The Church and Politics: What We Haven’t Learned

As we explore how the history of the Church affects the practice of the Church today, we need to take a look at culture. No congregation is immune from cultural influence, and indeed it needs to be influenced to some degree in order to reach the lost. But at various times in the history of the Church, culture has ruled the day. I frequently tell people when politics and Church combine, the Church always suffers. This is the case with the examples contained in this article.

In 1054 AD an event historians refer to as “The Great Schism” occurred in Constantinople, forever changing the Church, and creating a wound that took until the 20th century to begin to heal. The “West” division of the church, based in Rome, began to be viewed as the seat of power in the Church. This political position, in many ways, led to the Roman Church passing edicts that affected the church as a whole. For the purposes of this writing we don’t need to dive too deeply into specifics, but many of these were received negatively by the East from a cultural standpoint.

In the book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll summarizes the cultural divide between the East and West.

“As early as the end of the first century, it was possible to perceive pointed differences between major representatives of what would one day be called West and East. Thus, historian Henry Bettenson thinks that the Epistle of Clement sent from Rome to Corinth about the year 96 displays ‘the emergence of the characteristic Roman Christianity. Here we find no ecstasies, no miraculous ‘gifts of the Spirit,’ no demonology, no preoccupation with an imminent ‘Second Coming.’ The Church has settled down in the world, and is going about its task ‘soberly, discreetly, and advisedly.” By the end of the second century, such ‘Roman’ characteristics were thoroughly matched by ‘Greek’ tendencies arising from the other end of the Mediterranean.”

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll

As you can clearly see, cultural differences influenced the beliefs and practice within the two branches of the Christian Church. At this meeting in 1054 representatives from both groups excommunicated the other which lead to the body of Christ, the Church, being divided. This was exacerbated by the Crusades which indiscriminately killed Muslims, Jews, and even other Christians because they looked different than the invading Europeans. European Christians were killing Middle Eastern Christians because they looked and sounded different.

Sadly this was not the only time in Church history that we see cultural differences affecting the unity of the Church. We’ll return to history next week, but I want to end with a modern look. What cultural issues are causing division in the church today? We are on the heels of one of the largest denominations wrestling with homosexuality in part because culture has become combined with the Church.

But let’s get personal. What cultural issue is in play in your congregation that is, or could cause division? Is it who someone votes for? Is it cultural stereotypes placed on people groups? And here’s the real question: How do you go about addressing the problem?

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What is the Best Way to Read the Bible?

Last week we looked at examples from the New Testament of people coming together in community to study the Scriptures. We also looked at the first few centuries after the New Testament to see the council at Nicea surrounding the deity of Christ. Christians came together around the Scriptures in order to clarify beliefs and put an end to false teaching. This council resulted in what we commonly call The Nicene Creed.

This community study of the Scriptures happened on many other occasions as well. As the years passed, again the Church saw need of solidifying doctrine amongst all believers. The decision was made to collect the writings held highly by the community and combine them into an authoritative collection. There was some debate concerning some of the writings we have today in our New Testament, and some differences still exist today (does your Bible contain the Apocrypha?) But when the Church came together in community, the most trusted writings were compiled to solidify the documents of our faith – the New Testament.

We are so used to having our sacred writings in one book. Can you imagine going through life and having to search from city to city to find a copy of John’s Gospel? The fact that you own a Bible, or have access to a Bible online, or in app form is because 1600 years ago the Church, the Body of Christ, came together in community in order to compile (not create) the writings we know and love.

Today, we must take the same approach toward interpreting Scripture. Renowned theologian, seminary professor, and author Scot McKnight has a suggestion for how we are to read and interpret Scripture today in his book, The Blue Parakeet. In this quote, he speaks of the “Great Tradition,” that is the understanding of the historical Christian community.

“I suggest we learn to read the Bible with the Great Tradition. We dare not ignore what God has said to the church through the ages (as the return and retrieval folks often do), nor dare we fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism. Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return problem), and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism). We want to walk between these two approaches. It’s not easy, but I contend that the best of the evangelical approaches to the Bible and the best way of living the Bible today is to walk between these approaches.”

