“I only read the Bible by myself.”

Recently, in one of our Wednesday night Bible studies at church, one of our regularly attending high schoolers made a comment that I think illustrates something wrong with the way we do church/spirituality as American Christians.  We were studying a passage of Scripture, and I always encourage the students to have a copy of the Bible (we have extras provided for guests and the forgetful) to help them follow along and to check if I’m making stuff up or not.  Well, apparently this student had decided that they were done engaging with the group and had shut their Bible before proceeding to do their darnedest to disengage the people sitting next to them as well.  One of our adult leaders asked this person to stop talking and encouraged them to pay attention to what the rest of the group was discussing, and the leader insinuated that it might be helpful for them to open their Bible back up since that was the focus of our discussion. Which leads to the quote that spawned this blog and its title:

“I only read the Bible by myself,” the student replied in a matter-of-fact tone. The student may have said “I only like to read the Bible by myself,” but Snopes.com has yet to inquire as to which was the original source of this quote. Either way, I think the same underlying problem comes screaming out.

We have individualized the Christian life to a soul-destroying level.

Ok, so that’s not exactly a shocker for those who read my blog.  I doubt there’s many people who would outright disagree completely with that.  There might be some caveats and clarifications, but I don’t think there’s a lot of pastors, teachers, authors, etc. out there blatantly saying, “All that matters is your personal walk with Jesus, you don’t need to be a part of other people’s lives or care about them or help/be helped by them, etc.”   Especially not since those all important categories of giving and volunteering stem heavily from appeals for the betterment of people around us.

But it doesn’t take intentional sabotaging of the corporate dimensions of the Christian life to produce the narcissistic Christian culture we find in the West.  Mere neglect will perform adequately in sabotage’s stead.  For the sake of focus and brevity, let’s stick with this issue of Bible reading.

The student says, “I only read the Bible by myself” as an acceptable Christian attitude to Scripture.  There’s a couple reasons one might say this: first, if you only read the Bible alone, then no one knows if you’re actually reading the Bible.  So it’s a pretty much non-falsifiable statement that tries to give one positive spiritual reputation.  But dealing with a hypocritical slant on this is beyond my goal in writing this.

The second reason, however, is more at the heart of our problem of individualistic thinking.  “I only (like to) read the Bible by myself” attitude didn’t appear out of nowhere.  The thinking behind this probably follows from year and year of being drilled the importance of “personal” Bible reading.  Evangelicals love “personal” (by that we mean, “individual”) anything.   “Personal quiet time”, “personal prayer life”, “personal identity”, “personal holiness”, and of course, the big kahuna of the “personal” phrases, a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Now, none of these things are necessarily wrong.  We would be wrong to discount “personal” implications of the teaching of Jesus, the guy who challenged people to “hate” their families and pursue Him above all.  You can’t simply follow Jesus in a “corporate” sense only.  The problem isn’t that the “personal”/individual dimensions of the Christian life are fasle; the problem is that the personal is all that many pastors and teachers ever get to.

By neglecting the role of corporate dimensions of our life in Christ, all those “us” and “we” and “our” passages, or the plethora of “one another” commands, we’ve individualized the Christian life in a way that Jesus never meant for his followers to.  Our individual Bible reading is preferred over corporate interaction with Scripture.  Note how most evangelical churches have resigned Paul’s instructions of “give attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” to merely the Pastor’s reading of that days’ particular sermon text at some point.  (I think we could learn something from the older liturgical traditions here who emphasize the public reading of several sections of Scripture together.)  Paul says “public reading.”  He doesn’t tell Timothy to have a really good quiet time, or even to tell the church to do so. (Granted, the lack of individual Bible ownership made public reading of Scripture even more vital.)

