Xposted from Kingdom blog

Image result for writingOne of the great things about blogging (and other self-directed forms of writing) is that the writer gets to write when the inspiration comes.  There are no deadlines per se, and no financially based pressure, so one writes as he wills.  This kind of subjectivity can degenerate into self-pleasing or merely entertaining outbursts, and I have been guilty of that from time to time.  Most of the time, I try to allow various nudges, external stimuli, and compelling pursuits to guide what I write about.  With almost anything I write, I intend (1) to be genuine, dealing with what seems important; (2) to be responsive to nudges that might be God speaking to my spirit; and (3) to attempt to speak a helpful word to others.

My other blog, Subjects of the Kingdom, has been in existence for year and a half, and it has not been very active in terms of feedback.  That saddens me on a personal level, because it shows a lack of interest in my book.  (If 50 or 100 people suddenly signed up for feeds from that blog, I might stop cross-posting as much on this blog.)

Far more important than a readership’s response, though, is a possible broader lack of interest in the topics presented.  On the one hand, one analysis would suggest that I just stop writing about the Kingdom of God, because people either seem to be apathetic about it, or they already think they have it figured out.  On the other hand, I am perpetually impelled by the Kingdom.  Conceptually, God’s Reign touches everything.  Lately, there have been at least as many stimuli to process and write about Kingdom topics as to write on topics for this blog.  So, for whatever it’s worth, another book is in the early stages.  The working title is Two Kingdoms—Essays, Examinations, and Notes.  It will be well into 2018 before a draft is complete, but I hope to have the book out next summer.

For now, here are links to two recent posts from the Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  (Some of this material may make its way into the new book, so reading it now is like a sneak peek.)

Subtextual “empire” in Paul?

– a brief review of a scholarly inquiry into “hidden subtext” about the Roman Empire in Pauline literature

Unseen yet apparent: insights into the Lord’s model prayer

– a more devotionally oriented piece on the “unseen” element in the context and text of the “Lord’s Prayer”


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.

An attempt at an analogy

Domingo is to Denver
High Church is to Low Church

The song was “Perhaps Love,” and it was sweet and innocent.  The singers were none other than operatic tenor Placido Domingo and country-folk star John Denver.  Domingo was always my favorite among the “Three Tenors,” and Denver was a favorite of my good friend Helen when she was a teenager.  I learned a few of the latter’s songs, such as “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads.”

These days, I wouldn’t necessarily choose Domingo over Denver, although my training and background might suggest such a preference.  In fact, I’m now more attracted to Denver’s stylings (although not to his voice or his self-oriented atheism).  The point is that there’s quite a contrast between the two in terms of vocal production.  Not all listeners would initially find the contrast as great as I do, but even if the focus is only on vowel sounds, it’s pretty easy to hear if it’s pointed out.  It’s not unlike the difference between formal British and twangy southern U.S. accents.

The difference between Domingo and Denver strikes me as analogous to the contrast between a high-church organ prelude or choral anthem (on the one hand) and a folksy “y’all c’mon & praise the Lord, now” that might be heard in a really southern Southern Baptist or Pentecostal group (on the other).  Listening to the first 60 or 70 seconds of this recording of “Perhaps Love” will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.  The contrast is first heard at about 0:41 (as compared with 0:16).

Ya gotta give credit both to Domingo (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would have laughed at) and to Denver (for caring enough about music in general to sing with someone that most of his fans would otherwise never have heard of).  The “crossover” can potentially bring new listeners to each “side,” expanding horizons.

I wonder if any churches think like this.  Seriously think.  Can Lutherans and Presbyterians gain from nondenominational teachings, low-end crossover stylings, and Getty music?  Can Baptists and Nazarenes and Church of Christ people be built up by intentional formality, serious scholarship, and Charles Wesley hymns?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

For more on style in church music:





The resolve not to think about theology (if that’s even possible)

Theology is of some interest to me, but I get lost in it.

Varying theological codifications have appeared through the centuries.  There are the ancient councils and creeds.  There are the confessions and catechisms, and these things extend through several major denominations.






Systematic theologicians (!) almost seem to use sleight-of-hand techniques, and the rest of us need to learn escape artistry to free ourselves from the boxes they put on the spiritual stage.  Last week, the Logos Academic Blog published this post:


I tried to read that material.  I really did.  The writing is good, and the academic treatment is good.  I found myself seriously questioning the value of it all, though.  Calling, one of the two major topics treated, is a word-concept that has roots in scripture (although it takes on a life of its own with some theologicians).  Regeneration, not so much.  For the theologically stout of heart, a sequel LAB blog link about the relationship of “calling” and “regeneration” is here.

