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.

Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

Over-emphasized (?):  Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus

Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought

The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants.  Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.

It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹  I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud.  Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them?  Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles?  Put another way:  could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?

Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons.  From an institutional standpoint, I get that.  But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship.  A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive.  Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.

I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent.  Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power.  Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another.  Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones.  The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.

In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business.  Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation.  I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries.  By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.

Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?

I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight.  [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.]  I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture.  There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.

We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church).  I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice.  So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people.  I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view:   Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades?  More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?

In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.

B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17

¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance.  They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.


Mrs. Shuck and the mulberry tree

I don’t write vignettes very often, and I don’t think I’m very good at it, but maybe this little piece will interest a few folks to whom my normal fare doesn’t often appeal.

~ ~ ~

She was what you might think of as a “little old lady,” and she lived diagonally across from me, through the backyards.  I suppose she was 75 or so when I met her, and she’s presumably passed from this life.  Her first name was Pauline, but I called her “Mrs. Shuck.”  I could see Mrs. Shuck’s back porch from mine.  And I crossed paths with her over a mulberry tree in my yard.

I happened to be renting a two-story brick house from a landlord whose memory and judgment I had some reason to suspect at that point.¹  He was new at the business and didn’t know how to handle some things.  I later learned that I was probably on the upper end of his clientele, and my house, being owned by his parents, was sort of ancillary to his normal operation, so it wasn’t always on his radar.

Let’s rewind for a minute to pick up the mulberry trail. . . .  After springtime Sunday school in Wilmington, Delaware, we young kids would make our way to the little hill that bordered the property on the north.  There was less rush in life then, and families hung around longer, giving us kids plenty of time to play under the willow tree or to roll grapefruit-sized “monkey balls” down the hill.  We also picked and ate the mulberries from a tree on that hill.  Fresh berries are always good things!

Now back to my rental house and a rejuvenated phase in my own life.  The Heartland sky was big and beautiful, and the surrounding farmland, as charming as it was productive.  I can still recall the fresh, local cucumbers from that first summer in Kansas.  And when spring kicked into gear the following year, I was delighted to find that my backyard had a mulberry tree.  What could be better than fresh, free berries?  Just like on the hill across the parking lot at Cedars!  I wasn’t exactly a kid in a candy shop, but I remember picking and eating while mowing the lawn.  I don’t think I baked a mulberry pie, but I probably put some berries in my fridge.

Enter the villainess of the story.  [Cue mock-sinister music.]  At some point I became aware that Mrs. Shuck didn’t like the mulberry tree.  She groused about the robins pooping purple on the fresh sheets she had hung on her clothesline.  Well, maybe use your dryer, I probably thought.  Sorry, but the tree is 50 feet away from your clothesline, and it’s not in your yard.  I was busy in a new teaching job, and more or less forgot about the issue, unaware that my landlord was seriously entertaining this lady’s complaints.  One afternoon when I returned from work, though, I found that the tree had been cut down!  I called to find out what was up, and the landlord confirmed that he had indeed cut the tree down in response to Mrs. Shuck’s complaint.

I was miffed.

This was before I had developed an abiding cynicism about people with clout, but really . . . who was this meddlesome woman who had the clout to get into my business and rob me of the fresh mulberries?

Within a day or two, realizing that fruit of mulberry tree was not written into my lease, I cooled down and wrote a note of forgiveness to Mrs. Shuck.  I had been mad, and I guess she knew it.  I delivered the note to her door, and she received it graciously.  She explained and apologized for the offense, and we had a little get-to-know-you chat.  She later wrote me a note of her own after attending a concert in which I performed, and she wished me well.

I vaguely remember that Mrs. Shuck was a Christian of some stripe, but I don’t remember her church affiliation.  And whether she was or wasn’t doesn’t really matter in this context.  (I’m stupid but not stupid enough to think that the Jesus-follower’s forgiveness ideal is applicable only to interactions in which both parties are Christian.  No, it’s more of a mantra—an M.O. for every interaction.)  At first, I think my forgiveness toward Mrs. Shuck was through gritted teeth, as it were.  (Remember Stephen Keaton of the old Family Ties series as he uttered the name of Mallory’s questionable boyfriend Nick?)  But at least I tried to act my way into forgiving her for robbing me of mulberries, and she appreciated it.

