Singing only the Psalms

One of my old roommates wrote a book about the Psalms. I looked it up yesterday and found a review of it on a Psalmody website. It is a website devoted to the concept that God only wants the Psalms sung in church, no other songs.

Fascinated, I listened to a sermon by a pastor, in a Presbyterian church,  argue that only psalms are authorized by God for worship. That “spiritual songs” are songs that are inspired by the Holy Spirit, as only the psalms are, that Jesus never wrote a song, the apostles never wrote a song, and that both Jesus and the apostles sang the psalms.

He analyzed one of the Church of Christ’s favorite passages: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” 

He said:

David1. The only way to be filled with the spirit (these days) is to be filled with the inspired word of God. (He was speaking to a non-pentecostal church.) The apostle Paul did not say, “speak to one another with uninspired songs,” but songs that are “filled with the Spirit.”

2. The only inspired hymns are those in the psalms.

3. The only spiritual songs are those in the psalms.

Fitzpatrick went through command, example and necessary inference, and especially the silence argument, so familiar to members of hard line Churches of Christ. This argument goes like this: If the Bible is silent on a topic, then it is forbidden. One of their favorite slogans: Speaking where the Bible speaks, and silent where the Bible is silent.

Two examples from the hard line Churches of Christ are:

communion tray1. Since the only day we know of that the early Christians took the Lord’s Supper was on the first day of the week, then that is the only day authorized by God. God’s silence forbids the other days.

pianofingers

 

2.Another example is: Since the only place authorized to make melody is in the heart, and the New Testament is silent about plucking the strings of any other form of musical instrument, then only the heart can be used to accompany our worship to God. Anyone who uses a musical instrument has gone beyond the authority of the New Testament, and has elevated themselves to not needing God’s authority.

Thunderous silence silence of GodThese examples come from the book The Thunderous Silence of God by Joe Neil Clayton.

To bolster his case, the Psalms only speaker, Fitzpatrick quoted from John Calvin and the Westminster Confession, making sure we knew these were only the opinions of men, but that they also exhorted us to stick to what God had authorized.john calvin

Mark Fitzpatrick, the pastor recorded, called the opposite of the silence principle the “normative principle”, which he said let in such Catholic practices as candles, prayer books and vestments into worship.

Fitzpatrick found verses in the Bible that authorized man-made prayers and man-made sermons, but never man-made songs. So his conclusion is that evidently God has proscribed what kind of musical worship He wants: only the inspired Psalms in the Bible. God has given us a Psalmody, but not a prayer book. Therefore we are to make up our own prayers, but not our own songs.

So Fitzpatrick’s conclusion: That all the churches that use man-made songs with which to worship are perilously close to blasphemy, elevating their own authority above God’s commandment.

I felt right at home listening to the sermon. If he had been arguing against instruments of music instead of human-written songs I would not have known I was listening to another group’s sermon.

The reason I point this out is because it is sometimes easier to see our own foibles if we can see it clearly in another parallel organization. The hard line Churches of Christ, with our rules of Command, Example and Necessary Inference, and especially the Silence Principle, came straight out of the Protestant Reformation of John Calvin. Our sect has a history that we have come from.

Sometimes we like to say that our particular group jumped straight from AD33 to the present without any history in between, that we just picked up the Bible, and lo and behold, here we are, the One True Church that follows the Bible, all the others are mired in history and tradition. I don’t agree.

Posted in Bible, Command, Example and Necessary Inference, History, Instrumental Music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Defending Christendom against Homosexuality

With more states endorsing gay marriage, and Exodus, the major ex-gay ministry re-thinking ex-gay therapy, this topic is on evangelicals’ minds. One of the best books I’ve read on the topic was a book by StraightToJesusErzenTanya Erzen, an atheist, reporting on her one year of being embedded in a men’s ex-gay ministry outside of San Francisco.

Having been a part of ex-gay ministries, I was fascinated by her history and analysis. Although there were a few points I disagreed with her about, I found her analysis mostly spot on.

She said that the gay men who arrived for their one year residential program found great relief in being able to say out loud to their new church community that they were homosexually oriented, and working on becoming heterosexual. It was as relieving and hopeful to them as “coming out” is to a gay person who has been pretending they are not gay.

