Archives For September 2012

About The Epistles….

September 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

I am well aware that there are Christians who believe that all of the bible is the words of Jesus and must be taken literally and totally without the possibility of error in every regard.  On my very first post on this blog almost four years ago I was confronted by this belief by a person rather high up in the Lutheran denominations. I have always been a person who asks questions about everything. Always asking questions has gotten me in trouble throughout my life but never more so than in the secular realm.  When I study the bible I just find too many inconsistencies in the stories and especially about the spirit of God to believe it to be from God’s lips that is if he actually has lips.  As I have evolved I have come to take the bible as inspired stories about the history and yes even the myth of what we now call Christianity. The bible contains many valuable messages but it is just not intended to always be taken literally.

When I came across the blog by Rachel Held Evans I discovered a young kindred spirit. She, like me, is not afraid to ask “why” even to the biblical text.  She learned much earlier in her life than I that in mine that the bible contains valuable stories about Jesus and God but was not dictated, either literally or otherwise, by God. Here is an excerpt from one of her postings.

The epistles were never meant to be interpreted and applied as universal law. Rather, they provide us with an instructive and inspired glimpse into how Jesus’ teachings were lived out by real people, in real communities, facing real challenges. It is not the details found in the letters that we should seek to imitate, but rather the attitudes. The details (head coverings, circumcision, meat offered to idols, widow management, hair length, etc.) are rarely timeless, but the attitudes (“as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men,” “do not cause your brother to stumble,” “avoid the appearance of evil”) provide guidelines that can instruct us as Christians today. So the questions we should be asking ourselves today are not: Should we eat meat offered to idols?, or Should women wear head coverings?,  but rather, How can we find peace when Christians feel convicted in different ways? and How do we avoid unnecessarily offending others by our appearance? 

When read this way, I am constantly impressed by the degree to which these early Christians were willing to sacrifice beliefs and traditions they held dear for the sake of love and for the sake of advancing the gospel. Such a reading does not devalue scripture, but rather honors it for what it is, not what we try to make it. 

From Rachel Held Evans   via About The Epistles…..

Rachel is a very prolific blogger! I don’t know how she keeps up the multi-day postings and I am a person who has four blogs running.  She is on my daily read list and I have just ordered her first book entitled Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions.

I could not have said it better so I will leave her words above to stand on their own.

I am going to start this post with an alarming story of Constantine’s involvement in the Council of Nicaea. It is from a book by Harvey Cox entitle The Future of Faith.   If this doesn’t cast out any doubt of man’s involvement in the change from faith to rigid belief nothing will:

Constantine, not Jesus, was the dominant figure at Nicaea, and it is hardly surprising that almost all the bishops, to the emperor’s satisfaction, arrived at a nearly unanimous decision in his favor. Only Arius himself and three other stubbornly independent bishops withheld their approval. Constantine promptly exiled Arius to the remote province of Illyricum. Then, in a statement that suggests he had forgotten his previous view both that this was all a matter of small significance and that all the parties should show forbearance to one another, he decreed: If any treatise composed by Arius be discovered, let it be consigned to the flames…and if anyone shall be caught concealing a book by Arius, and does not instantly bring it out and burn it, the penalty shall be death; the criminal shall suffer punishment immediately after conviction.3 But the emperor’s draconian measures did not succeed. The historic Council of Nicaea, as an effort to unify the church and the empire by imposing a creed, proved a dismal failure. Within months arguments flared up again. One of the bishops who had attended the Nicaea council and had not supported the final decision, Hilary of Poitiers (d. ca. 367), found himself banished to Asia. No doubt his experience tinctured his opinion of councils and creeds, but a letter he wrote from his place of exile at the time pinpoints how little the Council of Nicaea had accomplished and what a debacle it had been. Hilary says: It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous that there are as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines because we make creeds arbitrarily and explain their inclinations…arbitrarily…every year, nay every moon we make a new creed and describe invisible mysteries. We repent what we have done. We defend those who repent. We anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other’s ruin.

Arius definitely caught the ire of Constantine and his brutality. Not only did he banish this noble bishop who dared to disagree with him on church matters he made even having anything written by Arius a penalty of death!! Sadly these types of stories are somewhat frequent in the years following Constantine’s mandating Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

We will be studying some more about this period in future posts but for now it is important that you realize that Christianity’s history is messy indeed. I am not saying that there are no good parts to what became the Church of Jesus Christ but only that we must be aware that much of the simple teachings of Jesus were later polluted by men seeking to consolidate personal power in earthly focused empires. Power corrupts, even inside the Christian church!

About Those Creeds…..

