Friday, July 27, 2012

On Disturbing the Flock

Sometimes someone does something different in our church meetings, that while quite Biblical, is disturbing to the flock. For example, if a church is unaccustomed to kneeling, it might disturb some if a prayer-leader were to kneel before the congregation as he leads a public prayer, even though kneeling is one of the most common postures for prayer in the Bible.

This raises the question: Should we avoid doing things differently simply because they might disturb the brethren?

After all, disturbed brethren can stir up a lot of problems that would simply not happen if we were to simply stick with our perfectly-acceptable traditions.

Why stir the pot by doing things differently?

One of the best reasons to stir the pot is to encourage growth. One of the strongest enemies against growth is complacency, being too comfortable. Remember the Robin Williams movie, "Dead Poet's Society"? One of the things he did, as a teacher of high-school boys, was to have them stand on their desk; it gave them a different perspective of a room they thought they knew inside and out. We think we know the Bible inside-and-out; that is, until someone does something different that makes us ask, "Hmm, is that Biblical?" And before we know it, we know something we didn't even know we didn't know.

Another reason for doing things differently, even if it stirs the pot, is simply to follow the example of our great Example. Didn't Jesus stir the pot, often? (For those of you who can't answer this question, the answer is "Yes"; the habit eventually got him crucified.)

Isn't "doing things differently" the whole gist of God giving each person his own gift? Romans 12 talks about this very thing:
Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function..., According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts...".
Paul continues this thought in 1 Corinthians 7:
[E]ach has his own gift from God, one person in this way and another in that way."
And in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians he talks about the different gifts as used in our assemblies:
Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial.... If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? Now there are many parts, yet one body.
He continues in chapter 14:
Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. All things must be done for edification. ... [Y]ou can all [exercise your gifts] one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. ... But everything must be done decently and in order.
God does not want our assemblies to be a one-size-fits-all meeting; he gives different gifts, and learning styles, and teaching styles, to everyone, so that everyone can reach and be reached according to the gifts they have. Some learn by listening to dry, technical lectures. Others learn by hands-on activities, such as building a scale-model of a wilderness tabernacle. Others learn by drama presentations (such as that presented by Agabus in Acts 21:10-11). Others learn by multimedia Power-Point presentations. Others learn by fill-in-the-blank paperwork. Others learn via music. Others learn via art.

We've limited our meetings to a cookie-cutter mentality, thinking that sermons are the Biblically-preferred teaching method, and defining "decently and in order" to mean "do things the way I and others like me are comfortable with".

What is decent and orderly for a loud, swaying, dancing rock-band concert (or a holy-roller Assembly of God service, or a football game) is different than what is decent and orderly for an attendee at a funeral, is different than what is decent and orderly for an audience at a stand-up comic routine. "Decently and in order" is not Biblically-defined as "sticking with the traditions we've had at our congregation for decades". It does not mean "sedate and staid and formal" (although that can certainly be decent and orderly); it simply means "appropriate for the venue". I, an old fuddy-duddy, would consider a club-scene "rave" to be chaos with its loud music and strobing lights and gyrating dancers; a cop comparing that same rave to a gunfight in the street would consider it decent and orderly. My point is that we need to be careful about defining "my" assembly as decent and orderly and "yours" as not.

If your congregation is not stirring the pot, if its members are not being disturbed and challenged, then I daresay your congregation is neither growing nor serving the needs of more than a subset of its members (or potential members). The insistence on one particular strand of traditional ways of doing things causes division; it runs off those who need a different style, to seek another congregation that provides that style. After a while, we have a bunch of congregations that don't look alike, who tend to think their way of doing things is right and Biblical and the way those other congregations do things is unBiblical, and we should therefore not fellowship with them. If each congregation had instead allowed variation within their own group, the various congregations would look alike, and be more united than they currently are. The Biblical model is for different gifts to be expressed within a congregation, so that each congregation is a melting pot (stirred), not to divide congregations into different pots, each containing a different gifting.

And perhaps the best reason for doing things differently, is to become more in line with the Biblical example. Take the previously-mentioned example of kneeling in prayer. If kneeling in prayer is the Biblical norm, then we are being Biblically abnormal to not kneel.

Or raising of hands; if Paul specifically tells the men to raise holy hands in prayer, why do we look askance at the men who take this command to heart?

I think it's time for our congregations to grow up, and stop being afraid of things simply because they're not the way Grandpa did them. What should matter more is how Jesus and his Twelve did them.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Safety in the Lion's Den

Daniel's life shows that the most righteous person may not escape being thrown into a lion's den,
but it also shows that you don't have to get out of the lion's den to be safe, as long as God is with you.

 -- the point of a sermon by "Pastor Gene Scott"

A Life Which is Right

It may be easier to choose to live a life that is not Right,
but it's easier to live a life that is Right.

