Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.


Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN


On Children, Baptism and David Lipscomb (1914)

May 23, 2014

While there are many variations along a continuum, credobaptists (that is, those who baptize believers) approach children within the faith community in two major ways. On the one hand there are the revivalists, but on the other hand there are those who emphasize nurture.

Revivalists believe that children within the faith community, at some point, become sinners (some might think they are born such or at least guilty of Adamic sin) when they reach an age of accountability (however that is defined). They believe children are objects of evangelism. So, many credobaptists encourage children to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and those among Churches of Christ baptize only those who confess they are sinners. The latter are baptized in order to be saved, and they would (according to many) be lost without that baptism, though identifying the age at which they became lost is ambiguous (and often worrisome for parents).

Those who emphasize nurture believe children grow up in faith as part of a faith community. They are maturing disciples rather than lost sinners. They are baptized, then, in order to affirm their faith, own their discipleship, and receive God’s promised blessings. They are baptized because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus told them to be baptized.

I have previously argued in a couple of books on baptism, an article in the Christian Standard, and on this blog that the latter approach is the better one. I will not rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to point to a historical precedent within Churches of Christ.

David Lipscomb did not think one had to impose “a heavy weight of guilt” upon those who were “reared in the training and instruction of the Lord.” When those so nurtured want to be baptized, it is sufficient that they want to obey the Lord.

When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be, is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to ‘be baptized into the remission of sins.’ Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God. [David Lipscomb, “A  Summary. No. 2,” Gospel Advocate 56 (1 January 1914), 11.]

I think Lipscomb offers some godly advice for parents, ministers, and youth leaders.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]