“Submission”: Why Church Words Matter

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My Facebook feed is full of them. Kinda inevitable, I guess, since I have so many Facebook friends who are pastors and religious practioners. Posts, statuses, comments, full of churchy words, theological jargon, traditional King-Jamesy sounding terms. Stuff that passes for Christianese.

And I’m sick of it.

Up till now my reasons have been personal. Those words always sounded fake, cheesy, insincere. And they were over-used and under-understood. They were often meaningless, even to those who quoted them. And, they rang a lot of bells from memories of hostile churches, sermons directed against people instead of words spoken to build up, embrace, and encourage.

Words like … Saved and Salvation. Redeemed. Blood-bought. Sanctified. Righteous. Born again. Blessed. Glory!

And I would frequently mutter under my breath, “if you can’t find another word for it, then you probably don’t even know what it means.” How else is anybody else gonna know what the heck you’re talking about?!

Those words — intending to convey a sense of power and holiness, of awe and gravitas — only sounded empty, cliche, and archane, the secret language of the religiously initiated. “Are you saved? Are you one of the chosen?”

And recently, during table talk over dinner, a friend threw in another one. “Submission.” This is a loaded one, especially for anyone who’s grown up in conservative circles where it was taught that wives should submit to their husbands. In this case it was about submitting to spiritual authority.

“Spiritual authority”? That almost intuitively sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t true spirituality marked by humility? But you want to exercise authority over other people in the name of religion, in the name of a divine calling or holy office? If that doesn’t conjure up images of the Church in the Middle Ages, of Inquisitions, of Tribunals, of imprisonment and excommunication and harsh discipline… Just walk away, baby, walk away.

Those familiar with recent church history will also remember the “Shepherding/Discipleship movement.” People with sincere hearts, seeking God and holy living, surrendered themselves and their wills to pastoral leaders who spoke for God. They allowed pastors to make basic life decisions for them, from what job to take, what house to buy, even whom to marry. And the abuse of power was rampant. Lives were crushed, and the flocks scattered, confused and more lost than ever. Sounds like a cult, right? And that is exactly what it was. But it started out as a sincere evangelical movement based on a supposed biblical concept — no nefarious motives involved.

Yet to this day you’ll still hear “submit to spiritual authority” mentioned in certain churches. It goes hand in hand with that manipulative command, “touch not mine anointed” — that misquoted biblical injunction not to take matters into your own hands against divinely appointed leadership. That somehow, leadership is infallible.

So, it boils down to this: Are we, as bible-believing, sincere Christians, to submit to spiritual authority?

The short answer is NO. At least not in the sense normally understood — and that is exactly why the words we use are so important.

Here’s a famous biblical case in point: In the “Acts of the Apostles” in the bible, the early Christians in Jerusalem lived together in order to live out their faith with a true sense of brotherhood and community. They pooled their resources and lived essentially in communes, with the apostles as their community leaders. Those who had resources shared with those who did not. And people would sell their lands and property, and lay the money “at the feet of the apostles” — basically surrendering their wealth for community use. The needs of the poor, the sick, the widows and defenseless were all taken care of. And in this way, no one was needy.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

It was a beautiful thing. But human nature can’t stand that kind of sharing for too long. Selfishness is deeply rooted in our DNA. During these idyllic days, a rich property-owning married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some land but decided to keep a chunk of the profits for themselves. They brought a fraction of the money, and laid it at Peter’s feet. And because of their deceit, they were struck dead — they had lied to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the key. Peter states the case clearly: they were under no compulsion to “submit” their worldly goods. “Didn’t the property belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money yours to do with as you pleased?” But because they tried to fool the apostles and community into thinking they were giving their all, they received the harshest punishment. And young men came in and carried their bodies out to be buried. (Acts 5:1-10)

A quick search through the New Testament for the word “submit” or “submission” shows a wide range of contexts and situations where we are to defer to others for the common good and for our own benefit. And the ultimate expression of that is always with reference to God. There are a few mentions of slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to their husbands as the husbands submit to Christ, and even evil spirits submitting to the authority of the name of Jesus. Paul says we should submit to civil authority so that we can live in peace, and that we should not submit to our evil desires — or even to religious rules (Col 2:20).

The killer text

Where we trip up is the reference in Hebrews 13 about placing trust in our spiritual leaders and “submitting to their authority” because they “keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” In other words, we should cooperate with those given the responsibility for caring for us, so that we may fully benefit from their guidance. Similar to the 5th Commandment, “honor your father and mother, so that you may have a long life…”, it is simply a good idea to heed the advice of those with more maturity and experience than us.

And the Apostle Peter describes what thatshould  look like from the perspective of the leaders of religious congregations. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet 5:1-3)

Spiritual leaders are to be examples to the flock, and we should follow their example. “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Pet 5:5).

For our own personal and spiritual growth, we should pay attention (“submit”) to the spiritual advice of those with greater maturity: our spiritual elders. But no where do these apostles suggest that that influence and respect apply outside the realm of spiritual development. Like Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira, we are under no physical, material, financial or any other obligation to obey religious leaders, other than what is due out of respect and love. Complete personal obedience was never in the picture.

In that regard, our only obligation for total submission is to God. We are his people, his children. We live in his Kingdom. He is our King.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that the least will be first, the first would be last, and we should serve one another out of mutual love. In a brief moment of power-play when two of his disciples asked to be seated at his left and right hand when the Kingdom came in full, he rebuked them gently. The pagans rule and lord it over each other. But that is not how it was to be in his kingdom. Why then do we choose this loaded word as a characteristic of the godly life?

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others.

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others. This is proper behavior for those who recognize the God who created us all in his image, as his children. But it is not about slave-like obedience or surrender of our wills. We are to “submit to one another” out of mutual love — it is not just a one-way street where the flock owes allegiance to the shepherds. We are to serve one another, following the example of Jesus who served his own disciples.

Submission is about recognizing the Godly gifts in each other, honoring each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, knowing that others are created in the image of God just as we are. If you’ll excuse borrowing imagery from another religion, it is similar to the attitude in the Hindu greeting “Namaste” — a recongition of the divine in each of us. “You have value. I will respect you for who you are.” And that is a far cry from surrendering our wills to the wishes and caprices of those with holy titles.

Peter summarizes the entire range of “submission” responsibility in one quick statement: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” With that basic principle in mind, can we please drop that word from our everyday religious vocabulary? To contemporary believers, it is too suggestive of drone-like obedience, too out of step with the humble nature of our faith, and not at all reflective of the reverential respect we owe each other. Treat each other as you would like to be treated, as fellow children of God, and the “submission” part will take care of itself.

photo credit: “Spanish Inquisition”, Claudia Gold via Flickr, cc.

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Angry Pulpits, Empty Churches

BillySundayI seem to alienate a lot of my preacher friends.  They’re good people, for the most part, just like all of us. But sometimes we just don’t see eye to eye on the “reason” behind the things we do in church.

Today, for example, another minister posted a blistering message on Facebook, chewing out people for not attending church. “The Bible commands us not to forsake the assembling together … blah blah.” “These so-called Christians” who can’t make time to show up for services “on the Lord’s Day, and you can find time to do all sorts of things except be in the House of God?” Calling these people deceived or deluded, “so-called Christians” who think they don’t need church to have God.  Words full of guilt. Shaming. Religious cliché.

Honestly, it turned my stomach.  I probably should have kept my opinions to myself, but I couldn’t help responding (hopefully with at least a little tact), “I know many who stop going to “God’s house” on “the Lord’s Day” for the simple reason that they don’t find God there. We have too many churches filled with religion.”

What I didn’t say was ” … and this means you.”

Really. Why on earth would anybody want to go to “God’s House” and hear that kind of drivel?  If his post was any indicator of his sermons, it’s no wonder people don’t want to show up.

Did we EVER see Jesus in the Gospels yelling at the street vendors, prostitutes, the needy, for not going to the Temple or synagogue? “Oh, you whine and cry about how hard your life is, but you won’t make an effort to go to God’s House!”  Never.  It’s ridiculous to even imagine Jesus saying such a thing. God is not limited to the walls of some building, and while “assembling together” can certainly be a healthy thing, the “assembling together” is not what makes it healthy or holy. It’s the people you’re assembling with. And if those people are sanctimonious and condemning, I’d rather assemble together in the chummy embrace of my drunken buddies at a bar than listen to the nattering sermon of someone spouting religious words with no sense of the deep spirituality that should be behind them.

