Category Archives: Discussion

Linguistics and Interpretation

8:15 AM I’m taking a scheduled break from writing. (Okay, okay, so I didn’t really schedule in this break. I’m really a pretty spontaneous guy.) Anyhow, I’ve got a couple of thoughts roaming around in my brain right now — not that there’s anything earth-shattering about them. First of all, I argued in our LXX class this week that if anyone should be interested in linguistics — the art and science of how language works — it should be students of the Bible, and especially students of the biblical languages. Not all would agree, of course. To some, linguistics remains a “secular” science, one that can hardly be “evangelicalized.” Not surprisingly, I’ve been taken to task for suggesting that biblical scholars have much to gain from the science of linguistics. But when I study Paul, I do not see him despising or excluding the world of creation from his theology. A dualistic tension between faith in God and the scientific perception of the nature of creation has no place in his thinking. God was responsible for creating heaven and earth, and He made all things good (Gen 1:31). Far from being a threat to modern exegesis, I believe the facts show that the immense problems facing modern exegetes are sometimes best resolved when they are treated from a linguistic point of view. The discourse structure/theme of Philippians is a case in point (see my Novum Testamentum essay called The Discourse Structure of Philippians: A Study in Textlinguistics). Hence Paul’s juxtaposition of worldly and divine wisdom in 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16 need not be construed as a contrast between faith and reason. What Paul is fighting against in this passage is not science per se but man-made religion and hubris. Translated into modern diction, though all human endeavors can clearly become futile and hostile to the honor of God, they are not necessarily evil.  I’d like to think that my students would be open to learning a thing or two from modern linguistic science. If you would like to as well, there are a number of places where you can start. My own Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek will give you a basic overview of the field, while Logos has bundled numerous resources that will help you dig a bit deeper (Studies in New Testament Greek). If you take me for Greek 3, we take a linguistic approach to exegesis and work though some of the major works in the field. Steve Runge’s On eclecticism in linguistics is also very helpful. Listen, some trends in biblical studies, like some fashion trends, are questionable. I suspect that you, like me, are cautious about new approaches to anything. Still, there’s some good work being done today by New Testament scholars in the field of linguistics, and I’m fairly sure you can benefit from being exposed to it.

Alright, now let’s talk about the letter to the editor that’s been making the rounds on the ‘net. You can read about it here. The letter gives a very realistic glimpse into a slice of America many people are perhaps unfamiliar with. The only question I would ask is, Do we see the face of Jesus in the homeless and refugee population (Matt. 25:34-36)? Few things capture the spirit of Christ better than the way we welcome the stranger into our midst. After all, God is a God who is beautiful not because He’s cutesy and looks like Santa Claus. He’s beautiful because He adopts into His family His enemies and then lovingly transforms them from the inside out. Personally, I think I’ve had enough of cries for vengeance/caution/national security to last me for at least a couple of million years. Let’s try taking the teachings of Jesus seriously and loving our enemies and then watch what God can do. If you share this vision of the kingdom, will you join me in praying for the Syrian refugees who come to our country, praying that God will use us Christians to follow the example of Jesus and be willing even to give our lives for the sake of the gospel? Yes, I know that this model of transformation I’m calling for doesn’t exactly fit the politically-oriented paradigm of modern social conservatism. But if significant numbers of Christians were to engage in this kind of sacrificial service, I believe that the church could have a transforming impact on our culture that social activists could only dream of having.

Anyway … like I said, I’m taking a break from writing and my “schedule” says I need to get back to it. Trying to write a book about my life is not an easy thing, so keep me covered, will you?

And start studying linguistics!



(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

True Saving Faith is Manifested


(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

5:22 PM Today I’ve been working on the new syllabus for my Greek 2 classes this spring semester. I’ve done my best to figure out what needs to be covered, now that so many of our students fail to go on to Greek 3. I think one of the best moves I can make is to introduce the basic principles of exegesis in Greek 2 and then walk everyone through the interpretation and application of one entire New Testament writing. Our textbook already covers major portions of 1 John but I will also be taking the class through the book of Philippians in its entirety. Of course, the themes of both of these books are very similar. 1 John teaches two things:

1) True saving faith is manifested in those who practice the truth (and not just know it).

2) True saving faith is manifested in those who possess a genuine love for other believers.

As 1 John 3:7 puts it, “It’s the person who acts right who is right.” I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize this teaching of John. The early church actively expected and anticipated that the Holy Spirit would change the lives of believers.

