Inexplicable courses of action

HastingsLogo.PNGIn a good-sized city, a Hastings store went out of business last year.  Inexplicably, a new store with essentially the same slate of business lines just installed a store at the same location.

Also last year, in a small town with a fairly prominent Taco John’s and two fine mid-range Mexican restaurants, a Taco Bell/KFC went out of business.  Subsequently, an entrepreneur decided to add to the somewhat lacking mix of fast-food options Taco Bell 2016.svgwith a startup burrito joint that offers mostly Mexican fare.  Later, a restaurant group inexplicably tore down a ramshackle building and broke ground to install a new Taco Bell . . . a block away from the Taco John’s and five blocks from where the last Taco Bell failed.

Both of these examples call to mind the proverbial definition of insanity—doing the same things and expecting different results.

In a new locale, tired Christians try to maintain a trusting outlook.  Almost inexplicably, they visit church after church, hoping to find a small, biblically attentive, mutuality-emphasizing, non-franchise group to work with.  Nearly every visit to an established congregation results in listlessness, discouragement, waning hope, and windless sails.  (Churchiness has a way of doing that.)  I think these folks are more idealistic and fatigued than insane, but the matter might be argued otherwise.

– B. Casey, 7/29/17

A correctable correction

Fair warning:  I spent 6-8 hours studying and refining material for my last post, but I have spent all of 25 minutes on this one, and 3/5 of that has been spent with proofreading and technicalities for clarity, not substance.

Yesterday morning, 10 people sat around a table prior to a class on Acts 6.  One man was asked to kick things off by wording a prayer.  He asked for God’s blessing on the “Bible study,” and then he corrected himself, mid-prayer: “Excuse me … I mean ‘Sunday School.'”

I immediately smiled (knowing no one would see me) and wondered what could have caused him to replace the former with the latter.  We could discuss the merits of “Bible study” or “Acts class” over “Bible class,” but what benefit did he think there was in calling it “Sunday School”?

Maybe he had an intuition.  (How do I get from noticing the mere expression “Sunday School” to this post?  You had to be there. . . .)  As it turned out, the class became more of a discussion of organizational voluntarism than a responsible look at Acts 6.  Does that text lay out principles and practices for rallying a group of people, encouraging them to be involved because involvement and a voluntarism rate of x% are the things that make an organization thrive?  Nope.  That is not what that text addresses.  In Acts 6, men are chosen for a task—they do not volunteer at allyet voluntarism and group activities are what yesterday’s group focused almost all its attention on.

My summary of the early part of Acts 6 would be more along these lines:

The Spirit of God actively worked through the apostles, who once chose several to serve in particular roles, in order to meet a need in a particular setting. 

As support for its being about the work of God within the Jerusalem group of disciples (as opposed to the inner works of an organization for its sake), I offer the fact that, three times in this context, a reader may note the expression “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3, 6:5, and 7:55).  In this section of text, God and people are seen working, not an organizational hierarchy or an institutional model.  In the larger context that spans Acts chapters 6, 7, and part of 8, the “growing pains” of a nascent movement are felt, but this passage as a whole is not about institutional, organization dynamics and getting more people involved; it’s much more about Stephen as an example of a chosen servant, full of faith and the Spirit.

I see no institutional theme in the text that’s transferable to the likes of today’s IRS-protected, Yellow-Pages churches, although the idea that a group can and should respond to a need is broadly helpful.  The Acts text ends up manifesting an altogether different emphasis from the one that says, “Hey, we need to get more people involved in our congregation’s projects”—or even the one that is concerned with who’s “in charge” of which “ministry.”

In the end, I have to wonder if yesterday’s group “study” was actually more about the “Sunday school” project (i.e., getting more people involved in the church program) than about learning from the ancient text; if so, I’d say the gentleman’s prayer was correctly corrected, from an institutional standpoint.

B. Casey, 8/7/17

Founders

Fords haven’t received much respect in my family.  I have never owned one, and I’m pretty sure my sisters’ families haven’t, either.  My parents had an Aerostar van for a couple of years, but I1965 Ford Mustang for sale 100888597 was more or less conditioned to Ford-aversion—which is interesting, because they’ve been around a long time, and such models as the ’65 Mustang and T-Bird are classics.  Contemporary Ford paint colors are the best, and founder Henry Ford, despite not being the inventor of the automobile, is justifiably an industry icon.

I cracked a new book the other day, and I immediately read this:

Henry Ford died, with exquisite irony, during a power failure on the dark and stormy night of 6-7 April 1947, whilst sleeping fitfully at his vast Dearborn, Michigan, estate. On the 9th, his body lay in state in his mansion’s cavernous ballroom while almost 100,000 people filed by to pay their last respects. The next day, 20,000 spectators gathered in silence, and in the pouring rain, outside St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral . . . .

So begins the impressive, attractive book The Life of the Automobile:  The Complete HIstory of the Motorcar by Steven Parissien (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).  When I read the opening words about this integral figure in cultural and industrial history, I immediately wondered whether new employees of Ford Motor Company today are introduced to the company’s founder.  If this page is any indication, I’d guess that new employees probably at least receive some literature in order to give them some sense of the founder and the history of the company.

And what about churches?  When a person is brought into a church, is s/he introduced to the Founder and to the early history of the group?  Does the new person hear communication designed to connect a new person with the Originator?  Or is s/he merely made into a “member” of the organization, perhaps like new employees of most companies?

“Well, of course I am connected to Jesus in my church!” you say?  I sincerely hope so.  I still feel justified in throwing out this caution:  just because the name “Jesus” is mentioned a few times on Sundays doesn’t guarantee the connection to the Founder—the real, living Lord.

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.

Of distance and connection: speaking transparently

Reconnecting and staying connected has always been important to me.  Long before Facebook, and even before personal computing and the WWW, I had lists of friends and contacts, not to mention an alumni directory that helped me find college friends when I traveled.  Sometimes I would try to squeeze in too many visits, but my pace has slowed over the years.  On a family trip last month, we did spend some good time with three extended family members and five sets of friends.  Each visit was rewarding and had distinct value—for instance, meeting the fiancée of a dear, longtime friend a month before their wedding.  It is enriching and energizing to talk face to face with anyone I care about.

I do long for more/deeper/better friendships.  Through the years, some people have played highly significant roles in my life (and/or I in theirs) as we worked together on long-term projects, or because we were there at just the right time for each other.  In some cases, lengthy discussions about the scriptures, the church, or serious personal concerns seemed to cement our friendships.  My family and I are fulfilled in having maintained some relationship with most of the people in this picture, but where there has been this type of connection, a later sense of increasing distance can be more stark.  I can think of another group (from a dozen years prior to the above) in which one person has unilaterally and without explanation rejected the prior relationship, and there are other cold shoulders, as well.  Thoughts of that group led to thoughts of another group of eight or nine in which only three have shown any interest in building on the closeness we once had.

A couple of my friends, independently of each other, have confided to me that they value our friendship in part because they have few other friends.  I have a similar feeling.¹  I’ve had a couple of “best friends” and have been devoid that relationship “level” for a while now.  For various reasons, I have not stayed in any one place too long in recent years.  In most cases, it takes years to develop magnetic, deep friendships, whether or not they are of the “best friend” type.  If one moves away, not even Herculean efforts can keep the relationship from changing.

It’s been well said that the worst lonely feelings come in the middle of a crowd.  (Not everyone will understand that.)  I would add the modifier of all sizes to “crowds”:  physical proximity with even one other person might suggest, but does not guarantee, connection.  When the actual relationship lacks closeness, the appearance of being part of a friendship or “team” is painful.  A once-upon-a-time friend once looked at someone else and me and said “You are such a great team,” but we were actually very personally distant.  Being a part of an educational or Christian small group while feeling like an island has probably given me more emotional pain than can be imagined by those with more sanguine or phlegmatic personalities.  On the other hand, the relational ease and richness of conversation and relationship that sometimes does come in small groups (as in the one shown here) and one-on-one conversations can be incomparably rewarding.

There has been a lot of aloneness in my life . . . yes, a great deal of goodness and relational presence, but also a lot of absence² and a lot of wishing . . . a lot of wondering about connections that were, that might have been, or that might yet be.  Having a generally melancholy temperament, I over-think (brood?), and I create.³  I am not a natural smiler, so it might look like I’m unhappy when I’m just thinking deeply, pondering.

It is from these ponderings that the following passage comes.  I don’t suppose it’s really a poem; it’s more a piece of structured prose.  It is chiastically arranged, and I’ve indented to show the arrangements more clearly.  Here, a matched indent level indicates a related pair of passages, and the middle is central within the whole.  You might even read it that way, starting from the outer edges and progressing inward.  I will resist the urge to provide commentary on the piece.  On the other hand, if the chiastic arrangement is curious to you and you want to critique it or ask questions about what I have in mind or the intratextual relationships, please comment!  You and I might even enhance a connection….


I don’t like feeling alone.  For about a decade, I felt very (and increasingly) lonely, and no one seemed to understand enough to come alongside me.

On the other hand, I have often needed more alone time than I get.

Gene Edwards’s unusual book The Divine Romance paints a verbal tapestry of a pre-creation “time” in which God longed for a counterpart, an “other.”  At some point, Edwards imagines, God had a startling realization—that there could be two.

If I am in some sense made in God’s image, perhaps I experience, on some level, whatever God experienced that led Him to create humans.  Did He feel aloneness or loneliness?  I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to suggest that God “needs” people, but He certainly desires relationship.  And I, too, need connection.

James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro” literary classic God’s Trombones purports to quote God:  “I’m lonely.  I’ll make me a man.”

I tend to be both energized by, and accomplished in, alone time.

Blessedly, I have a wife and son who love me, and they encourage me.  Oddly, I still often feel alone.


¹ Grammar note:  I initially had “I feel similar” here, and that would have been technically correct.  The intransitive linking verb “feel” does not take an adverb, so it was “similar,” not “similarly.”  If I had meant to comment on my sensation of touch, i.e., how I feel a countertop surface  with my fingertips, comparing that to someone else’s feeling ability, then I would have said, “I feel similarly.”  Being technically correct is not always the best choice, so I opted for “I have a similar feeling.”  🙂

² For meditation-provoking posts based on Martin Marty’s book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, start here.

³ In my case, these days, creating primarily means writing.  Besides blogs, I have mounds of correspondence, some “therapeutic writing” that no one sees, a few poems, and a lot of music.  For about 20 years, I wrote songs (a handful of love songs and 100+ Christian songs); later, the musical creativity was directed more into mostly instrumental works, including compositions, transcriptions, and arrangements.  I don’t write much music of any kind anymore.  My creativity has moved more toward verbal prose, which means blogposts and the 5.5 books I have in print (Amazon Author Page), plus major contributions to 2 more books, and a few materials for teaching scripture.

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.

 

Simple/organic church ideas and ideals: a collection

A couple of lives ago, I would sometimes wonder about individuals who looked comatose during assemblies, and I would try my best to be an energizing force as a public leader.  At the outset on a given Sunday, my hopes and efforts might have been expressed in “Again the Lord of Life and Light Awakes the Kindling Ray” or “We Shall Assemble on the Mountain” or “This is the Day,” or in prayer words or public readings—and the intentional, typically selective choice of others to lead with me.  It might have been specifically chosen words of welcome, or songs designed to “get you going” or to speak to one another, or a reading (scripture or otherwise) purposed to center the congregation in deep worship before a hymn such as “Lord of All Being” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.”  Most of what I planned and did had the aim getting everyone to feel engaged and energized and purposeful during our corporate time. 

I’ve known for decades that the way my particular group (in Wilmington or Rochester or Greeley or wherever) “did church” wasn’t obligatory; furthermore, I’ve known down deep for at least one decade that it wasn’t working well for me and probably for others.  I can’t know exactly why John or Sally looked disinterested and didn’t seem to participate, but I do know now that “doing church” can dull the senses and stupefy the soul.  It doesn’t have to, but it can.

These days, most assemblies at regular, established churches leave me discouraged and robbed of most of the energy I’d had when I walked in.  I have become one who appears lifeless most of the time during a gathering.  And so I long for something else, something to quicken the spirit. . . .

There is another way.  I read about it and think about it often, but I’ve only experienced it in short bursts so far.  In this post, I’m sharing a collection of others’ thoughts on simple/organic church.  Whether you are a “done” or are edging toward “almost done,” or well sensitized to those tho fit those labels, you and other thoughtful people can find rejuvenated purpose here.  I led this piece with reflections on assemblies in a relatively traditional pattern, but not all these ideas are related to gatherings.  They describe realities and dynamics that are more or less distinct from established church patterns, focusing more attention on discipleship.  As Roger Thoman says in one essay, it is about “no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”  This is no great revelation; most with any degree of biblically based upbringing will find that last sentence eminently palatable.  For my part, I continue to think Christian gatherings are of great importance, but how they appear in my life is shifting.  However they appear in all our lives, the challenge is to promote the “be the church” ideal to the higher level.


Here are some words of someone who once didn’t get why anyone would want to keep meeting with a house church “when larger churches with exciting youth programs, riveting preachers and spectacular worship music” are available:

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/08/house-church-not-real-church.html


This post deals with the intended reality that every person is a minister/servant.  It’s not just a Monday-through-Saturday concept; it works at Sunday gatherings, too!  

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2017/05/every-person-a-minister-when-we-gather.html


Here’s a piece by Thom Schultz of Group Publishing, in which he refers to author Doug Pollock encouraging us to be comfortable asking “wondering” questions (and not depending on the “sage on the stage” or  “master fisherman” on Sundays):  

https://holysoup.com/talking-about-god-without-being-a-jerk/


“The Church as Industrial Complex is a resource-driven form of church that has a gravitational pull that unintentionally turns spirituality into a product, church growth into a race, leadership into a business and attendees into consumers.”  – JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr.

20 Truths from The Church as Movement (Christianity Today)


  1. Love God. Love People. Make Disciples
  2. Disciples Make Disciples Who Make Disciples
  3. Embody the Gospel Where You Live
  4. Church Isn’t a Destination, It’s People

http://www.6wordlessons.com/six-word-lessons-to-discover-missional-living.html


“It is interesting to note that simple is reproducible. Simple is able to be passed along. Simple can become viral. Keeping things simple can reduce the temptation toward creating religious structures and church institutions by encouraging a simple, basic listening/surrendering relationship to Jesus whom we love and follow.”  – Roger Thoman

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/10/keeping-it-simple-beautiful-reproducible.html


This quotation puts the emphasis on daily discipleship:

“For me, the paradigm of simple/house/organic church is not about a way to do church but a calling to continue to find Jesus in the stuff of life, follow Him, and pursue His adventurous calling while refusing to get boxed in by anything that wants to pull me back into the lazy boxes of yesteryear.”  – Roger Thoman

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2016/12/toward-his-highest-and-best.html


“It is a vision of no longer thinking of the church as an event or place to go, but realizing that we, his people, really are the church everywhere and every place that we go.”   – Roger Thoman

“[I dream of a] church, which does not need huge amounts of money, or rhetoric, control and manipulation . . .”  Wolfgang Simson

http://www.simplechurchjournal.com/2017/04/catching-the-vision-of-church-as-it-can-be.html

In this time of year (1)

Seasons and Times   Seasons come and go.  I tend to like spring and fall better than summer or winter, although the best summer and winter days can be great, too.   For many, the spring season is associated with Easter.  I don’t get into bunnies or pastel colors or egg hunts; most years, I haven’t done much more with Easter than with any other Sunday.  I do think that it makes a lot more sense for Christian believers to pay spiritually based attention to both Passover and Easter than to Christmas, but there’s no requirement.  “Holy Week” as a whole merits some attention as a time of remembrance and observance—especially for those with high church background and/or present-day liturgical inclinations.  Palm Sunday festivities¹ are of moderate interest to me; they have their place, especially for children.

Terms and Traditions   Words such as “ash” and “Maundy” go right over my head.  I’m not drawn in by invented labels such as “Maundy Thursday” and “Holy Communion” that seem to draw significance based on notions of sacrament, tradition, and trappings.  If you have a “communal meal during which we’ll memorialize the Lord’s death in a focused way,” invite me, and I’ll likely be there.  On the other hand, if you call it a “Maundy Thursday Service of Holy Communion,” I’ll probably pass.

I don’t suppose it matters much whether Jesus was crucified in (what we now think of as the year) 27 or 29 or 30 or 33.  What matters is that it was a very real event, at approximately that point in the world’s history.  The historical and symbolic connections to the Passover are important, too.

Good Friday   This Easter season, I was glad to be asked to be one of seven readers at a local church’s Good Friday event.²  The plan is thoroughly conceived and very well laid out, with exceptionally nicely put instructions for all who will be involved.  I am looking forward to participating in this way, because I really enjoy public reading, and because I am of the strong opinion that such reading should be intentional and as well executed as possible.  I don’t even mind ignoring the (10%? 40%?) chance that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday, not a Friday.

At any rate, my assigned readings are relatively lengthy ones from John 19 (“woman, behold your son . . . behold your mother”) and Ephesians 2 (bringing together Jew and non-Jew the through the cross).  I’m working on a hybrid rendering that will communicate in the best possible way.  I might even translate a little on my own, but I want to be careful not to get too far off the beaten path.  To call attention to history and theology through public reading is good, but it would be unwise to use words so unusual that they distract from the message.

During the next few days, I will share some additional Easter-ish ponderings.  At the moment, my spring thinking has sprung from songs, so those lyrics might be springboards.  (Also, I rarely turn down the opportunity for wordplay.  Jesus seems to have done that on occasion, too.  I imagine He would smile at my efforts.  Or perhaps not.)

In the meantime, this “Easter songs” post from two years ago might provide some devotional opportunity for those so minded and spirited.


¹ Exploring the word “Hosanna” can be interesting.  I’d suggest that in many places, it’s a word that has changed in meaning.

²  I can’t make myself call it a “Good Friday service,” because I find that use of the word “service” neither scripturally based nor helpful.  The Good Friday program involves a well-thought-out sequence, so it is admittedly more appropriate to call this a “service” than a regular Sunday gathering in my ideal world.

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:

givingbrochure

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.

tithe3

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.