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A Christian View of Politics?

In the meantime, I thought I’d continue my review of Paul As Missionary (Bloomsbury, 2011). Daniel Hays’ essay “Paul and the Multi-Ethnic First-Century World: Ethnicity and Christian Identity” (pp. 76-87) may be the most important essay in the book. He argues that the early church developed in a multicultural setting. The world of the first century was comprised of a multitude of ethnic groups (ethne). So Paul is not just breaking down barriers between “Jews” and “Gentiles.”

He is declaring that the followers of Christ are a new and different ethnicity and their primary identity and group association must change from their old self-identity to this new one (p. 84).

As Christians, therefore, we have a brand new ethnic identity. Both Jews and Gentiles are members of the kingdom of God, with Abraham as their common ancestor. Hence “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) is a highly political statement. Paul lived in a very ethnically diverse world. So do we. People tend to identify themselves ethnically — i.e., in terms of social, cultural, religious, territorial, and linguistic features. All of these elements, taken together, define one’s self-identity. When Paul calls for unity he does so along these very lines of ethnic markers.

Paul tells the new believers that their primary identity, i.e., their major group association (their ethnos), is no longer one of the many ethne they used to belong to (Phrygia, Galatia, Roman, Greek, Judean/Jew, Lycaonian, Cappadocian, etc.), but rather is to be found in their incorporation into Christ and his Church (p. 87).

He adds:

This now defines who they are, which family they are in and who their kin are, where their citizenship and loyalty lies, how they are to carry out religious practices, how they are to live and speak, who their true ancestors are, and where their future hope lies (p. 87).

This sense of heavenly citizenship ” … is a radical restructuring of their primary identity” (p. 87). Hays is adamant: If Christians continue to see themselves first and foremost as Americans or Chinese or Korean or Hispanic or African-American, they will end up “… relegating their identity in Christ to a secondary and subservient identity,” and “there will be disunity and ethnic division in the Church” (p. 87).

Let’s let that sink in. These reflections take us a long ways in understanding the distinctive emphasis of the New Testament. If the social ethics of the kingdom of God seem to be dramatically different from those of the world and the nation-state, it’s because they’re supposed to! Hays expresses a growing conviction I’ve had for several years now, namely that our only duty and allegiance as Christians is to God and His kingdom. It is out of our duty to God that we obey the civil laws and pay our taxes and pray for those in authority over us in the political realm. At the same time, it is also out of our duty to God that we inveigh against any practice or social norm that is inconsistent with His rule. This means that there never has been nor ever be will a distinctly “Christian” position on politics. Good evangelical Christians voted for Trump. Good evangelical Christians voted for Clinton. Good evangelical Christians voted third party. And good evangelical Christians didn’t vote at all. Pastor friend, if you’re going to wave pompoms for Trump, please remember that there are probably people in your congregation who didn’t vote for him. Good and decent people disagree about politics! If we focus our time and energy on politics, we will never experience a unified church. Instead, our focus and energy must be expended on replicating the self-sacrificing love of Jesus to all people. The church, as Hays argues (and as the apostle Paul argued), is a new ethnos — a new nation whose only loyalty is to God, who sovereignly uses our Calvary-acts of love to transform the world into a domain in which He and He alone rules. Confessing “Jesus as Lord” automatically rules out an allegiance to any other person or thing!

To sum up:

  • People with the same faith commitments and values can and often do have fundamental differences about politics.
  • Everyone should vote his or her faith and conscience.
  • The fundamental job of followers of Jesus is to manifest the rule of God by imitating Jesus’ radical lifestyle.
  • There is only one “Christian nation,” and it is the blood-bought people of God.
  • Our fundamental loyalty has to be to King Jesus. A husband who is 50 percent faithful to his wife is no true husband at all.
  • We will no longer emphasize our political, national, or ethnic differences. There is more to unite us than to divide us in the universal body of Christ.
  • Beware of any deals with the devil to get the kingdoms of the world by short-cuts.

God’s people need to be what they are — ambassadors pleading with men and women to be reconciled to God. Blessed are those saints who can see beyond their political, national, and ethnic differences. We followers of Jesus will always be a minority in a pagan world. We do not have to bow to political compromise to win the world. The only way to usher in the kingdom is by the cross.

(From Dave Black Online. [Nov. 21, 2016: 7:40 pm.] Used by permission.)

How Long Should a Commentary Be?

One article in particular caught my eye. In the latest issue of Trinity Journal, Stan Porter asks (in essence), “Whatever happed to brevity?” His essay is titled, “Big Enough Is Big Enough.” He’s reviewing Craig Keener’s monumental 4-volume commentary on Acts (Baker).

Keener Acts CommentaryPorter seems to think that commentators should stick “closer to the Greek text” than Keener has (p. 45). In addition, Keener’s work, at 4,640 pages, is deemed too comprehensive in scope – what Porter calls “mission creep” (p. 35). Porter also seems to think that commentaries should be primarily exegetical in nature. “Scholars who have innovative ideas about related historical, theological, and other issues – and I hope that there are still some who do – should use monographs and journal articles for such major and significant contributions” (p. 45).