What, then, of Paul — the apostle of salvation by grace through faith apart from works? Many Christians consider that conversion — forensic justification — is the climax and consummation of Paul’s teaching. From the study of Paul’s letters we know this is most definitely not true. If ever a person knew of God’s saving work by faith through grace, apart from works of any kind, it was the apostle Paul. His supernatural encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus is all the proof we need. But accompanying this work of salvation came another supreme step in Paul’s life — surrender.  As the objective accomplishments of the cross and the resurrection of Christ became realities in Paul’s life experientially, he was completely changed. In view of the mercies of God, he surrendered totally to the One who had forgiven and cleansed him. Little wonder that Paul always called Jesus “Lord,” for he indeed did have a new Lord and a new life as well as a new service and a new business — the Gospel business. This is the message of Philippians in a nutshell. The same Voice who spoke to Paul on the Road to Damascus now reveals Himself in the blazing light of a magnificent little hymn recorded for us in Phil. 2:5-11. A whole lifetime would not be sufficient to unpack the theological gems found in this profound passage. The revelation of Christ’s humility in service to others can only come gradually, like the dawn breaking over the wide-spreading landscape. Once Paul had surrendered to the all-powerful Jesus of Nazareth, for the rest of his life he served Christ in humble obedience, as did his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus. This is the outstanding need of the church today — people who are not only saved but who recognize the Lordship of Christ and yield to His mastery. This new mastery does not come easily. Evangelical hero worship is alive and well in our churches today. The way up is up, we are told. Bigger is better. Powerful is in. We love that smart jock exterior. Folks, many things in our churches are not fine, but there is only one proper place to place all of our evangelical superstars if we profess to love Jesus, and that place is dead last. True pastors will not object. They’ve read Phil. 2:5-11. It’s so maddening that Christians fail to see what Paul is teaching us here. I’ve been part of the problem, believe me. I wish I could go back to my twenties and thirties and deal with my own ignorance and selfishness and ego. Even today I still find myself having to overhaul my personal priority system. Ugh. But you gotta start somewhere.

Philippians it is then — along with portions of that great book 1 John (one of only two strictly anonymous epistles in the New Testament along with Hebrews). This spring we’re going to cut to the chase. This is where the chili meets the cheese friends. Obviously, this will be tricky business. How do you cover so much in a single semester? The best way is to have the students read some good books on the topic. In addition to Learn to Read New Testament Greek, we’ll be adding my Uncle Dave’s works Using New Testament Greek in Ministry and New Testament Textual Criticism. (I have this addiction for stuff written by my uncle.) I mean, this has got to get done. So brace yourselves, my dear students. I won’t lie. This is not going to be easy. But it will be worth it. Serving others is part and parcel of salvation. What an insane truth. But I love it!

Stewardship Conversation and Challenge

7:30 AM Much appreciation to Henry Neufeld for hosting an interesting and thought-provoking discussion about Christian stewardship last night on Google Hangout. You can watch the whole thing below.

It’s horrifying to confront my own lack of stewardship. “Sell all of your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.” K-thanks-goodbye. Jesus mocks our materialism, at least He does mine. Yet as Steve Kindle pointed out in the discussion, stewardship doesn’t begin with the question of “How much should I give?” Instead, the right question is “How much is mine?” — to which the answer is nothing. Hence, as David Croteau noted — David has now written three books on why tithing is not for Christians — the church still doesn’t get it. The consumer vortex that most evangelicals are (unwittingly perhaps) sucked into is just ignored. Well, David confronts it head on. The New Testament doesn’t require the tithe? Nope, and it never did. I stare blankly at David’s impeccable logic. “Love each other well and your needs will be met.” For me, the largest takeaway from last night’s Hangout was the reminder that Jesus came to set us free. He sees much deeper than what we see. He realizes that everything we have belongs to Him. 100 percent in fact. And so we have to make a choice. We can either draw people to a calculator or lead them to Christ. Jesus, You are the standard to which we all aspire. Teach us to love, to lead, to trust, to obey — and to give (back).

