The Prophetic – Speaking Truth to Power

This one aspect of the prophetic ministry to the church takes a turn from the upbuilding of the church. One could see this as the prophetic witness of the church to speak to those in places of power. Speaking truth to power has it roots in the OT prophets in the varied calls to embrace justice and care for the poor and marginalized. This is the simultaneous call for the people of God to reflect the alternative community of theKingdomofGodand to address those institutions in the world system that would hinder the cause of justice and compassion.

We can’t expect the world system to reflect the justice of God. However, we can call the powers that be into account when justice is not worked out and the people on the margins are neglected. This is often viewed as meddlesome by some Christians who think our only task as the church is to save lost souls. Saving lost souls is only the beginning of God’s purposes in the earth. Salvations is not only about individuals but also communities and the transformation of God’s creation. The church is an expression of the new creation which is (or least should be) a glaring contrast to the system of the world.

One way to speak of this new reality is through the arts. Keith Giles wrote a blog post regarding the role of the prophetic in the arts.  This may provide a way for those creative types in the Body of Christ to speak prophetically and speak truth to power. In addition, this can provide a way of envisioning the alternative community that the world needs to see. Creativity in the church should not be limited to the sugar coating of some pop culture expression but express that deep and burning longing found in the very heart of God for humanity that bears His image. So what would such art look like?  Ultimately, such artwork will challenge and inspire the church and the world. For the church, it would be a reminder to rise to her calling. For the world, a reminder that all is not okay and transformation is needed. For those in power, a reminder that the power they have is fleeting and is subject to the power of God in the cross of Christ.

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Teachers in Church Life

Next up is the role of teacher in the church; how this works out traditionally and possibilities in an emerging/organic context. Teaching is oft associated with transmitting knowledge, from teacher to student via facts, figures and later evaluation (read here, testing). The teaching that occurs from kindergarten to high school and on is of this sort. Granted the higher one goes in education, the more one has to show and defend independent thought and research. Yet teaching in the church is more than just passing along knowledge but also the passing on of wisdom. Wisdom is that richness of life experience that has put the knowledge to work by discerning the why and how. I like to think of it as knowledge tried by fire.

The church passes along her wisdom in a variety of ways. Need we look further than Sunday School? Growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, Sunday School was the morning preface to the worship service. Bible stories were taught to the children, (often sanitized for safety reasons) while teens and adults ventured deeper into the text. Application and theology come together though not at an academic level.

The teaching for those called to ministry takes a different turn. The place of Bible schools, Christian colleges and seminaries is a ministerial rite of passage for many churches and denominations. Considering the disciples in the 1st Century, not all were as educated as Paul. Yet most denominations require an M.Div for ordination. Is this necessary for those called to ministry? What of the many called in developing countries who neither have the education nor the finances to pursue such education? This may be an oversight that Western churches need to rethink. Above all else if the academic work has no traction in the real world of practice why continue on such a path? Must we preserve the ivory towers?

Teaching in an emerging/organic context might look a bit different. First, the teaching will be practical, modeled and illustrated in the life of the one teaching. Next, the teaching may not even look like ‘traditional’ teaching but more like a conversation. Openness and participation are common requisites in such a faith community. Third, teaching can be more inviting for those on the fringes of the flock. Having an open time of discussion regarding scripture, doctrine or theology over coffee, beer or cigars could reach people who would never darken the door of a church house. The leadership expressed in the work of a teacher is that of influence and friendship along with the shaping of the concepts, ideas and language of the faith community.

Whether academic or fiercely practical, the teaching of the church should reflect the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Teachers likewise should reflect the character and style of the Rabbi Jesus. Above all else is the need for utter dependence on the Holy Spirit in teaching. That Spirit leads us to all truth, the fullness of Christ.

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The Christian Label

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way “Christian” became an overused adjective. I’m sure the creation of a Christian sub-culture in America helped in this respect with a wide variety of Christian products to serve up. We have Christian variations of television, radio, music, movies, singles websites, social media and on and on. It seems with the advent of any new type of trendy cultural contrivance the sub-culture seems to need to devise a Christian version of said device. This need to subvert culture in such an impetuous way seems a betrayal of the way of Jesus.

