Monthly Archives: February 2014

Was the Early Church the Ideal Church?

A few weeks ago I posted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about the ideal church. It doesn’t exist, it’s idolatrous to pursue it, and it’s an ultimately oppressive quest.

We were discussing the first generation church in class today and noting how Luke tells the story in Acts. He writes of the sharp dispute between the church leaders in Antioch and the visitors from Jerusalem in Acts 15, giving rise to the Jerusalem council.


“Two Old Men Disputing (Peter and Paul in Conversation),” Rembrandt

We go on to read of the split between Paul and Barnabas over the inclusion of John Mark on the journey later in that same chapter.

And surely there were many Christian Jews (being misinformed about the nature of Paul’s ministry to the nations) among the group that tried to kill Paul in Acts 21-22. After all, he speaks of Jesus in his defense in v. 8 with no objection arising from his hostile audience. They only object and go after him when he speaks of Jesus sending him to the nations (v. 21).

These are just a few of the things to keep in mind if you ever hear someone complain that the church today isn’t like the early church in Acts.

Well, if you’ve got arguments in your church, splits and factions, and perhaps even some folks who have tried to kill one of your leaders, then your church is an awful lot like the early church in Acts!

On Literalism & Meeting Other Christians

I’m enjoying Ronald Osborn‘s excellent new book, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic). Its title explains the book’s basic thrust.


Before exploring the possibility of animal suffering and death before the fall in the last third of his work, Osborn critiques a reading of Genesis 1-2 that demands that the text speak in modern scientific terms. In addition to a number of other problems, this view of Genesis is often accompanied by rhetoric that demonizes those with other views.

Perhaps the most widely deployed auxiliary theory in the protective belt that encircles strict literalism on Genesis is the claim that only young earth or young life creationists take seriously the authority of Scripture. Yet if the lives and witnesses of actual believers matter at all to our thinking, this claim is demonstrably false. Numerous believers with unimpeachable credentials as scientists, as theologians and as biblical scholars, hold very high views of the Bible’s authority while embracing nonliteralistic readings of Genesis. What they have challenged is not the inspiration or authority of Scripture but the appropriateness of rigid hermeneutical approaches to the Bible that treat the creation narratives as a scientific-historical record. There is always, of course, the possibility that these individuals are mistaken in their readings. No one’s ideas should be treated as being beyond thoughtful criticism. But the fundamentalist insistence that these committed Christians can only be one of three things – mentally feeble, morally suspect or spiritually deficient – is perhaps the most depressing illustration of how degenerating the linear equation of literalism on Genesis with belief in biblical authority has become in much creationist discourse. This hypothesis can only be sustained if we cloister ourselves behind very high walls lest we encounter the actual lives and thinking of others. (A fundamentalist can never be too careful what she reads or whom she befriends!) (p. 73).

Indeed, I have witnessed the redemptive dynamics God generates by his Spirit when we encounter well-meaning Christians who hold opposing views.

I was part of one such encounter last summer hosted by The Colossian Forum. Their mission is to provide a “safe place for the riskiest questions.”

They brought together two scholars who held divergent views on human origins for several days of prayer and vigorous dialogue. The result was not universal agreement, but it certainly removed the factor to which Osborn refers in the paragraph quoted above — the demonization of a fellow Christian.

I’ll never forget the reflective words spoken by one of the participants at the conclusion of the forum. He said that he was completely unprepared for his conversation partner to be someone who loved God’s word, who loved Jesus and the church, and who prayed passionately. To that point, he could only imagine that someone would hold another view because he was either misguided or committed to undermining Scripture.

The existence of groups like The Colossian Forum is a hopeful sign. But it remains a tragedy that professing Christians maintain group loyalty and ideological purity by demonizing other Christians.

U2 & the Music of Inclusion

U2 appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s first night hosting The Tonight Show earlier this week. They played “Invisible” on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Center and then performed “Ordinary Love” acoustically in the show’s studio.


I’m working through several New Testament texts on gospel inclusion, and running through my mind over the last few weeks is the repeated line in “Invisible” that “there is no them; there’s only us.”

My favorite moment of the night was a small and very simple gesture that instantiated this reality.

Bono, at the end of “Ordinary Love,” calls out Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. Watch how it makes Questlove smile. It’s a beautiful moment of connection and inclusion.

Meals in Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s Gospel is filled with eating.  There are 19 meals in Luke, 13 of which are unique to his account.  If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel!

Meals are occasions for Kingdom dynamics, for the experience of redemptive realities.

They are occasions for healing and hospitality (9:10-17; 10:5-7) for fellowship and celebration (13:29), for worshiping Jesus and receiving forgiveness (7:36-50), for prophetic confrontation (11:37-54), and for reconciliation and the celebration of redemption (15:6, 9, 23-24).

Luke closes his Gospel with one final meal, the climax of a fascinating episode on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35).


“Supper at Emmaus,” Caravaggio

Jesus’ identity is hidden from these two disciples as they travel along the road.  When they stop for the night and sit down to eat, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (v. 31).

The two disciples immediately take off for Jerusalem to tell “the eleven” what had happened:

Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread (v. 35).

They don’t remark about Jesus’ amazing lecture or his miraculous disappearance.  They note their recognition of Jesus when they ate.

At the dramatic conclusion of his meal-filled Gospel, then, Luke emphasizes twice that the disciples recognize Jesus’ life-giving presence in the sharing of the meal.

Luke uses meals as a metaphor for church life.  The patterns of life and the community dynamics that should characterize God’s people are the things that take place at meals in the Gospel of Luke.

And when the church gathers and shares life together, Jesus is present.

Luke’s meals put the question to contemporary churches: Do your church’s corporate dynamics resemble a celebratory meal?  Do the habits and practices of your community bring about mutual refreshment and communal celebration?

When your church gathers, do disciples recognize the presence of Jesus?

Gospel Perception

In this episode — the call of Levi — Mark clearly contrasts Jesus’ and the Pharisees’ perception.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:13-17).

Jesus sees Levi. The Pharisees see a category.

Midweek Semantic Snobbery

Having encountered in several places some less than lovely prose on a heavy-lidded afternoon, I’m provoked enough to fussily register a few fastidious notes.

The creationist proponent and erstwhile debater is named “Ken Ham,” not “Ken Hamm.” I saw this regularly over the last few weeks from both his friends and foes. While I understand the desire to grant him an extra letter, I would’ve chosen differently.

One is in the “throes” of death, not its “throws.

A man who styles himself a writer ill-advisedly employed the word “impactful.” I may send him the following from

Impactful is one of those words that somehow arouse [sic] intense disdain, especially among editors and other would-be guardians of English. According to its critics, the word exemplifies “bad, ugly usage.” They call it “barbarous,” dismiss it as “a meaningless buzzword,” and hate it so much that they extend their contempt of the word to contempt for its users [indeed!]. Some justify their scorn by saying that the word lacks the original meaning of the suffix -ful —“full of”— as in remorseful  or wrathful.

The Seduction of Worldly Political Power

Alan Storkey, in his very interesting book, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, reads Jesus’ temptation through a political lens. It’s a fascinating study and a very interesting take on the historical Jesus.

The following passage regarding Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation helpfully exposes why Christians ought to be wary of the seductions of earthly political power.

The third temptation is even more centrally political. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this will I give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt. 4:8-9). This is . . . the ultimate political temptation of world rule. . .

The temptation requires a total ambition of the kind only present with Alexander the great, the Caesars, and a few others. It also requires the kind of arrogance that believes, “I am good for the world. If I ruled the world . . .” Among candidates for benevolent dictatorship, Jesus would of course, rank top. But his response to the devil shows that all of this is misconception. Jesus insists: “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10; Deut. 6:13). This is the crucial political lesson. Many politicians assume that their getting to power is the answer: then they can do good. Jesus understands that getting to power is not the answer; instead, unqualified submission to God is required to do anything good. The beginning, middle, and end of politics is obedience to God.

Moreover, what the devil offers is worldly power – control plus splendor – the kind of flaunted dominion present within the Egyptian, Macedonian, and Roman empires. The premise is that power is possessed, in this case handed over by the devil to Jesus, if he agrees. Along with the possession of power goes self-glorification and splendor – palaces, rich clothes, servants and slaves, gold, hanging gardens, and women. This is the idiom of possessing power and its rewards, found throughout history from Babylon to Peking. Jesus rejects it all in favor of the unconditional worship and service of God. This is not an apolitical principle, but one that changes the inner meaning of political rule. Since the time of Moses the servant of God, a service rather than the possession of power has been an alternative way of approaching office. Because of our Christian heritage, this perspective has become stronger in democratic politics. The fulcrum on which the whole change of conception turns is found here in this temptation. Jesus turns his back on the possession of worldly power and unreservedly toward the service of God. Of course, the “possession” of such power is a chimera, our vain self-construction, but it persists in much political activity and philosophy, East and West (pp. 77-78).

The Impossibility of the Ideal Church

I’m doing a little writing project on Paul’s conception of the church and have been reflecting on some recent online discussions about the church – its virtues, its faults, its necessity, and its possible dispensability.

I’m struck by how I resonate with people who write critiques of the church. And I tend to agree with those who write pointed responses.

There’s clearly much to be said about the church and our experiences with communities of God’s people.

All Saints Icon

I was reminded of this passage in Life Together in which Bonhoeffer reflects on the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual communities we encounter:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.

Lectio Divina (for Skeptics)

We had a fun discussion in hermeneutics class a few days ago. Surveying interpretive strategies throughout church history, we touched a bit on lectio divina (“divine reading”).

In our course textbook, Mark Strauss discussed this reading strategy and noted that many evangelicals may be suspicious of it because it seems “too Catholic.” I think he’s right, frankly, and they’re not the only skeptical ones.

Many biblical studies people who are trained in objective interpretive methods to look for the historical meaning of the text may cringe when the text is read in ways that seem unmoored from history and unregulated by context and various structural features.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew

“The Calling of St. Matthew,” Caravaggio

I’m convinced, however that, lectio divina can be employed fruitfully and responsibly (I hope saying so publicly doesn’t result in having my SBL membership canceled). And it can be done in a way that is governed by the historical meaning of the text.

The method consists of reading the text, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

One first reads the text carefully and repeatedly – or, hears it read aloud. Then, one meditates on the text, entering into it fully, inhabiting the text in an effort to encounter the living God.

The third element is prayer, the response of the human heart that has heard from God in his word. Finally, contemplation, a communing with God in the midst of the realities encountered in the text.

It’s one thing to describe this method and another to try it out. So, I led our class through this brief meditation on the calling of Matthew. You’re welcome to use it in a group setting or to pray through this passage alone.

I think you’ll see that it’s a way of reading the Bible as Scripture but in a way that respects the shape of the text.

Jesus’ Offensive Meals

In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus eats a meal with Levi the tax collector and a number of other notorious sinners.

Sieger Köder

This is offensive to the Pharisees in the narrative – and likely to modern readers – because to share a meal is to embrace others in the familiarity of kinship. Further, there is no indication that Jesus eats with these characters because they’ve satisfied a requirement of repentance.

The force of Mark 2:17 must be felt. According to Clifton Black:

Jesus does not pay house calls on the healthy. That is just what “the scribes of the Pharisees” find so disturbing: not that Jesus would encourage righteousness, but that he would apparently sanction wickedness by profligate forgiveness of sins (see 2:5-7) or association with relentless sinners without first demanding their repentance.

. . . Jesus has come to call not righteous folk, but sinners. Such a calling necessitates not distance from, but intimacy with, the flagrantly unrighteous (C. Black, Mark, p. 93).