Neighborhood Sacramentology: Fencing the Table?

25 June 2019

If it is the church’s responsibility to fence the Table, to keep people away from it who aren’t going to partake in a worthy manner, then  that implies a whole authority structure to make that happen. Only certain authorized people can serve communion, only at appointed places and times, and so on.  The Roman and Eastern churches certainly took that position, and speaking broadly, so did the fathers of the Reformation. The marks of a true church, our Reformed fathers said, were word, sacrament, and discipline, and part of the function of discipline was to fence the Table. It was therefore possible in a Reformation church for a member of the church to be encouraged to come to church, but suspended from the Table as a disciplinary measure. At a commonsense level, it’s not hard to see how they got there — it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of sending a child to bed without his supper.

The New Testament knows nothing of such a practice. There are no appointed places and times. When did the NT church gather that was *not* church? They didn’t have a church building; it was all houses. They didn’t have Sunday mornings off from work. They gathered where and when they could, and when they gathered, the church was gathering. There are no authorized servers, no one appointed to fence the table. Is it ok to serve the Lord’s Table in a private residence to a bunch of your close friends on a Thursday night? Well, WWJD? That’s how the first one happened…. The church’s role is to celebrate early and often, and invite the world to come.

There is, of course, a warning that the one who partakes in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. (In the immediate context, the unworthy partaking is a matter of the rich shaming the poor.) But there is no suggestion that the elders should stop someone from partaking because he might be doing it unworthily. The only examination Paul commands is self-examination. Nobody else is responsible to do it for you, and God has not delegated that authority to anyone. 

An egregiously sinning, unrepentant believer may be expelled from the community entirely until he repents, but there’s no concept of allowing him to remain in the community without coming to the Table. If he is spiritually weak, then he needs strength; why would you withhold spiritual food from him?

The Table is pure grace. You want Jesus? Then come to the Table. Is it blasphemy for some spiritual tourist to come and partake of the body and blood of Christ as an act of curiosity, with no regard for what he’s really doing? Yes, of course.

But it’s not my blasphemy; it’s God’s. Jesus incarnated in the world and gave His body to and for the world; He gave His body to be abused and crucified by sinners. Some heathen getting away with a wafer is the very least of the blasphemy going on here; why would that be where we draw the line? You don’t have the right to fence the Lord’s Table because it’s not your table; it’s His.

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Jesus Broke the Billy Graham Rule

18 June 2019

A lot of folks in ministry espouse the Billy Graham Rule: never meet with a woman alone. I was taught the rule as a teenager, along with various permutations and corollaries (leave the door open if you must have a conversation with a woman in your office, or have the secretary sit in, that sort of thing).

I went through Bible college and seminary thinking these were wise guidelines and expecting to live by them. I started my ministerial career living by them. I vividly remember the day I departed from them.

It’s a long story and the details aren’t important. Suffice it to say, I was faced with a simple choice: give my female counselee the dignity I’d expect in the same situation, or go through a bunch of gyrations to make sure I followed the Billy Graham Rule. I decided a choice between the man-made rule and the Golden Rule was no choice at all, and I followed Jesus.

That prompted me to re-examine things. Like Mark Twain liked to say, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you—it’s what you know that ain’t so. I “knew” that the Billy Graham Rule was the way you keep away from adultery. But upon consideration, it’s just not so.

I’ve known pastors who didn’t keep the Billy Graham rule, and ended up in adultery. It’s easy to say, “Well, if he’d just kept the Billy Graham Rule, it never woulda happened.” That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are we focusing on the man-made rule like that? Why don’t we say, “If he’d kept the 10 commandments, it never woulda happened”? That’s a lot more to the point.

But even God’s law doesn’t give us the power to resist sin. Why do we think that a man-made law will keep us from sin, when even God’s law cannot? Why do we trust schemes of our own devising more than we trust God? To ask the question is to answer it. We still pretend to godhood.

Stupid people let themselves think they can’t get entangled in adultery—because they’re strong, because they’re impotent anyhow, because they live by man-made rules that are supposed to guarantee it. All those reasons are idols, and all idols must fall.

Man-made guidelines, however wise they might be in a particular case, are not a substitute for the Spirit.

Nothing makes you impervious to sin except walking in the Spirit. Nothing.

I’ve known pastors who made it their lifestyle to live by the Billy Graham Rule, and ended up in adultery anyhow. Having your secretary sit in your counseling sessions doesn’t stop you from meeting the church pianist at a cheap motel on Highway 19, as it turns out. The external, man-made standard is not the difference that makes a difference, and no one but a Pharisee thinks it is. (And what sort of Jesus-follower thinks man-made rules are a means of holy living, anyhow?)

All those external regulations are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Righteousness doesn’t come by the law, because there is no law that gives life; you gotta get that from the Spirit—as a smart guy once told us. That smart guy was much maligned by the religious establishment for his teaching and display of liberty, if you can imagine!

