Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Condemning Racial Nationalism and the Alt-Right

If you don’t know, the Southern Baptist Convention is voting on a resolution to condemn White Supremacy. The vote was delayed because of the question of whether there should be a general condemnation of white supremacy or whether there should be a specific mention of the Alt-Right. The resolution that will be passed tonight will specifically mention the Alt-Right. I’m generally in favor of condemning both white supremacy and the Alt-Right. It’s a non-binding resolution and good PR. And once you raise the subject, one has to follow through.

My only criticism is that the Alt-Right is more of a White Nationalist movement than a White Supremacy movement. Most of the people who subscribe to the Alt-Right are concerned with protecting so-called “white identity” than elevating whites above other races. In this way, it’s no different from Black Nationalism. And just as Black Nationalism was a reaction to anti-black racism, White Nationalism is a reaction by a few to perceived anti-white racism. Both should be condemned.

The answer to perceived injustice is not to lurch together into racial or ethnic sectarianism. The Gospel message is about bringing the world together into one family under the Lordship of Jesus, in which differences exist but their value is equal and intermingling and appropriation is encouraged. As Paul taught in Galatians, we are to find our identity in Christ, not in our sectarianism.

N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: A Review

The other day I finished reading N.T. Wright’s latest book, The Day the Revolution Began. It‘s about the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and how God used it to transform the world. I was glad that Wright came out with this book; I’ve been struggling in the past few years to work out my understanding of the atonement. While at seminary I had abandoned the older theories, finding that they did not fully conform to Scripture. Since then I have been building up a more Scripture-conforming model, though, admittedly, there are different pieces that have yet to be connected. My hope was that Wright might help in the process. Being a long time reader of his, I always felt that his work on the atonement was the least formed and least articulated of his subjects.  Having read The Day the Revolution Began, I must admit that I found parts of the book confusing. I attempted to read several reviews of the book to see if these parts could be explained. Instead, I found that the reviewers were just as confused as I was about these parts. This made me feel better. But then I noticed that these same reviewers were confused by parts that I found perfectly clear. I’ll be honest: when I read his massive two-volume work on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I made extensive notes and read the chapters on Romans numerous times. In fact, I actually had to read Wright’s two-volume Romans for Beginners (twice!) and several of his online lectures on the subject to begin to grasp what he was trying to say. Even then, it significantly helped that I already understood much of Wright’s theology. But when I did finally grasp the coherency of his argument, I found it quite compelling. Okay, I thought, I better reread this current book. So I did.

Just a few bits of Wright’s argument:

·         When Jesus was crucified something occurred that fundamentally changed the world.

·         The Fall of Man was more about the loss of humanity’s vocation in creation than a moral failure to a set of divine rules.

·         Sin is a specific result of idolatry.

·         When humans sin they give up the power of their God-given vocation and give it to the evils of the world.

·         The crucifixion of Jesus was what God had in mind to deal with sin and evil from the beginning when he called Abraham and made a covenant with him.

·         The sacrifice found in the Old Testament law was neither about the transfer of sin or guilt to the sacrifice nor the transfer of punishment to the sacrifice.

·         God used the Law (Torah) to draw sin and evil to Israel and ultimately to Christ. Sin/evil/darkness then did its worse upon Jesus, exhausting itself upon him.

·         When Jesus was crucified, God was punishing Sin, not Jesus.

·         Jesus’ death was an expression of loving self-sacrifice and obedience and an extension of the ethic he taught and practiced.

·         The result of the crucifixion was the forgiveness of sins.

·         The followers of Jesus got their atonement theology predominately from Jesus’ own interpretation of his death at the Last Supper where he combined it with the Passover/Exodus, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the prophecies Jeremiah 31 and Exodus 24. When God raised Jesus from the dead it was proof that God had verified Jesus’ claims. The followers also added to this their understanding of what the prophecies predicted would happen when God returned to his people and began to consummate the age to come.

A few criticisms:
Wright still wants to use the traditional language of penal substitutionary atonement though he radically redefines it. While the radical redefinition of old concepts is an approach Wright has frequently noted in Jesus and in Paul I’m not sure if such an approach is valid today. It seems almost too misleading.
The application chapters at the end were a bit of a disappointment. But they always are. Wright is a brilliant theologian, scholar, and theologian but 1) he doesn’t understand economics, 2) he doesn’t understand American society very well, and 3) he plays it too safe in areas in which he could be more critical.  I blame BBC News.
Though considered a writing for a wide, popular audience I think this book is far more advanced that some of his other similar, popular works, and only those with a more advanced Scriptural understanding are going to appreciate the theology here. For those intrepid enough to try, I would recommend watching a number of N.T. Wright lectures on the subject of the Cross and the Atonement on Youtube.
Here are three short pieces to get you started:

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“A Time to Heal …” (Ecclesiastes 3:3)

The Bible talks quite a bit both implicitly and explicitly about the subject of healing. We can read through its numerous stories, oracles, and poems about physical and mental healing, relational healing, the healing of the earth, healing humanity - all this and more, and then all ultimately accomplished in the death of Christ (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 1:24). Often you hear about Spiritual healing either from a preacher or other Christian individual. What do they mean by it? At the very least, spiritual healing involves a combination of the emotional, the mental, and the relational aspects of our selves. A case can be made that the spiritual (healing or otherwise) is more than this, but it certainly is not less. In terms of the relational, that can mean our relationship with God, with others, or with ourselves. But how is such healing accomplished?

It shouldn’t surprise us that God, the author of all things, works healing in similar ways through his creation. Consider some examples. Medical physicians will tell you that a wound cannot heal while there is still an infection. It’s the infection itself that prevents the healing. Professional counselors will tell you that the healing of an emotional wound in a relationship cannot begin while abusive behavior continues. In the same way, spiritual healing cannot occur until the cause of the spiritual wound has been dealt with. That cause is sin, bad behavior. And there are only two ways to deal with sin.

The first way is repentance, a turning away from bad, wounding behavior. There are many places in the Bible where God promises such healing if people turn from the behavior that is causing the wounding (2 Kings 20:5; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Isaiah 19:22; Jeremiah 3:2; Hosea 6:1; 14:1, 4). Here are two examples:

“’AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN, AND I WOULD HEAL THEM’” (Matthew 13:5, 15, cf. John 12:40; Acts 28:27).

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
Repentance brings healing. You can’t heal if what’s causing the wounds is still active. You can’t heal a situation if the same behavior continues. The person or persons who have inflicted the wound must turn away from their behavior. Any attempt at healing without repentance only draws attention to the unresolved, unrepentant behavior. In a relationship, whether the wounding party is a significant other, family member, friend, co-worker, church member, or pastor, he or she must admit that they have erred and seek to turn away from their error. If possible, they should make amends in order to show that they are serious about repenting. If such sin has become a pattern of behavior over a long period of time, he needs to go above and beyond to make amends in order to heal the relationship.

The second way is to remove the wounding person from the relationship. If the guilty party refuses to repent from their behavior, then one of the parties, either the victim or the abuser, needs to leave. This means either the abuser being removed or the victim leaving. This, again, is about stopping the wounding behavior so that healing can begin. And the practice of church discipline is a great model for dealing with unrepentant behavior (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

Healing is a wonderful thing. It redeems our lives. It makes us whole. God wants it. God expects it. And there is a practical process by which to bring it about.  If you want healing in your life, in a relationship, or in a church, someone either needs to repent or be separated.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Gowth in the Assemblies of God

Church growth is ultimately about demographics, methodology, and theology. When I see that the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline it doesn’t surprise me. For years now the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the only major Christian denominations in America that has grown. And the major cause of their growth is the influx of Latino/Hispanics who are from the Catholic tradition. But when I see that the SBC is declining but the Assemblies of God are growing … well, that peaks my interest. So I look at the demographics of the AOG and compare it to the SBC. The age demographics are the same. Then I look at ethnic makeup. The SBC is 3% Latino/Hispanic. The AOG is 20%. … B-I-N-G-O.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Crisis in the Pot: Twelve Years Later

In the late 70s and early 80s, when the SBC was still growing, conservatives claimed that a Conservative Resurgence and an expulsion of “moderates” would not only avoid a presumed decline but that an “evangelical harvest” would follow (the SBC leadership was to blame). In 1995, Thomas Ascol noted some disturbing underpinnings and raised the issue of a possible decline (Troubling Waters of Baptism) but incorrectly said Southern Baptists needed to adopt more conservative theology (the SBC seminaries and agencies were to blame). Thom Rainer claimed a crisis in 2005 but was defensive and at pains to try and prove it wasn’t the Conservative Resurgence that caused the problem (the SBC pastors and churches were to blame). On May 27, 2005, I wrote an article rejecting all of the previous theories about the decline, refuting the idea that the problem was principally a matter of doctrinal fidelity. I also predicted that the next level of blame would be that of individual Southern Baptists in the pews. Twelve years later …

The reason for the decline is there in the data. It was there 12 years ago, 22 years ago, 35 years ago, and it’s there today. I think Thom Rainer knows. The truth was on the edge of his report in 2005 and then on subsequent reports since.

Really, you can look at the data of a nation, a denomination, a church, and even an individual ministry, and not only identify growth patterns but determine the cause. However, the truth can be awkward.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Job and Justice

The book of Job is one of the deeper books of the Bible. It’s profoundly existential, dealing with the lot of the individual human finding himself in life between the twin abysses of preexistence and death and having to deal with the problem of evil.
Like the book of Ecclesiastes, Job offers a counter argument to the theology found in the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. The latter two works over a generalized expression of the truths of life: if you do good and refrain from evil, then you can expect good out of life. And this is a generally true formula; practical, every day experience tells us this is so. This theology is the basis for the covenant God made with Israel: if Israel does X, God will do Y. However, there are particulars in life that can trump this general truth. There are times when bad things happen to you undeservingly. You don’t deserve all the evil that happens to you. This is an important point that Jesus makes a few times in his ministry (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-4). It’s also the central point of Jesus’ proclamation on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; cf. Psalm 22).
This is part of Job’s crisis. He understands the theology found in Deuteronomy and Proverbs – it’s his theology! Job’s three friends articulate it in the face of his predicament and his statements about the sovereignty of God and the injustice of life. Job’s friends are trying to defend God’s reputation. Job hears them and agrees but insists that such theology doesn’t fit his situation. Yet, despite Job’s frustration with God and the world, he never loses his faith and loyalty to God. And God hears Job’s frustrations and recognizes his faith. Job’s only error is the position he tries to put God in. In terms of justice and the legal proceedings of the court, Job sees himself as a plaintiff making a complaint against God. Again, God understands Job’s frustrations and faith but corrects him, identifying himself as the judge in this scenario and not on equal standing with Job. He is the creator god who stands before and after existence itself.
It’s his great wisdom (as is evident by his ability to create) that justifies his position as supreme judge - a judge that presides over the generalities and the particulars. It is he who will administer justice in the world, even when it challenges the reasoning and wisdom of man. And God’s faithfulness insures that justice is ultimately carried out, that history is sorted out, and that the world is put to rights. This finds its ultimate express in the resurrection, both of Christ and everyone else.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Leadership Frustrations in the Church

Because humans are created in the image of God, we’ve also been given the ability to create. The book of Genesis consists of God creating structures on the earth and then filling them. Humans are then created and given the task of filling the earth and subduing it (1:28), of cultivating the earth (2:15). Humans were created to work, accomplish tasks, and pursue artistic means. In this sense, humans are very much homo faber, “working man”. As Umberto Eco argues in “Open Work”, homo faber is a manifestation of man's innate being in nature. The rejection of this innate being represents the alienation from and objectification of nature. However, our ability to work and create is frustrated from a cursed earth producing (in terms of the metaphor) thorns, thistles, and agony (3:17-19; also 3:16). Evil, sin, selfishness – these bring disruption to our working lives, causing frustration.

Part of the work of Jesus is a reversal of this curse on the land and the alleviation of the frustrations, disappointments, and general dissatisfactions. As the body of Christ, the Church and all those believers who follow Jesus are called to be a part of that same work. We are to help people with their frustrations, doing what we can to remove such impediments in order to further the Kingdom of God.

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago that one of the jobs of a minister is to equip volunteers to do the work of the Church by alleviating as much of the frustrations of that work as possible. Much of this can be done through organization, communication, preparatory work, establishing clearly defined goals and expectations, proper training, on-going support, and appreciation. This is all bread and butter in ministry.  Unfortunately though, far from alleviating the aggravations that go on in the work of the church, ministry leaders can be the cause of such frustrations.

I decided to look research websites that talk about such leadership frustrations. Here are the results:

Inability to make timely decisions


Lack of Focus and Direction

Are always right and never wrong

Does not take responsibility

Cannot accept criticism without becoming defensive

Not willing to share the pulpit or spotlight

Feels threatened by other ministers or pastors

Does not allow for pushback or disagreements

Surround themselves with "yes men" rather than edifying leaders.

Does not entrust ministry to other leaders

Undermines programs that they cannot control

Insist that everything in the ministry run through them

Only one who is allowed to think

Seeks a minimalist structure of accountability

Expects behavior of others they don’t expect of themselves

Frequent anger outbursts

Says one thing to some people, but different things to others

Seeks to dismiss or marginalize people before they attempt to develop them

Lacks transparency

Communicates poorly


Never accepts criticism and have to be right about everything

Routinely reminds people who is in charge

Has a poor understanding of Scripture

Not willing to pay the price to make the ministry healthy

Uses of Guilt for Obedience

Ignores the Clear Evidence of Problems

Blind to the Issues of His or Her Own Heart
Family members seem to fill key openings

Shows favoritism

A passive or aggressive pressure by the leader not to associate with others who have left the ministry or church

Monday, May 01, 2017

Alleviating Problems in Church Leadership

One of the truths of life is that any organization generally reflects the character, mentality, and motivations of its leadership. This is true in governments, businesses, and churches. Why this is the case is uncertain and the subject of debate amongst psychologists, theologians, and those who study organizational leadership, but practical experience nevertheless bears this truth out.

Obviously, there are both positives and negatives in this. If you have a dynamically creative and humble leader with good character, a great mind, and interests in evangelism and studying the Scriptures, then there will be a trickle-down effect and a permeation of this throughout the organization. Obviously, this is a boon. However, if you have a leader with poor character and temperament, a disorganized mind, and who is selfishly motivated, then you can expect a disorganized organization exhibiting poor character, poor choices detrimental to all those who come into its purview. This can create a toxic culture and work environment. And even with the best leaders, the character foibles and practical idiosyncrasies and deficiencies which exist in each of us can manifest themselves in an organization. This is particularly true of churches. And this situation is ultimately unavoidable. There must always be leadership in a church. However, there are ways in which problems can be lessened to the benefit of the church’s mission. Here are a few recommendations:

1)      Make Christ the leader of the church. This is about making a conscious effort to establish Christ as the leader of the church in a very real and practical way. Part of this is about modeling the church’s organization on Christ’s character and practice (Philippians 2:5-11). Most of this is about seeking God’s direction through prayer and pursuing what God wants us to do, not what we want or what someone else is doing. This is vision by mission. This is ministry by need. You pursue ministry by the needs of your community. You create ministries because there is a need; you don’t create a ministry and hope there is a need.

2)      Practice Servant Leadership (Luke 22:25-26; Ephesians 4:11-12; Matthew 20:16; Philippians 2:5-11).

3)      Checks and Balances. Power and authority should be spread amongst a large number of people and not centralized and consolidated with one person or one family. There should be a plurality of Elders or Pastors who all have equal authority to make decisions. Church ministries need to be team-based. Most importantly, senior pastors should not pick those who theoretically oversee them and who supposedly insure accountability.

4)      Allow for Disagreements. Create a ministry culture where people are free to discuss ideas openly and offer concerns and disagreements without fear of retribution. We should not cluster ourselves in self-affirming groups or create echo chambers for our own desires.

5)      Pastoral character. As started above, human leadership is unavoidable, but the inherent problems can be lessened by sound practices. A church needs to insure its pastor has good character, a decent temperament, and integrity. The Pastoral Letters are a good place to start. A church needs to make sure its pastor is above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6-7), temperate and prudent (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 2:2), gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money (1 Timothy 3:3; 6:10), keeping his children under control (1 Timothy 3:4, 12), not showing partiality (1 Timothy 5:21), has a good reputation outside of the church (1 Timothy 3:7), not double-tongued (1 Timothy 3:8), not self-willed or quick-tempered or pugnacious (Titus 1:6), and sensible and self-controlled (Titus 1:8; 2:5).

Adopting these practices will help alleviate problems in church leadership.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Message and Means

Message and Means. One of the primary thrusts of Jesus’ teachings was that the Kingdom of God could not be brought about by aggressive means. The tactics of the world are antithetical to Gospel. Love, forgiveness, truth, and selflessness could not be advanced by political methodology. The means of the Gospel had to be in line with its message. Thus we get a counterintuitive vision of the world where the first are last and the last are first (Matthew 20:16), where the leaders are servants (Luke 22:25-26), and where the supreme example is that of self-emptying (Philippians 2:5-11). This is how God advances his Kingdom with the preaching of the Gospel. This is the method Jesus taught Christians to follow. How easy it is for believers to be in the world and of the world! How easy it is for us to think that we can further our ministries through politics, force, and aggressive behavior!

The problem is not just the poor witness that is exhibited from such actions. The problem is not just that it is hypocritical. Those are legitimate problems, of course, but the central problem is that one cannot actually advance the mission of the Christian Faith, either personally or through the church, by means that run counter to the message. To do otherwise is like running an engine with the wrong fuel – you can advance only so far before the gears begin to grind and the engine fails. You cannot effectively advance ministry through bullying, lies, and general bad behavior. Whatever real gains that are made already contain the seed of its own destruction. Eventually a ministry or church will grind down. The message will become confused or lost. The inner contradictions will manifest themselves. The people will lose focus. Conflict will disrupt ministry and wound people. Transparency will darken. The truth gets buried. Cover-up for bad behavior will become a focus and create more problems. Appearance will supersede substance. Intimidation and harassment will become staples. People will resent the bully. People will abandon the ministry. In effect, the minister and ministry become a poison to everything it touches.

When faced with such a toxic missiological conflict, the Christian has three options 1) leave the situation for better pastures, 2) stay and attempt to change the ministry and be attacked, 3) stay and ignore the problem and slowly and unknowingly become corrupted yourself. If you choose the second option, then the means of change must align with the message of the Gospel.

The change comes from repentance of the ministry back towards a mentality, position, and process of humbleness. That repentance must start at the recognition of the need to repent. And that recognition comes from truth.

The only way to change a culture of lies and bullying, the only way to change an organization built and run on fear is truth. Speaking truth, exposing lies, and calling out bad behavior for what it is must be the method of change.

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11)

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible--and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” (Ephesians 5:13)

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

“Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

Showing how the ministry does not line up with the message of the Gospel and the teachings of Scripture in order to bring it to repentance is the only means by which people can bring the means of the ministry in line with its message.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Correlations between Genesis 1-2 and John 19-20

Notice these correlations between Genesis 1-2 and John 19-20:

On the sixth day (Friday) God created Man (Adam), male and female (Genesis 1:26-27), and places Man in a garden (Genesis 2:8). On Good Friday, Pilate presents Jesus (the Second Adam [1 Corinthians 15:45]) to the crowd: “Behold, the Man!” (John 19:5).

On the sixth day (Friday) God finished his work of creation (Genesis 2:2). On Good Friday, Jesus completes his work on the cross, saying, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

On the seventh day (Saturday/Sabbath) God rested from creating (Genesis 2:2-3). During the Sabbath/Saturday, Jesus body is laid to rest in a tomb (John 19:31, 41-42).

On the eight day (Sunday), “the first day of the week” (John 20:1), Jesus rises from the dead, coming out of a tomb which is in a garden (John 19:41; 20:15).

John has written down these correlations between the two stories in order to say something about the Easter event. He is saying here that Jesus’ work on the cross is an act bringing about New Creation (see Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1). Jesus’ resurrection is a new day. He is the New Man, the first fruits of the New Creation (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). God has officially begun to transform the world, recreate it, reversing the fall of Man, and he is doing so through the person and work of Jesus.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Waiting for God

Holy Saturday (Sabbatum Sanctum), the Saturday of Holy Week, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Easter Eve. The great day of tested faith. The Akedah of Easter. The neo-orthodox holiday. The time when one finds oneself held in the wearied uncertainty and existential tension between the pillars of the Good Friday disaster and the Easter Sunday victory. The wait in the midst seems endless. The apparent absence of God is deafening. It’s limbo. It’s absolute nothingness. It’s open and empty, stripped down and elemental. A day of vanity, of meaninglessness; framed existence lacking intrinsic purpose. Very Kierkegaardian. Very Niebuhrian. The day of the year I set aside for reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. One takes a deep breath but never knows when one can finally exhale.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Here is a good example on how to navigate the news media.

Here is a good example on how to navigate the news media. For Lent I have been reading the book of Matthew with the help of N.T. Wright’s Lent for Everyone: Matthew and A.T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 which contains a word commentary on Matthew. Last night I read the latter’s comments on 27:51 and the earthquake that is recorded at the time of Jesus’ death. Robertson notes that “the Talmud tells of a quaking forty years before the destruction of the temple” (p. 235). Here is an interesting fact! The destruction of the temple was around 70 CE; Jesus was crucified around 30 CE. Is the Jewish Talmud independently referencing the same earthquake that Matthew records?

Now here is a fact that supports my prejudice towards the historicity of the events recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. This fact buttresses my worldview, it confirms my biases. Here is a recorded fact that helps confirm the central belief of my life: the immediate events leading up to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I want this to be true. And Robertson is an excellent source. A very learned scholar. Celebrated. An absolute expert in his field. Hardly ever wrong. “I’ve gotta post this on Facebook!”

So this morning I go searching for the evidence: Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, Tosefta, Josephus, and other sources. I read a large number of articles on the subject. Do you know what I found about the earthquake? Nothing. No evidence whatsoever. None.

Here is what I did find from the Jerusalem Talmud:

“Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open”

And from the Babylonian Talmud:

“Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot ‘For the Lord’ did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Hekel [Temple] would open by themselves”

So the Talmud does reference a number of mysterious things happening circa 30 CE but not an earthquake. What I did find were some modern people speculating about whether an earthquake could have caused the events recorded in the Talmud, but that is a very different thing than saying that the Talmud records an earthquake around 30 CE.

Robertson erred.

My point is that one must be highly suspicious of facts that seem to confirm our biases, prejudices, beliefs, desires, and worldview. The news media (either consciously or unconsciously) will always attempt to persuade you to adopt a particular narrative or version of events in order to support a particular worldview. They will use truths, half-truths, falsehoods, mischaracterizations, omissions, distortions, speculations, opinions, feelings, and polls to get you to believe whatever furthers their agenda. More importantly, they want to use your biases, prejudices, jealousies, and fears to their ends. I’ve learned that fear is the most powerful of manipulators.