Now, I again have a mulberry tree in my yard—next to my driveway, in fact.  Poetic justice, you might say.  And now, my little pickup truck is almost as white as Mrs. Shuck’s sheets.  The bird poop stains on both vehicles are abhorrent little masses of disgustingness.  My neighbor acknowledges the nice shade but also wishes this tree had been cut down years ago.

Mrs. Shuck, I understand better now.  And I forgive you better now, too.

~ ~ ~

In anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”  (Matt 18:34-35, NET)

Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.  (Col 3:13, MSG)

¹ In signing the rental agreement, I had made sure the fireplace was operational and eventually bought some wood in the fall.  I checked the flue carefully, and it was open.  I started my first fire, but smoke billowed into my family room.  After throwing water on it and opening the windows, I called the landlord.  He had forgotten that the chimney had been bricked in—completely closed at the top!  A few other, minor things occurred in the first year there, indicating that my landlord was not completely on the ball, but I left on very good terms.

MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30)

[This is an installment in the sporadic Monday Music series which deals with topics related to Christian music.  Other, related posts may be found here.]

In mid-2016 and again in early 2017, I was invited, in a manner of speaking, to reconsider an invitation from Jesus’ own lips, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30.

Even if it didn’t possess an intrinsically openhearted quality, this passage would stand out because it has been memorized a lot.  It was also “my” passage to recite during my college chorus’s scripture-and-hymns program, performed every evening while on tours.  At the time, despite my sometimes having to stutter out the initial plosive consonant on “Come to me,” I was complimented on my delivery and the perceived match of my vocal timbre with a preconceived idea of the Jesus behind the saying.  Now, however, I have negative associations with a couple of people from that time, and I definitely had a less mature understanding of the text back then, so it’s with mixed feelings that I recall the experience.

At some point, I became acquainted with the Leonard Burford song “Come Unto Me.”  The legally blind “Brother Burford” was director of the chorus at Abilene Christian College and had studied at Juilliard.  This song is available in only one of my hymnals.  I suppose it was sung in only a very few churches and would hardly be known now.  It is an inviting, near-choral-type setting and is of good technical quality (speaking musically and poetically), but it seems to excel in terms of musical form and harmony more than in communication of a text (and context).  Here is a sample:

Another setting, used several times a year in the church of my youth, was more accessible to large, untrained groups.  Both of these songs employ a good deal of repetition, but the latter is more approachable and singable.  The stanzas below, written for soprano-alto duet, are only indirectly related to the text.  The men’s voices enter emphatically at the chorus, which was the actual setting of the Matthew text.  This version, in my estimation, is somewhat better than the Burford one.  Given its era, the quasi-instrumental-accompaniment setting of the refrain here was effective.  The textual emphasis at primary cadence points (ends of lines 4 and 6) seems to be on “rest for the soul.”

It might even be supposed that the writers of many other “invitation” or “altar call” songs had Matthew 11:28 in the backs of their minds—loosely and implicitly if not explicitly.  I think here of the likes of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home,” and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

Years transpired after my college choral days, and I became less interested in choral music.  Incidentally, I became increasingly averse to the whole churchy “invitation” thing during that time.  Nevertheless, in 1996, I wrote my own “Come To Me,” tied more directly and strictly to the passage—and specifically spurred by Gary Collier’s book The Forgotten Treasure:  Reading the Bible Like JesusA sketch history of this song goes something like this:

At what I might say was just the right time of my life, I read The Forgotten Treasure.  Bothered as I was by what I took as legalistic, un-grace-filled approaches to people within certain churches, I felt a deep impact from much of the book and keyed in on the middle of Matthew (including chapter 11), based on Gary’s emphases and structural suggestions.  Compelled, I wrote the song and shared it with the author of the book, having been in touch with him through a Bible discussion e-mail group.

