On Judgment: They’re People, Not Problems

So there’s this trending video of a woman walking through a Target store as she holds up her Bible and rants about the evil of the devil and Target over the retail chain’s new transgender restroom policy. I haven’t linked the video here or shared it on any social-media platform because I refuse to give publicity to such stunts. If you want to see the video, do a Google search you’ll also see how effective she was in winning the masses to her viewpoint. And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

Like the infamous protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, this woman has the right to freely express her opinions and I have the right to mine. So when I saw the video clip, my reaction was a big sigh. After all, regardless of our opinions about the restroom policies of Target, it seems pretty stupid for someone to go waving their Bible around a store as they rant and carry on (= judgment). Such tactics may have had their place in some other bygone cultural era but not now… not in the twenty-first century of a post-Christendom society like much of America has become. Of course, I doubt this woman thinks about that or thinks much of what Jesus had to say about judging of others.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 6:37, NIV)

But as I thought about it more, I realized that a lot of people are quick to judge others. Everywhere we turn, people are passing judgment on others.

Judging Others

As a side gig to earn some extra money, I’ve been driving for Uber and do so mostly in the city of Baltimore. Like most cities, Baltimore has its share of social challenges. One of those challenges is a seemingly growing number of homeless people, both men and women, who either sleep in tents underneath overpasses or move around from shelter to shelter. When they’re not sleeping, they are standing at an intersection panhandling for money… a dollar or two from every willing motorist who is willing to spare a little extra cash.

While driving for Uber, I have heard a few riders make some rather condescending remarks (= judgment) about the panhandlers. It’s frustrating to hear how people who just finished eating dinner at an upscale sushi bar or steakhouse can so easily and so callously talk about the homeless. In fact, what this often brings to mind is Herman Melville’s powerful one-line critique of the well-off who pass judgment on the poor.

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

However, the other night something scary happened. As I was making a turn, a man panhandling for money was struck by another motorist. The man was flipped over the hood of the car, landing on his head and shoulders. It was scary because what turned out to be a spilled soda looked life, from a slight distance, blood flowing on the ground. The last thing I or anyone else wants to see is someone else seriously hurt or killed. Fortunately, other than a few bumps and scratches, the man appeared to be ok. The driver stopped and was visibly upset, worried that she had seriously hurt someone. Myself and a couple of other motorists got out of our vehicles to help the man who had been hit while waiting for the police and EMS to arrive on scene.

That gave me a chance to talk with both the man who had been hit by the car as well as the driver who hit him. The man’s name was Dan and the driver’s name was Chelsie. It was good to learn both of there names because that meant I had to see them both as people. And they both are people! Though they both have two different lives, they are nonetheless people. That is also to remember that they both are someone’s child, perhaps someone’s brother and sister, someone’s old classmate. The people we meet every day are people just like you and I.

As I was driving home later, I realized that it’s easy to become desensitized to the city and all of it’s challenges. It’s easy to see a bunch of inconsiderate drivers and forget that they are people with real lives, perhaps even a life that is unraveling and full of pain. Of course, I’m never one of those inconsiderate drivers so… Oh wait! It’s also easy to see panhandlers on every street corner and presume to know why they’re begging for money (= judgment) and to see them not as people with real lives, with real problems and real stories, though tragic as they probably are, of which I have been spared (but for the grace of God, there go I!).

Becoming More Like Jesus

I don’t have the answer to all the social challenges face America, whether it’s homelessness, transgender rights, or else. What I do know is that we must resist judgment and condemnation, opting instead to engage people and get to know them by name. When we get to know someone by name, we see them as a person rather than a problem, and people are always people we must love rather than problems we must overcome. I am not saying that we can never have any convictions about what is right and wrong or by engaging people that our understanding of right and wrong must change. Sometimes our encounters with other people should and will move us to adjust our views and sometimes they won’t and shouldn’t but that is besides the point. What must change is us… you and I!

Rather than judging and condemning people we hardly know, if we even know them at all, we must become present with them and engage them so that we can get to know them a little more. That’s true for the transgender person standing in line at Starbucks with us, it’s true for the person panhandling for money at the intersection on our way home from work, and it’s true for our neighbor who doesn’t speak English too well, who has different political and religious beliefs than us, and it’s even true for the neighbor who’s favorite football team is the rival of our favorite football team. Though we cant strike up a conversation with everyone, it is to say that instead of passing judgment we should get to know the people we are quick to judge. When we do, what changes is us. We become more understanding, full of compassion, and eager to show mercy. And that means we become more like Jesus.

And if we still feel that someone or some organization has made a wrong decision, then I have a suggestion. Rather than going on a public rant I would like to suggest that we pray about it. That too seems more like Jesus!

Cruciformed: Reflections on the 2016 Pepperdine Bible Lectures

A week ago I was on my way to the best Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s to date, at least in my opinion. I’m thankful for the leadership of Mike Cope, Rick Gibson, and the rest of the staff for organizing and hosting such an encouraging time of worship, fellowship, and teaching. This years theme was Cruciformed: Living In Light of the Jesus Story which is always a very timely but perhaps even more so as more and more Christians among North America recognize that we now live in a post-Christendom/post-Christian society.

The main features of the Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s are always the worship, fellowship, and teaching. The bonus is the location of Malibu, California with the view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had many people ask if I was having a good time and I’m sure I asked other people the same question. Nevertheless, it seems that one would really have to try hard not to have a good time.

I have always enjoyed gathering for worship at the Firestone Fieldhouse, as the singing is uplifting. Whether singing a song like How Great Is Our God or The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a blessing to Ruby Bridges, my heart is filled with joy. And yes, I just mentioned Ruby Bridges, who delivered a powerful message late Wednesday evening. Her message was one that everyone in living in America, and especially every parent, needed to hear. Hearing N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd speak and teach was a joy because I have learned so much from these two Christian scholars from their books. While I was encouraged and challenged by every keynote address, I especially appreciated the addresses delivered by Randy Harris on The Scandal of Carrying the Cross and Dave Clayton on The Scandal of the Resurrection. I enjoyed all of the classes I went to but really the 2-part class taught by Pat Bills called Once Bitten, Twice Shy which is about the way elders and ministers lead together (available on a free podcast here); if you’re an elder or minister then I highly encourage you to download the two sessions and listen to them.

Hula PieBesides the worship and teaching at the Bible Lectures, fellowship is also a key feature. Like always, I run into old friends and make new friends. Some people I meet in person for the first time after already knowing them through social-media, which is really nice. I’m terrible at remembering names but if I ran into you, it was my delight to speak with you even if it was only for a brief minute or so. Of course, the one disappointment, as there is never enough time to spend with friends. And to the friends who recommended that I order the Hula Pie at Duke’s (pictured to the left), it was great but next year I really hope that my wife can come with me to share some pie as well as some great worship, teaching, and fellowship.

While Shopping At Target This Week…

The author of the post below, Tim Pyles, is a fellow minister who serves with the Broken Arrow Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m thankful for his reflection here. Read on…

Thinking Out Loud

target store

I needed to purchase a few household items on Tuesday, and I just happened to be driving past the SuperTarget store that is near our home. I was vaguely aware of Target’s recent policy statement regarding the use of their restrooms by transgender individuals, and I had also seen an online headline or two about the American Family Association’s initiation of a petition to boycott the retailer. If you find it hard to believe that I wasn’t thoroughly steeped in all the sordid details of the “outrage du jour” among some conservative Christians, trust me when I tell you that my father’s death and funeral last week have kept me from being overly concerned about this latest skirmish in our nation’s culture wars.

So, I walked into Target on Tuesday and…. everything seemed so perfectly normal. The people looked perfectly normal. Well, normalcy is relative; everyone at least looked “big…

View original post 1,315 more words

Baptism: What Are We Missing?

Sadly, the teaching and practice of baptism is a conflicted issue among Christians. Talk to ten different churches in any community and one will certainly hear at least several different views, if not more, expressed about baptism. The snarky part of me wonders if the only thing Christians agree one about baptism is that it somehow involves water and is mentioned in the Bible. While that’s an overstatement of the case, it does highlight the confusion that exists over the issue of baptism. It also seems that what most churches have to say regarding baptism is, at best, only a part of the story. So could this not actually be a problem and one that runs deeper than the issue of baptism itself?

Woman Being Baptized

Two Opposite Positions…

Most of the conversation about baptism has to do with the bigger subject of salvation. As humans, we are sinners and our only hope for salvation is the grace of God, particularly expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This good news calls us to renounce our sinful way and receive this grace, the promise of salvation, from God which calls for a response of faith. That much all Christians seem to agree on but it is at this place in conversation where baptism is located and also where a divergence of trajectories regarding the role of baptism begins.