There’s a lot of truth to what Porter is saying here – at least when it comes to book size. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The only art is to omit.” If it’s a choice between succinctness and verbosity, I’ll take the aphorist any day. “Bigger is better” may be a mantra among church planters and pastors, but too many writers seem to be afflicted by the disease of gigantism. Today’s writers bore on for far too long – including me (my book The New Testament: Its Background and Message tops out at a whopping 672 pages). So I’m not sure that Keener is the only one guilty of overwriting. In the menagerie of overweight books, one could perhaps include the most recently published “beginning” Greek grammars, including Porter’s Fundamentals of New Testament Greek, which consists of 492 pages. Rod Decker’s has even more: 704. Note that these are self-styled beginning grammars. Part of the problem is what I call “Got-To-Say-Everything-I-Know-About-the-Subject-Itis.” The result is often three books in one: a beginning grammar, an intermediate grammar, and a textbook on either textual criticism or linguistics. Keener, of course, is keenly aware of the breadth of his 4-volume commentary. In his own defense he writes (vol. 1, p. xv):

Had I put this material instead into 350 nonoverlapping twenty-page articles or 35 two-hundred-page monographs (with at least one on each chapter of Acts), this research might have sold more copies but cost readers many times more.

This statement is almost prescient: Keener seems to be anticipating Porter’s suggestion that scholars “use monographs and journal articles for such major and significant contributions.” Keener also directly addresses the issue of length when he writes (p. xv):

… I have preferred to provide this material as thoroughly as possible as a single work, and I owe my publisher an immense debt of gratitude for accepting this work at its full length.

That Keener combines exegetical insights with observations about theology, history, etc., should not surprise us. Keener is a self-confessed “generalist scholar” (p. 4, note 2) who grapples not only with the text but with sociohistorical questions as well. As he explains (p. 5), “While seeking to provide a commentary of some general value, I have concentrated on areas where I believe my own researcher’s contributions will be most useful.” His work therefore “…does not focus as much attention on lexical or grammatical details (a matter treated adequately by a number of other works).” In short, Keener views his work as “sociorhetorical” (p. 25), pure and simple. I therefore fail to see how one can fault him for not being “exegetical” enough when he himself makes it clear that he doesn’t deal simply with Greek exegesis. In short, I agree with N. T. Wright:

With this enormous commentary, Craig Keener deploys his breathtaking knowledge of the classical world to shine a bright light on both the big picture of Acts and ten thousand small details. Students of Acts will be in his debt for generations to come.

I for one have benefited greatly from Keener’s insights into the text of Acts. It’s one of the first commentaries I turn to whenever I need help in interpreting Luke’s history of the church. Keener does a fantastic job of explaining the text in a way that’s easy to understand. Used alongside the “Four Bs” (Barrett, Bock, Bruce, and Ben [Witherington]), I think you’ll find Keener’s work to be a rich source of information about Acts. Sociorhetorical analysis is Keener’s area of specialty and it shows. You would have to buy several commentaries on Acts to cover this much ground. Also worth noting is the fact that both Jimmy Dunn and Richard Bauckham have endorsed this commentary. Indeed, so did Stan Porter (at the Amazon site):

Early Christianity developed in a complex and multifaceted context, one that Craig Keener masterfully presents in this socially and historically oriented commentary on Acts. As one has come to expect from Keener, there is thorough knowledge and use of the best and most important secondary literature and abundant utilization of a wide range of ancient sources. This is a commentary that will continue to serve as a detailed resource for both scholars and students.

I can’t recommend Keener’s works enough. That goes for all of his books. Ditto for Stan Porter. His books are always extremely well-researched. We might disagree in terms of Greek pedagogy (there’s much to be said for brevity), but when grammatical issues arise, Porter’s voice is always a good one to take into account.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission. Nov. 16, 2016.)

We Can Be the People Who Tell the Truth

5:18 PM Hello blogging friends,

I trust you’re doing well. I’m sitting here nursing a head cold and trying to grasp the significance of what our nation just experienced. But first of all I want to join President Obama and Secretary Clinton in congratulating Mr. Trump on his election victory. I also promise to pray for him as he begins his term of office. As President Obama put it today, “We’re all rooting for his success.”

As you can probably figure out, I’m pretty much a conscientious objector when it comes to the Left/Right political wars. I guess I’m a self-described “misfit.” I call myself neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Unlike some of my fellow evangelicals, I came out neither for nor against Mr. Trump. This kind of politicization within evangelicalism is nothing new. On the Right we hear that we are to vote for the platform and not the person. But on the Right we also hear that we are to vote on issues of personal morality and not merely on pragmatic ones. Hence the dichotomy: some evangelical Republicans were enthusiastically supportive of Trump, while others were adamantly opposed to him. Growing up, I was taught that Republican is always right and Democrat is always evil. That, to me, is a distinction without a difference. I think Russ Moore nails it when he says that, after yesterday’s election, we evangelicals are “to maintain a prophetic clarity that is willing to call to repentance everything that is unjust and anti-Christ, whether that is the abortion culture, the divorce culture, or the racism/nativism culture.” In other words, be an equal-opportunity offender. He adds:

We can be the people who tell the truth, whether it helps or hurts our so-called “allies” or our so-called “enemies.”