All this material is about the theology of the “salvation” process.  None of the objects of analysis are observable from a human vantage point, yet humans are still trying to codify an order—the ordo salutis, or sequence of salvation.  In some cases, they are even trying to codify the codifications!  Now, I do not point the finger at the high-end “Reformed” theologians any more than at the low-church folks who claim they’ve pinpointed things.  (Baptists, Church of Christ folks, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics are similar in this respect, at least.)  The exact point at which God decides I’m in?  The order of “events” in the spiritual realm (as though they were events per se)?  Centuries-removed human beings have attempted to codify the “order of salvation.”  In scripture, I find scant the suggestion of a rigid, global ordo salutis—and somewhat less substantial than the presentation of God as three.

Fretting over the identification, connections, and conceptual relationships of ideas such as “regeneration” and “effectual calling” seems wasteful to me.  I try not to ascend into the lofty language and forged formulas of theology, but I do get drawn in at times.  More than the material itself, the mind-boggling part is that anyone would doggedly pursue the relationships between various positions and stances.  This is metameta-material, two generations removed from what I need to be dealing with.  I might honestly ponder God’s will, i.e., what I think God wants me to do in a given situation, but when I philosophize about “calling” and try to force scripture verses into a theological stance, I risk drawing inappropriate lines and reaching points of view that cannot stand up to scrutiny based only on scripture texts.  If I go a step further and try to make sense of the implications of the difference between my philosophies and someone else’s—when I become enmeshed in thinking about the relationship of one theological system to another—I am yet more removed from anything I ought to be sinking my teeth into.  I may admire the sheer intellect of a systematic theologician, but my health is better when I keep my diet free of such processed, artificial foods.  Here, I started to edit, or at least apologize for, mixing magic and nutrition metaphors, but maybe it’s OK to leave it as is:  the mixing reflects the confusion that can result from theologic.

For better or worse, because there were a couple of old Mad magazines at my grandmother’s house when I was a boy, I have the image of Alfred E. Neumann here burned into my memory .  What the reincarnated Neumann might say in theological circles, I don’t know, but I say to the theological rustlers and wranglers, “Why worry about this?  Why not just listen to what Paul tells Philemon or the Thessalonians?  Why not just sit in rapt attention before Matthew’s portrait of Jesus?  Why worry about superimposed theological constructs when I have my hands full with trying to understand and act on a single insight from Jesus’ life from John’s gospel or Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians?  It’s not only a “flip” why worry? that should be in the picture here; it’s also the presumption that can be apparent when anyone claims to know the mind of God to the point that he can lock down spiritual-sphere “events,” perfectly in order, when scripture hasn’t done so.

A couple of my new acquaintances seem wrapped up in theology.  They are men of faith, and I do not doubt their devotion.  I am however troubled that their responses to just about any honest question or observation seem to come from orthodoxy rather than the scriptural material at hand.  A few months ago, one of them sent me a paper he wrote about “calling.”  I’m persuaded that he sincerely wants to be God’s person, and that he emphasizes things he honestly believes are important.  Twice in the paper, he reminds the reader that we should all “get our theology from scripture.”  Yet what he comes out with is anything but textually based.  Rather, it is based on a non-contextual view of cherry-picked scripture verses.  The irresponsible use of scripture pretty much always ends up like this.

So I resolve to keep myself from thinking about theology too much.

Yet there are the questions that keep coming up.  What does Paul mean by pistis (most often “faith”) in Galatians 2:16?  Is that the same thing he meant in 1:23?  What if pistis doesn’t mean belief or trust?  What if it means faithfulness or loyalty or allegiance?  (All of these are legitimate possibilities.)  If I am to communicate with my neighbors, I need to have some acquaintance with the implications and ramifications of concerns such as this.

I probably can’t keep aloof from theology after all.  So much for the Neumann influence in my life.

B. Casey, 8/4/17-8/21/17

This tired horse prefers not to be connected to a cart at all

When any believer says something that manifests a low or diminishing interest in that which is written, it concerns me on some level, and it might mean the cart has displaced the horse in some sense.

Image result for cart before the horse image

Things get hazy without something relatively objective to rely on.  I don’t mean to downplay the aspect of faith that’s unseen.  I do mean to emphasize the ancient scriptural texts over philosophical amalgamations we call “theology.”  There will be a little more pertaining to the theological “cart” in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate on the trustworthy steed of scripture.

