Category Archives: Theology

Life Together: The Life God Created Us to Live

In Confessions, Saint Augustine mentions how some people ask the question, “What was God doing before he made the heavens and earth?” He answers by basically saying that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions. I appreciate Augustine’s humorous response because like the question of whether God can build a rock so big that he can’t move it, such questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. Good theology reflects instead upon God’s revelation of himself to us and how is at work among us. Such theological reflection allows us to also understand how we are called to serve as participants in the mission of God.

Life Together PictureIn reflecting on God and his work, we gain insight into the life for which we have been created and are being redeemed to live as followers of Jesus Christ.* So when we come to the Genesis creation narrative, we discover that the heavens and earth are the cosmic temple in which God dwells as the king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). Yet God is at work doing even more.

Genesis one reminds us that what God has created is good. So we must reject any ideas of platonic dualism in which physical creation is something bad that we need to overcome or escape. Instead, we happily find ourselves among creation and here is our first hint as to why… “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground” (Gen 1:28). So among the garden, God is cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of creation and we are to participate with God in the cultivation of this life.

“The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community.”

Chapter two of Genesis offers another portrayal of God creating that expands further on this life that God has created us to live. First, we are told in vv. 15-17, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!'” Walter Bruegemann identifies three characteristics of the life God envisions here vocation, permission, and prohibition (Genesis, p. 46). In other words, God has created us to work and gives us much freedom to use our abilities but God also places some restrictions. Secondly, the male is alone and in need of a suitable “helper” (vv. 18, 20) who will become “one” (v. 24) as they multiply in offspring. The idea of a “helper” does not imply any sense of inferiority since elsewhere in scripture the Hebrew word ‘êzer is used to describe God as a helper of Israel and the Bible is not ascribing an inferior status to God. The point is that God has created us to live in community with others.

So God is at work creating an enduring community that continues growing and developing. The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community. Absent here are any notions of the individuality and autonomy that says we can live life apart from the help of God and each other. But do we understand what that means?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…” (Life Together, p. 27) In other words, if we love our vision of community more than we love the community then we destroy the community we actually live among. That seems very important because if we’re honest, I think sometimes we are more interested in our vision of community rather than listening to God. That is, we don’t mind the work it takes to cultivate community and we certainly love the idea of freedom but we treat the notion of having any restrictions on our freedom as an insult to our human dignity. Yet, we seem better at destroying the community of God’s creation than cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of God’s creation. So maybe it’s time that we start listening to God again as to how we should care for his creation rather than playing God by determining for ourselves what is right and wrong.

As a pastor, I believe in Jesus and I believe that it is ultimately God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus where we learn how to live as God’s true community. It is Jesus who teaches us how to love the community… Love God, love our neighbors, and even our enemies. Is that what we want? And if so, are we going to listen to Jesus? Or are we more in love with our own vision of community than joining with God in cultivating the life Jesus gave his life for?


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 2:15-25 called Life Together, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

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The Imago Dei: It’s Who We Are

Someone once said, “If you want to change the world, tell a different story.” That’s because storytelling is a very formative means of shaping our imaginations for how we live. In fact, Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” So if you want people to see the world differently and live differently, then the need to hear a different story.

Imago DeiA different story is what the Genesis Creation Narrative offers us.* In a world where ideas and objects are idolized as gods, the Genesis story of creation reminds us that there is only one God who has created humanity in his image and likeness. The point of the story is not to offer us a scientific account of how creation came about within history. Though we may have many questions about the scientific origins of human life within the history of time, forcing the text to answer all these questions — an issue that was never an issue among the Ancient Near-Eastern context — only obscures us from the real question of who we are as God’s creation and what this means for how we should live.

Ultimately, the vision for understanding our existence centers on our creation in the divine image. As Genesis 1:26-27 says, “The God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB).

“Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.”

Genesis chapter one, which vv. 26-27 occurs within, portrays a cosmic temple scene in which God dwells among his creation as a king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). This temple imagery has implications for our own creation in the image of God, as it means we are the royal subjects of God the king who by nature possess wealth and prestige. So even though the recent royal wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry locates royalty within a certain bloodline, the truth is that every person by virtue of their created nature possesses royalty. So just as God has given us the responsibility of serving as stewards of his creation, we serve as his royal priests with the vocational task of ensuring that life flourishes as God intends.

To this end, we must become more discerning about how God created us to live life. Currently, we live in a world that often assigns human value based on external factors… wealth, athleticism, intelligence, race and ethnicity, and certainly sexuality. Such external values are nothing but lies! Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.

There are many implications of possessing the divine image that need our attention. I’ll just briefly mention two.

  1. Sexuality. The value of both men and women is not determined by sexual willingness and performance, the physical shapes and abilities of their bodies, or by their specific genders. Both men and women are equally bear the divine image, the image and likeness that gives them an equal value of immeasurable wealth.
  2. Discrimination. The value of people are not determined by the color of their skin, their ethnic and national origin, social-economic status, or religious and political beliefs. All people are born bearing the divine image and so there is never any place nor time when racism and discrimination is acceptable.

So rather than seeing people as sexual objects to overcome for our own perverse satisfactions or viewing people as unequals whom we can oppress for our own gain, we must learn to love all people as subjects — human beings — made in the image of God. We must also learn to see ourselves as people made in the image and likeness of God. This is the beginning point for living the life God has created us to live. And when we learn to regard all people, including ourselves, as people who bear the divine image, then we’ll learn to start seeing people as Jesus sees people and do for people as Jesus does for people.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 1:1, 26-31 called Imago Dei, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

Romans, Reconciliation, and The Gospel

People ReconciliationOne doesn’t have to look very hard to see the problem of racism is a difficult issue in America. Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream that got him killed still has yet to be fully realized. Now I don’t make any claims of fully understanding the problem of racism or knowing how to fully address this very complex issue. However, I am a pastor who believes that local churches should be communities where racial-reconciliation is practiced because these churches are called to be a living embodiment of the gospel. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, following my previous post Racial Reconciliation and the Romans Road to Salvation from a couple weeks ago, I want to sketch how Romans instructs us on the practice of reconciliation.

The Racial Tension Among Churches

I had just begun a new ministry with a church that was very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. So here I was sitting at a table outside an ice-cream parlor where folks from the church were meeting for some milkshakes and fellowship. Sitting at the table with me, a White person, was a elderly man and his daughter who were both Black and another woman who was White. At some point in the conversation, the White woman sitting next to me mention how her dog did not like Black people.

Though I can’t recall the context of the conversation that preceded that comment, I can recall the look on the face of the Black woman sitting across from me. The offense and hurt was plainly evident on her face, and understandably so. Though the White woman wasn’t trying to discriminate or make any racial insults, her remark was unwise and lacking in any sensitivity. I could only imagine how such a remark aroused the memories of those times when this Black woman was given “the look” when she walked into a boutique full of White women, when she heard co-workers laughing in the break room at a “harmless” about Black people, and so forth.

As a fairly young minister at the time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. However, I knew something like this had the potential to become very divisive, disrupting the Christian unity that God was forming among this diverse church.

But there’s also another point to be observed from this story: reconciliation in a church is much more than the fact that people of different skin colors and ethnicities worship and fellowship together. As I said in my my previous post:

The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.

So even though worshiping and fellowshipping together is important, reconciliation that springs from the gospel of Jesus Christ is much more. Reconciliation is the embodiment of the gospel vision and that means that it is the practice of the ideal.

Putting The Gospel into Practice

In my previous post I was trying to show that we miss the point of Romans when we reduce salvation to the individual justification of sinners. Such reductionism comes from asking the wrong questions when reading through Romans which then obscures us from how Paul is trying to instruct a divided church of Jews and Gentiles to live as the people of God. Ergo, the church, where a person’s statues as justified before God is experienced, is a community. So even though salvation is a gift from God to each individual believer, the gift of salvation is fellowship within the community of God and his people. However, the embodiment or practice of reconciliation is necessary for this vision of salvation to exist as a concrete reality.