He’s right. How can we defend a so-called “Christian” America that is hypocritical, homophobic, anti-immigrant, sexist, and bigoted? We can’t. Nor can we invoke a social gospel that ignores the personal gospel of faith in Christ. I believe that Left or Right, there’s an awful lot of corruption in politics. And the best way of addressing these issues, as my colleague Chuck Lawless put it today in his essay 10 Reflections on Today’s Election, is to acknowledge:

I am to be a good citizen of the United States while recognizing that the U.S. is not my final home. I am to stand for righteousness today even as I await the return of the Son.

I’ll add this. As far as I can see, I don’t think that past political dichotomies such as “Left” and “Right” matter that much to the students I teach. Younger evangelicals find themselves operating more and more outside of the traditional evangelical apparatus. For instance, younger evangelicals are more likely to have a gay friend than their parents and therefore tend to be more sympathetic to the gay rights movement even as they reject homosexuality as a sin. Ditto for issues of creation care and economic justice. They’re willing to probe theological and cultural issues that tend to be unwelcome in more established and traditional churches. They’re watching movies like Hate Rising. This means that at times they feel out of touch with the evangelical establishment. As I see it, this is a positive development. What we are seeing is the development of ordinary, rag-tag radicals who fear that both the Christian Right and the Christian Left have been allowed to pervert the gospel message and are determined to speak up about it. “Vote for so-and-so because he believes in Jesus as his personal Savior and supports ‘our’ values” no longer cuts it for them. They view such language as overly-politicized. And they’re not the only ones. Our evangelical “elders” have also struggled to make sense of the current scene in American politics – witness Wayne Grudem’s initial support of Trump as a “morally good choice,” then his taking a 180 degree turn from that position, and then finally expressing his support for Trump’s policies.  This sense of uncertainty and ambivalence is dramatically reshaping the evangelical political agenda in the U.S. In such situations, the church may have an opportunity. To quote Moore again:

The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics. We can hear this idolatrous pull even in the apocalyptic language used by many in this election—as we have seen in every election in recent years—that this election is our “last chance.” And we can hear it in those who assume that the sort of global upending we see happening in the world—in Europe, in the Middle East, and now in the United States—mean a cataclysm before which we should panic.

Moore insists that such language “is not worthy of a church that is already triumphant in heaven….”

The church must be, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught us—the conscience of the state. But we do that from a place of gospel power, not a place of cowering fear. That means that we—all of us—should see this election as important for our country, but not ultimate for our cosmos.

I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The good news is that one day Jesus will win, not only all 50 states, but every tribe and nation. I for one am looking forward to that day. Meanwhile, having shattered the monopoly of the mainstream media and the political establishment in Washington, Donald Trump has revolutionized our entire view of evangelicalism. His “revolution” has shown that the old guard’s influence on the evangelical political agenda is still alive and well. This may well lead to new and profound changes in the way we American evangelicals conceptualize our role in society. I doubt, however, that younger evangelicals, the “ordinary radicals,” will be deterred in their efforts to develop a kinder, gentler form of evangelicalism. After all, they have begun traveling the downward path of Jesus. They’ve also begun reading their Bibles. And that is a very dangerous thing to do.

Staying centered in Jesus,

Dave

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission. David Alan Black is the author of a number of Energion titles, including The Jesus Paradigm, Christian Archy, and his most recent Running My Race. )

A Marathon Plan

Dave facing the MatterhornIs your church up to doing a marathon? A marathon is 26.2 miles. It’s a slugfest. But you finish by taking one step at a time. So here are 26.2 ideas to get you started and maybe even keep you going to the end.

1) If you are a pastor, I might suggest that you stop training for “chief ministry provider” and start training for “chief ministry developer.”

2) Let us rid ourselves of the “consumerism” mentality once and for all. It stands opposite to the “body ministry” as described in the New Testament.

3) As leaders, let’s commit ourselves to discovering and employing the untapped potential that exists in our churches.

4) The shift from the “ministry of the clergy” to the “ministry of the laity” is one of the most important decisions facing the church today. Let’s make it.

5) Let’s self-identify first and foremost as a servant. Only one class of people exists within the church, servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Within that class there will always be different functions, but servanthood is incumbent upon all of us.

6) Realize that the under-utilization of our members is the primary reason why the mission of God is not being fully realized in the world and the reason why there is a dearth of servant-leadership in the church. (Side note: You might read my essay The Future of Southern Baptist Missions.)

7) The “laity” in your congregation is the most bountiful leadership resource available. Use it.

8) The role of the seminary is to come alongside local churches in training men and women for God-called ministries. This resource is useful so take advantage of it. But it can never become a substitute for in-house apprenticeship training.

