Category Archives: Churches of Christ

The Pastor and Theology

Pastors, or ministers, are those who serve in local churches as minister of the gospel. Their vocation is primarily one of proclaiming the word of God in order to equip the believers to live as faithful witnesses of the gospel. While the aim is not to become a good theologian, the pastoral vocation is a theological enterprise. In other words, serving as a pastor is to serve as a pastoral theologian. The questions then is what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve?

The issue the above question asks is raised in the book The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting An Ancient Vision by Geral Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Before getting into this issue more, there is a related concern that needs some attention. Within the Churches of Christ there are still some who think negatively of theology. This sentiment is rooted in the Restoration vision of just going back to the Bible without realizing just how indebted such a vision is to modernity and enlightenment thought. As the C.S. Lewis quote in the picture above suggests, everyone has a theology. So the only question is whether we have a good or bad theology… a well informed theology or a theology formed by ignorance.

While theology proper refers to the study of the Christian doctrine of God, the task of theology is more expansive in that it deals with how the Christian faith is understood and practiced. So I agree with Hiestand and Wilson in their description of theology as attempting to “make sense of the world in which we live, of God, and of ourselves. It teases out the connections between ideas and actions and helps to create new ways of imaging reality — ways that are distinctly Christian, or, we might say, distinctly real” (p. 55). So when we declare the Christian doctrine “Jesus is Lord!”, the task of theology is expounding on what it means for Jesus to be Lord, how that shapes our understanding of history and the way we live as followers of Jesus. We do this theology, of course, by engaging the Biblical text in conversation with Christian tradition and our located culture (more on that later) even as we draw from our abilities of reason and experience.

The question then is to what end is the task of theology? This is where I differ with Hiestand and Wilson. Their vision of a pastor theologian is what they refer to as the restoration of an “ancient vision” where the pastor “constructs and disseminates theology for the broader church” (p. 80). Their vision is anchored in their belief that there is an unhealthy gap between academia, where many academic theologians serve, and the church, where pastors serve. The ideal is a return of pastors doing academic theology for other pastors rather than leaving that work to the academic theologians and thus filling the perceived gap between theology and church. However, I’m not convinced that this is as big of a problem as they think. While there are some academic theologians who seem uninterested serving the church and some pastors who seem uninterested in theology, there are plenty of academic theologians interested in serving the church with their academic discipline (e.g., Walter Brueggeman, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright) and plenty of pastors interested in theology (myself included). The need is for a culture among local churches that embraces the theological enterprise and encourages their ministers to serve as pastoral theologians.

“…good pastoral theology is contextual theology.”

So let’s briefly hone in on the questions of what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve? Hiestand and Wilson suggest “the renewal of the church depends on the renewal of the church’s theology” (p. 123). Church renewal actually depends on much more but good theology is certainly an imperative. However, I believe the pressing need for this theological work is on the local. That is, every local church exists within a particular cultural context that must be considered if the church is to embody the gospel in a meaningful way among the local community. So it is within this local cultural context where scripture and Christian tradition must be engaged along with reason and experience. Why? Because while good theology is expressed in beliefs and practices that are faithful to Jesus, the local church must also contextualize this expression to what God is doing among the local church and local community. The pastor’s theological task is to help the community of believers to both understand and articulate these beliefs in concrete practices so that there is congruency between how the local church lives and what it proclaims as faith. In this sense, the task of good pastoral theology is contextual theology.

Let me offer two hypothetical but very real examples of contextual theology. Let’s say that there are an influx of Muslim refugees who have very little in terms of basic physical needs (food, clothing, etc…). How will your local church respond? Beyond generalities, I can’t answer that question because part of that question will depend on how your church understands the gospel (or not), how different people view Muslims, and so forth. However, answering the question of how the church should respond involves doing theology for the sake of the local church. Likewise, the same is true when a church is having to navigate the waters of conflict when two or more believers are in sharp disagreement with each other and where there may be potential offense (sin) involved. How the church responds and engages in this conflict, ideally toward full reconciliation, will involve doing theology and this is part of the pastor’s task whether it be in preaching, counseling, or just reflecting in silence for the sake of gaining clarity.

