Saturday, February 12, 2011

Les Miserables

I have been thinking about this for some time now, but just haven’t had the time to sit down and write about it. I have often wondered about Jesus’ statement to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more” (KJV). I wonder what effect those words had on her. As I have mentioned many times before, I am not a scholar, so my analysis here is not authoritative, but here is what I think.
Often in my years as a minister I would hear teaching on this passage. Either the emphasis was on the grace of God (a qualifed grace, to be sure--trying to get sinners to the altar), or it was on what Jesus was writing on the ground. Seldom did anyone ever explain anything about Jesus final words to this woman, except to emphasize that this meant that salvation may begin by grace, but it is up to us to live sin free (or make sure we repent often) in order to “stay saved.” But I think there was something much more significant going on with this statement. I have not tried to interpret the Greek here, but it seems to me that there is more to the statement than a simple command to quit being so naughty.
It is difficult to understand Jesus’ words separate from the event leading up to them. And rather than repeating trite clich├ęs that we have all heard over the years—and that have little impact on us—I was trying to think of what must have been going on in that woman’s mind and heart at the climax of this grace event. It is difficult to imagine, not ever having been in that situation. And we are given few details in this narrative. Thankfully, we have other literature that may help us to understand what was taking place here.
Victor Hugo’s work Les Miserables is one of the greatest depictions of the effect of grace in a person’s life that has ever been written. Most of you have read the book (or have seen the movie, or have heard the radio theater version), so I won’t go into a lot of detail. I want to focus on the event that changed the life of Jean Valjean forever. He had been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry family. The prison sentence was extended for many years, turning Valjean into a truly hardened criminal by the time he was released from prison. All released prisoners were forever labeled as convicts because they had to carry papers with them revealing this to all who would inquire. Upon his release, he had little success in finding shelter from the cold until he came upon the residence of a priest. The priest welcomed Valjean warmly, fed him and gave him a warm bed to sleep in. Rather than be thankful, Valjean robbed the priest. The next morning it was discovered that the gold and silver had been stolen. Not too long after this discovery, Valjean, caught "red handed," was escorted back to the residence by the authorities. They needed the priest to confirm that Valjean had indeed stolen the items. To their surprise, and more to the surprise of Jean Valjean, the priest said the items were a gift, and added to the “booty” that he had stolen. The authorities were forced to release Valjean, and Valjean was “forced” to make a decision. I say he was “forced” because he didn’t want the gift. He was an angry, embittered man, and he only wanted to vent that anger in any way possible—including stealing from the only person who would give him food and shelter on that cold night. The priest gave him a new reason to be angry. His act of grace changed him. But Valjean didn’t want to change. He wanted to stew in his anger. He wanted to nurse it (ever been there?). This kindness made it so he could not nurse his rage with the spoils of his thievery. They were not spoils anymore. They were a gift. He had a decision to make. Accept the grace and be forever changed, or throw it back in the face of the one who had given it to him—and continue in his downward spiral into darkness. When he finally yielded to the realization of what this priest had done for him, he could not help but be changed—thoroughly, completely, permanently.
This is what I see in the story of the woman caught in adultery. She is an angry woman—embittered by the events and circumstances of life. She is caught and brought to the place of judgment—of justice. But the “priest” asked to officiate at her execution (which was surely coming) gives her a gift—grace. She looks up from the spot that should be running with her blood by now, and all of her accusers are gone. The only one left is the grace giver. He breaks the news to her, “You are no longer condemned. You are free. You don’t have to live this way anymore.” That is the effect that I see in Jesus’ words. More than a command—the forgiven woman doesn’t need to be told that she should not sin anymore, just as Valjean didn’t need to be instructed to “go and live a good life now”—Jesus was stating what is true for all who experience true grace. Sin doesn’t rule your life now. You are free. “There is now no condemntation. Go. Live a life free from sin.” This woman had been changed forever by grace—just as Valjean had. The years of anger, bitterness and sin did not rule her life anymore. In one act of grace everything had changed—thoroughly, completely, permanently.
That is what happens when we meet Jesus on His terms—terms of grace. We are changed—forever.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy new year to all the prodigals

