Why Churches Are Infatuated with Metrics

Another pastor asked me today why the church loves “measurability” so much. The question got me to thinking. My first thought turned to Jerry Muller’s book, The Tyranny of Metrics. (If you like other formats, you can listen to Russ Roberts’ interview with Muller on Econtalk.) I had other thoughts as well:

A few thoughts on why we love metrics:

  1. Metrics are used to measure or number things. That’s a biblical practice even before the Book of NUMBERS.
  2. Church is, among other things, a teleological phenomenon. We have a calling that we can engage with more or less poorly. When we wonder how well we’re doing, we measure.
  3. We are in an age that loves to talk about accountability. Some of this is driven by our strong sense of having a mission to accomplish. Too often unacknowledged is the fact that we’re cheap and want to know if we’re “getting our money’s worth.”
  4. We assume measurement leads to knowledge and our modern commitment to the centrality of epistemology entices us toward over reliance on metrics.
  5. Metrics have the veneer of objectivity, so in a disputatious age we can take them to be something we won’t fight over.
  6. Like the joke about the drunk guy looking for his wallet where the light is (rather than where he lost them), they seem ready to hand when more important things are not.
  7. We feel like numbers are something under our control, something we can engineer. If they are, then we can be held accountable for them and appropriately rewarded (if they’re good) or punished (if it’s someone else we’re holding accountable or need to feel some guilt).
  8. We lack a clear sense of what church is for, so the numbers (dollars and people present) are a ready substitute.

What are some other reasons you think of?

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Spiritual Warfare – Our Armament

If, as we saw last week, our “warfare” is for people, not against people, how can we understand the military images Paul uses to describe the Armor of God?

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Confirmation Class Syllabus

I’m developing content for our confirmation class. Here’s a draft of the syllabus. Any opinions?

Confirmation Class Syllabus

Purpose of the Class: Students will learn the basic content of the Christian faith and our Methodist tradition, learn how to practice common Christian disciplines, and have an opportunity to make an informed commitment to Christ and the Church. Students will learn how to discern and take the next step in their relationship with Jesus.

Structure of the Class: Our work will take place primarily in three places:

  • In dedicated meetings of the group where we will learn about the Bible, study the Catechism, develop basic skills in Christian disciplines, and talk about work done outside of class.
  • Sunday morning in worship. We will not only attend worship, pay attention to what’s happening, and be involved, but we will also reflect on what happens. We’ll look for the work of God in our lives in that context.
  • In conversations and study through the week. Students will read the Bible, and converse with parents and mentors.

Course Materials:

  • Bible: Each student should have a Bible of their own. As to which translation, the best thing is a translation they understand better than others.
  • Handouts: These will be provided in class. They include reading material and worksheets.
  • Hymnal: We will use hymnals onsite at church.

The Work:

  • Learn to read the Bible by reading the Gospel of John. There will be an observation & interaction form for each chapter. This is a great activity to do with parents or the family as a whole.
  • Interviews with Church Members. Each student will have the opportunity to interview a few members of the church about their experience with Christ, the church, and their practice of the faith. Interview forms will be included in course materials, but students will profit by letting their conversations go beyond the suggested questions.
  • Meetings with Mentors: Each student will have at least one mentor. One of the things the mentor will do is work with the students as they complete their worship observation reports.
  • The Catechism: The Catechism of the Global Methodist Church will provide the main content of what we cover in class meetings. It is an overview of the basic doctrine and beliefs of the church. The Catechism is based on scripture and approached through the lenses of the Nicene Creed, the Articles of Religion, and the Confession of Faith.

The Role of Parents:

  • Most of the confirmation students will not be able to make it to class or even to church if their parents do not bring them. Your commitment to facilitate their involvement is necessary.
  • You are the most important influence on the life of your student. The way you practice your faith and live out your commitment to Christ and the Church will likely be the most powerful force attracting them to Christ and the Church.
  • Encourage your student. Let them know that you’re praying for them to experience God through the process. Take time to pray with them as well. Let them become a part of your own prayer life so they can see what prayer looks like in the life of a believer.
  • Offer to help them with their work, especially the Bible reading. Help them, but don’t do their work for them. As you read scripture together, let your student see you engaging with the text and taking it seriously for your own life.
  • Look beyond your immediate family. If you have extended family in the church, draw them into your conversations. Let them bear part of the burden of witnessing what love for Jesus looks like. Partner also with friends in the church – other parents with students in the confirmation class might be a first choice.

