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!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010


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.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

the new birth: a primer

First, I need to vent. I just spent over an hour at McDonald's writing a post for this blog. When I went to "publish" it, I was no longer connected to the internet. Aaarrrggghhh!!! And that post was so eloquent, witty, deep, profound and relevant. You'll just have to take my word for it. It was probably the single most significant piece of writing you would have ever read in your life. Now you will have to settle for this one instead.

With apologies to former members of New Hope Church of Middleton (you may have heard the opening scenario):

Have you ever taken your children to a family reunion, or to a birthday party, or to some other important family gathering, only to have them behave in ways that make you wish you had never come in the first place? Or make you wish you had left them at home? When you were a child, did you ever behave at one of these gatherings in ways that made your parents pull you aside and warn through grinding teeth, bulbous eyes and popping veins "as soon as I get you home . . ."?  I personally have not been there, but I've heard stories . . . So, why did you take your children home at the end of the event? Why did your parents take you home after you behaved like the child of Beelzebub? These are questions I pondered (and related) as the reality of God's grace was dawning on me. This brings us to John 3 where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about being "born again," or "being born from above." And the meaning of these verses tells us a lot about God's love for us in spite of our behavior.

I won't go into a lengthy discussion of the background of John 3 (I did that in the lost post--ask questions if you want more background or clarification). But most of John 3 is Jesus' response to a non-question by Nicodemus. Nicodemus greets Jesus and declares that he (and other Pharisees) knew that Jesus had come from God because no one could do what he was doing without God. Jesus stopped him and told him that he needed to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. That phrase "born again" had two possible meanings. Nicodemus responded to Jesus as if he meant "rebirth," and asked "how can a man be born when he is old? . . ." Jesus answered with an allusion to Ezekiel 36:25-27, "unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God." (In a later post, I will address how baptism fits in here.) There are two things that must be noted here that Nicodemus would have understood--but that we don't immediately understand in 21st century America.

First, the kingdom of God is not referring to "Heaven." Rather it is referring to the "rule" of God. It is the thing that all sincere Jews (especially sincere Pharisees) were longing to see. It was the Day of the Lord proclaimed by the prophets. It was the day when God would come and make things right on earth. He would bring justice and deliver his people, and bring down the evil oppressors. All men would bow to God's rule. That is what Jesus was talking about, and that is what Nicodemus would have understood Jesus to have meant. Jesus was telling Nicodemus unless you are "born again," you are not under God's rule. God is not your king unless he has birthed you.

Second, the phrase that Jesus used was to be understood as "born from above" (or from God), and that is what Jesus was clarifying when he told Nicodemus he needed to be "born of water and the Spirit" in verse 5. The point was that this birth was to originate with God--not with human parents. And this birth was what Ezekiel (and others) had promised. It was the time when God would cleanse his people with water (used metaphorically--as I said, I will address that in another post) and transform them by his Spirit. The key here is that it was all God's doing. The one being born is passive throughout the process. God births us because he wants to--because he loves us. We do nothing to earn it or to cause it to happen.

This brings us back to the scenario we started with--poorly behaving children and why we take them home with us at the end of the day. Our children had no choice in whether to be born or not. They did nothing to make it happen (That is what happens in the new birth--birth from above.). And just as importantly, our children don't remain our children because they behave. They remain our children because they are our children. And we take them home after a long trip, not because they behaved, and not because they sufficiently repented (although we may feel like leaving them behind until they've made things right), but because they are our children. Period. And I trust that at the end of the day, God will take me home because I am his child--not because I am good (I am in big trouble otherwise). John 3 gives us this kind of assurance. The new birth is God's idea, and it is he that performs it. As a result we now are his children. Now is come salvation (Rev. 12:10). There is therefore now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). "Beloved, now are we the sons of God . . ." (1 John 3:2). There is a point in time, a moment, a now, in which we become his children. We are new creations--all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). And it is all God's doing. John 3 declares it.

If you are like me, you know that there are times when you are just awful at this parenting thing. We make big mistakes, and we lose control sometimes. Yet we love our children and care for them anyway. Why do we live our lives as though God's love for us is less than that--as though what he did on Calvary means so little and has such little power in our lives? John 3 declares God's paternity over our lives (no DNA test needed). We can trust him to love us and care for us, and to take us home at the end of the day--because he is our Father, and we are his children. Period.

There is a lot to discuss in John 3, but I hope this has helped you a little to trust in God's love for you. You don't have to be good to remain in his family. For me, that is motivation to strive to please him, to be good--not because I will be disinherited if I'm not good (that is man's way), but because he loves me in spite of my rebellion and misbehaving. That is grace.That is the message of John 3, of the new birth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

casting crowns, etc.

This post will be kind of a potpourri of thoughts on several subjects found in the book of Revelation. When we think of "casting our crowns" at the feet of Jesus, I would guess that most of us get an image of an event that will happen when we all get to Heaven. It is an act of humility and gratitude expressed by all the saints simultaneously, showing our love and devotion to the One who saved us from our sins. At least that is what most of us believe because that is what most of us have been taught. We see this image in Revelation 4:10. In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright suggests that this is a metaphor for our present reality as Christians, not a literal picture of a Heavenly ceremony. I am not enough of a scholar to say for sure, but it makes sense. When we yield to Christ, and his love and grace, do we not take our crowns off and place them at his feet? What an effective image capturing the moment of conversion.

As an aside, the idea that Scripture contains literary techniques rubs some of us the wrong way--I know it did me for a long time. The idea that Jesus would use hyperbole to make a point is tantamount to blasphemy, but how many of us are blind and handless because we took his admonition in the sermon on the mount literally? This past Sunday, Chris Dolson spoke about Paul's use of sarcasm in his first letter to the Corinthians. Read 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 and see if you detect a note of sarcasm in Paul's words. It is quite obvious. So, Revelation contains much symbolism--read "metaphor."

Continuing on in Revelation . . . Most of us are aware of Revelation's use of numbers. Seven lamps, seven churches, seven angels, seven spirits of God, seven trumpets, seven vials, etc., and 12 tribes, 12 pillars, 24 elders, 4 creatures, and the list goes on. Some have even gone so far as to find a seven year period of tribulation in the pages of Revelation. Of course, it never mentions a seven year tribulation, but if you add up some of the time periods mentioned you can come up with something close to seven years. When I was studying Revelation, I discovered something that to me was significant. If seven is symbolic for perfection or completeness, then what is one to make of the dragon pursuing the woman in chapter 12 for 1,260 days? Well, 1,260 days is approximately 3 1/2 years. If the dragon is Satan, and the woman is the church (as I believe), then we have a picture of futility and frustration. Satan pursues, but he is never able to complete his goal (3 1/2 is half of 7) of capturing and destroying the church. He is frustrated in his efforts. We should be encouraged by this--the first readers would have been.

I hope these last few posts have challenged your paradigms related to Scripture, and specifically to the book of Revelation. I offer these thoughts not to confuse, but to hopefully help us stop and examine how we read and understand Scripture. And perhaps we can find encouragement in the biblical interpretations taught by those not in our particular camp.

