Hollow Words and Hellions

So, I was in the grocery store this morning and something occurred to me, right there beside the bacon and boudain.  As I watched a mother with her young son dance the Tango, it occurred to me that both were clearly out of step.

It dawned on me that many parents teach, what could be called, the “countdown to obedience.”  A child is told to do something, and he declines to obey.  The parent repeats the reprimand.  The child just stands there.  Then the parent says something like, “I’m going to count to three…”  And so it begins, T-minus and counting.  This is not teaching obedience; it is teaching math.  And then if the parent is really a pushover, he moves into teaching fractions.  “Two and a half…”  But what has changed between the command and three?  Nothing.

The child knows exactly when the point of enforcement will (or will not) come.  Sometimes it is when the parent actually gets to three.  Sometimes it is when a certain tone or decibel level get’s into Mom’s voice.  Sometimes it is when the parent uses the child’s full name, middle name and all.  But the thing that teaches is the discipline in association with a particular tone or shriek.  The word by itself is hollow.

Some Assembly Required

“Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’.  

Me and Jesus got it all worked out. 

Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’ .  

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.”  

      ~Tom T. Hall

Perhaps no subject in Christendom evokes more indignation (and indigestion) than does the subject of Christian worship.  Knowing full well the dangers that this discussion involves and being of a sound mind and body, I jump headlong into the fray.  I come armed with olive branches but some will scarcely notice.  Some will only notice that I am, in fact, armed.  Then all bets are off.  It’s every man for himself.  I have sometimes quipped (yes, I sometimes quip) that my “life verse” should probably be Psalm 120:7, “I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war!”  

So, for the Queen and Old England, it’s onward to the trenches.  Here goes.  Christianity is a religion, not a relationship.  I am aware that dem’ be fightin’ words.  You’re probably already looking at your screen rather squinty-eyed.  8 words just raised your blood pressure by 80 points.  Please relax and breathe normally.  Give me a few moments to explain myself just a bit.

I break out in hives over most anything that ends in –ism.  A great deal of trouble is contained in that little suffix.  There is nothing wrong with piety, for example, but pietism has caused no end of grief.  So it is with individualism.  Now, when I speak of individualism I am not dismissing the importance of individuals—after all, we go to heaven or hell by ones.  Individualism is that cognitive disfunction which results in taking each individual and treating them, not as a man or a woman created in the image of God, but rather as a self-contained epistemology.

Don’t blame me, Descartes started it!  The rationalist philosopher was seeking to find an absolute kind of certainty, the kind that was indubitable.  He imagined that the best way to do this was to do some real dubiting (that’s doubting in philosophish).  Radical doubt, he said, can get to everything except the fact that I am doubting.  That cannot be doubted.  If I doubt that I am doubting, then I actually am doubting.  In order to doubt then I must be!  It’s like the philosophy student who asked his professor, “How do I know that I really exist?”  To which the professor replied, “Who wants to know?”  The Self, in Descartes’ thinking, was the ground of ultimate certainty.  His epistemic system was completely reliant upon an anthropocentric point of origin.

It didn’t take long for this leaven to work its way throughout the whole loaf of Christendom.  Those who were more “liberal” began to exalt a form of rationalism that viewed the Scriptures as being beneath, and therefore subservient to,  human intellect.  Those who were more “conservative” began elevating their experiences over sound exegesis.  All in all, it’s the same whore, different dress.  By the time Chuck G. Finney came along, this notion had metastasized to the point where God was not even necessary for the churches to function.  No unction necessary, apparently.

Multiply that by, say, a large number and you’re getting close to where we are today.  The result is that now we have this vice that we see as a virtue—our individualism.  Those kinds of virtues are the hardest things in the world to repent of.  Jesus taught that swindling tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to the kingdom of God than the hypocrite because they knew they had a problem.  But the Pharisees, full of hot air which they mistook for the Spirit of God, were confident of their own righteousness.  Since they were in fact unrighteous, that confidence was sorely misplaced.

The sin that has us by the throat is the sin of individualism.  It has us by the throat because we see it as a virtue.  It is, in point of fact, a most vicious vice.  By its very definition individualism causes us to be self-centered.  Self-centeredness cannot and will not submit.  When there is no submission, strife breaks out.  When strife breaks out, preachers get “run’d oft.”  In congregational churches (read ‘Baptist’), people start lobbying for the congregational meeting where the “split and seize” will take place.  Presbyterians, on the other hand, adjudicate every dog fight up to the General Assembly, followed by a church split.  The Baptists are far more efficient and have the church split right away—and with far less paperwork.  Why?  Individualism.