September 23, 2012 — 2 Comments

Most Christians today only know of two creeds: The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In reality there were hundreds if not thousands of creeds generated during the 4th through the 10th centuries. It seemed that every time a bishop felt his power threatened he claimed to have another creed dictated by God.  Here is what Harvey Fox said about that in his book the Future of  Faith about the times after Constantine nationalized Christianity:

Meanwhile the Christian bishops went on debating the fine points of theology. Now they argued over what homoousios really meant and the nature of Mary’s relationship to God and Christ. They composed more creeds and excommunicated more people. After the fall of Rome in 476 CE, the ensuing centuries told a dismal story of the repeated failure of using creeds and excommunications to achieve any result, except for further rancor. If, as some psychologists claim, at least one form of mental illness can be defined as doggedly repeating the same tactic over and over again even when it has always failed, creeds could be thought of as symptoms of a long psychological disorder…

The history of Christianity during the decades after Constantine makes for dreary reading. The subversion of the church into a religious empire widened. The bishops continued to bicker among themselves and deployed the power of the state against their theological enemies. Corruption increased.

When I started my serious study of various religious denominations one came almost immediately to my attention and that was The American Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. Quakers are strongly against all of the various creeds that have existed in the church. Little did I know that after years of studying this issue I would fully fall in line with their beliefs that creeds do more damage to the church of Jesus than they ever could hope to accomplish.

As indicated by the above quote creeds have been primarily used to exclude people who are deemed to believe the wrong things.  They are used to exclude rather than include as Jesus clearly did.  To me the ironic thing about almost all of the creeds I have studied is that they are primarily about things that Jesus never taught or said. They are instead about what various leaders thought many years after Christ.

I really don’t think it matters much to Jesus that some believe that his mother was a virgin before and even after he was born. I don’t think Jesus cares if we think of him and God, and the Spirit as three in one or just as three dimensions of the same god.  If  you are interested pull out the catechism from your version of  Christianity and study just what it is you are supposed to believe. You just might be surprised if you really look at the words.

Jesus did not come to earth so that men, some many years after he left, could put together a group of mandated beliefs about God in order to exclude people from their ranks.  Jesus was all about inclusion; much of his current church is about exclusion and creeds are one of their primary weapons. I’m sure this saddens Jesus greatly. ..

Stumbling Forward….

September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Jesus meant for us to look forward in the world to accomplish the tasks he gave us. If you read the red letters for what they are and not necessarily what others think about them then you will know that he didn’t intend for us to always be looking backwards to what he did for us. He gave each one of us who call ourselves his followers a mission to love each other, to help bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven, and to take care of the “least of these”. Those should be our primary tasks while we occupy our space on this earth.

Yes, what he did for us in dying for our sins assures us heaven and is huge indeed  and we should and will be eternally grateful.  But he also gave us a “to do” list to accomplish. If we spend all our time looking backwards then we are always stumbling into the future and that is certainly not what he intends.

Many of us Christians never seem to give up our childhood views of just who God is. We think of him as that white bearded guy up in heaven. True, we do add some things to this vision as we get older we see him as that guy who spends his day saying “You go to heaven; you go to hell”.  We often view Jesus in the same childhood comprehension. Jesus is that long-haired, brown-bearded guy who sits around all day playing with sheep and always has children gathered around him.

When we grow in wisdom of him and finally come to see God as the light within each of us then we discover that one of the reasons Jesus came was to teach us how to live as God intended.  As we study Jesus’ words the real Jesus emerges and our childhood images fade into the background. Many churches today are stuck in the childhood Jesus mode and as a result never take the Christian life seriously. As cited in the Lord’s Prayer he intends us to do our part in making his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Contrary to what many current church denominations believe our task is not to just make an altar-call and then sit back and wait to go to heaven! While we are on this earth we have a many other daily, even hourly, responsibilities.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood  behind me.  – 1 Corinthians 13:11

God never intends us to remain as children in our knowledge of him. He expects us to study his word and get to know him better as we become men and women. Yes our trust in Jesus should remain childlike but our knowledge of him and his purpose for coming to us should grow as we age.  When we fixate on one or even a few particular verses found in the Bible and ignore all the others we have a very limited view of God.  That is definitely not what he intends.

Maybe…. Just Maybe….

September 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

Yesterday I got the below email from Sojourners with responses from both presidential candidates on how they will address the problem of poverty in America. Given that our current study is “our responsibilities to the poor” it came at a very appropriate time.

I am tempted to make some remarks about the two approaches but will refrain from doing so in this post.  Click on any of the indicated spots in the email to see the videos (they are even closed captioned for those of us who are deaf).