While a large portion of the New Testament speaks to this very issue, I will briefly draw our focus in this post on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In doing so, let’s assume that we understand that we all are guilty of sin and thus lack any foundation for passing judgment on one another. Let’s also assume that we are humble enough to know that it is only by the grace of God that we have been justified as sinners and are being sanctified. In making these assumptions, we not only embrace are large portion of what Paul has addressed in the first eight chapters but we are humble enough to have made the commitment of living as obedient children of God (baptism into Christ).

This is good. Now we are able to continue in presenting ourselves as living sacrifices while also recognizing that we are just a portion of the body, in need of the other portions whose skin color and ethnicity may differ from our own. But what happens when we encounter tension, when we do something that causes injury and offense, as I recalled in the story above? This is where Paul’s instructions about practicing love and equality with each other is so necessary. to hear again. Romans 12:9-10 says, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other” (CEB). Then in chapter fifteen Paul instructs with the admonition to “welcome each other, in the same way that Christ welcome you…” (v. 7).

As people committed then to loving each other, treating each other as equals, and extending hospitality to one another, we realize that at times we will have disagreements. We also recognize that because we are still sinners, we will at times say do things that offend each other. However, our love unto, equal regard for, and welcoming of each other regardless of race and ethnicity means that we are humble enough to repent and forgive each other. That is, when we offend, we go to those we have offended and confess our sin against them. We remain humble enough to listen so that we are able to learn from our mistake rather than repeat them same sin over and over again. Likewise, when we are offended and the offending person comes to us confessing their sin against us, we remember the we too are sinners forgiven by God and so we forgive the person who has sinned against us.

A Final Word…

This is what it means to practice the ideal of reconciliation and embody the very gospel of Jesus Christ through which we have been reconciled to God and each other. By embodying this gospel in the practice of reconciliation, which Romans provides instructions for doing so, we demonstrate what a true community of people belonging to God looks like. We show the world what love, equality, and hospitality truly are and then we are poised to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, explaining to the world how this good news is received from God. And we all know how much our neighbors among an increasingly diverse America, where racism and discrimination continue, so desperately needs to see and hear such good news.

Racial Reconciliation and The Romans Road to Salvation

Ask any group of Christians what there favorite book of the Bible is and more than a few will mention Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Then ask these Christians how Romans might speak to the issues of racism that have never gone away in America and you’re likely to see some very puzzled facial expressions. And this might just be part of the problem and a reason why the issue of racial-reconciliation, and lack there of, is still a glaring problem among Christianity in America.

People Reconciliation

Racial Reconciliation and the Christian Church

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Christian church is to be a reconciled community of believers from different races, ethnicities, and nationalities. That much should be clear to anyone reading through the New Testament. But the ideal of a reconciled church body and the reality are never the same. The later is always a work of God in progress. Nevertheless, Jesus was crucified in order to reconcile all people to God and each other as one new humanity. Thus, as the Apostle Paul said about Jews and Gentiles, that God’s purpose was “…to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).

Despite the ideal, Christians have woefully failed at times to embody this gospel throughout history and that is especially true in America. The painful history of racism and racial discrimination that resulted in the practices of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and many other racial injustices has resulted in a racially divided church throughout America. This is descriptors such as “predominately White churches” and “Black churches” are part of the Christian vernacular in America. It is why everyone knows the cliché that “Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America.”

Of course, in the last twenty-five years or so, it has seemed like racial reconciliation was happening among Christianity in America. To begin with, most Christians today disapprove of racial discrimination/segregation and condemn hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. More importantly, many churches are becoming more racially diverse. In fact, as a minister, I have visited and spoken among many local churches and while most of these churches were still predominately White, the churches are becoming multi-racial communities. However, this recent article, A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches, published by the New York Times reminds us of how little of racial-reconciliation has actually taken place. The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.

Romans: Asking The Wrong Questions

Reconciliation is hard work and that is why the much of the New Testament is speaking either directly or indirectly to this challenge. Reconciliation is hard work for God, who gave up his Son Jesus in death to reconcile all people. Reconciliation is also hard for us to practice reconciliation because it calls for us to humbly repent and learn how to love one another as Jesus has loved us (cf. Jn. 13:34). However, reconciliation is made even more difficult when we misread the vary letters among the New Testament addressing this very issue that is at the heart of the gospel.