“Let God be true and every man a liar,” the preacher said in his defense of the commandment to attend church.  Indeed.  God is true, and God will make himself known to anyone who hungers for him — and thankfully without the need of a guilt-wielding preacher trying to compel people to behave according to his religious preferences.

We are often warned, in these religious circles, that we will all one day stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. It’s meant as a threat, a warning to live holy lives, lest we face the wrath of God. But actually, I take great comfort in that scene, because I know Who it is that sits on that Judge’s Seat. And the only people he ever had a harsh word for were the religious.

If we wonder why our churches are becoming empty on “the Lord’s Day”, we might start by asking ourselves if we’re talking and acting like our Lord.

To all my brothers and sisters who choose NOT to sit under that kind of shepherding on Sunday, grace and peace and great blessings to you. Go where you’re loved. Go where you are nurtured and cherished. Go where you find the presence of God.  Anything else is not worthy of you, and certainly not a reflection of God — despite what some preachers say.

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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What Kind of Love is That?

California Vacation-Salvation MountainWe need more.

The Christian world (in America, at least) has gone through some painful experiences the past week or so. And honestly, I’m grateful to World Vision for opening up this can of worms.  More evangelicals have posted and written and blogged apologies for their hostile brethren, they’ve searched their hearts and seen how they’ve been guilty of applying a double-standard of Christian love to their LGBT “brothers and sisters.”

And yet, even when I think I’ve moved on, when I think “great, this has all been an eye-opener for the world,” I got hit with a new feeling.  Being patronized.

I just read a blog that was well-circulated on Facebook. The writer talked about how her heart was torn when she read the piece by “Registered Runaway” about being done with evangelicalism, about being so wounded that he just gave up on the Church. She talked about how this issue has really polarized American Christianity, and that it’s become bitter and ugly and unlike the character of the Lord we all profess.  And she talked about how she wanted to keep her views to herself so as not to be another bullet in somebody’s gun fired at the other side.  And the comments by straight Christians were almost touching, “wow, she really nailed that one”, “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, “Lord, help me to live this out in your love.”  All very nice. Even touching.

Except she then stated her position. It was kindly worded, but contained those words we LGBT Christians have grown to hate. “Sin” and “not God’s best.”  “Yes, we truly love gay people, and Jesus loves them too. And yes, we even believe that they will share in eternal heaven with us.”  … BUT … “it’s not God’s best”, “God didn’t design us to live and love that way.”

And I wonder if I really want her loving support after all.

Jesus-Stones-HomosIt is really, really nice to have one less person lined up to actually throw a stone at me and my friends.  I thank God for his mercy in moving their hearts so they at least do not want me jailed or executed for loving someone of the same gender. That is progress.  That is a huge blessing, especially compared to that church in NYC whose marquis read that Jesus would endorse my stoning.  Or those in the militant camp exporting their religious purity to countries like Uganda, Russia, Peru, Nigeria, and others, who now believe that by murdering gay men in the street, by publicly stripping them and setting them on fire, they are reclaiming their country for God.

My gay friends in Asia tell me repeatedly that we have it so much easier in America – our government isn’t actively persecuting us, and even our churches don’t hate us that much.

And I am grateful.  I am grateful to live in a time like this when at least the Church is actively talking about the issue, and more and more people of God are embracing gay and lesbian believers as full brothers and sisters in Christ. (Transgender folks, well, we’ve still got a ways to go before the Church embraces you for who you really are.)

But the question keeps going through my head.
What kind of love is that?

These well-intentioned Christian bloggers have made progress in their own spiritual and cultural journeys. They’ve been touched in a new way by the heart of God. They join Jesus in not being the first to cast the stone.

homosexuality-sinBut I’m still the disgusting Samaritan.

Okay, maybe not completely disgusting. Just fallen. Broken. Second class in God’s eyes. Sinner.

The eyes still have blind spots.  We can now, thankfully, fully embrace our divorced brothers and sisters. They can even be ordained into church leadership in many denominations.  They are no longer shunned, even in congregations that don’t theologically approve of divorce. I haven’t heard the words “sinner” or “not God’s best” applied to them in decades.

But LGBT believers, we’re still “not as God designed.”