A group called Lights, audiowhich I directed and sang with through the 1990s, was available to me, and I naturally went in the direction of a musical arrangement that played to that group’s strengths and resided in its comfort zones.  Lights ended up using the song in performances at youth events, church retreats, etc.  Lights made two recordings, and both recordings strike me now as acceptable, given what I had to work with, but dated.  A bass voice is heard on the solo, and my younger sister’s voice and mine are heard in countermelodic bursts in the final chorus of the recording stored here.  I am still pleased that the overall demeanor of the song is different from that of the run-of-the-mill, more churchy appeals the Matthew text with which I had been acquainted.  This song is more targeted, more insistent . . . and even the conclusion is a comparatively forceful invitation, with a half-cadence that suggests the Son of Man’s unending, energetic interest, not a namby-pamby “just lie down and go to sleep with gentle Jesus.”

I moved on from Lights, but I never forgot the song and still periodically turn to it for personal devotional use.

Last summer, a conference was held, organized in connection with the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation.  When the theme was announced as centering in Matthew’s gospel, an obvious opportunity arose to revisit my song that had also been based in that document, so I did just that.  It turned out to be the 20th anniversary for my “Come To Me.”  Having become largely disenchanted with the a cappella medium of the first version of the song (excerpt shown here)—and particularly with the accompaniment style I had used for the Lights performance group—I knew it was time to abandon that approach.  Few really sing that way anymore, and the group was perhaps even in a time warp during part of its history, too.  In trying to function within the niche-world of a cappella church music, Lights appealed to some but perhaps outlived our usefulness.  I digress.

Looking back, I’d say the song is conceptually and creatively among my 10 or 15 best.  (There were many others written during that decade—some, barely mediocre.)  Gary’s book had pointed me in a focused way to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, so I think the song carried an authentically scriptural, strong message.  Since 1996, my understanding of Matthew (and of texts in general, and the newly inbreaking reign of God, and more) have grown immeasurably.  Here are sections of the sheet music for the updated version of “Come To Me”:

A home recording of this version is here, for what it’s worth.  It might need to be downloaded before playing it, depending on your setup.   The pre-recorded keyboard part is 5-10% too fast, and my out-of-shape voice is found wanting.  (A more in-shape female solo voice would have been better on this song!)  This 2016 update incorporated several minor musical and lyrics changes—plus adding a bridge that solidifies and significantly strengthens the whole, I think:

Hear and learn from the Master.
Understand the reading of the Old and the New.
Go and follow the Master of mercy!
He brings the Kingdom into view!

A responsible interpretation of Matthew 11:28-30 must not merely take some poetic expressions and make them sound sweet in a song.  One ought to consider those words of “invitation” apart from the “altar call” or “invitation” dynamic in traditional congregation settings.  Further, one ought to pay attention to Matthew 11:28-30 within the striking contextual arrangement of Matthew’s gospel.  No song could succeed in every detail, but in pursuing such a biblical text contextually, in this way, what Matthew’s gospel says about the Master can become clearer.

Whatever its strength or weakness of this song, I hope that you are taken further, or maybe just a little differently, into Matthew’s riches and Jesus’ invitation.

Xposted from Subjects of the Kingdom

These recent posts are available on my Subjects of the Kingdom bloga site that focuses on topics directly related to the Kingdom of God, conscience and the believers’ relationship to human government, sovereignty, Israel, and related topics.

Early Christians and military service  Allegiance & Motivation, Peacemaking & Nonviolence, Sovereignty 5/10/17
Roman-Era Military/Civil Service Roles and the Imperial Guard Allegiance & Motivation, Peacemaking & Nonviolence, Sovereignty 5/10/17
On Israel: my present stance Ancient Israel, Nationalism 4/27/17
Inherent antipathy and other foundational Kingdom matters Foundational 4/20/17

To access a post, simply click on any of the titles in the left column above.  Alternately, click on one of the topical categories.

