God’s Gifts to Israel

July 11, 2019

The most gut-wrenching expression of Paul’s love for his own nation Israel is found in Romans 9:1-5. Israel, though gifted by God with wondrous privileges, had rejected God’s Messiah. Paul was heartbroken as he listed the gifts in an overflow of praise for God’s grace toward Israel. He names six gifts.

The first is adoption. God adopted Israel and gave them an inheritance, a double inheritance because Israel is God’s firstborn among the nations.

The second gift is the divine glory. The Shekinah glory settled on the tabernacle and the temple. God gave that redemptive presence to Israel in a unique way unlike how God related to other nations. God came to rest within Israel and walk among them.

The third gift are the covenants. God entered into a succession of covenants with Israel. Beginning with the Abrahamic promise, God then initiated a covenantal relationship with Israel through the Mosaic covenant. God mediated his grace and mercy through the priestly Levitical covenant and assured Israel of their perpetuity through the Davidic covenant. The covenants meant that God was committed to Israel and enjoyed communion with them.

The fourth gift is the Torah. God gave the Torah to Israel as a gracious gift. It was not primarily a legal code but guidance for how to become the image of God in the world as a nation. The Torah guides Israel as they walk with God in the land of promise.

The fifth gift is temple worship. The temple (or literally, the liturgical service), with all the festivals and rituals connected to it, was God’s gracious invitation to enjoy communion through songs, prayer, atoning sacrifices, and eating the sacrifices in communal meals. The temple was God’s gracious but holy presence among the people. It was the place where Israel came before the face of God as an assembly of praise.

The sixth gift are the promises. God promised Abraham a great nation, a land, and that he would bless the nations. God promised David that his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne forever. God promised restoration to an exiled Israel. God promised a new heaven and a new earth, which is yet to come.

The Messiah, who comes from Abrahamic ancestry, is the one through whom the nations will also receive these gifts. These gifts now belong to the nations, to everyone who trusts in the Messiah. Through Abraham’s Messianic seed, we may all become children of Abraham by faith in Jesus because of the Messiah’s faithfulness.

We, too, are adopted into the family of God. We, too, experience the divine glory as the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We, too, participate in the covenants as both Abraham’s children and subjects of the son of David. We, too, receive the Torah as Scripture that guides us. We, too, assemble before God to praise and serve the God of Israel as a gathered people. We, too, are heirs of the promises of God to Israel. We, through the faithfulness of the Messiah, have been grafted into the Israel’s tree, and these gifts, praise God, now belong also to all who confess Jesus is Lord.

God’s Torah: A Path to Life

July 8, 2019

Psalm 19 identifies two forms of divine speech. One is non-verbal, natural, and experienced through the natural wonder present in God’s creation. The other is verbal.

God has spoken in history and entered into covenant with Israel. That story is in the Torah. Those words are read in the assembly of God’s people. Israel had been given the “oracles of God,” and this comes, most fundamentally, in the form of Torah.

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech in Psalm 19. It is the controlling metaphor for the other descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandments. Those terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel as it walks with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative rather than primarily specific case-law or isolated commands.

Embedded within the Torah are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. As the Psalmist declares, the Torah:

  • restores the soul as it renews life.
  • makes the simple wise as it guides the inexperienced and immature.
  • gives joy to the heart as it frees us from the anxiety and burdens of life.
  • enlightens the eyes as it illuminates what human flourishing really is.

The Torah provides a path for healthy, joyful, and wise living.

The phrase “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to a lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, driven by their desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection. They react rather than respond to situations. Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple” discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain around the neck, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, or, in the language of wisdom, it is to fear (awe, trust, or revere) the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

God Dwells With Israel

July 4, 2019

Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was God’s holy mountain. God descended upon it, and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire.

We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.

At Sinai, Israel waited. They waited forty days for Moses, and when Moses returned, their waiting continued. Their waiting, however, was no passive resignation. God gave Israel a task, and they prepared for the moment when God would come to dwell among them. They built a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign because God would go with them on the journey through the wilderness. They built the tabernacle, they waited, and they prepared for they could not even imagine.

This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of God. They did everything they were commanded. They set up the tabernacle and finished the work.

Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.

Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.

Later, Israel will know this presence in a more permanent way through the temple, upon which God’s glory would once again descend just as it had upon the tabernacle.

God filled the tabernacle, and then God filled the temple, just as God had, in the beginning, filled Eden and dwelt in the cosmic temple. This is the gift of divine presence; it is the gift of grace, mercy, and communion.  Just as God rested on the seventh day within the creation, so now God rested within Israel’s tabernacle and temple.  It is yet another move toward God’s goal for the whole of creation, which is to include all peoples within the orbit of God’s love and for God to dwell among them.

Israel as a Royal Priest Among the Nations

July 1, 2019

Between their exodus from Egyptian slavery and their entrance into the new Eden, the land of promise, Israel encountered God at Mount Sinai. At God’s holy mountain, God commissioned Israel as a royal priest among the nations.

At Sinai, God announced the good news of divine grace and entrusted Israel with a vocation. The good news is that God carried Israel on eagles’ wings from Egypt to Sinai in order to begin a new relationship with them. God entered into covenant with them so that they would become God’s own possession. God would be their God, and they would be God’s people. God blessed Israel with God’s own presence and gave them status as God’s firstborn.

This status, however, came with responsibility.  When God created humanity as the image of God, humanity was invested with the responsibility to fill the earth with divine glory and care for it. In a similar way, when God created Israel, God entered into covenant with them, and called them “my children,” and God gave them a responsibility, a mission, a vocation.

Like humanity in the beginning, this mission arises out of their role as royal priests. Just as humanity—as the image of God—is a royal priest within the creation, so Israel is a royal priest among the nations. As royalty, they represent God in the world. They embody the values and life of God in their own community as God’s ambassadors. As priests, they mediate the presence and grace of God in the world. In their priestly role, Israel receives God’s blessing in order to bless the nations, and they invite the nations to hear the word of the Lord.

God wanted Israel to showcase wisdom and understanding, to display divine glory and righteousness. The Torah was a witness to the nations, and if Israel lived by its guidance, the nations would say, as Deuteronomy 4:6 anticipated, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” If Israel followed the Torah, they would embody wisdom, and they would show the nations how to live in peace, harmony, and justice. If Israel followed the Torah, Israel would flourish, and in their flourishing they would commend God’s wisdom to the nations.

The “Great Commission of the Hebrew Bible,” found in Isaiah 49:6, underscores Israel’s missional purpose:  they are a light for the nations and appointed to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Israel was not simply a means by which God would send the Messiah but also a witness to the holy love of God among the nations.  

As the image of God in the world, Israel served the nations as a shining city on a hill, a light in the darkness. At times, they succeeded, and at other times, they did not, just like us.

Israel as New Humanity

June 27, 2019

God led the descendants of Abraham into Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Pharaoh oppressed them and killed Hebrew babies in order to suppress their numbers. Israel found itself living in the moral chaos of Egypt’s imperial power. But God heard their cry and sent Moses to lead Israel out of their slavery into freedom, to lead them from chaos to new life.

The Exodus, the liberation of Israel from Egypt, is the creation of Israel. From the moral and oppressive chaos of Egyptian slavery, God created a new people, a new nation. God gave humanity a new start. God gave birth to Israel, a people through whom God would display God’s glory and call the nations into communion with God’s own life.

God liberated Israel from slavery through God’s creative power. The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is filled with creation language. From the chaos of the waters, God defeated the imperial powers arrayed against Israel, baptized a new people into Moses, and brought them safely through the waters into a new land. The Exodus birthed a new people.

Israel, as the firstborn among the nations, was created to serve as the renewed image of God in the world. In this sense, they were a new humanity. God rebooted the divine intent to fill the earth with the glory of God by forming a people who would embody God’s values and live in covenant relationship with God.

Israel was God’s remnant among the nations. “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth,” God said in Amos 3:2. While the prospects for humanity looked bleak in the early chapters of Genesis, God elected Israel as a nation among the peoples of the earth to reveal God’s identity.

Designed as the renewed image of God in the world, Israel was supposed to become what God envisioned for humanity from the beginning. Just as humanity was originally placed in the Garden of Eden, so God placed Israel in a new Eden in the land God promised Abraham.

The land, flowing with milk and honey, was created out of the moral chaos of Canaan and given to Israel as the place where they could flourish in peace and safety. The rains would water the crops, and they would enjoy the fruit of the harvest. The wild animals would not harm anyone in the land, and the security of the land rested in God’s presence. The promised land was a new Eden for a new humanity, and God graciously lived with Israel and walked among them as their God and they as God’s people, just as God did in Eden. Israel no longer lived east of Eden; they lived in Eden. As a new nation in a new land, God gave them the Torah to guide them in their new life with God. Yet, instead of leaning into God’s wisdom, they chose to follow the ways of the nations, and they repeated the folly of Adam and Eve with corresponding results. They, too, were exiled from the Garden and ended up, once again, living East of Eden with the rest of us.

The Promise to Abraham

June 24, 2019

Whereas the empire of Babel determined to make its own name great, God decided to make Abraham’s name great.

This contrast illustrates the two paths humanity might pursue. Babel chose ambition, pride, and self-actualization, but humanity’s authentic path is found in God’s promise and gracious work. Abraham heard God’s call, believed God, and trusted God’s leading.

When God called Abraham to leave his home country in Mesopotamia and led him into an unknown land, God initiated a new story to redeem humanity’s tumble into imperial violence and idolatry. God called Abraham to inaugurate a new humanity in a new land. Rather than giving up the goal of communion with human beings, God renewed the mission to effect that goal. God chose Abraham; God chose redemption rather than annihilation.

But how will God do this through Abraham? While there are different ways to parse out God’s promise to Abraham, there are three essential components.

First, God will multiply the descendants of Abraham so that they will be as innumerable as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. Second, God will give the descendants of Abraham a land to inhabit where God will dwell with them. Third, God will bless all the peoples of the earth through the descendants of Abraham.

When God called Abraham, this mission was not exclusively for Abraham or his children. It was for the sake of the nations as well. Abraham is blessed so that he, through his descendants, might bless all peoples. God was never simply concerned about Abraham; rather, God chose Abraham for the sake of the nations. Embedded in the Abrahamic promise is a mission with both universal and cosmic purpose.

As we rehearse this promise, we see a new act of divine creation. What God promises Abraham is present at the beginning in creation. There God blessed humanity that it might be fruitful and multiply. There God gave humanity land not only for their own habitation but also as a divine dwelling place. There God intended to fill the earth and include all humanity. The Abrahamic promise is the continuation of God’s purpose in creation. 

The Abrahamic promise seeks to redeem what had previously degenerated into evil and violence. Ultimately, the promise will bless the nations through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, prepare a new heaven and new earth as a home for the righteous, and include all nations and peoples within the redeemed community. The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment in the work of Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

The Abrahamic promise is, well, a promise. It has no conditions; it is God’s commitment to humanity through Abraham. God will accomplish what God had always intended to achieve, that is, the communion of God and humanity through life together upon the earth.

God promised Abraham gifts, Abraham believed God, and God remained faithful to those promises. God’s faithfulness is the rest of the story.

Humanity Degenerated: Creating an Alternative Story

June 20, 2019

It seems God is a realist when it comes to humanity. The power of sin is deeply entrenched in human hearts. Even when God rebooted the creation through a flood, it did not cure the human heart of its ancestral sin. God knew violence would reappear because of sin’s strong grip. God, therefore, issued a warning: whoever sheds blood, their blood is at risk as well. Jesus offered a similar caution: whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Violence is a dead-end. No one wins.

But violence continued in many forms. Ham raped his father Noah. Civilizations rose and fell, and empires emerged. Babel is one of those ancient empire stories. The people decided to build a monumental city with a tower reaching to the heavens in order to establish their reputation.

The tower is no military lookout. It is a Ziggurat.  Many still exist in modern Iraq. They began to appear no earlier than the fourth millennium before Christ and were continuously built into the first millennium before Christ. The great city of Babylon, Babel’s namesake, featured a massive Ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk.

These structures were religious sanctuaries. They were temples for the gods where earth touched the heavens. The problem with the Tower of Babel is neither its technology nor the unity of its people. Rather, they erected a new sanctuary for the gods, gathered themselves around that sanctuary, and divested themselves of the divine mission to fill the earth. They replaced Eden with a Ziggurat. Babel stays put, builds an empire, and stokes its own ego. They committed idolatry, and God, therefore, ended their cohesive civilization.

Humanity hit rock bottom. They reversed the divine mission to serve their own interests. Whereas God’s words were “let us make humanity in our own image,” Babel said, “let us make a name for ourselves.” Whereas God’s mission was to fill the earth, Babel wanted to fill the heavens with its own presence. Humanity moved from violence to overt idolatry, from destroying fellow-imagers with the sword to substituting themselves for God. They progressed in their depravity. Sin did its work, and humanity tumbled further east of Eden until it hit its nadir.

We all live east of Eden. Death reigns over us, and sin lurks in our hearts. Violence continuously erupts, empires still rule the earth, and idolatry is pervasive. In some sense we are still tumbling as violence and idolatry are perpetually invigorated by the power of sin in our lives. We stumbled out of the Eden and tumbled from anger to violence, and then from violence to idolatry. We find ourselves mired in the muck of our own moral chaos despite God’s persistent presence, coaxing, and mercy.

Due to God’s mercy, however, hope is not lost. God’s mission is still in play, and we create art and literature as well as new technologies, build cities, marry, bear children, domesticate animals, grow crops, and spread across the globe. God’s grace still empowers us with gifts and tools even though sin often distorts them.

The mercy of God persists, and the story is not yet finished. God’s mission has not reached its goal. By God’s grace, the creation will realize its full potential, humanity will flourish, and the glory of God will fill the earth. That is the rest of the story, and it has only just begun.

Humanity Tumbled: Violence Entered the World

June 17, 2019

East of Eden death lies ahead for everyone in Genesis except Enoch. It seems we’ve already hit rock bottom with nowhere to go but into the grave.

Death isn’t good, but it isn’t the whole story. There is more to this picture. Things can get worse. Some things are worse than death.

Sin is worse than death. This word was not used to describe what happened in Eden. The word sin first appears when God confronts Cain about his anger.

Cain is angry with God and envious of his brother because God did not accept his offering from the produce of his crops though he did accept Abel’s offering from the flock. We don’t know for certain why God didn’t accept it. Whatever the reason, Cain’s anger puts him at risk. “Sin,” God says, “is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Sin, like a predator, stalks our hearts. It is an indwelling alien power. Sin wants to take hold of us, enslave us, and render us powerless. Sin wants to dominate, even devour, us. We all sense this; it is why we sometimes do things we don’t want to do and perhaps never thought we would actually do.

When sin overpowers, we lose sight of God’s purposes. We miss the mark. We fail to image or represent God in the creation. Sin turns our purpose and vocation toward something or someone other than God.

Sin makes things worse. Cain moved from anger to violence because sin mastered him. When anger is conceived, it gives birth to violence. Jesus understood this. Whoever is angry with another, he said, has already committed murder. Sin erupted in violence when Cain’s angry heart lashed out at Abel, whose name means futility or nothingness. Cain made his brother’s name come to life when he killed him. In the wake of Abel’s murder, frustration and futility hovered over life east of Eden.

Violence breeds violence. Cain feared this. He thought others might take matters into their own hands and kill him. His fear recognizes the inner dynamic of violence. Fueled by anger and generating fear, violence has no stopping point.

Yet, hope is always present within God’s good creation though it sometimes dims beyond recognition. We heard hope when Eve gave birth to Cain and gave him a name which expressed vitality and life. She blessed God with her confession, “I have created a man with the help of the Lord.”

Adam and Eve were not bound over to evil by their exclusion from Eden. By the grace of God, they bore children, raised crops, herded flocks, and worshipped the Lord. God did not remove grace from the creation. The Lord did not execute Cain but protected him; the Lord showed mercy. God’s blessing continued, even in Cain whose marriage produced children, and Cain built a city. Though living east of Eden, God’s purposes for the world were still at work, and humanity not only multiplied but also created music, smelted metals, and built cities. Cain’s violence did not end the story any more than Adam and Eve’s immature choice did. The story continued, and God continued to pursue them.

Humanity Tumbled: A Disordered World

June 13, 2019

When God began to create, God took what was unordered and ordered it to make a good, habitable space. God filled it with life, blessed it for growth and development, and gave humanity a choice.

This choice is highlighted by the presence of the snake in the garden. The snake is clever but is also a symbol of chaos in the ancient world. This crafty snake is the presence of chaos in the garden.

But why does God permit chaos in the garden? Perhaps it highlights freedom. The man and woman may choose, and chaos gives them space to choose. The snake probes them and offers what they want. They want to be like God. Not because they are rebels but because their destiny is to be like God.  God created them to become divine-like. God wants them to be able to discern between good and evil because this is part of what it means to be like God.

The snake, however, asks them to distrust God and take a shortcut to maturity. Like all children, they want to grow up fast. They grasp for wisdom as the snake outwits and deceives them. In their immaturity, they choose folly, and consequently, they fail to grow up. They circumvent the process that makes authentic wisdom and human flourishing possible. They do not maliciously rebel but as immature children they fail to trust their parent, as all children have done since.

When they eat what was forbidden, they fall upward. They gain knowledge but they aren’t ready for it. It burdens them with toxic shame, and they realize they are naked. Their distrust generates fear and mutual accusation. They gain knowledge but at a cost.

Consequences follow.  Shortcuts sometimes have dire outcomes, and any shortcut to maturity is strewn with potholes and obstacles. Ill-equipped for knowledge, their choice introduces anxiety, brokenness, and fear.

While harmony once existed within Eden, now hostility emerged between the serpent and the woman. While childbearing was originally free of anxiety, now the woman will bear children with great fear. While the original couple once knew harmony in their marriage, now they will experience conflict. While in the garden the man enjoyed a bountiful provision, now he will anxiously struggle with the ground to produce food.  While in Eden the man and woman were nourished by the tree of life, now they will experience death.

These transitions are not so much punishments but what follows from foolish decisions. Folly leads to self-destruction and death. The original couple did not trust God’s timetable for maturity and rushed headlong into knowledge for which they were unprepared. As a result, they created a different world for themselves than the one God provided in Eden. This brought disorder and moral chaos into God’s good, ordered creation. These consequences are fully realized when they are exiled from the garden. Due to their folly, life was no longer innocent. But God responded with honesty and grace. God described the consequences and then graced them with clothing, preserved their lives east of Eden, and blessed them with children. They now became Adam and Eve as the man named Eve as the mother of all living. This is no angry God but a loving parent who practices tough love with children who must learn how to live the hard way. Adam and Eve must now attend the school of hard knocks east of Eden.

Extending the Kingdom Theology of Lipscomb and Harding

June 12, 2019

2019 Christian Scholars Conference Presentation, Lubbock, Texas

Part of my academic work has sought to identify and characterize the theological dynamic that shaped students at the Nashville Bible School (now known as Lipscomb University) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This dynamic has its roots in Barton W. Stone and Tolbert Fanning prior to the Civil War, and David Lipscomb and James A. Harding subsequent to the war. The latter two co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. I have labeled this the “Nashville Bible School Tradition” or the “Tennessee Tradition” in contrast to traditions which arose in Texas (represented by Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation) and Indiana (represented by Daniel Sommer and the Octographic Review). These were competing ideologies engaged in a struggle for the soul of Churches of Christ who emerged as a distinct sect at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 2006, Bobby Valentine and I published a book entitled Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding. We accentuated the positive in that book because we wanted to propose a way forward for Churches of Christ and highlight some positive dimensions of the Nashville Bible School Tradition. We did not critique the aspects of their legacy that hindered that way forward, and some of those hinderances are still present among Churches of Christ.  In this paper, I will briefly summarize what lies at the heart of the positive agenda in their theology, and then I will identify two critical dimensions that hinder its witness.

Central Convictions

“The chief end” of divine rule, according to Lipscomb, “is to reestablish the authority of God on earth as the rightful ruler of the world, to so bring the world back into harmonious relations with the universe that the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

We might characterize this Tennessee theology as fundamentally an eschatological struggle for the full reign of God in the creation. In other words, we are, as Harding put it, “foreigners” living in our own home.[2] We are foreigners because we do not belong to the evil powers that presently reign over the creation, but the creation is still our home (both now and eschatologically), and it is worth the struggle to fill it with the glory of God. This is, on the one hand, a high view of creation—God created something good, will redeem it from evil, and renew its future. At the same time, this process of redemption and renewal is apocalyptic. This means the future is, in some sense, already present and in process but its fullness involves a future divine act of redemption. This apocalyptic vision is a form of inaugurated eschatology, which calls us to live in the present as if the kingdom of God has fully arrived in anticipation of that fullness. The looming shadows of the reign of God filled the Nashville Bible School with a powerful ethical vision. Biblical faith, according to Lipscomb and Harding, is lived as if the future is already present, as if the heavenly city has already been planted on the earth. And the present church on the earth is that heavenly city.

For Lipscomb and Harding this meant that there was an inherent conflict between the kingdom of God and the powers that currently rule the earth. According to Lipscomb, “the two are essentially antagonistic.”[3] Each has their role, but “they must forever remain distinct.”[4] They are mutually exclusive because the origins and spirit of each are radically different. The two cities, a divine polis and a human polis, are in perpetual conflict. “Who shall govern the world?” was the question that formed their ministry, ethics, and eschatology.[5]

This conflict is not between heaven and earth per se but between two kingdoms on the earth that seek sovereignty over the earth and the hearts of its peoples. Both kingdoms are earthy, that is, they exist upon the earth in order to rule the earth. The contrast lies in their origins, missions, weapons, spirits, and destinies.[6] History is the story of the conflict between these two kingdoms, these two cities. They serve different masters, imbibe different spirits, use different weapons, and one must come to an end for the other to fill the earth.

Consequently, the question “who governs” is really a question about allegiance or worship. “The Christian,” according to Lipscomb, “owes no allegiance” to the civil powers but only “to God.”[7] Just as Jesus responded to Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world, so the Christian must respond: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10). The question “who shall govern the world” is more fundamentally the question “whom shall we worship?”

R. C. Bell, a student at the Nashville Bible School in the 1890s and a colleague of Harding at Potter Bible School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, taught in higher education among Churches of Christ for close to fifty years. In his 1951 autobiographical article he observed that Churches of Christ had lost this apocalyptic trajectory (though he did not call it that). He believed the church needed a strong infusion of that transformative perspective in order “to save [it] from changing divine dynamics to human mechanics.”[8] Bell not only saw the church increasingly align itself with patriotic nationalism and the cultural patterns of the nation, he also observed how the church now lived out its calling through the mechanical implementation of prescribed patterns within the New Testament. Faith was no longer a dynamic life empowered by the Spirit that envisioned the kingdom of God but conformity to an ecclesial blueprint. The loss of pacifism, kenotic service, kindness and gentleness as well as the opposition to evil cultural forms was due to the loss of Lipscomb and Harding’s apocalyptic vision.

Two Hindrances

While Bell saw the loss of this apocalyptic dynamic in his own day, and there was a time when it was vibrant and regularly articulated, there is also a sense in which it was hindered by other convictions that shaped the Nashville Bible School and Churches of Christ as a whole. If we are to recover this apocalyptic vision, something for which I advocate, we must also seek a corrective to what hindered it in the past.

Before I address the two hindrances I have in mind, I want to provide a specific context in which these hindrances emerged and essentially subverted the kingdom agenda. I have in mind, particularly, the problem of racial reconciliation. At one level, Lipscomb saw the mission clearly.  For example, he wrote:

The true mission of the Christian religion is to raise [humanity] above all these narrow, selfish, sectionalizing influences—to break down these middle walls of separation and strife erected by human selfishness, human ambition, and human wickedness, and to bind all the dissevered, broken, discordant and belligerent factions and fragments of Adam’s fallen and sinning family, irrespective of race, language or color, into one peaceable, fraternal and harmonious body in Christ.[9]

When it came to the church, Lipscomb had a strong, mostly consistent, voice and loudly opposed the segregation of congregations along racial lines.

At another level, Lipscomb provided little, if any, social witness. The pages of the Gospel Advocate rarely (almost never) discuss racial injustice as a social question, and only occasionally refer to the frequent lynchings in the South.[10] Lipscomb thought that if the church would become what God intended as a witness to the kingdom of God, then social practices would gradually reform society through the church’s moral leavening. He believed over time a healthy “religious spirit and practice” would “gradually work out the social duties and relations.”[11] As Christians live out their witness and “cultivate kindly and Christian relations,” he believed “the social conditions will adjust themselves.”[12]

What, however, generates this lack of social witness? And, particularly, why is Lipscomb so socially vocal about war and political relations but is virtually silent about social relations, especially on racial questions? I suggest there are at least two dimensions to this, though most certainly others could be named as well.

