Category Archives: Theology

Discernment and Mission: Seeing Beyond Our Own Church

“But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.” – Acts 12:24 (NET)

Many commentators treat this statement simply as a summary of what’s going on among this early movement of Jesus followers. While it’s entirely appropriate to this passage as a summation, we miss a lot if we limit this text to mere rhetorical strategy. Regarding v. 24, Luke Timothy Johnson says, “it is also a triumphant assertion of the movement’s growth despite the attempts of a tyrant to suppress it through the harassment of its leaders” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216). Therein is a clue regarding what ought to challenge every church’s understanding of what participation in the mission of God may involve.

Baptisms and Bible-Studies

Let’s first take a few steps back and think about church and mission. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church and the mission of God, there’s a lot of for the spectacular occasions. For example, in the book of Acts, churches love to talk about chapter two where the Spirit is poured out and 3,000 plus people are baptized upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The same is true for chapter eight where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized after basically asking Philip to study the Bible with him.

Churches love stories like these and would love for them to be the stories of their churches. That’s why churches talk about their yearly number of baptism or about the evangelistic Bible studies taking place, as if the number of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies are the sure marks of a good church (don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies). However, turn to Acts chapter twelve and we won’t find any spectacular stories of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies. What we find is a church struggling in turmoil and this is where churches today must pay attention because, as I’m suggesting, they can learn a lot about what participation in the mission of God may involve.

A Theological Conundrum and Persecution

At this point in the book of Acts, its somewhere between 41-44 CE during the reign of Herod Agrippa and the church is facing a lot of challenges. First, Peter has already baptized Conelius and his household (ch. 10). The baptism of Gentiles has now thrusted a theological conundrum upon the church that results initially in a counsel (ch. 11) but one in which the church, through the ministry of Paul, will wrestle with for the next several decades. Second, Herod has begun persecuting the church, having James executed and Peter arrested (presumably to suffer the same fate as James).

While Peter is rescued from his imprisonment by an angel of the Lord, the church doesn’t know this. So when Peter returns to his church gathered at the house of Mary where, according to v. 12, “many people had gathered and we praying” (churches brag about baptisms but how often do they brag about gathering for prayer?). Peter, who already realized it was the Lord that rescued him from prison, tells the church that it was the work of God. Then we are told about Herod’s death (which also is the work of God), which says something about the continued unstable political climate the church lived within. But… With all these challenges facing the church, “the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying” (NET).

Seeing Beyond Our Church

Why did the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, keep increasing and multiplying? This is, after all, what matters. The answer is none other than God. God was at work and this early Jesus movement believed so, which is why they continued faithfully following Jesus even when the difficulty of their circumstances escalated. If more churches would understand that the multiplication of the gospel is the work of God then they might also understand the futility and unnecessary need for the utilitarian thinking that undergirds many books on ministry. The increase of God’s word is the work of God that happens through the faithfulness of the church and not through turning this multiplication into an end that justifies whatever means gets the job done. This is not to say that churches should cease casting vision and planning for ministry. Rather, vision and planning for ministry must begin with the question of discerning: how must the church live faithfully as participants in the mission of God within the current circumstances?

As I suggested earlier, Churches love to talk about the mission of God when it involves preaching, a lot of evangelistic Bible studies, and especially a lot of baptisms. More importantly, Churches love the mission of God when it means church growth with lots of people joining their church. But… That is not how God always works. Sometimes God is taking that large church gathering in Jerusalem and scattering it though out the region (cf. Acts 8:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes God simply needs the church to gather for prayer and fasting so that Barnabas and Saul can be sent off as missionaries to serve somewhere else (cf. Acts 13:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes a church’s best vision and planning for future ministry is not how God is working. Sometimes the vision for growth and new ministry Churches have for their church is not how God is working. And let’s be clear… The mission of God is about the increase and of God’s word, not the increase of their church or our church per se.

The question is then, are churches willing to participate in the mission of God even if it means faithfully walking down a path different than it envisioned? The answer to this question takes discernment but the story here in Acts is inviting and challenging churches today to see beyond the realm of their own church so that they may fully live as participants in the mission of God.

