Prophets that Profit

Those who insist that we use the Bible as a set of religious and moral imperatives often support their view with passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Let’s take a fresh look at that one for a moment:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

When we read, “…useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” we tend to understand that to mean that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Bible. A more faithful treatment of this text would be to understand it to say that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Old Testament¹, but that’s hardly something Paul would say. In his letter to the Galatians he declares that attempting to follow the Torah doesn’t make a person righteous, it cuts him or her off from Christ.

Paul had a high view of Scripture, but he was careful not to allow a literal interpretation of it to become essential to a relationship with God. A key word in 2 Timothy 3:16 is “useful.” Scripture is a tool to assist in the fulfillment of something else. It’s a hammer; not the building. It’s a car; not the destination or even the journey. We need to make this distinction. If we don’t, we’ll begin to equate the performance of written rules with the achieving of God’s will.

Obeying the Bible isn’t the object nor is the Bible itself the subject. As a tool, the Scriptures don’t teach, rebuke, correct or train anyone. The “servant of God” fulfills these functions and the Scriptures help him to be thoroughly equipped for that work. The Scriptures don’t create these “servants of God.” Paul doesn’t intimate that the Scriptures were supposed to provide an ethic for Timothy, but rather they were to equip him for ministry to others. 2 Timothy 3:10-15 reveals the actual ethic that Timothy was supposed to follow:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s message and example were Timothy’s ethic. Paul taught Timothy how to live saved by faith in Christ. The Holy Scriptures made Timothy wise to accept that way of salvation; they were not themselves the way of salvation. The Scriptures were a tool to convey Timothy to Christ and Timothy in turn was to use the same Scriptures to point others to Christ as well.

Just like any other tool, the Scriptures cause harm when they are used improperly. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus in the first place to keep people from doing just that:

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:5-11)

Every tool has as a purpose or goal. According to Paul, the goal of the command is love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. A person who manifests and maintains those inner virtues is authentically righteous.

In Ephesus, there apparently were some for whom that ethic seemed too simple or “easy.” In their dissatisfaction, they went on to bind the more specific injunctions of Scripture on others. This approach defeats itself, though, since an external code can’t make immoral people authentically moral. It can only teach them hypocrisy or rebellion.

While a written moral code can’t make an immoral person moral, it can make a moral person immoral. Let’s suppose, for instance, that a man dearly loves his wife and couldn’t imagine betraying her. Then he encounters the Torah command not to commit adultery. The prohibition suggests to him that this something he’s inclined to do but needs to restrain himself from. Love for his wife becomes replaced by obligation to her and by fear of punishment. Over time, he begins to resent the obligation to his wife and to fantasize about the feeling of freedom that a new romance would bring. At this point, even if he never acts on his elicit desires, he’s worse off than he would have been had he never encountered the seventh commandment.

People forget that the Decalogue wasn’t given to individuals, but to a nation as a part of their charter. Nations need laws to ensure the social order and common good. At a national level, it makes little difference whether the citizenry conforms out of fear of punishment or from an internal moral imperative. Since government can do very little to shape character, it must resort to prohibition and punishment. Laws are necessary on the level of public policy, but toxic when applied to personal spirituality or to interpersonal relationships.

I remember once when I was sorting boxes at UPS across from a guy named Cullen, he described some Hollywood starlet as, “Worth leaving your wife and children for.” His words visibly took me aback. He noticed and said, “What, haven’t you ever heard that saying before?”

I answered that I hadn’t, and I told him that no woman could be that attractive. Then, I explained to him why.

Later that day I relayed to Jamie, my wife, what he’d said and how I’d told him that no woman could be that attractive.

“And why’s that?” she asked.

I answered, “I told him that nobody’s worth going to hell over.”

Wrong answer!

Fear of hell might keep a man at home, but no wife wants a man who’s only staying home out of the fear of hell or because he wants to please God or because he wants to maintain his witness. She wants him there because he loves her – really loves her from his heart.

None of this means that law is bad or that it serves no purpose. Paul said that the law is good when used properly. Law won’t make us love God or others, but it can show us just how much we’ve been forgiven, and Christ taught that a person who’s been forgiven much loves much.

Law can’t give us a good conscience, but it can convict our conscience to the point that we stop rationalizing and justifying long enough to appeal to God for good conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

Paul told the Galatians that the law doesn’t operate on faith since those who attempt to earn merit through it count on their own efforts. Those failed efforts, though, can eventually evoke the desperate plea, “Who will save me from this body of death?” To which the glorious answer returns, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Pure love, a good conscience, and sincere faith – to those already in pursuit of those values, the regulations of the Mosaic law could only serve as obstacles. In the light of Christ’s work, the Hebrew Scriptures could no longer be thought of as the essence of God’s covenant with his people. They no longer could be thought of as essential, but they were still “useful.” They still are useful to convict evil people over their wrong actions and thought patterns. They also help believers in Christ to see their Lord better as in a mirror and be conformed to his image like 2 Corinthians 3 affirms.

That Paul would describe the Scriptures as useful rather than essential should hardly come as a surprise. What need would there be for a written law when according to him, all things are lawful? Consider the paradigm shifting message of 1 Corinthians 10:23:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (NASB)

I’ve cited here from the older, more literal NASB, because the NIV translators were apparently squeamish over the implications of this verse in its unvarnished form. Here’s the NIV rendering for comparison:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

I can’t possibly know the thoughts that went into the decision to insert, “you say,” into this passage, but it looks like they struggled to comprehend how the venerated Apostle Paul would have declared everything lawful. The preacher who baptized me (the second time) once expounded the meaning of this verse, “All lawful things are lawful.”

Say what now?

The idea that all things are lawful should be good news, but it scares the “Be Jesus” out of us. I’m not trying to be sacrilegious of flippant. “Be Jesus” doesn’t sound like a concrete enough ethic and so we ditch that one for something more declarative. A life led by grace and one led by written moral directives can’t inhabit the same person. To have the latter, we must jettison the former. This sad transaction has become so common that most Christians have no idea they’ve made it. Our faith simply stops working and we don’t even know why. We can once again live by grace when we by faith accept afresh the law free gospel preached by Paul.

To pave the road to recovery, we can take some of the scariness out of 1 Corinthians 10:23 by emphasizing for me in the text. Paul didn’t mean that all actions were universally lawful but that he had undergone a change which made law obsolete for him and for all who had likewise been changed.

Regarding those who insisted that Gentile believers conform to the Genesis 17 circumcision requirement Paul wrote:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:14-16)

Faithful performance of our side of the new covenant requires adherence to one “rule” – the new creation. Written requirements have been done away in favor of authentic response to the promptings of a new spirit within each redeemed individual. Therefore, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:9 that the law wasn’t made for a righteous person. Those who’ve put their faith in Christ have been made righteous. They aren’t just considered by God to be righteous; they have been made righteous people from within. Christians who don’t sense that inner inclination toward righteous actions usually have had the flow of grace squelched through external moral obligation. Their lusts then become enflamed by the prohibitions and they come to know themselves as animals in need of restraint. Legalists need law because legalism makes them inwardly unrighteous.

My understanding of Paul’s gospel might seem naïve to some who’ve seen the frontiers of the human capacity for evil. I assure you that I’m fully aware of the dangers of preaching a law free gospel. Telling people that everything is lawful for them certainly poses real risks.

Several passages of the New Testament address a problematic sect or sects within the church that taught a libertine aberration of the gospel. A large portion of 2 Peter combats that perversion of gospel liberty and mentions that the ones propagating it cited Paul’s own letters in support of their view:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. (2 Peter 3:14-17)

By the writing of 2 Peter, Paul’s letters had begun to be received as Scripture. I’m not sure if Peter would have treated them as tantamount to the Torah, but they were “writings” which carried a weight of authority in the early church. As with Paul and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Peter could not have meant the entire New Testament canon since, some of the twenty-seven books, including 2 Peter, had yet to be completed. The entire collection wouldn’t actually be officially treated as Scripture by the church for another three hundred years.

Christians believe we need to invest final authority in Scripture in a effort to keep from heresy or immorality, but that belief doesn’t align with reality. The false teachers against whom Peter argues used Pauline Scriptures to sow division and reap fleshly indulgence.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the words of Paul. They are water to my soul. I’ve often found myself praising God with hands lifted to heaven while alone in my study just contemplating those precious words. Paul’s letters encourage the heart and feed the soul because they point away from themselves to something worthy of praise. When someone treats the epistles like a moral code or ecclesiastical manual, the living water drains away leaving a broken cistern.

Peter understood the role of Scripture in relation to the living message preached throughout the world. He correctly called Paul’s letters Scripture, but for him that didn’t mean that either he or Paul had authored the new testament. Earlier in 2 Peter, he speaks of another message which his readers had already received and which was enough for their every need:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

For Peter, a knowledge of Jesus was “everything we need” both for this life and the one to come. The inspired writings which predate and postdate this new testament in his shed blood help us to understand and apply that pivotal event, but the story of his passion gives us everything we need.

We’ve misattributed the title, “New Testament,” to mean a collection of twenty-seven inspired texts. None of the men who penned those texts authored the new testament. Jesus did that with flesh and blood, pen and ink. On the night Jesus was betrayed he told his disciples to drink the cup which he called the new covenant in his blood. With the shedding of his blood, he made the new testament (agreement) with his people and by his resurrection it was ratified by God.

When Christians treat the second installment of Scriptures as foundational, we make the very same mistake that Israel did when they failed to recognize the image of Jesus within their text. We become so blind that we easily use Scripture to mandate un-Christ-like behavior (cough…Religious Right…cough). For instance, the gospel has shattered all distinctions between people, but many in the church used Scripture to condone racism and slavery. To this very day 11 AM on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Christ cleansed every substance, but the church led the temperance movement and the war on drugs, both of which were utter failures.

Since Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, the teaching that Scripture ought to be the final authority for the church in all matters of faith and life has spawned thousands of Christian denominations. Some might blame other factors for all the division, but that’s a hard sell given that Luther himself couldn’t even agree with one other independently minded expositor of the Bible, Ulrich Zwingli. The gospel requires that we accept each other on the basis of faith in the finished work of Christ, but Luther also required agreement on interpretation of the New Testament.

The Scriptures are inspired by God and profitable, but only if we use them correctly. Otherwise, they cause destruction. The message of the Bible isn’t, “Obey the Bible;” it’s, “Follow Jesus.”

But, don’t we need the Gospels, so we can do what Jesus would do?

No.


Footnotes:
1. The Old Testament was the only scripture in existence during Timothy’s upbringing.

Hang Up; I’m Leaving You a Voicemail

Nobody obeys the Bible because nobody possesses a 100% accurate understanding of its requirements. The Bible, like every other written text in the world, requires human interpretation. Anything that requires human interpretation will eventually come under human control. Christians, Muslims, Jews all follow religious systems manufactured by human leaders from sacred texts.

When adherents give themselves without question to their religious systems, they come under the control, not of God, but of other people who will never be worthy of such allegiance. Dogmas require complete loyalty, but they can never be trusted.

The Apostle Paul held up his experience as case in point:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

As Saul of Tarsus, Paul had participated in the imprisonment and death of many innocent people under the auspices of performing God’s will. Looking remorsefully back, he named the context of his actions, “Judaism.” He used the term not to describe faithful adherence to the Torah, but rather to “the traditions of my fathers.”

Once dogma has become equated with the will of God revealed in Scripture, it’s almost impossible to escape. It becomes the lens through which we interpret all new information. Paul describes this type of blindness as a veil over the heart in 2 Corinthians 3:15, “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their (unbelieving Jews’) hearts.”

Refusal to relinquish their assumptions about the written code veiled the understanding of the Jews:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13-14)

Israel didn’t want to believe that their way of life and history as a nation had been provisional. They were “Bible based believers” who couldn’t accept that their Bible pointed away from itself to an unwritten covenant with God open to all people.

Paul knew the mind of the unbelieving Jew because he had been one until on that fateful day on the road to Damascus Christ’s pragma ran over Paul’s dogma.

I can’t help but to hear autobiographical overtones in 2 Corinthians 3 especially at the end of the chapter:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16-18)

Through the mystery of inspiration, God encoded images of Christ beneath the script. A superficial focus on meeting the requirements obscured the face of Christ from the Jews of Paul’s day. Once a person accepted Christ as Lord, those external requirements would be swept away to reveal the picture which had been hidden behind them all along. Far from obsolescence, the Scriptures take on a new relevance as they reveal the glory of the Lord.

Back when humans used cell phones to make and receive calls, I would occasionally play a little game with folks while leaving them a voicemail. I’d get a notification that they, having seen my missed call on their caller ID, were trying to call me back. I’d answer and say, “Hey, I’m leaving you a voicemail. Could you please hang up, so I can finish?” Sometimes they’d pause and then laugh. Other times they’d groan. One time, a lady said, “Oh, okay,” and she hung up!

Holy writ, like voicemail, was a device to aid communication between two disconnected parties. Once personal contact had been made, it would have been silly to resume the old communication method. The former aid to communication would become a hindrance to it.

Silly as that analogy may sound, it’s almost an exact description of what the Jews of Jesus’ day did when he entered their community.

Christ had superintended Israel throughout their history as the mysterious figure often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The Angel of the Lord.”¹ Jews in the first century would have been very familiar with the stories of this being who appeared as a human to wrestle with Jacob, to give marching orders to Joshua, or to talk up Gideon.

How grievous that Israel failed to recognize their divine guardian when he finally came as one of them! Listen to his lament/rebuke from John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Scripture fulfills its ultimate purpose when we use it as an instrument to point to Christ. When we treat the text like a legal code, it will always obstruct our view of the One who is The Truth.

This applies to the edition that we call “The New Testament” as much as it does to the Hebrew Scriptures. Christ died to remove the previous media, not to replace it with an upgraded one, but so that our connection with God could be immediate (i.e. without media). According to Paul, everyone who puts their faith in the death of Christ dies to obligation to the law, so they can then go on to live for God. In Romans 7:1-6, he likens this transition to the severing of a marriage covenant by death thereby freeing one to marry another. The identity of that second spouse seems to have been lost on many who would treat the New Testament like a rule book. Notice in vs. 4-6 of Romans 7, that we didn’t die to the law to be married to the New Testament or to the teachings of the apostles. We died with Christ so that we can be married to him:

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (emphasis mine NAW)

Christ died to liberate his people from obligation to the Mosaic Law not because it was Mosaic but because it was law. This passage contrasts obligation to the law against union with Christ and “the old way of the written code” with “the new way of the Spirit.”

We call the Hebrew Scriptures “The Old Testament” because those thirty-nine books have become “old” when considered next to the later written revelation contained in twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament.”

Paul never spoke of the law and the prophets as “The Old Testament.” He simply referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “the law” or “the Scriptures,” because he had no concept of a second authoritative book. For Paul and his contemporaries, the new covenant consisted of something alive within the heart of each believer which outmoded the whole concept of religion based on an inspired text as well as everything that goes with it.

How ironic that even today, we’re so enamored with Paul’s own writings as a normative standard for faith and life that they have become the veil on our hearts keeping us from a living relationship with Christ. Paul didn’t replace the law of Moses with his own words; his words announced that it had already been replaced with grace through faith.² We struggle to understand how such ethereal things could constitute the new covenant, so we canonize Paul’s words into a new law.

By grace through faith, we’ve been brought into direct connection with God in Jesus Christ. In order to maintain that connection, we must give up our dependence on the previous media. No matter what anyone says, we mustn’t hang up to check voicemail.


Footnotes:

  1. I first encountered this idea in David Murray’s book,  Jesus on Every Page. Thomas Nelson Publishers. P. 77-82
  2. Romans 6:14, Galatians 3:21-24

My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

The Bible on the Bible

“Hey, you’re dressed queer.”

I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-70s I’d guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the Forties.
“You’re dressed queer,” he snarls. “Why you dressed so queer.” I have on my usual fringes, and, for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I’d bought on the Internet for $25.
“I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The 10 commandments, stoning adulterers…”
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
He is serious. This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.”
I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then chucking it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this elderly man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.
I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he say.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery,” I say.
We stare at each other. My heart is racing.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side.
Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

This little vignette from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, hilariously highlights the impracticality of attempting to obey the Bible in our contemporary world.

As my own, less funny, experience with shutting down a church and trying to stay within the confines of the speed limit attest, following the letter of the New Testament isn’t any more tenable.

Following all the Bible’s instructions isn’t possible, but that’s okay because the Bible doesn’t expect us to.

While it contains rules, they weren’t written specifically to us. Yet, for some reason we’ve come to believe they were.

Our generalization of commands written to other people can be subjective and arbitrary too.

As a for instance, would you include, eating only meat that had first been drained of blood on a list of rules Christians should observe?

No?

What about Acts 15:29 which says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things”?

In context, these instructions are very clearly from a letter written as a specific response to a specific situation affecting a specific group of Christians living in a specific region of the world. Having the benefit of the backstory with the letter situated in a larger narrative, we instinctively know that those instructions weren’t given to us.

And yet, when we look at the greeting just a few verses earlier, it reads a whole lot like the other epistles to which we feel beholden, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.”

If it’s an authoritative epistle written by a council of the Lord’s apostles, why don’t we afford it the same treatment as the other epistles? The only difference seems to be situational. Should this letter have survived outside the book of Acts and been collected with the others, I have no doubt that it would have been dubbed, “The Epistle to the Syrians,” or just “Syrians.” I also have no doubt that Christians would have been arguing throughout the past sixteen centuries as to just how much blood might be acceptable in a piece of meat.¹

While the epistles contain a trove of wonderful wisdom and commentary on the gospel, we must keep in mind that they are other people’s mail.

The authors of those letters indicate no inkling that they thought they were writing volume two of God’s book. Paul seems least of all aware that anyone would later compile his letters to include them in a canon of holy writ. Near the end of his life, he put his hope in the transferability of his simple message and manner of life rather than in the codification of his writings. In 2 Timothy 2:2 he wrote to his beloved protégé, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Not coincidentally, this also seems to have been Jesus’ method for perpetuating truth.²

To be fair, Peter does call the writings of Paul Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at the designation in context to get an idea:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16)

There it is. I agree that the writings we find in Matthew through Revelation are inspired, so I have no problem agreeing with Peter that the letters of Paul are Scripture. Under grace, “Scripture,” comes to fulfill a purpose different from the one it served under law. Whether we find it in the New Testament or the Old, Scripture provides wisdom. Paul proclaimed that regenerated people were under no obligation to follow the letter of the Torah, while also encouraging them to find Jesus in it. In the same way, we needn’t follow the letter of the New Testament, but must seek Jesus there.³

By including Paul’s writings along with “the other Scriptures,” Peter classifies them along with the books of the Old Testament like Deuteronomy. I’ve never been inclined to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk, but should the need arise, I am free to do so without pang of conscience. I can also pray with a hat on.

Under grace, we must treat all Scripture as wisdom literature.

Why? Because everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial. Isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23?

Consider what Paul wrote about the value of the Hebrew Scriptures:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17 emphasis mine NAW)

Just because the Torah no longer bound believers with the condemning power of a legal code didn’t mean it no longer had value. By the way, Paul didn’t pen these words in reference to any portion of the twenty-seven books we call the New Testament. In encouraging him to attend to the Scriptures he’d been raised on, Paul didn’t mean for Timothy’s conscience to be bound to its procedural dictates.

When we, as Peter did, acknowledge Paul’s writings as Scripture, we must treat them like Paul treated the Scripture he had in hand. To do anything else would be to violate Paul’s own intent since he himself said:

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.(Galatians 2:18–21 ESV)

Had Paul meant for his writings to enslave those set free by the gospel, he would have been a transgressor according to his own words.

I don’t know what kind of awareness might be granted to those who’ve passed on, but if Paul knows that his words have been turned into a new law, he must be fuming. What’s more, those who handle Matthew through Revelation that way come under Peter’s indictment as those who’ve twisted the Scriptures.

Treating the Scriptures as a trove of divine wisdom actually will make us value them more. If we see the New Testament as a book of laws, all it can do is condemn us and divide us. From my previous experience, I know that people don’t go looking for more rules than the ones they’re already keeping. If we see it as a book of wisdom, we’ll pore over it time and again mining all of its beneficial insights.

On the other side of the coin, if we read something in the New Testament that our gospel-renewed minds know would not benefit our spiritual family or the cause of Christ in our day, then we’re beholden by the gospel to violate that instruction. While laws can be arbitrary, wisdom must stand the test of experience. Let that sink in a minute.

The church I serve with comes from a tradition which held very closely to the prohibitions against women speaking in the assembly of believers. Pauline passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 seem to prohibit female participation in the public gathering of the church. While those passages might be interpreted otherwise, it takes a bit of work. Certainly, there might have been extenuating circumstances to which we’re not privy. That’s most likely the case, but even if Paul meant for all churches to silence their women until Christ returns, should we observe that restriction?

I don’t think so.

The intent of this sort of instruction seems to have been to provide procedural order in the churches to maximize mutual encouragement and to expedite the spread of the gospel. If we really are under a covenant of spirit and not the letter, then faithful treatment of these texts would require us to violate their particulars when they become discouraging and counterproductive.

We’re free to make that call because Matthew through Revelation isn’t our covenant. God wants us to obey the gospel. That’s why Jesus could hold up a cup at his last Passover and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A bunch of letters collected and bound together over three hundred years later mustn’t be allowed to supersede the mandates implicit in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. We’re beholden to the gospel and the consequences for disobedience are dire.

You might be wondering how we can obey the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future return. I urge you to reread Paul’s epistles with a view toward taking note of places where he bases his instructions on the implications of the gospel. The gospel reveals the nature of things. It then becomes incumbent upon us to live accordingly.

Since we’ve been talking about it, let’s take a minute to apply gospel wisdom to gender roles in the church:

Proposition 1: Christ died for men and women alike.
Proposition 2: Women receive the same Holy Spirit as men.
Propositions 3: Our bodies are vessels for the one treasure inside everyone.
Proposition 4: Believers in Christ gather to encourage one another as the various gifts given through the Holy Spirit operate to distribute grace to every member.
Conclusion: Women and men alike should exercise their gifts for the building up of the church.

In addition to pragmatic concerns, the gospel mandates that we make no distinction between people. Paul himself expounded this truth in Galatians 3:28. The gospel ethic teaches equal treatment and opportunity for everyone, doesn’t it?

In a time when women serve as CEO’s and senators, following the letter of Paul’s letters has relegated the church to the cultural sidelines in a zone not unlike the one inhabited by the Amish. The living gospel must push through calcified notions even if they’re found in our own traditions because it’s alive.

Our human nature wants God to write an infallible book which will perfectly reveal his will to humanity.

Like Adam and Eve, we want to ingest something that will provide us the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve appointed the Bible to fill that role, but the Bible doesn’t exactly play along. The Bible speaks equivocally in both human and divine voice.

I believe the Qur’an was written to fill this human longing which the Bible left unmet.

Compare Surah 2:2–5 from the Qur’an…

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.

…with Luke 1:1–4:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I know that the Bible contains sections which claim inspiration directly from God such as in the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation, but none of them endorse all sixty-six books. They don’t even seem to be aware of all of the other books in our canon.

Nothing within the biblical canon endorses or even acknowledges the canon. On the other hand, the Qur’an commends itself in its entirety as the revelation of God from the very beginning. The Bible might make similar claims of inspiration over various books or sections, but never will you find the equivalent of Surah 2:2–5 in the Bible. Nor will you find anything like Luke 1:1–4 in the Qur’an for that matter.

The Bible resists our expectations not because it cannot conform to them but because it means to change them.

The gospel that Paul preached from the Scriptures immediately liberated people from the code of law found in those same Scriptures. This just didn’t compute for many of his Jewish contemporaries and they tried to shut him up.

Some came into one of the first churches Paul had founded to teach that anyone who claims to be in covenant with the Jewish God must keep the law of Moses. They had, it seemed, the endorsement of Scripture on their side. That is, until Paul went further back to the very basis of God’s covenant with Israel, the call of Abraham:

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)

The Bible tells of a person who had a relationship with God but didn’t have a Bible. What’s more, that person is held up as the archetype for those who will come to God when the promised blessings come to pass. Paul wanted the Galatian believers to know that the time of prescriptive rules written in a text and predicated on punishment had been provisional.

We often see Abraham’s relationship with God as basic, with later revelation adding on that base. That’s not how Paul saw it, though. For him, that relationship was exemplary with later revelation being provisional until more people could experience an Abrahamic relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

God had called Paul to bring in the Gentiles through faith in Christ. For that to happen, they would need a relationship with God as simple and profound as Abraham’s was. The early church had no access to a copy of the Scriptures. They certainly couldn’t take one home to labor over using the inductive study method. What they knew of God, they learned not primarily from the Scriptures, but from what the writers of the New Testament called, “the word of God.”

Time and again throughout the book of Acts, Luke tells of how the word of God spread among a wide variety of people throughout the Roman Empire.⁴ But what was the word of God? Luke couldn’t have meant the contents of the Old Testament because that had already spread through the known world in the Jewish synagogues. It couldn’t have been the contents of the book we call the New Testament because that book resulted from the activity recorded in Acts. The “word of God” that spread over the known world over the span of about a generation was the proclamation about Jesus the Messiah.

That proclamation is the power of God to salvation⁵ which we experience by faith.


Notes:

  1. The New Testament was canonized in the middle fourth century.
  2. Acts 1:8
  3. Romans 3:31; 15:4; 2 Corinthians 3:12–18; 2 Timothy 3:14–17
  4. Acts 4:4, 29–31; 6:2–7; 8:14–25; 10:36–44; 11:1, 19; 12:24; 13:5–7, 44–49; 14:25; 15:7, 35–36; 16:32; 17:11–13; 18:5, 11; 19:10, 20
  5. Romans 1:16

Hard to Get

At a hearing which could also be described as a near death experience, Martin Luther stood before representatives of God and of men to give an account. Before him were piled copies of his writings made abundant by Gutenberg’s good work. Within those documents smoldered the embers of revolution threatening to ignite a continent drained dry by papal greed. To suppress the coming conflagration, the church offered Luther a choice, face a literal flame or utter a simple word— “revoco,” in English, “I recant.”

Surely quivering, Luther’s voice rang out,

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

Those words marked a watershed in Western history. Though many factors had led up to their utterance, they stand (at least for Protestants) as a clear transfer of ultimate authority from church hierarchy to the Bible.

Also, since that time we have fractured into thousands of denominations sects, cults, and subgroups. I think five hundred years is a long enough time to conclude that people will never understand the Bible alike. Actually, it’s more like two thousand.

Christians lament the existence of religions like Islam and Mormonism, but those religions emerged to address rampant division between people who claimed to obey the Bible.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Roman church hadn’t yet seized the absolute power she enjoyed during Luther’s day. In the early seventh century, the religious landscape on the Arabian peninsula was littered with pluralism and syncretism. Into that confusing religious circus, the Qur’an spoke:

From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book,(Surah 5:14–15, Al-Qur’an [English Edition] Complete and Unabridged. Islamic Studies Press. Kindle Edition.)

Twelve hundred years later, a man born of a new world would claim an eerily similar status as divinely ordained arbiter. In reflecting back on his call from God, Joseph Smith wrote:

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join.
 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Pearl of Great Price, History of Joseph Smith verses 18,19)

Muslims and Mormons both hold that God revealed his will through their inspired text given through his ultimate prophet to clarify revelation, given in the Bible, but subsequently mishandled by those to whom it was given. It’s not hard to trace their line of thought from a belief that God gave the twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament” to serve as Torah 2.0. If we needed a 2.0, then why not a 3.0 or 4.0?

Of course, no text no matter how precise or correct can possibly produce anything but division. Islam split in two at Muhammad’s death. Since then, multiple schools of Islam have proliferated over disparate interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadiths. The framers of Mormonism took leveraged their latter day status by correcting previous errors. They accomplished unity (for the most part) by reversing the Reformation and returning ultimate authority to the church.

Those of us who’ve not been called by a supernatural being to birth a new religion soldier on through glaring inconsistencies hoping somehow to credibly witness to Christ. He prayed that we’d be one so that the world would know God sent him. From the looks of things, that prayer still awaits an answer, and the world is still unsure about Christ. I don’t think it’s because God has failed. I think it’s partially because we’ve been divided for so long that we think it’s normal.

My fellow members at the Church of Christ used to say that if two people disagree on the interpretation of scripture one of them can be right and the other wrong or they could both be wrong, but they can’t both be right. Translation: “We’re the only ones who are right.” While I no longer sing that disharmonious tune, the logic still holds water. Out of hundreds of Christian denominations, either just one of them is right or none of them are. Most people would agree that none of them are, but everyone still claims to obey the Bible.

Let’s face it, the Bible is a big, complicated book written thousands of years ago over hundreds of years by people with their own ideas, problems, and interests. It is composed of multiple genres and written in archaic languages. None of the words were written to anyone living in the 21st century in the New World. To suggest that an average, uninformed American could start reading at Genesis 1:1 and gain any sort of cohesive insight into the will of God borders on delusion. That may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the existence of Bible colleges, seminaries, Sunday schools, or even Sunday sermons for that matter, testify to the truth of what I’m saying. Even the Gideons hand out primarily New Testaments rather than the whole enchilada.

Because the Bible is so vast and diverse, it’s message easily falls prey to the whim of those who would use it to legitimize their own wants or their claim to power. For instance, most pastors would readily explain that under Christ we no longer follow the law of Moses, but most churches have retained the practice of tithing. The New Testament does not enjoin tithing on believers in Christ not even once. It does speak of the early disciples collecting money, but those were special circumstances and almost always for the sake of alleviating poverty among their members or supporting fulltime ministers of the gospel. How could people who are trained and commissioned to expound the meaning of the Bible perpetuate such a glaring misinterpretation of it?

I have a hypothesis as to why. Institutions need predictable income to operate. When the church becomes an institution, it gladly trades grace-based generosity for an obligatory ten percent. Now, we just need some Bible verses to get everyone on board. Oh look, it’s Malachi 3:8–12. How convenient!

And then, we have the audacity to call the prosperity gospel a heresy! (Go read the passage in Malachi to see what I mean.)

Church leaders aren’t the only ones to blame; individual Christians have their own agenda as well. We might acknowledge that the New Testament doesn’t command tithing, but then go on to ignore passages which speak of divesting ourselves of material wealth and giving sacrificially to help our spiritual brothers and sisters in times of distress. I wonder whether many Christians haven’t been complicit in the tithing deception just because 10% is cheaper than generosity inspired by the love of Christ.

Tragically, our self-deception doesn’t fool those looking at us from outside of our fishbowl. When we consistently, persistently, and insistently mishandle the very book which we hold up as our standard, we deceive only ourselves and repel our sincere critics. No wonder unbelievers see Christianity as just a way for people to make themselves feel better.

We will discover and demonstrate that it is far more when we stop claiming to obey the Bible.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the Bible. I believe it to be inspired. In John 6, Jesus said that his words are spirit and they are life. The writer of Hebrews famously declared, “For the word of God is alive and active.” These words electrify me, but none of them indicate that we’re supposed to rifle through the Bible for rules on how to live. For all the wonderful things that the Bible says about itself, it tends to take itself far less seriously than we want it to.

The Bible Never Said, “Obey the Bible” — Introduction

The four of us rode together that Sunday morning. The closer we got to the little church house, the greater our anxiety rose until we finally had to pull over into a radiation therapy clinic to pray in the car before continuing on.

When we reached the church, the parking lot was empty. All of the lights were out and a “For Sale” sign was in the yard. We had driven that place out of business!

I had come into the Church of Christ after an existential crisis in my later teen years had sent me church shopping. Their mantras mesmerized me,

“We just want to follow the Bible.”

“Read the Bible for yourself.”

“Don’t take our word for what it says.”

“If you find something we’re doing that doesn’t line up with the Bible, we want to know so we can change.”*

I started reading the New Testament and couldn’t put it down. Very soon, I found some of those things they’d missed. I brought them to the attention of the minister, but he explained them away.

A few years later, I met Uriah who agreed with me, and together along with our reluctant wives, we pushed the envelope. Apparently, they didn’t really mean that part about changing to accommodate.*

Out of devotion to Christ we had committed to reading the New Testament and to doing what it said no matter what. No doubt many would consider that a noble aspiration. That is, until you get to passages like 1 Corinthian 11:2–16 which mandates that women cover their heads when they pray. After much study of this passage, Uriah and I became convinced that these instructions still applied. We were ready to go to the mat for that conviction.

We pushed our belief about the “head covering,” as we called it, on that little church until they had the preacher officially shut us up. Then, we wrote letters to each congregant saying that according to 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16:17, and 2 Thessalonians 3, we were going to shun them until they repented. We hand delivered each letter along with a personal appeal for their repentance. Now, you see why they closed up shop.

I know all of that sounds pretty macabre to the average person — even the average Christian.

And yet, in principle we weren’t really so different from all the other “Bible believing” Christians in the world. We were just more consistent.

While almost no one outside of Alabama would agree with our conclusions on 1 Corinthians 11, Christians in America have debated the role of women in leadership for decades. The church has continued to straggle behind the national conscience on equal opportunity for women because certain passages in the New Testament seem to specify male leadership or limit female participation. Churches which continue to adhere to those passages alienate women and marginalize their message.

Even though more people agree with their position than with the one we were pushing, these “complementarians” claim to base their beliefs on the same standard Uriah and I used. The same New Testament (even the same epistle) that seems to prohibit female teachers in the Christian assembly also seems to teach that women should cover their heads.

Why don’t more “bible based” churches insist that women cover their heads when they pray? Could I suggest that the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention today and me in the early nineties has more to do with politics than with hermeneutics and more to do with democracy than with devotion to God?

Mainstream conservative denominations derive their doctrines from the same assumptions that Uriah and I used; their motives are just a bit more mixed. Since no text can be understood exactly the same by any two people, agreement among large groups suggests a preference for compromise over conviction. We were only four and no more because we were ready to follow the New Testament to the letter without deferral to human opinion or even to common sense.

My position on the head covering didn’t arise from personal misogyny or some sort of male power trip; it was pure, painful devotion. I was ready to do whatever the New Testament enjoined on me no matter how odd or difficult.

Here’s another vignette which I present to you as Exhibit B.

I still remember the day that I read Romans 13:1–2:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I can’t remember where I went after reading that passage, but I’ll never forget the trip there. I always took a long backroad as a shortcut any time I traveled north from my house. I hadn’t previously paid attention to the 25 MPH sign. Now, it stood there with the prohibitive force of a command carved in a tablet of stone. Sweat beaded on my forehead as my white Rabbit idled along, nearly gobbled up by the truck bearing down on my bumper. When the speedometer needle would spasm over to 26, I’d utter a petition for forgiveness under my breath while glancing again at the angry grill in my rearview mirror.

I drove like that for years. Even as a UPS driver. Even in 5 MPH parking lots. So maddening was the pace, that my passengers would occasionally reach over to push down on my knee.

As ridiculous as my story sounds, wasn’t I just obeying the Bible? Read a little further down in Romans 13 to verse 6:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Christians claim to follow the Bible, but we gasp when someone cheats on his taxes and laugh when he gets a speeding ticket. What’s the deal?

No doubt many will recoil at the idea that we’re not supposed to obey the Bible. Here’s a word of comfort for those folks: You already don’t obey the Bible. Nobody has. It’s not possible.

When Christians claim to follow the Bible, or churches predicate their authority on it, they’re just really being dishonest with others and themselves.

The Bible wasn’t written as a rule book. Attempting to treat it that way will result in confusion, hypocrisy, and division…oh wait, it already has.

In this series of articles, I will demonstrate that much of the church’s failure to accurately represent Christ to the watching world stems from its misunderstanding of the purpose of the Bible.

Crossing Over

This post isn’t for everyone.

It’s for the people who sense that something is wrong with this world.

It’s for those who grieve over the hurt they see around them and regret their part in it.

You’re right, there is something wrong and you’re a part of the problem.

You also need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Bible tells the story of what’s wrong with our society and it tells us how to cross over into a new society governed by trust and love.

First, here’s what went wrong:

Our original ancestors were given the opportunity to live in paradise. In paradise, they enjoyed perfect harmony with their environment and each other in God’s presence. At some point they chose selfish ambition over peace and intimacy.

They would now suffer an existence characterized by alienation from God and from each other.

As these early ancestors reproduced, their brokenness multiplied along with their progeny. In time, hate-filled and violent people would populate the earth.

Noah and His Family Crossed Over

Rather than allow continued degradation, God declared that he would destroy the evil society by means of a massive flood:

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:7-8)

We’re not told why, but God selected Noah for special treatment while everyone else faced impending doom.

You’re probably familiar with the rest of the story. God instructed Noah to build a massive, water-tight wooden box which would hold male and female representatives of humankind and animals. Then a flood destroyed all life outside of the great wooden box. After the waters receded, all the inhabitants came out and repopulated the earth.

In the ark, Noah crossed over the waters into a new society.

Sadly, selfish ambition came off of the ark in the hearts of Noah and his family.

Abraham Crossed Over

As Noah’s family reproduced, his descendants formed a new evil society which the book of Genesis describes like this:

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there.
They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:1-4 NLT)

These people made selfish ambition a corporate enterprise. They came to realize that they were stronger together and came up with ways to cement their corporate identity. To establish permanence beyond their individual lifespans, they would build a great city. They also planned to memorialize themselves through an impressive achievement, the tower. These monuments to their corporate strength would also maintain it by keeping everyone together.

God disciplined these people for pulling together around selfish ambition. He confused their languages and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.

In the next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man to become the antithesis of Babylon’s arrogance:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NLT)

Abram was from a city called Ur which was located in the region of Babylonia. God called him to leave the corrupt society of his nativity to wander in an unknown land. To reach Canaan from Ur, Abraham had to cross over the Euphrates River. From then on, he and his descendants would be know as “Hebrews” which means, “the crossed over.”

Because he trusted God enough to cross over from dependency on humankind, God would give Abraham everything the people of Babylon had attempted to seize for themselves. In addition to that, God would use Abraham as a vehicle to bless everyone on earth.

Moses Crossed Over

After four hundred years, God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a nation came true. The Hebrews, whom God had taken to develop in Egypt, multiplied into the hundreds of thousands. They were now a nation that would be known as Israel.

