Monday, April 23, 2018
I want to share some thoughts on the importance of the public reading of Scripture. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”
Evidently Paul thought this to be an important task for Pastors, as it is something to which they should “devote” themselves to do. I don’t necessarily think that pastors are the only ones who are allowed or authorized to read the Scripture in a worship service. I do think they are responsible to make sure the Scripture is read, and read well. There have even been pastors who did not know how to read, or through physical difficulty could not read, but they were oral learners, they listened, then learned, and they memorized. Can you imagine being a pastor who needed someone to read for you, and then you preached the Word? Whatever a pastor’s capacity or incapacity for reading it is his responsibility to make sure the Word is read, and read well, so the people – the public- can hear it.
We live in an educated age. Literacy is a common expectation, yet the reality is that there are many who are functionally illiterate and many who are lazy readers and resist any kind of regular Scripture reading. The Bible is not just for the educated, not just for intellectuals, and not just for those who know how to, or enjoy, reading. Every person needs to hear the Bible, and in that hearing they need to be able to understand it. This is why the Church has put so much effort into common language translations for each and every people group and why we continue to attempt to get the written Word into every spoken tongue upon the earth.
I would imagine there is an expectation by Paul in his direction to Timothy that the public reading of Scripture is not simply meant as a “rote” exercise, where someone is droning on in a monotone voice and simply saying the words in the text. I think the force of the direction is that devotion (commitment, focus, effort, consistency) is needed to make sure the reading is done well. I also think sincerity and intensity are important ingredients in the public reading of Scripture.
I received a wonderful compliment the other day from a pastor, for whose congregation I had just preached. He told me that he had never heard the public reading of Scripture done as I had just done it. I was very happy to hear his comment as I had decided to preach (and thus read) the whole chapter of John 9. The whole chapter is one story about the man who had been born blind. It is not a short chapter, but it is certainly entertaining. It is hard for modern Christians to sit through the reading of a long Biblical text and for that reason it must be done with some attempt to hold the attention of the congregation.
Have you ever read a text for your sermon, then preached, and afterward felt you could have just as well sat down after the Scripture reading because the text was so powerful in and of itself? I sure have, and it was not just the reading of the words but having read it with passion, intonation, and feeling that brought it alive. There are people who seem to have a gift for Scripture reading and I wish we could hear them doing it more often.
Now there are people who are overly dramatic in their reading and some who seem to have no drama at all. Scripture is made up of all kinds of styles of literature such as narrative, poetry, theology, and dialogue. The reader has to read according to the style. Pastors have to be aware, and decide, on how much to read at one time. I usually warn the people before I read, if it is a long text, as a way of helping them put some effort into paying attention. Then I try to give them no choice about paying attention by putting myself into it.
I believe in the spiritual nature of the Biblical text. I believe God wrote it through His Holy Spirit and that its words and truth have power when people hear it (I mean really hear it) and believe it. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear…” I believe God uses His Word as a sword to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart. When the Word is read, listened to with understanding, and heard by faith amazing and wonderful transformation takes place in people’s lives.
One of our Ruling Elders testified, when he first became a member of our church, that he had come to faith in Christ on the very first Sunday he attended our congregation. “How?” we asked him. He told us that the Call to Worship had gripped him, and then as I had read the Scripture prior to preaching he gave his life to Christ.
I encourage Pastors to take the reading of their preaching text to be a crucial part of their ministry. Your sermon should certainly help it to come alive, be understandable, and applicable to the people but the reading in and of itself is important to worship and to the faith of the people. If you are a boring reader, enlist someone who is gifted to do it for you, especially if it is a long text. Whatever you do don’t you dare take it lightly, do it perfunctorily, or simply treat is as something to get out of the way so you can get to giving your own opinions.
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
I was speaking with someone recently about “being woke,” and about trying to deal with folks who ain’t woke yet, and trying to love on them, and how some folks talk about “being tired” and feeling bitter about the frustration of not seeing people, or things, change.
My friend quoted me back to myself when he mentioned at one gathering someone had asked me a question and began it, “I am so tired of people….” And I had asked him, “how old are you?” The answer was “26.” I said, “26, and tired already?”