If any of you get the opportunity, I would strongly recommend a book by Tim Keller called The Prodigal God. In it he emphasizes how the word "prodigal" means extravagant or wasteful. This is exactly what the father in the story of the prodigal son was doing--he was behaving extravagantly and wastefully with his resources when his prodigal (wasteful) son returned home. Keller does a good job at pointing out all the nuances of the story and helping us understand the real meaning of the story. As with so many narratives in the Bible, it is difficult to apply the meaning to our lives unless we understand what it meant to the first readers. As they say at Blackhawk "the Bible wasn't written to us; but it was written for us." In this case, what did the first readers (or hearers) of the story of the prodigal son understand? First, they understood that the real impact of the story was pointing out that the Father was treating wayward children with extravagant love, while the respected duitiful older son stood on the sidelines angry that the Father would behave so wastefully toward those who didn't deserve it. In fact, those wayward children deserved punishment and ostracism, not celebration. The story was aimed at the self-righteous Pharisees. The Kingdom of God was now in their midst, and the recipients of the blessings of that kingdom were the outcasts and sinners, not the holy faithful. This was a slap in the face of those who had lived their entire lives "by the book." As my friend, Jim (who loaned me the book) said, it makes you see how unproductive judgment is. Self-righteousness is so ugly, and yet I still behave that way so often. I am thankful for books like this that help ground me. Here is to a happy new year for all the outcasts out there. And here is hoping that all of us self-righteous people learn compassion and humility in the coming year. God bless you all!