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet

The history of the church shows that Scripture has been best interpreted in community. When believers come together and wrestle with the Scriptures to find truth, error is avoided, God is honored, and Scripture is upheld and interpreted in a relevant way. As history and the New Testament has shown us, it is the best way.

We Must Take This More Seriously!

I just sat on my couch in Snyder, TX, USA and watched a live (and powerful) sermon streamed over YouTube from Australia. I got to watch and hear the same message preached that my brothers and sisters in Christ are hearing on the other side of the world at the same time they were hearing it. What a time we live in that the Word of God can be transmitted in such a way.

And yet it worries me that we don’t take the Word of God as seriously as we should. We have more opportunity to interact with the Word than any other time in human history. Our access to Scripture is unprecedented, the resources we have to study Scripture and access to quality teaching us seemingly unending. And I think therein lies the problem.

Can you imagine living in a world where every sermon you ever heard was in a language you didn’t understand? And there was no copy of the Bible in your own language? I’m reading a biography on William Tyndale and it’s reminding me of the immense blessing God has given us through having the Bible in our own native language. Tyndale died because he dared to translate the Bible into English, and yet we often find it a bother to carry a Bible around. It’s “inconvenient.”

Can you imagine for the first time in your life hearing these words in your own language for the first time:

“For God so loved the world that he hath given his only son that none that believe in him should perish, but should have everlasting life.” (Tyndale New Testament)

Friends, don’t ever let interacting with the Word of God become routine. Don’t ever let it become so “common” that we don’t take it seriously. About 10 hours from now I’ll gather with brothers and sisters and we’ll open God’s Word once again. I pray you do the same, wherever you are, whatever is going on in your life. I pray you stop and open God’s Word again with the same excitement and passion as if you were hearing it for the very first time. Because for some of you reading this, the Word just might come alive as though it were the very first time.

May God bless you as you gather with the saints and as you dwell in His Word.

Will We Learn From Our Past?

Paul’s admonition to Timothy is to correctly handle the Scriptures. Does any true follower of Christ seek to do otherwise? I’m sure we can find spurious people that misuse Scripture for ulterior motives. Yet Paul needs to caution Timothy about handling the Word. Surely this caution would extend to us, and we have more need of concern.  Timothy saw Paul’s ministry firsthand, and thoroughly understood the culture in which the New Testament was written, and Paul still feels the need to caution him in the correct handling of God’s Word. What are we to do when it comes to the handling of Scripture? This is where a basic understanding of church history comes into play.

The community of believers in Christ has always worked together to study and interpret the Scriptures, and this community approach is still needed today. From the time of Paul we see the Bereans working together to compare the truth of Scripture with Paul’s message (Acts 17:11), or the need in Philippi for the members to be of the same mind (Phil. 4:1-3). We also see the leaders of the church come together in community to discuss how to apply Scripture to these new Gentile converts (Acts 15). There are many other examples of the church coming together in community to interpret the Scriptures in the pages of the New Testament alone, but what about after the first century? Should Christians continue to read and understand Scripture in community? Absolutely! And many of the beliefs you hold today are a direct result of this process.

Most Christians understand that our New Testament was written in the first century AD. What we often forget is that the New Testament didn’t exist in a leather bound, easy to carry book for all believers to read. Many Christians went their entire lives never having the opportunity to read the New Testament. How could they ever live the Christian life without a personal copy of the Scriptures? Community! Believers came together and summarized the teachings of the apostles in the second century with the Old Roman Creed, which eventually became known as The Apostles Creed. While it is not a complete retelling of the New Testament, it does summarize many of the facts of Bible in a format that believers could memorize and discuss.

