Archive for the ‘theology’ Category

As we explore the basics instincts (though not uniform beliefs) of Anabaptists, let’s pause for a moment to talk a little bit about the Schlietheim Confession and what it says about Anabaptists. During the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, three streams of Anabaptist believers came together in Switzerland to concretize a central set of beliefs and practices; practices which largely distinguished the Swiss Brethren (the other, non-pejorative name for Anabaptists) from the Reformers and the Catholic Church.

Among the items discussed were Baptism (to be administered to those who have chosen baptism for themselves); The Oath; The Sword; The Ban; Eucharist; piety and the role of Pastors. Having discussed baptism, we move on to The Oath.

The conversation regarding “The Oath” in Anabaptist traditions is simple: No oaths should be taken! While this has not historically included an orthodox confession of faith; “Jesus is Lord,” it has, to some degree or another included nearly every other oath imaginable – including the Apostle’s Creed, and, for some, oaths of office and giving civic testimony. There were two dominant reasons for the prohibition against oath-taking in Switzerland. For one, Anabaptists were reacting (rightly or wrongly) to a Catholic Church that insisted all kinds of oaths and verbal commitments and believed the Reformers intent to continue taking oaths to be a half-measures. The early Swiss Brethren, did not see this cacophony of oaths in the scriptures, and did not feel they were appropriate for Christians. Second, Anabaptists took literally Jesus’ command to assuage oath-taking (Matthew 5.34).

How Anabaptists determined what to do about oath taking reveals a significant theme in the religious life of Anabaptists. That theme is one of reading the scriptures free of traditionalism. While there are some difficulties in approaching the biblical text this way, the benefits, it seems, outweigh the deficits. Both the Catholic and the Reformed Tradition  in the 16th Century, as they do today, read the biblical text through the lens of the tradition itself. They are concerned with and give privilege to what others inside the tradition have written and said before (yes, I know this is an oversimplification). Anabaptists feel no compulsion to do so. While what Popes,  Martin Luther, John Calvin or Martin Lloyd Jones said about an issue might be good — or even right — Anabaptists do not appeal to them as being authoritative. Though most Christians do not think they read the Bible through a traditionist lens, Anabaptists have enshrined the value. Therefore, when a traditional belief or practice is questioned (take the traditional understanding of hell, for example), Anabaptists don’t feel a need to protect it, and would never refer to the “teaching of the church.”

Many times, new Christians or church members ask me, “What does your church believe about _______?” Typically my response goes something like this, “Well, people in our church believe a variety of things about ________.” This, I find, leaves people feeling dissatisfied. And many pastors, teachers and Christians within other traditions find this unbelievable. But nearly always, the questions people ask regard something non-essential, i.e. “Is this a Republican or Democrat church…?”

Anabaptists have always believed that thoughtful, spiritual people can come to their own conclusions about non-essential matters and, more importantly, we can lovingly coexists in disagreement. At the root of this is something many contemporary Christians refuse to believe: On some issues the Bible isn’t necessarily all that clear. In response, Anabaptists seek charity is non-essentials, which can only be done when believers rightly understand the place of tradition.

It is right and good to know what others have said and thought concerning the scriptures. These men and women should be both living and dead. The present moment is not privileged in BIble reading; we need to reflect upon and learn from our sisters and brothers. At the same time, Anabaptists know that God still speaks a fresh word, free from the constraints of other and older interpretations whose age or prominence does not necessarily equate to rightness.

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…

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.

Recently I’ve found myself, once again, thinking about what brings people to faith. This has been prompted by two things: (1) I’m walking a church group through Tim Keller‘s best-selling book, “The Reason For God”, and (2) multiple conversations with Atheist and Agnostic friends. I love these conversations. They force me to refine my thinking, listen to new people and perspectives and process what I actually believe.