Jon

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

evidence

When I was in the ministry there were times when I would feel God speaking to me so clearly that it was overwhelming. More often than not, He was getting me ready to preach a sermon, so I would write down (or speak into a recorder) the thoughts He was giving me. If I didn’t I felt as if I would burst. Shortly before I left the ministry, I would be in prayer, meditating on God’s Word, and I would feel God speaking to me in the same way. It was overwhelming. The “problem” was that He was showing me things that messed with my Pentecostal theologies. As I write this blog post, I have that same feeling. I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I must write this post. I am actually delaying doing homework so I can get this out—before I burst. I readily acknowledge that the “feeling” that God is moving on me to write this does not make what I have to say true. But I wanted to convey to readers that my conclusions are not just the result of some sort of intellectual exercise born out of some twisted desire to “prove” anything. Paul said, “Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel.” Tonight, I feel like “Woe is unto me if I don’t complete this post.” It “almost” makes me want to preach again. I hope and pray that the words that follow will resonate with someone, and that they will encourage you to lay hold of God’s grace in a new and vibrant way.
To begin with, I want to briefly explain Acts 2:38 soteriology as I understand it. Soteriology refers to a particular teaching regarding salvation. I have dubbed this “Acts 2:38” soteriology because the doctrine that I used to teach revolves around this verse of Scripture. Acts 2:38 soteriology basically says that in order to be “saved” (or to go to Heaven) a person must repent of their sins, be baptized correctly by full immersion in water in the name of Jesus Christ, and then be filled with the Holy Spirit with the accompanying evidence of speaking in tongues. These three “elements” or “steps” are all listed in Acts 2:38. It must be emphasized that one has not been properly baptized unless the name of Jesus was spoken over the baptizee during the baptism. And one has not received the gift of the Spirit unless they have spoken in tongues. In effect, one is not a true Christian under this teaching unless the person has been correctly baptized, and unless this person has spoken in tongues. For those who ascribe to this doctrine, 99% of all is that called Christianity is part of their mission field.
This doctrine evolved over a period of decades beginning in the early 1900’s (I could go over the history of it, but this is already going to be too long). The reasoning goes like this. Jesus told Nicodemus (in John 3:3-5) that a person must be “born again” (or from above—see my post “a primer for the new birth”) of the “water” and the “Spirit.” The logic goes that this “double” birth is really a double “baptism” (See my post on “the baptism connection”).  It correlates nicely with Acts 2:38 where Peter says that a person should “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” and that they would “receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” So, the birth of water and Spirit in John 3:5 is the baptism of water and Spirit that Peter talked about in Acts 2:38.
So, where does speaking in tongues come in? Well, if one must “receive the Holy Spirit,” then, logically, there must be a way to know when this has happened. The “evidence” doctrine goes like this: If you look at the book of Acts, there are four places where it talks of people being “filled with the Holy Ghost” (or Holy Spirit): Acts 2:4; 8:16; 10:44-48; 19:1-6. There is a fifth instance in Acts 9 where Paul receives the gift of the Holy Ghost, but it doesn’t give any details. In that instance we know that Paul spoke in tongues because he says so in 1 Corinthians 14. But of the other four instances, three of them specifically mention tongues. The fourth doesn’t mention “tongues,” but it does mention something “happening” that caught the attention of those observing the event. So, the logic goes like this: of the five times when the book of Acts talks about someone receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, we know that the people spoke in tongues in four of those instances, and we know that in the fifth something “tangible” happened. So, if we use the book of Acts as our guide for discovering the pattern of “how” someone receives the Holy Ghost, then it is only logical to conclude that “tongues” must be the evidence.
 At this point, some may object and go to 1 Corinthians 14:4 and note that Paul says, “I would that you all spoke with tongues. . .”, or 1 Corinthians 12:30, where Paul asks, “Do all speak with tongues,” seemingly indicating that some in the church did not speak in tongues. Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents will quickly note that Paul is talking about the “gift” of tongues here, and not the evidential tongues that one initially experiences with the reception of the Holy Spirit. The reasoning here is that 1 Corinthians is written to people who are “already” Christians, and if one must be “born” of “water” and “Spirit” by baptisms, and if Acts shows that people speak in tongues when they are baptized with the Spirit, then all the readers here had already spoken in tongues when they initially received the Spirit. So, Paul is ostensibly talking about the “gift” of tongues, which is clearly a different operation of the Spirit than “evidential” tongues.
In a nutshell, that is this is the “evidence doctrine” portion of Acts 2:38 soteriology (There is more to it, and it gets more complex, but time is short). If I have done a good job of explaining this, then for the non-theologian casual reader the reaction is probably “makes sense to me.” And most converts and proponents are not theologians, so this does make for a convincing argument. Now, I am not a theologian (as I have declared multiple times), but I have found this doctrine to be flawed. Following is a brief explanation of why I say this.
First, the book of Acts was not written to teach doctrine. Luke was writing “descriptive history” not “prescriptive doctrine.” He was “describing” events—narrating history—not “instructing” his readers about church doctrine. He was describing events that were significant to the early church—and he did it largely without commentary. In other words, after he described the events in Acts 2, 8, 10 and 19, he does not add his understanding of the events or the meaning of the events. He simply moves on. Nowhere does he declare “and this is what happens to all people who receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and it is the pattern to follow for all generations to come.” So, to find an “evidence” doctrine in the pages of Acts is at best wrong-headed. It adds meaning to the verses that Luke never intended (at least he never told us he intended for us to get that meaning). Conversely, the epistles are “instructive,” and do “prescribe” doctrine. As a matter of fact, the book of Romans is probably the most comprehensive writing we have regarding church doctrine. In the book of Romans Paul does mean to establish and prescribe doctrine for the church. Luke does not intend to do that in Acts. In Acts, Luke is trying to convince skeptics that this new movement within Judaism is indeed the work of God. So, he picks out significant events over the early decades of the church. Note: Luke does quote portions of “sermons” that Peter, Paul, and others preached, but again, he does so without commentary. And you will not find an “evidence” doctrine in those brief quotations either. So, even in the “teaching” that is “recorded” in Acts, never is speaking in tongues given the emphasis that Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents give it today.