On Publishing

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

“You can probably make more money by having a first-class yard sale” is the way Rachel Toor’s essay Things You Should Know Before Publishing a Book opens. If you’ve ever thought about writing your own book, you need to read this article. The author will regale you with publishing myths, how to boost your odds that a publisher will accept your manuscript, and even “What makes for a good author?” I write because I have to. It’s a virus. George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty Four) once wrote an essay called “Why I Write.” Here he laid out his four primary motives for writing, which were:

  • Sheer egoism
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm
  • Historical impulse
  • Political purpose

In short, I think he was saying that authors generally feel (1) that they have something important to say and that others should read what they write, (2) that writing is extremely pleasurable, if not for the reader then at least for the writer, (3) that by writing they hope to “set the record straight about some subject,” and (4) they desire to push people’s thinking and attitudes in a certain direction — theirs, of course. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” added Orwell — and there is no little truth in that statement. I myself have got to be the most un-self-disciplined author in the world. I write when I feel like it. Otherwise, I’m doing other things. What drives me, I guess, is a felt need to get a point across. Thus Orwell again:

When I sit down to write a book I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

Or, as Gao Xingjian puts it, “Writing eases my suffering.”

I am now 63, and yet there are stories I still want to tell, ideas I still want to flame into reality, myths I still want to challenge, and students I still want to motivate. I do not know of a single publisher who would not honor those motives for writing. But your brain must lead, not your ego. For example, a book idea came into my head the other day as I was contemplating my next trip this summer to visit the Antietam and Gettysburg Battlefields and to do some genealogical research on my paternal grandparents (the Millers of Sharpsburg) in Hagerstown. “Why not write a little book on personal valor during the American Civil War with an application to the Christian life?” This crazy idea was only reinforced when I was talking recently to a friend of mine from Pennsylvania who said he had never been to Gettysburg. It’s true: When you live in a certain place, sometimes tourists have seen more of the sights there than you have. The Civil War is one of the most riveting stories in history. At heart, it’s a family tale and one that is worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy. I entered this drama when I was contacted by the 1st Maine Cavalry many years ago in California to ride with them in battle reenactments. I knew little of Civil War history at the time, like so many Americans today. Sure, I had read “picklock biographies” that did little more than set the stage. Today I am more interested in books on the Civil War that amplify my understanding of how ordinary men and women faced the vagaries of those times so that I can better understand how I can face the vagaries of my own. The people of those times faced unflinchingly the vicissitudes of life and in so doing transcended them. Beyond that, the war provides us with endless examples of personal courage and valor. “Duty” was a word that still meant something, and as I face the closing years of my career as a teacher and writer I have come to see the value of that word and all that it means. Jesus said, “Happy are you if you know these things and do them” (John 13:17). One of the main spiritual challenges I’ve faced in my 55 years as a Christian is being strong on knowing and weak on doing. The head and the hand must go along together if we are to be happy. So says Jesus. Since I was 16 the word of God has been my constant delight, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I entered the fray of Christian warfare, at times taking the Gospel to the front lines in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. I am slowly discovering that there is no simpler way to enjoy the Christian life than to translate doctrine into duty. Some of us who have been on life’s road for quite a stretch grow anxious and worry if old age will still find us useful for the kingdom. We need not worry. We can still fight the good fight. We may not mount up with wings as eagles, but we can run and not be weary — or at least we can walk and not faint. Walking along the Bloody Lane at Antietam or the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg or the Clump of Trees at Gettysburg, it feels like you are seeing what those soldiers saw in those bloody battles of 1861-1865. When the war was over, these Americans from North and South came together again and the nation was reborn, this time without the scourge of slavery. Today, buoyed partly by their example of reconciliation, I work together with believers in many nations to preach the Gospel of reconciliation and to expand the only kingdom that, in the end, really matters. But it calls for courage, tireless devotion, and sacrifice. As in Red Badge of Courage. (Oops, that title’s already taken.)

Now you know how a jetlagged brain works. There are many other publishing ideas dangerously percolating in my mind as well — things “that human lips may not speak” (2 Cor. 12:4), at least not yet. Any academic who has achieved a modicum of success in the publishing field knows that dreams often do not become a reality. But every book starts somewhere, and for me, the incubation period usually begins in the intersection of my personal interests at the time and my personal journey — where I find myself in life at any one stage of my earthly existence. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I suppose I love reading and writing books more than even surfing or horseback riding, which is saying a lot. Let me thank you for supporting my already-published books, and let me thank you in advance for your loyalty in praying for me as I contemplate future writing projects.


Luke 2:14 and Textual Criticism

9:10 AM Take your Bibles please and turn to Luke 2:14  — a Christmas verse if ever there was one. The critical text of the Greek New Testament reads as follows:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας

We might paraphrase this as:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of [i.e., who enjoy God’s] goodwill.

