Category Archives: Columbia Church of Christ

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!

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Thank You All!

The following is the article “Thank You All” that I wrote for the latest and final edition of the Connecting Newsletter, a bi-monthly production of the Columbia Church of Christ (Connecting Newsletter 29, 2014). The article reflects upon our decision as a church to close and the future in light of the gospel story. At some later point I plan to write about the decision and process of closing a Church of Christ as I think this is a decision that more Churches of Christ will face in the coming years but for now…

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Church Logo

For most people, the holidays are a joyous occasion. With Christmas, we have the pleasure of gathering with our family and friends to celebrate life and we are also reminded of the birth of Jesus which is the dawning of hope for the world. Following Christmas, we celebrate New Year’s Day, saying goodbye to the past year while also anticipating with excitement what is to come in the new year. All that is to say that the end is never the end but a new beginning.

An End

As you may already know, the Columbia Church of Christ has made the difficult decisions to close. The following announcement has been posted to our website:

Thank you for your interest in the Columbia Church of Christ. After a year of discerning the direction God has for us as Christians, we have come to the conclusion that he is leading us to merge with other churches where we can continue serving him and his mission. Therefore as a church, the Columbia Church of Christ will close at the end of January 2015. Until then we will continue meeting every Sunday at 10:30 for worship in the Stone House (8775 Cloudleap Ct., Columbia, MD 21045). On Sunday, January 25, 2015 we will have a final celebrative worship gathering as a praise to God for the way he has worked through our church over many years.

Along with that closure comes the end of the Connecting Newsletter which has been produced for twenty-nine years now. So this article marks the final entry into the final newsletter as we enter into the final month for the Columbia Church of Christ.

While there is sadness that comes with this decision, there is reasons for giving thanks. I am thankful for the legacy of this church and I am equally proud to have served as one of her ministers. This congregation has been “a family of grace in Columbia” where the hurting and the struggling have experienced the hope of Christ. This church was also one of the first Churches of Christ to break with tradition regarding the role of women which has help pave the way for a growing number of other Churches of Christ to do the same. This church has been a generous supporter of global missions and local ministries offering help to people in need. So while closure is near, there is good to celebrate.

A New Beginning

Although the closing of the Columbia Church of Christ marks an end, it is not the end. Rather, we are entering into a new beginning. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Therefore there is never an end but always a new beginning which we anticipate.

While the Columbia Church of Christ is closing as an organization, the kingdom of God is not losing anyone. God is leading us forth into other local churches where we can continue serving as disciples of Christ using the gifts that we have received from the Spirit. The earliest Christian community, which resided in Jerusalem, was eventually scattered through persecution (Acts 8:1). At the time, it may have seemed like the end but it wasn’t. God was at work and through the faith of these Christians, the body of Christ continued growing as a movement that is now a global witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we cannot know the particulars of the future, we know that we will continue living as participants in this mission of God.

A Word of Thanks

To all of you, who have continued supporting and praying for the Columbia Church of Christ, thank you! Words will never fully express our appreciation for you but they must do for now. May God bless you as he blesses each and every one of us… “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26)!

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps you’ve heard of Duck Dynasty. I’m a fan. I’ve not seen every episode but I’ve seen a bunch. Besides the humorous adventures of the Robertson clan, the fact that I minister with a Church of Christ and that there’s enough red-neck still in me keeps my interest. One of the great values of the show is that every episode ends with the family eating and praying together, which is a great example to set.* 

Our Context Matters…

The show has established a platform for the family to express their Christian faith and Phil Robertson has seemingly taken advantage of this platform the most. On a few occasions Phil has made some comments which might not raise any concern in his own context but certainly do elsewhere. Having said that, I don’t want to spend any more time criticizing Phil or discussing his past remarks.

I mention Phil Robertson in order to make an observation about a difference between his context and the context of many other Christians, including those among the Churches of Christ. The Robertson’s live near West Monroe, Louisiana where those who affiliate with a Christian church make up roughly 90% of the population.  Compare that to Columbia, Maryland, where 56% of the people do not claim any church affiliation. On top of that, the last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-nine different nationalities. As you might imagine, along with those thirty-nine different nationalities comes a plurality of religions and assortment of values that sometimes differ drastically from the values held by many Christians.

