Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Ahead

Two thousand and eleven is almost behind us and a new year is about to begin. Normally one year turns into the next and if it weren't for calendars and the lengthening days we'd be none the wiser. Next year, however, promises to be a truly new year. The church that I am a member of is merging with another church. There are some organizational differences, nothing major, but we share the same beliefs and many of us know members of the other congregation personally. The move has almost universal support, and no one opposing it.

It will be two small churches joining together to form... Well, it'll be two very small churches joining together to form a small church, but one big enough to get some traction under it. For the last few years it has felt like we were treading water. We often got people commenting on how surprised they were that such a small church could do so much, but 'so much' took a lot out of people. Beginning with a change in ministers in the summer, we have been working to change ourselves. To ready ourselves to be the church we believe we should be. After we voted for the merger, I remembered a prayer my wife and I had joined in making last January. As the usher, I keep attendance. We prayed that our average attendance would grow by ten people in the next year. Not that ten more would be saved, would be baptized, or even become contributors in the work of the Lord here. Just that the attendance would increase by ten. When your average is less than twenty, ten is a lot. I never imagined it would happen this way, but our attendance will certainly increase by more than ten. By more than ten mature Christians, anxious to make a difference in their community.

Our first service together is this Sunday, January 1st.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fruit Of The Grape

When you do communion, do you use wine or grape juice? A lot of churches use the latter, even though there is no scripture for it at all. These include all the churches I’ve attended since I became a Pentecostal. Why? It’s an interesting question, and the answer can be found in this article here.
It traces the practice to the 19th century temperance movement and the pioneering work of Thomas B. Welch, founder of Welch’s Grape Juice. It also includes a link to someone arguing that the practice of unfermented juice goes back to the ancients. To do this it presents us with the many means available for the preservation of grapes, without turning them to wine. Or so it claims. If you take the time to go through it, you quickly realize that many of the methods used would produce a preserve—meaning a jelly—or even raisins, not grape juice. The author notes that fresh grape juice was called vino and then goes on to use the terms interchangeably, as though every reference to wine could mean juice. But if you take the time to search out the terms used, you’ll discover that we are still dealing with wine, not grape juice.
The sources of this confusion are two-fold. One is the insistence by many churches that their practices be founded in Scripture. A worthy goal, but one that becomes a problem when there is no clear link—or no link whatsoever—between their practices and the Scriptures. Then you have to make one, no matter how tenuous. The other is the contempt with which many early Reformers held the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (mass or communion), Confession, Unction, Holy Orders, and Marriage. All but two were declared unscriptural, and those two, baptism and communion, were subjected to a great deal of debate and re-interpretation. There was no consensus on these matters, though the fact that some of these were no longer seen as a sacrament did not mean they were thought unimportant, or outside God’s will, but the gates were opened to questions of where or whether these things fit into God’s plans for His people. The Thomas B. Welches of the world had no trouble redefining centuries of practice according to their own values. In his case, if a little abstinence was good, a whole lot of abstinence was better. Why forbid alcohol everywhere, but the Church?
Where do I come down on this? As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t drink and don’t encourage it, but I also recognize that mine is not a scripturally derived value. The Bible condemns drunkenness, not alcohol. The Churches I have attended do use grape juice. Communion has never been a big deal for Pentecostals. A part from Easter and special New Year’s services, we don’t usually celebrate it at all. And this is probably wrong of us. Every historical record I’ve seen indicates it was a big part of the early Church’s worship. A few years ago the (then) minister of our church decided to forgo communion on Easter itself. I wasn’t happy about that and decided to include it in our family altar that week. The same thing happened that next year. After that I decided to make it a part of our family devotions. We don’t do it once a week, as some churches do, but we are doing it on a roughly quarterly basis. At least four times a year, in addition to whatever is done at church. And, yes, I do use actual red wine at home. Why? Because that’s what the early church did.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fear Not

I once heard that the words “fear not” occur 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t hurt. I like to think of myself as someone who considers every contingency, but sometimes I need to be honest enough with myself to admit I worry a lot.

Just this past week I had a major decision to make, but I needed the support of a few others to make it happen. I knew I had the support, that they would ultimately agree with me, but I didn’t know when they’d be willing to move ahead on the matter. Would it happen this month or next? Next month would be a nuisance, but the end result would be exactly the same. Instead of being assured the right thing would happen, I began to worry about the details and let that worry become my focus. When we sat down to make our decision, however, even though there were differences of opinion, everyone agree to settle the matter sooner, rather than later, and all that time I spent ‘considering contingencies’ was just time I robbed myself of for no reason at all.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Understanding Scripture

This last month I’ve been trying to make at least one blog post a week and last week’s was certainly a success, prompting an ongoing discussion with someone calling himself SLP2. For this week’s post I want to pick up on an element of that discussion, the Bible in translation. How far can a person’s understanding of scripture go if you don’t know the original languages?

This question arose because of a complaint I made regarding something I admit I am having less and less patience with: attempts to explain away troublesome verses--scriptures that don’t gel with a doctrinal point--by appealing to the original Greek. The implication being, if only you knew the original text like I do, you’d have to agree. It’s all perfectly clear there. (And please note: none of this is meant as a swipe at SLP2. I am addressing an attitude and approach I’ve seen many times and I encourage you to read his posts.) Now, I don’t speak Greek, but I’ve taken a couple of courses over the years and my Greek (or, rather, my complete lack of Greek) puts me on par with most of the people I hear this from. They’ve taken some Greek in school, they own a lexicon, and they’ve learned to parrot arguments they have heard from others.

An example. On the day of Pentecost, following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out and the Church born. The sound of the disciples worshipping in tongues drew the attention of a large crowd and Peter stood up and preached to them that Jesus was the Christ. The crowd responded by asking what they should do.

And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
Acts 2:38-39
Now I’ve blogged on baptism before and, while most churches have in some way integrated into their understanding of God’s salvation plan, there are many in the Evangelical community who steadfastly refuse to. They try to explain away this clear instruction in these verses by arguing that, in the Greek the word ‘repent’ and the word ‘your’ in ‘your sins’ are both plural and therefor the forgiveness must only relate to repentance. The fact that he said ‘repent and be baptized every one of you’ is completely glossed over.

But the issue goes beyond trying to win an argument through pedantry. First, it is promoting a poor understanding of translation. Word for word translation between languages, even closely related ones, is often all but impossible, but that does not mean that faithful and accurate translations are impossible. On the contrary, if you have a skilled translator, someone with knowledge of the culture and language, there is no reason to believe that a trustworthy translation is beyond reach.
A second, and a more serious problem, involves a foundational principle of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, ‘by scripture alone.’ This is the understanding that the Bible contains within it all we need to know God and to become saved, that every article of our faith should have a foundation in scripture, and that the truth revealed in scripture is available for everyone honestly seeking God. This is why Protestants promote Bible reading, have translated the Bible into so many languages, and have worked to make the Bible the most widely disseminated book in human history. This doesn’t mean understanding is always going to come easily or effortlessly. Peter warned us of the dangers of wresting the scripture to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), but we also have the example of the church in Berea, who searched the scriptures daily to confirm the teachings of Paul (Acts 17:11). The idea that the truth is truly available only to those who can read the Bible in its original languages makes a mockery of this principle. One of the inspirations for sola scriptura in the first place was to take the Bible out of the hands of the clergy and give it to all. Going back and looking at the original languages and cultures of the Bible can provide us was important insights, but if the only way you can defend a teaching is by hauling out your lexicon perhaps the teaching needs to be reconsidered.