Mark 12:28-34 — Kingdom Priorities

May 14, 2012

As Jesus teaches in the temple courts, his opponents confront him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his authority, his allegiances, and his theology. These hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity and/or endanger his life.

Now, however, a scribe—like one of those who questioned him in Mark 11:27—approaches him with some respect. While Matthew (22:35) portrays this incident as the result of a Pharisaic conspiracy to test Jesus once again, Mark is more ambiguous. Mark’s scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wonders how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment, he asks, ranks as “numero uno”! Which commandment is the most important?

Given that the rabbis counted 613 imperatives within the Torah, it is not surprising that there would be some discussion about which was the most important or which had priority. Allen Black (College Press NIV Commentary on Mark, 216) reminds us that many, including Jesus’ contemporary in Alexandria Philo (Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 168; Special Laws, 2.63), considered the ten commandments a summary of the Torah divided between responsibilities toward God (“piety”) and responsibilities toward people (“justice”). This two-fold categorization fits the answer Jesus himself gave: love God and love your neighbor.

Jesus identifies two commands—out of a host present in the Torah—as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” that is, it has priority, but the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first quotes the great Shema (Hebrew for “hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was repeated twice daily by devout Jews in the Greco-Roman period (Allen cites Letter to Aristeas, 160; Jubilees 6:14). The second quotes Leviticus 19:18.

It seems rather amazing that Jesus could lift two isolated commands out of the Torah and identify them as first and second. The identification of the Shema as first is more understandable as its narrative function in Deuteronomy is the fountainhead of Israel’s response to God’s deliverance and land-grant recounted in Deuteronomy 1-5. Since God has graced Israel, Israel returns that grace with loving gratitude.

But the identification of Leviticus 19:18 appears more arbitrary. It seems to appear as one command in a list of others within the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18-20). Some suggest that Leviticus 19:18 functions as a summary statement in the Holiness Code, but this is not apparent. Nevertheless, Jesus recognizes its theological importance.

What enables Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts—among many others that could have been chosen—as the first and second commandments? It is apparent that Jesus does not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, he reads the text in a hierarchical fashion. That is, he recognizes levels of priority and importance. I suggest he reads in a narratival way such that the story (plot) of God moves us to recognize “love you neighbor” as the second greatest command. Some commands are more fundamental than others.

The scribe recognizes Jesus’ point. He repeats what Jesus quoted—and thus the narrative underscores the unparalleled significance of theses two imperatives—and also interprets the significance of prioritizing these two commands. In effect, Jesus has prioritized these two commands, according to the scribe, over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, Jesus has prioritized loving God and neighbor over the temple, its sacrifices and their atoning significance. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but rather that they are less important that what some might have thought. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t respond with “but….” [fill in the blank with an "important" command].

There is a tradition with the history of Israel which prioritized the sacrifices so that if one comes to the temple and offers their sacrifices, then God is pleased with them (despite their lives). This is the safety of the temple to which Jesus alluded when he cleansed the Temple as Jesus quoted from Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jeremiah 7). Some believed that despite their adulteries and social injustice (how they treated the poor, widows and orphans) their sacrifices were accepted because the temple represented God’s gracious presence. The second command, love your neighbor, does not sanction such an interpretation of the temple.

What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. It is the gift of ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.

It reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or Micah’s declaration of what the Lord requires more than a thousand rams, that is, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices which God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).

The context in which Mark places this exchange underscores the importance of “love your neighbor” (quoted twice). It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) for which Jesus judges the temple complex and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities (“scribes”) exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor—falls between the prohibition against defrauding (robbing) your neighbor (19:13) and honest business practices (19:35). Economic justice functions prominently in the last part of the Holiness Code.

Given the temple context, controversy and practices in Mark 11-12 as well as Jesus seemingly gratuitious comment about widows, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is, it seems, a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second and his reference to the social injustice of the scribes later in this chapter is a narrative clue for Mark’s readers as to why.

This may explain Jesus’ rather curious (backhanded?) compliment to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus notes that the scribe is “thoughful” (nounechos, only here in the NT)–he has got the right mind (nous) about it, but does he practice what he knows (loving God with soul and strength?)? Jesus did not invite the scribe to follow him and he did not say he was a kingdom participant. He still seems at a distance though near. Perhaps the scribe’s involvement in the temple complex was why, though near, he was not yet a Jesus-follower.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ “compliment,” the scribe correctly affirmed kingdom priorities. The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. It is that simple though it is far from simple; easy to grasp perhaps, but difficult to live. The kingdom is rooted, grounded and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.

It is rather sobering, however, to consider whether, possibly like the scribe, we are “not far from the kingdom of God.” Is it possible that we might affirm but not practice the two greatest commands? Is it possible that we might know better but we don’t do better? Is it possible that we know about God but we don’t know God as people who love our neighbors?

Is it possible, I wonder, whether we know the commandments but we are so emeshed in the structures of oppression and injustice (much like the scribes in the temple; like those living under Jim Crow or in southern slave states) that we don’t even recognize that we fail to love our neighbors even as we insist that we do?

May God have mercy on us all.

When Patternism Subverts Grace

April 17, 2009

If the life and ministry of Jesus is our pattern, then we all fall woefully short.

Consequently, whether it is conforming our character to the image of Jesus or embodying the ministry of Jesus through the church, we all–individuals and congregations–need divine mercy since we all fall woefully short of the image of God in Jesus.

While I am a patternist, I am not a perfectionist in either ethics or ecclesiology. Not all patternists are perfectionists (or legalists). Patternism per se neither entails legalism nor perfectionism. If it does, then everyone who believes that we are called to conform to the image (pattern) of Jesus is either a legalist or a perfectionist or both.

Legalism arises when the quantity, level and progress of sanctifiction is made a condition of communion with God.  Libertinism (or antinomianism) appears when sanctification is so disconnected from faith (seeking and trusting God) that whether we seek sanctification or not is inconsequential.

Ecclesiological perfectionism is when the understanding and practice of a set of ecclesiological patterns are made conditions of communion with God such that without perfect or precise compliance to those patterns (however they are defined) there is no hope or promise of salvation. 

In contrast I would suggest that perfect or precise compliance to ecclesiological patternism–like ethical conformation to the pattern of the life of Jesus–is not a condition of communion. Rather it is a matter of sanctification as we are conformed more closely to the image of Christ, both corporately and individually. To more closely conform to an ecclesiological pattern (however that is concieved or defined) is a matter of communal sanctification. It is a process, not an event. As a process, sanctification will never be perfect or 100%.

At the same time such conformation is something that faith seeks because we want to be like Jesus. When we refuse to conform to what we know that is rebellion. Insubmissive (rebellious) faith is not faith since faith involves trusting in Jesus and submissively pursuing God’s will in our life however imperfectly we may do that.