For the record, I don’t think Hiestand and Wilson would disagree with me on the need for pastors to be engaged in theology among the churches they serve. Where we differ is on the need for more pastors to be engaged in academic theology. It’s not that I’m opposed to academic theology and value greatly from those who are blessed with a Ph.D and a seminary position to teach and research from. I just believe local churches need pastors who are also contextual theologians for their local church and community.

What say you?

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

Two weeks ago I accompanied three other adults and six students, including my daughter, from the Chillicothe Church of Christ on a service mission trip to the city of Portland, Oregon. The purpose of our trip was to work with the Agape Church of Christ as part of their summer Agape Blitz in serving people who are homeless.

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Group photo taken with the family of Ron and Lori Clark. Ron serves as the Minister with the Agape Church of Christ in Portland.

We did this by working in some homeless camps that provide housing shelter to those who otherwise would likely be sleeping on city sidewalks or underneath some overpass. We also participated in a Night Strike which according to the website “is a community gathering that mobilizes volunteers/services, meets felt needs, and develops relationships that transform lives.” This is a weekly event that provides everything from basic care, such as haircuts and feet-washing, to services that extend human dignity to people who often are ignored by much of society, such as offering a hot meal and friendship.

Besides the work we were doing, we enjoyed the fellowship we had with one another as we took a day to travel into the mountains and visit both Seaside and Canon Beach on the Pacific Ocean. In addition, we enjoyed some meals together, a few stops at local coffee shops, and a visit to the famous Voodoo Donuts, which provided us with opportunities to grow closer to each other as people who are all on the journey of following Jesus.

To sum up this trip, it was an opportunity to not only love people but to teach our students what it means to follow Jesus. Our goal was to #SeeJesusBeJesus. Or in other words, we wanted see how God is working in Jesus and to participate in the work that God is doing in Jesus among the world. Of course, that is something we can and are learning to do in our everyday lives as people of “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2). As Jerry, a deacon of our church who organized this trip, says, “Everybody is somebody, so treat everybody as somebody.”

I personally am really proud of our students. When it came time to work, they worked hard without complaining. When it came time to interact with people whose lives and circumstances were very different than their own, they loved and served without fear or judgement. Here is a slide show video of our trip…

Christian Baptism and Christian Identity

Among Churches of Christ, the subject of Christian baptism has always been generated a lot of conversation. Much of the talk has been about the relationship of baptism to salvation in Christ and the question of whether baptism is necessary for receiving the promise of salvation. Less talk, and perhaps very little, has focused on the significance of baptism as it pertains to Christian identity and how baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is embodied in daily living.

Brueggemann Meme on Baptism

The other day I shared the above photo with the quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. Brueggemann is aiming at the unhealthy and ungodly patriotism, sometimes called nationalism, in which the identity of Christians has been baptized into American values to the point that Christian baptism is failing to yield a new identity of faith and discipline evident in the way Christians live. But notice that the problem is a baptism issue.

I wrote the following article (see below) for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin last Sunday, May 21, 2017. I did so and am also sharing it with you because there is an important aspect of baptism that needs more of our attention. Enjoy!


On Baptism Into Christ

The church of Jesus Christ consists of those who have been baptized into Christ. Notwithstanding all the debates about the purpose and practice of baptism, this is a conviction historically held by all orthodox Christians and is importance for more reasons than we might always understand.

