Sunday, November 12, 2017

The word "tribe" as a substitute for the word "denomination?"

The word "denomination" is falling out of use. Most denominations do not consider themselves denominations. Even the churches of Christ, while conforming to the strict definition of a denomination, reject, in general, the "denomination" label.

There is a definite effort among churchpeople to try to not refer to various heritage-linked clusters of Christian congregations as "denominations."

One of those substitute terms is the word "tribe." For example, a member of a church of Christ may be talking with a group of other "kinds" of Christians and she may reference herself as being "in the acappella, Lord's-supper-every-Sunday tribe." She is generally more comfortable referencing her "tribe" than her "denomination."

Getting rid of the word "denomination" has the feel of lowering the walls of denominationalism that have prevented various Christian groups from being able to work together at doing any kind of work of the Lord.

Warning! To Native American Christians, the term "tribe" does not conjure images of lowering denominational walls!

It is not that the term is terribly offensive to Native Americans, although it does bring a chill to the Native American Christians I consulted. The problem is that the term "tribe" amongst Native Americans has the feel of increasing division. It denotes building even taller walls than does the term "denomination."

Native Americans are very jealous of their respective tribal heritages. Navajos are not Apaches. Apaches are not Navajos. Members of each tribe strongly identify with their respective tribes. There is a kind of cultural divide between each Native American tribe that is taller than the divide between Christian denominations (as I am told by experts on the subject).

As we continue looking for a friendly label that refers to "how we do church," we should dismiss the term "tribe." It just does not work.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"No ... scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"

2 Peter 1:19-21

19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Checkmark 2 Peter 1:20 as one of the top ten misused verses in the Bible!

Many preachers toss this verse around like they know what it means. They cite it and move on before anybody has a chance to look very closely at it. It is played like a secret weapon in a game of cards. If two people have a disagreement over a Bible verse and one of them approaches the disagreement like it is some sort of a debate, he will rattle off 2 Peter 1:20. Since he quoted it first, his interpretation in the dispute is deemed correct against his "opponent." If the second person questions how 2 Peter 1:20 is being used, the higher-ground arguer is likely to interrupt, "Don't you accept this verse? Don't you believe the Bible? Do you believe the Bible is inspired?" The meaning behind those questions is, "I believe this verse. You don't. I believe the Bible. You don't. I believe the Bible is inspired. You don't. I believe in God. You don't."

No serious Bible scholar would invoke 2 Peter 1:20 with that meaning; although the comment by the Expositor's Abridged commentary below dances pretty close.

Various views:
Expositor's Abridged Commentary (Zondervan):
No prophecy is to be interpreted by any individual in an arbitrary way--so either the church must interpret prophecy, the interpretation must be that intended by the Holy Spirit, or the individual's interpretation is not to be "private" but according to the analogy of faith.

In other words, according to the Expositor's Abridged Commentary, don't study the Bible alone. Include resources approved by your church... or ask God for divine guidance, consistent with 2 Peter 3:16. Alternatively, it is wrong to keep secret what you have learned. The comment sounds to me like any disagreement about what the Bible says is settled by the preacher or by church edict. Preachers may approve of this meaning because it is usually the preacher who invokes 2 Peter 1:20 against a regular layman Bible reader. Second Peter 1:20 is invoked with the meaning that, in all Bible questions, the preacher is right. I don't think that's what the Expositor's commentator meant; but he does get kind of close to that meaning.
NKJV Study Bible (Nelson)
Although some have taken this phrase to mean that no individual Christian has the right to interpret prophecy for himself or herself, the context and the Greek word for interpretation indicates another meaning for the verse. The Greek word for interpretation can also mean “origin.” In the context of v. 21, it is clear that Peter is speaking of Scripture’s “origin” from God Himself and not the credentials of the one who interprets it. There is no private source for the Bible; the prophets did not supply their own solutions or explanations to the mysteries of life. Rather, God spoke through them; He alone is responsible for what is written in Scripture.
The above interpretation makes a lot of sense. I am personally suspicious of the view that scripture descended directly from God. The way scripture reads to me is that God gave the inspired writers the necessary wisdom to properly supply solutions and explanations to the mysteries of life. Nevertheless, this interpretation has coherence working for it. Oh, and the interpretation rejects the view that whomever cites the verse first is right.
New Interpreter's One vol. Commentary (Abingdon):
He and other traditional Christian teachers appealed to the Scriptures to support their view of the eschatological parousia of Christ. The false teachers dispute this interpretation of Scripture. The author responds that this interpretation is not merely a matter of private, idiosyncratic interpretation, but is confirmed by a revelatory experience that revealed Jesus as God's Son enthroned in heavenly glory, the one who will come as eschatological judge and savior. The church may be assured of seeing the glory of Christ in the future, because the glory of the exalted Christ has already been seen in the past.
This explanation makes a lot of sense in a larger context. There were false teachers who were conscripting scripture to the service of supporting their own pet doctrines. Their false teaching brought themselves personal gain (2 Peter 2:3). In particular, they are "denying the Master who brought them [the teachings?]." The false teaching really smells specific and relates to the nature of Christ.

The motif of twisting scripture to get it to say what you want it to say is consistent with 2 Peter 3:15-16 with respect to how some were twisting what Paul wrote. It is also the meaning of what Luke's Jesus said about the lawyers.

Luke 11:45-52 (reworked with a different thrust by Matthew 23:13, 29-33):
45 One of the lawyers answered him, "Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too."
46 And he said, "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.
48 So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, "I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,'
50 so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,
51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering." (NRSV)
Luke's Jesus had a pointed meaning behind the charge of building the tombs of the prophets. He meant that the lawyers not only entombed the prophets but they also entombed the teachings of the prophets by obfuscating their witness with complex interpretations. It is a back-door method of censoring the prophets after their deaths.

I think the best lesson, the "take-home" at this point, is that 2 Peter 1:20 is not a verse to toss around like an ace-of-spades that wins every argument every time. It is not real clear what it means and is thus not useful as a proof text for anything. Invoking it in a debate is totally lame.

Incidentally, and this is important, Arguing with somebody about the Bible is not the path to sound doctrine. It is a common tactic with the older generations, and might have once been moderately effective. Arguing falls flat with Generation X and Millennials. Find a better way to persuade. Better yet, find a better path to  self satisfaction than by declaring yourself right all the time.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Open Theism, Calvinism and the Millennials

I have a hunch that Open Theism is going to be around for a very long time. I do not know how New Calvinism (John Piper, et. al.) will fair. It depends on how the next couple of generations relate to God. I think today's interest in Calvinism and in Open Theism are driven by generational culture. I will explain.

The New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition (IVP) has an entry on Open Theism. The writer says, in part,
Our salvation depends on the fact that God cannot change, because his immutability is the assurance that what he has done is guaranteed to remain the same for ever. By overemphasizing relationality at the expense of the divine nature, open theists have failed to appreciate that what they are trying to affirm has always formed an essential part of classical theology. Although much of the traditional Christian theological vocabulary may have been borrowed from ancient philosophy, its substance is more purely biblical than open theists are prepared to allow. For all these reasons, most evangelicals have rejected open theism or openness theology, which remains a minority voice even in circles where it has attracted a certain amount of attention. (G. L. Bray, "Open Theism/Openness Theology," New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition: Historical and Systematic, IVP, 2016)
There are so many things wrong with the above quote that I cannot confront them all. For this article, I am most interested in G. L. Bray's characterization of Open Theism as a fringe theology that readers can safely dismiss as a teaching that will die on its own without any help from opponents.

On one hand, Bray's thoughts are somewhat discouraging. On the other, he is quite incorrect to present Open Theism as a young movement. The tenants of Open Theism have been around since the fifth century. Calvinism has been around for an equal length of time. Opponents of Open Theism like to characterize the theology as having emerged recently while Calvinism (=Reformed Theology) has been around for much longer and therefore, can be expected to endure longer.

Now, toss into this stew the fact that I have been reading a very excellent book about generations and how their respective cultures affect how people in those groups relate to God.

Beginning with the Baby Boom, Christians in that generation have begun to relate to God differently. As I read through the general descriptions of the generations, it hit me that the generational cultures would motivate members to latch on to Calvinism or Open Theism as theological formulas. Driven by that hunch, I posted a little non-scientific poll on a pro-Open Theism Facebook page.


Note that of the folks who answered the poll, most are from Generation X. Below are some brief descriptions of these generations as explained by the author of the book I am reading.

The book:
Haydn Shaw. Generational IQ. Tyndale, 2015.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) began to approach God in terms of relationship rather than a kind of religion of believing and doing the right things. Says Haydn, "God first reached out to us to bring us close to him." Speaking autobiographically, he said, "I forever gave up trying to please a distant God and began to look at obedience as a way of getting closer to the one who was already close to me" (50-51). Baby Boomers wanted to relate to God. It must be the Boomers that said, "We need to focus less on knowing about God and more on knowing God." Haydn says, "Boomers also put a greater emphasis on experiencing God rather than simply learning doctrine" (51). If God is doing the work of bringing me into fellowship with him, then I may be attracted to a God who unconditionally elected me (Calvinism). Alternatively, I may be attracted to a God who is working to attract me into fellowship (Open Theism). This Baby Boom theology that it is not me who is seeking God but it is God who is seeking me would find its expression in either camp.

We know that Open Theism, as a named theology, emerged in the mid-1980s. In the early '80s is when this Baby Boomer turned 20. That is when my thoughts about God sharpened from general Arminianism to Open Theistic thinking. As I said, the details of Open Theism are as old as those of Calvinism (=Augustinianism). So, in the '80s, there was a new special interest in it. I wonder if Calvinism had a similar Baby Boom renewal of interest. Yes, it did. Calvinism surged as a major theology beginning in the '80s!