Though I’m having conversations with both Christians and non-Christians regarding faith, our language – in some cases – is strikingly similar. One linguistic construct we share is the notion of “a leap of faith.” What is commonly meant by a “a leap of faith” is acting as if something is true regardless of the evidence present. Both Christians and non-Christians mean the same things by this phrase. What I want to suggest is that taking “a leap of faith” is not a Biblical understanding of what it means to “come to faith.” More to the point, the Bible does not ask anyone to make  “leap of faith,” but the scriptures do call all of us to make a “leap at faith.” Here’s why:

Christianity Isn’t for Stupid People. To the dismay of many, Christianity requires thinking.  Taking “a leap of faith” connotes that evidence doesn’t matter. Another way we call faith stupid is by calling it “blind faith.” The truth is, no one does anything on “blind faith.” We all do what we do out of some calculation. The calculation may be ill-informed, misguided, or poorly constructed, but we don’t do anything that matters “blind.” No one takes a “leap of faith,” we negotiate the knowns and unknowns and select. That’s not a leap, it’s arriving at a decision point and taking a step, not a leap.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but my faith is neither blind nor stupid. Yes, it is the product of participation in a particular community over the course of a lifetime, but I have also read, studied, and questioned. My questions about the Bible, the nature of God, and the nature of the world are tougher and more accurate than the passing machinations of a freshman philosophy major somewhere because I bothered to seriously investigate. I investigated Christianity, Atheism, Buddhism, and Mormonism in particular. My list isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve studied the world’s major worldviews enough to know what I’m talking about, and I’ve tried to take all claims seriously.

Taking a “leap at faith” means those both inside and outside orthodox faith owe it to themselves to investigate earnestly what is at the heart of the world and ask the toughest questions they can imagine. Christians should not fear what the hard sciences discover or what historians unearth. If we believe all truth is God’s truth, then what is there to unnerve us? Real faith is not a leap, it’s the intentional examination of the available evidence and then carefully formulating something that is philosophically coherent and realistically useable. The Apostle John even instructs us to do so in 1 John 4. Our job is to “test the spirits.”

Christianity Isn’t Mental Assent. Far too many folks think “a leap of faith” means “a change of mind.” Of course, in many ways, this is accurate (just think about the literal meaning of “repent”). Though coming to a place where you believe that God exist does mean that you’ve made a philosophical shift – that’s just the beginning, and can oftentimes mean very little. As James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us, “even the demons believe…” (James 2.19). One of the great problems in the world is that Christianity has become nominal (Christian in name only) and notional (people like the ideas of Christianity).

Taking a “leap at faith” means looking at the life and teachings of Jesus and trying them on, taking them out for a stroll, not just agreeing with a few principles. Faith is a lived-experience, not a thought-experience. If interaction with Jesus doesn’t result in kinder words, radical generosity and justice, engagement with the poor and self-denial, it just ain’t faith. There’s only way to know if God is truly the Provider or if His Spirit will be with you in times of disappointment and brokenness; you have to try it. It’s not theoretical, it has to mean something. That’s why the people you know who have a mental assent to faith, but who haven’t experienced what the Apostle Paul would call “circumcision of the heart” are some of the worst people you know. Jesus’ instructions to those living in His time was simple: “Go and do likewise.” It was about trying it out and seeing if Jesus was right.

Ultimately I’m advocating that faith isn’t a stumble in the dark. Those inside the church who believe so, do God, themselves and their fellow-believers a great disservice. And those outside the church who would suggest that faith is “blind” simply haven’t done their homework. But worse still, Christians have made their homework harder by not reflecting the real thing.

Last night, I began teaching a new class I’m calling The Dangerous Word. Essentially we’re examining how we read scripture. It’s obvious – given the 1,000’s of Christian denominations – that people and ecclesiological traditions read the Bible differently. What’s less obvious – and this applies to all groups – is that “we” have a particular way of reading scripture. What’s more, “our” way of reading is largely culturally-conditioned and has it’s own beauty and blind spots. Texts that are crucial to one person or group are oftentimes marginalized or flat-out ignored by others.

To go even farther, some traditions can find themselves honoring and privileging one half of a sentence and ignoring the second part of the same sentence. For instance, the church of my childhood demanded that “Church of Christ” was the only proper name for a church because it was the only one mentioned in the New Testament (Romans 16.16). Yet, in those same churches, no one – and I mean NO ONE – ever exchanged a “Holy kiss” though that is also in Romans 16.16. As Scot McKnight has pointed out in his great book, The Blue Parakeet, “every one of us adopts and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture.”

In preparing my class I was once again reminded how difficult it is to peel back our present constructs in an attempt to build a better and more constructive one. Like many theology students, the death of our “first naivete” and the introduction of  the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” can be oft-putting. People, including myself, are resistant to the process of deconstruction.

