Category Archives: Scripture

Neither Male Nor Female (Part 1)

Galatians 3.28This past Sunday with the Columbia Church of Christ I preached on women in the church, calling the message “Neither Male Nor Female.” The Columbia Church of Christ is a community of believers who has become more gender-inclusive than many Churches of Christ and after having a recent visitor emphatically tell me our inclusive practices are wrong, I decided that it was time for me to speak about this issue in the church I serve.

While the current inclusive practices of the Columbia Church of Christ are still considered complimentarian, what I did with the sermon was chronicle my own journey from a traditional position of male-hierarchy to an egalitarian view and how I have arrived at this view. The point of this blog series is to share this same journey here but it will take several installments.

2 Scriptures: The Silence of Women

Growing up in the church I did, the rule was simple: Women were to remain silent! This meant that women were not to speak, were not allowed to teach any class where baptized men were present, or participate in leading any part of the worship. Further more, women were not to lead any church ministry except for potlucks. That was women’s work, so that was an exception.

This practice seemed right because or so I thought. This practice was based on two passages of scripture. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “The women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. And then in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.”

That settled it… or so it seemed. The Bible was read as a rule book on how to do church and what was required of the early Christians was required of us my church without exception. These two passages said women were to be silent, so therefore women were to be silent (period). And that admonition of silence restricted women from having any voice in the assembly and leading just about any ministry in the church.

A Reflection

As I often was taught to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Not once did it ever occur to anyone that the Bible just might have more to say about this issue than just what these two passages were saying. Just the same, it never dawned on anyone that there was a context to these two passages that might shed more light on what they’re saying and change how we understand these texts.

But as we will see, the Bible has a lot more to say about women as participants in the mission of God and therefore how this should look in the life of the church.

Genuine Dedication to the Lord

It’s Thursday morning here at Northern Seminary. My mind is already tired but at the same time my heart is filled with joy. It’s so wonderful to be around pastors from a variety of Christian traditions who simply want to follow Jesus and help others to do the same.*

As expected, we are engaging in some very rich and challenging conversations about the kingdom, church, and the mission of God. The teacher is Scot McKnight, who is a prolific evangelical New Testament scholar who writes for the church rather than academia. That’s something I appreciate.

The class itself is enriching our understanding of scripture as it speaks to the church in relation to the kingdom and mission of God. Simply put, we cannot read scripture and ignore the role of the church in the mission of God. The body of Christ is called to witness, to declare through word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not a call just for a certain group of Christians, such as pastors or missionaries, but for every Christian to live as disciples embodying the way of Jesus as our way. That is our witness… our calling!

Yet as I think about this calling and I think of so many local churches who are struggling in this calling, I am drawn to the words of Jeremiah. This prophet of Israel speaks at a time when the people of God were losing their way and had forgotten their calling. As Jeremiah speaks the oracles of the Lord, one line stands out where the prophet reports the Lord says, “…you must genuinely dedicate yourselves to the Lord and get rid of everything that hinders your commitment to me, people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jer 4:4, NET).

Churches, including our own, and every Christian must take notice of this language. Ministers, like myself, and other church leaders must take notice of this language. It’s so easy to just go through the motions, show up for a church service on Sunday but never give our all. It’s an epic failure that may never be realized until it’s too late. So Jeremiah implores to “genuinely dedicate” our lives to the Lord, letting go of everything that impedes such dedication.

In other words, half-hearted commitments will not do! Our faith, our calling and commitment is not a part-time gig.

For Israel, what hindered commitment was idolatry. Today idolatry takes the form of time, work, safety, family, nation, etc… Maybe we’re too busy with work to live our lives in true fellowship with each other, loving one another as we bear each others burdens. Or maybe our prophetic witness to the world has been silenced because we have become preoccupied with exalting the nation. Whatever the case, idols hinder commitment to the Lord who calls us to be the church living as a community bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Missional renewal happens when there is total commitment. The lack of total commitment is what led to Israel’s downfall and it is this same lack of total commitment that leads to the downfall of local churches.

So let’s meditate on the words of Jeremiah the prophet and ask ourselves: What must we get rid of so that we can totally commit ourselves to the Lord?

——————–

* With few changes, this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (September 17, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

What Question Are We Asking?

Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.

Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” 

That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.

In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.

And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”

Two very different questions!

I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.

And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!

Again, Two very different questions!

But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”

By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.

And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”

Questions For Reflection:

  1. How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
  2. What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
  3. What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?

In The Cross… Be Our Glory Ever?

Most Christians enjoy singing Franny J. Crosby’s wonderful hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross. With enthusiasm the church sings the chorus “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” But there are days when I wonder if we really mean that.*

As I preach through the Gospel of Mark, I am reminded of the centrality that the cross takes in the life of those who follow Jesus. After speaking of his coming crucifixion and resurrection, an indication that he was not leading a violent revolution against Rome, Jesus spoke what the cross means for his followers. Jesus says in Mark 8:34-35, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.”

What Jesus says and what Mark wants reminds us of is that the cross is not something just to admire but the means of our way of life… if we’re going to follow Jesus. In other words, our glory in the cross must shape our way of life, which is discipleship, as much as it shapes our hope in life, which is for salvation. We cannot glory in the cross for salvation but disavow the cross when it pertains to discipleship. Neither Jesus nor Mark will let us take this route.

Wars, Terrorism, and The Cross

Now why does this matter? Why do I want to remind us about the cross which we are called to pick up if we’re are follow Jesus?

Well, I don’t want to dwell on doom and gloom or sound like a fear-monger but if you’re watching the news at all and watching what is happening both in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, it’s hard not to believe that a large war may be on the horizon. I don’t like that at all and I hope my suspicion turns out to be nothing. But if war of some sort takes place then I wonder what responsibility we have as followers of Jesus Christ?

Let me unequivocally say that I believe the responsibility of the church, as followers of Jesus, is first and foremost to remain faithful to Jesus and his teachings, which includes trusting in God rather than the presidents and kings of this world. That goes for all Christians, not just a select set of disciples like those who serve as pastors or missionaries. But I also know that as humans, when we’re faced with threats of injustice, violence, and other forms of evil then we’re prone to take matters into our own hands and this usually involves setting aside the cross as our way of life.

For instance, Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, who is now a celebrity Christian of sorts and a fellow member of the Churches of Christ, recently spoke with FOX New’s Sean Hannity regarding the terrorist group ISIS. Robertson said, “In this case, you either have to convert them, which I think would be next to impossible… I’m just saying convert them or kill them — one or the other” (here’s the article and here’s the video) That’s it… No talk of how we might love our enemies and pray for them, just convert them or kill them. Ironically, that’s the same philosophy that some accuse Islam of embracing. What this illustrates is just how easily the cross is forgotten… when perhaps it matters the most too.

Embracing The Cross

I’m not sure how the nations of this world should respond to terrorism or unprovoked acts of war-aggressions by one country upon another. While I would like to have an easy answer, I am concerned more with what sort of witness Christians live in such a dark and evil world. And as a minister of the gospel, I believe God calls me to voice this concern.

Far too often, Christians leave Sunday’s worship gathering after singing a chorus like “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” only to become cheerleaders of a nationalism, militarism, and everything else that relies upon human wisdom and strength. Yet God’s response to evil is in the cross of Jesus! We don’t always like that… I sure don’t. Yet this wisdom of God, the cross of Jesus, is what we are called to faithfully embrace.

Sometimes faithfully embracing the cross will cost us our very own physical lives as it has for many followers of Jesus. Other times it requires us to courageously point people back to the cross in the way we speak and act, even as unpopular as that may be. Whatever the case may be, if the church cannot faithfully embrace the cross of Jesus as its way of life then the cross becomes nothing more than religious talk within the church building but means superstition among a lost world.

——————–

* Except for a few stylistic changes, this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (September 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

The Gift

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is standing in the temple watching the wealthy give their offerings.* Somewhere in the midst of all this comes a “poor widow” who only has two coins to offer. After placing her coins in the offering, Jesus saw the difference between the two offerings. According to Luke 21:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

At first glance this story may appear as a blight against the wealthy or it might lead us to believe the only acceptable offering is giving every last cent in our pocket. Or maybe we’re just missing the point.

Some Baseball Cards, Dad!

Today is my 41st birthday. I’ve already received birthday greetings, cards, and a few gifts. I appreciate them all but there is one gift that stands out, one that I’ll remember throughout my life.

Yesterday my son Jared gave me a set of baseball cards because he knows I’m a baseball fan. And he’s becoming a fan, as we’ve taken in an Orioles game each of the last two years. So he decided to give me some baseball cards.

What makes this gift so special is that it’s the first time where Jared has decided on his own to give me a gift. In the past, his mother has always taken him shopping on our dime (insert smile). Not this year. Jared picked out his own gift to give. And he was so excited it! So much that he couldn’t wait until my birthday… He gave me my gift yesterday.

As I opened the gift and saw the baseball cards, I saw the smile on his face and the joy in his heart. That joy that radiated through his smile lit up the room and filled the air with joy. That was the real gift he was giving, a gift from the heart born out of the love he has for his dad.

The Heart That Gives…

Back to the story of the widow’s offering. What was it that she gave out of her poverty? Was it just two small coins or was it something much deeper, of an unmeasurable wealth?

I wasn’t at the temple with Jesus to see this woman’s expression or the expressions of her wealthy neighbors. Nevertheless, it seems that the gift this poor widow gave was her heart. Yes, the gift was expressed through two coins but the gift was the heart nonetheless.

The heart that gives is the gift that pleases God, that brings a smile to his face like it did when my son gave me the set of baseball cards. The heart that gives is a gift that can be expressed through two coins, if that is all one has, or through an abundance like the wealthy temple-goers had. Likewise, one can give either an abundant or just a small amount such as two coins and still never give from the heart.

What matters when we worship and when we serve God is that we do with a heart that gives. That’s not an offering that can be manufactured or taught. That’s the heart that gives because it’s the heart that loves… loves God and loves neighbor!

——————–

* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (August 6, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

A Place For Lepers

One of my favorite Jesus stories is the one told in Mark 1:40-45. It’s a story about Jesus and a leper whom Jesus heals. But it’s so much more.*

A Kingdom Story!

ImageLet’s think about the context a bit more. As already mentioned, this story occurs early on in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has already appeared in the Galilean region proclaiming the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God. This is a declaration that the reign of God has started breaking forth upon history and that people should change (repentance) everything about their expectations of what this means and accept (believe) what they hear and see, which is Jesus preaching and teaching with authority as well as healing the sick and driving out demons.

That all sounds good but it makes even more sense why this was called “good new” when we read of Jesus’ encounter with this leper. This leper approached Jesus and said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). Take notice that the leper did not ask about the ability of Jesus to make him clean. He already believed Jesus had that ability. What he questions was Jesus’ willingness and that is apparently because Jesus’ religious contemporaries were unwilling to help this leper at all.

But Jesus was… Jesus is!

Here is what happens. The text says, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched our his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am will. Be clean!'” (v. 42). I suppose Jesus simply could have spoken and cured this leper of his disease but that’s not what Jesus did. Moved by compassion, Jesus treated this leper as a human being by touching him. He didn’t have to but he did because restoring a sense of value and dignity to this leper was that important. That’s because this is what it looks like when the kingdom of God is at hand.

Moved With Compassion…

Now here’s the caveat… In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he calls us to follow him. And we say “Yes! We will follow Jesus.” But even as we say yes, I wonder how many people there are around us who are crying out to Jesus saying, “If you are willing…” The encounter Jesus has with this leper teaches us something very important to following Jesus. If we want the people in our community to believe in the good news then just as Jesus was, we had better be the people who are moved with compassion when they cry out to God. Whether we encounter an actual leper or just someone who has become a societal leper because of their present life circumstances, we dare not be the religious people who turn a deaf ear to their cries.

A lot of energy is spent these days on the declining influence of Christianity in the western world. I have a strong feeling that everything will be just fine so long as churches learn to follow Jesus and become a place for lepers, reaching out and touching them with the compassionate hand of Jesus!

——————–

* This post is my contribution to the Compadres Blog Tour.