Category Archives: Acts

The 9.5 Theses for a (Radical) Restoration of the Church

nbcM9a9TyrfWdcpD9mEKqirFToday is a significant day in Christian history.

On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.

I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.

In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.

And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:

THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.

THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.

THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).

THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.

THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”

THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization.  We are faces not a facility.  When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.

THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).

THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.

THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).

THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).

In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed.  In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.

If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.

Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools.  Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching.  If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.

Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.

So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.

I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.

Here I stand, I truly can do no other.

A (Radical) Reimagination Movement

shaping-the-futureI’m a Christian.  I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.  I believe there is One Holy Universal (or catholic) Church.  You’re either part of it or you’re not.  There are no denominations in heaven.  Christ is not and cannot be divided by our creeds, our labels, our slogans, our buildings, our programs, our clergy, or any other human strategy.

Nevertheless, I fully recognize that we all grow up “divided.”  Every Christian grows up with a theological bias, born of our unique spiritual heritage and special cultural contexts.  We all learn the Scriptures from good men (and women) who have taught us “part” of the Whole.  Nobody has “Perfect” theology.  Nobody.  And when it comes to HOW we practice Christianity, there are countless (and good) flavors.

To be honest, I love them all.  I love the emotional fire I feel in a Pentecostal church.  I appreciate the commitment to social justice by the Methodists.  I value the emphasis upon holiness by my Nazarene friends.  I love the liturgy and commitment to Eucharist in a Catholic Mass.  I appreciate the deep commitment to intellectual Christianity by the Presbyterian and the biblical passion of the Baptist.  I have found solace in the spiritual disciplines of the Quaker, the Mennonite and the Amish.  I’ve experienced nearly every form and type of modern Christianity and find myself in all…and, paradoxically, in none of them.

Personally, I grew up in the network of churches that emerged out of a 19th century “Restoration Movement.”  These independent Christian churches and Churches of Christ have had a significant impact on the wider American church landscape.  In the mid-1800s and, most recently, in the 1990s, no church grew faster than Christian churches (except the Mormons).  And these non-denominational churches still enjoy attractional success.  In fact, per capita, there are more Christian church megachurches than any other denomination. I love the independent Christian church commitments to the historic Faith and the emphasis placed upon the sacraments of Communion (weekly) and Baptism (essential).  The movement’s greatest contribution is an oft-quoted proposal, erroneously  attributed to Augustine, that all Christians should unite around the essentials (“matters of faith”), allow diversity in non-essentials (“matters of opinion”) and show love (“in all things, charity”).

With that said, even the Restoration Movement–which again claims to be non-denominational–eventually carved an ad hoc division or denomination within modern Christianity.  All churches do.  Every denomination is a separation from the rest in creed or ecclesiastical practice.

What some in my Restoration Movement family forgot is that we are still an outgrowth of Protestant Christianity. Our forefathers–Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, James O’Kelly–were Presbyterian and Methodist churchmen. Consequently, we carried a lot of “Protestant churchianity” forward into our “nondenominational denominationalism.”  In many ways, these independent Christian churches became part of the ecclesiastical machine.  It wasn’t the intent of the founders but, in time, it happened.  It always does.

In light of what’s happening in wider postmodern culture, I’ve come to the radical conclusion that it’s time for a RADICAL REIMAGINATION of the Church.  We must recapture and reinstitute the Original DNA and Purpose of ekklesia. We do not gather to sing (although we can), we do not gather to hear a sermon (although that’s a good thing), we don’t even gather to give offerings (although that’s to be encouraged).  We do not need a building or a facility in which to meet (although that’s acceptable).  True ekklesia happens anywhere at anytime with anyone. The Restoration Movement attempted to restore the “ancient faith and practice” and succeeded to a degree, but yet remained committed to the Catholic and Protestant wineskin of “church in a box” (a gathering more defined by where we meet [space] and when we meet [time]).  In this Constantinian wineskin of churchianity nickels and noses become the greatest barometer for success.

In contrast, Acts 2:42 gives the four reasons for a Christian ekklesia:

NOTE:  If a Sunday “service” doesn’t include these four elements, it no longer reflects the Original DNA.  For example, in most churches today the people don’t have a prayer.  Only the priests and pastors (and other important guys on stage) pray.  This is not what Jesus desired nor instituted.

The early Church operated “house to house” and was flexible and fluid to cultural change, even persecution. There’s nothing wrong with church buildings (again, a Constantinian 4th century innovation), but God does not live in buildings and neither should we center our ecclesiology around brick and mortar. The Body of Christ is PEOPLE not programs, it’s about FACES not facility, it’s about COMMUNITY and COMMUNION not a building, attendance mark, offering count, staff hire or service time.

The Church is alive and well on a postmodern planet earth.

But I believe it’s clearly time to radically restore Her to the Original DNA and reimagine Her within fresh paradigms that fill new cultural wineskins.  The old wineskins just aren’t working anymore.  Times have changed but Jesus has not.  So don’t be surprised when He works his greatest miracles using new wine and fresh wineskins.

That’s why everything still boils down to a simple proclamation:  I am a Christian.  I am a follower of Christ.  And I will die for this Faith before I let this faith die in me.  I will not let a creed or doctrine, denomination or religious personality, define me.  Jesus alone is my frame.  And His Mission to go, preach, teach and disciple is my mission.  I will pray like He taught me to pray.  I will sacrifice my time, talent and treasure for the Kingdom.  Jesus the Christ will be my First, my Last and my Always.

Here I stand, I can do nothing else.

Let the Reimagination Movement begin.

The Church is Alive and Well!

ancient_christians_810_500_55_s_c1 

The Church has been alive and well for 2000 years.

In some matters, nothing has changed.  In other ways, everything has changed.  The Church has been reformed, restored and reimagined.  She has survived underground and emerged in fresh cultural contexts.  She has experienced persecution and sanctuary, seasons of ignorance and periods of enlightenment.  The Church has produced some of the greatest leaders, theologians, philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers.

It’s been quite an ecclesiastical ride.  And it’s far from over.

Originally the name “Christian” was a derogatory and derisive name for those who dared to follow Jesus the Christ (or Messiah). A cross was a method of capital punishment (not jewelry or a logo or a religious icon). Christianity wasn’t safe or secure or sandwiched in a box for Sunday mornings only. People died when they lied about their giving (Ananias & Sapphira), endured all-night teaching (Eutychus) and generally lived in conflict, fear and anxiety once converting to this Jewish cult known simply as “The Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4).”

Christianity in many places was illegal or, at the least, censored and considered offensive to cultural norms of tolerance and religious diversity. They were accused of cannibalism, treason and insurrection.  After all, Christians had the audacity to proclaim there was only “one Way, one Truth and one Life” in which to live…guaranteeing eternal life. They claimed their Master died, resurrected and ascended to where God lives. It’s no wonder they were considered fools, idiots, delirious and crazy.

Individuals convicted for practicing Christianity were stoned, boiled in oil, pulled apart by the limbs, tossed to lions, burned alive on stakes, impaled and thrown off buildings. Still, these martyrs gladly died for this Faith and this Galilean guru.  And still do to this day.