For one, deconstruction is hard. In the process we have to examine our preconceptions and offer the lamb of our philosophical and theological constructs up for sacrifice. Only truth-seekers can truly do this. Those who desire to use their version of truth or partial truth reject the process out-right. There’s simply too much at stake – namely power. In order to get to the heart of truth one must be willing to clear the debris of partial truth, idols and comforting platitudes.

Second, the deconstructive process puts our past on the line. We are who we are because of our history. Even our painful experiences shape us. Since most of us like ourselves we protect our history. How disorienting it is to willingly engage a process that critiques both our current belief system and past beliefs…especially for leaders. We’ve given advice and walked through life with other people, offering the seeds of a belief system throughout the process. We bring into question the good we have done if we allow ourselves to questions the beliefs that gave rise to those good works. For Christians, this should be mitigated by belief that God is working through us and it was never about us in the first place.

Third, it’s easy to believe that if we don’t recognize or acknowledge something, it’s not really there. For instance, if we never talk about translation issues, hermeneutics, the role of genres, etc…then they don’t exist. Questions regarding the function of Genesis 1-12, Job, Daniel or Revelation aren’t easy to wade through, yet we need to nevertheless.

Fortunately, the struggle is worth the pain. Why? Simply put: Truth!

I don’t know anyone who deeply wants to live with an ill-concieved or false worldview. We don’t reject deconstruction because we desire falsehood, we reject it because it’s painful. Yet, it is Jesus who assures us that the truth will set us free. Therefore, when we examine the scriptures, we are seek nothing less than truth. The best Bible readers – both laity and clergy – seek truth with the fundamental belief that whatever else we sacrifice on our journey to truth is worth sacrificing.

People question my insistence that preachers should ditch their points. Points, I have argued, are planted and buried with story, whispers and the inspiring word. People don’t need or want step-by-step directions and we’re not interested in the points. Do you need proof? Just think about the last time you read a “User License Agreement” on a computer program. Oh, wait, you didn’t read it. The reason is simple, you want to get on to engagement. Engagement rarely comes in 1…2…3. Below is perhaps the greatest proof ever.

I have long been a fan of Brian McLaren – both the man and his writings. We’ve e-mailed back and forth through the years, been apart of a scripture project together (The Voice), shared multiple meals, and Brian spoke an important blessing into my life at a critical time. His “A New Kind of Christian” came along for me at the perfect time; a time when I thought I was becoming disillusioned with faith, but ultimately, I was disillusioned with the version of Christian practice I’d thoughtlessly inherited. Brian showed this to me. This is, perhaps, Brian’s greatest gift; causing people to reexamine, search, study, investigate and re-conclude. In this way, Brian is a one man Hegelian Dialectic.  This is why so many people distrust and despise him and his work while others love him. In “A New Kind of Christianity, (ANKoCty)” Brian’s newest release, McLaren will not disappoint his fan or his critics.

ANKofCty endeavors to consider 10 questions that Brian says are transforming the faith. Truth is, these questions are not transforming the faith, but Brian wants them to, and he’s right to want it. The ten questions: (1) The Narrative Question, (2) The Authority Question; (3) The God Question, (4) The Jesus Question, (5) The Gospel Question, (6) The Gospel Question, (7) The Church Question, (8) The Sex Question, (9) The Future Question, and (10) The Pluralism Question are good ones, and Brian hopes to help push us ahead as we think through them together.

At the heart of ANKofCty is what McLaren calls, the “Greco-Roman” reading of scripture. This, it seems, is the root of our collective problems in terms of church and culture. Brian argues that freeing ourselves from this narrative releases us to answer the 10 questions Brian poses more faithfully. Within the Greco-Roman reading of scripture, Brian argues, there is no room for story or development, which ultimately gives rise to a “six-line narrative” that prejudices our reading of scripture. McLaren argues the “six-line narrative” leads us to all the wrong conclusions about everything – which Brian endeavors to demonstrate throughout the remaining pages of ANKofCty. In the end, Brian argues that we have read the Bible backwards with our filter coming through Paul, the apostles, Augustine, Plato and the Platonism and philosophical systems that are foreign to the true nature of the scriptures. Therefore, our view of Jesus and the Bible is not the Jesus OF the Bible, but a character – or caricature – inherited by thousands of years of interpretation lodged and birthed by the Greco-Roman narrative and Greek philosophy. This is Brian’s central thesis and gives rise to his conclusions.