Additional Comments:

  • We don’t expect students to know or understand everything after this course. The pastor not only has over 35 years of ministry experience, but also a PhD in theology – and he’s still learning and seeking to grow in Christ. The students’ growth in knowledge, understanding, and skill will be real, but not exhaustive. Life in Christ is a huge adventure, and they’re just starting out.
  • We’re praying for a powerful move of God in the lives of each person involved in the course. If all we do is have classes, do work, and then by means of a ritual in church have students’ names added to the membership roll, we will be falling short. Jesus called his disciples saying, “Come, follow me!” As disciples we seek to become apprentices of Jesus and his way of living.
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Spiritual Warfare – Our Enemy

Spiritual Warfare has been a popular topic in some segments of American Christianity. In the age of Christendom we were prone to take the “warfare” aspect too literally. Though many instances of “killing people for Jesus” come to mind, just yesterday I ran across a story Benvenuto Cellini told about killing an enemy in the presence of the Pope. Cellini describes what happened next:

Upon my bended knees I then besought him to give me the pardon of his blessing for that homicide; and for all the others I had committed in the castle in the service of the Church. Thereat the Pope, raising his hand, and making a large open sign of the cross upon my face, told me that he blessed me, and that he gave me pardon for all murders I had ever perpetrated, or should ever perpetrate, in the service of the Apostolic Church.

This demonstrates profound misunderstanding of the gospel. If we think Spiritual Warfare is normal warfare done for the sake of the gospel, the church, or some spiritual end, we’re missing Jesus entirely. In the first message in a series on the subject, I explain that our enemies are not people. Like Jesus, our warfare is for people, not against them. In Ephesians 6:12 Paul writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” – that means people – “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As put so well in Stuart Townend’s song O Church, Arise, we are “an army bold, whose battle-cry is Love” – not “kill them!” – “reaching out to those in darkness.”

In the message I conclude with an encouragement for us to pray two things. First, we pray for God to break our hearts for people – even those we (or they themselves) cast as our enemies. We see that kind of love when Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For some people it may take the supernatural work of God for us to love them. But God likes answering that kind of prayer. Second, we pray for God to make us the kind of people who can faithfully and clearly represent his love to the people around us. That will frequently mean repentance and change on our part.

In upcoming weeks we’ll continue to investigate Spiritual Warfare. Next week we turn to examination of our “armament,” or as Charles Wesley put it in his hymn Soldiers of Christ, Arise, the “panoply of God.”

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GMC Catechism Class

Since our congregation has recently transitioned to the Global Methodist Church, I thought it would be a good idea to look at the basic doctrine of the denomination. The class uses the GMC Catechism which is based on the Nicene Creed and foundational documents of Methodism (the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith). By starting with these documents the GMC is emphasizing its doctrinal unity with the broad ecumenical consensus, the Anglican tradition within the Protestant tradition, and the Wesleyan movement.

Here are the documents and links so far (the class is in progress, so this post will be updated until we’re finished):

  • The “Book” – The GMC Catechism plus basic documents from the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline

Notes from Class 1

Notes from Class 2

Notes from Class 3

Notes from Class 4

Notes from Class 5

Notes from Class 6

Notes from Class 7

Notes from Class 8

Notes from Class 9

Notes from Class 10

Notes from Class 11

Notes from Class 12

Notes from Class 13

Notes from Class 14

Notes from Class 15

Notes from Class 16

Audio files:

Class 1

Class 2

Class 3

Class 4

Class 5

Class 6

Class 7

Class 8

Class 9

Class 10

Class 11

Class 12

Class 13

Class 14

Class 15

Class 16

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Deepening Accountability

One of the ways to look at the genesis of the Global Methodist Church is as embodying a desired “return to accountability.” Some hear this and think, “Now we will have bishops and leaders who are accountable and not just doing their own thing.” It is true that the GMC is based on a different practice of accountability. What might be easy to miss is that the change is for the whole church, not just for leaders.

