Gary Swisher

Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Ballot-Box Christianity

In Chrisitan Right, Christianity, evangelical, sectarian on August 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I wrote a few months ago of how strongly I disagree with the notion that God is a Republican and the United States is his kingdom on earth. The Christian Right seems to have married faith to politics and made being a Republican a prerequisite for the Christian life. Christians on the left often bemoan this tendency and rightly so. But could there a bit of hypocrisy involved when these same Christians proceed to line Jesus up with their party instead? If it is misguided to spout conservative politics from a Christian platform it’s just as misguided to answer the “What would Jesus do?” question with an endorsement for the Democratic Party.

A blogger I have enjoyed reading in the past, because of his non-institutional stance, apparently thinks you can better follow Christ if you lean toward the left, as he recently posted a tirade on the Tea Party. The writer positioned them just as the popular media do, painting this grass-roots movement as mean and hateful bigots. He then proceeded to rip them on numerous points from a “WWJD” perspective. It doesn’t seem right to use such broad-brushed and uninformed mischaracterizations. Conservatives don’t have horns, capes and pointy tails—at least not all.

It is easier to accept the worst impressions about a group and write them off, but wholesale rejections are often ill-informed. If you watch mainstream media you likely have a much skewed perspective as to what the Tea Party stands for. If you listen to political leaders on the left, you probably think they are terrorists. Fair disclosure; I am not in the Tea Party but I support their basic premise. An honest look at the matter should reveal that the Tea Party stands for fiscal responsibility and accountability of governmental leaders to the citizens who elect them. That’s a big tent, which can range from people whose main interest is selfish profiteering to those who simply hope for a fair shake and honest representation in government. The Tea Party is sounding the alarm on a government that is spiraling out of control and putting an entire nation on a path toward certain economic ruin.

Am I putting my hope in an earthly kingdom? I truly hope not. I think we can act responsibly in regard to our nation without giving in to worldliness and its escalating materialism. In my view, it is appropriate to see this as stewardship of the things God places in our hands. Having concern for the state of our nation seems no different from taking care of one’s family or any other moral responsibility. We cross the line when we become nationalistic or view our citizenship as an earthly endeavor. But whether one thinks the United States is God’s country or the Great Satan, I don’t know how we can turn a blind eye to dysfunction in any aspect of society, let alone our federal government. Dysfunctional government is wrong and will only become lethal to the people it is meant to serve.

The dysfunction of our government has become painfully obvious most recently. I’ll avoid the specific issue of the debt ceiling debate, since either side can argue that the others’ are at fault. To me the greater dysfunction is that we have allowed our debt to reach such an astronomic level. Both parties can take the blame. Does it even make sense to establish a debt ceiling since it is routinely elevated to accommodate more and more debt? Debt is a very destructive thing, and debt on the scale we see now has the potential to devastate the lives of our children’s children. A child born today owes $176,000 to Uncle Sam before he or she even has a Social Security number. Our children will be forced to live under enormous debt due to such fiscal irresponsibility. And it won’t just be the rich kids who lose out.

Our current obligations for entitlement programs are completely unsustainable, and will probably be our undoing. Our government borrows 43 cents for every dollar it spends. Does the U.S. government deserve a AAA credit rating? If credit companies looked at our national debt and obligations the way they look at consumers applying for credit, the U.S. government would have no credit at all. Vladimir Putin is right in saying the U.S. is a parasite on the world economy. The richest country in the world is running up a tab of trillions to pay for entitlements that its own citizens cannot afford. So we continue to borrow from other nations and put world markets on edge. Only 50% of our citizens pay taxes, the rest are receiving government assistance. We have become a nation of entitlement addicts.

I have a neighbor on public assistance whose able-bodied grandson (now in his twenties) lives with her, rent-free. She has encouraged him to go out and find work but he sees no reason to. His words to her… “Why should I go out and get a job when I have what I need without working?” He prefers to sit around and while his days away with, seemingly, no purpose in life. I overheard him say how Obama’s election would provide more handouts and a better deal for him. Remarkably, since Obama’s election, even the outlook for African-Americans has declined. Since the beginning of 2009 the disparity between black unemployment and white unemployment figures has steadily risen. What’s more, legitimate charities are being penalized by the loss of tax incentives for their funding. There is no logic behind this but to increase reliance on government and undermine the role of charities.

The Republican party is not alone in failing to deliver on its own principles. For those on the left, government is seen as a means to social justice. I don’t doubt that many supporters of the Democratic Party sincerely desire to help the less-privileged, oppressed and down-trodden. But the policies that actually get enacted are ultimately harming those they intend to help. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty close to fifty years ago, yet the welfare state has only perpetuated the problems of the poor. Social justice is not being accomplished by entitlement programs. Consequently, economic ruin has become the greater threat for all. Here is where we have to be willing to see the inherent corruption of all human institutions.

When we condition people to rely on someone or something else to constantly meet their needs it sets them up for failure. It gives them a fish for a day and never any more than that. It creates co-dependency between the people and the agencies that serve them. When advising people on career changes, I have heard stories about social service agencies that foster such a culture of dependency. An agency’s funding is based upon how large a population it serves, so anyone employed there who truly tries to get people to be more self-sufficient becomes frustrated by an  agenda to keep them in the system.

One more life example. When I was growing up there was a woman in our church who, prior to her conversion, had two children out-of-wedlock. She seemed to have reformed her ways but after a few years she became pregnant again, still unmarried. It came to light that this pregnancy was no accident but a strategic move on her part. By having another child she got a bigger welfare check and increased her expense-to-income ratio. The system taught her that bringing on more dependents increases profitability. The sad part is that many children grow up without fathers because of such incentives.

