Category Archives: Theology

Facing Our Fears

Yesterday I had a great time preaching at my Alma Mater Cincinnati Christian University (’95) on the topic of “Fearful Leadership.”   I spoke from Isaiah 6:8 which contains the famous cry of the prophet, “Here am I send me.”   I discussed how Isaiah, after his encounter with God, realized that he could not send himself or be sent by mere mortals to do the task of authentic ministry.  He understood he needed to be specially commissioned by God to succeed.

One of my comments that drew some “Amens” (Church of Christ I hear yah!) was when I said to the students concerning ministry, “if you can go do anything else go do it.”   One of the things that baffled me while I was a student there was the the lack of an urgent attitude of some of my classmates concerning the call (or being sent by God) for ministry.

Some would say things like “I might be a minister or teacher” like their destiny was to be decided by a  flip of a coin, or” I’ll try ministry out for a few years but if that doesn’t work out I’ll just sell insurance.”   I never understood comments like that, i.e. comments that made ministry as a full time vocation optional.  For me it was a zero sum game – if it was optional then you obviously did not have an Isaiah 6:8 experience.  And if your ordinary life has not collided with the power of His presence, are you really capable of ministry?

The Bible talks about fear in two ways, one good and one bad.  The bad way is to live your life always waiting for the other shoe to drop, scared of some boogie man that doesn’t exist to come and get you.  I see this all the time concerning reconciliation and it is usually focused on a perceived identity threat  .

People move out of neighborhoods because too many blacks or Latinos are moving in; they are scared to go downtown because they think some panhandler is going to go “postal” on them;  or they set up glass ceilings within their organization because they don’t want women to “take over.”   There are too many imaginary identity boogie men to name them all here.

But the other way the Bible talks about fear is reverential.  This is a healthy respect of what you are dealing with.  This is what we see in Isaiah 6:8.  He realizes just how human and limited in his understanding of the world he is in comparison to God.  He also realizes that he is one of the lucky few to understand that he needs some divine help.  His faith is humbled.  Couple this with the leadership task he is charged with, he knows he can do it if the all powerful One makes it so.  Send him!  My prayer is to  send us, too.





Blessing the Mess – Final Thoughts

This is no small concern, as nothing less than the essence of the gospel is at stake. Jesus set a clear pattern concerning how the gospel was going to spread: people influencing others to follow Jesus through the witness of their lives.  God uses immigration to complete His agenda throughout the earth (Acts 8).   Acts 17:26 makes it clear that it is God who decides what people groups will go where, at what time, and for what purpose:

From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 

God is concerned with all the nations and their way of life.  Ultimately it is He who determines the time period and the boundaries of human habitation, regardless of the societal laws of any particular nation.   In essence Scripture suggests that all Christians have a loyalty beyond their national citizenship, which is our standing as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Such citizenship makes us all immigrants on this earth (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13; Philippians 3:20).  We should approach immigration as an opportunity to become ethnic entrepreneurs for His glory.

Blessing the Mess – Part 3

When we watch the news and see stories of “ethnic cleansing,” or hundreds of people in a sweatshop being drastically underpaid for their labor; or when we look at a history book and see that once upon a time the U.S. government allowed the enslavement of a group of people based on their African heritage, we cannot forget that the root of these events is spiritual.  Psalms 2:1 asks, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” The quick answer is because they are in sinful rebellion. But that is not God’s desire.  We see His desire in Genesis 12:2-3 in His promise to Abram (Abraham):

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.  God’s desire is a unified people, bringing blessing to all. Yet to receive the promise of God, Abraham must immigrate from Haran to Canaan.  It was God’s idea.

The tangible blessing does not come overnight. After Genesis, the story expands beyond individuals to the complete sum of Abraham’s offspring, which eventually become known as the nation of Israel. Eventually the Israelites themselves immigrate to Egypt.  In Exodus we see the pitting of nation against nation as a contest between gods.   For example, the famous plagues of Exodus 1-12 were each a contest between the God of Israel and one of Egypt’s gods. When God rescued the Israelites, He delivered the message that the God of Israel is the sovereign God over all, regardless of your cultural family.

Israelite immigration led to switched spiritual allegiances.  Consider Joshua 2 and the story of Rahab; read the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth; ponder God’s message to the Israelite captives in Babylon found in Jeremiah 29:4-7. Throughout the Old Testament the message to the Israelites was clear: Through your lives you will declare the glory of the one true God to those who don’t know Me; and through this declaration, they will come to Me.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul makes clear to the Galatians that they began their relationship with God the same way Abraham did: by faith, not ethnic lineage (Galatians 3:6-9). Abraham’s real offspring are those who have faith in his God. The redemption of Christ permits all to enjoy the blessing of Abraham (Galatians 3:14).  If people want to know God, they need not seek out Israelites and convert to Judaism. That was the old paradigm. We are now told to receive the promise of the Spirit and form communities of Spirit-filled people. These ministry communities are the primary vehicles for the nations to know God.

The stress of the New Testament is toward a community of people making their presence known by living differently as the people of God in their geographic region. As they do this, the people (both native and immigrant) of their region will know where to look for God.  You can find an example of these ethical encouragements in all of Paul’s writings to churches.

Blessing the Mess – Part 2

Romans 13:1-3 says:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.

From this Scripture we could conclude the government’s role is to punish wrong and commend what is right.  To that effect, some may argue, the Alvarado’s got what was coming to them.  However, a positive statement of civil authority (such as Romans 13:1-3) is not logically or theologically restrictive of other activities.   In other words, the fact that the Bible says positively that government has a responsibility to do “X” does not imply that the government can do “X” and “X” only in all situations.

Justice is only as good as the laws that define its boundaries.  It would not be hard to come up with examples of unjust laws (Historic “Jim Crow” laws come quickly to mind, for starters).  So no matter what our answers as a society are concerning immigration, Christians must realize that immigration is a process allowed (and at times initiated) by God and more importantly, immigrants are people.  And people are not illegal.

To understand immigration from a biblical point of view, we must see how it operates throughout Scripture.  For starters, we can think of the people of the world as one giant family — large, colorful, diverse . . . and dysfunctional!  The Bible depicts a world of competing families, known as nations. The links that form these families are ethnic cultural groups, whose members share familiar origins and basics of culture such language, values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Throughout history we see a theme of struggle, discrimination, and conflict: one story after another of nations trying to advance their own interests over others.  This struggle more times than not is what produces immigrants or refugees (i.e. someone not native to the local geographic area).   The root of the struggle is found in Genesis 2, where we see God’s plan for unity in the Garden of Eden. Relationships were perfect between people and God, between people themselves, and with the environment. It was truly a blessed state of existence.

Actually, the word blessed does not accurately describe what was going on. A better word is a Hebrew one, shalom. Shalom means people living in a situation of completeness in every aspect of their human existence.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced shalom. Their physical, social, moral, mental, and emotional needs were completely met. And their spiritual relationship with God was without filters — 100-percent pure. Theirs was a life with no worries.

Then, the familiar story of Genesis 3 tells of the moment when the whole situation of shalom unraveled, beginning the dysfunctional mess of a worldwide family we have today.   By “mess” I mean the change that occurs in the personal character of humans, brought about by the willful disobedience of Adam and Eve. With their sin, God’s original intent for our world — to live in unity with each other and with Him — was violated.

The consequences of the Fall are instant: Confidence is replaced by doubt. Honesty is replaced by deception. Intimacy is replaced by shame. Fellowship is replaced by fear.   In essence, we see barriers go up between Adam and Eve and between both them and God. And along with the barriers come hostility. God questions Adam, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake.

Adam and Eve show here the first signs of human conflict and rebellion against God, a rebellion that continues to have far-reaching effects. In Genesis 3:15, God speaks to the evil being (represented by the serpent) who started it all:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

Traditionally, Genesis 3:15 is also interpreted as a foreshadowing of Christ’s eventual defeat of Satan. We know that Christ came to reconcile people to their God, to each other, and to creation.  This verse foretells how our world will be in continual conflict between humans and representatives of evil. The battle lines have been formed, and the world from now until Christ’s return will struggle in a messy conflict.  And more times than not, what drives people to our shores are by-products of these conflicts.

How to Be Right and Wrong at the Same Time

In preparing for a workshop at the EFCA Leadership Conference, a church leader spoke to me about his frustration with Christians being right and wrong at the same time regarding the issue of the gay community. Right in the sense of theology, scripture, interpretation, etc.; and wrong in the sense of ethic and posture. I understand that many of us see gay rights as a threat to the institution of marriage and the family structure, and I’m definitely not promoting gay lifestyle as normative, but I wonder what message it sends about Christians who are quick to condemn without engagement. The gay community is not going anywhere, whether it is a sin or dysfunction (they are getting their own pride month from the pen of the president), and evangelical Christians must not build up theological walls to throw stones over. I think even if we disagree with the way they read Scripture, the ways in which they experience sexual gratification, and for their lifestyles, we have to treat them with a sense of Samaritan-like kindness. There has to be shift in the way we live out our theological correctness in an age of political correctness, lest we comfort ourselves in being right, but our witness loses all credibility.

One Christian Response to Osama Bin Laden

One of my favorite professors during my Bible College days offered this response to the death of Osama Bin Laden.   What do you think? 

By now, we think that most readers of this blog could write the thing pretty well themselves. But given the momentousness of the occasion and the directness with which some have requested our wisdom, we offer some theologizing on the faithful Christian’s response to the death of Osama bin Laden.

We urge our sisters and brothers to a decided, definitive, and utterly mixed response.

On the one hand, a man who has bowdlerized the notion of the Creator’s justice as a pretext for mass murder, not to mention the ideological enslavement of his followers in the dehumanizing practice of evil, has been executed. This is a triumph of justice over the perversion of justice. Granted, it is provisional, imperfect justice, as justice rendered in this present, evil age always is. But the bad man has been killed by agents of the government whose innocent people he had attacked. That is a form of justice, and so the people of the just God have a responsibility to rejoice.

Indeed, they can rejoice loudly. Read The Apocalypse, gentle readers, and you’ll find lots of gloating and taunting as God and his Christ defeat the forces of Satan and death. And as you read that capstone to the canon, remember that it largely remixes the familiar phraseology of Israel’s prophets, who also taught God’s people to celebrate the triumph of justice when it comes.

But our celebratory response is still a mixed response. The image of God, marred as it was by his wicked ideology, still was present in OBL. The God of justice is also the God of mercy, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. The best possible outcome was not the outcome here, as is too often the case. There was no Damascus Road for Osama; had there been, he would have treated it with contempt. Since the Exodus we have known of the proud and powerful whose hearts are further hardened by the mighty overtures of God’s mercy.

But what did God tell the Israelites to do as he brought a bitter judgment on Egypt? To feast in celebration and remember forever how he had delivered them from their slavemasters, defeating the slavemasters’ false gods and liberating the Israelites despite their own unworthiness.

Meanwhile, events move forward. Protests in the Middle East are yielding change, perhaps democratic change that will better the lives of the oppressed people of that benighted region, perhaps change that can bring a measure of liberty that will allow the gospel to flourish again where it did centuries ago. Or perhaps not. Certainly, one knows what to pray for in these days.

So celebrate this moment of imperfect justice, mourn the fallen state of humanity, and pray for God’s victory to be realized more fully and widely. And if you can’t handle that paradox, become a Muslim.

Do You Care Where Rob Bell Goes When He Dies?

Even if you’ve been living under a rock, a very particular rock in evangelical Christianity, you would have heard by now about the controversy that Rob Bell has stirred with his universalist overtures in his latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. As a high-profile, edgy, gi-normo (gigantic and enormous) church pastor from the “epicenter of progressive culture” Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bell has definitely struck a nerve and there are endless comments about how his views have now distanced him from orthodox Christianity. Of course, it really expedites the process when John Piper, another high-profile, not-so-edgy, gi-normo church pastor tweets, “Farewell, Rob Bell” upon viewing a promotional video released in advance of the book. I’m not sure that’s necessary (neither does Doug Pagitt – yet another high-profile ginormo church pastor!) or Minnesota “Nice” (something I’m sure Piper doesn’t get accused of anyway). For more balance, check out Scot McKnight’s blog series on the book.

In the weeks following the uproar, and believe me, there have been hundreds of comments from haters and defenders of Bell and this latest work of his, I’ve been wondering two things.

1. Wouldn’t universalism render the ministry of reconciliation – the incredibly difficult, life-consuming, cross-cultural work that many of us see as integral and indicative of the transformed life – pointless? The question of salvation aside, if Jesus did not have to pour out his life for the sake of others, why should we?

2. One of the fascinating ironies of the book is that the negative response from the Christian majority supports exactly what Rob Bell implies in terms of Christians wanting to quickly determine who is and who isn’t going to heaven. Before we evangelical Christians proved Bell wrong, we proved him right. And here’s what I’m wondering…one of the reasons why I think people of other religions frown on Christians is exactly this type of internal theological discussions that get Christians to throw each other under the bus. This is different from moderate Muslims giving fundamentalist Muslims a cold shoulder. It makes me wonder if we’re so individualistic in the way we view the world, that we don’t realize that we make Team Christian look pretty bad. What do you think?