Worship as Resistance

Soon we will be gathering again for congregational worship. I suspect that certain things come to mind when we think of worship. Maybe singing, maybe praying, maybe preaching, or maybe something else entirely. Here is something that might not come to mind, Christian worship is, and always has been, a resistance movement. The church is a rebellion against the way things are. That has not changed. When we begin to gather together again, we will be gathering as a resistance movement. But we want to be clear, our decision to get together at this time will not be a rebellion against recommendations for health and safety.

The Bible includes some pretty clear examples of rebellion against earthly regimes. Remember the story about Pharaoh and Egypt? Have you heard the stories about how Daniel defied the kings order and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down? In the New Testament there are times when government appears to be operating for the good and the Bible exhorts us to recognize that. But by the time we get to the Revelation things have changed significantly and governing bodies are being mocked and judged severely.

If we are ever asked or ordered to bow down to the state there is little doubt as to what the expectations for the church will be. After all, we are a resistance movement. But the fact is, we can agree with the government when it makes recommendations for health and safety reasons. Being a people called to love our neighbors, if sheltering in place has indeed limited the spread of the coronavirus then the state has played into our hand.

When we begin meeting again, we will not be congregating in order to defy health organizations or government attempts to keep us safe. The fact is, governors and presidents are not health professionals. They are simply communicating information after listening to their advisors which may include health professionals. Be glad you are not making these decisions and pray for those who are. There have been and will be times for the church to rebel against authorities. Those times do not include the times that the state is attempting to keep citizens safe.

We will meet again for the same reasons we do anything. We will meet because we are called to a greater war than coronavirus. We are involved in a war against strongholds of darkness that can only be defeated by light and love and sticking with the ways of God no matter what gets in the way. The Bible wants to be clear that this war is not against flesh and blood. It is against powers and principalities.

Whether you plan to gather for worship with a physical group of believers or if you are still worshipping with a group that is meeting online, remember, there is something big going on. And you are called to be part of it.

Politics and Theology

Recently, Wayne Grudem became news when he responded to an editorial that supported the removal of the president from office. In his disagreement, he wrote a response which resulted in my discovery of his book Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of this massive book (601 pages) before now, but it definitely sheds light on Grudem’s interest in making his opinion known.

Grudem writes as a systematic theologian. It may be that systematic theologians can’t help themselves. They cannot help but systematize and categorize and organize everything into tidy compartments. After all, such thinking gives clarity to complicated issues. I suspect that Grudem sees this book as a “theology of political thought in America.” Others might consider it propaganda for an American political party. I am left wondering if there is anything wrong with encouraging a reading of the biblical metanarrative in ways that influence our thinking about all matters (including politics). Maybe a new hermeneutics text is in order.

As we know all too well, it is quite easy to read our presuppositions into the text, it is quite another matter to read the text into our presuppositions. Though I suspect his motives are good and likely spurred on by moralism and ethical concerns, in the end Grudem seems to present a god in the image of a particular sector of American politics. I am just saying, whether that is your preferred sector or not, that is a small and temporary god. You may agree with many or all of Grudem’s conclusions yet feel uneasy about what is happening here.

Grudem appears content to do the thinking for the reader. You may never have to think for yourself again. If you are curious about what the biblical text says about nearly any public issue, all you have to do is consult Grudem’s massive volume for the answers. As with all attempts of talking overly systematic about God, this tames the deity and promotes a false confidence that we have this thing figured out. My friend Wayne (a different Wayne) would say this is disrespect toward a God who wired us for critical thinking.

This book runs the risk of replacing church with politics. Why go to church if the thought process is the same as CNN or Fox News or Facebook or Twitter? Why go to church if the preacher will simply be coughing up the same stuff you hear all week long?

Doing Business With God in Public

In Surprised by Scripture, N. T. Wright makes a short but worthwhile foray into the question of a public theology. He is right, we should have been exploring this for a long time. The conversations that occur in the news involving the so called “evangelicals” don’t count. For example, a Christian periodical recently called for the president to be removed from office. This prompted an uproar from some and prompted the president to make claims he is a champion for “evangelicals.” This is a peripheral conversation at best. At worst, it implies that the church’s witness is dependent on who holds political office. No matter your feelings about the president, whether you prefer him in or out, he does not speak for the church and he certainly is not the spokesperson for God.

Wright brings up the possibility that we try to retain the appearance of a public theology by attempting to control God on election day. If this claim is true (and it very well may be) this is a dangerous place to be. The fact is, when the church joins a “secular” force in order to strengthen its own power it is nothing less than idolatry. The powers of the world will be agreeable with the church as long as the church serves the desired purposes of the state. This is easy to forget when things seem to be going well but history reveals that the world’s powers will turn on the church if we no longer serve its purposes.

A lot of energy is spent trying to convince us there are great differences between “secularists” and “fundamentalists.” Wright calls them “ugly brothers” and “doppelgangers.” Their arguments and disagreements are no more than a shouting match. Both are claiming that the right vote, the right person, the right party in power will make things right. No matter how different opposing political philosophies may appear to be – they are only two extremes of an already discredited world view.

Wright takes us to the New Testament Gospels where we are told about the “reality of new creation called God’s kingdom… And the reason why those who made that announcement were persecuted was because God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world.” Meanwhile the church continues to insist that Jesus is Lord and does not reject the God given rule even of pagans. This is important for it appears we have lost the ability “to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed.”

We are correct if we hold that the Bible has a high theology that God calls rulers. But the Bible has an equal (if not greater) theology of the church’s witness and martyrdom. Oh, “Doing business with God in public is always complicated, but it is never dull.” Wright is right… our politics are too small.

Things We Should Be Talking About

I am pretty sure I always enjoy lunch. But it is possible that I have enjoyed it even more the past several weeks. I met with Mike, Harry, John, Frank, Daryl, Steve, and Jeff at the Rusty Rail. I met with Joe and Joe at Buffalo Wild Wings. I met with Mark and Tim at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus. I met with Bowles and Frank at Susquehanna Harvest.

I am pretty sure I enjoyed the food during each of these meals. But it isn’t the food that has stuck in my mind. It is the conversation. Aside from the fact that I am pretty sure I’ve been dining with geniuses, at every one of these gatherings we talked about things we should be talking about.

It is so easy to avoid talking about things that do not seem to be in front of us at the moment. Even when we know others are affected by certain issues, we can step around them if they do not seem to be affecting us directly. Some of our sister churches have entered some of these conversations, not all the them in helpful ways. It is time we enter the conversations. It is not good enough to say “we don’t believe in that” or “everyone else is wrong.” It is not good enough to pretend there are simple solutions to issues that become very complicated.

Conversation will prepare us to talk as a united voice. It will permit us to allow some diversity of opinion without becoming defensive. It will help us when the day arrives that we feel confronted by the issue directly. It will assist us as we attempt to support others in the universal church. It will assist us in the ways we attempt to love the world.

Obviously, this isn’t one issue. We could form an entire list of things we should be talking about in more formal settings than lunch. Some of the things that came up from my genius friends during these lunches include;

  • Violence (for some this means guns, I think it’s bigger than that)
  • Women in Ministry (even if we don’t understand why this is an issue at all)
  • LGBTQ (a population that thinks the church is mean?)
  • Race (how can this even remain an issue? But silence will not help)
  • Politics (will we ever understand that “Jesus is Lord” is our political phrase?)
  • Systematic theology (why do things meant for good divide the Body so severely?)
  • I suspect there are many things we should be talking about and are not…

We didn’t talk about all of these issues at any one of the above gatherings. I am not proposing that anyone is expert on any of these issues. I am simply suggesting it would be wrong to isolate ourselves from them and that we should be talking about them. Let’s talk…

The Donalds, the Nancys, and the Enemy

For some reason, it has become natural to hear the voices of culture and feel the need to choose one issue or another. It might be more accurate to say we feel the need to choose one side or another. Unfortunately, much of the cultural dialogue is not dialogue at all. I am not convinced the issue matters as much as who is stating it. There is little evidence that those in places of influence are even convinced of their own perspective. But they are quite certain about who they oppose.