Against such conflict and odds, this “cult” known as The Way still flourished and grew daily (Acts 2:47; 5:12-14). For 2000 years its been condemned, criticized, censored and castigated, and yet still draws, changes, empowers and frees. American “churchianity” will (and is) fading, but authentic Christianity never will.

Trust me, the CHURCH is alive and well on planet earth.  It just might not look like the church of your youth, your ideas, your cultural context, your expectations or your religious traditions.  Jesus is still the same (yesterday, today and forever), but He’s not much for old wineskins, religious boats and safe places.  Jesus travels light, dangerous and free.

And so do his followers.  We must never become so content, comfortable or conformed to this world that we lose sight of our Master.  Many ancient churches, particularly in North Africa, used an ostrich egg as a metaphor for their Faith.  Ostriches have poor memories but amazing, 360 degree, eyesight.  They can literally put one eye on an object while looking with the other somewhere else.  With their nests, they retain one eye always on its location (or they’ll forget it’s whereabouts) while the other looks for danger.  The early churches saw this as a perfect metaphor for their cultural Christianity:  keep one eye peeled for trouble and the other on locked on your nest.  Don’t forget where you came from, but always be aware that nothing is sacred or safe or secure.  Jesus is alive and living things are dynamic.  We will also have to move, change or reinvent to keep up with Him.

I love the Church.  I love the American Church.

But I believe she’s losing sight of the nest.

She’s forgetting her Original DNA (Acts 2:42).  She’s fallen in love with American strategy and models.  She’s become a business, a show and a school.  As one of my students well-noted about his megachurch:  “It’s just a concert and a TedTalk every Sunday.”  The American church is losing the efficacy of her Sacraments and the glorious Communion of Her Saints.  She’s enamored with the gods of buildings, attendances, service times, lecture-sermons, offering counts, personality pastors and multi-site marketing. It’s Church in a box and for many the air inside has grown stale, stifling and suffocating. Consequently, all across America, the Church is going from movement to monument to mausoleum.

Essentially, too many American churches have forgotten altogether our Original Purpose:  to seek the weary, bind the broken, heal the sick and comfort the dying…saving them from their helplessness and hopelessness.  That’s why the Church exists.  We are “Jesus” to our family, friends, coworkers and neighbors.

Yes, that Church is still alive and well on planet earth!  Even in America.  But you have to look for it.  You have to look beyond the facades, the facilities and the faces of consumer churchianity.

I love the Church!  I love the American church.

God is up to something in our country.  Something big.  Something bold. Something better.

Maybe in 50 years our children’s children will look back at the American Church of the late 20th and early 21st century with a smile and curiosity.

And possibly a tear.

After all, change hurts.

And new births are messy.

But it’s coming.  Like it or not, tomorrow’s Church in America (and elsewhere) won’t look like today’s model.

As for me, I’m going to continue love Jesus and His Kingdom.  I’m so grateful to part of God’s work on earth.  It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

 

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 3): The Lord’s Snack

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

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Whatever happened to the Lord’s Supper?  

I’ll be honest, communion is my favorite church ritual.  Growing up, my church family took the communion or the “Lord’s Supper” seriously…and weekly.  Prior to each experience, we’d sing a “Communion Hymn” (usually something related to crosses, blood or bread), then an elder taught about what the “supper” represented, why we took it and how to participate.  A prayer of blessing followed.  Nothing was taken for granted, especially with visitors in the house.

After all, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t for everyone.  You had to be baptized to participate…which meant no children…since adolescence was the time for such weighty decisions. In fact, I remember toweling off after my baptism only to be greeted by an elder holding a small tray with a glass cup and homemade unleavened bread, cut into tiny half inch squares.  It was my “first” Communion.

Every Christmas Eve my church held a candlelight service featuring “family” Communion.  We’d share several carols, hear a brief message on the meaning of Christmas, light our candles and sing “Silent Night.”  Then individual families approached the communion table.  On this night fathers served their families (at least the baptized ones) or, in rare cases, a mother might lead.  It was clear to my child’s mind the reason we gathered was to commune in this ancient Christian ritual.

But that was four decades ago.  Today’s communion service means anything goes…and usually does.

This past Christmas Eve I attended one of the largest churches in America.  I chose a church that, traditionally, practices weekly and Christmas Eve communion.  The service targeted the casual, the indifferent or the seeker and so I had no problem with the communion service happening afterwards in another room. As hundreds hustled for the doors to start their Christmas celebrations, I followed another line into an adjacent room where tables were set with trays of juice and bread.  Outside of a Bible verse (non-related to communion) projected on the wall, the atmosphere possessed all the spirituality of Whoville. The cups were plastic thimbles filled with grape juice.  The wafer was small bits of hard bread.  Nobody prayed.  Nobody guided the experience.  No hymn was sung and no instructions given.  People just filed and filtered through to briefly dine on the Lord’s Snack.  Given the night, maybe milk and cookies would’ve been a better choice (would anyone know the difference?).  Santa Claus does better than Jesus these days.

The devaluation and deconstruction of the “Lord’s Supper,” Communion or Eucharist (as some churches call it) has been happening for a half century.  For the most part, this ancient ritual is largely an after thought in evangelical and non-denominational churches today, including those who practice the ritual weekly…or should I say weakly?  Furthermore, in most evangelical churches, communion is served monthly or quarterly or, in a select few, once a year.

The question is why?  And how did we get here?

The genesis of this recent deconstruction is 500 years old.  That’s when the Protestant Reformation reimagined the flow and purpose of the worship gathering.  In the Catholic and Orthodox strains of Christianity, the Eucharist was (and still is) the centerpiece of the service or “mass.”  Every ritual, every prayer, every Scripture, the brief homily and hymnody point to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  The Eucharist is delivered as a Body of believers to each believer.  It’s a commUNION within sacred community.

But the Protestant Reformation reinvented the worship gathering to focus on the Scripture lecture or biblical sermon (sola Scriptura).  Communion was valued but relegated to side show attraction.  In the evangelical movement of a post-WW2 America, the Lord’s Supper lost weekly billing, then monthly billing.  It was more important for evangelicals to sing, give, announce, and dine on a sermon.  The megachurch movement recast the Lord’s Supper, particularly in those churches that participated weekly, into a “drive thru” experience.  One megachurch pastor boasted how they could execute the Lord’s Supper in five minutes to thousands of congregants.  Basically, pass the cuplet and chicklet.  Fast (spiritual) food.  In some churches prayers are no longer given or teaching provided before the Lord’s Supper is distributed.  Just grab and go.

Frankly, of all the liturgical abuses in modern churchianity, messing with the Lord’s Supper might be the most dangerous.  If practiced improperly or in vain, this tradition holds a punishment of “sinning against the body and blood” of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:27).  You don’t see such penalties against other rituals or traditions (i.e., giving, worship, baptism).  The point is clear:  we need to get this one right.  The Didache (chapter 9), an ancient, late-1st century document on church practices, states forcefully: But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

The first problem is this “supper” is hardly the “snack” that most Christians encounter today.  Originally, the Lord’s Supper was just that…a supper.  A full meal deal.  Communion happened in a fellowship meal moment to remember the sacrifice of Jesus through drinking “the fruit of the vine” and dining upon unleavened bread.  A meal within a meal.  This “communion” experience was instituted by Jesus within the Jewish Passover meal, a feast which featured four cups and several courses of food.  Today’s Jewish seder remains a model, although even it’s evolved in two millennia.  Of course, this full meal was open to abuses.  The Corinthians were soundly rebuked by Paul for using the experience for gluttony and drunkenness (I Corinthians 11:17-22).  The “Supper” within a supper is also found in Acts where the “breaking of bread” (or literally “breaking of the bread”) is used to denote the Lord’s Supper as part of their “fellowship” gathering, which included meals in homes (Acts 2:41-46).  Paul states this “supper” is more than a “snack” but a participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 10:16) and something to enjoy as “often” or “whenever” possible (I Corinthians 11:26).

Historically, unleavened bread and grape juice was used.  The Passover feast in Jesus’ time forbade bread with leaven and, consequently, any fermented drink.  In fact, the biblical record shows the Israelites drank no “fermented drink” or ate any leavened bread during their 40-year Exodus (Deuteronomy 29:4-6), in which they would’ve celebrated 40 Passover meals.  Consequently, it’s safe to imply “wine” was not part of the historic Passover meal.  Even today’s Passover seder uses grape juice or “kosher wine.” Furthermore, three gospels describe this ancient meal and specifically state the cup is “fruit of the vine” or grape juice (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).  This unique designation is connected only to the Passover and Eucharist meal, as these same writers use “wine” (fermenting/fermented grape juice) elsewhere (Matthew 9:17; Mark 15:23; Luke 1:15).  Consequently, grape juice and matzah bread are good contemporary examples.  Any alteration, small or great, to this sacred meal using soda, winewater or any leavened bread (which is common today) violates the original practice.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper was a weekly event.  Very shortly after Pentecost, the gathering (ekklesia or “church”) of believers happened in homes.  In Jerusalem, Christians initially met daily, but in time selected the first day or Sunday (The Lord’s Day, Revelation 1:10)  to hold their celebrations, which no doubt included Eucharist meals (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).  In chapter 14 of the Didache, the following instruction is given: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned.”  Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes in one of Christianity’s earliest apologetics: But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.

It’s clear from Paul’s instruction that we operate in perilous waters if we allow the uninitiated, the unbaptized and the uninformed to participate in this sacred rite.  Failure to practice as Jesus instituted this meal produces consequences.  Like baptism represents a “death, burial and resurrection,” our weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper is a sacred opportunity to reconnect, restore, relive and renew our baptism, week after week.

Is it any wonder the two most sacred rites of Christianity–baptism and Eucharist–are also the most perverted?  We need to recapture the Original DNA of the Church.  We need to fully restore the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal for the baptized alone.  Anything less is sacrilege.

I conclude with Paul’s warning to the Corinthians:  So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.  Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

 

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part Two): Baptisms By Convenience

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

Baptism1-600x340

So you finally realize it’s time to commit to Christ.  You decide you need to be baptized into Jesus.  Great.  But when?  And where?  By whom?  It’s not as easy as you think.

After all, in today’s evangelical churchianity, baptism is largely by convenience. And that’s an inconvenient problem.

In many churches, particularly of the evangelical and non-denominational stripe, baptism happens by the clock.  Sunday morning, afternoon or night.  Sometimes on Wednesday night.  Baptisms are scheduled like church dinners, special events and holiday traditions.  In some churches you have to wait months or weeks to be baptized.  In nearly all, you’ll be delayed days (unless you experience a convenient Sunday morning conversion).  Easter Sunday is a popular day for baptisms.  Actually, any Sunday seems good.  Most people are baptized Sunday morning.

The problem? Baptism, as revealed in the New Testament, is hardly a scheduled event.  In fact, this sacred and ancient ritual happened at rather inconvenient times or unlikely places.  The book of Acts reveals a baptism occurred immediately upon a person’s profession of faith in Christ. Nobody waited until the next baptism night, annual church picnic or even Sunday morning.  Three thousand people were baptized on Pentecost immediately following Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:37-41). The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized immediately upon understanding Philip’s gospel teaching (Acts 8:36-38). Saul/Paul was baptized immediately upon being healed (Acts 9:18). Cornelius’ household was baptized immediately under orders by Peter (Acts 10:47-48).

In fact, there is NO conversion in the New Testament (post-Jesus ascension) where someone accepted the Message, believed in Jesus and followed Him without immediate baptism. Why? I believe it’s because of the incredible life-changing promises Scripture connects to baptism (being clothed in Christ, indwelling Holy Spirit, resurrection to eternal life from death and sinbecoming a part of the Body of Christ, spiritual cleansing of sin and salvation).  None of these promises were worth delaying.  Like Larry the Cable Guy says, “Git’er done!

And let’s be honest, baptism in many churches today is tragically more about the pastor or padding the church membership roll.  Sunday morning works great because the preacher has a captive audience and it’s, well, convenient.  Annual baptisms are swimming successes because a lot of people are getting baptized at once and, well, again it’s convenient.  Baptisms fill membership rolls and gives everyone (especially church leaders) a warm fuzzy. The problem is baptism isn’t for the baptizer/s, but for the person being baptized.  Consequently, baptism should never be convenient.  People come to faith at odd times and in strange places.   In Acts, individuals are coming to faith alongside roadways and by riverbanks, in prisons and in homes.  They’re getting baptized at all hours of the day, from morning to midnight. Maybe that’s why baptism was rarely a public act.  If a crowd was assembled, cool, but most conversions (as recorded in Acts and even today) happen Monday through Saturday.  They’re private matters.

The 20th century church not only made baptism convenient but “comfortable.”  Most baptisms nowadays happen indoors using warm water, with towels, thick robes, heated changing rooms and other creature comforts. Sure, churches in tropical regions sometimes employ ocean baptisms (when the weather cooperates), and many churches purposely schedule summer baptisms in order to use local rivers and lakes.  But I’ve heard plenty of old-timers talk about outside baptisms in the dead of winter.  Can you imagine chopping a hole in the ice to access the stream?  And a congregation braving the elements to celebrate a new convert’s baptism?  Nobody considered waiting for the spring thaw because baptism wasn’t something you waited to do.  Maybe that’s why churches today (who take baptism more seriously) find the inside heated mini-pool a convenient, comfortable amenity.

In the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve”), one of the earliest (late first-century) Christian documents on church practices and a work some church fathers argued should be in the New Testament canon, the following statement about baptism appears (chapter 7): And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Evidently the preferred baptismal plan was cold “living” or moving water (stream, river, ocean, lake).  But any water worked in a pinch.  Just git’er done. Now.

Of course the final problem is who will do the honor?

Church tradition delegates baptismal duties to priests, pastors and preachers. Why?  I think because it’s convenient.  It’s easier to control.  A sign of success. And it’s tradition. In many churches, especially of the larger type, new converts desire to be baptized by the pastor (often because it’s one of the few times to meet a significant pastor personally).  It’s also a badge of honor. It’s cool to say “so-and-so-muckety-muck baptized me.” The Corinthians had the same gloating issue.  Ironically, at least for Paul, it seems he did little baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).  Not because he couldn’t or shouldn’t, but rather because he understood his purpose was to preach not baptize.  After all, anybody could baptize.  You didn’t need a Bible college degree, ordination certificate, special garments or ecclesiastical title to baptize another person.  And you still don’t.

In summary, baptism by convenience (or when convenient) is not a biblical mandate.  The Scriptures are very clear.  Once a person professes belief in Jesus Christ they need to be immediately baptized.  No waiting. No delay. No problem.  And baptisms can happen anywhere at anytime.  Thursday midnight jacuzzi.  Saturday morning YMCA pool.  Wednesday afternoon riverbank.  Tuesday night lake shore.  Friday noon bathtub.  And, yes, Sunday morning church baptistery.  Finally, any believer can baptize a new convert.  In fact, I encourage parents to baptize their children, friends to baptize friends, and teachers to baptize students.  Spread the baptismal love around!

Baptism is by its very nature an inconvenient act.  It’s a soaking experience that changes and charges a life.  Like getting married, it’s not an act to be entered into lightly or without serious deliberation.  It’s a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus anywhere and all ways.

And it’s the best decision I ever made.

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part One): “The Sinner’s Prayer”

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

 

5889311_origIt’s the go-to prayer for many evangelicals.  Across the globe, countless new believers are led in a “sinner’s prayer” for salvation.  It’s the moment when the newly converted “asks Jesus into their heart.”  Many children are led in this prayer by Sunday School teachers, children’s pastors and parents.  “Just repeat after me,” says the evangelist, “and pray this prayer.”

Historically, the sinner’s prayer emerged in the 19th century and is largely attributed to Dwight L. Moody.  Later evangelicals, particularly the crusade preachers like Billy Graham, used the prayer alongside altar calls.  It’s not uncommon in today’s evangelical and non-denominational churches for a preacher to close his sermon with an invitation to close the eyes, raise a hand and repeat a dictated prayer silently.  After which, the announcement is made that several “new Christians” are now in the church.

It seems like an innocuous and efficient tradition.  What could be wrong with saying a “sinner’s prayer?”  Actually, there are several problems.

The first problem is there’s absolutely no biblical example for a sinner’s prayer in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts (which documents how the early church operated in the first-century world, showing how people became Christians).  There’s no example of a sinner’s prayer in church history until the 19th century.  Unlike other traditions like baptism, Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, preaching, singing and offerings, the “sinner’s prayer” (as a vehicle for salvation) is both historically and biblically absent.

The second problem is the “sinner’s prayer” could be easily confused as a human work.  It’s something you do to receive Grace, especially if you must “repeat” or “read” a prescribed prayer.  The very act of repeating another person’s specific prayer is an act or work.  You’re doing it to gain salvation.  I realize this is a troubling conclusion but many “Christians” today believe that because they “prayed the prayer” (or any prayer) that they’re saved and, biblically, that’s simply not possible (as I’ll reveal momentarily).  Prayer is part of salvation but it’s not the golden ticket.  In fact, biblically, you can be saved without ever saying a prayer!

A third problem is the idea of “asking Jesus into your heart.”  This is so common today in churchianity that few believers think twice about it.  Jesus lives in my heart, right?  Well, that’s a very loaded theological question.  What I can say confidently is nowhere in the conversion process of New Testament believers did anyone “ask Jesus into their heart” (or even imply it!).  To the contrary, the New Testament states a believer “receives” or is “filled” with the Holy Spirit when they’re saved. Jesus, according to apostolic writers, is in Heaven to one day return.  The Holy Spirit indwells the human heart and is given as a “deposit” to guarantee full salvation when Jesus returns (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; 2 Timothy 1:14; Hebrews 9:28).

The fourth problem is the evangelical proposition, in particular, that belief alone grants salvation (and nothing else plays a part).  The Protestant Reformation recaptured an ancient biblical truth:  we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, in the past 150 years, many evangelical and non-denominational churches took it a step further:  faith or belief in God only saves.  But by that definition even the demons could gain salvation (James 2:19)!

So what does the New Testament actually say about salvation?  How (or when) is a person saved?  It’s a rather simple equation:  we are saved by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works.

First, we are saved by GRACE (Ephesians 2:8-9).  We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor or earn His salvation.  Grace is free gift.  You can’t pray a prayer to be saved.  You can’t do enough good works.  You can’t even repent (change your habits, attitudes and lifestyle).

Second, we are saved through FAITH (Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 3:26Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 3:15; I Peter 1:9).  We must believe only in Jesus Christ.  Salvation comes in no other name (Acts 4:12).  Our faith is not in our parents, our pastor, our church, our denomination, our nationality, our ethnicity or our goodness.  Jesus alone saves us.

Third, we are saved in BAPTISM.  When we are baptized, according to apostolic teaching, we are “clothed in Christ” (Galatians 3:27), connected to the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13); resurrected to life and dead to sin (Romans 6:3-14), spiritually washed (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and, yes, saved (I Peter 3:21).  In Acts 2:37-38, Peter reveals this simple template for salvation:  believe, repent, baptism.  It’s a popular evangelical idea to add “confession” (cherry-picking Romans 10:9-10) but confession is more a post-salvation act that proves your salvation.  Paul’s point in Romans 10, when writing to Roman Christians, isn’t to create a formula for salvation (belief and confess) but rather to reveal a continuing example of what the saved do:  they continue to believe and confess Christ as Lord after baptism (Romans 6:4ff).  Confession is important, but for the initiate a part of repentance. To learn more about baptism, watch this YouTube video I created.

Finally, we are saved for GOOD WORKS (James 2:14-26).  Once we are convicted and believe, then baptized, we experience the power to fully repent (change) and live abundantly (because the Holy Spirit lives inside us).  With changed attitudes come changed behaviors.  What we do and how we live proves our salvation.  James clearly points this out in his epistle.  Good works don’t save you, but once you are saved (belief, repentance, baptism), you will do good works as evidence you’re saved.

I truly don’t know how much more simple it can be.

Believe in Jesus.  Commit to change.  Be baptized.  Then live the change.

Throughout the book of Acts, the best textbook to show how the early church believed and practiced, no one was saved by saying a prayer alone.  No one was saved simply by doing acts of repentance.  Baptism, like the Red Sea for the Israelites, was the Divinely-orchestrated event that separated, sanctified and sealed.  Salvation didn’t come prior to the Red Sea but it was clearly pronounced after Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the waters (Exodus 15:1-2).  Paul even compared the Red Sea experience to baptism (I Corinthians 10:1-2) and professed that’s when he was “washed” and saved (Acts 22:16).

Of course the other cherry-picked Scripture for the sinner’s prayer is Revelation 3:20.  Jesus is standing at the heart’s door, knocking to come if we simply open it.  It’s a nice painting but a poor interpretation.  This passage has nothing to do with individual salvation.  Rather, it’s a corporate call to an entire first-century congregation to repent (they’re already believers!).  The whole church has locked Jesus out of their lives.

In summary, the “sinner’s prayer” is an evangelical salvation tool without a shred of biblical support and to employ it without repentance (which includes confessing and professing faith in Christ) and baptism to pronounce a person’s salvation is error.  If you truly desire salvation, follow Peter and Paul and the rest of the early church:  believe in Jesus, commit/confess to change and get baptized.

It’s truly that simple.

Blame It On Ignatius and Constantine!

criminal-defenseSometimes it’s necessary to point a finger.  Every crime requires a criminal.  Every wreck has a cause.  The past helps us understand our present.  History is a friend with secrets.

That’s why we need to look back to understand a few things.  Today’s 21C version of the Church is vastly different from the revealed version in the book of Acts and the epistles (not to mention the first three hundred years of its history)…but WHY and HOW?

Where did the Church go wrong?  What was the turning point, historically, for a vibrant, attractive decentralized Faith community (as revealed in the New Testament) to turn into an ecclesiastical, political and eventual corporate system?  Well, the answer emerges fairly early in the Christian story.  Somehow it doesn’t take long for man to mess up what God intended.

One finger points to Ignatius of Antioch, a late first-century/early second-century church leader who wrote extensively on congregational matters.  Ignatius favored the idea of a single bishop (elder) to rule a church (some argue because he himself was a disgruntled elder).  Essentially, he wanted to centralize a local church around one person and a group of churches around a single ruling bishop.  A few followed his lead, particularly in Rome.  For example, Evaristus (c. 105) reportedly divided Rome into parishes with a supervising priest while a hundred years later, Fabian (c. 240) further divided the city into districts (ruled by a single deacon).  Still most Christian churches remained decentralized for the first three hundred years.

But then Roman emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in Rome (Edict of Milan, AD 313).  By the early fourth century, a centralized congregational frame was now widely accepted and, consequently, easily assimilated into a Roman political system.  As a result, the fourth century “Catholic” church blossomed as “Christendom” (or Christ’s Kingdom).  Pagan temples were converted into churches. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes emerged.  Tax exempt status was granted to churches.  And the wall of separation between clergy and laity was erected.  Nearly all these reforms stand to this day.

So the verdict is in…you can point the finger (largely) at Ignatius and Constantine.  But I would respectfully protest that doesn’t make them (or their adherents) right to reframe and centralize Christianity around a single bishop, archbishop, pope or even city (Rome) any more than it was right for Israel to request a “king”.  Ironically, “Catholic” (from Greek καθολικισμός, katholikismos) literally means “universal.”   And yet today is known, rather oxymoronic, as the Roman Catholic Church.

For 1700 years, including 500 years of Protestant Reformation, we have missed the point and created a centralized religion.

In fact, I continue to contend the Original DNA was (and still is) a decentralized frame of congregational government.  Power spread throughout.  Everyone pulling their weight.  Multiple leaders guiding the vision and values, doing the preaching and teaching, in a local congregation.  No single individual in charge and no single apostle, priest or pastor more important.  No denominational hierarchy or headquarters.  Most Christians have never experienced such a church.  

It’s definitely what we find revealed in the Scriptures.

As Peter wrote, we are ALL priests in God’s Kingdom.  We all have a voice and vision.  We all can evangelize, preach, teach, sing and serve.  Or as Paul added, there are now no more barriers between race, gender or profession.  We are ONE Body.  The Church isn’t a place we go to.  Church isn’t defined by an address, a time or a program and it’s certainly not a “personality-driven” enterprise (which is common in so many megachurches today) or “priest-/preacher-centered.”  The Church is PEOPLE.  Messy, imperfect and broken people who embrace Jesus and Holy Spirit empowerment.  Maybe that’s why early churches were small–a couple dozen people at best–worshipping in a home rather than like we do today, in a Christian event, service or program.

Imagine if we could RADICALLY RESTORE the Church to its Original DNA!  What if we reclaimed a decentralized Body, led by multiple pastors, gathering in homes but living their faith publicly, empowering every person to “go and teach” the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Why would this model be more powerful in a postmodern America?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Most non-churched/former churched Americans have a negative view of a church building and her leaders and a general distrust of institutional Christianity.
  • Americans don’t mind gathering in private homes (for parties, reunions, etc.).  It’s a comfortable place for conversation.
  • House churches operate faster, leaner and better contextualized to individual neighborhoods.  Change will be key to survival.
  • The emerging persecution of Christians will drive faith communities underground.  In persecuted countries, a decentralized frame succeeds.

In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack these ideas.  Just know that God IS working.

He’s always working.

Building Right: The Difference 2000 Years Make

captivating-how-writing-an-essay-is-like-building-a-house-copywritingEvery house sits on a foundation.  However, most people will confess the true appeal of a home is how its built.  After all, even if a house sits upon a perfect and strong foundation, if it boasts poorly built walls, bad wiring and terrible paint will produce an uncomfortable, even unlivable, situation.

Jesus is the Foundation of the Church and that’s a good thing.  But we, His People and particularly His leaders, may not have produced the best construction over the past two millennia.  We often build in spite of a very clear biblical blueprint for “doing church.”  We miss the mark.  Create our own traditions.  Wire our own rituals.  Paint our own doctrines.

Previously, I stated the clear Original Desire and Design for God’s spiritual community was a DECENTRALIZED frame.  The problem is, since the early fourth century, we’ve been building upon a centralized format or one that’s rooted to a central leader or leadership, to a place or a time (especially in the past 500 years).  Now its time to compare the “house” we’ve built against the biblical blueprint.  How is the way we “do” church different from the way the early church “did” church?

Ironically, one of the best biblical books to reveal the desire and design (Original DNA) of how to do church is Paul’s letter to a dysfunctional church in Corinth.  In this epistle, Paul clearly shows how we have everything a bit backward, at least compared to the prevailing practice of the first-century Church.  What we find is a decentralized practice of Christianity.

For example, worship (including preaching and teaching) was originally decentralized:  What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up (I Cor 14:26).  In contrast, the 21C church service is led by a few leaders who control the songs, the liturgy and sermon.  Ironically, this is highly unattractive to postmodern seekers and sends a potentially hidden message to the church family that only a few are important or valuable.

Evangelism was originally decentralized:  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I Cor 1:13).  In contrast, the 21C church feature baptisms done by clergy.  Why can’t the average Joe or Jane baptize their friend?  We live in an experiential and participatory culture…and nothing is more experiential than a “new birth.”

Church gatherings were originally decentralized, meeting solely in houses (Acts 2:468:3; Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15).  The Body gathered outside, in public places, courts, river banks, meeting areas and later cemeteries (2nd century).  There were no church buildings or centralized meeting places. God had already left the building (temple) in Jerusalem.  Everything happened in homes.  The “church” (Greek: ekklesia or “called out ones”) was the people.  In contrast, the 21C congregation gathers in a building with a large auditorium (that sits empty most of the week).  Tragically, most people–inside and outside the church–now define “church” as a place or time (“I went to church yesterday”).

Leadership was originally decentralized:  I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,…that there be no divisions among you,…that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. …What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (I Cor 1:10-12). The divisions followed leadership and the Original DNA was for multiple leaders to lead, not a single man.  In contrast, the 21C church promotes a preacher or priest as the “face” of the congregation, and in some cases, a “celebrity pastor” to boot.  

It’s hard to confess, but we simply do not resemble or look anything like the early church.  This will become glaringly obvious as we address several sticky wicket issues in the 21C American church.

Now before I proceed, a moment of confession:  I passionately love THE CHURCH.  I want to see her move forward powerfully and productively in the 21st century, and believe Her best days are ahead IF we humbly and respectfully return to our Original DNA.

I just don’t believe She’ll look anything like what we see today in 50 years.

NEXT TIME:  THE TWO INDIVIDUALS THAT PRODUCED 1700 YEARS OF CHRISTENDOM

A New Restoration: Watering Down Salvation (Part 5)

Baptism_in_a_front-end_loaderFew things upset parents more than when children don’t do what they’re told.  Mom asks the kids to do the dishes and the dirty work is still in the sink 24 hours later.  Dad requests the trash gets handled but the siblings argue over whose turn it is, and nobody does it.  Sometimes clear commands fall on deaf ears, hard hearts and closed minds.  The kids know what is right to do, but fail to do it.  They’d rather fuss, fight or forget about it all together.

Sometimes I wonder if God is having that moment with His Church right now.  He’s told us what to do and we change it to be convenient or cool.  It has to drive God crazy.  I’m not talking about altering methods to match ever-changing culture, but I am talking about reinventing a Core Command for expedience.

You want to start a fight in any church?  Simply ask:  how is a person “saved?”  No theology is more divisive than soteriology (a distant second is eschatology).  The theology of salvation is like the old Burger King motto:  you can have it your way.  Such sentiment sells burgers but its hell on salvation.  If God’s kids get messed up on soteriology, people will pay eternally.  After all, a relationship with God is the last thing Satan wants and if he can get the Church to fuss, fight or, better yet, completely forget the Core Command, he wins battles.

What’s the Command?  Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).”  Go. Baptize. Teach.  The Greek for “go” is literally translated “as you are going.”  It’s a command on the run.  Later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter will launch the Church with a similar proposal linked to a promise:  Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).”  Repent and be baptized (command) so that sins are forgiven and Holy Spirit given (promise).

 Sounds so simple.   The faith of someone seeking conversion is demonstrated in his or her repentance and baptism (which produces forgiveness and Divine companionship).  The core of Christianity is the “death, burial and resurrection.”  The core of salvation is baptism, when a believer models this “resurrection” and becomes infused into Christ and His Body.

So should we be surprised 20 centuries of churchianity has polluted and perverted baptism more than any other doctrine? I doubt it.  In large segments of evangelical Christianity it’s merely a faith additive, like some exotic flavor squirted into soda; something you do when you want to show others you’re “saved” or “born again.”  In more historic veins of Christendom, baptism has been politically corrected and reduced to infant ritual; something done to you out of family and church tradition.  And in some corners of churchianity, like the Quakers and Salvation Army, baptism has been excommunicated altogether.  Ouch.

Here’s a truth you can bank on:  if a doctrine is key, even essential, to salvation then expect it to be polluted and perverted.  The evil one doesn’t want anybody “saved” or following Christ, period.  And the greatest evidence this thing called “baptism” means something significant is how we’ve reduced, expanded, blended or eliminated it all together in the Christian faith experience.

Starting with the word:  baptism.

Do you know where we got it?  It’s in the Bible, right?  No.  The word in the Scriptures we read as “baptism” is a transliteration of the word baptisma, which means to “plunge under or immerse.”  The act is never associated with “sprinkling” (rhantizo) or “pouring” (cheo).  “Baptism” found cultural rooting when Anglican translators for King James inaccurately translated the Greek.  The Church of England (a.k.a. Episcopal Church in America) was essentially a Catholic church that used protestantism for political reasons. Anglicanism is mere political division from Roman Catholicism, rather than a commitment to fundamental reforms in the church.  For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church ritually “poured” infants (affusion) and the Anglican Church didn’t change that doctrine.  King James was “affused” as an infant.

Consequently, when he authorized his translation, James expected to read what he already believed.  His Anglican translators delivered The King James Version of the Holy Scriptures to those politically correct expectations.  Overall, they had few problems, except with baptisma.  Since they might lose their heads if they translated baptisma as “immerse,” they opted for the word baptism instead.  It’s a transliteration not a translation.  And it’s caused nothing but trouble ever since.  Consequently, for the sake of clarity, I will translate (not transliterate) the word baptisma within its original meaning:  immersion.

Once the word no longer held its efficacy and meaning, it continued to evolve and morph within modern Protestant Christianity (since 1517 A.D.).  Martin Luther demoted five of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments save two:  infant affusion (pouring) and the Eucharist.  However, it was Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli who recast the rite as symbolism.  It was merely an outward sign of an inward reality.  The Anabaptists (literally “re-baptizers”) promoted believer “baptism” of already “affused” adults.  Essentially, pedo-baptism was invalid, though they still rarely, if at all, practiced immersion.  The Quakers, originating from the teachings of Anglican George Fox in the 1640s, abandoned the rite altogether and were sorely persecuted for this heresy among other beliefs.

Eventually, the sacrament was watered down further within evangelical churchianity to become just a sign of church membership, not salvation; or a public testimony that you had been saved. Consequently, immersion (or sprinkling or whatever) for salvation, as taught by Roman Catholicism and many early reformers like Luther, was abandoned.  You got dunked when it was convenient for you, your family or the church.  Today, church bodies hold baptismal services monthly, quarterly or annually.  In the Roman Church, pouring morphed into a “sprinkling” or dabbing while in Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, baptism faced a new theological division:  water from Spirit.  Water immersion is an act of obedience but there’s a second “baptism in the Spirit” or “anointing” (evidenced by tongue speaking or other spiritual phenomena).  In some extreme forms of Pentecostalism, you’re not considered “saved” until you speak in tongues.

Unfortunately, all this is churchianity.  Since the third century A.D., when infant immersion was introduced (though clearly not widely practiced until much later), a slow deviation away from the Original Command occurred.   Immersion was originally the norm, but pouring (three times to thoroughly soak a candidate) was allowed if necessary and no larger body of water was available.  Because early church theology also linked forgiveness of sin to baptism, eventually it became common to postpone the rite until the last possible moment (Constantine was baptized on his deathbed).  As a result, expedience and convenience demanded other forms.  By the 10th century A.D. affusion (pouring) became the standard Roman form while eastern Catholic churches continued to immerse.  Ironically, aspersion (sprinkling) was actually rare and only used as a “baptism of the sick” who couldn’t be immersed or thoroughly dowsed.

Even in churches that practice believer immersion, the rite has been compromised.  It’s not uncommon for children as young as four to be immersed (a recent trend in evangelical circles to accommodate those from pedo-baptist traditions).  Historically, Protestant believer immersions were only for adolescents and adults.  Some faith communities (like the Amish) only immerse adults over twenty.  Additionally, immersion now happens in a heated pool (baptistery) in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning, performed by an ordained minister.

What’s the truth?  It’s not rocket science nor difficult to understand but you better buckle up.  And beware, you will get wet on this ride.  Nearly every church today has missed the point, to some extent, small or great.

The New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles reveal immersion (being plunged under water) was the “death, burial and resurrection” experience (Romans 6:3-6, Colossians 2:12-13)—a living metaphor that mere sprinkling or pouring cannot replicate.  Immersion also symbolizes a mysterious washing away of sin, past and future (Acts 22:16) and when a believer formally receives the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 10:47-48; 19:2-5).  In his letters to the churches, Paul will describe immersion as becoming part of the Body (I Corinthians 12:13) and being clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:26).  Immersion replicated the Red Sea experience (I Corinthians 10:2) when the Israelites were “saved” from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 15:1-2).  Peter clearly says immersion “saves” a person (I Peter 3:21).  Immersion is both the place and time a person is separated from sin, clothed in Christ, grafted into the Body (Church) and saved.

It’s no secret the early church practiced immersion of believers and the rite was connected to salvation for 1500 years.  No one was “saved” without it.  So any theology or practice that varies from immersion “for the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) is a perversion of the Original Command.

This is why the book of Acts is a helpful template to restore the Original DNA.

Acts reveals no one waited to be immersed.  When someone “believed the message” they were immersed in water.  It happened at midnight (like the Philippian jailer, Acts 17:33), along the road (Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:36-38) or even when poor baptismal theology was confronted (John’s disciples, Acts 19:1-7).  Until the third century, there’s no evidence of dedicated baptismal pools (as found in the Dura-Europos house church, c. 235 A.D.).

It’s why I’m calling for a New Restoration of the Original DNA.  Like children, we fight, fuss and largely forget the Original Command by Jesus:  Go. Immerse. Teach.  We’ve polluted and perverted “baptism” into ritual that suits us.  It’s inconvenient to immerse someone immediately, at any hour, so we don’t.  It’s inconvenient to interrupt our well-timed worship services with spontaneous immersions so we anoint “baptism” Sundays or dedicate a day quarterly or annually to perform the rite.  Since many sadly don’t believe it’s connected to salvation, it’s not that big of a deal.  Once we forget why we do it, anything goes and nothing matters.  We’ll see the same thing with the Lord’s Supper.

Isn’t immersion meant to be done publicly?  No.  Actually, there is no indication that any of the immersions in Acts were held publicly.  Public conversions and baptisms emerged in the Great Awakening. Furthermore, most immersions happened privately (Ethiopian eunuch) or within home environments (Cornelius).  And they didn’t occur at a building on Sunday morning either.  Immersions were 24/7/365 not 1/7/52.

One final rub:  it’s error that only ordained clergy perform the rite.  Paul tells the Corinthians that he immersed very few of them (I Corinthians 1:13-17).  In fact, there is no stricture of any kind on who can or cannot immerse save possibly one:  the immerser must already be immersed (and even this one could be argued).  In reality, evangelism is organic (spontaneous), and so must be the sacrament of immersion.  All we know is the command and the early church example is clear.  Anyone who “accepted the message” (Jesus is the Christ and He’s Alive) was immediately immersed.  Who did it was inconsequential.  My personal practice, like Paul, is to immerse very few, unless I am the primary evangelist.  Instead I encourage fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and mentors to immerse.

Of all the clarion calls in this New Restoration, few have more value and need than a return to biblical soteriology.  It’s clearly time to reboot the Original DNA and the Great Command:  Go. Immerse. Teach.  If your church doesn’t practice immersion, repent.  If your church doesn’t teach immersion is connected to forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, repent or find one that does.  If your church only immerses on Sundays or in church buildings, repent.  If your preacher, pastor or priest is the only one who can immerse, repent.

We’ve watered down the Gospel too long.  Don’t you think it’s finally time we did what Dad commands? I do.

A New Restoration: Calling Out The Church! (Part 4)

Called ChurchI hate to be called out.  Nor do I prefer to call out somebody else.  Call upon me, fine.  Call me late for supper, okay.  Call me out, no.  I got called out when I was in trouble, like when I led a 2 a.m. practical joke at my church camp.  I thought it would be funny to turn every piece of furniture upside down in the chapel.  To my surprise, the dean found no humor in my nocturnal shenanigans and called me out for latrine duty.  Calling out can sometimes stink.

Occasionally a teacher has called me out for purposes of embarrassment.  You know the type.  They ate gravel for breakfast, hate the world and now sense it’s their divine mission on planet earth to ensure you are fully aware of your stupidity and the human tragedy you’re allowed to consume oxygen.  Calling out can sometimes shame.

A calling out often means a fight.  When you got “called out” by an angry peer it meant it was time for a clock cleaning.  The code was to take your fisticuffs outside.  Grown men still call out other grown men to beat the snot out of them.  Calling out can sometimes hurt.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called out some Galilean misfits.  Some fished.  Some taxed.  Some didn’t do much of anything that we know.  But these twelve disciples turned the world upside down in broad daylight.  They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they built upon the foundation for a Kingdom that is eternal.  They were called out to battle Roman political powers and Jewish religious tradition.  In the process, they were shamed and hurt, even to the point of martyrdom.  They were average Joes who stood up to high priests, magistrates and even emperors.

They were the “church” and acted like it.

Some churches aren’t doing such a hot job today.  In nearly every denomination, tribe or fellowship, there is stagnation and decline.  A January 2013 cover story for The Lutheran lamented how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is fading fast.  Nearly one in three now average less than fifty people and overall attendance plummeted 26% since 2003.  In one decade, the ELCA has closed or merged churches at an average rate of 100 per year or two every Sunday.

In my tribe (independent Christian Churches) we boast over 126 emerging and megachurches, with the top eight drawing 100,000 people every Sunday!  Impressive, but of the emerging and megachurches reporting for 2011, growth averaged between .8 to 4.4% over 2010 figures.  Okay, maybe not so impressive.  In fact, several reported outright declines.  A closer look reveals even numbers can betray our largest megachurch:  Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY.  In 2011, this congregation’s weekly attendance is 20,786 (up from 19,534 in 2010) and they baptized 1,618 (up from 1,250 in 2010).  Respectable numbers and growing, right?  Actually no.  In reality, Southeast grew less than 1% between 2010-2011 (adding 1,252 people).  When you crunch numbers, you uncover a different story.  Yes, they added 1,252 to attendance but baptized 1,618 and that constitutes an actual DECLINE in growth of 366 people!  Additionally, it’s safe to assume hundreds of others also joined this fine congregation as baptized members.  Consequently, Southeast’s fractional growth, though an increase, is actually a decline overall, and not retaining even what she baptizes.

In comparison, the first century church grew exponentially faster, by hundreds and thousands.  The church of Jesus exploded around Jerusalem, spilling into Judea and Samaria and finally reaching distant locales like Antioch, Thessalonica and even Rome.  After Acts 4:4 and a vague reference to “about five thousand men,” we have no attendance figures.  We just knew they grew daily (Acts 5:14).  Today’s churches like to count people.  The first church made people count.

What’s the difference between the first-century “church” and the 21st century Church?  In one word:  walls.  The first-century “church” wasn’t trapped in a facility and physical address.   The “church” was a gathering of people not a building where you worshipped and studied the Bible.  Somehow, in twenty centuries, the word Jesus used to charge His disciples has changed.

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia or ekklesia It’s where we get the word “ecclesiastical.”

Jesus only used ekklesia twice and solely by the Jewish tax-collector Matthew.  In 16:18, Jesus told his disciples that Peter’s confession, that identified Him as the Messiah, is the “rock” upon which his ekklesia is built.  Later in 18:17, Jesus outlines “church” discipline and again uses ekklesia.  No other gospel writer uses ekklesia, including the Greek historian Luke (who does use it the most [23 times] in the book of Acts).  Paul will employ ekklesia 21 times in I Corinthians and John will pen the word 19 times in Revelation (18 in the first three chapters alone!).  But not one time is the word ever used to describe a facility or address.  The “church” was an assembly of believers:  a Body not a building, an Organism not an organization, a People not a place.

The word ekklesia originated in the Greco-political culture.  It’s not even a religious word.  An ekklesia described a “gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place for an assembly.”  Literally, an ekklesia or “church” means “called out ones.”  In the Roman world, ekklesias were common, especially when the emperor came to call.  His highness would ride into town on his white steed with all the majesty and pomp, followed by his army.  When the people gathered around him (a.k.a., ekklesia), they would shout to his deity and profess, “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!”

In Matthew 16, Jesus steals this secular metaphor and recasts it for his disciples.  The Messiah, Jesus taught, is the Christ (with a nod to Peter for his confession) and He is the Lord of lords and King of kings.  Jesus taught this lesson at Caesarea Philippi (vs. 13), a Judean political center for Rome.  Ekklesias were routine in Caesarea Philippi, and it’s possible the disciples even experienced one just prior to this moment.  Perhaps some potentate from Rome had just ridden into Caesarea Philippi and an ekklesia broke out.  “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!” the people cried.  Then Jesus pulls his disciples away from the ekklesia and inquires, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  After a few Sunday School answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), Peter professes essentially “Jesus is Lord!”  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (vs. 16).

Bingo.  Jesus then explains Peter’s confession is the massive foundation stone (Greek: petra) upon which He will “build [his] ekklesia.”  Despite Roman Catholic teaching, Peter (Greek: Petros for “little stone”) isn’t the rock:  Jesus is the Rock!  Jesus then references how the “gates of Hades” (erroneously mistranslated by King James translators as “hell”) will not overcome this Ekklesia.   Hades was the place of the dead.  In other words, not even death would keep Jesus’ Ekklesia from growing.   It’s no wonder the phrase “Jesus is Lord” became an early Christian idiom and an intentional cultural dig to those who practiced emperor worship.  Caesar isn’t lord.  Jesus IS Lord.  He’s the Lord of all lords!

John will expand this idiom in his Revelation of Jesus.  A work deeply soaked with the conflict between Roman religious and political powers that seek to destroy the Ekklesia of Jesus (church of Christ).  In Revelation 13, two beasts emerge to battle the Ekklesia.  The first is political and the second is religious.  John writes to seven ekklesias located in Asia Minor and paints a picture of ekklesia in Revelation 19:

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”

For churches or ekklesias in the first century John employed highly intentional language.  Just like earthly kings rode into towns and commanded worship, so does Jesus.  Those who obeyed the “calling out” to meet the king would be part of his Ekklesia or “church.”

So where did we go wrong?  Mostly, we allowed comfort and convenience, sprinkled with good intentions and slightly twisted Scriptures, to change the term.  For in time, the Greek adjective kyriakos (meaning, “belonging to the Lord”) was incorporated by early Christians to also innocently describe their faith communities.  Since they met in homes these became known as a kyriakos oikos or “house of the Lord.”  Over the centuries, particularly after the Edict of Milan (A.D. 311) under Emperor Constantine, the word further morphed from a description of the people assembled to the place of assembly.  The house of the Lord (kyriakos) became the common idiom for Christian gathering rather than a public assembly (ekklesia).  As Christendom moved into Germany and Britain, the word kyriokos evolved further into kerke or churche and eventually just church.  Nowadays, a church is a place of worship and people who attend are church “members.”

Today, most people talk about “going to church” on Sunday.  Church is a building, a worship service or place defined by space and time.  It’s religious jargon and it’s completely wrong.  The Church—the assembly or gathering—isn’t a private “in house” event (walled by time and space).  The Church is the Body of Christ gathered publicly to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!”  It’s beyond the walls; it’s in the streets, at the malls and among the culture.

The reason why the Church faces either its greatest days (or worst) depends solely on whether we restore the Original DNA of ekklesia The idea of kyriokos (especially as a place) is a perversion the modern church has swallowed hook, line and stinker.  If God wanted his people to build facilities, they could have done it.  In fact, Rome probably would have preferred it.  Rome was quite tolerant of religions and most of them built shrines that dotted the Empire (they had no issue with Jewish synagogues).  But the early Ekklesia was fluid and fast.  Like water it seeped into places that organized religion and facilities couldn’t go.  Particularly, the first- and second-century Ekklesia operated stealth, underground (in places of persecution) and secretly.  Early Christians were accused of cannibalism, among other wild rumors.  Their fellowship was closed, it would seem, but in reality it was an open culture.  Christians were everywhere, but you had to know one and follow one to become part of the Ekklesia.  And thousands did.

That’s why I’m calling out the kyriokos (time and space church) to rediscover its Original DNA:  ekklesia We weren’t meant to sit and soak in buildings but move among the culture.  Just know that it’s going to hurt…a lot!

Here’s a radical idea:  sell your building and property (just like first-century Christians did) and give it to the poor in your community.  Instead meet in homes and, when possible, in public squares.  Perhaps Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler should be ours, for I suspect Jesus cringes when we build yet another facility “in His Name.”  Churchianity builds buildings.  Christianity changes lives.  His Ekklesia was meant to be “out” not “in.”  Like the rich young ruler, we’re proud that we “know the commandments” and practice them, but still Jesus says we “lack one thing”:  absolute submission (Luke 18:19-22).

You want to restore biblical Christianity?  Good.  But let’s also restore biblical ecclesiology, too.  Let’s restore Ekklesia (as called out ones who gather publicly) and honor Jesus’ G0 Mission (Matthew 28:18-20).  Imagine what Christians could do if we no longer had facility mortgages.  Imagine the funds available if we no longer spent them on “come to our building” programs.  Imagine even a return to biblical staffing—volunteer only—and the end of “professional” ministry.  I know, now I’m meddling, but full-time paid staff is a business idea, not a biblical one.  Imagine no longer being able to count how big your church is, because people gather in homes rather than “houses of worship.”  Imagine the community service you could do in neighborhood and city.  Imagine the Ekklesia gathering publicly at ball games, concerts, malls, fairs, parks, festivals, service clubs and other social settings, not to lead worship and preach at people, but to serve as Salt and Light, inviting them into home fellowships and deeper community.  Imagine the influence of an Ekklesia that seasons culture rather than assaults it with religiosity.

To quote John Lennon, I may be a dreamer but I doubt I’m the only one.

In a postmodern American culture, an Ekklesia community would be highly attractive.  It already is.  Ekklesias occur every day in coffee shops.  Johns and Janes gather for a cup of joe with Joe and Jolene.  And where two or more are gathered, in Christ’s name, there is Ekklesia.  That my friends is the CHURCH Jesus imagined and the early Ekklesia practiced daily.

I don’t want to intentionally hurt or shame, but I’m calling out those stuck in churchianity to intentionally gather for True, biblical Christianity.

Restore the Original DNA.  Reboot Ekklesia.

Just know it won’t happen as long as you’re bound to a building.  The True Ekklesia is far bigger and better.  Until you’re free of the facility, you’ll never experience or enjoy authentic Ekklesia.

I’m not calling out the church for a fight…but a Future!

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