This reactionary recklessness is evident in the recent destruction of Serrano’s controversial artwork. Keith Giles offers an insightful response in Christians Unclear on the Concept. The need for a Christian sub-culture will only produce artistic works that are sub-par. This encourages the retreat to a Christian ghetto mentality. The need for clean, safe and holy artwork neglects a great deal of our human situation. The challenge for Christians in any sort of culture creation is the need to move beyond safe sub-culture to fully engage culture. The perpetuation of a Christian sub-culture is nothing short of cowardice. We are called to go into the world so why create things that are labeled “Christian?”

The people are Christian not the stuff. Going to the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus were commonly called followers of the Way or disciples. They are first called Christians in Antioch. Also, take into account how Paul spoke of the believers in the churches he raised up. He called them, saints. Also, brothers and sisters. Off the top of my head, I don’t believe he ever called them, “Christians.” So as disciples and followers of Christ, let’s drop “Christian” as an unnecessary adjective to describe what we do. Instead, let Christian be what we are.

grace and peace,

JWR

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Authority and Apostolic Traditions

The end of Matthew’s gospel has Jesus proclaiming that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. This seems to be a proper starting point and the source of the church’s authority. Some will argue that the authority is in the apostles (especially Peter) and the traditions they hand down. Yet if we look at the biblical record, the traditions are very simple. Gospel. Baptism. Eucharist.

The gospel proclaimed by the apostles was not overblown theological fluff, nor elaborate dogmatics, nor propositional arguments for God’s existence. The gospel story evinced in apostolic preaching is that of a Jewish rabbi that was crucified and was raised from the dead. The call to respond to the gospel wasn’t and isn’t responding to things about him but rather responding to him. This living Christ is the one in whom to find salvation, healing, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. Things are made right between God and humanity and between fellow human beings in Christ.

Baptism is the symbol of the reception of that person the gospel proclaims. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is symbolized in the immersion (death) and raising up (resurrection) of the believer. The picture painted in baptism is powerful yet simple. This powerful simplicity likewise can open the possibility to presenting the gospel again to those who witness it. Baptism also symbolizes our entry into the new covenant and the community if that covenant.

The final tradition handed down is the Eucharist. This is the celebration of the broken body of Jesus Christ and of the blood he shed for the new covenant. The Eucharist was taken within the context of a meal. The later reduction of the celebration to a wafer and a sip of wine seems to overlook the sense of community found in a communal meal. Likewise, the service of the Eucharist limited to one person takes away from the priesthood of all believers and the serving of one another in the church. The Eucharist is a celebration that all should have the privilege and opportunity to serve to one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.

The apostolic traditions are not elaborate but simple. This simplicity however does not mean that a wealth of meaning and spiritual insight is not available in these traditions. A minimalist view of apostolic tradition provides a simple expression of Christian faith in practice, which one can easily pass on. Granted simple need not provide an outright rejection of sophisticated expressions either. Simplicity allows for a starting point that is accessible to all.

Just as the person of Christ is the source of the apostolic traditions, so too is he the source of any authority in the church. Only one man has all the authority for the church, that man is Jesus Christ. So do we look to the Sent One or someone else?  Do we embrace the simplicity (and depths) found in Christ or someone or something else?  Should what we pass down to new believers become a who instead?

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The Question of Evil

The question of evil, also known philosophically as the problem of evil, is a perennial dilemma within Christianity and the Abrahamic religions. Briefly stated, if God is loving and all powerful why is there evil and suffering? This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times had an article dealing with this problem as seen through the eyes of Vincent Bugliosi, an agnostic who is a former LA county prosecutor and has written a book, Divinity of Doubt that tackles this question. While having not read the book, I will address some points raised in the article.

One point he raises is, “according to Christianity, God, being all-powerful, could have stopped all of this [regarding the Holocaust]. But he apparently decided it was just fine with him.”  Here he has expressed the conception so prevalent in philosophy of religion and in some areas of theology. This is not the conception of God presented in the Bible. The suffering of humanity and the evil perpetrated by the same is the concern of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God took on human flesh and suffered on a cross at the hands of religion and empire. This God is near in Spirit, who comforts and comes along side us in the midst of our sorrows.  Our brokenness is not “just fine” with God and he desires our healing and restoration.

