Belief in God can either be a clanging cymbal so noisy that no other noise is heard, or a barely noticed noise that hardly reaches the ear. For some, "belie(f) that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb. 11:6) echoes loudly through their entire life. For others, the echo dies quickly and quietly.
This article compares and contrasts the life-impact of belief in God among ancient and modern Christians. What is the "then" that follows the "if" of belief?
Carving out a precarious place for themselves in a predominantly pagan world, Christians of the first generations of the faith refined and clarified their message. This example of a statement of faith is taken from an early Christian writer named Irenaeus (130-202 AD). Irenaeus' statement is remarkable not because it is unusual, but because it is so simple and so typical.
The church...received from the apostles...the faith in one God the Father Almighty...and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit, who has proclaimed through the prophets the plans of God...and (Christ's) coming again from heaven...that He might make a just judgment on all...(and) grant incorruptible life and eternal glory to those who are righteous, holy, and keep his commandments.
For Irenaeus, belief echoed loudly and reverberated everywhere and through everything. Beginning with belief in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, Irenaeus seamlessly and quickly moved to the impact of that belief. If God exists; if Christ is God in the flesh, died for our sins, and will return in judgment, and if the Holy Spirit proclaimed God's plans, then we are bound by His commandments. Instead of separating the theological from the practical, Irenaeus perfectly combined the elements of mental belief with the elements of belief in action. For him, belief in God required obedience to God's commands.
Sigmund Freud asked if Northern Europeans had ever been truly converted from their pagan roots. He observed that, unlike Jews who had deep roots in the Law of Moses, and unlike Southern Europeans who had deep roots in the logic and reson of Greek philosophical traditions, Northern Europeans had been barbaric pagans until Christianity was forced upon them at the point of the sword. Freud wondered if the people who peopled the United States harbored a simmering resistance against the laws of God and a simmering resistance against rationality.
Whatever the source of the resistance, Americans are engaged in a war against God and in a war against reason. Even those who want to accept God for the goodies of His blessings refuse to accept the consequences of belief in God. For many of us, the if of belief is completely separated from the then of keeping His commands.
In contrast to ancient Christians who accepted moral and doctrinal commands as the reasonable consequence of belief, many modern Christians are quite comfortable in accepting a mental concept of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, but rejecting every practical consequence of that belief. Here are some examples:
- Many believe is God, but think that the word God's commands are bad words.
- Many believe in Christ, but think that they can be Christians without regularly assembling with other Christians.
- Many believe in the Holy Spirit, but elevate their feelings, wants, and wishes above the teachings of scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
- Many believe that Christ was God in the flesh, but think that the desires of their flesh are off-limits to God, and that they are free to drink as much as they want, behave sexually just exactly as their flesh directs, and so on.
- Many believe that Christ will return for judgment, but are very content to reject the "judgment in advance" of the doctrinal teachings of the New Testament.
One of the characteristics of paganism is that pagans did not connect their belief in god(s) with any moral or doctrinal obligations. This is exactly the direction many are heading today, allowing some belief in God to rattle around in their heads but disallowing God from controlling their lives . For them, the if of belief leads to no then at all.
The Road To Nowhere
Churches of Christ in the United States have produced four truly outstanding Bible scholars. Two of those were active in the 1800s, and two more remain active today. This article is primarily written about a quote from Everett Ferguson, one of our exceptional contemporary Bible authorities, but the following two paragraphs tell a broader story about four men to whom we are much indebted.
Owing to his sharp scholarship, and his even sharper pen, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was better known in his age than any talking-head newsreader is in our age. Closely following Campbell was J.W. McGarvey (1829-1911). Declared by the London Times in 1870 to be “the ripest Bible scholar on earth," McGarvey, minister, author, and religious educator, taught for 46 years the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky.
Our age has produce two more recognized authorities. Invited to participate in the NIV translation process, Jack P. Lewis (1919-), who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Hebrew Union College, taught Bible and biblical languages at Harding University and then at Harding School of Theology for 50 years. Everett Ferguson (1933-), about whom the rest of this article will focus, also holds a PH. D. from Harvard. Ferguson is a world-renowned expert, perhaps the world-renowned expert, on early Christian history.