My book Subjects of the Kingdom is available via one of the following sites:

  1.  CreateSpace Direct

Password:  allegiance

Add the book (1 or more copies) to your “cart,” and then on the next page, paste in the BL8DQZ4H discount code for $1.50 off.

2. Amazon  (probably cheaper only if you get a used copy or get free shipping)

Xposted from Subjects of the Kingdom

These recent posts are available on my Subjects of the Kingdom bloga site that focuses on topics directly related to the Kingdom of God, conscience and the believers’ relationship to human government, sovereignty, Israel, and related topics.

On Israel: my present stance Ancient Israel, Nationalism 4/27/17
On Israel: Kairo USA’s position Ancient Israel, Zionism, Politics, Zionism 4/24/17
Inherent antipathy and other foundational Kingdom matters Foundational 4/20/17

To access a post, simply click on any of the titles in the left column above.

My book Subjects of the Kingdom is available via one of the following sites:

  1.  CreateSpace Direct

Password:  allegiance

Add the book (1 or more copies) to your “cart,” and then on the next page, paste in the BL8DQZ4H discount code for $1.50 off.

2. Amazon  (probably cheaper only if you get a used copy or get free shipping)

In this time of year (2)

I have developed an aversion to being where other people are on Ash Wednesday.  I’m not sure exactly why this is, but it’s probably for one or more of these reasons:

  1. The ash-mark-on-forehead symbol is not in my world of experience and is neither a habit nor an interest of mine.
  2. Although I’m confident that some choose and accept the ashen symbol very sincerely, I’ve never been sure how to respond (or not) to those who use it.
  3. I don’t want anyone to think I am disinterested in Jesus because my forehead lacks a dark mark.

Speaking painfully candidly here:  I confess the need to be more interested in Jesus—more devoted to the memory and meaning of His singular suffering, yes—but beyond that, more devoted to hearing, learning from, and following Jesus.  Otherwise, how will my son (or anyone else) have any idea?

Opening post from this seasonal series:

An ill-conceived brochure on tithing

I invite readers to consider churchianity’s affirmation of the practice of tithing.  While tithing per se is no longer applicable to believers, some form of this practice is assumed by nearly all established churches.  Certainly, generous giving can be a good thing, yet God’s purposes can also be subverted by greedy institutionalisms and doctrinaire concoctions related to tithing.

Some might not understand the energy with which I pursue this topic.  In my mind, at least, it is not a “hobby” (see introductory last post here); rather, it is a real concern that should be considered by more serious believers.  Why not just be nice boys and girls and give money to your local church, not worrying about whether it’s considered a tithe?  Again, there is much to be said for simple generosity and for supporting bona fide benevolence, outreach, and teaching efforts with one’s money.  However, the problems related to tithing per se run deep, and they call for elucidation.  Here, I hope to facilitate consideration and growth in understanding.

Last fall I was in a large, contemporary church building for a couple of events, and I happened to amble over to a rack full of brochures.  One of them was called “Guidelines for Giving,” and I should never have picked up a copy.  Or maybe I should have.  The brochure was replete with a hermenuetical error, not to mention some other carelessness.  The fundamental error, seen in its best light, is a lack of discrimination that melds Old Covenant Torah law & the Levitical priesthood with the contemporary Christian church’s M.O.

Here is the inside of the brochure, with a few of my markings:


Depending on your device/computer and its applications and settings, you may be able to click on the image and see as much as you’re interested in.  Essentially, my highlights and notes acknowledge that sincere love may be seen in giving.  They also point out that most of the proof texts employed are found in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament).  When God told (past tense) ancient Israelites to do something, that telling cannot logically be pressed into the Christian age without a hermeneutical jump or gyration of some kind.   Moreover, I would suggest that the author of this brochure manifests a rather flat, non-granular view of scripture.