This canker sore is the basic assumption that underlies most modern Bible-reading.  For example, Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to a church, but countless quiet times have taught us all to regard it as “a message just for me.”  “How should I behave today?  What should I do tomorrow?”  Instead of seeing Scripture as a most holy collection of the church’s covenant documents, we tend to see it as a grab-bag of inspirational quotes for personal victorious living, and the original covenant community be hanged.  Heavenly Flintstone vitamins…

Having said so much against individualism, it is important to note that a corporate, covenantal understanding of Scripture does not exclude personal faithfulness; rather, it requires it.  One author is fond of saying, “It’s impossible to make a good omelette with rotten eggs.”  So, nothing written here should be taken as a disparagement of personal faithfulness.  On the flip side, all the good eggs in the world do not necessitate that someone make an omelette.

Someone will surely jump right up and down and ask, “But isn’t Christianity personal?  Did not Jesus die for me?”  Of course Christianity is personal.  But when did personal come to mean private?  Jesus died for me but he did not do so in a corner.  He also died for an incalculable number of other wretches as well.

Christianity is a religion; a very personal and very public religion.  We must stop thinking in self-centered, individualistic categories.  Christianity is covenantal.  It is communal.  It is the Church, the Body of Christ with its many members, the Vine and its numerous Branches, mountains of salt and innumerable rays of light, the Family of God, a City set on a hill, the General Assembly, and much, much more.  Christianity is nothing if not public and societal.  It doesn’t exist apart from the Church.  To quote Calvin, who quoted Cyprian, “No man can have God as his Father if he has not the Church as his Mother.”  Paul gets in on the action too.  “Jerusalem above is free.  She is the mother of us all.”

More to follow…

An Apple a Day

“A word fitly spoken is like an apple of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)”

Words are what make the world go round.  Literally.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that “…the worlds were framed by the word of God (Heb. 11:3).”  God whispered and worlds leaped into existence.  There was nothing then there was something.  Two short, stabbing syllables did that.  Words are potent things.

History is a contingency that hangs on a word.  “By Him all things consist; He upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). This divine conversation is the glue that holds the galaxy together.  As Francis Schaeffer has noted, “He is there and He is not silent.”  If He were silent we would not exist.

However, emphasis must be placed on the trinitarian nature of this conversation. This is not the mumbling monologue of a monad; this is the perichoretic dialogue of Trinity in unity. “God spoke,” is an explicit trinitarian statement. This is no mere tautology; this is fundamental theology. “God breathed out the Word.”  That’s how divine speech occurs. Note the principle parts of this speech-act: theos, pneuma, and logos.  Thus, creation, revelation, incarnation, inspiration, resurrection, salvation, and re-creation are all “Word-events.”  In short, the Triune God deals in words.

Since words are so inextricably tied to who God is and all that God does, it must be said that one cannot love God and despise words.  I love words because I love the Word.  Words convey to us the genius, the grace, and the glory of God.  This is why I so enjoy reading books.  There are words everywhere!  There are big words, small words, easy words, hard words, funny words, sad words, good words and even bad words. But you should be careful when you pick up a book.  It just might change you.  You may be made to feel more deeply, to think more critically, to speak more intelligently, and to live more productively. Words have that type of effect on folk.  They stir the heart, sharpen the intellect, thrill the soul, and instruct the hands.  You may become a “thinking thing”( to borrow the technical, philosophical jargon of Descartes). Some argue that there is no virtue or value in reading and writing but they can’t seem to do it without words.  It seems that one can’t even have a decent disagreement without words.

So read. Write. Speak.  We are most like the Lord who made us when we learn to use the great gift of language that was bequeathed to us to create and recreate.  Through our words we share love and laughter.  Through our words we even create new life, as the gospel goes forth from our lips and from our fingertips. The trees of the forrest don’t sing or write poetry.  The cattle of the field publish no great works of literature.  Gorillas don’t write side-splitting comedies.  Words are a treasure given principally to men.  If you don’t like to read then learn.  If you can’t write well then learn.  If you are a poor speaker then become a better speaker.  The most offensive thing you can do to the Giver of good gifts is refuse to open and enjoy them.

