Tag Archives: Discipleship

Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality

Christianity in America is currently in somewhat of a precarious state. Many local churches are declining, with some even closing, and while the influence of Christianity’s past is still evident, it is increasingly contested and rejected by the populace. The beliefs and values embraced by society reflects a growing acceptance of religious pluralism. We now see the convergence of humanism and secularism expressed through the American lens of individual liberty, which is welcomed under the rubric of tolerance.

Empty Church Building

Now I’m neither celebrating nor lamenting the changes that have taken place in America. I’m simply trying to name what is happening with the intention that I might be of some help to Christians and local churches in navigating the new challenges we face in the wake of such changes in culture.

One of these challenges is facing the reality that Christendom is over. By Christendom, I am talking about the importation of post-Constantinian Christianity from Europe into America in which the culture of society was heavily influenced by the power and prevalence of Christianity. By saying that Christendom is over, I am speaking in a proleptic sense in which its future death is already a conclusion or prognosis like that of a person diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. That is, even though the vestiges of Christendom are still visible in America, the future fate of Christendom is already known and it’s evident by loss of Christianity’s influence in American culture.

The challenge for local churches and the Christians who make up those churches is learning to live as faithful followers and witnesses of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. Part of that challenge is overcoming any denial, though that is easier said than done. As Douglas John Hall points out:

In some places, including much of our own continent, it can even appear that Christendom is alive and well, unless one looks beneath the surface. In such contexts, Christian congregations and even whole denominations are able to carry on as usual, as if nothing had happened. But this response is often visibly contrived, and it is viable only as long as the economic conditions of churches are relatively sound. With each new decade, more and more Christians are driven to realize the watershed through which Christendom is passing (“The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,” p. 4).

In other words, the relative “success” of a local church is enough to obscure the reality of what is taking place. Christians are likely only hit with the post-Christendom reality when they see the decline of Christianity’s influence in visible manifestations. These manifestations might be the realization that once effective evangelism programs are no longer effective, that the small crowd of gathered worshipers are mostly over the age of fifty, or even seeing a church close for good.

Another challenge, it accepting the loss of Christendom and learning to live as the church in a post-Christendom culture. Many Christians are still trying to preserve a Christendom culture and in doing so, hinder learning how to live as “exiles” participating in the mission of God among a secular society that once was Christian but is no more.

One recent example is Franklin Graham encouraging Christians to vote saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” Can the post-Christendom reality not be any more clear when the suggested way for Christians to avoid losing is voting in an election? Can we not see the death of Christendom when fear is the motivation for engaging in state politics, a coercive form of power, in an effort to retain Christian interests?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither opposed to Christians voting nor am I trying to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. Voting isn’t the problem per se. What is the problem is the suggestion that Christians must vote or lose. Franklin Graham’s plea begs the question of what is it that Christians stand to lose? A worldly kingdom or the kingdom of God? Which kingdom are Christians really fighting for if the fear of losing America, or any other nation, is what motivates their political engagement?  The suggestion is just another example of the way Christians fail to understand and accept the post-Christendom reality that is America in the twenty-first century.

But in coming to the point where Christian are implored to vote if they wish to win, perhaps we can see the futility in clinging to the vestiges of Christendom. If so, then there might just be some space opening up for reimagining how local churches can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. For that, stay tuned.

Reading Scripture as Followers of Jesus

Reading the Bible is as necessary to living as a Christian as sleep is in living as a healthy person. Continuously deprive ourselves of sleep and it’s our health that suffers. As Christians, deprive ourselves of reading the Bible and our faith will certainly suffer. But just as we can have habits that make sleeping more difficult, like eating right before bedtime, it’s possible to read the Bible in ways that actually makes living our faith more difficult. This is why it’s not just important that we read the Bible but it’s also important to think about how we read the Bible.