Ecclesiological patternism subverts grace when perfect obedience to a set of patterns for the church becomes a test of fellowship or a condition of communion with God. Ecclesiological patternism then becomes ecclesiological perfectionism. I define “perfect obedience” as precisely meeting a set of criteria for ecclesiological practice which distinguish between the “faithful” and the “unfaithful” (thus “apostate” which amounts to a “different religion” [see Jay Guin's assessment of Greg Tidwell's use of this language]).  In this context our faithfulness, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus, counts as our righteousness and salvation; it demands perfect obedience in order to measure up to the standard–we keep the pattern or there is no hope! This kind of ecclesiological patternism stresses that if we are guilty in one point, we are guilty of the whole. If a congregation is missing one mark of a true church, then it is a false church. This is ecclesiological perfectionism.

So, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who eat every Sunday and only on Sunday are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include singing a cappella, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who sang a cappella are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria included the absence of the female voice except in singing, then “perfect obedience” would mean only those assemblies where women were silent are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

I would suggest–without debating the merits of the examples above as parts of a biblical pattern–that ecclesiological patternism belongs in the category of communal sanctification. It is a process of growth, maturation and progressive conformation to the image of God in Christ.  Consequently, it is not so much about who is faithful and unfaithful (that is, who complied with the precise conditions of the pattern and who did not) but about orientation, direction and the submissive nature of their faith and heart. Faithfulness and unfaithfulness is more about faith itself than the accumulaton of specific acts of obedience or failure.

Moreover, I would suggest that there are more important questions in ecclesiological patternism than the frequency of the Lord’s Supper or the nature of music in the public assembly.  If ecclesiological patternism means engaging a process of conformation to the image of Christ, then here are few more important dimensions of the “pattern” than frequency and music style. Such as:

  • relationship with the poor (the pursuit of mercy)
  • the communal use of funds for ministry
  • advocacy for the oppressed, marginalized and excluded (the pursuit of justice)
  • leadership models within the community of faith
  • relationship with enemies
  • opposition to suffocating traditionalism that hinders the kingdom of God
  • outreach to the sheep without a shepherd or the lost

What I know is that I fall woefully short of these Christological patterns in my own life and in my community. I cannot soothe my imperfections by noting how well or precisely I comply with other dimensions of the pattern (e.g., Lord’s Supper and singing). However, by grace through faith, God is working with and in me to transform me into Christ’s image.  I am in process and I am not perfect.  I am neither perfectly obedient nor do I obey perfectly.  On the contrary, I submit my will to the process of God’s sanctifying work through faith and God redeems me by his grace through faith.

Patternism subverts the grace of God when it makes conformation to the pattern (however defined) as a condition of communion rather than as the fruit of God’s sanctifying work among his people through faith. Grace through faith is the means by which we commune with God and our conformation to the pattern of God in Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit is the means by which we become more and more like him. We are saved by grace through faith and works (sanctification) is the fruit of that communion with God.

I do not offer this post as definitive or indubitable.  Rather, it is only my thinking at this moment. It is part of my own sanctification as I reflect on the situation of fellowship within Churches of Christ.  I have hopes that the “Grace Conversation” website may yet be productive of mutual understanding. My next post will include a few historical reflections of where we are now as opposed to where we were 100 years ago in relation to ecclesiological perfectionism.

[I first offered some of this kind of soteriological reflection in my 1992 "Grace, Works and Assurance: A Theological Framework.]

I am a Patternist; Yes, Really!

February 12, 2009

Jesus is the logos (word) of God; he is our pattern, the speech of God. His life is the word of God. He embodies all that God desires.

Disciples of Jesus follow Jesus. They follow him into the water, and are thereby baptized. They follow him into the wilderness, and thus seek solitude with God in the midst of their trials. They follow him into intimacy with other disciples, and thus they seek honest relationships with other believers. They follow him to the table, and thus experience relationship with others and commune with God. They follow him into the world as missional people, and thus are heralds and practitioners of the good news. They follow him into the assemblies of God’s people to praise God, and thus they gather as a community to celebrate the good news of the kingdom. They follow him in pursuing mercy and justice, and thus seek to embody a righteousness that declares that the kingdom of God has arrived. Disciples of Jesus do not follow the church, they follow Jesus and thus become the church–the outpost of the kingdom of God in this broken world.

Patternists are generally concerned about “authority.”  I suggest that what Jesus does is our authority. His actions, teachings and practices authorize as they model how God incarnates himself as the presence of the kingdom of God in the world. We follow Jesus to become kingdom people. We are called to be Jesus in the world for the sake of the world.
The Gospels provide the pattern, that is, the ministry and life of Jesus. Acts illustrates how the early church lived out that pattern. The epistles interpret and apply the meaning of the good news of the kingdom for believers living in community. The Hebrew Scriptures give us the lens to read the story of God in Jesus within the frame of God’s story among his people and see the depth of Jesus’ life and teaching.

For example–and issues that are often the focus of patternistic discussions, we are baptized because Jesus was baptized; we eat and drink at the table of the Lord because Jesus did. We discern the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper thorugh the lens of God’s relationship with Israel, what it meant for Jesus within his own ministry, and how it was continued and interpreted in early Christian communities (Acts and Epistles). This is the approach I (along with my co-authors) utilized in my books on table, baptism and assembly.

The pattern for the church is not the historical descriptions in Acts, but the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. The pattern for the church is the ministry of Jesus. What Jesus began to do and teach, the early church continued.

Some patternists divorce the church from the ministry of Jesus and seek their patterns solely in Acts and the Epistles. Indeed, this was Alexander Campbell’s patternism. But to say that the pattern for the church of Christ cannot be located in Christ’s ministry seems counter-intuitive to me. It is like saying that the church can’t be like Jesus or that Jesus is not the model for the church. How can that be? The church is the body of Christ!

Simply speaking, I would suggest that the pattern for the kingdom of God is anticipated in Israel, fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, continued (applied and interpreted) by the early church, and brought to fullness (completion) in the new heaven and new earth. For a more detail explanation of this approach, interested persons can read my series on “Theological Hermeneutics” and the series entitled “It Ain’t That Complicated“.

The pattern for the kingdom of God lies on the surface of the story of God–it is the narrative of Jesus’ ministry in a broken world.  But that narrative is rooted in the theology and redemptive history of God’s story among his people–first in Israel, climaxed in Jesus, and practiced by the early church.  Rather than constructing patterns through stringing together isolated texts, I suggest we live out the pattern which is given to us in the narrative of Jesus’ own life.

Patterns, Legalism and Grace: J. D. Thomas

February 9, 2009

 Patternism and a healthy theology of grace are not mutually exclusive. 

previous post noted that Alexander Campbell did not make his particular understanding of the apostolic pattern a test of fellowship. The “ancient order” was not a soteriological category for him. Rather, it was a  matter of communal sanctification, a matter of growth, development and maturation. Consequently, he regarded other communities of faith than his own Christian.  What would “all that we have written on the unity of Christians on apostolic grounds” mean, he asked, “had we taught that all Christians in the world were already united in our own community?” (Millennial Harbinger 1837).

