With a Grain of Salt

One of the reasons why I don’t fit in with the Southern Baptists anymore is a certain amount of skepticism that I’ve developed over the years under their teachings. Eventually I saw incongruity with their words and actions that looked suspiciously like hypocrisy. Finally I had to cut ties in order to save my sanity and what little faith I had managed to salvage from the wreckage that was the culmination of their teachings. I now attend a Methodist church, but I’ve begun to notice a troubling sign of things to come: many “Bible studies” (Studies written by wealthy men and women who have little or no practical life experience with Bible verses thrown in, but not once are believers asked to study from their own Bibles and draw conclusions, the authors have already done that for us) are from well-known Southern Baptist personalities and they are accepted without question or criticism.

Understand this, Southern Baptists emphasize and value a literal interpretation of Scripture whereas Methodists have this handy little quadrilateral that asks believers to filter their understanding through reason and experience. That’s how Methodists arrived at the conclusion that women can be preachers and teachers who teach men and women together, which is the opposite position of the baptists who believe that the Bible’s instruction is clear that women may only teach other women and children and they cannot be preachers and teachers of men.

I’m not saying that every single Southern Baptist “Bible study” will take you down that road that’s inherently incongruous with your own teachings, but some of them will made an aside, a subtle nod, or a gentle push that’s more in keeping with a Southern Baptist understanding and less in keeping with a Methodist understand of the same passage. If you don’t question how the authors arrive at the conclusions they do, you might miss out on the implications of what they teach. It makes it easier the next time they build off of that point into a teaching that’s further away from the understandings you hold dear. You’re also directly financing the aims of the Southern Baptists in their interests that you both agree on (like serving Christ) and in their interests where you stand opposed (like everything else.)

Not long after we left the Southern Baptist denomination, we stumbled into a non-denominational church that was a refreshing place to heal from the wounds and hurt and disappointment that was left over from our departure with the Southern Baptists. One day, the pastor delivered a sermon explaining that it’s not the people that are going in the opposite direction you have to worry about, it’s the ones that are very nearly (but not quite) headed in the direction you’re going. The more you adjust your course to match theirs, the more you leave the original path. It’s not long before you’ve stopped going to north and are going north-east and then you’re going east – having complete diverted from the way you were going. Methodists, the more you align yourself with Southern Baptists, the more you lose your way. Then you lose people like me who left the Southern Baptists and aren’t interested in the Southern Baptist-lites you’ve become.

I’m not saying that you should just throw away the materials you’ve already bought from the Southern Baptists nor that you should never, ever buy anything that they produce ever again, but I am saying that you should question every conclusion they draw and ask yourselves: “Would Methodists have reached this conclusion? What other valid interpretations exist for this passage?” Please ‘filter’ the Southern Baptist teachings through reason and experience! Look up culture and history and explain how the original audience understood it. Don’t just accept the author’s brilliant insight as obviously true and move on from there – ask yourselves how she arrived at that conclusion! Ask yourselves what she missed! You’re Methodists and don’t you forget that as you study what Southern Baptists have to say. Don’t let yourselves give up the the things that make you who you are.

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On Order

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. – 1 Cor. 14:33

It just struck me how much the new modus operandi of the church can be boiled down to one very little and extremely useful word: order.

From the very beginning, there’s an order. An order of creation as well as Creation Order which is not at all the same thing. There’s the order to the operation of church, an order of pastoral authority, and even an order of authority in the family. You name it – they’ve found a way to create a hierarchical chain of command to run it.

It’s just that I’m not terribly convinced that the most important thing to God is that we live according to all of these orders that we keep on seeing everywhere. Assuming God would keep even His own rules, then he would necessarily have to always work through the first born, the kings, the generals, the prophets and the priests as the ones having the most authority.

If order was all that mattered, Jacob would have been the one that God hated and Esau the one that God loved. If order was all that mattered, then King Eliab would have replaced King David as the firstborn. If order was all that mattered, then King Amnon would have replaced King Solomon. If order was all that mattered then Eli’s eldest son, not Hannah’s son Samuel would have served God. If order was all that mattered, then Deborah would not have served as a judge. If order was all that mattered, then God would not have used Mary when there were far more ‘worthy’ candidates belonging to wealthy and powerful families. If order was all that mattered – then why amend the Temple Worship system with Jesus’ message? Didn’t Jesus draw the ire of the spiritual authorities – the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Scribes, and the Teachers of the Law simply because he would not teach as they taught or do as they did?