I want to scream at them. Did God design us to wear clothes? (Clothes were a result of the Fall, remember?) Are you “not God’s best” because you wear glasses? Surely, God did not design us to need those.  What about single men or women, saints who live their whole lives unmarried.  This was definitely not how God intended us to live – at least if you’re using Eden as the rule.  Or honoring the Sabbath — something rooted in the Garden as part of God’s design for all humanity, yet Christians don’t bat an eye at completely ignoring this integral component of life.  I won’t even venture into other areas where we are not in full alignment with the paradise of Eden – all you have to do is compare your vision of Adam and Eve side-by-side with your own life.  How close are you to that “original design”?

“God’s best” is best left between God and the individual — not an outsider judging someone else’s life based on their own interpretation of God’s original design and purposes.

Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and this World Vision debacle have opened the eyes of many Christians to the ugliness of hate within our sanctuaries. And many have taken steps to resist that kind of unChristian behavior. And that’s great.

But we need more. And not just we LGBT believers. You straight believers need to do better, need to walk in a more perfect love.

Because all you’ve done is find a kinder, gentler way
of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
And we’ve had enough of that.

Our job as the people of God is to love. As simple as that. Love God, love our neighbor. And that doesn’t include calling someone else a “sinner.” Or “not God’s best.” Ever.

The Church will never come into complete agreement on any issue, let alone one as culturally upsetting as this one. And, speaking for many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we thank you sincerely for making progress, for stretching, for being willing to discuss matters of sexuality and identity. Believe me, we know that is a huge step for a big segment of American Christianity. And as much as we’d like you to see things our way, we know some of you never will.  It’s just not realistic. We can handle that.

But for those who truly want to act in love, please, take the next step.  Go beyond merely not throwing a stone at us. Accept us. Don’t refer to us as second-best, as sinners.  “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you,” the Apostle Paul tells us (Rom 15:7).  Even when you disagree with us, follow the example of Jesus in his dealings with Samaritans. He didn’t agree theologically with them, but he loved them, he hung out with them, he stayed in their villages. He did not make them feel second-class: he was their savior as well as the messiah of the Jews.

We appreciate the strides you’ve made, but we need more.  It would be nice to be seen as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters sharing in a glorious inheritance, as equals and joint heirs, rather than being labeled as “that sin”. Or as “not God’s best.” It’s nice not to have one more person throwing the stones, but that’s not the same as acceptance. We can feel the difference.  And it still hurts.
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photo credit: “God is Love,” MythicSeabass via photopin cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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The Lying Church

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I got annoyed again.

Okay, maybe this trend says more about me than about the Church, but from what I’m reading in the media and from the mass exodus of millennials from organized faith services, I don’t think I’m just being cranky.

One of our problems within the Church is our self-delusion.

By the way, I’m using “Church” with a capital-C to indicate a universal problem, not just a single church. Perhaps that’s not fair, because what I’m talking about happens mostly in Protestant denominations, especially independent ones.

There are so many reasons people stop going to church. And there are a whole subset of reasons why our approach to mass worship is completely unappealing to the current generation. And I’m not talking just about “the Millennials”. Not just “Gen X or Y”.  Most people who are even remotely self-aware have experienced the nonsense that goes on under the guise of pious talk, and have become weary of it.  Or, to put it simply, they’ve simply gotten sick and tired of the fakeness.

Can we, for the love of truth, please! stop lying to people to try to get them into our doors? My recent annoyance came at seeing a local pastor post an advertisement for his latest sermon series on Facebook.  Ignoring for the moment the fact that the topic was completely uninspiring, he branded it with the slogan, “You’ll never be the same again.”

Really?  How many times have we heard that before?

Does he really think people believe that?  Has he just slipped lazily into religious cliché? Or is he perhaps delusional, actually believing his sermon will profoundly impact the lives of his audience forever?

Hey, I wish that last one were true. It would be fantastic if we regularly heard sermons with the life-changing power of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or his Kingdom parables.  The radical change in how God is presented, how God relates to us and how truly powerful his influence in this world is – those were the messages of Jesus, and they were paradigm-shifting. People were never the same after hearing him.  Well, at least those who listened with open hearts.

All are Welcome

There is a whole book full of clichés churches use to lure people into the pews, to pretend that they’ll find a home, a place of love and acceptance. “Where everyone is welcome” is so common that it’s become meaningless. Especially when those who don’t fit the mold walk into the doors. A black man into a predominantly white congregation. A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in months into most any affluent church. A tattooed, pierced and gauged, wild-haired youth (or not so youthful!) walking into most conservative evangelical services will feel the warm, loving stares of the regulars. The lesbian couple with kids might sneak under the radar as long as they don’t engage in any PDA, but the gay male couple, wearing matching rings, who might not “pass for straight” … well, we all pretty much know how that’s gonna end.