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Dear R.J.,

What happened today was unprecedented. Christian leaders from across the theological and political spectrum came together to demand that the presidential candidates directly address the issue of poverty.

And because of the faith community’s witness, the candidates responded. Check out whatPresident Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney had to say.

Obama/Romney Video

Election seasons often sow deep divisions within our churches. The political pundits focus on the most contentious issues. Super PACs are spending millions of dollars on negative advertising. Sadly, we are often “One Nation, Divided Under God.”

But a new consensus is emerging. Poverty is the common moral concern of Christians in this election season. That is why I stood side by side with leaders from the Catholic Church, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, Black and Hispanic churches, and other organizations to ask that the candidates address the economic hardships and hopelessness felt by far too many of our brothers and sisters. The newest poverty numbers came out today, the faith community responded, and, at our request, President Obama and Gov. Romney did too.

Thanks for all you’re doing to keep this conversation going.

In Faith,

Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners

The Love of God….

September 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them,  how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children,  let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  — 1 John 3:16 – 28

I am going to start off this series about the followers of Jesus responsibilities to the poor with one of my favorite quotes outside the red letters. The author of 1 John is thought to be the same person who wrote the Gospel by that name. It is similar in style but no author is identified in the letter itself.  An early church leader named Irenaeus is thought to be the first to put John’s name to the letter more than one-hundred years after it was written. For purposes of this post I am going to assume that he was correct. The Apostle John was one of those who learned at the feet of Jesus so I believe he more than most knew after three years of daily exposure the heart of Jesus. So, even though these words probably did not come from Jesus himself they are authoritative in my mind.

This quote contains some brutal words. If you see a brother or sister, and Jesus said everyone is your brother or sister, in need and have no pity on them how can God’s love be in you? In other words God gives us the responsibility to help the poor.  Can you really call yourself a child of God if you don’t have God’s love in you? That is a foundational question that John is asking.

It almost seems like John is looking forward more than twenty centuries with the last part of his message.  “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions”. I sadly see in today’s world many who call themselves Christians railing against the safety net our government provides in this country.  They say it is not government’s job to take care of the poor!  It is unconstitutional! If the need is not being met elsewhere, and it is certainly not, then what are those in need supposed to do? Since our churches don’t begin to meet the need who can if not the “people’s representatives” in our government?  When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the separation of church and state he was not trying to put Christian compassion out of government.  When we can’t meet the needs individually or our churches won’t do it collectively then we followers of Jesus must encourage our government to do it in our place. I am proud of the U.S. taking our place in having pity on those in need.

I am again an Apple computer guy so when I saw recently that Apple had won a court case against Samsung on their using things that Apple has patents on the thought of for the title above came quickly to mind. Many Christians seem to think that they have exclusive rights to who God is and what we are to believe about him. I believe I can say with some certainty that no one has exclusive patent rights on God.

When I was a Catholic in my early years the nuns and priests that taught me about God insisted that only Catholics would go to heaven. All other types of Christians including Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and the like and especially including all those “other” type religions will not be in heaven.  Even as a very young person this proclamation bothered me. Why would God send Johnny, who was my best friend but not a Catholic, to hell?  Johnny was probably the most caring person I knew so it pained me that he would spend an eternity in unquenchable fires!

Since those times back in the 1950’s Catholics have admitted, although very quietly it seems, that maybe others who believe in Jesus just might also earn heaven but still those “others” are bound for hell. Of course almost all of the different denominations think they alone  have an exclusive channel to God.  Everyone else only have a fuzzy vision of who God really is. As an adult in a Lutheran Bible study was told that Muslims, Hindi, Buddhists and everyone maybe even those Catholics are not praying to the same God we were. Their god was indeed a false god. This practice of each religious group excluding all the others has always troubled me.

I personally believe that everyone has access to the same God. My muslim brothers are praying to the same God as I am. Jesus said no one gets to heaven except through me but he didn’t say he wouldn’t let other religions come through him. Jesus is the gate-keeper but he didn’t say he was going to reject those who come to him on different paths.  Jesus was very much Jewish in his religious affiliation. If we want to exclude every religion that came after Jesus then we would also have to question whether Christians are allowed in heaven as that religious body never existed in his time.

I think it is pompous at best and deadly wrong at its worst to say I have exclusive rights to God. God is who he is and no one can ever fully fathom what is in his heart.  We all pray to the same God but with different man-made sets of beliefs.  Who is to say that other religions who happened to come after Jesus are not from God?  Please don’t insist that they are not because they are not mentioned in the Christian Bible. I just don’t buy that logic anymore….