But it seems that we’ve fallen for a lie that if we obey order then we will please God. Because somehow the God that chose the younger over the elder, the last over the first, an outsider over insiders, and a woman over men has suddenly decided that he now prefers elders over youth, first over last, insiders over outsiders, and men over women. Perhaps we’ve gotten the wrong idea about order. Because the verse doesn’t say that God is a God of order, but of peace. Sure, there’s peace in order, but sometimes order is anything but peaceful.

Take the Pax Romana, for example – it was an unprecedented time of peace achieved by the order maintained by the Roman Empire. It was achieved by the Roman armies completely destroying any resistance – from outside and inside of the empire. It lasted from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. That’s not to say that there wasn’t discord in that time – just that all of it was met with the unfriendly edge of a Roman sword or spear. Peace and order were achieved, but not everyone was happy with the means that justified the ends.

From what I’m seeing order isn’t exactly at the top of God’s list in his interactions with people – so the odds that he would change to suddenly decide that He likes order some two thousand years or so after the events of Scripture leads me to believe that the idea of Creation Order, Authority Order, Family Order, Church Order, etc. is not His work. It doesn’t match Jesus’ description of his upside-down kingdom:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. – Luke 22:25-27

Jesus could have called twelve disciples from ruling families with the ancestry to prove they were worthy leaders in the coming kingdom. He chose fisherman, a doctor, and even a tax collector to follow him while women bankrolled his ministry. Order never was high on his priority list. So why is it at the top of ours?

The 411 on God

I’m so glad that we’ve got God completely figured out these days. That we know what words to say to manipulate Him into doing our will. And that we can buy his goodwill. Ancient believers never really had it that good – or easy. The God of the Old Testament was a powerful and Holy figure who’d just soon as destroy as he would save. He also wasn’t all that big on interfering with daily affairs – for most people. He wouldn’t exactly prevent their destruction if it didn’t suit him to do so.

By the time the New Testament rolled around, He was much more mellow. Jesus didn’t have nearly the body count stacked up and seemed to be big on mercy. Only when he overturned the tables in the temple did he show some anger, and even then we’re pretty sure nobody got hurt. In the early Church, the Holy Spirit showed that one ought not trifle with the fledgling believers as Ananias and Sapphira as well as Simon the Magician all experienced an element of wrath. But all in all, He was much more likely to let people live.

Since then, we’ve discovered the secrets of controlling God. By seed-faith donations, we can ‘sow’ our money which God will make fruitful and give us a return on our investment. By praying together, we can guarantee that God will answer our prayers. By building a ‘war room’ we can bend our spiritual energy and bind God to do what we want Him to.

BGILTWe know that God will never take anything away without giving us something bigger, better, nicer, or newer in return. Like Job – sure, God took away his livelihood, his staff, and his children but God gave him twice as much stuff, twice as much staff, and a whole new batch of children – a new family to replace the one he lost. If only he knew then what we know now then he would have been able to get God to keep Satan at bay and save them all. But he was dealing with the Old Testament God, so it would have been 50-50 anyway.

Yep, we’ve got it pretty good. Which is nice, considering how many people don’t realize how easily they would have upset the Old Testament God every time they do something wrong. Think about it – what if every time there was embezzlement in a church the perpetrators suffered Ananias’ and Sapphira’s fate? Wouldn’t everybody double-check their work to prevent that from happening to them even accidentally? What if every sort of wrong-doing had a similar result – some sort of supernatural sickness that everybody could see and know what had happened? Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that. People can steal from churches without fear of earthly consequences.

That’s why it’s so great that we have God all figured out. When people do something they shouldn’t, they an always run into the open arms of the church, say ‘I repent! I’m really sorry and I’ll never do it again.’ Then they can lay low as long as it takes for the whole thing to blow over and get right back at it while nobody’s looking. With forgiveness on tap, why there’s a whole lot of not so good things that anybody can get away with at church. But we don’t really have anything to worry about – because we have God figured out down to a science these days.

Our Christian Witnesses

I remember hearing about one of the students who had graduated out of the high school youth group before I joined. She was the sort of believer who took everything seriously. So she requested to work at the restaurant that employed her on Sundays so that she could wait on the tables of the ‘Sunday Crowd’ after Church services had let out. It was well known that the Sunday Crowd was the most obnoxious of all customers. For one, they lacked patience. And two, they tended to leave Bible tracts as their tips. She had arranged to be their waitress so that their bad witness would not leave a bad impression on the unbelievers with whom she worked. That impressed me.

Which is why I took the opportunity to look at the translation section of the language-learning website I frequent and realized that that I should translate the Christian sermons that had been uploaded for the same reason. I’m already familiar with Christianese which isn’t easy to translate into another language. And I’m also somewhat resistant to the various teachings. I can see when verses are taken out of context and applied incorrectly. I hope to be able to do more of such translations. I wouldn’t want the ‘witness’ of these sermons causing other users of the site any harm.

I assisted in the translation of two sermons recently, one about the necessity of prayer and another about the six characteristics of a born again believer. Both expressed restricted thinking: “The man that doesn’t pray isn’t a true believer.” “The man that displays these characteristics is a true believer, but the man that does not display these characteristics is not a true believer.” And yes, both sermons were riddled with that kind of language – ‘the man’ ‘ ‘he is’ ‘that man’ ‘a man’ ‘his’ and ‘he’. The only times that women were referred to were few and far between. I asked myself: Would a non-believer understand that this one-hundred year old sermon used masculine language in the general sense much as we would have used: anyone, anybody, or inclusive language today? Or would they assume that a plain, literal reading is the correct one and the intended recipients of this sermon are exclusively men? What sort of witness is that to a modern person?

Neither sermon really cares to ‘soften’ it’s language in terms of circumstance. I can imagine instances where a person is too shocked, too sad, too scared, or too angry to really pray about anything – it does not mean that they are less of a Christian or aren’t one altogether. It also notes that all of the great men in Scripture were people of prayer. So were the Pharisees. They would pray in public, on the street corners, in the marketplace, anywhere and everywhere they could be seen but even that wasn’t enough to set their hearts right before God. Yet you hardly see pastors preach on how to pray in secret, as Jesus taught. The truth is, you can’t make a list of characteristics of prayer or being born again from the Bible and expect everyone to meet every single one of them. Then you can’t call people out for not meeting these characteristics by calling them nominal Christians or not Christians at all. That’s sort of like saying “All Americans love football, but anyone who lives in America and loves soccer isn’t a real American.” What sort of witness is that?

In all these scenarios, it would have been nicer had Christians considered the witness that everything they say and do shows others about who they are and what they believe. That doesn’t stop being true even on the internet. It would also be nice if outdated one-hundred or so year old sermons were left squarely in the past. But since reformed thinking has had a resurgence in the last decade or so, it’s adherents will have to find a way of turning essentially andro-centric sermons into more inclusive messages or risk irrelevancy in an increasingly inclusive society. But that’s their witness to worry about, not mine.

Biblical Theme Parks

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch Jurassic World – and I’m sure glad I did. Anybody familiar with the formula knows what to expect, so there’s really no need to go into it. After the movie, my thoughts turned toward an attraction elsewhere in my state. A ministry has just begun construction on a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. It will be located near it’s sister attraction – the Creation Museum. If things go as they plan, then they will add a “Walled City, the Tower of Babel, a first-century Middle Eastern village, a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea, a walk-through aviary, an expanded large petting zoo, and so on.” The news just keeps on getting better – employees must adhere to their principles of their faith: be Young-earth creationists and Bible literalists.

It’s one thing to present a perspective, it’s another to teach it as fact. I sincerely doubt that the first pop quiz we get in heaven will ask us how old that we believed the world was when we lived in it. I don’t see these attractions as a testament to the love of God, but as a monument to a particular set of teachings. The groups I talk to tell me that a Creation Ordinance is a commandment given at the time of creation meant to supersede all cultures, all places, and for all time. Genesis 1 & 2 tell us that mankind is meant to work the land, have dominion over the earth, for men to marry women, to multiply, and to honor the Sabbath. Genesis 1-3 can be used to tell people how they ought to pattern their family, their marriage, and working life in a Biblical way. The problem is that we don’t live in a Biblical world. The message isn’t always blatant – sometimes it’s a subtle nudge.

From the creation of a beautiful world to it’s nearly total destruction in a massive flood – the only message these two attractions can send is that “those who take God literally will be saved, those who do not deserve their impending destruction”. If anything, catering to Christians proves that millions of dollars can be made. American Christians love to buy stuff to support these ministries as they get the word out. I’m pretty sure it’s not in the Bible, but that doesn’t matter.

These aren’t the first parks of their kind, and they won’t be the last. Such attractions are a fad. Eventually everybody will have seen the stories, watched the performances, and lose interest in them. Elsewhere, along the interstate is a closed theme park – it’s based on the Wild West Shows that were popular decades ago. It has been bought and is being replaced with a Circus theme – last I heard. Another park called Holy Land U.S.A. sat abandoned for decades and is only now being restored to it’s former glory. Perhaps one day these parks will change hands – the Ark might made into a Pirate themed museum and the Creation Museum into a laser tag facility. That’s just the way of the world – to chase after money and pursue profit.

Faithful people never needed Biblical theme parks to believe or to teach the Bible. There are a lot of questions that we wrestle with: How can a loving God drown almost the whole world? How can a loving God authorize massacres? How can a loving God punish innocent people because of their stubborn Pharaoh? How can a loving God choose favorites? The better question is: How will these attractions answer these questions? They’re teaching fact – so they say, and not their perspective.

Growing out of and yet remaining in Child-like Belief

Growing up attending a Christian Church in any denomination is very confusing. At first, you’re the future of the church and the center of attention, you get Vacation Bible School, you get Children’s Church and Children’s Moments which may include: being given candy and other snacks as well as small toys and doing crafts. As you get older, you’re expected to put on VBS, CC, and CM as well as assist in the nursery (more-so for girls than guys though). Once you graduate high school and college, you’re really not that important anymore because you’re an adult. You’re supposed to get married and have kids to send to VBS.

There’s a certain amount of growing up that’s expected. That’s why Christian stories get modified. Children’s ears are too delicate to understand the complete story of Noah or Lot, but if you change parts of it here and there to an all-purpose “bad” “evil” or “wicked” then even without all the details, one can get the main point of the story – death and destruction is the just reward for being bad, evil, and wicked. As you get older, the story changes accordingly. At some point you’re grown up enough to know it all.

But that’s when you have a problem. How can you have a child-like faith if you’re supposed to grow out of it and not supposed to grow out of it at the same time? The children’s version of Christianity certainly isn’t Biblical, but it’s a believer’s first education on spiritual matters.

I’ve been in a conversation with a group of people who believe a lot of things about Christianity: faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and God alone, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints, the content of various creeds, confessions, and covenants, the Great commission, and in having a Christian worldview. I barely understand one of those things, I don’t see how it’s possible to accept them all without question. I might never grow up into that kind of faith.

So I’m struggling here because I apparently believe the wrong things the wrong way, or I believe some of the right things but in mostly the wrong way; I’m not really sure. I grew up being told one thing, but now I have to believe something different. Apparently the real travesty is that I’ve given up the faith that was taught to me: I grew up too much. I asked the wrong questions. I sought out the wrong answers.

I’m hesitant to define one set of beliefs as entirely correct, as by definition all other beliefs would be completely incorrect. Who am I to tell others if their beliefs are correct or incorrect? Am I doing them a favor by saving them from what I perceive to be their destruction? What if it is I who am in the wrong, and I’m actually instructing others to join me in error?

In all of the thinking out of theology and mapping out matters of faith, it strikes me that we’ve made it a good deal more complicated with all of the -ism and -tion words to describe every part of the process. It’s on a level of logic and knowledge, but it’s difficult to translate that to emotion and feeling. Both elements, however, are required if there is to be any success. I just don’t want to brothers and sisters lost in frustration because the Holy Spirit speaks to their hearts and their logic tells them not to trust what they feel because they know better.

Again and again I look at this system of beliefs and they lose me in the logic and the knowledge. Again and again, the Holy Spirit whispers to my heart that it’s okay that I’m not one for logic and I’m comforted by that thought. For all the thinking out of Christianity, no one can schedule the Holy Spirit’s appearances and interactions; some mystery remains.

Confusing Christian Discussions

Believer 1: Did you read up on the sermons notes about the archetypes of the salvation narrative found throughout scripture?

Believer 2: Sorry, I was too busy looking into covenantal theology on grace, irresistible grace, and prevenient grace to prepare for Sunday’s lessons.

Seeker of God: What on earth are you two talking about?

Sometimes Christians are so used to talking to each other, they forget to make themselves more easily understood especially online where oftentimes they don’t directly interact with lurkers who may or may not understand the finer points of theology. I’m amazed at how technology had made it easier for Christians to learn more from our thinkers, past and present, but it can also present problems with communication.
I know, the internet is like having a virtual dictionary, the lurker in question could very easily search for archetypes, salvation, narrative, scripture, covenant theology, grace, etc. But that just brings up page after page of results written from all sorts of perspectives. Not all of them agree and it can cause more confusion.

Besides, part of being believers is relating to one another, not relegating random seekers to random websites from who knows where. It’s nice to know that when you have a conversation going on, you are respected, you are understood, and you receive helpful answers. It’s not nice to be ignored, disrespected, called named, trolled, or given unhelpful, conflicted, and confusing answers.

Jesus never bothered with Christianese, he found a way to relate difficult truths about the Kingdom of God to ordinary, everyday people and experiences, such as farming, fishing, serving, making bread, shepherding, travelling, and finding lost things among other things. The people in his parables were from all walks of life, young, old, men, women, rich, poor, righteous and sinful. Jesus knew not to use a fishing metaphor in the middle of a farming community and not to deliver a farming metaphor from the docks. That way, people could understand concepts that weren’t easily explained.

Christians have a lot to learn from Jesus.