Posts Tagged ‘church’

A host of preachers gathered at the Festival of Homiletics last week. Held in Washington D. C., it was appropriately themed “Politics and Preaching.” The festival was a weeklong series of worship and preaching and lecture. Much of our time was spent exploring the politics of the church, especially as the church responds to the politics of the world. While it was a conference about preaching for preachers, it also revealed the pulse of a significant part of the church at this point in time.

You can recognize the effort given the task at hand by some of the titles presented at the conference. “Politics of Pneuma,” “Preaching: It’s Always Political,” “Preaching to Save the Soul of the Nation,” Politics, Powers, Perils, and Pretenders,” “The Biblical Politics of Gratitude,” and “Pledging Allegiance.” There was no shortage of pointing out the systemic problems of society and ways the current political climate contributes.

Even while engaged in a strong effort, it is difficult to resist the temptation to twist the gospel into shapes that fit the story we already live in. Those who are content find it easy to ask God to bless what is going on, while those who are displeased have tendencies to call for societal change. We all have tendencies to request a word from the Lord while depending on the current political system for our salvation. On any given day we might become convinced that salvation will be attained through American politics.

The dangers of this are obvious. Slipping into partisan thinking will guarantee defensive posturing and finger pointing that result in fracturing and polarizing the body of Christ. This is an obvious departure from the politics of the kingdom. Severe division, name calling, nor alliances with Caesar are the ways of God.

The New Testament does tell of people whose politics permitted them to go to great lengths to protect their way of thinking. They were willing to go against the ways of God to protect the ways of God. It seems that zealots are alive and well in the church. Who knew that when we desire to preach the politics of Jesus it would be so easy to drift into the ways of the world? The people of God need to behave as one in Christ, no matter what our persuasion might be in lesser politics.

Listening to well-meaning preachers trying to wrestle with these issues remind us of the reality of the tension. Despite our desire to be true to kingdom politics, it is still easy to appeal to the existing structures as the way to a remedy. But to establish an alliance with the current system is only to continue the status quo. Changing which party holds the power is not the same as gospel.

It is unfortunate for the church to use the same hermeneutics as CNN and Fox News. It is not good practice to interpret the good news through a lens that strengthens some partisan story. We cannot be faithful to our calling by throwing affirmation to crowds of likeminded people. We cannot be the blessing we are supposed to be by endorsing the existing false narratives that are on the way out.

This all leads to the question – “why is the church so inclined to align itself with dominant culture?” Liberals and conservatives are both guilty of compromise by adjusting belief and behavior in order to support the power of the establishment when it fits the story we think we belong to. I am reminded that French sociologist Jacques Ellul warned “Politics is the church’s worst problem.” He goes on, “It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” To claim to believe that Jesus is King and then put our marbles in with the political structure is a tad contradictory if not hypocritical.


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We are brought together by a God who is bigger than any petty differences. We are family. We carry the news that can save the world. Yet, we still fall for the voices of culture. We not only listen to them, we hold them in high esteem. And it divides us. Our news has always been clear that the ways of the world are unable to save the world. Yet we continue to act as if they can.

It is no easy task to resist the pressures of culture. It has always been difficult to resist principalities and powers. Yet, this is not optional. When we give in to cultural pressures we choose sides and we become divided. We choose lesser, artificial, and temporary ideas about important things like salvation and community. And our choices lead to partisanship in the body.

Interestingly, the word evangelical has become news. And not the news the word evangelical is intended or accustomed to sharing. Flip on the television and find someone trying to convince you that evangelicals are an important voice in the current political landscape. Turn the channel and find someone trying to convince you evangelicals are irrational, hateful and a cancer. Whenever we begin to listen to these voices as a voice for us we are mistaken. Spoiler alert, these voices are not neutral. They say what they say to pander to whoever they think is listening.

The president has become part of the “evangelical” news. And the voices of culture are attempting to draw a line and put you on one side or the other. It is true the president has said some rash things. The president has made some ill-advised decisions. But it isn’t the president’s behavior that worries me most. It is ours. The bickering that is going on inside the church only lends credibility to the misguided ideas that salvation will come through Washington D. C. and our allegiance depends on which side of the aisle we are on.

The church is not a political action committee. This is no lobby group. Perhaps the democrats and republicans are less evil than the Nazi’s, but to align ourselves with either of them is just as bad. We already have a King. And we’ve already been told there is no room for two masters.

Participate in elections. Encourage elected officials. Pray for them. But do not bow at their altars. When you agree with politicians and when you disagree – God is still at work. Even more, God is still in control. And when you start to believe otherwise, you are worshiping at the wrong altar.

It is time to stop participating in the divisive strategies of the world. The fact is, we cannot repair what is severed on our own. We need God. We must learn to listen, learn to disagree, and learn to resist in ways that are faithful. The church must stand together and recognize the opportunity right here in front of us.

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Is work something God is interested in? That was the question explored at a recent forum held at Evangelical Seminary. There is a popular theology of work that goes something like this; 1) Christians should go to work, 2) they should work hard, 3) they should be nice to co-workers (after all, they want to convert them), and 4) they should earn money (in order to give to the church, after all this is where the real work is).

This misses the mark in many ways. Notably, such a view causes a separation between work and church. Instead, Chris Armstrong suggests the following definition for work. 1) a summons 2) to meaningful work 3) in service to others. There are some things missing from this definition. Nothing is said about personal passion and nothing is said about personal strengths. This is intentional. The reality is we can be called to work we do not want. We can be called to things we are good at and things we are not. Our work is not about ladder climbing or personal success. As the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, just because it is not our gift does not make it ok to walk by on the other side.

We need to be honest about work. Work can be incredibly frustrating. Work can be dehumanizing and even violent. Not all work is for the good of others. Work can become an idol, it can separate us from God, separate us from creation, separate us from neighbors. We often tend to dismiss work that is not grand or heroic. But work is not about self-fulfillment, it is about being of value to others. We are made in the image of a working God. There is dignity in work. It is a blessing and gift.

I Thessalonians is helpful at this point. Abraham Malherbe reports that manual labor was held in low esteem by stoic philosophers. Converts to pagan philosophies abandoned their trades and quit their jobs. They spent their time waxing philosophical on the streets. Public perception was that these people were irresponsible and “busybodies who meddled in the affairs of others.”

In contrast, Paul tells the church to “lead a quiet life… attend to your own business… work with your hands… behave properly toward outsiders.” Paul even suggests himself as an example, “recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you… You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.” And again later, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you…”

Douglas A. Campbell offers, “Paul is especially concerned that some Thessalonians are mooching. They are participating in the communal meal but are not contributing to it, being too lazy to work.” Paul says it like this, “some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies…” Holy living requires those in the church not become burdens to others. To work toward some level of self-sufficiency is to demonstrate love for others. This love for one another is to spill over into larger society. Work becomes important for relationships in the body and for witness in the world.

Holiness is not only a work in the heart; it works to benefit the lives of others. We do not work in isolation, work is a social reality. John Wesley might say that personal holiness means little without an accompanying social holiness. Holiness must be externalized, including in one’s business practices. Our calling is relational and dynamic. The well-being of others depends on our work. The parable of the sheep and the goats make clear the importance of work as value to others. And it has eternal implications.

Christianity does not call for us to stop working. It does put our work to new use. It might be more accurate to say that work becomes a context for mission. Our work carries out our love for God and love for others. The rhythm and dance of everyday life is tied to everyday work. The sacred drama is grounded to the daily working world. Grand heavenly things are connected with practical earthly things like daily work. There is something sacred about the everyday and ordinary. Yes, work is definitely something God is interested in

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Lydia. From the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, and a worshiper of God. We meet her in the New Testament book of Acts. We meet her in Philippi, but from the brief introduction, we know she is not a native of that city. We also know she is sympathetic to Jewish religion. In fact, we find her first on the Sabbath where the Jews were going to pray.

Acts tells us about a little about pagans who practiced a Jewish like lifestyle. Though they were not proper converts, they were “worshipers of God.” They cleansed their houses of pagan idolatry and ate kosher. They prayed to God, gave alms, donated to Jewish communities, and on the Sabbath, like Lydia, they could be found at a place of prayer. This lifestyle allowed them to socialize and perhaps do business with fully practicing Jews.

Douglas A. Campbell tells us that a “seller of purple fabrics” implies Lydia was in the toga business. So, here is a toga lesson. Togas were code and everyone understood what your toga said about you. We already know the way this works. We ourselves wear clothes that say something about us. We see others walking around in certain clothes and we begin to make certain inferences about them. This is not a twenty first century phenomenon. It has been this way for a long time, at least since first century people wore their togas around in Roman cities like Philippi.

Purple was the color of choice. The emperor’s toga may have been totally purple. To have purple in your toga meant something respectable. However, purple was expensive. True purple was made by crushing purpura rock snails. Campbell estimates 12,000 snails would produce about 1.4 grams of dye. This is enough purple to perhaps stain the hem of one Roman toga. It would have been less expensive to sprinkle your toga with gold dust. So, even a toga with purple stripes would suggest some wealth.

What if the poor had a flair for fashion? What could they do? They certainly could not afford snail purple. But they could purchase a cheaper substitute. In the regions of Phrygia and Lydia, a plant could be found that produced a lesser purple. Though not the quality of snail purple, it was much more affordable. This was likely the business Lydia was involved in. Campbell tells us her name actually suggests she was once a slave named by her owners after her place of origin, the Lydian region.

We do not want to overlook Lydia. She becomes instrumental in the beginnings of the church in Philippi. Once a slave girl, now free, she relocated to Philippi and continued the business of selling purple fabrics. Interested in religion, she hears the gospel and receives its message. The text says she and her household were baptized. And then Lydia, first convert in Europe, offered her home as a place for the church to gather.

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The tax code states clearly that in order to maintain exempt status, churches may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” This is known as the Johnson Amendment.

Presently, there is a bill underway (H.R. 172) that would allow churches to identify with a political party and to encourage others to support the political party. The stated intention of the bill is “to restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

Before conceding this is a good idea, one should consider the danger of the church identifying with a political party. Alignment with a political party is compromise no matter what government we are talking about. A church that aligns with government ceases to be the church. Before thinking this is a good idea we should consider the ease with which we could divide according to political philosophies. It is dangerous to gather in the name of American politics and convince ourselves if we mention Jesus we are doing the right thing. It might make things easy to mingle with those who are like minded as if we were just another caucus, but we do not gather as democrats or republicans. We gather as the people of God.

As far as free speech, the church has always been a people who say things we are not supposed to say. And we have said these things to people we are not supposed to say them to. We are not inclined to request permission from the state for things we must say. This is true whether or not we are granted the right of free speech.

We already struggle with the way power works and our desire for a piece of it. Even before the proposed repeal, too many of us have been tempted to attach to partisan preferences and join the empire. It is already too easy to think this is where the power lies. It is already too easy to think that working alongside the empire is the best way to get our message out. I am not hopeful that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment benefits the church at all.

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I am in the forest and leaves are falling. At times they are falling so hard it sounds like rain. Looking up, it is like I am watching the hardwoods throwing leaves from their branches and into the arms of the conifers. Who knew the trees played games of catch?

In the book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben teaches us a thing or two about trees. He wants to make sure we know that individual trees are important. At the same time he insists a tree is only as strong as the surrounding forest. When trees unite to create a forest, the whole becomes greater than its parts. The well-being of a tree is dependent on the community of trees. Wohlleben suggests that trees are far more social than we might imagine.

One tree standing alone is at risk. It cannot establish a consistent climate. It suffers alone in wind and weather. But a forest of trees creates an ecosystem that moderates temperature, stores water, and generates humidity. Wohlleben insists that in a forest, trees care for one another. Every tree becomes valuable to the community and is worth keeping around as long as possible. Sick trees even receive support and nourishment from others until they recover.

Wohlleben is convinced that trees are able to communicate with one another. And not only one another, but with other creatures as well.  Who knew? He makes a case that trees care for one another. They share food with one another. The forest is a tree community. They need one another. Maybe those lively trees we read about in stories are not as farfetched as we think. Maybe trees are not the passive plants they appear to be. Maybe that really is a game of catch they are playing above me. Maybe the forest really is an enchanted place.

I am struck by the way Wohlleben talks about the forest in ways the New Testament talks about church. We communicate with one another. We care for one another. Like trees in the forest, we are stronger and more productive when congregated. Alone we are at risk. Together we are the church. We need one another. Just as an individual tree does not make a forest, an isolated Christian does not make a church. It is interesting that both forest and church are the dream of the same imaginative Creator. Perhaps we should not be surprised by any similarities. Whatever future research tells us about trees, I will never walk through the forest the same way again.

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Most of us have probably heard by now about the fourteen articles known as the Nashville Statement. Endorsed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, each article contains an affirmation and a denial regarding gender and sexuality.

This statement has been met with a lot of passion – both for and against it. Those who agree with it have opportunity to sign it online. To encourage more signatures, one can find a list of religious celebrities who have already signed it. Those who are opposed can also point to prominent names who share their opposition. The mayor of Nashville even chimed in by saying the statement “is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city & people of Nashville.”

The content of the document focuses on gender and sexuality. But the discussion has included things like eternal subordination of the Son and complementarianism. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, here are the short definitions; eternal subordination of the Son – Jesus is a subordinate to the Father. And complementarianism – females are subordinate to males. While we can debate whether these things are woven into the document, we do know that those behind the document are influenced by such ideas. Scot McKnight is one convinced these things influence the statement. His response, “Those we can’t trust for orthodoxy on the trinity can’t be trusted when it comes to morality.”

Gender and sexuality are addressed in the bible, sometimes in significant ways. Yet they have never been mentioned in one of the historical creeds. Even if it were appropriate for a creed-like statement like this, many will protest the timing of this document. At a time when many are looking to the church for unity, is this one more thing to divide us?

Creeds have historically addressed essentials of the faith, written to counter strong heresies. We remember them because they affirm things like Christology and Trinity and Incarnation and Resurrection. Yet I suspect that many who feel the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed are unnecessary have already signed the Nashville Statement. I find it concerning that the Nashville Statement communicates a message that suggests agreement with it is necessary for Christian faith.

The Nashville Statement seems to rehearse what has already been said multiple times. To frame it this way comes across as cognitive and impersonal rather than pastoral or relational. Perhaps a helpful question to ask is “does this statement help the local church in its ministry to people spoken about in the statement?” I am not sure it does, in fact it may hinder.

The fact is, statements like these make me nervous. They suggest we have things figured out. They tend to position themselves in a place of authority where they do not belong. Instead of a statement drawn up in a back room I would prefer something more incarnational, something that looks people in the eye when we are talking to them.

The danger is that even when the Nashville Statement speaks the truth, it falls short at speaking the truth in love. Style cannot be separated from substance. Message cannot be separated from medium. Public statements like these are often written for those already in agreement with them and do not serve a pastoral purpose. That seems to be the case with the Nashville Statement. What we need is a church that is serious about loving those we meet along the way, not another statement.

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