All that is to say that while I appreciate the public stance Phil Robertson is willing to make for what he believes, his example is not a model for every Christian. The response Phil Robertson takes is one that is shaped by his own cultural context. Yet more and more Christians find themselves living in an urban to suburban context that is very different, one where religious pluralism is a reality that requires a different approach.

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

When taking a stance for Christ, one of the frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:15. In this passage, the apostle Peter says, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (NET). For many Christians, Peter is talking about defending the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ. That’s why this passage is a favorite proof-texts among the enterprise of Christian apologetics. I’m all for providing good intellectual answers for those who struggle with Christian belief but what Peter is talking about in this passage is apologetics as a way of life. That is, to set Christ apart (sanctify) in our hearts is about making the way of life that Christ teaches our way of life. A quick read of the entire letter of 1 Peter should make this abundantly clear. 

Embracing apologetics as a way of life involves at least two steps:

  1. The first step in taking a public stance for our faith involves the way in which we set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord. We make sure that our life reflects the life of Jesus. What we say and do reveals our true values and when we profess Christ as Lord but exemplify a different set of values than those which Jesus embodied while on earth, we nullify our witness. One of the values Jesus lived by while here on earth involved the formation of relationships with other people. When we form relationships with others our Christ-likeness becomes a testimony that gives us a credible basis for proclaiming Jesus.
  2. Because we regard Jesus as Lord, the way in which we give an answer for the hope we have matters too. We don’t have an argument to win, just the good news of God’s victory in Christ to bear witness of. As David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw say, “Surely such claim for the supremacy of Christ pits us against other religions and other ways to God. But the conviction that Jesus is Lord actually does the opposite: it frees us from coercion and control. It is Jesus that is Lord, not us. We do not need to land a knockout punch to win an argument against another religion. We are witnesses! We do not need to be prosecuting attorneys on behalf of Jesus. We are witnesses!” (Prodigal Christianity, 158).

As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to live as his witnesses. In an age of increased religious pluralism, we must become more intentional about taking a stance for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such intentionality includes boldness but let’s not confuse boldness with brashness. Our bold witness of Jesus must reflect the life of Jesus if we are to truly set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord.

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

Holy Lovers

Last Sunday I preached from First Peter about living into the hope we have. The issue is really about the holiness of the church. The apostle Peter instructs us saying, “but, like the Holy One who call you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16).*

Holy Is?

Like many common religious terms, the word holy has just enough familiarity that we think we understand it. Consequently, it’s tempting to never inquire any further about what becoming holy means.

That opens the door for a lot of misunderstanding. In the biblical narrative holiness is not merely an abstract concept. Holiness, or the lack of, is displayed through concrete actions. Due likely to Puritan influence, the first thing that usually comes to mind for us when it pertains to holiness is avoiding the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21). That’s certainly a part of living holy lives but this is much more involved in becoming holy.

Becoming Holy Lovers

Peter’s instruction to become holy includes the quote “You shall be holy, because I am holy” which comes from Leviticus 19:2. In that context God is calling Israel to regard themselves as separate from the rest of the nations and giving them instructions for how they are to live as the distinguished (consecrated) people of God who are separate from the nations. The first thing we need to realize is that our identity is the church. We are the body and bride of Christ… who happen to live in America, not Americans who happen to go to church.

Once we understand our identity as the church, we must live like it. Becoming holy is to become like God, who is holy. Again, this is not an abstract concept. The holiness of God is displayed through his actions. Chief among these actions is God’s redemptive pursuit of his creation, motivated by his love for creation and his desire to see justice and righteousness done among creation. This is why God gives Israel the Law after redeeming them from Egypt.

Therefore, as Peter insists that we are called to obedience he points us back to God’s redemptive act in Christ. Peter wants us to understand that holy living involves reflecting the redemptive character of God. So Peter insists that we, who are called to become holy, must embrace a “mutual love” as we “love one another” (1 Pet 1:22).

The Contrast

The instruction to become holy is an expansive call but we should not forget that it involves loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Just as the love of God is displayed in the self-giving act of sacrificing his Son for our sake, so we must love one another through self-giving acts. Such actions include the ability to remain patient with each other, forgive each other, serve one another as needs arise, and so forth. This is why I titled this article Holy Lovers.