Roger E. Olson, an astute observer of church culture, gave a speech on September 10, 2017 entitled “Arminianism Is Grace-Centered Theology." The speech focuses on Baptist theological culture. He says, in part,
Beginning in the 1980s and gaining steam throughout the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century Calvinism made a major “comeback” among Baptists and other conservative Protestants.
Indeed, the books that young Calvinists read today are written in the 1990s and later. As the Baby Boom generation began to relate to God as seeking man and not the other way around, both Calvinism and Open Theism made sense.

These observations, of course, are theoretical; but it feels like a light bulb was just turned on.

How might the cultures of the next two generations have affected these two parallel theologies?

About Generation X (born 1965-1980), Haydn says, "Xers were the first generation to be taught that something can be true for you but not for me―that truth is constructed by a group of people, not revealed by God or discovered by science" (72). Xers reject the view that "there is a right answer to every question" (73). What I see here is a generation less threatened to disagree with the status quo or the standard wisdom. This generation might be suspicious of a theology so strict as Calvinism and with a God so static as Calvinism's God. The God of Open Theism has ears that listen and has a mind that can be persuaded. A relational may appeal to a Gen-Xer. Recall Bray's concern in the Theology Dictionary: "Our salvation depends on the fact that God cannot change, because his immutability is the assurance that what he has done is guaranteed to remain the same for ever." Immutability is a box Calvinists want to put God in. Otherwise, our salvation is in jeopardy. I mean, really! What if God changes his mind! We cannot let him do that! It looks to me like an average Gen-Xer is more comfortable than any previous generation that God is able to change his mind on any matter.

Millennials (born 1981-2001), says Shaw, want real, practical meaning. Rock-concert worship services don't really impact Millennials. "What Millennials really want is a meaningful place where they can settle in" (88). "Even if they attend a Bible study, it isn't where they find their sense of belonging―not as they do from hanging out with friends or family" (94). Millennials are used to being listened to. Their parents (on average) paid a lot of attention to what they had to say. Their parents were very hands-on and were excited to have and raise children. Thus, Millennials value family more than any previous generation. Churches are making a gave mistake to marginalize the Millennial Generation by talking/teaching at them without valuing what they have to say about how they read the Bible or how they find meaning in relationship to God.

Millennials probably relate to God as one who values what they have to say in their prayers. They may approach God as one who can be persuaded just by asking. The Millennials I know (my children) are very comfortable with a God who has the right to change his mind. He can still be trusted because of who he is, not because he is immutable.

I have a hunch Open Theology is a more comfortable home for the younger generations. I hope I am around to see what the Millennials do with church.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A devotional on Jeremiah 1: Don't be paralyzed

God appointed Jeremiah to a vocation to go to Jerusalem and to preach a message of coming disaster, repentance and salvation. Jeremiah had very good reasons to resist this vocation. His situation may mirror our own as we try to do the Lord's work.

(1) He was from the town of Anathoth (Jeremiah 1:1). Anathoth was a little town near Jerusalem. It was one of the Levite towns where Levites who were not of the family of high priests lived. Many of them were priests' assistants. Many had their own non-priestly vocations. The people of Anathoth were "of the priests" but they did not have titles to go with their names. They did not have "office." So Jeremiah, the priest's go-for, was being told to go to the official priests in Jerusalem and tell them that the ruin of Judah is their fault. "Yeah," they would probably say. "Where did you say you got your education? Are you ordained?"

(2) He was too young (Jeremiah 1:6). The path to leadership is all wrong. Socially speaking, it is the duty of the young to prepare for leadership. It is their place. It is not their place to actually lead. Right? The path to leadership normally consists of pretend-leading while under the wise oversight of older, more experienced leaders. That is all well and good; but some "experienced leaders" find it their role to mentor young leaders whether or not they want or need it. Beware of the leadership mentor who coaches you to not teach some things on the basis that they make people feel uncomfortable. Beware of the leadership mentor who wants to take over a ministry you started on your own. You are certainly wise to listen to all advice. However, a mentor who wants to "oversee" your personal ministry, he may be looking for a way to shut you down. Finally, if someone tries to mentor you without asking, be polite. Keep the good stuff. Brush off the bad stuff. Keep up the good work.

(3) The message he was to preach would put young Jeremiah in mortal peril. Jeremiah was afraid. God agreed that Jeremiah would face violent resistance from kings, princes, priests and a lot of regular people (Jeremiah 1:18). God said that he would provide divine protection and boldness for Jeremiah.

Functional ministry, for some reason, is very rarely convenient. Is it ever convenient?

God rarely, if ever, tells us verbally what to do. However, he has gifted each of us with something useful. We quite often have experiences similar to Jeremiah's.

(1) I notice a situation that needs ministerial attention.

(2) Nobody is addressing the situation.

(3) I realize that I am gifted in some important way to address the situation.

(4) I am reluctant to act on it because I am not properly "titled" to do that ministry (I am not a church officer). I lack a credential. I lack permission. I fear backlash.

The message from Jeremiah is that the above indicators signal that I am the one who must move forward with ministry. Yes, there will be backlash. There will be sabotage. I must not be paralyzed.

Too often we wait for God to show us open doors. What if God shows us a closed door and notifies us that it needs to be opened? He may be saying, "I have appointed you to get that door open."

To say it in Pogo language, "I has met the minister and the minister is me."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My journey to open theism

I am going to document here my personal experience with a theological view contemporarily called "open theism."

My main motivation for writing this article is that a lot of people who know me make assumptions about how I came to be an open theist.

The usual assumption is that I read a pamphlet or a book promoting the theology and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

I was recently told that I should not be an open theist.

Why?

Because it is heresy.

Really?

Yes, really.

Being told that I believe something that is heresy, with no further explanation is pretty weak, to say the least. Telling me to go read some particular "systematic theology" does not fly either. I have read numerous systematic theologies; but I have not read all of the systematic theologies. I don't have time in my life for such a silly task. There are more systematic theologies out there than you can shake a stick at.

So, no. I did not become an open theist by reading a book or a pamphlet. Actually, I got there by reading the Bible. I will explain what I mean. After all, there are also more people than you can shake a stick at who came to extremely divergent theologies by, as they say (and I question), reading the Bible.

My journey began way back in 1982 or 1983. I was having a theological conversation with my brother. I mentioned some event. I cannot remember what it was. I commented on it using standard non-Calvinist language. "God knew that particular thing would happen but he did not cause it to happen."

Said my brother, "You know that does not make logical sense, don't you?"

"It makes perfect sense," I said. "God can know with certainty that something is going to happen but not cause it." That little exchange was the beginning of an hours-long conversation. He had come to the conclusion that divine providence and absolute foreknowledge were mutually exclusive. We did not agree; but we were not properly debating either. I am the one that brought up John 7:6 which I had considered interesting in light of my theological assumptions (that God foreknows but doesn't cause).
So Jesus said to them, "My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune." (NASB)
I will not report the details of the conversation. I don't have room. Suffice it to say, it is true that it is true that God cannot be actively involved in the world, especially with respect to answering prayer, if everything is already foreknown. It really is a logical contradiction.

My conversation with my brother was not enough to change my mind at the time; but over the course of several months I did change my mind. As I read the Bible, it began to make more sense to me in light of God's actions in the world.

The Bible demonstrates that prayer changes the future because prayer motivates God to act in ways that he otherwise would not act.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)
Absolute divine foreknowledge also contradicts the biblical view that it is possible for people to lose their salvation (something Calvinists have noticed and therefore hold to the view that it is not possible to loose one's salvation).

Now, I have to confess that I did not know what to make of this kind of thinking. It turns out that, at the time, such thinking was quite unusual. I never had a need to defend it. Maybe I interpreted some scriptures in ways that some people thought strange but they didn't tell me they thought it was strange.

I want to draw a circle around a historical fact. Right now is a great time to make note of it.

I came to the view that divine providence is true and personal responsibility is also true; but those truths contradict absolute divine foreknowledge. I came to that view all by myself with a little push from my brother. I came to that theological understanding no later than 1983. Now the term "open theism" was coined sometime after 1980 when Richard Rice's book The Openness of God was published. I had never heard of Rice's book nor had I heard of the term "open theism."

One day in 2007, a colleague at work challenged me on my theology. He was going to try to convince me to be a Calvinist. I decided to go ahead and debate him on the subject. He was a cool person and quite likable. I figured we may both grow spiritually from the exercise. Now, this colleague assumed I was an Arminian (which is the usual form of non-Calvinism). I also figured I must be an Arminian. I went out an read some books that promoted the usual approaches against Calvinism. I found them to be extremely frustrating because I found myself strongly disagreeing with them. I know I was not a Calvinist; but apparently I was not an Arminian either. What was I?

I also read F. LaGard Smith's Troubling Questions for Calvinists ...And All the Rest of Us. In LaGard Smith's interesting book, he took to task the theology that I actually believed. I did not find his arguments persuasive; but that's not my point. I discovered the name for my theology: open theism. I also learned the names of some of the proponents of open theism. I tracked down some of their books and read them. I did find may of their arguments persuasive and valid.

So really, I did not hear about open theism and then decide to be one. The story is, I drew theological conclusions from the Bible. Decades later learned that what I believed had a name: open theism.

That's my story.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A thought on Genesis 16

An observation of the features of Genesis 16 reveal an interesting lesson for all of us with respect to the way each of us approaches God.

In the chapter, Sarai gave to her husband Abram her Egyptian slave girl Hagar as a wife. Evidentially, Sarai considered that God might have plans to fulfil his promise provide a child to Abram through a human agency. It is not unusual in the Bible for God to work through human agency. Sarai's action ought not to be judged harshly; for children were often born to men through their wives' slaves when the wives were suspected to be barren. Rachael and Leah took the same action with their handmaidens and apparently with God's approval (Genesis 30:3-18).

When Hagar conceived, a new chilly friction developed between Sarai and Hagar. Sarai approached Abram and informed him that it was his responsibility to handle the problem.
Genesis 16:5 (NRSV)
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
Thus, Sarai looks to Abram to do his duty to handle this little family squabble. Terrance Fretheim has this to say:
It was within his power to stop this kind of treatment of Sarai and his to settle now, and God will be the judge of how he handles the issue. By so appealing to God, Sarai gives evidence of her own relationship with God. (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Genesis)
Sarai eventually handled the problem by mistreating Hagar to such an extent that Hagar ran away. In the wilderness, God appears to Hagar.

After an encouraging and challenging conversation, the Angel of Yahweh leaves; but Hagar does something that should not escape our notice.
Genesis 16:13 (WEB)
She called the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, "You are a God who sees," for she said, "Have I even stayed alive after seeing him?"
Again, Fretheim observes:
Hagar’s response in v. 13 shows her not only as a trusting spirit but a person of faith. In this naming of God, Hagar (like Sarai) shows that she has an independent relationship with God.
These two women had personal relationships with God. They were able to approach God personally without going through a human go-between like Abram.

We should admire these women for their trust in God and for the independence they had in approaching him. We, ourselves, ought to follow their examples. They were a part of a faith community in which they participated religiously; but they were also very personally engaged with God.
posted from Bloggeroid

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Max Lucado: Christians should never feel guilt?

I am reading a book right now. I am going to finish it because (1) it was given to me and (2) I said I would read it. On the surface, it is an easy read. The author writes with a lot of flair. In practice, it is very difficult because it is all so much religious junk-food. It teaches 100% feel-good Christianity and 0% covenantal Christian responsibility. Below is a typical excerpt along with my comments which are presented with dreadfully inferior flair compared with that of the original author.

Excerpt from Max Lucado, Grace: More than we Deserve, Greater than we Imagine, 2012, 85-87.

What would an X-ray [on our souls] reveal? Regrets over a teenage relationship? Remorse over a poor choice? Shame about the marriage that didn't work, the habit your couldn't quit, the temptation you didn't resist, or the courage you couldn't find? Guilt lies hidden beneath the surface, festering, irritating. Sometimes so deeply embedded you don't know the cause.

It is a good thing to have a conscience. Feelings of guilt drive people to work to undo damage they have caused to other people. Yes, they reach out with apologies and offer to help. I want to do more than say I am sorry and then expect you to heal thyself. I want to do something to help you recover. Sometimes there is nothing I can do. I have caused damage that cannot be repaired. Then, all I can do is offer an expression of regret and request forgiveness. It makes me sick that others expect the offended party to suddenly act like he/she has not been wounded after receiving an apology! If you have a healthy conscience, you will at least be motivated to never cause that kind of damage again to anybody else! The real problem is when people have no conscience. They have damaged other people and they don't seem to care. They don't lose sleep over it. They just brush it off. Matthew 3:8.

You become moody, cranky. You're prone to overreact. You're angry, irritable. You can be touchy, you know. Understandable, since you have a [a foreign object] lodged in your soul.

I have not seen feelings of guilt work on people this way. Anxiety? Yes. Embarrassment? Definitely. Being a victim of slander? Absolutely. Guilt? No. Maybe I am unusual that way. If you know you should apologize but you don't want to, that can make a person feel anxious. Lucado may be offering a way you can get rid of your guilt without apologizing.

Interested in an extraction? Confess. Request a spiritual MRI. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23-24). As God brings misbehavior to mind, agree with him and apologize. Let him apply grace to the wounds.

Don't make thin inward journey without God. Many voices urge you to look deep within and find an invisible strength or hidden power. A dangerous exercise. Self-assessment without God's guidance leads to denial or shame. We can either justify our misbehavior with a thousand and one excuses or design and indwell a torture chamber. Justification or humiliation? We need neither.

We need a prayer of grace-based confession, like David's. After a year of denial and cover-up, he finally prayed, "God, be merciful to me because you are loving. Because you are always ready to be merciful, wipe out all my wrongs. Wash away all my guilt and make me clean again. I know about my wrongs, and I can't forget my sin. You are the only one I have sinned against; I have done what you say is wrong. You are right when you speak and fair when you judge" (Ps. 51:1-4 NCV).

David waved the white flag. No more combat. No more arguing with heaven. He came clean with God. And you? Your moment might look something like this.

So the confession I make is to God, not to the people damaged by my behavior. Sometimes, that's all you can do. There is only old wreckage in my wake and there is nothing I can do to show my repentance. In the example of the bad encounter with a coworker (below), the wake of damage is pretty fresh; but Lucado suggests retreating into prayer and confession with God, accepting God's grace and exonerating one's self of any feelings of guilt.

Late evening. Bedtime. The pillow beckons. But so does your guilty conscience. An encounter with a coworker turned nasty earlier in the day. Words were exchanged. Accusations made. Lines drawn in the sand. Names called. Tacky, tacky, tacky behavior. You bear some, if not most, of the blame.

The old version of you would have suppressed the argument. Crammed it into an already-crowded cellar of unresolved conflicts. Slapped putty on rotten wood. The quarrel would have festered into bitterness and poisoned another relationship. But you aren't the old version of you. Grace is happening, rising like a morning sun over a wintry meadow, scattering shadows, melting frost. Warmth. God doesn't scowl at the sight of you. You once thought he did. Arms crossed and angry, perpetually ticked off. Now you know better. You've been Boazed and bought [like Ruth], foot washed [like the apostles] and indwelled [sic] by Christ. You can risk honesty with God.

I think this "honesty" prayer is being offered as a substitute for reconciliation with another person.

You tell the pillow to wait, and you step into the presence of Jesus. "Can we talk about today's argument? I am sorry that I reacted in the way I did. I was harsh, judgmental, and impatient. You have given me so much grace. I gave so little. Please forgive me."

There, doesn't that feel better? No special location required. No chant or candle needed. Just prayer. The prayer will likely prompt an apology, and the apology will quite possibly preserve a friendship and protect a heart. You might even hang a sign on your office wall: "Grace happens here."

In my experience with conflicts between people, the one who has caused all the damage has a pretty clear conscience about it. They probably use the easy practice of rationalization to clear themselves of guilt. For reconciliation to take place, the damaged party or some third party has to point it out. Then, it is the duty of the offender to try to make amends. It is not biblical to ask God for forgiveness and leave in your wake a row of damaged people whose duty it is to forgive you whether you think it necessary to make amends or not. If somebody comes to you and tells you that you have caused personal damage, that person has done an extremely difficult thing. You must accommodate and make the process as easy as possible on the person who believes he/she has been damaged. You want people to find you approachable, not dangerous.
Matthew 18:15-20.
Consider this passage from Matthew 3:7-8:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Imagine John's reaction of a Pharisees said, "If I have done or said anything to offend, I repent." It is a meaningless repentance. A better answer is for me to say, "Please tell me what I have done or said to offend. [Then, actively listen. Only then must I say,] I repent." Then, don't expect instant forgiveness. Give the poor hurt person a little time to process my sincere repentance. Also, don't expect your relationship to be completely repaired. That will never happen. The chill can be warmed up; but reconciled brothers will be more cautious from now on.

How do you suppose John would have reacted if a Sadducee said, "I know what I did to my brother; but I have made my peace with God about it." It is the equivalent of bumping the reconciliation volleyball back over the net. It's your problem now. My conscience is clean before God. Here is a Bandaid for that bullet hole (to cite Taylor Swift's song, Bad Blood).

Lucado's book seeks to refute the notion of salvation by works. In doing so, Lucado presses the point, intentionally or not, that you don't have to do anything as a Christian. There is no difference between a Christian and a nonChristian except for the Christian's feelings of guilt. Those feelings can be assuaged by a quick prayer of confession to God. If that prayer does not help, there is something wrong with you. The way I read the Bible, if that prayer does not help, there is something abundantly right with you that you should water and cultivate to strengthen!

I am not near the writer that Max Lucado is. I can see why books like this sell. I wonder if big sales is the point.


Footnote: By the way, I find Lucado's use of Psalm 51:4 troubling.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Locado implies that feelings of guilt are completely handled in prayer. Maybe, prayer will motivate a person to apologize.

This Psalm is David's expression of repentance over the Bathsheba-Uriah affair. David is not clearing himself of responsibility for the pain he caused to Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, Uriah's family and possibly many other people. David does not mean to say that he owes those people nothing. He is saying that his actions are seen in God's eyes as sin and have adversely affected his relationship with God. He should still feel guilt for all the hurt, the dead soldiers and dead babies.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 15

Genesis 15 features a ceremonial action that the ancients used to ratify a covenant. The smoking fire pot and flaming flaming torch that passed between the cut up animals was God's way of participating in the covenantal act of touching blood. The participant who passes between the halves of the sacrificed animal(s) in the ceremony is puting his own life on the line as a guarantee that he will abide by the terms of the covenant. There is a biblical parallel of this ritual in Jeremiah 34:18-20 in which God says certain people of Judah had violated their covenant with God. In Genesis 15, God is puting the divine life on the line (how ever it can make sense). God is swearing by himself (cf, Genesis 22:16; 24:7; 26:3; 50:24; Hebrews 6:13).

There are several strong prophetic features of this section that in some ways obscure the main point of the writer/editor. The verbage in verse 1, "the word of he LORD came to Abram," and verse 4, "the word of the LORD came to him," signal a prophetic experience. The reward that God has in mind for Abram in verse 1 is the reward of war spoils (chapter 14) rather than of God himself (contra NIV).

We see an editorial hand in the current state of this account. The narrator interprets Abram's faith when he writes, famously, "And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6; cf, Romans 4:3; 4:20-24; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) There are several ways this verse can be understood in it's Hebrew setting; but it obviously (to me) contrasts with the distrust and unrighteousness evident in the lifestyles of the Amorites (Genesis 15:16).

It explains why it was okay for Israel to eventually settle in the land and to violently displace the Canaanites. However, justifying Israel's war against the Canaanites is not the main point of this particular "word of the LORD."

There is evident editorial reworking of this account in terms that provide direct theological lessons for Israel as they existed at a much later period in history. The most obvious artifact of a later editorial hand is the mention of "Ur of the Chaldeans" in verse 7. The Chaldeans did not exist as a named people until Babylon rose to world power in the first millennium B.C.E. There was no such thing as a Chaldean in the mid-second millennium B.C.E. when Moses lived and, only traditionally, wrote this account. There were certainly no Chaldeans in existence in the days of Abram. The account of Abram's meeting with God in Genesis 15 has gone through a bit (and maybe a lot) of telling and retelling by the time it reached us in its current format. So what is the editor preaching to his readers as he recalls Abram's vision?

The editor recalls a period of 400 years, in round numbers, of slavery Abram's descendants experienced in Egypt. He recalls that the Amorites were displaced by the Israelites because of Amorite iniquity. He recalls these events in terms of a prophetic word given to Abram but these events are history for the reader of Genesis. The details of this prediction are here in this form because they are a warning to Israel that they will be driven out of the land in the same way if they ever imitate the Amorites in their iniquity. In all likelihood, this account explains why Israel and Judah were, as historical fact to the final editor, driven out of their land and made slaves in Assyria and Babylon! This account is written as exiled Judah's answer to the question, "What must we do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30) The answer is to return to the LORD. (Isaiah 31:6; Jeremiah 3:12-14; Ezekiel 33:11; Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7)

Salvation is by covenant. It is not a contract like people write up when they are buying and selling stuff. Rather, it is a relational agreement, like a marriage. Covenant benefits both parties, as does a marriage. If the terms of covenant are not maintained by both parties involved, the covenant is in violation. Terms of covenant can be repaired when the party in violation returns to covenant relationship.

We are saved from condemnation today by covenant. If the terms of covenant are broken... if we behave as if we are not in covenant relationship with Christ (Romans 6:2, 16-19), the terms of covenant that we enjoy (Romans 6:8) are in jeopardy. The damage can be repaired by returning to Christ in faithfulness. (James 4:8-10)
posted from Bloggeroid

Friday, September 8, 2017

You shall not make any... tattoo... upon you

I had an interesting experience today. I got a tattoo at a local shop called Dead to Sin (no website; but they have a Facebook page). I was impressed that the shop had so much of a Christian tone to it. Christian with a bit of a gothic flavor; but nevertheless Christian.

As I was receiving my very small tattoo, the entrepreneur asked if he could expect me to come in for more work. I said it was very unlikely. He said maybe I could have a favorite Bible verse printed somewhere. I said it is very unlikely that I would be getting further tattoos; but if I had a tattoo of a Bible verse, I would probably commission the one from Leviticus about not marking your body (Leviticus 19:28). I was joking around, as, by my very presence, I do not believe that verse to be applicable in a contemporary context. But these guys had apparently heard about that verse repeatedly in the past. They had a little sermon prepared complete with quotes of verses from other parts of the Bible!

"That's a mark for the dead," said my artist Jesse. "It is something the ancients did when they were mourning for the dead. They may have actually used the ashes of a funeral pyre to make the marks permanent." This man was on a roll. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. "When you get to Isaiah, there is a certain mark on the hand that is a good thing!" (Isaiah 44:5?)

I do not know if he applied those verses properly; but it was interesting that he approached the question from a Biblical and Christian perspective; and this time was not the first time he had been challenged with the morality of getting a tattoo. My view is that any Bible verse that is invoked to address the morality of getting a tattoo is being misused. Two can play that game.

I think the lesson here is that this thing Jesus built called "church" is populated by a lot of different kinds of folks.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 13:1-14:24

Genesis 13:1-14:24

It is not always a bad thing to achieve peace by separation. I am not talking about divorce; but I am talking about communities. Abram and Lot were all good; but their people were not. The text does not fault either Abram or Lot. Community growth often comes with trouble. Peace can sometimes be established by some degree of separation.

An important point can be made as we observe that Abram did not accept tribute from the king of Sodom (14:24). God’s salvation in the Old Testament often comes by God’s hand in military victory, deliverance or recovery from near-fatal illness. The people of Sodom experienced God’s salvation (14:20). For them to pay for it would undermine the salvation experience. God’s salvation is freely given; but to have it, it must be accepted as a gift.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Genesis 11:1-12:1

Genesis 11 is all about packing up and moving. There are several reasons people make big moves. At the beginning of the chapter, people made major moves because God had confused their languages. In Genesis 11:31, it was Terah who decided to move to Haran. In Genesis 12:1, God told Abram to make what might have been the same move (Genesis 15:7). Whose idea was it to make this move, Terah’s or Abram’s (by God’s oracle)? This question has implications about what kinds of things motivate people to move. Terah may have moved as a part of the confused-language trouble. Abram might have come along because he was a part of the family; but God had a providential plan for Abram in the move.

Christians often detect evidence of God providentially enabling their moves. They describe their moves as, “God opened a door for us to make this move.”

Whether we believe God acted to locate us in a particular geographical location for his own purposes, or we believe we made the best decision we could when given our circumstances at the time, it is important that we pursue kingdom ministry (missional vocation) for the communities in which we find ourselves.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 9:1-10:32

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Genesis 9:1-10:32

There is much to say about these two chapters. We will focus on the covenant of the rainbow.

God established a covenant with Noah’s descendants and with all the animals that he would no longer destroy the earth by flood. God also established a token reminder of this covenant. He indicated that the rainbow would serve as a reminder of the covenant. It was a reminder for God of this covenant. We should not read here that God was in danger of forgetting this covenant; but rather, when the rainbow appears, God participates with humankind in a special way in focused remembrance of the covenant.

This token of remembrance reads very similarly to the time Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of the covenant that came about in his death. Jesus indicated that he participates in the special remembrance and what is remembered is the new covenant.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." (Matthew 26:26-29, emphasis mine)
Isaiah refers to this covenant and the prophet describes it as having been broken by Israel.
Whoever flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 24:18)
God’s covenant is not unconditional. Fidelity to covenant is necessary. Entering into covenant is an event. Keeping covenant is a commitment.

Some other points about today’s reading:
Eber (10:21, 25) is the ancestor from whom the Hebrews inherited their name. They were one of the clans of Shem. By comparison, the Canaanites were descended from Ham (10:6).

A question that can be asked and may be a suggestion for further study is “Why did Noah curse Ham’s fourth son Canaan in 9:25-27?” Why did not Noah curse all four of Ham’s sons? Why did not Noah curse Ham? There are some pretty good answers to these questions but they are beyond the scope of a daily devotional.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 7-8

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Genesis 7:1-8:22

As I am apt to do when writing something brief about a Bible reading, I write about features that are particularly interesting and perhaps more often overlooked.

An interesting feature of today’s reading appears in 8:13.
In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was dry.
What month was that? It was the first month, Nisan/Abib, and the first day. The writer is using the Jewish calendar to report the date of the beginning of the end of the flood. The Jewish calendar was established in Exodus 12:2 when the Passover was instituted. The date emphasizes the liturgical importance of the flood. The coincidence of the name of Noah’s boat (ark) and the name of the furniture in the tabernacle that represented God’s presence and covenant (ark) is really no coincidence. One is God’s salvation in the flood. The other is God’s salvation in the Exodus. Both are closely tied to covenant (Genesis 6:18; Exodus 25:16). The first day of the first month is also the date the first tabernacle was dedicated (Exodus 40:2).

In New Testament times, the flood and the Exodus were both treated as symbolic of Christian salvation. For example, Peter links God’s patience during Noah’s construction of the ark and his eventual salvation in the flood with Christian baptism. He says,
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…. (1 Peter 3:17)
Similarly, Paul links God’s salvation in the Exodus with Christian baptism in 1 Corinthians.
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4; 12:13)
In the above reading, Paul emphasizes two important facts about baptism. Firstly, it is critical that God’s people commit themselves to a life of righteousness or else God’s saving act will not profit them. Secondly, baptism is supposed to link fellow believers together in productive fellowship. Let us commit ourselves today to righteousness and Christian fellowship.

Devotional on Genesis 5

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Genesis 5:1-5:32

There are several worthy points that can be made with a technical look at this chapter.

Verse 1 says, “This is the list…” (NRSV). “This is the written account...” (NIV). “This is the document...” (CSB). “This is the roll...” (NET Bible Notes). This verse references an external source that the Genesis author copied. Here is one point that can be made. As we grow to understand the meaning of divine inspiration, our definitions need to be informed by the Scriptures themselves. In the Bible itself, the inspired writers were able to consult other written sources without violating the meaning of inspiration.

The lengths of Enoch’s and Lamech’s lives appear to be symbolic. Enoch lived 365 years (vs. 23). That number matches the number of days in a year. The writer (or the Scroll of the Family of Adam) may be signaling that Enoch had a full life.

Lamech lived 777 years (vs. 31). Biblically, the number seven signals divine completeness. Lamech’s life, it seems, was complete.

The ancient genealogies in the Bible may not necessarily be reported with precision. The meaning of the numbers may be more important than actual associated histories.

Lamech had high hopes for his son Noah. He hoped that Noah would find a way to make farming easier (vs. 29). Noah was a great man; but he didn’t do that. It is important that our children have direction in their lives. Sometimes, it is effective to give them direction when they otherwise have no useful interests. When they (or anyone in our lives) find a good ambition, it is good for us to support them in their efforts.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Devotional Commentary on Luke 1-2

Luke’s prologue (1:1-4) features some several important details that we should keep in mind as we read the rest of this wonderful Gospel.

Luke’s mention of an “orderly account” (vss. 1, 3) betrays an interest in history. Note the date precision of 2:1-2 and 3:1-2. “Orderly” denotes logical order rather than temporal (chronological) order. Much of Lukes account is indeed organized in logical/typological order.

Luke’s mention of “events that have been fulfilled” refers, in Luke, to events that tie themselves verbally to Old Testament passages. Luke does not intend to imply that these Old Testament passages are directly intended to apply to the Gospel setting. Luke lifts the original Old Testament meaning up and extends it to his Gospel context. See “Scripture Fulfillment” in the appendix.

Luke acknowledges that he is aware of other people’s efforts at writing Gospel accounts; but none of them work for the meaning Luke wishes to teach; so he has embarked on his own “orderly account.” Luke was aware of Mark’s Gospel. He was also aware of some of the materials of which Matthew was also aware. None of these materials accomplished what Luke hoped to accomplish; so Luke wrote his own.

One important point here is that all four Gospel writers had their own sermons to preach and some of those agendas don’t overlap. Thus, trying to force the four Gospels into a single parallel account badly undermines the intended points made by each individual writer.

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). This question is not a vow of perpetual virginity, as cool is it is that Mary was a virgin. The important point in this context is that God sent his son. “Son of the Most High” and “ancestor David” emphasizes Kingship. (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16; Psalm 2:1-7; Luke 2:4, 11; Acts 2:30, for an interesting parallel, see Isaiah 45:1-4 in reference to Cyrus, God’s messiah) Luke is less interested in Joseph’s family than is Matthew.

A quick point can be made about the angels’ song in 2:14. Worshiping God that way invoked Second Temple language. The writers of the New Testament were avid readers of the Second Temple literature (Apocrypha). We would find benefit, if only for background study, to read the Second Temple literature.

Jesus is our example not only in his suffering (Philippians 2:4-8) but also in doing the hard work of labor, schoolwork and character growth (2:40, 52). He was not born with divine wisdom. Everything he knew he had to learn. We gain knowledge the same way—through hard work.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Will they be in heaven?

I want to challenge you, dear reader, to exercise your ability to interpret history and current events theologically and doctrinally.

I begin with a somewhat lengthy reading, with a few highlights. I will observe a few points. Then, I will ask some difficult questions.
Acts 13:13-52 (NRSV)
13 Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem;
14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.
15 After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it."
16 So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: "You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen.
17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.
18 For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness.
19 After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance
20 for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel.
21 Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years.
22 When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, "I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.'
23 Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised;
24 before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.
25 And as John was finishing his work, he said, "What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.'
26 "My brothers, you descendants of Abraham's family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.
27 Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him.
28 Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed.
29 When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.
30 But God raised him from the dead;
31 and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people.
32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors
33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you.'
34 As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, "I will give you the holy promises made to David.'
35 Therefore he has also said in another psalm, "You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.'
36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption;
37 but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption.
38 Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you;
39 by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.
40 Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you:
41 "Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.' "
42 As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath.
43 When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
44 The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.
45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.
46 Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.
47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' "
48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.
49 Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.
50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region.
51 So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium.
52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
This episode is possibly the quintessential case example of the human side of divine inspiration. Paul was surprised that so many Gentiles were interested in hearing about Jesus. He was surprised that the Jews were so jealous of the interest the Gentiles had in what Paul and Barnabas were teaching. Suddenly, Isaiah 42:6; 49:6 took on contemporary meaning (possibly also Acts 22:21). There was no booming voice from heaven telling Paul what to make of this situation. Paul put it together on his own. This episode sheds a very bright light on the meaning of inspiration (see my earlier article on this subject). When God generously gives wisdom, he is inspiring (James 1:5). It is God's breath. He inspires the gifted with wisdom to interpret experiences. Paul interpreted his and Barnabas' experience in Antioch Pisidia as a divine commission to overtly preach directly to Gentiles.

Now. I wish to ask some pointed questions based upon history and current events. May we ask for wisdom from God to interpret these events doctrinally and theologically? Let us try.

Many Christians died by martyrdom during the early days of the Reformation. John Wycliffe was actually not martyred; although this grave was officially desecrated, his bones burned and dispersed into the River Swift. I suspect the point was to deny Wycliffe his part in the future resurrect. After all, the Bible in some places suggests that some remaining bones are required in order to participate in the resurrection. That false conclusion may explain the church's interest in burning those deemed to be heretics. They may have been trying to keep them from being resurrected. I am speculating. Wycliffe's crime was that of translating the Latin Bible into English!

There were several great Christians who were officially burned as martyrs for their roles in translating―and publishing―the Bible in English. These spiritual giants include William Tyndale, John Huss and John Rogers.

Now, here is the really hard question. These guys (and other men and women of faith) who paid the ultimate price for their great faith and ministry―will they be in heaven or hell? There are many today who would answer in an analytical way, like performing a litmus test. "Were they baptized after repenting of their sins? Were they baptized for the right reasons? Were they baptized by immersion?" If we conclude that these people will be in heaven even if they did not follow the technically accurate plan of salvation, then what do we do with the biblical plan of salvation? Do we just discard it so Tyndale can go to heaven?

Reformer Ulrich Zwingli did not approve of the Anabaptists' rejection of infant baptism. The Anabaptists concluded from scripture that only repentant believers should be baptized. Zwingli promoted the practice of executing Anabaptists by drowning. Zwingli gave his approval to execute an important Anabaptist, Felix Manz, by drowning. Manz: heaven or hell? What if he was not baptized by immersion?

One more. This one may be especially difficult to answer.

The movie The Stoning of Soraya M is a true story of an Iranian Muslim woman named Soraya Manutchehri. She was a faithful wife; but her husband was tired of her. He trumped up false charges of infidelity against her and the townsfolk stoned her to death. She maintained her innocence but accepted her fate in the most brave way she could. It is a very disturbing movie.

This righteous Muslim woman Soraya Manutchehri: heaven or hell?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Genesis 12:1-20

Genesis 12:1-20

God tells Abram to journey through territory that eventually becomes the inheritance of Israel. This oracle may have come to Abram when he still lived in Ur of the Chaldeans or perhaps it came to him after his family had settled in at the place they called Haran. In any case, this journey kicks off God’s plan for Abram to make of him a “great nation” that will be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

Similar cases of covenantal language appear in chapters 15 and 17 but God’s statement to Abram in 12:2-3 is central to the whole Bible. It is the Bible’s thesis statement. God planned to make a people for himself through whom he would reach the world. The core thought defines the vocation of God’s people:

In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.


It is not the vocation of God’s people to be God’s exclusive people—the only ones who are saved and at the expense of those who, by their very heritage, will never find God’s favor. No. It is the vocation of God’s people to channel God’s favor to the world.

The meaning of that vocation became more evident to the writers of the Bible as they experienced more and more contact with Gentile nations. We will see it in a chilly way in the early days of the nation and during the Assyrian crisis when the kingdom of Israel was destroyed beyond recovery. We will see it in a prominent way when the people of Judah are carried into captivity. We will see it in the days of the Roman oppression. We will see it in the preaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. We will see it as the primary vocation of the church.

Everywhere Abram journeyed he built a monument to Yahweh and he worshiped God. We all have secular lives; but everywhere we go, we should be leaving monuments in people’s minds that testify to the reality and character of God. Do people see God working in me?
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. (1 John 4:7, NET)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Promoting Enns' "The Sin of Certainty"

I just started to read Pete Enns' book, The Sin of Certainty. My stack of books "to read" is getting a little tall. (Sorry, Dr. Enns). This book is going to be great! I wish to transcribe a few nuggets from the introductory material in the book. -Neil

Most Christians―I'd be willing to bet, sooner or later, all Christians―have unexpected uh-oh moments that threaten familiar ways of believing and thinking about God, moments that show up without being invited, without a chance to prepare for what's coming and run for cover.

Maybe we've read a book, listened to a podcast, watched Secrets of the Bible Revealed on cable TV or a Disney movie on a plane that introduced instability to our once stable faith. Maybe we've met new people who don't share our ideas about the Bible or God at all, but who are just plain nice and what they say makes sense. Maybe we've experienced a deep loss or an unspeakable tragedy that leaves us questioning everything we ever thought we believed about God, the world, and our place in it.

I believe these uh-oh moments get our attention like nothing else can. In fact, I believe they are God moments. I don't claim to know how it all works, and I've learned the hard way over the years not to think I can speak for God, but I believe uh-oh moments serve a holy purpose―at least they have for me. They help break down the religious systems we create for ourselves that sooner or later block us from questioning, wondering, and, therefore, from growing. (7-8)

When we are held captive to our thinking, moving to what is not known and uncertain is automatically seen as a fearful development. We think true faith is dependent on maintaining a particular "knowledge set" and keeping a firm grasp on a tightly woven network of nonnegotiable beliefs, guarding each one vigilantly, making sure they all stay above the water line no matter how hard the struggle―because if what we "know" sinks, faith sinks right down with it. (17-18)

Dr. Enns writes his books in a very contemporary style. His books are broken up into little bite-sized subchapters―much like blog articles. A reader can pick up the book and literally read for five minutes and not have to back-track to get back into the thought-flow. His writing style is easy-reading even for readers who find it difficult to focus on what they are reading. His books are great serious content packaged in a format acceptable for readers who otherwise obtain most of their "knowledge" from Facebook.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Salvation by faith alone. Genesis 6

Genesis 6:1-22

We learn a number of important characteristics about God in this chapter.

God is capable of regret (vs. 6). See also 1 Samuel 15:11.

God is able to grieve (vs. 6). He is able to experience emotional pain. See also Psalm 78:40; Isaiah 63:10; Luke 19:41-42; John 11:33-35; Ephesians 4:30; Hosea 11:8-9.

God reacts to human action (vs. 7). See also Isaiah 9:11-12; Jeremiah 18.

When we compare vs. 7 to Genesis 1:31 we see that now God has changed his mind about the goodness of the world.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

God is able to change his mind. See also Exodus 32:14; Psalm 106:23;  1 Samuel 2:30; Jeremiah 15:6.

We learn in this chapter that Noah found favor in the sight of God (vs. 8). It is certainly evident why. He was faithful all the way to chapter 7. He followed God’s instructions and built the ark. It was Noah’s obedience that save his life and the lives of his family. I am certain Noah would have said that he was saved by grace alone yet we can see that Noah’s real faith was required.

A covenant (vs. 18) is an agreement between two parties. If one of the two parties violates the terms of the covenant then the covenant is broken. If Noah had been disobedient, he and his family would have perished in the flood—no matter how much favor he found in God’s eyes.
Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. (Genesis 6:22)

You must master it. Genesis 4

Genesis 4:1-26

Central verse: Genesis 4:7. Sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.

At this point, Cain’s future is open. The nature of Cain’s future depends on Cain’s choices. God gave Cain some really good advice. “You must master it.” God did give this good advice while knowing full well that Cain would fail to follow it. God advised Cain to do something completely possible for Cain to accomplish.

The Bible does not characterize sin as something we cannot master (James 1:14-15). We are able to master it (1 Corinthians 10:13) and we are able to call on God in prayer for additional strength (Luke 22:40, 46) and strategy (James 1:5) to master it.

What we are not able to bear is the consequence of our sin. “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” (Genesis 4:13). When Jesus forgives, he carries something of ours that is too much for us to bear.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). This response is extraordinarily snide on Cain’s part. It’s like Leonard McCoy from Star Trek when he said, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” Just because I have a defined responsibility or vocation (tilling the ground/subduing the animals) does not mean I am not responsible for other things.

The first consequences of sin: Genesis 3

How do people write books? It seems the best way is to spend the winter secluded in a large resort in the mountains. I want to write a book of approximately 300 devotionals that a reader can use as a guide for reading approximately half of the Bible... the core stuff. You know. Skip Song of Solomon and Esther, for example. They will be for Volume 2. I don't think I will be able to do it "in my spare time." Anyway, here's what I wrote today.

Genesis 3:1-3:24

The serpent redirected focus to what God has forbidden. The serpent offers freedom, fulfillment, pleasure, discovery and autonomy. God does too—except for autonomy.

I am impressed by verse 11: “Who told you that you were naked?” God is offering these first two humans an opportunity to confess and to express regret; but each of them transfers blame to someone else. They never regret. Mending damaged relationships begins with expressed regret.

However, the violated party in a damaged relationship can do a lot to mend the damage. God set for us a really good example by providing only natural consequences of the infraction. There were three parties involved in this sin: the serpent, the woman and the man. The only one of these three that actually was cursed is the serpent. There is no curse language directed towards the woman or the man. We recognize God’s mercy in these consequences.

The consequence that sent a shock wave through the ages is what God said to the woman. “He shall rule over you” (vs. 16). None of the consequences detailed by God are results we should happily embrace. That the man shall rule over the woman is not some beautiful new pecking order. It is not divine notice of the woman’s new “place” in the social order. Rather, it is a natural consequence of sin.

There is every good reason to make work easier and more efficient (less sweat), to try to live longer (no hurry to return to the ground), to ease the pain of giving birth and to eliminate female subjugation.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

God hardens Pharaoh's heart after the plague of boils

I want to give special attention to two of the plagues mentioned in Exodus. In that short text it becomes clear that self-hardening and divine hardening are both the same thing. I will intersperse my own comments as important points need to be made.

Exodus 9:1-12
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
2 For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them,
My comments: Notice the conditional language in verse 2. This language ought to inform our understanding of verse 12.
3 the hand of the Lord will strike with a deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks.
4 But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites.' "
It is interesting that there is no report of Moses actually delivering this warning to Pharaoh; but obviously he did.
5 The Lord set a time, saying, "Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land."
6 And on the next day the Lord did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died.
All of the livestock? But Exodus 9:19 reports that there was more livestock to die. This "all" language appeared recently in Exodus 8:31 where it seems Egypt had not a single fly remaining in the land. Not one fly! This language is called hyperbole. "All" type language is rarely to be taken literally but rather in a specific context. The point here is that there were many-many dead livestock animals.
7 Pharaoh inquired and found that not one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.
8 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh.
9 It shall become fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt."
This plague, interestingly, comes upon Egypt this time without warning.
10 So they took soot from the kiln, and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals.
11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.
12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
Remember the conditional language in verse 2? It shows that Pharaoh's behavior was not under God's control. Divine hardening is actually self-hardening but in the context of Divine pressure to repent. Exodus 9:27 calls Pharaoh's behavior a "sin" which, by definition,' is a personal act of the will. Exodus 9:34 calls self-hardening a sin, even though, two verses later, God calls Pharaoh's self-hardening divine hardening (Exodus 10:1). The obvious conclusion here is that self-hardening against God's invitations to repent is the exact same thing as divine hardening.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

He was destined before the foundation of the world. 1 Peter 1:20

It is very easy to misinterpret 1 Peter 1:20. This passage is all about Jesus' existence long ago and his dearness to the Father―long before his miraculous birth.

There is much that can be misunderstood about the passage even by Greek scholars. I am no Greek scholar myself; so I will write as if I were a fly-on-the-wall and listening to the scholars argue. Here is the verse in the NRSV:
He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.
The most interesting phrase in this verse appears to be "before the foundation of the world," but, surprisingly, the word "destined" is equally interesting.

This verse appears to say that God planned our redemption by the blood of Christ before he even began to create. I will dispute two common conclusions from this verse. I dispute
  1. that this verse refers in any way to the time God created the world
  2. that this verse makes any claim about God's plan for blood redemption
foundation of the world?
The meaning of "foundation of the world" is not as straightforward as it appears in translation. The Greek is καταβολῆς κόσμου (katabolē kosmos).

Katabolē, according to Strong's, means "a throwing or laying down." Figuratively, it means to deposit semen into the womb or to plant seed in the ground. Secondarily, it means, according to Strong's, "a founding (laying down a foundation)." It seems that the English translations follow the King James Version which followed the Geneva Bible which followed the Vulgate. Someone, somewhere at some time (cough-Jerome) decided that katabolē means to lay a foundation. There are scholars who honestly question that assumption. Since the primary meaning of the word is to throw something down, some smart-types have suggested that katabolē ought to be understood as a moral falling or decay. Indeed, "throwing down" is the primary definition in Strong's.

Add to this investigation the fact that kosmos in the Bible indicates not "the world" but the people in the world.
For God so loved the world (kosmos) that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
So, "foundation of the world" is very likely better translated as "the moral failure of the people in the world." This understanding suggests the condition of the world in Genesis 6 that resulted in God destroying all life in the flood (but for those who were saved on the ark). Now, the New Testament sometimes mentions stuff that happened "from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Luke 11:50; Hebrews 9:26; Revelation 13:8; 17:8) meaning "after the moral decay of the people of the world." The rest of the time, the New Testament refers to stuff that happened "before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; Hebrews 4:3; and 1 Peter 1:20) meaning "before the moral failure of the people of the earth."

predestined?
In my mind, the only difficult verse of the collection is 1 Peter 1:20. The NRSV says that Christ "was destined before the foundation of the world." What does it mean? What was Christ destined for?

Again, we examine the Greek (leaning heavily on the experts). From the context, this verse smells like Jesus was destined before the great corruption to be redeemer. That smell is not correct. Please understand, I am not claiming that Jesus is not our redeemer. Jesus is definitely our redeemer. All I am claiming is that this verse does not describe Jesus as our predestined redeemer.

The word translated by the venerable NRSV as "destined" is the word usually translated as "foreknown" (προγινώσκω proginōskō). Apparently, the translators thought "foreknown" did not make sense since Jesus "was in the beginning with God" (John 1:2); so maybe they figured Peter meant "destined." Well, "foreknown" means "known" in some contexts (Acts 26:5 and the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 6:13) and possibly "foreloved" in others (not in the "Biblical" sense, Romans 8:29). "Knew" means "loved" in these contexts: Amos 3:2; Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:15; Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 7:22-23;  1 Corinthians 8:3;  2 Timothy 2:19. Several translations understand proginōskō as "known" including ESV, NASB, NET Bible, God's Word, World English Bible and Young's Literal translation.
"He was known before the foundation of the world but revealed in the final time for you...." (NASB).
Although, I think "He was loved before the moral decay...." makes better sense.

In conclusion: "The foundation of the world" almost certainly refers to the moral decay of the people of the earth. In 1 Peter 1:20, "foreknown," "known" or "destined" means, in its clearest sense, "loved."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 1-2

I plan to write a book of devotionals that will take a reader through approximately half the Bible in a year. Here is the first entry. I solicit your thoughts.


Update: It is going to be really difficult to find a publisher for this book. I will continue to write it but I will just publish the devotionals here.



1
Genesis 1:1-2:25

The first creation account (1:1-2:4a) establishes God as the creator and that mankind is created in the image of God. It refutes any attempt to deify any created thing. It establishes the seven-day work week with the seventh day being a day of rest. Theologically, the first creation account may be deliberately worded in a way to look like the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:14ff). The point may be to highlight God as the one legitimate creator. Israel and Judah repeatedly relate to God as the creator who keeps on creating as he keeps on saving.

The second creation account (2:4b-25) establishes that God created both responsibility and delight. He intends mankind to find satisfaction in their work. He intends each person to balance his/her work schedule with such recreational delights as beautiful scenery, delicious food and a marriage partner.

God created us to enjoy these blessings in balance and moderation.

A special note is seen in 1:27. God created humanity in his own image and he made them male and female. In the short time between the forming of Adam (the man) and the forming of the woman from Adam’s side, the image of God was not present in the world. The image of God is present in the presence of humanity as both male and female. They are created as partners. He did not create them with such roles as one having authority over the other or as one supporting the other without there being mutual support.

We may reflect upon how we apply today’s reading to work, recreation, family and church.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Praise teams

I have recently experienced worship with worship music led by praise teams (worship teams). I am speaking of a kind of worship music that is in line with the "a cappella" flavor of "doing church" that is characteristic of the churches of Christ but is not in line with the traditional song-leader led worship.

This experience (with congregational singing led by a praise team) happened to me while I was attending the 2017 Pepperdine University Bible Lectures. Participants in these worship activities came from all over the country.

I had a personal reaction to this experience and I confess that the response was negative. I also had some conversations about it with several of my children, ages 13 to 21, and their own reactions to praise-team worship leadeship were positive. With a lot of thought, I have attempted to work through the disparate reactions. I have considered what would be a reasonable way forward for the churches of Christ with respect to their worship music.

My biggest complaint with worshiping with praise-team leadership is that I felt left out. I knew only about half of the songs. Each song service had the songs' words displayed on a screen so that everybody could read them; but there were no music notations included with the words; so I could not get the hang of any unfamiliar song before it was over.
BUT! I noticed that almost everyone in attendance was singing the songs. They knew them and enthusiastically joined the singing in the usual congregational way. Did everyone sing? No. About 80 of the attendees sang. The rest did not. That ratio is pretty typical any any congregation no matter how the local church handles its worship music. In my case, if I did not know the song, I just kind of sat there and watched the words on the screen. How did all these people from so many different churches know those songs? I don't know; but I suspect that there is some kind of inter-congregational network for the sharing of songs Maybe there is a newsletter, or praise-team retreats or some-such that permits churches to end up with similar repertoires of worship songs.

Other non-singers involved themselves with the song in other ways that buck against my experience. For example, some lifted a hand or two in a kind of prayer posture (as did some people who were also singing). Lifting the hands is not a church-of-Christ thing. Many of the participants who did the hand-thing did not hold their hands in the proper biblical way. The proper way to hold the hands is with palms up towards heaven, or, in a Jewish context, with the palms  facing in the direction of the temple, Jerusalem or Israel (depending on how far away those sites are from the worshipers). So, how vigorously should I criticize people for lifting their hands wrong? Most of us would criticize people for lifting their hands correctly! We do not lift hands up in worship in the churches of Christ. Now, think about that. Is NOT lifting hands a tradition we want to enforce? If so, admit that "not lifting hands" is one of our rules that excludes people who find meaning in lifting their hands.

How strongly do we want to enforce the singing of traditional pew-hymnal songs? Again, we must realize that our cleaving to a certain kind of song excludes some people who find meaning in a different kind of song. For perspective, recall that I said I felt left out of the worship led by praise teams; but my 13 to 21 year-old children felt included in the worship.

What follows are some common criticisms of praise-team style song-leading. These criticisms have been my own criticisms up until very recently. Most importantly, my mind is not closed to the conversation. I am not strictly "on a side." I encourage everyone towards open-mindedness. I don't mean that we should be wishy-washy or that we should whimsically change our minds; but we should be willing to consider the arguments and be willing to change our minds.

Praise Teams lead a lot of hard songs. Since praise teams are composed of some of the best singers in the congregation, they are able to sing some pretty hard songs. Many of those songs may be otherwise beyond the skill-level of an average congregation. To a certain extent, it is a good thing that a church can sing songs that are a little more difficult than they could using the traditional song-leader method. Having several song leaders at once (i.e., a praise team) permits the congregation to hear the song the way it needs to be sung. Thus, the praise team method opens up some songs for use in worship that might otherwise be closed. For example, the song, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, with the seven-fold amen, is beyond the skill levels of most congregations, especially if the song is led by a one-person song leader. It can be done. One solution is to have the praise team intermingled throughout the congregation. They are almost undercover song leaders. They might have gotten together during the week and practiced the song. Then, when it is sung congregationally, there are people throughout the congregation who know the song. That system works pretty well for congregations smaller than 200 members.

The other method is to just have the praise team up front as worship leaders. If that is a problem then my question is, what is the difference between leading from the pew and leading from the front of the auditorium? What is so special about the front of the auditorium that is less special about the pew? I am not seeing a lot of difference.

It feels like a concert. This is the other side of singing hard songs. Some of the songs may be so difficult that a congregation cannot get the hang of them even with a praise team leading it! The church won't learn the song ever! When I witnessed praise teams singing really hard songs, I saw a congregation in which very few people were singing along. Almost everybody was just listening. Interestingly, most of the listeners were still obviously involved with the song. They were paying close attention. I could not tell if they were paying attention to the terrific sound or the meaningful words... or both.

... Except in one circumstance. One of the praise teams sang a song that really had no meaning. Each of the parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) sang a particular line that repeated unendingly. The soprano line was something like, "O Lord, you are my Lord." They sang that line repeatedly for the duration of the song that seemed to go on forever. The song had a real cool sound to it; but there was no content. Many attendees were positively engaged with the song. I have a lot of trouble believing they were involved in a spiritual way since the song had almost no meaning. Obviously, praise teams should steer away from songs featuring weak meaning (as should traditional song leaders).

Now, before we criticize praise team song leading for having a new set of problems, we need to look in the mirror. Traditional song leading has its own set of problems that traditional song leaders usually handle well enough. Speaking for myself (as I am a traditional song leader), I try to stay away from songs that have shallow meaning (Have A Little Talk With Jesus), doctrinally dubious words (Jesus is Coming Soon) or are so difficult the words loose their meaning (The New Song; O Lord, Our Lord). Other questions that are on the minds of traditional song leaders include
  • Do the songs go together in a meaningful flow of thought?
  • Is there a sufficient variety of key and time signatures to thus prevent boredom?
  • Does the congregation know this song well enough to worship with it as the participants prepare for the Lord's Supper?
  • Is this song sufficiently familiar to be sung during the after-sermon invitation?
Praise teams face the same questions but with new trappings. They will want to avoid songs that draw attention on the skill of the praise team rather than on the meanings of the songs.

So, what about those songs that have deep meaning but few worshipers can sing along it because they require a lot of musical skill? How critical should we be of a worship song like that? Is not the point of worship music that all worshipers in the assembly lift his and her voices in praise to God?

I personally know that I am worshiping God when I am singing praises. There is biblical support for worshiping by singing while I am alone (James 5:13), amongst other believers (Colossians 3:16) and in formal worship (Ephesians 5:18-20). Singing together is a way we worship God and also teach and admonish one another. God is attentive to the prayerful communication that is going on in the worshipers' hearts yet fellow Christians are supposed to be attentive to the teaching aspect of the worship songs. Singing is a special kind of teaching. If teaching is the nice thing worship singing does for our fellow believers, then why singing the message. Why not just say it? Experience provides the answer. Songs are poetic, so the words are memorable. They stick better in the memory and therefore have a more lasting affect on the learner. Secondly, singing takes effort. It demonstrates that the singer believes the message is important enough to preach it in the most effective way he can; so it is important to sing with good voice, on key and with good enunciation.

The question that I will now explore is, "Is congregational singing the only biblically authorized way to worship with singing?" I have already answered part of this question by focus on the teaching aspect of worship singing. If singing is teaching then somebody must be listening to the singing. Obviously, everybody can be singing and listening at the same time. There is no problem with that; but is it scriptural for one person or for a part of the congregation to be singing while the rest listens, enjoying the music and learning from the words?

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul coaches the Corinthian church how to "do church" in a way that is less disruptive and more instructive. He is especially suspicious of exercising the spiritual gift of tongue-speaking in the assembly. He all but says that tongues have no place at church.
Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:22)
In chapter 14, Paul is not criticizing the activities with which the members were involving themselves. He is criticizing the way they were doing it. They were sabotaging the teaching aspect of those activities. So, in 1 Corinthians 14:26 he says
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
This verse shows that some members came to the assembly prepared. They had something to share. The verse describes, for example, a person who has a tongue that he wants to share. The person may have even practiced the tongue so that he does not stammer through it. The tongue-speaker also comes prepared with a partner who has prepared the interpretation. Nevertheless, says Paul repeatedly, revelations are better than tongues; therefore the tongue-speakers may not get their turns to share what they have prepared.

I want to focus now on the particular gift or talent of hymn singing. What was that hymn-singing gift? How was it done? Let us consider the other teaching activities listed in the verse. They include the lesson-giver, the revelation-giver, the tongue-speaker and the tongue-interpreter. Notice that one person (or a person with a partner) presents something to the church and the church is built up by it.

lesson-given ⇨ church
revealer ⇨ church
tongue-speaker ⇨ interpreter ⇨ church

Since the various activities are presented by a single person or a small partnership, the passage strongly suggests that the singing of a hymn was, at least some of the time, presented by a single person or by a small partnership for the building up of the church.

hymn-singer ⇨ church
hymn-singers ⇨ church

To put it in modern church jargon: Some people practiced their songs ahead of time and came to church prepared to sing their song to the church, either as a solo or as a small ensemble.

Maybe they taught the song to the whole church so that they could all sing it together, as suggested by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:15 (which also mentions the worship activity of praying). Maybe, instead, they sang their song and then yielded the floor to a lesson-teacher. One thing we can know with near certainty: At least part of the time, a soloist or a few singers were sang a hymn for church edification while the church listened and was built up.

We return to the question, "Is not the point of worship music that all worshipers in the assembly lift his and her voices in praise to God?" The answer is, "It is a point but it is not the point."

Music in worship may scripturally feature congregational singing when everyone sings. It may also scripturally feature songs that are sung by one or a few members for the building up of the whole church. One may effectively argue that worship music ought to include both types in order to properly model first century church practices.

I grew up in a church experience where the worship music was exclusively congregational and I learned how to worship God and be personally edified with congregational worship music. The closest we ever came to singing while others listened was when there were divided parts in a particular song, as in:
Women: Who saved us from eternal loss!
   Men: Who but God's Son upon the cross?
(James M. Gray and William Owen. O Listen to Our Wondrous Story)
Personally, I have trouble feeling comfortable when part of the church, especially a praise team, is singing and I am unable to sing along. I feel left out. I feel excluded. There is a very good chance that the reason for my discomfort has more to do with my experience than with human nature. My 13 to 21 year old children were comfortable with being sung to without joining in and they believed they were edified (because they were taught, not because they felt adrenaline).

I have, in two different churches, experimented with singing that featured half of the congregation singing to the other half. I took the song Lead Me to Calvary and asked the women to sing stanzas 1 and 3 and I asked the men to sing stanzas 2 and 4. In one congregation (a noninstitutional church, by the way) the method was well received. Almost everybody participated and there were no complaints. In the other (a mainline church) the activity was met with a lot of criticism. At that time, I decided to never try something like that again in that church; but I am beginning to wonder if never doing (again) something that makes some people uncomfortable is the right course of action. Should not occasionally cause a little discomfort for one another as a means of teaching and as a means of inclusion for all brothers and sisters? I will talk about this question more generally before I am done with this article. For now, I want to get back to the main topic of praise teams.

The bulk of my church experience has been with congregational singing. Being sung to feels more like a concert than worship. That feeling is especially noticed if I am being sung to by a group of really good singers who are well practiced.

When I was much younger (a 1970s teenager), I attended a number of concerts of choruses from Christian colleges. The concerts were scheduled on a weekday. Nobody would have ever suggested having one of those choirs perform during a Sunday morning worship service. However, even at that time, I noticed something interesting about those experiences. I was sitting in a pew at the church building and I was being sung to by a choir. The singers were singing to the best of their ability and they were teaching me with the songs they sang. Quite often, a program featured a "Sermon in Song." That was a part of the concert in which a series of song-book-type songs were performed in a meaningful way with a pointed and coherent message. Sometimes, the choir would hum one of the verses while a chorus member quoted a Bible passage. In all of this experience, I was taught and I was edified. It occurred to me that the edification affect was the same as that of a worship time that features congregational singing and preaching. The difference now was that I did not sing. According to our analysis of 1 Corinthians 14, listening to spiritual singing is just as much a worship activity as is singing.

If the praise team feels like a concert, it might be the fault of the praise team for singing a song that is too hard for the congregation—especially if it could be simplified to accommodate congregational singing. It may also be the fault of my own bias—especially if the praise team wants to sing something just once or twice that they hope will build up the church; but they don't see any profit in going to the extra effort to actually teach the song to the congregation because the message is too situation-specific or because, while the meaning is very hard-hitting, the song may be too difficult for the congregation to sing. There may be other good reasons for a praise team to sing a song that is beyond the skill-level of a congregation. Some bad reasons are to show off the skill of the praise team and to get the church's blood pumping.

It is man-centered. A strong criticism of doing anything different from tradition is that the motivation for the change is "because I like it." The assumption in the argument is that if we do anything in a new way because we find meaning in it, then our focus is on ourselves and not on God. There is some validity to that argument. For example, when churches began to introduce musical instruments into the worship services, they did so because they wanted to have something that appealed to the youth of the church. There is something wrong with the argument; but it is not what it seems on first inspection. It sounds like the problem is that the church wanted to feature something in worship that had meaning for a particular segment of the congregation. That motivation is not the problem. The problem is with the willingness to introduce something completely alien to New Testament Christian practice into a modern Christian worship system. We can talk about the wrongness or acceptableness of instrumental worship music in another place. The reason that the churches of Christ do not worship together with musical instruments is because it violates the New Testament model.

The use of praise teams for leading the singing conforms to the New Testament model just as well as does the use of a individual song leader. Furthermore, having a part of the congregation sing to another part that listens does indeed conform to the New Testament model. It violates our experience but it does not violate Scripture. I will put it bluntly. It is not unscriptural to have a choir in the worship of the church. Gasp! Strict adherence to the New Testament model would include some congregational singing and some "singing to one another."

As we have noted above, singing teaches and encourages in ways that regular verbal teaching cannot. Thus, the affect of the music, poetry and sound are a part of the edification experience. Corporate worship is supposed to affect people in a building-up and edifying way. Thus, those who present something for worship do so in the best way they can to drive the point home for the learner. While worship is God-centered, it is man-sensitive. It is something we are doing together; so in every case and in every way we worship together we are concerned that what we are doing has a positive affect on everyone present. Being concerned that people are getting something motivational out of the worship service is not really scandalous. What we do in worship together has some focus on one-another (man-focus). That does not stop it from being God-centered. Should we try to sing on key? After all, God sees the heart. Of course we should try to sing on key. Our brothers and sisters nearby are encouraged by our effort. If my neighbor at church sees me singing while checking my text-messages, my neighbor knows that I don't care if he is edified.


It threatens our identity for how we do worship. Rarely does anybody make this argument; but it is the main reason we are resistant to doing anything in a different way. In the churches of Christ in the United States, for example, the usual way to handle the worship music is to have a lone song leader in front of the congregation. He has prepared a list of songs and has practiced them. He pitches them well and he leads them with what he believes to be an appropriate tempo. That method is not explained in the Bible; but congregational singing is indicated in the Bible, which infers that some system or method be devised. So, we came up with the song-leader method. We have done it that way for so long (generations!) that it has become a part of our identity. Some people may actually think that having a song-leader is precisely the biblical pattern. In reality, it has become our identity. It is a tradition with which we are reluctant to part. The notion of introducing a different method of leading the singing threatens the traditional song-leader model. I feel it too. I have led the church's worship singing for decades and, if I do say so myself, I am pretty good at it. It is one of my hard-honed skills. What is going to happen to that talent if the church moves to a different method of congregational singing? I feel threatened.

Now that I have admitted my underlying resistance, I can handle it and perhaps think about what is good for the church over what is good for me.

(By the way, if a church starts using a praise team in the worship, that does not mean the church will quit using the song leaders. There will probably always be a place for a song leader to lead that church's worship music. I will add that I personally would feel threatened if a church were to hire a full-time song leader and that hire were not me. My song-leading services would be more squeezed out than they would be by the introduction of a praise team.)

On one hand, I do not see a problem with a church having an identity. A church may want to have a really loose kind of worship service in which a lot of members participate whenever they feel motivated to jump in and lead some worship activity. Another church may want to have a more somber and [what they believe to be more] reverent kind of high-churchy type service. There is nothing wrong with either type; but a worshiper may feel uncomfortable in one kind when the other kind is more meaningful. Some churches are devoted to the use of one particular Bible translation while others are happy with a variety. While having a style increases comfort, it has the affect of being exclusive. People often do not feel welcome if they do not fully embrace the style. If your congregation is devoted to the exclusive use of the King James version of the Bible, do you really want to turn away people who do not want to read that particular translation? Is it important enough to you that you are willing to work real hard to convince people that they should embrace exclusive use of the KJV? Your style becomes a means not of inclusion but of exclusion.

While my generation does not "get" praise-team led worship music and while we love and adore song-leader led worship, we should examine the weigh the importance we place on our style. Is it important enough to exclude fellow Christians who actually "get" praise-team led worship and are edified by it? If our style is that important to us, we should just admit it and encourage my 13 to 21 year-old children they should either get all their "building up" from what we traditionally do for worship or they should go find their edification somewhere else (Luke 5:39).

The use of a praise team to lead the singing means the use of woman leadership. I have argued elsewhere that our use of the Bible to keep woman out from in front of the church is a gross twist of the Bible at the expense of half of our membership. Nevertheless, if we try to apply 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (on married women asking questions at church) and/or 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (on woman teachers―meaning woman authoritarian teachers) to leading the singing, we are playing the game in the wrong ballpark. The Bible does not take a stand against woman leadership anywhere. In fact, it supports woman leaders and teachers in a number of places. I am not going to argue the point here. See my other blog article.

Some conclusional remarks
There are good reasons for appeal to tradition. Above, I observed that the real problem most of us have against the use of praise teams is that we feel our identity is threatened by their introduction. The value of doing something in a comfortable way is that those worship activities are not distracting. If we sing, pray, read Scripture, share the Lord's Supper and make our offerings by using methods that we are used to, we can focus more on God, one another and personal devotion. Instead, if everything we do in group worship features some new (to us) way of doing it, then some of our proper worshipful attitudes are distracted by the shock of the new method. Most churches can handle a little bit of the discomfort but it is not fair to push a church too hard to experiment with different methods of "doing church" that, while scriptural, may shock the long experience of many members.

This concern is especially true when considering the fact that every church has members who are under a certain amount of personal anxiety regarding issues in their own lives, families and jobs. Doing something at church that is outside of these members' comfort zones just raises that anxiety level even more. Maybe you and I are prepared to do something differently but there is a good chance that somebody else in the assembly is not able to handle a whole lot of change. There is a very good chance that several members came to church this Sunday morning looking forward to a kind of spiritual retreat from the anxiety of the week. If the worship service consists of a pile of tradition-challenges, these members may be pushed to the breaking point. They may seek spiritual solace somewhere else.

There are good reasons to modify our traditions. The church's worship assemblies are not supposed to be pure spiritual retreat. It is not the spiritual equivalent to a nice mineral mud-bath or a solitary scenic walk. We are supposed to leave the assembly challenged (Hebrews 10:25-26). Doing everything like we did 30 years ago may work for my generation but it has the effect of excluding other, younger Christians. Fortunately, the "Generation Y" are accepting of the old ways of doing things. They find them interesting. They also bond easily with the senior citizens in the church―as long as the seniors show that they value the younger members as brothers and sisters. The Y and Z generations are spiritually edified by scriptural yet nontraditional worship music. Churches ought to promote some measure of the Y and Z styles into the public worship―just enough to make the seasoned members a little uncomfortable and enough to provide a meaningful worship experience for the Ys and Zs. Churches should also promote a measure of traditional material in the worship services―just enough to make the Ys and Zs a little uncomfortable, maybe a little left out, but enough to give the seasoned members a meaningful worship experience.

In my Pepperdine experience, when there was a praise team leading the worship singing, the team led all of the singing for the whole service. However, I did notice something else. Most of the teams were deliberate to lead approximately half of the songs from the traditional church of Christ repertoire. I was able to sing along with those songs. They let them straight. They did not "jazz them up." Thus, while I felt left out some of the time, I felt included some of the time too. Several of the teams asked the congregation to stand for a song. When it became evident that I was supposed to keep on standing for the next three or four songs, I sat down. I did not feel like a nonconformist. I still sang the songs I could sing. After some thought and after several more conversations with my own Y- and Z-generation children, a responsible praise team may be alright after all.