Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

Random Thoughts On The Church of the Nazarene’s 29th General Assembly

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Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know I spent the last couple weeks participating with my denomination in our quadrennial legislative gathering known as “General Assembly and Conventions.”  My plane landed back in Utah a mere 42 hours ago. I am not sure when my brain will land back in Utah but I am hopeful!

With that said, here are some stray thoughts about the last two weeks:

 1. It is so possible to be lonely in a crowd.  

Somewhere between 20 to 30 thousand Nazarenes gathered in Indianapolis.  While this was wonderful, it did not lend itself to community or intimacy.  Instead it led to thousands of awkward conversations.  Hundreds of them were cut abruptly short just so the participants could go have another one.  Nobody seemed to have time to really sit still.  Denominational leaders were the chief offenders.  They were politicking, which means they wanted to give everybody equal attention and time but also wanted to cut every conversation short so they could give someone else attention and time.  I desperately didn’t want to monopolize anybody’s time, especially that of the high profile names, so I walked away from every conversation feeling guilty.  This isn’t anyone’s fault, but it is a sad byproduct of gatherings of 20,000 people.  We have short, curt conversations and leave each other feeling guilty.  It was not uncommon to hear people say, “This is what heaven’s going to be like!”  I can’t help but think, “I hope not.”  In heaven we might finally have time for each other.

2. I am still a young clergy but I will not be much longer.  Five years ago I became a senior pastor and a father.  Since then, I have often quipped that I am getting lamer by the day.  I feel like I am all ready 50.  But last week I stayed in the “young clergy house.”  I hung out almost exclusively with people in their 20s and early 30s.  I went to young clergy gatherings and was called “young” by several older people.  I am still young!  But I won’t be much longer.  Four years from now, at our next gathering, I will be in my late 30s.  I will be almost a decade into ministry and well on my way to glory.  This became painfully obvious in the awkward conversations I had with those in their teens and early twenties.  One conversation was with a recent college graduate, who is a full decade younger than me.  He is starting a leadership training network with a podcast on preaching.  His goal is to teach us older pastors how to be good leaders and how to preach.  This without any experience himself in such things.  I know calling out that hypocrisy sounds crotchety but really I just wish I could be that young and arrogant again!  I tell you, kids these day!

3. There are 3 things you don’t want to see made.  .  .  The old quote from politics goes, “Two things you don’t want to see made are laws and sausages!”  I would add a third to that, “the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene.”  The purpose of General Assembly is to amend and tweak our manual.  It is a very messy and complicated process and I walked away with severe doubts about it all.  But I don’t know of any better way to do it.  This seems to be who we are and what works best for us.  On that note, I found I was not just frustrated by what should have passed and didn’t or vice versa.  My primary frustration was with what should not have been codified and was.  There are some things that are good and true but that don’t need to be institutionalized.  We went ahead and codified almost 200 of them!  If I ever become a GS I might declare a “quadrennial of jubilee” where we delete half the manual as unnecessary!  (Don’t quote me on that.)

4. The most powerful moments celebrated our international identity.  There were multiple times I was moved to tears of joy last week.  The first was when several thousand of us gathered around the altars to pray with brothers and sisters from other countries.  That was powerful.  The next came during the incredible rendition of “The Revelation Song” which was sung in over 13 languages.  (You can watch the video below.)  The next two were the elections of Dr. Filimao Chambo from Africa and Dr. Carla Sunberg who grew up in Europe.  These were powerful times!  In the age of increasing polarity, nationalism and xenophobia, we did something profound.  We not only celebrated our diversity but we became more diverse.  I walked away delighted that we got that part right!

5. I didn’t want to come home until the last day.  I had so much fun that coming home was downright undesirable.  I wanted it to last forever and dreaded the return flights home.  The night before those cursed airplanes carried me to Utah, Deirdre Brower-Latz, the Principal of one of our schools in England, spoke to the young clergy.  Among other things, she advised us to pastor small churches.  She spoke poetically as she suggested we settle down in those churches, learn to love the people there and stick with them over the course of decades.  I was profoundly grateful for those words because after an incredible experience with 20-30,000 people, she reminded me that small churches are even more incredible.  She released me back to the 40 or so crazy people who gather on Rosewood Lane in Layton, UT so that we could further work out with fear and trembling what God is all ready working in us.

