Two empires (1 of 2)

Quotations on the kingdom of God from Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto, with commentary, are now posted on my other blog here.



Again with the reforming

A man named Kevin Vanhoozer is apparently leading an effort to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses with a new “confession of faith.”  Click here to read about the “Reforming Catholic Confession”—a document that is by definition not Roman but that uses “catholic” in its purer sense.

Now, for three decades I’ve believed (and periodically asserted) that reforming and restoring should be conceived of as ongoing, perpetual processes.  Never should one think he has arrived at a state of having been restored.  Nor do I think it becoming or wise for a group, no matter how broad and inclusive it thinks it is, to call itself “Reformed.”  Even if one were to include all the denominations that call Reformed theology their doctrinal home, you would still only have a slice of the Christian pie.  There are many others, and a great many of us have hearts and brains, too.  (One of the great offenses of the Christian church world is that so many people seem to think Reformed-type academics have dibs on scholarship.)

Vanhoozer’s name sounds Dutch to me, which leads me to presume he is from a Christian Reformed or Dutch Reformed tradition.  Whether I’m correct on the identification or not, I find the efforts of this group at once admirable and ill-conceived.  Admirable, because even a quick scan reveals that the “Reforming Catholic Confession” goes to some effort to be ecumenical, playing nice in the larger sandox.  It’s even ostensibly scripture-oriented.  But it is also ill-advised:  at its essence, this confession is but one more tarpaulin covering scripture’s spiritual ground. 

Part of me celebrates the idea of the Reformation—a complex of ideas and events, certainly not all attributable to Martin Luther.  On principle, I tend to use process-oriented gerunds such as “reforming” or “restoring” instead of “reformed” or “Reformation,” but even the Protestant Reformation deserves some attention as an event.  The confessions, not so much.  I suspect that, in time (maybe just a couple of years!), history will find this particular “confession” to be little more than another historical curiosity, superimposed on scripture.

Musings on family

One summer many years ago, when I was back home from college with my family of origin, I took the opportunity to make a Wednesday evening “talk” (sermonette) at church.  My talk was based on the last part of Ephesians 3.  This was during the days of the burgeoning popularity of the NIV, but I had chosen another version of verses 14-15:

I fall on my knees before the Father (from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), . . .                – NT in Modern English, J.B. Phillips

A man in the congregation—one I remember as good-hearted and enthusiastic—complimented my talk in general terms but mentioned his disappointment in my choice of versions.  This man was in a phase of emphasizing the congregational “family,” so he preferred the NIV:

I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. . . .     – NIV [previous edition]

It happens that most reputable English translations have used the word “family” there, but the Phillips version opted for something different.  Never mind that my growing lexical and linguistic senses now tell me that neither “fatherhood” nor “family” does the idea complete justice.  The point here is that people want to think of church (and work and other) groups as “family.”  Language like that makes us feel good.  Except when it doesn’t.

At some point in my late teens or twenties, I had learned that certain Restoration Movement churches make a point of not having Bible classes on Sundays.  These are the NC (Non-Class) congregations.  My sketchy understanding of their point of view is this:  they feel that, when the whole church comes together, it should not be divided.  Perhaps that is another way of saying, “We’re all one ‘family,’ and we don’t split up and live in different Sunday-school-room “houses.”  I would counter-assert that, while it would seem natural to be together every now and then, the sense of family does not necessarily vanish when the members are not in the same place.

A couple decades after college, a preacher raised a rather thoughtful challenge within the church settingwhy do we insist on calling church “family” (a) when it is not really described that way in scripture, and (b) when in fact that language is likely distracting or harmful to a great number of people in the pews?  Could there be more people who have negative associations with “family” than with the term “father” to describe or address God?  (I think I’m doing justice to this preacher’s gist here.)  In other words, many people don’t have very positive experiences with earthly family, so it’s probably a bad idea to insist on family language to refer to church.

Every day of every week of every year, divorce impacts people.  Families are divided and re-divided, and as a result, the family—the unit that could be a bastion of devotion and love—has crumpled in the experience of way too many.  While divorce was relatively unknown in my childhood neighborhood or in the church in which I grew up, the number of divorces I know of personally increases exponentially as each decade passes.  I think of the kids my age or slightly older as I grew up, and I realize there is a higher and higher incidence of divorce . . . how few have had “normal” nuclear families of their own.

Within the last month, right here in our town, vandals in their early teens have been caught multiple times on top of buildings.  They have done damage amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.  Apparently these youths are notorious characters with the town police.  Family is either absent or incapable in each case, and the police say there’s nothing they can do about the vandalism, because of legal limitations on criminal charges.  Things could be different for these boys if broken family were not a factor.

After someone dies, some families are never quite whole, while others seem to grow closer.  A teen-aged boy’s father dies, and the boy’s life takes a different direction.  Estate settlements may  bind siblings together, or they (the settlements and the siblings!) can turn ugly.  A young husband or a young father dies, and life is forever changed for the survivors.  Some falsely hold to a false legacy, and others honorably try to honor.  Some of us are more resilient than others, but the effects of death in a family—whether untimely or not—are deep.

At just about any juncture, family can be a sphere of loss . . . and it can also be a beautiful part of human experience.  Family can be broken for a while, and the most stubborn may go to their deathbeds feeling justified about something or other while estranged from those who should have been family.  Other times, renewed relationship or reconciliation may occur.  Family can be made of “blood” ties (plus my adopted sister!), or, whether or not that kind of supposedly familial tie fails, we may find family in other ways.  Just yesterday, my wife referred to our study-partner friends as “family,” and told them where the glasses were so they could help themselves.

During this holiday time, some readers will be at large family gatherings.  One generous family in our town is hosting a come-all pancake breakfast.  Various members of my extended family are roughly 8, 15, 20, or 24 hours away, so the three of us will be enjoying a little day trip and some sights by ourselves.  Wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, you might consider both the benefits and the failings of families.  Turn from the not-so-good, and be thankful for the good.

Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Or, Was the 1st-Century Church a Helpless Embryo or an Ambulatory, Full-fledged Entity?

In terms of coming to understand and practice the authentic Christian faith, for me, it goes without saying that 1st-century documents carry more prescriptive authority than 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-century sources.  Said another way:  the later the writing, the more likely that undesirable/undesired ideas crept into it.  The last blogpost probed along these lines, even to the point of distinguishing among decades and developments in the 1st century.  Could some later New Testament documents have begun to veer from the originally laid out course?

This is not so much about a hermeneutic of authorization, i.e., that specific things were/were not authorized by God, and that such things were/were not codified in the writings.  I do not take that approach.  Nor can any careful NT reader ascertain that any particular 1st-century congregation—say, Antioch in the 40s or Philippi in the 60s—was iconic.  I do, however, wonder whether the letters to Timothy and Titus, attributed to Paul, might betray a relatively early adaptation of original Christian practice viz. the roles of church leaders (bishops/elders/pastors) and servants (deacons).  For sake of discussion, I am assuming that that “original,” however elusive it might be to us today, was a good thing, worthy of some later pursuit.

[Aside:  calling attention to the relative timing (early vs. late) of Christian writings begs the question of how undesirable these blogposts of mine might be.  They are, after all, about as “late” as I can get in terms of authorship!  Here, I only intend to be comparing the canonical apostolic scriptures and the works of the so-called church fathers, not even distinguishing between the Antenicene fathers and the later ones.  Moreover, there are always exceptions to a general rule; many helpful and/or worthy passages will be found in later writings.]

If something is just born, is it only to be pitied as a helpless creature, not fully formed?  Some might think here of the long-observed “progression” from movement to sect, and from sect to denominational institution, but that is not really where I’m headed.  Larry Hurtado has recently offered a corrective to the idea that a newly born anything is necessarily to be seen as a baby.  I agree that a sense of early Christian faith and practice is crucial, and I do not relegate the nascent first-century movement to “helpless infant” or “cute toddler” status.  There is no call to apologize for, say, documented aspects of Christianity in the year 48 or 57 or 62.  Hurtado sees mid-1st-century Pauline literature as viable:  Paul, in writing his letters, presupposed that Christianity was at that time “adequately formed and fully appropriate.”  Hurtado has his “historian” hat on as he assesses this way, and the hat fits well.  It is good for later observers not to superimpose value judgments (“well, Christianity was little more than embryonic then”) that cloud or falsely view the realities of historical scenarios and changes.

