Archive for March, 2011

Once you see how an Anabaptist approaches baptism, it becomes easier to understand why and how s/he makes determinations about other issues. At the heart of much of anabaptism is choice, more accurately, at the heart of anabaptism is the lack of coercion.  For many Anabaptists, Jesus is the one who humbled Himself unto death. He forced no one to embrace Him, to follow Him, to worship Him. This is more than a type of libertarian freedom, but a commitment that Jesus does not force His very self on anyone, even knowing that the curtailing of such freedom is in the individual’s best interest.

One of the places this is evident is in Anabaptists’ approaches to church/state issues. Since both the Catholic and Protestant churches continued to baptize infants, which made citizens of the baptized, when Anabaptists refused baptism to children they were also making a statement about empire, kingdom and state. The early Anabaptists (and I’m compiling three separate groups in the 16th Century Radical Reformation) saw the state as antithetical to the kingdom of God. In response, the church was to remain distinct from the state (we’ll talk about The Schleitheim Confession next time). The early Anabaptists witnessed how devastating the entanglements of church and state had become and they wanted no parts of it. At all!

Clearly, some Anabaptist groups have taken this impulse to separation to an extreme; the Amish for instance. Behind the Amish itch to create a separate world is a deeply held belief that intermingling with “the world” would corrupt the church. History, including the Reformation itself, has given us much evidence that they were and are right. However, the limitations of separatist movements is nearly self-evident.

The way this instinct in Anabaptism gets played out among mainstream Anabaptist like myself is predominately in the political realm. Caricatures of evangelicals are what they are, but I have never been a congregant of a church where American Flags adorned the walls; though you would see flags from  countries where the church supported missionaries. In Anabaptist churches you will be hard pressed to find church leaders advocating a particular political agenda, or suggesting to congregants who they should vote for. As a matter of fact, in most of the churches I have been a part of, if someone were to do so, many people would be offended, even if they agreed with the politics themselves. In Anabaptists churches You will not typically find big to-dos on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July. We find ways to both honor the service of our members who have sacrificed for America and acknowledges that all humankind are our brothers and sisters. 

Our instinct is that church and state don’t mix. What’s more, for many Anabaptists, open political discussions in church would be considered coercive. Politics change, Jesus does not! We make our camp on Jesus, everything else is too transitory. Anabaptists see the church as a kingdom within a country, and while you are free to advocate in whatever way you like outside church life, Anabaptists are suspicious and uncomfortable with political advocacy inside it. As a matter of fact, early leaders in my tribe, like David Lipscomb, abstained from participation in civil government and, believe it or not, some of our current thought-leaders do so as well.

This approach to church and state is strange to many evangelical and Catholic believers.  But Anabaptists have never minded being thought of as strange.

More to come…

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I was raised, and remain, in a somewhat Anabaptist faith community (Churches of Christ). Most people don’t know what Anabaptism is, even people who are a part of Anabaptist’s communities and hold Anabaptist’s commitments often don’t know. This has happened because true, historic Anabaptism hasn’t ever been terribly popular. What remains in the 21st-Century are vestiges and fragments of 16th-Century Anabaptism – Mennonites, Churches of Christ, Amish, Brethren, etc…. This is unfortunate, because I, for one, believe recovering that the heart of Anabaptism is crucial for communicating faith in Jesus as we lean into the future.

Therefore, I want to give some space to articulate the best parts of Anabaptism. I want to describe what Anabaptism is and how it differs from popular, American evangelicalism and the emerging and strengthening, hard-edged, mean-spiritedness NeoReformed movement in America.

Let’s begin with the most obvious commitment of Anabaptists: Believer’s Baptism. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  During the Reformation, as Martin Luther was breaking with the Catholic Church, many, particularly in Switzerland, believed Luther’s Reformation wasn’t going far enough. Thus the “Radical Reformation” was birthed.

The root issue was pedobaptism (infant baptism). Anabaptists, through their reading of scripture, determined that baptism was a practice for people who choose trust in Jesus for themselves, rather than received faith as a family heritage. In days when baptism into the church was tantamount to becoming a citizen of the state/empire (we’ll talk about Anabaptist’s views of church and state later), Anabaptists  said “No,” and began to “re-baptize” one another.

At the time, the church the world over baptized infants, making them both citizens of the church and the state. Anabaptists believed this to be improper. Luther and the Reformers, for their own theological and sociological reasons, maintained the practice of infant-baptism. This simple commitment that discipleship into the way of the Lord should be volitional is what made the Radical Reformation radical.

While lots of groups now practice “believer’s baptism” this wasn’t the case in the 16th-Century. The early Anabaptists were counter cultural, bucking the established church, the emerging Lutheran church and the state all at the same time. This instinct towards anti-institutionalism remains part of me and Anabaptism. And if you think the mode of baptism isn’t or shouldn’t have been a big deal, I will only point out that many of the Radical Reformers were hunted down and killed for believing it was.