This may not seem like a big deal but it is. I think of all the stories I’ve heard and even encountered at times that involve stressful work-place drama. I’m talking about sordid accounts of gossip, slander, gamesmanship, politics, and other deeds that make for misery. Now imagine a society where instead of stepping over others, people lower themselves to lift each other up with grace and mercy. It’s a holy society and that’s what we’re called to become. The contrast is huge!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (November 12, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Because Jesus Says “Come!”

I don’t know what it would be like to walk on water as Peter did but according to the story, doing so led Peter to Jesus. Well, that was until he became afraid and took his eyes off of Jesus. That’s when he stopped walking on the water and began sinking. You can read the entire story of Peter in Matthew 14:22-36.*

Stepping Into The Chaos

Most people who remember the story do so thinking of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget about Peter because in many ways we are Peter. We here Jesus say “Come!” and that means we must step out of the boat and walk. But stepping out of the boat is scary business because to do so means stepping out and on to the sea, the great symbol of chaos throughout the Bible.

Chaos is difficult and frankly, nobody wants it or needs it. Not I. Not you. The boat is a much safer place. Though it may be surrounded by chaos as it sails on the sea, staying in the boat gives us the illusion that everything is ok and will be ok. Whatever danger staying in the boat may pose, it seems manageable. Faith is unnecessary, we just need to keep sailing until we reach the shore. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t standing on the shore . . . he’s walking on the water, telling us to get out of the boat and come to him.

Peter did the right thing when Jesus called. He got out of the boat and with his eyes fixed on Jesus, he began walking on the water towards Jesus. What got Peter into trouble was taking his eyes off Jesus. That’s when he began sinking. Yet even in sinking, he still did the right thing. That is, he still reached out to Jesus.

Perhaps we would do the same when we feel ourselves sinking in the chaos. But I also know that the boat remains a few yards away. So we might just try swimming back to the boat, thinking that if we can just get back to the boat and get control of the situation ourselves − or at least get things back to manageable situation − then everything will be okay.

It won’t! Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is out on the water bidding us to come join him. Peter did. Even cowering in faith, he reached out to Jesus. And Jesus saved him and sent on to become a founding apostolic witness for this kingdom of God movement that has now gone global.

But Peter never got back into that boat!

Eyes Upon Jesus!

Of course, I’m not really talking about a boat! I’m talking about the church. Your church. My church. Our church.

Jesus is calling but to step on the water and go to him, we have to step out of the boat and that is full of risk. Yet the boat, as we know it, appears safe. It’s surely more convenient. It appears more manageable, as we know how to row this boat because we’ve done it for some time. And if we step out on to the water and find ourselves sinking in the chaos, which seems normal, the temptation is to swim back to the boat, grabbing for a life-preserver, a boat oar, or anything else to feel safe again. But doing so loses focus on Jesus because he isn’t sitting in the boat . . . he’s out walking on the water.

So keep our eyes focused on Jesus and we’ll walk on water, joining Jesus and following him in this Kingdom journey. Just like Peter did . . . who never got back in that boat!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 15, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Blessing The Children

Yesterday the Columbia Church of Christ had our blessing of the children. Besides singing songs and reading scripture about the abundant blessings of God, the message was about the role parents and the church plays in raising children as faithful followers of Jesus. At the end of the message, the parents brought their children and committed to raising them as followers of Jesus, with the church lifting each child up in a prayer of blessing. After blessing our children, we shared in the Lord’s Supper together.

The following was part of the prayer of blessing offered for our children:

As the family of God, a congregation of whom Jesus is the head…We ask for you God, our Father in heaven to bless these children…

Lord, we praise you for the life of these children and ask you to surround everyone of them with your blessing, that they each may know your love and may be protected from all evil, knowing your goodness all the days of their lives.

Lord, we ask that you bless the parents of these children, giving them the grace to love and care for their children with patience and faith. As they stand before us as a profession of their commitment to teach their children to be followers of your Son, Jesus, may your Spirit grant them wisdom and guidance to live as Jesus, setting an example of what it means to be a Christian!

And Lord, as we give these Bibles to the newest born children among us, we pray that as they grow up, they will receive the scriptures as your word, shaping them and becoming their story… our story…your story, Lord! Amen!*

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* Adapted from an Anglican prayer of blessing for children.

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!

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