When a pastor ends up in adultery, it is not because he met with a woman alone. James tells us how this happens; it’s not some big mystery. He had a desire—for sex, for emotional intimacy, to feel like a man again, whatever. What he should have done is bring that desire home to his wife; instead, he allowed it to focus on his counselee. Then, instead of responding to that warning sign by asking the Body for help, he hid it, kept it to himself, nurtured it. Desire conceived and gave birth to sin; sin, when it matured, brought forth death. Do not be deceived, like the man said.

Anybody who has thought through what his or her particular marriage needs, and can articulate a strategy for protecting the marriage, deserves our support. Whether it’s the Billy Graham Rule or a different strategy, as long as it’s not forbidden by Scripture, we should applaud and support one another’s efforts to protect our marriages. And we have the right to decide for ourselves what that requires—for freedom Christ has set us free. And for exactly that reason, if that same guy ascends a soapbox and begins telling everyone else that his answer is best for their marriage, the very mildest response we should have is to point and laugh. No one gets to make such pronouncements—for freedom Christ has set us free.

The guy on the soapbox will always say that he’s just explaining what’s “appropriate” and “wise.” Me, I think Jesus was wise, and that it’s wise to imitate Him. (So did Paul: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”) Once upon a time, Jesus and his twelve accountability partners were walking up on a Samaritan village. He sent all twelve of His accountability partners into the town to buy food, while He sat by the well and started a conversation with a woman alone. A woman who turned out to be exactly the kind of girl no Christian man “should” meet alone.

When our rules contradict what Jesus actually did, that should give us pause. I’m not saying that you can’t have the Billy Graham rule. If you think that’s wisest for you, who am I to argue? Go for it. I am saying that someday, the Spirit might put you in a situation where you need to leave that rule behind. If He does, do what Jesus did.

Don’t worry; nobody ever followed the Spirit into adultery. That’s not where He leads.


Smiling at Error?

11 June 2019

“The truly wise talk little about religion and are not given to taking sides on doctrinal issues. When they hear people advocating or opposing claims of this or that party in the church, they turn away with a smile such as men yield to the talk of children. They have no time, they would say, for that kind of thing. They have enough to do in trying to faithfully practice what is beyond dispute.”
-George MacDonald

I want to affirm that MacDonald is offering up some real wisdom here. I also want to say that this is wisdom, not law, and as with all wisdom the crucial skill is knowing when to apply it.

There’s no time like the present, but look before you leap. The more, the merrier, but three’s a crowd. The clothes make the man, but don’t judge a book by its cover. The pen is mightier than the sword, but actions speak louder than words. All these proverbs are true in the way that proverbs can be true, and MacDonald’s advice is right up there with them. When to do which? That’s the question.  

To MacDonald’s point, there certainly are niggling doctrinal disagreements that just don’t matter. It’s fine for first-year seminarians to talk them over for the sake of the mental exercise, but how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not a question that should divide brothers.  

My concern with bandying about a quote like the one from MacDonald, above, is that people come away with a sense that it is always wisdom to remain airily above the fray. Couldn’t Luther just go back to his prayers and agree to disagree with the Pope? What was Athanasius thinking, making such a pill of himself? Would it have killed Paul to just let Peter sit where he wanted at the church potluck? Did Jesus really need to go out of His way to pronounce woe on the Pharisees?

These men were addressing false doctrines that do real injury to God’s people, and in such cases, a wise man answers Jude’s call to contend earnestly for the faith.

Anybody can hate error because it is wrong. It takes real wisdom to hate important errors because they’re injurious, and leave the unimportant ones for a casual chat over coffee someday. May God make us wise.


Laying on Hands

7 June 2019

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will raise the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.

There are a couple of hermeneutical moves here that are common in conservative circles. The first is to simply ignore the text. When a nosy student asks why we don’t do this, you must mutter something under your breath about cultural context, and change the subject.

But that’s not enough. “Cultural context” is not a magical phrase that allows you to ignore a text. The text meant something, and the original readers were meant to obey it. So are we. Obedience in our context might look different, but it will look like something. It is our job to figure out what. The best place to start is with the original context.

In the original cultural context, this was not simply some religious ritual. Oils infused with various herbs and scents were common in the culture, and using such oils medicinally was also common. In other words, to the original readers, anointing with oil was not simply a religious ceremony, it was a medical treatment.

Once you know that, you can transfer the principle to our day. Imagine you have someone in your church who is a cancer patient.

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, giving him chemotherapy in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.

Of course, the oncologist giving chemotherapy is not likely to be an elder in the church — but skip that for now. Let’s suppose the doctor is indeed an elder in this case, and move on from there. Do you see the departure from our standard attitude toward medicine? The medicine is administered “in the name of the Lord,” and when the sick person recovers, the recovery is attributed to the Lord, through the prayer of faith.