The Elastic "Rule"
Brother Ferguson has recently written The Rule of Faith (2015, Cascade Books), a review of central beliefs of the ancient church. Of interest to everyone, even to those who are totally disinterested in ancient church history, the following introductory quote from that book challenges central non-beliefs of contemporary Christianity.
What do Christians believe? For many the answer is "whatever it is that people who choose to self-identify as Christians claim to believe." So belief is the Trinity is Christian, but so is denial; belief in the deity of Christ is Christian, but so is rejection; belief in the resurrection is Christian, but so is disbelief. The problem with such an approach is that pretty much any belief can...claim to being...Christian, and when a label becomes that elastic, it loses all hope of meaning anything.
All Hope Lost
Elastic, stretched-out-of-shape, both/and Christian doctrine and practice reflect an odd turn taken by contemporary society. Once rational and scientific, and benefiting from that rigidity of mind, we have become wildly irrational and illogical. Once we said that moral absolutes exist apart from us and require all from us. Now we worry that absolutes might hurt someone's feelings, and so absolutes are obsolete.
Obsolete absolutes are the casualties of the "epistemological revolution" (epistemology is the study of truth and knowing). Begun in academia, the impact of this revolution against rationality has been extraordinary. Once we esteemed and followed those who led us "in paths of righteousness." Now we esteem and follow (?) those who say they do not know one path from another.
We once knew, but now we have progressed away from knowing into a terminal tangle of hesitancy. The only thing we know for sure is that we don't know for sure. Not sure about anything anymore, we tolerate elastic, mutually exclusive conclusions like those listed by Brother Ferguson, and then brag about how "inclusive" we are.
Elasticity to the Last
Brother Ferguson's list of meaning-free doctrines is only the beginning. Our brethren joyfully, thoughtlessly include other mutually exclusive conclusions. For example:
- Instrumental music in worship is wrong, but is right.
- Baptism is essential, but is not.
- Alcohol is really pretty bad, but is really not very bad at all. Some have allied alcohol consumption so closely with Christian liberty that Christian abstainers, once highly respected, are now viewed as the bad guys.
- Worship attendance is mandatory, but your can skip services for any reason(s) and enjoy the grace of God that frees you from terrible feelings of legalism. Grace becomes meaningless is such sentences, a synonym for emotional license we give ourselves, and is used to promote meaninglessness in Christian doctrine and practice.
I could go on, but the point is made. Retooling a quote from Brother Ferguson, "When a movement (that's us) becomes that elastic, it loses all hope of meaning anything." As Churches of Christ choose their future (everyone chooses their future every day), we should fully understand that the road to nowhere begins where meaning ends.
"We Would Like To See Jesus," OR MAYBE THAT FAMOUS GUY
Providing the newest best/worst example of off-the-rails Christianity, the Woodlands Church is featuring NEW TEXAN'S QUARTERBACK AND FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK DESHAUN WATSON as their "SPECIAL GUEST! on the weekend of June 17-18. Check their website where WATSON is on THE FRONT PAGE (www.wc.org). You can't miss "Founding Pastor" KERRY SHOOK breathlessly hawking WATSON'S VISIT in prime-time commercials during Houston newscasts.
COME SEE THE FAMOUS GUY! - am I the only one who sees a problem here?
Promoting Watson at the Woodlands Church is only the newest best/worst example of a growing mega-church trend toward featuring OH! MY! GOODNESS! guests. There are other examples.
- Houston's Lakewood Church, featuring JOEL OSTEEN as Pastor, recently announced the visit of actor MORGAN FREEMAN.
- San Antonio's Cornerstone Church flaunted a visit by right-wing political commentator, author, and filmmaker DINESH D'ESOUZA.
- Not to be outdone, Oak Hills in San Antonio trades heavily on the presence of DAVID ROBINSON, NBA Hall-of-Famer and former San Antonio Spur (http://oakhillschurch.com/videostories).
- Former NFL quarterback, first-round draft pick, and Heisman Trophy winner TIM TEBOW has made a second career out of being the designated church visitor, perhaps because he has no future as being an MLB designated hitter.
- None of these groups buy TV air-time to promote the visits of SAM the teacher or SALLY the postal worker.