Coffee and BibleIn my experience as a pastor, there are some ways in which Christians read the Bible that are unhelpful, at best, and may in fact hinder discipleship. These include readings that ignore the context, dogmatic proof-texting or cherry-picking, and readings that focus simply knowing the times and dates of presumed prophetic event to come, and prosperity readings, to name a few.

Part of the problem is that there just does not seem to be enough attention given to thinking about and learning how to read the Bible. There’s plenty of encouragement towards reading the Bible but seemingly little attention given to the how of reading the Bible. That must change and it must change because as Christians, we are called to follow Jesus.

So as followers of Jesus, we ought to read the Bible in order to become more like him so that we may more faithfully embody the good news of the kingdom of God like Jesus did. That means we must go beyond just a reading of scripture that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible says a lot of things but that neither settles the matter nor does it mean we just automatically do ________ because the Bible says so (which is impossible anyway). Instead, I want to propose that we must ask about how Jesus lived the ________ teaching in ________ passage of scripture from both the Old and New Testament.

Take for example two passages of scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. First, Jeremiah 29:4-7

“The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

and then, 1 Peter 2:11-12

“Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

The historical context for each passage is different. Jeremiah is addressing how the people of Judah should live in exile, whereas Peter is addressing how Christians in Asian Minor should live as people whose faith makes them exiles among society. The common thread in each passage is that both passages are addressing the way God’s people should live within a society that is not their true home. Another common thread is that as we read each passage, we know that we are not facing the same exact circumstances as the people of Judah and Asia Minor.

So instead of reading each passage and literally transposing it’s instructions onto our own circumstances, I believe we must start with the question of how do we see the teaching of these two passages lived out in the life of Jesus. Answering this question is far from settling the matter of how we live (embody) these teachings and it is is a question that is better discerned within a community of believers. However, once we discern this question then we can also ask how Christians have embodied this teaching throughout history (tradition) and what/where God is working in our local community (culture).

This is the missional hermeneutic, in which Now we engage scripture, tradition, and culture together in a conversation. I believe this is where God opens space for us to reimagine what it means to embody the gospel. The result is a new way forward, that is both coherent with the life Jesus calls us to follow him in live and relevant for the local community we live among. As we do, we live the teaching of scripture among the community as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God.‬

Tell me what you think?

Following Jesus in 2020

Face of Jesus ChristHere we are in the second week of 2020, which seems a bit surreal. I was just getting used to saying 2019 and now it’s 2020. Churches have just traversed from a season of Advent into the season of Epiphany, from the birth of King Jesus to God’s revelation of King Jesus to the entire world. But does that mean anything?

As we step forward into year 2020 in America, we do so in a year of contention. President Trump is facing an impeachment trial, there is a rapidly escalating conflict with Iran, and there is an upcoming political election that is sure to bring out the worst vitriol and anger in many people. Besides all the contentious politics in America, we live in a society that has been sinking into a moral quagmire for sometime. Whether we talk about the life of the unborn, the increasing number of socially displaced poor living in our neighborhoods, or the life of immigrants seeking refuge from war and violence in their homeland, their livelihood always seems to come at the expense of politics. But where I find myself is with a growing disappointment for the ways in which it seems some Christians respond, acting as though the politics of right and left matter more than lives affected by these challenges.

Have we forgotten what it means to live as followers of Jesus? I’m talking about the Jesus we read of in scripture, who embraced the powerless over the powerful, took up the cause of the oppressed by show mercy and acting with justice, became a humble servant rather than an ego-driven despot, and who chose the way of the cross rather than the much easier way of the sword. This is the Jesus we are called to follow and the Christianity we profess as our religion must be coherent with the life Jesus lived, is nothing but another self-made false religion.

So as 2020 is upon us, I’ve heard a lot of pastors talking about sharing a “2020 Vision” with their church. I don’t have any problem with the language, playing on the year 2020, if that helps captivate the attention of the church. But from where I sit, churches don’t need a 2020 Vision for some new ministry initiative or how they can help take their church to the next level, whatever that means. What churches need is a 2020 vision for who Jesus is and the kingdom he called us to serve in as his followers.