He also states, in reference to the God of Christians, “…if they have any respect for logic, they’re going to have to redefine him.” Those with an Anselmian perspective of ‘faith seeking understanding’ may take Bugliosi to task regarding the rationality of the Christian faith. One can give reasons and justifications for religious belief in coherent ways. Alvin Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense” is a refutation of the logical problem of evil by appeal to human freedom and possibility and is widely accepted by many philosophers. The redefining of God is another matter. Defining reality, including God, is endemic to Western thought. Maybe we in the west should take a hint from those in the east and stop trying to define God. Maybe it’s more of a matter of being defined by God and responding accordingly. Of course, such redefining may not be amenable to Bugliosi.

Rationality has its place in the Christian faith but reason is not the only aspect of the faith. Some, like Tertullian, go the other direction of “I believe because it is absurd.” This is a facet of the Christian faith that embraces the mystery and ineffability of God. This approach to faith can provide a place for agnosticism because of the limits of reason. An investigation into the medieval mystics might provide some insights into the Christian faith in whicht Bugliosi might find some common ground.

Just on the surface, this challenge to God does not take into account the many facets of the Christian faith and the multiplicity of responses to the problem of evil. He seems to treat Christianity as a monolithic entity when in reality; the multifaceted expressions of the Body of Christ provides many answers, some better than others. The Body of Christ continues the earthly ministry of her head. If Jesus came to those who are blind, broken and poor, those subjected to evil; shouldn’t we continue the ministry of healing and proclamation of freedom? Do we want to participate in the work of God? Or do we stay content in our own little domain?

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Doubts

When I was 22 and recently married, I faced a time of extreme doubt. I was fresh out of college with a BA in philosophy and ready to take on grad school at SWBTS. Yet in the midst of preparing for the academic journey, God seemed silent and distant and missing. This went on for months (in hindsight, roughly 9 months) with no relief, just a leaden sky. One way of describing this experience is that in a similar way it was like Descartes’ use of doubt to find that place of certainty, but not voluntarily so.One day this spiritual drought ended and the one place that I found as unshakeable was the cross of Christ.  The historical reality and spiritual significance of that event gave me courage to move on with my spiritual journey.  That defining moment in my life, that moment of great clarity I may never forget, especially since I remember standing in the  kitchen of my  apartment, shaken to my core.

I doubted but began to believe again. If I could not doubt the cross, I could not doubt the resurrection. If I could not doubt the resurrection, I could not doubt his ascension. If I could not doubt his ascension, I could not doubt the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost. The narrative of the church from before creation to now, was the story I was involved in now.  That moment of being shaken was the beginning of a work that, however haltingly it proceeds, is necessary for Christ to be formed in me.

Yet, this spiritual formation of Christ in my life is not for me alone but for his bride, the church. It is Christ in the community that is paramount. The work of the cross in my life has been limited by my despising the body that Christ seeks to bring life. I nursed some deep anger, bitterness and disappointment because of the expectations of some brothers. I was stubborn for far too long. I was still doubting but in a different way. I doubted that the Spirit of God could work in others like She was in me. I had expectations that were shattered and this threw me off balance. I doubted the freedom God has to work through whom and in whom He desired. I am slowly beginning to see the body of Christ with new eyes. For that I am grateful to God.

I still doubt but I still have faith. The doubt is my own, the faith is from God. I am beginning to trust in God in ways I never imagined. I believe in the cross of Christ and His resurrection from the dead. I believe in His church that is called to be His bride, body and temple. Though I doubt, I will trust the One who died and reconciled the world to God. Though I doubt, I will trust God’s grace even in the midst of my unbelief. The love of God is greater than any doubt. One day doubt will fade away. But in the meantime, doubt can purify and temper our faith. In some instances, it may be doubt that drives us to total abandonment to God.

Grace and peace,

JWR

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