Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Balancing Freedom in Christ with Unity in Christ

Individualism and freedom are hallmarks of Western society.  In fact, we Americans are very proud of our freedom.  We want to be free and independent to make our own choices about how we live our lives, how we make decisions, who we support in political elections, and free to choose what religion to follow, or to choose not to follow a religion at all.  Freedom is a value we should cherish.

Even when we talk about the gospel, we speak about being free in Christ; free from sin and the law and its demands.  In fact, the central idea of salvation, that God has bestowed God’s grace on us, is based on the idea that this is a free gift, given not because we have earned it, but because God is gracious towards us.  We are indeed free in Christ.

Yet, although the gospel message is one of freedom, we may often take individualism and freedom to a misguided extreme.  Certainly individual Christians are free to hear and follow God as God so leads them.  However, believers must also take into account that individual freedom may at times contravene Christian unity, which can bring harm to the faith of other believers.

The Apostle Paul, who was certainly the most ardent proponent of the freedom offered in Christ, was nevertheless concerned that Christian freedom find a home within a community of faith, in which we are members of the same body of Christ.  Indeed, in reading Paul’s letters we find that he constantly sought to balance Christian freedom with Christian unity.

As evidenced by the letters which he wrote, Paul frequently dealt with issues being raised in the churches across Asia Minor; issues that endangered Christian unity.  One particular congregation that received most of his attention was the church at Corinth.  This church brought many questions to Paul, and Paul sought to answer these concerns through two epistles that were eventually selected to be a part of the New Testament.

One particular issue that Paul addresses is the eating of food that had been offered to idols.  Eating such food was a common practice in the ancient world, but in Corinth, questions must have been raised concerning whether or not believers could eat the meat that was used in such rituals and still remain faithful to Christ.  Thus, this church turned to their beloved apostle for answers.

But if we read carefully the passage from 1 Corinthians8:1-13, we will discover that Paul does not see this issue as the basic problem.  Indeed, Paul only uses the issue of eating to point to a deeper problem, one of arrogance and misguided freedom.  It seems that some in Corinth thought themselves to be so much more spiritually knowledgeable than others that they thought they were freer than others to choose to eat the meat offered to idols.

Their rationale might go something like this: “We know that idols do not exist, for God is the only living deity.  Therefore, since we have greater spiritual knowledge, we know that the meat sacrificed to these idols is only meat, since the idols are not real.  Therefore, since we have this great knowledge, and because we are free in Christ, we can eat the meat that is sacrificed to these idols without defiling ourselves.”

Yet, there is a fundamental problem with their logic: Does their act of freedom demonstrate any faithfulness to God through whom believers have their existence as members of Christ’s body?  In other words, does their freedom in Christ allow them to do that which might be harmful to the body of Christ?

Paul’s implicit answer to the Corinthians is very akin to what he makes explicit other places:  Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for the flesh (see Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 5:13).  When we are given freedom in Christ, it does not mean that we can live the way we want to live.  Despite our emphasis on our individual relationships to God, we are always and forever members of the body of Christ, and to a great extent we are responsible to other members of that body. 

As Christians we do have freedom in Christ. Yet, freedom must always be guided by love; love for God and love for others.  The problem for us is that we do not consider how our attitudes, beliefs, and actions will affect others, and we often disregard their best interests.  Some of our actions can be so serious as to alienate others from their own faith in Christ.  We need to re-examine our actions and form them in ways that build up others through loving relationships with one another. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Having All Things in Common: The Essence of Christian Community

The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37).  In both references, Luke, the author of Acts, narrates that the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread.  Even in our churches today, these actions are familiar and normal to us, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.

But perhaps more striking to our ears are the statements in which Luke tells us that these believers “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  He goes on to say, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

What might cause such radical generosity among these believers?  For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community.  Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others.  Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a reevaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.

But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God?  To some extent, we would have to say yes.  However, the giving up of private property for the well being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world.  This action was also a major step, if not the major step toward the formation of the beloved community.

The giving over of one’s possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property.  It was something much greater; it was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers.  Indeed, without the giving up of possessions to share with others, true community among the believers would not have been realized.

Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world.  For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world which held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle, who taught that friends held things in common.  And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way.  But Luke’s narration of these summary portraits of the early church informs us that what they were practicing was different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit. 

Yet, while the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions, according to Luke, were actually normative for Christian identity and community.  Luke’s narration of their selling private possessions is not so much for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, though this reason is there.  Rather, the practice of community sharing among the early believers was a fact of being the Jesus-following, sprit-empowered, people of God.  It was who they were.

The portraits of the church in Acts, therefore, are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue; though Christians should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts.  Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church.  To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.

Through the practice of sharing possessions, the believers were materially expressing something deeper that was essential to their being the community of Jesus.  Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions had become the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.

Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other.  Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation.  And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace.  Once the right to claim private possessions was reevaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion, and humility further shaped and characterized that community.

Western Christianity, and especially our American brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective. This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit and in which they found new existence and identity. 

The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith; a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion, and humility.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jesus’ Call to Costly and Liberating Discipleship

The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Jesus in my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at http://direct.energion.co/reframing-a-relevant-faith or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Reframing-Relevant-Faith-Drew-Smith/dp/1631991213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418159944&sr=1-1&keywords=reframing+a+relevant+faith. An e-version is also available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=reframing%20a%20relevant%20faith%20kindle.

Jesus’ call to enter the rule of God by taking up the cross and following him calls for a radical new approach to life and living.  Yet, we can often look at the demands Jesus voices in the Gospels with great trepidation, knowing that these are often too difficult for us to follow.  Perhaps we are much like the folks in Mark 3:21, thinking Jesus has “gone out of his mind.”  Indeed, the church and individual Christians have ignored Jesus’ radical teachings preferring to find spiritual fulfillment in a personal relationship with Jesus that is based solely on Jesus being our savior.  Taking up the cross, renouncing possessions, loving and serving our neighbors and enemies, all seem too stringent and costly for us.  We want the Jesus who calls us to salvation, but we reject the Jesus that demands discipleship.  Yet, the irony of following Jesus is that though it is costly, it is at the same time, liberating.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states very powerfully that grace cannot be cheap.  “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”  Bonhoeffer coined an almost paradoxical phrase to describe the experience of salvation and discipleship: costly grace.  In his words, costly grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”  Bonhoeffer sees the call to follow Jesus as a call that is both costly and liberating.
In the Gospels, we find Jesus calling those who would become his followers.  In the first chapter of Mark’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen.  He calls them to leave their nets, to leave their families, and to follow him.  In this story, and other call stories, we discover the tension that Bonhoeffer points out as that which epitomizes the gospel: Discipleship is both costly and liberating. 

When Jesus comes upon these fishermen they are doing what they normally do on any given day; they are fishing.  Indeed, this was their life; this was their existence.  Fishing was what was routine and comfortable for them.  While their occupation as fishermen was hard work that brought many challenges, it is what they knew and it is who they were.  Yet, when Jesus calls them, he calls them to leave their lives as they know them.  He calls them to turn away from their normal existence and to let go of what they know best.  How costly is such a decision? 
While leaving fishing may not seem big to us, let’s take into account what Jesus demands from another.  A rich man approached Jesus wanting to know how he might gain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the greatest commandments; to love God and to love others.  Jesus then told the man, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”  At this demand, the man turned away, refusing to accept the cost.
We must be careful not to distance ourselves too much from this story.  In calling us to follow him, Jesus always demands that we relinquish our claims; our claims of independence, our claims to security and freedom, our claims to what we own, and our claims to live our lives as we see fit.  To answer the call of discipleship is always costly.  If it is not, it is not discipleship.
Yet, even as we speak of discipleship as costly, we must also view it as liberating.  The call to the two sets of brothers to leave what they know, what gave them comfort and security, is at the same time a call to find liberation and hope in something that is transformative. While their lives of fishing certainly gave them a sense of normality, they were unknowingly missing what authentic life with God was like.  Jesus’ call for them to leave their nets and follow him was a call to embrace a new liberating existence. 
But to accept the call of Jesus to follow him, we must relinquish what holds us back from the true gospel and what prevents us from becoming authentic disciples of Jesus.  We must count the cost of discipleship, and we must be willing to move from our status quo existence of comfort, security, and that which we know as normal, to embrace the life changing, world transforming, and liberating power of the gospel.  This is authentic discipleship that is both costly and liberating.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reframing A Relevant Faith

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at http://direct.energion.co/reframing-a-relevant-faith or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Reframing-Relevant-Faith-Drew-Smith/dp/1631991213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418159944&sr=1-1&keywords=reframing+a+relevant+faith. An e-version is also available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=reframing%20a%20relevant%20faith%20kindle.

The title of this book, Reframing a Relevant Faith, was developed with great intention. As intelligent humans who are constantly receiving messages and signals through various mediums and experiences, we process these messages through our own frames of reference. These frames of reference are formed by our own histories, our own cultures, and our own beliefs, whether religious or not. In terms of religious beliefs, many people use religion as the primary way to understand life. Theology is always formulated in context, whether the theology that is shaped is formal or personal. While the Bible and our Christian traditions have significant influence on shaping our theology, our experience will eventually play a major part in what we develop as our theology. This may happen on a personal level when one experiences something good or something tragic that alters his or her understanding of God and life. But it can also take place on a wider scale.

The theology that has been passed down from generation to generation, whether based on the Bible or tradition, or some combination of both, becomes ours, but only after we have re-framed it to our own world and our own experiences. This means that we must take seriously the texts of the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the historic theology and liturgy of our Christian heritage. But it also means that we need not transfer all of this to our own context as if the Bible, the creeds and confessions, and the historic theology and liturgy of our Christian heritage were stone tablets. We have to re-frame these in order that theology becomes relevant for every context.

This may not be an easy process, and it is certainly not a willy-nilly method. Moreover, we may hold out as long as we can before we embrace such change and re-frame our understanding. Indeed, those who are fundamentalists are called this for the very reason that they do not accept these changes to their fundamental understandings about the Christian faith, and thus they will refuse to re-frame religious beliefs, choosing instead to hold on to what they see as revealed and unchangeable truth. Yet, even those who identify themselves as liberal have their own traditional beliefs that will be difficult for them to reframe.

But those who do embrace this change, whether joyfully or reluctantly, must somehow re-frame their understandings of their beliefs about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith to fit their own context. Re-framing can mean minor adjustments to what we believe about our faith, or it can be major paradigm shifts in the way we think and believe. This is not a haphazard or insincere approach to theology and faith, for we must remain in dialogue with the scriptures and the traditions that have been passed on to us. In re-framing our faith, we may not completely throw out the old in order to make room for the new.

This book is my attempt to re-frame how we think about the central ideas of Christian faith and practice as a result of the cultural and religious changes of our modern world. In a sense, what is contained in this book, at least to some extent, is how I understand progressive Christianity. My proposals in part or in total are not exhaustive interpretations of progressive Christianity; they are merely my contributions to what I perceive as a growing conversation about the meaning of progressive Christianity and the future vitality of this movement.

As I stated above, if the church is to do more than survive the current and inevitable changes that are occurring and to remain relevant in the midst of these shifts, then we must re-think and re-frame Christian belief and practice. Therefore, in the chapters that follow, I will discuss how we might rethink the Bible, Jesus, and the life and mission of the Church. By stating that we should rethink these Christian tenets, I am not suggesting that any of these are outdated, or that any of these important theological ideas should be thrown out. Indeed, what we believe about these is vitally important to Christian identity; without any of these we cease to be Christian. Nor, am I suggesting that my ideas will be accepted by all. I am not so bold as to claim to have definitive ideas on these topics. My reason, indeed, my hope, for writing this book is to contribute to the ongoing conversation about Christian faith as it is shaped by the beliefs and practices of changing Christians living in a changing world. I also hope to engage believers from all persuasions in this ongoing conversation.

While I am trained in biblical scholarship, I have not written this book primarily for scholarly consumption. Theology and theological thinking are not owned by the academy. I do believe that many Christians have mistakenly rejected the work of very fine academic scholars and theologians, believing that somehow because they work in the academic world, they are focused on deconstructing the Christian faith to make it seem untrue or illegitimate. Simply rejecting ideas about the Bible and theology just because they are formulated in an academic setting seems ill-informed at best. Indeed, our reading of the Bible and our understanding of church history and theology will be much better informed if we pay attention to what scholars and theologians are saying.

But most theology and theological thinking takes place within churches at the grass roots level, and scholars who dismiss this reality are only fooling themselves. Thus, I seek to be in dialogue with both sides of the conversations, but especially those taking place at the grassroots level. Yet, as one who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament, and one who has been trained in history, biblical studies, philosophy, and theology, I also seek to provoke a deeper theological thinking from these churches. Too many Christians do not want to put the intellectual effort into thinking about faith, and this is a problem that must be remedied. I hope that this book is my small contribution toward calling Christians to think seriously and critically about their faith.

I have written this book not only as a book to be read by individuals, but also one that I hope will be used in groups. Indeed, reading this book in community may bring great dialogue about the issues raised here. Theological thinking and faithful discipleship does not happen when individuals uncritically consume information. Rather, good theological thinking happens in conversations between persons who think different and who come together from different back grounds to pursue questions. Thinking, discussing, and debating issues and ideas in community leads to more faithful churches that seek to follow Christ in authentic discipleship.

My hope is that this book causes folks to think critically about their faith. Therefore, to this end, I have provided questions at the end of each chapter that I hope will spur on critical thinking and good conversations. Moreover, I hope that these questions will lead to both individuals and groups creating more questions. The pursuit of truth is always an endless pursuit, and this often requires new ways of thinking. Or, as St. John of the Cross stated, “To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not.”

To take this journey we must continue to ask probing and sometimes uncomfortable questions. Such questions, perhaps uncomfortable, and maybe even frightening to ask, can help to lead us down the never-ending path of pursuing the truth. May we continually ask such questions about our faith, individually and together, in an effort to reframe a relevant faith.