But honestly, this is just human nature. It’s not necessarily a horribly hypocritical thing. We are all more comfortable around people who are just like us.  And that’s probably fine (isn’t that why there are so many denominations?). And ultimately, as society grows more and more diverse, so will our congregations. But what isn’t fine is that we pretend that that’s not the case, and we keep insisting the all, no matter how different, are indeed welcome into the brotherhood.

Such a lame religious cliché not only does not fool anyone, it actually makes us look ridiculous.

Even blind or delusional. And unless your congregation is actually practicing outrageous hospitality — from the leadership down to the pew-sitter — it’s false advertising. It’s a lie. And we need to stop doing it.  The church has lost credibility, and the unavoidable consequence is the loss of people.

You’ll never be the same

For me, though, it’s not just the bait-and-switch advertising of a loving community, it’s the false promise of a divine encounter.

We routinely make promises of “Hours of Power”, of “Anointed Worship” or “Prophetic Message,” of “Truth that sets free.” We claim the weekly presence of Jesus himself there, touching, healing, moving. We promise a “fresh move of the Spirit,” “a word direct from the Throne”.  Oh, God, how I wish that were true.  And sometimes – thank you, Lord – it is.  But more often it’s not.

“You’ll never be the same?”  Let’s ask the people who regularly attend your service how different they are on a week to week basis. Are they making leaps and bounds in spiritual progress, power and maturity after hearing your sermons or listening to your praise music? Are they growing in love for the stranger, or even towards their brother or sister in the pew next to them?  Or are they the same people, week after week, who loyally drag themselves to church (good for them, at least they’re making an effort), and week after week walk out the church door completely unchanged, unmoved, exactly the same?

Here’s the one thing that will invalidate everything I just said. A seeking heart will hear God no matter how crappy your sermon is. A sensitive spirit will experience the presence of God no matter how awful your worship choir is. But that’s a reflection on them, and on God, not on your church.  That same genuine seeker would hear God speak to them through a tv commercial – because that’s who God is. He speaks to those who have “ears to hear.”

Our churches are opportunities for people to encounter God. And that’s because of God’s own promise: “where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be there with you.”  God is there.  Love and acceptance can be found there.  But more often than not, it has little to do with the sermon, the songs sung, or the handshake of the greeter – little to do with us.  And that’s unfortunate.

Until we change, people will continue to view the church as a dying institution. Until we become the people we claim to be – and are continually growing and being transformed into the actual likeness of the model Jesus lived – and until our messages actually contain the prophetic power, derived from an actual fresh word from the Father of All of Us, we need to be a bit more humble in our boasts.

Realistically, touting the new slogan “Hopefully God will show up” isn’t going to fill the seats. And considering most of us attend out of routine and less out of genuine seeking, even the line “come seek God with us” will fall flat.

We’re human. We fail. We are not the vessels of divine power we should be. Rivers of living water, unfortunately, flow out of too few of us.  Genuine love and acceptance is in too few of our hearts.  Can we at least admit that to ourselves, and stop pretending that we have the monopoly on a divine encounter?  Can we stop lying about who we are?  And stop making false promises about what people can expect when they walk through our doors?

The sad truth is, we are the people of God.  We are the light of the world – at least to the extent that we are trying to be true imitators of our Lord.

It has to start with us. We have to look into our own hearts and ask if we are genuinely seeking. Are we really hungry for God’s presence? Are we really stretching ourselves to become “the light”?  Do we really believe what we say about God and about ourselves? Do we have the “ears to hear”? Are we looking to speak words that flow from the One Who Sits Above All, or are we just doing a job, going through motions? Are we trying to break out of our comfort zones and actually love people different than us?

I hope so. Until then, we’re not fooling anybody. And those trite religious-sounding promises will reek of insincerity and fakeness, of hollow religion, empty words and no power. And nobody has the stomach for that anymore.

 

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photo credit: marymuses via photopin cc

 

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Politics in the Pulpit?

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]M[/dropcap]ore crazy preachers on T.V.