 Nowhere in Scripture does it ever “teach” that there is any “initial evidence” when someone receives the gift of the Holy Ghost. If the doctrine that someone needed to speak in tongues in order to know that they had received this gift were so important, you would think that at least one writer in the New Testament would have said so. The fact is that no one does.
If you get a chance, read the book of Acts through and note how many times it talks of people being “saved.” The language of “salvation” in Acts is not “Someone was ‘saved’ today.” Rather, it speaks of people being “added” to the church, or of people “believing.” I was amazed when I realized that Luke records around 27 instances (It has been awhile since I counted them, so I may be off a bit) when people are “saved.” I had always assumed and taught that the five instances of Spirit baptism were the salvation events. But this is not what we see in Acts. In fact, “salvation” language is curiously absent from the tongue-speaking events in Acts.
(As I noted above, Luke does record portions of “sermons” in Acts. Take a look at the “first” sermon Peter preached in Acts 2. You may be surprised to find that Peter does talk about “how” to be “saved,” but he doesn’t do it in verse 38. He does it in verse 21 when he is quoting from the Old Testament (This was a shock to me when I first noticed this). He does the same in Acts 10:43. Interestingly, these two instances fit nicely with Paul’s teaching in Romans 10:9-13. These verses are all about “believing” and “calling on the name of the Lord.” But I digress—onward to more discussion of “tongues.”)
As we have noted, to use Acts to establish doctrines by stringing together observations of recorded events, when those doctrines are not expressly taught elsewhere is tantamount to “adding to Scripture,” something that none of wants to do. It is really using human logic to connect dots that are not otherwise connected for us by any biblical author. Again, there is NO teaching in Acts regarding speaking in tongues. As a matter of fact, the ONLY book that does teach about tongues is 1 Corinthians. Let’s take a look.
For Paul to say “I would that you all spoke with tongues, but rather that you prophesied,” and “Do all speak with tongues,” with no further explanation would be truly confusing to readers who had all spoken in tongues. For proponents of Acts 2:38 soteriology, just think of what confusion this would cause in your churches if a minister got up and said “I wish you all spoke with tongues, but I would rather you prophesied,” without explaining himself. Or if he rhetorically asked “do all speak with tongues,” with the implication being that all do not—and did not offer further clarification about the fact that he was “obviously” not talking about “evidential” tongues—he would cause an uproar in these churches (He would probably be called before the district board and be asked to explain himself). Paul never distinguishes between the “gift of tongues” and “evidential” tongues anywhere in any of his writings. And he does not make a distinction here. Why? In answering, we need to be careful not to put words in Paul’s mouth (pen?) that he did not intend. We do not want to add to Scripture. It is my opinion that the gifts that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12 (a list which does not appear to be exhaustive) are the various manifestations of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is intellectually dishonest, in my opinion, to say that Paul is making a distinction between different kinds of tongues when he never makes that claim himself.
The book of Acts does record something that Peter taught regarding the reception of the Holy Spirit. He quoted Joel, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This is a direct “teaching” about what Spirit baptism would do for people. Likewise, Jesus declared in Acts 1:8 that we would receive “power” after the reception of the Holy Ghost, and this power was for “witnessing.” So, all of the “teaching” regarding Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues is remiss in connecting the two.  If the writers of the New Testament were trying to teach an “evidence” doctrine connecting speaking in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, then they proved to be very poor communicators. Sadly, it is God that inspired them, so the “blame” really lies with Him.
Please forgive the length of this post, and indulge me on a couple more thoughts. (Borrowed from Dr. Gregory Boyd in Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity) If we are to use Acts to set a pattern for how people for all time are to experience the baptism of the Holy Ghost, then we would see something entirely different in Pentecostal churches than what we see today. First, tongues is not the only commonality between 3 of the five events in the book of Acts. Here are other things that happened “every” time. The Spirit was always poured out on groups (at least in those events in which tongues are recorded). The Spirit always came without warning.  And no one every anticipated speaking in tongues. So, if churches are to truly follow the pattern of Acts, these aspects of the tongues events should be adhered to as well—groups, no warning, and no expectation of tongue-speaking. But again, I emphasize that Luke was not trying to establish any pattern for the church to “follow.” In fact, a closer examination of the Spirit baptism passages, as well as all the events recorded in Acts seems to indicate that there was no pattern that could be followed. This is consistent with the witness and teaching of God’s activity in the whole of Scripture. The Spirit baptism is God’s business, and He “manifests” His Spirit when and where He wants (See 1 Corinthians 12).
One final note regarding the evidence doctrine as taught by Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents (Again, adopted from Dr. Gregory Boyd): For all the lip service given to “salvation by grace” in many Pentecostal churches, the outworking of Acts 2:38 soteriology produces nothing short of a radical salvation-by-works system. When your salvation—your place in eternity—is inexorably tied to the “evidence” of tongues (or any evidence other than the Cross and the Resurrection), then one cannot avoid “working” to “do whatever it takes” to experience this phenomenon. I personally witnessed people “seeking” the baptism of the Holy Ghost for years, waiting for that all important evidence to materialize—speaking in tongues. They would leave church service after church service not understanding why God had not yet given them His Spirit—why He had yet again refused to “save” them. The only thing they knew for sure was that “it was their fault” (Dr. Boyd’s words). So, they would spend the next days working to cleanse their hearts, working to figure out what they needed to do, only to be rejected by God the next Sunday. A few would speak in tongues the first time they approached a church altar, but most did not. Most spent weeks and months “seeking” for this experience. For those reading this who still believe in Acts 2:38 soteriology, just ask yourself “what is the one thing that I am looking for when I am praying for a sinner at a church altar?” I know what we looked for every Sunday morning and night when I was involved—speaking in tongues. That was the goal—always. And yet, that was never the “goal” in the book of Acts. Faith in Jesus Christ was. That is what it should be today.
I hope this has helped someone. I look forward to your responses. I will do my best to respond as I get time. God bless you all as you continue to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

