Theology

"Unclean" and the Unity of the Church...

This summer I, along with other church leaders in my community are embarking on an important and complex journey. Together, (some of us for the first time) we will be discerning and learning what it means to express the visible unity of the church in our community. To aid us in that task we are launching together into an important book that begins to get at the heart of the boundaries that seperate us.

Richard Beck, who serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written a challenging and important book for anyone who is in church leadership called Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

The blurb on the back of the book reads as follows:

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Echoing Hosea, Jesus defends his embrace of the "unclean" in the Gospel of Matthew, seeming to privelege the prophetic call to justice over the Levitical pursuit of purity. And yet, as missional faith communities are well aware, the tensions and conflicts between holiness and mercy are not so easily resolved. At every turn, it seems that the psychological pull of purity and holiness tempts the church into practices of social exclusion and a Gnostic flight form "the world" into a "too spiritual" spirituality. In an unprecedented fusion of psychological science and theological scholarship, Richard Beck describes the pernicious (and largely unnoticed) effects of the psychology of purity upon the life and mission of the church.

This book, primarily written to deal with the inner psychological challenges of local communities of faith (a.k.a. local congregations) is being read and interpreted in a different light in this project. Together with a number of other pastors and church leaders in my community we will be reading and interacting with the psychological and theological implications of this book as they relate to our (evolving) relationships with one another across lines of Christian traditions.

All church bodies (local, regional, or denominational) struggle with the implications and outworkings of purity psychology. Think about it this way:

If we (whoever that is: person, family, church, tradition) are right (or at least the "most right"...because none of us would claim to be perfect, right?) then "they" are wrong (or at the very least less right). This means that we must erect some sort of boundary or barrier to prevent them from tainting the purity of what we know or who we are.

Notice how one-sided such a posture is. "We" must keep "them" out, unless of course they are willing to leave where they are and join us. There is only one way in, and it's OUR way.

Jesus faced this situation more than once in his ministry, but perhaps never as clearly as the story that we read in Matthew 9.

   9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

  10
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

  12
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:9-13, NIV)

In this brief moment we see clearly the implications of these boundaries of purity. The Pharisees have said, "There is only one way for God to be happy with you, and that is if you are with us." Jesus defies such artificial and destructive boundaries.

In the ancient world (and still to this day), people believed that if you were clean (pure) and you came into contact with someone or something which was unclean (impure) that the uncleanness was transferred to you and you lost your purity. But things are different when Jesus is in the equation. Look at this story from Matthew 8:

  1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4, NIV)

Notice the difference? When Jesus touches this man it is not he who is made unclean, it is the leper who is made clean. But the leper's request to be made clean is much more than a request to be cured of his leprosy. It is a plea to Jesus to make his whole life brought back into order. It is a plea for redemption both of his body and his place in the worshipping community of Israel. This is a transformation of mind, body, and soul.

This tension, the fear of becoming unclean, and the reality that the purity of Jesus is not ruined by the impurity of others but is itself transformed is captured in Jesus' powerful quotation of the prophet Hosea:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

What are the implications of this for Christian communities? What does this mean for the life of churches especially as it relates to people of other Christian traditions? Why does Jesus (and the prophet Hosea) put mercy and sacrifice in tension with one another, can't we have both?

These and many other questions will be explored here as we embark on this journey together.

This project, these questions and this book have all been brought to the front by an upcoming conference this summer, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

This summer at Rochester College the implications of "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." will be explored by a number of scholars, theologians, and practicioners who are asking these questions in the day to day life of their faith communities.

One of the keynote speakers this summer will be the world-class Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. There are few if any scholars who have had such a wide influence on both Old Testament scholarship and simultaneously the faith and practice of the church. He has written a ton of books, commentaries, and scholarly articles. The tension of Mercy/Sacrifice was one of the major themes of his important book, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.

Richard Beck serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written two books including Unclean and his newest book, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. He also writes at his award-winning blog, Experimental Theology.

 

 

If you're interested in attending Streaming you can get more information here. In the meantime check out Richard's books and come back as we enter into this very important discussion for the faith and practice of the church.