What happened to “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth goodwill toward men”? There are two readings here in the Greek manuscripts, and they are very similar:

“of good will” (genitive case) = eudokias

“goodwill” (nominative case) = eudokia

The latter reading is represented by the KJV and the NKJV. The former reading has been adopted by most modern English translation. So which is it? What is the original text here? In his blog LXX Studies, John Meade has an excellent discussion of the variant. He concludes:

Thus the angels are pronouncing peace to men of God’s favor, not peace on earth, goodwill to men [indiscriminately].

I tend to agree with this conclusion. The external evidence for eudokias seems definitive. Meade takes it a step further and suggests that the reading is a Septuagintalism or Hebraism. This may or may not be the case. But his discussion raises several important questions:

1) If you are a pastor, can you follow this discussion? If you had to choose between the genitive or the nominative here, would you know what to do and how to proceed? If not, why not?

2) Assuming that a knowledge of Greek is necessary to be able to resolve this problem, what about textual criticism? Few students study this area of exegesis. Yet it is an essential part of our task as exegetes/teachers/pastors. In fact, the bottom portion of our printed Greek New Testaments (the so-called textual apparatus) sometimes takes up half the page, so important are textual variants in the study of the New Testament. Can you make an intelligent decision here, based on the textual evidence provided to us by the Greek manuscripts, the early versions (Latin, Coptic, Syria), and the statements of the early church fathers (the “patristic” evidence)?

3) Can the LXX shed light on New Testament Greek? I imagine John Meade would answer, “Much in every way.”

As the God-man, Jesus presented the sternest challenge ever made to humanity. He demanded peoples’ total allegiance and obedience. Here Luke reminds us that “peace” is available only to those who enjoy God’s goodwill, that is, those who comprise the new humanity that Christ came to establish, the people of God. “Christmas, then,” writes Meade, “is not an empty hope for world peace.”

It is remembering [he continues] how God in Christ actually brought peace on earth to the people of his favor in the past, and that past historical reality is the ground for a certain hope that he will act in the future, that he will indeed come again to establish his justice and righteousness in the consummation of his kingdom in the new creation. “World peace” is part and parcel of why we cry, ”Come, Lord Jesus!” It is not a lament or a gripe to God, as if the first advent of Christ had failed. The first advent brought peace through the blood of Jesus’ cross. The second advent will fulfill or consummate what Christ’s first coming inaugurated.

It’s worth thinking about.


Nomos in Romans 7 and 8

8:20 AM Last night I was having a discussion with someone about Paul’s use of the Greek word nomos in Romans 7 and Romans 8. On the one hand, the term refers to the capital L “Law,” that is, the Law of Moses. This is the Law that was “weakened” through the flesh and thus could not provide what God had to provide through the sending of His Son (Rom. 8:3). On the other hand, Paul can use the term to refer to a certain type of “power” or “principle” at work in the believer’s life, as in Rom. 8:2: “The power [nomos] of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power [nomos] of sin that leads to death” (so the NLT). Paul seems to be employing here the law of contrasts, if we can call it that. The righteousness of God is for Paul a noun of action. It is His power in relation to men and women who do not do what is right and who violate the rights of others in self-righteous aggression, as we saw yesterday in Pakistan with the horrific slaughter of school children and their teachers. Humankind robs God of His rights by smacking Him down in their pride and religious hubris. God’s righteousness is the power to disturb our status quo, to shatter imprisoning conventions and traditions, and to break into new paths of freedom. Where this imputed righteousness through Christ is not able to do its work freely, God then uses the instruments of “law” (small “l”) — including threats and punishment — to achieve justice. Luther once referred to this latter law as God’s opus alienum, His “strange work.” As we saw in Peshawar yesterday, there is a deep perversion in man. Our aversion to the righteousness of God assumes the form of preventing the future of others by seeking to use them for our own present good and security. God uses the pressure of law to get us heading in the right direction, in the direction of justice. He uses the law to cause us to serve each other rather than abuse each other.

Thus God works under contrary signs — law and Gospel. He is secretly and hiddenly working “behind our backs” as it were, and even the greatest tyrants of history can be made to do His will. The law is universally present as a pressure to drive us to do what is right, to give others their due, but this law is not the statement of an eternal will but an instrument on the way to the goal of God’s universal rightness kingdom.

Today the Pakistanis — indeed the whole world — is asking, “How could God have allowed this to happen?” This question has a theological basis. When God declares His righteousness, it takes the shape of a searing and searching light. It reveals the demonic powers at loose in the world, gripping it to keep it the way it is. It points us to the unconditional righteousness and love that were mediated into the world only through Jesus Christ. The church exists as an eschatological community of hope for the world. It declares that a new world — Godworld — is coming into being through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. The church does not exist for itself. It exists as a sign of hope for the world for which Jesus died and rose again. Christians can neither separate themselves from this world nor merge with it. We cannot separate ourselves from the world because in one sense Godworld is already present in Jesus of Nazareth. We cannot merge with the world because then we would lose our distinctive calling as a light to the nations, as the new humanity foreshadowing the future universal kingdom of God. Any dimming or diminution of this eschatological consciousness results in the relaxation of our missionary existence in the world. The church exists as God’s eschatological mission for the world. When, therefore, the church becomes preoccupied with its own religious needs, when it becomes ecclesiocentric, it can no longer be authentically Christian.

The tragedy of our times is that the situation in the world is desperate (as we were reminded again yesterday) but the saints are not. If we were as desperate as the situation, something would happen. Times of emergency call for responses of urgency. A Laodicean complacency will accomplish nothing. So I urge us not to be alarmed at evil tidings, for our hearts are to be fixed on the Lord. But the times call for measures that are suited to the crisis. Just read Tit. 2:11-14. This is what we are here for. By life or by death, by what we do and by what we do not do, whether we eat or drink, our business is to glorify God by counting our lives as His and “losing what we cannot keep to gain what we cannot lose.” The Lord has much to say to us in these trying times. In the hour of extremity I urge us to live Spirit-empowered lives that place the Gospel first. Getting out among the “issues” and dragging in Scripture to support this or that “cause” is something else altogether. Don’t create “issues.” We have one already. Christ is what matters, and everything else — even the world’s greatest tragedies — are to be judged in the light of Him.


Taking the Plunge

8:55 AM When I was a kid and learning how to dive from the high dive into the swimming pool, I would stand at the edge of the diving board petrified of what lay below me. Eventually I took a big breath and — I made the plunge. “Gee, this is fun!” I told myself as I clambered my way back up the diving board steps. But the real heroes of this story are my friends who stood on the pool deck and encouraged me to step out in faith.

I find that learning to trust God for change in our very traditional churches is like learning how to dive. The hardest part is simply letting go of our doubts and reservations and trusting God. Let’s say your church is currently having to decide between take a step of obedience to what the Scriptures clearly teach or else maintaining the traditional set-up. You may agonize over your uncertainties and insecurities, but the easiest way forward is simply to step out and take the plunge. God is there to support those who trust, not in their own security and certainty, but in His.

In this regard, I find it interesting that Paul mentions three groups of Christians in the Thessalonian church (see 1 Thess. 5:14). There were the “idlers,” the “fainthearted,” and the “weak.” Let’s look at the “idlers” for just a moment. The term Paul uses here often carries with it the notion of “not in order, not conforming to the established law or practice, being insubordinate.” Apparently these people were insisting on their own way and were “out of step” with Paul’s injunctions. Some perhaps were also lazy and were refusing to obey the command of Paul to “work with your own hands.” In any case, these good folk had to be dealt with, and dealt with directly.

Now please notice the verbs that Paul uses with reference to each of these groups:

  • The idlers are to be “admonished.”

  • The fainthearted are to be “encouraged.”

  • And the weak are to be “upheld.”

There is something very important going on here, and it is easy to miss. The verbs must match the nouns. In other words, we fail in our duties should we, say, admonish the fainthearted or uphold the idlers. People in rebellion against God are not to be coddled. They are to be admonished (noutheteo). This verb is a Pauline word, occurring 7 times in his writings. It always has a sense of correction, but the correction is always based on instruction. It can never be correction alone or instruction alone. And it is never to be done in a vindictive or judgmental spirit.

If you are a church elder, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There will always be people who will refuse to obey the Word, so steeped are they in tradition, or in sin, or in whatever. Sometimes these people have been in the church for years and years and believe they are above reproach — and correction. But the fact is that none of us is ever above correction in some area of our walk with Christ. We all act against the will of God in some form or another. But that is no excuse for passivity.