On the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for this disciples. As a part of his prayer, he asked his Heavenly Father…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, os that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:16-19 (NRSV)

Clearly Jesus did not want his followers withdrawing or from the world, which I believe includes not avoiding the problems that society must face. Rather, Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. However, in sending his disciples into the world, he does so with the expectation that they will be sanctified which has to do with being set apart in the world for the mission of God. This is the rub, the tension. How do we, as followers of Jesus, live in society facing numerous challenges and live as believers who singular focus is participating in the mission of God? 

I certainly don’t have the final answer but I remain committed to living as a follower of Jesus. And by that, I mean striving to live my life by the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived so that my life might be a coherent reflection of who Jesus is. I’m sure I’ll fail along the way but that is my commitment. As a pastor, I am also preaching through the Gospel of John this winter and spring with the Newark Church of Christ. As I preach through the Gospel of John, I am asking the question of what God is doing in Jesus as a way of trying to understand what is this eternal life that the church is called to participate in as believers following Jesus. And that’s it… I hope that by living as a follower of Jesus and preaching about Jesus, that whatever influence I have will be harnessed towards encouraging others to live as followers of Jesus.

 

The Witness of Preaching The Word.

If you’re a pastor then one of your responsibilities likely includes some preaching and the same is true for me. You may not preach every Sunday or maybe you’re a student pastor who speaks at a gathering of high school students every month. Whatever your role as a pastor among your church is, you understand the importance sharing a word from God in the scriptures when the time comes. As the apostle Paul says, “Preach the word…” (2 Tim 4:2).

preachingWhen it comes to preaching, most of us understand the importance of preparation. We’ve read a few books on the subject of homiletics, we’ve learned the skills of exegeting a biblical text and reflecting theologically on that text. More importantly, we know that tending to our own faith is important if we are to preach from a life of authenticity. That is, we know that we must be disciplined in living as a follower of Jesus ourselves if we are going to preach messages that ultimately are asking people to place their trust in Jesus and follow him.

That’s all good and I don’t want to diminish the importance of sermon prep and tending to our own faith at all. However, I do want to talk about another aspect of good sermon prep that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. I’m talking about the being with other people, which is both very pastoral and, as I will try to explain, necessary for good preaching.

In his book Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch writes about the way God is present in the world and the church is the people whom God works through to make his presence known. That’s because the presence of God isn’t aways obvious and so “he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see” (p. 27). Later in the book is a chapter devoted to the discipline of preaching and a part of that chapter is about the preacher.

The preacher must not stand over the community but must stand as one among the community being present to the people in the community’s midst, for it is in this space that Jesus is found. From this posture comes the practice of proclamation. This is not a rhetorical performance. This is proclamation of the gospel for the people gathered in Christ’s name in this space and in this time (p. 100).

In times where we hear too many stories of pastors who stand over the people as authoritarians because they have a large platform, that is worth reading again and again but I digress.

Besides taking time to engage in some exegesis of the text, an important and critical aspect of sermon prep is spending time with people. Whether that’s visiting someone in the hospital, spending some time in a local coffee house with a college student, or just enjoying some food and fellowship with a small group, this time spent with others is invaluable to preaching. Not only will it (and should it) help shape the focus and function  of our message (cf. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3d ed., 2016) but it will also help us discern what biblical texts we might preach, whether we’re selecting from one of the lectionary readings or planning a themed sermon series.

When we spend time with others, listening to them we are able to discern where God might be working. This opens space for the intersection of the gospel with the lives we are living so that we all might reimagine how God is working in our lives both individually and as a church. This is why Fitch rightfully says that “Proclaiming the gospel is always contextual” (p. 103).

