the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

the blessedness of unity and the kind of unity that is blessed

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

God seems to put a priority on unity. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer of John 17, that is front and center in his petition for all believers, that God’s people would be one and be perfectly united, even as he and the Father are.

This begs the question just what kind of unity we’re talking about, the answer being self evident already, and especially so when we consider our Lord’s prayer in John 17, along with the context of Psalm 133. Unity is not merely for unity’s sake, as good as that may be. That can definitely be dangerous as well, in a world in which deception and following the crowd, or simply keeping in step with custom is either sacrosanct, or else expected, or at the very least what helps a person fit in and not stand out like a sore thumb.

There is a unity that God brings his people into through Christ, and which God blesses, and is indeed delighted in, and in which we should delight. But it’s not a unity of this world, let’s say some political unity, whether Democratic or Republican, or whatever it might be. Probably many of us are united in things like that, maybe not. But that’s not the unity referred to here. In fact many of the unions of this world are broken down, and shown to be suspect, I think now of such things as reactions to evil which may not be good, and may even end up evil themselves. We have to beware of the human tendency to unite in a way that ends up being in opposition to God, not in harmony with the unity of God, and what God is bringing about in and through Christ.

Only through the gospel, the good news in Jesus, can we enter into this blessed unity of God. This is a Jesus thing. But just because we have entered into it, doesn’t mean that it’s automatic, and we can coast from there. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that our oneness is evident and rooted in a number of ways: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But we’re told in that exact same passage to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are one body already. We’re to live out what we already are in Christ. And scripture makes it clear that this is an important and even vital part of our witness to the world.

We are already one in Christ. We’re to live that out, through all the complexitites and different circumstances and perspectives we find ourselves in. We each have our part in this in working toward a harmonious whole, which is both a witness to the world of the truth of the gospel, but is also central to who we are and what God is making us to be in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.

Paul, a charismatic Anglican

In one of Scot McKnight’s recent books (another good one), A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, in some good humor Scot suggests “that the Apostle Paul was a charismatic Anglican, who was a mix of routine and spontaneity.” When you look at Paul in the New Testament, there is no escaping the fact that in the biblical sense his life seemed to include all that the Spirit was doing then and is allegedly doing today in some quarters: people praying for the dead to rise and seeing God answer, others healed of life threatening and debilitating illnesses, demons cast out, prophesying occuring, and speaking in tongues as both a gift to edify the church as long as there’s an interpretation, or a prayer language, and surely a few things I missed. Actually I like another point Scot makes in the book that the gift we are given in Christ’s body amounts to whatever blesses the body. For me it has seemed to be more in the line of teaching, but the gift we all have is surely as unique as each one of us is from God both in terms of creation and new creation.

What can be missing in Pentecostal and charismatic churches and circles today, from what I’ve seen, is the humility of Paul. And I’m not referring to the showboating in some places which has nothing to do with the charismatic gift (which actually includes all in Christ’s body, but to that later). But there is too often something of the sense of superiority in looking down on other churches and Christians, so that like the Corinithian church who were overflowing and behind in none of the gifts, Paul might say to some if he were on the scene today that in their divisiveness and attitude that others are beneath them, they are living as if they don’t have the Spirit at all. Although I’m sure that in the grace of the Lord there are many Pentecostal churches and believers who are genuinely humble.

According to the Greek New Testament, strictly speaking, all of us in Christ are already Spirit people, we are charismatic, having the charismata of the Spirit. It doesn’t even matter, I don’t think, if we mistakenly believe some of the so-called charismatic gifts (not really a biblical way of looking at this, I might argue) are really not for today. The Baptists along with the Nazarenes, Mennonites, Methodists, and yes, Roman Catholics, and other traditions and believers are all potentially Spirit-filled, period. And some of the Pentecostal churches and believers who advertise themselves as Spirit-filled may well be not.

I will probably be continuing to think on this subject for a time, so I have to hold on to my hat (I’m a hat wearer, though my wife isn’t crazy about that). There is so much to say on this subject. To come: the fruit of the Spirit is far more important than the gifts of the Spirit, though both surely have their place. And what I think a real Spirit-filled church looks like. For a hint, and actually in large part at least, my answer, look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7.

the unity the gospel brings with reference to challenges of our day

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

One of the most powerful arguments for the truth, power and reality of the gospel is the unity it brings to people who otherwise would not be united, and in fact might not get along at all, and even worse. This is because our unity is in Jesus Christ, through whom we are brought together into the unity of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We are created with differences, and the new creation, as we can see from the passage above (clicking the link shows the immediate context) is just as rich in diversity. Those differences are a good thing. What is challenging for us in this present existence in which we “see through a glass darkly,” and “know in part,” (1 Corinthians 13; KJV) are the many differences we have which we may hold to be nearly first order truths (like the gospel, which is definitely first order), or which we consider important enough to be nonnegotiable. Sexual ethics is a prime example today. Some hold to the orthodox, traditional view of marriage, while others believe in covenant faithfulness in marriage, but believe scripture does not exclude opening up the door to same sex marriage.

First of all, truth is important across the board. I don’t believe in “eternal security,” though many people I know, do. It is important in its place, but as long as we know we have security through faith in Christ, and that we are dependent on God’s gift to us in Christ, and that we are not to live careless lives in this life of grace given to us by God in Jesus, then the question of whether or not one can lose their salvation is rather beside the point to me anyhow. The whole issue becomes just where we draw the lines.

Back to the question on sexual ethics. That’s probably in large part the issue: where we draw the lines and why. The fact of the matter is everyone does so. Not just anything goes for anyone, even if on sexual ethics, it might. We need to make room for some differences, agree to disagree on some things, but somehow still be united in and through Christ and the gospel.

Back to what I consider, more or less gray areas. We can and therefore should live together well with differences of thought concerning the politics of this world. Partly I think, and I would argue that this ought to be the weightiest reason: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. The government of this world still has its place, and is even ordained as well as judged by God. But how that is to be worked out in a given society and era is not something I would consider black and white, even while many issues such as the life of the unborn, and medical care for all, are.

This unity that is ours in Jesus is something we’re to keep working at in this life (Ephesians 4:3). Otherwise, we may well lose it, at least in our witness and testimony to the world. To break away in denial of this unity is a sign that possibly the division is exposing a faith which isn’t genuine. At least it’s an indicator that someone, perhaps both parties in the division, are somehow off track in their following of Christ.

The unity that the gospel brings is not some cookie cutter agreement, but rather a healthy unity which includes differences. But remains steadfast in the oneness of God in Christ, awaiting the time when all that divides us will be gone. And looking for more ways we can agree to live with the differences we have now, while also looking for a unity that is based on a faith which is committed to truth in and through the Truth himself, Jesus (John 14:6).

Advent hope’s realization beginning now

And again, Isaiah says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;

in him the Gentiles will hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:12-13

The context of this passage (14:1-15:13) is aptly entitled in the NIV heading, “The Weak and the Strong.” What was happening in the change that Jesus brought was the fulfillment of what was promised, something radically new, and not anticipated by anyone. God was opening the door for full participation in the people of God for all, simply by faith in Jesus as Messiah, Lord and King. Faith was the marker, not circumcision or the practice of the Torah, the Law. Which now would be fulfilled through the Spirit on the basis of Christ’s atoning work (Romans 8:1-17).

In one sense I think Paul is especially addressing the Jews at this point, because the radical change which had come had put their practice of the faith up in the air, the primary marker of their identfication as God’s people, circumcision, now replaced with baptism (Colosssians 2:11-12). So that those who still felt they had to abide by something of the Law of Moses are said by Paul to be potentially “weak” in their faith (but not necessarily so). And those who are “strong” in their faith can (if they so choose) let go of what had previously marked God’s people in their adherence in practice to the Torah, the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. What was insisted on was the new freedom from the old boundaries through the work of the Spirit, bringing in a new order which in and under Christ constituted the kingdom of God, even the church, consisting of all Jews and Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

As such, the Advent hope realized in the coming of “The Root of Jesse” (Jesse, the father of King David) would result in complete joy and peace through trust in him, that is in Jesus. So that they would overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. This would be especially realized in their association with each other, their salvation in Jesus evident, in spite of what differences they would have. Their hope to which the Law and everything pointed to, was fulfilled in Jesus, so that this hope makes a difference now in the present, as well as the future, as we look forward to the completion of what has begun and is going on now in and through King Jesus.

humility in reading scripture

Over on Jesus Creed there is an interesting post (part one of two, so I await the second) apparently challenging Bible reading as being at the heart of the problem behind our multitude of divisions within Protestantism. I am not sold on what Paul T. Penley is saying so far. But I will say that there needs to be much humility in our reading of scripture. I like the thought of one the comments on the post that scripture read devotionally as opposed to formulating doctrine should be encouraged. Lectio divina comes to mind.

What is missing today among too many of us evangelicals, I’m afraid is a high regard for the church both on a local level and at large. And with that some naive understandings of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s reading of scripture. So far I doubt the writer’s proposition as I understand it at this point, that there should be less reading of scripture. But the point that our reading should be more tethered in the understanding of both our local church and the church at large would be well taken.

But that further begs the question, what about all the differences among churches themselves? There are indeed significant differences, to be sure. As one comment suggested, this is not only a Protestant thing, Catholics are divided as well. This is an ongoing issue that can’t easily be resolved short of an enforced magistrate of some sort. Do we really see Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists, etc., etc., as actually divided? Even if we don’t see such bodies as divided, in practice isn’t that virtually the case?

I for one will be watching for the follow up post.