Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ramblin' Man

Every once in a while a thought on a particular subject will cross my mind - sometimes stirred by an IRL conversation, sometimes via an online conversation, sometimes via others' conversations, and sometimes God only knows why - and I just kinda push it to the side thinking, "It's not enough to really write a whole post about." Well, it's time a few of those thoughts had a home, so this Ramblin' Man might become a recurring character here on the blog. I'll chase a few rabbits, maybe kick a few dead horses, maybe vent a pet peeve or two.

First ramble: Heresy. "Heretic" is a word thrown around pretty liberally on all sides of religious issues. To me, personally, it seldom really applies in the way people use it. Everyone has their own threshold for heresy, their own measurement where, when crossed, the crosser has become a full-blown "heretic". Let's look at the actual definition...

a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church/anyone who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle.

There's a lot of wiggle room there for a person to write their own definition between the lines of the standard definition. I've said many times that I believe the aspect of my faith which pertains to salvation, reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, is as doctrinally dogmatic as I'll ever get. Just that alone is unique and personal to each individual, and I'm not the gate-keeper of the faith of all mankind. Only when people screw around with the simple gospel of Jesus Christ do I, personally, feel the label "heretic" would apply - and even then, I don't really use it. It's kinda lost its meaning. Do I feel people who practice courtship, for instance, are heretics? No. I just think they're immature, probably legalistic, and in some cases, fruitcakes. Now, if they tell me I need Jesus AND courtship - definitely fruitcakes, but also heretics. I once wrote about the "Jesus and ____" mentality. As far as the essential doctrine of the Christian faith, to me there's Jesus, and then just a bunch of details. Not necessarily unimportant details, but details nonetheless, and certainly nothing worth cutting off your hand to spite your foot over and nothing worth building an entire paradigm around.

Second ramble: The "Christian package". Most of us, upon becoming believers in Christ, accept a "package" of Christianity. Wherever we enter the faith, whether through a church group or a family group or what have you, we tend to, at least initially, accept the general views of the group as what the Christian faith is all about. In other words, if you profess faith in Christ in Forky Creek Baptist Church in 1995, and you've attended Forky Creek Baptist Church all the years since, chances are you pretty well match up with the "Statement of Faith" of Forky Creek Baptist Church. Same for those from other denominations and churches and so on, and for those from Christian homeschooling families (or just Christian families) who live somewhat off the grid of the traditional church. Ideally one will eventually move beyond the limits any particular group may place on them, not be restrained by fear of asking questions, and have the ambition and room to grow beyond the initial package. Some of it you may keep. Some of it you may chuck. The goal should ultimately be to make your faith completely personal, not reliant on the belief of someone else or the parameters of others. Fear is usually the obstacle in the way of questions. A lot of you who correspond with me have communicated the fears that make steps toward freedom and growth so difficult - "If I ask that question, will lightning strike me?...If I don't obey such and such person and what they teach, can God really be pleased with me?" My advice is to ask the questions which cause you the MOST fear, because in the answers (and sometimes even in just questioning) you might find your greatest personal growth. SisterLisa wrote an interesting piece today about our personal journey and growth. Unless we question, we often become stagnant - no forward movement. I don't think we can ever truly begin to grow until we question "the package" we accepted, and learn to discern the truth for ourselves about a lot of things that we've always believed merely because they were a part of "the package" we initially bought or were immersed into, which leads me to...

Third ramble: Tithing. A commonplace teaching throughout all shades of Christianity. I grew up learning to tithe my 10% faithfully. Until just a couple of years ago, I practiced tithing (usually more than 10%) faithfully. Seldom to a church, though. Generally to whomever I felt compelled to give it to. I no longer believe that a 10% tithe is required. It's an Old Testament requirement (before there was a Christian church). It isn't mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. It's really just a religious tradition. What do I believe about giving these days? I give what I can give when I can give it, with a willingness to give all if and when someone needs it and I'm compelled to give it. That's the general idea on giving in the gospels, the Acts, and the epistles.

Back in 2007, I heard the pastor of FBC of Jacksonville, FL tell his congregation "The bible says you bring your tithe [as he pointed toward the audience] to the storehouse [as he pointed toward the floor in front of his feet - signifying the church building]. If you don't agree, argue with God about it [as he gestured with his bible]." Sigh. Pretty ignorant, twisting an OT text to make it say something about modern Christianity that it isn't saying at all. Of course, if he can't keep his congregation tithing, even if only from guilt and obligation, he probably won't get that nice fat paycheck, which leads me to...