Hurtado goes further in suggesting that observed changes are not necessarily “deviations from a ‘pure’ and ‘original’ form.”  Sometimes, changes may merely be adaptations of a neutral original.  To question the existence of an original ideal is admittedly uncomfortable for me, restorationist and neo-protestant that I am.  In the ecclesiological sphere, I am typically suspicious of changes that occurred well after the launching of the movement—so this bent would affect my reading of Origen, Eusebius, and Tertullian—although generally supportive of changes in organizational methodology in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Without delving into specific reasons for this apparent inconsistency, I think there are some fairly good reasons for it, at least with the types of changes I have in mind.

I affirm that changes do not necessarily imply progress.  Sometimes, change may be regressive; in other instances, merely adaptive.  Take the Windows PC platform (now perhaps more a fortress than a portal from which to see out and do one’s work) as an example.  Windows 3.1 was quite functional and seems to me to have been well tested, with little performance concern.  From the end user’s perspective, Windows 95 “progressed” yet had serious issues, some of which were fixed in Windows 98.  I found Windows XP to represent a more helpful progression, whereas Windows 7 and Windows 8 were beset by issues.  The successively opaque versions of Windows might be alternately assessed as progressive or unwisely adaptive to demand.  Somewhat similarly, while some ecclesiological adaptations of the first century were arguably progressive, the eventualities that led to the Roman Catholic institution are for me adaptive departures from the original ideal.¹  From the cultural and “market” perspectives, some changes that occurred in, e.g., the 4th century or the 6th were understandable adaptations, while others were misbegotten and fraught with apostasy.

As a historian, one should not, as Hurtado points up, arbitrarily overlay value judgments on changes.  As an idealistic Christ-ian, though, I long for authentic, pure faith, untainted by decades of darkness and centuries of clouds.  I see the composite picture of the early church as presenting a better, more viable ideal than any ecclesiological reality manifest in any later centuries, despite the sincere efforts of various reformers through the ages.  And yes, these are value judgments.  I admit it.

To read Dr. Hurtado’s blogpost, click the title below.

How We See Historical Changes

¹ For instance, I should think the Apostle Peter would be spiritually indignant if made aware of what transpired over a period of centuries with regard to his person and legacy.  Those changes might be viewed as regressive or progressive, depending on one’s viewpoint, but they were in any event substantial departures from the original ideal.

Immersion (2 of 3)

I can still see the translucent glass on portions of the Cedars baptistry walls, with clear glass in the middle.  I can still see dear, white-headed Henry as he did his deacon’s duty, checking the temperature of the baptistry water every Sunday morning before the assembly began, just in case someone were to need the water that day.  I probably witnessed a few dozen immersions in my early years, but it was not so frequent an occurrence as it should have been.  Our church had historically been fairly evangelistic for a while (40s, 50s, 60s), but more of its later efforts were focused overseas.  During the 70s and 80s, I don’t think there were ever more than a couple of intentional efforts going on to study with, convert, and immerse people.  In my experience, there has never been enough discipling effort in any church, either before or after baptism.  (And that reality, in part, led to the offshoot branch of the Church of Christ known in various eras as the Crossroads Movement, or the Boston Movement, or the International CofC.  For all their abuses of authority and dogmatic approaches, they were serious disciplers.)

Christian camps tend to produce baptisms, and my camp was no exception.  Proportionally speaking, the rate of baptism at summer camp was probably ten times that of most people’s home churches.  At some point, I think a rule was put into place that campers at one of the senior high weeks could be immersed regardless of family, but that anyone in junior high or younger would need parental permission.  That rule probably just increased some young people’s determination.  I remember one evening, down at the camp pool, when three young people were immersed on the same occasion.  Singing and wet hugs were part of the camp baptism experience.  Although I attribute a great deal of spiritual growth to my camp experiences, I myself was immersed well before junior high age, following three others in my age group, within the confines of the aforementioned indoor baptistry.

Quite distinct from the quarterly or annual (or spotty) baptism practices of some churches, relative immediacy was important in my tradition.  “Gospel meetings” (a/k/a “revivals”) might lead to baptisms, but not every time.  My church was labeled a “cerebral” one by one reputable, deep-thinking, passionate guest speaker, and I think he was onto something.  We didn’t have as many immersions every year as a couple sister churches tended to have.  I think we were less prone to heart-responses.

Next part:  Sunday, 10/30/16


Many jokes have been made about Ivory™ soap’s being (only) 99.44% pure, but I think that’s probably a better stat than that of most other soaps, my wife’s homemade Little Goat’s Natural Soaps excepted.  (Ahem.  That was a cue for a few of you readers who’ve used her soap to say, “Yeah, Karly’s soaps are great.”)

I have been an Ivory soap user for as long as I can remember.  Once in a while, I try another soap but always return to Ivory.  I used Irish Spring as a teenager, and that use might have contributed to a few more zits than I would have had otherwise.  Coast, Lifebuoy, Dial, Safeguard . . . I’ve tried those and more, but my staple bar of soap has always been Ivory.

For all Ivory’s merits, I absolutely hate the packaging.  The wrapping is horribly hard to handle.  About 49 of 50 times, unwrapping the bar takes at least a solid minute and results in something like this:img_20160915_064445_706.jpgI didn’t even mention the outer, clear plastic layer that wraps the whole 8-bar pack.  That in itself can require a knife or a set of fingernail clippers or at least a key to remove.  But the damp, white-paper inner wrapping comes off only with greater effort, and a lot of mess, pretty much every time.  You’d think that a soap that’s been around for 125 years could do better than that with its wrapping.  But I keep coming back to it, because what’s inside is what I’m after.

I have been a Christian since I was 9.  (The definition of “Christian” is significant but is beside my point here.)  And I’ve been an active participant with a number of churches.  What I have inside and what the churches have inside can be as difficult to get to as Ivory soap is, given the packaging!  Since it’s less comfortable to talk about my individual heart than the “inside” of church groups, I’ll opt to spend a few words on the latter.

The packaging or wrapping of a church might include, but not be limited to, these elements:

  • Signage
  • Condition of the parking lot and ease of driving in and out
  • Attractiveness, condition, and cleanliness of the building (if there is one)
  • Manner of activities in the assembly (including perceived “style”)
  • Denominational overlay (whether acknowledged or not)

I prefer my parking lots to be paved, but that’s not too big a deal.  I do actually reject some churches as potential “homes” based on such surface-level elements as signage.

A recognized denominational name on the sign?  Although I try to be un-denominational, some signs can lead me instantly to reject a church as a possibility for me.

A narrow-minded message?  If a sign advertises “fundamental” or “KJV only” (or some such), I can know I wouldn’t be accepted there and would end up either being miserable or causing disunity.

I can leave some churches on the shelf, as it were, never needing to “purchase” or unwrap the “product,” although others might find value in what they’re selling.  It takes a little more time and effort to unwrap some other churches.  One church we’ve visited twice has a kind of packaging that we think might end up being deceptive, not revealing all that’s inside.  (If I’m fair, I suppose that’s true about most groups.)  We’re still not sure, but when you tear a couple corners off, the product doesn’t seem to be worth the money, so to speak.

Another church seems to have less wrapping that obscures the product.  (I wonder if “truth in advertising” laws could apply to churches?  Not really.)  This one has some nicely conceived outer packaging but also some inner wrapping that might present some problems for me.  (Oh, how I hate finally getting that first layer off the product, only to find that I have to struggle with yet another layer of wrapping.)

