Walking the Line: Biblical vs. Legalistic

cslewishumilityIn the Christian Churches (Restoration Movement) we have long prided ourselves on our biblical stances. We are People of the Book who seek authority and guidance from the pages of Scripture. We, above all others, are quick to cite a verse to answer a question or prove a point. This is the church I grew up in, and it is where I still live. I am a person of the Book, and I believe in the authority of the Bible for guidance in my life and in my church.

Yet, many times I have seen this biblical stance slip into an intolerant legalism. (A better term for this might be “legalistic orthodoxy.”) After all, if I believe I am right and have Scripture on my side, why should I be tolerant of dissenting viewpoints? BTW, this is not a fight with non-Christians. Our polemical use of Scripture is almost always aimed at other Christians.

My teacher, Grant Osborne, taught us that a bedrock principle of biblical interpretation must be what he called a “hermeneutics of humility.” We seek to understand the Bible as fallible humans, people locked in our own culture and biases. Can we ever be sure we are not scouring Scripture to find the answers we want to find? Don’t we read with our opinions already formed, often just looking for reinforcement? I know I do this. Sometimes I run into a Scripture passage that doesn’t fit my theological grid or agenda, and I am stumped. If I am wise, these are the times I hear Dr. Osborne’s voice reminding us to slow down and not be overconfident. I must lay down my theological swords, holster my doctrinal guns, and unplug my stubborn ears. Even at my age, Scripture still has a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn.

The worst thing I can do, I think, is to hop from one legalism to another legalism. I trade one set of proof texts for another. I move from one dogmatic universe to a parallel but equally dogmatic universe. I want to be a person of the Book, but even more than this I want to be a man of God who listens and follows rather than judges and condemns. May God help us shed unhelpful and hurtful legalism. It divides Christ’s church and breaks God’s heart.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Culture of Mistruth

truth-liesThe twentieth century gave rise to techniques in propaganda that were well defined and almost scientifically applied. One of these was the BIG LIE, a term apparently coined by Adolf Hitler in his autobiographical Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in the 1920s. The Big Lie is a false narrative or fact that is so outrageous, people believe it must be true. When encountered, the average person will think, “That can’t be a lie. It is too stupendous. It must be true.” The Big Lie is then repeated by its originators until it is picked up and repeated by others. Eventually it is accepted as truth.

This technique is not new, however. One of the historical backdrops of the New Testament is the propaganda machine of the Romans. In a remarkably few decades, the Romans had created the imperial cult that projected godlike wisdom and power upon its emperors. Myths were created to give their families backgrounds that included children of the gods. In some parts of the empire (like Ephesus), government sanctioned temples were deployed for the worship of the Roman emperor.

This was the Big Lie in action. Historians today are hard pressed to find a single first-century emperor after Augustus who was really a wise and capable government head (with the possible exceptions of Vespasian and Titus, in my opinion). Tiberius was disengaged and inattentive to ruling. Caligula was delusional about his greatness and absolute in his moral corruption. Nero made so many bad decisions it is amazing the empire survived his reign (and it almost didn’t).

I hesitate to label anything we hear today as a Big Lie because of its association with Hitler, but I think there are many things like this in American culture and politics. They are not confined to a single political party or ideology. You can make your own list, but my poster child is the claim that cutting taxes for rich people will increase government revenues.

I’m thinking about this especially because of a recent Time magazine exposé on the fallacies of the “low fat” diet. Time‘s researchers found holes in this theory that large dairy trucks could easily navigate. Yet a few powerful advocates in the 1960s and 1970s won the day by repetition of their claim that any fat in foods was harmful and that a low fat diet was the simplistic solution to losing weight and maintaining this loss. One of the examples given is that butter was demonized and butter substitutes were promoted as being more healthy. Research now shows that these butter substitutes may have been far more unhealthy. Low fat claims, in the end, are not science but propaganda.

How many such things do we have floating around in our churches today, things that are repeated until believed, yet have no basis in fact and no place in the church? Here are a few I have heard:

  • Godly lifestyle is not important and talking about it is harmful and alienating to non-believers.
  • The church has no responsibility to teach people about the Bible because they have lots of resources on the internet. Plus, the value of biblical literacy is overstated.
  • The translators of the NIV2011 are liberals and not true evangelicals.
  • The American President is a Muslim and intends to make the United States into an Islamic caliphate.
  • The world financial system will collapse and we should all buy gold. (After all, gold is eternal and will never deteriorate or be stolen. We should lay up our treasure in gold.)