In this post I turn my attention to J. D. Thomas (1910-2004), Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University for thirty-three years. He is the author of probably the most significant hermeneutical manual for Churches of Christ–We Be Brethren (1958).  It assumes (practically everyone assumed it in the 1950s), explains and applies the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic in some detail. The issue the illicited the book was the raging controversy surrounding institutionalism.

Between 1950-1970 about 10% of Churches of Christ banded together as non-institutional congregations. The issues are both broad and narrow. Broadly, these congregations rejected the cultural assimiliation of Churches of Christ, as they saw it, into the mainstream of American denominationalism. Narrowly, they opposed the use of church funds (collected in the church treasury for kingdom work) to support human institutions (incoporated entitites like schools, children’s homes, mission boards [e.g., sponsoring congregations], or any parachurch organization). To these churches the support of such human institutions to do the work of the church is analogous to the support of missionary societies to do the work of the church.

Churches of Christ were generally agreed upon an apostolic pattern in the 1940s:  five acts of worship (a capella singing, praying, teaching, Lord’s supper, and giving), congregational polity with a plurality of elders and deacons, silence of women in the assembly except for singing, etc. This was supported by the standard hermeneutic: command, example and inference (CEI). But the institutional controversy raised specific questions about how to use church funds and how to apply the received hermeneutic.

Thomas defends patternism, explains the hermeneutic and applies it to institutional issues. Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985), one of the premier defenders of noninstitutionalism in the 1950s-1960s, reviewed Thomas’ book in 1959. That review, a series of articles, is available here. For Thomas, the NT contains a pattern–”a teaching that is binding or required of Christians today” and the “pattern principle” is “what bound the New Testament characters binds us, and what did not bind them does not bind us.”  And this pattern is “established by command, necessary inference, and example” (p. 254).

Thomas provided guidelines for how to apply the hermeneutic. His book has a glossary to define terms such as “generic authority,” “incomplete command,” “hypothesis of uniformity,” “hypothesis of universal application,” “excluded specific,” “overlapping classification,”  and “expedient.”  Sounds fairly technical, huh? Well, that is the point–Thomas took the standard CEI hermeneutic and gave it a “scientific” formulation in hopes of adjudicating the dispute between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists. My question has become–is reading the Bible for discipleship really that difficult?  See my series on “It Ain’t That Complicated.”

At the same time, Thomas is very concerned that the debate between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists reflects–on both sides–a deficient theology of grace. “Our real problem, and the place where we have become ‘bogged down’,” Thomas writes, “is in our tendencies to Legalism” (p. 119).  And “we should admit that we have all had Legalistic tendencies throughout the whole Brotherhood in tim past” (p. 116).  Hear his plea (239, 241):

The man who has not yet realized what it means that the Christian religion is a non-Legalistic, grace-faith system has not yet been able to be thrilled by its true meaning and beauty…When we truly realize the relatinship of faith and owrks in the Christian system–that we work because of our faith and to complete it, and not because of our relation to the Saviour, we find motivation for working even ‘beyond our power,’ yet with the greatest happiness and joy as children of the Most High God!…Matters such as ‘Love the Lord with all your heart,’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and ‘Christ liveth in me,’ cannot be reduced to little precise legal obligations.  Too many of us have thought of Christianity in too small terms and we have therefore failed to see its majesty and immensity and transcendent grandeur…All of us who have been in the church very long have been guilty of some Legalistic inclinations….none of us are ‘without sin.’ We have all no doubt argued strongly for points that we actually were not able to clearly prove to others. Perhaps there has been a degree of selfishness in the most of us, in being critical of the views of others without the ability to show clearly whereiin we were right. Tolerance, humility and a greater love for the Lord and for each other are in order if we want to solve our problems (and if we want to be saved). We must appreciate the fact that WE do BE BRETHERN, and that the tie that binds us in Christian unity is more important than our opinions.

 J. D. Thomas once told me that he was significantly influenced by the teaching and writing of K. C. Moser and that Moser’s understanding of grace was exactly the same as R. C. Bell, another of Thomas’ heroes in the faith and a primary representative of the Tennessee Tradition.  In fact,  Thomas once recalled that both R. C. Bell and G. C. Brewer were among the few who had a “good comprehension of grace” in mid-20th century Churches of Christ (Firm Foundation, “Law and Grace (2) 100 [23 August 1983] 579). And, I have argued, that it was partly the teaching of R. C. Bell and J. D. Thomas at Abilene Christian University that paved the way for a shift in the Texas Tradition toward a Tennessee (e.g., G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, James A. Harding) understanding of grace (see Thomas, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace). This shift, along with the popularity of Moser’s writings, led to “The Man or The Plan” controversy in the early 1960s. [As an aside, Harding College had actually kept this grace tradition alive through the teaching of J. N. Armstrong, Andy Ritchie, F. W. Mattox, and ultimately Jimmy Allen; and Harding College Press actually printed some of Moser's writings in the 1950s.]

My point is that though J. D. Thomas was a good patternist–a defender of patternism and CEI as a sound hermeneutic–he nevertheless preached a healthy theology of grace. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The question to pursue, however, is when does patternism subvert the gospel of grace in such a way that it actually becomes a legalism.  That question belongs to a future post.

Patterns, Legalism and Grace: Alexander Campbell

February 6, 2009

It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns.    

It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.

That is my summary of what I thought was the sentiment of Cecil May, Jr.’s concluding comments in his February 3, 2009 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship speech (see my previous post).

In this post and in a subsequent one, I will illustrate how this point has functioned in the thinking of two significant leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement: Alexander Campbell and J. D. Thomas. Both were patternists (to differing degrees), but did not permit their patternism to trump the fundamental truth of the gospel: we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.

In the 1825 Christian Baptist Alexander Campbell inaugurated his famous series “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” He thereby introduced “restoration” as a key term in the self-understanding of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  A patternism of some sort inheres in the idea of “restoration” as Campbell used it.

Campbell assumed (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the acts of worship on the first day of the week in Christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” The “authorized order” is the “same acts of religious worship” that “are to be performed every first day in every assembly of disciples” (CB 3 [4 July 1825] 164-166). Campbell believed there is a pattern (his favorite word for it, in good Reformed fashion, was “order”). Subsequent essays explained the role of breaking bread (Lord’s Supper), fellowship (contribution), and praise (singing). In addition, the “ancient order” included topics such as congregational polity (bishops, deacons) and discipline.

Campbell’s series intended to identify particulars where the “church of the present day” needed to be brought up to the “standard of the New Testament.” To “restore the ancient order of things” is to “bring the disciples individually and collectively, to walk in the faith, and in the commandments of the Lord and Saviour, as presented in that blessed volume” (CB 3 [7 February 1825] 124-128).

It is clear that the “ancient order” is serious business for Campbell. It is a matter of obedience to the commands of the New Testament. The series was a call to the church of his day to conform to the “order” contained in the New Testament, that is, to conform to the apostolic pattern in the New Testament.

