It’s All Related

23 April 2018

Last post, I addressed speaking as God speaks, and the fear that keeps us from doing it.  In earlier posts, I have several times addressed some of the more common manifestations of divisiveness in the body of Christ.

In this post, I want to suggest that those two subjects are closely related.  We don’t want to speak as God speaks because we know that our gnat-strangling, separatist brethren will begin to treat us like heretics if we do.  They’ve done it to better people than we are, and we don’t want to be next.  Moreover, we know perfectly well that “But that’s exactly what the Bible says” will not be a good enough excuse.  It may save us at the heresy trial — don’t count on it! — but all the accusations of lack of clarity and poor communication will still come our way, and we’ll still become outsiders.

Let me make a suggestion: why don’ t we really take the plunge and start by speaking as God speaks about gnat-strangling separatists?  I’ll get us started:

These people say they’re serving Christ. That’s what it says in the doctrinal statement, and the church constitution, and the membership covenant.  It’s even on the big sign out in front of the church: “Serving Christ in our community since 1982.”

They’re not. They are serving their own appetites, their own lusts.  Simple as that.  Some people want power, some want to feel superior, others have other sinful desires that they are gratifying by dividing Christ’s body.  But mark it down, no matter what they say, they are not serving Him, but themselves.

It gets worse. They get away with it for so long by flattering people.  They’re good talkers, sure, but bottom line, it’s a spiritual con game.  They tell you that by joining with them, you’re in the know, you’re more righteous, whatever you want to hear.  Because they’re stroking your ego, you don’t look too closely at the reasoning; you want it to be true.  They deceive you, sure, but you’re complicit in it; if you were struggling for godly humility the way you should be, you’d see right through their nonsense.

How do I know this?  How can I dare to judge motives this way?  Can I see their hearts, or yours?

Read Romans 16:17-18, and then ask yourself: Can you dare not to speak in exactly this way?

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If the Trumpet Makes an Uncertain Sound…

19 April 2018

I heard something really appalling the other day in a sermon by a Christian brother of mine.  Now you’ve got to understand, this guy hasn’t had any formal training in the Word, but he’s walked with the Lord for a long time, and he has a gift for being doctrinally spot-on.  I really expected better of him.  I’m not going to name the guy — I don’t want to embarrass him — but it so perfectly highlights a common problem that I’m going to quote you the offending portion of what he said:

Remember how God waited patiently back in Noah’s time, while they made the ark?  Remember how in the ark God saved eight people by water, the water of the flood?  This is a pattern for us, and it corresponds to our salvation.  In the same way, what saves us is baptism.  Now I’m not talking about just washing off dirt; I’m talking about baptism as a response to God from a good conscience.  And we can have that good conscience because Christ rose from the dead and has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and all the powers are under Him.

Now, no matter what this sounds like, I know this guy, and I assure you that he soundly believes in justification by faith.  That’s why I’m so stunned that he would talk this way.  I mean, you expect it from a Roman Catholic, or a Church of Christ guy, but him?  No way.  In his defense, he does get the qualifiers in, right?  He’s very careful to say that it’s not just about the physical act of baptism; it’s about baptism as an expression of a heart that’s right toward God — so presumably the faith would be there.  But still, what a confusing way to say it!

When he’s discussing the use of tongues in the church service, Paul says this:

Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played?  For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Let me be clear: Paul is speaking about interpretation of tongues.  That’s the primary context.  But the principle surely applies: If we speak unclearly, then people will won’t understand, and we’re just — at best — talking into the air.  If we’re lucky, they’ll just walk away scratching their heads and thinking, “I wonder what that was about?”  More likely, they’ll misunderstand, and in a case like this that can cause real spiritual trouble.

It’s obvious — or at least it ought to be.  If you say “what saves us is baptism,” you’ll have people starting to think that getting dunked in the water (or sprinkled) somehow has something to do with your salvation.  You’ll have people who haven’t been baptized beginning to wonder if maybe they’re not really saved yet.  You’re going to have all kinds of salvation-by-works trouble.

Back before I heard him say this, I would have thought it would be great to go out and evangelize with this guy, but now I’m starting to wonder.  Maybe I’m better off staying away from him, if he’s going to be that careless.

*****

Okay, so for those of you who haven’t tumbled to it yet, the “offending” quote is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:20b-22.

But I’m right, aren’t I?  If somebody got up and said “Water baptism saves you” out loud, across the pulpit, in one of our churches, he’d hear all the things I said, wouldn’t he? Of course, he could defend himself by saying, “Hey, it’s right there in 1 Peter!”

Do you think that would work?

If your answer is yes, then I want you to put your reputation on the line by trying it.