9) If you are a leader, be willing to step aside and allow gift-based ministry to occur. Your people must be given freedom and authority for this to happen. Clergy must view the laity as equal in importance, as authentic ministers of the Gospel.

10) Recover the spirit of volunteerism in which every member is valued and equipped to pursue their ministry.

11) Let’s stop minimizing the importance of the local church for identifying, selecting, and developing leaders. As much as possible, indigenous leadership is our goal.

12) The most effective churches today are those that are developing a team-based approach to leadership. Collaborative team fellowship is essential to a healthy church. Since all are to be involved in ministry, team ministry will help to flatten hierarchies and reinforce the notion that there is no such thing as a passive Christian. If at all possible, let’s all avoid doing ministry alone.

13) We’ve got to set an example. The process of homegrown leadership is best done within an environment of mentoring and coaching. Seeing how something is done, rather than just hearing how it is done, is liberating. Let’s focus less on telling and more on coaching. Relationships comprise the chalkboard on which God explains Himself.

14) Share openly with your congregation about the mentors in your own life. The first mentor in my life was Dr. Harry Sturz of Biola University. He taught me the life skills of the classroom, diligence, what good scholarship looked like, and devotion to my students. He stood by me, encouraged me, prayed for and with me, and wouldn’t let me give up on my dreams of earning a doctorate. To him I owe an eternal debt of love, gratitude, and devotion.

15) Provide a biblical foundation for all you do. The book of Acts is a good place to start.

16) Don’t wait to begin this process of empowering ministry to others. Jesus was keen to pass the baton of leadership early in His ministry. If you wait for “perfection,” it will never happen.

17) Be patient with yourself and others. The empowerment model of ministry is laborious and time-consuming. Remember: You’re running a marathon, not a sprint.

18) Memorize key New Testament texts and pass them on to others. I would begin with 2 Tim. 2:2 (Paul’s goal was to train, teach, and empower capable followers who in turn could train, teach, and empower their own followers); Eph. 4:11-13 (Paul taught that equipping people for ministry [“works of service”] is God’s plan for the pastoral care of His people); and 1 Cor. 12:12-26 (where Paul teaches that God’s Spirit equips the church with a host of ministry functions that result in an empowered body capable of adequately fulfilling the mission of God in the world).

19) Remember that even if you only duplicate your heart and passion in one other leader, you have doubled the effectiveness of your ministry.

20) If you have a dependency model in your church, remember that it always comes from a climate of disempowerment.

21) Always emphasize the work of the triune God when it comes to spiritual gifts. This is the clear teaching of 1 Cor. 12:4-6, where Paul says that the Spirit grants gifts to all members, the Son assigns places of service, and God the Father grants us the outworkings or results of our ministries. So there are three steps in this process: discovering our gifts, discovering the place where we can best exercise those gifts, and discovering what God wants to accomplish through us as we exercise those gifts in the place of His appointment.

22) We must take the Great Commission seriously. The church is not only a community of those who learn of Christ but who witness to others and proclaim in word and deed the Lord Jesus and His salvation to anyone who will listen. The whole life of a local church is to be one of service and sacrifice and witness.

23) Let’s remember that the goal of all Christian education (whether it be in the local church or in the seminary) is to incorporate the mission thrust of Jesus into all of our students. The goal is for each local church to “offer the message of life” (Phil. 2:16) in a way that people will know why and how they should turn to this new Lord Jesus Christ.

24) Let’s work hard to see to it that “missions” means more than sending money to support missionaries and missions programs. All Christians are missionaries, and all are to be involved personally in service to the world. That’s why I sometimes introduce myself to people, not as a professor of Greek, but as a fulltime missionary. According to the New Testament, missional service is not the prerogative of an elite corpus but the function of the whole people of God.

25) Let us teach, preach, and model the truth that the gathering exists for the going. It is exactly by going outside itself that the church is itself.

26) Let our priority become being the Master’s messengers in the world and let our churches be satellite offices of the kingdom of God. Let every member of the body see him- or herself as a strategic player in missionary work as both salt and light.

26.2) Finally, remember that there is no “magic formula” for getting any of this done — including lists like this one. There is no such thing as “26.2 steps to becoming a New Testament church.” Living in obedience to Christ means, above all, living in daily communion and fellowship with His Spirit. There’s no better leader than He. Believer, your pastor or your church cannot do the ministry God has given you to perform. Following Jesus is a journey that requires honesty, vulnerability, and commitment. The New Covenant is not an idea to consider but a life to be lived. As I look back, I am convinced that God was profoundly placing me under the mentorship of some of the most godly and humble men on the planet. I am convinced that He has such mentors for you, people who will take your hand and work alongside of you for the glory of God and for the good of His church. I sense there’s a movement bubbling up in our churches today that goes beyond a “seven-easy-steps-approach” and celebrates a completely new way of living. I thank God for the millennials among us who aren’t just complaining about the church but are dreaming of what it might become. Each of us has the privilege of serving Jesus every time we exercise our spiritual gift in His power and for His glory, every time we feed the hungry, every time we acknowledge the value and dignity of the strangers in our midst, every time we love the forsaken and remember the prisoners. Empowerment is giving people permission to become engaged in a meaningful way in the work Christ is doing in the world today.