The interesting question, however, is whether he thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?

This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370, emphasis mine–and thanks to Bobby Valentine who was the first to call my attention to this statement).

The pattern–the ancient order–was not a test of fellowship. It did not define Christian character. Campbell believed it was biblical and apostolic, but he did not believe obedience to it was a condition of salvation. The pattern was not a soteriological category, but rather an ecclesiological one.

If he did not identify these ecclesiological particulars as tests of fellowship, then what was the purpose of the series? He tells us. He believed that the restoration of the ancient order, though not necessary for fellowship and salvation, was “the perfection, happiness, and glory of the Christian community.” In other words, it was a means toward the unity of all believers. Restoration of the ancient order was not for the purpose determining true vs. apostate churches, but rather to set out a program upon which all believers might unite on the New Testament alone. If everyone would “discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined,” then “every thing is done which ought to be done” (CB 3 [7 March 1825] 133-136). He wanted to “unite all Christians on constitutional grounds” rather than on the basis of human creeds (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 360-61). The “ancient order,” according to Campbell, was the only legitimate (constitutional) and practical means of uniting all Christians, and it enable communities to discard their creeds and stand on the New Testament alone.

Theologically, this essentially means that eccelsiological patterns are matters of sanctification rather than justification (to use the classic terminology of Campbell’s era). The discernment, recognition and implementation of apostolic patterns were matters of growth and maturation. They were not the foundation of the church–who is Jesus, and the confession that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God–but rather the sanctification of the church in conformity to a constitutional model of reading the New Testament.

Campbell never applied the “ancient order” as either a test of salvation or fellowship.  However, he did attempt to persuade others that a return to the “ancient order” was the way to restore unity to a divided Christianity.

Subsequent participants in the “Restoration Movement” turned the “ancient order” into a test of fellowship as the fundamental identity of the New Testament church, the distinguishing mark between the true church and apostate churches.  That was never Campbell’s intention and he would have regarded it as a subversion of the gospel itself–substituting the “ancient order” for the confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the true test of faith.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Sabbath Controversy in Matthew 12

January 8, 2009

A “God of technicalities”?

The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 79-91. I have now uploaded this on my Academic page.

At some point in the future, I may reflect in personal terms on how that study subsequently impacted me. But that is for another time when I have more time. Perhaps I will make it part of a series about theological turning points in my life. 

However, I linked it today because it relates to my last post, especially the paragraph I quoted from Daniel Sommer at the end of that post. Sommer rebuked what he called a “technical” use of the hermeneutic of silence and authorization. No doubt many wondered whether Sommer himself was not guilty of similar technicalities on where he drew lines of fellowship. In other words, why is the use of instrumental music in a worshipping assembly a godly reason to limit fellowship but to break fellowship over the right hand of fellowship is a technicality? Especially, I might add, when we have technical definitions of when a worshipping assembly begins and ends (choirs–even instruments!–are permitted after the closing prayer but not before), whether a family worship in the home using the piano meets the definition of “worshipping assembly, etc.

Sommer’s language of technicality intrigued me.  That language sometimes pops up in the Stone-Campbell Movement. One recent example  is F. LaGard Smith’s argument that the God of Jesus is a “God of technicalities” (e.g., Naaman, Uzzah) in his Who is My Brother? Facing A Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (p. 252; also p. 127).

It seems to me that this is exactly where Matthew 12:1-14, including the quotation of Hosea 6:6, has something to teach us.  God is not interested in technicalities–he desires mercy rather than sacrifice.  Technically, David broke the law when he ate the “bread of presence” because he was hungry and in a hurry.  Technically, the priests profane the Sabbath every week when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath.  But if we understand the heart of God, then we will not make these technicalities into fellowship barriers between God and humanity.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 as a hermeneutical principle.  If the Pharisees had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would have had the theological and hermenutical lens through which to consider the actions of others. If they had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples….and neither would we condemn David…and perhaps we might not condemn each other as well.

When we evaluate others based on the technicalities of ritual and precision obedience, we miss the heart of God. God is relational, not technical.  God is more interested in mercy than he is ritual.  God is more interested in relationship than he is perfectionistic precision. This is the declaration of Hosea 6:6, the application of Jesus, and Matthew expects his readers to embrace it as a principle for living in relationship with others (see also the use of “mercy” in 9:13 and 23:23).

This does not entail a rationale or an excuse for disobedience, but it should soften our heart with the mercy of God as we relate to others. After all, should we not treat others with the mercy with which God treats us? And, indeed, I need lots of mercy…mercy for my actions, my words, my ignorance…and much more!  I am grateful that God’s heart yearns for mercy more than sacrifice, for heart more than ritual, for relationality more than technicality.

The article I have posted–first written as a seminar paper for a course at Western Kentucky University in 1980–was one of my first steps toward seeing God’s heart instead of what I once thought was his technicalities.  Maybe it might help you…or maybe not.   :-)

Controversies over Hands–Forgotten Debates

January 4, 2009

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922) belonged to the same theological orbit. They started the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) together in 1891. Harding, for a time, was an associate editor of the Gospel Advocate in the 1880s.lipscomb-and-harding They agreed on a host of theological issues, including opposition to rebaptism, renewed earth eschatology, special providence, pacifism, sole allegiance to the kingdom of God in opposition to allegiance to the nations, etc. Bobby Valentine and I have written about their spiritual legacy among Churches of Christ in Kingdom Come.

However, they did not agree on everything.  Harding, I believe, was more of a hardliner on ecclesial practices. His insistence on following the examples of the New Testament and the use of the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic was more strenuous than Lipscomb.  While Lipscomb opted for some flexibility here, Harding sought precision in every detail when it came to imitating the New Testament church.

Two of the most significant disagreements, which yield considerable discussion in the first decade of the 20th century, regarded the use of hands–the laying on of hands and the right hand of fellowship.  On both of these issues Harding insisted on following what he thought was the biblical pattern whereas Lipscomb failed to discern any precise or obligatory pattern on these questions.  Consequently, we have a good example of two prominent leaders among Churches of Christ from the same theological orbit addressing “church practices” in relation to the biblical pattern on the basis of the same hermeneutic but yet disagreeing.  They were “divided” but somehow remained “united,” as Armstrong’s article reproduced in my previous post trumpets.

Laying on of Hands

Lipscomb thought it unnecessary and without Scriptural authority, but Harding believed he was following the example of the apostles and their example should always be followed when it comes to ecclesial practices.

Harding believed that elders and evangelists should be appointed through a laying on of the hands, fasting and prayer.  This is the apostolic example of Acts 13:1-2 and Acts 14:23. Regarding these texts, Harding wrote:  “we learn that we are under solemn obligation to follow apostolic teaching and example, that in so doing we are following Christ. If we neglect to follow apostolic teaching and example, we neglect to follow Christ.”  It is, according to Harding, “scriptual and safe” when elders are appointed in this way (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8-9).

Lipscomb contended that there was no example of anyone appointed to an office by the laying of hands in the New Testament.  At one level, Lipscomb did not believe the evangelist or elder occupied an office, and at another level he did not believe there was any example of appointing persons to a task by the laying on of hands.  Since there is no biblical example or precept, there is no obligation. Indeed, it is “a practice without scriptural authority” (“Appointment and Laying on of Hands,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [27 March 1906] 4).

Do we follow apostolic example or not? Is there an example? Is it binding? The Churches of Christ, in the first decade of the 20th century, were divided on these questions.  Jesse Sewell and James A. Harding on one side of the question and David Lipscomb along with E. A. Elam and others on the other side .  This, according to Harding, is a “very radical difference in judgment” between believers “who are on most points of doctrine in full accord” (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8). It needs to be settled so that there is no division.

Right Hand of Fellowship

Daniel Sommer–editor of the Octographic Review–thought it necessary, Lipscomb–editor of the Gospel Advocate– thought it good but optional, and Harding–editor of The Way– thought it should be prohibited.

In the late nineteenth century, the dominant practice–”nearly all, if not all, congregations of the disciples of Christ” (Harding, “What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8)– of receiving another person from one congregation to another was by the corporate extenstion of the “right hand of fellowship.” This was a corporate, congregational act. The whole congregation lined up to extend their “right hand of fellowship” one by one to the new member as part of the assembly itself.  Sometimes, however, an elder acted for the whole congregation in receiving the new member.  Either way it was an ecclesial act in the assembly. The “right hand of fellowship,” then, brought that new member under the oversight of the eldership of that particular congregation. When this was extended to a Baptist who wanted to now join fellowship with a Church of Christ, those who opposed this union with a Baptist without rebaptism called this “shaking in the Baptists.”

Sommer believed that Acts 15, Galatians 2, and Acts 11 all involved the reception of members through the right hand of fellowship. He believed there was apostolic example.  Moreover, he believed that it was an “unavoidable conclusion” that members should be received through the “right hand of fellowship” into a local church so that the elders of that congregation might have disciplinary authority.  No congregation can exercise discipline unless there was some formal entrance into the local congregation itself. (See his articles “Concerning the Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 45 [11 November 1902] 1, 8 and “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.)

Though he onced practiced the custom, when Harding was thirty-four he discovered it was not in the New Testament. From then on he regarded it as an innovation. If we cannot “read it in the very words of the New Testament” it should not appear in the assembly (“What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8). Though it is often regarded as a “church ordinance” rivaling baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no authority in Scripture for this congregational act in the assembly.  Any fair look at the New Testament would discover that “the giving of the right hands of fellowship for the purpose of receiving baptized belivers into the fellowship of the congregation is without Scriptural authority” (“Brother Sommer’s Visit. No. II.,” The Way 5 [30 July 1903], 755). According to Harding, it is a “high crime against God, Christ and the Holy Spirit” to add an unauthorized practice to the assembly, and such additions will receive the judgment of God just like Uzzah.  We should, according to Harding, “give up this unapostolic, man-made ordinance, and abide in the teaching of Christ”…and we should “remember Uzzah” (“An Article Suggested by Brethren Cain, Hillyard and ‘A Well-Known’ Texas Preacher,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [30 April 1907] 8).

Interestingly, on this question Harding was alligned with the majority of writers in the Firm Foundation (one notable exception is Jackson, McGary’s co-editor in the 1890s). For example, Price Billingsley (“‘Hand of Fellowship’ Again,” Firm Foundation 18 [14 April 1902] 2) writes that “we can not worship and honor God in doing something that he has not told us to do; and it must be that these things are done to please men; and if true it becomes mockery instead of true. worship.” It is an “unauthorized” practice since there is no command, example or inference for it as a corporate act in the assembly.

Another interesting dimension of this debate is that the precise difference between Sommer and Harding, according to Sommer, is that Harding extends the right hand of fellowship individually to new members after the formal closure of the assembly while Sommer does it in the assembly (“Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1) and that Harding thinks it authorized for individuals as individuals but not for the corporate body.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  I remember discussions about whether a College chorus (choir) was permissable as long as it was heard after the closing prayer of the assembly and noninstitutionalists stress the significant difference between individual and corporate acts. Harding argued something similar about the right hand of fellowship.  Somethings don’t change when we seek a pattern in the New Testament that does not exist. 

No Division

Churches of Christ did not divide over these issues.  Though Harding–as one among others–thought the questions were matters of compliance with apostolic example (laying on of hands) and the silence of Scripture(right hands), the movement as a whole did not divide.  (There were, however, a few congregations that did divide.) 

Lipscomb’s methods prevailed. Lipscomb regarded “right hands” as optional, and given the desire for unity, it was done after the closing prayer rather than in the assembly.  Elders were generally appointed without the laying on of hands and usually–if not practically always–without fasting.  By the 1950s it was a rare congregation that had a communal ceremony for receiving new members with the right hand of fellowship in the assembly and that appointed elders through fasting and the laying on of hands.Churches of Christ, in my experience and in my reading in the mid and late 20th century, were not convinced by Harding’s arguments but followed Lipscomb’s practice on both the right hand of fellowship and the appointment of elders. 

What we have in this story is an example how Churches of Christ negotiated their hermeneutic so that they did not divide over these questions even though the same principles and hermeneutic were utilized to separate from congregations that used musical instruments in their assemblies.

Perhaps “common sense” prevailed–as it has saved us from our hermeneutic at times in the past.  Perhaps instrumental music was such an embedded cultural concern (“worldliness”) that it transcended mere pattern arguments. (Remember one of the first articles against instrumental music in the Stone-Campbell Movement was also about dancing!)  I don’t know, but it is an interesting question to think about.

In our history, some things divide us but do not subvert the unity (“right hands” and “laying on of hands”).  Other things divide us and prevent unity (“instrumental music” and whether there should be more than one elder).  But both are pursued through the same hermeneutic with the same assumptions about assembly and ecclesial patterns. Some things create a division, others do not.

Go figure.  :-)

P.S. I found this particular paragraph from Daniel Sommer quite interesting, and it is filled with questions about the ambiguity of the received hermeneutic–to what does it apply and to what does it not apply.  Sommer, “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.  See what you think.

     Another evidence that those who denounce a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship are technical is that they have never been, they are not, and never will be consistent.  They say, “There is no divine precept nor example for a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship, and therefore it should not be practiced.” But this is what may be called “one premise logic.” The major premise is suppressed. What is that major premise? It is this general proposition: Whatever practice is not authorized by divine precept or example should not be adopted, or, having been adopted, should be discontinued. Those who assume that such a proposition is true, will need to discontinue all formal exercises when they are going to preach to sinners, all formal invitations to sinners in the public congregation, all formal invitation songs in the congregation, all rising up to give thanks at the communion table, all formality in regard to attidute in time of prayer, all formal invitations to preachers to hold protracted meetings, and all formal acceptance of such invitations on the part of preachers, all formal keeping of church records, and all formal business meetings of the church. I could mention more, but this is enough.

“It Ain’t that Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics VI

August 13, 2008

Do we need “authority” for what we believe and practice in the kingdom of God?

I think so. 

It seems that Jesus was concerned about that very question when he raised it with his inquisitors regarding the baptism of John.  “By what authority” seems to be a legitimate question (Matthew 23:23-27).  [Perhaps someone might quibble with my use of that text--I understand that, but I will leave the larger question to the side for the moment.  I will simply assume, for my present purposes, that disciples of Jesus need "authority" for what they believe and practice in the kingdom of God.]

Now the question is what do we mean by “authority”? What are we talking about? 

Limiting myself to the historic position among Churches of Christ on “biblical authority,” I want to discuss this point in the light of two variant approaches.

One answer might be something like this.  What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is positive law. In other words, to search out the rules and regulations which govern the church as if New Testament documents intended to fully set out a pattern for the church in terms of assembly, organization, etc. These rules, for example, are specific and exclude coordinates (not simply what contradicts the command, but what is coordinate to the command). The specific of bread and wine, for example, excludes any other food in addition to the bread and wine. The specific of singing excludes any addition to the singing (including humming, playing or handclapping, etc.). The specific of first day of the week Lord’s Supper excludes any other day. What is assumed is that each of these texts intend to be specific exclusionary commands. This is a process for discerning positive law, and it assumes a constitutional literary model, legal hermeneutics, isolation of texts from contexts in order to place them in a legal syllogistic frame, human inferences about “coordinates” and their nature, and the Reformed regulative principle among other things. I have critiqued this approach in my previous articles on hermeneutics, especially the series on Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics and this present series.

Another answer might be something like this.  What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is an organic connection or relationship with the gospel (the Christ Event). Jesus is the authority in the kingdom of God–the meaning and significance of his life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension are the authority for disciples of Jesus. Whatever we do in the kingdom of God must be rooted, connected to and organically grow out of the Christ Event. It is fundamentally the imitation of Jesus, but more broadly the imitation of God (theocentric focus) who is revealed in Jesus and through redemptive history.

The problem with positive law is that we don’t have any instruction within the New Testament that fits the genre of a legal code in the New Testament.  The Christ Event is the core message of the New Testament and the theological reality which is the hermeneutical lens for Paul (as an example).  If you have read my previous posts on hermeneutics, you can understand why I think the “Christ Event” rather than “positive law” is the root of authority in the kingdom of God. 

Authority derives climatically from the mighty act of God in Jesus whose significance has been lived out in Israel previously and the church subsequently. Authority in the kingdom of God is not about legal propositions but authentic revelation of the heart of God in Jesus.

But how does this work? Those within Churches of Christ are quite familiar with how positive law functions within a paradigm of command, example and inference that assumes a legal pattern for the church within the New Testament. But authority derived from the act of God in Jesus does not resonate well with those trained in the legal hermeneutic of positive law.  Consequently, I will briefly illustrate what I mean by this.

Those who know my writings know that I have spent quite a bit of time and used quite a bit of space talking about the sacraments or ordinances of the gospel (Baptism, Lord’s Supper and–I would add–Assembly).

The practice and meaning of these sacramental moments is derived from the Christ Event rather than a positive law. This was part of my purpose in my “sacramental triology” on Baptism, Lord’s Supper and Assembly.

Baptism. Disciples follow Jesus into the water.  They commit themselves, as Jesus did, to the ministry of the kingdom through their baptism. They are declared children of God at their baptism. They are gifted with the Holy Spirit to minister at their baptism.  Jesus is the model of baptism; his baptism is the first Christian baptism. As disciples of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the way of the cross through baptism just as he did.

Israel anticipated this purification act through their own water rituals and the early church continued the water ritual of baptism as initiation into the community, participation in the gospel, and anticipation of the eschaton.

Lord’s Supper. Disciples follow Jesus to the table. They continue the table ministry of Jesus through the breaking of bread–eating with sinners and saints, Pharisees and prostitutes. At the table, Jesus breaks the bread, communes with us, and we enjoy the fellowship of the kingdom.  But the table is characterized by kingdom etiquette–it welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the wealthy, sick, etc. At the table we sit as servants together in the kingdom of God and declare the gospel in word and deed.

Israel anticipated this table fellowship through the thanksgiving (fellowship) offerings of the Levitical system which was a daily event in Israel and part of every festival.  The early church continued breaking bread with Jesus and each other, both daily and every first day of the week. The practice of the table was declaration of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.

Assembly. Disciples follow Jesus into the assembly of God’s people.  Jesus assembled with the people of God to declare the praise of God, and he calls us to gather together in his name to pray. He is present with us, joins in our chorus of praise to the Father, and by the presence of the Spirit transforms us into his image.

Israel anticipated the assembly of God’s people with Jesus through their own assemblies in the presence of God (Leviticus 23) as their festivals were sacred moments of encounter between God and his people.  The early church continued the practice of assembling for prayer as well as mutual encouragement, but it was not simply for encouragement but also to meet with Jesus and enter the Holy of Holies as a community. Assembling is a witness of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.

Thus, disciples seek “authority” in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus rather than in prescriptive rules and regulations that are embedded in a legal constitution. We seek authority in the story of God among his people so that we might participate in that story, imitate the life of God in that story, and become the image of God in the world rather than finding a pattern (which we have to construct because it is not explicitly there) in order to build our congregations like Moses built the tabernacle.

I know that there are many other hermeneutical issues to consider.  I have made a feeble, fallible and flawed attempt to think through some of the issues of hermeneutical method.  I hope it is beneficial to some and at least food for thought to all.

Now I take leave for a few days to watch the Cubs in Atlanta as the eschaton is on the horizon with the Cubs in first place!  :-)


John Mark

“It Ain’t That Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics V

August 11, 2008

So, what about the assembly? 

["What about lifestyle?" is, of course, an equally--perhaps more--important question, but this has not been the historic location of hermeneutical debates among Churches of Christ though I hope we will spend more time on that question in the future--and sometimes in the past we have, as with David Lipscomb and James A. Harding (see Valentine and Hicks in Kingdom Come).]

If it is not a legal requirement to take up a collection for the poor and the kingdom of God in the assembly on every first day of the week, should we continue the practice? Do we have “authority” for such?  And for what should we use it?

What regulates the assembly?  Is it positive law?  I think not.  Rather, it is the gospel. [Valentine, Melton and Hicks discuss this question in the last chapter of their book A Gathered People.]

I would suggest that both life and assembly–or perhaps better stated, assembly as one aspect of life–is regulated by the gospel.  The gospel is not understood here as a set of commands, prescriptions and positive laws.  Rather, the gospel is the Christ Event (the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus).  The criterion is not a particular text in Scripture as a postive law but rather the mystery of Christ revealed who shapes our lives and assemblies. Our lives and assemblies should be “worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27),  that is, they should image the reality of God in Jesus.

