, which prompted James Caldwell to cry out, “Give ’em Watts, boys! Give ’em Watts!” (the hymn book was filled with the hymns of Isaac Watts, often characterized as “The Dissident Hymnist”). Inspired by this action, the Minutemen pushed back the British, winning the battle that day.

The reality is, and many Americans today are sadly unaware of this fact, “ministers were intimately involved in every aspect of introducing, defining, and securing America’s civil and religious liberties” [David Barton, Wall Builders]. Many books and articles have been written about these men (the now famous Black Robe Regiment), and a search of the Internet will produce a wealth of knowledge about this group. For those who might be interested, I would highly recommend the two volume set by Dr. Ellis Sandoz titled “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805.” Yet another excellent work describing the sermons of the Black Robe Regiment is “The New England Soul” by Dr. Harry Stout of Yale University. On May 9, 1789, in an article titled “The Importance of the Protestant Religion Politically Considered,” which appeared in the Washington, D.C. newspaper Gazette of the United States, we find this glowing endorsement of these brave pastors: “Our truly patriotic clergy boldly and zealously stepped forth and bravely stood our distinguished sentinels to watch and warn us against approaching danger; they wisely saw that our religious and civil liberties were inseparably connected and therefore warmly excited and animated the people resolutely to oppose and repel every hostile invader. May the virtue, zeal, and patriotism of our clergy be ever particularly remembered.” Maybe John Wingate Thornton (1818-1878), an attorney and historian, summed it up most succinctly in the following statement from his book “The Pulpit of the American Revolution” – “To the pulpit, the Puritan pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence.” We enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today due, in large part, to the pastors who motivated our forefathers to rise up and break free from their bondage to British tyranny, and who then willingly laid their lives on the line by taking up arms and leading their congregations in fighting for that freedom. May God raise up a Black Robe Regiment today with the same courage of conviction to stand boldly in their pulpits and call the people to freedom in Christ and freedom from tyranny, both religious and secular. A nation is lost when its pastors fail the people from the pulpits!

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