The Progressive Churches of Christ: Spiritual Formation

progressive

A few years ago, it was fashionable to have seminars, books, and classes on “spiritual formation.” Many churches hired a “minister of spiritual formation” — a position that has largely degraded into being the minister over the adult ed program and small groups. The minister of spiritual formation is the guy who picks out this quarter’s video series and makes up five follow up questions to hopefully fill up the time after the DVD is through playing.

The original idea reached higher.

(Gal 4:18-19 ESV)  18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you,  19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

The first mistake we made was using “spiritual formation” to mean “Christ formation.” It’s too easy to fill the word “spiritual” with whatever is easy or fashionable. Continue reading

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Progressive Churches of Christ: Community Formation

progressiveI confess to certain introverted tendencies. For example, I’m really happy sitting at my computer, listening to music, and typing theology for hours on end. That’s the behavior of an introvert.

But, ironically enough, I’m not a fan of the so-called spiritual disciplines, even though they’ve been designed with the introvert in mind. I mean, mention “spiritual discipline” to a preacher or theologian, and you’ll hear a list of such practices as quiet times, prayer, solitude, journaling, Bible study, prayer mazes, lectio divina, and meditation — a list surely compiled by an extreme introvert.

The problem I have with this list is the complete absence of any such a thing from the scriptures. Yes, there are psalms that urge us to meditate on the word of God — but nothing suggesting that this is to be a solo activity. In the ancient world, the scriptures were generally listened to, not read, and they were listened to in a group setting. Continue reading

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Will Christians stand in judgment?

lastjudgmentI get emails —

A friend recently asked the question, “If, in Christ, our sins are forgiven (no longer remembered), why will we all stand in judgment?”

This is a surprisingly difficult question. The end of time is pictured different ways in the scriptures.

(And I apologize for being so long-winded in my answer. But that’s what happens when I have to do original research to answer what you’d think would be an easy question. That is, I had fun answering this one.) Continue reading

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The Progressive Churches of Christ: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

progressiveThis discussion began several days ago with two posts (Part 1 and Part 2) pointing out the latest news on the declining numbers in the Churches of Christ generally. We then looked at the state of the Churches of Christ today more generally — considering the dynamics that are fracturing the “mainstream” congregations.

We next turned our focus on the more progressive congregations. We Church of Christ members in progressive churches have a marked tendency to define ourselves in terms of what we’ve rejected and left behind, rather than where we need to be going. That’s entirely natural. But there comes a time when you need to stop licking your wounds and get on with the business of the Kingdom.

This thought led to the “Resolving the Tension” subseries of posts addressing congregations that try to retain a Church of Christ identity while rejecting the theological misunderstandings of the past.  In Parts 2, 3.1, and 3.2, we considered the challenges of creating much-needed change in a congregation. This led to how congregations and denominations are defined by stories, and how change requires a new story rather than a 10-part sermon series on evangelism. Continue reading

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Progressive Churches of Christ: Baptism

progressive So the subject is Sacraments, and we’ve talked about the Lord’s Supper. That leaves baptism. And we’re much better at our baptismal practices than our Eucharistic practices. At least, some of us are.

I visited one church that had a baptism. Immediately afterwards, the congregation got out their seats, formed a huge circle around the outside of the auditorium, held hands (including the newly baptized member), and sang “We love you with love of the Lord.” It was a touching ceremony.

Plenty of churches surround new converts with hugs and shouts of celebration.

My own congregation has gotten into the habit of applauding and celebrating with the convert. Continue reading

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Progressive Churches of Christ: The Lord’s Supper, Part 2

progressiveNext, think about this in terms of story. When we take communion in our traditional way at church, what is the story that we are telling?

In many churches, the story is: We care about the scriptures more than “the denominations,” so much so that we take communion weekly as God wishes, not quarterly in rebellion against God. The story is about how our denomination is better than others. Wrong story!

Sometimes the story is that we reject transubstantiation and consubstantiation — because we understand the Bible better than the Catholics and Lutherans. This was standard cant where I grew up, even though there was wasn’t a Catholic or Lutheran church in the county. Again: wrong story! Continue reading

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Progressive Churches of Christ: The Lord’s Supper, Part 1

progressiveLet’s talk about the Sacraments. You see, I’m persuaded that a key step in the right direction is a re-envisioning of the Sacraments as community events that draw us toward Jesus.