A little reluctant?  A little nervous about it?  Tell you what, I’ll let you qualify the statement however you want, just so the words “baptism saves us” come out your mouth — and you make it clear that you’re talking about water baptism.

Still nervous?

I was too.  And that’s sin. Let me ask you, is it righteous to speak in the way that Peter and the Holy Spirit are speaking?  Of course.  Should we speak about things in the way that God teaches us to speak about them in the Bible?  Yes.  And should we be hungry to learn how to do this?  Yes again.

But we aren’t.  We’re scared.  We don’t want to learn to speak like God speaks about things.  We don’t want to make waves, or rather, we want to make only the waves that are pre-approved by our communities.  We want to speak the language of our doctrinal statements, and if that means there are certain plainly biblical things that we just can’t say, then so much the worse for the Bible.  God should have been a little more clear if He wanted us to follow His example.

Oh, yeah.  This is sin.

Jesus had a different take on things: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  If this is a righteous way of speaking — and it is — then we should be hungry for it.  And Jesus tells us that if we hunger for it, that hunger will be satisfied.  We will be able to see our way clear to speaking that way, if only we want to.

But we don’t want to.  Doesn’t Jesus know how people will talk about us, if we do this?

Jesus thought of that.  “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.”

*****

So there it is: Water baptism saves us, just like the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family.

*****

You’ll note I haven’t tried to explain away the passage or rescue my theological credentials.  I just said what the passage says, and left it there.

Does that bother you?


Where It Wishes

19 April 2018

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but no one knows where it comes from, or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

God shifts our focus over time. Mine certainly has shifted. This remains a theology blog, but my interests have shifted and my focus has sharpened. Expect to continue to see the theological reflection this blog is known for, but we’ll be turning that lens on some new topics. I considered leaving this blog as is and just starting a different site. (I have done that for some special-purpose things.)

But no. Theological reflection is what this blog is for. If you don’t change anything, you’re not being very reflective.

This is gonna be fun. There will be more soon.

 


Practical Unity

9 March 2018

I want to speak a little on practical unity.

You reap what you sow. If you sow constant conflict about ever-finer distinctions, you reap that. If you sow into the little common ground you have, you reap more common ground — some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred-fold.

I haven’t given up on doctrinal precision. I still talk theology with people, and I still seek to come to one mind with my brothers and sisters as we can — which is our Christian duty (Phil. 2:1-4). But I find that tangibly loving each other while we work together is the context within which those conversations happen productively.

“I’ll work with you if we can come to agreement on doctrine” is an approach that has not profited those who have been occupied with it. Scripture teaches us to notice that. (Hebrews 13:9)

I find it fascinating how often theological conservatives respond to my pro-untiy sentiment by tossing out a scenario like “What if a liberal lesbian Methodist minister who thinks Jesus is just a good moral teacher wants to work with you?”

It’s a good question, and it’s come up every now and again. The answer is that it depends on what we’re doing. Volunteering for the Chamber of Commerce golf tournament? No problem. Lobbying the city to get off our backs and let us feed homeless folks at the park? Sure. Introduce people to Jesus together? Of course not — we’re not talking about the same person. She’s talking about a Ghandi-type figure, and I’m talking about the Lord of the Universe in flesh.

But this isn’t an issue that crops up often, and I find it fascinating how often conservatives will use this supposed “nightmare scenario” (which isn’t that hard to deal with, actually—it’s just an awkward conversation) to avoid driving 4 blocks to establish a relationship with the historically orthodox church right down the street. They won’t take the low-hanging fruit, for fear that if we start picking, there might be a rotten apple in the upper branches. So there might, and we’ll handle that when we get to it.

But in day to day reality, there’s plenty of people who know and love the same Jesus we do — they baptize babies (or not), believe in real presence at the Lord’s Table (or not), expect a pretrib rapture (or not), celebrate Lent (or don’t celebrate Christmas, as the case may be), think too highly of Calvin, whatever. But they are our brothers and sisters, and we know it. We refuse to meet them, learn their names, start tangibly loving them…why?


A Brief Word on Hermeneutics

24 January 2018

Conservatives usually learned to read the Bible from hermeneutics books, not from the examples God gave us in the biblical authors themselves. This is a serious mistake, and despite the fact that most modern conservatives make it, Our People have not always been so willfully thick.

For a brief and helpful look at medieval hermeneutics, see Peter Leithart’s brief article on the Quadriga. If you want to go deeper into Leithart’s approach, he has an excellent book, Deep Exegesis.

My most detailed take on this can be found in a course called Living the Living Word. I’d teach it differently — and probably a lot more simply — now, but the basic strategy is the same: study the biblical authors as they read the text. Follow their example.

Go practice.

 


Subjective Spirituality: The Tacos Question

9 January 2018

In the previous post, we looked at how Romans teaches us to expect direct divine intervention in our hearts. This is a scary prospect for a lot of Christians, and I get it. Doctrine is public; we can discuss it, show how a doctrine is, or isn’t, founded on Scripture, and so on. But this subjective stuff doesn’t work like that, and it’s scary.

The question people often ask is, “How can you tell it’s really God? I mean, maybe that burning sensation in your heart is just the Taco Bell you had for dinner last night.”

This question reminds me of a frightened virgin asking how you can know for sure you’ve had an orgasm. Of course we could get technical, but the first answer is “Trust me, kid, you’ll figure it out.” For most of us, most of the time, I think that’s true. The people who ask that question are mostly just scared and inexperienced. On one hand, they don’t know what it’s like, and on the other, maybe they’ve seen people do some really stupid things and say “But God told me to!”

The scared and inexperienced just need reassurance that God can make it clear, and a steady diet of stories like the ones in the last post, to help them grow. We grow in faith and wisdom through reflection on the acts of God. So I tell the stories, and I clap them on the shoulder and say, “When it happens, you’ll know it.”

But there’s more to say, for those that need more. We don’t always recognize God’s voice. Samuel didn’t, the first two times. Fortunately, he had someone to disciple him who realized what was happening. That’s recommended. Jesus was a big fan of that whole “make disciples” thing. How do you know it’s God? Maybe you won’t. Get help. Even the prophets have to submit to the judgment of the Body (1 Cor. 14).

The next part of the answer is to use actual discernment, and this is important. When someone reflexively meets all subjective spirituality with a reflexive “tacos” question, that’s not discernment; it’s a trick for avoiding discernment. It’s like the Saduccees—if you reject all claimants to Messiahship, you don’t get fooled into believing the wrong one. Of course, you also miss out on the real thing. Discernment is the ability to tell good from evil. If you can’t recognize good, you don’t have real discernment; you’re just scared and cynical.

Moses and Aaron and the Egyptian magicians all turned water into blood and staffs into snakes. But there was a crucial difference between the two groups: one was walking with God and doing what He told them to do, and the other was working against Him. If we say they were basically doing the same things, we miss the whole point.

This is a key point of biblical discernment: the fact that there’s a bad guy doing something similar means nothing. When is there not? Elijah goes to the king, and there’s 400 false prophets already there. That doesn’t invalidate prophecy; it invites a contest. There are always counterfeits; we don’t determine whether something is good or bad based on guilt-by-association tactics. We work with the criteria the Bible gives us. Jesus taught us to watch the fruit: good fruit, good tree. Bad fruit, bad tree.

The thing is, that’s hard work. We have to pay attention to what God is actually doing in the world outside our heads. And the results aren’t always obvious right away, which means that real discernment takes risk tolerance and sustained attention. It’s a lot easier to just run scared from anything unfamiliar or unexpected.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear.


Subjective Spirituality: The Romans Riddle

2 January 2018

Paul ends Romans 7 crying out for deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?” Paul begins Romans 12 with a charge: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, *acceptable to God*, which is your reasonable service.” The gap between those two passages presents one of the great riddles of Romans. What happens between the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 12 that qualifies “this dead body” as an acceptable sacrifice?

Mull that over for a minute. 

Paul answers that question in 8:9-11. The body is dead, and will remain unredeemed until the resurrection, but there is a divine thumb on the scales. Despite the body being unredeemed, He gives life to our dead bodies through the Spirit who indwells us.

Once upon a time, knowing that would have been enough for me–I solved the riddle! Yay!!!

But not anymore. I used to be an academic, but these days I’m a pastor and a bodyworker, and seeing people delivered from death is what I care about. I’m very much a practitioner first. So let’s apply it. If we take Romans 8:11 literally—and I don’t see why we shouldn’t—it means that there is a Person who is not me, indwelling me and enabling me to live in a manner that would otherwise be barred to me this side of the resurrection. That is not simply a matter of verbal contemplation; it is as experiential as it gets. So for example, suppose I find myself totally unable to forgive someone. This doctrine teaches me that what I cannot do in my dead body (Romans 7), God can make possible anyway. So I should cry out to God for deliverance, and see what happens.

In God’s providence, I experienced that deliverance long before I ever understood Romans 8.

I had labored to forgive a number of people who had wronged me. I had reached the point where I only had one person left to forgive–and I couldn’t do it. I understood all the doctrine, and I could say all the right words, but it just didn’t work. I hated her in my heart, and that was that. For days I tried. I could not forgive her.

