Resurrection, Poverty, Homelessness, and Death

My friend Chris Eyre writes about the reality (but not necessarily physicality) of the resurrection and discusses our preaching. Here’s a line from his conclusion:

But really, I think we probably should be preaching that you should follow Jesus irrespective of the fact that it may lead to poverty, homelessness and even death.

Probably when you saw the title to this post, you thought I was going to talk about taking care of the homeless. And you should. Do it! But this is about what might happen to you and me as followers of Jesus, and how that preaches in the modern world.

I think this deserves some discussion, irrespective of where you come down on the nature of the resurrection.

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

Disruptive Inerrancy?

Scot McKnight wrote a very interesting post on inerrancy today. I have long rejected use of the term biblical inerrancy, yet have watched as people more liberal (another dangerously slippery term) than I am claim to be inerrantists. This article is very helpful in clarifying the terminology somewhat, though much more could be said, and has been!

My take-away line?

Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom.

I wrote more extensively on this in my book When People Speak for God and then published From Inspiration to Understanding by Dr. Edward Vick, which is a senior cousin to mine. I would have footnoted Vick quite a bit had his book been written before mine!


Is Killing Every One of Them Really Our Only Option?

I saw a Facebook post that claims that in the light of the beheading of U. S. journalist James Foley our only option is to hunt down and kill every one of them as soon as possible.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a pacifist. I believe acts of violence and even war can be justified. On the other hand, I think they rarely are. The question is whether we’ll really get the results we intend.

I’m human. I’d like the people who did this to pay for it. I would have no problem condemning the perpetrators to death in a court of law.

The question is whether another war is actually going to make anything better. Will it make less people die? Will it reduce the number of fanatics in the world? Will it mean that we won’t see another American beheaded in some other place at some other time?

I hope we think about that.

But more importantly, why did the killing of one American make this sort of violence our only option, but the killing of hundreds of Iraqis did not. Is there a difference in the value of these various lives?

I pray that we, as Christians, will try to apply grace to this situation, to look on everyone, even those committing atrocities, as souls for whom Christ died. I hope as a nation that we will consider looking further forward in time and more broadly in space before we act to solve one problem by creating dozens of others.

There may be a military option. The state bears a modern sword. Were I still in the military, I would be prepared to participate, to help wield it. But let’s look at the results of our previous military efforts before we move too quickly and ineffectively.

Why Not to Tithe

9781938434129The word “tithing” has undergone quite a substantial change in meaning over the course of my life. Growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist, it meant giving precisely 10% of one’s income to the church. This money had a special use in the SDA church, supporting pastors. For my parents, the tithe was just the starting point of their giving. They put aside an additional 10% and gave that to various other activities of the church. They called this offering. They had an additional fund, I believe around another 10%, that they used to help people personally.

When I started attending Methodist churches, I found that the term “tithe” had a somewhat different meaning. I think I ran into this first in a stewardship campaign, in which people were encouraged to begin to “tithe” at 2%. The idea of a “2% tithe” was somewhat puzzling to me, as I knew the Hebrew word was derived from “10″ and was used pretty much exclusively in that sense. (Not 10%, as not every instance of 10th turned out to be precisely 10%, but always related to 10.)

So tithing had the meaning of giving, rather than a specific type of giving, and the number was no longer considered relevant. There was a sort of goal at 10%, but the other amounts were still considered tithing. If one needed to distinguish them, one might say “full tithe” but I rarely heard that.

In my own view, however, there was no obligation for Christians to follow the tithing laws from the Pentateuch, and even SDAs were not doing so. There was a more substantial effort on the part of SDAs to translate, but it nonetheless was not the same thing. It was not that Christians should be less generous. It was just not a law addressed to us. At the time, however, I was afraid to say that I didn’t believe in tithing. Why? I was afraid people would start giving even less, and the giving in Methodist churches (and many others) is rather dismal as it is.

In other words, I didn’t really believe in grace. I didn’t trust grace.

I believe that tithing can be a good starting point or guideline. I don’t believe Christians are called to give less. Rather, we are called to give more. I also don’t believe that we are necessarily called to give all to our local church. But we are called to give it to the kingdom of God, whether in the form of helping our neighbor in trouble, feeding the homeless, carrying out acts of love and mercy, supporting missionaries and all who are working in service to God and others. I believe this should be a response to grace, not a price we pay or a duty we fulfil. All giving, whether to support your local church, your local food pantry, or world missions, should be a joyful response to God’s grace.

Recently I had the opportunity to publish a small book on tithing, titled Tithing after the Cross by David A. Croteau. He says boldly what I failed to say, and backs it up with a large amount of additional research. While he has written larger works, in this book he distils it into a short volume that anyone can read. Don’t worry! He didn’t “dumb it down.” He made a concise version.

