My Facebook Introduction to this Article
Some years ago, I began a blog about racial issues entitled, “Black Tax and White Benefits.” One of the early blog posts was entitled, “White Church Leaders – Are You Listening?” I followed this post up with several others showing that some church leaders were indeed listening and taking action. Thankfully, my home congregation, the DFW church (Dallas/Fort Worth) is one of those who has set a very appreciated example in this regard, over the past five years. Although I still hear of some leaders who want to relegate racial issues to the political realm and avoid it altogether, much progress has been made by many churches. To encourage more progress for all of us, I asked Todd Asaad and Pierre Saget to compose a history of what we have done and are doing. I just posted it on my blogsite. Read it and you will want to post it and pass it around in every way possible. Let’s do it! Thank you!
The Article by Pierre Saget and Todd Asaad
In 2014, the Asaads saw the need for our congregation to celebrate the diversity among us while deepening the love we have for each other. Todd asked the Sagets to help meet this need by looking into a training model on the topic of diversity that would be appropriate for our fellowship. After a traumatic string of unjust killings of black individuals around the country and the unjust killings of police officers in Dallas in 2016, our need to develop a training grew into so much more. We saw the need to establish a team that could help us deepen our love and unity while we processed the harsh realities of the world through a spiritual lens and while still being a light to our communities. The team consisted of Todd and Patty Asaad, Pierre and Shara Saget, and Marcos and Kinny Pesquera.
Beginning in 2016, we were able to use the expertise of Marcos, who is the System Vice-President for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at CHRISTUS Health, to put together a workshop that started the conversation around diversity in the body. This workshop was facilitated by the Pesqueras and the Sagets and was conducted first with the staff of the DFW Church. We then conducted the workshop with all of the Bible talk leaders, the singles ministry, and then with each worship center. In total, it took about a year to complete these workshops. Following the workshops, the entire staff was directed to read Michael Burns’ book, Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom. In June of 2019, Todd invited Michael to come to Dallas to conduct a mini-workshop based on his book. This event was held on a Sunday, during a congregational worship service. Michael also provided a time of teaching the next day to help further equip the church staff in our task of leading a diverse congregation.
To date, we have continued to expand our team to include two representatives from each of the six worship centers of the DFW Church. We did this because we recognized that the work in this area is vast and important, therefore, we needed more disciples involved. We also took on the name Cultural Connection Team because we felt it communicates, in a broad but adequate way, the objective of the team. The team has met regularly since 2020 and seeks to provide educational opportunities that will equip our brothers and sisters to talk about our various cultural and racial differences in a way that promotes greater understanding and value for each other and those we are reaching out to who are different than ourselves.
One of these educational opportunities was born out of a meeting with Dr. George Yancey, Baylor University Professor of Sociology. After reading Dr. Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock, and finding out that he lived in the Dallas Metroplex, Todd and Pierre invited him to have lunch with a number of the staff and elders of the DFW Church. We explored his thoughts and ways on helping multiracial churches develop greater love and unity because this is an area that Dr. Yancey is particularly interested in himself. We then asked for a second meeting to discuss the possibility of him presenting some of his research to leaders of our Texas family of churches and leaders of the Chicago, Kansas City and Nashville churches who joined us. Dr. Yancey’s presentation of his research was refreshing and timely as he discussed a viable way for us to fulfill our calling to be like Jesus as we navigate the divisive times we live in.
Our relationship with Dr. Yancey has led to an invitation for the DFW Church to participate in a new research project which will help teach and inform us on how to better love all nations. Dr. Yancey is set to provide a training session that will teach us how to have collaborative conversations with each other. This training will be followed by six separate small group sessions that will test the effectiveness of the training and allow us to put into practice what we have learned. The potential for growth in our fellowship is tremendous as we anticipate each of us learning how to come together and love each other deeply in a way that values the diverse perspectives we all bring to the body. We also anticipate that participation in this research project will better equip us to be about our mission of sharing the gospel with others who are different from ourselves. Our prayer is that God will be honored and glorified as we strive to sincerely love each other deeply and be a light to our world.
