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.

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An attempt at an analogy

Domingo is to Denver
as
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:

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/style/

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/style-vs-content/

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/keepin-it-real-4-covering-style-and-content/

 

Impressing pastors, parishioners, and accountants

The card shown below (front and back) appears in the pew of a large institutional church near us.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to the appearance of these cards in the pews, I imagine there was an extended conversation in the regular Tuesday morning church staff meeting.  Let’s listen in on the meeting. . . .

Pastor Being:  So I assume most of you have noticed that our offering is dropping off.

Staff of 19 (not including the custodial staff of 5) [in unison, sighing ] Yes, we know.  What can we do? 

Advisory Accountant:  So glad you asked.  Here is a graph of the weekly and monthly figures leading up to Reformation Sunday.  We are off 20%, especially after that sermon series on Ecclesiastes.  Ahem, sorry, Pastor Being.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, A.A.  Now let’s get down to business.  We at RLSC¹ need to find a way to ensure that everyone feels the tug to give.  I mean, it’s good for people to be involved, and to hear sermons and all that, but we can’t do any of this unless we put forward a new pitch for pesos, if you know what I mean.  A decisive dash for dollars.  A bigger buttload of bucks.  (Smiling winsomely) . . . hey, this Christmas, if there’s no cash-y, there’s no creche-y!

Staff of 19:  [collectively, aggrandizingly]  Hahahahaha! 

Advisory Accountant:  Projecting out current trends, it is a distinct possibility that we’ll have to cut 25-35% on holiday expenditures.  The issue, if you ask me, is accountability.  Everyone’s concerned about privacy and identity theft, so donation practices are more private then ever.  I mean, how can the left hand know what the right hand is doing if all the giving is done on an app in the privacy of one’s home?  That doesn’t make a good impression on visitors . . . and what are the pastors supposed to think when the plate is passed through the pews and only 40-50% of the parishioners are dropping in cash and checks?  We need more accountability!

Pastor Being:  Based on A.A.’s recommendation, I support the notion of accountability.  Something doesn’t smell right about the left hand and right hand thing there . . . I’m not sure why . . . but I agree that the impression left when fewer hands touch the collection plates is a downer.

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Growth class last semester that if funds are being contributed by less than 75% of the membership, there is less than a 25% chance of growth during the next two quarters.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, P.I.  We definitely need a steady growth rate if we’re going to break ground next year on the new office annex, and if we don’t increase the rate, we can kiss the organ loft and pastor bonuses goodbye.  

Staff of 19:  [Collective sigh and downcast countenances]

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Methods class last fall that organs and choirs . . .

Pastor Being:  [interrupting]  For the moment, we can’t expect to have much esprit de corps unless we all have a shared sense of everyone else’s giving.  You know, like the workplace that displays a United Way contributions thermometer, coloring in the increasing level as it moves toward the goal. . . . 

Staff of 19:  [collectively]  Hahaha! 

P.B. [continuing] I’ve been wondering about those internet-savvy hipsters, working in tech companies and carrying the latest devices.  How do we know if they’re contributing regularly?  

Lead Tech Pastor:  Some of them might have encryption devices, or they might know how to disable our spyware so we can’t track their use of our new donation app.  For the run-of-the-mill donor, we are working on flash projection, using the robotics we use with the cams for the worship team.  When the team is taking a break, we can live-stream the contribution amounts in real-time, moving the screen down the row on the robotic arms in sync with the collection plate.  Later on, we can add the number of new donation app users as a sort of soft incentive.

Pastoral Accountant:  Studies have shown that people feel more obligated to give if everyone around them is giving.

GenX Involvement Pastor:  Seriously?  We’re going to make people feel uncomfortable?  I guess so, if we have to.

Creativity Pastor:  I was talking to the Pastoral Accountant after I saw the contribution figures last Sunday—thank goodness for our lay accountancy team that counts the money during worship.  Anyway, the P.A. and I both think we need to develop a card or some object that everyone who contributes online can drop into the collection plate on Sundays.  It would be symbolic, but it would increase the pressure on others to donate, too.

Pastoral Accountant:  Absolutely.  I think it should be a card that says “I give electronically.”  A card is heavy, so the sound of them being dropped into the plates will add sonic stimuli.  An additional benefit of a card would be that it gives the lay accountancy team something more to count, and that makes them feel more involved, and then they’ll probably give more money, too.  

Pastor Being:  What biblical passages can you think of that support such a card?

Biblically Learned, Subservient Pastor:  Hmm.  None, really.  Not even a principle that I know of.  Come to think of it, not even 1 Corinthians 16 . . . 

Pastor B:  [interrupting] Well, we can keep researching that.  Surely there’s something. . . .

Devoted Sheep among the Staff:  There is another way, you know.  Has anyone read about Francis Chan’s new movement? Check this out.  According to this report, “Chan leads a house church movement in San Francisco called We Are Church.  There are currently 14 to 15 house churches, he said, and 30 pastors (two pastors per church) — all of whom do it for free.  Each church is designed to be small so it’s more like family where members can actually get to know one another, love one another and make use of their gifts.”

Pastor Being:  [Never having considered a simpler, less costly way]  That seems sort of pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Assistant Pastoral Advisory Accountant:  You can’t be serious, little follower-sheep!!  What would that kind of model do to our cash flow and our end-of-decade projections?  We would experience more decline in our contribution income, and we would default on our installment notes.  Two or three banks would accelerate the balances on our loans.  We’d probably have to tap into our investment funds—or worse, go into hock with HQ.  The tax returns would be a nightmare!  Who would want to consult for us next quarter or serve as our independent auditors if we’re right around the corner from filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy??!

Pastor Being:  [continuing and calming the others]  Okay, okay. . . .  We all know we have this wonderful facility, and we’re not going to lose it just yet.  You know what?  Look around you.  There are some really well-to-do people in our immediate vicinity.  I see no reason the Lord wouldn’t want us to reach out to them just as much as to the lower classes. 

To inspire and to impress—our twofold mission.  We as a pastoral staff do the inspiring, and that impresses our parishioners to the point that they in turn are inspired to impress all those around them by giving more.  Everyone is inspired by all the giving, and more giving is the result of that, and that surely impresses our visitors and God, too.

All:  Amen.

P.B.:  All right, it’s settled then.  Let’s develop these contribution cards and roll them out in first month of the fourth quarter.  Then we can engage independent teams of auditors and church growth consultants to study the effects on cash flow and institutional involvement. . . .


For the complete blog referred to by “Devoted Sheep among the Staff” above, click here.

For a prior blog specifically about e-giving, click here.  Near the bottom are two additional links to posts about 1Cor 16:1-2, often cited in support of Christian contributions to churches.

Annnnd . . . I had last written about contributions and tithing in institutional churches here.  That piece was a protracted tearing-apart of a very poorly done brochure.  At the end, I expressed that I hoped I had the restraint, when coming on this topic again, merely to refer to that post.  Unfortunately, the sighting of the cards above brought the topic back, and I was compelled to speak against it.


¹ RLSC:  Reformed Large Swanky Church

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.