 

In Christ: Neither Democrat Nor Republican

Since the original sin, division has been the plight of fallen humanity. For many cultures, race and ethnicity has been a boundary separating people. Fortunately, in America, the walls of racial and ethnic division are coming down. This isn’t to say they don’t exist at all any more but to say that racial and ethnic discrimination is regarded as morally wrong and something society must overcome. But… Even as the walls of racial and ethnic divisions are toppling, are Americans erecting new walls based on their political ideologies?

Unless You’re A…

Let’s look closer at who Americans are choosing to associate with and where they’re choosing to live. In his book The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop says,

As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics. Little, if any, of this political migration was by design, a conscious effort by people to live among like-voting neighbors (p. 5).

He goes on to say that, “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties” (p. 6). This doesn’t mean that politics is the only factor Americans are basing their decision on where to live but it does suggest that politics has become an important factor, perhaps a very important factor.

Two days ago I read an editorial piece titled Is America Dangerously Divided? discussing how Americans are separating based on political affiliations. In the article, which is based on this recent Pew Research survey, we are told that:

More than six-in-ten of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. People on the right and the left also say it is important to them to live in a place where most people have similar political sentiments. And three-out-of-ten consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat (compared with almost a quarter of across-the-board liberals who voice the same concern about the prospect of a Republican in-law).

Apparently then in a culture where tolerance is a preached, Americans have their limits and they’re spelled D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T, R-E-P-U-B-L-I-C-A-N, etc… So it seams that if I’m an _________ and you’re a _________ then we apparently can’t be neighbors, friends, not even family members.

One In Christ!

This is a great opportunity for the church in America except that many Christians identify themselves also as Democrats, Republicans, or some other political party. So maybe Christians – we who profess faith in Jesus Christ – need to think afresh about the gospel our faith is to be aligned with.

An ancient daybreak prayer of the Jewish male was, “I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” It was this kind of culturally acceptable thinking with its social distinctions that the gospel of Jesus Christ sought to obliterate and this aim is the issue that permeates much of the New Testament. Consequently, the gospel of Jesus Christ is as much social as it is theological. That is, just as the gospel is a theology statement about the God’s work in the world, so it’s a social statement about his intention for the world (Tweet that!). Thus, in Jesus Christ, God is not just reconciling all people to himself but is also reconciling all people to each other as well so that all people becoming one community belonging to God (cf. Eph 2:14-16).

The Apostle Paul expresses one of the clearest statements of how the gospel of Jesus Christ upends the social-reality of the world saying 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” (NET). But given the increasing political division that is shaping American culture, might not the gospel also be there is neither Democrat, Republican nor any other political party, for Christians are one in Christ? 

Our Baptism Into Christ Professes…

This is neither to suggest that Christians are not entitled to side with a particular political view when they believe that such belief is right and for the good of society nor is it to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. The concern is that in America many Christians, some more so than others, align themselves with one particular political party or another. This happens even as the gospel has often been absorbed into the various American political ideologies. So its seems that Christians would do much better to identify themselves from the point of their baptism rather than some political reality that belongs to the old dying world (or anything else belonging to this dying world).

So much needs to be said about what it means for Christians living into the reality that they are neither Democrat nor Republican but baptized into Christ. Yet for our purposes here, I’ll mention three quick implications. First, Christians don’t have any business in dividing from people because they are Democrat, Republican, or of some other political (socialist, libertarian, etc…). This includes deciding where we might live, whom we socialize with, and whom we marry (it’s a shame that any marriage could be affected by politics!). Second, Christians must also remember that the kingdom of God, to which we belong, and it’s values are neither red or blue, right or left, but wholly other. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ whom we confess as Lord, as our baptism into Christ professes, and therefore our discernment and practice of what is right must emanate from this allegiance rather than from any affinity we have to a political party. Lastly, while this post has focused on the growing political divisions in America, Christians must remember that ethnic, gender, and social divisions are unacceptable. After all, the gospel is the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, that creates a community of people fueled by the Holy Spirit who loves all people just as God does. It’s this good news that Christians must be witness of!

Maybe one day Americans will slowly begin to see why the gospel of Jesus Christ really is the good news!

The Eclipsing of Christ!