Why does that thought occur more and more frequently in my head?  Maybe the American election season has something to do with it.  And with Election Day looming closer every day, the impulse for preachers to push their people in one direction or another will likely only increase.

I was kind of disheartened—shocked, actually—the other day when I read a Facebook comment by a ministry “personality” I really respected. He’d earned his name as a heavy-weight by talking about miracles and the Kingdom of God in real life—and I like that. Real life stuff.  But out of the blue, he made a comment about fiscal policy in democracy, and how once a people realize they can vote benefits to themselves from the public treasury, the democracy will collapse leading to dictatorship. Granted, this wasn’t directly pointed at either political party. At least not overtly.  But the fact that he was even making a political comment at all …  I just stared at the screen in disbelief.  No. Freakin. Way.

Yes way. In fact, just a few nights ago, Stephen Colbert featured a pastor on his Colbert Report whose expressed goal is to be allowed to make political statements from the pulpit. The group he represents is encouraging pastors across America to deliberately violate the law by endorsing one of the presidential candidates and then send recorded copies of their sermons to the IRS.  They hope the IRS will take them to court so they can challenge the law which now forbids political endorsements from tax-exempt churches.  Their argument is that there should be no government intrusion in the life of the church whatsoever. But obviously, they do not feel the reverse is also true. The church may, perhaps even should, intrude in the affairs of government. They seem to be arguing for the “separation of church and state”—but apparently want it to be a one-way street.

Fine. That may perhaps even be a valid constitutional position.  But the church has a long, and very ugly, history when it’s dabbled in politics and attempted to influence government—Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, burnings at the stake.  And I find nothing particularly “Christian” about that at all.

As Americans, everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion about social issues and to try to influence legislation. But should any of this come from the pulpit?  I can understand how some pastors may feel the compulsion to protect their flocks by taking action against what they perceive to be immoral forces at work in the world—I understand the pastoral instinct to protect.  I can also understand the compulsion to stir up your people to combat an injustice.  But I do not understand the motivation, the hostility, the provocation in stirring up dissent, and dividing people against one another.  As though people who have different cultural or political views are somehow less American or less godly.

It may be true that religious leaders have often played important roles in the great social movements of history. Faith can be a catalyst for positive change in society. But the fact that in each of these movements men and women of faith and integrity arduously fought on opposite sides of the cause, shedding innocent blood and quoting Scripture and the divine will of God as their defense, ought to make us question the legitimacy of mixing faith and politics. Politics was never described in the Bible as a means for achieving spiritual goals. As the Apostle Paul said, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces”. And Jesus himself stated at the very birth of Christianity, before his death, that his Kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would fight—and indeed the angels themselves could be enjoined to battle for the cause. But this is not who we are. This is not what we are to be about. Especially as pastors and shepherds of God’s flock.

Did Jesus speak out against the decadent Roman culture? Did Peter or James or John or Paul stir up the flock for political action, or call for change in the social order?

“I must be about my Father’s business.”

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish his work.”

“This is my commandment: Love one another.”

“Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

“Go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”

“These signs will be the mark of those who believe: in my name, they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues … they will lay hands on the sick for healing.”

THIS is our job, this is our mission.  To make disciples. To love. To heal. To set captives free from the bondage of sin and death. To proclaim the FAVOR of God.  To call for repentance, that all people should return to God, and then announce that holy reconciliation has occurred: Mankind brought back into full fellowship with God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Anything else for a minister is a distraction. A waste of time. A hindrance to the purposes of God. And if I may speak boldly, it is prostitution.  Men and women of God are called to higher purposes: the salvation of humanity, and the maturity of the saints.

As citizens of a great republic, we may well have the right—even the civic duty—to voice our convictions and to vote according to our consciences. But as pastoral leaders, we must never dare to place the divine stamp of approval on a political position or platform. Jesus never authorized us to act for him in this arena.  Not once.  His instructions are clear.  And they are already more than we can handle, already more than enough for us to do.  The pulpit is a sacred space and the pastorate is a holy calling. When we step behind a pulpit, we are now acting as messengers of the Living God, charged with proclaiming life-giving words to His people. Puny human politics have no place there.

Let congregations—even pastors—march on Washington when their consciences compel them. But don’t wave the banner of the Cross in your crusade.  Endorsing one political candidate over another is not a holy fight.  And, as shepherds of His flock, commissioned with a sacred trust, if that’s where our energies and efforts are devoted, then we have lost our first love. We have gone A.W.O.L. from our duty, and abandoned our calling. We walk in two worlds, and we must never confuse the two.