At the beginning of the Methodist movement, accountability was at the very center. This accountability was not a legalistic “Keep the rules or you’re out,” but a mutual accountability of disciple to disciple as they sought to follow Jesus together and to live as his people. The seriousness that drove the accountability was not a detailed rule book (as some might conceive a document called a “Book of Discipline,” but an apprehension of the love of God in Christ wherein we know ourselves to have been sought out by the Father and “transferred from the dominion of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.” We take our commitment and mutual accountability seriously because Jesus gave himself for us and has called us to a ministry that matters.

There are two things that have hindered this kind of accountability. First, there’s our low estimate of what’s possible. If we are pessimistic about the power of God that’s available to us, it will be only natural for us to think that transformation into the image of Jesus and real empowerment by the Holy Spirit just aren’t possible. We can get our sins forgiven and can probably also be nice people most of the time. But the idea that what Jesus said (things like “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” or, “Whoever believes in me will do what I have been doing”) could be true of us, well, that’s a stretch. For generations we’ve settled for being busy at church, or if that’s too much, having semi-regular devotional thoughts.

The second thing that’s worked against our taking up traditional Methodist accountability has been a conviction that there are two kinds of people: Professional Christians and Regular Christians. We’ve wrongly imagined Jesus’ claims (like Acts 1:8 & John 14:12) are true only for the Professionals. Those who are mere Regular Christians should sit back and offer “support” to the Professionals.

Jesus’ Great Commission says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them TO OBEY everything I have commanded you.” Did you catch that – “Teaching them TO OBEY everything I have commanded you?” For too long we’ve imagined this command – and the form of Matthew 28:19-20 is a COMMAND – to be only for the Twelve, the Apostles, and Professionals like them. When we read it that way, we are MISreading it. If the recipients of this command OBEY it, they will be teaching disciples (not the Elite, but all disciples) “to obey everything” Jesus commanded – including this very command. Our accountability on all levels is to Jesus and this mission He’s given us.

Jesus sent the first disciples – just as he sends us – into a world where people desperately need the abundant life he brought through his life, death, and resurrection. In this new year Jesus is calling his people to seek a fresh filling of the Spirit so we can take up the calling he’s given us. We’re accountable to Jesus and to each other because this mission matters. When we live out our life together through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness, God will make an eternal difference in the lives of people.

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Wrath, Judgment, and Love

John Wesley said that the only requirement to join the Methodist Societies – the movement was not yet a “church” at that time – was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” Our problem isn’t that people today lack a desire to be “saved from their sins.” Most church people readily admit to wanting to be saved. It’s the other part of Wesley’s criteria that causes us to pause. Modern Methodists are not excited to believe there is such a thing as “the wrath to come,” let alone that we should desire to “flee” from it. We have a long habit of saying “God is love” – which is, of course, a thoroughly biblical and Wesleyan thing to say – and assuming that because God is love, there can be no such thing as wrath. If God is love, we think, why would God ever be angry? It’s those other people who are consumed with belief in an angry God who delights in judging people and throwing them in hell. Those other people will believe that the angry God toys with sinners in his hands, torturing them, seeking to destroy them. Because those other people reject the truth of God’s love, they hold on to an angry, spiteful God who is on the lookout to catch anyone anywhere who might be having just a small bit of harmless pleasure.

I want to be biblical in my thinking, preaching, and way of living. I also value our Wesleyan heritage. I am thus constrained to reject both an account of God as angry and vindictive, only loving the select few, AND an account of God as defined by a sort of love that is never bothered by sin or evil but is only relentlessly nice and harmless.

When I read scripture, I cannot dismiss the reality of wrath and judgment. The message is clear that we will all come before God’s judgment seat. The message is clear that God’s anger is exercised toward those who fail to obey the Great Commandment – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Can we see the evil in the world, whether now or throughout history, and imagine God is happy with it all? I know I am a sinner, deserving of judgment. I know my sin hurts people and dishonors God. I need God’s forgiveness and deliverance. I also see that God’s judgment begins with his own people, so my being a Methodist, my being a Christian, means I am more susceptible to God’s judgment than other people.