Every year seems the same. Come Christmas and Christians are all giddy about the birth of Jesus Christ and remembering “the reason for the season.” Then as Easter approaches, we observe lent and focus our attention on the death and resurrection of our Lord. But then… The weather warms up as spring gives way to summer and Jesus is left on the back-burner as Christians turn there attention to national holidays. Patriotism eclipses the gospel. And maybe it’s just me but in recent years it seems that this patriotism has become more nationalistic, glorifying America as though it is the source and sustenance of life (idolatry is what that is). Honestly, I sometimes wonder if some Christians even understand the gospel. Allow me to explain…

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul describes Jesus as the peace that has mended the division between the Jews and Gentiles, a division that involves both ethnic and nationalistic pride. This is a very important aspect of the gospel but it’s something too many Christians are missing. The purpose of the gospel is the creation of one new humanity who are reconciled to one another and God. These reconciled people have a new identity that is found in Christ: they are  members of God’s household! What matters now is neither ethnic nor nationalistic identity because they belong to God. This is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, as the identity of every believer is now understood from their inclusion in Christ.

What was true for the Ephesians should be true for us who confess the name of Christ. But it’s not. Instead we claim our Christian identity while simultaneously carrying on our nationalistic identity, as though we can live for both nation and God. As I already alluded to, it is ironic that we are so worried about the removal of Christ from the holiday season but seem more than willing to allow the name of Christ to be eclipsed by patriotic fever.

Part of the problem is that to a large degree we have separated ourselves from the church (and notice how I just used “church” in the 3rd-person voice). Church is somewhere we go rather than who we are. So we see ourselves as Americans who also happen to be Christians that go to church rather than people who belong to God and just happen to live in America. Simply put, we tend to view ourselves as American Christians rather than Christians living in America. This is why, for example, during the American Civil War Christians were able to kill other Christians because those they identified more with the state than the church. That is, they saw themselves belonging to either the Union or Confederate State rather than to the household of God.

Today when we gather as the church on Sunday’s, we partake in the bread and wine as the family of God… proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again. We also dream of heaven where the life we know by faith will be known by sight. Yet we miss the fact that as the church we’re meant to be a portrait of the heavenly life to come so that the world can see what the purpose of the gospel is. But we can’t be that so long as our purpose is oriented towards nationalism, as we can’t act out two different stories simultaneously. So it would seem that if we are so interested in the heavenly life that we would have more interested in that life now and expressing that life now.

Compadres Blog Tour!

Compadres BlogI belong to a Facebook group called Compadres which is made up of Christian ministry leaders, most of whom serve on staff with a local church. Like myself, many of these men and women are bloggers. So this summer, beginning June 3rd, we are doing a “Compadres Blog Tour” writing about the glory of Jesus Christ, with each participant writing a different post on the sayings and stories of Jesus Christ.

I’ll be posting links to the different blog posts here as they go live. Look for the picture to your left, which will be included with the different posts. I think you’ll enjoy reading these post because the people writing them have a deep love for God and his mission who are committed to faithfully serving Jesus Christ and his church in a gracious manner.

If you like what you’re reading – I hope you will and expect you will – then please feel free to share the link… and feel free to leave a comment. I have enjoyed blogging and have enjoyed reading many blogs, learning from the bloggers and commenters through my reading and interacting, so here’s to some more enjoyment and learning for all of us!

Renewing Our Minds: Suggestions for Learning

In my previous post on Renewing Our Minds I expounded upon a quote from N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of Godexpressing the need for churches to become more receptive of biblical and theological scholarship. In doing so, local churches are able to take more advantage of some great thinking from a much broader perspective.

Remember, our knowledge is only as good as we put it into practice. That is, what we are after is that we may become better participants in the mission of God. As Wright says, “Biblical scholarship is a great gift of God to the church, aiding it in its task of going ever deeper into the meaning of scripture and so being refreshed and energized for the tasks to which we are called in and for the world” (p. 135). Nevertheless, good practice flows from healthy or sound thinking and teaching. So for the sake of better thinking and teaching and how scholarship serves as an aid in this endeavor, I have a few suggestions for how to take more advantage of scholarship.

1.  Welcome to a smorgasbord…

Deciding who and what to read today is like trying to eat from an endless buffet. It’s impossible to read everything that’s been written within any particular subject (i.e. missional church) let alone keep up with every “good” book to be released. So I suggest first reading broadly in terms of biblical study, theology, church history, ministry practice, etc… Don’t just get locked into one area to the neglect of the others.