TanyaErzenShe outlined the psychological underpinnings of the program: Nicolosi’s and Moberly’s theory that the men had not bonded with their fathers at birth, felt rejected at a foundational level, and needed re-fathering. She said the program offered acceptance of homosexual feelings as symptomatic of the loss and need for father-bonding, and the program offered a close family feeling.

But ultimately Erzen said that of the 12 or so men that joined the program that year, only two to four maintained a somewhat heterosexual life after leaving the program.

She said the ex-gay ministries feel used by the larger evangelical church: that the evangelical church needs the ex-gay ministries to prove that gays can switch to straight and therefore the church can legitimately reject homosexuals from serving as ministers or holding office, and can refuse gay marriage ceremonies. But the church doesn’t really want to embrace the theology that ex-gay ministries bring with them: that people slowly heal, that homosexual feelings are part of a long list of temptations that we all have as we sit in the pews at church. The ex-gay men’s ministries kept saying, “we need heterosexual men to be friends and mentors to these ex-gay men.” And the larger evangelical church kept saying, “Yuck! Not us!” Erzen’s observation was that the larger evangelical church wanted to remain phobic both to gays and ex-gays.

The ex-gay ministries needed the larger evangelical church, and the larger evangelical church needed the ex-gay ministries, but their mutual communication was distant and disjointed.

CHurchLady

Many evangelicals remain locked into a defensive position about homosexuality, valiantly making sure their state does not slide into the camp of being pro-gay marriage. And so we have the endless stereotype of the shrill evangelical church lady pronouncing anathema upon the evil society that welcomes gays. This is the stereotype that most young evangelicals are fleeing.

An Assembly of God pastor (in his 60s) pointed out to me last week that the apostle Paul said our job is not to purify the world (or else we would have to leave the world), our job is to purify the congregation.

And why are evangelicals so upset about gays? A generation ago the church was upset about sex before marriage. Two generations ago the church was upset about divorce and remarriage.

My question: Does the church have a realistic way to support young people to be celibate until marriage? Does the church have a realistic way to support couples who are struggling such that they don’t get divorced? The answer in my mind is “No!” We are still expecting young people to go to college until 22 years old, then establish a career path and then get married at 25, all as virgins. Not realistic. Statistics indicate that only one per cent of the population is virgin at 25 years old, and those that are virgins are not the mentally healthy ones, able to withstand stress.

Church membership in today’s evangelical churches is a haphazard affair, that lasts about three years (according to a local pastor) before the member moves on to another better church; not the kind of relationship that engenders strong mentoring relationships that can mitigate divorce. Evangelical churches are not constructed in such a way that they can have any major impact on a person’s daily life, especially not a person’s sex life.

I was counseling a couple this past week who had an older couple from their Pentecostal church come into their home and mentor them for a day. They felt so accepted (not judged) that their marriage immediately improved. They felt like they were walking on air. This happens about once every 15 years in my counseling experience.

condomsDoes the church realistically support young people to be celibate until age 25? No, and I believe this accounts for 80% of young people leaving the church. Does the church realistically support couples so that they don’t divorce? No, and I believe this accounts for 10% of membership loss in evangelical churches. With 25% of evangelical pastors currently having an affair with a church member, how can they support couples considering divorce? It is hypocritical for the evangelical church to tell the state to deny marriage rights to gays, while ignoring their own heterosexual members’ behavior that the church believes is sinful.

Does the church support ex-gays? No, and they need to re-examine their theology such that they come up with something that reflects more of Christ in their attitudes toward gay people.

My conclusion: The evangelical church needs to focus on supporting and mentoring their members and stop making judgmental statements on the six o’clock news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Getting Kicked Out

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for opposing Hitler.Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday is this week. He would have been 108. He split from the German state Lutheran Church during Adolf Hitler’s reign, and formed the Confessing Church, because the State Lutheran Church supported Hitler and refused to object to the things he was doing to dissenters, doing to elected officials from other parties, to other nations, to the mentally handicapped, to people of various sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to homosexuals, and especially to Jews. Bonhoeffer objected to the way the Nazis set up the State as higher than God. Eventually Bonhoeffer decided it would be best that Hitler be killed, and he joined in a plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested and hung in a concentration camp shortly before Hitler killed himself at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Bonhoeffer is lauded today for being one of the bravest and most influential theologians of the 20th century. To do what he did he had to leave his denomination and start something new, opposing the Nazi regime. In 1933 (6 years before the beginning of World War II) the Nazis encouraged the German State Lutheran Church to pass resolutions to remove pastors who did not support the State’s goals, especially Aryan philosophy. In 1934 a group of German Protestants upset by Aryan philosophy and German nationalism in the German Lutheran Church, met and started the movement later to become the Confessing Church.

The evangelical church in America is somewhat similar to the Lutheran State Church in Germany in the sense that the evangelical church in America, compared to other religious groups in America, is the most jingoistically patriotic, the most affirming of the United States military, the most likely to have an American flag on the church podium, the last social group to adopt civil rights that the rest of the nation long ago adopted, the most supportive of the conservative side of the Republican Party and the primary support of the Tea Party.

black power

The crowd was stunned and horrified when gold medalist John Carlos and bronze medalist Tommie Smith gave the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games

Only a few years ago we can point to events in the 1960s in most evangelical churches that showed they did not want integration. Even those who wanted integration, had no idea how condescending they were toward blacks, hispanics and other race groups. Many said they wanted integration, as long as there were no black power salutes, no Afro hair styles, no swaying and clapping in church, etc. In other words, “we will barely tolerate you as long as you completely assimilate, completely leave your culture, family and customs behind, and be as white as possible, and as silent as possible.” (I’m listening to an interview of the first athlete to give the black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympic games.)

But what I find important is that Bonhoeffer had to start a new denomination in order to oppose Nazism in the church. This is almost a universal principle. The establishment always veers toward the status quo. As one of my pastors said, “Unless there is constant correction, the church always drifts towards being a country club.” What is sad is that all churches, even the confessing church, rapidly get taken over by traditionalists.

So my opinion is that true prophetic leaders are not in established churches. Established churches will always be incompatible with the radical anarchic philosophies of Jesus Christ. When we look for true followers of Jesus, it is a waste of time to look in a particular denomination or sect that seems to us to be doctrinally purer than the rest. True followers of Jesus almost always conflict with their denomination or sect, whatever group they find themselves in. The true church is not an organized denomination or sect with rites and traditions. The true church is not a congregation. Jesus’ church are people who are willing to go against the flow no matter where they are, wherever and whenever we stand up for justice.

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Baptism as a Comfort

Most people go to church for comfort. Everything about church is familiar and comforting: the music, the passing of the communion, shaking people’s hands, the prayers, the sermon.

baptismIn the tradition in which I grew up sermons on baptism were especially comforting. We had a litany of our favorite baptism passages: John baptized where there was much water,  going down into the water, believe and be baptized, for the remission of sins, baptized into Christ, rise to walk in newness of life, baptism doth also now save us, passages that washed over us like reciting the alphabet in the first grade, or reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning at school. Our nation stood for truth and justice for all, and we were baptized correctly, and nobody else was baptized correctly. That was our comfort.

FowlerFaithBut why was that comforting? James Fowler, in his book The Stages of Faith, analyzes the underlying motives of each stage of faith.

Roughly the first stage and second stages of faith are “me first” stages: What can I get from God? Oral Roberts used to appeal to this kind of faith by his message of “seed faith”. He would tell the story of a man who put his last dollar in an envelope and mailed it off to Oral Roberts. Then he found ten dollars in a coat pocket. So he mailed that in, too, only to find an old debt repaid to him that day of $100. oral_robertsHe promptly mailed that in to Oral Roberts, only to find a check for $1,000 in the mail from an insurance company. Oral Roberts loved to tell that story and comically rued the fact that the man had kept the thousand dollars; Oral Roberts couldn’t help but imagine what God would have done for the man if he had only mailed that check in as well. In the first stage promises from God are literal and concrete, so concrete in fact that one man insisted I re-baptize him because he wasn’t thinking of exactly the right thing when he was first baptized.

The second stage is also a bargaining stage: When Jacob dreamed about God as he was fleeing his brother, Esau’s anger, when he stole the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob responded by promising God that if God would go with him and return him safe and sound back home, jacobs-ladder-catecombsthen Jacob would have Jehovah God as his only God, sort of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Promises from God are still literal and concrete.

The third stage is the stage most of the world is in. It is a stage in which we want our group to hold our faith for us. The focus of our faith is our group, our church. If someone asks us what we believe, we will direct them to our church, or our preacher. If we want to convert someone, we will focus on converting them to our group, our church. In this stage we are focussed on people thinking well of us, so we strive to have a good reputation in our group, and we strive to climb the social ladder at church. flagMost people remain in this stage for the rest of their lives, patriotic and loyal, Mom, the flag and apple pie. Churches love having people in stage three. There is an us-against-them mentality in stage three. The disciples said they had found someone who was healing in the name of Jesus and they stopped him, because he wasn’t one of them. Jesus said to let him heal.

Stage four is a difficult stage; it is a stage that is half in and half out of the group. The person in stage four wants the group to think well of him, but he or she is perturbed by the inconsistencies in the group. So the person argues with his or her group, to persuade them to be more logical, more consistent and to follow the principles completely that they have been saying they follow. The person gets more and more frustrated. At first the church tells them that they are really getting a bad reputation in the group. Since this is a primary motivation for the person in stage three, they think this will be very convincing to the person in stage four. But this only infuriates the person in stage four, and they reiterate that they don’t want to be loyal to a group that is so inconsistent. Finally the church just tries to ignore the person in stage four, until the person in stage four becomes so obnoxious that the church hints or tells the person to leave. The person in stage four leaves in hurt and confusion. Why? What happened? How could they have been so blind all these years?

Stage five is a more peaceful stage. No longer wanting to convert people, or argue with anybody, the person in stage five is curious, wanting to know what other peoples’ faith is like, marveling at what motivates, moves and is transcendent, to each person. Rules fall by the wayside, and are replaced by principles. The person in stage five wants principles to be consistent across all instances. People in stage five also feel a separateness between themselves and others to such an extent that they do not mind worshipping with people with whom they disagree. The person in stage five loves the topic of baptism, but from a totally different perspective from a person in stage three: they want to marvel at how deeply symbolic a ritual can be, and how healing it can be to go through such a profound ritual that binds God to humanity. People in stage five are sought out to share their peace and tranquility, and the stage five person loves to mentor the next generation.

Stage six is a seemingly courageous stage. I say seemingly, because if you ask someone in stage six if they are brave in the face of fear, they usually reply that they don’t feel much fear. It is a stage that is set free from the usual cares and structure of life. It is a time when people are moved to give their entire lives to the underprivileged. They don’t seem to mind if their lives are endangered in the process. Mother Teresa of Calcutta IndiaIf you admire them, they ignore you; not motivated by admiration, they just want to give more to the poor, sick and downtrodden. Whereas those of us in the other stages want to make a donation or spend a two week ministry trip helping out, those in stage six seem to think that all that  matters is to help the downtrodden.

Okay, back to the comfort of sermons about baptism: they are written and performed for those in stage three faith. And everyone shakes the preacher’s hand afterward and congratulates him on such a wonderful lesson, and wish that unsaved so-and-so had been there to hear it, too.

John the BaptistBut baptism in the time of Christ was not a comfort. When John came commanding repentance and baptism because the kingdom was at hand, he was not well received by the self-satisfied religious people. Why? Because he was telling them they needed the same cleansing as the uncircumcised Gentiles needed. (When my daughter was baptized in the nearby lake, a hundred feet away a Rabbi was baptizing a convert to Judaism.) What an insult this was to those who thought of themselves as righteous Israelites, faithful to the Lord. Baptism was an essentially humbling experience to them.

But in the tradition in which I grew up we turned it into its opposite. We did it right, nobody else did it right, therefore we were the only ones baptized into Christ. We had turned it into a mark of pride.