When I read scripture, I also cannot dismiss the reality and depth of God’s love. In both the Old and New Testaments, we see God’s love displayed. We see God’s love for his people, Israel. We see God’s plan for his people to be the means by which all nations would be reconciled to him and experience life. We see the cry of God’s broken heart for rebellious sinners in places like Ezekiel 33:11. And we see Jesus. We see Jesus, the Word become flesh, God become one of us. Jesus put himself in our place, not as an invincible, invulnerable, Superman, but as one who would take our sin upon himself and die for us. Paul tells us that God demonstrated his love – there’s that word! – God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He invites us to receive this gift of love and life. His love will not compel us to receive this gift, but his love will relentlessly pursue us, seeking our response to the redemption he offers in Christ.

God has given us the awesome gift of Jesus that we might have life. That we will face judgment is a certainty. It is also a certainty that if we had to stand in the judgment alone, we could not stand. The greater certainty, however, is that the Bible says that Jesus stands with us as an advocate who speaks in our defense. Because we belong to Jesus, we approach the throne of God not with terror, but with joy and confidence, knowing there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

Posted in Assurance, Atonement, Jesus, John Wesley, Love, Salvation, United Methodism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Positive and Negative in United Methodism

Since reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? thirty-something years ago, I’ve found great value in the definition of a tradition that he he offers there (p. 12).

A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.

I’m a participant in the United Methodist tradition, which is itself part of larger traditions (Wesleyan, Protestant, Christian). We certainly have the “conflict” bit down, but I think we could understand it more fruitfully by considering MacIntyre. If we work from his definition of a “tradition” – and understand ourselves as participants in that tradition, we can deflate some of the tension we feel.

MacIntyre claims traditions have two kinds of conflict. The first thing we need to see is that having conflict in a tradition is normal. It’s unavoidable. It’s an essential part of what constitutes any tradition. Every living tradition has to continually answer questions of identity and mission: Who are we? What are we about? Traditions face those questions continually because our environment is constantly changing.

A second thing to notice is that conflict happens in two directions. We know there is external conflict, challenges and questions that come from outside the tradition. There is also internal conflict, “interpretive debates” within the tradition.

From these first two points I need to make two sociological observations. First, traditions are not “all inclusive.” There are people outside the tradition who are adherents of and participants in other traditions. Differentiating between traditions is part of the point of the conflict between them. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition is not the Baptist or Roman Catholic tradition. Second, while they are not “all inclusive,” traditions are normally inclusive. They contain sufficient diversity that not all participants in the tradition always and forever only agree with each other. Difference that drives interpretive debates happens within and between traditions. I’ll come back to these sociological observations in a bit.

Given the two broad kinds of conflict MacIntyre sees (internal and external), we must consider third, what that conflicts are about. He uses the term “certain fundamental agreements.” Don’t allow pejorative uses of words like “fundamentalism” steer us away from this point. One aspect of fundamentalism is the tendency to eliminate the possibility of internal conflict by definition. Such a position would say, “Every thing that defines our tradition is essential. If there is any criticism, question, or debate about any point, that is a sure sign the person is not a member of our tradition.”

Having “fundamental agreements” is the starting point. These are what make a tradition what it is, what differentiate it from other traditions. Because the United Methodist tradition is not the Baptist or Presbyterian tradition, the fundamental agreements will look different from those other traditions. Since all three are instances of the Christian tradition, there will certainly be overlap. The doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the power of God’s grace to accomplish salvation are “fundamental agreements” common to these three traditions. When we consider the United Methodist tradition we see that the “fundamental agreement” regarding “the power of God’s grace to accomplish” salvation has a set of interpretations that differ somewhat from other Christian traditions. Sometimes these differences may appear as “conflicts,” or signs of incompatibility, sometimes they’ll be understood as different and perhaps complementary ways of talking about a common reality.

Two more questions arise when I consider our current denominational divisions. First, to what degree do we prefer to take ourselves as participants in a distinct United Methodist tradition or as participants in a distinct Wesleyan/Methodist tradition? If the emphasis is on the former, we will probably look for our fundamental agreements in this particular denomination from 1968 to now. If the emphasis is on the latter, there’s a good chance we will look farther back, probably to the 18th century and the formative first century for what we take to be the fundamental agreements. To the degree that we take this latter approach and are members of the United Methodist Church, we will read the post 1968 expressions and developments as more or less faithful to what we take to be the formative period.