Read. Write. Speak.  Use your words.

The Curious Case of the Ubiquitous Hypocrite

There are few things that I can think of that are worse than having had a bad time at church (root canals, urinary tract infections and bad meals are right at the top though).  Unfortunately though, it seems as though most non-Christians have had some pretty awful experiences with the church.  This has led to what is, perhaps, the greatest obstacle for the modern evangelist.  To be clear, when I use the term “evangelist” I do not have in mind the high-powered, hot-gospeler, gypsy type with laminate business cards and a briefcase filled with all five of his best sermons.  I mean the kind of evangelist that the Bible is acquainted with.   The sincere disciple of Jesus who is doing his best to increase his tribe (other sincere disciples of Jesus).  Whenever this earnest lady or gent tries to urge some wayward soul to look away from themselves and look to Christ for life they find that the unbelievers have someone that always seem to be obstructing their view from the loveliness of Jesus…the hypocrite.

For many such unbelievers, the persistent problem of the perpetual phony in the church seems to be an insurmountable one.  To their minds, hypocrisy reveals Christianity for what it really is—a total sham.  Christianity seems to them to be a broad collection of sanctimonious liars tied together in fellowship with a common set of bogus beliefs and superficial (if not self-righteous) platitudes, which are promptly forgotten as soon as the car door slams shut in the church parking lot.

Herein lies the problem.  There are hypocrites in the church.  We have all seen instances of real hypocrisy.  What are we to make of it when pastors run off with other men’s wives, when scandal surrounds the mishandling of church finances by certain members, or even when someone with a “Jesus is Lord” bumpersticker gives another driver twenty-percent of a wave?  All of these people identify themselves as Christians. Why should any self-respecting non-Christian want to be like them?

The short answer is that the non-believer should continue is his desire to not be like them.  The Bible speaks with an imperfect tenderness when it comes to the hypocrite.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matthew 23:27-28).

If one examines this passage, as well as all of the other passages dealing with hypocrisy, one finds that hypocrisy is universally and roundly condemned.  No where does God praise the hypocrite.  No where does God encourage the fakes to keep it up.  When Christ said that his followers were the light of the world, this did not mean that they were to shine the world on.

God and the hypocrite are on opposite sides.  God is utterly and totally opposed to the hypocrite and hypocrisy is opposed to God. So, what does this mean for the unbeliever who has the hypocrite as his greatest excuse to not serve Christ and submit to the rule of his kingdom?  What is the unbeliever actually doing when he wields the “problem of the hypocrite (sometimes even a phantom menace)?”  He is refusing to serve God, continuing to oppose God, because the hypocrite also is opposing God! He continues to stay away from God because he dislikes how the hypocrite stays away from God. He hates the hypocrite so he stand shoulder to shoulder with him. Facepalm…

This is like a citizen of one country refusing to become a citizen of another country because it is infested with spies from his homeland.  Should we really applaud when someone refuses to join the other side because of obnoxious things people on his own side are doing?  Of course not.  If there is a hypocrite between an individual and God, then obviously that individual is too far away from God.  Like two drowning swimmers clutching at each other, both will sink under the judgment and wrath of God.

Hypocrisy does present a problem for the church, but it is the same kind of pastoral problem as those which result from other sins among the members of the church.  It is a disciplinary problem.  It is not a problem for Christian apologetics at all.

What do we do with these brigands? Well, we have to limit our answer to real hypocrites who have manifested their wickedness and have been exposed in their hypocrisy.  We do not have any “cardio analytic” abilities.  It is not our job to divine the spiritual experiences of others by reading the tea leaves of their hearts.  The Lord Jesus has given his people no warrant to attempt to peer into the depths of the soul.  The pretense of being able to do so is itself a species of hypocrisy.  So then, what is to be done with someone who has made an open profession of faith in Jesus Christ and has an equally open problem with sin?  The biblical answer to this question is formal church discipline.  Such a person must be put outside of the church where he belongs.  Under such discipline, he must be sent out to join his brothers in rebellion—those who refuse to come to Christ because of “all the hypocrites in the church.”

The non-believer who is considering Christianity must avoid taking his view from charlatans and scoundrels.  He must be urged to consider the Christian gospel only when it is presented in a way faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures.  He must be presented with a gospel that saves completely from everything false.  Whether the falsehood be false thinking or false living.   This is what the gospel of Jesus Christ can and will do.