The internet world and social media community has made it much more difficult to find truth. Postmodernity, with its denial of absolutes, led many to believe they could create their own truth and believe whatever they chose to believe without consequences. This is the core of the culture of mistruth.

In conclusion, here are a couple of truths that have guided my life, and repetition of them is helpful because they are true:

  1. The Creator God is a personal God who loves his creation, loves us, and desires to have a relationship with us.
  2. The only hope for salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen Son of God.
  3. The Bible is God’s word and a trustworthy guide to our lives.
  4. The correct interpretation of the Bible is hard work, and teaching it should be a priority in our churches.
  5. The church is truly the hope of the world, and its decline or demise is a victory for the Evil One.

So may we not yield to this culture of mistruth or to the despair it can generate. Let us be people of the truth and never settle for less.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

 

Christian Unity 2014: Disciples in the Same Boat

MysticalChurch

Disciples in the Boat Together

Why does the church, the body of Christ, remain so divided? Is there an essential unity in the worldwide church we just don’t see?

When I look back on the last fifty years, I see many things that seemingly contributed to the unity of the church. Here is my list of some of them with my analysis:

1. The Ecumenical Movement. This probably reached a peak in the 1960s in the wake of Vatican II. There was a hope that the initial moves of the Roman Catholic leadership to modernize its church and give some recognition to non-Catholic Christians might progress to something big. It didn’t really happen. The big ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are barely surviving and don’t wield much influence today. Why? I’m not sure, but here are a couple of suggestions. First, the funders and influencers in these groups were white European/American church professionals. The ecumenical movement was always top down and never had a grassroots swell of support. Second, the denominations most involved in the ecumenical movement are generally in decline now. Third, as Christianity wanes in Europe and North America, it thrives in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. These newer communities never were a part of the WCC style ecumenical vision, seeing it as a type of continued foreign domination of their national churches. They wanted to stand on their own.

2. The commercialization of evangelical Christianity. Money has always fueled a great deal of what looks like cross-church cooperation, but this reached almost absurd heights in the 1990s and continues today. Yet Christian media (especially TV) has little appeal to Generation X and even less to the Millennials. It is seen by many as overly political and aligned exclusively with one political party and one foreign policy viewpoint. Another aspect of this is the prominence in Christian television of the prosperity gospel preachers who appeal to a narrow group of Christians and are near pariahs to others. The commercialization of Christian music and worship has had some unifying effect, but this has also caused a doctrinal leveling and blandness that robs the Christian message of some of its vitality and counter-culturalism.

3. The rise of mega churches. This may be the most hopeful development in the realm of Christian unity, because there is an interconnection between large churches and their pastors that has broken down many long-standing barriers in the Christian world. I mistakenly thought that the mega church was dead in the 1990s, a victim of pastoral hubris and immorality combined with staggering debt loads, but there has been a rebirth and renewal of this type of Christianity. The inability for observers to pigeonhole many mega churches in a denomination way is, I think, also a good thing. I’m not sure where this is going, but the new trend to multi-site churches has some appearance of the renewal of denominationalism with a different face. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

4. The opening up of Christian institutions of higher education to all comers. The huge capital investment to build colleges, universities, and seminaries by churches of the past was unsustainable unless these institutions broadened themselves in whom they admitted as students, in whom they allowed to be teachers, and in what programs they offered. There is no single model in this, so it is difficult to generalize, but this sort of scenario wold not be uncommon: a young man who grew up in a Baptist church attended trained for ministry in an Evangelical Free seminary and ended up as a pastor in a Christian Missionary Alliance church. The hyper-sectarian schools of previous generations have either broadened or are dying. Yet I also see the rise of new sectarian schools of a different stripe, some being generated from mega churches. I also don’t know where this is going.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Racism and Christians

no racismThe media world has been abuzz for the last couple weeks about that villain of the world, Donald Sterling. A media outlet that lacks any filter (TMZ) released the recording of a phone call between the octogenarian Sterling and his 20-something girlfriend in which he made racist comments. He was quickly banned by the National Basketball Association for life, fined $2.5M, and threatened that he must sell his team, the L.A. Clippers.

I have no desire to defend Sterling, a businessman of less-than sterling reputation in Los Angeles. The whispers of his racially insensitive talk and actions have fueled the Los Angeles media for years, so while the legality of making this private conversation public is questionable, the verdict on Sterling as a racist is deserved.

The whole Sterling circus has reopened the discussion of racism in America, and I am deeply troubled by the reality that pokes through when this debate resurfaces from time to time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said yesterday that “more whites believe in ghosts than they do in racism.” His implication is that people like me think that racism in America is long-gone, a battle done. I wish that were true. How many other Donald Sterlings are out there? By this I mean white people who do not act as racists publicly, but  talk that way in private conversations.