We in the U.S. know that one of the primary foundations of our democracy is freedom of speech. That is being able to say something different from our leaders and not suffer serious consequences. In my opinion this is what has allowed our country to remain so strong over the centuries. Many times criticisms lead to change and though we might not realize it at that time that is good for us. It makes us better; it makes us stronger. Without freedom of speech I doubt our country we even exist today.

Anyone who has studied church history at all knows that it is not a democracy but instead has for most of its history a very vertical oriented top-heavy organization. When the leader of the church, or even most of his immediate underlings said something everyone was expected to quickly get in line with his words. Dissension is just not allowed.  Anyone who even hinted of a disagreement were quickly handled.  In the past anyone proclaimed a  heretic, which basically meant they didn’t agree with their leaders in some aspect, had all of their writings burned so they would not pollute the church.  And many followed their books into the flames.

Thank heaven at least in the last few centuries heretics are not so severely handled but that does not mean that they are not severely dealt with. Many think only of the Catholic church when they think of the power structures. No Catholic, especially the cardinals and bishops would go against anything that the Pope proclaims.  But this situation also occurs amongst the Protestant denominations as well.

If you even hint that you don’t agree with all the various creeds and statements given by your denomination’s leadership you will also be chastised or even kicked out. I know personally of a Lutheran minister who was brought back from an overseas mission and stripped of his sermon rights because he dared to join in prayer with those in other Christian groups.  It seems that most denominations and that includes the Catholic church (although they don’t like being called a denomination) just won’t accept any straying from the stated doctrine of their group. They all claim that it would stain their institutional purity. About the only denomination that I am aware of that doesn’t do this are the Quakers. But since they are adamantly opposed to creeds in general that seems a natural to them.

This lack of accepting fellowship with other Christians is one of the most serious problems causing the generally sharp decline in the institutional church.  Their arrogance in thinking that they are pure and others are not is driving away membership especially among the younger generations.  The emergent church movement, although not yet well-defined , generally prefer a very horizontal structure if they have a structure at all. Creeds and such are just not important to most of them.

I will be posting more about the emergent movement in the coming weeks. There are several books that are well worth the read if you are interested. I will be getting into that in later posts.

This is a cross post from one of my other blogs at RJ’s Corner. I thought it appropriate for RLL also.

It is terrible to think what the churches do to men. But if one imagines oneself in the position of the men who constitute the Church, we see they could not act differently. The churches are placed in a dilemma: the Sermon on the Mount or the Nicene Creed–the one excludes the other. If a man sincerely believes in the Sermon on the Mount, the Nicene Creed must inevitably lose all meaning and significance for him, and the Church and its representatives together with it. If a man believes in the Nicene Creed, that is, in the Church, that is, in those who call themselves its representatives, the Sermon on the Mount becomes superfluous for him. And therefore the churches cannot but make every possible effort to obscure the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, and to attract men to themselves. It is only due to the intense zeal of the churches in this direction that the influence of the churches has lasted hitherto.

The quote above seems pretty radical!  It must be from one of those new age thinkers!  Guess again. It was from the Author of War and Peace Leo Tolstoy in 1894. Although he says it much more bluntly than I ever would I can’t say I disagree with most of it.

The Nicene Creed which was authored under the Roman ruler Constantine is mostly what we are supposed to believe about Jesus Christ. The Sermon on the Mount is what Jesus himself told us how we are supposed act if we are his followers. Tolstoy saw that the church even during his time put much more energy in maintaining man-made beliefs about Jesus rather than just following Him. Not a lot has changed in that regard. I think almost all clergy are well-meaning men who have simply bought into a tilted system based on beliefs about Jesus instead of lessons from Jesus.

Tony Jones a hundred years later also speaks of this in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier

 In the twenty-first century, it’s not God who’s dead. It’s the church. Or at least conventional forms of church. Dead? you say. Isn’t that overstating the case a bit? Indeed, churches still abound. So do pay phones. You can still find pay phones around, in airports and train stations and shopping malls-there are plenty of working pay phones. But look around your local airport and you’ll likely see the sad remnants where pay phones used to hang-the strange row of rectangles on the wall and the empty slot where a phone book used to sit. There are under a million pay phones in the United States today. In 1997, there were over two million. Of course, the death of the pay phone doesn’t mean that we don’t make phone calls anymore. In fact, we make far more calls than ever before, but we make them differently. Now we make phone calls from home or on the mobile device clasped to our belt or through our computers. Phone calls aren’t obsolete, but the pay phone is-or at least it’s quickly becoming so. 

Churches are like pay-phones? That is a very interesting analogy. God is not dead. It is only the man-made institution built in his name that is on life support. I have hopes that this new emergent movement will prove to be a worthy substitute for fast dwindling church structures of today. We have to return to doing what Jesus says….