Now, here are some separate bits from the other page of this tri-fold, with commentary below each insertion:

tithe2The make-believe dialogue hits me as . . . well, made up.  Who really asks, “What if I can’t afford to tithe?”  Not as many people as the institutional church wishes, I’m sure!  When a church fabricates this question, it makes for itself an opportunity to say, “Give to me!  This church!  Give to us!”

I don’t mind that this denomination used and defined the expression “spirit of poverty,” but I don’t find it to be a particularly scripture-based phrase, and I wish the brochure had acknowledged that fact.  Furthermore, connecting a monetary contribution to the notion of “stepping out in faith and obedience” risks an improper tie between a denomination or its pastor on the one hand and God on the other.  In other words, obeying a denomination’s or pastor’s whims is not tantamount to obeying God.  (The difference between the notion of papal infallibility and hierarchically induced accountability to a protestant pastor or creed is a matter of degree.)

The advice set off between the bold lines (ahem . . . besides having a word missing) perpetuates the ignorance by presuming 10% is (still) some sort of magical God-ration.  In terms of general financial stewardship, it’s obviously a good idea to have a budget and not to overspend it.  I’ll give them that, BUT … being “faithful to tithe” is an Old-Covenant idea, not to be equated with Christian obedience.


They go on.  I can hardly believe someone had the uneducated gall to put that assertion in print.  I beg to differ that “the Bible is very clear” here.  The church that was distributing this brochure meets in Missouri, so I demand, as if a good Missourian, “Show me!”  I counter-assert that there is no such passage in Christian scripture that says any such thing.  Not only is there no clarity on this; there is no solid information at all, really, and precious little hint.  The very phrase “the local church” above has taken on an identity beyond mere locale, suggesting an institution and a building with doors—doors that, by the way, wear out and need replacing, remember, so we need your money to buy new ones.  The idea of contributing to your local church is rather obviously not inherently bad, but neither is it a topic of scripture.  Further, the notion that any kind of giving is an “act of worship” is an extension of worship ideas at best and an adulteration of them at worst.  It would have been better to say something like this:  “The heart that wants to worship God vertically will also likely want to give money horizontally in order to help people—perhaps first in one’s own locale, but also beyond.”

Below is my own paraphrase of 1Corinthians 16:2.  (For more detail and translations of the surrounding context, see this blogpost.)

2 On the first day of the week, each one, put some money aside—saving it up (according to your financial prosperity)—so a focused collection effort as such shouldn’t be necessary when I get there.

Here, individuals are to set money aside, planning ahead for a specific need.  While there is some room for alternate translation, interpretation, and follow through here, it should also be said that the above text is really the only one in the Christian scriptures that suggests anything remotely connected to an institutional offering.¹  The connection is ostensibly negative:  Paul doesn’t want to have the hassle of a collection later.  We might surmise further, then, that a regular collection would not have been normative in Corinth, or else he might have just used that method-in-place when he got there.  No, the collective funding he was after was no regular occurrence but a one-time thing.  There is no ongoing, institutional common treasury suggested here; the picture painted is rather one of specific purpose, of a timely response to a need in one particular time period.

#3 offers helpful procedural advice, but it is a trifle self-serving for a church organization to be saying such things.  It comes off to me like salesmanspeak:  answering potential objections, closing the sale.

One can find good reason to contribute.  There are psychological/altruistic reasons to give charitably, and theologically based ones, and community-based ones.  Sure, give $ to your church collection plate if you want to, but don’t do it because it’s a “tithe” (originally a tax to support the Levites).  The simple fact is that habitual, institution-supporting weekly giving to a church treasury is not explicitly supported—or dealt with at all—in canonical Christian scripture.

Thus ends what some may feel was a ride on a hobby horse.  In the future, should I feel like yanking the ol’ gray mare down from her hook to take a spin, maybe I’ll have the restraint simply to refer to this post.

¹ I suppose the “widow’s mite” story could be seen as positively connected to institutional offering, but that was an observation in Jewish context.  Moreover, the lesson to be learned here may be primarily, or even exclusively, a negative one about the pharisees rather than a positive one about the widow.  Consider the surrounding context in Mark 12 and Luke 21.

Not an enjoyable hobby (intro)

A couple decades ago, I came to associate the churchian use of the expression “riding his hobby horse” with narrow-minded preachers and writers and editors of slanted periodicals.  These guys were said to have “hobbies”—preoccupations that amounted to masses of material, Image result for hobby horsefilling way too many sermons and pages of books.  For a given person, a ride on the “hobby” topic might not have been balanced with other, more important topics, or the stance (trot? gallop?) on a topic might have seemed dumb.  Sometimes, the ride taken on a hobby horse appeared to be childish, as though it were not a real thing being ridden.  In all cases, when so-and-so had a theological “hobby” he was pursuing, it was not a good thing that so-and-so did so.

I wonder every now and then whether I myself could be rightly accused of theological hobbies.  Probably.  I do have topical areas that I tend to return to a lot.  (Is having many hobbies a good thing?)  There are several different toy horses labeled “hobby horse,” and there’s quite a cultural history with these odd objects.  Whether my hobbies are strange preoccupations or just entertaining motifs I’m not sure.  I try not to let them lead to imbalance, but at times, it might seem that I am doing little but taking a childish ride on a hobby horse.

The sheer weight of some topics will keep me from worrying too much about the accusation of having a hobby.  In other words, some things are just so important that I don’t care how hobby-ish they might seem to others.  For instance, I have spoken and written volumes about the Kingdom of God, about authentic worship, and about responsible reading and interpretation of scripture.  The insistent, convicted (if not prophetic) voice within simply will not allow me to stop putting my foot in the stirrups on some of these steeds.

Other topics are not very significant, when seen in perspective, making them less deserving “hobbies”:

  • mistaken ideas about Sabbath
  • inaccurate construction of possessives, plurals, and possessive plurals
  • whether music is shown on a PowerPoint screen

Some topics and practices might fall somewhere in the middle:

  • Hierarchical clergy-laity systems
  • False or overblown denominational egos
  • Communion practices

I may vigorously affirm (or vociferously object to) this or that practice or doctrine, but I do try to put things in perspective, even when practices are ill-advised or just plain dumb.

Speaking transparently, I will in my next post invite readers to consider again one topical area that may be a hobby for me (not as significant an issue as many others I write about):  Churchianity’s affirmation of the practice of tithing.  Which category does it fit into—the central, the important, or the sideline concerns?

While the tithe per se is no longer applicable to believers, some form of it is assumed by nearly all established churches, and I actually believe that any over-emphasis on my part is okay, compared to the potential harm done to God’s purposes by assumptions of tithing.  This periodic “ride,” if you want to call it that, is for the sake of others, and it gives no pleasure to me.  Still, I may be a little imbalanced.  You be the judge.

To be continued . . .

Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes

During the past week or so, I have been writing, shaping, and “wordsmithing” a five-page memo for my boss.  It has been a learning process in some respects, and he’s been very patient in explaining some aspects of the subject matter to me so I could state things more purposefully.  We have an essentially finished product at this point, but I am left with a couple of questions:

  1. Did I say this or that in the best way possible?
  2. I found a typo and an another error or two in the fifth of six drafts.  How likely is it that errors yet remain in the memo?

In one way or another, I am often involved in writing.  I’ve written (typed) newsletters, hundreds of blogposts, five books, a few articles, hundreds of pages of music, program notes, research papers, memos, and volumes of substantial e-mail since the dawn of the home computer age.¹  All this writing has involved many, many mistakes.  I know all too well how often I make a mistake.  My typing speed can peak near 100 WPM, but the real speed is probably more like 70-75, minus 20-30, because of all the backspacing and correcting.

My engagement with writing sometimes extends into reading other people’s writing with a critical eye; I’ve been known to sit down with a pen in hand while reading a newspaper or magazine—not because of any plan to share “mistake finds” with the author but because it’s so proofreaders-marksnatural to notice and correct mistakes that it can actually seem slower to read without marking them.  (This proofreading habit/trait/obsession is sometimes annoying to me and often inexplicable to others.)