As cringe-worthy as it is to watch the denominations fall into the featured famous-guy trap, watching our brethren stumble into the same misguided desire to centerpiece THAT FAMOUS GUY is even more cringe-worthy. If we bring him, they will come? We really ought to know better.
Compare the off-the-rails train-wreck of featuring FAMOUS GUYS with the teachings of the New Testament.
- Jesus (another fairly famous guy) said, "Do not call anyone on earth 'father'... Nor are you to be called (esteemed) instructors" (Mat. 23:9-10).
- Jesus (maybe you've heard of Him?) also said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mk. 9:35).
- As he was being worshipped by Cornelius, Peter (a guy below the Jesus level, but certainly above NEW TEXAN'S QUARTERBACK AND FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK DESHAUN WATSON) said, " "Stand up...I am only a man myself" (Acts 10:26).
- Similarly, Paul (right there with Peter) said, "Why are you doing this? (I am) only human, like you" (Acts 14:15).
- Paul explains, "The ministry Jesus has received is...superior (because) he is superior mediator...since the new covenant is established on better promises" (Heb. 8:6).
- An angel explained and clarified the object of all of Christianity, "Worship God!" (Rev. 22:9).
Worship God! Who Knew?
All of these passages remind us (did we forget?) that we are to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24) through the mediation of Jesus. Our every aim ought to be to focus all of who we are on all of who God is, through Jesus seated on God's right hand ensuring an open way.
The entire ethic of eliminating each and every human from our worship, for our adoration, from our undue respect, from our SPECIAL GUEST LIST, and even from very much attention at all is summarized in John 12:20-21.
Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "WE WOULD LIKE TO SEE JESUS."
The Failure of Pragmatic Christianity
America's greatest contribution to the world's philosophies is Pragmatism. Practically speaking, Pragmatism is practicality. Since the late 1800s, "The philosophy of Pragmatism emphasizes the practical application of ideas." The standard American question, "So why are we even doing this?" is a classic statement of Pragmatism.
Other Pragmatic questions:
- "What's the use?"
- "What's the purpose?"
- "Is it effective?"
- "What is the outcome?"
- "What is the best, most effective, and most efficient course of action?" Note: Pragmatism is another word with Greek roots. The Greek word pragma means action.
Pragmatism requires that these questions have a practical, down-to-earth, here-and-now answers. American pragmatists want to know how what they are doing makes trains run on time, makes better mousetraps, or makes their lives better. In the absence of satisfactory answers, any ideas or programs that do not seem workable are rejected.
Pragmatic Christianity versus Idealistic Christianity
Thoroughly schooled in Pragmatism, Americans have taken their emphasis on relevancy and outcomes to church. The emphasis on social welfare programs, and numbers-attracting entertainment, and how we feel are all examples of Christianity mixed with Pragmatism. Our burning desire to measure, and reject what does not measure up, is another example.
Reorganizing our churches according to practicality and efficiency, Pragmatic Christians have seen Jesus walking out their door. Why? Instead of practicality, Christianity is built on Idealism. Contrary to the practicality of Pragmatism, Idealism argues that the quality of ideas matters more than their effectiveness or efficiency, and that impractical constructs like right, wrong, truth, sin, righteousness, and eternal salvation are the most important.
Idealist questions include the following:
- "It is right/wrong?"
- "Does this course of action satisfy God?"
- "What is Heaven like and how do we get there?"
- "How can we get beyond the here and now?"
- "How can we be in the world but not of the world?"
Yet today's "successful" churches measure themselves according to their practical impact on society, by their attendance numbers, in terms of the number of their ministries, or in proportion to the bang for their buck. Look at our building. See our people. Take a look at what we do. Approve our accomplishments.
The Failure of Pragmatic Christianity
Terribly impractical, Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Jn. 8:32). "Knowing" is not measurable. "Truth" is a practically purposeless concept. "Freedom," especially in the Christian sense, has zero pragmatic application.
This idealistic impracticality defines the Church. Jesus said that "My kingdom (His Church) is not of this world" (Jn. 18:36). Rejecting a practical response to His arrest, Jesus promoted an idealistic, otherworldly response to the world. "This is the victory (not visible) that has overcome the world, even our faith (also invisible)" (I Jn. 5:4).