Why might the horse get pushed to the back or even left out in the cold?  Why might one denigrate or even disrespect scriptural text?  It could be because of negative experiences with the misuse of scripture.  That sort of thing could easily lead one to avoid attention to the Bible.  On the flip side, some types of positive relational or conceptual experiences, however much they lack direct ties to scripture, can further distance people from what is written.  “The love and encouragement I feel in my life is not because of Bible study.  It’s because of the people and the Holy Spirit in my life” some might say, as they turn down an opportunity for Bible study.  It’s not only touchy-feely folks who avoid good Bible study, though.  A whole range of good people often turn up disenchanted.

It is primarily to those who want to move away from scripture (having been near it previously, in some measure) that I submit these thoughts.  Any one of us, though, can come to distrust the use of the Bible because of misguided understanding or mistaken application.  Or maybe we are simply tired.

First:  In a way, I am one of you.  I too find that so much churchy use of scripture results in little more than piles of verses, with little coherence, and even less valid applicability to the life of a disciple.  It is often easy to find counter-examples to isolated scripture verses offered as “proofs,” and yet it is tiring to be faced with such situations repeatedly.  Unfortunately, some public teachers and theologians tend (consciously or subconsciously) to use scripture in order to serve prefabricated, prejudicial constructs and agendas.  It can be disconcerting and discouraging to be trapped within the irresponsible use of scripture.  The whole enterprise can bring on personal fatigue.  A few examples of my non-contextual experiences may be found here and here and also here, in a sarcastic video I once made in a fit of spiritual perturbation.

I’ve had better experiences with the Bible than most, I suppose.  I grew up in a Bible-teaching church, and I learned the 10 plagues and the judges and the apostles and the books of the Bible in order.  I attended a good Christian camp that encouraged memorization, and I learned portions of Acts 2, 1 Peter 2, and Romans 8, among many others.  When I was 19, I got a wide-margin, leather-bound Bible that has oodles of cross-references and ample space to write more.  A college teacher lit a fire in me with his relatively shallow but impressive memorized knowledge of verses that appeared to be related to one another.  I’m grateful for all of that, but I don’t mourn the loss of the cross-reference habit.  I haven’t penned in very many of those in more than a decade.  So many of the ones I once wrote turned out to be wispy or even bogus “proofs.”  Actually, I must say that some of my best teaching and self-directed learning have come more recently—primarily from outside churches per se.  I should still memorize more (not a catechism, or a list of verses about a topic, but scripture).

Second:  there is a better way.  At every reasonable opportunity I have, I encourage focusing on the uninterrupted message of scripture, in its context.  The disillusionment with Bible study comes when it is done badly, and that is all too often.  But Bible study, I submit from personal experience, can be revealing, rewarding, enriching, energizing, and amazingly applicable.  In order to “hear” God through the authors of scripture, the micro-context (e.g., a paragraph) should be noted first, and the mid-level and book-level contexts are also crucial.  By “book-level” I mean each unique document titled as one “book” in the Bible, not the whole collection.  The Bible is more aptly described as a library, not a single book, anyway.

Awareness of each biblical book’s unique setting is important as a foundation for better Bible reading and study.  It is good to recognize, for example, that Matthew and Moses speak into vastly different scenarios although they treat some of the same topics.  Philippians records Paul’s message to one group of people at a particular time, whereas Galatians is an entirely different letter, to different people, about different matters.  For more on the situational nature of (much) scripture, please read this recent post.

The insights I am currently gaining from Galatians are very helpful to me as they shed light on the early period (roughly the 40s) when Christianity was still a new movement.  My senses of (1) Paul and (2) what was going on with the early Phrygian/Galatian believers have grown deeper through focusing on the literary structure of the letter.  Paul’s personal experiences are spotlighted for a purpose, and they may include a couple of veiled references (not just the obvious one) to his eyesight … and I am compelled to mention that my own eyes have filled with tears more than once over this in the last couple of months.