This made me think of a few things about inter-racial dialogue and cross cultural ministry, and POC survival in inter-racial spaces. Being tired in the emotional sense doesn’t really have anything to do with the amount of hours one has put in, or even the amount of years or effort, or the strenuousness of the labor. Many people work long and hard, (really hard) each day and they are not emotionally tired. So much has to do with perspective, and faith, and love, and the patience that can come from it.
“why are you not bitter?” Is a question I am sometimes asked, although I am always surprised by it. Who the hell do I think I am that I should be bitter? This is what occurs to me, that it would take an inflated view of myself to judge others so harshly or myself so important. I certainly have felt anger, frustration, and sometimes I have surrendered to the closed door or the reality of a mountain that I seemed unable to climb. I speak here about calling for justice, or even mercy, at least for understanding about issues of race, ethnocentrism, poverty, and suffering.
Burn out has more to do with anger than with exhaustion, more to do with frustration than with a need for rest. Burn out is relieved more with hope than sleep, more with assistance and fellowship in the struggle than time off.
I have to ask myself some questions, and maybe you can ask yourself some as well. Do I believe the world needs changing? Yes, I do. Do I believe I can change it? Yes, a little, and no, probably not a lot right away. Will it ever be changed? Absolutely, because Jesus is coming and he will create a new heavens and a new earth.
Is justice delayed truly justice denied? No, but it sure feels that way sometimes. Only a God perspective can help us understand that. Do I believe that Jesus will not rest until he brings justice to the earth? Yes, that is my hope, my constant hope. What kind of perspective does it take to live in a world full of injustice, with ignorant people who don’t even know they may be perpetrators of injustice, who don’t know that their defense of the status quo is an enshrinement of their privilege? What kind of perspective will give me a positive sense of progress and help me to endure, to keep trying, to keep listening, to keep teaching? Nothing less or short of an eternal one, and that is hard for us temporal human beings.
When we are young we feel change should and ought to come quickly. Thank God for youth. When we grow old we realize change does indeed come, but sometimes it has been and is glacial, incremental, not yet come to full realization. Some people dream dreams, and they work at them and see them come true, but if the truth be told those dreams are never universal, never total in scope for all humanity, nor for all time. Human beings celebrate sports heroes and use the word “immortal,” “unforgettable” and such. Really? What is a GOAT (Greatest of all time) today won’t even be recognized in a generation, a century, a millennium. Sports statistics are possibly the most changeable of things, and all heroes turn to dust.
Some will perish still in prison waiting for a revolution that will never come, still in the wilderness, still never having seen the city that was promised to them. They will question sometimes, like John the Baptist did, “Are you the one?” What do you do with your ego when you feel you should be the one that brings the change and no one listens to you? What do you do when after all your radical speech, your passionate displays, your marching, and your advocation people act like they just don’t care?
Will you waste your time to continue to win over the resistant, will you continue to pour yourself out to institutions that don’t live up to their own ideals? Will you come to be patient with one more stupid question (and there are stupid questions) from someone who should know better?
It comes back to the question of who do I think I am? I am a small man, not of much significance after all, despite my ambition and ego. I am a man of short time, no matter how long I may live my life upon the earth. Yet, with all my frustrations I am a man infinitely loved by the God who fills the universe, who is its creator and sustainer. I am a sinful broken man, yet forgiven, forgiven, forgiven again. I am a purchased man, and I can no longer live for myself but for him who died and rose again for me.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
As I listen or read about the “white” Evangelical Church and its relationship to and with African Americans, or about how African Americans feel about the white Evangelical Church I am concerned, comforted, and confronted about truly cross-cultural churches and their place in this discussion.
I am concerned because I think the general public and the average white and black Christian doesn’t really understand the difference between truly cross-cultural churches and those with some ethnic diversity within them. Multi-ethnic churches are not the same as cross-cultural churches, and are in some measure set up for ethnic misunderstanding and conflict.
I think much of what we hear about these days is the inevitable frustration and friction that comes within churches seeking diversity without “missional intentionality.” Usually all it takes is something in the news or something in politics to create a dilemma. It’s as if a congregation in the days of the early Church had both Gentiles and Judiazers in it, and everything is fine until the subject of circumcision comes up. The Judiazers ask the Gentiles to assimilate, to give up their “Gentile-ness,” and suddenly the Gentiles realize there is a price to be paid to be among these type of Christians. Trouble happens when the knives come out, in that case literally.