For Paul, the importance of baptism largely has to do with what we have become in Christ which is inseparable form what has transpired in baptism. So even though Greco-Roman society defined people by their social, ethnic, and gender status, the church was defined by equality and mutuality. Why? Because Christians have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

Baptism then signifies a change in our identity but at the same time, a change in the way we live is expected as well. We might recall how some Christians in Rome thought they should continue sinning so that the grace of God would abound. In response to that woeful misunderstanding Paul recalls the memory of baptism into Christ as the reason why Christians should discontinue in sinful living (Rom 6:1-4). However, in doing so Paul also recalls what has transpired in baptism. Namely that Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ where they are buried with Christ and then raised into new life with Christ (note: baptism is not what we do but what God does to us). Thus in being baptized we have been crucified with Christ and then raised in the resurrected Christ by God.

And this changes everything about who we are and how we ought to live!

Consider this… We all come from somewhere and were born into different circumstances. Sometimes we point to our roots, so to speak, to explain who we are. For example, I was born in Arkansas as a caucasian but raised in a small midwestern Indiana town. Having lived the past six years on the east coast among people of different ethnicities and national origins, I see how different upbringings shaped people and that’s okay to an extent.

To use a botanical metaphor, as Christians we have been replanted in Christ and our roots are now being nurtured by a different soil — the Spirit dwelling among the church. Thus we should be growing differently and increasingly reflect a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit rather than the “spirits” of our upbringing. So it’s not okay to justify unChristian living and unChristian values by saying that’s how we were raised because if we have been baptized into Christ then we have been raised anew in Christ.

And that’s at least one important reason for remembering our baptism into Christ!

Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

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The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

Caging The Tiger: Church Leadership and Toxic Christians

The Church of Christ my family and I were a part of when I was a child was a small congregation. Most of my church experience, especially as a minister, has been with small congregations. By small, I mean congregations of less than one-hundred people and that includes children.

If you talk to members of these congregations, they’ll usually talk about the closeness the members have with each other. The local church is like an extended family, which seems good. In fact, one of the challenges that larger churches face is trying to retain this sense of close community so that all members have a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with at least a few others in the church. This is one reason why small groups have become so popular. Another thing about small churches is that most of them want some numerical growth. So generally, there is an excitement when someone decides they want to place membership and for various reasons, these small Churches of Christ are always happy when a person from another Church of Christ wants to become a part of their church. However, there’s a real danger in that sometimes there is such a desperation to welcome a new person or family that someone toxic person is welcomed without any reservation or qualification.

“If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

– Edwin H. Friedman

Who is the toxic person I have in mind? Typically he or she is a Christian who every few years gets upset about something in their church and leaves for another church (note: they’ll always has a “scriptural” reason that justifies their reason for leaving). This person is toxic because he or she is an argumentative and divisive bully who thinks they are smarter than others. They’re eager, too eager, to assert themselves as a leader which has more to do with their own ego than it does with serving. They are quick to correct others and will even insult others as a way of demonstrating their diluted sense of superiority, especially when it comes to knowing the Bible and matters of sound doctrine. However, there’s a reason why such a person has left the last church. Though not always the case, sometimes such a toxic person leaves is because the others of that church had enough and someone rightfully stood up to them. Like any bully, the last thing this toxic Christian can handle is anyone who will not cower to their coercive and intimidating pressure.

So what should be done with such a toxic person among a church? In Friedman’s Fables, the Friendly Forest fable ends with these words, “…If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

Cage the tiger?

Yes!

Let me say it again… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Caging the tiger here takes some courageous and wise leadership so as not to create further conflict, if that is possible. So ignoring the problem until either other people begin leaving the church or become so frustrated that they lash out will not work. The only way of caging the tiger is to confront the individual  and speak the truth in love, candidly explaining the problem. If the person will not listen and change, then you must lay out the resolution for them (which is no longer up for discussion). If the tiger is not caged and a toxic person is passively empowered then there more problems will surface. I know of one church where most of the adults stopped participating in any Bible classes because they were tired of always being corrected and insulted by one particular toxic individual. I once witnessed people get up and walk out of a meeting because they had reached their limit for tolerating the lecture they were about to receive from another toxic member (who had acted like this many other times). That shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t have to if someone will have the courage to lead by wisely caging the tiger.

Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

When I was serving with the Columbia Church of Christ, a man started visiting our church. He had previously served as a minister with several other Churches of Christ but was now on disability and our church was the nearest Church of Christ. So he showed up but made it quickly known how much he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices. So for the next two weeks when he showed up to Bible class, he promptly told the women how wrong they were and you could see the hurt and frustration on everyone else’s face. It was rather obvious that he was here to create division. So I met with him and explained to him that though he was welcome to be a part of our congregation, gender-inclusiveness was a part of who were as a local church and if he could not accept that then there were other churches in the community for him to visit. He never came back and that’s ok. The following Sunday, the atmosphere of our Bible class was back to normal with a lively discussion fostering an an encouraging conversation about how we live as followers of Jesus.

That’s one example of caging the tiger. It’s not the only way, just one way. But by all means, if you’re a church leader then have the courage and wisdom to confront the toxic people and cage the tiger. Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

So again, I will say it and close with these words… Yes! Cage the tiger!

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Ministry 101: Leading By Example

Years ago I worked for one year as a machinist at a Briggs and Stratton manufacturing plant turning pistons inside a CNC lathe. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the job but I remember my immediate supervisor, whose name was John. Like any good manager, he expected people to put an honest effort at work. One of the things I appreciated most was that when people went on break, John ran there machine for them. He was not above doing the very work he asked of everyone else. That’s leadership by example.

One of the issues that generates a lot of attention these days among church and ministry conferences that pastors and ministers attend is the subject of discipleship. Everyone knows that discipleship is a challenge facing Christianity in America and closely related is the challenge of spiritual formation. If discipleship is, in simplest terms, learning to follow Jesus and spiritual formation is having our minds or imaginations reformed in the beliefs and values of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God, churches are really struggling with both. The pews and chairs of the church sanctuary may be full on any given Sunday but when people leave the worship gathering, they return to their busy lives which often doesn’t reflect much of the life Jesus That at least is the premise for most conferences on discipleship.

Whether the challenge of discipleship is as great as we think or not, we would have to be very naïve to say there isn’t any problem. That raises the question of how do we make disciples of Jesus Christ and spiritual form such people for continued living as disciples?

I’m not really going to answer that question because there are plenty of books, articles, and blogs addressing that issue. Just do a Google search! What I do want to focus on is the example we set and by “we,” I mean those of us who serve as pastors and ministers among a church. If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.

Let me share a story and I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to share is not to pat myself on the back but because of the observation that I made.

Two weeks ago I was invited by one of my elders to help serve at a spaghetti fundraiser dinner in Chillicothe, MO for Operation Help which helps serve the homeless and other people in need of benevolent assistance. This isn’t an opportunity that I would have voluntarily sought out but because I was asked, I agreed to go serve and spent three hours serving up pasta. Another lady who has served at many of these fundraiser dinners remarked that I was the first pastor to ever come help serve at these particular fundraisers. Now I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who voluntarily serve outside of their expected church duties. However, this women’s observation struck a chord with me because almost all of the churches in Chillicothe support and partner with Operation Help, which depends on volunteer help and yet there’s never been a pastor or minister who have volunteered in this way before. Why is that?

Every pastor and minister I know would love to see members of their church volunteering with an organization like Operation Help. In fact, we would say that such service is an indicator of discipleship and spiritual formation… certainly not the only indicator but at least one and perhaps an important one. So we would encourage members to give up their own time outside of work and in addition to whatever responsibilities they might have with their own children and grandchildren. But how can we who serve as  pastors and ministers expect other Christians to volunteer and serve if we don’t set such an example?

Discipleship and spiritual formation are certainly key ingredients for a church growing as a healthy body of faithful and mature believers. As I alluded to earlier, there is plenty of literature available on how to go about making disciples and spiritual forming them in the way of Jesus. I would simply add that it begins with the example we set − leadership by example − and I am certainly not always the example I should be, so it begins with me. In January there will be a chili fundraiser dinner for Operation Help and I will gladly be there to serve again.

“If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.”