Competing for the Christian “endorsement” in public politics is wrong. No party deserves it because human institutions are inherently corrupt, whether they are greedy corporations or greedy government institutions. Both are apt to hoard power and money  and exploit the masses. There can never be a wholly Christ-like party because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Religious hypocrisy may be the outcome for anyone who brings Christianity into the political arena. It seems unavoidable. My vote is not for the most seemingly Christian candidate. Appearances certainly deceive and every role model will disappoint.  Neither do I make religious hypocrisy my standard for voting ‘no.”

We can’t create a Christian society through the ballot box. When Christians use the name of Christ to support their politics, or to condemn the politics of others, they profane His name. Amazingly Christians end up dividing along the very same party lines as the rest of the world, and look no different. We should conduct our debates without dragging His name through the mud. We need to look honestly at each candidate’s merits and shortcomings, debate the issues fairly and support the leaders whose policies benefit the common good—even in spite of their apparent religious hypocrisy. We can do this from a Christian perspective, as salt and light, without trying to put Jesus on our political platform, or putting other Christians on public trial–to our own shame.

Photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benmcleod/17518034/

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Old Man at the Cross

In Christ, Christianity, evangelical, Theology on April 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Last weekend I saw a few channels airing The Passion which Mel Gibson produced several years ago. Most Christians have seen it, but if you have not, The Passion is a very graphic portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. It can be very hard to watch if you are sensitive to blood and trauma on the screen. When the movie first came out our next-door neighbor commented that Christians should see the movie in response to what Christ did for us. I tend to agree that we need to have an appreciation of the horrible punishment Jesus endured, but for many, including my neighbor, I sense more of an obligation to view this movie–similar to required reading for a class.

I think this element of obligation might actually show a lack of appreciation for the cross and what it means. How can I say this? As with many things we hold and believe, there are different ways to understand the cross. There is a natural view and a spiritual view. I once heard a pastor rightly comment that if we had been able to witness the actual crucifixion of Christ, it would have had an enormous impact on us, yet it would ultimately not cause any effective change in us. As wrenching as it was, the impact of the crucifixion must go beyond our natural ability to respond.

I get the sense that many want to look at the cross for their motivation; retelling it, reliving it as a way to renew commitment, ignite devotion and respond as God would have us. This thinking holds that the more we see the brutal torture borne by our innocent Savior, the more we, who were truly guilty, will be inspired to go out there and live like never before.

How we perceive the cross will greatly determine the power it has in our lives. Our tendency to find motivation from what Jesus did may actually work against the intent of the cross because our natural man wants to “live up” to the sacrifice. Our human reaction is to feel compelled to respond with remorse, passion and fervor. But fervor, like all things, fades. This may be why we need a more graphic portrayal of the crucifixion. Perhaps we have lost sensitivity to the event, having become so familiar with it. Yet, I don’t know that my middle-aged heart will ever relive the impact the cross had on me when I first digested the great injustice that brought mercy to me. What will happen, then, after the graphic effects of The Passion also begin to lose their impact? Having watched the movie, one key thought occurred to me. The scriptures do not go into very explicit detail about the crucifixion. This is not to minimize the immense suffering Jesus endured, but it may minimize the relative effectiveness of focusing on just the natural impact of the crucifixion.

What effect does the cross produce in us? Is there a great sense of inadequacy? Good. Is there a desire to learn from the heart of Christ? I think that is good too. But is there also a desire to “rise to the challenge”? Is there a sense that we can use the crucifixion to produce more sorrow for sin, and a greater resolve to do better? Could there even be, heaven forbid, an attempt to defray the cost to Jesus by virtue of living better? This is not good, I believe, because it fuels the fire of self reliance and ultimately is rooted in self justification. Our old man may feel obliged to respond with all his muster. It is the tendency of our flesh to try to live up to and do justice to Christ’s sacrifice.

Part of us thinks we need to justify Christ’s offering. We need to change and become worthy of such a sacrifice. We should not be surprised that such a lofty aspiration comes from the most corrupt nature. This very nature undermines grace and the utterly helpless state we occupy without Christ. What’s more, it neglects the true power of the cross. Since Christ died for us when we were powerless we cannot attempt to reform the “undeserving nature” after the fact. We need to let that nature be crucified with Christ and stake no claim to it. There is no use for a reformed old man. Christ is victorious when our life ends on the cross with him.

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; so that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:3 -4)

Paul also said he was (past tense) crucified with Christ so that the true life and nature of Christ might live in him. This was not his aspiration, it was a done deal. He reckoned himself dead, having been baptized, not just into some pool of H2O, but baptized into the very death of Christ. Christ did not just do away with our sins, he did away with ourselves, the old man, with all his reforms, improvements, remorse and fortitude, was wiped out. Only by complete removal of the corrupted nature can the way be cleared for Christ to rise up in us.

The cross should not produce a sense of guilt–since by it, all guilt is crucified–in order that we can walk in newness which is the nature of Christ. As much as Christ suffered for sins, it was Adam (the old man) who died there. That was me and my old ways up there–both the good and the bad–all together crucified. My agenda is not to work and improve myself, but to give up my agenda, to let it be crucified for the sake of taking on the life of Christ. Here we take on a life which is not our own. No longer directing our own steps. Nothing needs to be salvaged or rescued from the old man. In the crucifixion we need to realize our own death.