Earlier in my pastoral career I attempted, as many have, to distance my theology from the hard, sectarian stance on baptism I inherited as a youth. Fortunately I did. And fortunately, I didn’t. I maintain that God enters a relationship with a person whenever God chooses and it’s not my place to say when that is (Through the years, some Anabaptists had come to believe that baptism was somehow magical and was the only hope anyone had of knowing God). Yet at the same time, I think there is something vitally important about each person making a personal decision to take on Jesus for themselves. Faith is not something your parents can bestow.

There you have it, the beginning of what it means to be Anabaptist. What do you think?

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A Snarky Note:

Oddly, many people in my tradition have come to practice a defacto infant-baptism as we press harder and harder to baptize children younger and younger. Parent’s who won’t let their kids choose their own order off the menu at Chili’s are baptizing their children at terribly young ages out of a fear that, “They might not ask again.”

Please!

Unboxing the NIV 2011

Posted: March 17, 2011 in Bible, history

Just received my new NIV 2011, which replaces the NIV 1984 (the most popular English translation ever) and the TNIV (which was better than the NIV, but ruffled some feathers). At any rate, for serious study, I still prefer the NRSV (widely thought of as “the scholar’s Bible), but for teaching and preaching on the popular level, the NIV is a safe choice (because that’s what most people have).

Here’s my unboxing:

Recently the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse has been animated by the issue of hell and universalism. It was all launched by criticism of Rob Bell’s newest book “Love Wins.”

Thank Goodness!!

Nothing is more central to the meaning of life, the nature of God and the purpose of existence than Heaven & Hell. And it’s about high time the church got serious about what the Bible says and doesn’t say; what  is mindless traditionalism; what is neo-interpretive nonsense and what we can and cannot say with confidence. There are thousands of issues and troubles around understanding hell rightly. And the issues aren’t new. Neither Bell nor his detractors are saying anything that hasn’t been said for hundreds of years.

Is there eternal conscious torment? Are souls tormented for a while then destroyed? Is there no hell at all? These are tough questions. And my guess is that if  you strongly support one of those positions already, you’ve already thought of four or five proof-texts to defend what you think. Here’s the problem: The people that support a different view thought of four or five texts too.

The Bible is massive, massively complicated, and terribly important. We owe it to ourselves, and those we love and minister to, to understand as much as we can about eternity and God’s salvific ends. That means listening to different voices and taking their position seriously. Here’s the thing: The traditional view of hell (eternal conscious punishment) is the most popular. Therefore, when we read scriptures about hell, we interpret it in view of that perspective. Yet, by no means is it the ONLY interpretation that has been at play in the history of the church. Plus, we can never forget: When someone says, “The Bible says…” what they mean is “My interpretation of the Bible says….” It’s the only intellectually honest way to mean that, and we have 2,000 years worth of church history to prove it. All this means is that many of us – both inside and outside the church – need to stretch our legs and dig more deeply into the other views. Some interpretations are better than other, no doubt, but the fact that they all exist is a call to community and humility, not grandiosity.

Anyway, if you’re interested in going deeper into hell (wink:wink), let me help you get started:

I’m very stoked, pumped, excited, and animated to be heading to Rochester College this May 16-18 for “Streaming: Biblical Conversations From the Missional Frontier”. Streaming is an in-depth exploration about the adventure of ministry. It  will focus on the book of James and will offer ministers and church leaders biblical resources to help them lead God’s people in a missional era. Mark Love – the churches of Christ missional yoda and peculiarly dedicated Bob Dylan fan, has put together, along with JoPa Productions, an awesome line-up of missional thinkers.

The featured speakers will be Scot McKnight and Miroslav Volf! Wow!!

Many of you already know Scot McKnight. He’s a Christian blogosphere rockstar (if there can be such a thing), has written a first rate book on how to read scripture and is not afraid to call John Piper’s questions of whether or not “Jesus preached Paul’s gospel” stupid, well “irritating!” His newest book is One.Life.

Perhaps less people know Miroslav Volf, but you should. Volf is as first-rate as first-rate gets when it comes to theology, and his book Exclusion and Embrace is a modern-day classic when it comes to race, identity and reconciliation. His newest release, Allah: A Christian Response is supposed to be excellent as well.

Just those two guys make Streaming worth the mere $189 for the registration. Plus, other incredible folks you’ll want to be around will be there. People like me, Jack Reese, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt.

I hope you’ll join me this May in Michigan.

Embracing Lent

Posted: March 6, 2011 in advocacy, Bible, church, giving

This post is an annual repost that seeks to help people from non-liturgical traditions – like mine – understand and be blessed by the wonderful season of Lent which begins this Wednesday.

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This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects, like wood, and fashion them into gods to be worshipped.

Times haven’t changed.

People still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishment, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level, we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun our idol worship in the first place. When we think about giving up our addictions they pain and sacrifice just seems to much.

But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then giving it up for 40 days seems like something you can do.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 7 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened on to deeply. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, red meat and few others things that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I’ve learned that those things don’t give me life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I’ve never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose idols and addictions and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.