Category Archives: Theology

Whose Side Are You Standing On?

Last Tuesday, March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States speaking to Congress. Predictably, his appearance and speech was a political moment that showed the great polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, his address was lauded with both support and scorn by Christians. Those who favor the right, the conservatism of Republicans, expressed their approval for the Prime Minister while those who favor the left, the liberalism of Democrats, criticized the Prime Minister’s appearance. And not surprisingly, though disappointing, many of these voices lending support or scorn were the voices of Christians… people who belong to the Kingdom of God.

This all seemed like a primer for what’s to come as America gears up for another major election, including the election of a new President. Many Christians will take to social-media as a vehicle for expressing their views, most of which will sound unabashedly either Democrat or Republican. So let me be clear: Christians, we have a problem!

Gospel of Reconciliation

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church to defend the legitimacy of the ministry he and Timothy are engaged in, he described the work as the ministry of reconciliation. Paul said that it was “…God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). In a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, fueled by years of animosity, Paul was called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ which was the climatic event bringing an end to the division by creating one new creation in Christ. In fact, much of Paul’s writing in the New Testament is dedicated to bringing out the implications of this reconciliation.

One of the implications for reconciliation is that those who are reconciled to God also become agents of reconciliation. After discussing how in Christ the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed, creating one new people known as the church, Ephesians makes clear that this “wisdom of God” is now being made known “through the church” (Eph 3:10). The church is able to participate in this mission of God because the Holy Spirit empowers it to live as a proleptic reality. That is, the Holy Spirit enables the church to live among the present as a witness of what the future is.

This is how the eschatology of the gospel works. The future of history, God’s future, has entered into the present through Christ and now his church who continues the ministry of Christ. This means the church is called to live as the tangible reality of what reconciliation looks like among a dying world that only knows division.

There’s just one problem: The majority of Christians in America seem to have forgotten this gospel of reconciliation. Or worse, they just don’t care. What makes me think this, you ask? Because too many Christians are more worried about upholding the present day divisions that having nothing to do with the gospel by aligning themselves with the American right and left… Republican and Democrat politics.

Swallowed Up Into the Division

One of the books I am currently reading is Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. The author, who as a native Croation, lived through the wars in the former Yugoslavia, knows something about division and explains the real consequence of aligning with one side or the other…

The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite − into “both us and them” that unities the divided parties in a perverse common of mutual hate and mourning over the dead (p. 99).

Volf explains how people, by failing to remove themselves from the division, become swallowed up into the division, taking up the cause of one side or the other so that it becomes about “us” (whatever side we align ourselves with) against “them.”

Here in American, that polarity is the politics of the conservative vs. the liberal, typically known as Democrat vs. Republican. The problem for Christianity is that is aligning ourselves with either side, we become that side and lose the ability to participate in the gospel of reconciliation. Note what I did not say: I did not say that by aligning ourselves with one side or the other will prevent us from proclaiming “Jesus saves,” teaching a bible class at church, helping with our church’s VBS, or many of the other good Christian things we do. But let’s be clear, we can do all that and still fail to join in the gospel of reconciliation because this ministry is about living among the present old world of human kingdoms as a witness of the new in-breaking future world of God’s kingdom. And we can’t embody the new when we’re still enjoined with the old!

So, someone might ask, are you saying that Christians cannot vote? Nope! I’ve not said that once and to think that this is the issue is to miss the issue. Most Christians are way past voting. We’ve gone from being just voters to people who are involved in waging a social-media war for one side or the other, as if whatever side we are fighting for is the good news that give life to this dying world. Except, if we really believe the Bible, then we must admit that this is wrong and that the only way we can participating in bringing good news to America and the rest of the world is by aligning ourselves exclusively with Jesus’s cause… not Jesus’ cause and America’s cause but Jesus’s cause alone!

One Question

Let me finish by asking a question. But first, a quick story.

When I was a child at church camp, we would sing a song during devotionals called Standing On The Lord’s Side. The song went something like this…

Leader: “Tell me, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “I’m standing on the Lord’s side.”
Leader: “I said, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “Standing on the Lord’s side.
I stand, I stand, I stand… standing on the Lord’s side.

So it seems time for us to ask, whose side are we standing on? The American Right and Left or the Lord’s Side?

Christians: Not of the World?

“Be in the world but not of the world!”

It’s a well known phrase that has been preached in many sermons and repeated by many, many more Christians. It is a conviction which many Christians, especially of the Bible-believing, conservative-evangelicalish type, understand the relationship they are to have with the world. That’s why you won’t hear such Christians talk about going out to see the movie Fifty Shades of Grey followed up by dinner at some restaurant like Hooters or Tilted Kilt.

Being “in the world but not of the world” is actually rooted in some solid biblical teaching. Jesus himself desired that his disciples would be both sent and sanctified. According to John 17:15-19, Jesus prayed to his Father about his disciples saying…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (NRSV).

The idea of sanctification means to be holy, set apart for God and his mission. While Christians are sent into the world, rather than withdrawn from the world, Christians must abstain from living as the world because they do not belong to the world. The Apostle Paul expresses a very similar concern as he commands the Christians in Rome saying, “Do not be conformed to this present world… (Rom 12:2).