Or are you ignorant that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we may walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)

Looking for the Passover Bunny

In Christ, Christianity, church, evangelical on April 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

As Christians all over the U.S. prepare to attend a special service on what is known as Easter Sunday, church leaders are looking for ways to get the crowds into their particular church. One church in my area, World Harvest, is holding a grand sweepstakes to get people to attend. Pastor Rod Parsley has decided that his church will give away a used car among other fabulous merchandise, including cool gadgets like an iPad. There is a long list of prizes on their website, and a host of prizes for the kiddies too. All you have to do to enter is register prior to the service, but you must be in attendance when they announce the winners at the program’s close. Subtle, isn’t it? (I wonder if Bob Barker will be on hand?) In addition to the merchandise, they’re giving away a real, live bunny and 50,000 eggs. I’m not kidding.

This kind of farce does not characterize all churches, yet I still can’t help get the feeling that most churches are very opportunistic around this time of year. They may put it under the guise of reaching the lost, but it seems they don’t mind strengthening their numbers and their reputation in the process, so they all look for ways to promote their Easter service. As nauseating as Rod Parsley’s raffle is, it may only differ in scale from what other churches will do. I know one that’s giving away mugs to anyone who will commit to attend their Easter service.

It seems there’s a crowd out there who feels compelled to make an annual pilgrimage to their local church of choice, just to make sure the bases are covered when it comes to the one important service (two if you count Christmas). After all the hoopla, the crowd that calls itself “Christian” on a survey will be pretty much finished with church for the next several months. The churches who courted this demographic will return to the normal level of attendance and go back to business as usual. All their prizes and promotions will be for naught.

But let’s take inventory. What comes to mind for most people when they think of Easter? Bunnies, bonnets, eggs, Hot Cross Buns? How about a chocolate cross? Is that too much for a disciple to bear? Add to this whole circus the fact that Christ was not raised on the day called Easter and things really come apart. Easter isn’t Christian. It is a Roman corruption displacing the Passover—which, incidentally, occurs some other week this time of year (on the Hebrew calendar). We don’t even commemorate the right day. No bunnies were around when Jesus was executed on a cross. And his cross wasn’t made of solid milk chocolate. It was real wood, covered with real blood. Let’s put that on a billboard and see how many will come. But if you want a good turnout, better give away some cars, eggs, maybe even some cash!

Sideshows aside, I think Churches are actually responsible for creating this pilgrimage-mentality. They have become complicit in the belief that, if you only connect with the cross of Christ once a year, it better be on Easter. They hope to hook some people into regular attendance, which might happen occasionally; and maybe some souls will even be saved. By-and-large, however, when all the wooing is over, there isn’t much return on the investment. Once-a year-pew sitters are hard to change, especially when the message is focused on the freebies, both physical and spiritual. The message of the cross becomes one of “seeker-friendly” convenience during most Easter services. It doesn’t have to be a prize-festooned extravaganza to cheapen the message of the cross. Just let the visitors know nothing is expected, that grace gets them off the hook, and hopefully they will come around next time. It makes you feel good to know that marginal Christians choose your church for their rare appearances.

No matter what the time of year, churches continue to make attendance a primary focus at the expense of Christ. The list of gimmicks never ends, ranging from Hot-Rod Sundays to personal finance workshops and even free carnival rides in the church parking lot. What message is the world hearing? Churches will do almost anything to get people to attend. It’s become a popularity contest. Yet Jesus wasn’t concerned about his popularity. He knowingly said and did things that would turn the crowds away. On one occasion Jesus fed a multitude, but when the people realized he wasn’t just a meal ticket (or a raffle ticket), they lost interest and left. They just walked away, and Jesus let them.  He didn’t even do follow-up visits on their front porches Tuesday evening. Knowing this, why do churches go to such extremes to please the masses and get warm bodies in the pews? Jesus was more likely to turn people away because what they sought was not in line with the kingdom.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. (John 6:26 NIV)

Then Jesus had some hard things to say…

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Jesus spoke the truth. He let the crowd know their reason for coming had no value. Not very seeker friendly when you think about it. Many of today’s churches are striving to do just the opposite by appealing to the carnal desires as a bait-and-switch. The only switch will be when the crowd gets their fill and walks away.

The Passover Bunny doesn’t exist. You cannot take a sacrificial lamb, pour out its blood and then decorate it with chocolate eggs and Easter Lillies. If the first connection to the crowd is aimed at their belly or their greed, how do you proceed to spiritual things without losing them? If the message the world is hearing is that Christianity is so boring and unfulfilling that you have to dress it up with gameshow prizes, how do you reverse that mindset?

You don’t.

Hell Bent, Part 2

In Christianity, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:23 pm

In his most famous sermon, Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who shares credit for the Great Awakening, had this to say of God’s nature:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.

And this he said not to heathen but to his own congregation!

So often we hear the call to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And this should well be applied to an inquiry of hell. Jesus’ description of hell is comparatively subdued in light of such traumatizing fabrications. Christ said there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” is used several times in the Old Testament and simply communicates the idea of contempt or disdain. Let the Bible explain:

All your enemies have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up. (Lam 2:16)

His anger has torn and hated me; He gnashes on me with His teeth; my enemy sharpens his eyes at me. (Job 16:9)

How is it that we have always been led to believe that such gnashing of teeth is the result of unspeakable torture, when scriptural precedent shows it is a sign of mere contempt? And what about weeping, or wailing as some translations say? Does this fit a tortured existence? Would your response to excruciating pain be to begin weeping? If I slam a hammer on my finger, weeping is not my response. I am more apt to scream at the shock of such consuming pain, yet this is nothing compared to the horrors of the popular view of hell, where we should expect nothing short of mind-piercing screams and blood-curdling shrieks! Weeping is a response to grief and great loss, not unfathomable torture.

I grew up thinking hell was an infernal region below ground. I was afraid if one dug a hole too deep he might be captured by Satan himself. Of course, I  failed to realize that hell was not Satan’s headquarters where he amused himself by torturing people. It was the pagans who created such false ideas that we associate with hell. The word hell, itself, is a mistranslation and a misnomer. While the original word “hell” means to conceal, cover over, the Greek word at its source has no such meaning. So many popular translations also confuse hell with hades—or the grave. Jesus descended into lower regions but never once did he set foot in hell. If your translation disagrees, it needs reformed.

The word in the Bible that is most often translated “hell” is Gehenna. But contrary to the meaning of the word hell, Gehenna was not a concealed, covered-over place. It was a wide-open, burning, garbage dump, spread out for all to see. This was a picture reserved for the Jews. The word Gehenna is never used with non-Jewish audiences. Paul never mentions it once, nor does the “gospel for gentiles” (John).

And what of the fire? Fire creates unbearable pain, of course. But is the fire of judgment literal, or could it be figurative? Surely Jesus was painting a picture of sheer, unspeakable agony. If you grew up believing in the age-old view of hell, it has to be literal. And surely the branches in Christ which bear no fruit will be burned with literal fire (even though they are not literal branches). By the same token, when Jesus says his Father prunes the fruitful branches, do we take this literally, as if pruning shears are used to cut off the limbs of Christians? Consider other occurrences of “fire” in the New Testament. Jesus said everyone would be salted with fire (not just the lost) and that the Holy Spirit would baptize with fire. Is the Holy Spirit to engulf us with burning flames? Is this literal or figurative?

I hope it is clear to all that the fire spoken of in Isaiah 42 is a figure of judgment and not literal fire, as it speaks of God’s chosen people being subject to flaming wrath, surrounded by fire and even burned. Not a word of it is literal.

Who gave up Jacob to those who took away his goods, and Israel to his attackers? Did not the Lord? he against whom they did wrong, and in whose ways they would not go, turning away from his teaching. For this reason he let loose on him the heat of his wrath, and his strength was like a flame; and it put fire round about him, but he did not see it; he was burned, but did not take it to heart. (Isa 42:24-25)

If someone mistreats us, are we to heap burning coals of fire upon him? Yes we are, but this is figurative speech as it relates to overcoming evil with good. This fire produces a good result. Yet I am sure many Christians throughout history saw this verse as a license to make hell hotter for their adversaries. Even so, the discomfort in the conscience caused by receiving good for evil can hardly compare to the pain of burning your enemy’s flesh. Perhaps this is the fire into which God’s enemies will be cast. God, himself is a consuming fire. He makes his ministers a flame of fire. Are they literal fires? Are his ministers in flaming agony? How should we go about deciding when fire is to be taken literally and when it is a figure of speech? Can death be a thing thrown into a burning lake?

Does scripture alone form our concept of God’s judgment, or do our ancestral preconceptions skew our interpretation of scripture? I would suggest the scriptures are not nearly as articulate, detailed or cruel as the pervading picture of hell we have, even today. I am also suggesting that hell has been embellished when it was most effective in scaring and controlling the masses. Scripture clearly shows God’s wrath. But God is not defined as wrath. God is (is equated to) love. Since love defines God, love must be the basis for all he does. Love includes judgment and wrath, but wrath does not define God.

Over the centuries the people whose foremost image of God was that of  a wrathful and vengeful tyrant, were the quickest to turn up the heat on those outside their fold. Their hardened hearts devised the most graphic embellishments of  the coming judgment, amplifying the pain and torment exponentially. If our judgments toward others will be used as a standard for us, we should be very careful. If we continue to see God’s highest passion as being a torturer of souls (especially those we dislike), our hearts will be likewise affected and our actions will follow suit. Fixating on wrath will condemn the believer and those in his world to an unmerciful, legalistic and vengeful kind of existence. Just check the past.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

Hell Bent

In Christianity, church, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As with many things in Christendom, the understanding of hell is layered with corruptions stemming from church politics, vain imaginations and even paganism. The view of eternal punishment has been embellished over the ages, and oftentimes has seemed much more hellish than the picture scripture seems to paint.

When I grew up, hell-fire and brimstone sermons were more common. If I had been born a few years earlier, I’m sure they would have been a steady diet. The church movement of my formative years was once extremely legalistic. As time progressed, so did the emphasis on God’s grace. In many veins of Christianity, legalism has seemed to wane (not that it’s gone by any means) since the 1960s, and so has the prevalence of fear and judgment as a motivation for moral conduct. Is it possible that one’s particular bent on hell, or the amount of emphasis hell receives, is connected to the degree of legalism and judgmentalism one demonstrates?

The fire insurance view of the gospel has been a sad reflection on Christian theology, showing an impoverished understanding of the true riches found in Christ. Perhaps the reason a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, is getting so much attention is because it has become less palatable to focus on eternal torment. Fiery-judgment sermons are surely less prevalent now than in the past. I would argue that the times when church history was most characterized by condemnation and persecution of both believers and non-believers, it was due to significantly greater emphasis on what heretics and sinners deserved in the eyes of an angry God. In medieval times the church raised funds through fear by convincing Christians that they would go to hell for not tithing. So-called “heretics” were burned alive at the stake and unbelievers were tortured in a variety of inventive and sadistic ways, especially during the inquisition.

One such heretic, named Michael Servetus, was helped to his execution by the famous theologian, John Calvin. The quote below shows the degree to which Christian leaders of the time acted as divine judge and jury.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus [to put it lightly]. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England ‘s Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII.
Source: www.calvin.edu/meeter/resources/servetus.htm

As I expressed in my previous series of posts, the parts of the Bible that lack detailed explanations are often the points where humans endeavor to explain the most. Hell is no different. Where Jesus tells of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, humans chime in with the most grotesque depictions of sadistic torture they can fathom. Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of [the] punishment of the damned is granted them.”  The Assemblies of God hold in their doctrinal statement that, “It is impossible to describe the … terror and torment of hell.” Why so? Did Jesus lack the words to do it justice?

A Catholic priest named John Furniss (sounds like furnace?) wrote a children’s book in the 19th century called The Sight of Hell. Below are some quotes.

Night came upon them from the lowest and deepest hell. She saw that in the upper hell, the torments were very grevious. In the middle hell they were still more terrible. In the lowest hell the torments were above all understanding.

There is in hell a sound like that of many waters…It is the sound of oceans of tears running from the countless millions of eyes. They cry night and day.

…if one single body was taken out of hell and laid on the earth, in that same moment every living creature on the earth would sicken and die.

The [devil’s] first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job…How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?

The sinner lies chained down on a bed of red-hot blazing fire!

How will you feel in hell, when millions of [biting worms] make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity.

With so many things being reformed in the history of Christendom there has never been a reformation of this distorted perception of God’s punishment of the lost. The same darkened mindset that developed such extreme and detailed descriptions of their torments has guided and influenced our Bible translations, scripture interpretations and sermons down to this very day. What mind is it that we bring to scriptures to inquire of God’s final judgment? We come with the foregone conclusion that no imagination of man can grasp what a hideous torture awaits the lost.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

Ties that Bind (3)

In Christ, Christianity, church, denomination, evangelical, sectarian, unity on March 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Christ prayed that his believers would all be one. It is apparent today, with numerous divisions and such rigid walls about us, that we are opposed to this purpose of Christ. If we are not minding what Christ desires, it suggests that our flesh is in the way, because the flesh is enmity with God and cannot please him. Most of Christendom has forsaken unity in Christ. Instead, Christians emphasize their beliefs in the areas where they differ. May I reiterate that? Christians focus and build their identity on their points of disagreement! I am of Apollos… I am of Cephas… I am pre-millennial… I am Trinitarian… I am A Capella… I speak in tongues…And yet another says I am of Christ–as if to say all the others are not.

Wrong as they are, factions exist for a reason; they have a purpose in the body. Paul said that heresies must come in order to reveal those among us who are acceptable, or approved (1 Cor. 1:19). He doesn’t expand on this statement, but it seems clear that developing or adhering to factions puts us at odds with Christ’s purpose to have and behold one body that cannot be individuated. Individuating is another way for us to understand heresy, because our individual nature is the fuel. The lexicons say that engaging in heresy is choosing or taking for oneself. It is to choose or prefer some particular thing above others.

When we address the issue of factions, it is vitally important that we learn to discern between conformity and true unity. Conformity is based on numerous points of alignment. There is a mandate to agree in order to be included. Surely we can get along with those who share all of our vital views and practices. In this sense our churches are no more based on love than a political party. Agree to all the right issues and you’ve got support! When all doctrines are in sync in your group, fellowship seems more based on “right thinking” and conformity. How easy it is to love those with whom you have no conflict. Without differences to challenge our unity, how do we know we have the kind of agape love described in 1 Corinthians 13, remembering how this love surpasses knowledge? Doctrines are sourced in knowledge. Knowledge is needed, but without love it becomes divisive and legalistic.

So how do we define the body of Christ? Are we to rely on our complex doctrines, separate denominations and movements, perceiving the security of our faith to be found in a statement of beliefs, a list of practices, or our forensic approach to scripture? Or, should we take up the ecumenical approach? I doubt that the multiplication and combination of every religious tradition will move us any closer to the simplicity of Christ.

Jesus said to Martha that she was distracted by many things. Mary, on the other hand chose the one thing. It is the one thing that should be the focus of all believers. Otherwise they will continue to divide and create doctrines of their individual choice. Churches do not seem to mind the one thing. They are concerned and troubled about numerous and diverse things.

So then, if there is any comfort in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, fulfill my joy, that you think the same, having the same love, one in soul, minding the one thing, doing nothing according to party spirit or self-glory, but in humility, esteeming one another as surpassing yourselves; (Phi 2:1-3, LITV)

I like how this version puts it; minding the “one thing.” That is a very literal translation. There is simplicity in Christ. There is a singular focus. There is “one thing” in the Christian walk.  “There is one body and one Spirit…  one Lord, one faith… one God and Father of all…”

What does scripture have to say about the one thing? In regard to doctrines there is one faith. In regard to divisions there is one body. In regard to submission there is one Lord. In regard to unity there is one Spirit. In regard to our provision there is one God and Father of all. “For if you should have myriads of teachers in Christ, yet not many fathers; for I fathered you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1Cor. 4:15 ). This is the one thing.

Ties that Bind (2)

In Christianity, church, denomination, evangelical, sectarian, unity on March 25, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Part 2

Every wind of doctrine tosses about and disorients those inside and outside the church. The world doesn’t see a unified church under the simple headship of Christ. One denomination forms in order to fellowship exclusively with those who believe in worshiping on Saturday. Another movement holds that Christians are legitimate only if they speak in tongues. Still another group says you must be baptized three times; once each, for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A different movement holds that imitating New Testament patterns of practice are essential to maintain acceptance with God.

Many expectations are placed on believers, beyond the simplicity of Christ and the essence of the gospel. You must keep the Sabbath. You must seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Churches even go so far as to name themselves according to their divisive doctrines. Not to pick on any in particular, but consider the name, Free-Will Baptist Church. It is named after not one, but two doctrines. Or consider the Church of God, Anderson and the Church of God, Cleveland. These are not names of two local churches but actual denominations where there was once one.

Down through the years Christians have been exiled, persecuted and imprisoned, or worse, by other Christians for holding different views on various issues. John Calvin wished death upon one who held a different position than he. Anabaptists were murdered in droves by so-called Christians for their practices. We don’t kill other believers in this age. But we belittle them, condemn them to judgment or at the very least write them off and cast them aside. We are convinced that our opinions are correct because of our sound reasoning and better proof texts. We always see scripture as taking our side. Surely, we think, God holds our view.

We seek to fully explain, diagram and dissertate on any mystery left unresolved by scripture. Well-intentioned scholars and centuries of debate have not brought the church closer to true unity. Christianity only continues to divide. Even when many churches do agree on what has been deemed “orthodox,” as with the Nicene Creed, they still draw lines of separation to keep their organizations apart.

Wherever the Bible is unclear, it tends to invite iron-clad opinions. Where the Bible offers vagueness and lacks certainty, the human mind designs clarity through systematic theologies, constructs and belief statements that leave no room for variance. Such a mindset does not create unity but disunity (Rom. 15). Christians bind on others with 100% certainty the doctrines which often seem to have the least clarity. In the process they diminish the one thing which should bind us together. There are people dividing themselves, for example, into camps of belief (pre-trib, post-trib, etc.) based on the most difficult and veiled book in the Bible—Revelation. Why are camps formed around such uncertainty?

Part 3 coming soon…

Ties that Bind

In Christianity, church, evangelical on March 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Part 1

How is it that Christians have more requirements for inclusion in the brotherhood of faith than God does? Why does religion incite people to force conformity upon others? You must agree to this doctrine. You must accept this view. You must practice in such a way. Are we to give our allegiance to a statement of beliefs? To a creed? To a doctrine? If we examine Acts and the epistles, do we find the apostles making the requirements that churches do today?

Let each be convinced in his own mind. Romans 14 makes it very clear that we are not to pursue conformity or demand that others believe what we insist is right. Unity is based on one thing that ties us together despite numerous differences of personal opinion. Without our differences, our love for other Christians is untested, unproven. Just as Paul said, factions must come to reveal those who are approved (1 Cor. 19). Perhaps we can only find approval of ourselves when we can approve those in Christ with whom we don’t  agree. For, truly, only Christ is actually approved by God, but we are accepted in the Beloved. We are not approved by doctrines or knowledge but by faith, authored and perfected in Christ. Factions are based solely on man’s approval and the ability to make doctrines stand. But God approves those who rely on him for their standing. Who are you that judges another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. But he will stand, for God is able to make him stand (Rom 14:4 ). We must ask ourselves, “Are my beliefs, practices and church association the source of my security and confidence, or is it simply Christ and nothing more?”

We do harm to Christ’s church when we emphasize numerous issues, practices, beliefs and doctrines as a test of inclusion. What’s worse is that the emphasis on doctrines only cultivates division from every group that believes otherwise or chooses not to make that thing their emphasis. We are prone to seek after people and groups with whom we can agree. We spend very little time engaged with those outside our camp, except to debate and argue our differences. With so many factious doctrinal differences, these become our focus while unity in Christ is lost.

From the Greek, hairesis, we get “heresy,” which is often translated “sect” or “faction.” A heresy is simply a choice, a decision, in the sense that one parts company with someone or something else. We often confuse apostasy with heresy but they are not the same thing. Apostasy has to do with false teaching. Heresy is simply dividing up Christians based on their views. In this sense, Christendom is full of heresies. To be a heretic is simply to choose sides. Any time we choose to identify with some particular feature or belief that creates a partition within the one faith, it is a heresy. If we choose sides in Christ, we are cutting up the body. If someone says I am a Pentecostal, this is a heresy because he must delineate between himself and those Christians who are not Pentecostal. In the same way, all denominations are self-prescribed heresies, whether Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Nazarenes and so on.

Denominations are not alone in this. We can gather under any concept we value. No matter how proper or Biblical our view, it is wrong to apply a label that designates ourselves or others as having some different quality or belief. Even if we take the concept of grace, for example, it is wrong to set some aspect of Christ or his gospel aside. If I take up the name “Grace Christian” it is factious. I am setting myself apart from all other Christians, as if they are non-Grace Christians, or as if Christ’s gospel can have a grace focus and a non-grace focus. In doing so I am setting myself apart and making a different version of the one faith. But there are not 31 flavors of Christ or his gospel. To align ourselves with some aspect of truth alienates others whom God has placed in the one body.