Kathleen Parker recently addressed this in a column that did some soul-searching about the Republican party. Parker noted that it is no secret some political rallies display overt symbols of racism proudly. Parker warns, “The GOP is not a party of racists, but it is a party with racists.”

I wonder if this could be said of the American church? Perhaps we are not a church of racists, but a church with many racist members who are tolerated. I don’t want to generalize, but I have too often been around white Christian church leaders who think nothing of dropping a mildly racist comment or telling a quasi-racist joke. Recently, in Nepal of all places, I heard a white evangelical minister from Texas tell a “joke” that denigrated President Obama and his ethnic background. (BTW: I heard in the 2012 election an estimate that 25% of white Americans would never vote for Obama simply because he was a black man.) So if we believe racism in America is a problem solved, I assure you it is not.

The ancient church was challenged by a different kind of racism. It was made up of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). Jews were a substantial minority of the Roman empire’s population, maybe 10% by some estimates. They were influential in the Roman world, yet they were despised by the Romans. This led to a strange mix of persecution complex combined with proud ethnic elitism for the Jews. It was very difficult for them to accept non-Jews into the church at first. Such folks were both their tormentors and their inferiors, the Jews believed. But Paul would have none of this. He taught there was no distinction between Jew or Gentile in the church, all were one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

Can we recover this in the church today? If we truly believed we were all one in Christ, racism would have no toehold on which to stand. If we refused to allow ethnic distinctions to influence our thinking, racism would die a lonely and deserved death. The church of all places should neither be racist nor a place with racists as leaders.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

 

Resurrection not Reincarnation

I have recently returned from nearly two weeks in Nepal. It is a country in transition, moving from a monarchy to some type of parliamentary republic. Most of the royal family was assassinated in 2001 (thus effectively ending the kingdom phase) but the new constitution is still being negotiated (thus making the eventual shape of the parliament unsettled).

I think the country is in transition religiously, too. It currently has the largest percentage of Hindu adherents of any nation in the world (over 80%), but Christianity is strong and growing. As in Myanmar, the actual percentage of Christians is understated for political reasons, but may be approaching 5%.

Kumari Palace in Kathmand

Kumari Palace in Kathmandu

While we were there, we visited the historic district in Kathmandu that contains many Hindu temples and shrines. One of these was the palace where the Kumari lives, a young girl who is worshiped as a living goddess by the Hindus of Nepal. This girl was chosen from a group of candidates when she was age 4. She had to pass rigorous tests including spending a night in darkness in a room full of blood and sacrificed animals. If she cried or screamed, she was disqualified. She will remain the object of worship until she begins to menstruate, a time when it is believed the spirit of the goddess leaves the girl’s body.

All of this is based on the concept of reincarnation, the idea that divine or human spirits migrate to different bodies over the ages. This is the great hope of Hinduism, to be reincarnated at a higher level as a reward for a holy or virtuous life.

Christianity believes in resurrection, not reincarnation. Today, Easter Sunday, is the great celebration of the doctrine of resurrection, because it remembers Jesus Christ’s rising from the dead. Jesus was a man unjustly killed by the ancient Romans, his dead body laid in a tomb carved out of the limestone formations outside of Jerusalem. He was truly dead, stone cold dead and buried. But on the third day, Sunday morning, he came back from the dead. He appeared in his resurrection body. He was not reincarnated into a different body. It was the same one. He showed the scars of his crucifixion wounds as signs of identity to his incredulous disciples. He was risen from the dead.

The Hindus have no such hope. We also visited the crematorium area of Kathmandu, perhaps the most terrifyingly depressing place I have ever been in my life. Here the bodies of beloved dead are burned with great ceremony and pomp, and the ashes are spread on the waters of a river. The soul is released to begin its uncertain journey of reincarnation. There is the possibility that the future will not be better, but worse if the soul comes back in a lower caste. We witnessed an extremely low caste man who was tasked with trying to salvage scraps of usable wood for burning from the fires of cremation. Imagine the degradation here: heating a home with charred wood scraps that had been used to burn a human body.

Resurrection offers hope. This life is not the end, nor is it the greatest good. We have been given hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that transcends our current troubles and pains. We look forward to the time when we will join him in glory. This is more than speculation or legend. We have the confirmation of resurrection through the raising of Jesus from the dead. The son who was dead is now alive, and he lives forevermore!