Emphasizing our individual reading of Scripture to our corporate experience of God’s Word reeks of pride.  My “personal” reading is more beneficial to me.  Why?  Perhaps because I am better at picking texts to read than my church is, or I am better at reading the Word and figuring out its meanings without other people’s ideas and objections slowing me down.  I’m not going to go full postmodern and say we need each other because everyone’s opinions about a particular interpretation of the text provide a valid perspective (teach 8-9 grade Sunday School sometime if you’ve bought into that; some ideas are clearly wrong, misinformed, and very unhelpful!), but we need each other precisely because all of our own opinions aren’t correct.  As CS Lewis wrote arguing for the importance of reading old books, we all go wrong at some point, but in a group, we’re all unlikely to error in the same place.  It provides a helpful humility for us as we read Scripture to do so corporately and provoke each other to love and good deeds, often ourselves being the ones in need of correction. That’s something you won’t get just having your “personal” Bible reading.

Even if you’re only reading the Bible for yourself, there is much of Scripture that emphasizes the corporate dimensions.  Which means that if you continue your whole life reading the Bible only by yourself, you’re not reading it very well.


What makes old commands new?

from 1 John 2:7-8:

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command, but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

The command here is “to love another.” It’s not explicitly stated, but like the unseen current propelling a ship towards its destination, this command to love invisibly pushes much of chapter 2 toward its goal.  (Verses 9-10 relate response to this command as involving either hatred or love of the brother, as further proof.)

But as John says, this is not a new command. From Genesis 4 where Cain asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the essence of Scripture from the Law to the Prophets to Christ’s own words is “Yes, love one another.  You are responsible for your brother’s well-being.”  This command is from the beginning.

But something is new about it.  What?  John tells us.  What’s new is that this command is now true in us, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is shining.  Here, one’s mind goes back to John’s Gospel where the eternal Word brought a “life that was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”  In chapter 1 of this letter, we are told that God himself is light.  The light that is in the Father is manifested in the Son, the Word, Christ.

And because Christ now shines (being manifested in the Gospel they heard), the darkness is passing away, retreating like a beaten dog into a safe corner.

So what makes the old command new?  The commandment has not changed but the situation has.  The darkness is leaving, the light now shines.  The “Not yet” is becoming the “already” bit by bit, and now in this light of Christ shown us in the victory over the darkness declared by the Gospel, we can love one another because the command is now true not only “in him” but “in us” who “remain in the light”.

“Left Field” Arguments for Believers’ Baptism

I call these “Left Field” arguments because I have thought about them over the years for random reasons and they aren’t typically the kinds of arguments you find in a believers’ baptism (credobaptism) versus infant baptism (paedobaptism) discussion.  I’d consider them to be more auxiliary to the primary arguments offered, but helpful (for me at least).

1. Galatians.  Seriously.  The whole book.  After all, it is written as a response to the debate over whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to “go varsity” and undergo the Jewish ritual of circumcision.  Paul’s decision not to circumcise Titus is pretty heavy in this discussion.  Paul spends a great deal of time quoting from the Old Testament and using various arguments to affirm that circumcision would obligate one to keep the entire law but Christ has borne that curse (punishment) for us on the tree.  Therefore, believers are no longer under compulsion to the Mosaic law but to “the law of Christ” empowered not by ourselves (the flesh) but by God’s Spirit.  It’s a pretty heavy argument.  But I have an easier one if Paul had been a paedobaptist.  Titus (and you) doesn’t need to be circumcised because he has been baptized.  You see, baptism is the New Covenant equivalent to circumcision.  Easy argument, case closed.  But he doesn’t argue that.  He writes a whole letter arguing something entirely different.