Yet another church, visited once recently on a special occasion, is from a brand I have “trusted” (to an extent) for many years.  I suppose that, if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I keep returning to this brand in some way because I know its history—but the Ivory isn’t always as pure as the wrapping claims, if you know what I mean.  And then, come to find out, even the best bars of this particular brand were only about 77% pure to start with.  At any rate, the packaging of this one local church included some noticeably outdated communication styles—think veggie burger in a 1950s McDonald’s wrapper or maybe hip-hop on an audio cassette.  More important than the wrapping:  the product found inside was lacking, to my eyes and ears and soul.

We’ll see how the process goes.  Maybe, just maybe, the traditional wrapping in terms of church building cosmetics will ultimately reveal a pure, purposeful, viable church group “product.”

Formation and success of movements

People in societies or sub-societies sometimes want change, and groups may band together to begin “movements.”  In music history, the Renaissance, the thought and work of the Florentine Camerata, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Neoclassicism are examples of movements.  Others could be identified, such as the educational band music quasi-movement of the 70s and 80s.

In religious history, many movements have been observed, including the the various stripes of Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the movement of Anglicans that became Wesleyan Methodism.  The religious movement with which I am most familiar, the frontier American Restoration Movement, was at one point truly a movement, manifesting both distinctive features and corporate energy.

None of those movements identified above are movements anymore.  Loosely speaking—and expanding on how I’ve heard it—the train of thought goes something like this:

  1. Some idea-germs can blossom into vital, vibrant movements.
  2. Most (if not all) movements eventually become sects.
  3. Most (if not all) sects eventually become denominations.

How to keep a good idea and a good movement alive before it crystallizes or ossifies . . . that is the question.

I’ve read with interest a recent discussion between high-profile scholar-authors Ben Witherington and Larry Hurtado about the latter’s new book which treats aspects of the formation and distinctiveness of early Christianity.  (In one sense, early Christianity was a movement within first-century Jewish religion, and it serves well for us to keep this reality in mind.)  About a third of the way through the interview, Witherington makes the following comment, and I appreciate the thoughtful analysis:

Reading your review of Stark’s 10 factors on why a religious movement succeeds, you point to the fact that the movement on the one hand must maintain some continuity with its cultural setting so it is not seen as totally alien and incomprehensible, but at the same time it must have some distinguishing features, presumably appealing distinguishing features, that set it apart from its setting, including certain behavioral demands made on insiders.  The boundaries between insider and outsider must be porous enough to readily allow outsiders in, but at the same time the identity formation must be clear enough that the difference between between insiders and outsiders is reasonable clear.

A movement, then, may “succeed” by being

  • attractive to and connected with people (appealing within a culture)
  • distinctive and demanding—worth joining because it has (1) something unique to offer to prospective adherents and (2) something to ask of them

Speaking on a practical level, a movement will also need to provide a way for people to join up.

Tomorrow:  being in the world but not of it (whatever that means)—and joining in the Way in various ways


An improper riddance of the proper

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization, as detailed in the last post here.  A denominated group may manifest unwillingness to have its name questioned.  This was my experience when teaching a junior high Bible class as a young instructor in a Christian academy.  I had the one Bible class (along with band and choir classes I taught) and took them all very seriously; the worksheet below is one assignment I devised for the students.

8th grade test given during a course on the book of Acts at a Church of Christ school
Worksheet used during a course on the book of Acts at a CofC school

One would think that I’d’ve been applauded for asking the 8th graders to “go back to the Bible” to find various descriptions and labels for the church.  Not so.  The Bible class was actually taken away from me midstream.  In my view (obviously not that of a certain school administrator and, I suspect, some others with clout), this was an improper riddance of me as a Bible teacher.  More important, it was an improper pushing-aside of some very simple, yet significant, facts from scripture.

It is hurtful to be judged unworthy by the group from which you originate when you are only trying to bring growth.  Although I was over those particular wounds within a couple years, in a very real sense, a general anxiety in connection with potentially being judged improperly has remained with me.

Relatively consistently for a quarter-century now, I have been seriously interested in undenominational Christianity, relegating group names to a low berth if proper names must be used at all.  This is a small part of restoring and unifying, but it is a part nonetheless.

Subtle shifts to the “proper”

It can be intriguing and informative to learn of groups other than the one from which you originate.

Various groups, like “mine,” have had their struggles with restoration and unity.°  Many attempts to restore or reform have involved division and departure from larger, established groups, as well.  While that precedent is commendable, another trend is negative:  as far as I can tell, all reforming groups of any size have eventually become proper-noun institutions rather than bodies/organisms.  For instance,

The Church of God initially called itself the church of God to indicate its understanding of unity.  To my knowledge, no one has traced the shift from church of God to Church of God.[1]

That no one had historically traced the shift may indicate an apathy about institutionalization/ crystallization.  In other words, if one is content with membership in an institution, s/he might not even notice the subtle shift from church to Church over a period of years.  In my own musings and dreamings, I admit that I have at times been fixated on naming something I wanted to be a reality but didn’t yet exist for me.  Although I’m quite content in one respect simply to gather with Christians for discussion or study or a communion meal (to name a few things), at some point, I do wonder what to call the group or the meeting.  The gathering.  Our study.  The community group.  Our Christian get-together.  The practical reality is that we need nouns (sometimes, adjectives) when we refer to something.

When one “calls” oneself something, as an individual, he likely has a common-noun sense in mind.  I can call myself an erstwhile athlete, a dad, a husband, a teacher, a studyer of ancient texts, a musician.  All those labels have function or activity at their root.  When a group feels it should call itself something, though, a corner has been rounded, and the group probably then has a proper-noun sense in mind.  A group may be

  • a band . . . or The Balderdash Band
  • a team . . . or The Phillies
  • a duo . . . or The Dynamic Horn Duo
  • a church . . . or The XYZ Church

(In English, the indefinite or definite article helps to clarify the sense of the label.)

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization.  When a proper-noun sense is the obvious intent of a church group, the lower-case “c” on “church” is incorrect.  It is admirable if a group wishes to retain a lower-case “c” sense of meaning, but actual retention is often elusive.  “The apparently irresistible urge to bureaucratize reflects a modern mind-set.”[4]

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.”[2]  The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents:  “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.”  “Church of sect,” by the way, is Brooks’s term for the denominational system.[3]  Ironically, Brooks used the capital C in the first instance—presumably not to refer to his group but to “The (universal) Church,” as a whole, through the ages.  I would argue that any such capitalization tends to institutionalize rather than to focus on meaning and function.  When Luke wrote in Acts of “the way,” there were no capital letters employed, and I can’t be sure whether Luke a) wanted his readers to recognize a formal label for the new sect or b) perhaps was merely depicting function, i.e., this is the pathway for God’s people.

In speaking of the anabaptist (which might have a lower-case “a” sense when speaking of the dynamic, or a capital-letter sense when historically identifying the masses in a recognized movement), Theron Schlabach has noted, “The essence was radical discipleship and the ever-renewing church.  The structural pattern was non-structure, really:  to transcend the cultural and ecclesiastical structures that history had produced and to be a Spirit-led, constantly recreated people of God rather than an institution.”[5]  I say “yes” and label that good.

Where I land in all this, for the present (and it’s been relatively consistent for a quarter-century now), is that I am one of Christ’s, weakly trying to follow; I am shying away from institutional manifestations where I find them; and I am trying to be part of a movement.

° Some restorative groups that come to mind:  Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites; Lutherans; Oneness Pentecostals; Church of the Brethren; Church of Christ and Christian Church; and various Reformed churches.  I am not intentionally omitting any group here; I suspect that most of them (even the Roman Catholics?) would lay some claim to attempting to restore or reform something at some point.  The groups I listed are a few that have, more or less, made reformation something of a hallmark.

[1] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 134.  Emphasis on letter case mine, bc.

[2] The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.:  Herald, 1891; rpt., New York:  Garland, 1984), 27.

[3] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

[4] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 126.

[5] Theron F. Schlabach, “Renewal and Modernization among American Mennnonites,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 213.