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Instrumental Music and Nadab and Abihu: The covenant of the Law vs. the Covenant of the Heart

The hard line Churches of Christ, a cappella, believe that the Sunday morning worship service is the most important part of being a Christian. They believe they have found Christianity and all others have lost it. They base this idea on the fact that they can find biblical authority for each act of worship they do on a Sunday morning, and other worshippers do not have such authority. “We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent,” is one of their battle cries.

nadabThey scare their constituents, and those they evangelize, with the stories from the Hebrew Bible: Nadab and Abihu struck dead for offering strange fire in worship to God at the beginning of the tabernacle worship (Numbers 10). At the inauguration of the tabernacle of worship, instituted by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness as the journeyed out of Egypt toward the land of Canaan, instead of taking coals of fire from the altar of sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu took coals of fire from their own campfires in front of their own tents, and offered incense to God with that fire. Fire from God struck them dead, because they had used unauthorized fire.

This story, and a few similar to it, are used to scare believers into making sure they have authority for all the worship practices they use on a Sunday morning in church.

So this blog addresses these two questions:

  1. Do we need specific authority in the New Testament for each act of worship in our worship assembly?
  2. Is the Sunday morning worship assembly format the mark of the true Christian?

burntofferingNadab and Abihu were the oldest sons of Aaron, the top two priests after the high priest, Aaron. In this story God is portrayed as feeling it was very important to use the fire that God had provided in the altar of sacrifice. The story indicates that the people prayed and God lit the altar of sacrifice, then the people kept the fire going, a metaphor for how God initiates the power of our relationship. Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit throughout the wilderness story, from the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses to go free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to the burning pillar of cloud that led the people through the desert and rested upon the tabernacle. pillar of fire by nightIn the new covenant, Jesus’ body and blood is the sacrifice, and all our power as believers, comes from that sacrifice and forgiveness.

Nadab and Abihu, in taking fire from their own fire pits in front of their own tents, were saying, metaphorically, that they didn’t need God’s Holy Spirit, or God’s sacrifice to forgive them, truly a strike at the essence of the message of Jahweh.

In the first weeks after the resurrection of Christ, there is a parallel story. (The books of Luke and Acts consciously parallel the story of the Exodus of Israel.) In the book of Acts the story that parallels the Nadab and Abihu story is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Just as in the Nadab and Abihu story, two worshippers are struck dead, two worshippers are struck dead in the early church. This time, instead of breaking a command, they are guilty of hiding and lying to the Holy Spirit. The people were living communally, selling their property and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.

The death of Ananias by Raphael

The death of Ananias by Raphael

Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and laid a portion of the property’s proceeds at the apostles’ feet. Peter confronts both Ananias and Sapphira, on separate occasions, asking each if they were lying to God about the price they had obtained for their property. “It’s the whole thing,” they both replied. Peter said they had a right to keep their property, they had a right to devote a portion of it to the church, if they wished, but they did not have a right to lie to the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Notice the big difference between the first story in the wilderness and the second story in the early church: Nadab and Abihu broke a rule that had a big symbolic meaning; Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated that God could not read their hearts. Wow! What a difference between the two covenants: the first was a set of symbolic rules, the second was a covenant of the heart.

The writer of the book of Hebrews (ch. 8) confirms this picture by quoting from the old prophet Jeremiah:

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is a mediator superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant…
10 I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.”

So instead of worrying about getting the worship service right lest we be struck dead, Luke, the writer of Acts, believes we should be worrying about getting our hearts right lest we be worthy of death.

This is the reason there is no instruction in the early church writings about how to conduct a worship service in the church. Yes, there are a few passages, especially I Cor. 11-14 and James 2, which mainly emphasize principles:

“Let everything be done for edification,”

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love…”

“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”

“Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.”

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

All of these passages point to one principle: encouraging one another to believe that God has moved in our lives through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

None of the these passages point to rules that we need to stick to in order to show we are the true believers in Jesus. None of these passages indicates that God is remotely interested in the format of our worship services, beyond the principle of what builds up or tears down our faith in the forgiveness of Christ for our wrongs.

What is the mark of the Christian? Is it the worship format, as the hard line Churches of Christ believe? Is it the organization of the local congregation?

Jesus washes the feetAfter Jesus took off his robe and washed the disciples’ feet John records him as saying:

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

James said that if we treat a rich visitor at church differently from a poor visitor, then we are guilty of denying the good news that converted us to Christ: we are freed from all our wrongs as a gift.

So, the format of singing, and worshipping, was of no consequence, per se, to the early church. What was of consequence was the purpose of each act, and the rules that have been written in our hearts by the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.

This concept terrifies people who need an easy touchstone. If we are left to rely on the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than a “Thus saith the Lord…” for our authority in our worship formats, then what will happen? People will run amok? Anything goes? Or not. Maybe we will have to focus on our hearts. Our worship service on Sunday morning, or whatever time or day, will have to focus on encouraging each other to live out the sacrifice and gift of Jesus toward other people. What a concept!

Does instrumental music qualify as strange fire before the Lord? It does not for three reasons:

  1. There was no clear transition from the worship with Psalms and early church worship.
  2. There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue in the Hebrew Bible.
  3. There was no worship format outlined for the early church.

1. The early church was instructed by the apostle Paul to worship by singing the Psalms. The Psalms of David are replete with references to worshipping God with cymbals, trumpets, lutes and lyres (guitars). There are also references to worshiping God with sacrifices. Sacrifices are specifically mentioned in the early church writings as having ceased, stopped and fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice. No such pronouncement is made about instruments of music.

2. There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue, in fact there is no authority for the synagogue at all. It was a tradition of humans that grew out of the exile in Babylon. The purpose, interestingly enough, was to build up and encourage the Israelites to keep the Law of Moses and to believe in Jahweh.

3. The early church did not have a set worship format. They just followed what they were familiar with, especially the synagogue organization and format. Their format was governed by the apostle Paul’s rule that all things be done to build up the church, specifically to trust in the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.

Posted in Command, Example and Necessary Inference, Faith and Works, Grace, Holy Spirit, Instrumental Music, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

How Should our Worship Service Look?

What worship format is biblical?

hamurabi

Code of Hamurabbi

In the Law of Moses in the books of Exodus and Leviticus the worship formats outlined by Moses, as commanded by God, were similar to the worship formats in Egypt and the land of Canaan, with some key differences. The Ten Commandments had three basic differences.
1. There was only one God in the Ten Commandments of the Israelites, as opposed to multiple Gods in the animistic cultures around them.
2. There were to be no physical idols to worship, whereas in Egypt and in Canaan there were multiple idols, and the idols were the main point of the worship.
3. For the crime of adultery, both the woman and the man were stoned to death. This was a difference from several surrounding cultures where only the woman was punished. (Later in Deuteronomy the man is required to give the woman a certificate of divorce if he sends her away, to protect her future opportunities to remarry.)

Asherah

Ashteroth fertility goddess

There were more differences between the Law of Moses and the cultures around them:
4. Even though the altars were similar (the Israelites were to use raw uncut stones, as opposed to the carved stones of pagan altars), and the animal sacrifices were similar (the Israelites used only clean animals–cloven hoof and cud-chewing), the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice their children. To a small extent the Egyptians and to a greater degree the Canaanites, being agrarian societies, practiced child sacrifice to mollify the fertility gods and goddesses (in Canaan: Baal and Asherah), to make sure their crops grew every year. (The first time we read in the Hebrew Bible of God forbidding child sacrifice is when Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, Isaac.)
5. The Canaanites also practiced sexual rites in their worship to the fertility gods, rites which were forbidden for the Israelites.
ahiram-cherubim-throne6. The tabernacle and temple of the Israelites was very similar to temples of the surrounding cultures, however the throne of cherubim above the ark of the covenant had nothing sitting on it, whereas in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures there was always an idol sitting on top of the winged angel throne. The “nothing” was to show that God is a real god, a spirit, that literally sat upon the throne, instead of an inanimate idol.
7. The creation story was very similar to the creation stories in the surrounding cultures, except that God is a good God who cares about his creation.
8. The Garden of Eden story is similar to the first man, woman and serpent stories in the surrounding cultures, except that humanity has a choice to trust a good God.

So what is the point? It seems clear to many that the commands of the Law of Moses were culture specific. They were rules that everyone was familiar with from living in those lands and cultures. But there were key differences, that set the Israelites apart, and as we can see 3,000 years later, contributed to the Israelite religion surviving, and the other religions dying out.