Another observation, and it too is vitally important. Please, please note that Paul is not telling the church leaders to “admonish the idlers.” A thousand times no! His exhortations in this verse have the whole church in view (“We appeal to you, brothers and sisters ….”). This means that, while our congregational leaders will obviously play a huge role in moving the church forward in obedience to God’s Word, the obligation to instruct and correct each other is ultimately the responsibility of the whole congregation. This means that I, who am not a local church elder, still have the privilege and responsibility of speaking up when I sense the Lord is leading me to offer instruction and correction, under the leadership of my elders of course. There is no evidence that Paul would have ever delegated this responsibility to the leaders alone.

Now think about your own local church. Many Christians find it hard to obey the simple teachings of the Scriptures. Moreover, they find it hard to accept advice, instruction, or correction from others. In such situations, Paul exhorts the members of the church to speak truth to one another and to do so in a patient and long-suffering manner. Let there be instruction! Let there be correction! Let’s move forward as congregations into those areas of obedience that are clearly taught in God’s Word. Our churches will be happier and healthier if we do so — together.


(From Dave Black Online, used by permission.)

11:30 AM I see that yet another book on New Testament ecclesiology is about to be published. I’m all for that. Every tradition of the church needs to be tested by every new generation of Christians. Does this mean that your church, or mine, can go back to the beginning and start all over again, ab initio? Hardly. Truth always comes to us in vessels of clay. That’s why, regardless of what our convictions are on “how to do church the right way” (and I have some very strong convictions, as you know), the structures themselves will always be relative. Some will scrap the institutional church completely. (I did this back in the 60s when I was part of the Jesus Movement.) Others will seek renewal within their churches. (This is my current stance on the matter.) But the tabula rasa approach is, in my view, utterly unrealistic. Christians can never build a new church from scratch, no matter how hard they try and regardless of how many times they assert that they are following “the” New Testament pattern. Right structure does not always result in proper functioning. “Simple” churches can easily turn inward, relativizing the importance of the Great Commission. Worse, they can become lifted up with pride, belittling the institutionality of the church. I’m reminded of the old German saw, “Operation glänzend gelungen. Patient leider tot.” There is no reason why churches of the Reformation should not be open to the possibility of rethinking the wineskins that Jesus talked about so much. My own local church has made tremendous strides in recent years to adopt what we consider to be a more biblical form of church structure and practice. But that’s not the real issue. By their fruits we will know whether a congregation is practicing the Gospel. The crisis in world missions today is not due to faulty structures alone. Rather, what lies at the root of the trouble is confusion about our priorities.

The Lord has much to say to us today. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). Does my heart respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”? Does your heart respond like that? We Christians ought to be setting the world on fire. Alas, it’s so easy to go from fire to frost, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to pat ourselves on the back over our ecclesiology.


Thinking about the Local Church

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

4:06 PM Care to think about the church with me for a minute? My local church, like yours (probably), is constantly thinking about its ecclesiology. The main question — in my view, at least — is the degree to which our churches should be willing to adopt normative biblical principles and concepts that constitute the structure and life of the church. Questions include:

  • The level of involvement of the whole people of God in the life and witness of the church.

  • How leaders are to be chosen.

  • How “ordination” is understood and practiced.

  • The role of the “preacher” in the assembling of the church.

To people (like me) who deny a sacramental and sacerdotal priesthood, these questions are anything but theoretical. So here I offer a few random reflections. Feel free to respond on your blog.

1) The study of church history is absolutely vital if we are to return to biblical norms. For example, it was the Protestant Reformation that replaced the altar with the pulpit and the priest with the preacher. The New Testament, of course, sees the center of the gathering of the body as neither an altar nor a pulpit but a table. The apostolic church gathered explicitly to “break bread” (the telic infinitive; see Acts 20:7), not to listen passively to a sermon.

2) Moreover, the apostolic church was both a charismatic and Spirit-filled diakonia. Whatever organization there may have been in the early church, it existed in order to promote the proper and orderly interactions between the spiritual gifts (exercised freely). Ekklesia was a body of which Christ alone was the Head and in which each member was a fulltime minister-priest. After the third century, however, the charismatic ministry began to disappear and there arose in its place a hierarchical and institutional church. The stage was thus set for the spectatorism so evident in our churches today.

3) The New Testament believers did not have an abstract concept of the church but one that was dynamic and concrete. They saw it as their mission to manifest Christ to the world by becoming His representatives and by participating in His transforming of people’s lives. Energized by His Spirit, there were aflame for Him, and when they gathered, the members worked “together as a whole with all the members in sympathetic relationship with one another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

4) The church of the New Testament was nothing less than a partnership of grace in which every member had its function to fulfill, without jealousy or competition. Their gatherings were Christ-approved, Christ-centered, Christ-oriented, Christ-like, Christ-infused, Christ-exalting, and Christ-led. Remove Christ from the church and you might as well build a house on the sand (Matt. 7:24-27).