Does Jesus endorse one political party over another? Do politics belong in the pulpit?  Not according to my reading of Scripture—or my understanding of ministry.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. You can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Jesus Loves You. Have a Condom.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]A[/dropcap] group of us were sitting around talking, waiting for the weekly men’s group to begin. I was new to the church, still getting a feel for the place, but the pastor’s approach to living out the faith intrigued me. It was an odd place, a challenging place, but there was something powerfully different here: all that old “churchiness” I’d become accustomed to was strangely missing – and when talking about the church to friends, I was already beginning to think in terms of “we.”

As a few of us chatted there in the lobby, I noticed sitting on the table in front of me was this plastic bucket filled with condoms. All kinds of condoms. Colored, textured, lubricated, plain. Definitely not your father’s typical church supplies. As part of the church’s outreach (to use a little Christianese), we had opened our building as a site for free HIV testing twice a week. Despite the adamant message of the abstinence-only crowd, everyone knows a condom is the best defense against HIV. But in MY church?!

Yeah, I get bent out of shape easily sometimes. And I threw one of my “you can’t be serious” looks at the pastor as he walked in. But he was dead serious. And since I knew I was on a journey of “radical acceptance” and opening myself up to allow God to use his Church in ways he wants (even if it raises some eyebrows), I was eager for the theological justification. Too bad I didn’t get it. The pastor’s position was simple. While as believers, we maintain a Biblical standard for purity in intimate relations — marriage and fidelity — we still need to love people enough to help them stay safe even if they don’t live up to our standards. Nutshell theology. Good for the soul, but not really satisfying to my analytical mind. So as I picked through the bucket, marveling at the assortment of glow-in-the-dark colors, I started wrestling with the arguments and implications. Another mind-stretching experience.

Would Jesus be handing out condoms at the Oklahoma Gay Rodeo Association? According to my pastor, of course he would. But I could already hear the protests of my conservative evangelical friends and colleagues, rolling in disgust in their pews. Isn’t this tantamount to condoning sin? I don’t know. But what does Jesus think?

Did Jesus ever overlook a moral shortcoming in order to save a life? Images of scenes from ancient Middle East started flooding my mind. Isn’t this the same argument about working on the Sabbath? Isn’t it better to allow people to rub grains of wheat in their hands in order to satisfy their hunger, even though Sabbath laws forbid it? Or, could pulling your ox out of a pit in sheer mercy and compassion justify overriding the Sabbath restriction against it? And David, before he became king, entering the tabernacle and stealing the holy bread there to feed his hungry men — doing what was unlawful. Jesus justified him, applauded him. Here was a man who understood the heart (and priorities) of God (Lk 6:1-5; Lk 14:5).

Didn’t a tablecloth containing all kinds of forbidden meat lower from heaven to Peter in a vision, with a command to eat and call nothing unclean that God has made clean? Grace overriding definitions of sin. Because it’s about people, not rules. (Acts 10:10-15)

That scene of the Samaritan woman at the well also presses itself into my mind. She’d been married five times, and was currently living with a man not her husband. Yet because Jesus spends time talking with her (a scandalous action back then), God’s salvation was brought to her entire village (John 4). And he never once rebuffed her for her disreputable lifestyle. That other woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the righteous people of the day … Jesus steps in and saves her life. In this case, he does correct her: “go and sin no more.” But he doesn’t look at her offense. He focuses on saving her life. The correction comes later, when she was in a more receptive position (John 8:3-12).

And that famous parable of the Good Samaritan who takes care of the man, beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die by the holy people of his day. Are we, the Church, not the Priest and the Levite who walked by, not wanting to dirty ourselves even to save a life? We’d rather preach to him, tell him God loves him, all the while pointing out his faults in an effort to change him. But we won’t kneel down in the dirt with him to offer him the help he actually needs at that moment. Who ultimately was the good neighbor? Jesus’ words: the one who showed mercy. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:30-37).

Condoms, oddly enough, are never mentioned in the Bible. I can’t find any single passage in Scripture that specifically states that doing something which might appear to condone sin is acceptable if done out of love. But there are plenty of examples where Jesus himself does this. Love overrides Law. It is the “Ox on the Sabbath” principle.