So ….

On your mark, get set,

GO!

Reading The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

6:08 PM Today I started reading a wonderful little book called The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, who is perhaps the doyen of American history among evangelicals today. It is masterfully written and brilliantly argued.

the-civil-war-as-a-theological-crisisNoll tries to show how mid-19th century American Christians (both North and South) generally agreed that the Bible was authoritative but they differed on how that Bible should be understood. Not only this, but he shows how “the Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms” (p. 8). He is so right about this! Indeed, how apropos to today’s political climate in the United States. Biblical interpretation in America today, even biblical interpretation by conservative evangelicals, has perhaps never been so divided and chaotic. Just as the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, so this year’s presidential election is generating a first-order theological crisis over how to understand the work of God in our nation. The church of today has to a large degree become more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion rather than shapers of public opinion. The parallels with the 1860s are obvious. “Had white protestants been following the Bible as carefully as they claimed, they could not have so casually dismissed the biblical interpretations advanced by Pendleton and Fee and mentioned by Lincoln. The inability to propose a biblical scheme of slavery that would take in all races reveals that factors others than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence as well” (p. 56). I suspect that many Christians reading Noll’s book would be nodding their heads in agreement. I’m finding this book a compelling demonstration of this truth. That’s why today you will find leading evangelicals both defending Donald Trump and excoriating him, with both sides using the Bible to defend their actions. For my two cents, I cannot understand how anyone can defend Trump’s candidacy. Yet I want to end by saying that this doesn’t mean that I or anyone else has the right to condemn those who support Trump based on their own interpretation of “forgiveness,” “the God of a second chance,” “the sanctity of life,” etc. I thus have no right to judge my Christian brother or sister in these matters. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they can reconcile their views with the teachings of the New Testament. All of this suggests, I believe, that each of us has to wrestle with how to reconcile the facts of this year’s political cycle with the Scriptures. Above all, I hope we can all remember that we do not fight as the world fights — that is, by hatred and violence (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Instead, we are called to fight this battle by displaying God’s love to all people, including those with whom we might strongly disagree politically. My point is not that we shouldn’t have strong convictions about whether so-and-so is qualified to be president of the United States. My point rather is that we need to constantly distinguish between the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and the kingdom of this world. And to do this, we must be more about giving other people Jesus Christ  — not rules, not entertainment, not partisan rhetoric. I have no confidence in the political system but I have every confidence in Jesus.

I encourage us all to keep the Gospel first. It really is a big deal!

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

David Alan Black: A New School Year and a Favorite Book

Seven Marks of a New Testament ChurchI’m really looking forward to a fun and exciting fall semester, not least because I’m teaching NT Intro again for the first time in several years. The course covers Acts – Revelation, which means that, if I time things just right, the semester will end before I have to discuss the Apocalypse (wink, wink)! Let me tell you how we’re beginning the class. Day One consists of students reading the book of Acts and then also reading my Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – which, I would remind you, is nothing but an exegesis of Acts 2:37-47, eleven of the most action-packed verses in the entire New Testament. Students will then produce a “reaction paper” to what they have read and I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the rest of us what they learned. Thus, from the very first day of class, we’ll be asking ourselves the question: “What does an obedient church look like?” Christian discipleship means placing ourselves under orders. It’s not merely a psychological experiment in self-improvement (along with watching our weight and catching up on our Honey-Do lists). As disciples, we are not on our own. The goal is not self-actualization but obedience to the instructions of the church’s Head and only Boss.

That’s one reason I’m enjoying reading James Thompson’s new book called The Church according to Paul: Recovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Now if that doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist title!

How easily we profess a willingness to do church “God’s way” but forget the first condition of obedience: understanding what the Bible teaches about the church. Thompson’s book contains nine chapters, the final of which is called “Leadership Like No Other for a Community Like No Other.” He argues it’s time for all hands on deck. Alas, “church” for so many today means pastor-centrality rather than every-member ministry. Writes Thompson:

With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) a failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation of the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership.

Bingo! Paul understood what leadership looked like: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” How odd this seems in the face of our sermon-centered lives. What makes the Gospel life-changing isn’t a message or a concept but the real-life person who has been radically changed by that message. As you and I enter post-Christian America and modernism, we understand that knowledge is no longer king as it was during the Enlightenment. People who don’t go to church don’t go for any number of reasons, but high on the list is probably the fact people no longer automatically assign authority to a building or to a man (whether he is wearing a collar or not). And I write that as someone who loves to give “sermons”! But to be a New Testament Christ-follower is to be a disciple of Jesus and not of any man. There are no two ways about it. Church can never be what its Head designed it to be without Christ assuming the role of “Commanding Officer” in my life and yours. This will involve nothing less than a transformed vision of reality that is able to see Christ as more real and more coveted and more powerful and more lovely than anyone or anything our churches can offer us. I know this is like asking my students to walk on water. But was not Peter able to do just that for those seconds when his gaze was locked on Christ’s, his mind set on things above? It is a profound moment in our lives when we realize that this pilgrimage of ours isn’t just about us or even our churches. My hope and prayer is that my students this semester will have the courage and obedience to launch out into the deep. Because it matters. It really matters.

During the Montreal conference a young man asked me what I thought was my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I replied that I thought the question was a bit unfair — akin to asking, “Which of your grandchildren do you love the most?” I confess to taking pleasure in each of my books, just as I love each of my grandchildren equally. I hope others have enjoyed my writings — and not just those who were forced to read them as required textbooks! Still, the question is a fair one. Without a doubt, I believe my most important book is one that only tangentially deals with Greek. It’s a book that recounts the quiet shift that happened in my heart many years ago now — a shift from law to grace, to freedom over fear, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy (without ever sacrificing my orthodoxy), from, if you will, Paul to Jesus and the Gospels. Like an earthquake destabilizing old power structures, the life of Christ crept into my consciousness. What I had to learn was that God delights in taking messes and making them into masterpieces. He began to open my eyes and allow me to see what He sees when He looks at me — a man forgiven and loved, God’s own dwelling place, a man destined to use his whole being (including his body) as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God alone. It seems too incredible to believe, right? But that’s why euangelion means Good News. Because of our union with this Lion-Lamb, we have a new identity, a new destiny, and a new purpose in life. It all comes down to the question, “Am I following Jesus with no strings attached?” Dallas Willard put it this way in his book The Great Omission:

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christian” will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.

As I peer into the past, I see now why God led me to write The Jesus Paradigm. He delights in taking damaged goods and making them into trophies of grace. And I pray that this book of mine will impact other damaged people the way it impacted my own life when I wrote it. I was no longer merely a consumer of Christianity. I realized that if I’ve received mercy, I needed to dispense it. Whether you are a plumber or a pastor, your calling (and mine) is a sacred vocation. God wants us to be like His Son — motivated by His glory to worship Him as we go about doing our daily work, whatever that is. Even if we’re not in what we would consider the “ideal” job, we can still do our best for His glory. Jesus fulfilled His God-given assignment with maximum effort. He gave 200 percent. His one goal was to do the Father’s will by serving others.

My friend, pause for a moment and contemplate the words of Jim Elliott: “Wherever you are, be all there, and live to the hilt whatever you are convinced is the will of God for your life.” And remember, as we do this – as we follow the Jesus paradigm – He is cheering us on.

Responding to the Political Season

[07/29/2016]

Cheerleading with pom-poms.
Credit: OpenClipart.org

7:50 AM Finally, the conventions are over. I am wearied and not a little irritated. We are not a two-party system!

How do I view this election? On the one hand, I reject totally any escape to spirituality that disdains the things of this earth. I am a very earthy man, for God has put me (and you) on this earth for a purpose and has given us a charge we can’t refuse. On the other hand, Christians can hardly become pom-pom waving politicos because this notion runs contrary to the command of the apostle Paul not to be conformed to the ideas of the present world system. In its history, the church has thrived under monarchists and dictators and republicans and imperialists. Hence the need for writers like Eller and Ellul whose writings form a very happy and much-needed counterbalance to conformism. Whether the state is republican or democrat makes no difference to the pilgrim and stranger, for whom no political party can ever be Christianized. Nor would I adopt a lesser of two evils philosophy to justify my vote. Jesus’ way bypasses conflict and provocation. He says that if anyone takes our coat we are to give him our cloak as well. I can’t condemn those who look to political power, but I think their revolt is ineffective as real revolution. The Way is the only Revolution that matters. During the age of Constantine, when the church became the official state religion, political power became a final court. But Phil. 3:20 remains in the Bible. I know how scandalous for non-Christians is a God who demands our ultimate and undivided allegiance. Our responsibility as Christians is to pray for the authorities including those in high public office. We pray for their conversion (obviously) but also that they may become truthful, renounce saber-rattling, etc. We realize that they have obtained their power only through God. Authorities are also people, deserving of the same understanding and sympathy that we would extend to any human being. But for the Christian, the starting point will always be non-conformism (Rom. 12:1-2), that is, we begin with the word of God and the will of God and the love of God. It might seem completely crazy, but Paul is calling the church to “unhypocritical love” (Rom. 12:9-21), which includes love among Christians, love for all people, and even love for enemies. We are to live peaceably with all. I have written a detailed exegesis of this “love passage” (Rom. 12:9-21) in case you’re interested. The curious thing is to see how Christian pastors have (to their embarrassment) fared when they have offered their services to candidates. The point of Revelation 18 is clear enough, I think: Political power always makes alliances with the power of money. And violence only begets further violence. Ultimately, the beast unites all the kings of the earth and wages war on God and is finally crushed when his representative is destroyed. In the meantime, the church is setting up a marginal society that is only tangentially interested in political matters and in which there is no power, authority, or hierarchy save that of King Jesus. As Ellul often reminds us, Jesus is not against earthly power, but He treats it with disdain or indifference. His kingdom is not of this world. And there is still plenty of room on the road that leads to this kingdom, but the gate is small and the road is narrow. Those who find it seem to be few indeed.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