Fearing a revolt, the Egyptian king put the Hebrews under forced labor. In time, they called out to God who sent Moses to rescue them from slavery.

Through Moses, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on Egypt until the king let Israel leave his country. After they left Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for a couple of weeks finally making camp next to the Red Sea.

Then the king, regretting the loss of his large slave labor force, marshalled his army and pursued them into the wilderness. When he caught up to them, the Israelites were terrified. God told Moses to lift his staff over the Red Sea and it parted. Israel walked through the sea on dry ground, but the Egyptians were all drown as God released the sea upon them in the midst of their pursuit.

From then on, Israel’s old masters had no control over them. They were free to serve the one true God and to depend on him for everything they needed. Moses and Israel crossed over the Red Sea from an evil society to a life of God’s guidance and provision in the wilderness.

Like with Noah’s family, selfish ambition came through the water with Israel. In time, they started to think just like the people of Babylon. They demanded that God give them a human king so they wouldn’t have to trust God to deliver them from their enemies. Throughout their history, they continued to reject God until he finally sent them back to Babylon as prisoners of war.

John the Baptist Crossed Over

Because of his promises to Abraham, God returned Israel to their own land after seventy years in Babylon.

Even though they had been through so much, Israel continued to chase selfish ambition. By the first century C.E., the priests in Jerusalem had become puppet rulers for the Roman Empire. They talked about following the will of God, but they didn’t do it themselves. When push came to shove, those Israelite (now also known as Jewish) leaders would do anything to protect their grip on power.

At that time, God sent a man named John into the wilderness to speak a message of correction to Israel. He told them that they needed to change their ways because God was getting ready to come to them. The people who listened to John’s message were baptized by him in the Jordan River. This baptism was a crossing over from the compromised and corrupt religion of Jerusalem into a pure devotion to God.

Jesus Crossed Over

Though he was born to a virgin as the Son of God, Jesus lived an ordinary human life until he was around thirty years old. Then he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

At first, John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he didn’t have any sin to turn away from. Jesus urged John to comply, because it was God’s will for him to be baptized.

When Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven called out, “This is my beloved Son. I’m pleased with him.” At his baptism, Jesus crossed over from carpenter (the trade he learned from his earthly father) to Christ (the calling given to him by his heavenly Father, God).

Jesus Christ went around teaching everyone and performing miracles. He called out the hypocrisy among influential religious people of his day. The respectable people hated him, but the outcasts loved him and followed him everywhere.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the religious leaders felt threatened by him. They schemed to have him executed by the Romans on a cross.

Jesus had told his disciples that this would happen. When Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, heard this prediction, he called Jesus aside and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus responded harshly to his concerned friend, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:22-23)

At his death, Jesus crossed over in a way that nobody else had until that time. By submitting to a wrongful death, Jesus let go of all selfish ambition and trusted his life fully into God’s hands. He didn’t just cross over through water. He crossed through death.

Because of his obedient trust, his Father resurrected Jesus never to die again.

Jesus’ Followers Crossed Over

Fifty days after Jesus rose again, the Holy Spirit came from heaven with a loud rushing wind onto 120 of his followers who were praying in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in languages which they hadn’t studied. People from all over the city gathered to hear them. Since it was a special holiday in Jerusalem, Jews were present from all over the Roman Empire. Everyone heard these followers telling about God’s wonderful deeds in their own native tongues and they were amazed.

Then, Peter stood up and told everyone how God had sent Jesus to be their perfect king, but they and their leaders had rejected him and had him crucified. Peter also told them that God had given proof that Jesus was the Son of God by raising him from death and by pouring out the Holy Spirit.

The people in the audience were crushed by this news and asked what they should do. Peter responded,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:38-40 NIV)

Peter called them to cross over, through baptism, from participation in their corrupt society to life led and empowered by God through the Holy Spirit.

Creation will cross over at the end of this age.

Peter appealed for his audience to save themselves from the degrading influence of their corrupt generation, but he also knew of a greater peril they faced.

When Christ returns, we’re told that fire from his presence will cleanse every vestige of human sinfulness from the earth. Then he will renew creation to God’s original intention. In this way, all of creation will cross over from corruption to flourishing.

Those who’ve crossed over now – who’ve chosen the world to come – will belong in that renewed earth. Those who’ve chosen the illusory rewards of this present age will be incinerated with it at the return of Christ.

God doesn’t want to condemn anyone, but in the course of renewing creation, everything from the old, corrupt system, including its inhabitants, must be removed forever.

This same invitation is open to you today.

Just like Noah and his family or Moses and the Israelites, God wants you to leave behind your way of life and cross through water to a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

Unlike Noah’s family or the Israelites, you must leave your selfish ambition behind, because baptism in Jesus’ name requires that we trust God like Jesus did. His cross becomes our crossing. Because he died for us, we must for his sake “die” to our desires, our dreams, our egos, to ourselves. Then, we become spiritual Hebrews who’ve severed our unhealthy dependencies to wander as strangers in this world, listening only to our God and accepting the blessings he has promised.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eating According to the Gospel

photo credit: onsizzle.com @somexican

It’s a new year. This time, I’ll lose that excess weight and keep it off!

Right?

Okay, so I haven’t been focusing on my health this year, but I have been attending to it.

I was on my way to meet a friend for tacos yesterday and thinking about whether to get a salad or some other sad taco substitute. Then it occurred to me: Common people in Mexico don’t have weight problems and they subsist on tortillas. I concluded that eating tacos was a Christlike thing to do.

I know. I know. Convenient, isn’t it?

Hear me out.

I’ve struggled my entire Christian life to apply the gospel to my eating. Like many people, I’ve had a few victories in the battle of the bulge, but even more defeats. I just don’t have the resources personally to reach ultimate victory. I need the power of God to save me and that power is the gospel.

But what does the gospel teach regarding the care of our physical bodies?

Jesus had a body, but he doesn’t offer any impetus for concern over the way our bodies look. In fact, we only have this kind of description of his appearance:

…his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness… (Isaiah 52:14b)

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2b)

We live in a culture so egotistical that vanity has become a virtue. We can cut someone down with our words or ignore suffering around us without so much as a tinge of conscience, but we’ll be mortified by a candid photo that reveals our fat rolls.

Yes, the gospel does speak to our physical appearance. It says, “Stop thinking about it.”

I can hear the justifications now: “I’m not worried about how I look. I just want to be healthy.”

Great. According to the gospel, Christ offered his body to be destroyed for the sake of the world. Talk about bad stewardship!

Someone might argue that Jesus’ circumstance was unique and the rest of us should try to be as healthy as we can. Paul didn’t agree:

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:11-12, 16)

I’m not saying that we should all go and seek martyrdom (though it should probably be more common than it is). I’m demonstrating the trouble I’ve had finding motivation from within the gospel to lose weight or eat healthy. Instead, these goals/obsessions run contrary to the message about Christ.

As I discovered on my taco run, though, the gospel does speak to what and how we should eat. Here are some things which the gospel is telling me about food:

  1. Eat cheap, readily available, calorie dense food most of the time. When eating becomes expensive, inconvenient, or complicated it draws resources away from the higher purpose of our life. We take money which we could invest in kingdom causes or give to the poor (who aren’t eating organic) to buy unreasonably expensive items which haven’t even been clinically proven to improve health. We draw our already taxed attention to study diets or plan elaborate menus rather than focusing our mind’s eye on Christ through reading and contemplation. We take time that could be invested in relationship to shop, prep, and cook stuff we don’t even like.
  2. Enjoy good food. Even splurge on occasion. When our kids were smaller, I used to enjoy watching my daughter in the rearview mirror as she watched a movie on the van’s DVD player. Something about seeing her amused face brought me such joy. God is our Father and he loves us way more than I love my daughter. He enjoys our enjoyment. As someone that grew up without a dad, that’s been a hard truth for me to grasp. I always thought of God more as a boss who only valued me when I performed. In more recent years, I’ve come to apply the gospel to my life not only in self-sacrifice but through enjoyment of his good gifts.
  3. Learn to be in want. The gospel teaches that we’re more than our physical bodies. Our bodies sometimes need physical reminders of this fact. Christ told the Pharisees that after he had left the earth his disciples would fast.* Do we? Are we trying to make him look like a liar? When Christ ascended to the heavens, he took our hope with him to keep on deposit. This world in its present form isn’t our home. We long for his return at which time we’ll celebrate in the “Messianic Banquet.”** When we fast, we remind ourselves that we’ve not yet arrived and that our master is Christ, not our stomachs.
  4. Do more than eat when you eat. I’m not talking about eating in front of the television. I’m talking about seeing food as a means to spiritual enrichment. Just as fasting reminds us that the Messianic Banquet is yet to come. Eating with other believers reminds us that it is coming. I’ll be candid on this score: elective dietary restrictions hamper community. When an individual either abstains from table fellowship or forces everyone to abide by their weight loss protocols, that’s a violation of the gospel. Empty yourself and fill up your plate. It’s literally what Jesus did.***
  5. Be thankful, not greedy. The gospel makes us eternal debtors to God. The first instinct of the redeemed should be overflowing gratitude. As redeemed people, we live in a state of grace. In Greek, that’s “charis,” which is also translated, “gift.” Everyone who belongs to Christ moves through a medium of God’s generosity. Thankfulness must be our de facto posture if we are to properly comport ourselves in divine society. Thankfulness and greed can’t cohabit in our hearts. Thankful people assess high value onto what they’ve received. Greedy people discount what they have, in pursuit of what more they want. I’m not overweight because I have a sweet tooth, or because I eat fast food. I’m overweight because I over eat. I over eat because I don’t stop to appreciate my food. We need to do more than give thanks before meals. We need to remain thankful for each bite. Rather than presume on God’s generosity, we need to stop and give thanks when we’ve had enough.

That’s my list of gospel dietary directives. Like the gospel, they’re counter cultural. Like the gospel, they’re paradoxical. That’s as it should be. We mustn’t see our faith as motivation to win at the world’s game. Faith puts us on an entirely different playing field where we’re always more than conquerors.

This new year, I resolve not to worry about losing weight or even getting healthy. I resolve to glorify God in everything including the way I eat.

*Mark 2:20
**Isaiah 25:6-8
***Matthew 11:19

No Yeah-But’s

561789-taekwondo-wallpapers-2500x1667-mobileI had a Taekwondo teacher who used to say that he didn’t want to hear any “yeah-but’s.” If he told a student to do something, he expected them to do it without delay or excuse. He claimed the right to unquestioning obedience by virtue of his superiority in his field.

In the gospel, we see a God who will accept no “yeah-but’s.” By his scandalous arrest, abuse, and execution, Christ declared for all time that the will of the Father must be obeyed. God isn’t just superior to us. He’s transcendent. We can’t speak of him in superlative terms. He’s primary and ultimate. His very essence creates a field of moral gravity calling for the unquestioning surrender which the Bible calls, “fear.” When we fear God, we simply give him his due. When we offer him, “yeah-but’s,” we take in hand to cast for ourselves a lesser god and give it his name.

Selective obedience not only perverts the idea of God in our minds, it also distorts our nature. We were made to fear God, not overthrow him. Our “yeah-but’s” twist our souls into beastly, ghastly, overgrown egos which stomp around this earth, blaming God for the destruction in our wake. Christ became human to restore our humanity by restoring our estimation of God’s holiness.

As believers in Christ, we’re called each day to die with Christ in small ways. We tell the truth when we know it will make us look bad or cost us relationships or opportunities. We don’t respond to the tension to speak truth with, “Yeah, God, but you know that if I do that, I’ll get fired.” Rather we confess that God is more to be feared than any consequence of obeying him.

Through his suffering, Christ demonstrated the fear of God. But he’s more than just our exemplar; he’s our savior. By his resurrection, Christ Jesus announced for all time that such abject trust in God will receive eternal reward. We can go to our own cross both figuratively and literally if necessary because God can be trusted. Not only are “yeah-buts” an affront to the very nature of God, not only do they mutilate our souls, they’re just foolish.

If God calls us to move to a high crime neighborhood and we respond, “Yeah, God, but I’m concerned that my children will come under bad influences or be attacked or even killed,” we forfeit his reward for whatever scraps we can forage and horde through this very short day which we call life.

Far from being the offer of a free ticket to heaven, the gospel calls us heavenward as it demands that we relinquish this earth. Some have suggested that faith in the gospel presents and easy alternative to conformity to a system of legal requirements. Maybe that’s true of a truncated gospel, but not the true one. The message of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming return pulses with unrelenting blessed requirement.

Because of God’s mercy and patience, it might be easy for us to think that’s he’s accepted our “yeah-but’s.” He hasn’t. Every “yeah-but” that we offer God assails his holiness, corrupts our souls, and mires us in a world rolling ever faster toward the conflagration waiting at the end.

The good news is that as long as we have breath we can repent of our “yeah-but’s” and all will be forgiven. Our humanity will be restored. We can long for the coming day of his return.