Am I completely comfortable with this? Not entirely. It may be a little while longer before you see me at the Rodeo passing out condoms, telling people Jesus loves them. It’s still a little too far from my traditional, conservative upbringing to adjust so quickly. But I am completely convinced that this is the kind of attitude and thinking we need to embrace if we’re going to be a light in the 21st century. It’s what Jesus would do. And if we’re too afraid of being stretched into new patterns of radical love and action, if our traditional ways of practicing the faith never grow beyond our comfort zone, what kind of demonstration of God’s love and power is that?

The world seems to be falling apart, people are dying. They need God, and we the Church have failed to deliver. This is the kind of out-of-the-box action that demonstrates who we really are. This is the message people need to hear. God loves you. We love you. Our greatest desire is for you to have an intimate relationship with God. In the meantime, be safe. Here’s a condom.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. You can find him always skulking on Facebook.
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Holy Kiss — Holy Cow !

This little adventure into “Radical Acceptance” and checking out this new church is making me think about a lot of things, and rethink a lot of others. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not generally a touchy-feely kind of guy. At least not with people I barely know, and certainly not with people I’ve just met. So if I meet you in person for the first time, you can safely expect a hardy handshake. Pastor Neill is not like me. He’s a hugger. Worse, he’s a kisser. Me? I tend to think that kissing is reserved for loved ones. It’s an act of intimacy shared with only a few — despite my years in the Middle East where public displays of affection were the norm. So that first Sunday at church as the congregants filed out the door, and the pastor normally (in my experience) shakes everybody’s hand, offering a kind word on the way out, I was caught a little off guard when Neill gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I quickly regained a grip on my composure, smiled, made some off the cuff pleasant remark, and went on my merry way. Okay, so that’s just him; no big deal. A little odd, maybe, but no big deal.

I’ve had a few lunches with him since then, trying to get to know the guy better, to figure out what’s his deal, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and most importantly, if I want to hitch my wagon to this train. So I’ve got questions. And with years of theological training under my belt, I’ve got a lot of them. Sure, I was knocked off balance by the audacity of his vision and approach to church, but was it really kosher enough for me to make this my new home? And the hugging/kissing issue came up during one of those lunchtime conversations. I don’t remember his precise explanation so I may be mischaracterizing him, but I was left with the impression that it all ties back to making people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. But the truth might just be a lot simpler: that’s just the kind of guy he is and how he expresses himself.

I didn’t waste a whole lot of time analyzing it. Like I said, it might not be my style, but it’s really no big deal. But today I did start thinking about it again. Isn’t this really inappropriate? Isn’t it crossing that line of intimacy that should be reserved for loved ones?

And then it came to me. That is exactly the case. The whole mission of the Church should be to bring God’s love into this world, to show people that they are accepted and loved, and to mirror that love in real life. As a pastor, Neill is the visible representation of Jesus on the earth. We all are, of course, but as “leader” of a church, he is in a more conspicuous role. For better or for worse, people do look at spiritual leaders differently; they expect more of them and hold them to a higher standard. And in that capacity, as the representative of Jesus, shouldn’t he act like Jesus would? And doesn’t God actually (not just conceptually) love everyone? Wouldn’t he want them welcomed and embraced as intimately as he knows them? Suddenly I saw the kissing in a whole new light. Jesus knows every person who walks in those church doors, and he loves them dearly. Wouldn’t he kiss them? (I mean, I know he’d kiss me, right?) If the pastor’s goal — our goal — is to tend the flock in Jesus’ place, then what better way to show the people that they are loved than to treat them like close family? What better way in this world of hurting people to say “you are loved” — even though we’ve just met?

Okay, I’m not too likely to pick up this habit, but it does make me want to reconsider hugging. On any given day, a significant percentage of the people sitting in the pews will be hurting, will be going through some hard times. And in congregations comprised of people regularly rejected by family, society, and especially the church, that percentage will be even higher. The need to model God’s love is all the more urgent. And an innocent hug or kiss on the cheek becomes all the more significant. It might be just what they need at that moment.

So the next time the pastor gives me the holy greeting, I’ll try to restrain my initial reaction, accept it for what it is, and offer up a quiet prayer. “Thank you, Jesus, for your love.”

Just one more factor to consider in rethinking how we do church.

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“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thes 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)