Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.

What’s your CwtC?

No matter what people tell you, they don’t live their lives by every word of the Bible. This is a related thought to my last two posts, but it’s also based on this reality: we all have scripture verses that stand out to us more than others. To go even further: we all have verses of scripture that we use to then help us understand the rest of scripture.

Actually, this isn’t a problem. In fact, instead of worrying about this, we see that some of the earliest interpreters of our Bible used this method — an approach known as “a canon within the canon” (my abbreviated version: CwtC). In other words, one can accept all of scripture as inspired, but recognize that not all of scripture points us to the essence of the Gospel. There’s a reason, we quote John 3.16, and not Job 3.16. One talks about the coming of the Child; the other asks, Why was I born as a child? One summarizes the Good News; the other, you might say, describes our despair.

All scripture is inspired, but not all scripture is inspirational. Yet, as I described in last week’s posts, we must learn from all of scripture. But benefitting from all of it is not the same as equating all of it. Thus, the early Church fathers came up with the phrase: “a canon within the canon.” The core truth within the truth. The essential within the important.

And even if you’re reading this and you disagree with that concept; or, you agree, but aren’t sure what it means for you; I’m here to tell you — you have a canon within the canon. You have scriptures that guide your interpretation of the others.

Some examples:

  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged (Matthew 7.1, NIV). Words of Jesus. Part of the Sermon on the Mount. Vital words. But for those who make these words their CwtC, may find themselves unable, or unwilling, to speak difficult truth to others. And hear it themselves.
  • No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6.44). Again, words of Jesus we are wise to heed. But those who make these words their CwtC may find themselves then saying that God chooses those He would draw to himself. And we can do nothing of ourselves, In the process, they then might overlook Jesus’ words in the very next verse.
  • Or, how about the words of 1 Timothy 2.12? I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. Anybody want to claim that as your CwtC? Well, some certainly do, at least in the area of church leadership and teaching. And certainly, there’s a lot to say about this verse (including my belief that there’s a lot more that Paul is addressing here than meets the eye). But even if we take this verse at face value, it’s amazing how very few then do the same thing with the words three verses earlier.

My point? Choose your Canon within the Canon carefully. For all of us who take scripture seriously have verses that we take as foundational to our understanding of the rest of scripture. And, whether you realize it or not, you will build your beliefs on your CwtC. So, be aware of your CwtC. Make sure it focuses on the essentials. Then, with the essentials firmly in mind, read all of scripture, which is then able to teach, rebuke, correct, and train you in righteousness — thoroughly equipping you for every good work (2 Timothy 3.16-17).

Next time: My essentials, and my CwtC

 

Why the OT, part 2

In my last post, I discussed how important it is for the Church to read and learn from the Old Testament. This time, I want to say more about how we actually go about doing that.

First thing to keep in mind as you read the OT: it is first. As I described in the previous post, the OT is the first part of a multi-act drama. As with a two-act play, just as we can’t understand act 2 without act 1 — so it is with the Bible. At the same time, we no longer live in act 1.

If there is one key point to keep in mind as you read the OT — whether you are considering OT law or OT history; whether it’s wisdom literature or prophetic pronouncement — it is absolutely essential to remember that you are reading about a time you don’t inhabit.

The good news about this reality is that the work of God has now moved beyond a small patch of land in the Mediterranean world. It means that how they lived, and what they did, must be seen through the lens of what God has done in the New Testament, what God is doing now throughout the world, and what God intends to do for all eternity for all creation. In other words, Act 1 of God’s work must always be seen through the prism of Acts 2, 3, and 4. And living in Act 3 — as we are — we continue to learn from Act 1, while recognizing that much of it is no longer determinative of how we live.

Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind: when reading the OT, keep in mind that there is a difference between principle and practice. Or, to say it another way: the OT is full of important truths that are still true today, but they are truths that we live out differently today.

This idea is especially seen in a chapter like Leviticus 19, which is full of commands and prescriptions. Some are clear, and clearly apply still today: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not pervert justice (verses 11 & 15; all references are from NIV).

Others are less so: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field… (verse 9). Or: Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (verse 13). Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves (verse 28).

I don’t have a field. No one is lying on my porch overnight, waiting for me to pay them. And I’m too much of a wimp, and too cheap, to get a tattoo (to say nothing of what that tattoo will one day look like when my skin is saggy, and seventy years old). But if I take seriously the view that all scripture is useful for instruction (and I do), how do passages like these instruct us?

This is where the “principle vs. practice” idea comes in. Simply put, there is a principle behind each of these commands that is bigger than the practice. To put it another way: the heart of God can be seen in the command, even if the call to action is not the same.

In regard to the field: clearly God is concerned about the poor and the needy. And I should be too, whether it’s with the extra from my field, or my pantry, or my bank account. As for the hired hand: clearly God cares that those who are dependent on their day-to-day wages are treated honestly and paid justly. And anywhere I can help with that — whether it’s in how I tip the single mom who waits on me at Cracker Barrel, or the babysitter who watches my kids, or refugees or immigrants I encounter — I am called to do what is right, following the principles outlined in Leviticus 19.

But what about tattoos? Leviticus 19.28 seems pretty clear: no tattoos. But, once again, it’s helpful to ask: What’s the principle at work here? We see that when we take a wider view — where verse 26 talks about sorcery and divination, verse 27 addresses interesting haircuts, and the first part of verse 28 deals with the cutting of the body on behalf of the dead. When we look at the broader context, it seems clear that in these verses God is forbidding actions that align with some of the pagan practices of the people around them. So, in that day, tattoos must have been a mark of pagan involvement and commitment — perhaps something similar to how circumcision marked a boy as Jewish.

And so, the principle seems clear: don’t mark your body in a way that aligns you with pagan religious practices. These practices also affected haircuts and body markings. The principle behind these practices continues to hold true today, and it should cause all of us to consider what our body, and what we put on our body, demonstrate about our beliefs and our commitments. And so, today, many folks mark their skin to indicate what matters to them. Some even get tattoos to show others their allegiance to Jesus (or, perhaps, Mom, or their wife, or, somewhat embarrassingly, their ex-girlfriend).

And so, if I’m serious about following the principle of Leviticus 19.28, it might mean that in practice I do have a tattoo, but I refuse to engrave myself with a symbol that can be construed to be opposed to the work of God in my life. For that matter, I will also refrain from wearing a certain piece of clothing or an article of jewelry that would indicate my commitment to any principle other than the redeeming work of Jesus.

But how do we know? How do we determine what is good, and what is harmful? How do we determine what practices demonstrate the principle of God’s leadership in our lives? A great guide is actually found in the words in verse 2, which frame the commands in Leviticus 19: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.

This is the key to understanding Leviticus 19, all of the OT — and, for that matter, the NT and the whole of the Christian life. Be holy. That is: Be set apart. Live like God. Let your life and your actions and every part of you show others that you belong to Jesus. Let his Spirit be your guide — leading you, shaping you, loving others through you.

Or: Love God, love others. For, as Jesus himself taught us, this is the whole point of the law. This is the principle that every practice should be built on.