rebellion is always justified . . .

Rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I debated whether to make this one or two (or three) posts. Well, here it is in one post. Feel free to break it up into bite size chunks as you see fit.
I need to clarify a few things before we continue this discussion about spiritual authority. I understand that some who read this do not have the same religious background that I have, and so it may be difficult to relate. It can be like coming in half way through a conversation—it’s hard to understand what is being discussed unless you are clued in regarding the first part of the conversation. Well, what I am talking about is the abuse of authority in the church. There are churches in which this is not an issue, but there are many for which it is. In the extreme, think of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple and the tragedy that occurred in Guyana back in the 1970’s. What would cause sane, intelligent people to follow an insane egomaniac to a foreign country and then commit mass suicide? For those following Jim Jones, it was the idea that they had no choice. He was their “spiritual authority,” and he had “the truth.” Where else could they go?
I hear the objections. “You can’t use Jim Jones as an example of the abuse of spiritual authority in churches today because that kind of abuse is too extreme and doesn’t happen anymore.” And so the logic follows then that any abuse short of mass suicide is acceptable? The issue for me is church leaders that abuse their positions and the scriptures in order to control the lives of those they are supposed to be helping. And to those who say Jim Jones is too extreme, I would say that hindsight is 20/20. What advice would proponents of submission to spiritual authority give to those following Jim Jones today—perhaps a couple of years before the tainted Kool-Aid is offered? Their pastor is very controlling, and they are questioning whether they should continue to sit under his leadership. What do you tell the members of his church? Do you tell them that God will honor them for submitting to their spiritual authority, and that God will take care of their leader if he is in the wrong? Remember, in this hypothetical situation, you don’t have the luxury of knowing what is going to happen two years from now. Should the people rebel and leave that church? Or should they stay and submit? In one sense, God did “take care of “Jim Jones. The problem is that Jim Jones “took care of” over 900 of his followers before he was taken care of. When is “disobedience” to spiritual leaders justified? When is it not sin? When has a spiritual leader gone too far? When he tells his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid? When he tells them to leave their jobs and families to follow him to a foreign country to start a new community where people can live for God in true holiness and freedom? When he tells them to marry this person and not that person? When he tells them whether they can move to another community or not? When he tells them what they can and cannot wear? When he tells them which movies they can watch? Where do you draw the line? As I said earlier, some of you are asking yourselves, “What kind of church leader would do those things?” You ask this because this is foreign to you. For others reading this, this is life in the church. This brief series of posts is to address the problem of church leaders taking on authority that is not theirs—authority that they erroneously see in the Bible.
Ok. Disclaimer time. I am not saying that church leaders should never exercise any authority in our lives. I am also not trying to disparage any particular leaders or organization, or spiritual leaders in general. God brings pastors into our lives for our benefit. We would do well to heed the instruction of those who correctly and properly expound the Word of God.
When I talk of spiritual authorities who “abuse” their positions, I am talking about Christian leaders who go beyond the authority given them in Scripture. Specifically, I am talking about church leaders who don’t just teach the Scriptures, but tell people specifically how to apply the teaching in every area (or in many areas) of their lives. These leaders end up “controlling” those who follow them—intentionally or not. And they use Scripture to do it. They tell people (in effect), “I am your spiritual leader. You need to listen to what I tell you. If you don’t, you are rebellious, and you are rebelling against God.” In this way, people are controlled and coerced into submission through fear—fear of disobeying God. (In the interest of full disclosure: this is the kind of teaching that I ascribed to at one time—both in my view of my leaders and in my view of those who followed me.) This is not God’s way. As a matter of fact, Jesus even talked about leaders of this world who “lord it over” their subjects. And he told his disciples that it would “not be so with you.” But church leaders were to serve—not control. It is this controlling element—that controls through the fear that not following the leader equates with disobeying God—that is abusive, and it is what I am coming against in these posts. Whether it ends in Guyana or somewhere short of that, it should not be the way our leaders lead.
Now that I have said that, I also want to say that most church leaders that I know (and many who were my leaders and peers for years) are not bad men. They are, in fact, good men—sincere men who love God and the people in their churches very much. These are men (and women) who want nothing but the best for their congregants, and who teach what they do (and the way they do) only because they truly want the followers of God to realize all the blessings that God has for them. They also see an obligation in the Bible to teach people to “live right,” to live lives of “holiness.” So, I do not see malice in the heart of a church leader who says “Don’t watch ‘R’ rated movies.” He believes he would be remiss in his God-given duties if he did not “warn” his people about such things. But this is, in my mind, where he is wrong.
A final disclaimer/reminder. I am not a biblical scholar. These are my opinions, and are based on my own personal study, as well as my experience as a minister for almost 20 years. I could be wrong, but this is what I understand.