This afternoon he’ll be on the Janet Mefferd show with an interview on the topic. Show time is 4:00 PM eastern time. I invite you to listen and then check out his book, Tithing after the Cross, on Energion Direct.

Are Seventh-day Adventists Christians?

This question, which I’ve written about before, was brought to my attention again both through reading and through some conversations. As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist, I’m often asked whether I believe my former denomination is truly Christian, or whether it is some sort of cult. Ignoring what I consider the hopeless muddle in the usage of the term “cult,” I suppose I could divide this question into two, neither of which I actually like. I’m going to use Methodists throughout as the foil for this discussion, because I am a member of a United Methodist congregation. Note that I prefer to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation rather than a “Methodist” or “United Methodist.”

The first would be to ask whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a Christian denomination. I dislike this question, because I think “denomination” is largely an extra-Christian idea. I’m not going to throw out all concepts of denominations simply because they can provide accountability to congregations, something lacking amongst independent churches. Both independent churches and denominational churches have their share of problems, but neither reflects the kind of connections that I believe a Christian congregation or assembly should have. I would like to be held accountable by my brethren in Baptist churches as well as in the United Church of Christ. As for Seventh-day Adventists, I would say the same thing. They suffer from all the problems of being a denomination, but they also are brethren to which I would like to be connected, and in a sense, accountable.

The second option would be to ask if members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are Christian. I think this is worse. It identifies membership in the body of Christ with membership in a particular human organization. However, my answer would be that it is about as likely for a Seventh-day Adventist church member to be a Christian as a United Methodist church member. Probably a bunch of people in each are not.

That leads me to a question I was asked regarding evangelism. If I was discussing Jesus with people, and this led to the idea of getting involved in a local assembly of believers, would I be willing to refer someone to a Seventh-day Adventist congregation? Hmmm! Now the rubber meets the road. Do I really mean it when I call SDAs Christian brethren? The answer here is that I’d do so on the same basis as I would refer someone to a Methodist congregation, with the additional note that I’d be specific about SDA distinctives. In other words, it would depend on the congregation. I know plenty of Methodist churches to which I would not refer a seeker. I know quite I number to which I would. The same issues would be in play. Where I think I might have more questions about an SDA congregation would be in whether the distinctives of the denomination got ahead of the gospel. But that is not a problem that is exclusive to SDAs. Any denomination, in fact, any independent church, is quite susceptible to replacing the gospel with its own distinctives, and even viewing the gospel as synonymous with its traditions.

Now there’s a certain arrogance to this post. Who am I to decide who is a Christian and who is not? Nobody. Absolutely nobody. It’s not my job. What I do have to decide, what I think I have scriptural warrant to decide, is how I will help connect others to the body of Christ, and to do that I must discern. If I believe that I am referring someone to a place where they will be torn apart by judgment rather than led to join fellow overcomers, then I must choose some place else. But God is the only one who knows what’s on the inside, i.e. who is a “true” believer.

Our Emphasis in Responding to Issues in Society

I burden my post with a somewhat long title, but it could be longer. The question is where do I put my focus when I respond to what is going on today. Now many readers are going to make assumptions as to what my beliefs are on the issues I use as examples, but I’m not talking about what our particular position on the issue is, but rather what is our first response.

Dave Black wrote about this on his blog, and with his (blanket) permission, I’ve extracted this to The Jesus Paradigm site supporting his book by the same name, because Dave’s blog doesn’t allow linking to particular posts.

Early on, he says (quoting an e-mail he wrote):

I wonder why we in the church focus so much of our attention on gay marriage when it is so easy to overlook the sins that so easily beset us, such as gluttony and divorce….

My observation is that often in the church when we decide to “call sin by its right name,” we really mean that we will call other people’s sins by their right names. I tell people there are clean sins and dirty sins. (What? Where did I get that in Scripture?) No, it’s not in Scripture, it’s in our practice. “Clean sins” are the ones I commit. “Dirty sins” are the ones you commit. Dave brings up gluttony. I’m overweight. That’s pretty good evidence that I have sinned. But it’s easier for me to go on a crusade about some other problem than to address that one, because as I address the sin of gluttony, I address myself, and that isn’t so comfortable. Now I’ve lost some weight, and I need to lose more, and contrary to all the various diet plans, what I really need to do in order to accomplish that is quit committing that particular sin.

Now I said it’s easier for me to crusade against other sins. That’s true. Easier for me. But it’s not more effective. When people see you committing seven (or more) sins of your own regularly and then going after someone else’s problem, one with which you do not struggle, they are rarely impressed. It’s more effective to say, “Here’s what I need to overcome. Come along with me and let’s be overcomers together.”