5) The Pastoral Epistles in particular need to be reevaluated. Neither Timothy nor Titus were pastors. They functioned as missionary-apostles and represented the church at large. Centuries later, the Anabaptists and other “radical” groups argued that the primitivism of the early church was normative in every age. The priesthood of believers was to be more than a dogma. They actually addressed each other as brothers and sisters. (Oh, how I wish we could do that today in our churches!). They insisted that Christ’s obedience to the Father should be exemplified in the life of every regenerate church member (Nachfolge-Christi).

6) Finally, ecclesiastical superstars didn’t exist. Pastors (i.e., shepherds) were also sheep. In fact, that was their primary identification. (Can you imagine if pastors today had secular jobs like everyone else and lived out in the world, as in New Testament times?)

So … where does my church, or yours, fit into all this? For starters, maybe we should reexamine our priorities when it comes to church finances. Any church building we construct must be purely functional in nature and should express a biblical understanding of the true nature of the church. Theologically, the church does not require a building. A church building has no more right to be called a “sanctuary” than a garage does. The body of Christ, the communion of believers, is the true tabernacle of God. Think and act this way today and you may well end up where the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century did — maligned or even persecuted. The need today is not to mimic the Anabaptists. The need is to renew our commitment to the New Testament Scriptures. Think of the followers of Zwingli in sixteenth-century Zurich. It was their allegiance to the New Testament (in Greek, by the way) that got them in so much trouble with their erstwhile teacher.

So the question is, “Is this pattern scriptural?” If not, a return to the New Testament may be the healthiest antidote to institutionalism.

P.S. I feel led to make an additional statement as a footnote. I know of many people who would never think of asking the church to help them pay for their summer vacation at Disneyworld or in Europe. Then why do so many of us automatically turn to the church to help pay (or even pay for entirely) the costs of our mission trips? I urge you to put aside money to that end, to even schedule your mission trip before you schedule your yearly vacation. If there’s any money left over, then you can enjoy Disneyworld or Paris. But please, plan ahead. Save if you can. Do not ask the church to do for you what you can (and perhaps ought to) do for yourself. Yes, it will take scrimping and saving. But the money is far better used in the Majority World than in paying for your airfare. I know not everyone can do this. But some can. Have you ever considered it?


Discontinuity Old Testament to New

10:28 AM Henry Neufeld has just posted two essays about the book of Hebrews and its instruction about the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). Someday I would love to have a public dialogue with Henry on this subject. Any way, I have for many years been a big fan of Henry’s and I deeply respect him as a churchman, language scholar, and publisher. I think by reading his essays I better understand where he stands. He cares deeply about the Old Covenant (as I do) and is absolutely correct in saying that we Christians must never denigrate the Hebrew Scriptures in any way, shape, or form. So where do we disagree?

Well, I tend to see more discontinuity between the Testaments than Henry does. My theology, if you will, is more along Anabaptist lines than Reformed on this subject. The Reformers were unwilling to make a radical break with the past. Their churches remained established and the parish system was maintained. By contrast, the Anabaptists understood the example of early Christianity and the teachings of the New Testament to be the binding norm for Christians of all ages. For example, the Anabaptists argued that since infant baptism could not be found in the New Testament, it could not be used in a movement trying to emulate the life of the early church. To them the rite was non-apostolic and therefore an insidious shame to genuine Christianity. However – and this is a vital point – the real issue in baptism was not simply a return to the New Testament pattern. Rather, it involved a promise to walk in newness of life, that is, to live according to the Word of God by refusing to let sin reign in the mortal body. In other words, the local church, entry into which was through baptism, was to be a community of saints. The Anabaptists argued that without such concern for morality and genuine repentance, a slipshod practice of spiritual laxity would inevitably result. For the Anabaptists, only the New Testament contained the explicit teaching of Christ and His apostles. The Old Testament was not rejected, of course. It was simply subjected to the doctrines found in the Gospels and the Epistles. According to Pilgram Marpeck, the Old Testament must be distinguished from the New Testament as the foundation must be distinguished from the house. John Kiwiet summarizes Marpeck’s hermeneutics as follows (I give both the original German along with my own English translation):

Der alte Bund war eine Zeit des Suchens und des Dürstens und erst der Neue Bund eine Zeit des Findens und Stillens. Die Verheissung an die Alten geht im Neuen Bund in Erfülling [sic]. Die Finsternis wird zu Licht und der Tod zu Leben. Es ist wie der Unterschied zwischen gestern und heute; das Alte ist vorbeigegangen, und das Neue ist gekommon.