To See The World as God Sees

But living as people who are not of the world is more than just abstaining from certain segments of the entertainment culture.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes about the strangeness that Christians are to have regarding their culture as a result of their allegiance to God rather than country. Such strangeness gives “…a vantage point form which to perceive and judge the self and the other not simply on their own terms but in the light of God’s new world…” (p. 53). Thus, by embracing this strangeness, Christians are able to see the world as God sees it and respond in ways that reflect the new creation they belong to.

The importance of this strangeness cannot be overstated. Two Sunday’s ago I turned on the news and was horrified by the news that twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded as martyrs of Jesus Christ by the terrorist group ISIS. It is horrible and as expected, everyone believes something needs to be done about such terrorism. The world, including the United States, will meet such violence with violence. Militaries will wage war and the masses will champion the cause as if it will really save the world, ridding it of evil.

Yet a lot of Christians, including some preachers, are among the masses cheering this cause and here in the United States it too often ends up having to do with what is best for America… filtered through whatever political camp one affiliates with. So much for being not of the world!

To Speak As Christians

I’m not writing this just for the sake of being critical. I’m concerned with how the church is going convince this broken world of the gospel when so many Christians speak as people who still belong to the world?

I went and saw the movie American Sniper yesterday. It was a realistically brutal portrayal of war, in more ways than one. Besides the bloodshed and the loss of lives of both Americans and Iraqi insurgents, who both bear the image of God, families suffered on both sides for the gods of war. As the movie finished, I was left with nothing but sadness. There was anything to celebrate, there wasn’t any winners to applaud, and there wasn’t any heroes to venerate as a legend. What I saw were victims. That’s right, victims! I saw victims of a dark and broken world where everyone keeps trying to kill everyone not in a war that ends all wars but as a war that only begets more war.

The only way the world is ever going to know there is hope beyond such mayhem, the future hope which Jesus has established through his own crucifixion and resurrection, is for Christians to speak of such hope… to speak as people who are not of this world in response to the terrorism and violence of this world. The world doesn’t need the church to champion its way of the sword, as it already has plenty of people ready and willing to do that. What the world needs is for Christians “to be concerned about nothing among [the world] except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) because it is only through the crucified Jesus that the world will ever know the hope of the resurrected Jesus.

As You Come Together

Here is a video of me preaching at the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, February 8th. The sermon is titled As You Come Together and is based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-34.

I Don’t Miss Mayberry. . . And Neither Should You!

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

I’m old enough that I can remember watching The Andy Griffith show air regularly as reruns on television. I also remember watching the shows Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. It was good wholesome family oriented television that parents could watch with their children without having to worry about what those little ears and eyes might encounter.

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a small town, an all American kind of town. Neighbors knew each other, there weren’t any video games to keep children from playing outdoors, and the most serious crime was when Barney, the Deputy Sheriff would take Otis the drunkard to jail to sleep it off. That certainly seems like the ideal kind of place to live and make a life for ourselves. Heck, even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent home, it certainly would’ve been nice to have an Aunt Bee around always having a fresh-baked apple pie hot off the stove. If only we could return to way back when, right?

Wrong!

As the title suggests, I don’t miss Mayberry and what it represents and neither should you. As wholesome and pleasant as Mayberry may seem, I’m sure not a single Black person would enjoy going back to America’s Mayberry era. Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched. In fact, there’s more than a few groups of people that would not enjoy going back in time. That was a time when many still believed a woman’s place was nowhere else but in the home (not that there is anything wrong with women choosing to be homemakers) and sometimes that was a home where women were abused by their husbands while the law did little to nothing since it was a “domestic problem.” Let’s not forget the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and many other groups who were marginalized and mistreated.

So no, I don’t want to go way back when and I don’t know why any other Christian would either. In fact, I don’t know why Christians would long for any idyllic American culture, be it the traditional culture that Mayberry represents or the more progressive culture that America has seemingly become.

Growing up, we would sing the spiritual This World Is Not My Home during church services. Some churches still sing it. But do we really mean it? Because whether it’s the down-home traditional America or the more progressive America, many American Christians seem baptize the American ideal as the best thing since sliced bread.

Can We Recover Our Hope?

Christianity in America really needs to recover a sense of eschatological hope. That is, the church needs to learn once again what it is to live with hope. . . to be in the present what it awaits for and what it already is in the fullness of time. The Apostle Paul writes Philippians 3:20-21,

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Only when Jesus returns will everything in life, including our own bodies, become what it is meant to be. Right now we live with a promise which is hope to us in Christ because we know what our future is. So if this is what we are to eagerly await, why dream and politic for good ole’ Mayberry or it’s American antithesis? Christians belong to neither and await neither!

However, let me push this a bit farther. Within the context of Philippians 3:20-21, Paul is contrasting the Christian disposition of being set toward to the second-coming of the Lord with people who have their minds set on “earthly things (v. 19). While Paul is directly talking about people driven by hedonistic values where their own stomach becomes their god, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that Christians who for an idyllic American life also have their minds set on earthly things.