Second, pick your teachers wisely. In any given area, there are too many authors to read everyone. So you must decide who you want to read form since these are people you’ll be learning from. Perhaps the best way to do this is to take notice of others who are asking the same questions, who are striving to follow Jesus, and ask them who they are reading. All you need is good place to start and then you can navigate the rest of the way. Perhaps your preacher might have a recommendation or two :-).

2.  The more the merrier…

There isn’t any fun dining alone. You can only talk to yourself for so long before it becomes meaningless and depressing. But when you have someone to eat with or a group of friends to eat with…

I think that’s true for reading as well. A good book will challenge, inspire, provoke, stretch, and even evoke more questions (be wary of books that don’t!). Having some friends who are reading along with you whom you can converse with is golden. So one suggest is to create a reading group in your church community where everyone picks a book to read and then meets together to talk about it (this is a great way to build community too).

3.  Get it strait from the horse’s mouth…

Most authors also speak frequently at various conferences, symposiums, and church seminars. These offer great opportunities to learn in ways that won’t happen from reading a book, as many speaking engagements include time for some Q & A (not to mention the communal nature of such occasions).

Pay attention to a seminary or Christian college near you, as these institutions host such engagements. Another way to learn from some of the authors you’re reading is for your church to host a retreat or seminar and invite the author in as the resource speaker. This is a great way for others in your church who don’t enjoy reading as much to benefit from quality biblical and theological scholarship. I say this also because the authors I read from have a deep concern and love for the church as well as being, as far as I know, members of a local church themselves.

What say you?

Renewing Our Minds: Scripture, Scholarship, and the Church

I’ve been reading through N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Not surprisingly, I recommend it as an accessible and thoughtful read on the nature of scripture and hermeneutics. The book provides a good discussion on what scripture is, the role it should have in the church, and how the church ought to read scripture. As I have said before, how we read scripture is just as important as to whether or not we read scripture and the matter of how (hermeneutics) is an issue that matters more than some realize.

Although it’s not the point of the book, biblical and theological scholarship play an important role in how the church reads scripture. That is, whether we accept or reject academic scholarship, our response is reflected in our reading of scripture. Some Christians, of course, protest the work of such scholarship, pretending as though such conversation partners are unnecessary. Consequently, Wright says:

Without scholars to provide Greek lexicons and translations based on them, few today could read the New Testament. Without scholarship to explain the world of the first century, few today could be to understand it (as often becomes painfully evident when people without such explanations try to read [scripture] aloud, let alone expound it). Scholarship of some sort is always assumed; what the protest often means, unfortunately, is that the speakers prefer the scholarship implicit in their early training, which is now simply taken for granted as common knowledge, to the bother of having to wake up mentally and think fresh thoughts (p. 91-92).

So to begin with, anyone who reads from a Bible translation – whether it’s the old King James Version (1611), a newer translation such as the New International Version (2011) or any of the other contemporary versions such as the English Standard Version, New English Translation, New Revised Standard Version, and so on – already rely on the work of scholarship.

However, Wright also hits on the aversion to scholarship even more, as he mentions how some Christians just don’t want intellectual challenge of thinking more deeply about scripture which may include new ways of thinking. In my experience this aversion to scholarship comes either from 1) a fear of finding out that what we believed to be correct on any given passage or issue is not entirely right, 2) an intellectual laziness that doesn’t care to mature in our understanding any more (which is spiritual apathy), or 3) a sense of pride that says we don’t we can learn everything we need to know on our own without the help biblical and theological scholarship. I’m not sure what’s worse but all three reasons are wrong postures for Christians regarding scholarship. What biblical and theological scholarship does is offer us a conversation partner, providing us a bridge to a wealth of information and insights that we otherwise would likely never have access to.

A Deeper Faith

Now, let’s be clear. The goal of reading scripture is not just so we may obtain  more information, better insights into a certain doctrine and better knowledge about some particular passage of scripture or word in scripture. Our redemptive goal is that we will be transformed into the image of Christ to the glorious and eternal praise of God and this is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Having said that, we are participants in this work and that involves the intellectual shaping of our thinking.