Fourth ramble: How churches choose pastors. You know, I've read all of the epistles every which way but with 3D glasses, and in all of the qualifications for church leadership that Paul wrote about, not once do I see anything that can be construed, in any way, as "seminary" or "theologian". Most churches, of any size, won't even consider a man to be their pastor unless he has several consonants after his name. The math doesn't work. "But Lew! We need a man that knows the bible!" Really? I know the bible very well, and I've never been to a theological seminary. Many of you who read here know the bible very well, and you haven't attended a theological seminary.

One "certified" theologian is generally like a second belly-button - it's one too many.

A lot of pastorates pay BIG bucks. Some well into six figures. Most pastors of any decent-sized church are living fairly comfortably. Hey, evangelical Christianity is big bidness, folks. Big bidness. These churches want a potential rock star book-writing theologian in the pulpit or they want nothing at all.

The artist I used to tour with is chummy with John Hagee. He once told one of them that he puts upwards of 30 hours of preparation into each sermon. My advice to pastor Hagee would be, "Hey, John, you're not really that important, and neither is the speech you'll give on Sunday." Traditions, traditions. Spinning our evangelical wheels. Wanting that rock star pastor, who's also a noted theologian, who's also prone to write a really popular book. Everything about our religious world spins around that big speech on Sunday morning.

I've always felt like a pastor truly doing a good job as a pastor will be just about the last person you'll notice in a church setting. Isn't a pastor supposed to be a servant? Why then, does the church send prospective pastors to theological seminary? Why not have them volunteering at hospitals, nursing homes, convalescent care facilities? Why not waiting tables? Why not working at a soup kitchen? That seems like better training to me. Rather than spending their time writing books, why aren't our pastors going to hospitals and reading books to patients, or volunteering at schools and reading books to students? That would seem more service-oriented to me.

Professional theologians. Bleh. There are already plenty of Pipers, Mahaneys, and Driscolls wreaking havoc on the church.


  1. Um...I have two belly buttons. I was the next step in human evolution. Instead of using one cord for life and waste all at once, I used one for each. I squirted out, smelling like a rose.

    Seriously though....rambling? Hardly. Good stuff Lewis.

  2. Lolz, my husband has two bellybuttons! (Actually one is a scar from an appendectomy gone wonky, but it looks like a belly button. ;-)

    I completely agree, Lewis. It's time for the business empire of modern American Christianity to take a tumble. Imagine if all that money went to relieve pain and suffering instead of air condition huge buildings that are empty almost all the time?

    Back to study hall. Thank you for the refreshing break.

  3. I disagree a bit with your thoughts on pastors. To me, it seems like we have the opposite problem - pastors don't know enough.

    Growing up, I went to a small AoG church in the Midwest. Our pastor was a wonderful man. He did all those things - visited the sick, sponsored food drives, etc. But he had not much more knowledge about the Bible than anyone else in the congregation. What I mean by that is that he did, factually, know a lot about the Bible - what is written in it, what Jesus said, etc. - but he had pretty much no knowledge of scholarly readings of the Bible, no understanding of the issues that may have been confronting the early church in their day, no contextual or historical understanding of the Bible as a document. His sermons thus ended up being 45 minute rambles on exactly the same thing I could have concluded from my own, personal, private reading of the scripture. Sundays were really, really rough days to get through.

    Last year I studied for a semester at Oxford University in England, and while I was there I attended St. Mary Magdalen's anglican church, where I realized the power of an educated minister. Our father there had been Oxford educated and now teaches others. Every homily was filled with factual information about who the writer of such-and-such epistle was, what was happening at the time the epistle was written, what this or that Greek word means, and how we could better understand this letter in the context of its day and how we could understand its meaning for us now. I left every time feeling like the God I had always believed in but had been so reluctant to hear sermons about was, in fact, amazing, interesting, and worth learning more about in depth.

    So I think that our problem isn't that our American evangelical pastors are too educated, I think it's that they aren't educated enough. I mean, if you're going to take on the responsibilities of "pastoring a flock" (and the Bible makes clear that such people will be held responsible for the effects of their teachings) then you really ought to know what you're talking about. A good seminary (and there are definitely bad ones, and "Bible colleges" don't even count) should equip a pastor to have a deeper knowledge of the Bible - at the very least, a cursory understanding of Greek and Hebrew would be nice. Our scriptures WERE translated, and it's impossible to have a one-to-one translation. There are just a whole range of issues that you're not going to be prepared to discuss if you haven't been educated about them. The pastor of a church, ESPECIALLY in evangelical Christianity where the pastor is the big celebrity (this isn't really a problem in liturgical churches), should be an educated person who actually knows a lot about the religion he or she professes and is now teaching to others. Pastors absolutely SHOULD be educated theologians.

  4. Sorry this is such a missive, but I'm going to keep going: I think what you mean by theologian is not what I mean by it. I do not consider most modern evangelical pastors to be theologians. You're not a theologian because you graduate from seminary. You're a theologian if you can make articulate, in-depth arguments about doctrine and theory. Most lay people don't want to talk to actual theologians. There's a reason people like Karl Barth, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Waltersdorff etc. are studied mostly in college. Actual theology is a tough sell. Most evangelical pastors are like the salesmen of theology. They dumb it down, make it seem hip and relevant, and preach it in catchy 3-point sermons. I'm not a fan of that. A really good pastor can preach a theologically rich sermon, retaining the truth and beauty of the extremely complex ideas that are being presented while making it accessible to lay people. That's what Jesus did. That's what Paul did. That's what Peter did. Granted, pastors like that are few and far between, but they're not unicorns. Evangelicals just don't want them. They want style over substance.

    I agree with you that pastors shouldn't neglect the needs of their congregants. The whole package is a pastor who's educated, compassionate, giving of himself or herself, and who puts the needs of her congregation before her own needs. It's a big job. Maybe that's why the New Testament talks about it being a calling from God. If you've chosen to be a pastor because of the fame, money, etc., shame on you. You're doing lots of people a disservice.

  5. My advice is to ask the questions which cause you the MOST fear, because in the answers (and sometimes even in just questioning) you might find your greatest personal growth.

    Love the rambles. :-)

  6. I'm pretty much with Hypatia on the pastoral education, though I certainly see Lewis's point about service. I think we are seeing the role of "pastor" in two different ways, which lead to two different sets of pre-requisites: one is pastoral care, the personal one-to-one service to the parishioners that doesn't need a lot of Greek and Hebrew and scholarly stuff but does need lots of love and compassion. The other is education of the congregation on who we are as Christians, what do we profess and why, where did we come from historically the last three thousand years (including the Judaism we sprang from), what did the bible's authors say in their own time and how is that different than how it has been read through history, how is all that ancient stuff still relevant today (and not let only the P/QFs and Reconstructionists have a say in its relevance). And that second pastoral role does need some substantial academic scholarship, which is NOT provided by most seminaries in the US. Most of our seminaries are more interested in promoting denominational dogma than thoughtful scholarship, have more classes in hypnosis (I mean, "how to preach") than church history, and most seminarians read more business management books than actual texts of the Church Fathers.

    I guess what my rant is meant to say is that what passes for qualifying education for church leadership is suitable only for transmission of cult-think and not for either of the two kinds of pastoral work that is actually necessary for a healthy, spiritually productive church body.

    Oh, and I'm totally with you on the heresy thing! As someone who is truly as heretic by even the most rigorous standards, I get irritated when that label is slapped on people who simply disagree with someone's cultural or political preferences!

  7. I'm not against a pastor being educated. Not at all. I'm speaking more to the evangelical view of what being a pastor is or means these days - everything revolving around a big sermon on Sunday morning, putting the pastor's name prominently on church marquees and church literature, putting a pastor on a pedestal, et cetera, when a pastor is no more important than the least of people in the church. The celebration of the persona of "the pastor", in other words.

    I actually see a sermon as among the least of a pastor's duties, and actually more of a religious tradition than anything mandated in any NT writing.

  8. I have known many a wise man that have been turned down for a pastoral position simply because they didn't have a degree from some uppity religious school. it's a shame.

    Also - tithing! YES! It's totally an OT thing. The NT doesn't even talk about tithing, but it does talk about giving with joy. That can be anything - time, service, finances, etc.

