Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 2)

My conviction is that the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God. That is what I shared in The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1) which requires, for many Christians and the churches they serve among, a new way of reading scripture. Such a reading involves a new hermeneutic that is Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology). It matters because we, or at least I, want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_So as people striving to follow Jesus, we must read the Bible as instruction for learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This matters all the more because in our ever-changing society we are facing new questions for which there are not always easy answers. I’m talking about questions surrounding realities like racism and reconciliation, peace-making in a violent society, gender dysphoria and sexual orientation, and escalating social displacement, to name a few. In order to discern what it means to embody the gospel as we face these questions, we must first read the Bible with the right hermeneutical question in mind.

Here’s what I mean. In recent months I have read a couple of articles asking the question of what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people. Now in one sense I want to say that this is a misleading question because the Bible says absolutely nothing about transgenderism and transgender-people. We know this because those words are never even mentioned in the Bible, so how could the Bible ever speak about something not even mentioned in the pages of scripture? Well, that’s easy. Indirectly, the Bible surely may speak to the questions we have on this subject just as it does so indirectly on a host of other subjects (e.g., firearms, vaccinations, climate change, etc…). So perhaps if we ask what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people, we might get an answer.

Not. So. Fast.

If we open the Bible asking this question first, we begin reading the Bible with a utilitarian goal in mind. My hunch is that most people, more traditional or progressive, who begin here in their reading of the Bible will simply discover that the Bible says exactly what they came expecting the Bible to say. That’s because such utilitarian objectives usually begin with a conclusion in mind.

As I have suggested, if we believe we are called to follow Jesus then we must read the Bible as instruction in learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This is why Paul says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Scripture is neither given to us to condemn or vindicate others. That is God’s job, not our. We have received scripture to teach us, correct our mistakes and develop our character so that we are able to do good works, that is embody the gospel.

So instead of beginning with a question that asks what the Bible says about _______, I believe we should open the Bible to ask how this word from God is instructing us to live as followers of Jesus. Then we are equipped for discerning together as a church what the scripture says and what it means to follow Jesus and embody the gospel to transgender-people, or people who are living in social displacement, or people who have endured racism throughout their lives.

     “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”

The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1)

As a Christian striving to follow Jesus, I believe that all scripture is inspired of God and is an authority on matters of faith. And if I were interested in proof-texting the Bible to support my claim, this is where I would cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” In fact, this passage is probably the most cited text in the Bible when talking about the inspiration and reliability of scripture.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_What I find interesting about this passage is just how often it serves as a launching pad for discussions, and even debates, about the inspiration of scripture. For the most part, these discussions seemed driven more by modernist concerns where Christians thought the truth of the gospel hinged on propositionally proving the truthfulness of scripture. However, today these arguments make less and less sense, having lost much of their effectiveness in our postmodern and post-Christendom society. One of the main reasons why these arguments have lost their effectiveness, I’m convinced, is because Christianity in America has become something like the emperor who had no clothes. The only difference is that society isn’t afraid of saying so anymore.

Examples of what I mean are plentiful today but what it amounts to is that people see the Christian church and sense the incongruence, if not hypocrisy,  between what Christians believe and the way Christians live—living a life that reflects pretty much the same beliefs, values, and practices of society. The reality reflects what Ronald J. Sider observed in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience which showed that while Christianity focused on defending truth, the lifestyle of many Christians became a functional denial of the truth (p. 29)

“Evangelicals rightly rejected theological liberalism because it denied the miraculous. In response, we insisted miracles were central to biblical faith at numerous points including the supernatural moral transformation of broken sinners. Now our very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our lives.” – Ronald J. Sider

Part of the problem is that many Christians misunderstand the reason for which we have received the scriptures. It’s worth noticing that in the passage cited above from 2 Timothy Paul isn’t writing to defend the truthfulness of scripture as the inspired word of God. He assumes it is and assumes that Timothy does so too, meaning the text assumes that the readers believe scripture is inspired of God as well. So instead of dogmas about the nature of scripture, Paul is writing about the function scripture has for instructing those who follow Jesus (“the person who belongs to God”) in living a life of doing good works. In other words, the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.

As I have suggested before, if we believe that we are called to follow Jesus then we ought to read scripture as a word instructing us on how to live as followers of Jesus. This means we are reading scripture through a Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology) hermeneutical lens. While there is more that needs to be said about how we read scripture with this hermeneutic, it matters that we begin thinking about the function of scripture and how we ought to be reading scripture. It matters to me because I want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

In a second post, part 2 of The Bible and Following Jesus, I will explore more about why it matters more than ever that we understand clearly the purpose or function of scripture. Right now, I just want to emphasize the reason we have received scripture. If we don’t understand that, we’ll just continue down an adventurous road that misses the point which has already proved to be a costly turn in the wrong direction.

      “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”

Reading The Bible as Followers of Jesus

What does it mean to be a Christian? I suppose if you stood on a street corner and asked ten random people that question, you would come away with eleven different responses. That’s probably true if you asked ten random people who profess the Christian faith as their religion. Just plug that question into your Google search engine and you’ll see how the answers to that question vary. In fact, the way Christians answer that question will reveal much about their own theological formation.

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Anyhow, most people with even a vague familiarity of Christianity understand that being Christian has something to do with following Jesus. That’s correct too. According to all four of the canonical Gospels in the Bible, Jesus begins his public ministry in the Galilean region. In The Gospel According to Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with a summons. “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news” (1:15). Then he spots two men, Simon and Andrew, fishing and says “Come, follow me… and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (1:17).

This summons is our calling too. We’re called to repent and believe the good news of God’s coming kingdom and follow Jesus in living out this kingdom life. That’s what participation in the mission of God is and I can’t think of any Christian off hand that would disagree with me at this point. If you do, then you’re wrong but I digress. What I’m getting at is that instinctively I think we all understand that being Christians and being a local church is about Jesus and the kingdom of God. We may not understand everything that implies but we know this life we are called to live is about following Jesus in living the kingdom life.

Because we believe that living as a Christian is about following Jesus, it seems that this fundamental conviction should shape the way we read the Bible too. That is, if we’re called to follow Jesus then we ought to be reading the Bible in order to live as followers of Jesus. However, that’s not always been the case.

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the Bible was read as an instruction manual for restoring the ecclesiological pattern of the first-century church in the New Testament. This hermeneutic resulted in a de facto creed producing sectarianism, legalism, and division by marking of a boundary of who was a true Christian based on this ecclesiological pattern. Such Christianity was about boundaries, who’s in and who’s not. If you kept this creed, you were considered a Christian and still live a life that reflected very little, if any, of the life that Jesus. Just uphold the right doctrines regarding baptism, the Lord’s supper, singing in worship, women in the church, church leadership, non-denominationalism, and the list goes on and on. But becoming more merciful like Jesus, living a self-sacrificial life like Jesus, and all the other characteristics of Jesus’ life was never a part of this system.

I could share stories upon stories to illustrate this point but I think most readers familiar with this tribe understand what I’m talking about. Also, this is not to say that there were not any Christians among the “CofC” tribe who were not striving to become more like Jesus. I could also share stories upon stories of such Christians striving to live like Jesus. My point is that discipleship was more about staying within the boundary than will following Jesus in such a manner that our life reflected more and more of the Jesus we read about in scripture. And that’s because we weren’t reading the Bible to follow Jesus, we were reading it to follow an assumed ecclesiological pattern.

The fact that Jesus summons to follow him after proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom is significant. Without getting too technical at this point, it tells us that our eyes and ears are to be focused on Jesus as we learn how to embody the kingdom that Jesus is ushering in. So as for reading the Bible, we are given a new hermeneutical lens that is Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented. We are now reading scripture to understand how it reveals the mission of God to us that is fulfilled by Jesus. Our eyes and ears are tuned to the way of Christ (Christ-Centered) so that our life together as a church is joined with God’s goal or aim in Christ or restoring his kingdom (Kingdom-Oriented) upon earth as it is in heaven.

This is how we participate in the mission of God who is bringing about redemption, reconciliation, and restoration to his creation, making all things new—new creation in Christ. We do this as people who are filled with the Holy Spirit not always trying to repeat what other Christians have done, either in the first-century, the sixteenth century, or even other “successful” churches today. Instead we do this by gathering as local churches who are engaged in worship and fellowship with each other as we are engaged in prayer and absorbed in the biblical narrative told throughout the Old and New Testament scriptures. At the same time, we must be engaged in our local community as listeners who observe and partner with the people of the community. Then we are poised to discern together how God is calling us to partner with him in his mission, which is what reading the Bible from a Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented lens is all about.

Mercy Without Justice?

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are both well-known former NFL quarterbacks and to some extent, cultural icons in our present-day society. Many people have admiration for one and disdain for the other, and this ying and yang reflects much more about where people land on the social-political spectrum that it does about either former quarterback.

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You may not know this but both Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are professing Christians. Tim Tebow endeared himself to many evangelical Christians and other conservatives for his willingness to express his faith in a public manner, for his pro-life stance, and holding to other traditional Christian values. I have nothing against Tim Tebow and if you’re a Christian, even if you disagree with Tebow on some issues, you shouldn’t either. But on the same hand, you shouldn’t have a problem with Colin Kaepernick either. Yet when Caepernick began protesting the racism and numerous police shootings of black men in America by kneeling during the performing of the National Anthem, many of the Christians that lauded Tebow expressed anger towards Kaepernick. Why?

While the differences between Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick might be categorized as a conservative versus liberal difference, I want to think from theological perspective. Specifically I’m thinking about the categories of pastoral and prophetic gifts. The pastorally gifted person comes along encouraging us to live more deeply into what we already believe to be true, which is exactly what Tim Tebow exemplified. There’s nothing wrong with that either, as we all need such encouragement at times. At other times we need the prophetically gifted person to help us see the injustices that exist, injustices that we tolerate and even sometimes accommodate. Denouncing injustice, the prophet calls us to repentance. Whether we like it or not, we need Colin Kaepernick as much, if not more these days, as we need Tim Tebow.

Our challenge is receiving the message of a prophet which is disruptive, certainly not what we want to hear. With few exceptions, only the oppressed seem welcoming of the prophet’s protest. The privileged and powerful become defensive and dismissive of the prophet because the prophetic word is a rebuke calling for the privileged and powerful to repentance. That’s the way it was when God sent prophets to speak his word to Israel and that’s the way it is when prophets speak today.

Consider the case of Botham Jean who was fatally shot in his own apartment by former Dallas Police Office Amber Guyger. After Ms. Guyger was convicted, Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham, chose to forgive Ms. Guyger and give her a hug. The moment was captured on video, a video that instantly went viral (I shared it too) and may prove to the most shared video ever. There’s much to love about that moment and the extension of mercy that Brandt Jean offered to Amber Guyger. It’s a pastoral moment, reminding us of the grace and forgiveness that every Christian believes is right.

However, after Amber Guyger was sentenced to prison, there was a video of Botham Jean’s mother pleading for justice. Her plea was aimed at the underlying racism that played a part in this entire case and has plagued the city of Dallas. In comparison to the video of Brandt Jean forgiving and hugging Ms. Guyger, the video of Botham Jean’s mother was seen and shared by very few people. Why? I believe the answer is that we, the mostly white Christians who have the privilege and power among society, don’t want to hear her prophetic pleas for justice. And it seems like we never do.

The other day I was rereading through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail. Dr. King wrote this letter, in part, as an explanation to the white moderate pastors who have grown tired of his protests, remarks:

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstration into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 1986, 2003,p. 290)

His critics were more concerned with the civil unrest that was taking place in the quest for civil rights than they were for the injustices of racism and lynchings that oppressed people of color. The prophetic voice of Dr. King was too much for too many and we know this because we all know what happened on the morning of April 4, 1968.

I am a minister of the gospel who serves as a pastor with the Newark Church of Christ but I also believe my calling must bear an occasional prophetic voice too. So let me say unequivocally that mercy is a beautiful gift to offer but it should never diminish or neglect the need for justice. The vision of the gospel is one that offers both mercy and justice, not one over the other. But too often in America, where racism and racial injustices still exists, white Christians have clamored for grace and mercy while remaining silent when it comes to justice. It’s time for this posture to end. Mercy without justice must end.

This calls for repentance.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8, NRSV

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

Church: Mission or Model?

As a pastor, I serve with the Newark Church of Christ. As a Church of Christ, we are connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The movement began with the vision of restoring New Testament Christianity which meant, at least in part, restoring the form of the first-century churches. Consequently, the New Testament was read as a blueprint for how people became Christians as well as the organization and worship of the local church.

Our Mission

With this post, let’s think a little more about the organization of the church or the form of the local church and how that relates to participating in the mission of God. Now despite my own history in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I have come to the conclusion that the attempt at restoring any form is the wrong approach. To begin with, I don’t believe the New Testament presents a monolithic description of the church. Their are several forms or ways that Christians organized in the New Testament and that seems as much a response to their cultural-context and needs as it as response to the gospel. Also, without dismissing any need for form, the New Testament seems more concerned with function.

I say all this just to acknowledge the lens through which I view the challenge of leading churches to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God. So the issue I am concerned with is the attention given on finding the right form or model of church. Right now I am reading through Francis Chan’s book Letters To The Church (see also Tim Challies review here) who assumes a monolithic church model in the New Testament (house churches) and compares it against the now traditional church model that most churches, including Restoration Churches, have adopted.

While Chan makes some valid criticisms about Christianity in America, his book compares the best of the house church model against the worst of the traditional model. Such comparisons hardly seem fair but there is a bigger issue that needs to be considered, which is the fact that all church models are just that — models, and not churches.

Here’s my point: The church is always the people no matter how they are organized. So regardless of how much idealism we muster up to promote one model over another, the reality is that people are still people and thus same basic challenges will surface eventually. Therefore, rather than advocating one model, a better approach might be to allow the church to form around the Spiritual-giftedness of the people in response to the local context but that’s for another post. I’m just voicing concern I have that when churches, especially those struggling with decline, go mining book for the next best model (remember The Purpose-Driven Church?).

The key to participating in the mission of God is discerning how God is at work among the local church and the surrounding community so that the believers can join in that work as followers of Jesus. Fortunately, the Newark Church of Christ is relearning how to do this. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect but we are beginning to see some of the kingdom-increase as we journey on mission with God.