“Let the Little Children Come to Me” . . . in the Nursery

We had a really strange experience this past Sunday morning at our church.  Our congregation is small (100 folks or so), and with the flu going around and folks traveling, etc. our crowd was especially small this week.  A young couple walked in with two small children – looked like they could have been twins – maybe two years old.  A few of our members chatted with them briefly before the service and then one of our elders introduced me to the husband.  “He was asking about the nursery,” I was told.  As we have such a small church, and so many of our families have little children, we find it difficult – well, impossible – to provide a staffed nursery for parents.  Some of our parents will take their children out of the service if their child is particularly fussy or restless, but for the most part, we try to incorporate our children into our services and generally welcome the distraction of them crying out or running around.  It can be a little hectic and often is distracting . . . but so is life.  But it’s not just because “we can’t staff the nursery,” that we don’t have one.  It’s actually pretty intentional on our behalf.

Well, in regards to the young couple, it was a little difficult for them to understand and so they slowly and quietly left – before our services ever started!  I was astounded.  They never gave it a chance.  They, like many other people who visit our congregation’s Sunday services, they were looking for an hour-long service when they can focus on God and energize themselves without the distraction of their children.  And I get it.  We’ve got three kids of our own, and I remember the challenge of the years between when they became mobile and when they could sit down quietly and be entertained.   I know how difficult that was, particularly for my wife – and nothing I am about to say is said without that very legitimate concern and realization.

There’s nothing wrong with a church offering a nursery during their services – I need to affirm that as well.  However, there is something very pure, authentic, and important about our worship gatherings being truly family-oriented.  There is something to be said for having a time for age-appropriate messages and expressions, but that can never come to dominate our structure – as if that is the rule instead of the exception.  The idea that we need to “sanitize” our services of all distractions is disingenuous to what life really is.  We fall into the temptation of making them smoothly packaged with the outcome predetermined – a far cry from the realities of life.  I know that it can be difficult for older folks to “drown the noise out.”  I understand it can make it challenging for those without children to empathize.  We should be cautious and thoughtful about affirming that to those people often.  However, again, I wonder if that should be the exception instead of the rule (that is always making concession for those people). At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to be humbled.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think alot of this discussion revolves around the pastor’s ego.  We don’t want an entire week’s work (ie. sermon) to be “wasted” when the most poignant moment is drowned out by a screaming child.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And . . . now . . . it honestly just makes me smile.  I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.  I think that’s what more church folks  need to do.  Most people could probably affirm the fact that a baby’s coo or a little child’s outburst is just as God-honoring and glorifying as my exposition on Ecclesiastes.  Postmodernism has knocked us off our pedestal, and we need to continue to let it due so.  Our worship gatherings should be collections of numerous worship experiences throughout the congregation.  It’s not dictated and directed by the leaders up front.  I look at it as if we are hoping to help create an atmosphere (with the guidance and participation of the Holy Spirit) where people can connect to God.  I hope that happens through the sermon, sometimes, through our worship in song, and our other public experiences.  However, I think more often, and more powerfully, those experiences are happening through side conversations, shows of affection, spontaneous prayers, a cup of coffee, and even (GASP!) unruly or disruptive children.

My wife probably had the best perspective on this event from Sunday.  A couple from our church recently adopted a baby – after waiting for several years and going through the ringer as nearly everyone who goes through the adoption process undergoes.  We prayed with them for years that this day would come.  And in my wife’s great wisdom she points out, “How can we go through those many years of praying and longing, and then finally celebrating alongside them . . . and then expect them to spend most of their time together with us . . .  out in the nursery?  That little baby is as much a part of our church and a part of each and every service as the oldest members among us.”

This is where we come to terms with being an intentional and missional church that doesn’t do things because they are “more palatable” or “attractive” to outsiders, but instead, are driven by our theology to make decisions that are holistic, God-focused, and . . . often times . . . more difficult.  Ironically, in our sermon on Sunday, we spent some time talking about not making your family your idol . . .


Josh Graves – Why I’m a Member of the Churches of Christ

Josh Graves has been generous with his time and has offered an addition to our ongoing series on “Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ.”  I appreciate his time and perspective.

I am A Member of the Churches of Christ. I am a minister in a Church of Christ (though some Churches of Christ might not claim us). For the record, I love the Churches of Christ.

We are a tradition in the broad sweep of Christianity much like the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian traditions are traditions: we have our own language, inside jokes, denominational gatherings, print publication, online watchdogs, schools/colleges, regional nuances, doctrinal sticking points. Most churches that claim to be non-denominational are either a) in denial or b) about to become a denomination. Churches of Christ have some beautiful, worth-copying traits. And, we have some things we’re still trying to let go of, improve, and be honest about.

We’re like any American family in that way. We have so many good things. And we have some secrets we don’t want to go public. I know some who only want to talk about the good (naiveté) and those who can only see the bad (cynics) . . . I don’t think we get to choose.  Here are my reasons I’m still in the Church of Christ.

  1. I met my wife. If you are keeping score, this is at the top of the list.
  2. I was born into the Churches of Christ. This is as close to a Calvinist as I’ll ever get. I believe God was somehow in the mix as he brought me into the world.
  3. I was raised in the Churches of Christ. I think there’s something to the notion of “bloom where you are planted.” The Church of Christ is the space and place (because of my family) in which I was introduced to the person of Jesus. I was nurtured and nourished by beautiful people who lived the love of Jesus in compelling and often dangerous ways.
  4. Almost all of my memories are healthy, positive, and life-giving. In fact, I can’t come up with one singular large “beef” I’ve had.
  5. I met hypocrisy in the Church of Christ. Hypocrisy is not failing to live up to a desired standard. That’s being human. Hypocrisy is the denial of not living up to a standard one claims to live up to. I’m thankful for this for it allowed me to recognize my own hypocrisy and inconsistency.
  6. I met deep thinkers in the Church of Christ. Sisters and brothers who introduced me to the classic Christian thinkers of the 20th century as well as the important voices in church history.
  7. I encountered my calling in the Church of Christ. God speaks primarily to me through people (in addition to scripture, music, and creation).
  8. I now appreciate other denominations and their leaders because of my time in the Church of Christ. Other denominations have just as many beautiful and toxic elements-but you have to be in one to recognize this in others.
  9. I met my future. I was introduced to the kingdom of God, the future, Jesus as the embodiment of God’s intent for humanity (what Christians call heaven).
  10. I believe in the best of the Church of Christ–autonomy, primacy of scripture’s story, Anabaptist position on government, sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, etc.
  11. I’m aware of the worst–sectarianism, boys club tendency, racism, bad theology, isolationism, etc.

I love the Church of Christ the same way I love being an American. I love her enough that I’m going to brag about the best and confess the worst. I hope we all do this regarding our own personal lives.

I am more interested in being a part of church that is engaging the Muslim, Baha’i, Buddhist, Jew, and Agnostic persons of a community than I am “patting ourselves on the back” because the Baptists, Methodists, and Church of Christ ministers had lunch together. It’s a new day. We need courage.

People often wonder if the Church of Christ will exist in 50 years. 100 years? I have no idea. I know this; the kingdom of God will still exist. And the churches that get in line with the kingdom of God-in all of its complexity and genius and generosity–these churches will continue to flourish, and do the behind-the-scenes-work-of-God the church universal has been doing for two centuries and counting.

Josh Graves is the teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville. He is the author of The Feast (2009) and Heaven on Earth (2012). Josh holds a doctorate degree from Columbia seminary, blogs at joshuagraves.com. You can follow him on twitter @joshgraves.

Why am I a Member of the Churches of Christ: Shawn Duncan & A New Frontier for a Church Birthed by Pioneers