More to come in Part 2…

Lead Me, Feed Me

In Christianity, church, evangelical on February 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I recently read an all-too-honest critique on another blogger’s site about the drawbacks of the contemporary worship experience. The chief complaint in his article was that worship leaders were often very good at achieving a personal connection with the worship, themselves, while those in the congregation are expected to reach the same level of engagement, albeit as spectators. Members are expected to accept the “call to worship” and be “ushered in to the presence of God.” As one who has led worship, I know how much easier it is to engage when I am the one in the driver’s seat and not a spectator. I’ve heard other worship leaders say the same. Yet even knowing this, they still want and expect to see an impact on the faces and gestures of those they are leading in order to validate their efforts.

Now I understand that many in a congregation are more than spectators. There are at least a few folks in most gatherings who really do participate on a spiritual level. Then there are other worshippers who live by the “act it until you feel it” philosophy. They sincerely want to become engaged in their hearts, so they do it on the outside until the inside catches up. I wonder how that’s working out? Knowing ourselves, and human nature, we also have to admit there are some folks who might only appear to be in the worship “zone” for the sake of appearances. I suspect some of them are right up on stage, trying to “help” the members enter into worship by being a good example.

Why do churches focus on appearances when Jesus said to forget the appearance and focus on the heart? The more charismatic the congregation, the more pressure one might feel to look lively. But the need for enthusiasm isn’t an issue only with charismatic churches. I recall once hearing a preacher in the Church of Christ say, “If this won’t catch you on fire, your wood is wet!” And so we all think, “Yes, if I really love God why am I not feeling this worshipful attitude?” There can be a lot of reasons for this but rarely does anyone ever suspect something is wrong with the top-down approach to our services or the methodical view of the Christian life.

How many times have you heard someone who leads a Bible class say that at least part of their motivation to teach is that it forces them to be engaged in the word? Or we often hear, “I got more from teaching this class than I ever would have as a student.” We know the ones who lead are the true beneficiaries because they have to focus and put their energies on spiritual things (unless they are entirely insincere). As a worship leader, there have been many times when I was so spiritually primed for leading a service that I thought the spark that ignited me would catch the entire congregation on fire. I was usually disappointed at the lack of energy and engagement of most of the members. Why were they not able to feed off my fullness? Nearly every worship team complains that those in the congregation just won’t get excited about the worship. Why don’t they have more fun at our party?

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep. (Lk 7:32, ESV)

My experience as a worship leader is just a springboard for this discussion. Looking at any aspect of the conventional church, we see the same malady. Consider the pastor, who studies, prepares and gets to know his subject matter and is truly, spiritually excited about it. Sure there is some fakery out there, but most pastors I have known really are focused on their relationship with God. Having taught many Bible classes, I know what it’s like to have a spiritual epiphany in my study and preparation. I could only hope to somehow communicate the deep revelation that touched me. This comes from a seeking heart and a desire to learn. How disappointing it is when the delivery of this revelation or the response it receives from the members in the class don’t live up to my own personal experience.

I see this frustration in pastors who also try to encourage change and growth. Just this week I heard a pastor say that so many at the church he leads were “in a funk.” Whether we are speaking in the context of the worship program, a Bible study or a sermon, the common criticism we’ve used when people don’t react to the amazing preparation of the leaders is that they don’t prepare themselves. They don’t feed themselves or worship through the week. That’s why they show up looking like limp noodles and responding to our fiery enthusiasm like wet rags.

But think again. Why should church members (wrongly termed “laity”) come prepared? Prepared for what? Does a person need to prepare to be lectured? Do you have to get psyched up to be serenaded with songs? Should we have to study the text for hours, knowing the teacher takes charge of the whole class and puts forth all his own thoughts? If you plan to attend a secular concert, do you need to spend a week preparing yourself to get in the right frame of mind? No! Expecting people to prepare to be spectators in a church service is like expecting patrons to bring their own food to a full-service restaurant. Why should you prepare food when you’re simply going to take a seat and get fed what someone else has cooked up?

Paul said that when Christians gather together each has a song, a teaching, an interpretation and so on. Everyone participates because everyone is in fellowship with Christ in their daily lives. Each is a priest. Each feeds independently and still has some to share with others. Edification is a mutual participation, not the territory of a few ordained and qualified personnel. This is not a restaurant experience—it’s a potluck!

In all the decades of attending worship services in many churches and different movements, I have never once encountered this approach. Not even once. Yet this should be the normal “model” for our gatherings. Sure, there have been times when people other than the pastor could speak out, but it was short, rare, and always subject to his permission. Even when churches have small groups they are often assigned material based on the pastor’s teaching or otherwise told what to study. This squelches the members of Christ’s body and undermines personal initiative in individuals’ daily walk.

Here is the crux of the matter. Church leaders want engagement but don’t allow members to fully engage on their own. Pastors expect preparation but take it upon themselves to prepare every morsel. Like the teacher who is forced to study the word because his role demands it, many pastors reap the benefit of the richness of a Christ-centered life.  Many, I believe, truly focus on their relationship with God in their spiritual lives, yet they continue to see themselves as spiritual conduits for “their” flock, rather than convey that we are ALL meant to seek the same and share in this process of edification. I have seen this tendency to be a conduit in myself, and I have never even been a pastor. We conduits and wannabes should be working ourselves out of a job.

The “five-fold ministry” was not supposed to create a permanent state of dependence but rather provide a means to an end, until the whole body is fully connected to the Head—the true Head which is Christ. The goal is that each member functions under Christ’s headship, not in a perpetual state of dependence on church leaders. Church leaders should adopt the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME

Religion Seeks a “Something” Part 2

In Christianity on February 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Objects of Our Activity

I really do like the analogy that’s been made about the emptiness in humans that only God can fill. There are so many things we can fill it with: music, news, TV, work, friends, pleasure… I know a person who never seems to get enough time at work. He works in the day, the evening, on the weekends… In the process he lost his family life. For him, the missing thing, the broken thing is made to feel more complete by work; only work. These things are like salve. They help something feel better for a little while, but never truly address the problem. We all have our salve. Our salve comes in many forms, all designed to soothe emptiness. What’s worse is when we fill this divine emptiness with religion. I say that because religion really makes us think we are doing something to properly fill the void. At least with our vices, we usually know they aren’t the answer. Religion is the most subtle thing in our garden.

The few fasts I have experienced have usually been a form of self-denial. Sometimes I taste something better of the peace that comes from the Spirit. When I left the radio off this time, I didn’t find myself wanting to fill the void, as a matter of fact, I realized I forgot to turn it on because Someone was already filling me. That was different. Sometimes we fast to get our focus right, but when the Bridegroom really is present why should we fast (Matt. 9:15)? I wasn’t missing anything because Someone is my Everything. I found a hidden pearl and I could really see how Christ is able to satisfy every piece of me; to fill all things. Nothing else was needed. I can at least imagine why one would let go of everything else without regret. In the words of a former religious fanatic, all else is counted as rubbish.

All of our things are but idolatrous detractions from the Father of spirits. The natural, human mind can’t comprehend that food draws us by a desire for True Bread, or that lust attempts to mask a desire for a spiritual connection with God. There is nothing we want that doesn’t serve as a substitute for the Father. His presence replaces our false contentment with true peace and life, removing all need and desire. This truly is the kind of treasure Jesus spoke of.  With a single heart, asking for the Father’s company, we will find Him, or rather, be found by Him. Our life in Christ is not about religious practice or discipline. It is sharing a spiritual fellowship with Christ. Our relationship with him is the essence of our Christian walk. Anything else is a form of idolatry,  These aren’t just words, or a doctrine we should agree with. He is the person we need to be in conversation with, on a deep spiritual level.

So many things stand in the way of a constant communion with Christ. Yet the human mind, with any amount of light, does realize that sinful things should be avoided as we seek to fill the spiritual void. We should seek good things rather than bad things, right? This is how the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil usurps the place of God, so that we can be like Him. If we are like Him we can go it alone. Unfortunately so many of us have answered the call of God by pursuing a “something”, rather than a “Someone.” Religion seeks a “something.” We may rightly seek self-control, but that is a “something.” Many seek the right doctrine; a “something.” Others seek spiritual gifts; “somethings.” In truth, we can only receive self-control as we experience fellowship with Christ in the Spirit. But even so, we should not be seeking it as an object to be possessed. It is only a byproduct of a real, live relationship with Christ. We should focus on Christ. A married man should not be seeking fidelity as a thing to posses and keep to his credit. He should grow in relationship with his wife. Out of love and partnership with her, he will also lose other desires and live as he should toward her.

Religion has mechanisms designed to program balance, discipline, morality, charity and all sorts of virtuous “somethings” into our lives. We can set up accountability groups and study groups, worship times and conferences, sacraments and services to make us “better Christians.” These are mechanisms aimed at acquiring virtuous objects—“somethings.” Some Christians chase after “spiritual nuggets” or new revelation. Others make speaking in tongues, evangelism, house churches, or some other thing into their object. It becomes their idol like the bronze serpent of old was to the Israelites. Even avoidance of religion is a false focus. A few years ago I encountered a group that made freedom from religion their object. They talked at great length of their liberty and of shedding the shackles of religious bondage. That was their “object.” Yes they mentioned Christ as the source, the reason, the Lord. But I think liberty was the object they relished most.

Our relationship with Christ is not bound up in Christian “activities.” I have spent much of my life pursuing the right church, the right pattern, the right doctrine. I have been involved in worship, Bible studies, charities, home groups, spiritual growth weekends and a steady stream of church attendance for many decades. I have spent far less time really focused on my relationship with Christ. How would that approach work in a marriage, or with children; with any other relationship? My marriage is not a regular meeting with other well-meaning husbands espousing the virtues of listening well and doing the dishes. Marriage is a love relationship with intimacy and dynamic vitality. Isn’t it clear that we can busy ourselves with so many activities of the church and, at the same time, neglect our true, First Love? The contemporary church seems to have a serious Martha complex; concerned with a great many things! We should not look at the church, its activities or a pastor as the source or broker of our spiritual life. We should not gauge our spiritual condition by how involved we are.  I have often viewed such objects as a primer for getting “spiritual.” I recently told a friend that it is hard for me to find a spiritual flow apart from such conventions. I am realizing, even more now, that religious activity is not the same as spiritual life. Our conventions amount to a substitute, a deviation from the fellowship of Christ.

In more recent years I have often focused on what I thought was the deeper essence of the gospel—that we are a finished and perfected work in Christ. I have worked hard to accept the truth that I died on the cross of Christ and therefore to reckon myself dead. But I have often done so only with my human thinking. I do this even though I realize that discovering such things is a work of the spirit. But like the Galatians I go about my natural ways even after having begun in the spirit. I forget that truth is not an object to be sought with my brain, but Truth is a “Someone” with whom I can relate. Only in real, living fellowship with the Truth can I manifest truth.

You will know the Truth (a Someone) and the Truth will make you free.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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