Early Christian believers wrote a lot of authentic texts—more than any other religious group of the time—and I think there is a reason for that.  (See this post from Dr. Larry Hurtado for support.)  The texts have much to teach us, and it is good to be aware of the whole corpus.  But it is always advisable to deal with one scripture author and with one text at a time, not considering them as one whole.  The fundamentalist-y method of taking all the Bible as one large conglomerate mass of stuff, conflating it as though it is all of equal significance, all written about the same situation, and all using language the same way, will send one irrevocably spiraling downward in a maelstrom of deep but thick theological messiness.  First, I think we should take one book at a time, and maybe later, at some point, disciples can compare things here and there, but I’m not sure I’m capable of doing that very well yet.  Most preachers in my experience do a marginal (or worse) job of using multiple texts in their spoken messages.  Only a few seem able to handle the mixing very well.  As for myself, I’d rather learn better how to be responsible with one text at a time.  If we had all been taught this way from the get-go, we could have spent more time being disciples of Jesus, and living life in order to love others as He did.  As a result, we could have spent less time striving to work through all sorts of issues that really weren’t there, at least to the degree they seemed to be.  And some of us would be less tired.

I’m increasingly persuaded that most philosophical, existential, and theological ideas create more disagreements than agreements.  At the very least, disciples should put the scripture horse up in front to lead the theological cart, not reversing the order.  Dealing with one discrete scripture text at a time will offer strengthening of faith based on real evidence, not to mention enhancing insights for the ride along the path.

B. Casey, 7/31/17-8/20/17

Next:  The Resolve Not to Think about Theology

Horror and terror

How’s that title for an attention-getter?

Horror movies often strike me as ridiculous, and movies that are all about broad-scale terror don’t attract me all that much.  On the other hand, the dramas and suspense series I watch do involve short-lived, mostly-small-scale terrors fairly often, I’d have to say.  They say (I’m not sure who “they” are, really) that watching such things can give kids nightmares, and I worry about myself, too.  Will a diet of bad visual experiences get inside my soul?  I suppose I’ve almost assumed that watching any horrific things would make me think about horror more acutely and more often.  Now, I wonder if it’s had the opposite effect:  have the terror images almost anesthetized me, keeping me from proper wincing and fear?

Lately I’ve wondered what terror would be like if personally experienced.  What if?  And then it happened very near me.  Very recently, a small plane went down less than 10 miles from our house.  My wife brought me the news, both in the form of an image on her phone and in her eyes.  I could tell she felt it deeply, and her empathy moved me.  What was that horrific human experience like for the two who were killed?  (May God have granted that it was quick.)  One decedent was from a few hundred miles away, and one, from our little town.  People knew them and must themselves have experienced shockwaves of terror after the news broke.  The more I think about it, the more I am affected.

I’m not much on the “hellfire and brimstone” stuff that’s historically been associated with a few denominations and preaching styles.  I’m grateful never to have been subjected to regular preaching like that in the congregations with which I’ve worked.  I’ve never dug into the hell topic much but find myself leaning toward the view that God’s punishment will not be ongoing but will rather be a one-time event.  Whatever it turns out to be, it is obviously something to be avoided.  I believe it will be a terror in some sense, whether once or in perpetuity.  Otherwise, why would the inspired teachers throughout biblical history have described it in such horrific terms?

Group self-designations in scripture

What do we call ourselves?  Labels given to groups of humans may be mindless or revealing or something in between:

  • customers
  • employees
  • citizens
  • parishioners
  • members (i.e. of a club or a church)
  • audience or spectators
  • . . .

Along these lines, Dr. Larry Hurtado has taken note of the use of the substantive adjectival plural “saints” ( ̔άγιοι |  hagioi ) in early Christian literature.  A distinguished student of early Christianity, Hurtado finds the use of the term intriguing, in part because it was only rarely used as a self-designation for God’s people in the LXX (Greek “Old Testament”), whereas a spike in usage is found in Christian literature.  Hurtado finds two outgrowths—one based somewhat in grammar, and the other, in historical culture:

(1) The definite article, the hagioi, represents a particular claim, an exclusivity.  . . .   the term is a clear piece of evidence of a discrete group-mentality, an expression of a distinctive group-identity.

(2)  . . . The NT writers use a term that rather clearly derives from Jewish usage; but their use of the term shows a distinctive preference for it and a distinctive application of it to designate themselves.

– Larry Hurtado

You can read Hurtado’s complete post here.  After reading it, I posed the following question to him:

I found this observation helpful and also intriguing.  Having recently returned to study of the Galatian letter, and having just laid out its introduction side-by-side with that of other presumed-early, extant letters, I note dative ekklesia language without hagiois in the Gal and Thess letters, both ekklesia and hagiois in the Corinthian letters and Roman letters (although ekklesia is only in ch. 16), and an apparent preference for the hagiois language in the later Eph, Philipp, and Col letters.