So, the question, then, is not where are the laws regulating or governing how we conduct our assembly with regard to a “financial” plan for the church.  Rather, the question is whether contributing money in the assembly embodies or images the reality of God in Jesus. Is a weekly contribution “worthy of the gospel”?  I think so.

How do we know whether it is “worthy of the gospel?”  Well, it means asking the question whether contributing to the poor embodies the gospel, is consistent with the gospel, and flows from the gospel? Does it bear witness to the gospel? Is it the gospel in action?

Since the gospel is the Christ Event (it is the good news of the kingdom of God for the poor that arrives in Jesus), we are asking whether contributing to the poor as a communal act in the assembly embodies the good news of the kingdom, is consistent with it, and flows from it.

It seems to me that the answer is rather obvious. Jesus ministered to the poor. He became poor for our sakes and asks us to sell our possessions and give to the poor. The gospel is good news for the poor. If this is the meaning of the gospel in relation to the poor, then for the community of Jesus gathered in the name of Jesus to contribute to a common fund for the poor is an act worthy of the gospel.

I often feel that our moment of giving in the assembly is underemphasized. It is tacted onto the Lord’s Supper or made part of the announcements. It almost appears as an afterthought (though I realize collecting money is never any church leadership’s afterthought! :-) ).

I would rather see it receive a gospel emphasis. It ought to be a weekly reminder that our resources do not belong to us. That our resources are not simply for us. Rather, because of the gospel, we share our resources. Because of the gospel, we give for the sake of the poor. This moment in the assembly is a sacred one because giving is an act of grace that testifies to the grace of Jesus in our lives and brings grace (thanksgiving) to God. Our weekly act of giving in the assembly is a moment of participation in the gospel itself!  Does it belong in the assembly?  Of course, just as much as proclaiming the gospel in word (teaching) and eating/drinking (table). It is the gospel in deed just as baptism and the Supper are the gospel in water and wine.

Do we, however, need some “simple rules” or “laws” for giving? Maybe, as a matter of pragmatics. What might those look like? Well, here goes….

When should we give? Whenever we have opporutunity to embody the good news of the kingdom and are blessed with the resources to give. And the weekly assembly is a wonderful moment to give communally as a witness to the gospel as we have been prospered by God’s gifts to us but, of course, it should not be the only moment, especially as God brings other opportunities into our lives. 

Indeed, it might be a turning of CEI on its head to say, for example, I give all my money to the church on Sunday because this is what is required by 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.  I’ve actually heard some argue that we should give to no one or nothing other than the church on Sunday. This makes the assembly and the common fund the only resource of God’s kingdom on earth.  This not only bad hermeneutics, but it is a delimiting understanding of the kingdom and the nature of kingdom work.  Kingdom work is not limited to  church treasury funds!

Where should we give? Wherever there is a need to which the good news of the kingdom is an answer, and not merely in the assembly. Giving is a lifestyle; it is gospel living. It is not merely an act of the assembly.

We have been so “assembly-oriented” or “assembly-focused” that it is easy to forget that our gracious, giving and self-denying lifestyle is the essence of discipleship rather than a single contribution on Sunday.

How should we give? Give freely out of our resources by whatever means our resources permit us to give for the sake of the good news of the kingdom. If we merchandise the gospel (that is, sell the services of the gospel), we deny the nature of the gospel as a gift. So, I don’t charge for baptisms.  :-) However, if I can run my business so that its profits, or its commodities, or its services might serve the kingdom of God, I see no problem. If the government is willing to fund a day-care at my congregation (unless the nature of the strings attached deny the gospel), I am will to help low income families provide care for their children. I think the principle is so broad that fundraising or the receipt of funds is open-ended as long as any such receipt does not deny the gospel to which we want to bear witness and embody in our world.

Remember, however, that “gospel” here does not refer to a constructed pattern out of the rules of CEI. Rather, it refers to the ministry and work of Jesus (the Christ Event).

For what should we give? To anything that serves the goals of the kingdom of God–anything that furthers the ministry of Jesus in the world. If it participates in the purpose of the gospel itself (to seek and to save the lost, to reverse the curse, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give justice for the oppressed, etc.), then it is a worthy object of our giving and a worthy object of the common fund of the community. The kingdom is served in a myriad of ways: contributions to adoption agencies, inner city youth programs, hospitals, educational institutions, etc., etc. The kingdom is served by salaried ministers, buildings that are used rather than sit empty six days a week, etc, and when they are used for the goals of the kingdom, then they are worthy objects of our giving and worthy objects of the common fund of the community (the church treasury, in other words).

When we use some abstract notions of “institutionalism” or “denominationalism” to deny helping those who are furthering the ministry of Jesus, who are serving the poor, who are feeding the hungry, who are clothing the naked, who are protecting the oppressed, etc., then it seems to me we have exalted our own inferential opinions and patternistic constructions above the basic work of the gospel itself. To say, for example, that a church cannot contribute from their treasury to an institution caring for  hungry children is to place the “pattern” (constructed out of our inferences!) above the the ministry of Jesus himself.  Now, that is a crying shame.  May God have mercy. 

If the poor are Jesus in disguise, can we imagine a situation where we cannot contribute from the church treasury to “X” (any institution) that is caring for the poor because Jesus has given us a pattern that congregations cannot give to human institutions in principle?  In that way Jesus denies ministry to the poor to his own church!

I understand that my institutional brothers and sisters have many other issues at work here such as counter-culturalism, radical sectarianism (in the sense of noninstitutional orientation), etc.  But the ultimate effect, it seems to me, is to deny the church the opportunity to do the ministry of Jesus through institutions or organizations or ministries that are helping the poor. 

And this is not just a problem for “institutional” brothers and sisters since I have heard many within “mainline” (institutional) Churches of Christ argue similarily–the church can’t give to X because it is not the church or the church won’t get the credit, etc.  I would suggest that when the poor are helped, God is glorified.  But enough of my “soapbox.”

My point is that there are no postive laws that govern the collection and use of the common fund of the community. Rather, there is the gospel, how that gospel is embodied in Jesus himself in his own ministry, how Israel and the early church practiced the good news of the kingdom, and what the good news of the kingdom is.

The Christ Event, the good news of the kingdom of God, shapes our giving. We are invited to participate in the story of God in Jesus. Whatever object or means of giving serves and embodies the ends of the kingdom of God is God-honoring. Instead of searching for laws to delimit our giving, the gospel demands we seek out opportunities to “do good” among all peoples and nations.

When the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ healing ministry on the Sabbath because it broke Sabbath traditions (laws), his response was: “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).

When well-intentioned people haggle over the details of how, when, where and for what to give as a community (over what comes out of the church treasury or cannot come out that common fund) based on legal regulations or positive laws or church patterns, I tend to respond: “It is lawful to do good with the Lord’s money.”

Indeed, it is all the Lord’s money. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to embody the gospel and participate in the gospel by doing good with his money in every way we can and at every opportunity we have whether collectively through a common fund or individually.

