Friday, September 28, 2012

closed and centered sets in church

Update January 2016. Dave Schmelzer has addressed some objections like mine in his essay here.

This week I listened to most of a sermon from the Boston Vineyard on homosexuality from their 2011 series on hard questions. The sermon's title is Homosexuality and Churchgoing and was given by the lead pastor, Dave Schmelzer. I didn't hear the last fourth of the sermon, so he might have said what I am going to say here, but his ideas got me thinking. Basically, he appeals to a mathematical analogy for his ecclesiology, centered sets vs. closed sets.  This is nothing new, but for those to whom it is new, here is my quick breakdown. A closed set would be a circle defined by it's edge. A centered set would be defined by, you guessed it, the center. A church with a closed set ecclesiology would have some well defined behaviors expected of members, e.g. no smoking, drinking or dancing. A centered set church welcomes all who are moving toward Jesus.
I don't think most churches hold exclusively to any set, but combine them to one degree or another. Even closed set churches typically don't ignore Jesus' command to make disciples and evangelize unbelievers. I also think that most centered set churches have a closed set at some level, at least at the staff level. Otherwise, a lead pastor could be an openly philandering jerk who nevertheless proclaims his love of Jesus...Wait, that does happen too...But this is what Paul had to say to his protege Timothy,
1 It is a true saying that if someone wants to be an elder, he desires an honorable responsibility. 2 For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, peace loving, and not one who loves money. 4 He must manage his own family well, with children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church? 6 An elder must not be a new Christian, because he might be proud of being chosen so soon, and the Devil will use that pride to make him fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not fall into the Devil's trap and be disgraced. 8 In the same way, deacons must be people who are respected and have integrity. They must not be heavy drinkers and must not be greedy for money. 9 They must be committed to the revealed truths of the Christian faith and must live with a clear conscience. 10 Before they are appointed as deacons, they should be given other responsibilities in the church as a test of their character and ability. If they do well, then they may serve as deacons. 11 In the same way, their wives must be respected and must not speak evil of others. They must exercise self-control and be faithful in everything they do. 12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife, and he must manage his children and household well. 13 Those who do well as deacons will be rewarded with respect from others and will have increased confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3

He writes similarly to another protege, Titus
5 I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you. 6 An elder must be well thought of for his good life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who are not wild or rebellious. 7 An elder must live a blameless life because he is God's minister. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or greedy for money. 8 He must enjoy having guests in his home and must love all that is good. He must live wisely and be fair. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong and steadfast belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with right teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. Titus 1
It seems that, in Paul's view, a centered set should not be enough for church leaders, even though in practice the church is not that good at adhering to these set limits, especially when the leader brings in lots and lots of cash...Wait...greed for money is listed as a disqualifier...God is certainly gracious to his sinful children.

In light of Paul's description of what is required of church leaders, thus establishing a closed set, and in balance with the call to evangelize the world, it seems God's church needs to be a centered set in general, but closed in particular to it's leaders. Paul does not seem to condemn smoking or dancing in his leader qualifications, nor drinking either, just drunkenness. He does seem to limit a leader's sexual expression, explicitly to one that is espoused, or, by example, his own and Christ's, to one who is celibate.

If I were to finish the Vineyard Boston sermon, I'd say, many are called, but few are chosen...Wait...Jesus already said that, Matthew 22:14. It's his concluding statement of a curious parable.
1 Jesus told them several other stories to illustrate the Kingdom. He said, 2 "The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. 3 Many guests were invited, and when the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify everyone that it was time to come. But they all refused! 4 So he sent other servants to tell them, 'The feast has been prepared, and choice meats have been cooked. Everything is ready. Hurry!' 5 But the guests he had invited ignored them and went about their business, one to his farm, another to his store. 6 Others seized his messengers and treated them shamefully, even killing some of them. 7 "Then the king became furious. He sent out his army to destroy the murderers and burn their city. 8 And he said to his servants, 'The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren't worthy of the honor. 9 Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.' 10 "So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to meet the guests, he noticed a man who wasn't wearing the proper clothes for a wedding. 12 'Friend,' he asked, 'how is it that you are here without wedding clothes?' And the man had no reply. 13 Then the king said to his aides, 'Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.' 14 For many are called, but few are chosen."
It seems the set is closed to those dressed inappropriately at this wedding. It also seems that the set is closed to those who refuse the invitation, violently closed. The clothing thing, has a direct allusion to something Isaiah wrote, I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD my God! For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation and draped me in a robe of righteousness. I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit or a bride with her jewels. Is. 61:10 Again, a wedding metaphor that uses clothing as a key component. In Jesus' parable, he seems to state the obvious, that the church is full of guests who are not clothed in righteousness, whom I understand to be those who are drawn to Jesus, part of the centered set, but have not dressed themselves in his righteousness. Jesus' warning to them is their time to decide is limited. Faith is easy. Faith in practice is the evidence of genuine faith, see James 2:14 Dear brothers and sisters, what's the use of saying you have faith if you don't prove it by your actions? That kind of faith can't save anyone. This is in agreement with Paul's closed set for leaders. Leaders should be examples of lived out faith. Only those who do live it out, should be chosen to lead.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jesus' over the top sayings - dads and teachers