Now as a pastor, I understand that it’s impossible to spend equal time with everyone but spending time with people is more about the quality of that time than quantity. Are we attentively listening and observant as to how God might be working when we are with people? Another important question is to ask if we are even spending time with people? I don’t know that it’s a given practice of serving as a pastor anymore, which is a shame. But if you want to preach good sermons that help lead others in the way of Jesus, spend time with those people. Yes, still take the time to care for your own faith and carve time out in your schedule for engaging the biblical text exegetically and theologically but also take the time to be with the people whom God has entrusted to your pastoral care as you preach. When we do, we are able to be the witness in preaching the word.

For Those Who Wish To See The Christian Faith Prosper

Should churches ditch their projector screens and go back to singing from hymnals? Yes, according to Tom Raabe, who wrote an article that was published on The Federalist website titled Why Churches Should Ditch Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals. When I first read this article during the past summer, I just shook my head a little and then didn’t give the article any more attention. However, since then I keep seeing this article show up in my social media news feeds as though people agree with the author. So indulge me for a few moments because I would like to offer a response.

439859_5_As you can probably tell already, I disagree with the conclusion that Mr. Raabe draws in his article. The author observes the disappearance of hymnals over the years as more contemporary expressions of church have emerged. He laments this loss on the opinion that projected screens are “horrifically ugly” and especially so in traditional worship sanctuaries. That is his opinion, which he is certainly entitled to hold, but such anecdotes seem to be little more than just filler information.

The crux of his argument is that the loss of hymnals will result in a weakened theology and so a weakened Christian faith. According to Mr. Raabe, “Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.” Perhaps so, but that’s an argument for singing older hymns and not retaining hymnals. The problem is the claim of the article which is offered with this conclusion, a conclusion that lacks any supporting evidence for the claim that is offered:

Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.

If we wish to see the Christian faith prosper? Really? For every church that is struggling to navigate the rather uncharted secular waters of a post-Christian America, vitality is simply a matter of turning off the video monitors and digging out some hymnals from a storage room?

If this were the case, then how do we account for the vitality of churches throughout history that existed long before the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press? Those are churches that didn’t possess any hymnals. Or how do we account for those vibrant churches in third-world countries who don’t always have the luxuries of either hymnals or video-projection systems? Let’s be honest and recognize that Mr. Raabe’s concern is not a problem with western Christianity, it’s a problem with traditional Christianity in America. This is an American issue and a concern of some who sense a great loss as they see their church, and other churches too, declining or even closing and don’t have any idea of how to stop the decline.

I actually sympathize with this concern because as a pastor, I have served in such churches and know of many more churches that are facing this very real concern. However, trying to turn the calendar back into the mid-twentieth century when most churches still sang from hymnals will do nothing to address the concern. There are many reasons why churches are declining and addressing the issues will require more than just a technical change, something that can be done without any new ways of thinking and acting.

Arguing for the resurgence of hymnals assumes a building-centric model of church. It’s possible that this sort of church model will not even exist in America by the later half of the twenty-first century. Of course, nobody knows for sure but what we do know is that the problems that keep churches from fully living as participants in the mission of God are deeply embedded issues in the way that churches think and behave. The article I am critiquing is but one example but when the issues are beyond technical problems, an adaptive approach is required. That is, church leaders must discern the difficult questions about the modes of thinking and doing within their church that is contributing to the loss of mission. Once these problems are identified, the solutions will require new practices based on new ways of thinking. Hence, adaptive change.

Adaptive change always begins with a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus who are learning to contextually embody the gospel once again. While such embodiment of the gospel should remain faithful to Jesus and thus a coherent expression of the gospel, the expression will differ because it is a contextual expression. Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper will remain resolute in following Jesus and inviting others to join them in this kingdom life. And when a church that is serious about following Jesus gathers for worship, that gathering will be one saturated in a deep and healthy theology of the Christian faith — God the Father, Son, and Spirit at work.

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.

handwriting-headline

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.

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.