-- inspired by Sheri Luckett

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kirk Credits Christianity With Saving Worlds

On Netflix tonight I watched an episode from the original series of Star Trek, "Bread and Circuses". Although I had seen this episode before, somehow I had missed an important detail.

WARNING: Spoiler Alert!

The creator of the series, Gene Roddenberry, had a vision of the future that was built on several noble ideas, such as the brotherhood of all humans, and freedom and equality for all, no matter their race or color or gender, and respect for other cultures, and peace-seeking. The series often reflects that vision. In the middle of this episode, Kirk all but makes the claim that all men are brothers, just as was claimed by a certain religion in the episode, which Kirk thought was a primitive superstitious worship of the sun.

Later, at the end of the episode, Lt. Uhura explains to the bridge crew what was in plain sight but which they had missed: it was not the sun in the sky which this religion worshiped; rather, it was the Son of God which it worshiped.

Kirk is awed at Uhura's revelation, and realizes that just as Christianity, with its message of love and brotherhood and peace, ended the Roman Empire's despotism and slavery on Earth, it was beginning to do the same thing in this parallel culture on a similar but alien planet. In contrasting Caesar and Christ, Kirk gave credit to Christianity as being the driving force at ending slavery, hatred, murder, war, and at elevating peace, brotherhood, freedom, equality -- it is the foundation of the Roddenberry vision for the future.

Kirk essentially said that Christianity is what rescues worlds.

I was surprised. But quite pleased.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Typical Assembly of Christians in the First Century

We tend to think of "going to church" in terms of 1950's ideology: get the family together on Sunday morning in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds, drive (or walk) to church, where the kids go off to their Bible class and the adults meet in an adult class, followed by a sermon-dominated "worship service" after everyone comes back into the assembly hall, where the main form of participation is singing the same songs everyone else is singing, bowing your head reverently in prayer, and listening attentively and quietly to the sermon, followed by a greeting and pat-on-the-back aimed at the preacher, finished up by a big Sunday lunch back home or at the restaurant, with just the immediate family, and maybe a few friends.

But if we're truly to be Biblical in our assemblies, we need to look at the assemblies we see in the New Testament.

Four of them come to mind:

Acts 20:7ff

The saints are assembling on the first day of the week to break bread.

We don't know if this is the Jewish first day (i.e. our Saturday night) or the Greek first day (i.e. our Sunday).

We don't know if this "breaking of the bread" is the Lord's Supper, a special meal that the church decided to gather for (either just because, or because it was a going-away supper for Paul), a regular weekly assembly for eating a regular meal just because the assembly is a family, the second Passover (for those who missed the first one), or what.

There is no mention of eating prior to midnight, but there is after midnight, which means that if it is the Lord's Supper, it took place on the second day of the week (if using Greek timing), or the intent of the assembly was to meet for eating on our Saturday night (if using Jewish timing).

So to make a "law" out of this example for us to eat the Lord's Supper on Sundays is to go beyond what the Scriptures reveal to us. All we really know is that the main emphasis for the meeting is to "break bread", to eat, either a normal meal, or the Lord's Supper "ritual", or perhaps a combined Lord's Supper "ritual" within the context of a full meal, which is most like the original, first Lord's Supper, being initiated within the context of a full meal.

Another thing we notice about this meeting is that Paul lectured a long time (v. 9 -- "discoursed"-ASV; "preached"-KJV; "talked still longer"-ESV), and bored a young man to literal death. It's interesting that after the young man was revived, Paul changed his format to "conversation" (v. 11 -- "talked with"-ASV; "conversed with"-ESV). Might we heed this Biblical warning against long one-sided sermons in favor of interactive discussions? (Keep this question in mind as you read the section below on 1 Cor 14.)

James 2:2-6

The word which James uses for "assembly" here is "synagogue" -- "If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in...".

So first off, we can see that the Christian assembly has been influenced by the Jewish assembly. This should be no surprise; the church was exclusively Jewish for the first fourteen or so years, and when non-Jews started being added to the church, there was a lot of pressure by the Jews to force the Gentiles to essentially become Jewish. Acts 15 speaks of the Jerusalem conference that settled this matter, deciding that Jews should be Christians in their distinctive Jewish ways (still keeping the Law of Moses, being circumcised, etc), but that Gentiles can be Christians without adopting the Jewish ways. Nevertheless, Christianity started out Jewish, so it's not surprising to see the Christian assembly as having its roots in the Jewish synagogue.

The main point of James' mentioning of the assembly is that we should show fairness to all, rich and poor alike, that there should be no distinctions based on socio-economic class.

Jude 12

Jude mentions the "love feasts", at which blasphemers feast with his readers. It would seem these "love feasts" are regular meals of some sort, although we don't have enough information to conclude much about them, not even if they are just ritualistic meals or real fill-your-belly meals.

