Gary Swisher

Posts Tagged ‘Church’

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.

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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.

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


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

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. Please click ARCHIVES to view any discussions.

Religion Seeks a “Something” Part 1

In Christianity, Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Rising Above the Noise

One thing I hate about blogs and social media is the seeming self-absorption of some who write. Do they really think we are hanging on their every thought and activity? I hope this entry won’t seem that way. It doesn’t really matter what I think or what my take on things is. I just have something to share that I hope others can relate to and benefit from. So please try to ignore the unusual amount of personal pronouns in this writing.

I seem to need the radio on when driving most of the time. My mind always wants something new to chew on or at least some music to fill the void. The past two days, however, I left the radio off. My only inclination to turn it back on was based on habit, not any real sense of missing the chatter. In the past I have set my mind to “fast” from media with mixed results. My last two commutes, without all the squawking, were not like that, however. More about that in Part 2.

The human race has become extremely media driven. I’m not talking about politics, although for some that is what media is all about. When I was young I couldn’t get enough music. Music really filled a void. I played it, wrote it, listened to my favorite artists in my room, listened in the car… But as much as I still enjoy music, I don’t have the dependency on it that I once did. It isn’t like food for me anymore. That may have a lot to do with the natural maturing process.

Today our youth are glued to iPods, iPads, iPhones… I wonder why they all start with “I”? (I did say there would be lots of personal pronouns.) If kids aren’t on the computer, talking on their phone, texting or listening to their MP3 player, what could they possibly be doing? Many adults are just as consumed by their media.

I think a lot of Christians are in the habit of thinking they should switch the channel of the TV or the radio (or website, etc.) to something more wholesome. Switch it from pop music to a Christian station for example, or change it from talk radio to Christian talk. This doesn’t always open up the airwaves to heaven, however. In large part they are only shifting the programming and commercials to a religious context. You still get the chatter and commercials, only with a “Christian” flavor.

In my attempts to find that “still, small voice” I have often just turned off the noise of the world, but as I said, with mixed results. I find it’s like yanking the cigarette from the mouth of the chain smoker. It doesn’t really change his mindset. He only becomes more fixated on the need to smoke. And since changing the channel to a Christian station isn’t really causing a transformation, I have realized there is another channel that can be switched that doesn’t involve the radio. There is a channel in my heart; but not so much my heart. Perhaps I should say it is a switch to “Someone.” More about that in Part 2.

Reformation: A Road Without End

In Christianity, church, evangelical, Theology on February 12, 2011 at 12:20 am

In an earlier post, Glossing Over Paganism, I wrote that the United States is a worldly nation, founded on a mixture of Christian precepts and pagan influence. This thought runs counter to the beliefs of most mainstream Christians, who often equate Christianity with American Patriotism. Their view, that our nation and the church are closely intertwined, has validity. But the common thread between them is very surprising and unsettling.

When Christianity first dawned on western civilization it was initially persecuted at the hands of an empire that enforced the worship of its emperor and the pagan gods. But key figures like Constantine eventually brought Christianity into the mainstream of society. The Christians who were formerly criminals in the eyes of Rome became its favored citizens. Pagan temples were converted into Christian cathedrals. Pagan holidays were “Christianized” to make it an easy transition for the people who had long enjoyed the rituals and revelry of pagan celebrations.

The church became a protected institution, but at great cost. it also became a state-controlled religion, syncretized with pagan beliefs and practices. By the time the Roman Catholic Church was firmly entrenched, corruptions to the true, pure church were profuse. The Catholic Church was formed out of syncretism; a mixing of pagan customs with Christian content. The idols of old became patron saints. The Festival of the Dead became All Souls Day. The Winter Solstice became Christmas (both involve a nativity of a divine figure). Many more things crept into institutional Christianity, none of which belonged to the true faith.

Because these things have been all around us since we were born, we take little notice of them. Our months and days are named for pagan gods, as are the planets of our solar system. Most everyone realizes this, but rarely gives much thought to how deep the roots of paganism run in our society. An enormous statue of Neptune (analogous with Poseidon) stands prominently on a walk at Virginia Beach. Does anyone raise an eyebrow in this “Christian Nation” when they encounter this pagan idol? Fewer still ever ponder or even realize that paganism is also infused into Christianity.

When celebrating Easter, we observe the Roman calendar, not the Hebrew calendar. The Hebrew calendar is the key to the true timing of the Passover season. How many Christians, who each year remember Christ’s sacrifice, realize they are commemorating a day on the Roman calendar which honored a pagan fertility goddess? If t is imperative to have an observance of Christ’s atonement, why do Christians hold to a date other than when Christ was actually crucified? How is it that sunrise services are actually old pagan traditions? And for that matter, why celebrate Christ’s birth each December 25th? Do Christians really know the roots of that date?

The corruption which manifested in the Catholic church grew until the time of the reformation. To most Protestants the reformation is past-tense. But in reality, we are on a centuries-old path which still stretches ages before us, on the journey out of darkness. In other words, every church in existence today still shares many corruptions derived from the mother church that sits in Rome.