These discussions eventually raised some questions concerning the deity of Jesus. What did it mean to be “the Son of God,” or the “Word,” or “one with the Father?” Has Jesus existed for all eternity like the Father, or was he created first before all things? In 325 AD, over two hundred Church leaders gathered in the town of Nicaea to sort these matters out. Like the Bereans two centuries before, they searched the Scriptures in community to give language to the deity of Christ. The core Christian belief today that Jesus was “fully God and fully man,” or as The Nicene Creed states “true God from true God…became human,” came out of this meeting.  With Christians coming together in community to interpret the Scriptures, major questions were answered, heresies were silenced, and Scripture was upheld.

We’ll continue to look at other examples from Church History next week, but today I want to leave you with a question: What’s the best way to study Scripture in community today?

2 Rules for Reading Scripture

Last week we looked at the human component in Scripture. All Scripture is from God, but it comes through the mind and hand of humans, sometimes humans writing in community as we noted last week in many of Paul’s writings. This makes the Bible more special in my eyes, that God was willing to partner with humans in getting his word to the world, just as he partners with us today in doing the same thing (See Matthew 28:19). Today we’ll unpack the last part of Bobby Valentine’s quote: “God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places.”

There are two rules for reading Scripture: Context, and Context. Because of the historical nature of revelation we must pay close attention to the historical occasion of the text.  Why was it said or written in the first place? For instance, Ezekiel records many times of coming calamities upon Israel and Jerusalem “from the north.” This does not mean that Americans should be arming our border with Canada and preparing for war. This is a ridiculous example, I admit, but there are some who take equally specific texts meant for a specific people group in a specific time and place and try to apply it to everyone today. We must honor the context of the statements in order to accurately derive their meaning.

Let’s take a look for a moment and look at another example.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 NKJV

I’ve seen this verse applied to people trying to make a difficult decision, athletes wanting to win a game, couch potatoes that want to work up to running a marathon, churches hoping to begin a new ministry, people hoping to buy a new car or find a new house, and the list goes on and on. This verse is poorly translated in the KJV/NKJV (the word “Christ” doesn’t even appear in the Greek text), and its meaning is poorly applied to our lives because we don’t understand the context of Paul’s statement.

Paul has been arrested for preaching about Christ, but he doesn’t view this as a bad thing. In fact, Paul believes this is good because believers now see their faith in Christ is worth even going to prison over, and therefore they are spreading the Gospel message more intensely (Phil. 1:12-18). Fast forward a few chapters. Paul exhorts the church to rejoice always, no matter your circumstances…even if you are in chains for the Gospel (4:4). They should focus on Godly ways rather than worrying about the things of this world (4:5-9). Paul acknowledges that for a while the church was unable to support him, or provide for his needs (after all, he is in prison so he doesn’t have much – 4:10) Then Paul writes:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13 NIV

Paul is saying he doesn’t need money or possessions in order to preach the Gospel. God gives him strength, and that is enough. Want to apply this to your life? You should go preach the Gospel and God will give you the ability in whatever situation you find yourself to do just that. And no, that doesn’t include winning your softball game.

Follow Me

Our final Gospel reading for the year comes from the end of John’s Gospel, chapters 20 & 21. I have always loved the personal touches John includes in this section, including the fact that he was a faster runner than Peter (20:4).

One of the interesting debates surrounding this portion of Scripture has to do with the occasion of the writing of chapter 21. It certainly appears that 20:30-31 is the ending of the Gospel. And yet there’s chapter 21. I could bore you with all of the scholarly arguments back and forth, but the truth of the matter is that all early manuscripts of John contain chapter 21. What does this mean? Chapter 21 was written by John as well. It appears that John completed his Gospel with chapter 20, and was then moved by the Spirit to include one more episode in the life of Jesus, likely for the reason given in 21:22-23. It’s an important story with a message we need today!