This is all to say that it is important to research and study what you believe, why you believe it, and to avoid the news cycles that attempt to direct you. By doing so, you will either avoid error and/or strengthen your convictions.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Pastoral Vision-Casting and a Correct Interpretation of Proverbs 29:18

From seminary on I have heard and read Christian leaders and teachers state that the pastor is supposed to cast the vision for the church. I’ve never read any biblical justification for this practice and none is ever provided. Mostly this is just assumed to be the case and people proceed with it as God-ordained and a New Testament standard. Of course, just because a particular practice is not known in the New Testament does not mean that the practice is invalid. I will say, however, that the concept of the vision-casting pastor mostly stems from an incorrect view of his or her role. Nevertheless, I would like to tackle one verse that is frequently thrown out there to support the idea that a church needs a vision.
“Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
This is THE verse that people reference when talking about leadership vision-casting. The unspoken addendum to the use of this verse is that it is the pastor/leader that is supposed to provide this vision. But what is this vision that pastors are supposed to provide? Usually this conception of vision is defined in practice as the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom, as in “an organization has lost its vision and direction”. This is how church vision-casting is practically understood. But as with many verses for which people search the scriptures in order to artificially support their preconceptions, Proverbs 29:18 does not mean what they want it to mean.
The Hebrew word for “vision” here is chazown and, far from referring to a imaginative plan for the future, means revelation, oracle, or prophecy (2 Chronicles 32:32; Psalm 89:19; Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 14:14; Lamentation 2:9; Ezekiel 7:26; Daniel 1:17; Hosea 12:10; Micah 3:6). Furthermore, the word for perish is para` and is best translated “unrestrained”. In this understanding of the verse, if the people do not have a prophetic revelation from God then they are left unrestrained to engage in foolishness and sin. This interpretation is reinforced by the rarely mentioned second half of this verse: “happy is he who keeps the law.” If we put this verse altogether we get “Where there is no prophetic revelation, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.” This verse is about keeping God’s laws and commandments, not vision-casting. So unless a pastor is spouting out fresh prophetic oracles from God, this verse should be applied not to a pastor’s imaginative wonderings of a future plan for the church, but for his or her biblical role to teach and equip other believers to follow the commands of God.
If a pastor is going to vision-cast, she needs to do so by studying Scripture to understand the mission of the Church and by seeking God’s explicit instruction through prayer. Vision-casting for the church should not be the result of a pastor’s musings, imagination, and personal wants of what she would like to see happen. Otherwise, if we are going to apply “vision” in the way too many Christians do, “They speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:16).

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Messianic Secret and the Enthronement of Christ

I was reading the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer last week, Out of My Life and Thought. In it Schweitzer talks about the historical issue known as the “Messianic Secret”. This refers to the motif in the synoptic Gospels, particular the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus is portrayed as commanding his disciples to keep silent about his identity as the Messiah, or Christ. The theory originally posited by William Wrede in 1901 was that this theme was an invention of Gospel writers to cover up for the fact that Jesus really never claimed to be the Christ. Wrede’s theory was roundly criticized early on by a variety of scholars (both liberal and conservative) but picked up some popularity in the middle of the 20th century. Eventually the idea that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah/Christ fell out of favor. There were some scholarly, historical, and logical reasons why this theory does not hold water, and Schweitzer was one of the early critics.
Yet, the synoptic Gospels do have several episodes in which Jesus tells individuals to keep his Messianic identity secret (Matthew 16:20; 12:16; Mark 1:24-25, 34; 3:12; 8:30; Luke 4:41; 9:21). Indeed, Jesus doesn’t openly refer to himself as the Christ, preferring to use the terms prophet (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4) and Son of Man (Matthew 8:20; 9:6; 11:19; Mark 2:10; 8:31; 9:9; Luke 9:44; 11:30; 12:40 13:33).
The most common explanation for the “Messianic Secret” is that Jesus wanted to avoid the contemporary misconception that the Messiah would be a strictly political figure that would fully institute Torah as popularly understood and defeat Israel’s enemies, namely the Romans. In this view, Jesus could establish his own ethic and correct theology without the political baggage that the title brought. I definitely think there is some truth to this. I also think that Jesus feared that any announcement by him of his Messianic identity might invite the people to make him king by a means other than by God’s plan (John 6:15). Again, I think these are both good secondary reasons, but I believe there was a primary reason.
Schweitzer argued that Jesus refrained from publicly identifying himself as the Messiah was because Jesus didn’t officially become King (the Messiah or Christ) until he sat on his throne which was the cross. I had never heard this theory before, but I do think that it is correct based on several other passages within the Gospels. In one story, the mother of James and John requests that her sons sit on either side of Jesus (presumably as he is enthroned) when his kingdom is inaugurated.
“And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’”  (Matthew 20:21-22; cf. Mark 10:33-38)
The cup refers to his crucifixion (Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Jesus warns that the means of him coming into his kingdom is through the death of the crucifixion. For them to be on his left and right as he sits on his throne would be to suffer the same death (just like the two thieves).
In the most obvious story, Jesus is “coronated” by the Romans.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him” (Matthew 27:27-31; cf. Mark 15:16-20; John 19:1-5).
Intended by the Romans to be a macabre, mocking parody of the charge against Jesus, the soldiers dress him up as a king with robe, staff, and crown. They then put him on the cross and hang a sign above his head, “This is the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). In the most startling, scandalous, ironic event in human history, Jesus becomes King of the Jews and king of the world by being humiliated and executed on a Roman cross. This is his coronation and enthronement. This is how his kingdom arrives.
Yet, if Jesus did not officially become the Messiah/Christ/King until his crucifixion on the cross, why does he seem to already acknowledge his Messiahship but only ask that it be kept silent? I think the answer comes in another story.
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.’ But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:1-8; cf. Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5).
This episode is followed by another warning by Jesus not to make known who he is (Matthew 12:16; Mark 3:12).
This particular story has been popularly interpreted as Jesus’ denunciation of tradition in the face of human need or even a renunciation of the Law in favor of grace. While there may be some surface truth to the former in terms of some indirect application, as with many of Jesus’ teachings and parables there is a deeper level of meaning that was Jesus’ essential point upon which all principled application must be based.
The story that Jesus cites here about David eating the consecrated bread is from 1 Samuel 21:1-15. This is one of the stories about how God was working through history to bring his anointed one, David, to the throne. David here is on the run from King Saul. He has already been appointed by God and anointed king over Israel (1 Samuel 18:1-14), but, since Saul is still king, it would be a while before he actually became the official king after the death of Saul (2 Samuel 2:1-7). In the meantime, David is the true king, but a king in exile, on the run from a jealous Saul, and he won’t ascend the throne and be officially recognized for a time.
In the same way, at this point in the story, Jesus has already been ordained by God (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and is the true King of Israel, yet he has yet to be recognized as such and ascend the throne. The currently recognized king is a Herod who seeks to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:16; Luke 13:31). When Jesus was pointing to the example of David in his explanation of why he could break the Sabbath rules he was not simply citing precedent but pointing to his identity: an anointed king waiting to be coronated. It his identity as Messiah which makes him Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).
Therefore, I think all these passages and stories confirm Schweitzer’s theory that the reason for the Messianic Secret was that Jesus’ Messiaship did not officially begin until he was crucified. But as stated above, this is the shocking and completely unexpected means by which Jesus becomes king. This method is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Instead of seizing power and bullying his way to the top, Jesus becomes a servant in order to be exalted (Philippians 2:5-11).This is why we read the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16). This is why Christian leadership is about servant leadership (Luke 22:25-26). This is why being a pastor is about equipping other believers (Ephesians 4:11-12). While the world may be run by the aggressive use of force and governments have a monopoly on violence (see Romans 13:1-3), the Christian (both laity and minister) must pursue the Kingdom of God through humbleness, selflessness, submission, and sacrifice (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).