In Matthew 23, Jesus is ripping on religious leaders. In one part he says,
8 Don't ever let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are on the same level as brothers and sisters. 9 And don't address anyone here on earth as 'Father,' for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don't let anyone call you 'Master,' for there is only one master, the Messiah. v 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. 
Taken literally, as some of us have, this results in finger pointing towards others in Christendom who do use the appellation "Father" for their leaders. At the same time, we ignore the fact that we'll call some of our leaders, "Teachers." I wonder if there are some who won't even refer to their biological male parent as "Father." Maybe they call them by their first names. But one of Jesus' favorite rhetorical methods is hyperbole. In other places he tells us to cut off our hands or pluck our eyes out if they cause us to sin. Even the hard core literalists among us usually appeal to rhetoric at those verses.

What is Jesus' point then?

He was warning people about the religious leaders, calling them hypocrites, who do not practice what they teach, so I think the implied qualifier for Rabbi and Father is "perfect." Do not accord infallibility to any earthly person. We are all broken. He doesn't want us to trust everything that spews from those we entrust with authority. Check it with the only perfect teacher and father.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

what's a loving dad supposed to do?

Controversial Christian writer and retired pastor Brian McLaren recently led a commitment ceremony for his gay son and his partner. Here are the facts. Brian is a dad, and a pastor. He loves his son and he loves Jesus. Some of his critics, and I've been one on other topics, are holding this up as an example of McLaren's apostasy, that he doesn't love Jesus and advocates for a false Christianity. Years ago, McLaren wished aloud for a long pause on the American church's dialog on homosexuality. I've been part of that conversation for that while and have certainly shifted in my approaches to the issue.I still honor the clobber verses in the Bible, but I'm done with trying to clobber people with those verses. But how is a dad to love his son who is gay and entering into a commitment with his partner in a state that does not legally recognize gay marriage? Protest it? Picket it? Shun the two men? Condemn them? Gather up a group of preachers, kidnap his son, and collect some rocks to throw at him? Is that what the love of Christ looks like?

I don't think so. See John 8.

McLaren and I are not close theologically. I don't think I could lead a commitment ceremony. However, I do know I want to be, in what little clouded way that I can, a reflection of a loving Jesus in a broken world. I, like McLaren, would be there for my son and the love of his life.

It's weird to stand with McLaren on something. But if anything, I can stand with anyone who acts with love.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

9/11 and "never forget" and "forgive us our sins"

It's no big insight to point out that many Christians seem to honor their country before their God, even when we believe we are honoring God and country at the same time. On the 11th anniversary of the al Queda attacks by passenger jet in the US I saw many postings in my Facebook network with pictures of the twin towers in NYC and the proclamation to "Never Forget." There was no difference in the postings between patriotic believers and unbelievers. This was not a scientifically rigorous observation, but all I've been looking for is a picture of the twin towers and a quote from Jesus, "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us."Unforgiveness is extremely expensive, not just in the cost to our nation to invade and occupy Afghanistan, but also to our souls. The twin towers were picked by bin Laden not as much for the loss of life, but to damage our financial stability. Our unethical, greedy bankers were able to do that on their own, without his assistance, likewise, our hawkish political leaders, who preferred justice before forgiveness, ignoring the history of the occupations of Afghanistan, also assisted in our financial peril. With all the debt we are ringing up to seek justice on a partisan organization, we will surely "never forget."