A Mountain to Climb

Becky Black Memorial Fund signI came to Zermatt in search of a summit or two — and, like Terry Fox, the Canadian who ran thousands of miles on one leg to raise money for cancer research, I wanted to give a nod to the Becky Black Memorial Fund, which I started a few weeks ago. (To date, 650 million Canadian dollars have been raised in Terry’s name. I’m trying to raise $25,000.) I decided I’d display a banner with Becky’s name on it every time I summited one of Zermatt’s peaks. You ask, “Weren’t you even a little bit afraid?” Oh yeah. For the first hundred yards or so I always had butterflies in my stomach. But as Helen Keller once said, “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.” (A heartfelt thanks, by the way, to everyone like Helen Keller who has been an inspiration to me.) To climb my first 4,000-meter peak (that is, anything over 13,123 feet), I drew on less than a year of experience climbing the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. After a lot of looking back at the past year, I asked myself a big question: “Are you really up to it?” Charles Dickens once said that it was focus that made him such an accomplished writer. “I could never have done what I have done,” he said, “without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” Coming to Zermatt I think was the Lord’s way of saying to me, “Dave, I want you to concentrate yourself one more time.”

In climbing I’ve discovered something I love — a thing that really turns me on and excites me. Passion is what enabled Aimee Mullins to set records for running even though she’s missing two legs. I care passionately about what I do in life. I really want to do them. I don’t know where these passions come from (other than from the Lord), but I’ve got them. I love teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think being irrationally passionate about what you do is enormously healthy. I’m what psychologists refer to as a “striver.” Strivers are people who know what they want and run straight toward it. There’s something in me that pushes me to challenge myself as a climber, and I just have to go with it. Exploring your passions doesn’t mean you have to go all the way. I have no interest in climbing anything much over 15,000 feet. And yes, it’s hard work, but that’s part of the fun. (By the way, I’ve never known anyone who has accomplished anything in life who didn’t work hard at it. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Before leaving for Switzerland I trained 100 miles a month not to mention the hours I spent in the gym lifting. Still, it’s not about the hours. It’s about enjoying what you do.)

Dave standing on the side of a mountainHere’s my message for you today, good friend. (Yes, I’m in a preachy mood.) Be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your God-given goals. I believe that climbing not only brings me satisfaction but also a sense of confidence. We become confident when we meet a challenge head-on and overcome it. I’ll never forget the day my guide Walter took me to Zermatt’s famous Klettersteig — a vertical rock wall on very exposed terrain. A long metal ladder is the key point in the entire climb. It took us 4 hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet. Focus was absolutely critical.

Many people work hard but they’re not focused. They’re Dabblers and not Doers. I realized as soon as I began climbing the Klettersteig that I had to focus. The focus paid off and I completed the course.

When Bill Gates started Microsoft he focused on one thing and only one thing. “Microsoft is designed to write great software,” he said. “We are not designed to be good at other things.” Being able to focus will help you regardless of what you’re doing. My formula for climbing is simple: training and concentration, and then more training and concentration. The truth is that we all find it easy to focus on what we love doing. When people are lazy, they’re usually lazy about things that don’t interest them. To climb you’ve got to love the sport — and then you’re got to push, push, push yourself, mentally and physically. Mostly I’ve had to push through self-doubt. In climbing there are plenty of opportunities for second-guessing yourself: Will my body adjust to the elevation, will my legs be strong enough to carry me, will I tire out before the climb is over? On this trip there were many moments when I said, “Oh man, I can’t believe I got this far!” The trick is to keep pushing yourself, even when you think you can’t persevere.

Dave facing the MatterhornSetting goals can help us push through our manmade barriers. I wanted to bag two summits on this trip, and I got them both. So even though I’m not a very experienced climber, I realized my dreams, thanks (1) to the grace of God and (2) to pushing. In life it is always important to have goals, no matter what those goals are. My goals for next summer are to summit my second 4000-meter peak and to scramble up the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. On each trip to the Alps I want to set for myself titanic challenges and try to rise above them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not necessarily cut out to be a climber. Walking and trekking come much more naturally to me. But I enjoy new challenges and I think climbing pushes me. Summiting the Breithorn at 13,661 feet was a real challenge for me, but I think I took on that challenge to propel myself forward in life.

50 Days of Easter?

8:55 AM My good friend and fellow New Testament teacher Allan Bevere asks:

On Ash Wednesday we are invited to observe a holy Lent for forty days. Why are we not similarly invited to observe a joyful Easter for fifty days following the morning the empty tomb is discovered?

In one strand of Protestantism there are traditions involving holy days: the 40 days of Lent, the 50 days of Easter, etc. Allan argues that Easter is the most significant of these holy days. If this is true, then why, he asks, do we not celebrate “the full fifty days of the Easter season?”

For me, a Baptist, I suppose the first answer that comes to mind is, “Where is the biblical requirement that I do so?” But such cynicism can often be an obstacle to real understanding. Methodists observe holy days, and they obviously do so for legitimate reasons (at least in their minds). So Allan’s question is a legitimate one. He raises a good point that deserves serious consideration.

My guess is that the current generation of youthful believers is not likely to pay too much attention to it, however. They are too busy screaming, “Why are Christians so mean and angry? Why do they insist on putting Christ in the White House when Jesus used to hang out with lepers? Who do churches spend so much money on themselves? Why do so many strands of Christianity smack of power and hubris when Jesus humbly served others?” If we’re not careful, we Christians (Methodists and Baptists alike) can easily prioritize tradition over engagement. Still, Allan’s essay is worth careful study. It seems to me that a good place to start is Paul’s teaching in Rom. 14:1-12 (The Message).

Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.

What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

Paul seems to be making three points here:

1) Whether or not we follow any particular “holy day” is a matter of personal conscience and conviction.

2) Either way we choose, we are to live each day for the glory of God and in cooperation with those with whom we disagree about such non-essentials.

3) Jesus died and rose again not only so that He could save us from sin but so that He could “free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.”

Believe it or not, this is a matter I want to discuss with my students next fall as I teach Romans and 1-2 Corinthians. Let’s put the difficult questions before our students. Let’s teach them to ask hard questions about why they do what they do in their churches. Let’s stop patronizing them because — let me tell you — millennials are very capable of thinking for themselves. Lest you think that Allan’s question is irrelevant to Baptists, think of all of our own “holy” observances — from the “annual revival meeting” to the “Christmas cantata” to “youth Sunday.” Good friends can discuss such matters without getting put out with each other. Jesus can handle it. When Paul says, “One person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other,” I tend to find myself in the latter camp. And yet I see the logic behind the church calendar. As Methodist New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it in his essay Happy New Year!!:

My suggestion to us all is to live in the Christian moment for the entire year to come— Advent leads to Christmas, which leads to Epiphany which leads to Lent which leads to Easter which leads to Pentecost which leads to Kingdomtide and then we start the cycle over again. The cycle begins with the story of Christ, moves on to the story of the church, and returns once more to the story of Christ’s Comings on the first Sunday in Advent. We are on a pilgrimage with Jesus and then on our own until he returns. His story is the story we must recite and retell until it becomes our story. My suggestion is that whenever we are in danger of getting caught up in the non-Christian moment with its own urgencies that we say to ourselves ‘all in God’s good time’. God’s good time and timing is what we should be living by.

For Ben, the church year is all about Christ, about His story, about a kingdom of God that is tangible, about living in the midst of a ridiculous pagan culture that tailors its calendar to retail sales. No, I don’t think Allan or Ben or any other Methodist scholar I know of is trying to impose a new set of legalisms on the church. Customs are fine as long as we attach no salvific significance to them. Perhaps, in the end, the real question is the evangelistic one. Secular culture recognizes our holy days, but people seem woefully confused about our love. Which is why Paul concluded (NLT):

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating.

This is the kind of scandalous love that drives the world crazy — or should I say sane? Followers of Jesus (of whatever denominational stripe) live by an “others-first” credo that only people who are secure both in themselves and in their Savior can pull off. Perhaps when not-yet-believers see this kind of love in action they’ll stop and ask, “Maybe this kind of love is for me too?”

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

Sniffing Out What Is Real vs Spiritual Smoke

6:04 PM While looking for an Easter Sunrise Service I ran across a church in a major U.S. city that will be serving food to the homeless this Sunday under an Interstate overpass to celebrate a Risen Savior. I’d really love to attend but the city is 1,400 miles away. Let’s face it: It’s been a long time since I went to church for the sermon. Not that I don’t mind a good sermon. But it’s sacrificial service that holds the body of Christ together. That’s just plain good doctrine, by the way. (“Faith working itself out through love,” is how Paul puts it.) That’s what’s so remarkable to me about the messy, mixed-up church that Christ died for. The New Testament church was so basic and so lovely. They assembled for togetherness — and service. Sure, there was solid biblical teaching (there had to be), but teaching that drove the people back out into the world to be Jesus to their neighbors, even under an Interstate underpass. (Just between you and me, I’m becoming a Jesus Freak again.) Give me a scrappy, tough-minded, doctrinally sound AND practically engaged church any day. A church that actually resembles the ministry of Jesus. A church where apathy is exchanged for authenticity. It’s as if God were saying, “Church, do with your ‘body’ what My Son did with His — He gave it away for others.”

Oh how I wish Becky were still here. She could sniff out what is real and what is spiritual smoke much better than I ever could. But I’m learning. I find it strange that the focus this Sunday in so many of our churches will be on getting people who rarely (if ever) attend to show up in our sanctuaries for an hour when we could be exploding Jesus’ love in our dirty neighborhoods. Listen, church. The best thing we can do for others is give them Jesus — plain old Jesus — not entertainment, and most certainly not church culture. He trumps everything. Because He is the only constant in life.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)