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On Milk and Milk

On Milk and Milk

A couple of days ago I was reading 1 Peter during my devotional time and was struck by 1 Peter 2:1-3:

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 2:1-3 (NRSV)

My mind jumped to Hebrews 5:

With the time that’s passed you should be teachers, but you again need someone to teach you the basics of the foundation of God’s message, and you now need milk and not solid food. Everyone who subsists on milk is still an infant, untested in the message of righteousness.

Hebrews 5:12-13 (my translation)

There are several reasons not to connect these two verses. The interpretation of “milk” and the viewpoint about it are very different. I think, nonetheless, that there is something to be learned from the connection.

I talk a great deal about context in Bible study, various types of context. But there is also the context of your hearing. Your spiritual experience and situation is important. There is a saying that you read or hear the text as you are, not as it is. I think this can be overstated, but it does provide us with an important perspective. We do contribute something to our own interpretation from our own experience.

Another sort of context is your own perception of your relationship to the text. And this is what struck me about these two passages.

I can easily see the message (that is, the message that I see!) in these two passages. One is urging believers to move forward. The other is urging the readers to focus on those basic elements of the gospel, things that are essential to growing in the future.

The question is how I, as a reader, see myself.

We tend to read the text from a superior position. The author of Hebrews is castigating the readers because they have failed to move forward. Their discernment is not developed. They can’t understand what he wants to teach them because of this failure.

We join ourselves with the author, looking down on the original readers, who are so undeveloped spiritually as to need milk. I think most of us, at least, do this unconsciously. We are the spiritually developed, discerning, intelligent folks who are ready for the solid food. Let’s move through this passage quickly to get to the real stuff.

But if we haven’t done enough milk drinking, as in 1 Peter 2:1-3, we are not going to correctly understand that more difficult material.

What I suspect is that all of us—myself most definitely—have a need of some of that pure milk, reminding us of whose we are, and who is the one who is perfect. It is only because of Jesus that we grow into anything. We want to discuss deep, serious, complex theories when we really need a reminder that we’re only here because of grace.

The solid-food-eater who comes to despise that milk is likely to fall short in understanding the harder, deeper material.

I feel the need to confess my need of milk before I try to tackle the harder stuff.

Recently, after having taught my way through Romans and Hebrews, my Wednesday night class at church asked me to tackle Leviticus. I claim that my theology is primarily founded on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus in that order. They wanted to know why I found so much spiritual food in Leviticus.

I, on the other hand, felt that I was not up to teaching them what I had learned in Leviticus. Do you hear the arrogance coming through there? I, the experienced solid-food-eater type was unable to get across to milk-drinkers the wonderful things I had learned.

Several people in the class reminded me that if it was God’s time for me to teach that material, God would help me do it.

It was such a critical point, one that I know, but don’t know. The teaching itself is an act of God’s grace. Everything is. That’s the milk right there. The better you get at technical things, the easier it is to forget that no matter how brilliant your deductions are in your own eyes, you depend on God.

The milk-drinkers, who were and are, in fact, solid-food-eaters, were there to remind me of the simple milk of the Word. It is not about me, but about God reaching out to every person.

That was a time for repentance for me, and 1 Peter 2:1-3 reminded me that I need to regularly check in with the pure milk and remember the source of it all.

We need to say, with Paul:

By God’s grace I am what I am.

1 Corinthians 15:10 (my translation)

Featured image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”

There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.

When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.

During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.

For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.

So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.

The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.

So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.

One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.

He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.

We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.

This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.

I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.

My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.

Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.

So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.

There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.

But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.

You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.

Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.

It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.

Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.

I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.

So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.

No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.

Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!

The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.

There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?

I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.

Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!

It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.

The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?

Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?

Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.

There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.

Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.

There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.

In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.

God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.

When you see that, don’t bow down.

Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Shortly after Jody and I married, I was approached by a member of our church. He had a demand. “You need to control your wife,” he said. “She says [fill in theological thing here] which is wrong! You need to straighten her out.”

I was astonished for a moment, but went with my gut. “I’d suggest you ask her about that idea,” I said. “She’s capable of answering for herself.”

I noted that my response was from the gut, but then I started to second-guess myself. On the one hand I certainly was confident Jody could take care of herself and answer whatever questions might be asked. On the other, I didn’t want it to appear that I was unwilling to defend her. So we had a discussion and concluded that we would both use that same answer when someone asked us to explain or justify the other. “Henry/Jody is capable of answering for him/herself.” It’s worked fine for us. We’d rather have it appear that we are refusing to defend one another than that one of us considers the other incompetent.

The first thing one might imagine was that this person was a male chauvinist who thought men should keep their wives in line. There was likely some of that involved. I doubt that he would have gone to Jody if he had agreed with her and asked her to keep me in line. But that wasn’t the only thing in play. There was, of course, the matter of theology, and also the matter of credentials. People disagree about theology all the time. I’m not concerned with the disagreement. I am concerned with the credentials.

The particular chauvinism involved was the assumption that I would automatically know more about any particular theological issue that Jody would. Some of that, as I said, was likely simply because she’s a woman and I’m a man. This sort of thing can vary from very subtle to quite blatant, as in this case. In regard to that I’ll simply repeat what I’ve said before. I believe that everyone should act and serve according to their gifts. Who should do something or take some office is not determined by anything other than what gifts they have for that activity and how they’ve developed those gifts.

For me this is a simple matter of recognizing each person as a person, and not as a category or a set of categories. I despise the term stupid, but I also despise the term smart as applied to a person. I think those words can be quite valid as applied to a specific idea. “Differently gifted” is often regarded as politically correct speech. I regard it as an accurate way of looking at people.

If I regard someone as stupid, I am absolved of further concern with that person in other ways. I have now dismissed the person. They might have many things they can do, yet because I have applied this general label, I am done with that person. On the other hand, if I label someone as smart, I will then regard them as more valuable in many and various positions, and again I absolve myself of looking at specific gifts. It’s quite easy, however, to assign a smart person to a position for which they are not smart.

I know that in reality it is rarely that extreme. People use a mix of seeing the specific gifts a person has and their overall label. Nonetheless I consider this type of thinking dangerous. It is counterproductive from a strictly business point of view. As a Christian I object to categorizing people in these ways, because I believe it violates the golden rule.

I can illustrate how this works with me and my wife. Let’s start with a question: Who is more important to our business, Energion Publications. I’m the person with training in theology and biblical studies. I do cover design and book layout. I’m the one who figures out which of the various standards and punctuation rules we’ll follow. I’ve written more words than she has. I keep the accounts. Without me, Energion Publications would not exist.

And then there’s the other side. Jody is the one who sets up the production schedule for a book. She’s the one who can organize our presence at a conference and create a display table. She’s the one who sees details in the appearance of a manuscript. She is best suited to recruit and work with certain authors, especially those who write devotionally. She’s the best salesman for a substantial selection of our products. She’s the one who gets me talking to the ones that I need to talk to.

I could list many more items for each of us. Can I say the same thing about Jody—without her Energion Publications would not exist? Absolutely. Even the more academic books which she would not consider herself qualified to edit would not be completed without her efforts.

It would be easy to consider my efforts as more important, just because I’m me, and I like to be important! I could obviously hire someone else to do all these other things. But if I’m honest, I know that there are people with the skills and gifts that I use as well. We are both essential!

So here’s the stupid-smart scale: Which of us is smarter?

That’s a question that just doesn’t work well. The fact is that we each have important, even critical gifts. There is no value in trying to make one better than the other. They are different. They are needed.

Now let’s think about the church. Is a person with gifts of administration less critical than one with pastoral gifts? (Note that I regard almost every modern job description for a pastor as not only unscriptural, as in not even conceived of in scripture, but also unholy.) What about gifts of encouragement or helping others versus gifts of teaching? What are more important? Yet the person who helps, organizes, keeps the books, and so forth is considered less of a leader than the person who preaches or teaches. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you this: Can you find a single church sign that identifies the janitor or even the church administrator? No! It identifies the pastor.

As an aside, I think there is a much better case for hiring a professional church administrator than there is for hiring someone to preach or teach in the local church, and certainly then there is to hire someone professionally to visit people in the hospital. Those duties can easily be divided among members of the congregation according to their gifts.

And thus I come back to my wife and I and theological questions. Why would someone assume that I would straighten out my wife, though she wouldn’t straighten me out? Ignoring basic sexism, which I think does apply, we need to look at training, experience, and credentials.