In fact, scripture itself reminds us of both the place our minds have in the practice of our faith (cf. Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:10; 14:14-15, 19; Eph 4:23) as well as how ungodly ways stem from the thinking of the mind (cf. Rom 1:28; Eph 4:17; Col 2:18; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:8; Tit 1:15). Therefore the renewal of our minds involves reading scripture but it also involves a willingness to learn from others who can teach us about the scriptures and what they say regarding the life of faith we are living in Christ. This certainly involves pastors and ministers as well as other teachers who faithfully serve in our churches but the “others” also include the scholars and their biblical and theological scholarship.

What this means is that we should always remain students of scripture, learners of our Christian faith who welcome the insights of others, including the biblical and theological scholars. Please don’t misunderstand me though. I am not suggesting that every Christian must read academic scholars (e.g., N.T. Wright) but as a church, we should encourage those who do so to bring their learning to the church Bible class and so forth we have as a church. Further more, I am not suggesting that our openness to biblical and theological scholarship means that we must automatically agree with everything said among scholarship. That would be foolish! Instead, we ought to remain open-minded enough to discern wisely as a church community so that we may develop a deeper faith, one that is as intellectually rigorous as it needs to be but more importantly, one that is formed in the wisdom of God becoming like the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 2:11ff).

This is especially important for ministers who preach and teach the word of God to others. I say that knowing it’s a no-brainer for most of the ministers I know but occasionally I do meet the minister who has stopped reading (and thus stopped learning) and is content with what he or she learned in college. All teachers are students first and for those of us who have had the privilege of obtaining a seminary education, we owe it to the churches we serve our eagerness to learn that we may share what we are learning with our churches.

Community, Sexuality, and Redemption

“I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!” That was the ancient daybreak prayer that Jewish men recited. So what a radical vision it must have been to hear that a day was coming when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all people in this oracle from Joel 2:28-32.

For a better understanding of this passage within it’s historical context, I suggest this post by John Mark Hicks. The significance of this oracle cannot be underestimated. Biology, sociology, and nationality matter not, for as is has been declared, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In fact, the apostle Peter will even recite this entire oracle in Acts 2 to declare the outpouring of the Spirit as the sign that the promise of the Lord’s redemptive grace has been fulfilled in Jesus and is available to all. So we cannot underestimate the redemptive significance of God pouring out his Spirit upon all people. It is the declaration that all people matter to God, not just the Jewish male. All people are invited to share in the new Spirit-empowered community that God has created in Christ, for all people are equal.

It’s very important that we remember this is for all people. To that end, we’re on solid ground saying that one’s race, ethnicity, social-standing, and even sexual identity matter not because all are equal, all are welcome! But it is this last point – sexual identity – that needs further explanation. I still hold the conviction that same-sex relationships are not the will of God for our lives but I don’t believe that a people should be unwelcome in this new community because they identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans-gender. That is because we all, regardless of our sexual identity, come as equals… We’re all sinners!

All Are Equal ✟ All Are Welcome

Regardless of our sin, we come in response to an invitation that God has extended in Jesus Christ who offers us salvation. However, this salvation is a lifetime journey. To borrow the language of Paul, salvation is justification, sanctification, and glorification. What God is doing is inviting us into a new community that belongs to Christ where we have been justified, are being sanctified, and will be glorified. But justification, sanctification, and glorification are not requirements for accepting this invitation from God, they are the results–more precisely, the result of God’s finished work of redemption.

Let me express what I’m saying another way. When God has completed his work of redemption, when Christ comes again, when heaven and earth again become one and God dwells among people (cf. Rev 21:1-4), I fully expect that there will be people who have struggled with sexuality, including people who struggled with same-sex attraction all their life. I expect this just as much as as I expect that there will be others who have struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, or with anger and hatred towards people of other races, or with selfish and greedy desires, or with with being honest and ethical in their business practices, and so on. We all are sinners and we all still struggle with sin in one form or another. Throughout our journey we confess our sins to God and cling to Christ as our only hope of salvation, a hope the Sprit dwelling among us assures us of.

In the words of the African-American spiritual, when Christ returns the entire new community of God’s people will have one common testimony, “I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in…” What we need to learn how to do now is become as welcoming and inviting as God has been to us and is to all people. Then we’ll be a community where sinners just like us can discover the grace of God, find healing from any injury and be transformed by God the mercies of God which are new every morning.