There are different kinds of authority. There are governmental authorities: police officers, judges, agencies, etc. There are experts who are “authorities” on various subjects. There are parents and bosses. These people derive their authority from different sources. The parent derives his or her authority from the responsibility to raise the child in a way that protects the child from danger, but also helps the child to grow to be a productive member of society. The police officer derives his authority from the laws of the land. The expert derives her authority from her knowledge drawn from years of study and experience. Our bosses derive their authority from their bosses or from the owners of a company. And church leaders derive their authority to teach and lead the church from the Bible.
Jesus taught with great authority. The people noted that he taught differently than the scribes and Pharisees because of this. Interestingly, it was the scribes and Pharisees who “exercised” authority over people—whereas Jesus “had” authority. Of course, we realize that he derived his authority from the fact that he was God in the flesh. But that is not what the people saw, or sensed. No, they said he taught as one with authority because of his command of and understanding of the scriptures. It wasn’t that he could explain every detail of a particular passage, and all the ways in which that passage could be lived out. He brought something new to the table. He understood the heart and the intent of the scriptures. Rather than complicating it, he simplified it. “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, and you shall find eternal life.” In one sentence he explained the message of the whole Bible. No one had done that before.
And yet Jesus was a rebel. He did not “obey” or “submit to” the scribes and Pharisees. As a matter of fact, he rebuked them. And he called them names—a den of vipers, whited sepulchers, etc. He made no bones about publicly pointing out their short comings. Would Jesus get away with that today in our churches? What would Jesus say today to church leaders that tell people in detail how to live their lives? Obviously, it wasn’t that the Pharisees were teaching the wrong things. Jesus even told the people to listen to their teachings. But he told them not to worry about following their example because they were hypocrites. (As an aside: in what way were the Pharisees hypocrites? I say it is because they set a standard that no one could live up to—not even themselves. Sound familiar?) Should we follow Jesus’ example and call our leaders on the carpet when they are being hypocritical? Or should we “submit” and “let God deal with them?” Most of us wouldn’t have the guts to follow Jesus’ example, but we would more closely follow the teachings of Scripture if we did.
Is rebellion justified? Of course it is. We just talked about how Jesus rejected the Pharisees. And what about the early Christians telling magistrates, “we ought to obey God rather than man”? And what about Paul withstanding Peter to his face? What about every Christian who refused to bow his/her knee to Caesar? Or to any other leader who demanded worship, or who demanded that the Christian denounce Christ? Of course, we say these are the justifiable exceptions. Are they? What about Martin Luther? What about Calvin? What about Zwingli? Tyndale? Wycliffe? Hus? Wesley? All of Protestantism? The early Pentecostals? The Oneness Pentecostals who broke away from their Trinitarian brethren? If we are to submit to our spiritual leaders and allow God to “deal” with them if they are wrong, then every religious movement that broke away from another one is illegitimate. When is it okay to rebel? To disobey? Truly, rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I believe that many Christian leaders take authority that isn’t theirs today. They do it because of a misunderstanding of certain passages of Scripture. The main Scripture passage used to justify the way abusive leaders exercise authority is Hebrews 13:17 which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you,” (NIV). Sounds pretty straight forward, right? But I would say it seems straight forward because of the meaning that has been added to it for us by some well-meaning though mistaken leaders. This verse is not saying “Do what your pastor tells you because if you don’t you are disobeying God.” But this is what we think when we read it. Let’s break it down.
First, the Greek word for “obey” here has a root that means to “persuade or trust.” Not only that, it is used with the “middle” voice—something not found in English grammar. The middle voice in Greek indicates something that is done for one’s self—for the benefit of the one doing the activity. There is no hint of “command” and “obey” here—no coercion or control. The picture is of one listening to teaching by “authorities” and being persuaded to the point of following that teaching—for the benefit of the one listening.
This brings us to the next significant word, “submit.” This word in the Greek has as its root the word that means to “hear.” “Submit to them” essentially means “listen to them.” Contextually, it ties directly to the “teaching” more than it does to the “teacher.” It is assumed that the “teacher” is correctly “teaching” the Word of God. This would fall right in line with the instructions to leaders to “feed my sheep,” and to “rightly divide the Word of God”, and to “teach and exhort.” It would not fit in with telling people who to marry, or when and if to move to a new community. And it would not align with telling people what clothes were “holy” and which were “sinful” to wear. It would also not fit with leaders telling people what career paths to follow. Yet, these applications are common in many churches today. God did not call pastors to “control” or “rule” his people. He called them to serve and feed them.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject, and I may say more later (but this post is already about four times longer than it should be). The truth shall set you free—not make you afraid of disagreeing with your leader. God bless you as you submit to Him. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And he calls you to rest.
In the mean time, here are some book titles that some of you may want to check out:
Twisted Scriptures by Mary Chrnalogar
Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn
More Jesus, Less Religion by Stephen Arterburn
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen
Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