2. Constant recall for believers of the experience and importance of their baptism. Paul does this in several places that I remember offhand: Romans 6 (dealing with our death to sin and new life in Christ), Ephesians 4 (dealing with church unity), and 1 Corinthians 12 (dealing with church unity in light of the debacle over gifts).  Each time, it seems, he is banking on the Christians remembering their baptism.  O yea, when I was baptized, (cue the importance/implication thought).  However, if one is baptized as an infant, what do you remember?  (and lest Baptists get too puffed up–how many 4 year-olds are going to remember either?) To me, something is lost when one of the primary experiences of being a disciple of Jesus is done when people are too young to understand or even remember it.  It might give the parents more “peace of mind” (lest under some quasi-Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration this will keep an infant from going to limbo or something, and yes, Baptists, many 4 year-olds are baptized under that same parental guilt-alleviation in your churches as well) but it doesn’t really do anything for the person being baptized.  And these texts here seem to indicate that the importance of one’s baptism should have an ongoing influence in a Christian’s life, such as allowing them to fight sin and get along with other Christians.  So why cheat your children out of that chance to not only profess Christ personally and publicly but to remember their own baptism?

3. Don’t forget the order was birth, then circumcision. So you’re convinced that baptism is the New Covenant equivalent to circumcision?  (I’m not. I think circumcision of the heart (the new birth) is the equivalent. But on this one, I’ll play by your rules if you think so.)  In the Old Covenant, people were born into Israel and then circumcised as a sign.  Circumcision followed becoming part of the covenant people by birth.  However, the New Covenant is not entered into through physical birth.  The New Covenant inclusion happens as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah promise and as Jesus says in John 3 through a “new birth”.  In fact, John the Baptizer did plainly not see baptism as a spiritual “grandfathered-in” type arrangement (“God can raise up children of Abraham (covenant children) out of these stones”), calling for baptism as a symbol of repentance.  But that’s a different argument.  Anyways, so if the “new birth” is the true entrance into the New Covenant, then it follows that the spiritual equivalent of circumcision, baptism, must happen after “new birth.”  Now if you start arguing for some kind of paedo-regeneration, that’s something I don’t have the type or energy to mess with.

So there’s three “left field” arguments. The first is an argument from silence, so I understand its limitations rhetorically. But I still think a valid point is made.  Let me know.

What Churches can learn from “Lost” and “24”…

The church can learn this from TV: TV shows aren’t real.  The greatest entertainment and stories shown on screen end when the credits roll.  People have to go back to their real jobs with their real families, and their real problems and real hurts are still waiting there despite the momentary distractions of the flickering screen.

The only hope the church has ultimately consists of being unlike television shows.  The only hope we can offer better not be merely a momentary distraction but a real world solution to the deepest needs of humanity.

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”

When Grace says “No”…(follow-up from yesterday)

Yesterday’s post which included references by me about making whips and going off on a youth ministry conference for rushing a publicly fallen megachurch pastor (and his wife) onto their stage is the petri dish for today’s post.  So you may want to click the link above and give it a quick read-through so this one will make more sense.

Does Grace ever say “no”? After all, grace is a gift, right?  Gifts are kind of like a giant “yes” to someone.  I could imagine that interlocuter at various points of my post yesterday raising its hand to say “objection.” And rather than ignoring that persistent throat-clearing happening on the other side of the room, I’ve decided to face this objection head-on.  Can grace ever say “no”?  Specifically, I can think of several examples in Scripture where this happens (we’ll get there at the end.)  But first I want to take on this “false” grace that exists in the evangelical corporate culture*, that rears its ugly, boil-filled head every time someone within that culture makes a major “boo-boo” as they call it.

Let’s compare two systems, shall we?  Let’s call them System A and System B for clarity’s sake.  Which of these sounds more gracious?

System A says that recovery from sin happens quickly and full restoration of position and privilege should follow.  System B says that sin is not conquered in a moment or in 3 months of intensive therapy but that sanctification is a “long obedience in the same direction”, an outworking of our new identity in Christ over the long haul by the Spirit of God.

System A says that the way to make things right involves a person becoming successful again after a setback.  System B says that the way to make things right involves a person throwing themselves helplessly at the feet of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

System A says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by future numerical results and publicity.  System B says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by our dependence upon the results of Christ’s atoning work.

System A says that your skills as a pastor define you and therefore you have to go back into the pastorate to be used of God. System B says that your adopted status as a child of God in Christ now defines you, whether you work at Starbucks or at First Baptist Church, Big City.

System A says that grace can be received from the people you didn’t hurt, a new church or the general public’s favor.  System B says that grace can only be a gift when it is undeserved, and therefore must be sought from those directly hurt.  Fleeing to a new scene is not considered true grace.

System A says that you have something to offer people and must remain a teacher.  System B says that you must be needy, including needing to be taught by others.

System A says that your family is worth sacrificing again to regain the limelight.  System B says that you need to put them ahead of your career.

System A says that you are worthless if you don’t rise above your circumstances.  System B says that you are worth the cost of Jesus to God because of His love.

System A says that you need to speak to a crowd of people to have community.  System B says that you need to listen to a small amount of people who know you really well and ask tough (not canned) questions to find true community.

System A says that if you can’t get the broken pieces back together, we’ll give you a shot.  System B says only the love of God over a lifetime can restore the damage of our sin and that everything will not be made wonderful just yet.

System A wants to use you for their profit.  System B says that God seeks to graciously profit you for his use.

System A ignores those who have been hurt by your sin by publicly acting like everything’s ok when it’s not.  System B says you can just leave your gift here, useless for the time being, and first go and seek reconciliation from those you have hurt.

System A needs you to increase.  System B says you must decrease so He might increase.

So which one sounds more gracious?

Now, admittedly, there’s an option C as well which says there’s no hope or path or grace to be found once the sin has crested the flood level, so to speak.  But we’re not dealing with that.  System A is the evangelical corporate culture and quite honestly, from the descriptions above, it lies about Christ and the Gospel.

The truth is that grace says no sometimes.  In Luke 15, a story which probably would be first on people’s lists of a Bible story where “grace” is pictured beautifully, there’s a major moment in the story when grace says no.  We might miss it because there are a lot of things that grace says yes to.  The Father in the story, God, receives back the sinful son.  He is grace.  He says a lot of yes’s: Yes, you can return.  Yes, I love you and will greet you with hugs and kisses.  Yes, you are my child again.  Yes, I rejoice in your return.  Yes, I will party in the joy I find having you returned from the dead to me.

But he does say no to one thing.  Remember the prodigal’s little speech he works up on his journey home to dad?  Dad, I’ve messed up.  I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired sons. At least that’s what he wants to say.  In 15:21, the son probably still selling of the unclean pigs he shared lunch with finds himself in the tearful embrace of his Father.  He goes through the speech again but is cut off before he finishes.  Grace says no.  The Father will have none of this hired hand business. (He doesn’t even let him get the words out.)  The son is not going to earn his keep.  The son is not going to labor for his lunch.  He is going to be given it.  Flat-out given.  Yes, he was lost and found, dead and alive again. The Father makes no pretense that His son didn’t just disappear or squander his inheritance.  But He is gracious.  He will not let this son atone for his guilt.  He will not let him pay for his sins.  He gives grace.  The one thing grace always says no to is our inherent idea that we can earn back our worth, that we can labor for God’s love.  The problem with System A, the evangelical corporate culture, is that in the name of grace, it does precisely the opposite.  In that world, grace is not a gift, it’s a stock option. The grace given isn’t free or undeserved; it’s leverage for a future pay-off (whether monetary or numerical success or influence).  And that makes it not grace at all.  Grace that never says no is not grace. We need to be told no to our works-based identity and self-righteousness constantly or we will never experience grace.

*I say this rather than “evangelicalism” because many evangelicals, whether pastors or laypeople, have no real relationship with this business that we call the American church.  They’re not the bookstore/conference/television circuit that exploits the successful and the failed to make a quick buck.  They’re not the society that says “If you make a major mistake, but are really passionate as a leader, we can find room for you to step back in.”  As a thought, just imagine if the typical radio preachers fell into some of the sins that televangelists often do, would there be a market for them any longer?  Would they get 3 months of re-runs and return after all is forgotten?  Probably not.

Would you let this person teach your youth? How about your youth leaders?

