Category Archives: The Bible

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.

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No Room in the Inn? Not so fast.

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The Nativity Story is legendary.  Most USAmericans have heard it, or variations of it.  Unfortunately, too often our recollection doesn’t come from Scripture but traditional carols.  We Three Kings of Orient Are. Silent Night. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Away in a Manger.  In general, like the legend of Santa Claus, many speculative and even erroneous ideas have sprouted.

One of the interesting (and wrong) legends about Jesus’ birth is there was “no room in the inn.” It’s not true, largely due to a terrible mistranslation of the original Greek. The word Luke employs for “inn” (kataluma) is the SAME word he uses to describe the “upper” or “guest” room where his disciples enjoyed their “last supper” together (Luke 2:7; 22:11). Luke clearly uses a different Greek word for “inn” (pandeion) in the “Good Samaritan” parable (Luke 10:34). 

But there’s more that we have missed or gotten wrong.

Like the fact Mary and Joseph weren’t two lone kids desperately seeking shelter so the virgin could give birth.  The facts state otherwise. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census law by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1).  Joseph was in the lineage of David and probably had numerous relatives, perhaps brothers and sisters, still living in this town of less than a thousand people. So the couple had plenty of lodging options.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they soon learned space was limited in the normal “guest” rooms.  First century homes were small and most were single level.  A guest room suggested a larger house.  In most homes, the entire family slept in the same room and guests would’ve joined them if room was available.  A guest room was a bonus room. The Nativity story states when Mary and Joseph arrived, there was no longer any room in the “kataluma” or guest room (Luke 2:7).  The couple were surprise visitors, though definitely welcomed.  In the first century, informing relatives of a pending stay was impossible.  You just showed up and took whatever available floor space remained.

So where did Mary and Joseph find sleeping quarters (and eventually birth their baby boy)? The Scriptures reference a “manger” (Luke 2:7) and that means they bunked in the barn with the animals. If a house was large enough to have a “guest” (kataluma) room then they also had a barn for their livestock (sheep, chickens, cattle).  A manger was used to feed the livestock.  Some Bible scholars suggest Jesus was born in a cave but that’s unlikely since most caves would’ve been outside the walls of Bethlehem.  The city gates and walls were critical to protect the citizens.  Bethlehem was large enough to have a gated wall.  Consequently, the only ones outside the walls were outlaws, thieves and shepherds (basically akin to today’s migrant farm worker).  Caves were not exactly the safest places either.  We know from Luke’s account the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child so Jesus was born inside, not outside, the city (Luke 2:15).

The barn was a lot like our garages today. Livestock were for transportation and work.  They needed protection (from theft) and provision. Some barns were separate structures but in many first century houses they were connected.  Remember the reference to the “upper room” where Jesus communed with his disciples (Luke 22:12)?  An “upper” room suggests a “lower” room, and families wealthy enough to own a two-level house basically lived above their livestock.  In other words, the “lower” room was likely the barn as it was safer and more convenient.  Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus slept in the garage or the lower room with the family livestock.  Such accommodations aren’t unusual, even by today’s standards.  Barns have often been great places to sleep for the weary traveler.

Luke 2:6 also suggests that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem already when the Messiah was born. They came for the census but her pregnancy made them stay.  Evidently, the guest room was still occupied (perhaps by another new mother), so Mary and Joseph billeted in the garage (or barn). The Scriptures don’t say Mary gave birth alone or in the barn though. It’s just where the baby Jesus was staying the night the shepherds visited.  Mary probably gave birth in the house, aided by female relatives and midwives, and then moved newborn Jesus to a plush manger crib for the night.

Later the magi (wisemen) will visit Jesus, most likely still staying at the same relative’s house, except now sleeping in the “guest” room (Matthew 2:11).  Why didn’t Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth?  After all, Herod’s edict to kill all boys under two years of age suggest the young couple stayed in Bethlehem longer than just a few weeks or months (Matthew 2:16).  They perhaps were in Bethlehem for the duration, but left for Egypt under duress thanks to a “warning” dream.  Nevertheless, they went to Egypt and not Nazareth.  The reasons?  The rumor mill was still hot in Mary’s hometown. Joseph was married to a pregnant Mary (not carrying his son)–a crime worthy of death.  Egypt was on a different continent and nobody would know them there.  It was the perfect place for this troubled couple to hide out.  

Consequently, Jesus was born in a barn but raised on the run.

Here’s what we know for sure:  

  • Baby Jesus wasn’t born alone (no doubt many other relatives witnessed the event, besides those Bethlehem shepherds).
  • Neither did his parents travel door to door, desperately seeking shelter on that first Christmas Eve. Actually inhospitality was a grievous social “sin” in first century Palestine.
  • The manger was in a barn connected to the house and probably inside it.  It was a secure, warm and comfortable location.
  • Mary and Joseph had family, room and time in Bethlehem. They stayed in the little town for months, perhaps nearly two years before escaping for Egypt (a trip financed by the magi’s gold). Joseph was probably working his carpenter trade at the time.  Only after years in exile would they return to Nazareth, no doubt with an extra baby brother or sister in tow.

Puts a new spin on an old story, doesn’t it?

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 5): “The Bible”

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 theologian 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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The B-I-B-L-E …yes, that’s the book for me!  I stand alone on the Word of God…the B-I-B-L-E!

Yes, the Bible is the book for a lot of people and the most loved, generously quoted and best-selling book of all time.  It’s translated into thousands of languages and paraphrased into countless contexts.  I personally collect Bibles.  I have an 1849 pocket KJV New Testament for a circuit-riding preacher.  I have an interlinear Bible.  I have a “parallel Bible” with four different translations. I have a Bible translated in Hawaiian pigeon called “Da Jesus Book,” and an African-American “Rappin’ With Jesus” Bible.  I have the Greek New TestamentBible on CD and often listen to the Word of God, digitally, via www.biblegateway.com.

I grew up reading, studying and memorizing the Bible.  I participated in Bible Bowl, pitting my knowledge of Scripture texts against other high schoolers in a form of church-sanctioned righteous Christian combat (creating skills later used in Bible trivia games and arguments with whom I disagreed).  I went to Bible studies, sang Bible songs, attended Bible movies and spent years in Bible college and seminary.  I enjoy watching Bible documentaries, reading Bible commentaries and listening to biblical preaching.  I just love the Bible!

I grew up in a church culture with a proud tradition as a “people of the Book.”  The Bible was the centerpiece of our practices, teaching, preaching, ministries and programs.  If you couldn’t defend it from Scripture, it wasn’t something to defend. One of our hallmark mantras was “if the Bible speaks, we speak; if it’s silent, we’re silent.”  The Bible was the top and the bottom, the first and the last line for everything.

And then one day I discovered a terrible truth:  the word “Bible” isn’t even in the Bible.  Go ahead and search for it.  I double dog dare you.  It’s not there. Why?  It’s because the Bible is actually a technology.  The Bible (from the Greek word for book or biblos) is the product of renaissance Gutenberg print technology.  The Bible is a book and a book is a form of print communication.

What we find in our printed book (or Holy Book/Bible) is a completely different vocabulary.  For example, there’s the “Word of God” (Proverbs 30:5; Isaiah 40:8; John 10:35) or the “Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:15) or just “Scriptures” (Daniel 9:2; Matthew 21:42; Luke 24:45; Acts 17:2; 18:28; I Corinthians 15:54)  In fact, there are 20 occurrences for “Scriptures” and all refer to the collected books we now call the Old Testament.

In David’s infamous Psalm 119, he creates a living thesaurus for these “Scriptures” and refers to them as:

  • “statutes” (vv. 2,14,22,24,31,36,46,59,79,88,95,99)
  • “precepts” (vv. 4,15,27,40,45,56,63,69,78,87,93,94,100)
  • “decrees” (vv. 5,8,12,16,23,26,33,48,54,64,68,71,80,83)
  • “commands” (vv. 6,10,19,21,32,35,47,48,60,66,73,86,96,98)
  • “law/laws”(vv. 1,7,13,18,20,29,30,34,39,43,44,55,61,62,70,72, 75,77,85,91,92,97),
  • God’s “word/words” (vv. 9,11,16,17,25,28,37,42,49,51,52, 53,57,65,67,74,81,89)
  • “word of truth” (v. 43)

And that’s just first 100 verses!  David also cites “promises” in several verses.  It’s no wonder the Scriptures are a “lamp” and “light” (Psalm 119:105).

Hebrews 4:12 states the “word of God” is living and active.  Like any living thing, it’s constantly changing, not in its Message but in its applications, formats and interpretations.  In a famous parable Jesus used a living “seed” as the metaphor for the Word of God (Luke 8:4-11).  That’s why it’s short-sighted to profess being a “people of the Book.”  The book is finite technology.  The book can burn, rot, erode, fade and disappear but God’s Word does not.  Jesus never reduced the Scriptures to scrolls and papyri, the written formats of His day.  He simply referred to them as “the Scriptures.”

In a digital culture, the Word of God (Holy Scriptures) remains “living and active” but, let’s face facts, the print culture (of which the book or Bible operates) is dying.  It’s had a great 500-year run but as digitization continues to reimagine how we read, transmit and learn, the book is on life support and death watch.  Even if the book or the Bible survives, it will probably do so more as a relic or collectible (like vinyl records).  Most people will read the Word from a screen, web page or live stream.

That’s why we must be careful in our desire to elevate God’s Word and His Message that we don’t venerate or idolize the format.  The book (biblos or Bible) can go away but God’s Word lasts forever.  In the Old Testament the “Word of God” came more from a voice than a book (I Chronicles 17:3; 2 Chronicles 11:2; 36:12; 36:16; Jeremiah 2:1; 19:3).  In time the written “Word of God” became a cornerstone for generations (Jeremiah 30:2) and will remain so in a digital economy.

Jesus was the “Word” of God (John 1:14) and spoke the Word of God (Luke 5:1).  In fact, he said blessing arose when those who “heard” the Word of God obeyed (Luke 11:28).  In Acts, the “word of God” is the gospel according to Jesus (Acts 6:7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 46; 17:13; 18:11).  This idea is echoed further in Paul’s epistles (1 Corinthians 14:36; 2 Corinthians 2:17).

One final New Testament phrase for the Holy Scriptures is “word of truth.”  Paul encouraged Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).”  Meanwhile James exhorts that we have been given new birth through the “word of truth” (James 1:18).

To summarize, you won’t find the word “Bible” in the Holy Scriptures.  The reason is simple:  it’s technology.  And no technology is eternal.  When we use words like “Bible” and “biblical” or phrases like “we’re a people of the Book,” we wed ourselves to fading technology.  The Scriptures have been chiseled in stone, carved in wood, brushed on canvas, penned on papyrus, framed in stained glass and inked on paper.  Today the emerging format just happens to be digital.  Yes, the Bible is a good word, but it’s not THE word.

Maybe it’s time we rephrased the infamous B-I-B-L-E song we sang as kids:

The W-O-R-D…yes, that’s the Message for me.  I stand alone on the Truth of God…the W-O-R-D!

 

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