We are somewhat handicapped here in that the official doctrine, what is publically identified as our “fundamental agreements,” has not and probably cannot change. The Articles of Religion, and the Sermons and Notes on the New Testament by Wesley remain the same. What changes is our interpretation and deployment of the fundamental agreements found therein.

Second, what stance do we take to these fundamental agreements? Do we approach them with “conformity” or “diversity” as the first word? I’ve seen some combatants in our current conflict who treat these two possibilities as absolute dichotomies. We either conform to our doctrine (our fundamental agreements) and are “accountable,” or we value diversity in our understanding and use of doctrine (maybe taking it “seriously, not literally”). One side will say of the other, “They don’t practice doctrinal accountability!” The other side will say, “They deny diversity and want to force everyone to conform.”

MacIntyre’s claim about the nature of traditions is a descriptive claim. It’s saying this is how traditions function, not that this is how they should function. As a MacIntyrean on this point, I think the dichotomous views fail. Except for the few that are complete relativists, each side values conformity, in some way, and to some degree. Similarly, except for the few who are fundamentalists, each side also values diversity. The original theological statement (in the Book of Discipline since 1972) made the interpretive claim of normative pluralism. A “diversity” of interpretation and deployment of our fundamental agreements was the official position of the denomination, our “doctrine about doctrine,” one might say. But did that theological statement reach the point of being a fundamental agreement about our fundamental agreements? The presence of profound critical questioning of this statement by groups like “Good News” and from pastors and laity, is the first detail that would lead me to say it didn’t. The second detail is the enactment of a new theological statement at General Conference in 1988. Just like the 1972 theological statement, this was an “official position” of the denomination. Our “doctrine about our doctrine” changed, and in the direction away from normative pluralism toward what could be called greater “conformity.” Like the 1972 statement, the1988 statement, which remains in the Book of Discipline today, has failed to become part of our “fundamental agreements.” The generation formed primarily by the 1972 statement – a generation that has controlled the teaching in most of our official seminaries (where most of our pastors are trained) – continues to stand for the normativity of the approach in that statement.

As I wrap up, let me return to the sociological observations. In our United Methodist experience we know there are traditions outside our own. Depending on where we stand in our own take on our fundamental agreements, we tend to identify our internal opponents with odious external opponents. It might be that some identify the other side as “Baptists in disguise” (since Baptists are detestable to them, and guilt by association carries a long way, or that some identify the other side as “no more than Unitarians” (seeing the Unitarian tradition as willing to part with most distinctive Christian doctrinal positions in favor of a humanistic religion). If I’m right, however, and we’re dealing with true internal conflicts, not conflicts with an external enemy/opponent/competitor, then perhaps it could be to our advantage to recognize this. We have been participants in the same tradition, yet having deep interpretive arguments about some (not all!) of our fundamental agreements.

I’m not making the claim here that “separation” can or should be avoided. It might be that our fundamental agreements (and our take on what to do with our fundamental agreements, our “doctrine about our doctrine”) have reached a point of sufficient divergence that continued internal conflict keeps us from achieving our mission. What our mission is is itself part of the conflict! Two positive things to remember as division happens, are that division has happened in the past and that as remain with in the larger Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, division now need not be the final word.

Posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, Discipline, Diversity, Doctrine, Ecclesiology, Theology, Tradition, United Methodism | Leave a comment

The Spirit of the Disciplines, chapter 3

In this chapter Dallas Willard talks about the salvation we have in Christ as a “full life” phenomenon.

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Love, Jesus, and the Bible

I saw this cartoon on Facebook this morning and found it stimulating.

First thought: Who are the people in the picture? Reading left to right, as we do in English, we see five people who are dressed in modern western garb. There is a mix of men and women. We can see that at least four of the five are holding an objected labeled “Holy Bible” in their hands. None of them look very happy.

Standing over against the five is a bearded man in what we stereotypically take to be ancient middle eastern garb. He’s wearing what appears to be a crown of thorns, something we associate with Jesus. We associate wearing a crown of thorns with Jesus because of what we read in the Bible and what we’ve seen in almost two millennia of Christian art. Jesus looks like he could be happy. As far as we can see he is not hold a Bible or anything else in his hands.