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book response: The Open Bible published by Thomas Nelson

The Open Bible's subtitle on its book jacket says "Read and discover the Bible for yourself." I think this mission statement for the study bible committee is fulfilled in this type of study bible. I have and have had many study bibles. I have the kind with more notes and commentary on each page than scripture. I don't think that's a problem, that study bible committee had a different purpose. This study version stays out of the reader's way, trying to be silent as the reader encounters God through his word. The bulk of notes, commentary, and resources are in the beginning of the book or as an introduction to each book in the Bible. The verses themselves fill up most of the page, with small notes on translation with the New King James Version that they use, and cross references. Occasionally there is a key verse on an important Christian doctrine that is commented on. That kind of commentary encourages the reader to study further with reference to other verses that effect the doctrine, from demonology to sources of doubt to knowing God's will, etc. The editors want the readers to study the Bible itself. The closest in concept study bible that I own would be Kay Arthur's Inductive Study Bible, with similar goals. However, this Bible provides more gateways to learning more with its massive Biblical Cyclopedic Index and  Christian's Guide to the New Life and Visual Survey of the Bible. These tools are excellent for assisting the student of God's word.

I'm grateful to Booksneeze for providing me a free review copy.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

book response: Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott (2012)

Darwin's Ghosts is like a walk through a garden where one stops at the prettiest flowers then flits to other ones down the path. It's enjoyable and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but it's not strenuous. The sub-title of the book is "The secret history of evolution." I thought I would learn more than I did about Darwin's forerunners, which is not to say I didn't learn, but not as much as I expected. Stott expanded on Darwin's own afterword in his later editions of The Origin of Species, which is included as an appendix in this book, cherry-picking eleven or twelve from his list. Between Aristotle and Wallace, I learned about Jahiz in Baghdad, Leonardo DaVinci, the salons of Paris, a couple odd balls, including a guy in Kentucky. I'm fond of history and biographies, so a series of biographies in a large history, was a delight for me. But with only 400 pages to work in, the depths of the biographies are adequate but not great.

In the end Stott is convinced that Darwin truly was the first to conceive of descent with modification as the first scientifically defensible method of transmutation over the generations. I am intrigued enough by her admiration for Darwin to download a free copy of Origin of Species to my Kindle, to peruse someday. Her writing is good and easy to read. This is an excellent introduction to the topic in the history of evolutionary science, but only a beginning.
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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

the love of books and Robert Chambers

When I was about eight years old, I lived in a small apartment building. A younger kid had moved into the apartment diagonally upstairs from me and was alright to play with, but in his house he had an encyclopedia set. For a glorious hour or two, I came into possession of a couple volumes for a few toy cars. While I was delighting in the successful acquisition of knowledge, his parents started to worry about the new toys and the missing books. I didn't have them long, but while I did,  it was a taste of heaven for me. Fortunately, as I grew older, my parents brought me to the library more often, and I was able to indulge in books more and more. I'm still insatiable. While reading something from the new books shelf this weekend, Darwin's Ghosts by Stott, a collection of brief biographies of some of the people who Darwin thought as forerunners of his theory of natural selection, I encountered an even more librophilic person, Robert Chambers. He writes of his discovery of a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in a chest in his attic as a boy in the early 1800's.
Cover of
Cover of Britannica Encyclopedia (Encyclopaedia)

From that time for weeks all my spare time was spent beside the chest. It was a new world to me. I felt a religious thankfulness that such a convenient collection of human knowledge existed, and that here it was spread out like a well-plenished table before me. What the gift of a whole toy-shop would have been to most children, this book was to me. I plunged into it. I roamed through it like a bee. I hardly could be patient enough to read any one article, while so many others remained to be looked into. In the one on Astronomy, the constitution of the material universe was all at once revealed to me. Henceforth, I knew - what no other boy in the town dreamed of- that there were infinite numbers of worlds besides our own, which was by comparison a very insignificant one... I pitied my companions who remained ignorant of what became to me familiar knowledge. pp. 240-1 
I'm so jealous he got an entire set to himself. I remember when sets of encyclopedias were available in the grocery store as a subscription which each monthly payment got one a new volume. How I wished my family could have afforded that. Then I remembered the exciting possibility of the entire set fitting on one cd-rom, but I didn't have the computer to read it. Now, we have wikipedia and and the entire internet. But I still love reading books, even when they are on my Kindle, but not very much on a computer screen.
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