My friend and former Lipscomb-mate, Shawn Duncan, put this piece together for me.  Shawn is currently a minister for the North Lake Church of Christ in Atlanta, GA and does a great job with his blog: http://evanesceemerge.blogspot.com/.  I appreciate his willingness to help out on this series, and think his perspective speaks to many of us who are trying our best to weed through our heritage.
“A New Frontier for a Church Birthed by Pioneers”
As has been well documented, we live in an era of rapid and radical change.  Some have referred to this as living in “liminal space.”  We have moved beyond the securities of Christendom and are in a vulnerable space, an uncharted space confused about who we are, where we are, and what to do.  In this space some react with fear: “Our morality is being mocked, a war is being waged against our religion, and a conspiracy is underfoot against Christianity.”  There is fear of the cultural forces that are eroding our once-prized credibility and prominence within the dominant cultural narrative.  In this liminal space we are tempted to make our position more comfortable through compromising in the name of relevance or, conversely, retreating from the world so as to remain unaffected, right, and pure.  My hope, however, is that we engage in a more redemptive third option: the careful theological interpretation of what it happening in our time so as to adapt according to what God is up to.  In a time of disruptive change and great uncertainty, the church must be agile and creative in discovering how to embody the Good News of the Kingdom in ways that confront, subvert, and challenge evil as well as connect with, redeem, and reconcile our communities to Christ.  The world needs a movement of Jesus followers capable of adapting to this new world with a courageous missional lifestyle.
   So, what does this have to do with why I am a member of the Churches of Christ?  Everything!
   Even though I have engaged in plenty of hardy critique of this movement, it is my belief, and my primary reason for being an active member, that the Churches of Christ, as well as other fellowships similarly constituted, are uniquely positioned to adapt and thrive in God’s mission in our current disruptive climate.  I say this for two reasons.
    First, the Restoration Movement sought to establish, Disciples of Christ notwithstanding, autonomous congregations.  My sense is that denominational structures hinder the type nimble flexibility local congregations need to faithfully interact with postmodern (or late modern) culture.  If a local body of Christ is one in mind and heart about God’s mission in their specific and unique context, then they are able to pursue that without having to wade through denominational structures and bureaucracy.  The radical shifts some churches may need to take to fulfill God’s call in this liminal space are more realistic when those changes are in the hands of the local church itself.  Autonomous congregations, at their courageous best, are free to incarnate the Gospel in their very unique, specific, and local context.
    The commitment that Stone-Campbell churches have to “New Testament Christianity,” though poorly applied and harshly defined in certain contexts, is another distinctive characteristic that makes me want to be a part of this movement.  It is also the second, and more important, reason why we are perfectly suited to be on the front lines of theologically interpreting our times and missionally responding to them.  This claim was intended to forge a people devoted to laity empowerment, simplicity of worship, and the unity of all Christians.  These are the very qualities necessary for the time and place in which we find ourselves today!  Having the first century as our foundational claim, we, at our courageous best, have a simplicity that rejects overburdened ecclesiocentric budgets and structures; we have a freedom to empower people for missional engagement in their neighborhoods; and we have a deep-rooted instinct for creative partnership with other local bodies of Christians.  If we can get beyond the tendency to reify contextual descriptors found in Acts, then we can embrace the robust and truly radical nature of our plea for restoration.
   I am a hopeful member of this frontier forged movement because our autonomous structure and restoration impulse allow us to be neo-pioneers able to chart new territory free from sluggish sectarianism and shameful conformity.  What is needed in our day are local congregations who are fully devoted to following God as He moves about in our local contexts. This takes great courage, great risk, great agility.  Our fundamental constitution and our foundational claim make us perfectly suited to do just that.

Why I’m (Still) a Member of the Church of Christ

ImageLast week I began asking some friends and acquaintances to share their perspectives as to why they remain a part of the group of churches known as the Churches of Christ.  I have begun receiving their answers via email and will be posting here in the coming weeks – hopefully about two every week.  I very much appreciate everyone’s time and energy spent on this request and look forward to the dialogue that follows (sorry I didn’t interact with the comments from the previous post – that will change). I am going to officially kick the series off today by offering my perspective as to why I stick around these churches.  (Though, full disclosure entails that I share up front that they pay me – so let’s not deny that this isn’t a factor!) ImageFirst, let me offer some broader perspective of who the “we” are that this series is talking about.

Through my years of living and interacting within this Christian tribe, I have determined the best word to describe us is “enigmatic.”  I have a tendency to embrace uniqueness, so I may be overstating it a bit, but my interaction with other Christian groups has reinforced the fact that we are a pretty weird group.  The fact that there even is an “us” is sociologically quirky in itself.  There is nothing determinative that we comprise a unique sociological ecclesial structure. We have no formal denominational headquarters or make up.  We have no clerical or professional order.  We have been anti-credal since our beginning.  Our connections with one another are loose at best.  And yet, we’ve managed to comprise some sense of an identity.  We have our own insider’s language and relative doctrinal consistency.  While there is certainly diversity, it probably doesn’t exist to the degree that we would like to believe.

We have fundamentalist tendencies, at times, but aren’t fundamentalist.  We have the feel of Quakers, but aren’t Quakers.  We often times look like card-carrying Evangelicals, but don’t quite fit that bill either (you can see a treatment of that in the book Evangelicalism & The Stone-Campbell Movement).  We are significantly rooted in the South and throughout the Bible Belt, but have some interesting outliers (like Pepperdine).  Like most “reform” movements, we haven’t tended to play well with others, often leaving us largely isolated from broader theological and ecclesiological conversations.  And, probably no one would argue, we have seen significant changes to this Movement in the past ten to fifteen years.  So . . . why is it that I stick around this enigmatic group?


While the above cartoonist wasn’t referring to the “Church of Christ” specifically in this cartoon, it certainly resonates with me.  So why choose to stay around here?

I suppose the simplest answer as to why I’m a member of the Church of Christ is that my mom is.  That’s how I was raised.  I’ve never traced the Church of Christ lineage back in my family, but I know it goes through my mom’s family in Lima, OH, and we are one of the only families I’ve met that doesn’t have a Southern connection somewhere.  I’d love to go on some long rant about how I went and tried all other Christian brands and other faiths and found them wanting only to return – but in reality, I think I still find myself here because that is where I am comfortable, and some way, some how, the providence of God has seen fit to form his relationship with me in this context.

Looking at the surface, it’s easy to argue for providence.  I grew up in a tiny Church of Christ in Defiance, OH – the only one in the county.  There is a quirky little chart in Mac Lynn’s compilation of Churches of Christ (the 2000 version is the most recent I have) that shows the most populous counties in the U. S. without a Church of Christ.  The list contains about 100, and of those 100 you’ll find Williams, Van Wert, Henry, Putnam, and Shelby counties in Ohio, and Adams county in Indiana  – each of these counties are within 60 minutes of where I grew up.  The two Churches of Christ in Defiance and Paulding counties (my mom now goes to Paulding) are the only Churches of Christ in a six-county area of Northwestern Ohio.  You can imagine that we might have been a little backwards.  All the same, some way, some how, God chose to place me in this quirky little group and has formed my faith in him here.

The Defiance Church of Christ had their 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago and they had some former ministers come back and speak at a special weekend event.   I wasn’t invited.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been invited to speak there since I’ve started working again in Ohio (that goes back to 2003).  We’ve never spoken of it, but I think they realize that we see things quite a bit differently.  Some of the leaders (read: men) see that as threatening, and so – it is what it is.  I’m not bitter, but I think it is a good testimony to the acrimonious environment that governs many churches in that area.  I attended Lipscomb University between 1997 and 2003 and worked for a Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, and was exposed to the other end of the Church of Christ spectrum.  Suddenly, I was living in an area that had a Church of Christ in every nook and cranny of the city.  I worked for the West End Church of Christ for about four years while I was there.

My journey within the Churches of Christ went through the usual season of disillusionment, in my early 20’s, as I was finishing college and beginning my ministry at Alum Creek (where I am now).  The church in Defiance has some extreme dysfunction – dysfunction that extends well beyond the Church of Christ name.  It took me awhile to separate the two.  All churches have dysfunction – few would argue against that point.  Allowing myself to sift through the dysfunction and find the salvageable pieces has led me to a reinforced confidence of why I stick around “our” churches.

The greatest thing I learned in the church of my youth was a love for the Bible.  I was taught to cherish and learn all I could about the Bible.  And I did.  I remember diligently reading the Bible on my own even though that was never modeled in my home.  I loved learning the stories – we didn’t start regularly attending until I was close to 11 or 12, so I had missed out on all the VBS-like stories everyone had learned.  That steadfast commitment to the Bible has always stayed with me.  I may not agree with alot of the conclusions my faith mentors promote, but I diligently share in their high view of the Bible.  It’s hard to find a Church of Christ that doesn’t hold a high place of Scripture.

I don’t think we have the corner on the Bible, like I used to, but I think that we do well upholding the Word of God as precious and unique.  I like that it gives us a reference point that many denominations lack.

I resonate well with our view of the sacraments (though we would never call them that).  Communion and baptism are so central to the story of God, and I appreciate our theology of these two.  I’ve had to wrestle a bit with our baptismal theology, and I’m probably not able to unilaterally endorse the exclusive salvific focus that we tend to have – I still think it is so essential and see great benefit in a perspective that emphasizes believer’s baptism over infant baptism.  The weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is being re-discovered by many denominations – it’s nice to be part of a group that has practiced that for a long time.

There are few Christian groups that live out the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”  My doctoral paper this month is going to be in this vein.  I believe that we may be living in a time when this doctrine will come more fully to bear than ever before – and I believe that churches like ours have an easier time assimilating this idea into practice.  While I would never want to give up the unique calling that I have as a vocational pastor/minister, too many Christian groups have created a chasm and the professionalization of ministry has created a new nuance between clergy/laity that I hope we can continue to avoid. The Churches of Christ may have a tendency to not fully appreciate gifted preachers, teachers, and writers, but we have been able to leave a place for most everyone at the table of leadership (except women . . . which many of us are working on . . .)

I’ve already rambled on way more than I’ve allotted my guest columnists in coming days so I should wrap up here.  The greatest attribute I see in the Churches of Christ and what keeps me most optimistic is our autonomy.  As the missional conversation of the past decade has emphasized a focus on local contexts, our churches should be fully equipped to jump right into this.  While groups like the Southern Baptists are autonomous, they carry with them the baggage of the denominational hierarchy and bureaucracy (it’s not that that is all bad, but for the sake of this perspective, it’s more of an obstacle to local ministry) our churches are truly “locally owned and operated.”  The more we can embrace that self-identity, the better prepared we will be to engage in ministry.

In the end I see the people and congregations I have been a part of within the Churches of Christ like good parents.  They haven’t been perfect.  They haven’t always made the right choices.  They aren’t always going to affirm the direction that I choose to go.  But they are largely the reason I am the way that I am.  The positive seeds of a high view of Scripture, the emphasis on simple worship (Richard Beck calls acappella music “theologically weird” – I love that image), the autonomous structure, the Anabaptist tendency towards pacifism, the radical insistence on the priesthood of all believers – these are all values I have learned from my Church of Christ parents.

That doesn’t mean everyone espoused those beliefs.  That doesn’t mean that each of these views was articulated.  But it’s alot like the influence of my real parents – sometimes they articulated what they wanted to impress on me, sometimes it was implicit, and often they didn’t even realize it when they were doing it or what it was they were impressing upon me.  I have taken what they have given me, and I am living out my faith as best I know how.  It wasn’t always evident growing up, but I think most of the folks who I attended church with wanted more than anything else for me to have a relationship with Creator of the Universe.  Like a parent who is left to watch their child blaze his or her own trail and pray that they have done what they were supposed to do, I believe that those within the Churches of Christ are in a good position to do  the same – “Let’s pray that we have given them what they need to live into the kingdom in his or her own way.”

Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ

Putting this picture of Leroy Brownlow’s book on here is probably going to bring an interesting mix of traffic!  But, the thoughts of this post made me think of this book.  (I’ve actually never read it, but I remember seeing my Mom carry it back and forth to church when I was a kid for her Bible class)   You can actually still buy it here.  Apparently it sold over a million copies.  Impressive.

This (long – sorry!) post begins a series of blog posts I’ll be running that share the name with this book.  These posts, however, actually have  nothing to do with t he book other than the fact that they share the same name.

This past weekend our church took our annual trip to Gatlinburg, TN for the Mecca-event for the Churches of Christ – Winterfest Gatlinburg.  This annual teen conference/youth rally has evolved over the past 20+ years into the largest gathering (by far) organized by the Churches of Christ in the country – not to mention the world.  Our group had a great time, and reaped the benefits of a teen conference that is as well-put-together and effective as any youth conference in the country.  They really do this well.  It’s one of the few events that continues to bring together a denomination/sect/loosely-affiliated-churches that have become increasingly fractured.

Since the hey-days of unity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, congregations known as the Churches of Christ have become more and more fractured and fragmented.  I addressed this in my graduate thesis at Lipscomb nearly ten years ago, and it seems that the fracturing is escalating into a breaking apart.  Perhaps it is not as easily recognized in some of the strongholds of the Churches of Christ like in Texas and in the Southeast, but for those of us who minister in churches outside of those geographic areas, it is increasingly a reality by which we are impacted.

Which is what makes Winterfest so intriguing to me.  There are about 13,000 people that come to Gatlinburg for this weekend.  The program is geared towards teenagers, but I would guess that it’s probably about half teenagers and half adults and college students.  The number in attendance isn’t as fascinating to me as the number of congregations in attendance – and the diversity of congregations in attendance.  That’s not to say that this event isn’t shunned by a large number of Churches of Christ – there are a significant number who do not attend as a matter of principle, but, overall, there is a great diversity of churches that make this trip every year.

My interest in bringing these things up is not to focus on the politics of Winterfest – I don’t have the patience or the time for that.  Instead, our trip to Winterfest has spurred my reflection on the current situation in the Churches of Christ.  I haven’t spent much time talking or thinking about the collective group of churches of which we are a part, but it’s been a little more pressing on my heart lately than usual.  I think the absolute lack of infrastructure, communication, and camaraderie has been weighing on me lately.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be spending some time unpacking and examining the Churches of Christ.  One of our greatest assets has always been our autonomy and our independence.  However, it is this same autonomy and independence that has helped proliferate isolated congregations that don’t tend to be good at working with each other (or anyone else for that matter).  While the Church of Christ sub-culture remains vibrant (in varying degrees) in the areas surrounding the Church of Christ universities (Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, and to a lesser degree California and Michigan), those of us at churches outside of these areas face additional challenges.  I lived and worked in Nashville for several years and understand that these churches are far from one unified machine, but compared to the situation in Central Ohio, those churches look like the Catholic Church when it comes to unity.

So . . . I figured it was time to stop bitching and actually try to do something.  If you don’t know me well you may not realize that this entire project is quite contrary to my nature.  I tend to live on the fringes of the Churches of Christ – both socially and theologically.  I probably always will.  I will assert that the single best attribute of the Churches of Christ is our autonomy.  So the idea of attempting to bring them together seems a bit counter-intuitive.  Here’s where I’m coming from; this is the premise for the entire series that is to follow:

Columbus, OH has over one million residents within the general metropolitan area.  I have lived here for nearly nine years now and have worked for a Church of Christ that entire time.  There are about 20 other Churches of Christ within the metropolitan area.  We hardly ever talk.  Ever.  The ministers never get together.  When someone does attempt to gather them, few  participate.  I haven’t done a scientific survey (like I said, we don’t talk), but it seems pretty fair to say that overall (and in harmony with the Christian Chronicle article that came out in February), we are not growing.  We are actually shrinking.  It’s hard to find any of these churches without significant problems – and I’m not referring to some kind of preachy “we all have problems, but God uses us in spite of our problems” – I mean some pretty serious, at the core of the church, dysfunction.

I feel more and more as though Churches of Christ in this area are headed for one of two futures.  Some of our churches are going to reinforce sectarian tendencies, elevate a conservative dogmatism, and “batten down the hatches.”  These churches will become safe harbors for their members and for members of other Churches of Christ who oppose change.  They will never die completely, but most of them will be irrelevant  and uninvolved in the larger activities of God in their communities.

The other churches are going to face (or, are already facing) an identity crisis as they come to terms with “competition” from other larger non-denominational, community churches that offer more resources and more opportunities for ministry.  Increasingly, these churches are going to be faced with asking themselves how various “distinctives” of their identity as a Church of Christ fit into that congregation’s to their local context.  Many of them may consider cutting ties with the Churches of Christ altogether or will be forced to close their doors as they are largely swallowed up by the larger, hipper community churches.

All this has gotten me thinking.  Why am I here?  Why do I stay within the Churches of Christ?  After all, as I stated above, I tend to lie at the fringes anyway, why not find a “better fit”?  Do I stay here simply because it is where my paycheck comes from?  Why not pursue a job in a larger denomination with more opportunities or a larger church with more resources?  Why here?  Why these dysfunctions?  I know . . . I know . . . I know . . . “all churches have their problems,” “I’m not going to find the perfect church” . . . I get all that.  But you have to admit, we have some pretty unique challenges.  Why stick around?

These questions got me thinking about a lot of other people.  It’s not like I’m the only one who has to wrestle with these questions.  Our churches have some incredible followers of Jesus who choose to make the Churches of Christ their home.  I’m really curious why that is.  Beginning in a day or two I’ll be posting an article called, “Why I’m Church of Christ . . . ”  In this post, I’ll share (more concisely than I have here) my answers to the above questions.  I really do believe our group of churches have something important to offer the broader Christian family.

Having posted the autobiographical article, I’m going to be soliciting several friends and acquaintances I have met through the years in the Churches of Christ.  One thing I am not is well-connected (check out those blogging numbers!), but I think this is a valuable exercise and h0pefully a broad range of folks will participate.   I hope that it can help stimulate some conversation among the Church of Christ blog-streams.  I will be soliciting folks that you have heard of, and folks that you haven’t.  Folks that I went to school with and people who I’ve met in ministry.  Folks who I’ve met face-to-face, and others I’ve just seen through their blogs.  Folks from all over the country.  Whether they all agree to participate – we’ll have to wait and see.  My hope is to stimulate some conversation regarding what is the best of the Churches of Christ.

If I haven’t contacted you about sharing your story, but would like to, I would encourage you to do that by sending me an email, or just by leaving it as a comment below and I’ll try to repost it on the main page.  I am proud to have my heritage in the Churches of Christ, and I hope I can continue to make a positive contribution to these churches in the future.  Please help spread the word of this series of posts to anyone who you think would have a positive voice to share and would find the conversation helpful.  Thanks in advance!

One Last Sermon

OK, this will be the last sermon I post for awhile – I don’t intend to make a habit of it. However, I thought the content of this series would make for a good series of posts. We’ve worked through a six-week series really of philosophy on what was hopefully a practical level. This final installment was intended to be a case study through the series of topics we covered in the earlier weeks. It seemed to me that the best topic that would make this as real as possible is one as controversial as the role of women in the church.

I find this an incredibly difficult topic to maneuver in the existing church (at least those churches like ours that have a patriarchal tradition so in-grained in their psyche). Something that seems to fundamental to me is so incredible offensive and troubling to many. I suppose the easiest thing to do is to find a group of people who agree with me and move on to somewhere else. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem Christ-like. So, we plod on in our efforts here. Our folks were generous to hear these words, words that were contrary to the thoughts of a good many of our folks. Hopefully you find these words helpful to you.

I knew it would take some time to work through this material (which it did), so I ended up cutting out my personal examples of women in the church early on in the sermon.

Deconstructing Theology #7
Alum Creek Church – February 14, 2010

Women in the Assembly: A Case Study

When it came time to choose a topic as a case study for a postscript on this series on deconstructing church, I don’t know if I chose the topic as much as the topic chose me. There are a number of different “controversial” topics of discussion that we could have chosen in our attempt to engage in our past few weeks’ study, but one stands above the others in scope, diversity of thought, and the breadth of its implication.

Mary Beth and I have been a part of this church for six and a half years now, and this topic has been a constant source of conflict and disagreement since we arrived. We have had small group discussions, Sunday school classes, surveys, numerous private conversations, the elders have been studying the topic for a year . . . and as far as I can remember, we’ve never addressed it through sermon. The topic, of course, is the role of women within the church, and, primarily, in the church service. What else could we talk about this morning? As best I can tell, we pretty much are divided down the middle on this topic. There’s probably as many of you who think we should expand the role of women in the life of the church as there are those of you who think we should keep it as it is, or even pull it back a little.

This morning, we’re going to take a little more time than usual because of the scope of our study. Let it be said first and foremost, this is not some type of official statement leading way to everything changing next week. I am not as interested with the conclusions we draw, as much as I am with the process that we explore together.

This morning there are people here from a diversity of backgrounds. Some of you are thoroughly “Church of Christers” – born and raised, and others of you are probably not overly familiar with the Churches of Christ. It’s rare that you’ll actually hear our beliefs laid out specifically in the Churches of Christ – partly because there isn’t a lot of agreement about them, and partly because we like to keep it nebulous and by default are guided by tradition. If you aren’t from the Churches of Christ, here are a few examples from my experience in the Churches of Christ in regards to our stance on women and their role in our churches that I think seem humorous to anyone from the outside.

· I was baptized at the age of 12 and began attending men’s business meetings soon after (our church didn’t have elders and the decisions were made by the men of the church – as the Bible commands????) So, there I was a fifteen-year-old men with a stronger “vote” than my mom.

· Later I remember a woman of the congregation who taught the young teenagers in Sunday school who felt she could no longer teach the class because her son was in the class and he had just gotten baptized.

· There was a blind woman at our church in Defiance who had a wonderful singing voice – better than anyone else in the congregation. She sang loudly and led every song from her seat, but would have never been allowed to stand up and lead the congregation in worship.

· There was a woman at our church growing up who kept all the books for her husband’s business – was much more qualified than the man who kept the church’s books – but she was not allowed to keep the church’s books because she was a woman.

· At a church I worked at in Nashville we had a preschool ran by a woman. She could make announcements in front of the church regarding the preschool but was not allowed to be part of the regular announcement rotation.

I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s beliefs, and I’m not trying to be trite about
a very challenging situation. I’m simply trying to give some specific examples of the implications of our teaching on the role women have within the Churches of Christ.

As I stated before, there is a developing diversity within Churches of Christ. There are a few who have women elders. There are a few that have women preaching ministers. There are some where women serve publicly. This is not common or usual. This is not what you have experienced here at Alum Creek. We fall in a very patriarchal tradition, and we have, by and large, maintained that tradition – for better or worse.

If we were to summarize our beliefs, more or less, for better or worse, here is what the Churches of Christ have taught . . . and what Alum Creek has followed.
1. Men are the spiritual leaders of their families
2. Men are the spiritual leaders of the church.
3. Elders are to be men.
4. Deacons are to be men.
5. Men conduct all parts of the public service done in front of the congregation.
6. Women are not to teach men (at least men who are baptized).
7. Women are not to lead public prayers in front of men (again, men who are baptized).
8. Women are not to lead men in worship.
9. Women may teach children who haven’t been baptized (with children who are baptized there is some uncertainty)
10. Women may pray in front of other women and children (and here we allow for women to pray in front of baptized men, but not on Sunday’s during our public services).
11. Women may not read Scripture in front of the church during its assembly.
12. Women may prepare communion, but may not serve it.
13. Women make announcements only on rare occasions and do not do so regularly.

The list could go on and on as we’ve confronted an ever-changing world. Circumstances and situations are constantly changing presenting new challenges and new understanding to our foregone conclusions on these matters. We’ve created new jobs that women are allowed to do. We’ve come across various exceptions and hypothetical circumstances that open some opportunities and close others for women.

This is one of those topics that everyone’s got an opinion on . . . and almost always a pretty strong one. Some of you stand diametrically opposed to the case I’m going to lay out this morning. Some of you are right there with me “Amening” and “That’s righting.” I don’t want to cause division. I don’t want to cause a fight. I don’t particularly like conflict. But this is an issue that cannot be avoided. I don’t like conflict, but I’m not afraid of it, and I believe that it is often the path that leads forward to the brightest future.

In order for this morning to be productive and beneficial, you must be able to see through your bias and strong opinions and listen to the approach. Watch how we go about this. The conclusion is not the objective today – it’s the process. When we’re all done today, I don’t care if you disagree with me or not – sure I’d like to think I will convince all of you. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about learning to live together amid our differences. It’s about allowing for diversity – diversity not just in thought, but in practice and action. I want us to learn from the process and help guide us into a new way of addressing disagreements and division attaining a new reality of unity. That’s why we’ve chosen to talk about something so divisive and controversial.

This directly affects half the world, and since there’s almost always more women in church than men . . . more than half in churches. And since we’ve all got mothers and wives, sisters and aunts, nieces and daughters . . . it affects us all. So . . . yeah . . . it’s kind of a big deal.

Through our time together this morning, we are going to attempt to work from the groundwork we have laid over the past month and a half. We’re going to go through the work we’ve done, week-by-week, and discuss how we address this specific issue and the implications each week has for this particular topic.

Confronting our Belief Structures

The first thing we talked about in this series is that we must come to terms with the reality that there are a number of elements that help predetermine our thinking on certain matters. In some ways, this may be the most challenging part of our journey together. It’s here you have to come to terms with why it is that you think the way you do.
I want you to do that right now. Just quietly, to yourselves. The first question you’ve got to ask yourself is: Am I a man or a woman? Pretty simple, but the more challenging question is – how does this impact your perspective?

· If you are a man and you believe women should not have a place in public worship
o Is it because you are afraid of listening to a woman?
o Are you intimidated by women?
o Do they make you feel insecure? Do they intrude on your machismo?
o Does that go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Would you be open to giving up some of the power that has been given to you because you are a man?

· If you are a woman and you believe you should have a more open place in public worship
o Are you just envious or jealous of the men empowered to make decisions?
o Is this really about getting more power for yourself?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture that tell you you can do anything a man can do?
o Does being kept from leadership positions go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?

· If you are a man and believe that women should have a more open place in public worship (as I strongly do), I’ve got to ask myself some pretty tough questions myself:
o Are you just trying to get out of a very important role that God has called you to?
o Are you being sidetracked by your desire to open doors for your wife and daughters and taking your eyes off of God’s desire for you?
o Is this really just a rebellion against the establishment? Are you against it just to be against it?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture?

· If you are a women who believe your place is not in the public service:
o Is this your personal belief because of your preference? Is it just not your personality?
o Does this go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Are you afraid of an “Uncle Ben” like God will damn you to hell if you expressed a desire to be part of a public assembly of faith and thus paralyzed by fear?

Listen to the importance of all these questions. Hear how our experiences and
our education and our personality help shape our understanding of the world around us.

Consider how differently an ivy league-educated world-class lawyer would understand this topic versus a high school drop out who lives on the family farm out in Boondock, Iowa. Has God given the farmer special spiritual insight because of his maleness? Is there a “right” way for these two to understand this topic? How can the two of them ever agree about this? How he ever let her lead him? How could she ever let him lead her?

Our personality, our family situation, our education, our background, the culture in which we were raised – all this is going to heavily jade our thinking on this matter. It all impacts how we understand women. It all impacts our understanding of authority and power. And before we ever read a Scripture or enter a Bible class, all this is already at work within us.

So now, we’ve got to ask the question that we introduced that first week . . . what if I’m wrong? Your upbringing and education and family life has helped predetermine what you believe about this matter – so what if you’re wrong. I had to go through this process. I didn’t always believe that a woman’s role should be expanded, but I had to wrestle with this – my mom was wrong, my church growing up, and preachers I knew growing up – they were all wrong . . . and maybe I’m wrong now.

Pursuing Biblical Humility

We have to be able to chill out sometimes. We can very easily assume in churches that the stakes are so high that there’s never a time to laugh or joke or have fun. Even on vitally important matters like this, we’ve got to enter into discussions with the mindset, “I don’t have all the answers.” We have to be willing to look like a fool on occasion. To laugh at ourselves, and to be wrong from time to time.

In the second week of our study, we saw how Job’s prepackaged understanding of God was completely undone when his family and fortune were taken from him. We saw that God is often not who we had in mind. He doesn’t always work the way we’d expect.

In our discussion of women today, there are some unsettling aspects of our study. No matter what perspective you are bringing to the text, you are going to have some issues to deal with. There are two pretty critical texts that have to be dealt with if you believe women should have an expanded role in the church – both from Paul.

Read 1 Corinthians 14: 33b – 35.
Read 1 Timothy 2: 9 – 15.

Can I be honest for a moment? I hate these verses. I don’t know it if is OK to hate anything in the Bible, but I really wish these weren’t here. I get so tired of studying them. I get so tired of them being misused. And I have to be honest; I’m not sure what they mean. I have some ideas, but nothing I’m so convinced of I would die for.

I know those of you who really believe in male leadership and male dominance in the public worship assembly have lots of trouble getting past these passages. You hang a lot on them – especially the Timothy passage since Paul ties his argument to creation –though I don’t usually hear too many men argue very loudly that their wives are saved through childbearing, and I’m not sure anyone is ready to argue how this applies to our wonderful women here who don’t have children. I understand your apprehension. I respect your desire to be biblical.

However, I think your inability to get beyond these passages shows a bit of myopia. The biblical witness is much larger than these two passages. In the Old Testament, women were very much submissive to man, and yet Judges 4 tells the story of a woman leading the entire nation of Israel – she was the most powerful person in Israel. That’s not a prepositional statement like the ones we just read, it’s a reality that has to be dealt with.

And as for a woman teaching or having authority over a man, the Book of Acts tells us that the evangelist Phillip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21: 9). The closest thing you are going to find to prophesying to what we do today is preaching. These daughters no doubt taught and preached the Word of God. And then, earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11, a few chapters prior to what we just read above, in the midst of a discussion of headship (which is another passage many of you like in stating male leadership) the assumption is women prayed and prophesied (1 Corinthians 11).

There is so much study and more to be said here, but for our purposes this morning, I simply want you to see that it isn’t a black and white issue – that folks on both side of this issue have to acknowledge there are some things that you just don’t know.

Questioning Uncle Ben

In week #3, we talked about the Uncle Ben like God who paralyzes many with fear. If this is the picture you have of God, it makes this issue incredibly difficult. Decisions to change anything will be riddled with fear. “If we change our practice or our thought, he might damn us to hell.” Hopefully, we’ve been able to show through this series that this is a false idol that some serve, and is not the true picture of God.

The God that we serve is not afraid of our questions. As we experience new realities in our world, it forces us to ask new questions of our traditions and our belief structures. In regards to our understanding of women in society, culture has changed immensely. Less than 100 years ago, women could not vote in our nation. The women’s liberation movement continues to fight for equal pay with men and overcoming prejudice in hiring processes. For the first time ever, there are more females in the workforce than males.

We are crazy if we don’t think this doesn’t impact our understanding of God. As I typed out this sermon I asked myself, “What would it be like if Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice went to my church?” These world leaders, two of the most powerful women in the world . . . but they wouldn’t be able to make decisions here. They wouldn’t be able to make announcements here or pray in front of the group, or ever address the group publicly.

I don’t have the answer . . . only more questions. How does a widow feel in our churches? Or a single mom? Or a mom whose husband isn’t a Christian? How do they find their place in our churches? Don’t they have some place at the leadership table? Are they really restricted simply because they are a woman? Our culture tells women they can do anything that a man can do? I happen to believe that and intend to teach my daughters that . . . but does the Bible teach that?
And the questions abound as we consider the structure of our churches. Is reading Scripture publicly really a position of authority? And serving communion? Is there ever a time to restrict anyone from praying in front of others – especially because of their gender? Where does our structure come from? So many questions remain – we must stop pretending as though we have all the answers or that we are even consistent.

Dealing with Disagreement

In a perfect world we could all agree on this issue. In a perfect world, we would simply have each person offer their arguments, we’d vote on the better choice, and move on. That’s not the way this is going to work. As I stated at the beginning, it’d be great if I could stand up here and convince you of my opinion, but we’re all pretty set in our ways.

When we discussed the topic of disagreement, we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that demanded unity of the Spirit. The topic of women and their role in the church has divided just about every denomination. Some people have wanted to allow for women pastors to be ordained and lead the church, others have felt this to be unbiblical – and so divisions have prevailed.
We could allow this to divide us. We can say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen and then we’d decide if we can stick around.” Or, we can say to ourselves, “This is my church family, I must figure out a way to make this work.” We stated that our source of unity in the Spirit can be found in the Apostle’s Creed – a creed we read aloud together. The tenets of that creed have united Christians for centuries. Missing from that creed is any statement regarding women and their place in church. This is not something to allow the church to be torn apart over.

Growing Pains & When all Structure is Gone

Disagreements, however, will come, and they will be incredibly difficult to deal with. In our fifth week, we looked at how early division and disagreement led to the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The Jewish-Christians were met with some new information as they interacted with the Gentiles. Here, the apostles Paul and Barnabas stood up and told the people what they had witnessed.

In the same way today, I believe we must stand up and share what we have witnessed as of first and foremost importance – even when it doesn’t fit into our structure. I have heard women preach the Gospel and been encouraged. I have seen women lead churches and have felt the Spirit upon them. I have heard women pray and read Scripture aloud – and been immensely blessed from it. I have seen their gifts of the Spirit . . . and as Paul stated to the Thessalonians, we must not allow that Spirit to be quenched.

But God would not contradict himself, you say. We saw last week that he has done just that in the past. He has allowed for new movements of the Spirit. He has allowed for exceptions in faithfulness. I know many of you believe this goes against the very order God has made . . . that’s the proposition that you see embedded in the text. But I am here in front of you as Paul and Barnabas was in front of the people in Jerusalem to tell you that as we saw last week, it hasn’t always happened the way you would think.

· In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve were created as equals, side by side, Adam not perfected until Eve was made from his side. It wasn’t until the curse entered the world in chapter 3 that Eve’s “desire will be for the man.”
· In Exodus 15, it was Miriam a prophetess who led the entire nation of Israel in worship alongside her brother Aaron and Moses. Miriam was a spiritual leader.
· In Judges 4, we’ve already mentioned how Deborah was the ruler of Israel – political leader over all Israel.
· In a story similar to what we read last week when Josiah found the Book of the Law in the temple, he went to the prophetess Huldah to affirm its content – this was at the same time the better-known prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were working. But he chose a woman.
· In Luke, it was Jesus’ mother Mary who receives all the attention and blessing from the Most High.
· In the list of thanksgiving at the end of the Book of Romans, a name listed as Junias is almost certainly a woman whose name was actually Junia but was changed to cover her women-ness.
· Priscilla is quoted as teaching with her husband Acquilla taught Apollos together.
· Phoebe is listed as a special deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Perhaps in our desire to maintain our structures, we’ve become so concentrated on
our structure that we have missed the Spirit of God moving all along through history. God has not created a hierarchy in this world of men over women. We have seen throughout Scripture women have served as political leaders, spiritual leaders, and even the very bearer of the Savior in Mary.

On the one hand, there are those of us here who believe the Bible is very particular about the ordering of men and women. We want to be biblical. On the other hand, there are those of us here who believe the Spirit of God is calling us to move beyond archaic structures that have been the work of sin working within social structures. Both perspectives have worthwhile objectives.
What we’ve tried to do this morning is work through a series of challenging steps to help open our eyes to what we’re bringing to the text, seeing the ambiguity that is there, and beginning conversations in how we move forward.

As I stated earlier, this is not statement as to what’s going to happen next week. Actually, I’m doing the best thing I could think of after preaching this sermon – getting out of town! Ha. I hope this is the beginning of a renewed conversation. There are many among us who feel passionately about this topic. As the father of two daughters I have become even more committed to changing our practices here. However, as soon as I state that, I realize how challenging this is for so many of you. I understand how much you have vested in this. I hope the things we’ve covered over the past few weeks have been helpful to you. I hope that they’ve made you think. I hope they’ve challenged you. And I hope, more than anything, you’ve been blessed with them. I don’t know where we go from here. All I know to do is to press on in what I believe in . . . just as you press on in what you believe in, and somehow, through the amazing providence of God, he will bless our endeavors. [End with a prayer shared with Mary Beth.]

I ended up leading the prayer sans Mary Beth. She felt uncomfortable leading unless the elders were fully aware . . . and I didn’t think it was worth the long conversations and discussion. I figured the women prayed in Corinth (as we just read in this sermon), so they can pray here . . . but the conversation continues I guess.

Sermon #6: Deconstructing Theology Series

This sermon wraps up our series on Deconstructing Theology, though I will follow it up with a postscript this week with a case study working through a specific issue in light of what we’ve done the past six weeks. I will post that sermon on Monday and be done posting sermons for awhile. I try to reserve this space for other random thoughts, so I’ll get back to those soon. Here’s last week’s installment – thinking about things that don’t “fit” the structure . . .

We began with this video clip from the Today Show accessible here:

Deconstructing Theology #6
Alum Creek Church – February 7, 2010

When All Structure is Gone

Last year, while Mary Beth and I were forced indoors with our newborn (who turned one yesterday!) we spend some time reading through Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically. Jacob’s intention of following the Bible literally is an overstated attempt to obey the laws since he doesn’t leave any room for metaphor or poetry, but the work is still an interesting reflection on obeying the Bible. Have you ever considered what it would take to keep all the laws of the Bible? Jacobs has a Jewish heritage so he is more interested in the Old Testament than the New Testament, which makes his foray into the Law of Moses especially interesting.

One of the most memorable experiences that I remember from his yearlong experiment was his concern over purity. You may or may not know that in the Old Testament, a woman was considered unclean when she was on her period. She was instructed to go to the edges of the community for the duration of that week. The law goes on to instruct that anything a woman touch while she is on her period is unclean as is anything she sits on. (Leviticus 15: 19 – 23). This caused quite a problem for Jacobs as he set out to follow the Bible as literally as he could. He lives in New York City, regularly takes the subway and eats and rests in public places. How could he be sure the seats in which he was sitting would be clean?

His wife, a bit embittered from the weeklong abstinence of touch demanded by the law, took this simple fact to really challenge his commitment.

The no-sitting-on-impure-seats presents more of a challenge. I came home this afternoon and was about to plop down on my official seat, the gray pleather armchair in our living room.
“I wouldn’t do that,” says Julie [his wife]
“It’s unclean. I sat on it.” She doesn’t even look up from her TiVo’d episode of Lost.
OK. Fine. Point taken. She doesn’t appreciate these impurity laws. I move to another chair, a black plastic one.
“Sat in that one, too,” says Julie. “And the ones in the kitchen. And the couch in the office.”
In preparation for my homecoming, she sat in every chair in the apartment, which I found annoying but also impressive . . .
I finally settle on Jasper’s six-inch-high wooden bench, which she had overlooked, where I tap out emails on my PowerBook with my knees up to my chin.

His solution is a creative one – a Handy Seat, which he describes as his “little island of cleanliness.” The Handy Seat was a portable seat that he took with him everywhere he went to ensure his cleanliness remained intact.

I have spent so much time talking about A. J. Jacobs this morning because I believe he illustrates the problem the Jews had with the Mosaic Law well – they couldn’t keep it. Last week as we read about the council in Jerusalem, in the midst of their considering the Jewish implications for Gentile converts Peter stood up and said, “Why should we expect the Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws? Our forefathers weren’t able to keep the laws!” “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are now.” (Acts 15: 11).

We are saved by grace, through faith. What of everything else? What about the way we understand everything else? What about your stance on gay marriage? What about your stance on the environment? What about your stance on communion? What about your stance on salvation, and the salvation of others? What about these questions . . . and what about a million others? Where’s the line? Does grace eliminate the need to seriously address these things?

As we’ve spent six weeks now deconstructing our thoughts and ideas about God and faith . . . where do we go from here? All of our understanding and beliefs are laying on the ground before us in pieces, how do we put it all back together? What are we left with when the structure is gone?

I want to share with you five snapshots from Scripture that don’t’ fit into the structure. I think these snapshots help shed light onto what we are to do when our structure of knowledge and understanding is shaken – when we begin to realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did and we’re unsure of the way forward.

Snapshot #1 – The Priest Melchizedek

I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this first snapshot, mainly because there isn’t much to say. We begin in the story of Abraham. Abraham had been called by God and was blessed by God in all he did. He began amassing great wealth and notoriety in the area. Genesis 14 tells the story of two kings coming to see Abraham: the King of Sodom and the King of Salem. It is the King of Salem that brings our attention this morning. Read Genesis 14: 18 – 20.

We aren’t told much about Melchizedek and, for the most part, is an unimportant character in this story. He is mentioned again in Psalms and Hebrews which is very interesting, but for our purposes here, we just want to note one thing about Melchizedek – who is he? Not only is he a king – he is also a priest. Where does his priestly credentials come from? The priestly line through Aaron won’t be established for a long time. The extent of our knowledge of God’s working in the world are through Abraham and his family. Where does Melchizedek go back to? What is the nature of his priesthood? How many are blessed through his work?

Obviously, these are all questions that we can’t answer, and that is exactly the point. We don’t know. What we do know is that God was working in a way that we are completely unaware of and that completely does NOT make biblical sense.

Snapshot #2 – Celebrating Passover (Numbers 9: 1 – 14)

Two years after Israel is led out of Egyptian bondage, as they continue their traveling through the desert, it is once again time to celebrate the Passover. The Lord tells Moses it’s time to celebrate the Passover and all the preparations are made. Read Numbers 9: 6 – 8. Some of the Israelites had a problem. Many of them were not ritualistically clean as required by the Law of Moses prior to participating in Passover. There were some families that had funerals recently and had come into contact with dead bodies. What were they to do? Must they be excluded from this celebration? Moses inquires of God. Read Numbers 9: 9 – 13. Here, a very noticeable and obvious exception is made to one of Israel’s most fundamental laws.

You can interpret this text as an extremely rare exception to the norm . . . but you have to ask the question, why was an exception allowed? On what grounds is the appeal granted? Was God feeling nice that day? Had he not thought that far ahead? Or, was there a higher law He could appeal to?

Snapshot #3 – Finding the Book of the Law (2 Chronicles 29 – 30)

A similar situation comes about in 2 Chronicles when Hezekiah uncovers the Book of Law that was lost long ago. Upon finding the book, they realize the temple has become unclean, and Hezekiah had it cleaned and purified. Read 2 Chronicles 29: 35b – 36. With the temple back up and running, the regular worship of the community could begin. Central to the religious way of life for Israel were their festivals and they had just missed Passover. Passover was celebrated in the first month and it was now the second month.

Read 2 Chronicles 30: 1 – 6. The leaders consorted and determined that it would be good to go ahead with Passover. They sent letters out throughout the nation inviting everyone to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This was to be the greatest Passover celebration ever.

Upon the arrival to the city, many people had not been ceremonially cleansed. Read 2 Chronicles 30: 13 – 20. Again, the question remains, why the exception? Was God so excited to have his people back in conformity that he gave them a little leeway on how they went about the celebration? I can envision a group of devout old Israelites sitting on the outskirts of the party pointing and saying, “You know they haven’t been cleansed? What is this world coming to?”

Snapshot #4 – The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30)

Read 1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30. 1 Corinthians 11 is a passage that we often read before taking the Lord’s Supper. It speaks to the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper. But, have you ever known anyone to get sick because they weren’t observing correctly? Paul indicates that that is exactly what is happening in Corinth at the time. Have we not experienced that because we have never done so inappropriately? Was that just something that happened back then?

Again, we can’t answer those questions, but we’re left with the idea that there is something going on here that is out of our typical experience and understanding of God and of the church.

Snapshot #5 – Deathbed Salvation (Luke 23: 32 – 43)

And we come to the final of our snapshots – on the cross of Calvary. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Read Luke 23: 32 – 43. Of all the snapshots, this one is most difficult to fit into our structure. This criminal is given the promise of eternal life right here on his deathbed. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t know the Torah. He wasn’t circumcised. He wasn’t baptized. He wasn’t religious.

Yet this final professional of belief in Christ brings him the promise of eternal life. There are a few questions glaring back from this text. Was this a one-time exception? Granted, this is a unique, never to be duplicated event, but is there nothing timeless we can glean from this episode? Does this not say something about our attempt to figure things out? Doesn’t it provide us with at least a small dose of humility to realize that God is going to do what God is going to do, and we should be careful about telling people what God is like, or what God is going to do, and simply stand back and testify to what he is doing and what he is like and what we’ve seen – just as Paul and Barnabas do in their explanation of the Gentiles inclusion in Christ?

The passage of Scripture that is on the front page of the bulletin brings us to a fitting conclusion to this series. The questions the prophet asks reflect the same question we’ve been asking throughout this series, “What do you want from us? How do you want us to be your people? What are the rules of church?”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Sacrifices and offerings were all commanded by God. They were the “right” way
to do things. But there was a better way. There was a higher way. There was something that was more important.

I subtitled this series “Unlearning the Rule of Church.” I’m afraid we’ve spoken in far too many places in establishing the rules of church. We have become more concerned with “doing church” right than with living out the kingdom right. If I were to pray Micah’s prayer in this setting this morning, I think it would sound like this:

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I ensure my singing is done in the right way, without instruments, and from the heart? Will the Lord be pleased if women are excluded from all forms of public service during our assembled times? Shall I present my certificate to him – baptism by immersion upon the age of accountability? Maybe I should be baptized seven times – just to be sure. Must I keep track of my how many times I celebrate communion? Should I insist that everything that happens during a two-hour window on Sunday mornings at the church building is exactly perfect – exactly the way that I want it?”

The answer that comes so boldly and powerfully to Micah screams from the pages to our ears this morning . . . “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Perhaps as poignant as what is said, is what is not said. No sacrifices. No burnt offerings. No temple rituals. Justice. Mercy. Humility.

In a similar vein, Paul ends his letter the Philippians with a memorable teaching:

“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent of praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Sermon #3 in Deconstructing Theology Series

Here’s Sunday’s sermon from our deconstruction series . . .

Deconstructing Theology #3
Alum Creek – Jan. 17, 2010 – Alum Creek

The Grain of Salt: Learning to Ask Questions

Every once in awhile, a line is uttered in a movie that jumps off the silver screen and is forever etched in the psyche of popular culture. Often times one or two lines of dialogue from a movie forever represent an entire film. Before we get into the lesson this morning, I want to hear from you some of the greatest movie lines of all times. Some of my favorite:
· “I see dead people.” – The Sixth Sense
· “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” – Dirty Dancing
· “I feel the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun
Who remembers this line? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That line, obviously, comes from the Wizard of Oz, one of the many famous quotes from this movie. As we move into our third lesson in our series on deconstructing theology, this scene becomes a very good starting point for our discussion. We began two weeks ago by asking some questions about the way we think. We acknowledged that our knowledge, our perspective, is circumstantial. There’s not getting around that. We think the way we think because our environment, our training, our personality, our tradition, our teachers, and an infinite number of other things affect what we know in addition to affecting the way we know what we know. In acknowledging this reality we came face to face with the fact that we could be wrong – about a lot of really important things, and thus, should always ask the question, “What if we are wrong?”
We looked to Paul and saw that his call for transformation of the mind in Romans 12 was really a call to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Paul states that transformation happens by the renewing of your minds . . . and the renewing of your mind is an ongoing process of stating, “Well, I’m wrong about this,” and then subsequent growth from righting the wrong.
Last Sunday we pressed on further by calling for some cognitive humility – confessing to others that we don’t have all the answers. We saw that Job was completely undone by not just the undoing of his life, but by the undoing of his mind. What happened to Job didn’t fit in his box – his understanding of things, of God. We will never be able to grow until we are readily able to admit, “I don’t know.”
But . . . is that allowed? Aren’t some things just given? Aren’t some areas just the way they are because they are?
David Dark begins his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by telling the story of a small tight-knit community. The community is close and they watch each other and take care of each other. Anyone visiting from the outside would quickly notice their blatant and constant affinity to “Uncle Ben.” It was very common to hear members of the community say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Even in tragedy, the locals acknowledge, “It just goes to show you how much we need Uncle Ben.”
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting at the largest house in the town where the people get together and talk about the events of the community and each family. They talk about Uncle Ben until a bell rings and all the people get up from their seats and moves to a staircase that goes to the basement. The entire community descends the staircase where they see an enormous, rumbling furnace. There is a man in black overalls with his back to them. They wait in silence until the man turns around.
He turns and his face is slightly contorted with anger and he yells at the people, “Am I good?”
They respond to him in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of his praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness – “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.”
The Uncle Ben in this story shares a striking resemblance to the God that so many have directed their worship. They live their lives the best they can. They do good to others. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They pray, read their Bibles, and attend church services. And all along the way . . . they are completely paralyzed by fear. The God that they serve is Uncle Ben . . . the who threatens fire and damnation to the one who looks behind the curtain . . .
If your image of God resonates with the Uncle Ben portrait there is no place for questioning. Fear stymies questions. It extinguishes all hope of growth. It does not allow for transformation. It forces us to walk on eggshells hoping not to get anything wrong. It creates an environment of insecurity and unease – far from the peace that God promises His people.
There’s a great parable in another movie that I want to show you, it’s a very brief clip from the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The movie tells the story of two 10-year-olds, Jess and Leslie, who find a magical land in woods surrounding the homes. One day as their play date was rained out, Jess bemoaned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to return soon since he had to do chores the next day, and the following day was Sunday and he would have to go to church. Leslie asks to come along to church, but Jess is sure she won’t like it – after all, she’ll have to wear a dress. Listen to this amazing exchange the two of them have (with Jess’ little sister) on the way home from church.
[Play Bridge to Terabithia clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ).]
“You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” What an incredible quote! If you have an Uncle Ben picture of who God is, then you have to believe. You can’t take a chance. It must have been what the philosopher Blaise Pascal had in mind when thought through what is now known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, he asserted that the existence of God cannot be determined, but if there is a God and he can condemn you to hell forever, it’s better safe than sorry. If you work your whole life believing there is a God and turns out there’s not, you’re not out nearly as much if the opposite proves to be true.
At this point I have to ask you the question, “Is this the God of Scripture?” Does the Bible portray a God who demands dogmatic precision and theological perfection? Is He the kind of God who will zap you if you miss too many answers on the final exam? Is our God really a “better safe than sorry” God? Is there really no room for error? Does it really have to be either/or when eternal torment is at stake?
Obviously, if our God is like that of Uncle Ben in the story we just read, the answers are always going to have to be pretty straightforward. But . . . what if God isn’t like that? What are the implications of a God who is different than Uncle Ben?
The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were forced to ask some very difficult questions . . . questions that called into question all that they have ever believed. This morning, quickly, I want us to consider two especially relevant stories from the Book of Acts.
As chapter 7 comes to a conclusions in the Book of Acts, we are told that, as Stephen was lying dead on the ground at the hands of Jewish leaders who had stoned him, a man named Saul stood giving his approval. Saul was an up-and-coming Jewish leader who was working his best to eradicate a Jewish sect of false teachers who were followers of a man named Jesus. He knew all the answers to religious questions. He had been trained in theology. He knew who God was. He knew who he was.
Then . . . Acts 9: 1 – 9.
What do you think those three days were like? What do you think he was thinking about? I bet a lot of the same questions we’ve been asking: What if I’m wrong? How could I have been so wrong?
The story of Saul is one we have grown up hearing. We talk about it all the time to the point where it nearly becomes dull to us. But we must not allow that to happen to us. Listen to the story. Saul is standing there watching some of his friends throw stones at a man who is tied up so that he wouldn’t run away. And they threw stones until he died. He watched every gory detail. And then he and his friends went back to the place where they were staying and had dinner and joked and went on their merry way.
And then . . . in just the matter of weeks, days, this same man is out promoting the very Gospel that he had been out to kill with force. He had been completely and totally wrong. Now, he was left with the ominous task of convincing others in the Christian movement that he wasn’t attempting to simply infiltrate the group and turn on them all.
And if the story of Paul doesn’t make the point well enough, another chapter over and we learn of the great Apostle Peter and his strange vision.
Read Acts 10: 9 – 23.
Something major was about to change for Peter as well. He knew that the Jews were the exclusive people of God. This was still their understanding after Christ was resurrected. The Christian movement was a Jewish one. Peter knew this. They all knew it. But now the vision . . . Cornelius . . . read verses 34 – 38.
And then what happens . . . challenges you a bit, too, doesn’t it? Read verses 44 – 48. This is a problem for those of us who have grown up in the Churches of Christ. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes on us at baptism – as it does to those who are baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2: 38 and at other places in Acts. But here, this is not what happens. They receive the Holy Spirit . . . then they are baptized.
But this is another time, a unique time, with the apostles and all that you may wish to argue . . . and maybe so, but in moving away from the Uncle Ben image of God . . . it becomes less important to argue the case for the proper practice of baptism and defining who is in and who is out and more important to simply revel in the glory of God’s goodness revealed to us. To rejoice in all that God has done and is doing.
Last week we spoke of the difference between putting up fences to bound our practices and define the boundaries of our pastures versus digging a deep well for all to come and drink from, knowing that no one will venture too far away from the spring and well of life. With fences up all around the property, some questions are off limits. In that kind of atmosphere, there are some things you just can’t ask. They are too threatening to the man behind the curtain. But with the God of Scripture, no questions are off limit. Yahweh is no deceiver hiding behind some great production. “Come and seek me,” he asks us, “I have nothing to hide.”
Paul was forced to ask incredibly penetrating questions. “How could I have been so wrong?” Peter is left with the far-reaching implications of his visions, “This changes everything!” And both men leave their ‘Aha’ moment changed forever. Forever. There was no going back. It’s as if the boundaries that they were so focused on maintaining kept them from standing back and seeing that outside of the boundaries were acres and acres of more property in the fold of God, but they couldn’t see them because their attention was so myopic.
What are we afraid of? When changes come? When new beliefs take hold? When new ideas prevail? What are we afraid of? If, indeed, Uncle Ben is our God, there is much to fear. But if our God is too complex to box in, if He’s too diverse to be defined, if He’s too deep to fathom, then we are left with nothing but questions. David Dark’s words are helpful again here:
God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off from the complexity of the world we’re in . . .
Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolatry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can’t hold life-giving water. Nothing we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or as adults places us on the winning side of God’s affections . . . Standing firm in our beliefs will often take precedence over seeing what’s in front of us.
If we never ask questions, we allow ourselves to stand before the great Wizard of Oz and never realize that the one we’ve cast as God is nothing more than a fraud. Our questions force us to delve deeper. Our questions tell us that we don’t have to be afraid any more. God isn’t afraid of our questions. God likes our questions. God wants our questions.
Read Psalm 100. God is not the God Jonathan Edwards describes having us dangling like spiders above the pit of hell held in place by a “slender thread” ready to knock us in for every doctrinal ineptitude.
The psalmist rescues us from such a God. Our God is to be worshipped with gladness. Our God is a god that can be known. Our God is one who is worthy of praise and adoration. And our God is a God who welcomes our questions.

Hopeful Fruit #5 – Strong Theology of the Local Church

A few years ago I learned that the area in which I grew up has fewer congregations of Churches of Christ than nearly anywhere else in the United States (see Mac Lynn’s Churches of Christ Around the World). I haven’t looked at this book in quite awhile, and I am not sure if it has been updated recently, but Lynn used to include statistics for the most populous counties in the country that did not have a representative congregation of the Churches of Christ. Several of the counties (Putnam and Hancock it seems to me were two) were in northwestern Ohio. This reality meant that growing up, by and large, I was completely unaware of the vast number of congregations like mine that existed in other parts of the country.

One of the most peculiar characteristics of the Churches of Christ have been their incredible uniformity while at the same time complete lack of any kind of national governing or organizational body. As I argued previously in the section on autonomy, our localized nature may be our strongest attribute for effective ministry in the postmodern world. In a world that eschews “the man” and nebulous bureaucracy, the localized structure (or better said: lack of structure) that describes Churches of Christ is of great value, not to mention its biblical foundation. In this last of the five “Hopeful Fruits” for the Churches of Christ ,I argue that our autonomous nature has created a legacy of strong, localized ecclesiological theology, or, more simply put – we have a strong, positive view of the local church. There is a correspondingly negative that has accompanied this strength (a weak concept of the univeral church), but we’ll tackle that at another time.

For the most part, our churches are good at being the church, locally. Now, even as I type that, I admit that I have witnessed much evil conducted in local churches. Our understanding and practice of local church is positive and offers hope . . . it is not, however, perfect – nor has it ever been. While certain theological traditions in the Churches of Christ have led to some very ungodly characteristics in many of our churches, our understanding of what it means to be the local church, in my experience, has been mostly positive. While the individualistic swagger of evangelical soteriology (study of salvation) [which Stanley Grenz so adequately describes in his history and critique of evangelicalism in Renewing the Center] has certainly crept its way into the thinking of those in Churches of Christ, I do not believe that it has to the same as it has in evangelicalism.

The centrality of local theology is perhaps most predominant in the sacramental theology of Churches of Christ. The high place of baptismal theology in Churches of Christ continues to have an important ecclesiological function: baptisms are done in church buildings, surrounded by church families and almost always in public. While often lacking an overt pedagogy of community, the weekly celebration of communion also maintains some emphasis of the visible, local church. We remember the Lord’s sacrifice . . . and we remember it together. This is perhaps taken to the extreme in the celebration of communion with one cup by the one cup churches still in existence. (I understand the doctrinal emphasis of the one-cup churches isn’t necessarily ecclesiological – they opt for pattern theology’s dependence on the example of one cup in Scripture – but the practice cannot help but emphasize the togetherness and oneness of the local church.) I use the example of the fringe one-cup group of Churches of Christ not to say that we should celebrate communion in such a manner, but instead to illustrate how even our most conservative groups maintain a high vision for the local church.

Churches of Christ are good at being the family of God. While I differ theologically with many in our heritage, I think most have a pretty good grasp of what it means to be a church. (Consequently, many think that they have a pretty good idea of what it means to be the church . . . and with that I strongly disagree and see a need for pruning sheers, but we’ll get to that at another time.) Congregations of Churches of Christ pray together, pray for each other, have potlucks and eat together, they share their wealth with the needy, and establish important community missions and projects. We do many good things in our communities and for our local contexts. Any discussion involving a critique of this body of churches must first acknowledge the good that we are. No group of churches is perfect, but equally, I think all groups of churches bring something important to our understanding of who God is (here I still hear the ringing in my ears of Stanley Grenz’s idea of a generous orthodoxy from the book Renewing the Center that I just finished reading over the weekend), and ours is no different.

By limiting our hopeful fruit to five, I am in no way claiming to present the exhaustive list. I think that Churches of Christ have positive fruits in other regards: some of our churches have been on the forefront of youth ministry since its inception (Steve Joiner’s graduate thesis from ACU on the history of youth ministry in Churches of Christ is a good look into how long we’ve been at it). Winterfest is a premiere youth event attended by over 10,000 people in Gatlinburg alone and has expanded to Arlington, TX. NCYM has grown into a nationally respected youth ministry training event. Dudley Chancey is a visionary and has done much for our churches in this area. Our colleges, by and large, are incredibly healthy and vibrant. Lipscomb, ACU, Pepperdine, and Harding have all grown and established themselves as world class institutions, with Lipscomb and Abilene Christian especially moving forward in the academic world. These schools continue to grow in their influence and stature in the world of academia. As long as these schools maintain a focus on training church leaders, the future of Churches of Christ will continue. More could be said of our theology of baptism and communion – our unique perspective on both maintaining areas of great theological value for the broader Christian community.

But all is not bright for Churches of Christ. As I’ve noted in each of these sections, our hopeful fruits all have an accompanying reason to be concerned. Call them viruses or attacking foreign insects, there is reason to believe that the Churches of Christ as we know them need some work from some pruning shears. Over the next several posts, I’ll offer some areas in which I believe the Churches of Christ must address as our tradition has developed some unbiblical obstacles to the Gospel that have become problematic for our ministry to the postmodern world.

Helpful Fruit #4 – A Tradition of Pacifism

It was a trip to Columbus, OH that sealed my fate as a pacifist. I live in Columbus now, but at the time I was living, working, and going to school in Nashville, TN. I was working for a church in Nashville and had been invited to join a couple other former Buckeye residents to their yearly trek to the Ohio State – Michigan football game. I’ll spare you the details (Buckeyes lost, John Cooper fired . . . really, really cold), but the connection to pacifism had to do with the car ride back to Nashville from Columbus. Two friends from church invited me, and one of the friend’s brothers also came and provided our transportation.

Our foray into politics began while we were overnighting Friday at a friend’s house and the topic of the recent election came up. Somehow, (I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but if it was anything like most political conversations I’ve taken part in with Christians, the beginning presupposition of everyone present being a registered Republican probably played a role), the other men found out that I had voted for Al Gore. This (absurd, in their eyes) reality, opened us up to a weekend of political conversation and debate.

Even at that time, I had my suspicions about the benefit of a Christian being involved in the political process (even the less evil democratic political system), but had continued to meddle in the quasi-liberal-slanted perspective of my upbringing. Attending a private Christian school in the South immediately placed me in a smaller minority than the ethnic minorities at the not-long-ago-segregated campus of my alma mater.

It takes approximately six hours to drive from Columbus to Nashville, and that Saturday, after the game was over, our six-hour commute was solely focused on politics. The conservation moved from light joking about the parties, to the serious concern they had over my vote . . . and as I came to find out, my soul. The most tense moment came when the driver challenged anyone to, “Name one good thing Bill Clinton did for this country!” As a college student, that was pretty easy to do because the former President had help sign into legislation a huge college education assistance program that I had benefited from. “He had gotten me a few extra thousand dollars to attend college.” Sounded like something good to me. Turns out, my traveling companion did not see this as in any way “good.” His response began sternly, and grew louder to the point of a yelling crescendo, “It’s my money and I worked my ass off for it, and why should I be paying for your college tuition?” The car sat in silence for quite awhile. Finally, as the tension began to lift a bit, I tried to make the point that I really had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t card-carrying for anyone. My point was simply to force my companions into considering the biblical texts that didn’t easily jive with their political views. “What about Acts 2 and 4 where the Christians met together and sold all they had and shared all they had?” I asked. “And how does the Old Testament practice of jubilee connect with your Right wing political stances?” These were questions they had never been asked before – really, they had never been asked these questions!

I relay this story not to characterize everyone with one broad-sweeping stroke. Certainly, politics are complicated and generalizations are seldom helpful. This experience, however, opened my eyes to the negative side of politics and the divisive and explosive discussions that often result. These events occurred nearly a decade ago, and the United States has grown even more divided along political lines. What a breath of fresh air a church who focused more on kingdom politics than on the tirelessly fallen politics of the nation would be! Never has the world needed the prophetic voice of the church to live out a nonpartisan politic who concerns herself with matters of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In recent years, pacifism has grown in attention paid by Christian theologians. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw brought some more academic concepts from people like John Howard Yoder and Jacques Ellul to a more popular-level, lay Christian audience through their book: Jesus for President. Other scholars and pastors like Gregory Boyd, Lesslie Newbigin, and a host of others, are receiving wide readership and extensive exposure. As the West continues to broaden its perspective through the advances of technology and mass media, global concerns are becoming prevalent, and for many Christian traditions, their theological structure is incapable of productive dialogue in this setting.

In my years in seminary at Lipscomb University, it came as a huge surprise that this private Christian school with an overwhelming pro-Republican undertone, actually bears the name of one of America’s most important Civil War-era Christian pacifists (and I don’t think this is overstated): David Lipscomb. In fact, it turned out, Churches of Christ have a ripe tradition of pacifism. Lipscomb’s 1913 work, Civil Government, represents what might be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated documents produced in America on the topic of pacifism. [The full version of Lipscomb’s work is available online here.]

Scholars in Churches of Christ continue to maintain this longstanding tradition – most notably through the work of Lee Camp (Lee has written the very popular Mere Discipleship, and hosts the Tokens program at Lipscomb) and Michael Casey (“the topic about which he was most passionate and which forms the largest corpus of his published materials was that of pacifism in Churches of Christ . . .” from preface of And the Word Became Flesh, essays written in his honor published this year.) Lipscomb University also has faculty member Richard Goode who teaches in the history department who has been especially formative in my experience, even in my limited interaction with him. In short, the pacifist tradition in Churches of Christ is alive in well . . . at least in the academy.

The challenge before us as ministers within the tradition is to bridge the gap between the isolated tower of academia and the every-day life of the church. In my early years of ministry I see no message as desperately needed in the face of mounting political divisions as this one. At the same time I have experienced the loudest and most acute backlash from conversations in this vein. Nationalism has become the most uniting characteristic of our churches: progressive and conservative churches are equally as likely to sing patriotic hymns in their service and display the American flag prominently in their building.

Certainly, pacifism stands as one of the more hopeful fruits of our tradition. It is also, however, one of the most challenging in teaching and discussing. It is widely said the two topics to avoid in public conversations are politics and religion. What this topic does is jump head first into them both. When it comes to our political allegiances, Churches of Christ are as guilty as any other Christian group of losing our way. It is important for us to rekindle the thoughts and ideas of our pacifist forefathers . . . and be reminded that these are not novel ideas – as the accusation sometimes is made. Not only is there a great history of pacifism within the broader Christian church, closer to home, Churches of Christ share in this rich tradition. We must learn to not be afraid of talking about politics, but we must reframe the conversation. We must overcome the unnecessary obstacles that we have placed in front of those who differ politically and open our minds to a new political reality, a politics of the kingdom of God.

This is not a call for being anti-political (a charge I have been accused of). Quite the contrary, this is a call for a renewed orientation, for allowing God to set our political agendas instead of our governments, and for realizing that our politic is our life, not our vote. We must allow our political agendas to be caught up in the vision of God, not the latest candidate to ascend to power. May Christ grant us some sanity when it comes to charged political matters. May he grant us the confidence and vision of the prophets to speak the Word of God. Those of us in Churches of Christ stand in a great tradition to be able to do so, may we be bold in taking up that calling.