“It Ain’t That Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics IV

August 9, 2008

Rejecting 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 as a prescriptive positive law regulating how the church should give, but embracing it as an arrangement by which the church might be the instrument of God’s grace to others (as so intepretered by 2 Corinthians 8-9), by what hermeneutic do we discern our relationship to the poor or our responsibility to the church’s financial responsibilities?

Hermeneutic for the Poor

Christ Event. Jesus is the image of God in the world. And Jesus priortized a ministry to the poor. Luke 4:16ff is programmatic for the ministry of Jesus. It is his Messianic mission–to preach good news to the poor. This includes a compassion for the poor to alleviate their suffering and needs. It is the language of Jubilee where all debts are released. The poor are no longer poor. Indeed, Jesus explicitly called his disciples to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33a; see an earlier post).

Church. The church is the body of Christ in the world. And the church in Acts prioritized a ministry to the poor. Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 illustrate how dedicated the Jerusalem church was to sharing with the needy among them so that there would be no poor within their community (see an earlier post). They did what Jesus called them to do.  They sold their possessions and gave to the poor.

Israel. We could also move back into the history of Israel (redemptive history) for further illumination since God intended that there should be “no poor” among them (Deuteronomy 15:4 which is echoed in Acts 4:34). Israel, like the Church, was to function as a redemptive community that redeemed poverty within the community and assisted others as well (“aliens” in Israel, for example, and “do good to all” as per Galatians 6:10). Deuteronomy 15 is illustrative of this for Israel as well as other texts scattered throughout the Hebrew canon (e.g., Amos and Hosea).

Luke-Acts. Returning to the framework of Luke-Acts, what Jesus–as the true remant of Israel and the image of God–”began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1), the church–the body of Christ–continues doing and teaching. We follow Jesus, the true Jew who is also the Son of God.

Given the data that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry to the poor, that this value was practiced and prioritized in Israel and the church, how do we live that out today? Understanding this value, we must commit ourselves to embodying it today. How do we move from then to now?

Analogous Method. We may think analogously as we seek to imaginatively invest our community’s present life with the meaning and value of the Christ Event. We must imaginatively place ourselves within the story (metanarrative or theodrama) of Scripture so as to participate in the mission and ministry of Jesus. In other words, given the theology of the Christ Event (and how the communities of faith in Scripture lived that out) and given the different situation in which we live as community, how ought that theology be lived out in this new situation?

We are not given specific rules and regulating laws for how to do this. Rather, we are given a story in which to participate, a life to imitate, and examples of earlier communites of faith–both in Israel and early congregations–to emulate. We embrace the gospel, watch how the gospel was embodied in the early chruch, and–with that guidance–seek to embody the gospel today. As Richard Hays notes (Moral Vision of the New Testament, 302), “the normative function of this narrative [Acts 2 and Acts 4] is still metaphorical in the sense I am describing: in this text, we are given neither rules for the community life nor economic principles; instead, we are given a story that calls us to consider how in our communities we might live analogously, how our economic practices might powerfully bear witness to the resurrection so that those who later write our story might say, ‘And great grace was upon them all.’ The Word leaps the gap.”

Simple Hermeneutic?

What is a “simple” theological hermeneutic? The most basic answer is:  imitate Jesus as he imitates God.  The incarnate life and ministry of Jesus is the pattern that is the image of the Pattern (God). 

But how do we know what this means?  We understand it, I think, through discerning the theological dynamic (or substance) that is the Christ Event, observing how that substance has been lived out in Israel and the early church, and applying that substance to our own circumstances.  We read the text, discern the theology [the Christ Event as the imaging of God lived out in Israel and the church], and apply the theology.

Discerning and applying the theology is not filtered through some kind of patternistic lens that looks for positive laws to govern the life of believers and the community since these nowhere appear within the apostolic writings. It is not what they intended to do.  Rather, discerning and applying the theology entails identifying the paradigmatic Christ Event (which the apostolic writings narrate, interpret and apply as the poets and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures anticipate), observing how Israel in a typological way and the church in fulfillment lived out the values of that Christ Event (redemptive-historical concerns), and how, thinking analogously, we can live out those same values in our own context in a way the embodies the Christ Event analogous to how the early church did.

At bottom, the contemporary church is not a replica of the Corinthian, Jerusalem, or Roman churches. It is not identical–our context is different, for example.  Rather, the contemporary church seeks to be an analogue of the Corinthian, Jerusalem and Roman chuches, that is, to embody and live out the Christ Event in our day as they sought to do in theirs. We do not replicate or duplicate the Corinthian church (or a constructed “ideal” church from the New Testament that never actually existed–nor would we expect humans to actually realize such ideals or perfection). Rather, we proclaim the gospel, live worthy of it, and thus become an analogue of those churches in the New Testament. What we have in common is the embrace and embodiment of the Christ Event itself though our embrace is often weak and our embodiment always flawed. Only Jesus himself–the incarnate body of Christ–is the true and perfect “church.”

So, the method is simple (I think), but also profound (profound because of the “mystery of the gospel” involved), as:

  1. Discern the mystery (reality) of the Christ Event (the gospel).
  2. Discover how this mystery was lived out in Israel and the Church to illuminate the potential practical outworkings of this mystery.
  3. Analogously live out those same values in our context.

On the topic of the poor, meaning that:

  1. The incarnate Jesus became poor to minister to the poor, calling his followers to care for the poor.
  2. Israel and the Church sought to have no poor among them and act benevolently toward the poor.
  3. Analogously, we live and give in such a way that there are no poor among us and we minister to the poor in our communities.

Pretty simple?  At one level, yes indeed. Follow Jesus in serving the poor and observe how redemptive communities in Scripture lived out that value for guidance in serving the poor today. What potentially complicates this is if we expect to find specific positive laws that regulate the how, when, where and why of this service to the poor. If we expect to find a specific positive law about what to do with money put into the church treasury, then we will probably find one.  But I would suggest that this expectation distorts the story and turns us away from thinking about embodiment (how to live it out; how to participate in the story) to how to construct (and obey) the pattern. It is much more simple to follow Jesus by embodying his ministry to the poor as a community of faith.

But at another level, living this out, finding ways to authentically minister, and having the heart/integrity/love to actually sacrifice for the poor (“sell our possessions and give to the poor”) is a difficult agenda for comfortable, materialistic and self-absorbed American Christians. Simple, but extremely problematic. It demands denying our selves, picking up our cross and following Jesus.

It is better to give than to construct legal regulations for giving.


“Father, increase our faith. Give us the heart to share with and minister among the poor as your Son did. Give us the wisdom to see how to do that in ways that display your glory and proclaim the good news of your kingdom.”

May God have mercy, and may he give us the grace to give rather than arguing about the “laws of giving.” 

(P. S.  So, what is the practical answer–however–to giving on the first day of the week?  Should we or shouldn’t we?  For what purpose? For what use of the money? More to come…..)