Then, one afternoon, I got down on my knees and prayed a simple prayer: “God, I know you want me to forgive her. You know I want to, but I can’t do it. You have to do this, or it won’t happen.” Then I stood up. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than this: when my knees were on the ground, I hated her. By the time I was standing, the hate was just gone.

God answered my prayer; in Romans terms, the Spirit gave life to my dead body, enabling me to become an acceptable living sacrifice.

On a more recent occasion, I had someone on my table with a severe muscular problem in her leg. As I always do, I asked Jesus to show up and heal what needed to be healed in her. I released the muscles, but when the physical work was over, I could tell that we weren’t done yet. I anointed the area with oil and just held it, waiting. She got tenser, and tenser, and then the dam broke, and she began to sob. I kept holding and waiting. The storm passed, and when she was calm again, I asked for permission to move on. She gave it, and I finished the session. When a client has an emotional release like that, they often don’t tell you what it was about. In this case, she did. As I held that particular muscle, she realized she was harboring bitterness toward a friend who had betrayed her six months earlier. In that moment, she was able to grieve the loss of the friendship, and forgive the betrayal.

I knew almost nothing about my client’s situation; I could never have addressed it in that way. But God worked through me in ways that are well beyond my ability, and enabled her to see something that she’d been unable to see, too.

Another day, I sat across the table from a homeless man named Michael. Michael frequented a corner that I drove by often, and over the past several months, we had become friends. On this particular day, I’d been awake since 4 a.m., so at 9:30 I was having lunch, and buying him breakfast. As we ate, he told me about the several churches he would visit during the course of a week. He liked to go to these particular churches because they didn’t just give him stuff; they let him help out, so he was able to contribute something to them as well. “I go to four different churches, Tim,” he said, “and they tell me four different things about God’s plan for my life. What am I supposed to do?”

I laughed. “What, you want me to be the fifth person to tell you God’s plan for your life? How’s that gonna help?”

He chuckled.

“It sounds to me like you’ve heard plenty of people telling you what God thinks.” I said. “Now, you need to hear it from God.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You might live a life where God will tell you things, but I don’t live that kind of life. God isn’t going to talk to me.”

I smiled. “Michael, you’ve heard about Jesus dying on the cross, right?”

He nodded, and I continued.

“Lots of people know that it happened, but I bet nobody’s ever told you what it means. Jesus was perfect. He took every failing you have, all those things you are and all those things you’ve done that you think are the reasons God won’t talk to you, and He took them all to the cross with Him. When He died, all that stuff died with Him, and He took it into the grave. When He rose from the dead three days later, He did not come out dragging a Hefty bag full of your junk. He left all that behind, dead and buried. God loves you. He’s crazy about you. He wants to talk with you, and none of that stuff can get in the way.”

I could see that he didn’t really believe me, but he understood what I was saying, so I kept going.

“Let’s just try it,” I said. “Give me 60 seconds.” I waggled my watch. “You listen and see if God talks to you. If you honestly don’t hear anything, you can walk out of here and tell yourself that I’m crazy, and you’ve only lost one minute of your life. But what if I’m right? Would you want to miss out on that?”

He thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay.”

I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes. I just talked like God was sitting in the booth right next to Michael (because He was). “God, this is Michael. He doesn’t believe that you’ll talk to him. I’m asking you to speak to him now, and to make it really clear, so he can hear you.” And then I shut up.

Surgeon General’s warning: Asking God to speak to people may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, and anxiety. Of course, I was silently praying furiously for God to speak. Meanwhile, I was watching Michael’s face and my watch, and trying to be calm about it. He looked down at his plate, and sat quietly. 30 seconds passed. Nothing. 40 seconds. Still nothing. I was praying hard: “God, You taught me to do this. I crawled way out here on the skinny branches for You. Don’t You dare let me down.”

With a few seconds to go, suddenly Michael’s face changed.

“What did you hear?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “I have some people that want to help me get off the street. But I haven’t let them because I can’t pay them back. I just had this sudden thought out of nowhere that I need to humble myself and accept the help they’re offering me. That it’s my pride that’s holding me down, and I need to be willing to be humble.” He looked up at me. “Was that God?”

I laughed. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself, buddy.” I told him. “But in my experience, the devil doesn’t usually tell me to be humble, you know?”

I could give many more examples, stories from my own life and others I know. You can probably think of your own, too. (If you can’t, let’s talk. You’re missing out on something important.) But these are sufficient to make the point: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, just like the man said. It even works in intercession, sometimes.
This is, of course, highly subjective. Since the deliverance in question is existential salvation from internal problems, I don’t see how it could be anything but subjective. But the problems were real, and deadly; the salvation is just as real. It’s life in the place of death, as promised in Romans 8:11.