I think Brian is both right and wrong. In fact, having read nearly all his books, I have never felt more strongly that he is both right on and far off course. This is what I mean: In terms of McLaren’s analysis of the Greco-Roman reading, he is dead on. The problem is that there is no way to avoid this, no way to time travel back through scripture and get something other than what we already got. This is where Brian is right and wrong. Having been raised in a “Restoration” movement, I know all too well the nonsensical pitfalls of thinking you can just skip over history, doctrine, theology, and theological and ecclesial development and get back to “the real thing.”

It cannot be done!

At best you miss the richness of the tradition that has given life to the faith that gives us life, at worst, you become a partisan to largely uneducated, ununified and incoherent belief system. If we were able leap backward over the hurdles of history to uncover a new way – or the grand old way – to read and interpret text without the obstacles course of 2000 years worth of interpretation and thought, then we would be forced to just to pick a method, system or interpretive lens and go with it arbitrarily.

Been there. Done that. Thank you very much.

All of that to say this; even Brian is coming at the text from somewhere “post-Jesus” in terms of history. Is he right in arguing that the method we’ve chosen is bad for hosts of reasons? Yes.  Is it possible for us to read and interpret Jesus the way McLaren wants us to, without the narratives that have been imposed heretofore? Unfortunately, no.

This means that all of our conclusions, even Brian’s, have to be held loosely, with epistemological humility. Perhaps it is my own ecclesial history, but something in my gut churns at the thought of dismissing church history and the schools of thought developed through it. For this reason, I’m open to the idea that I may be seeing shadows and experiencing paranoia where there need not be. I may be reacting to something not explicit in the pages of ANKofCty.

At the same time, Brian has offered the most helpful way forward on a number of issues that are becoming tremendously important to more and more people – sexuality, pluralism, etc…. He is far from convincing his critics or those entrenched in either/or, black/white, privileged / unprivileged thinking, but Brian’s conclusions, I think, are generally pointing the church in the right direction – though I need more convincing in some areas, myself. Both critics and fans of Brian know where he’s going with many of the issues addressed in ANKofCty before they turn the first page, but what is good about his work is that he provides a useable way forward for conversation (for those willing to have it). Using the Biblical text, McLaren at least gets the ball rolling and establishes what can become common language around these issues. This, I think, is the great service Brian has done for us.

In addition, Brian explores Romans in ways many will find broadening. In fact, I read ANKofCty with my Bible open. Trust me: this does not happen often! What more can you ask of a book? Brian forced me to look into the scriptures and I found myself looking differently. That alone is worth the price of purchase. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to read Romans the same way after engaging ANKoCty.

Likely the most out of character elements of ANKofCty comes in chapters 12 and 13 dealing with The Jesus Question. To articulate his vision of Jesus, McLaren takes on two vocal critics who happen to hold in common the ability to be consistently wrong and increasingly sought-after.  For those in the know, the critics are fairly easy to recognize, though Brian does not name them. What is out of character is Brian’s pointed language. Having spent time with Brian multiple times, I’ve found him to be irenic and generous, these chapters weren’t. At the end of chapter 12, I wrote in the margin, “Bam! One in ___________ _______________’s kisser.”

Between you and I, the rebuke was long overdue. Overdue not because scores needed settling, but because this particular critic has, and often does, misread Jesus and the Bible, offering an alternative gospel, in my view. This critic seems to envision Christian leadership as a full-contact blood sport and Brian gives him what he wants. Brian skillfully disarmed the violent, warrior-only version of Jesus, which had the added benefit of fitting nicely into Brian’s overall aims in ANKofCty. At the same time, he gave one particular critic the only kind of conversation he seems to understand. Harsh! In this way, the rebuke can be described as incarnational – speaking to people in their own language.

If Brian’s goal is to get people thinking and talking, ANKofCty is a success. Clearly not all will embrace his vision, yet others will be freed to pursue the Spirit in wild and new directions. Ultimately, ANKofCty is more than worth the time. I suggest reading it community. Drink from it slowly and invest in the ideas, maybe even choosing one question and digging deep over time. This is not a book for singular and individual thought. Brian has returned to what he does best – challenging the church. And he does so brilliantly this go round.

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Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from Viral Bloggers for the purpose of this review.