In closing, retiring General Superintendant J.K. Warrick quipped, “I love our church.  We are a mess.  .  .but I love us!”  I could not agree more but after this wonderful time together, I think we are little bit less of a mess.

And for that, I rejoice.

Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

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Yesterday, we had one of those worship services where not much went according to plan.  The music team had to redo their set at the last minute.  I lost my lapel microphone.  While presenting a “Distinguished Service Award” to a lady in my congregation, I dropped the certificate and broke the beautiful frame I had bought for her.  Our attendance was low.  You know, one of those Sundays.

But then after church, we had our “Year End Meeting” where we celebrated the end of another fiscal year and all that we accomplished.  That went really well.

Around 1:45, as we were preparing to leave I walked into the middle of a room where children were playing “keep away” with a hat.  The hat randomly landed in my hands and I knew just what to do.  The wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour outside, so I charged into the parking lot with a group of kids in tow and threw the hat like a frisbee into the wind which carried it several meters out into our field.  The kids were yelling and giggling as they raced out after it.

Then I turned around to see a parked car behind me with the engine running.  The car was a generic, gray, four door sedan and I didn’t recognize it as belonging to any of our church people.   Without gazing too awkwardly I tried to get a good look at the driver but could only see that he was wearing a gray suit and was looking at a phone in his lap.

I went inside and peered back out.  The children were running in from the field with the retrieved hat.  The man sat in the car.  He looked lost.  So I walked towards his window.  As I did he turned the engine off and climbed out of his car.  He was younger than I had expected and definitely not one of our regular attenders.

“Do you need help finding anywhere?” I asked because he looked very uncomfortable and very lost.

“No, I think that this is maybe where I want to be.  Are your meetings going on right now?”

“Meetings” is one of those words in Utah that definitely indicates a Mormon.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.  “We meet at 11 but we had a lunch meeting after our regular worship time today so we are all still here.”

“Well, I am LDS” he continued, “but I am curious about other faiths and religions and wanted to come to one of your meetings to see what it is about.”

I invited him into our building and we talked for a half hour as I gave him a tour, of both our facilities and of the Nazarene culture and polity.  He was full of questions about everything from worship and sacraments to pastors and missionaries to even hymns and choruses.  I managed to find out that he is a young, single realtor who still lives with his parents up on the hillside above our church.  He spoke about himself very cautiously, which led me to believe something else was going on.  I couldn’t put my finger on it and didn’t want to be too forward, asking something ridiculous like, “Why are you really here?”  So I stuck to the surface stuff.

In the end we exchanged phone numbers.  He all out guaranteed me that he was going to come to our church next Sunday and then drove away with one of our hymnals and a copy of one the Jesus films that he grabbed off of our bookshelf.

Things like this have happened so many times throughout my ministry that I know not to be too hopeful.  Awhile back I had a very similar experience with a Mormon teenager who was sitting in our front field crying after church one Sunday.  He said he was going to come to our church but we never saw him.  I regularly meet people of all religious affiliations and walks of life who downright promise me they will come to our church “this next Sunday, right at 11 o’clock.”  I never ask them to come but for some reason they always promise to anyway.  Then they never show up.  Even our city’s mayor has made those promises and has yet to fulfill them!

Yet yesterday as I watched him drive away, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope regardless.  As the day went on I found my mind racing with the exciting possibilities.

My hope is not shallow.  New church attenders are nice.  Sometimes they bring friends who stick around and that is nicer.  Sometimes they share awesome testimonies that are fun to brag about at District Assembly.  Sometimes they even buy into your church, heart, soul, mind and strength.  They not only start showing up but they start giving of their money and their time.  That is always really cool.

But none of those things is what I am hoping for.

My hope is that he and I will become friends.  I hope we can regularly meet for lunch or coffee.  I hope we can go see movies together.  I hope that our friendship spans decades and is not one where I lecture him about “true Christianity” while he asks for pastoral advice about love, marriage, family, finances and emotional health.  My hope is that as we meet and talk, that we will both be formed and shaped into the image of Christ.  My hope isn’t that I would “save” him but that as we form a true friendship God would save us both.

I have that hope often whenever these random encounters happen.  It has almost never worked out.  Most times I never see the person again.  Sometimes they become acquaintances whom I occasionally see at the grocery store.  Only two or three times have they turned into true friends.

But those two or three times are more than enough to keep me hoping.

What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

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Good afternoon everybody (or evening, or morning, or middle of the night depending on when you are reading this).  As I am typing this we have a blizzard developing outside my Utah door that is incredibly beautiful.  I wish I could share it with all of you but pictures would not do it justice.

It has been over a week since I last posted, which means my New Year’s Resolution to blog almost every day is going terribly.  But this morning a friend sent me an email and asked me a question that has been on my heart and mind a lot over the last couple years.  This email came from a couple who lives in a town that is 95% Mormon.  They left the Mormon church years ago but still love the Utah Mormon culture.  Last summer they reached out to me asking about the Church of the Nazarene and I have become their pastor over the last several months.

She more or less pointed out that there are members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles whom she respects and whom she believes are steering the Mormon church in a Christ like direction.  However, she also noted that several Christians she talks with don’t share that belief at all.  Instead they argue that the “Christ” talk is just a deceptive PR stunt.  She wanted to know my thoughts.

I assured her and I assure you that I am not an expert in Mormonism at all.  However, over the last couple years I have spoken with many who are experts including a Southern Baptist Missionary who has a PhD in Mormonism and Richard Muow, the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary who meets regularly with the Mormon leadership.  I have also read some books about the relationship of Mormonism to Christianity that were insightful.  In addition I am friends with several Nazarene scholars who regularly meet with BYU professors and I have also listened to some lectures by an evangelical pastor out of Provo.

And I still find it incredibly difficult to say that the Mormon denomination is a Christian one.  The most gracious I can be is to echo what the previously mentioned pastor in Provo said in one of his lectures: “I do believe many Mormons will be saved, but it will be despite Mormonism, not because of it.”  For the record I also believe many members of the Church of the Nazarene will be saved despite our denomination.  And I believe the same thing about Baptists and Assembly of God and Catholics and Lutherans and any other.  After all it is by grace that we are saved, not by church membership.

However, to call an institution itself Christian requires something more succinct than the generic statement above.  I have thought long and hard about the circumstances that would have to happen for me to be able to call Mormons a Christian denomination.  The email from my friend gave me opportunity to sit down and write two lists that have been germinating in my head.  The first list is of the non-negotiables.  They are the things the top tier of the Mormon leadership must do in order make Mormonism Christian.  The second list are things that would make it easier for me to call them Christian, but that aren’t necessarily deal breakers.  You will notice the second list is longer than the first.  Regarding that second list, be assured I have similar lists for my denomination and, if I am being completely honest, most other Christian denominations.

List 1: What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

  1. Full acceptance of the Nicene Creed along with First 7 Ecumenical Councils (including full deity of Jesus and full equality of the Trinity)
  2. Statement placing the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments over the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants  (This would not be a rejection of the Mormon documents per say but a relegation of their authority to that under the Scriptures.)

List 2: Things I Personally Would Like to See:

(Of note: some of these are all ready happening)

  1. Stop proselytizing people from Christian denominations
  2. Stop rebaptizing those from Christian denominations
  3. Start teaching the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus from the four canonical gospels as part of a catechism process for children.
  4. Relax some but not necessarily all requirements on temple recommends so that Christians from other denominations can participate in some manner.
  5. Rejection of the tiered eschatology (i.e. terrestrial, celestial and telestial levels of heaven).
  6. Full and public rejection of eternal marriage, especially eschatological polygamy (i.e. that divorced Mormons who were married multiple times in the temple will be married to multiple wives in heaven).

I have other things I am sure to add to that second list but it is a snowy Sunday afternoon and my head is spinning with other things.  Be that as it may, those are my thoughts from someone who is on the ground doing ministry in Utah!  Have a blessed day wherever and whenever you are!

The Sermon I Should Have Preached: On Holiness and Romans 12-15

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This post is part of an ongoing series where after completing a sermon series I go through the main points I wish I would have had time for.