The Old Covenant was a time of seeking and thirsting and only the New Covenant a time of finding and stillness. The promise to the ancients finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant. Darkness turns to light and death to life. It is like the difference between yesterday and today; the old has gone away, and the new has arrived.

Marpeck’s point is that revelation was progressive and partial before Christ. He felt that the Reformers had mistaken the foundation of the house for the house itself. Marpeck’s two-covenant theology was based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, which taught that the highest court of appeal for all teaching concerning the church was the New Covenant. In short, he argued that the Scriptures must be interpreted Christologically.

Of course, I am not arguing that Henry fails to interpret the Bible Christologically. But I know some who do. This is one reason the Anabaptists looked with disfavor on professional pastors whose support came through tithes in the parish system. (Note: Henry has published a book by David Croteau that challenges the notion of tithing called Tithing After the Cross.) Unlike Old Testament Israel, their leaders were laymen, since Christ’s offering as High Priest was deemed to be exclusive. Their pastors, moreover, were chosen by the entire congregation according to the pattern established in the New Testament (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28). They were supported by voluntary offerings (though many indeed supported themselves). As for the place of meeting, lavish sanctuaries were no longer necessary since Christ had abolished the Old Testament priesthood. John Darby, one of the founders of the Brethren church, encouraged the construction of simple chapels or assemblies with architecture that emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Pulpits and platforms were avoided. A typical chapel was a square room with a table and chairs for the speakers. Darby insisted on sitting among the members during the service and standing among them when he spoke rather than from behind the table. (Henry will recall that I requested to do the same when I spoke at his Methodist church in Pensacola several years ago.) The Anabaptists denied the significance of church buildings since physical structures were irrelevant to God. The buildings themselves were emblems of mere formalism. Large stone structures could never replace the true church of Christ that is comprised of two or three living stones gathered in His Spirit. They felt that with the addition of large numbers of extravagant temples the church had compromised with worldly standards of success. The Anabaptists energetically condemned this “externalization” of the Body of Christ.

Finally – and here is where I’m quite positive Henry and I would agree (based on the books he has published, many of whom are authored by “nobodies” in the world’s eyes, like my wife) – in Anabaptism appeal was made to the plain man’s judgment, unspoiled by the university. Those who toiled with their hands (craftsmen) or who worked in the soil (peasants) were presumed to be more receptive and teachable than those who had been corrupted by the folly of worldly wisdom. Here a certain irony arises, of course, for among the radical thinkers of Anabaptism there were not a few university trained men whose knowledge of the Scriptures and of the original languages of the Bible were unsurpassed. I think of my fellow Basler Conrad Grebel, who studied at the Grossmünster in Zürich for six years before becoming one of the 81 students to register at the University of Basel in the winter semester of 1514. At Basel he lived in the bursa (college) that was under the direction of the city’s leading humanist scholar, Heinrich Loriti (Glarean). From Basel he traveled to Vienna to continue his studies, and from there to Paris. Perhaps the Anabaptists’ attitude toward scholarship was based to a degree upon their work ethic. Hard work was considered a virtue. The peasant who worked with his own hands in cooperation with God’s nature was thought to have keener insight than the scribe with his multitude of books. So the Anabaptists might argue: “How can those who know the Master miss His simple and straightforward words in Matthew 23 condemning the use of honorific titles?” To the Anabaptists, use of such titles seemed the very culmination of worldliness and power. Their message was simple: Let the Reformers cling to the old ideas of Christendom. We will seek a thoroughgoing restitution of the church as it had been before the rise of Constantine.

Again, I’m not sure that Henry and I are very far apart on this subject. Indeed, we share very similar visions of the kingdom of God. Where we might differ is in our ecclesiology. The sixteenth century Anabaptists challenged the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed establishments of their day. (Sorry, Henry, but the Methodists weren’t around quite yet.) Centuries later Barth and Brunner would question the church-state system from within. Why, then, should it surprise us today when Christians engage in responsible criticism of their own denominations? The goal of the Anabaptists, as has often been said, was to cut the tree back to the root and thus free the church of the suffocating growth of ecclesiastical tradition. That this goal is being revived in our day should be the cause of great rejoicing.