Genuine (an impractical descriptor) Christianity is reflective (Why are we even doing this?), worshipful (What's the use?), holy (What's the purpose?), penitent (Is it effective?), devotional (What is the outcome?), and sacrificial (certainly not the best, most effective, and most efficient course of action). The true Church (a truly idealistic descriptor) is "the pillar and firm foundation of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15). Valid faith (validated by comparison with a standard outside our own experience and rewarded with an immeasurable reward ) "is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1).
People immersed in the practicalities of life, schooled in the Pragmatism of our culture, and skilled in professions that require efficiency and effectiveness are flabbergasted by Christianity. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are (God's) ways higher than your ways and (God's) thoughts than your thoughts" (Is. 55:9). We can unmake Christianity by remaking the Church according to Pragmatism, or we can unmake our dogged cultural practicality and remake ourselves in to the image of God.
If Benjamin Franklin was correct to say that "nothing is sure but death and taxes," it is also sure that someone will have to pay taxes on the services rendered after your death. These services are called funerals, and no one wants to talk about them.
What is not so sure is the form that the funeral will take. Like weddings, most funerals once followed the general forms that our culture has solidified as traditions. Today, weddings and funerals are changing like crazy, with individuals putting their stamp of individuality on all these ceremonies. For funerals, this can be a very good thing, and a much less expensive thing.
Traditional funerals, complete with caskets, burials, headstones, and etc. can cost in excess of $10,000, and many the cost of many funerals is much higher. These expenses are not criminal; funeral homes have and continue to provide needed services. But the cost of traditional funeral services has opened the door for less expensive options.
Cremation is the disposal of earthly remains to ashes with intense heat. Deeply rooted in Eastern religions ( I have seen dozens of cremations taking place at Hindu temples in Nepal), cremation is just now catching fire (sorry) in the U.S. Reduced expense is driving the trend (less than 4% of American funerals involved cremation in 1960; more than 40% of American funerals now involve cremation). Cremations now cost about $2,500.
Some traditionally-minded Christians reject cremation. In part because Christians have traditionally buried their dead, in part because cremation is associated with Eastern religions, in part because of misunderstanding about the resurrection, and in part just because, Christianity has been slow to warm to (sorry) cremation. But the Bible should not be used as a proof text either for the necessity of burial or in support of cremation: the Bible requires no particular method of tending to remains.
Memorials versus Funerals
One of the happier changes in funeral traditions has been the replacement of funeral with memorial. Funerals are dreary affairs that can, frankly, make things worse. As a preacher I have grieved what our culture has forced upon grieving families through funeral traditions that are, in fact, brutal. Please note, however, that mourning is not a bad thing (see Matt. 5:4).
I have happily embraced the new tradition of memorials. By definition, memorials are far less dreary and sadness-soaked because they focus on the life and not the death of the deceased. Memorials are also more family-focused, with friends and relatives sharing their own happy memories as very personal touches.
Costs rise to traditional-funeral levels if a funeral home is employed to provide support services for a memorial. The Liberty Church of Christ can help its members save money by providing some of these support services. Barb and I have even welcomed remains stored in the building overnight. If you combine a church-building based memorials with a cremation, cost decrease dramatically.
One of the traditions that I have really grieved is the time-tradition that requires a grieving family, often overwhelmed, to immediately plan a funeral or memorial. How have we been able to stand up under exhausting death-bed duty, followed by exhausting event-planning, followed by an exhausting funeral event, all done with smile plastered on our faces, and all done within days? This is not necessary.
Janie and I recently enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) a memorial service for the mother of a dear friend (the lady who died was the first person to figure out that Janie and I would get married). That memorial was the genesis of this article. Why was this memorial special?
- The memorial took place more than two months after the death.
- The closest family had a very private devotional service in connection with the death, and the remains were cremated.
- Later, the memorial was a gathering of RSVP family and friends in the banquet area of a nice restaurant. Most of the two hours were spent in eating and truly enjoying each other. Only about 15 minutes were dedicated to planned memorial thoughts.
The memorial took place on a Saturday afternoon and was planned in far enough in advance so that those who wanted to be a part could adjust their schedules at leisure. This schedule did not tax anyone. This family paid for the entire event; other families ask those who attend to pay for their own meals. In either case, the expense was far less than a traditional