Aside:  the word “error” might be etymologically related to the word “err,” but the former should be pronounced with a different initial vowel sound.  No matter how many newscasters, talk show hosts, teachers, and business professionals say it incorrectly, “err” does not rhyme with “air.”  (Okay, this is a pet peeve, and at some point I’ll have to “cave” [what an interesting verb, that . . . I hadn’t previously thought about its imagery] and admit that language is a fluid thing.  What was once incorrect might later be considered correct.)

How humbling, and sometimes maddening, and yet delightful written language can be!  (Did you know there is a book called The Joy of Lex?)  Turns of phrases, diction and declamation, alliteration and consonance, puns and homonyms, synonyms and other -nyms (not nymphs, mind you!), and etymology can all be pleasures—or the causes of annoyance.  I often second-guess my choice of “may” and change it to “might” (as I did at the beginning of the previous paragraph), because I was taught that “may” indicates permission whereas “might” indicates possibility.  Punctuation can be a singularly annoying facet of writing.  American and British punctuation have developed differently, e.g., the use of “single quotes” vs. double quotes and the placement of a comma or period in relation to quotation marks.  Despite my non-Britishness, in terms of punctuation technicalities, I feel a great sympatico with British guru Lynne Truss, who wrote this in Eats Shoots and Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

I saw a sign for “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped. . . .

Moving away from the personal and toward the more generally applicable . . . I further agree with Truss’s assertion that “proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”  (Read that quote again and see if you don’t agree, too.)  Even the onslaught of errors with plurals and possessives (and plural possessives) may chafe, and I should probably pay less attention to them, reserving energy for deeper matters of writing such as clarity, transitions, and solid, rational argumentation.  (Redundancy and repetitiveness and repeating oneself are also issues and matters of concern!  I counted 15 instances of the phrase “with regard to” in one man’s presentation.)  Still, there is the baseline need to know words.  Usually, I know when I don’t know a spelling or a usage.  For instance, last week, I was not confident of my ability to use the term “cash flow” in our work milieu, so I asked someone who knows far more about it than I do.  It might surprise many of my readers to know that “cash flow” may be used as a verb, i.e., “that business operation won’t cash flow.”  In a sort of word-reverie that occurs in my odd head from time to time, I began to wonder whether, in future years, the two words will become one.  “Flow” is already both a verb and a noun, so maybe an evolved, concatenated “cashflow” will eventually be the norm.

Continuing in the word trance . . . thinking about two words vs. one leads me to the term “set up.”  I prefer to use two words when it’s a verb and one when it’s a noun (not hyphenating the two).  Thus, I would set up a schedule for graduate students to be responsible for an ensemble’s setup.   Others might take no thought for this term at all or might see it differently, using the hyphenated “set-up” as the noun.  I would say that the least accurate usage occurs with the verb use of the hyphenated version:  “John, would you set-up the tables for me?”  (Did you notice the adjectival use of the word “verb” there?  I opted for the unadorned word “verb” as an adjective since “verbal” is commonly used to mean “oral,” as in “verbal communication.”  Ain’t words great?)

I have discovered more errors in my writing than I want to admit.  There will probably be some in this post.  By the way, I looked up the word “wordsmith” to make sure it was properly one word and not two.

To be continued . . . 

In the meantime, enjoy this 30-second video from the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Or if you prefer a more contextually robust experience, here’s the full 2-minute version.

¹ Are we seeing the sunset of the home computer age already?  I sincerely hope not, and yet it is clear that small-device screens (less useful for most e-activities I care most about) are increasingly depended on.  More and more websites are designed with smart phones in mind, so it takes more steps to access what I want to access on a full-sized screen.  The younger generation seems not to understand the benefit of a real map (perspective beyond a few streets!) and more screen real estate (perspective beyond the 18 words simultaneously visible in a text!).  It also appears to have increasing difficulty understanding written communication with good punctuation (and without texter abbreviations).