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Posts Tagged ‘division’

Upon graduation my spiritual journey continued as a pastor in a small rural setting. It was a perfect fit; I was raised with people just like them and knew their ways of thinking. Or at least I thought I did. I was married while here and they did seem excited about that. But, I was not prepared for the way they thought about church. During this time there was much I learned about living in Christian community. I was thinking about the joys of ministering alongside others. I was thinking about helping people get excited about the word. I was thinking about baptisms and administering communion. I was eager for much, some of it happened. So did some things I was not expecting. I learned firsthand that Christians divide, even in a small rural church. I learned people can be impatient. I learned that things said in your absence do not always match what is said in your presence.

I learned the people of God are not a perfect group. The people of God can be an awkward bunch that can become caught up in untruth or division. The people of God are not always easy to work with. Still, these are the people of God. Despite difficulties and differences, we all belong to a Kingdom where we are treasured. We belong to a God who patiently walks with us as we develop in maturity.

My personal practices of exegesis and reading strengthened. I suspect this was partly due to the difficulties I faced outside the study. I was struggling with a pastoral theology that matched my biblical theology. It was as if I could point to things of significant meaning on Sundays but weekdays had me scrambling to respond to the challenges of leading a congregation. There were times it was difficult to maintain a sense of adventure. After one difficult meeting with the board, I purchased a copy of In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Peter Waterman. I think my plan was to fine tune the operation of the church to run so smoothly that even those who thought differently than me would change their mind. This was reactionary and uninspiring. It is difficult to juggle a spirituality based on the Bible one day and one that helps IBM remain successful on the other days.

It is now clear to me that the Spirit was working on me in ways that were not visible to me at the time. My history to this point had emphasized the spirituality of spontaneity. Anything else was something other than the Spirit. Planning and other liturgical practice was something for other churches. So was further education. Somehow during this time I was influenced to begin thinking that the Spirit could indeed work in advance. The God who is able to work in loud preachers and spontaneous displays is able to work in the study, the liturgy, even in written prayers. I was growing as a disciple by recognizing the sovereignty of God.

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I open the bible and read a passage like Genesis 15.13 and it is obvious that God knows in advance Israel will serve as slaves to Pharaoh. Further into the Genesis narrative (chapter 41) I read that Pharaoh has a dream and it is obvious that God knows things, in fact God can make things happen. Malachi 3.6 says clearly, “I the Lord, do not change.” I love these portrayals of God. They make it clear that God is sovereign and is actively involved in history. But please, do not call me a classical theist.

I also open the bible to read Exodus 4.24-26 and find that God planned to put Moses “to death.” But Zipporah intervened. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God “expected” his vineyard to produce good grapes and it instead produced worthless ones. The prophet Jeremiah quotes God to say “Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.” I love portrayals of God that remind me of God’s interest in creation and relationship with his people. But please, do not call me an open theist.

Both classical theists and open theists claim biblical support for their positions. This reminds us of the complications that emerge when we attempt to answer questions the text is not asking. Neither classical theists nor open theists use the bible faithfully when they use it as a manual to support their claims. The bible is clear that to walk in relationship with God is to experience both sovereignty and surprise.

Traditionally the church has always had a diversity of opinion about multiple matters, including the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans. While not all of us have ever agreed with all proposed positions, we have continued to consider these views within orthodoxy. I am puzzled why some think it necessary to think differently about open theism.

Put me on record as saying those who lean towards open theism would benefit from conversation with those who have a stronger view of sovereignty. I also think that classical theists would benefit by being challenged by those who emphasize free will. And we all should allow ourselves to be challenged by biblical texts that raise these questions.

The church will be strengthened by honest conversation about our differences. This becomes very important. Our witness demands that we demonstrate what such conversation looks like to a world that does not talk about different opinions very well. We must be careful not to label something a heresy because it is different than the way we think. It would be preferable and certainly more Christian if we were able to see differences as opportunities for learning to disagree in ways that are in line with what we teach.

The bible is clear that God is in charge. God is aware of our eschatological futures. God has a plan for the world. On these things we can agree. But it is not our place to tell God what specifics God knows or to convince ourselves we have God figured out. Quite frankly, it is difficult to find the God of systematic theology debates very interesting. I prefer the God of the bible who appears to do whatever he wants and who surprises us with the way it is done.

Open theism and classical theism are both attempts to explain God in ways that make sense to the explainer. It is complicated to address something with clarity when it may not be intended for us to be clear about it. That is why we must constantly enter and reenter the muddy waters of the text. Acknowledging we do not know everything that is under the surface. We want to be a people willing to walk into the text and stay there – no matter what happens.

For those who think that to not argue for one side or the other is to settle for contradiction. I submit we should remind ourselves the bible does not appear to be bothered by this. Perhaps we shouldn’t be either.

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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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So John MacArthur is challenging N. T. Wright. He calls Wright’s writings “a mass confusing ambiguity, contradiction, and obfuscation.” (Extra credit to MacArthur for using the word obfuscation). He credits Wright with “academic sleight of hand.” In the end, MacArthur accuses Wright of propagating a false gospel. You can watch the video here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZJEZiLfYHk

Regardless of whether one takes sides in this situation, we ought to ask ourselves how disagreement should be handled in the church.

MacArthur may come across as funny or clever when he makes a statement like “N. T. Wrong.” Still, to vilify our sisters and brothers does not communicate that we are one body. Even in our differences we are to communicate unity not division. Anything else hinders our witness.

I wish we could see disagreement as an opportunity to demonstrate how we are different than the world. Can we not talk to one another rather than about one another? There will be disagreement. Of that we can be sure. But the way we disagree becomes very important.

I admit to be influenced by a book I’ve been reading this past month. Perhaps I should send MacArthur a copy. Maybe he has read it. The title is I Corinthians. This book has had it with division. Every page is seeking unity. Throughout I Corinthians we are reminded that in a context of disagreement we will learn much about who we are. I Corinthians may not be against the world, but it is against bringing the ways of the world into the church. I Corinthians wants us to know the church is a different way to live. Why would the world be interested in what we say or do in our disagreements if we disagree the same way as everyone else?

Even our disagreements should insist on unity. The way we disagree matters much to not only our unity, but also our public witness.

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