Could you comment on any possible development of group self-identification terminology during the 50s, i.e., could we assert that there might have been a move toward the hagiois language as the movement progressed during that decade and beyond?  (Or perhaps I am making something out of nothing here.)

Hurtado’s reply indicated that he did not see the data as supporting my proposal, even countering that the term “saints” as a self-designation seems to drop out over time.  Yet I wonder if he passed over my emphasis on the decade of the 50s.  (I had tried to be both succinct and emphatic, not presuming on much of this scholar’s time, but there’s only so much one can do to format a comment on a blog.)  Perhaps Hurtado was responding more broadly, i.e., thinking through a century or more after Jesus and Paul.  The linguistic data to which I have access actually does suggest an increased use of the plural “saints” during the time of composition of the Pauline letters and epistles, which is roughly a 15-year period from 48 to 62 CE.  More specifically, the earliest two or three letters do not use the term much, and the last letters have the highest incidence, considering overall length.  Aided by my software, I count 86 instances of the plural hagiois.¹  At least 18 are negligible, used in senses that are not self-designations for Christ-ian disciples.  Of the remainder, there are

  1. No uses in Galatians, and only 2 in the Thessalonian letters (presumed to have been written 48-49)
  2. 20 in Romans, 1Cor, and 2Cor (presumed 51-57)
  3. 21 in Eph, Col, Php, and Phm (presumed 60-62)
  4. 4 in Acts, 2 in Hebrews, 2 in 1Peter, 2 in Jude
  5. 14 in Revelation

Not always do the plurals show up in English translations, e.g., Eph. 1:4 and 1Pet 1, and some of the above-referenced instances do not appear to be substantival (i.e., not used as noun-like designations).  Still, I wonder whether they might have carried designatory force in a passage such as Ephesians 1.  In other words, when Paul says God chose us to be “holy ones,” the plural word “holy” has an attributive adjectival function, but in this weighty Pauline communication, perhaps there was an intrinsic sense of self-designation of the Ephesian Christians.  The Revelation uses would be an interesting study in themselves, since that document draws from apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Most often, at a glance, I think Christ-following saints are the referents, but some of the Revelation instances mix long-past Jewish prophets with saints and apostles.

Related self-designations in the same time period include “church(es),” “Christians,” and “disciples.”   Much has been made over the first two—perhaps too much—and the last one particularly interestsme.  As for “church,” there are quite a few uses in Pauline literature, including the earliest letters.  [Caveat lector:  this next thought will be highly speculative.]  I wonder whether that (possible) early preference indicates attention or even deference to the synagogues in the Diaspora.  In other words, since Paul appears to have been in the habit of going to Jewish synagogues first, and since the earliest Christians were Jews, perhaps the earliest, most natural flow of “self-designations” was from “synagogue” to “church.”  [Again, that was highly speculative and probably makes more of the relationship between synagogue and church than should be made.]

Back to “saints.”  It should be said here that the Roman Catholic use of the term “saints” flies in the face of the NT use—which is neither (a) honorific nor (b) related to human achievement.  It continues to be necessary to clarify the intended meaning of “saints” in conversation with thoughtful Roman Catholics, since the historical meaning in that institution appears irrevocably slanted.  Even news reports, TV, and movies appear thoughtlessly to attach the Catholic meaning to the term “saint,” whether it’s heard in the singular or plural.

The Pauline use of the term—by all appearances egalitarian, not exceptional or honorific—does appear to rise during the 15 years we know that he was actively corresponding with churches.  All we have is certain pieces of literature, not an exhaustive sense of what the disciples were calling themselves, so any conclusions should be reached with caution.  Also, it’s not that saints were no longer thought of as believers or disciples or called-out ones in churches; the point I want to make is that “saints” might represent a development in Paul’s thinking about the people groups to whom he was bearing the message of Christ.  If in fact “saints” became more of a frequent self-designation during the decade or so before Paul’s death, that fact would not necessarily mean we should use an English approximation for “saints” more often today.  It does however mean we might do well to pursue the word-concept of “holy ones” in the first century, thereby enriching our understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.  More important than what we call ourselves, of course, is who we are and what we do about it.

¹ Of the Pauline references, fewer than half are found in the dative case.  Some datives, but not all, can be translated with the English indirect object, e.g., “I’m writing this letter (direct object) to the saints (indirect object) in Chicagoland.”  At first blush, I would think this fact alone is not indicative of the sense.  In other words, if Paul were to write, “The saints at Indianapolis greet you,” that would be the nominative case, and it would still be the type of “group self-designation” Hurtado discussed.

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.

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.