In mid August I faced a difficult dilemma.  Word had seemingly gotten out to several friends, strangers, congregants and family members that the Church of the Nazarene stands in the holiness tradition.  I want to be very clear that we are not more holy than any other group but we do feel a particular calling to think, talk and preach about holiness.  With that said, our calling has come with a very interesting piece of baggage that we call “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection.”  We believe grace comes with the gift of making us perfect.  And we have now spent 108+ years trying to explain to outsiders and each other just what we mean by that.

Over the summer I was asked by several people about the doctrine.  And I was in a unique place to both defend and describe just what we mean by “perfection.”  I found myself saying, that perfection does not mean faultless but it does mean blameless.  It does not mean inerrant but it does mean mature.  It does not mean perfect at golf but it does perfect at loving.  And, if you will allow me one more, it does not mean perfect at showing our love but it does mean perfect at trying to show our love.

If you are confused, I totally understand.  It was the inadequacy of those descriptions that caused me to launch into a 12 week series about holiness last fall.  As I went to put those 12 sermons together, I realized that underlying the confusion was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  So I decided to split the 12 weeks up into 6 weeks on the gospel and 6 weeks on holiness.

So in mid-October we transitioned from gospel to holiness.  At that time a limitation presented itself.  I have chosen to be faithful to Scripture.  Therefore, I don’t just preach what God “lays on my heart.”  I begin every week in one particular passage of Scripture and then let God speak to me through it.  The passage I chose for the holiness sermons was Romans 12-16, which I thought was a very concise, clear picture of what holiness looks like.  And it is.  There is some wonderful stuff in there and I put together some good sermons.

However, Romans 12-16 doesn’t address the unique difficulties of the Nazarene Doctrine of Christian Perfection.  So with that brief background in mind, here are some things I wish I would have had time to go over in more detail but which the constraints of time and Scripture prevented:

1. Individual Holiness vs. Corporate Holiness:  The first thing I realized when I dug deep into Romans 12-15 is that Paul in that passage offers very little help in understanding how individuals are holy.  After much study I realized that Paul is talking about how a community of people are made holy, not one individual.  It got worse when I consulted a myriad of other passages from both Testaments and realized that almost always when God says, “Be holy” or “Be Perfect” God is talking to a community, not to an individual.  Now there are a couple exceptions but not many.  This is problematic because the Church of the Nazarene is almost entirely obsessed with individual holiness and perfection to the neglect of the church.  I will be honest and admit I am not sure how individual perfection and community perfection fit together in every situation.  There are some things we can say, like “holy individuals don’t steal things and murder people” but if you move beyond that to attitudes and hearts, it becomes a bit more difficult.  This is perhaps why I only alluded to the problem in my sermons and then moved on to the bulk of Romans 12-15, which was about the community.  But just to not lose my ordination let me state very clearly I do believe God calls individuals to a life of holiness, it just isn’t emphasized as much in Scripture as God’s call to communities to organize themselves in holy ways.

2. The Process of Holiness:  Once again, the process by which individual people become holy has been a Nazarene infatuation for the last century, if not more so.  And once again Romans 12-16 kind of let me down.  The only real process verse you get is right at the top in Romans 12:1-2 and I did spend an entire sermon on those two verses.  However, Romans 12:1-2 is more about the process by which a church becomes holy.  For those of you who do not know Romans 12:1-2 has some crazy singulars and plurals going on in the Greek text.  Paul writes that we should present our plural bodies as one singular living sacrifice.  This is your (plural) act (singular) of worship.  Then at the beginning of verse 2 Paul does it again.  You (plural) do not conform to the patterns of this world but you (plural) be transformed by the renewing of your mind (singular).  This verse is not about how individuals become holy.  It is about how the church community becomes holy.  That is a great sermon but as a Nazarene pastor it left me up a creek without a paddle concerning how individuals become holy and I was unable to address the doctrine of Christian perfection issues.