Here are a couple of videos from Richard about the upcoming Streaming conference:

 

One Church

This is the sermon that I preached at our community Holy Week services on Monday. This sermon is partly the outgrowth of the work that I have started writing here about Luke 10 Theology. Most important for me in this sermon was the attempt to reclaim some of the greatest and richest elements of my religious tradition the Stone-Campbell Movement (a.k.a. the American Restoration Movement). These are important words that don't often square up with either our speech or practice in many Churches of Christ. This makes this attempt at reclaiming that I think all the more important.

 

PS - 1 Million Restoration Movement nerd points if anyone can tell me how many times I quote directly from the Declaration and Address in this sermon and which propositions each quote comes from. Happy listening!

Who is Theologically "Other"??

Yesterday we talked about the various ways that people practice exclusion and began to look at some of the foundational issues regarding the story of the Good Samaritan to serve as a framework for engaging the issue of our relationships to people (not to institutions or traditions as we will see later) who are theologically "other" or different. But an important question that we must answer before we can work ourselves deeper into the theological impications of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is this: WHO is the person that is theologically "other"? In other words, who is the person that is theologically different enough from myself that we must find a framework in which to understand our relationship with them? But first, some fundamental assumptions that I am taking for granted without much further explanation:

  1. No human being has an unchanging perception of God (if they even believe in one) or the world.
    This is easy to demonstrate. Do you have the same understanding of the world or of God today that you did ten years ago? Do you still believe in the tooth fairy or that babies are made by love and not through sex (because your parents didn't want to tell you about the birds and the bees yet!)? Even if some (or many) of your convictions have not changed in some time (e.g., the divinity of Jesus) the way that you understand them and how they are connected to other elements of your theological framework are always changing. 
  2. No two people who have ever lived have an identical theology.
    This is not to suggest that there has not been over time some major elements of consensus and agreement. However, it is my contention that no two people have ever held the exact same convictions about God and the world, and certainly never at the same time and place.
  3. The way in which human beings understand God is always analogical.
    For example, God is not literally our father because God is not confined by gender. God is not a rock, or a fortress, or a shield (2 Samuel 22:2-3). Ultimately we are limited in our finitude, by the limits of our language and our understanding of that language in the ways that we understand God.

So the implication is this: EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LIVED IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IS THEOLOGICALLY "OTHER" THAN MYSELF. 

But why is this important? What does this have to do with the Greatest Commands?

The reason that this is important is because it has been the tendency in the Church to exclude people who are deemed to be "theologically other". But this determination has always been subjective, often violent (whether physically or socially), and has failed to take seriously (in my opinion) the command to love neighbor. There are a million examples of this throughout church history. You could look at the persecution (and execution!) of Anabaptists at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants. Or perhaps less violently (although still an intentional form of exclusion) one could look to a not too distant dust-up in our tradition (Churches of Christ) where Churches who used instruments in worship were excluded from the national directory.

The practice of exclusion to people who are deemed "theologically other" has been a constant element of Christian history. But why? What constitutes the grounds for such an intentional and drastic exclusion (even up to execution!)?

In Churches of Christ this practice has been especially prevalent (I'm sure it is in other religious traditons but I can only speak out of my experience in my tradition.), but only around specific issues. In other words, we demonstrate a selective exclusion of the "theologically other". Some of these issues in our history have been things like:

  • Instrumental Music in Worship
  • Frequency of Participation in the Lord's Supper
  • Church Structure (Elders/Deacons vs. Pastors/Boards)
  • Understanding(s) of Baptism
  • Whether the silence of Scripture is permissive or prohibitive.
  • Cooperation with other congregations (whether more "conservative" or "liberal" Churches of Christ) or other Christian traditions (e.g., Baptist, Catholic, etc.)

The irony of such a criteria for exclusion is that it is inconsistent in its application. In my experience we have never excluded someone who is entirely outside of the Christian faith for their divergent (or nonexistant!) views of any of these issues! However, we have excluded all kinds of other people who truly love Jesus and are obedient in accordance with their understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, somehow we have found a way to justify the exclusion of some people in our understanding of "love your neighbor as yourself" and it has been people within the Christian tradition!!

THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM FOR THE UNITY AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH.

Tomorrow I want to address some of the issues that some will raise in objection to what I am pointing to here. We will try to answer some of the following questions:

  • How can we have fellowship/unity with people that we disagree with? Doesn't the Bible say, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3, KJV)
  • When is the "issue" or "difference" significant enough that we must seperate from them to maintain the purity of the Gospel?
  • Or my personal least favorite: "We can still love them and acknowledge that they are Christians but we must remain seperate because of our differences." (It makes my blood pressure rise just to type it.)

It is my contention that there is a significant difference between LOVE and CO-EXISTENCE. There is functionally no difference between premeditated exclusion and indifferent acceptance of such an arrangement. Therefore, it is a vital task of the church to recover what it means to "love our neighbor" especialy as it pertains to other people within the Christian tradition.

The Declaration and Address (a foundational document of our tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement also known as the American Restoration Movement) puts it this way:

Christ established one church--just one. This church is made up of everyone who has faith in Christ and is trying to follow him in the ways God's Spirit in scripture has told us, and who others can see are being transformed into his likeness by the way they act. No one else has a right to be called a Christian.

Therefore, nothing should be required to recognize, fellowship, embrace, work, worship, and be fully and visibly united with all Christians that is not specifically made a requirement by God in his word. Nothing should be required in the way local bodies of Christians operate that is not specifically required by Christ and his Apostles for the church. Furthermore, the chief requirements for full fellowship that God has declared are our love for God and for people. This love is formed by our understanding of God's love for us shown through Christ.

God gave us the ability to think and reason--that is a good thing. If, however, in the process of using our reason we come to conclusions that other Christians do not reach, and that causes us to reject them, we have been deceived by the evil one. Our pride has taken over and stopped our continued growth into the mind of Christ--a mind of complete humility and self-sacrifice. Human reason is not the ultimate standard for truth. Christians ought to be growing constantly in their understanding of the profound truths of the gospel--that's part of our spiritual growth as communities. But requiring or even expecting others to be where you are is not conducive to the visible unity Christ so much wants.

Once again, having an understanding of every Christian truth is not a requirement to be a Christian, a part of Christ's church. No one who is trying to follow Christ ought to be forced to confess any belief beyond what they understand and know. All a person needs to know to be part of Christ's church is that they are lost and that salvation is through Christ. When they confess that they believe in Christ and that they want to obey him fully according to his word--nothing else can be required.

Everyone who confesses belief in Christ and commits to obey him, and who shows the reality of their commitment by the way they live, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as sisters and brothers, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whoever God has joined together this way, no one should dare divide.

Division among Christians is a sickening evil, filled with many evils. It is anti-Christian because it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ. It is as if Christ were cutting off parts of himself and throwing them away from the rest of his body! What a ludicrous picture! Division is anti-scriptural, since Christ himself specifically prohibited it, making it a direct violation of Christ's will. It is anti-natural, because it makes Christians condemn, hate and oppose one another--people who are actually obligated in the strongest way to love each other as sisters and brothers, just like Christ loved them. In other words, division repudiates everything Christianity is supposed to stand for.

Two things are responsible for all the divisions and corruptions in Christ's church through the centuries. One is a neglect or even and fundmental misunderstanding of God's will for us in scripture--that we have the mind of Christ and be transformed into his likeness. The other comes from the first. Some Christians, assuming they are "right," that they have gotten the "facts" perfectly, have assumed the authority to impose their conclusions on others as terms of recognition and fellowship.

In reality, everything needed for the church to reach the highest state of perfection and purity on earth is first to receive as members only those who have understood their lostness and confessed their faith in Christ and commitment to follow him according to scripture; second, to keep as members only those who show those commitments in their everyday lives; and third, to see that ministers who reflect these ideals, preach only what is clearly taught in scripture. Finally, they must stick close to what scripture makes primary, seen in the example of the early church in the New Testament, without being distracted or corrupted by human tendencies toward pride and control.

(Declaration and Address, Propositions 1, 3, 6, 8-12)

An Introduction to Luke 10 Theology...

As I spend the next couple of weeks thinking about an upcoming opportunity for me to preach at our community Holy Week services I want to take some time here to express in a more systematic way some of things that I am wrestling with, especially as it pertains to themes of unity and mission. Why these themes I think are bound up in the story of the Good Samaritan I will get more into in the coming days, but right now I want to lay out the importance of this text for the life of the church in our Post-Christendom reality.

I am quickly becoming convinced that Luke 10 is perhaps one of the most important chapters in the New Testament for the crisis that the contemporary church in the West faces as it seeks to understand its new (marginal) role in Western culture. Allow me to explain.

In Luke you have three inter-related and extremely relevant stories. You find the story of Jesus' commission of the seventy(two) and their work in search of the people of peace (10:1-24). The second story is that of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), this story I think needs a deeper/closer reading (which we will get to in time). Finally this chapter concludes with a brief scene of frustration between Mary, Martha, and Jesus about who is expected to what in the name of hospitality and cultural expectation (10:38-42). So let me give you what I think these texts give us here and then I will spend the next few weeks unpacking each of these texts as we dialogue about the validity (if there is any) of reading these texts in this way in our context.

The story of the seventy(two) (10:1-24) is a story of MISSION IN SEARCH OF GOD'S ALREADY-PRESENT WORK.

The story of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) is a story of LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR ACROSS THEOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE.

The story of Mary and Martha at dinner (10:38-42) is a story that DEMANDS THAT WE RETHINK WHAT IS EXPECTED OF US BY GOD IN LIGHT OF THE PERSON AND WORK OF JESUS AND NOT SIMPLY THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE CULTURE IN WHICH WE LIVE. 

There are a number of important things that are here for us to discover and to examine. Things that confront (and sometimes condemn) the way that we have thought about and acted out things in the past. But it is increasingly clear that as followers of Jesus, and as a particular Christian tradition (see our recent struggles) a failure to ask these questions and to be confronted by these texts seals our fate as a group of people who miss out on what God is doing in the world through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

So a couple of questions to ask before we begin...

(1) How have you read/understood these texts up until now?
For example, I assumed for a long time that the story of the seventy(two) was nice but not actually relevant to my life. It was about "them". I have learned much differently in recent years. 

(2) Are there any areas of your individual life or the life of your church that need to be reconsidered or even replaced? If so, what are they and how might any of these three narratives help us think about that. (More on how these stories address some specific issues soon.)

(3) What does it mean to engage Scripture not looking for practices and procedures, but instead looking for the character and nature of God, most clearly seen in Jesus and incarnated in his body, the Church? How might we need to rethink the way we think about the Bible in order that God has the space to speak afresh to us in these texts?

I think this will be a rich conversation, if you join it.

The Decline of the Churches of Christ in the US...

The Christian Chronicle recently released an article detailing the specifics about losses both in membership and congregations among Churches of Christ from 2003-Present. Their conclusion? In the last ten years we have lost one out of every sixteen members are have closed three congregations every two weeks for the last ten years. These numbers should be sobering. In the time that I have been at the Central Church of Christ I am personally aware of four congregations that have closed their doors, and know of a number of congregations that are barely hanging on numerically (not to mention other churches that are teetering on the edge of fracture and collapse).

But why?

The comments section on the Chronicle article are fascinating. Allow me to summarize some of what I heard from those who have responded publicly on the Chronicle website. 

  • Good! God is finally cleaning house in his church! This is the purge we have needed to keep the church pure and the false teachers away.
  • If we were more evangelistic then we would experience growth like we used to (hear here the 40's and 50's).
  • Well if we weren't so legalistic and addicted to patternism and John Locke we wouldn't have this problem.
  • This is just terrible. What can we do?

It is interesting that the Churches of Christ are in a nation-wide decline both in membership and congregations much like the rest of the denominational world (don't hear "denomination" as a derogatory term here). However, we see the opposite trend in "non-denominational" Christianity.

Mark Chaves, Professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University has said,

"If the unaffiliated congregations were all in one denomination, they would constitute the second-largest in number of participants (behind only the Roman Catholic Church) and the largest number of congregations... Although most Protestant churches are denominational, a noticeable and growing minority are not formally affiliated with any denomination." (From his book, American Religion, Contemporary Trends)

So what are we as members of Churches of Christ supposed to think not only about own decline, but about the tangible surge in the growth of churches that would label themselves very similarly to our movement as "non-denominational"?

First, I know that some people reading this will simply say, "Well it's because they offer entertainment and cotton candy theology that doesn't really take seriously either Scripture or the Gospel." Or some other similarly dismissive comment about their inferiority (whether in theology, worship style, morals, hermeneutics, or whatever). May I remind us here that only God knows the hearts of people. Any judgment from our position must be (1) humble, (2) relational, (3) and after significant self-reflection and an attempt to actually engage with "those people".

But for those of you who are willing to consider the reasons for such a dramatic shift within our fellowship I want to throw in my two cents about what may be going on. Some of these things we can change, some things we must, and some are simply the way that it is.

POSSIBLE Reasons for the Marked Decline Among Churches of Christ...

  1. Churches of Christ are especially rooted in southern and rural contexts.
    This is neither negative nor positive, but it is reality. With the majority of the world moving to urban population centers this is an unavoidable reality that shapes all of rural life, not simply its religious dynamics.
  2. Churches of Christ have struggled with "creating space" for theological diversity.
    The dust up a few years ago about not including Churches of Christ who use instrumental music in the national directory is symptomatic of a larger unwillingness or inability to tolerate or allow diversity of understanding and interpretation.
  3. Churches of Christ have made significant theological shifts in the last 70 years that have obscured both the richness and diversity of our theological tradition.
    It is ironic to me that a lot of the work and theology of early leaders in the Restoration Movement would be considered false and destructive in many churches today. I find it interesting that the Gospel Advocate takes positions on fellowship, baptism, and other theological issues that are almost completely opposite of one of its longest running and most beloved editors, David Lipscomb.

So what are we to do?

Well this is where you come in... How can Churches of Christ find themselves more faithful and better equipped to be flourishing fellowship of believers in the 21st century?

Spiritual (Re)Formation Reboot...

Is anyone out there?

Have I really been gone from here since August? Wow. A lot has happened since my last post, and it is clear that it is time for a fresh start. So here we go.

I hope you will join me as I "start fresh" here at Spiritual (Re)Formation. A new look, hopefully some new topics, and a much greater consistency in writing will mark this new season here.

Let me give you a preview of some of the things that will be appearing here in the near future...

I have recently resurrected a series at the Central Church of Christ where I teach/preach where I am answering questions that are submitted to me from the members of my congregation.

Many of those questions I will soon be sharing here on Spiritual (Re)Formation. Some of those questions include the following:

  • Is instrumental music a salvation issue?
  • Why did Jesus cry out from the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?"
  • When does seeking to be obedient become legalism?
  • How should we use church history to shape our theology and practice?
  • Who served as deacons in the first century church?
  • What should be the relationship of the church and the state?
  • How should we interact with (or pull away from) people with whom we disagree about theological matters?

These and other questions will arise as time goes on. Also, feel free to submit any questions you might have by sending me an email.

We will also be talking about issues of church and culture. What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? How are we to react to and engage with the culure(s) in which we live?

Maybe more specifically, how does a movement that has been preoccupied with the "first century church" maintain a faithful and culturally appropriate posture in the places in which we find ourselves?

This obviously brings in larger issues about definitions of culture, what we mean by "church" and some of the ways that we read, interpret, and use Scripture to define both belief and practice. In time, we will lay some of this groundwork and see where it takes us from there.

I also hope to begin some sporadic posts about our history, traditions, and some of the major shifts that have taken place in our heritage (both good and bad). The goal here is to better understand our roots and the places that we have "gone off into the weeds" as some like to say.

My hunch is that many of us don't know the richness and depth of our heritage. While it can be easy to be negative and cynical about our tradition (this is from the voice of experience!), I believe that there are powerful things from our own history that can and should be reclaimed in the present.

Finally, I hope to raise some questions (and propose some options) in the realm of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation. The way in which we read Scripture dictates much of what we understand (or miss). Understanding the ways we have been influenced by forces and ideas that we have never formally been taught is important. Here we will be listening to voices both old and new, both local and around the world. Reading Scripture is both a wonderful privilege (that many in history have not had!) and a deep responsibility and challenge.

We will look at some of the ways that the people in Scripture have interpreted and used Scripture, we will explore some passages that seem to reveal some tension both in perspective and understanding, and we will also talk about ways that are dangerous to our engagement with Scripture.

Overall, I think that the future is bright here at Spiritual (Re)Formation. I believe that the Spirit of God is moving in powerful and sometimes shocking ways in the church today to make us more into the image of His Son in the world. The most important part of this journey here however will be your participation. So stop back often, comment when you can, and most of all pray that each of us will be continually (re)formed into the image of Jesus.

Missional Synchroblog: Why the Missional Conversation in Churches of Christ is Important...

I have invited some friends to begin a dialogue this week on their blogs (hopefully the first of many such opportunities for interaction) about Churches of Christ and the missional conversation.

The synchroblog is structured as follows:

Monday -Why the missional conversation in Churches of Christ is important.

Wednesday - The challenges that the missional conversation presents to Churches of Christ.

Friday - The strengths of our theological heritage that enable us to both enter and contribute to the larger missional conversation.

The days in between (Tuesday, Thursday, and the weekend) are meant to give time for interaction and engagement with the conversation. I will be posting links as soon as I become aware of them.

Here is my take on Why the missional conversation in Churches of Christ is important.

  1. Scripture is central for Churches of Christ and a missional theology helps us to read "with the grain" of the Biblical narrative in deeper ways than we might have before. 
  2. As a movement we have made much of the Church and a missional theology helps us to refocus the Church into its proper place in the larger Mission of God.
  3. We have a rich heritage with some theological giants who gave great gifts to the wider church. A missional theology enables us to return to our roots in the Restoration Movement and regift these treasures to the contemporary church.


I want to take some time tomorrow to try and explain why I think these are so important. But for now, is there anything you would add?

Churches of Christ and the Missional Conversation...

In an earlier post I asked the question, "What do Churches of Christ have to give to the missional conversation?" Here is my initial response:

(1)    Congregational Autonomy While this doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case sometimes (especially when a congregation sees its role in the Kingdom to bash critique a congregation on an issue upon which they disagree), the reality of congregational autonomy allows us to do a couple of things that are significant and either extremely difficult or impossible to do in a denominational structure:

a.       Selective Partnership and Collaboration. We are able to learn from, work with, and be aided by any congregation or group that we determine necessary.

b.      The Ability to Discern the Contextual Calling of our Context. While our fellowship may be well known for planting “carbon copies” of Southern rural churches throughout the world, our autonomy allows us to become a congregation that is truly “at home” in the culture without giving in to its distortions and reductions of the Gospel.

c.       Permission to Transition. As autonomous congregations we have to authority to determine when and how to embark on this journey. I have been reading a series of posts (I will try to find the link this week) of a pastor in a denomination (PCUSA if I’m not mistaken) who is struggling with how to become missional in his denomination. His struggle comes from the fact that official documents and structures prohibit transitions and actions that would in fact be very missional. In our fellowship we don’t need permission to transition. The truth is what we need is the courage and the resolve.

(2)    A Healthy View of Scripture

a.       Balance of Scripture vs. Tradition. Some of you are pulling your hair out when I say that we might have this even heading in the right direction. Here’s what I’m saying: In our history we have had the ability to do some things that really targeted and successfully reached our communities (e.g. bus ministry, World Bible School, Jewel Miller, etc.). Granted, in some of our churches (I won’t say many) we have gone from contextual and relevant to stagnant and stuck in a time warp. But that doesn’t deny the fact that at one time they were (for their context) fulfilling their place missionally. To me, this means that it might still be in our memory or our DNA. This is not something that will have to be taught for the first time but simply recovered our reactivated (which it already has been in a number of our congregations).

b.      A Strong Ecclesiology. On the major issues I would suggest that the Churches of Christ as a whole have a great foundation upon which to build. This is a topic that needs to be explored much more thoroughly (perhaps even at the scholarly level), but I believe that it is safe to say that there are some gifts that we would have for those who are re-examining what it means to be the people of God. Our desire to be “New Testament Christians” (as if there is another option??) and our willingness to really examine Scripture are attributes that will help us as we continue to make this journey.

How would you answer any of the following questions?

What gifts or blessings do we have to offer up as an example to other churches (especially those in denominations) as they also seek to find ways to make their identity increasingly missional?

Does our past as a movement have anything to offer to this journey today whether theologically or otherwise?

What particular challenges will we incur as a fellowship that may not be an issue inside a denominational structure?

What is the way forward into the missional frontier for Churches of Christ?

Gustavo Gutiérrez on Theological Reflection...

Theological reflection--that is, the understanding of faith--arises spontaneously and inevitably in the believer, in all those who have accepted the gift of the Word of God. Theology is intrinsic to a life of faith seeking to be authentic and complete and is, therefore, essential to the common consideration of this faith in the ecclesial community. There is present in all believers--and more so in every Christian community--a rough outline of theology. There is present an effort to understand the faith, something like a pre-understanding of that faith which is manifested in life, action, and concrete attitude. It is on this foundation, and only because of it, that the edifice of theology--in the precise and technical sense of the term--can be erected. This foundation is not merely a jumping-off point, but the soil into which theological reflection stubbornly and permanently sinks its roots and from which it derives its strength.

-- Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, pg. 3.

Hmmmmm... A Woman Deacon...

This was something I noticed in preparing for a class on leadership in the early church this week, and it has to do with deacons, specifically women deacons.

In fact, the only time that we have the term deacon (διάκονος) attached to a proper name in the New Testament who doesn't have another "role" or some other reason why we shouldn't translate this term as "servant" is in Romans 16:1: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae." (TNIV)

There are a few other instances where the term "deacon" or "servant" (both the term διάκονος) are used in connection with a proper name, but all of these the case can be made should be understood as "servant" instead of "deacon." Here are the other cases...


Timothy as a διάκονος of God (1 Thessalonians 3:2)
Here Timothy is referred to as "God's coworker (διάκονος). The idea here is of a "servant" not what we would refer to as the role of a "deacon."

Epaphras as a "fellow διάκονος" (Colossians 1:7)
Here Epaphras is referred to as "our dear fellow servant (διάκονος)". He is a "fellow διάκονος" of Paul and Timothy (the authors of Colossians) and therefore cannot be considered here to hold the role of "deacon."

Tychicus as a "fellow διάκονος" (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7)
These two references to Tychicus are virtually the same. In Ephesians 6:21 he is referred to as a "faithful servant (διάκονος) in the Lord" and Colossians 4:7 has him described as a "fellow servant (διάκονος) in the Lord." Very much in the same with Epaphras. Tychichus could not be a "deacon" alongside Paul, but he could however be a fellow "servant (διάκονος)".

Paul as a διάκονος of the Gospel (Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23)
In Ephesians 3:7 he is a "servant (διάκονος) of this gospel". Paul, here in Colossians 1:23, describes himself as a "servant" (διάκονος) of the Gospel. Both of these references exclude Paul as a "deacon" because he was unmarried and filled the role of an apostle.

Does Christ διάκονος sin? (Galatians 2:17)
Paul writes, "But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinner, doesn't that mean that Christ promotes (διάκονος) sin? Absolutely not!" (TNIV). Or looking at the ESV: "But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant (διάκονος) of sin? Certainly not!"

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I include it to be exhaustive in the usage of
διάκονος + a proper name.


Paul and Apollos as διάκονος (1 Corinthians 3:5)
Here Paul reminds the Corinthians that Apollos and himself are not "special" or "extraordinary". He says, "What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants (διάκονος), through whom yuo came to believe..." (TNIV). We have no evidence to assume that Apollos could have filled the role of a "deacon" and we know Paul could not do so.


Jesus as a διάκονος of the Jews (Romans 15:8)
Paul writes, "For I tell you that Christ has become a servant (διάκονος) of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy."

Jesus could not and did not serve in the role of a "deacon."


Phoebe as a διάκονος of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1)
This brings us to our last example of the term διάκονος + Proper Name in the New Testament. If there are any references in the New Testament to a specific person being a "deacon" this is it. Notice a couple of differences in this passage from the other references of διάκονος + a proper name in the New Testament.

 

(1) There is another term for "servant" (δοῦλος) that could have been employed.
(2) This is the only reference of the term
διάκονος that is tied to a specific, local congregation (the church in Cenchreae).
(3) There is no reason from the text itself to assume that she filled another role that prevented or made unecessary such a position (e.g. she is not mentioned as one of Paul's "fellow servants" (
διάκονος).
(4) The instructions concerning "deacons" (
διάκονος) in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 are not gender exclusive in their instructions for "deacons" (διάκονος).

 

So what do we do with this? Hmmmmm... Let the conversation begin.