One last thought: too often we Westernize or Americanize the Bible. We see everything through the lens of 21st century American evangelical fundamentalism. We don't realize how insulated we are from the rest of the world, and for that reason, how arrogant we become in our views. Dr. Wilson asked us, "How bad does tribulation need to get for it to be 'great' tribulation?" He noted that the last 100 hundred years have seen greater persecution of Christians world wide than any century before. He showed us a video put out by the Voice of the Martyrs. I remember sitting there feeling my self-righteous paradigms of what it meant to be a "true Christian" begin to crumble as a young African boy testified how he had stood strong for the name of Jesus. He was not of my faith camp. Men had come to his village and forced him to build a large bon fire. While the fire was blazing, the men told the boy to renounce his faith in Christ. He refused. They threw him on the fire. In the video, he took off his shirt and showed the scars. I had a lot of thinking to do. Would not Jesus tell this young man "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest"? I think so. Who am I to think I can tell this young man something about what it means to "live for Jesus." I am the one that needs to be taught by him. I have never had to sacrifice like that. Truly, we are sheltered in America. Thank God for the freedom and protection we have. But our little place in the world does not define 21st century Christianity. And it certainly does not set the standard. God bless you as you continue to open your eyes to the treasures to be found in Christ and his Word.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I shared this with our Life Group leader just recently (hope you don't find this too redundant, Jim). Sticking with the Revelation theme (kind of), I remember sitting in class at Regent back in 2006. I was excited about the subject matter (learning to interpret the Bible using the book of Revelation as our text). I was, however, having difficulty letting go of my preconceived ideas of what the book was saying. This became obvious on this particular day. Our instructor (Dr. Wilson) was explaining how that much of the imagery in the book of Revelation was borrowed from well known (at the time) Hebrew and mythological imagery. I was greatly offended at the implication. I couldn't take it anymore, and I raised my hand to confront this affront to all that is sacred. I asked Dr. Wilson, "Do you mean to tell me that John was using stories from mythology to try to convey a message, and that John didn't actually 'see' all of these images as God was showing him? Why is it so hard to believe that God actually showed John these things and that they are just difficult for us to understand because he was trying to describe future events?" To me the answer was obvious. Dr. Wilson gracefully but unapologetically responded, "Why couldn't God tell John to use stories that the first readers were all familiar with to convey a meaning that they would more easily understand in light of  those stories?" I was at a loss for words. I stood corrected. Perhaps my position was correct, but Dr. Wilson's was equally as plausible--even moreso. History shows that many of these stories and images did exist during and prior to the first century (See David Aune's commentary on Revelation, World Biblical Commentary, volume 52, 1998, Thomas Nelson, Inc.).

So what do we do when the "facts" mess with our frame of reference? If the images in portions of Revelation were indeed "borrowed" from mythology, does that destroy our faith? It doesn't have to. The only thing it should destroy are the sacred cows we've developed and nurtured over the years. Personally, letting go of some of my prejudices (I say "some" becuase I still have many) has allowed me to enjoy the deeper riches to be found in Scripture.

On another note that is somewhat related to the subject of this post, I would encourage you to take a look at an article posted on the Harvard Icthus website. The article, Augustine on Science, Scripture and Not Being Stupid, found at is quite eye opening. Basically, Augustine says that people should not speak with authority on subjects about which they know very little. In the interaction with my professor, my ignorance was exposed. Certainly, I had plenty of faith, but faith grounded in my preconceived ideas about what the Bible is saying rather than the message that is really being communicated is misplaced faith at best. Science, history, anthropology, archaeology, mythology, and yes, even theology (along with other academic disciplines) don't need to derail our faith when what they uncover challenges our paradigms. The Bible and faith go hand in hand with truth--wherever that truth is found. What I am saying is, don't be offended the next time someone shows you some bit of truth that doesn't fit your current religious or philosophical context--even if it is a man working miracles and preaching a different kind of kingdom than what you had imagined. Take it as a challenge to dig deeper and discover what else you may be missing. The rewards are great.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


The Antichrist!...The Beast!...666!...Damien!....(Cue spooky "Halloween" theme music). Ok, sorry for the drama, and for comingling movies (Damien is from "The Omen"), but I couldn't recall the music from The Omen, and I do remember how creepy the music from the original Halloween movie was. The names "Antichrist," and "The Beast," along with the number "666" carry a lot of meaning with them in our Western culture (not least because of Hollywood and the media), as well as in Western churches. There is something about scaring ourselves that we strangely enjoy, and superstitions surrounding these names are great movie fodder. Well, I am probably going to bore you with the following--nothing scary. But hopefully it will cause you to stop and think--and perhaps even encourage you.

As I mentioned in my last post, "fresh eyes," I took an advanced class in biblical interpretation at Regent University (which does NOT qualify me as an expert in biblical interpretation by any means). In that class, we used the book of Revelation as our text to learn how to properly interpret scripture. The purpose of using that book in particular was to get us to learn how to forget what we had learned and heard in the past and approach scripture with fresh eyes. Our instructor for that class was Dr. Mark Wilson. At the time he was considered an expert in interpreting the book of Revelation, and he lived about 6 months of the year in Turkey (the country in which all seven churches in the book of Revelation are located). Dr. Wilson wrote the "Revelation" section of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (2002). One of the issues he addresses in that volume (as well as in our class) is what the number 666 means.

First, when you see the number 666 as it relates to the book of Revelation, it is inappropriate to say or think "six, six, six"--because that is not what the verse says. The verse (13:8) says "six hundred and sixty-six," (NASB), or "six hundred threescore and six," (KJV). The distinction is important because the number is meant to be the quantitative calculation of a man's name--specifically the name of the beast. The first readers would have understood this, and would have been perplexed by 21st (or 20th) century Christians searching headlines and databases for patterns that include the digits "six, six and six." That is not what John intended when he wrote this verse. As a matter of fact, it is clear from the context of the verse that someone in each church--the one "with understanding" or "wisdom" (depending on your version)--would be able to decode the number to reveal the name of "the beast."

The practice is called "gematria." It was known and practiced in the first century. Dr. Wilson notes that graffiti was found from ruins in Pompeii that says "I love her whose number is 545," (Arnold, 2002, p. 330). So, whose number was (or is) 666? Well, again, we must remember that John expected that someone in those churches would be able to figure it out. Of course, there has been some debate over the years about who it refers to, but Dr. Wilson believes the strongest argument is that 666 refers to the emperor Nero. Sorry for bursting your bubble. It is not Osama bin Laden or George Bush, or any other 21st century person. Now Dr. Wilson is not the final authority on the matter. But his conclusion is based on the fact that both ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew letters were assigned number equivalents--just for this purpose. Incidentally, Jesus' number is 888 (I know. It doesn't do anything for me either).

Nero's Greek name was Neron Kaisar. When the Hebrew transliteration of Neron Kaisar is used (NRONKSR), the letters add up to 666. Supporting this theory is the fact that after Nero's death, a myth was circulating that declared that Nero had risen from the dead (Nero Redevivus).  There were even several impostors in the years following who tried to claim that they were Nero risen from the dead. The fact that Nero was such a "beastly" emperor who persecuted the Christians so cruelly also supports this theory (Arnold, 2002).

Ok, so it's only a theory. The point is that the first readers of Revelation were supposed to know who this was. It is possible that this passage has a primary and secondary fulfillment (like some prophecies do), but it is unlikely that another person's name in our day will calculate to equal 666--partly because we don't practice gematria anymore, so it wouldn't be commonly known in our churches (a prerequisite for this passage to be applied in this way); and partly because it is unlikely that another emperor will arise whose name is Neron Kaisar. What I am saying here is "relax" when it comes to the number 666 (six hundred sixty-six). John didn't intend for Christians in successive generations to become creeped out or obssessed with trying to decode what the first readers could do with a little effort--it is more likely that he didn't even imagine multiple generations to follow his.

In the coming weeks, I may post more thoughts on Revelation, but until then, it is important to remember one of the themes of the book (as I learned it at Regent). John wrote to these churches, not just to admonish them (as in chapters 2 and 3), but to encourage them in the face of great persecution. He wanted them to not fear what may happen to them--because they had a glorious future beyond Rome. The proof of this future hope was that Jesus had already died and risen from the dead. This fact was evidence that the hope of resurrection was a real and sure thing. So if in this life they suffered and died at the hands of Nero (or any other despot), they would one day rise again--and in the mean time they would be with Jesus. This was great encouragement, which is what they needed. It's also what persecuted Christians in the world need today--not superstitious searching of databases for numerical patterns. See the Voice of the Martyrs website at for information on how our persecuted brothers and sisters are standing strong in the 21st century. Be encouraged. Your hope is not in vain.

Arnold, C. E. (general editor). 2002. Zondervan illustrated Bible backgrounds commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

fresh eyes

If you went to Bible college or seminary, chances are you have studied eschatology. If you haven't, you may not be familiar with the term. But if you belong to a church that was formed in the last 150 years, you have probably heard a lot of teaching/preaching related to it. Eschatology is the "study of the last things," or as most evangelical/fundamentalist churches phrase it "end-time prophecy."

While attending Regent University, I took an advanced course in biblical interpretation. For this course we used the book of Revelation as our text. The point of the course was not to learn the book of Revelation, but to learn how to study the Bible properly. Most of us approach Scripture with a lot of baggage--a lot of preconceived ideas. Some of those ideas are given to us by teaching we hear in church. Other ideas come from our society/culture (think "Left Behind"). The point is that we read passages and we have already interpreted much of it just because of what we have heard or been taught up to that point. The purpose of the class was to teach us to look at Scripture with fresh eyes--to lay aside the "baggage" as best we could (a tall order for any one of us). The result was multiple "aha" moments as I endeavored to read the book of Revelation as if I had never read it before, and as if I had never heard any teaching on it before.

I discovered that much of the book of Revelation is not about future events, but about past events, or about events that would come to pass in the near future for the first readers. The chapter that I was assigned to study was chapter 12. As I read it, for the first time I realized that the battle in heaven waged by Michael against the dragon was a picture of what was taking place during the crucifixion. It was what was accomplished in Heaven while Jesus was hanging on the cross, "now is come salvation." I know that some of you already knew that. I am just dense when it comes to some things, and this was one of them.

Currently, I am reading a book by N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope. I won't go into detail, but he makes some pretty radical (to me) statements regarding eschatology (last things). Again, I am challenged to re-think my notions about the "last days." However, I am not writing this to challenge your thinking on prophecy or eschatology (although we could talk about that if you want). Instead, I hope to encourage you to consider your approach to reading the Bible.

When was the last time that you approached Scripture with fresh eyes? When was the last time that you made an effort to set aside your preconceived ideas when reading a passage? You may be surprised what you see for the first time. Not long ago, I read a book called Twisted Scriptures. In it the author explains how people who were involved in cults and who have come out, need to take a break from reading the Bible for awhile. And when they start reading again, they need to use a different version because so many of the old phrases and words are still loaded with meaning from what they had been taught. Most people reading this have never been involved in a cult, but the principle is the same--reading the Scripture with fresh eyes. I would challenge anyone reading this to try reading the Bible with fresh eyes. Lay aside what you think you know and ask God to open your eyes to what you may have been missing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I know what I don't know

Before I became a minister, I had an incredible thirst for knowledge--for truth. When I encountered Pentecostals, they were willing and eager to share with me all they knew about the Bible. And I was eager to learn. When I found out that they had Bible colleges, I wanted to go. I wanted to learn everything I could. Later, when they were starting a graduate school, I wanted to attend there as well. However, in its fledgling state, and in their effort to become accredited (for which I applaud them), I was not able to be admitted without first obtaining an accredited undergraduate degree. Then I found out about another recognized graduate school for theology that may accept me on a probationary basis. So, I applied and was admitted to the Regent University School of Divinity. I again was eager to devour all that I could in my pursuit of more knowledge, more understanding, more truth. What I learned in my abbreviated tenure at Regent was how much I don't know.

As a minister, I prided myself on knowing the Bible and knowing it well. I loved to study. I loved to prepare for sermons. When I attend graduate school, I was humbled by how much I didn't know. I began to learn ancient Greek. I gained a great deal of respect for Greek scholars. The ancient Greek language is referred to as the language of "never-ending endings." The nuances are many, and the relationships of words within sentences are critical to understand for proper interpretation. I also took a class in Hebrew. Again, I gained great respect for Hebrew scholars.  There are Hebrew poems that don't make a lot of sense in English--especially King James English. There are things that are immediately visible in the Hebrew Bible that disappear in the English translations.

Another thing that I learned is that to truly understand Scripture, one needs to understand history--ancient history. To properly understand and interpret a biblical passage, a knowledge of the cultural, political, economic and religious setting of the day is necessary. It's not enough to understand the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that existed in Jesus' day and all that entailed, but one must also understand the history that first century people had learned. What did they read? What were they taught in their schools and in their homes? What stories were commonly circulated between families and from generation to generation? Believe me, the book of Revelation is a mystery without understanding what first-century Christians (and Jews) understood about their world, about history, about mythology. Many images portrayed in the book of Revelation were images immediately recognizable to these first-century people. They are foreign to those of us in the 21st century, unless we take the time to study.

For another example of how important it is to understand the mind of the first readers (or hearers) of the biblical texts, consider Genesis 1:1. A gentleman who I consider a good friend, Tim Mackie, Ph.D. in Hebrew and Jewish studies, shared this with our church recently. When you think of the word "Earth," what comes to mind? For most of us a big blue ball floating in space is the image we see. We picture a globe. That is not what the first readers of Genesis pictured. When they read or heard the word "earth," they pictured "land." This little clarification is one of many that helps us better understand the creation narrative. What else did the first readers know and understand as they first read these words penned by Moses? I am not going to go into a long explanation of this passage. I just wanted to give an example of how easy it is to misunderstand or misinterpret what we read in the English Bible. And for that matter, how important it is to respect those who have taken the time to learn in depth the ancient languages and histories.

I am not saying that one cannot understand the Bible without understanding Greek and Hebrew. Obviously, reading the Bible in today's language is very beneficial. It would be impractical and even absurd to think that we need to become scholars of ancient languages and history to begin to enjoy and benefit from reading the Bible. However, I also believe that it is equally absurd for us to think that we can develop major doctrines and teachings without a deep understanding of these things. When we do, we commit a major error in biblical interpretation called "eisegesis," which is reading meaning into the scriptures--or "adding" meaning, if you will. We unwittingly take our own personal ideas (like picturing a globe when we read "earth") and we apply it to what we read. Proper interpretation, on the other hand, invovles "exegesis," which is getting the meaning "out" of the passage. We simply can't begin to properly interpret the Bible--for doctrinal and teaching purposes--without an extensive knowledge of the original languages and the histories of the first readers of the Bible. In saying this, I do not discount the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding our understanding. Quite frankly, it is the Spirit that draws people to study more, to desire to understand more. I believe it is the Spirit that draws people to become biblical scholars. It is what drives them to keep pursuing truth, and to endure while learning the "never-ending endings" of the Greek language.

Some day I will return to Divinity school. I may never become a scholar, but I will never stop hungering for truth and for a deeper understanding of Scripture. I have learned that I don't know nearly as much about the Bible as I used to think I knew. I have learned that there is an ocean of knowledge out there, and I have only been wading in the surf. I don't know much, but at least I know what I don't know.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Litmus test

What is the litmus test for Christianity? What is your litmus test? Does your church have a litmus test--a bare minimum that declares the new believer is now "really" a "true" Christian? I am not a scientist, but from what I understand, a litmus test for chemicals in a liquid involves dipping litmus paper into the liquid and seeing if the paper turns a certain color. If it does, the liquid has that chemical in it. If it doesn't, then the chemical is missing. So, what do you use to measure the genuineness of a person's Christianity. What are the ingredients that cause your Christian litmus paper to turn into the color of Christian? What is the Bible's litmus test? What is Jesus' litmus test? Does your litmus test involve appropriate behavior? Does your litmus test involve a person's appearance? Does your litmus test involve minimal levels of repentance, or prayer, of commitment? How do you measure those levels?

I believe we all have litmus tests for others whether we admit or not. It is human nature. It is difficult to lose our humanness when measuring others. When I was in the ministry, we were bad about watching to see when people had "finally" made the commitment. We were worse about monitoring people to determine whether they still had it. Sadly, most of our measurements had to do with things we could see. (Of course that is the nature of measuring--you have to be able to "see" progress if you are going to measure it.)When we observed these changes in people's lives then they had finally arrived. It wasn't enough for someone to be "born again." They had to show proof of a changed life--and those changes had to be observed in many areas of their lives. I was even instrumental in developing programs to help people achieve these benchmarks. How we rejoiced when new converts had at last jumped through all the hoops that we had set for them. And if they could continue to demonstrate their commitment through their works and continued proper appearance, then we would laud them for being such good examples of "true" Christianity. Since leaving the ministry, I have found that I still have benchmarks for people. I don't trust the authenticity of their conversion unless I see the earmarks of what I now perceive to be "true" Christianity. By God's grace I am slowly learning to be less judgmental, but it is so difficult. I am just way too human.

What was the litmus test that Jesus used? What was the litmus test for the thief hanging next to him on the cross? What was his litmus test for the Samaritan woman at the well? What was his litmus test for Mary Magdalene? What was his litmus test for the woman caught in adultery? How did he tell his disciples to measure a person's commitment to him? If there is a litmus test in scripture for "true" Christianity, I believe it is our love for one another. I believe that is exactly what Jesus told his disciples. That is also what Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians 13. Though we speak with tongues and sacrifice everything--even our bodies to be burned--and have not love, our faith is accomplishing nothing. I think it's significant that the main test for discipleship in scripture has to do with something that is difficult--even impossible--to measure.

Sorry for the lengthy blog, but I have one final thought on this. Why do we even have litmus tests? I think it's because we are human, and we like to measure things. As addressed in the previous blog, we like to "know" who is "in" and who is "out." It makes it easier. Of course, Jesus never meant to give us an easy way to determine who is "in" and who is "out." He just calls us to love one another. That is difficult to do when we are measuring each other. Do you have a litmus test? What is it? Tell me what you think about litmus tests for Christianity.

living in the gray

I think as humans we like things black and white, right and wrong, cold or hot. We don't like the gray, situational ethics, or things that are lukewarm. We like it when things are spelled out for us. We like to know whether we are "in" or "out." Are we "right" with God or not? But, in my opinion, that is the "carnal" way to live for God. It is "following after the flesh" (Romans 6). It is trusting in our own abilities and our senses to guide us. It is the way of the world. It is the way of the Pharisees. Pharisees were experts at drawing lines and making rules plain and understandable (even if noone could actually live by all  of them) It is comforting to "know." It is, after all, only human. Yet Jesus calls us to leave behind what we "know" to follow Him. He tells us that if we follow him, we may not know where our next meal is coming from, or where we are going to lay our heads tonight. He calls us to leave our homeland to go to a place that He has only promised us, and He doesn't give us a map or tell us the way. He only says to follow Him. He calls us to "live by faith" and not by sight. But we want to live by sight. How else will we "know?" That's the point. Faith is about trusting, not about "knowing." As I have learned from the teaching staff at Blackhawk Church, grace is messy. Life in the Spirit is scary at times because we don't know what is going to happen next. But we don't trust God because we know what His next move is going to be, or because he has given us formulas to live by--that always produce expected results--but because He is God, and we believe Him. We believe that He loves us. We trust Him. Fundamentalist churches that teach us how to live, and tell us where to go and where not to go are attractive to us because we crave direction. We want to know that we are on the right path. We need guidelines. But life in the Spirit is about trusting God to lead. Jesus said the only "rules" we really need are to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. We get uncomfortable with that because that isn't clear. It's gray. So we go to the Old Testament--the Law--to help us understand what He meant. We run from the gray--and in so doing we run from trusting God, I think. The answers are there in the OT, but they aren't in understanding how to live by the Law. Paul said those who live by the law will be condemned by it. Life in the Spirit--a life of grace--is what we are called to. It is a life of trust--with only a lamp to guide our feet. A life of living by the law, by rules, by always having to "know" is a life of fear because we always fail. And we are never sure if we have done enough, if we have repented adequately, if we have prayed enough to "get right" with God, if we have truly "overcome" our flesh. It is a life of toil and weariness. Living in the Spirit, in grace, in the gray, by faith may be scary, but it is not fearful. It is freeing, exciting and refreshing. It's not easy, and it is not trouble free, but it is the life we are called to. And it is the life where we find rest. Do you enjoy the comfort of the boat--its sturdiness, its tangibility--too much to let go and step out into the deep with only Jesus to hold you up? My flesh does. But my spirit longs to be with Jesus. If I want to be with Him, I have to let go of what I know, of the things that are sure, and simply trust Him. That is life in the Spirit. That is living in the gray. What do you think? I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

why "elephants of grace"

This is my wonderful family--those that continue to teach me about God's grace every day.

For my first post, I thought I would explain the title "elephants of grace." Actually, I chose the title for two reasons. First, my first choices were already taken: Naked Grace and Elephants in the Room. Regarding "naked grace," I spent so much time over the years qualifying grace whenever I spoke of it as a minister, that when it appeared to me in its "naked" unqualifed form, I was blown away. And I started to write a book that I titled "Elephants in the Room." This has to do with the questions that I ignored over the years that loomed larger and larger as grace was dawning on my consciousness. Sooner or later I had to face the elephants and honestly answer the questions that they posed. So, this blog is called "elephants of grace," because the questions that I had to answer all revolved around God's grace, and how I had qualifed, minimized, and even belittled it for over 20 years. In the coming weeks I hope to address those elephants in this blog, and maybe help others to address their own elephants. Something that my former pastor used to say is so true: "You don't have to be afraid of the truth." You really don't. In fact, the truth will set you free.