There are two popular positions among contemporary Christianity which are polar opposites of each other. The first position, and one I am the most familiar with since it is held by most Churches of Christ, says that baptism is essential for an individual to receive the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, it is held that one cannot possibly be saved without baptism and without receiving baptism for this reason which unintentionally seems to reduce to nothing more than a “ticket to heaven.” The other position says that baptism is not essential for an individual to receive the the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, baptism is viewed as merely a symbol that may even be optional as to whether or not one participates in baptism.

It’s important to understand that churches espousing both positions can cite biblical proof-texts and put forth reasons based on those biblical passages to support each view. My own view is that baptism is a necessary part of receiving the promise of salvation and therefore baptism cannot be reduced to a mere symbol but that baptism as a sacrament (means of grace) cannot be expanded into the sum-total of God’s grace so that we cannot exclude from the fellowship of Christ those who, for whatever reason, have believed in Jesus but were unable to be baptized (in fact, I am personally inclined simply to proclaim Christ and invite those who believe to receive baptism and let God do the judging about who receives his promise of salvation and when they receive that promise). But the problem with both positions is that they seemingly fail to account for the real reason why Paul even mentions baptism in Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27-28 (I have linked to the extended passages in each book so you can click on those links and read the passages for yourself).

Digging Deeper…

In both Romans and Galatians Paul is dealing with issues stemming from differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians as a result of the inclusion of Gentiles in the gospel. In Romans, Paul is particularly addressing the question of how God can show favor (grace) to both Jews and Gentiles. By insisting that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether Christians should continuing in sin so that the grace of God might increase. In short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that the Christian has been “baptized into Christ.” In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the question of whether or not one is saved on the basis of faith or the Mosaic Law. By insisting that Christians are saved on the basis of faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether the Law or any other status marker, such as maleness, gives one an advantage. Again, in short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that Christians have been “baptized into Christ.”

Do we see the problem? When we reduce baptism to merely a “ticket to heaven” or just a symbol having nothing to do with salvation, we lose the meaning of baptism in both Romans and Galatians. We also reduce the biblical meaning of salvation from being redeemed and transformed into the image of Christ to mere forensic justification of our sins but I digress. Getting back to the problem, in both cases Paul is neither concerned with the issue of baptism being necessary for salvation (though based on my understanding of scripture, I believe Paul would be dumbfounded at the suggestion that baptism is unnecessary) nor with whether baptism nullifies faith if it is indeed necessary (Paul, I believe, would say that baptism is part of our faith response to the work of God in baptism which we receive from God, which is why he speaks of our baptism in the passive-tense voice). These are issues we bring to scripture ourselves, sometimes making so much of them that we fail to see what scripture actually says. Furthermore, if baptism is merely about getting saved or just a symbol of salvation, what Paul says about baptism in Romans and Galatians makes little sense.

Paul is rhetorically invoking the experience of baptism into his arguments in Romans and Galatians because in baptism we undergo a profound change that reorients the aim (telos) of our life as believers who follow Jesus. Baptism is our surrender to Jesus in which we give up our old life in exchange for his new life. Faith here is not having perfect doctrinal knowledge of what baptism is but is entrusting ourselves to God, letting him do the work of crucifying us with Christ and then raising us into the new resurrected life of Christ (indeed a mystery of faith). Because we have been baptized and therefore have died to the old life, we cannot continue allowing sin to rule our lives. Likewise, our value and role is not determined anymore by our ethnicity, gender, and social-status since we have been baptized into Christ. As a result of God baptizing us into Christ, we are now equals in Christ who live our lives as instruments of righteousness and we have faith that God has saved us, is saving us, and will save us when Christ returns.

Why This Matters…

We have often heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week because local churches tend to be homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity. There’s a lot of truth to this. Many local churches have also been fellowships where being white, wealthy, and male means power over minorities, the poor, and females. At the same time, the demarcation that the Christian church as the fellowship of Christ distinct from the world has becoming increasingly blurred, so much that some Christians are unsure of the differences between the way of Christ and the way of being a good American.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this has also occurred when baptism has too often either been reduced to a mere salvation ticket or a mere symbol of salvation. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s time that to rethink our understanding of baptism, dig deeper into the theology of this sacrament, and consider what it truly means to live as a people who have been baptized into Christ. After all, if we truly desire to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, it seems necessary that we truly understand that we have indeed been baptized into Christ and belong to his new life − lest we continue living as though we are baptized into some other reality still belonging to the old way of life.

As a minister who has been asking questions about baptism for sometime, I still feel like there is much more digging to be done and more repenting to do! How about you?

Psalm 23 and Pastoral Leadership

One of the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday is Psalm 23. The most popular Psalm, known to most from the King James Version, this Psalm has been featured in Hallmark Cards, recited at memorial services, and quoted numerous times in a plethora of different contexts. It’s certainly an appropriate scripture to read for worship and devotion on the fourth Sunday of Easter, as the Lectionary suggests. After all, since God has raised Jesus from death and made him Lord, by faith we can live confidently knowing that the Lord is indeed our Shepherd and is guiding us as he invites us to eternally dwell with him at his table and in his house.

As I read through Psalm 23 I couldn’t help myself from thinking about ministry as it pertains to pastoral leadership. Pastoral responsibilities is a part of serving a church as a minister. Besides preaching and teaching, a minister works at the bedside of someone in the hospital or at a local cafe having lunch with someone wanting to talk about some struggles. This is the primary reason why we who serve as ministers are often called “Pastor” in our day.

Yet because I believe that leadership in a local church includes elders serving as shepherds, my concern for pastoral leadership isn’t just with the role of the pastor/minister but the role of those called to serve as elders. When reading Psalm 23, I am immediately drawn to the sense of peace David has with the Lord. David knows that he can trust the Lord to do right and lead him in the right way no matter the circumstances, including those times of walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4, KJV). That raises a question about pastoral leadership in the local church, since the Lord is shepherding his flock through the leaders he has raised to serve that church. The question can be stated as the following: How must the leaders of a church serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances?

I don’t have the definitive answer to such a question and I believe it is a question that can only be answered by each local leadership. However, I do want to clarify a couple of things which might help any local church leadership answer this question. First off, when I speak of local leadership, I have in mind both the ministers and elders working together in a collaborative effort. Both ministers and elders are leaders that Christ has given to the local church. Failure of ministers and elders to work collaboratively to lead as a team creates unhealthy tension and disunity, which in turn diminishes the ability of a church to trust its leadership. Secondly, trust is attained on the ground with people and not just in an office or leadership meeting. Minister will spend some time in an office preparing teaching lessons, elders might choose to meet one evening a week to pray for their church, the elders and minister will meet to talk about the circumstances of the church in order to discern the way ahead, and… But ministers and elders must spend time meeting with people, listening to them, and serving them, if they want to gain their trust.

One suggestion I have for when ministers and elders meet together is to spend sometime dwelling in the word and they might do so beginning with Psalm 23. Spend some time reading this Psalm out-loud and dwelling on it, listening for what God might be saying about the way they serve and what it means for pastoral leadership. Then talk about this with each other, listening to what God might be saying through one another. Finally, as ministers and elders discern together how God is calling them to serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances, hold each other accountable to such service. If the leadership of a church can do this, I believe the result will become a much more healthy and spiritually mature church that is able to continue participating in the mission of God.

Is Your Church Looking For A Minister?

Coffee and BibleFor the past fifteen years I have served as a minister. Besides pursuing an education in theology and ministry, serving as a minister has included opportunities such as volunteering in a local county jail, short-term mission trips to Brazil, and vocationally serving with churches in part-time and full-time roles. I’ve learned some important lessons along the way, including the sort of minister God has formed me as and gifted me for. I like the word minister because it speaks of one who serves. More than a job, ministry is a way of life lived in service to God and neighbor. Ultimately, serving as a minister is about helping people as a follower of Jesus.

A Minister of the Gospel

So who am I as a minister? Perhaps the best way of summing this up is to say that I am a pastoral theologian and leader. I don’t mean a theologian in the academic sense, though I appreciate the work academic theologians. What I mean is that I am a pastor and teacher, in terms of spiritual gifting for leadership (cf. Eph 4:11).