So what happens when Jesus comes along? The gospel of John says that Jesus camped among us. The apostle Paul said Jesus emptied himself and took upon himself all aspects of humanity. Jesus landed in a Jewish land, and he announced he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. So Jesus participated in all of the Jewish rituals and feast days. But he contradicted some of the laws of Moses, especially the law that forbade eating unclean foods, a radical departure from the Law of Moses. He also referred to God as the heavenly Father, also a new concept, found rarely in the Hebrew bible.

Solomon's porch replica

Solomon’s porch replica

After Jesus’ ascension and the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers were a Jewish group worshiping on the temple grounds every day in Solomon’s porch. Within 20 years the group became more Gentile. Paul said that circumcision had to be dropped as a requirement for Gentile converts, that Gentile believers should not be restricted to eating clean meats, and that Gentiles should not have to keep the feast days and the Sabbath day. These were radical and painful changes for the Jewish believers, and had to be ratified by the twelve apostles, and the original church eldership in Jerusalem, before they could agree with the apostle Paul.

So the most important rituals in the early church were:

Early Christian depiction of Agape Feast

Early Christian depiction of Agape Feast

1. The Lord’s Supper–which many believe was combined with a picnic (others reject the picnic idea because of Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians’ selfishness). The Lord’s Supper originated at the Passover meal. A few believe the Lord’s Supper was celebrated once a year at the Passover: “As often as you eat this bread..” (the Passover bread.) Others believe it became separated from the Passover meal very quickly.
2. Baptism–Some believe that John’s baptism was taken from the Jewish cleansing baths, especially the baptism of Gentiles when they converted to Judaism. What was radical about John’s baptism was that he baptized Jews, almost as if he were saying the Jews needed to be converted anew to Judaism.nude baptism

So now here we are 2,000 years later. What should our worship services look like? Honestly? If we were to imitate the Law of Moses and the early Christians, then we would adopt the cultural celebrations around us, and form a worship service that resembles these celebrations, but differs in key points that illustrate we worship one God who cares for us.

When the apostle Paul rebuked churches for worshiping incorrectly, the rebukes always centered around these key principles:
1. Is the practice encouraging to others?
2. Is the practice emblematic of Christ’s sacrifice for others?

So rather than filtering through the New Testament, a set of letters written to early churches in the Roman empire 2,000 years ago, and trying to replicate their worship service exactly, we should be figuring out how to camp among the people to whom God has sent us. How can we relate our worship service to our own culture in the present day? What kind of worship would be most meaningful to the people in your culture? What does your culture expect when they attend a celebration? How can we copy our culture’s celebrations and change key points that will illuminate a belief in one God who loves us?

Posted in Baptism, Bible, Command, Example and Necessary Inference, History, Instrumental Music | Tagged , ,

Organic Church vs GMO Church: or maybe we should appoint someone to be in charge of starting spontaneous singing…

devosOne of the many problems that evangelicalism faces in America today is the disillusionment of a majority of evangelicals. Yes, we, or our parents, believed our local religious radio station playing Dr. Dobson in the 1980s, telling us that if we would listen to his show every day, go to church every Sunday, take our kids to youth group every Friday night, and buy those family devotionals for $21.95 (the family that prays together, stays together), that our children would be drug-free heterosexual virgins, faithfully serving God into the next millennium. They promised.

The fundamentalist sect I was born into had a different list: get baptized correctly, go to church three times a week, plus gospel meetings (called revivals in other cultures), no dancing, no swimming, no gambling, no drinking, no smoking, no mini-skirts. Then you could be guaranteed that your family would stay married, be happy and your kids would be faithful and marry within the sect.