Second thought: Only one person in this panel is speaking. Well, only Jesus is shown speaking words. His audience is exuding grumpiness or disappointment.

Third thought: By his stance, facial expression, and words, Jesus is setting himself over against the other five. He says there’s a difference and the body language exhibits that difference.

Fourth thought: There is a movement in the church that’s been characterized as “Red Letter Christians.” Printing the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels in red ink is a convention that began just over a hundred years ago. The practice of creating a canon within the canon, a section of scripture that is more central or more authoritative or more primary than other parts is not so recent, however.

Fifth thought: If we take the red letters, the words of Jesus himself, as more authoritative than the rest of scripture, then we have clear reason to relativize the rest of what we read in the Bible. Whatever Jesus says trumps whatever we see elsewhere.

Sixth thought: Why would we value the words of Jesus over the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul (just to mention other major New Testament writers)? If we’re Christians, we might think that’s a dumb question. After all, those guys were all just humans – just disciples of Jesus. They were, by their own desire, under the authority of Jesus. If they saw themselves as subject to Jesus, we ought to see whatever they wrote as also subject to Jesus.

Seventh thought: We ascribe authority to Jesus because of who we confess that he is: “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” If this is who Jesus is, we are justified in taking his word as the authority in our lives.

Eighth thought: How have we come to confess this identity of Jesus? Is it through our direct experience of his words and actions? To what degree is our knowledge and experience of Jesus mediated by what those other guys (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, et al.) have written? To what degree do we have access to the words of Jesus apart from them – apart from the words of scripture?

Ninth thought: When it comes to the word “love,” it’s obvious that scripture has much to say about it. It’s also obvious that what scripture, especially the New Testament, has to say about love is centered around the actions and words of Jesus. We might consider 1 John 3:16 – “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Scripture says that we can know what love is. We know what love is by looking at the fact that Jesus laid down his life for us. We can go a step farther and infer form this that Jesus did this knowing what love was and seeking to express love. We might also consider Romans 5:8 – “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In Romans Paul has claimed that all people are sinners. Whether Jew or Gentile (not Jewish), people are sinners. God loved sinners, people like us, enough to do something about it. He demonstrated his love for us by Christ dying for us. Whatever else we say about Jesus, we can take his death as being a demonstration of God’s love for us. According to Paul, then, Jesus is demonstrating the nature of love.

Tenth thought: How do we know about this death of Jesus? How do we know it was not just a tragic end to the life of a wise and good itinerant Jewish holy man? How do we know it wasn’t “divine child abuse?” How do we know it wasn’t God’s just judgment on a false prophet who would lead the people astray? We claim to know these things by what we read in the Bible, in the writings of people like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, et al.

Eleventh thought: How does language work? Where does it come from and how do we learn it? When we’re learning to speak, does someone give us a book to study (or to absorb through osmosis)? We learn language be being immersed in it and included in it from day one. From the moment of birth we are addressed and spoken to. Over time we come to understand what is being said and to make ourselves understood. We do this in fits and starts, in trial and error. Our communicative efforts take place in particular linguistic communities. My communicative efforts may or may not work in any other linguistic community. They are certainly likely to work better in my own linguistic community and others nearby than in more distant ones.

Twelfth thought: How do words work? Do we use the dictionaries handed to us in infancy to figure out the meaning of words directed at us and words we wish to direct outward? Or maybe we have an authoritative person (mom? dad?) who provides us with definitions. Maybe our parents give us a new word each day. “Ok, Junior, today’s word is ‘monosyllabicism.’ It means ‘the propensity to use words of a single syllable.'” Now that our parents have authoritatively defined the word for us, we can go about using it. But this isn’t the normal way words work. We encounter most words not in the form of definitions (in dictionaries or from authoritative persons) but from their use in our linguistic communities.

Thirteenth thought: Word meanings change. Sometimes change happens slowly, as other changes occur in our linguistic communities. Sometimes change happens quickly, either because of a precipitating event or because a significant person in our linguistic community uses the word in a different way and that usage captures our attention and imagination. We come to believe that through that usage the word has taken on at least new shades of meaning. When we consider the incarnation of the Son, his life, teaching, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, we surely have good reason to take his reported usages of words as authoritative and generative of new ways of usage on our part.

Fourteenth thought: The Bible is composed of words. We cannot understand anything in the Bible (or any other book) apart from our participation in a linguistic community. Several years ago we had friends who translated the New Testament into one of the languages of Vanuatu. Since we had been financial supporters of their work, they gave us a copy of their finished product – an actual New Testament in this language. As one who has read the New Testament in English (the language of my broad linguistic community), I have a basic understanding of the New Testament. I have no understanding of the New Testament written in this language of Vanuatu, however. I am not and have never been part of that linguistic community. I think back to something my teacher Nancey Murphy wrote: “If the texts’ ability to perform a definite speech act depends on the existence of a community with shared conventions and proper dispositions, then textual stability is in large measure a function not of theories of interpretation but of how interpretive communities choose to live.” My understanding of the Bible is made possible by my participation in a particular linguistic community. Though the Bible I normally read is in English, the linguistic community that most helps me understand the Bible is not just the broad community of “English speakers,” but the linguistic community known as “church.” My understanding of the Bible is not just a mental exercise, something like decoding a secret message. Understanding comes from living in and being formed by the practices of Christian community. Because language is a communal phenomenon, understanding language is never a purely individual act.

Fifteenth thought: Going back to the cartoon, the five people who are being confronted by Jesus are holding Bibles. To the extent that they take themselves to understand and use the Bible, they do as members of some linguistic community. The single panel cartoon doesn’t tell us whether they have been formed by life in the church or perhaps might just find congenial utterances there that they’ve abstracted from the whole.

Sixteenth thought: In the Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus promises the disciples that he will not leave them orphans, that he will send the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth. We read in Matthew’s version of the Great Commission that Jesus promises to be with the disciples “to the very end of the age.” From these and other texts, we can learn that our life in the Christian community (a particular linguistic community) is not just with other people like us. In the Christian community we encounter Jesus himself. We are part of the Body of Christ, united by the Holy Spirit. Our life together includes submission to Jesus and to his interpretive authority.

Seventeenth thought: It takes work to read and understand and live the Bible. Since we English speakers primarily encounter it in English, it is possible for us to interpret it more in the context of the broader linguistic community we call “English speakers” than in the context of the specifically Christian linguistic community. The broader English speaking linguistic community uses words we find in the Bible: Love, freedom, righteousness, etc. It requires work on our part to discern whether we are reading our the Bible and understanding its words and concepts primarily in terms offered by our broader English speaking linguistic communities or in terms of the narrower Christian linguistic community. This would also be true for our understanding of what we take to be utterances of Jesus that are not mediated by the Bible. We always encounter them in some linguistic community that gives us guidance on how to understand them.

Eighteenth thought: When Jesus “determines the meaning” of something, whether that something be an individual word or a larger text composed of words (like the Bible), how does he do so? From what linguistic community does he do this work? We might think that as the “Second Person of the Trinity,” his linguistic community is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if we don’t think a social trinitarianism is the best approach, this would be a way to ascribe ultimate authority to Jesus and his linguistic usages.

Some might think that with all these thoughts (and others that might arise) that I’m missing the obvious point of the cartoon. Perhaps the obvious point of the cartoon is that “love is love and Jesus is for it.” Or, “what we say the Bible says should be subservient to what we KNOW love is.” It could be that I’m simply defective in my ability to discern what is obvious. Whatever my defects, I can affirm a few things.

Jesus is Lord and I want to submit to him.

I learn of Jesus and encounter him in worship, prayer, community, and the Bible.

I learn what words mean and how to use them in community.

It is easy for me to impose my own or my culture’s own understanding on the utterances of Jesus or the words of the Bible. It is only over time and through mutual accountability in our life together as Christians that I come to appropriate understanding.

I am not willing to go the way of Schleiermacher and the theological tradition stemming from him that interprets Christian language as using religious words to say important things that the general culture also says. The cultured despisers of the faith do not inhabit the linguistic community that gives us the best understanding of Jesus or the Bible.

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