spiritual authority and obedience

I have been asked to address several topics in this blog. The topic of spiritual authority and obedience is one of them. Before going into more detail in subsequent posts, I just wanted to give an overview of my thoughts on the subject. And I cannot overemphasize that these are my opinions on the matter. I will do my best to support my assertions and conclusions with properly exegeted (interpreted) scripture, but in the end, these are just the thoughts of another man. As with all my posts, I do hope that you find some benefit in the following.

Sadly, it has been my experience and observation that those teaching on the need for obedience to spiritual authority have done more harm than good to the body of Christ. A popular writer and speaker wrote a book and developed a video series in recent years on the subject of the "covering," or authority structure that God established for his people in the Bible. I have not seen the video series or read the book myself, so I cannot comment with great accuracy about what the author said or intended. However, multiple people have told me things they have learned from the videos, and others encouraged me (several years ago) to use the video series in the church that we had started. I chose not to use the videos. I believed then, and I believe even moreso now that the author's understanding of spiritual authority and obedience missed the mark. The author is very knowledgeable (I have read other books by him) and sincere, but I believe he is a product of his environment, and so propagates what he knows, and has not treated the topic objectively or properly.

The real harm I have seen is that the video series has been used by church leaders to manipulate church members into submission (so my critique may be more because of the use of the material rather than the material itself). Of course, when I say that, I do not believe these leaders have malicious intent. On the contrary, I believe they feel obligated to teach their congregants the importance of obedience to authority, and they saw this as a good tool to that end. The problem is that this use of spiritual authority is unbiblical. Or perhaps I should say, it is "extra-biblical." It goes beyond what scripture teaches.

One thing I saw many years ago was that I put myself in a very dangerous place when I told people that they had to "obey" me because I was their spiritual authority. For one thing, I was an incredibly flawed human being. For another, I wasn't any more spiritual than anyone else. And God had not called me to tell people how to live, or to otherwise control them. What's more, I had seen the abuse of authority by too many leaders over the years. It was amazing to me how many of my ministering peers and leaders spoke of drawing lines for their people because "people need (and want) lines drawn for them." They also spoke of not wanting to lose "control" of their congregations. People needed good strong teaching in order to keep them in line, to motivate them (read "manipulate" them), to get them to submit, was the logic. People in every church I had any association with were constantly demeaned for not "submitting" to leaders--for having "bad" or "rebellious" spirits. Interestingly, these "bad" spirits were indicated by congregants questioning the leaders. I began to see that people in these congregations were in a no-win situation. They didn't have a voice, and too many had lost their identities. People entered our churches with great intelligence, great ideas, great talents and abilities, great energy, and great intentions. But slowly their personalities would change as they learned to submit and not question authority. They learned to keep their opinions to themselves (unless their opinions were othewise valued and welcome), or they were marginalized, or they left. I still grieve when I think of what I was a part of and what I witnessed. And I have since developed a hyper-sensitive radar (good or bad I don't know) for abuses perpetrated by those with spiritual authority.

These are complicated issues, and I have only given a smattering of problems I saw with the topic, and I am sure I have only raised more questions with what I have related so far, rather than answering any.  I will go into more detail in later posts, but I did want to get the ball rolling tonight. Suffice it to say, that I do not believe that disagreeing with or even disobeying a church leader (any church leaders) equates necessarily with disobeying God. Someone might disobey God while disobeying a leader, but the two are separate matters, in my opinion. I also believe that living in the kind of systems that either overtly or covertly teaches this type of spiritual authority ("Obey me because I am God's leader in your life") is detrimental to the individual and to the body of Christ as a whole. It is detrimental to the individual on spiritual, emotional, psychological, and even physical levels. It squelches a person's God-given gifts, talents, and personality. And therefore, the body of Christ does not get the benefit of all of these wonderful diverse characteristics that make each of us unique. It is sad to me, and it doesn't need to be. I hope this and subsequent posts will encourage you to consider your own situation or the situations of those you know, and give you strength to be yourself again. You are greatly loved by the One who made you--by the One who made you YOU. God bless you this week.

wind and spirit, etc.