Before we point all our fingers and toes at the oldest denominations it’s important to realize that there are un-sanctified elements in all churches which are far more subtle, even in movements that developed much later. The reformed churches are not at all free from pagan influence. Babylon has her daughters, and as long as denominations give rise to new movements they carry with them the forms of their mother. Even more recent church movements that aimed to remove doctrinal error have retained age-old practices which are not sourced in scripture. Yet all such corruptions do not take the form of overt pagan symbols, names and celebrations.  Even the seemingly benign and secular forms we use today are not derived from scripture. In his book, “Pagan Christianity”, Frank Viola identifies many basic conventions of the church which can be traced back to Greek and Roman practices.

The most simplistic and fundamental movements in Christendom today still maintain corrupted views of Biblical concepts in their practices. It’s fairly clear that nearly every denomination, old or new, utilizes the same elements and format in their “services”. The very concept of pastors, pulpit ministers or preachers, whichever terminology you choose (I will use the term pastor since it is the most popular), has more in common with Greco-Roman conventions than Biblical truth.

Viola sees the modern pastor role as having evolved from the Master of Ceremonies of ancient practice. This would, of course, apply as well to the priest role as seen in Catholic churches. No, we’re not talking Pat Sajak here, the Master of Ceremonies was no game show host! Just as the term implies, this man was the chief of rituals, the director of the service. The term obviously implies a performance-oriented, liturgical program set before an audience.

Nothing could be further from the Biblical concept of pastors than this Master of Ceremonies. So why does this role seem so similar to that of the Sunday morning pastor? No matter how informal a church might be, all things that take place on a Sunday morning have to be approved by the pastor. He sets the tone and oversees all the pieces and players of the Sunday service, from the sermon to the final announcements.

No, he may not control all these things directly, but in most cases he has the ultimate say on what goes. All those who are in charge of various aspects of the service answer to him. In some churches the pastor is very laid back and hands-off, yet if there is something he dislikes it would never last long because he holds ultimate sway. In other churches the pastors are much more obsessive about managing and dictating every detail of the service. In any case the pastor holds a place of great prominence, both visibly and behind the scenery while those in the pews are passive spectators.

Our churches are largely human institutions steeped in traditions that do not come from God, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They rely on human conventions. They revolve around buildings and budgets, committees and business meetings, salaries, programs, bulletins, systems, methods, checklists, media, operating expenses, hierarchies and oligarchies. They closely mirror the corporate structure, having an organization of members, a board of directors (elders) and a senior pastor (CEO). Some of the heavy-handed power plays I have seen in the most fundamental churches rival the drama you might expect to find on Wall Street.

Much like our governmental systems the church as we see it today has made only slight improvements over many long centuries. We may realize the reformation is not over, but every generation sees only so far down this very long road. The radical truth is that we should give up the remodeling project because the fundamental form of the church is un-biblical. Perhaps we should learn our lesson and realize that continuing down the road of reformation may lead us no closer to New Testament Christianity in the next hundred years. So rather than continue on this road and look for the next movement or big development to come along, we should take the nearest exit.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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Being Right Misses the Mark

In Chrisitan Right, Christianity on January 25, 2011 at 3:29 am

Last week Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama put his foot in his mouth by publically proclaiming that non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters. I understand that he later apologized. However, to me, this is an all too familiar habit many Christians have of getting the facts right and totally missing the spirit of the matter.

I would assume there are many Christians in America who would give a hearty “Amen!” to the governor’s statement, regardless of its appropriateness for a public address. Technically, he is correct that those who belong to Christ have become related as kin, and those outside of Christ do not share that same relation. That, in and of itself, is not likely to offend anyone who is not a Christian. I would assume Governor Bentley’s critics are not upset to find they have no spiritual relation to him. In fact, they are probably relieved.

Evangelicals often seem to take the stance of trying to get the world to fall in line. While much of this is done from a posture of love in reaching out to a lost world, I think the subconscious source of statements like these is a spirit of legalistic judgmentalism. As if to say, wouldn’t the world be a better place if they would just listen to truths we can share with them. But, so long as they don’t, well… too bad. They aren’t with us and we need to let ’em know! Tell it like it is. That way we’ve done our part.

Is it any wonder Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery? He seemed to have a real complex. Yes, it was true that God had chosen him for a special purpose. His brothers were indeed to bow to his rulership in the future. So why did he have to let everyone know about his special revelation? Joseph may even have avoided a lot of hardship on his way to the Egyptian throne if he would have just treasured these things in his heart and kept them to himself. Then, of course, we would not have been given a key foreshadowing of the betrayal of Christ and his accession to the Father. So God works all things according to his purpose.

When we speak and act according to our own designs we are simply manifesting our carnal nature, no matter how good our intentions or how true our doctrine. That is not the spirit of Christ which binds us to one another as his body. The wrong spirit negates the truth. Being right misses the mark.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved