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
Link

Growth Groups Questionnaire

Growth Groups Questionnaire

 

This tool, based on Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups, is designed to facilitate a one on one/one on two discipleship process.  As with LTG’s, participants gather for one hour per week to ask and answer the accountability questions.  At the meeting they agree upon a passage of Scripture to read on their own through the week.  Unlike LTG’s, Growth Groups require participants to make weekly commitments to pray, join Christ in his mission and to obey his Word through Scripture.  Because of this dynamic approach, we needed a means to update commitments on a weekly basis.  So, we created this online form.  Give it a try and see where it grows.  

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.

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!

Life Transformation Groups – A Testimonial

I have a friend who is also an elder at our church.  In the past couple of years I’ve watched him grow into a spiritual leader who inspires and challenges me every time we talk.  God has done many things in his life to effect this season of growth but much of it started with his participation in a Life Transformation Group or LTGRead his testimonial below –

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:16a NIV

For many years I struggled with a particular sin that was very stubborn. Try as I might, I could not get mastery over this shortcoming. I pleaded with God to take it from me but I was unable to get any lasting relief. Last summer I started an LTG with another guy. To my amazement the sin I had struggled with became a footnote. It is not to say that there has been no struggle whatsoever, but knowing that I am going to be asked about it every week is a strong deterrent.  I have been able to move on and work on other areas where God is prodding me.

An LTG is formally called a Life Transformation Group, but it could also be called a laughing together group or a learning together group because those things happen as well.  An LTG has three parts to it: scripture reading, accountability questions and praying for the lost.  The scripture reading is done at home. You come together once a week and ask each other the scripted accountability questions, discuss the scripture reading and pray for three people you know who are lost.

It is interesting that James says to confess your sins and pray for each other and you will be healed. Sin does a powerful amount of damage to ones soul. Spiritual progress cannot happen until the wound of sin is healed. An LTG with another committed believer can be a vehicle of healing that allows your relationship with God to go to a much deeper level. Won’t you consider joining one?

For more information, click the picture below:

LTG

5 POP’s

Jesus not only commanded his disciples to make disciples, in Matthew 10 and Luke 10 he also gave them his method for doing so. Neil Cole relates Jesus’ method as the 5 POP’s in his book, Organic Church.  I’ve found these to be a very helpful framework on which to hang and a myriad of disciplemaking activities.  I hope you will too.

1. Practice of Prayer – The church is conceived in heaven before it is born on earth. If we are going to see churches planted and reproduced, we must plead with the Lord of the Harvest for everything we need – guidance, opportunities, boldness, the words to say, signs and wonders following, etc. Organic Church Planting is not a formula that works according to predictable outcomes. It’s a partnership with God to carry out his Great Commission.
2. Pockets of People – The approach to church planting as presented in Scripture had entire households (oikoi) in view. An oikos is a web of relationships. Every person (except the Unibomber) has one. As disciplemakers, we need to intentionally consider who in our oikos needs to hear the saving message of Jesus and begin praying for them. If we’ve reached our oikos or been rejected by it, we should find another Pocket of People that will accept us and begin prayerfully reaching them.
3. Power of Presence – They say 90% of baseball is showing up. That’s the case with disciplemaking.  We don’t have to hide from dark places; we must invade them with the confidence that “Where we go the King goes and where the King goes people bow.” If we partner with Jesus to make disciples we will find ourselves knee deep in the dirt of broken lives.
4. Person of Peace – In an oikos there is often a particular person that God has prepared the be the agent of the gospel for the rest of the group. This person is usually either the best person in the group such as with Cornelius in Acts 10 or the worst person such as with the Samaritan woman in John 4. We should look for this person. They will be receptive to the gospel at some point. Once they come to faith, we should equip them to reach the rest of their oikos. Their transformation will awaken others by demonstrating the saving power of the gospel.
5. People of Purpose – Once several in the oikos have been reached they should begin to gather as a spiritual family on mission for God. They should be taught to support and challenge each other to live in obedience to their king and to spread the knowledge of his kingdom reign into other oikoi.

As a parting shot, I want add a sixth POP – Probability of Pain.  Disciplemaking is an act of war.  Those who engage in it will experience the harship, hurt, and harm common to soldiers on active duty.  Before we set out, we should count the cost associated with victory.  If you can do anything else, you probably should.

Organic Church Planter Training

The gospel is a seed which takes root in the hearts of individuals and bears fruit through redeemed relationships.  Having borne fruit it, must then spread into the soil of other hearts and so The Growth Wheel continues to turn.  In this way, healthy disciples of Christ are produced and reproduced spreading the knowledge of God in the face of Christ throughout the world.  Coming August 24th -26th, our church will host Neil Cole and Phil Helfer as they lead the Greenhouse Intensive Training Weekend in Springdale Arkansas.  This training will provide ordinary Christ followers with basic skills to begin making disciples right where they are.  Individual online registration ends August 19th.

For more information on Organic Church or on the Springdale Greenhouse Intensive Training Weekend, check out this radio interview with Neil Cole-

NeilColeOrganicChurch

Rotten Tomatoes

So, I went to hear Phil Vischer, the creator of the “Veggie Tales” video series, speak at a college near my home. He recounted the story of his company’s rise to prominence in the Christian media industry and its subsequent decline and eventual bankruptcy. As a life lesson from his experiences, he advised his audience to allow their dreams to die; that God does not want to compete for their affection with their dreams. He used Scripture to make his point and seemed as passionate as a person could be when advising others to be dispassionate. For some reason, though, what he said didn’t sit right with me. Something seemed right about it and wrong at the same time- sort of like rotten tomatoes.

Tomatoes are great. I love them. Salsa is one of my many food addictions. However, have you ever noticed that tomatoes can subtly go bad? They’re sour and soft to begin with. So, it’s sometimes difficult to tell when they’ve just crossed the line. I can get pretty easily be fooled into taking a couple of bites of bad Pico de Gallo.

Once I realize that my Pico has turned, though, I simply throw it out and start slicing fresh tomatoes. I don’t suddenly decide that tomatoes can’t be trusted. I guess if I continued to eat bad Pico for a few days and became violently ill, then I might swear off of tomatoes for a while. It seems to me that the trick is to know when to give up on a batch and start with a new one.

Here’s the point. God wants us both to enjoy a relationship with him and to have a sense of purpose (a dream if you will). According to Ephesians 2:8-10, God’s grace has a two-fold benefit for its recipients – reconciliation with God and fulfillment of the, “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We must, however, distinguish the dream he has for us from any particular manifestation of that dream. For instance, I’m passionate to make disciples for him. I’m working on a couple of initiatives aimed at doing just that. But I must continue to remind myself that the initiatives are not the dream, making disciples is. If I invest time, care, and energy in the efforts in which I am engaged and discover down the road that they are not making disciples, then I must throw them out and try something fresh. On the other hand, when I hold on to old methods, they go bad and can make me and others sick.

Once we’ve experienced the pain of rotten tomatoes, we may be tempted to swear off forever. We must not. God dreams of spreading a wonderful table and has invited undiscerning palates like ours to participate with him so that we might learn and the hungry might be fed.