Category Archives: Theology

Evading Jesus: Christians and Violence

Brian Zahnd recently wrote a blog post titled You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture that went viral within the evangelical sub-culture. The post generated a lot of conversation, including a lot of disagreement. That’s not surprising but it is saddening. If I didn’t know any better, from the way some Christians defend the use of torture and violence I just might conclude that Jesus is a violent warrior who makes right by violent might.

Of course, that’s ludicrous! Jesus had the opportunity to lead a violent revolution but chose instead to humbly die on the cross at the hands of his enemies rather than killing his enemies. This is how Jesus loves even his enemies and Christians know this. Christians know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44). Christians know that Jesus calls us to follow him by picking up our own cross (cf. Mk 8:34). In fact, Christians know that the teaching and example of Jesus does not include violence.

Even if it can be argued that there are times where some level of violence is permissible (cf. Doctrine of Just-War), there is nothing virtuous about violence.  Violence is nothing for a Christian to champion. But that doesn’t matter for some.

In order to negate the teaching and example of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, some Christians are now claiming that Jesus employed violence in the Old Testament as the second member of the Trinity.

That’s the claim I am reading among some commenters on various blogs and Facebook thread. But plain and simple, this is grasping at straws. There are at least two problems with such an argument:

  1. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead broaches upon the heresy of decetism. While such a claim doesn’t actually deny the physical existence of Jesus’s life, it negates the physical life he lived, which was both a non-violent and an exemplary life, by appealing to his divinity in order to justify violence as part of the Christian life. This claim, of course, is made while ignoring the fact that while Jesus is the eternal Son of God, it is only in his flesh as God Incarnate that he reveals the fullness of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15, 19).
  2. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead employs an anachronistic reading of the Bible. The Bible has a directional flow to it’s narrative that such a claim ignores by imposing Christian theological claims upon the earlier part of the narrative while ignoring the claims made in the later part of the narrative. That is, those making such a claim impose Trinitarian theology upon the Old Testament in order to make Jesus violent while setting aside the Trinitarian revelation of God in Jesus Christ which culminates with the cross rather than a sword.

Such carelessness on the part of some Christians, including some who have a theological education, clearly reveals just how much the tail is wagging the dog. In the end it just reveals how much Christianity in America is willing to ignore the elephant in the room… evading the Jesus whom we are called to follow just so that we can continue legitimizing the American way, which includes violence.

Maybe we need to learn from Jesus again…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” - Jesus, Matt 5:9

Will You Vote Today?

I’m currently preaching through the book of First Peter and I have been reading through Miroslav Volf’s book Captive to the Word of God (hereafter CWG). Between these two endeavors and reading through some social-media feeds yesterday on Election Day got me thinking about Christians and voting. So let me ask this question: If you are a Christian, will you vote today? Will you vote tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that?

Maybe this seems like a silly question to ask since yesterday was Election Day in America. But if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus who belongs to his church, then every day is an election day. The only question is how you will vote.

The Christian Distinction

According to the Apostle Peter, Christians belong to a different reality than the rest of society. It is a reality received through the new birth (cf. 1 Pet 1:3) that marks the church off as a distinct priesthood and nation who reside as aliens and exiles among the rest of society (cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9, 11). The distance between Christians and the rest of society is neither one of isolation or assimilation but one with “a presupposition of mission” (CWG, p. 82-83).

This mission, the mission of God, becomes the duty of the church and therefore every Christian. The duty is not to make America or any other nation a better nation. Rather, the business of every Christian is to live in such a manner that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly made manifest in the life of the church. While this business may at times share similar interests with America and the many other nations of this world, it may also set the church at odds with the nations, including America, just as it did for the church living among the Roman Empire. That is to say that sometimes living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ will make the church appear as terrible national citizens. And that’s okay! After all, Christians are foreigners among society.

Christian Voting

By participating in the mission of God, the church is called to a distinct way of living. This living has to do with conduct and it involves no longer conforming to the former ways of living before receiving the new birth but instead living as the holy people of God (cf. 1 Pet 1:14-16). The letter of First Peter spells out what some of this conduct involves from a concrete standpoint in regards to practice. But what the conduct does, as Volf points out, is allow mission to take on the form of “witness and invitation” (CWG, p. 84). That is, instead of trying to make the world of this age a better place, the Christian duty of participating in the mission of God through faithful living testifies to what the age to come looks like (which has already appeared in Christ) and calls those of this age to become a part of the age to come.

In essence, to be a Christian and to belong to the church of Jesus Christ means daily voting. Regardless of whether Christians should vote or not state elections, the church is called to cast a vote for the gospel of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. So everyday the church will vote for what it believes is the way, the truth, and the life by the manner in which every Christian lives his or her life. The real question then is not “will you vote today” but “what will you vote for today?” Will the conduct of the church cast a vote for the way of Jesus and the age to come or will the vote be for this present age?

I dare say that when the primary concern of Christians is making the nations of this world better nations, the vote that is casted is a vote for this age. It’s a vote for something that will not last, no matter how good it seems. But there is a kingdom that will stand forever. May the church of Jesus Christ learn to discern wisely and vote wisely!

Living As We Believe

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.” – James 2:18.

As Christians, our faith should be evident in the way we live. It’s not always the case but it should be. In reality, how we live is always trying to catch up with how we believe. For example, we believe that we are to live by the Spirit and not by the works of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25) but as we all know, it requires daily discipline in order to say “No!” to the flesh and “Yes!” to the Spirit.

What sort of discipline is necessary so that there might be more coherency between what we profess as belief and how we live? In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf says:

Espousing a belief puts pressure on the one who believes to act accordingly. Put more generally, basic Christian beliefs as beliefs entail practical commitments. These commitments may need to be explicated so as to become clear, or they may need to be connected to specific issues in concrete situations, but they do not need to be added to the beliefs; they inhere in the beliefs. Christian beliefs are not simply statements about what was, is, and will be the case’ they are statements about what should be the case and what humans beings should do about that. They provide the normative vision for practices (p. 50).

Volf is suggesting that what we articulate as our belief shapes how we live. It works sort like this: If we profess that we reject envy and jealousy as being an acceptable way of life then we envision envy and jealousy as abnormal and sinful values and commit ourselves to getting rid of such works of the flesh in our lives. Or to put it another way, if we profess that we are to give thanks in all circumstances (cf. 1 Thess 5:18) then we envision life where we take stock of the blessings we have and express our gratitude for such blessings (rather than becoming envious of others who have what we don’t have).

This is our submission to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. We profess our beliefs, thereby committing ourselves to live in accordance with what we believe. Consequently, this is one reason why we should continue gathering together in worship and fellowship as the church. When we come together as Christians for worship and fellowship, which includes preaching and teaching, we are reminded of what we believe and the life that our faith calls us to live into. It is also a reason why confession of faith in prayer is an immensely important as a daily discipline. For example, if in prayer we confess that we are called to live by the same mindset of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5-8) then we are more likely to remember the mindset of Jesus as we encounter life and live accordingly.

The Lord’s Supper and the Church As Family

As you know, one of the metaphors used to describe a church is family. In the best sense, family is a warm and lovely image. So it is with the church, the family of God. Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, bearing the burdens of each other and supporting one another. But as we all know, a family can also have some stressful moments too. Anyone who has grown up with siblings know that brothers and sisters don’t always play so nice together. And so it is with any local church at any given moment.

Family-Church

Churches are people with a myriad of different personalities, who bring all sorts of different baggage to the table. At any given moment, someone says or does something that bothers someone else, unknowingly causes offense, and may even create some level of animosity and division. How does the church deal with this?

The Lord’s Supper

The Corinthian church had a lot of problems. Among those problems was their participation in the Lord’s Supper. According to 1 Corinthians 11, some of the Christians were stuffing themselves and getting drunk (imagine that!) while leaving nothing for others, leaving some still hungry (vv. 20-21). So what does Paul do to remedy the problem? He tells them about their participation in the Lord’s Supper. Here’s what Paul says in vv. 23-26:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Paul reminds them that this Lord’s Supper involves both remembering and proclaiming.

Remembering goes back to the Passover in which the Jews would come together and remember how God delivered them from Egyptian bondage. So partaking of the body and blood of the Lord is to remember the redemptive grace God has shown us in the death of Christ. Proclaiming is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” says Paul. The scope of this proclamation is past, present, and future. It is to embrace the grace of Christ, which involves the most unselfish act of giving his own life up for the sake others, as the church’s way of life.

Reading the remaining part of 1 Corinthians 11, we see how effortlessly Paul moves from participation in the Lord’s Supper to how it ought to shape the social-practice of the church. What the church remembers and proclaims (belief) as it participates in the Lord’s Supper must extend beyond the actual meal and transform how the church relates to one another (practice). This has everything to do with being a family.

As Christ, So We

In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf suggests the connection between belief and practice involves an as-so structure saying “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings” (p. 46). This is a helpful way of understanding how our participation in the Lord’s Supper ought to shape the social-practice of the church as a family. It says that as a church remembers Christ and proclaims his death until he come, so also should every believer grant the same grace God has granted them to their brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way, participation in the Lord’s Supper is a rehearsal of what we believe, which is wrapped up in the grace of God, so that we can act towards each other as we have rehearsed.

So as a family, Christians are going to say and do thing that get on the nerves of each other from time to time. Sometimes the offense has caused enough harm that it creates division and in those cases, with repentance, an apology is necessary so that reconciliation can take place. However, what is also needed is an assumption of grace. Every Christian has a bad day, moments when they don’t put their best foot forward . . . times when they say something wrong. In those moments people need to know that they’re forgiven and that their brothers and sisters in Christ don’t hold what they said or did against them because they’re a family who grants each other the same grace that they have received in Christ.

That’s how the many imperfect churches lives as a healthy family! Families forgive rather than hold grudges. I grew up with two brothers and two sisters in my nuclear family. Sometimes we would say and do things that irritated each other, made each other mad, etc… But we learned to love each other, let things go, and carry on as brothers and sister. That’s how it should be in every church and when Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper, they are saying this is how it will be in their church.

Neither Male Nor Female (Part 4)

Galatians 3.28After reading the Bible and realizing that God had a lot more to say about women in the church than just what I thought two said, I realized that many of the restrictions placed upon women by churches were wrong. I was convinced of this even more after realizing that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 were often lifted out of their context and used as proof-texts to say much more than what these two text actually say. Thus, I became what is commonly referred to as a soft-complimentarian and you can read of this journey in the three previous posts (see links below). But now I have come to hold an egalitarian view, which is another shift. Here is how that happened and why…

Reading the Bible

[Let’s talk about the way we should read the Bible. Every Christian reads the Bible but how we read the Bible is as important as reading the Bible.]

A lesson I learned from listening to Randy Harris, who teaches Bible at Abilene Christian University, is that we all tend to understand various issues through certain biblical texts. Traditionally, the issue of women in the church has been  read and understood through the two texts of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. However, the more I came to understand the Bible, the more I  realized that how we read the Bible matters. As a result, I have become very interested in the way the Bible is read (hermeneutics) and whether or not the way we read the Bible is faithful to the aim of the Bible.

What I’ve learned along the way is that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a narrative or story. Scripture tells the story of how God is redeeming creation in Jesus Christ and how the Spirit empowers the church, as participants in this story, to live as a portrayal of what this redemptive life looks like and will be for the world when Jesus returns. In other words, the story is centered in Christ and portrays the future redemption breaking into the present. This means that instead of scripture (esp. the New Testament) being read as a law book, it is read as a Christological story with an eschatological aim. So I came to the realization that reading the issue of women in the church through the two passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2:12 was wrong.

New Scripture Within the Story

I realized that there were two other passages that anticipated this redemptive goal in Christ as it pertains to women in the church. These two passages are found in Acts 2 and Galatians 3. We read in Acts 2:17-18, “And in the last days it will be, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.”And then in Galatians 3:27-28, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female − for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What I came to realize is that the gospel vision is one of reconciliation where all people are equal, where things like ethnicity, social-status, and gender are of no consequence. The passages of scripture in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, which deal with specific prohibitions regarding women, are sort of like the different passages that give specific instructions about slaves. That is, they are temporal instructions given into a culture that is still awaiting to see the full embodiment of the gospel vision where all people are regarded as equal and therefore as equal participants in the mission of God. And that is how I came to embrace egalitarianism. That is, if the gospel vision is one of equality where differences no longer matter, then there are not any roles or ministries in the body of Christ that are restricted to men only except in temporary occasions where the gospel might be impeded by not restricting women. However, that’s not the case throughout much of our Western culture in North America. In fact, we might reasonably conclude that churches who continue to practice positions of male-hierarchy are actually impeding the gospel vision.

A Reflection

Well, there you have it. That’s the story of how God has led me from a naive position of male-hierarchy into soft-complimentarian view and now into an egalitarian view. This is why I don’t have any problems with women leading us in prayer, reading scripture, sharing a word as they lead us in the Lord’s Supper, or serving in the many other ways that God has gifted them with the power of his Spirit. It is why I didn’t have any problem with women entering seminary so that they might serve the Lord as a minister among his church (let’s pray for more churches to embrace God’s call upon their lives). And it’s why I won’t have any problems when Sarah Barton, who is a gifted preacher, speaks at this year’s upcoming Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

My aim with this series has first been to affirm the courageous steps that churches like the Columbia Church of Christ and other Churches of Christ have taken regarding the participation of women in the church. But I also want to challenge more consideration of the egalitarian vision regarding men and women in the church which I believe the Gospel points us toward. Where more conversation is necessary is the process by which churches discern this issue and implement change, and what Philippians 2:5-11 has to say about the way churches proceed on an issue where there is a lot of emotion and disagreement.

May God, by the power of his Spirit, give us the courage to live into the gospel vision that Jesus has brought about through his death and resurrection!

——————–

See also “Neither Male Nor Female” (Part 1), (Part 2), & (Part 3)

When The Glamour Fades… Discipleship

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, which is probably my favorite  of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mark is about what it means to truly believe in Jesus. Discipleship!

Reading through the Mark’s Gospel will remind you that Jesus did call us to be just good “church-going” folks. Jesus calls us to follow him and as Mark reminds us, that call takes us to the place where we must choose to pick up our own cross and continue following Jesus into this narrow way that leads to life (cf. Mk. 8:34-35). So I’ll leave you with a quote from a book I recently read by Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament, reminding us that the following Jesus will not always be an ecstatic journey:

“To follow Jesus as the teacher/prophet/Messiah of popular imagination is one thing. This has glamour and appeal. Clearly Jesus is in touch with the power of God, and equally clearly he plays a unique and special role in God’s scheme of things. But the glamour fades quickly when following Jesus is defined in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing” (p. 257).

Whatever it may look like to deny ourselves and bear our own cross on a daily basis, we do it not because it is easy or pleasurable but because we believe in Jesus… because we believe that salvation only is found in following Jesus into his crucifixion and resurrection.

As darkness and evil continues among the world, may we remember our faith in Jesus!

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?