Continuing in John 3: Jesus tells Nicodemus not to be surprised that he needs to be born from above, and then (in verse 8) he goes into a comparison of the activity of the wind with that of the Spirit. He says the wind blows where it wants and you don't know where it is coming from or where it is going, but you hear the sound of it--and so it is with every one who is birthed by the Spirit. Some have asserted that this means that when you are born of the Spirit that you will "hear" something. But that misses Jesus' point. The point here is that no one controls the wind. It can't be manipulated by man. The same can be said of the Spirit. Man cannot manipulate the Spirit--or cause Him to do something just because one has pressed the right buttons in order to get an expected response.

In essence, this is what the Pharisees (in that day and in ours) were all about. They knew exactly how to act and live right in order to obtain the blessings of God--or so they thought (and taught). And, to be fair, the sincere Pharisees (like Nicodemus) longed to see the kingdom (or reign) of God realized in their lives--and they believed their righteous and pious living could bring this about. But Jesus emphasizes that God is not a false god that can be manipulated. He chooses whom to renew and cleanse, and he draws to himself those whom he chooses. We may be able to "get God's attention" by our cries for deliverance (thus the declarative "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved") but man's actions do not earn his blessing, nor do they obligate God. This is, in my opinion, what the analogy of wind and Spirit is about.

When God poured out his Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the recipients had no clue what was going to happen. When it did happen, it happpend to one and all instantaneously and simultaneously. Again, in Acts 10, when God poured his Spirit on Cornelius' household, they were not expecting anything to happen (indeed, neither were Peter or those who came with him). It happened suddenly and simultaneously. God chose whom to baptize with his Spirit and when--with no amount of effort on the part of the recipients (quite a contrast from what we see in many churches today). The laborious exercises that many go through today in order to "get" God to "move" or to "fill" people with his Spirit is misguided. These sincere people assume that God is obligated to do his part because they are doing theirs. The point of John 3 (again, I emphasize--in my opinion) is that God can not be manipulated by our paltry efforts at righteousness or by saying or doing the right thing. Birth from above originiates with God alone. It is by his grace that we receive this gift.

It was somewhat of a revelation to me when I realized that John 3:16 was a continuation of the conversation that Jesus was having with Nicodemus. And yet it make so much sense. That well known verse tells the why of this God-originated, God-directed, God-given birth from above--FOR God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son . . . It is his love for us that moves him to cleanse, renew and transform us--to give us new birth.

There is so much more to be said about Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, but this will have to do for now. I have other topics that I want to touch on in other posts (and I may yet do that tonight). I hope this little introduction to the "birth from above" that Jesus talked about in John 3 has served to give some clarity to a passage familiar to and yet misunderstood and misapplied by many. God bless you as He continues to transform, cleanse and renew you day by day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

the baptism connection

Last week I began a discussion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I want to continue down that road with what I believe is the baptism connection to be found in John 3. Before I begin, I want to reiterate that I am not a scholar. I’m just a wannabe theologian with only a modicum of biblical knowledge and training. What I offer here is my opinion. It is not authoritative. But perhaps it will strike a chord with you and help you in your own studies. Onward…

As mentioned last week, when Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 5 that he must be “born of water and Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God, he was alluding to a passage in Ezekiel 36:25-27 in which God tells Israel that he will cleanse them with water and transform them by his Spirit. My understanding is that these verses are what Jews of the time used as the basis for proselyte baptism (Note: the passage says that God would “sprinkle” them with water—interesting). Proselyte baptism was common in ancient Judaism. The Essenes also practiced multiple baptisms for multiple purposes. When John came baptizing, he was baptizing Jews in the manner of proselyte baptism. That was part of the controversy and “offense” of John’s baptism.

Notice that these baptisms (sprinkling, pouring, or immersing) were all symbolic—pointing toward what God would do one day in reality. Jesus’ reference to Ezekiel was not to imply a requirement for baptism for initiation into the kingdom of God, but to declare that the “birth from above” spoken of in Ezekiel was imminent. Nicodemus certainly would have caught the reference to Ezekiel, and he knew the symbolism of proselyte baptism. The baptism connection then is only found in the symbolic practice of ancient Judaism. The fact that the early Christians practiced baptism (and we still do today) doesn’t mean that baptism was (or is) salvific. Rather, pre-Christian baptisms looked forward to God’s work in renewing his people. Christian baptism now looks backward at what God did in cleansing and renewing his people on Calvary and in the resurrection. It is still a symbolic act declaring God’s activity in our lives. It is an important act, and it declares publicly our faith in what God has done, but it is God that does the cleansing, renewing and saving—not the act of baptism.

My next post will deal with the “wind” and the “Spirit.”