One of those letters that I am speaking of is Romans. Does that surprise you? The suggestion that Christians in America have misread Romans should shock many Evangelicals, for whom Romans has sort of served as the go to text on the gospel of Jesus Christ—the message of salvation. In fact, Evangelicals has so relied upon Romans as the message of salvation that it was quite common to speak of the Romans Road to Salvation. However, the Evangelical understanding of salvation in Romans has to do with the individual justification of sinners in a legal (forensic) sense so that each justified believer may be forgiven of their sins and henceforth saved.

The problem with this traditional Evangelical understanding of Romans is that it has been shaped by the lens of sixteenth century Reformation questions rather than the first century context of a Jewish and Gentile church struggling to embody the gospel. To put it another way, Evangelicals have walked the Romans road asking the wrong questions while selectively cherry-picking certain passages that seemed applicable to these Reformation questions. In doing so, these cherry-picked passages have become proof-texts to uphold a view of salvation that is individualistic rather than communal and vertical (between God and the individual rather than both vertical and horizontal (where Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another as one people belonging to God).

A New Walk Down the Romans Road

Space will not allow for much survey of the text of Romans, let alone any detailed exposition. There are numerous commentaries, theological books, and even sermon series available that attempt this. I do want to suggest is that in light of the lack of reconciliation that exists within Christianity among America, what is needed in terms of reading the Bible is a new walk down the Romans road. However, this new walk must pay attention to the entire road rather than just a few selective spots, lest we only reaffirm what we already assume (which hasn’t resulted in reconciliation). In doing so, we not only will discover how God is reconciling both Blacks and Whites as well as many other races/ethnicities to himself and each other but we will learn the sort of new behaviors that are necessary for living as a reconciled people—a community baptized into Jesus Christ who are now empowered by the Spirit to glorify God by treating one another in Godlike ways (Gorman, Becoming The Gospel, p. 295). This is the salvation that God is bringing everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)!

Christian Witness: The Memory of Hope in a Secular Time

Over all, I have enjoyed a very good life. I was raised by Christian parents in a household with two brothers and two sisters. I’ve always had food on the table, adequate health care, and I’ve been blessed with a good education. Today I am a Christian and I’ve been able to spend much of my adult life serving as a minister with local churches which is something I love doing. I’ve been able to travel both nationally and internationally, which is more travel than a lot of people enjoy. Additionally, I have been married to my wonderful wife Laura for nearly nineteen years and we have been blessed with three wonderful children. So when I come home, I can definitely say that life is good.

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I have much to be thankful for and probably more so than I am even aware. So much that I give thanks to God each day for the life I have. Yet there have been times when life has been difficult. At the age of sixteen, I was critically injured in a car accident that should have been fatal. I was only twenty-three years old when my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive stage-4 cancer in his pancreas and died two months later. There have been times when my family and I have had very little financial resources to live on, creating a lot of unnecessary stress. However, the most difficult part of life came when my oldest son died, followed a year later by the death of my younger brother. That was such a difficult period of life and looking back, to think that I have thus survived this journey of grief I am on is sheerly by the grace of God.

In all of the ups and downs of life, I can still surely say that life is good. That doesn’t mean that life is always easy or pleasant. What makes life good is God, who blesses each day with existence and also blesses the existence of life with a future hope in Jesus Christ.

Now admittedly, if it were not for this future hope in Jesus Christ then a lot of life would seem like one big cruel joke. I say that because there is too much bad, too much evil, and too much pain that goes on and that seems especially true for people in certain parts of the world where every-single-day is a constant struggle among abject poverty, living with systematic injustices, and having the apparent the cruel misfortunes of being born the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong nationality, etc…

I can’t explain why the bad exists… Well, I probably could begin to do so but at the end of the day, all such explanations seem inadequate. So I won’t. What I will say is that despite the bad, life is still good and I believe it is so because of the promise of hope that God has made in Jesus Christ. As scripture says in 1 Peter 1:3-5:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heave for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This is the Christian difference regarding life. Life is good not because of the present circumstances, which are ever changing for better and worse, but because the future is salvation — life redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

As Christians we can’t forget this and lose our memory of hope. In this time of secularism that has become America, the secularist sees hope for the future when the economy is strong, when good paying jobs are plentiful, when the children are doing well in school and extra-curricular activities, and so forth. But as nice as that is, it could all be gone tomorrow.  As Christians though, we see things differently and must. We see through our memory of hope, recalling the story of Jesus that culminates in his crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation. Because of that, we know the future full of hope. Our memory of hope is our Christian witness and we speak of it as an invitation for our secular neighbors to discover what can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

 

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?

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

According to Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Before this, followers of Jesus were typically called “believers” or “disciples.” But now the citizens of Antioch said they were Christians and I’m pretty certain they were not meaning to compliment these believers. To say “I am a Christian” today may draw some sneers but not for the same reasons. So perhaps we can ponder a little more what it means to be a Christian.

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the eyes of this Greco-Roman city, these people were following someone who had been crucified and as the apostle Paul would later remind the Christians in Corinth, this was considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). As a matter of fact, Jesus was not considered a hero or a good honorable person among the unbelievers, to some he was a crucified ass as the third-century Alexamenos Graffito etching depicts. And I use this language not to be vulgar but so that we might understand the point. If hearing Jesus spoken of as a crucified ass makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Christians must have felt  nearly two-thousand years ago. Yet these Christians remained fiercely loyal, swearing their allegiance to King Jesus and embodying the way of life he lived while on earth — even to the point of suffering death themselves.

But my, my… How things have changed. I once was asked by a barista in a local coffee house if I considered myself a mainline Protestant Christian or an Evangelical Christian. Realizing that this person likely had assumption about both groups that I didn’t want to own, I was very thankful for my Restoration heritage which gave me the language of saying “Christian only but not the only Christians,” So I told the barista, “I’m just a Christian and nothing else.”

That seemed like a good answer in 2007 but ten years later, I’m not so sure. There are ideas associated with the term Christian that give me reason to pause and sometimes option to just say that I am a follower of Jesus. So it’s not that I’m ashamed to confess my faith in Jesus, as I’m not, It’s just that when Christianity has become so embedded in American politics that it’s nearly impossible at times to see any cultural difference between the two, then Christian means something very different from what Christianity should be.

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

As already pointed out, Christianity began as a way of life. To be a believer was to be a disciple of follower of Jesus in community with other believers. That is what it meant to be a Christian and thus to be a part of the ekklesia of King Jesus. It was more than just believing. It was believers putting into practice what they believed about Jesus and the life he lived while on earth.

However, Christianity as a practice isn’t how we typically think of being a Christian. MacIntyre describes a practice saying:

“A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice” (After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 190).

In other words, every good has certain practices that must be followed for that good to exist. If the good is playing the guitar, then there are certain practices such as properly fretting chords and scales, picking techniques, etc…  that must be learned and followed to say I can play the guitar. Any person may be able to pick up a guitar and produce a sound from making contact with the strings but that does not make such a person a guitar player. The same is true with Christianity. There are certain practices that must be learned and followed to say that we are being a Christian (for an accessible read on such practices, I would begin with Fitch, Faithful Presence, 2016). While there is room for debate about what practices are necessary, there shouldn’t be any regarding the need for learning and following certain “standards of excellence” and “rules” in order to be Christian.

This MacIntyrean understanding of practice helps us as we think about our own confession of faith. To be a Christian is not just to believe in Jesus and have a set of beliefs about what is taught in scripture, it is to follow Jesus as a way of life. While that sounds so obvious, just a quick observation of society shows that it doesn’t always translate into practice. Yet it must. If we confess faith in Jesus then we must reclaim Christianity as a particular practice of which Jesus is the interpretive lens that focuses our understanding of what this practice involves.

SO THEN…

Our goal is the formation of Christ in our lives (cf. Gal 4:19) and it requires more intentionality on our part. If our desire to become like Jesus, then we must invest in the practices following Jesus. This isn’t a works oriented salvation, it’s called repentance and it is part of Jesus’s original call to come follow him… learning to be distinctly Christian.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40, NIV