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.

Pessoptimism

I’m a bit of a critic. At times I’ve felt guilty for failing to be more positive. After reading Oman this morning, I feel a little less so.

A half and half morality always means a hopeless view of humanity; whereas a view of man as involved in a widely organised and radical corruption, always means a high estimate of his possibilities and a universal sense of the moral significance of life. –Grace and Personality

The gospel teaches that we live in a world infested with evil which permeates the hearts of every person. We were made to reflect the very glory of God, but have chosen instead to make our own destiny to our own destruction. These truths hardly call us to “accentuate the positive.”

That last phrase reminds me of a story which Bani, my friend from Albania, told me about living under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha. Bani said that under communism the least mention of a fault in their society could get a person incarcerated. He spoke of a man who went to the store for potatoes to discover that they had run out. Later, that man met a friend for coffee and mentioned that there had been no potatoes at the store. An informant at the next table reported the man and he was thrown into prison. Apparently, the correct response to the question, “Why didn’t you get potatoes?” was, “I changed my mind.”

There is an optimism which hides corruption and a pessimism which reveals glory.

Most pessimistic of all is the teaching of Jesus. The highest morality turns out to be mere respectability, the purest religion mere formalism, and the insincerity is such that the Prince of this world is the Father of Lies. Nowhere, nevertheless, is the Kingdom so real or so near.

Jesus came to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and a judgement to come. He passed that call on to us (John 16:1-11).

Stand Up for Jesus?

I’m in an online group that’s reading chronologically through the Bible in a year. In today’s reading from 1 Samuel, Israel having suffered a defeat at the hands of their nemesis, the Philistines, brings in the big guns by sending for the ark of God to go before them into battle.

Rather than giving them the edge they hoped for, the ark itself got taken by the Philistines as spoils of war. To add insult to injury, they place it in the temple of Dagon, their god.

The next morning, the Philistines find Dagon face down in front of the ark. The next day, the same thing except this time Dagon’s and head were broken off. Dagon isn’t the only one to suffer from the presence of the ark. We’re told that the Lord’s hand was heavy on Philistines until they sent it back to Israel.

I’m also reading another book called Grace and Personality by John Oman. In discussing the order of the first three requests of the the Lord’s Prayer (God’s name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come, and for his will to be done), he has this to say,

How often is that order reversed! Let us do Thy will, that Thy Kingdom may be gradually brought in, and, in the end, every heart be inspired by the true reverence! The result is striving and crying, with the perpetual menace of defeat and the increasing shadow of despair. But the servant of the Lord should not strive, nor be, after that fashion, morally strenuous. An essentially apocalyptic hope, a dependence, not on man who runs, but on God who gives the victory, dominates this prayer as it does all our Lord’s teaching; and the ground of it lies in beginning with our relation to God, and, only through it, passing to man’s achievement. The order is first reverence, then surrender, then obedience, yet always one and indivisible, even when successive in their manifestation.

We don’t need to defend God. We need to worship him and surrender personally to his will. Efforts to “defend family values” undermine the faith of the gospel. Conceptually, they represent a god no more powerful than the one for whom the jihadis riot.

Simple church planting resources galore

What if the essence of church could be boiled down to two words? What if believers in Christ shared life? When we share our lives – our time, money, burdens, joys, and struggles – we experience and demonstrate the kingdom of God. When we share his life, we intentionally engage with the lost and dying world through gospel-driven words and actions. This is church and we’re working to resource God’s people to share life through our new Life Teams app and it’s companion blog. Check them both out here:  http://lifeteamsblog.org/

Churched to Death

funny-church-signWhy do simple church? Because Jesus told us to make disciples. ” But,” someone might respond, “aren’t sermons, Sunday School, VBS, mission trips, weekend seminars,small groups, and a myriad of other programs carried on by institutional churches just methods for making disciples?”

From what I’ve observed after a couple of years of attempting to make reproducing disciples, not only are these initiatives not discipleship, they actually have become counterproductive toward fulfilling the Great Commission.  How can this be?  The answer can be found within the Great Commission itself:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt. 28:19-20 NIV emphasis mine

The difference comes down to one word, “accountability.”  All the programs which I mentioned at least as they are most often administered, teach people what Jesus commanded but they do not teach them to obey everything he commanded.  Without obedience the entire culture of a church can become one of quiet disregard for the commands of Christ.  In time, we begin to excuse each other’s (little) sins so they will excuse ours.  By teaching what Jesus said without expecting that a disciple obey, we actually teach disobedience.  So, we all come together regularly to carry out empty religious activity which we substitute for obedience.  Sadly, the church-goers are the only ones who are fooled into thinking that those observances matter.

Discipleship requires loving, mutual accountability.  As a believing community we must ask each other, “What is Jesus calling you to do and when will you do it?”  Then we must expect that everyone who claims to follow Jesus will carry those things out.  We ought to expect that everyone will expect us to be “doers” rather than just “hearers.”  When this happens we go from an irrelevant religious society to the counter-culture expression of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of real lives.

Some have called that form of religion which has supplanted discipleship “churchianity.”  That word fits this discussion.  In the Bible belt where I live, we’re sick with it.  I’m sick with it.  Last year, while having dinner with church planter, Neil Cole, I recognized the degree to which I had succumbed .  As we discussed the challenges of facilitating spiritual growth in recently redeemed people, I remember saying, “Yeah, those guys got drunk the other night but I overeat sometimes.  I guess we all sin.”  I expected Neil to nod and agree.  That’s how we do it in the church of church.  He didn’t.  He just gave me a puzzled look.  In that moment I felt the Spirit convict me that if I, a professed disciple of Jesus, consider something to be outside his will, I shouldn’t do it.  I also shouldn’t excuse other people when they do things they know to be wrong.

Making disciples is hard because it calls us to go beyond spiritual feelings and scriptural insights to personal obedience and interpersonal confrontation.  For those who are tired of gathering attenders and want to join Jesus in building an army, it’s the only way.

Learning to Learn

I have some friends who’ve recently come to faith. They’re from a subculture very disparate from mine. They’ve drawn me into conversations I’ve never had with other church members. Since they’re new believers and I’m a pastor, I usually see our interactions as an opportunity for me to assist their spiritual growth. I find myself defaulting to asking what about their worldview needs correcting. Today, it dawned on me that they are changing my worldview as much as I am changing theirs. By receiving Christ, they have brought their unique perspective on the gospel to bear on the church’s mission in the world.  Today I had to admit to my friend that he was right about something over which we had disagreed.

His response was, “It’s like this turn signal thing on my van.  If I find the short I can fix it.  You needed a fix to the short.  Its me.”

He’s right. I can get all energized by God’s grace but that energy won’t reach certain people in the world unless I have a bridge like my friend.  I can study the Bible for the rest of my life but the gaps in my perspective will always hinder my understanding.  I need a fix like my friend.

In the New Testament, Cornelius the centurion served as a bridge. He was a gentile who came to faith in Christ without having to convert to Judaism. His conversion not only catalyzed the a new gentile church in Caesarea it also sent theological shock waves through a church which saw itself largely as an extension of Judaism. Cornelius’ conversion converted the mindset of the church leaders of the day. We need to reach people from all backgrounds not only because they need Jesus but also because we need their idiosyncrasies to better understand and communicate our own message. (Acts 10-11; 15)

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?

D-church Unshackled!

django-unchained-quentin-tarantino-movie-2012-1920x1200 (640x400) I am a planter of simple churches who also pastors a conventional church.  “How does that work?”,  you ask.  Check out this quote from Steve Smith in the book T4T: A Discipleship Re-revolution:

Giving groups the freedom, even the empowerment, to become new churches takes the limit off the budding movement. You could view yourself as the pastor of a large church. If you are a pastor, how much better to view yourself as a pastor of pastors and your church as a training base for a movement! Take the shackles off. This is what we mean by the counter-intuitive ways of the kingdom!

This accurately describes what we’ve been attempting to do.  I love that the Holy Spirit can speak to lots of people at once!  Our job is to make disciples.  It’s everything.  So we could be described as a D-church (“D” for discipleship).  In order for our members to make disciples we must equip them and release them from tending shop here so they can get out where wanderers live and hang out.  They must be “unshackled.”  So, I guess you could say that we are D-church Unshackled!

Gallery

What Works

One of the elders of our church used to work for Social Security.  The other day he told me about how Social Security absorbed the administration of state-run disability benefits.  To streamline the process, they sought to automate the system through the use of computers.  An outside vendor was brought in to pitch a system which could handle the massive load.  The only problem was that the vendor didn’t actually have the technology they sold.  The demo unit they brought to their presentations was nothing but a metal box equipped with a very impressing array of buttons and flashing lights.  The vendor believed that if they could just get the money from Social Security first, they would be able to produce the promised equipment.  The decision makers at Social Security had little knowledge of computer systems but didn’t want to admit this fact so they went with the vendor.  This interplay between pride and deception brings to mind the old fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Except in this case more was at stake than a leader’s public image.  Millions of dollars of taxpayer money was lost through the debacle.

This story makes me think of the various worldviews that exist.  So many promise much but deliver little.  When people decide what to believe about reality (and it is a decision), perhaps they should consider a worldview that has proven effective.  Check out these observations made about Christianity by an economist raised in an atheist state.

I’m not saying we should choose a belief system simply because it works.  I’m saying that if it works when nothing else does, perhaps a greater Mind was indeed behind its inception.