(Post, in which I “go off”.  there’s not a lot of “logical flow here”, I admit up front.  But sometimes you see something and it just eats at you and you’ve got to say something even if few people read it. But the evangelical corporate church climate is just ridiculous and downright evil at times.)

In my mail today at church, I got a colorful invitation brochure to a popular youth ministry conference.  Now I’ve never actually been to any kind of youth ministry conference designed especially for youth pastors–I’ve just never had the desire to walk around a bunch of 30 year-old men with goatees who look like slightly older, fatter Hollister mannequins.  (ok, cheap shot).

There was the usual cast of authors and pastors, etc.  But I noticed one person really stood out.  I mean, REALLY stood out.  There was the name of a former megachurch pastor who just a few years ago was discovered buying meth from his homosexual prostitute.  It was kind of a big deal, especially since this pastor was a leading spokesperson for the sanctity of marriage.  And the press loves any semblance of religious hypocrisy like my dog loves honey combs cereal.

Not that I was ever planning on going, but cross that conference off my list.  Seriously.  The man was doing hardcore illegal drugs, hiring prostitutes and showing up to preach on Sunday like nothing was wrong.  And now, because a couple years pass, he’s suddenly back on the speaking circuit?   No.  This is just ridiculous.

And yes, I believe in grace.  I believe God’s love can rescue us from the deepest pit and restore us from any sin.  Read 1 Corinthians 6 and the litany of sins there, followed by some of my favorite words in all of Scripture: “And that is what some of you were.”  The Gospel changes things, new creation happens, new hearts are given, and the Holy Spirit of God works in men and women.

But there are still standards for leadership and teachers in the Christian community.  However one takes the “husband of one wife” phrase, I have yet to hear an interpretation that doesn’t see this at minimum including marital faithfulness to a man’s current wife.  And I don’t think Paul would have said a couple months of counseling following infidelity suddenly made someone fit again to stand in front of 1000’s of Christians and teach.

And the public eye certainly makes things worse.  this guy needs to experience authentic, grace-filled community.  He needs to be taught Christ by godly people who know him and ask tough questions.  He doesn’t need to be on stage dispensing advice or new-found revelations he discovered in therapy.  Especially not to those who are training young people.

I can think of countless devoted Christ-followers I’ve met over the years who would never be invited to a conference like this because they don’t have “numbers” to match.  Men and women who have loved people and given their lives for Christ who apparently aren’t seen fit to share the stage with pastors living secret homosexual lives and doing meth in their spare time.  There’s already been one book published out this mess and there will probably be more.  You can find it at your local Christian bookstore next to Jon & Kate’s book of family advice.

(sigh) I wonder if that whip Jesus made is still around.

Update: There is actually a part 2 of this coming (possibly tomorrow) in which I examine whether or not grace ever says no to people.

Wrestling with Rest (Part 1)

I’m bad at rest.  Not at sleeping.  I can sleep like no one’s business.  I can sleep in a bed, on a plane, on the ground, and on a train (which is really a great way to sleep if you’ve never experienced it.)

Sleep I can handle.  Rest, not so much.

The issue of Sabbath is possibly one of the most misunderstood by Christians in general and or even when understood, is difficult to practice.  I plan on writing on this topic over the next few weeks and exploring what Rest/Sabbath is all about, the difficulties in practicing whatever “Sabbath” is, and some personal reflections on my own “wrestling with rest.”

Sabbath ironically is one of those great Biblical themes that is woven into the grand narrative of Scripture from beginning to end. We find in Genesis 1 God the creator resting from his works.  It shows up in the Law, the prophets call for Sabbath observance (often confronting misunderstandings about the nature of Sabbath), Jesus and the Pharisees find a weekly point of conflict it seems on the sabbath, the author of Hebrews warns of the danger of not entering the promised Rest, and Revelation ends with a new Creation, a heaven-earth marriage in which there is no night, which must have some implication in the issue of rest as well.

What is Sabbath? What is its purpose? Has Sabbath changed under the New Covenant?  If so, how much?  the day? the strictness?