Judiazers assume their culture is normative, and can’t understand why others would be offended. It is not until something radical comes along, like the real Gospel, a Gospel that doesn’t demand uniformity of culture but instead oneness in Christ while we are at the same time diverse in culture. In fact the missional intentionality of the Gospel calls for the sacrificial willingness of the missionary (older brother, majority Christian culture) to become servant to those who are different, in fact seeking to “become” like them in order to reach them (I Corinthians 9:19ff).
When a multi-ethnic church seeks to demand everyone be “a-cultural” they are simply but profoundly demanding that minorities be deracinated. The majority cultural group is asking the minority to assimilate, and not to complain. This might be fine if all we were discussing was intentional migration, but when it comes to white and black in America we are also speaking about becoming a minority in religion as well as being a minority in society. We are speaking of assimilating without any sense of history or justice but instead calling for a denial of a sense of self.
Of course there are always those individual ethnic minorities who have no problem with assimilation. There are those who think the way to peace is to discard conversations about issues of injustice or history. Some of these ethnic representatives in a majority culture church are the strongest champions of silencing racial or cultural talk.
So, this is why I am concerned about the recent discussions and that due to the ignorance of what a truly cross-cultural church is trying to be. A multi-ethnic church is not automatically a cross-cultural church, not even if they have a minority representative as a pastor or minorities in leadership. Some congregations assume that if they hire an African American pastor he is sure to know how to make the church cross-cultural. Why would someone assume that any pastor who hasn’t studied, thought about, or been trained in cross-cultural ministry skills and vision would know what they were doing in that regard? It is a hubris that can create confusion and chaos and it is an unfair burden to be laid on a pastor simply becomes he is an ethnic or minority representative.
I am comforted about cross-cultural ministry in these recent discussions because I know that missional intentionality in a church means congregations will (and must) face the truth and realities of history, injustice, racism, and culture with Biblical truth and hope. Though cross-cultural churches also face the tension and stress of racial and political discussion and difference, through various moments of crisis, they have a commitment to Christ and to each other to see them through the episodes. They are not surprised at the tensions though they sometimes see individuals and families realize, sometimes suddenly, that there is a price to be paid for love across cultural boundaries. Some of those people do leave, but most are tenacious in seeking to live out a community of love that does not skirt truth.
This common commitment to Biblical reconciliation as an accomplishment of Christ, and this common commitment to “being built together to become a holy temple to the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21) is accepted as part of their discipleship. They have rejected church as simply an expression of their preferences.
I feel confronted with the challenge of trying to make the distinction clear. If the distinction between missional intentionality and simply a desire for more color or flavor is not clear then time after time individuals who are the “diversity” within a majority church face the realization that they feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Pastors and leaders who have been hired for “diversity” realize that the commitment and sacrifice is in one direction only. It only takes one more episode of injustice, or even misunderstanding, to break hearts and lead to discouragement.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
Just suppose you wanted to make something of your life… Suppose you wanted to make a significant difference in the lives of other people… Suppose you wanted to impact at least one specific community, one neighborhood… Suppose you had the belief that people coming to faith in Jesus Christ would actually affect their eternal destiny and that their faith in and of itself could change their present and future ability to deal with troubles in this life...
Suppose you were willing to bring about this impact, this difference, over a long faithfulness, that you would be willing to be patient, tenacious, and gentle with people but impatient and irritated at poverty, injustice, and the damage of sin… Suppose you were willing to live among these people, and not just live in that place but to live before them with all your own struggles, fears, and needs, along with your faith… Suppose you were willing to live as their servant, to use your knowledge of God and His Word to teach them, through preaching, example and instruction, constantly pointing them to Christ while trying to be self-effacing and losing your identity (and thus finding it) in Christ…
Suppose you were willing to live as a pastor without being perfect at it, and willing to suffer the cost of being misunderstood or being falsely accused. Suppose you were willing to trust God for and with your money, for and with your marriage, for and with your children, for and with your “name,” your success, with the reality of your aging, your physical limitations, with the possibility of obscurity, with your culture…
Suppose you were willing to be abandoned to God, to live a life of prayer, repentance, study, and love….Suppose you were willing to gather a people, to create a new social reality in one geographic place, and were willing to live in the midst of the social and political reality of raising up new leaders, listening to them, learning from them, and being displaced by them…
Suppose you were willing to be abandoned to God, to live a life of prayer, repentance, study, and love….Suppose you were willing to gather a people, to create a new social reality in one geographic place, and were willing to live in the midst of the social and political reality of raising up new leaders, listening to them, learning from them, and being displaced by them…
Do you think it could happen? Do you think it would actually make a difference? Do you think you could do it with joy, do you think you could do it without self-righteousness? Well, could you do it, would you do it? Will you do it? In addition, not necessarily alternatively, will you pray that someone will do it, that God would send someone to do it?