The traditional Church of Christ approach to the Lord’s Supper is to take a tiny crust and a sip in silence, meditating. The ritual is conducted in a congregational setting, but it’s an utterly individualistic event. There is zero interaction among the members. Indeed, any kind of speaking is frowned upon.

The early church took communion as part of a common meal, called the love feast, and they ate together. It was the centerpiece of their community life. To be disfelllowshipped was to be told that you could no longer eat with the rest of the church. Peter was upbraided by Paul for eating only with the Jewish members and not the Gentile members of his church. Continue reading

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The Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tensions, Part 4.4

progressiveI started writing this in the Comments, but decided this was too important to leave there.

A couple of readers asked, regarding the last couple of posts, why Mark Love’s first story isn’t good enough, why it’s not the real story.

A few posts ago, I quoted two stories by Mark. The first one was a classic presentation of Protestant atonement theology. We are sinners. God sent Jesus to die for us and for God to forgive us. Our only hope of salvation is grace through Jesus’s sacrifice, which we attain through faith in Jesus.

It’s true, but it’s incomplete. It’s part of a larger story, and it makes much better sense in the context of the full story.

Mark then presents a vision of the Kingdom in which those who are saved enter the Kingdom and thereby enter into God’s redemptive mission.

Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.

Reader Dwight saw the first story in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. It’s there, but the second story is actually much more prominent — and this is a great place to see the distinction Mark Love is making.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 wasn’t: you’re moral reprobates and you need to give up wine, whiskey, and women, come to Jesus, and get baptized. He was not calling for moral reformation. After all, the audience was made up of Jews present in Jerusalem for Pentecost — on pilgrimage. There’s no indication that they were in need of moral correction.

And there is no real evidence that these were the same people who called for Jesus’ death. Some may well have been, but it was the Jewish leaders who sought to crucify Jesus. We covered this in detail in the series on John’s Gospel. This was a random gathering of Jewish pilgrims to Pentecost, many of whom may not  have even been in the country of Judea at the crucifixion.

The outline of Peter’s sermon is —

(1) the Spirit promised by Joel at the end of Exile and the beginning of the Kingdom is now here and you are seeing it being outpoured as promised by the Prophets.

(2) Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the promised King sent by God.

(3) God resurrected Jesus and brought him back to heaven to place him on the throne of Israel, declaring him to the Messiah.

(4) You crucified the Messiah (as a people) and rejected him one by one.

If Israel was sent into exile for idolatry, imagine the punishment for crucifying the Messiah! Of course, the Jews present asked what to do!

“Repent” means to change from your previously intended course. In the OT, the ESV routinely translates the word “relent,” and it usually applies to God himself changing direction. The word is sometimes used of relenting from a life of sin, but it doesn’t necessarily refer to sin (many tens of thousands of sermons to the contrary notwithstanding). The Jews’ previously intended course was denial that Jesus is the Messiah. To repent from that course is to come to faith in Jesus as Messiah.

“Be baptized” was a sign of repentance as taught by John the Baptist, as well as a path to forgiveness of sin, as also taught by John. Baptism offered forgiveness normally only available in the Temple — moving God’s throne of grace from the Temple to Jesus and his church. And John came preaching that the Kingdom was near. Baptism in the Jordan River symbolized a re-entry into the Promised Land, that is, a new Kingdom to be brought about by the Messiah John said would soon come.

“In the name of Jesus the Messiah” refers to the name — that is, the power — by which forgiveness is to come. Forgiveness is received by faith that Jesus is the Messiah, empowered by the sacrifice of his crucifixion. Forgiveness only comes to those who confess that Jesus is the Messiah, called “Son of God” in Psalm 2.

“The gift of the Holy Spirit” refers to the Spirit outpoured at Pentecost and promised by Joel and other prophets — the Spirit that would circumcise the hearts of the Jews, as Moses wrote, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, as Ezekiel was fond of saying, and that would write God’s laws on the hearts and minds of his people, as Jeremiah promised.

Where is repentance from sin? Well, that’s what the Spirit brings. The Spirit changes a hard heart to a soft heart, a stubborn heart to a penitent heart.

And that’s what following the Messiah requires. To be faithful to the Messiah, the Jews would have to honor his commands, that is, they would have to strive to become like him, but this striving would be done by the power of the outpoured Spirit. To repent of sin is to submit to the work of the Spirit poured into us.

