About Me


Powered by Blogger.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mennonites, Marcionism and Pelagianism

I am far from an expert on the various ancient heresies in church history, but I find familiarity with the major ones to be helpful. I find that by reflecting on them I can bring understanding to my own relationship with God, and clarity to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Two of these heresies are particular temptations for Mennonites, and show how a spiritual strength can become a weakness if we are not attentive. Marcionism, briefly, is a second century way of thinking developed by a man named Marcion who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament, the former being a God of law and justice, the latter being a God of love and grace. Jesus reveals to us the New Testament God, thereby overthrowing the Old Testament.

Historically, the church, including Mennonites, has made the claim that we cannot fully understand Jesus unless we understand the tradition out of which he came, and which shaped him and his worldview, namely, the world of the Hebrew Bible. We have no understanding of Jesus, the church has taught, without understanding, studying and valuing the we have come to call the Old Testament.

Another heresy of which Mennonites have been accused is Pelagianism, a later heresy than Marcionism, developed by a man named Pelagius. Pelagianism teaches that Christians are able to choose God, and follow Jesus, independent of God's enabling grace. In short, a perfect church is possible.

The church has taught that humans are unable to choose God and follow the way of Christ without divine assistance. We do not do anything good in and of ourselves, but if we do good things it is Christ through us. The danger for us as Mennonites when we lean too far in a Pelagian direction is that we expect too much of the church and ourselves. We expect perfection, which is unreasonable for us as human beings.

I find these to be helpful starting points for conversations as we reflect on our spiritual journeys and the life of the congregation.

The importance of congregational discernment

Over my years in ministry I have come to appreciate the distinction between decision making and discernment. Decision making in an organization is heavily focused on pragmatic and technical responses to issues that come up, and is usually a political process of some kind. We see this at work in an election year, when our nation and state are in the process of choosing, in an election, which candidates offer the best solutions to our problems, and provide the most capable leadership to address them. Discernment is not primarily a political process but a spiritual one, in which members of a body, an organization, try together to understand God's movement and call. I find this article from the Alban Institute helpful in understanding discernment.

Spending time together in discernment is a critical and essential congregational task. Because discernment is an abstraction, it can be one of those things, like the weather, that people like to talk about, but where no one ever does anything. Here are some elements I think are important parts of discernment in congregational meetings, which hopefully helps us understand what discernment looks like.

Prayer. Prayer is essential to congregational discernment. Indeed, discernment is a prayerful act. We are not working at discerning our own will, but God's.

Bible Study. When we read the Bible together, we identify how God has been at work and called God's people at other times and places.

Testimony. Part of discernment involves listening to each other's testimonies of how God is at work in our own lives and in the life of our congregation.

Listening is shared. Congregational meetings must be structured in such a way that the talking and listening is shared, and that two or three people, and their particular concerns, do not dominate the meeting.

Leadership is respected. Churches have lay and pastoral leaders which they have already called through a process of discernment. Congregations empower themselves and honor their own processes when they support their leaders, and let them set the agenda for discernment.

Agenda is focused and clear. Congregational meetings only have time to discern certain things. Sociological studies have shown that the largest congregational meetings will ever consistently be is 150 or so, no matter how large the congregation. Still, there are limits to what a large group can do. It is harder and more cumbersome to discern in a group of 100 than a group of five. Because of this, the congregation is empowered when its agenda is of significance to the vision, goals, mission, and overall direction of the congregation, and it is disempowered when precious time is taken up with congregational minutiae. It is the job of leaders to focus meetings so that the essential congregational work is not derailed by the thousands of concerns each of us bring to congregational life.

There may be some other things worth adding to this list, but a congregation that does these things as part of a discernment process will be healthy and well.
Friday, August 24, 2012

Labor Day

Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Americans don’t redistribute wealth, they earn it.” I find this sentiment intriguing for several reasons. One is that distributing wealth is what governments do in complex societies, and what they have done since humans began making the transition from hunting and gathering, when wealth was tied up in the earth, there was no surplus, and resources were taken from the earth on an as needed basis.

            As people became sedentary and began farming, societies began to have a surplus, and rules needed to be established for how that surplus would be distributed. As societies became increasingly complex, new classes of people developed who contributed to society in ways other than growing food. These included warriors, priests, artisans and politicians (royalty), the latter deciding who got what share of the surplus. Since that time, societies have rarely distributed wealth to those who have worked the hardest (those who have earned it), but have used complex social, economic and political criteria to determine who should get what share.

            So it is in our society. One way of looking at our history is through the lens of distribution, and the ebb and flow of biases in how the economic rules are created that determine who gets what share of national resources. For example, movements like organized labor and progressive era trust busting, sought to change the rules to prevent the redistribution of wealth from labor to capital. And over the last several decades the supply side movement (remember when George H.W. Bush criticized Reagan’s “voodoo” economics?) has pressured government to prioritize capital over labor. Over the last thirty years, those who have their wealth wrapped up in labor, in the potential for earning wages and salaries, have seen their share of the surplus dwindle compared to those whose wealth is tied up in capital.

            Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the 1970s, I remember being struck that working class members of our congregations had a higher income than my Dad. Hourly laborers were noticeably and consistently better off than my father who had a master’s degree (granted he was a pastor, not exactly a high wage profession). Those were relatively good days to have wealth wrapped up in one’s labor. And the populism of those days looked down at the lazy rich who didn’t earn their wealth, but got it from someone else’s labor. Today’s populism celebrates the rich as job creators, and looks down at those who rely on food stamps (freeloading on government assistance) because their minimum wage job at Wall Street isn’t enough to make ends meet.

            To be sure, forces like globalization and automation of production are factors in this shift. But suppression of low level wages has been a matter of government policy. I remember being shocked in the 1970s when the business pages of the mainstream media expressed anxiety at the prospect of rising wages. Oh no! Workers might make more money! What surprised me most was that this was just taken as an economic fact. Increased wages are bad for the economy.

            Labor Day is an occasion to remember those in the Labor movement who have paved the way for the masses (us) to have a decent life, to not have to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week for a pittance, to receive a just wage, and to lead a reasonable comfortable life. These are good things, just things, reflecting biblical values, shalom values. Labor Day is more than just summer’s last hoorah, but an occasion to remember our date, celebrate what we have, and commit ourselves to a just sharing of what God created for all of us.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

J. Lawrence Burkholder and John Howard Yoder

In all almost all ways I have found the move to College Mennonite Church well-timed, with one exception. I grieve that I did not come to CMC before former Goshen College president, J. Lawrence Burkholder died in June of 2010. I did have the privilege of hearing Burkholder when I as a student at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (back in the old days it was "Associated" not Anabaptist), and as a new Mennonite I found in him a refreshing voice as he told stories of the messiness of his service in China after World War II. Life is messy, leadership is messy, and the choice before us as Christians isn't always black and white, or perhaps it is fair to say it rarely is.

CMCer John Hershberger recalled Burkholder this week in an excellent adult Sunday School presentation in the Seekers class (if you ask nicely, John might be willing to do this in other classes), in which he contrasted Burkholder's thought on social engagement and the church with that of John Howard Yoder. John's presentation sent my mind on a long journey that included time in the Philippines, Washington, D.C., as well as my childhood and youth growing up as a pastor's kid. It is the latter that interests me most here.

As a pastor's kid I had a front row seat on the inner workings of the church, and it wasn't pretty. I learned that the church was full of sinners and hypocrites, treating each other and leaders badly, dripping with self righteousness. But yet I also learned that the church was made up of saints, who often turned out to be the same people as sinners. And at some point I came to love the church for all its messiness, as God's church, and imperfect vessel through which the gospel might be proclaimed.

Burkholder's vision of life made room for the church as it is and will be, rather than just for the church as it ought to be. Church life is messy, and we do the best we can with what we have.

Because this blog seems to be all about links to books, here are a couple, one for Burkholder and one for Yoder.
Friday, August 17, 2012

A Surprising Apologist

I have long had an interest in apologetics, that pursuit in Christian life that seeks to explain and defend the intellectual and moral integrity of Christian faith in a time of increasing non-participation and perceived irrelevance.

C.S. Lewis is perhaps the best known Christian of the 20th century, but we are in a new day, and Christian apologetics faces some new challenges. Epistemological individualism, the political ascendancy of fundamentalism, intolerance of ambiguity and mystery, accompanied by widescale disenchantment, secularism, and various kinds of utilitarianism (such as, whatever leads to economic growth must be right), all call for new voices in apologetics. Many voices have risen to the challenge, but for me, one stands out above the others, and that is Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson's is somewhat of an unlikely voice in public apologetics. She is not a professional theologian or clergyperson. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. She is a congregationalist, a lay member of a United Church of Christ congregation, the most liberal of mainline Christian denominations, and she is affiliated with the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and not a seminary or prominent church institution.

Her voice is strong. She does not suffer fools lightly. She refuses to use the term Christian right, preferring instead Manichean right, believing and living as they do, as if an evil demigod created the heavens and the earth, but Jesus' mission is to save us and take us away from this evil world, vanquishing the evil demigod so we might live free of our bodies in ethereal wonder. In other words, for Robinson, the so-called Christian right needs to be held to account, not because they are forcing some kind of Christian tyranny on everybody else, but because they are apostate.

On the other hand, Robinson has little patience for the historical ignorance and ersatz relativism of the postmodern left, nor the literalism and woodenness of what she calls scientism. She celebrates mystery, ambiguity and grace. She has the audacity to publicly defend both Calvin and Puritans. Most of all she loves a God of both justice and grace deeply. What is most winsome about Robinson is that her's is a mature faith.

If you are interested in reading her writing in an apologetic vein, these books contain essays that might be of interest: The Death of Adam, and When I was a child I read books. A much more difficult read is Absence  of Mind, her Terry Lectures at Yale.