We are looking for life-long and lifetime heroes in hard, normal, real life places. We are looking for church planters and pastors, looking for men who are full of God, with an insatiable hunger for more of Jesus, and more of His Word. We are looking for those whom God is sending, whose ambition is being fully realized in saying “yes Lord, yes to your will!” Normal human spaces are waiting for real, godly men, to take their places within them.
God’s “yes” line is always open, angels are standing by.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
I have been thinking some about the role of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Post Modern ideology concerning prevalent ethnic and racial justice and injustice issues. I have been thinking of the rhetoric of cultural and social critics, the presumptive attempt to be “prophetic” in speaking to social problems, and the difficulty of pointing out hard and unpleasant realities, while at the same time maintaining a Biblical attitude and behavior. For the Christian to be prophetic in this day and age must mean that not only he or she has the courage to speak truth to power, or truth to institutions, but also that both the truth that is expounded, and the manner in which it is expounded be grounded and understood from Biblical absolutes. This means our attempts to speak the truth have to be practiced in the context of Christ, Gospel, and grace.
We live in a world of social and cultural criticism. Much of this criticism is media driven, often through the use of humor and especially using satire, sarcasm, and mockery. Some of this criticism arises from pain, from real racial hurt, and from both the results of oppression as well as current acts and attitudes of racism and injustice.
To cut off social criticism from a God’s eye point of view of truth, love, and eternity inevitably leads to all kinds of errors. Some of these errors create darkness in our own souls as we can be crushed by the despair caused by the oppression of societal sin in the world. We can attempt to face the unjust realities of the world without faith and that just keeps us angry, traumatized, and ultimately burned out. We can attempt to face social and economic realities with some kind of jury-rigged earthly analysis, and as brilliant as they might seem or as militant as they may make us feel, they have no hope. Some of that societal sin is the sin of the unjust or unwise State, some is tribal and ethnic oppression, some is collective economic exploitation, some might be the oppression of cultural dominant groups either by design or ignorance, and some of course is familial and interpersonal, i.e. individual to individual.
Believers need to be cultural and societal critics, or at least some leaders in the church have to be. To be “in the world and not of it” means that we are called to some discrimination, some discernment, to know what is happening around us, to us, or to others. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we have no knowledge, concern, or empathy for them. We cannot adequately preach the Gospel to the poor if we don’t know who they are. We cannot throw off the yoke of oppression if we don’t know what oppression is, who is being oppressed and how, and where. It is not always easy work to be culturally discerning. The secular philosophical world can sometimes give us helpful ideas, clues, and even slogans or phrases to help sum up what has happened in history or culture. Common grace allows all human beings to tell a bit of the truth, and it certainly allows them to pick up pretty quickly what they feel to be just and unjust.
Evangelicals have studied, discussed, and written about trends in philosophical culture. They have studied and strategized about generational culture. Some are beginning to add an ethnic and racial analysis to culture, which is long overdue in the American context. Evangelicals have preferred moral criticism and sometimes divorced it (shamefully and embarrassingly so) from justice. As I have read and listened to some of the (Evangelical) modern cultural critics I have been concerned about the amount of polarization that has taken place. For some polarization seems almost to be an achievement, and I am concerned, and sad about that. If we give criticism we have to be able to receive it, and this is often hard for us to hear especially when we feel so right about our stance on the issues. Some seem unable to hear criticism about their views or rhetoric, or have possibly tied their egos to their platforms, and as we should all know, it is hard to disentangle oneself from a run-away band wagon once we are tied to it with our pride. This is as true for the conservative wing of Evangelicals as it is for the more liberal side of Evangelicals.
Here are some of my concerns, i.e., criticisms, and observations about recent conversational trends and they are not to be taken as universal, they are of course generalized but not appropriate for everyone in the conversation.
· Asserting that historic behaviors of past injustice, responsible for residual effects, must all still be at play.
· Asserting that racism is an extremely rare attitude and behavior within specific individuals and is having no significant current impact on culture, society, or politics.
· Inserting racial, ethnic, and tribal rationalizations to explain all inequities.
· Allowing one’s frustration with seemingly implacable societal realities to create theories of systemic, systematic, and intentional conspiracy about those realities.
· Asserting that anyone who describes society and culture in terms of group/class antagonism, or attempts to discuss or describe social injustice must be a Marxist. [There are Marxists, then there are others who are members of the Communist Party (they are not necessarily the same) and then there are others who borrow Marxist social criticism terms and phrases in their speech and writings, but certainly are not consistently Marxist in their ideology.]
· Avoiding and denying subject (individual) responsibility for the creation of cultural and ethnic distortions in equity.
· Avoiding and resisting group (or group representative) responsibility for the reality of privilege and the exercise of power.
· Interpreting even the “well meaning” (but failed) solutions to social problems with the most negative and racist explanations.
· Ignorance of how the radical rhetoric of group condemnation will motivationally affect the opposition, or giving the results no concern.
· Assuming that even in the midst of pointed and emotional speech against perceived evils that the speaker is exempt from giving honor to everyone, especially leaders, love to their neighbors, and especially to what one may assume is an “enemy.”
· Creating the myth that the language of ethnic triumphalism can replace individual moral responsibility, or group activism, on the ground.
· Allowing ethnic and racial identity narratives to harden into tribal narrative competition.
· Failing to see that creating a negative world of personal bitterness and condemnatory speech with an oppositional isolation is an inadequate path for survival, and deprives one of a necessary social and cultural interaction in a multi-cultural world.
· Failing to realize that the language of love is a necessary component of love.
· Creating the false narrative that reconciliation is only a product of the full realization of guilt, confession, repentance, restoration, and reparations or leaving the alternative… permanent condemnation or retribution.
· Creating the false narrative that reconciliation is either accomplished or not, thus denying it as a process that has both emotional and relational beginnings, as well as realizations and actions.
· Creating rhetoric that denies grace to the ignorant and the transgressor (and failing to define the difference) while removing the necessity of faith, humility and responsibility in the response of the victim, thus denying them inherent dignity.
· Failure to see the power of love and mercy to cover a multitude of sins and bring healing even without adequate self-knowledge, self-realization, and personal acceptance of blame and responsibility from the privileged.
· Conflating a Marxist and Post-Modern dialectical tribal analysis to construct a narrative of conflict and competition that alienates rather than reconciles.
· Conflating a conservative political and economic world view, with its attendant patriotic civil religion, with Biblical Christianity.
· A practical rejection of Biblical anthropology and God’s sovereignty in the historical ordering of mankind to bring about his eternal and eschatological purposes.
· An attempt to convey real and honest history with an incisive and unapologetic exposure of injustice and oppression without much hope or Gospel, and without a rhetorical acknowledgement or commitment of the tenacity of the Church to prevail against the gates of hell.
Monday, February 5, 2018
I’ve recently had some opportunities to speak about money, sacrifice, and the poor. I often speak on poverty but it gets a bit more personal when I speak to “the poor” and to “the rich.”
Over the last decade or so I have heard preachers and speakers on the radio and other places mention the fact that the Bible talks a lot about money. After they mention this fact I seem to hear either a discussion about getting out of debt and achieving sound financial management, or from another direction I hear a sermon urging me to believe in the “prosperity Gospel.” Usually those sermons don’t use that phrase but instead encourage me to go after my "money miracle, my breakthrough, my blessing, or to enlarge my tent." Both sides seem to encourage me to be pretty self-focused, it is all about how I use, tithe, sow, or save “my” money.
I don’t hear from those sources much about the poor, except to encourage me not to be counted among them. I also don’t hear much from those preachers concerning a rebuke, command, or charge to the rich, except that if God was truly blessing me then I would be one of them.
One of the great joys of my preaching ministry has been to sometimes speak to very poor people, in places where almost everyone in the room, tent, hut, field, beach, under the stars, or church building was poor. Telling them that God cares about them; that they are indeed loved in Christ and that they can become fellow heirs with Christ has filled me with joy. This joy is sometimes because I see and feel the joy in them, as I hear them sing in faith, as I see them encouraged that God actually loves them in their poverty, and notices their condition. I see them take joy in their exalted position. It is a joy, but it is sometimes simultaneously heart-breaking.
One of the great challenges of my ministry is preaching to and relating to the rich. The challenge is how to love them while calling them to make purses for themselves that will not wear out, to not wear themselves out to be and stay rich, to not trust in the temporal nature of their wealth, to lay up their treasure in heaven where moth and rust don’t corrupt and thieves don’t break in to steal, to share their bread with the hungry, to be generous and ready to share, to glory in their low estate, and to be rich in good works. I have to command them not to be arrogant and not to put their hope in their money. I have to warn them that they can’t serve God and money at the same time. I have to do this while still loving them and not making the false assumption that material things are bad in themselves or that God doesn’t want any of us to enjoy life and the things he has given us in this world.
One of the great tasks of my ministry is to put these two kinds of people in touch with each other, sometimes personally, and sometimes simply through resources. When it happens I get to see two different kind of Christians receive a blessing and I see the Gospel at work.
There are temptations in this kind of work. One is a subtle kind of coveting, not so much for the stuff of wealth, but for the power of it. Why doesn’t God just give me all that money so I can give it directly, which surely I would do? One conclusion is that God doesn’t put any confidence in my humility; that with the power to decide on distribution would come an insufferable arrogance. This would lead to a conviction that I didn’t need to pray, no longer to trust God, and no need of working at relationships that might be difficult. Having money can give one the illusion that they don't need other people or accountability.
As the writer of Proverbs (30:7-9) prayed,
“Two things I ask of you, O Lord, do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches,
But give me only my daily bread,
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my god.”
Another kind of temptation is to be afraid of the faces of men. My ministry seems to be dependent on the generosity of God’s people so maybe I had better be careful not to "bite the hand that feeds me"? (I have actually heard that warning from people who didn’t like my social or cultural application of the Scriptures). What if the wealthy cut me off, what if they don’t like me, what if they no longer support me, give me their money to help others, or won’t share some of their very nice homes, cars, and company?
You might notice I used the word “seems” when I talked about depending on the generosity of God’s people, and there is certainly nothing strange or wrong about receiving support from God's people. As an itinerant preacher and teacher Jesus received generosity from the wealthy. The Apostle Paul was supported by the gifts of God’s people. They also sometimes went without, in danger, exposed to the elements, no place to lay their head, etc. The truth is that they didn’t depend on God’s people; they depended on God the Father. So should we all, and to do otherwise will certainly compromise our courage and our message.
The standard of my calling is to be true to God’s Word and never use it to manipulate people. My calling is to be a man of integrity in how I teach it and live it, and to love everyone as I meet, preach to, encourage, and live among them. Part of that standard is to be humble, and that humility is to be both an inner conviction and an outward appearance.
Another part of my calling is to say like Amos, “the lion has roared who can but tremble, the Lord has spoken who can but prophesy?” And so like Jeremiah I have to say, “but if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” And like James I have to tell people, “show me your faith by your works.”
I am called to be both humble and bold. Being prophetic about poverty and wealth might cause some to think of me with annoyance which can then lead to avoidance, especially when I speak of injustice and the necessity of sacrifice. The reality is that I am no hero, and I have suffered very little abuse in trying to be faithful to the calling God has given me. I consider myself immensely blessed. Yet, I know sometimes I make people nervous.
To, and for me, the cross calls us to discipleship, to the cost of it, and to proclaiming and living out the Gospel of the Kingdom. I have absolutely no ability to carry that cross, no innate spirituality or moral strength to carry it. I find myself to be a person who has contradictions; holding powerful convictions and too little holiness, a powerful message and too much selfish weakness. If Jesus doesn’t help me I won’t make it. If God’s grace doesn’t empower then the cross is too heavy. Yet in that cross is all my help, all my cleansing, all my deliverance from sin and self. The cross begins with justification but it has all these sanctification implications that keeps nailing me to it.
The conclusion is fairly clear and direct for all of us, from the poorest to the wealthiest; we can’t continue to be afraid and let worry make us hold onto material possessions for our security. We have to learn to live in contentment by faith, and we must learn the amazing and wonderful experience of sharing, generosity, and sacrifice in caring for the poor and loving our neighbors. All of us can and must do that, as hard and even as impossible as it seems, as Christ empowers us. It is want He wants.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Every once in a while someone decides to smear those who advocate social righteousness in the practice of both the church as congregation, and the church as members, as the “Social Gospel.”
It is perfectly fine with me to have brothers and sisters debate the extent or parameters of local churches, or the denomination, to deal with social injustices, oppression, and social moral evils. However, with both positive and negative words and actions, public and social sinfulness needs to be confronted by somebody. Certainly we know this is part of the role of government as mentioned in Romans 13, where we are taught that those in authority are to commend those who do right, but hold terror for those who do wrong.
How is the government supposed to know what that is exactly , i.e., what is the difference between those two things, what is good and what is wrong? Do we leave this for “common grace,” that we should assume any and all people who might end up in politics and government know the difference? Do we as believers feel any responsibility to be a moral and ethical voice to secular government, based on Biblical and godly values? Do we feel that the realm of government is none of our business? Do we leave this for those Christians who get into government to carry that burden, if they are indeed trying to be “Christian” in their role as politicians and governors? Do we assume that partisan ideologies are the same as justice and moral righteousness? (God help you if you believe that.)
Some of the “smearing” or labeling against those of us who call for the church, and its members, to live out justice and morality in society is due to a misunderstanding (ignorance) of historical theology in regard to the Social Gospel movement. Some of the labeling I suspect comes down to which social issues are being discussed. Conservatives tend to have their favorite social issues, which to them are seen as legitimate moral issues so they tend not to describe them as social gospel liberalism. These issues are abortion, human trafficking, homosexuality and the gay rights agenda, and alcoholism (though we don’t hear so much about temperance these days).
On a side note it is interesting to me to observe how “Fundamentalist” moral issues have been superseded by secular activists in realms of anti-smoking (public health), sobriety (AA and the recovery “industry”), and sexual constraint (the “me too” movement). These public movements have probably brought more public “buy in” to concern about behavior than the legalism of fundamentalism. This would probably make for some good research in a doctoral program.
Debating the role of the local church versus the involvement of its members is one thing, but to confuse a call for the social application of justice and moral righteousness to society’s ills with a theology that abandoned the need for personal redemption and conversion and replaced it with a passion for societal reform, is to call fellow believers who are members by confession and vows of an orthodox religion -heretics. It is a lie, it is a slander, and frankly seems intended to avoid social responsibility as an obedient follower of Jesus Christ.
People need to be saved, by the blood of Christ, who died for sinners. The cross was a legal and redemptive transaction within the Trinity to satisfy the wrath and righteousness of God. People need to believe in Jesus, and He transforms them. Inner and personal transformation is a necessity for a relationship to God, and that can only happen by grace. At the same time there is a Kingdom of God, and it is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We are saved unto good works, and those good works are for the good of human beings. God, the God of the Bible, is a God of justice, who hates wickedness, and oppression.
Preachers have to preach, teach, and model good works. Not as a means to salvation or as a substitute for it, but as the end of it. Any preacher who takes his stand that the local church should not be involved in works of mercy, or should stand against local, national, or international injustice, better be preaching, stimulating, and even commanding his people to do good works; or he is simply an obstacle to the Kingdom of God, if not its enemy. The preaching of grace does not nullify the teaching or practicing of good works but empowers them, with liberty and joy.
Most of the time teaching that the local church shouldn’t do anything in terms of social mercy or justice is a luxury of the wealthy, middle and upper class church. Those people have the money, the education and the social networks to deal with their problems. When the church is among the poor then widows often have to be fed by the church itself, and not given over to their own retirement funds. One’s wealth perspective often deprives us of an adequate view not only of reality, but of Biblical application.
There was a theological movement of the early twentieth century, led by men such as Walter Rauschenbusch, who looked upon the need for personal redemption as a mistaken view of the teachings of Jesus. While advocating some of the teaching of Jesus he separated Jesus from his saving work to focus on a social application of love and peace.
Obviously those are worthy things, but not good enough for those who wish to be holistically obedient. Men need personal salvation and redemption, they need their characters changed in order to be able to deal with both their own sins and their own eternity, and to prevent them from sinning against others. Love can only really and radically come from the God who is love within us, and not some moral sentiment.
We need social activists who rise up within and from the church who are saved and blood washed by Jesus, and who become advocates for love, goodness, and peace within the world. We need activists who preach the cross, while they feed the hungry, and stand against evil.