If you remember in John 18, we see Peter deny Christ three times around a charcoal fire (see 18:18). This so devastated Peter that it appears he had given up on his ability to follow Christ and had returned to fishing (21:3). Jesus performs yet another fishing miracle among them, a clear signal to Peter about who was talking to him, and the disciples come to shore where they find Jesus cooking breakfast, once again around a charcoal fire (21:9). In a way, Jesus has once again placed Peter at a charcoal fire in an effort to give him another chance. Three times Jesus asks Peter to confirm his love for the Savior. Each time Peter does, and each time Jesus invites Peter to feed his sheep, an expression basically telling Peter to act like the pastor he has been called to be. But Jesus also gives Peter an ominous prediction.

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” – John 21:17-19

Did you notice what just happened? Peter returned to Christ. He has been reinstated, and called to shepherd the flock of believers. As Jesus is calling Peter he basically tells him that the pain and suffering he himself had just endured would also be endured by Peter. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Peter, you too will be crucified. Now follow me.” And the shocking thing is Peter did. Peter followed him! And in case you are wondering, church history tells us that Peter was crucified, but differently than Jesus. Peter claimed he was unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, so Peter was crucified hanging upside down from the cross.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and follow him. He calls us to die to ourselves and follow him. He calls us to give up everything, including our own lives to follow him. It’s radical. It’s extreme. It’s Jesus. My question is this: What is Jesus calling you to do that you have not done? Is he calling you to change something in your life? Is he calling you to share the Gospel with a friend? What is he calling you to do that you haven’t done?  Just like Peter, if you have denied him or ignored his call, it’s not to late. He will welcome you back, with open arms. But the call remains: Follow me!

Kosmos

This week’s reading comes from John 15:26 through the end of chapter 17. Jesus teaches many things during this time concerning his sacrifice, what will happen after he returns to heaven, and how the disciples should live in light of all that is going on. But I’d like to focus on a part of this message that I believe often gets misunderstood. And it’s only one word. Kosmos.

Kosmos is a Greek word that means “world” or “universe.” The word appears 185 times in the New Testament, and 105 of those times are in the writings of John. And Christians have thrown this word (world) around quite a bit when discussing their lives following Christ. In some circles this means if there is something that didn’t originate in the church, then we’re not supposed to be involved with it. “We’re not supposed to be of this world,” or “Have nothing to do with this evil world,” are statements that I have heard in the past. But is that what the Gospels are really calling us to do? To have nothing to do with the lost people we live around?

Kosmos as universe is used by John (1:3, 10, 3:17), but the most significant part of the universe is the place where we humans live, earth (John 16:33). So the word kosmos mainly refers to the persons inhabiting the earth (John 12:19). As you read John’s Gospel  you will notice that the majority of people Jesus encounters oppose his ministry and teaching, so kosmos comes to be associated with those who reject or oppose Jesus. This view of “world” equaling opposition to Christ is unique to the New Testament use of the word (John 1:10, 7:7, 14:17, 17:25, etc.)

When you read passages that say the “world” hates Jesus and his disciples (15:18), and that the followers of Christ are not to “belong to this world,” realize that John is referring to the people that reject Jesus, not the ones who simply don’t know about the truth. Think about these statements: “…the Prince of this world” (12:31, 16:11) = Satan. Christians are not to love “the world” (1 John 2:15-17) = love the lifestyle or actions of those who intentionally reject Christ.

Some will use this misunderstanding of the word “world” to try to tell you not to celebrate Christmas, stating that it’s “worldly” and originated as a “worldy, pagan holiday.” Some research points to a pagan origin for Christmas, other research points to Christmas pre-dating the pagan use of the date. But that really doesn’t matter. Christ came to redeem the world (Titus 2:14, 1 Tim. 2:4). He came to redeem our hearts, our souls, and our actions. Yes Christmas may have some elements that we do not accept (mainly gross commercial consumerism), but God has given us a wonderful opportunity to engage our kosmos.

For one time a year the world is more open to discussing the origins of the Christmas celebration, Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the Savior of the Kosmos. Don’t miss this opportunity that God has given you! Invite your friends and neighbors to worship times. Speak with them openly about your faith. In doing so you will participate in overcoming the Kosmos. (John 16:33).