Tag Archives: denominations

Systems

broken-crossThe eye sees, and the heart desires.

-Rashi, Numbers 15:39

People cannot help when an improper impulse comes to mind, but they certainly can stop themselves from harboring the thought and allowing it to dominate their thinking. Yet, sometimes one may be responsible even for the impulse itself.

While some impulses are completely spontaneous, others arise out of stimulation. If a person reads, hears, or sees things which can provoke improper thoughts and feelings, he or she is then responsible for the impulses that are the consequences of that reading, listening, or observing.

This concept is especially important in our era, when not even a semblance of a code of decency exists as to what may or may not be publicly displayed. All varieties of media exploit our basest biological drives.

Given the interpretation of the right of free speech under which such provocative displays occur, the government has no way to restrain them. However, each person has not only a right, but also an obligation to be his or her own censor. No one has to look at everything that is displayed nor hear everything that is broadcast. Those who fail to exert their own personal censorship are tacitly stimulating immoral impulses, and for that alone they are liable.

Today I shall…

…try to avoid looking, hearing, and reading things which can have a degenerating effect.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 16”
Aish.com

I know that Rabbi Twerski was thinking of something else entirely, but when I consider trying to avoid exposing myself to things that have a “degenerating effect,” I have to include the world around me, including the world of “religion.” Well, “degenerating” isn’t the right term. “Discouraging” is.

Although you won’t read this until Sunday morning, I’m writing this on Thursday in response to my Wednesday night meeting with my Pastor. We were supposed to be discussing Chapter 8 in D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, but we got sidetracked on a few things.

I bring up the book because of my Pastor’s response to it. He told me that he was having difficulty accepting some of Lancaster’s assertions early on in the book out of concern that if he assented, he would end up traveling down a trail he didn’t agree with. That’s how I felt last night as Pastor and I talked about salvation, Jewish people, and the future of Judaism and Torah. I felt like I was being led to agree with doctrines that I wasn’t comfortable with but didn’t know how to refute. In going over the little pamphlet about Baptist Distinctives (that is, what makes the Baptist church different from all other churches), I could feel myself being tugged down the “garden path,” so to speak.

I ended our meeting by stepping out of the bowl of alphabet soup, all the letters and words of denominational doctrine and distinctives, and exploring actual experiences and relationships.

Well, sort of.

I’ve often imagined what it would have been like to live in the late Second Temple period in Jerusalem. What would it have been like to go into the Court of the Gentiles at the Temple. How many people would be there? Who would I see? What would the air smell like? Then, I’d humbly kneel and pray to Hashem. This close to the actual “house of prayer for all peoples,” would I feel the tangible presence of the God of Israel? Would I hear the songs of the priests ministering in the inner court?

0 RI’ve often imagined what it would have been like to be one of the non-Hebrew shepherds tending the flocks of Abraham in Canaan. In the heat of the day, I watch him in the distance, studying his mannerisms and appearance, knowing that this is a man, among all human beings, who has spoken to God “face to face.” In the evenings after a meal, around the fire, would he teach us of his God? What would he tell us about a relationship with Him? How does one pray to the God of Abraham as a humble shepherd? In blessing Abraham, would I be blessing God and also myself? What a hard and yet simple life, living close to a prophet and to the One God.

We read “Bible stories” about “Bible characters” as if reading morality fables or fairy tales. We “know” that they’re real, but do we? It’s just words on a page. Does “Biblical inerrancy” result in forgetting that Abraham was and is a real human being? Do we discount the moments of his life we don’t find in the Bible but nevertheless, moments that must have occurred? When, in reading the Bible and praying, do we allow Abraham to stop being a work of “fiction” and become a living, breathing, talking, experiencing human being?

Religion is all about systems, and Christianity, in all of its flavors, is just another series of systems. The systems exist to tell us what the Bible means and how we are supposed to live our lives. The systems tell us what is right and what is wrong, who is right and who is wrong, and what, if anything, we’re supposed to do about it.

But the systems totally ignore awe, majesty, terror, magnificence, and everything else everyone from Abraham in Canaan to a lowly, nameless goy in the Court of the Gentiles would experience in a living, breathing, bleeding, authentic, moment-by-moment encounter with God; the sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, thoughts, feelings, and dreams of actually being there instead of just reading the Bible and especially instead of filtering the Bible and everything else through religious systems that so very much remove us from authenticity and the jarring, electrifying, naked connection to our Creator.

I tried to explain how I thought that Jews and Gentiles both are a part of the unified body of Christ and yet the Jewish connection to the Sinai covenant and its conditions, the Torah, are not undone by that unity. I drew a diagram, which I’ve reproduced below, to explain my thoughts. “But the Jewish people haven’t accepted Christ, so they can’t be saved,” he says (I’m paraphrasing). “Not just faith in ‘a Messiah’ but ‘The Messiah,’ in Jesus,” he says (I’m paraphrasing again).

Something’s wrong. I’m agreeing to things I’m not sure about. My Pastor is so sure of so many things that I think we can only see through “a glass darkly,” and that exist as much in the realm of God as they do in the material world. I don’t know how to explain it, so it’s difficult to know what to say.

covenant_chart1And there are so many other people who seem so sure about unsure things. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning, just one day after being sentenced to 35 years in Federal Prison for releasing 700,000 secret military documents to Wikileaks, should come out as transsexual and declare that he wants to live the rest of his life as a woman, obviously changing how prison will be “applied” to Manning.

Religious systems. We craft them saying that we see their foundations in the Bible. But we craft them to say whatever we believe is important to us, and thus they reflect the political and social agendas and imperatives of the occupants of these systems. Extracting religious systems from the Bible is supposed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, but because human beings are involved, they end up dramatically contradicting each other, sometimes (often?) based on generational changes in attitudes.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think I’d make a good Baptist, not because I have anything against Baptists per se, but because I don’t think any denomination or modern religious stream, old school or new, holds all the keys and unlocks all the doors.

I know they think they do. They all think they do. But being an outsider, I can see a different perspective. I can see lots of perspectives, and none of them make a lot of sense. Pastor pretty much agrees with what he reads in Thomas Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law and I can barely stand a single thing Schreiner wrote.

Pastor is also reading Rudolph’s and Willitts’s book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. He’s just finished the chapter written by Scott J. Hafemann, “The Redemption of Israel for the Sake of the Gentiles” and he likes it very much. I’m going to re-read it to refresh my memory of the text. What did the Pastor see in this chapter that we can agree upon?

Can there be a peace? Or is the only peace in the presence of God and to heck with the systems?

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The Fundamental Platform

Large crowd of people watching concert or sport eventWe talked denominations last Wednesday night.

Pastor Randy has a wonderful grasp of the historical development of Fundamentalism (which in its original incarnation, isn’t as scary as it seems today). Wikipedia provides this handy summary:

Christian fundamentalism, also known as fundamentalist Christianity, or simply fundamentalism, refers to a movement begun in the late 19th and early 20th century British and American Protestant denominations among evangelicals who reacted energetically against theological and cultural modernism. Fundamentalists argued that 19th century modernist theologians had misinterpreted or rejected certain doctrines, especially biblical inerrancy, which evangelicals viewed as the fundamentals of Christian faith. A few scholars regard Catholics who reject modern theology in favor of more traditional doctrines as fundamentalists. Scholars debate how much the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are synonymous.

Fundamentalism is a movement manifested in various denominations with various theologies, rather than a single denomination or systematic theology. It became active in the 1910s after the release of the Fundamentals, a ten-volume set of essays, apologetic and polemic written by conservative Protestant theologians to defend what they saw as Protestant orthodoxy. The movement became more organized in the 1920s within U.S. Protestant churches, especially Baptist and Presbyterian. Many such churches adopted a “fighting style” and combined Princeton theology with Dispensationalism. Since 1930, many fundamentalist churches in North America and around the world have been represented by the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (renamed IFCA International in 1996), which holds to biblical inerrancy, the Virgin birth of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the literal resurrection of Christ, and the Second Coming of Christ, among other doctrines.

Really, all a fundamentalist was in its original meaning, was a person who adhered to the core fundamentals of their faith. The fundamentalist movement was born out of a desire to establish or re-establish just what was and is fundamental about being a Christian. We have all kinds of denominations and theologies and doctrines. What is the bare minimum core set of beliefs that are necessary for a person to authentically be a Christian?

The paragraph above lists all but one of them. I’ll put the complete list in bullet point form to make the information easier to read.

  • Biblical inerrancy
  • Deity of Jesus
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • The literal resurrection of Christ
  • The Second Coming of Christ

Believe it or not, in the late 19th century in America and Canada (and probably Europe), These core beliefs weren’t automatically adopted and shared between Christians. I had thought the Deity of Christ had been settled by the third or fourth century, but apparently a great deal came into question in about the mid-19th century, and a series of conferences were held to settle the issue (though in the realm of human beliefs, nothing is ever finally settled).

This is all going to seem pretty dry compared to what I usually write, but I know so little about how denominations formed and what makes them different from one another, that I need to put it down in some semi-stable place as a reference. I didn’t take notes during our conversation, so I’ll have to work from memory and the charts Pastor gave me, one of which I’m including here (click to enlarge).

f-m-theological-spectrum

As Pastor was talking, I recalled my blog post What Good is There in the Hebrew Roots Movement, where I attempted to illustrate what Christianity, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots have certain things in common. I think we need to expand that idea a bit to include what we all agree upon as disciples of the Jewish Messiah. I know, for instance, that there are a few Messianic Jewish individuals and groups who claim Yeshua as Messiah but deny his Deity. They may be “Messianic,” but if we’re operating from the diagram inserted above, they can’t be included in the list of people/groups who share a fundamental set of core beliefs about Jesus.

I think such a discussion is important if, for no other reason, than to manage the “dizzyingly” confusing collection of different denominations, movements, and groups in our world. Pastor was able to place himself on the different charts he gave me, but I was just baffled where I would fit in. Where does Messianic Judaism find itself in these spectrums or is it such a diverse movement that different Messianic groups would land on different points along the scale?

I found out that Pastor has started reading Rudolph’s and Willitts’s book Introduction to Messianic Judaism. He seems to have thrown himself into the content, but where he finds himself cheering in some chapters, he disagrees strongly with others. I can’t wait to get a more detailed report from him.

I mention this because I think his mixed reaction indeed describes the larger experience within the overall Messianic Jewish movement. The movement is still in a formation stage and is trying to define itself. Contrary to what many people may believe, Messianic Judaism isn’t a single, unified entity. In many ways, it is going through the evolutionary process that mainstream Christianity has experienced and continues to go through. That’s why discovering a fundamental set of core beliefs that can be shared by all disciples of Messiah/Christ is really important. Whatever differences exist that may separate us, at least we’ll know what we all have in common.

How will that work in terms of bilateral ecclesiology as defined in Mark Kinzer’s book Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism? I don’t know. As I recall from reading the book several years ago, Rabbi Dr. Kinzer draws a pretty hard and firm line in the sand between Messianic Jewish practice and identity and any non-Jewish worship and following of the Jewish Messiah. Separate but equal silos.

But as I’ve said, Messianic Judaism itself exists on a spectrum and the portion of the movement that expresses bilateral ecclesiology in its purest form (if it exists in actual practice) represents one line along the graph.

Well over two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a blog post called Gears, Wires, and Batteries where I proposed to take all of the assumptions I’d made during my time in the Hebrew Roots movement and strip them down to nothing, then rebuild my theology from scratch.

I didn’t get it all down quite to zero, but the result is a movement away from Hebrew Roots and more toward Christianity with a “Messianic” twist. Pastor described the life of a gentleman whose name I can’t remember, a person who was instrumental in defining and then fulfilling the evangelical needs of a post-World War II Europe. This amazing person, at one point, experienced a severe crisis of faith and had to stop all external activities in order to re-discover exactly what he believed.

interfaithI suppose I’ve been “leaking” similar thoughts on my blog lately. I’m trying to discover and re-discover where I fit in. My position continues to waver a bit, especially since I’ve been attending church and Sunday school for the better part of a year.

Pastor said he wasn’t trying to convince me to become a Baptist and that although he agrees with much or all of the doctrines of the Standard Baptist Church, he’s not married to the name. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a Baptist. I suspect not, since I feel more like the wildcard in the deck. On the other hand, when God sent Pastor to live in Israel for fifteen years and then brought him back and made him a Pastor, I think God added a bit of a wildcard to Pastor’s deck, too. Although he’s more “standard” than I am as a Christian, we each have our “peculiarities”.

There’s a reason our conversations are just between the two of us. Most believers can’t tolerate the dynamic tension involved in being suspended between categories, labels, and pigeon-holes.

I don’t know where this is all going to lead for me personally, but I suspect it’s another step along the path that God has set before me. As far as all of the groups, movements, organizations, and individuals who, on some level, acknowledge that Jesus or Yeshua is the Christ or Messiah, there must be some ground-level, foundational set of beliefs that we all have in common. I know that especially in Messianic Judaism, it’s important to draw identity distinctions in order to avoid the pitfalls of assimilation into Christian culture and identity, but below that layer should exist a platform where we can all stand together and say, “this is what we believe, no matter how different we are otherwise.”

Where do all Christians, all Messianic Jewish people and affiliated Gentiles, and all Hebrew Roots Gentiles and affiliated Jews stand and make that statement? Have we ever tried to do that?

Separate Paths

SeparatedHowever, after a few years these same mission organizations started putting other books at the top of the bags of Bibles. These were books about one particular denomination’s theology, or teaching that focused on certain aspects of God’s Word.

This, I believe, was the start of disunity among many of China’s house churches.

These booklets told us we must worship in a certain way, or that we must speak in tongues to be a true believer, or that only if we were baptized in Jesus’ name (instead of in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) could we be saved. Other teachings focused on extreme faith, still others argued for or against the role of women in the church.

We read all these booklets and soon we were confused! The churches started to split into groups that believed one thing against groups that believed another. Instead of only speaking for Jesus, we also started speaking against other believers who didn’t conform to our views.

-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway)
Chapter 20: “The Road to Unity” pg 233
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

-Thomas Gray
“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742)

Any of this sound familiar?

Brother Yun (Liu Zhenying) is describing a situation that occurred with the Christian communities of China in 1994. Various Christian missionary organizations from other nations wanted to help the isolated and often persecuted church in China. When China’s borders started to open up in the 1980s, these missionaries took the opportunity to engage representatives of the church in China, which was broken up in to thousands of house churches for the purposes of security and anonymity in relation to a hostile government, and try to provide for the Chinese Christians’ needs. They needed Bibles…lots and lots of Bibles.

After foreign Christian missionaries were expelled from China after the advent of the communist revolution in 1948-1950, the body of Chinese believers were pretty much on their own. Only a handful of Christians possessed Bibles, including Brother Yun, and almost nothing was known about “Christian theology” except what was revealed by the Bible itself and the Holy Spirit as it was manifested in the lives of the faithful, particularly Pastors and teachers like Brother Yun. Although there were very rare encounters with a few Chinese people who self-identified as Catholic, Christianity in China had no denominational identity of any sort. The focus of Christians in China was to covertly study the Bible, covertly meet in small house churches, covertly travel to preach the Gospel where it was unknown in China, and if captured, imprisoned, and tortured, covertly teach the Gospel to other prisoners and on occasion, even to sympathetic prison guards.

No one was thinking about denominationalism and anyone who was a Christian was a brother and sister to everyone else who was a Christian. They shared the same passion for Christ, the same fear of the government, the same pattern of concealing themselves to avoid detection and arrest, and the same risk of being tried, jailed, tortured, and executed by the anti-church state.

That changed in the early 1990s, and with the knowledge that there were different theologies, different doctrines, different denominations, and different identities, all calling themselves “Christian” but sometimes differing radically from one another, the once unified church of China became fragmented and fractured, just like Christianity in the rest of the world.

We arranged for Zhang Rongliang and the leaders of this Fangcheng Church to meet with us. This was a big step because of the tension that had existed between his group and Brother Xu’s group for many years. The day before Zhang arrived we had a time for prayer. Brother Fan said, “Brother Xu, I believe the Lord has given me a word for you, but I’m not sure you can accept it.”

He continued, “I feel that when Zhang Rongliang and his leaders arrive you shouldn’t sit down with them and talk straight away. You shouldn’t even pray with them at first. When they arrive you should immediately get on your knees and wash their feet one by one.”

Brother Xu, who leads millions of believers across China, immediately responded, “I accept this as a word from the Lord. I’ll certainly wash their feet.”

Yun/Hattaway, pp 236-7

I’ve spent this past week addressing the struggle between Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots Christianity in terms of community identity and whether or not we can consider our two groups (and the multiple sub-groups contained within) at all part of the same “body of Christ.”

There are days when I have my doubts.

This isn’t quite what Brother Yun is describing, but it is related. At one point, the Chinese Christians conceptualized their identities as Christians in fundamentally the same way. They just didn’t know any better. Then, with the awareness of denominationalism, split after split occurred, and the only way to even begin the healing was through an act of humility, much as what the Master performed upon his own disciples shortly before his crucifixion and death.

washing-feetIn the case of Brother Xu and Zhang Rongliang, it almost didn’t work. When the different groups of Chinese Christian leaders got together in the same room, discussions degraded and old arguments resurfaced. Zhang flew into a rage and almost stormed out before Brother Fan pushed Brother Xu into hurriedly getting some water and kneeling in front of Zhang to wash his feet. It took years to unify most of China’s churches again but the effort wasn’t totally successful, at least in the short run. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, most of China’s estimated 58 million Christians were unified as brothers and sisters, averting the disaster that came about with the knowledge of “differences.”

But the problem isn’t the same in the Messianic Jewish/Hebrew Roots Christianity space. Jews are different by design…God’s design. Finding a way to integrate Gentiles into a Jewish religious movement and yet have the Gentiles retain their identity, not requiring that they convert to Judaism, was and is something of a chore. I personally don’t believe it was ever completely accomplished in Paul’s lifetime, and not that soon afterward, the whole thing disintegrated (though it took a few centuries to finish it off) into a Jewish religion that did not believe the Messiah had yet come, and a Christian religion that believed the Jewish Messiah came, rejected the Jews for rejecting him, and took upon himself the Gentiles instead. When the Christ returns, it is generally believed he will reward his faithful Gentile Christians and judge the unbelieving Jews.

What a mess.

I still don’t have an answer but I have a vague sense of an ideal. The ideal is that somehow, in some way, the Jewish sheep and the Gentile sheep will be able to enter the same room and without too much discord, be able to have a conversation. In some way, we’ll be able to discuss what we have in common and not just what makes us different (and was drives us apart). In some way, we will all seek to encounter God and we will all seek joy in Him in a way that is universal.

Imagine what it would be like to speak to the wisest, most powerful being in the universe.

Realize that when you pray, you are doing just that. As you talk in prayer, nothing else in the world exists for you but Him and you. Talk to Him with the ease you talk with your father. At the same time, maintain complete awe and respect.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Proper Prayer

When you personally are happy, it doesn’t make any difference what others have. So the way to counteract envy is to increase your own level of joy.

By mastering joy, you will become free from envy.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Joy Removes Envy Of Others

I believe fear of assimilation and marginalization within the Messianic movement drives Messianic Judaism to strive with great effort to preserve their Jewish identity. The history of the church has certainly shown us that such Jewish fear is well founded and that supersessionism, otherwise known as replacement theology or completion theology, is something, in all its forms, to be resisted, battled, and defeated.

I believe that a lack of recognition of the Jewish source of Christian faith, and frankly, envy of Jewish “chosenness” has led some factions within Hebrew Roots to claim the full Torah mitzvot for themselves. Even if these factions deny attempting to usurp an actual Jewish identity, modeling your life on modern Jewish synagogue worship practices and recognizing zero differentiation between Gentile and Jewish believers within the body of Messiah amounts to taking away another kid’s toys just because that kid has them and you want them.

OK, both of those examples were of extremist positions but things can be pretty “extreme” in the world of religion. The Chinese Christians had nothing to fight about until the very concept of differences and distinctions within Christianity was introduced from outside of China. You might think that Hebrew Roots has the right idea from that example and say that the “cure” for the Messianic Judaism/Hebrew Roots conflict is also to eliminate distinctions, form a unity movement, and to start washing each other’s feet (washing away uniqueness and identity along with the dust of the road).

But as far as I can tell, there were no Jewish believers in China. Brother Yun’s book doesn’t address the issue. The problems and the practice of Christianity in China over the forty or so years his book covers had wholly different priorities.

But it also presents a kernel of truth. Distinctions being what they are, we all either need to find some common ground upon which to walk and talk with each other, or we might as well accept the denomination solution that has been alive and well within both Christianity and Judaism for many centuries and agree to disagree, form our own groups, and be happy inside of them.

Do Orthodox Jews complain about Reform Jews? Do Protestants complain about Catholics?

separation-east-and-westProbably.

Even if I went around washing everyone’s feet in the blogosphere, I doubt that it would result in the sort of healing that Brother Yun describes in his book. The only healing I know how to accomplish is my own, and even that is a monumental task. Rabbi Pliskin describes how prayer can connect each of us to God and dispel petty bickering, envy, and unhappiness, replacing them with awe, respect, and joy.

I can’t control anyone reading this blog. I can’t stop caring about you and what happens to you, but I can’t affect your lives in any way, shape, or form unless you allow it on some level. I probably shouldn’t even try because trying only contributes to my own lack of peace, blunting my joy in the realization of God.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)

“Hope never abandons you, you abandon it.”

-George Weinberg

Walk whichever path that you will. Peace.