These days when we talk about “issues” people automatically assume the issue is same-sex marriage. I’ve had people assume I was saying things about that topic when I absolutely wasn’t thinking about it at all. So let’s use gluttony as an example. What should the church’s primary response be to the sin of gluttony? I think we can all agree that excess weight is not good for our health. It would be good if we maintained more healthy bodies.

Should we make laws? Perhaps we should join the crusade by the former mayor of New York City to reduce the maximum size of soft drink that people can purchase. Perhaps we should change food packaging laws or make regulations about the fat and calorie content of various foods. No, I’m not talking here about the value of such laws. I’m not concerned with whether those moves would be good or bad for the country and for us. I’m asking what should our first response be as Christians.

And that, I would suggest, must always be the gospel. “Just look at the sort of love that God has given us, letting us be called children of God. And we are” (1 John 3:1)! What is it that God will do for His children? What possible reason can we have, as Christians, for offering something else first? It’s so human to go straight for cleaning someone else up, thinking somehow that his sins are dirtier than ours, before we offer the gospel.

But you say that there are so many people in our churches who have these problems. Well, I have a simple answer to that too. Offer them the gospel. No, not a theological lesson (though it is theology at its best), but membership in the family with the invitation to grow right there with it, to grow in a group of people who love you and realize they are also in the process of growing.

I’m not saying not to think of political solutions. I believe in being involved. I’m at the polls for every vote for which I’m eligible. But as Christians, our solution to everything from drug addiction to an attitude of judgment toward others should be the good news about Jesus, not forced on others because we need to fix them, but offered to others so we can grow together.

As Dave concludes:

I believe it’s time to stop seeking God in the misguided and erroneous teachings of do-goodism, whether the source is liberalism or conservatism. Jesus Christ is the only answer to the malaise plaguing our families, our churches, and our society.

I Think I’d Go Somewhere Else

A discount for praying? Actually, yes, I say a blessing over my food. So I have some problems with the “disobeying Jesus” thing. There are occasions when you don’t have to hide in order to pray. That’s not what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 6:1, though making a public show of it, which this restaurant seems to encourage, is definitely what he was talking about.

But the idea of profiting by praying is just so wrong in so many ways …

(HT: Exploring Our Matrix)

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

Pastor John T. McLarty, a Seventh-day Adventist who blogs at Liberal Adventist Pastor has posted his sermon for today, titled Church and Young Atheists as well as another related piece Questions My Kids Ask, written for the Green Lake Church Gazette.

I mostly want you to go, read these posts, and hopefully comment and enter the discussion. What I want to add here is that we need more pastors to try to hear what young people are saying, learn what they’re thinking and see how the church can respond. I have friends who are very leery of the idea of the church, or God, trying to be relevant. They suggest we should become relevant to God. And I agree that the end result is supposed to be that we become more Christ-like, more God-like. But I see the whole story of the Bible as God becoming relevant to us first, so that we have the opportunity to move on from there.

Too much of the discussion of young people that I hear has to do with our stereotypes of who they are and what they are doing. For example, there’s the stereotype of the atheist who was hurt at church and therefore really hates the church and not God. And, like most stereotypes, there’s a basis for this. There are many people who have distanced themselves from faith because of the people in the church.

But there are also those like the young lady Pastor McLarty describes, who have simply found too many things they were asked to believe by the church that they couldn’t manage. They aren’t really atheists. They disbelieve a number of things they were taught, are unsure about many others, and they have more important things to do with their lives than to try to create their own theological system.

Further, there are those I would call real atheists. These are people who have come to the conclusion for various reasons that there is no God. And yes, my Christian friends, these people exist. You can tell yourself that they aren’t real, that deep down they do believe and are just rebels. I’m sure it’s comforting at some level to pretend that this form of rejection of everything you hold dear doesn’t actually exist. But it does. Not only that, they’re generally good people, great neighbors, and credits to their communities.

Why am I saying all of this? Simply to say that in any conversation on any topic we need to listen to what the other person has to say and then respond to them, not to a label. And Pastor McLarty is quite correct that for those he was referring to, rolling out proofs of God’s existence isn’t really relevant. In fact, I rarely find that rolling out proofs of God’s existence, all of which are quite inadequate in so many ways, is the best approach. These “proofs” answer certain objections in certain ways, but they don’t really prove that the Christian God is real.

But that is another subject …

In (Partial) Defense of Confessional Schools

Brandon Withrow tells the story of How Westminster Theological Seminary Came to Define Fundamentalism for [Him]. It is a story that is repeated over and over again, and in this case a professor was removed from Westminster for saying much the same thing as I would about the study of the Old Testament:

Green says that the Bible — and books in it like Genesis, for example — should be read in two ways: Firstly, read “Genesis on its own terms,” as an “unfolding story,” meaning, “as an Israelite book, and not (yet) a Christian book!” The second way means letting “the Jesus-ending of Israel’s story reshape the way you interpret” Genesis, which “is the way you read Genesis as a Christian book.”

I’ll usually tell classes to listen for my terminology. If I say “Hebrew scriptures” I’m referring to that literature in its purely historical sense. What did it mean to those who first read it? If I say “Old Testament” I’m referring to the same literature as the first part of the Christian Bible. I refer to this as reading through Jesus-colored glasses. I consider both readings perfectly valid and related, but they are not the same thing.

I must confess, of course, that I am neither Reformed nor a fundamentalist. I did, however, attend a confessional school. I got my MA degree (Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages) at Andrews University, and the degree was offered in cooperation with the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. For those who think I was brainwashed into accepting evolutionary theory while being educated by liberals, I should note that as an SDA school, the official position was that the world was created in six literal days, followed by a seventh day of rest (Seventh-day, you see), and that this happened around 6,000 years ago.

My problem with all these stories is simply this: Why should someone remain a professor at a seminary if he or she does not support the confession that seminary is established to support? When I discovered that my beliefs were no longer in accord with those of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, I left. I didn’t have any position, much less a tenured one. I understand the investment. I understand the hardship. I also believe I understand the attachment to an organization that one thought would be supportive but happens not to be. But I’m not sure that in the nature of what a seminary is, it’s possible not to have boundaries on what a professor may believe. I’m certain, for example, that I would not belong in a Reformed seminary. I don’t want to minimize the pain of such a separation, but I think it might be necessary nonetheless.

It’s a bit touchier for schools that are not seminaries, for example, liberal arts colleges. Those schools, however, are established by religious organizations to educate members of their faith, and often others whom they hope to attract to their faith. It seems to me that the supporters of a school should have some say in what is taught there. The alternative would be for there to be no religiously connected schools at all.

I happen to deplore the narrow testing of doctrinal beliefs amongst professors. There needs to be an exchange of ideas on a faculty. There is, in addition, a matter of integrity. Recent stories about Bryan College claim a change in the doctrinal statement along the way. That adds another layer to the issue. But not every school can or should represent everything.

Does someone get a good education at a confessional school? I think that’s an excellent question. I suspect that the answer will be generally ‘yes.’ There may be elements lacking. Debates have occurred around Seventh-day Adventist schools regarding whether the theory of evolution is adequately taught on the one hand, and whether it should be taught at all on the other. Accreditation organizations think it should be. Denominational leaders would prefer not.

Accreditation organizations are generally a good thing. I certainly want to thank the team that visited Andrews University a short time before I arrived there as a student and told them that they couldn’t offer a concentration in Church History at the graduate level without offering patristic Latin. That resulted in the addition of a readings course in the Latin church fathers, which I was able to take. I don’t believe, however, that accreditation should be based on a school giving up on its confession. The assumption is that academic freedom is impaired by the confession. Doubtless it is. But how much?

Academic freedom is impaired by many things. Sometimes it is impaired when it should be, such as when a school denies tenure to a crackpot. Sometimes it is impaired when it should not be, as when tenure is denied to someone unorthodox but visionary. The problem is to tell the difference between the crackpot and the visionary.

It is in discerning that difference that I think it is more important to have a variety of educational institutions, not all run according to the same vision and standards. You will, of course, have students who are not informed about certain views, or who do not hear them from a real advocate. But no matter what you do, students are going to miss some things. Students at Westminster will not hear from Peter Enns, someone I consider well worth hearing. But students at Eastern University will. I think Westminster is the poorer for not having Peter Enns on their faculty. But I’m not Reformed.

My question is this: How many secular universities or mainline seminaries are looking for very conservative or fundamentalist scholars to balance their departments?

I was educated in rather conservative schools. I grew up hating the way in which new and more liberal ideas were suppressed. (I would note that quite a number of my professors were not narrow at all and made sure I was introduced to other ideas, even ones they disapproved. But the denominational atmosphere was not friendly.) Thus I am very aware of the way conservatives can suppress liberal ideas. I’m writing this article contrary to my personal feelings but in accordance, I think, with logic.

I don’t think true academic freedom is possible in a single system. Variety is necessary, and variety must include ideas of which I disapprove. I think some people are living in the old days (for them) when they were being blocked from new ideas that were more liberal, and so they keep watching just for the suppression of more liberal or progressive ideas. But it’s possible for conservative ideas, or just unorthodox ideas, to be suppressed as well. That’s why I like a variety of schools organized in a variety of ways. Thanks to places like Westminster, conservative Reformed scholars have a place to work, research, and write. Others can reject their ideas, but those ideas are available.

I’d still go to one of the more liberal schools if I was going back to school. But I’m glad the others exist.