  9. I told my husband recently that the most enlightened I've ever felt wasn't while a member of churches who had a pre-approved set of thoughts, feelings, actions, questions, and answers, but rather now that I'm away from those churches and there's no answers at all. There's something truly liberating about being free of the Statements of Faith and "Christian packages" (as you put it) and being able to have a discussion about even the most questionable of ideas without fear of retaliation.

    This particular post speaks to me and my experience in so many ways. If I went into detail we'd be here all day, so I'll just keep it short and say thanks for this post. These ideas aren't just isolated within the QF/Pat. groups or super-conservative fringe churches. I grew up in AoC and CoG and if it weren't for knowing your back story I'd say you could have been talking about your experiences sitting on the pew next to me.

    You're doing a good thing here. You really are.

  10. I love this post (and look forward to many more Ramblin' Man posts).

    And I agree about the pastor thing. Most pastors that I've met are the least likely in their church to get their hands dirty and help anyone.

  11. About tithes--I recently had the eye-opening experience of reading the actual instructions about tithes from Deuteronomy. The instructions in Deut. 14 are very clear. You're to take your tithe and eat it-- in the presence of the Lord, but it's a feast for you and your dependents, and the Levites (priestly caste who were prohibited from owning land) and hey, don't stint on the booze (Deut. 14:26). Every 3 years the tithe is stored to support the Levites, the poor, the widows, orphans, and foreigners (this is the one that goes into the storehouse, by the way, and is supposed to rebound to you in blessing as it says in Malachi). The tithe is not only a religious offering, it's also a fabulous party and social safety net.

    Now, the tithe described in Lev. 27 appears to be annual and there is some debate about how that reconciles (or did, in practice) with the Deuteronomic tithes.

    So the idea that a 10% of your income every year is meant to support the church is really not clearly supported by the Biblical texts. So it drives me crazy the idea that the OT "requires" a 10% tithe to church. It's just as "Biblical" to use it to buy a fifth of whiskey and give it to a homeless guy.

  12. > I give what I can give when I can give it, with a willingness to give all if and when someone needs it and I'm compelled to give it. That's the general idea on giving in the gospels, the Acts, and the epistles.


    A couple of years before I left the church arena all together, I quit tithing. Simply because — I couldn't afford it. And I always had the nagging feeling that if I WOULD tithe, God would work things out and provide for me and I wouldn't feel like I was constantly riding the crest of a breaking wave of financial distress (a wave which has remained pretty constant for a few years now). I talked to a respected Christian friend about it, and he agreed that it was silly to feel guilty for not giving what I couldn't afford to give. I liked that answer ... but I like your answer so much better — particularly because that's what I already do.... I don't give as an act of worship, I don't give mechanically, I don't give to support a nameless, faceless organization; I don't even give to support my home church (particularly because I don't have one anymore) ... but if a need crosses my path and I can help it in any way, I can't not give ... whether it be time, ability, a ride (when I have a car), what little money I can spare, or anything else.... It just makes so much more sense....

    Yeah, even though I've gone from Christianity to agnosticism, it still feels good to know that what I've been doing lines up with true Christianity ... I guess agnostics would call me a heretic....

  13. Joy,

    I remember how amazed I was when I read that OT passage about taking your tithe and using it to pay for a blow-out party in the presence of God!

    For most of my adult life my hubby and I have been "tithing" to God, not the local church. In recent years that has meant paying a single moms house payment, supporting a disabled relative on a monthly basis, sponsoring a child through Compassion Intl, supporting the (few) missionaries who truly love like Jesus loves, and a nod to our local church for the pastor's salary and light bill.

    I feel absolutely fine about my lifestyle of giving and believe it's totally scriptural, though I have yet to be invited to spend it on a big bash celebrating the love of God, definitely not one where "strong drink" was encouarged. Lolz.

    The annual picnic does NOT count, as there is so much religious posturing required there is no real celebration. Anyone who cut TOO LOOSE would find out real quick how short the rope of Christian love is in reality. =D

  14. We haven't tithed in years. I remember the Holy Spirit revealing to me that my husband and I had been treating God like He was running a protection racket: tithe, and all will be well; fail to tithe,and God will let your financial life go down the tubes. How could God bless giving with that attitude? But that's what we were taught, reading between the lines, that tithing was about.

    (BTW, I have been having a good deal of trouble posting comments here. I believe Google accepts comments more easily if you set it up so that the comment box opens in a separate window.)