  • As a pastoral theologian, I am continuously engaged in a conversation about what God is saying in scripture in light of present circumstances. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the apostle Paul says that “all scripture is inspired of God” that people might be “equipped for every good work.” So whether preaching, teaching a Bible class, or having a conversation with someone over a cup of coffee, I am trying to understand the gospel and its implications for the present circumstances so that others might live by the grace of God full of faith and hope in Christ. Whether it is preaching on Sunday, visiting with someone in a hospital room on Monday, having a Bible study with someone on a later day, and so forth, I enjoy it very much.
  • As a leader, I am seeking to help the church faithfully participate in the mission of God. In Ephesians 2:10, the apostle Paul describes the church as God’s “handiwork” or as God’s “work of art” as the New Jerusalem Bible renders the passage. Paul is describing the church as God’s artwork on display to the world as the church embodies the gospel through “good works.” My role is helping equip a local church for good works so that the gospel is faithfully embodied among the local community in a relevant manner. This is a task that requires listening to the way God is speaking among scripture, the local church, and the local community.

This is the minister I believe God has made me and called me to be. Though far from perfect, I seek to follow Jesus and take scripture seriously. With passion, courage, and conviction, I want to help a local church live as an embodiment of the gospel.

So, how could I help your church? By listening, modeling evangelism and ministry, by mentoring people for discipleship, and by leading the church in biblical reflection for its spiritual and numeric growth through preaching and teaching. If this is the kind of minister your church needs, then contact me at k.rex.butts@gmail.com and let’s begin a conversation.

Reclaiming The Way of Jesus

As you know, Christianity began as a very counter-cultural movement of Jesus followers. As communities of believers, these disciples gave total allegiance to Jesus and proclaimed him, who was crucified, as the resurrected Lord and Messiah. The result was marginalization from society and sometimes even persecution. Yet, with all the resistance and animosity towards this movement, it continued growing and spreading. Today Christianity has spread around the globe and continues spreading with its proclamation of Jesus, doing so even in places where followers of Jesus are still oppressed and sometimes persecuted.

A lot of significant events have happened since the first Easter, some for the good and some not. One of these significant events was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. After his conversion, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan giving legal status to Christianity as a religion and brought an end to persecution. This new status meant also meant a new challenge for Christianity as a movement.

Following the conversion of Constantine, as Christianity found favor with the state, an alliance was formed between church and state. This relationship between the church and state resulted in the eventual formation of a Christendom, a geopolitical reality in which the values and practices of society were mandated by the church. With such power came corruption and a lot of bad, including religious wars that eventually gave rise to secularism and the emergence of modernism. The result in Europe and now in North America has been the slow and steady decline of Christendom.

Even though the U.S. Constitution has maintained a separation between Church and State, America was still very much a Christendom society (was being the key word), Though there are still some local cultures, particularly across the Bible-belt, where Christendom still lingers to some extent, America has become a post-Christendom society.

Our calling is faithfulness to Jesus, living as his followers. Whether or not such faithfulness is attractive or expedient is inconsequential. What matters is our faithfulness!

As you know, as Christians, our way forward is always in following Jesus. But as we renew our call to live as followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society, I suggest we should give more consideration of the ways that America has often colonized our faith. For far too long Christianity in America has been a faith in which its adherents, Christians, have believed that one could serve both church and state. While that might be possible for some, for far too many, it seems, this has led to serving the aims (telos) of the state rather than the aim of the gospel. Christianity becomes a privatized belief expressed on Sunday while the rest of life is rather coherent with the values of the state… politically, economically, and so forth. Our faith in Jesus must redefine our entire life. The gospel must become the reality that shapes our values and practices, thereby redefining our lives so that Jesus’ way of life becomes our way of life − easy to talk about but much more difficult to do.

So here is where I want to take this post and the reason I wrote it. One question we have to answer is whether the way of Jesus will be our way period or only our way only when it makes sense with whatever circumstances we are facing. In other words, is our belief in Jesus merely utilitarian or is it our gospel? As the authors of the book StormFront write:

The church that lives by the gospel is called by that gospel to a different kind of life. The church is called to model a form of life in which faithfulness, love, and allegiance are not merely utilitarian virtues to be discarded when inconvenient, but rather the bedrock upon which life is built. Participating in resurrection life means living as if love really is stronger than death, as if faithfulness really is more powerful than the naked pursuit of self-interest. In the midst of a society that believes that all bets must be hedged, that all loyalties must be conditioned upon self-interest, the church dares to live differently (pp. 69-70).

Our calling is faithfulness to Jesus, living as his followers. Whether or not such faithfulness is attractive or expedient is inconsequential. What matters is our faithfulness! But I also believe the way of Jesus in which we live as humble servants who love one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies, is a beautiful life that many are looking for and the only life that will endure.