This is not to say that everything about America then and now is bad, as that would be a gross mischaracterization. There were and are many good things about America. Yet no matter how good we think America was or is, it will not be when Jesus comes again. One day when Jesus return, everything will be brought under his reign. Until then, the only way for the world to know now that Jesus is Lord is for us, the church of Jesus Christ, to live in hope of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses. We can’t do that when we’re preaching sermons in the sanctuary, on Facebook, or else that says “I Miss Mayberry.”

The Conversation Churches Must Engage

As the circumstances of our surrounding culture and community change, so do the issues that face every local church. Often the issues, be it poverty, sexuality, religious pluralism, etc…, remain general enough that a church can ignore them if they wise. But at some point a church will have a visitor come from that new Section 8 housing down the street, having many needs and lives in that new Section 8 housing around the corner. Or that church will learn that the local Muslims are planning to build a Mosque across the street from where the church meets. Or someone in that church will come out of the closet, telling others that they are gay. Suddenly what remained as general issue  become very particular issues that impact the local church in such a way that whatever the response is, it will reshape the identity of the church.

This is called a kairos-moment in the life of the church. The word “kairos” comes from the Greek language and literally means time but not in the chronological sense like the time of day. It refers to an event that is happening among the church which is an opportunity for the church. Regardless of the circumstances of such a kairos-moment, it is an opportunity from God to listen and then walk on mission with God in such a way that the church is transformed. Or, depending on how the church responds, it is an opportunity from God that the church ignores, rejects, etc… which leads to a loss of mission. This is where churches begin to decline, anxiously seeking to go back in time and repeat the past because they fool themselves into believing trying a hundred different versions of the same thing over and over will somehow reap different results.

Responding To A Kairos-Moment

As I said, such kairos-moments are an opportunity for the church. Yet because the particular circumstances of these kairos-moments are difficult issues that raise theological questions and awaken sensitive political triggers, it is tempting and easy for churches just to avoid the issues. Or what happens is that people in the church simply react with a defensive (and highly emotive) response. When this happens, various platitudes, that have more in common with the American left and right than they do with the gospel, are underscored with biblical proof-texts and used as weapons to win the fight. Yet, neither avoiding the issue nor taking a defensive posture will help. By avoiding these kairos-moments, churches are unable to hear God’s voice and by taking a defensive posture, churches are unable to see where God is working.

The first response to such kairos-moments is spiritual-discernment. Such discernment is a conversation that leads to a thoughtful and contextualized response so that the church may continue living on mission with God as faithful followers of Jesus who are animated by the Spirit. It is a conversation that the leaders of the church must have with each other but it is also a conversation that the leaders must have with the rest of the church as well − and the conversation between the leaders and the rest of the church must shape the conversation that the leaders continue having amongst themselves. Failure to have either conversation will again simply result in a lost opportunity, likely rendering the local church as futile among the surrounding culture and community.

Engaging In Spiritual Discernent

I want to suggest two criterions for engaging in spiritual-discernment regarding any particular kairos-moment that I believe will help churches step forward on mission with God These are not the only criterions that could be discussed but they are two that I believe matter immensely.

PROCEED BY GRACE WITH FAITH. The spiritual-discernment necessary here is a process that takes the church into a wilderness so to speak. Sometimes it can feel like walking on ice in the dark… to find the shore, everyone must continue forward but with each step there is a bit of uncertainty as to whether the ice is going to break. It’s easy to become frustrated.

Show each other grace, allow each other to think openly and even say things that may not sound so wise at the moment. And don’t worry about making some mistakes along the way. The journey into the wilderness will come with some mistakes but have faith. Just as God preserved Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness, so will God preserve his people today. What the promise-land looks like will be as surprising as it was for Israel but God will lead the church there. So proceed forward but do so by the grace of God for each other with an abiding faith in God.

ENGAGE SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, & CULTURE TOGETHER. The particular issues that churches face today may share many similarities with the circumstances that other churches find themselves in. Yet they are not exactly the same either, so churches cannot simply juxtapose scripture or Christian tradition down upon any issue and say that what was done before is the church should do now. This locks the church into merely trying to repeat the past rather than living as a present embodiment of the gospel.

The conversation of spiritual-discernment involves bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other. By doing this, churches will discern what their theological praxis (how the church embodies the gospel) must involve for the present circumstances. Formulaically, the conversation of spiritual discernment is: Scripture (S) + Tradition (T) + Culture (C)= Theological Practice (ThP).

S + T + C = ThP

By bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other, the conversation is asking “What does the gospel look like in this?” and “How does the church enact the gospel Jesus lived in this?” The only thing left is for the church to faithfully follow Jesus where the Spirit leads, acting upon what God reveals.

One Final Thought

There is obviously much more to say about bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other that can be said in one blog post. So I hope to say more in the coming months. Nevertheless, this is the sort of conversation that the church had at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), has had at different moments throughout history, and must keep having. Yet it’s also a conversation for every local church because that is where the circumstances of culture are encountered in the particular. With that in mind, such conversations must always take place from a posture of listening, that is bathed in prayer and unequivocally faithful to Jesus, who is the Lord, and therefore a faithful embodiment of the gospel Jesus lived and proclaimed.

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!