So the minimal application of this culturally conditioned command is to address sickness as a spiritual as well as a physical issue.

But I wonder whether we ought not go further. After all, we have mass media and Youtube, but we still believe that going to church in person is better. We have Facebook and phones and texting and many platforms for connection, but face to face is still better than anything else, by a long shot. Would it be so surprising to find that–especially where physical and spiritual matters overlap–the first-century ways of addressing things still have something to offer us?

I think they do. And so I still practice this passage as written: anointing with oil in the name of Jesus, laying on hands, and praying for the sick. My experience has been that this is valuable; when we are simply obedient, we do better than we know.


Complex Mechanisms and Simple Interventions

31 May 2019

Every system of the body is incredibly complex. The deeper we look, the more we find. For example, take the circulatory system. It took us a long time to figure out that blood wasn’t just sitting there in vessels; it circulates. Then it took us a long time again to discover that the veins only return 90% of the fluid that goes out in the arteries. The other 10% returns through the lymphatic vessels, which we didn’t even know existed until about 100 years ago, and which serve a whole series of important immune functions. We’re still learning. We didn’t even know there was a connection between the brain and the lymphatic vessels until 2015, and we still haven’t mapped it all. Likewise, it took us a long time to work out the physiological complexities of blood clotting, and so on.

But God is kind to us, and we didn’t even have to know platelets existed, still less how they worked, to know that direct pressure on a small cut was the appropriate therapeutic intervention. If it’s a bigger hole, you might need to resort to pressure points and sutures — and again, we knew how to do that long before we knew how clotting actually worked.  Of course, some cases are orders of magnitude more complicated than a simple cut, and in those situations, you want a medically educated specialist. But those cases are a tiny minority; most people go their whole lives never needing any more wound-care intervention than direct pressure and a band-aid, maybe the occasional occasional staple or stitch.

I expect to find that the human energy system is as complex as any other system; the more we look, the more we’ll find. So far, Randolph Stone’s characterization of how different parts of the energy system interact seems most likely to me. Perhaps he’s wrong about some, or even most, of the particulars, but in any case, something similar seems to be true.

(And then, of course, it may turn out that energetic medicine is presently in its late Ptolemaic phase, the endless shells, vortices, meridians, and interconnections all reminiscent of spheres and epicycles. Perhaps the whole shebang will yield to a small, elegant set of principles after all. That doesn’t seem to be the pattern with living systems, but who knows? Maybe we’re just waiting for the next Copernicus.)

Regardless of the structural complexities and their ramifications for more complex clinical practice, I am finding that the vast majority of problems I run into in the human energy field can be addressed with a small number of fairly simple interventions. I would not be surprised to see that trend continue.

And if it does, I’d like to see some form of energetic first aid become very common knowledge. Something you would grow up knowing, just like you learn to put direct pressure on a small cut.

 


Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.


To an Unknown Socket

24 May 2019

Energy workers quickly discover that it’s a bad idea to try to heal someone on your own power. Not that it’s impossible — it’s truly amazing what a human spirit-to-spirit connection can accomplish, especially for someone who doesn’t get much of that — but it’s unwise. You have a finite supply of energy, and if you expend it into someone else, you leave yourself depleted, worn out, and vulnerable.

The solution is simple: don’t use your own energy. But you can’t just create energy ex nihilo. It has to come from somewhere. For me, that is not a problem. I live under an open heaven, with the unlimited resources of heaven available. (Dad often has His own ideas about what the person needs, but that’s fine. He told me to ask, and I’m asking. He always shows up.)

I have a number of spiritual-but-not-religious friends who link into “the universe” as their source for healing power. Sending your requests out into the universe addressed to “General Delivery” and hoping someone benevolent answers is, well…maybe not the best idea. Not everybody that might wander across that request is your friend. This is going through life dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the equivalent of flying Ben Franklin’s kite in a thunderstorm. It is eating mystery meat from a random flyspecked cart in a south Asian market, and hoping your intestines can take it. It is plugging your extension cord into a random socket in a foreign country and hoping the voltage matches.

But sometimes, it comes out all right. And when it does, people thank “the universe,” which is like building an altar to the unknown socket.

I know what it feels like when God is at work, and I’ve felt Him at work through some of these people. He can suck up all the bandwidth and work through anybody He wants to. He did it with Saul. He did it with the witch at En Dor. He did it with Balaam. Heck, He did it with Balaam’s donkey. In my experience God moves through people you wouldn’t expect often, because He has exalted His word above His name.

I picture my friend standing by the massage table, one hand on me, and the other extended to the sky, holding up an extension cord and praying that it will plug into “the universe.” God reaches down, grabs the cord, and plugs it into Himself. Then He nudges a watching angel and winks.

“Don’t tell her,” He says. “She’s not ready to know yet.”