Up to this point, Peter’s sermon sounds a lot like traditional preaching and traditional atonement theory. But there’s more.

If Jesus is King, then we must be subject to him, sharing in his mission as teacher, shepherd, sacrifice, and evangelist. His commands are much more than a call to a better morality. He calls us to follow him by becoming like him. This is the turning point.

We are called to become like Jesus — the image of God himself. We were created to be in God’s image — that is, like Jesus. The Spirit works to make us into new creations, transforming us into the image of God found in Jesus.

And therefore, sin is to miss the mark and so to fail to be like Jesus. So what is Jesus like? That’s the big question. Well, Jesus was sent by God on a mission.

Jesus’ mission, of course, includes atonement and forgiveness. Of course. But is that all? To understand what the Jews would have heard being said, you have to have read the prophets. The Jews had, and they knew that the outpoured Spirit and the Messiah meant the Kingdom was arriving — along with all its promises.

And it’s the Kingdom promises that define God’s mission. Swords into plowshares. A world without poverty. No more mourning. You get the picture. And as the Kingdom arrives, these things begin to happen — by the power of God, exercised through his Spirit, dwelling in his people, brought into right relationship by Jesus.

The church, the people of Jesus, live in accordance with Kingdom principles. What are they?

(Mic 6:6-8 ESV) 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

(Hos 6:6 ESV) 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

(Isa 1:12-17 ESV)  12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.  16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Social justice is very much a part of the Kingdom. It’s not justice brought about by democracy and a tripartite government. It’s justice provided by Jesus’s followers in the Kingdom.

But there’s more. For example,

(Isa 11:6-9 ESV) 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.  9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Make of the metaphors what you will, the message is one of shalom, right relationships and peace among those in the Kingdom.

(Isa 25:6-8 ESV) On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.  7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

A prophecy echoed in the parables of Jesus, the church in Acts 2, the wedding feast in Revelation speaks not only of ample food, but an end of death and mourning.

So where is forgiveness in this version of the gospel? Well, it’s the path into the Kingdom. You can’t be a servant of the Messiah unless you are sinless. You can’t enter the temple unless you’ve been cleansed. You are cleansed to enter the temple, to participate in the Kingdom.

We’ve confused ends and means. We preach as though forgiveness were the ultimate goal. But forgiveness happens at baptism. Don’t we teach that? Then why do we act as though forgiveness only happens later? No, as the author of Hebrews teaches, we are saved “once for all” and “made perfect forever” when we are first saved. Forgiveness is our new beginning.

We begin anew in order to participate in God’s mission — which is to bring the Kingdom into its fullness.

And then there will come a moment when God completes the partially performed task, burning up the corruption and leaving behind a renewed heaven and earth, transformed to be something different and better than even the Garden of Eden.

That’s how it all ends. It starts with the Sacraments, most especially baptism. (More to come.)

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The Progressive Churches of Christ: Your Story

progressiveReader and frequent commenter Price wrote,

Your PERSONAL story of how The Story has impacted your is far more interesting and far more compelling …

You say you taught that divorce can only happen according to scripture when sexual compromise happens … until your daughter was getting beat up regularly … Tell me about that.

You say miracles ceased … until you saw it with your own eyes … Tell me about that.

You say that you went to a service where they used instruments and the people were joyful at times, solemn at times, and there was no great earthquake … Tell me about that.

Thank you for the help with my kids so I can work … Tell me why you started this ministry …

At least that’s how I see it … Don’t tell me about what happened 2,000 years ago unless you can tell me how it’s had an impact in your life …

Exactly. But we don’t do this in the Churches of Christ. Let me explain why. Continue reading

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Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tension, Part 4.3

progressiveI want to dig a little deeper into the bigger, better gospel story that Mark Love presented in his blog. Fortunately, Mark has already done that for me, and all I have to do is cut and paste from his insights.

The first step is to recognize the extreme individuality of American evangelical Christianity — with the Churches of Christ being no exception.

When we move into a new town, we church “shop” to find the best fit for us. We ask whether we are being “fed” by the preaching. We look for great teen and children’s programs. What we rarely look for is a church that will challenge us to give up our entire worldview and live in a new way — although that sounds suspiciously like what Jesus did.

We see the goal of Christianity as being the eternal happiness of the individual. I make the choices that allow me to go to heaven rather than hell. I want a church that helps me make those choices so that, in the end, I am saved. It’s all about me. Continue reading

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