1 Cor 11 - 14

We've already seen that eating seems to be a significant part of Christian assemblies. We see that again here in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians.

Paul tells the Corinthians that they're not really eating the Lord's Supper when they come together (v. 20), because of their divisions (v. 18). This Lord's Supper is obviously not just a ritualistic tidbit of cracker and a sip of grape juice/wine, but a full-blown meal, in which some people have eaten all the food and imbibed to the point of drunkenness, having no concern that they've left nothing for the late-comers who then remain hungry.

Paul scolds these people, telling them that if the only reason they're at the Lord's Supper is to satisfy their hunger, they should eat at home. He then makes it clear that the purpose of the Lord's Supper is not to fill your belly, but to remember the Lord's death until he comes, saying that if you eat the bread or drink the cup without recognizing the body, even those who arrive late, you're eating and drinking condemnation to yourself (vv. 27-29). Therefore, when you come together for the purpose of eating, wait for one another (v. 33). If you can't wait, eat at home, so that you won't come under judgment (v. 34).

In this passage, we see that, like in Acts 20, the assembly is for the purpose of eating. The eating is not a simple ritualistic snack, but a full-blown meal, incorporating the remembrance of Jesus' death. And like in Jude 12, it's a feast in which love is to be shown to one another, by recognizing the body (i.e. by recognizing that this is a group activity); it's a full-blown meal in which you are to wait and share with one another, in remembrance of Jesus.

Earlier in this chapter, we've seen that the traditions delivered by Paul (v. 2), and the customs of the assemblies (v. 16), allow for both men and women to pray and prophesy (vv 4-5), provided certain hair-covering regulations are observed. (At first glance this seems to conflict later with chapter 14.) So it would seem that if a woman were to be asked to say the thanksgiving prayer for the meal, that would be acceptable so long as she does so within the societal norms of what is proper concerning her appearance (in that culture, it was shameful for a woman to have her hair cut short or uncovered - v. 6).

In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, we see that within the assembly, different Christians will exhibit different God-given gifts; not everyone is an eye; not everyone is an ear. God has made us different, giving us different gifts, for the benefit of the entire body. Some might be law-observing Jews, some might be non-Law-observing Gentiles (v. 13, with Acts 15, 21, esp 21:20-25). So we can have lots of variety within the body (artsy people vs mathy people? drama performance people vs scientific data people? book-worms vs jocks?, introverts vs extroverts? holy-roller "spirit-filled" people vs text-oriented scholars?), so long as we're unified.

Chapter 13 is a side-bar concerning the value of love as a gift over other spiritual gifts.

Then in chapter 14 we get a wider view of a Christian assembly. In Acts 20 we saw that the church assembly in Troas consisted of "breaking bread" and talking/discussing late into the night. In 1 Cor 11 we saw that the church assembly in Corinth consisted of eating a big meal together in remembrance of Jesus' death. Now in chapter 14 we see what else goes on in the Corinthian assembly.

Everyone in the assembly has a gift to exercise for the benefit of the group (1 Cor 12:7) - some have a psalm to sing, some have a teaching, some have a revelation, some have a tongue, some have an interpretation (1 Cor 14:26). But all things must be done for the benefit of, the building up of, the assembly (v. 26). Things must be done decently, and in order, not a free-for-all (v. 40); people must take turns in exercising their gifts, "one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged" (v. 31). And it all must be done with understanding (v. 15), which means that speaking in tongues is to be discouraged unless there is an interpreter who can translate for the benefit of everyone else (v. 28), although it is not to be forbidden (v. 39). But the expectation is that the "whole church assembles together and all are speaking" (v. 23) in song, or in tongues, as an interpreter, in prophecy, or to evaluate what others have said (vv 26-29), all providing conviction and judgment as required (v 24).

What we do not see in this assembly is a passive sitting for an hour while one person lectures for a long period. We do see the lecture format in the beginning of the meeting in Acts 20, but even that changes after the lecture results in people going to sleep, into a more interactive conversational format.

Our church assemblies are centered on being mostly passive while listening to a lecture, with just a smattering of activity done in unison, exactly like everyone else is doing, with very few individuals addressing/contributing to others within the group. The New Testament assemblies seem to have been centered on everyone contributing to others in the group, for the good of the group, in conjunction with a common meal that focuses on one-another-ness in honor of Jesus' death.

Are we doing it wrong?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

What Are the Rules for Worship?

Contrary to what most of us have been taught and have believed all of our lives, we're not really given instructions as to how we're to worship, either individually, or as a group. We've taught for years that there are rules for corporate worship, but we've had to inductively reason those rules out using (fallible, I might add) human logic. Such rules include meeting on the first day of the week, to break br.., er, have the Lord's Supper, and to conduct Five Acts of Worship (and no more, so I guess immersion is not an act of worship or we wouldn't be doing it in our assemblies, or maybe we've just miscounted and there are Six Acts of Worship). Yet when you really sit down and look at these "approved Apostolic examples" or necessary inferences, you realize they're not commands given by God, but they're commands deduced by men, taught as doctrine. I suspect the Teachers of the Law in Jesus' day used similar human logic to arrive at their traditions. Jesus strongly condemned them for elevating their human-derived conclusions to the level of Command (Matt 15:1-9).

God has given us very few actual commands about how to worship; most of what we believe are God's Rules for Worship are actually rules we've derived using human logic, and poor logic at that sometimes. For example, are we 100% certain that Acts 20 implies a weekly gathering for the purpose of taking the Lord's Supper? Maybe it was just a going-away supper for Paul on the last night he planned to be there (having intended to leave on the morrow). Maybe it was the Jewish Second Passover for those who for whatever reason missed the first official one; the timing is pretty close. Maybe it was a weekly event, but not for the Lord's Supper, but just for an ordinary meal. Notice that if Luke was using Greek reckoning, if the disciples met on the first day, Paul didn't break bread until Monday, after midnight. If Luke was using Jewish reckoning, the disciples met on what we would consider Saturday night. Or maybe Paul's breaking bread after midnight wasn't the same as the breaking of bread for the purpose of the meeting. The point is we make assumptions, and then bind our conclusions as if they are God's commandments, when God has not really given us many commandments.

In fact, Paul specifically contrasts the old covenant, having many rules and regulations, with the new covenant, saying, "Why do you submit to regulations: 'Don't handle, don't taste, don't touch'? .. They are commands and doctrines of men, although they seem religiously valuable" (Col 2:20ff), adding, "Don't let anyone judge you about what you eat or drink, or what holy days you may or may not observe, including the Sabbath" (v 16).

Is it not odd that God clearly spelled out his instructions for worship under the old covenant, but then left it to the vagaries of human reasoning to figure out his instructions for worship in the new covenant based on hints and clues and a very few specifics? If how we "do" worship was so important in the old covenant that God spelled out the details, what does it say about how we "do" worship in the new covenant that he hasn't spelled out the details?

Most of us have grown up thinking we have rules for our "worship assembly", when in reality most of those rules are jigsaw-puzzled together using human logic, rather than being commands given by God.

Thus, as Paul argues in Romans 14, perhaps we should be a little less dogmatic about how "worship service" must be conducted.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

So, You're Glad You're White?

"I teach a class called Blacks in the Bible. I open up all these passages people have never thought about."

"What passages do you mean?"

"Well, for starters, Ephraim and Manasseh are two of the twelve tribes of Israel, right? According to Genesis 41, they were the sons of Joseph and an Ethiopian woman. They were 50 percent black. The fathers of two tribes of Israel were black. Ever seen that in the Bible story pictures?

"Jethro was a Midianite from Southern Arabia, which was occupied by Ethiopians. He was the father of Zipporah, wife of Moses, who was a Cushite, an Ethiopian--says so in Numbers 12. Jethro's family were believers, proselytes to the Jewish faith. Moses married this black woman, and when Miriam grumbled about this interracial marriage, God gave her leprosy to teach her a lesson.

"Or how about David...[who] easily had enough black blood that if he lived in America today he'd be called black.

"Solomon was David's son by a Hamitic woman Bathsheba, whose name means 'daughter of Sheba', an African. Zephaniah the prophet was a descendant of 'Cush', a black man.

"And look at the messianic line of Jesus. In his legal genealogy, through Joseph, four women are mentioned--Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. ... All of them were black! Jesus' mother Mary was also a descendant of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. There may have been other Hamitic blood in Jesus too, but as far as we know, there was no Japhetic blood, no white blood. Those who teach that having black African blood in you puts you under a curse must believe Jesus was under a curse--that the whole messianic line was cursed! By American standards, Jesus had enough African blood to be called black."

Dominion, by Randy Alcorn, p388

And that doesn't include the black governmental official who is a prime example of conversion in Acts 8:26ff, or the black church prophet/leader/teacher, Simon the Black (Niger), or his co-worker Lucius, also from a black part of the world, in Acts 13:1, or the black Libyan, Simon the Cyrenian, who was forced to carry Jesus' cross, in Luke 23:26, or the black woman who is celebrated as loved in the Song of Solomon.

It wasn't long ago that white America scorned blacks as being sub-human and otherwise not of true human value, cursed by God. We've thought that being white made us better, and we would never approve of a "mixed marriage". I bet Miriam had a change of mind when she was turned "white as snow" with leprosy.

How blind we humans can be.