He is Risen! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Christians in Nepal

baby elephant

baby elephant

Writing from Kathmandu after a week of ministry in Nepal. This is an amazing place. That there is a Christian witness here at all is a sign of God’s grace and power.

I remember the words of an old Larry Norman song that said:

There are Christians in Russia, they meet underground
In China they’re killed when they’re found.
And in Cuba the Christians live up in the hills
Because its not safe in the town.

This reflected the Cold War reality of anti-Christian Communist governments. There was a political agenda to eradicate any trace of the church, which was seen as a threat to the dream of establishing a classless society and a connection to decadent, fascist Western society and its values. At the core, one of the problems was the Christian teaching that each man or woman was a precious child of God and had inherent value. This is the basis of Western democratic ideals, the one person one vote system. In totalitarian Communism, no one person could be greater than the state and the inevitable progress to a classless society.

Nepal lived through several versions of this, often seen as a piece on the global chessboard by the great nations. The strong Maoist (Communist) party and the ancient Hindu culture leave little room for Christianity and its message of hope and love.

Yesterday we attended a large Nepali church and were blessed that it had in-ear translation devices available so we could understand what was being said. Before the sermon, the platform person asked all who “did not know Jesus” to exit, and, if they chose, to speak with persons outside who would tell them about Jesus. I thought it was a curious move. Maybe twenty people out of the 600 there left. Why did they do this. It is a little unclear, but it had something to do with Nepali laws against proselytizing. You cannot do active evangelism here, only passive. You must create situations where others want to come and talk to you about your Christian faith. We, as foreigners, certainly could not do street evangelism or conduct a Billy Graham style crusade. We would either be arrested or asked to leave the country immediately.

Yet the church survives, even thrives in this hostile situation. The church has never required a benevolent monarchy or the open society of a democracy to flourish. Governments come and go, the church marches on. Christ will be victorious, utterly victorious in the end, and all opposition to him will prove to be futile.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Ministry Personality Types: the Extroptomist Index

What sort of person is most suitable, most stable,  and most successful for ministry leadership? I spoke not long ago with the CEO of a large and successful church planting organization who answered this with one word: pragmatist. He was speaking of the type of person his organization was looking for to plant and lead successful churches. They were not necessarily looking for people with correct theology or even good people skills, but leaders who would follow the path that leads to proven success.

I know it is not this simple (and wasn’t for him either). Brutal pragmatism may have its place in church leadership, but if it is the only criterion, it tends to leave piles of damaged persons in its wake. Yet church leadership does need to be smart enough to quit doing things that are not working, especially if they are consuming enormous amounts of energy and resources. Church leaders need to be willing to plow new ground and claim new territory, and this means doing new things.

I want to suggest another evaluation. My colleagues and I have been joking around recently concerning which among us is an extrovert and which is an introvert. Colleges tend to collect a lot of introverts as teachers, and this is not bad, but a mix of the two types is more healthy. I think our faculty at Nebraska Christian College does have a mix, and I intend to continue this balance in the future

But there is another factor I have toyed with for a long time: the optimist/pessimist scale. We might connect introversion with pessimism, but that has not always been my experience. I have known both optimistic introverts and pessimistic extroverts.

I would like to suggest that there are limits, though, to define a healthy church leader. Too optimistic and plans will never be realistic or successful. Too pessimistic, and no risks will ever be taken. Too introverted and effective leadership will be difficult. Too extroverted and the danger of coasting on personality rather than hard work will always be a temptation.

Bear with me. I’m suggesting a combination of the two that I call the Extroptimst Index. Don’t laugh yet. Hey, people have written best-selling leadership books with less substance than this!

There are many online tests that will give results for Introversion/Extroversion on a 100 point scale. That is also true for Optimism/Pessimism. If we combine them, it might look like this:

 

Scale

If we define a sweet spot within this continuum, excluding the 20% extremes, it would look like this:

Inner

Where would you fit on this grid? Where do you think the pastor of your church would be? Where do you wish your pastor was? I will admit that I score high on both extroversion (75) and optimism (72). My place on the grade would look like this:

MK point

Fortunately, I am within the recommended inner grid. This is especially good since I am the one who cooked this whole thing up! But I do think this index shows a certain leadership type, perhaps one that is not really measured in other indices.

It might be fun to think of where biblical persons would be on this scale. I would think that David would be high on both extroversion and optimism. Jeremiah would have been high on introversion and pessimism. I tend to think that Paul was something of an introvert, but very much an optimist. Solomon seems to have had extrovert qualities, but a strong pessimist streak (if Ecclesiastes is any indication). God used all of these persons, but in different ways. Where are you on the Extroptimist Scale?

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College