The current subject of impeachment is a prime example. Impeachment has become just another strategy for some who desire power to make a statement about how unworthy of office their opponents are. Whether the president is impeached or not will likely not be determined by whether he committed an impeachable offense, but by whether he or his opponents can rally more people to their side. I fear we have entered a time where extreme measures will become commonplace. Once upon a time, something like impeachment would have been discussed with caution, now it appears it has become standard political strategy. The question is not whether Trump should be impeached or whether Clinton should have been. The question is “how were Bush and Obama able to avoid it?”

This should remind those in the church of the mission at hand. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to get along with those who share a different opinion. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to love even enemies. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that the Donalds and the Nancys are not the enemy. Here is opportunity for the church to be the church.

Morality and the Ways of God

It is unfortunate the church continues to be full of voices and rhetoric that sound a lot like American politics.  It is not uncommon for someone to state a preferred political position, add scripture or a theological point, and act as if it is the same as gospel. This raises many questions. One of them, “Is it ok to lean on existing political structures?” And if it is, “How do we know when it is appropriate?” Further, “How do we recognize when we have simply become another voice that supports an existing political structure?”

I was reminded recently that there are very blurry lines in parts of the church regarding this conversation. Some obviously believe a call to activism is the same as the gospel. There are benefits to activism. It shines light on a cause. The world is a better place because of the efforts of some activists. Because of the social good that can come from it, it is no surprise to find Christians participating in some of these efforts. Yet, we must remember that our moral causes and efforts in the culture wars are not the same as the gospel.

We can celebrate when government makes changes for moral reasons. But we must be clear, we are people who live by God’s Good News whether government declares it legal or not. We are not dependent on the government for social good. The world will never be made right by government intervention or hashtag movements. In fact, our moral causes and activism can become distractions that prevent us from demonstrating gospel.

The hope of the world is not dependent on political structures. A church that has become dependent on political structures ceases to be the church. It is the gathering, loving, grace-giving, sending people of God who demonstrate what hope looks like. How will the world ever know the ways of God without a people called church? We know that God so loved the world. We demonstrate that love best through the ways of God and not by the ways of the world.

Fascinated with Politics

Religion’s fascination with earth’s politics is not new. Reinhold Niebuhr writes about a Dr. Frank Buchman, an evangelist who founded the Oxford Group. He was quoted, after returning from Europe, as saying “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front-line defense against the anti-Christ of communism… My barber in London told me Hitler saved all Europe from communism… Think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God… Through such a man God could control a nation overnight and solve every last bewildering problem”

A New Game in Town

I have run across an interesting quote from Peter Leithart from his book Against Christianity. Get a load of this;

“So long as the church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly ‘political’ reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands… As soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town. The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.”

A Counter Politic

Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

Wednesdays with Daniel

We have been gathering on Wednesdays to read the Old Testament book of Daniel. Together, we are asking questions of the text, engaging the text, and trying to discern what the text means for a church in the twenty-first century. Surprisingly, Daniel does not encourage a particular diet or give tips on dream interpretation. Here are some things that Daniel does seem interested in;

1, the state wants us to become good citizens of the state, the state is uninterested in making disciples for Jesus.

2, it is not only a Babylonian notion to acknowledge God as a prop for the state.

3, exile continues to be a good metaphor for where we live and how we are to live today.

4, catering to a culture of power, control, and unrealistic perspectives of self can drive one to insanity.

5, it is possible to live in a pagan culture without becoming tainted by it.

6, we should care about rulers and pray for them. We should appeal to their humanness, not their sinfulness.

7, rulers and governments will continue to come and go – only God remains eternal.

8, God is ruler over kings, nations, and history.

9, the wisdom of God is superior to human wisdom, even the best Babylon has to offer.

10, God has always been a delivering, saving God.