The truth is, of course, very different, as we all found out. Evangelical ministers hit the ministry with idealistic high hopes, and start realizing the lies they have been fed very quickly. Within five years one third of ministers have quit the ministry, seventy-five percent of evangelical ministers are deep into career burn-out, believing they are in bad marriages, 25% considering having an affair, 69% use porn. (But we can buy a book about conquering porn, $18.95, on sale now if you call within the next 15 minutes, written by a conqueror and published by one of the pro-family ministries on the radio.

texting

Or better yet, we could have the author come and speak, $2,250, and kick it off with a survey of the congregation that shows that 69% of the men are using porn right now. Add to that a book about how to put our marriages back together after an affair, $22.95, written by a forgiving spouse, and those bases are covered.) Yet these disillusioned pastors have to get up every Sunday and repeat the assurances to the hopeful flock: your marriages will survive the endless hours of TV and malls and be loving (and even sexy), your kids, despite the constant texting, will be peaceful, safe and responsible, like a re-run show from the 1960s.Beaver

The base not covered is the sinking feeling that rather than our faith being built on rock, as we sang in Sunday school, but built on polyethylene, sort of like an angel statuette bought at the local Christian book store in the 1980s (before the internet put book stores out of business). To call the local Christian book store a “book” store was to accept the ongoing evangelical practice of lying to ourselves. Yes, they displayed two shelves of the current bestsellers, but the rest of the store was devoted to lacy beribboned polystyrene kitsch that reassured the purchasers they were Christians, or advertised to the neighbors to stay away, because these people were hard core.

angel candle

The evangelical church is on a never-ending treadmill of revamping and revising: Perhaps we should have spontaneous singing at the beginning of worship. What about adding djembe drums? The sound system is inadequate, and the projector has to be replaced. We’re showing a new video series complete with workbooks and small group leader guides. The pastoral committee is interviewing a new dynamic tattooed minister. The ministry on Thursday nights for the divorced is going well, but we’re having to ask the ex-gay ministry to meet in the library to make room for them. The parking lot was just repaved, and we’re one third of our way to meeting our financial goal to build a gym (Would you be willing to give sacrificially?). The biggest challenge facing our church? Keeping the nursery staffed with volunteers who have filled out the security check.giving

fast food sad

Would you like a helping of faith with those fries? Our spiritual fellowship package is on sale today.

If I don’t expect fellowship or nutrition at a fast food enterprise that ships in frozen food from a warehouse and pays its workers minimum wage to smile at me, why would I expect fellowship or spiritual nutrition from a traditional evangelical church?

Fifty percent of believers do not attend church. We have voted with our feet. We could call this a lack of faith or commitment, but I prefer to call it a lack of church, broken promises, a thin understanding of God portrayed by our churches.

For some believers, this is an easy transition: church did not work, so they quit attending. They continue to pray and think about God daily. For others it is a difficult transition: they believed in the traditional church system whole-heartedly, they trusted evangelicalism deeply, they were horribly disappointed, and now they are angry at the liars who entrapped them.

Whenever I write a rant like this people ask me: Then where do you worship or fellowship? My answer is three-fold:

1. First of all, I haven’t finished ranting, so I don’t know where I’ll land.

2. I have a Shape Note club I attend on Tuesday nights that sings a cappella from the Sacred Harp, a hymnal, circa 1770-1870. The group is made up of ages 18 to 87, mostly atheist/agnostic, 30% Jewish, several Buddhists, 4% evangelical. We sing for two hours, then we go to a local pub and talk for another 90 minutes, at which we have had many spiritual conversations: Were the gospels all written or influenced by the apostle Paul? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead? Can Christianity be separated from its medieval political history? Why do fundamentalists collect guns? Why do conservative churches vote against helping the poor through Medicaid? How to forgive people who beep at me in traffic. How to stay married.
These are not conversations that the evangelical 4% in the group start. These are organic conversations without a hidden agenda. The Shape Note club has no leader, except someone who volunteers to relay email announcements, and someone else who brings the loaner song books. It has no organization, except for finding meeting space. When a member of the group has a death in the family, many members show up at the funeral.

3. I don’t need a designated group in order to be worshiping and fellowshipping. I am “at church” all the time. Tony Campolo said, “I don’t have to do sex, I am sex.” I say much the same thing: “I don’t have to do church, I am church.” Everywhere I go I am connecting and fellowshipping and encouraging, to a lesser or greater extent, successfully or unsuccessfully. No, the Shape Note club does not meet all of my worship and fellowship needs. It just meets more of them than any GMO traditional church I have been a member of.

Posted in Evangelical Church, Evangelism, History, Manipulation, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments