For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues are so politicized. Nevertheless, being a leader entails a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to solve our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus did), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging, clarity, and purpose.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We need to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Do any of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. Those who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which means talking about health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles and outlawing bump stocks. Still others agree we should limit the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our lawmakers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts by themselves are not adequate for lasting change. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community and how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

(Access the sermon on YouTube and iTunes)

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

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Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Simple Church: The Importance of Designing a Straightforward Disciple-Making Process

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his followers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19). This is the job description of every Christian and every church, to make more and better disciples of Jesus. This is the church’s raison d’etre.

The most important thing a church does is design a process for making more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything we have and everything we do in the church is intended to be a tool for accomplishing this mission.

In the book, Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, we learn that leaders in the church are called to be designers, not programmers. If church leaders take this call seriously, then they are charged with a very important responsibility: To design a simple, step-by step process that moves people through various stages of spiritual growth. This sequential process is implemented in every area of the church, including all age-level ministries, and the staff, leaders, and members are taught to fully understand the process and work together as a unified body to move people through the steps. Anything that does not directly support the disciple-making process is abandoned.

Such a process has some distinctive characteristics. It is:

  • Intentionally designed, not carelessly thrown together.
  • Straightforward and simple. (And the simplicity is fiercely protected; we don’t lengthen it, add to it, or otherwise complicate it.)
  • Strategic insofar as (1) it is tied to the mission and vision of the church, and (2) it is structured by clearly defined, sequential steps.
  • Aimed at transforming people into the image of Christ.

 

Steps in Creating a Simple Church: Process

Clarity → Movement → Alignment → Focus[1]  

 

Clarity: The ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people. Clarity eliminates confusion. Remember, understanding always precedes commitment, so if we want people to commit to our church by investing their time, talent, treasure, and witness, they need clarity about who we are, what we are trying to do, and how we intend to do it. Without clarity it’s difficult to get buy-in, and without buy-in people usually don’t give, especially if it requires sacrifice. So, the staff and leaders not only need to fully understand the process, but they must also teach it to everyone they serve.  

 

Movement: The sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Movement is what causes someone to go to the next step. It’s what happens in between programs.

This means that we do not evaluate the success of our ministries as isolated units but according to how people are moving through our discipleship process. For example, we don’t say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase and nobody is complaining about the music or sermon.” Rather, we say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase in people moving from worship into a Bible study where they are growing more deeply in their faith.” We don’t focus on the number of people who attend a program, but the number of people moving from step one, to step-two, to step-three in the process that leads them to greater maturity and commitment to Christ. Hence, “hand-offs” from one step to the next are very important. Unfortunately, the church often fails to execute (or even pay attention to) hand-offs because leaders often focus on isolated programs and work in silos. Pastors need to train their leaders to pay as much attention to handoffs as the programs themselves, because programs are only valuable insofar as they move people through a discipleship process that transforms them into the image of Christ. Therefore, every program/event/ministry must fit somewhere in the sequential process, which brings us to alignment.

 

Alignment: the way that all ministry departments embrace, submit, and attach themselves to the same overarching process. “Alignment ensures the entire church body is moving in the same direction, and in the same manner” to accomplish the same mission. Everyone is operating from the same ministry blueprint, and replicates the process in their respective areas. Without alignment, the church is not a unified body but a tangled bunch of various sub-ministries that work in silos and compete for space, money, volunteers, and time on the calendar. Leaders not only fail to work cooperatively to accomplish a single mission, but they often (even if inadvertently) work at cross purposes. Achieving and maintaining alignment is painful, but failing to address misalignment is more painful and costly in the long run. (Think about your car being out of alignment. It is cheaper to get an alignment than buy new tires. It is safer to get an alignment than to risk a blow-out and possibly suffer a car accident.)

 

Focus: the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process. We only say “yes” to the best things that help us accomplish our mission by working our process. We say “no” to things that do not directly move the process forward or that are “good” but not “the best,” knowing that extra programs will compete with and pull people away from our primary strategy for making disciples.

Focus is the most difficult element to implement. It takes deep convictions and guts. “Focus does not make church leaders popular.” As you say “no” to things that the church has always done, or “no” to new ideas that don’t directly move the process forward, people will get mad at you. Despite our best efforts to explain the importance of the simple church model and how it will lead to more fruitful ministry, staff will quit, leaders will resign, and members will leave the church as we execute focus. Leaders survive this turbulent time by focusing on being faithful to Christ, being totally committed to his mission, and having faith that God will reward our obedience by sending us the people we need, regardless of who leaves. If we can’t muster the commitment and resolve needed to execute focus, then all the work described above (clarity, movement, and alignment) will be for nothing. The process will quickly get buried in clutter and soon be forgotten.

So leaders must be careful to “count the cost” before they decide to embrace the simple church model and start designing a discipleship process. Jesus says in Luke 14:

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ 31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

While moving toward a simple church model will lead to growth (both deep and wide), it requires leaders to make difficult decisions that will upset people. We have to be aware of this from the beginning so that we don’t do all the work and then fail because we don’t have the resolve to see it through.

[1] This blog post is a summary of Simple Church, chapter 3.

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

God Is Love: Understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary conception of God in Christianity, distinguishing it from other world religions, especially the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. While pointing to the deepest truth of Christian faith, it is also a divine mystery that is difficult to state adequately.

The purpose of this article is to present a helpful way of understanding the Trinity. As we contemplate the nature of God for the purpose of conceptual clarity, the mystery of the Trinity will not be resolved but deepened. If you finish reading this article and think to yourself, “Now I have it all figured out!” then I have failed you. While I intend to clarify the purpose and meaning of this central doctrine, I don’t want to mislead the reader into thinking that we can exhaustively grasp the being of God in human thought. God does reveal Godself in history, and we can trust that revelation, but we must also maintain intellectual humility in light of the qualitative distinction between God and human beings (i.e., God is the creator and we are the created).

Even though the Trinity is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, though some passages are suggestive (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14). Rather, the doctrine was officially formulated by leaders in the early church, especially at the first two general councils in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the church drew some of its technical language from Greek philosophy, the doctrine was not developed to satisfy a penchant for esoteric philosophical reflection. It was carefully formulated in an effort to explicate the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Christians have always made three essential claims:

  • God is the transcendent creator.
  • God saves us in Jesus.
  • God sustains all of creation and leads it to ultimate fulfillment. 

Understanding the meaning of these three fundamental claims and how they hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity is what the Trinity is all about.

GOD IS THE TRANSCENDENT CREATOR

God is the creator of all that exists. There was a time when creation was not and there was only God. But God made a decision in eternity to create the world in love and freedom. Thus, God creates space for a genuine other to exist as a creature distinct from God. Then God releases the creative power of being into that space so that the world as we know it can emerge. In simplest terms, God creates the world and sets it free.

We find poetic accounts of creation in the Bible. Genesis 1:1-3 states:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless  and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

When Christians read this passage, they tend to associate the term “God” with God the Father, but the attentive reader will also notice the presence of two other characters. First, we see the presence of God’s Spirit: “ . . . the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the waters.” Second, we see the presence of God’s eternal Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Anyone familiar with the prologue of the Gospel of John will notice a connection with this verse. Just as the first words of Genesis 1:1 are, “In the beginning . . .,” so it is with the first verse of John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

The gospel continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Clearly, the author of John is drawing an explicit connection between God’s eternal Word and Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians find it fitting to claim that the Father creates the world through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and does so as the one transcendent source of life. In the poetic language of scripture, God creates the world and reigns over it from heaven above. God transcends the world as its creator.

GOD SAVES US IN JESUS

At the same time we say that God is Creator, we also say that God is Redeemer. God creates the world and sets it free in love, but God also enters that world to personally encounter us in Jesus Christ. When Christians talk about God sending Jesus, they are not saying that Jesus is merely a wise prophet or heavenly messenger. Rather, they are saying that God looked down upon the suffering of creation, had compassion, and resolved to become a human being to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

Christians believe that only God can save, but they also claim to experience salvation in Jesus. Therefore, God must in some sense be fully present to humanity in Jesus. Returning to the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Greek term translated “Word” is logos, which connotes knowledge, wisdom, reason, and revelation. The author of John uses this term to refer to God’s mind, heart, character, will, and creative power. When he goes on to say in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .” he is making the outlandish claim that God’s heart, mind, reason, logic, and will was incarnate (literally, “enfleshed”) in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he can go on to say, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God . . .” (1:18). Jesus is recorded as saying in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In light of such passages, Christians believe that Jesus embodies the eternal Word of God. God reveals Godself to humanity in Jesus. The invisible God become visible in Christ.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, whose glory we have seen as “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” we can say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Since God is fully present to us in Christ, Jesus has the power to save. A messenger can tell us about salvation and even inspire hope for salvation, but only God can accomplish our salvation. And this is what Christians claim about Jesus, that God acts decisively in his life, death, and resurrection to save the world.

When contemplating God’s saving work in Jesus, it seems fitting to focus on the work of God the Son. But in a way similar to the creation accounts in Genesis, the New Testament stories of Jesus include the presence of three divine characters: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Consider, for example, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (3:16-17)

Indeed, throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is always accompanied by the Father and the Spirit, and this leads to another threefold claim: The Father saves us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three work together as one God in perfect love and unity to accomplish the salvation of the world.

In summary, Christians not only claim that God reigns over the world as its transcendent creator, but also that God encounters humanity in Jesus Christ and works decisively through him to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

GOD SUSTAINS CREATION AND LEADS THE WORLD TO ITS ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT

In addition to creating and redeeming the world, God also sustains the world by his Spirit. God creates the world and sets it free, but then floods the world with his life-giving presence. The Spirit of God is the energy by which all things exist, and if God were to withdrawal his presence (even for an instant) then it would vanish into thin air. As we read in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This is what Christians mean when they say that God is omnipresent—God’s powerful presence saturates the entire created order. There is literally no place where the Spirit of God is not. In addition, we claim that God is constantly working through the Holy Spirit to open the hearts and minds of human beings to faith and love, and to bring the entire creation to its full completion. The Holy Spirit woos us in love toward reconciliation with God and lures all of creation toward its ultimate fulfillment.

Importantly, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of impersonal or unconscious energy that we might find in some New Age circles. Nor is the Spirit an independent, quasi-divine power. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father and the Son to continue and complete the work of Christ as we await the new creation. Thus, Christians find it difficult to talk about the Spirit without also talking about the Father and the Son.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: How do all three of these claims hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity? Christians experience the presence of God as the one who creates, redeems, and sustains, and we experience God in these ways all at the same time. It’s not as if God ceases to reign over creation when God acts decisively to save the world in Jesus. It’s not as if God stops saving us in Jesus in order to fill all creation with his sustaining presence. Rather, we say that God reigns from heaven as Creator, and at the very same time acts decisively in Jesus to save us, and at the very same time fills the entire creation with his sustaining presence. This is how we experience the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the only meaningful way to talk about this is to talk about the Trinity.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God, but this one God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son. But God is also apprehended as the Father who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is also known as the Holy Spirit who sustains the world, opens the hearts and minds of human beings in faith, and leads the world to its ultimate completion. The words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” point to one God, but we cannot properly think or speak about this one God except by thinking and speaking about all three at the same time.

FROM ECONOMIC TO IMMANENT TRINITY

An important final point is that God does not lie or deceive. If God reveals Godself as triune, then God is triune. We don’t say, “Well this is how we, from a human perspective, see and experience God, which requires us to think and speak about God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. But God could be different in and of Godself.” While Christians are careful to acknowledge the limitations of their theological language, they absolutely refuse to accept that there could be a different God behind the God we see in Jesus. To use the language of scripture, the God we worship in heaven is the same God we encounter in Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

This means that there is relationality in God! As the Cappadocian Fathers recognized, there is a sense in which the one God we worship is constituted by a community of self-giving love. God (in-and-of-Godself) is the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes the Father the Father is his eternal self-giving love to the Son and the Spirit. What makes the Son the Son is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Spirit. What makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Son. What makes God one is the eternal, self-giving love that continuously flows and unifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is the deep meaning of the claim, God is love (1 John 4:8)

CONCLUSION

For Christians, to say that God is love is to say that God is triune. To say that God creates is to say that God is triune. To say that God saves is to say that God is triune. To say that God sustains creation is to say that God is triune. To say that God is one is to say that God is triune. One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Christians is because it contains in itself the entire story of God’s activity in the world and reveals what kind of God we serve—a God that is love.

 

To watch the sermon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2QK_LdXbls  

If you liked this post, then you might also like “Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace.”

It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism

Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world by groups like ISIS: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing.

Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.

However, almost all the abhorrent practices that we condemn in Islamic extremism can be found in the Old Testament. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to read your Bible. As one example, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining (1) a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with (2) a strict application of lex talionis and (3) a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! As we read these chapters, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own sacred texts if we read them too literally.

In fact, one of the primary justifications of religious extremism is the literal reading of sacred texts. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.

While condemning Islamic extremism abroad, some fundamentalist Christians in America use a similar hermetical strategy to justify their own brand of extremism. While championing a literal reading of the Bible, most ignore almost all Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked. They will slog through a sea of divine commands and prohibitions in the Old Testament and quickly dismissing them as outdated or barbaric, until they find one or two verses that support their preconceived ideas about a politically charged moral issue. Once cherry-picked from their larger context, these verses are elevated to the infallible Word of God and used to condemn, exclude, and oppress perceived enemies.

It is not difficult to see that a strict literal reading of the Bible is actually reserved for a narrowly selected group of passages that can be used to justify moral (and political) positions that are developed quite independently of the Bible. Verses that are not helpful in supporting one’s ideology can be rejected as irrelevant, and those that are helpful are elevated as the inerrant word of God. So while the outward manifestations of extremism look very different when comparing middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalism and American Christian fundamentalism today, both seem to share the hermeneutical strategy of insisting on a literal reading of select passages of scripture to justify one’s extreme views.

 

(https://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2015/06/03/pages/0027/index.xml#.VW7Rby9Yo1g.facebook.)