Many people (perhaps most) that we encounter would present theological questions to me and not to Jody. I have trained to be a teacher. I have a BA degree majoring in Biblical Languages and an MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages. I have taught for years. I have written 13 books, which is considered an accomplishment, though none of them is particularly popular. I have been invited to preach many times and in many places. I am expected to be the theologian and to have an answer. Of course, there are many areas in which I have expertise and the ability to answer those questions.

Jody, on the other hand, does not have a degree. What she does have is one of those old-fashioned three year nursing programs, years of experience in a variety of fields as a registered nurse, experience as a hospice nurse and then director of education for a hospice organization. Further, she has carried on a regular devotional live for decades. She has been invited to teach and to preach, and I can testify she is very good at it. She has written several books as well, at least one of which is more popular than any of mine!

There are some questions you should ask me, but there are many other questions you should ask her. If you ask me, I’m likely going to give you an answer I got from her. If you want someone to visit you in the hospital, she’s the one. My degree, earned via seminary courses (though granted by the graduate school) didn’t teach me how to do that. I have never encountered someone who was sick or facing death who wanted my help translating a verse from Greek or Hebrew, or expounding on ancient manuscripts.

Now how do you rate this sort of thing on a scale. Is Jody smarter than I am or am I smarter than she is? I have no idea, nor do I care. In fact, I don’t think there’s any good way to make that determination. We are each gifted in our own way. We each have a call from God to serve one another and those God places before us. We’re very different, but that makes our teamwork more valuable.

In order to know what we can each do, you have to learn to know us as individuals. An intelligence test won’t do it. I have never been formally tested, but I know that I usually rate pretty well on the type of questions involved, yet I can forget where my local Walmart is located. Am I stupid or smart? Our degrees or lack of them will not do it. I have an MA degree, but I have trouble planning a route around town that doesn’t involve wasted miles. Am I stupid or smart? Jody can’t translate a Greek text for you, but she can help you through the inevitable questions you’ll have dealing with end of life issues. Is she stupid or smart?

There’s the saying that there are no stupid questions. I disagree. I’ve just asked a stupid question several times. Is she/am I stupid or smart? It’s a completely useless question that produces nothing of value, and often helps people excuse themselves from actually looking at the person.

This also goes back to the male/female thing. The assumption that because someone is a man or a woman one can safely make (derived) assumptions about their capabilities is based on a similar mental laziness. I can’t be bothered to determine what this woman or that man is capable of, so I’m just going to assign the general category to them. Whether you’re making the assumption based on a category of credentials, on race, on nationality, or on gender, It all goes back to an unwillingness to get to know someone as a person.

Someone’s going to point out to me that men and women are different. It may shock you to know that I was already aware of that. But the difference doesn’t matter if you’re willing to learn to know the individual man or woman. If you know that person’s gifts, the abilities they share with their gender or other category will also be obvious.

I don’t keep my wife in line. She doesn’t keep me in line. We allow each other to answer our own questions for the simple reason that we can, and that we respect one another and our gifts. Neither gender nor credentials matter.

Responding to Church Criticism

Responding to Church Criticism

Steven Cuss took to The Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog) to respond to Francis Chan about the church. This is all about a very valid and, I think, much needed conversation about the church.

When we criticize the church in America there can be many responses.

  1. Defensive – we are really, truly doing good things
  2. Could be worse – we have our problems, but we’re doing some good stuff
  3. Look at you – you’re making more mistakes than we are (or you have in the past)
  4. You’re too critical – you shouldn’t point out our problems because that’s negative

There are a few more, I suppose, but those will do.

The problem is that as long as we use these various responses, reform or correction will definitely not happen. Once we have responded, we have generally also minimized our need to act. We function a bit like a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. You can stomp the accelerator because you need to get moving, but all you do is rock a bit forward and then a bit back.

I think that often describes our churches. We don’t take the serious steps that are needed to really have an impact on our culture. We want to be a little bit different, mostly in the sense that we attend church, but not be real salt, scattered through and changing everything.

Now not all criticism is useful. Not all criticism is valid. But a great deal is. The person who aims to change cannot pre-moderate his or her comments. If you are making a call for reform, and nobody is getting upset, you probably aren’t doing it right.

My blog header proclaims me a “passionate moderate” amongst other things. I think moderation is a good thing if you’ve found the right range of options and the right position. But sometimes the right thing is what everyone else regards as an extreme. I’d really like to find that “moderate” position at the center of God’s will.

How about you?

Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.