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming the Blindness of a Christless Christianity

Most Christians, and ever Christian I know, including myself, say they believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired of God and authoritative on all matters of faith. Very good! But as a pastor there are many times when what Christians say they believe and what they actually believe are different to some degree.

house-blindness

Earlier this year Mayor Theresa Kenerly of Hoschton, Georgia, was heavily criticized for racial discrimination after pulling the resume of a black man because of his blackness. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, the Mayor did not believe that her nearly all-white small town was ready to have a black man as a city administrator. But a few people defended the Mayor’s racism, including City Councilman Jim Cleveland who insisted that he understood the Mayor’s decision because Hoschton is not Atlanta. Mr. Cleveland insisted that he is not a racist but according to the report in the Raw Story, he had an interesting remark. Councilman Jim Cleveland said, “I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

Besides the obvious racism, what I find interesting is that Mr. Cleveland says he is a Christian but then defends his racism by saying that is the way he was raised and therefore the way he believes. In other words, even though he is a Christian, neither the gospel nor the Bible is his moral authority. Mr. Cleveland’s authority is the way he was raised. It’s also not a stretch to assume that Mr. Cleveland is part of a Christian culture, a church culture, that has failed to truly embody the Good News of Jesus Christ—despite the authority of the Bible. That shows also how easily Christians can read the Bible and still fail to see what Jesus and his kingdom really entails, just as the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples still failed to see.

In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about a blind man that is brought to Jesus for healing. So Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and touches them so that the man could once again see and he was able to see then, only his vision wasn’t clear. When asked if he could see, the blind man replied, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around” (v. 24). As Mark is telling the story, the remark of this blind man is really a commentary on the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples. Both have seen Jesus do plenty of miracles and heard him teach with authority but the Pharisees are still challenging Jesus’ authority, while the disciples are questioning him as they continue doubting. It’s not just the blind man who needs his sight restored, it’s the Pharisees and disciples who need to see clearly.

Let me push the matter just a little farther. From my understanding, both the Pharisees and disciples were familiar with the story of Israel and her scriptures. In his conversations, Jesus frequently references the story of Israel along with the Hebrew Bible as he engages both the Pharisees and disciples. Yet they still failed to see clearly. The same is true of Councilman Cleveland. I am sure he has some knowledge of the Bible and could teach a few Sunday School lessons to children about the miracles that Jesus performed. Yet he still fails to see clearly.

How about us? Do we read the Bible? If we proclaim the Christian faith, then we should. But… How do we read the Bible? Does the way we read the Bible open our eyes to clearly see Jesus and the Kingdom of God he has inaugurated? Or has our vision become obscured by the way we were raised or by our favorite church traditions? Is whatever cable news and talk radio we listen to or blind partisan loyalty to whatever politician and political platform we side with obscuring our vision?

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyes a second time and as Mark tells the story, the blind man “looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly” (v. 25). He needed to be touched again by Jesus to see clearly. The same is true for the Pharisees and the disciples, then and now.

As we read the Bible, if our reading obscures us from seeing Jesus then we are the blind!

The Gospel of Mark, along with the rest of scripture, is clear that the invitation of Jesus is to come follow him. We are called to follow Jesus, learning to live by the same beliefs and values of Jesus so that we may embody the Kingdom life that he embodied. That’s what discipleship is. But it is increasingly becoming obvious that discipleship is not Christianity is often known for in America. In fact, as the dichotomy between who Jesus is and what Christianity is, it seems more like a Christless Christianity has sprouted.

We can shake our heads at people like Councilman Cleveland, especially those of us who don’t defend racism, but we may be more like Mr. Cleveland than we realize. That we can justify war and violence, freedom of choice over the life of the unborn, national boundaries over mercy for refugees and immigrants, vitriolic rhetoric for the sake of partisan politics, and so forth with the most unGospeled wisdom and logic is revealing. We show that it is very possible to call ourselves Christians and yet fail to see Jesus and his Kingdom clearly. It shows that we can read the Bible and still miss Jesus, still miss what the Bible is all about and the life it reimagines for us to live as people called to follow Jesus.

I am glad that we read the Bible but let us read with eyes to see Jesus and his kingdom clearly. May the Lord come, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to touch our eyes again that we may see with eyes wide open!