This post is all ready entirely way too long and heady.  However, the entire theme of my blog is about grace and about how God works in my life.  So what I hope I have illustrated is that it is hard for a pastor to preach under the authority of the Scriptures.  It is hard to go into a sermon series thinking I am going to talk about one thing and then get sidelined when I realize the Bible passage for the day is not about that at all.  Yet therein lies the grace.  I could preach whatever I want to preach on Sundays mornings and I might get away with it.  However, I have chosen to be a man under authority.  Therefore I must faithfully interpret what God has provided in the living words of the Bible.  Most times that means sidelining my agenda, or even my denomination’s agenda and opening up new pathways into the life and mission of God.

A Pastor’s Dilemma: The Ecumenical Councils and What Really Happens When We All Get Together

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A couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Paul returned from his first missionary journey and, as the Apostle Paul was prone to do, began a conflict.

The Gentiles were joining the church in great number all across Macedonia and there was massive confusion about how “Jewish” these Gentiles had to be in order to be accepted as full members.

In a decision that would set church precedent for 2000 years and counting, a council of elders was called to figure this out.  They hashed out the different sides of the argument and in the end rallied to the Apostle James when he declared, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19b)

It was an important decision with huge implications.  And it was the right decision.  Jesus had died to make it easy to turn to God, therefore the church decided not to throw up road blocks.  Our theology and our church became bigger.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that another council was called to deal with massive theological rifts in the church.  Over the next centuries several more followed.  These councils were fundamentally different from Acts 15.  They were not called by apostles or even bishops and pastors but by emperors.  Every time they met, our theology became a little bit narrower and our church a bit smaller.

Acts 15 was about pointing the finger across the table and saying, “of course you are welcome here!”  The other councils were about voting people off our island.

As for the massive theological agreements that were struck, I totally agree.  I confess all the creeds they produced.  I believe in the Holy Trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, the eternally begotten son and the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

But I am still a child of the 21st century.  The thought of calling councils to make our Christianity narrower makes me uncomfortable.  The thought of saying, “let’s make it a little bit harder for some people to be Christian” rubs me the wrong way.

I posed this dilemma to a class in church last Sunday and I made them uncomfortable too.  We all agreed that calling a council to deal with huge things like the identity of God was probably a necessary thing.  We agreed the idea of the Trinity was around long before it was officially canonized.  Jesus almost certainly taught it.  Likewise the early apostles almost certainly referred to Jesus as fully human and fully God.

Still at Nicea fingers were pointed at two particular bishops who led successful and thriving ministries.  They were not just told, “You are wrong.”  There were told, “You are banished!”

I also asked how we do this today?  What do we banish people for?  What successful ministers do we banish and for what reasons?  Unfortunately in the 21st century we have this love/hate complex going on with celebrity pastors.  We love everything they do until we don’t.  Then we crucify them and for much lesser reasons than the identity of God.

The question of the councils and creeds is even more difficult for those of us who live in 21st century Utah.  We are surrounded by a very prominent religious sect whose scholars will freely tell you, “we are pre-Nicene Christians.”

Are they?  Of course they are pre-Nicene.  Does that mean they are still Christian?  A lot of people living before 300AD would have thought so, though not nearly as many as Dan Brown would suggest in his entertaining but ultimately ridiculous novels.

For the record I am pre-Nicene too but not concerning the nature of Christ.  I am pre-Nicene because at Nicea the council also voted into law twenty canons or rules, many of which my denomination no longer follows.  We never talk about that.  The same council that put together our Christology also gave us other laws that we do not follow today.  Many good Prostestants even mock some of those laws.

For the record, Nicea was one of the better councils.  Some of the other ones were comical train wrecks not far off from your average Three Stooges sketch.  Do we really think this is the way to govern ourselves?  Should we get together to make our theology and our practice smaller and vote our favorite celebrities off of our islands?

Yes, we should.

Albeit with much humility.

There is great value in getting together every once in awhile and hashing out the issues to figure out a way to agree enough to pursue mission in the world.  Though in humility, we should not call our decisions “eternal” but admit that in this time and this place with this congregation/denomination we have agreed to abide by this theology and these rules.  This leaves room open for another generation to come along and tweak our mistakes.

I’m not sure my class reached any easy conclusions on all this.  But a veteran pastor and army chaplain closed our time together by reminding us of the now famous words that date back to Augustine:

“In essentials unity, in non essentials charity, in all things love.”

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.