First, Lipscomb and Harding, as well as Churches of Christ as a whole, were too ecclesiocentric and anti-institutional. Their ecclesial vision excluded participation in or cooperation with any non-ecclesial institution. Consequently, churches did not partner with social movements or political agendas, even where Lipscomb’s ethics fully supported the agenda, including the Temperance Movement as well as movements toward racial equality. In other words, Lipscomb’s other-worldliness and his conflict with the world excluded any cooperative partnership, including those he thought were doing good work in the social arena. Lipscomb had little sense of how the relative good in which government participates or the good that social institutions promote might contribute to the fullness of the kingdom of God.  His radical separation from all institutions, whether governmental or otherwise, isolated the church from any sort of participation in any kind of Civil Rights Movement.

Second, the historic pneumatology of Churches of Christ has limited our vision for God’s work in the world. While Harding, and to some degree Lipscomb, embraced a robust theology of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer, they did not appreciate how the presence of the Spirit empowered the mission of church for corporate action within the world. For example, though Harding helpfully articulated a vision of the Spirit’s work in guiding, leading, and empowering believers in their daily life, he did not see how the Spirit also called the church as a corporate body into the mission of Jesus to liberate the oppressed and speak for the powerless. Their ecclesiology has little social vision, and this is due, in part, to their limited pneumatology.

For example, the work of the Spirit, according to John 16, is to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment,” which are social realities as well as personal ones. However, both Lipscomb and Harding, along with the vast majority of Churches of Christ, limited this empowerment to the apostles. The Spirit gave these truths to the apostles, and the apostles passed them to the church, and thus the church understands its relation to, for example, social justice through the teachings of the apostles or, as we have it now, the New Testament. The New Testament, then, prescribed the limits of social action, which, in their view, was ecclesiocentric and non-institutional.

These ecclesiological and pneumatological hindrances empowered Lipscomb to sincerely, though naively, affirm: “The Christian religion did not break up social or political relations. It laid down the principles of religious duty, and left them to gradually conform the social and political relations to the principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[13]

I think we need to enlarge Lipscomb’s vision without subverting his basic theological insight. We do not expect the kingdoms of this world to serve their peoples as the kingdom of our Lord, but we do hope that the kingdom of our Lord will subvert the evils of these worldly kingdoms both now and in the future.

[1] David Lipscomb, “Difficulties in Religion” in Salvation from Sin, by J. W. Shepherd, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913) 341.

[2] Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Christian Leader and the Way 5 (15 October 1903) 931.

[3] Lipscomb, “Questions for the Editor,” Gospel Advocate 10.2 (January 14, 1869) 30.

[4] Lipscomb, “Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 6,” Gospel Advocate 8.10 (March 6, 1866) 146.

[5] Lipscomb, “The Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 5,” GA 8.9 (February 27, 1866) 129.

[6] This is the burden of David Lipscomb, On Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation To It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913).

[7] Lipscomb, “Reply to Bro. Lipscomb’s Long Article on Politics and Voting,” Gospel Advocate 18.32 (August 17, 1876) 799.

[8] R. C. Bell, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Firm Foundation 68 (6 November 1951), 6.

[9] Lipscomb, “The Advocate and Sectionalism,” Gospel Advocate 8.18 (May 1, 1866) 275 (emphasis added).

[10] This is one of a few examples.  David Lipscomb, “General News,” Gospel Advocate 34.52 (December 29, 1892) 828: “Another stone was toppled from the wall of good order, Dec. 19, by the lynching of a negro at Guthrie, Ky., charged with attempting to assault a woman in that vicinity.”

[11] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.31 (August 1, 1907) 489 (emphasis mine).

[12] Lipscomb, “Are the Negroes Neglected?” Gospel Advocate 68.24 (June 14, 1906) 377 (emphasis mine).

[13] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.27 (July 4, 1907) 425 (emphasis mine).