Pierre Saget — DFW Evangelist
Todd Asaad — DFW Congregational Evangelist
The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.
Roger Lamb sent several of us an email yesterday to let us know that all of the old KNN (Kingdom News Network) videos had been uploaded to the ICOC Disciples Today YouTube channel. He also attached the link for a section from one of them highlighting a very important event which took place in February of 2004. It occurred at the Abilene Christian University Lectureship and featured a segment from a panel discussion by several of us from the ICOC and several from the mainstream Church of Christ. It was a unity panel and definitely worth watching. I’ll attach the link.
But watching that segment triggered some memories in me from deep down in my heart. Here is the email reply I sent Roger.
Thank you, Roger, for the video of the 2004 ACU Lectures and of the panel discussion. The video was very well done. For me, it brought up a plethora of memories, including one that is quite unique to me and I think quite unique in and of itself. It is pretty much a story untold by me, which is unusual, but a highly significant one in my life.
The day I traveled to that lectureship fell on the exact 25th anniversary of the small plane crash in Dallas that took the lives of the four full-time faculty members of the Preston Road School of Preaching. They were returning from a one-day trip to the ACU lectures late at night and crashed trying to negotiate an instrument landing in the most dense fog I have ever seen in Dallas.
I had left the faculty six months prior, one of the hardest decisions of my life. I almost didn’t make it. They had more vacancies than the one I left and had hired two new men. That meant that one of them died as a result of my leaving. When I visited their widows in the days following the crash, neither of whom I had met previously, both they and I knew that one of those men died as a result of me leaving the school. It took me a long time to process all of that. As I am writing this now, I’m not sure I have fully done it even after these many years.
Eldred Stevens was the director of the school and the pilot. He had flown to my hometown in that plane to recruit me as a student in early January of 1970 and later, when I was on the faculty, he and I had flown in it many times to recruit others. I loved flying and was a good recruiter, being a graduate of the school myself. Eldred and Rudell White were the two in the plane I knew, both of whom were very close friends. They were also graduates of ACU (when it was still ACC). I was asked to speak at both memorials, but since Rudell wasn’t nearly as well-known, I chose to travel to the Texas Panhandle where he was from and be with his family. That was one of the saddest experiences of my life, meeting his parents and brother for the first time and trying to console them while needing much consolation myself. They were a simple, salt-of-the-earth farming family who had produced one of the sharpest, most spiritual teachers I have ever known.
At the 2004 event, I met Eldred’s grandson and was invited to attend a luncheon hosted by the school’s faculty. I was able to get reacquainted with many of my former classmates and students I had taught. The whole thing was such a surreal experience. I was 36 years old when the plane crash occurred. I was exactly twice that in December of 2014 when we moved back to Dallas. God has graciously granted me many years of life since that fateful day. Tomorrow will be the 42nd anniversary of the crash. Interesting timing, Roger.
This is an abbreviated version of all that took place and but a fraction of all that I vividly remember. Oddly, in my book, “My Three Lives,” I didn’t tell this story. I don’t guess I have ever put it in print until now (February 20, 2021). The emotional impact this event had on my life is hard to describe, which may account for it being a story left untold for decades (at least in print). I could have been on that plane. I almost was. As I said, I flew in it with Eldred many times and have a photo of my two children standing on its wings when they were small. The four of us flew to a city in Oklahoma where our wives were speaking for a Women’s Day. I loved flying in small planes and have done it scores of times, probably well over a hundred times. But I missed that flight 42 years ago.
The crash occurred just before midnight and killed the four men instantly. Rudell’s wife, Kay, called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me about it. Hearing that news and realizing that I came very close to having been one of the victims put me into somewhat a state of shock. One of the elders of the Preston Road Church of Christ called me a short time later and asked me to come to the school and talk with the students. I had taught three of the four classes (groups) of students and we knew each other well. Thus, the elders thought I could help them deal with their grief. I was quite full of my own grief, but spent the day with the students. It was, to say the least, a surreal and sad day. I was also asked to teach part-time although I was preaching for a church in the area full-time. The elders of my church quickly agreed for me to accept that role with the school, given the tragedy that led to it. I continued in that role until we moved from Dallas in the summer of 1981.
I remember all of the phone calls that came very quickly the day after the crash. My dad was one who called as soon as he heard about it. Once I answered, he said “Wait a minute,” which was followed by a long period of silence. He explained that he assumed I was likely on the plane and had been killed, and in his shock he needed a few minutes to catch his breath and regain his composure. The whole experience produced perhaps the biggest emotional impact ever into my life, and that’s saying a lot.
Losing two close friends was a part of my shock. Eldred, although 20 years my senior and the Director of the school, loved what I loved – preaching, singing, flying and golfing. We did a ton of all of that together. Rudell and his family lived less than a mile from us in Richardson, Texas, and we rode together to our teaching job every day. Plus, we both loved fishing and fished a lot together. He was such a delightful man with a great sense of humor.
I remember arguing with him about whether largemouth bass or catfish were the best-tasting fish to eat. I took the former and he took the latter. One day I said to him, “Rudell, if catfish are so great, why didn’t God allow them to be eaten under the Mosiac Law?” The law demanded that fish have both scales and fins to be considered ceremonially clean and catfish don’t have scales. Rudell was a really sharp guy and a very quick thinker. Without hesitation he replied, “Well, that’s obvious – he was saving them for us Christians!” That was Rudell for you.
Another part of my shock was in realizing how close I came to being in the plane. The biggest part of the shock was in realizing that either Ray Evans or Tom Dockery died in my place. One of them was hired to fill the vacancy I left when I resigned from the faculty. I will never forget going to their homes and meeting their wives and trying to comfort them. I’m sure I met some of their children who were now without a daddy. Those were two of the most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking visits imaginable for me. It takes my breath away just writing about it now.
I remember staying up very late night after night after Theresa and the kids had gone to bed, just staring at the fire I kept going in the fireplace. I had thoughts like, “Why them and not me? Why me and not them?” Of course, there are no answers to questions like those, but we cannot keep from asking them. The only real answer is found in the doxology which ends Romans 11, so we must leave it at that until eternity.
Romans 11:33-36 (NIV2011)
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
In the year 2020 the focus of my biblical studies has been the role of culture, first in understanding the biblical text, and second, in application to the 21st century world in which we live. This is an endeavor of a decade or a lifetime, not a year, but because I have felt it to be a major gap for me, I am making this my focus for at least this year. Valuable resources for getting a better understanding of culture to understand the biblical text have been books by N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Walter Brueggemann, and the Bema Discipleship lessons – all helpful in getting historical, cultural, and Jewish context. This is a work in progress, and I am not writing with a special expertise, only an increased awareness.
As I wrote in another article, “Do You Get It?”( http://gordonferguson.org/articles/do-you-get-it-by-jim-mccartney/), I have a nagging sense that I am missing something important due to my many biases as an upper middle class, western, educated, older white man. Consequently, I am continually observing the integrity of my efforts to follow Jesus, striving to balance grace and the expectation of a high moral/ethical standard. While doing so, I cannot help but think about the extent to which I am influenced by the culture, place and time in which I live, and how that often is an undertow to my heart’s desire to love God. Additionally, I consider the role of the church today, and how it is to interact with the 21st century culture to which it ministers.
The goal of this article is to explore the role of the church in addressing issues of social justice. I hope to open the door wider for dialogue and exploration of the many specifics issues only mentioned here which deserve greater thought and consideration. Again, I am not an expert, and only hope to stimulate a broad audience to engage a critical conversation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (all quotes are from the New International Version, 2011)
Justice and acting justly is a major theme in the Old Testament text and Americans, especially, can completely misunderstand it. The Hebrew word, Mishpat, implies not so much a punitive justice (the punishment fits the crime) but a restorative justice, a making things right again. Compare and contrast the American judicial system with working out a conflict in a family caused by a wrongdoing. The judicial system is primarily designed to determine guilt or innocence and then to punish the guilty. In the family, however, the goal is to work things out and restore the harmony that existed before the wrongdoing. Mishpat, restorative justice, is the latter; it is a making things right again: in the family, in the community, in the nation, and in the world.
With the good creation of Genesis 1-2 as a perpetual context, God acted through history to create a justly ordered people, a community of his that would model his desire for all of creation. Because of the undertow of human selfishness, the Old Testament is filled with grace, guidance, (yes, some punishment), a perpetual call to righteousness (right relationships, with God and each other) and justice.
Consider the following scriptures that are highlighted in this video on Justice by the Bible Project (https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4) which is about six minutes in length :
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” – Proverbs 31:8-9
“He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” – Psalm 146:6-9
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
Reading the Old Testament there is a continual call to take care of the orphan, widow, foreigner/alien, and the poor and needy. Righteousness and justice depended on it.
The Jewish people, however, could never get it right and hold it together for very long. God went to great lengths to redeem and restore his people between the Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but ultimately it could only be done in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, God could make things right again.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, by reading the following from Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As the promised Messiah and suffering servant, Jesus in his earthly ministry was continually caring for the poor and needy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus cared about both the body and the soul, and he demonstrated the righteousness and justice that God had been calling his people to all along. He did it right. Reading the gospels, it is amazing how much Jesus attended to the physical needs of people, elevated the status of women, and extended his ministry to those who were culturally avoided or ignored, the tax collectors and “sinners.” He also spoke to the ways that various segments of the Jewish people had assimilated to the Greek and Roman cultures and/or missed the major points in God’s desire for Mishpat, a justice that would make things right.
While dying, Jesus showed God’s love and mercy by meeting the needs of his mother, his disciple, John, and the repentant thief, and his death provided the sacrifice for our sins and the means to be restored to a right relationship with God. Then, through the promised Holy Spirit and the community of the early church, the good news of the kingdom and God’s grace was proclaimed throughout the Jewish communities and out to the Gentiles which had always been God’s plan promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis added)
In the words of the Bible Project video, the early church was comprised of disciples of Jesus who had received undeserved righteousness and were seeking righteousness and justice for others.
The earliest Christians were known for their love and for their care of those in prison (Christian or not), the orphans and the widows, imitating the life of Jesus. Making things more right for those who were hurting and oppressed (justice) was part of the church’s mission. But with time, many Christians came to believe that our lives on earth don’t matter much. The focus of the church narrowed to obedience, forgiveness, and preparation for a future state of disembodied spirits in heaven. And this opened the door to a sad chapter in Christendom characterized by abuses of power, oppression, and an appetite for violence. The church lost its distinctiveness, conformed to the culture of its age, and gave up on God’s desire for Mishpat.
Fortunately, over time, the Holy Spirit worked through various reformation and restoration movements to call Christendom back to God’s heart for his people. But again, because of human selfishness and the pulls of culture, the history of the church, not unlike the Old Testament history, has been full of fits and starts.
21st Century Christian Church
So, how are we doing today?
First, the “we” is problematic because there is so much diversity of teaching and practice among modern Christians in the most general sense of the word Christian. For this writing I will narrow the “we” to those who honor the biblical text, strive to follow Jesus, and practice Christian community – still broad, but a bit narrower!
The dominant culture and world view of the 21st century western world has been heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic world view. The importance of education, entertainment, and athletics dominate our leisure, economy, and lifestyle. We have also borrowed the concept that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around. The prosperity gospel and prayers dominated by asking God for things reflects this cultural influence. Add to the mix western individualism, and spirituality becomes much more about the individual than the community. We have also borrowed from Aristotle that our souls can live separately from a body and ultimately will congregate in an ethereal heaven (or hell) in a disembodied state. This has led to all kinds of weird thinking about Christianity and life on planet Earth, from the problems I discussed above in church history, to challenges in today’s modern church.
I would now like to focus on a text a friend and the editor of this article, Lai-Yan Faller, reminded me of from Jesus’ model prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6: 9-10
Jesus asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While we are here, we pray with a desire to bring heaven to earth. This is consistent with the promise of Genesis 12 that through God’s people all peoples on earth will be blessed. The kingdom and the church are described as a city set on a hill and the bride of Christ. The ministry of the modern church therefore should reflect the promise to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus, showing everyone how to do it right.
God cares about how we live here and now. If John Lennon understood God’s heart, he may have changed the lyrics of “Imagine” saying instead of imagine there’s no heaven, imagine heaven on earth. John was an atheist, but I think he had a legitimate complaint that those who called themselves Christians were so focused on a future heaven that they did not care enough about life on Earth.
Much of evangelical Christianity focuses on the individual’s freedoms and rights, reflecting a culture of western individualism. In addition, a philosophy that God helps those who help themselves may contribute to a lack of compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Pretty Hellenistic and not much Mishpat in this worldview.
Additionally, the church can be conflicted. There may be a reluctance to wade into the waters of social justice because it is deemed to be political, divisive, or disruptive to the church’s primary mission to get as many as possible to a future heavenly state.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection and a life after this one. And I believe that what we believe and how we live determines our next life.
On the other hand, I believe that how we live matters to this life. And how the church demonstrates Jesus matters to this life. We are to bring heaven to earth, to restore justice, to make things right today – which has been God’s heart from day one.
There is a cost to doing this. Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 9:23 is “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus’ example requires self-sacrifice and an undying devotion to being like him. As wonderful as it seems to be like him there will be a strong negative reaction from those who prefer the comfortable western and materialistic approach to Christianity and don’t want to be challenged to deal with their sin, inclusive of sexism and racism and all other forms of oppression.
In the early 1960’s my paternal grandmother’s brother, Carl Spain, a preacher, missionary, and college professor spoke to an audience of Christian ministers in the Churches of Christ. He called them out on racism, denouncing the segregation of churches and the lack of accepting black students to Christian colleges. He was strong while speaking up for the oppressed, and the reaction was not mild. He received the expected nasty calls and letters from those who disagreed, an attempt was made to bomb his house, and his life was threatened…by “Christians.” Ultimately change happened, but it was slow, and even today Christian churches are some of the most segregated communities (https://carlspaincenter.org/). I am fortunate to be part of a very multicultural church in Boston, but it is still quite rare.
Is it possible that the fear of reaction or persecution from those trapped in a cultural norm, Christian or not, causes us to prefer to fit in rather than practice justice? To be normal rather than like Jesus? To be selfish rather than selfless? To be more focused on speaking up for our rights than that rights of the oppressed?
What can the church do to practice Mishpat (restorative justice), to bring God’s kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven, in the 21st century? This is a big question, and the task may seem daunting. Indeed, just as I personally am a work in progress, so is the church. Here are a few suggestions of steps we can take:
- Take care of the poor and the needy, as part of the mission of the church, and not relegate it to a voluntary contribution to a non-profit.
- Speak up for and take care of the orphan, widow, alien, and all who are oppressed; remaining in uncomfortable silence is neither acting justly (Micah 6:8) nor rescuing from the hand of the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).
- Address racism and sexism: set things right biblically.
- Meet the whole spectrum of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people – as Jesus did.
- Speak to God’s good creation and challenge greed and the normative values of economic empire and consumption.
- As the bride of Christ, be his partner and show him to the world. He is the answer and when disenfranchised baby boomers, millennials, and others see him clearly, unclouded by a corrupt western and materialistic culture, not only will fewer walk away from the church, but they will tell all their friends about Jesus. He is the way. He is our Mishpat.
- Pray and live that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of the day, how we live on planet earth matters today and how well we practice Mishpat will draw or repel many to or from God’s heavenly kingdom – on earth and in the resurrected life to come.
The current conversations about using women in public worship are timely for sure. I personally do not think this is overdue, for I believe that any alteration in long-held practices is best rolled out slowly in the interest of unity so everyone can have time to assess their own convictions or opinions and shift, if need be. I might only consider haste imperative if the roles specified in the Bible could not be accomplished without women functioning in those roles. For hundreds of years now male leadership has kept us obedient to specified commands of God. Certainly, that is not an argument for the status quo, but it is a plea for caution in moving forward.
To be clear, I’d love to see women more visible in public worship, and I’m grateful for the careful research being done to that end. A concern has been raised that by delaying a change, we are not being “all things to all people.” Honestly, that shouldn’t be a deterrent to anyone seeking redemption and a relationship with Jesus, though it might deter some if they are looking secular-culture compatibility – a concern Jesus never entertained.
My great desire as we move into greater public use of women, whether in praying, teaching or song leading, is that women exhibit a “gentle and quiet spirit.” It is easy to come across as strident when one’s voice is raised with emotion or when one tries to be heard in a crowd. It will take some input and practice for some women to accomplish a bearing of humility in these more visible roles.
I am concerned that the same loud cultural voices demanding more public visibility for women in leadership in churches (not just our own) may reside in tandem with perspectives that shy away from having a humble learner’s spirit – a problem common among many millennials today. (Of course, this does not apply to every proponent of women’s leadership, nor to every millennial.)
But I have a greater concern still. Within the fellowships with which I have experience, I have not found many younger women seeking to sit at the feet of older women. Perhaps Paul’s instruction to Titus put the onus on older women to teach, but what responsibility lies with the younger women?
“Likewise, teach the older women to teach what is good….Then they can teach the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5)
Yes, older women need to be willing and available and this passage primarily addresses domesticity, but there are attributes like self-control, purity, and kindness that apply no matter the marital status. These are attributes best taught by someone who embodies them and who through life-experience has fought off the natural temptations to be otherwise.
God values life-experience when it is combined with an effort to conform to the nature of God. Older women, therefore, must apply their minds to a thoughtful replaying of memories regarding success and failure in scriptural application in order to pass along lessons that can help younger women. God affirms his value of life-experience in referring to the needs of infants requiring milk versus the mature who need solid food.
“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use [of spiritual food] have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14)
In the concern for women’s gifts to be more fully used in our churches, it shouldn’t be about visibility or positions of leadership, but about respect earned by a godly life plus God-given gifts of leadership (Romans 12:6-8). It is certainly not about advanced years. Regardless of age, Jesus changed the way women were respected – dramatically and beautifully – and we should follow his example. But we must value what he values. A clue to this is given to Timothy when being instructed which widows were to be honored with financial support in the churches.
“…and [she] is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (I Timothy 5:10)
I believe that our churches teach respect of older men and women, but it is rarely evidenced in seeing the younger using their elders as “life coaches.” Perhaps as an act of benevolence our young visit with the older, but is it in order to learn from them? I simply do not see many younger women actively seeking to sit at the feet of older women.
It seems odd to me that in an era when hiring a secular life-coach is a popular trend, the money-free offer of spiritual life-coaching (aka, discipling) is neglected. It saddens me to see wise older women having little or no influence in the lives of younger women. We should be so proud to be part of a church where women mentoring women is a hallmark of our fellowship – not just teaching at a midweek devotional, but in one-on-one relationships where wisdom is prized!
I think we must be careful to discern the difference in the world’s definition of wisdom and God’s. Men and women alike can be persuasive, articulate, and talented, but that does not make them qualified to lead. It can make them appear wise, but it does not make them wise. God defines wisdom by qualities of character.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is…pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:13-18)
Again, I am not against women serving in more public ways and I applaud the papers being written and the conversations being had, but it makes me wonder, whether, if we restored more basic New Testament practices to our current church culture, we might ramp down the urgency and controversy. I also wonder whether we might shine a brighter light by exhibiting the character and spirit God values in women than by placing them in roles that may be desirable, but not mandatory.
A number of people have asked me what my thoughts are about the current ICOC 3.0 discussions taking place among leaders in our family of churches. It perhaps goes without saying that ICOC 1.0 would be a moniker for our earlier days as a movement; 2.0 would have begun after our unsettled days starting in 2003, and 3.0 would describe where we would like to go in the near future. I had an opportunity to participate in one of the earliest discussions of ICOC 3.0 in Dallas when three of the Service Teams met. The sessions were lively, as each began with a presentation and was followed by small group discussions. Evangelists, elders and teachers were mixed in each of the groups, to gain perspectives from those in each role in all groups.
Discussions and Tentative Conclusions
Since those meetings, leaders (staff and non-staff) have been discussing specific questions in each of our geographic families of churches. Roger Lamb of Disciples Today recently posted a second update on the progress of these discussions, which included the following:
The results are pouring in and a clear picture is coming into focus. We have overwhelming agreement on a wide range of topics including:
- We are, and want to be, a global brotherhood
- We want to be organized globally
- We long to see more souls saved by the grace of God
- We are willing to share our financial resources to meet “brotherhood” needs
This brief segment from the update gives essentially what the topics of discussion include. Bottom line, the specific assigned questions address how people feel about having more of a global organization to accomplish a greater global impact in evangelism. Of course, this organization would also include the sharing of resources to accomplish these goals.
My thoughts about the matter are pretty simple. How can any organization have a global impact without a global structure and how can you have a global structure without sharing the financial needs in a defined, understood and accepted way? So yes, I am quite in favor of what the majority of other leaders evidently are feeling, based on the update report. This is hardly rocket science, is it? I doubt seriously that any example exists of a global organization of any type making a high impact on a worldwide basis without the components of structure and shared finances. Of course, the organizational aspects have to be developed and implemented to fit the resources available and the goals of the group. That part must become the primary focus of the discussion much sooner than later.
Not All Will Agree
However simple this whole matter seems to me, it is not to others. While those others are evidently in the minority, they should be (and are) a part of the discussions. Unity is not unanimity, but it should include a broad consensus. Disciples, especially younger ones, also ask me why those who have issues with cooperation on a global basis have such issues in the first place. It seems odd to them. Understanding history helps us grasp the reasons behind the reluctance, and I think two aspects of history are most fundamental in explaining this phenomenon.
One, our movement history had for some years a much more organized approach to evangelizing the world. The organizational structure aided in planting churches in over 150 countries. The downside of that organization was in how it functioned. A few people at the “top” made decisions for everyone else, with little inclusion sought or accepted. It was a combination of military and corporate models, the former of which I discussed in chapter 4 of my book, Dynamic Leadership.
But was the problem with the structure itself, or with the implementation of said structure? We seem to have a difficult time ascertaining the difference between something wrong in and of itself, and something good but implemented wrongly. I personally had no issue with the structure of the past, but definitely had issues with how it functioned. Can we not have a global structure while avoiding the mistakes of the past? Surely we can! If we cannot learn from the past and change as a movement, we cannot learn from our past as individuals and repent. Resistance to moving forward when we are stuck (and we are) is scary business. Failing to build is just as bad as tearing something down once it is built, according to Proverbs 18:9: “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.”
Two, based on my experience, the majority of those who have difficulty accepting cooperation on a broad scale (which includes structure and money) share a common spiritual heritage – the Mainline Church of Christ. That also was the case when we were discussing the Unity Proposal some years back. I too share that religious heritage, which helps me understand those with whom I share it. One of the foundational tenets of that particular movement is congregational autonomy. It is in the DNA of those with a Mainline background, especially those who were raised in it from youth.
Saying that is in the DNA of that group is another way of saying that it is systemic, like nationalism or racism in the United States. You can have it whether you realize it or not, and it can drive your thinking without your being aware of it. The exception would be those like me who rebelled against it, believing that church autonomy as we saw it practiced was a guarantee of failure in evangelizing the world. Just be prepared to expend much patience in dealing with all of us from that background – the typical “heel draggers” and the atypical “toe pushers” (me being among the latter)! But it is a fact that the Mainline congregations are dying and have been for decades now. A well-known minister among them was on a panel back in 2004 and made the statement several times that they were in the last days of a dying movement. His fellow panelists from the Mainline didn’t like what he said, but he said it and he was right. Their statistics clearly prove it.
Statistics Don’t Lie
Our statistics in the ICOC show that we are starting to follow a similar path, in that our growth is slowing down and unless it reverses, we too will soon enter decline. It is that phenomenon that prompted the introduction of ICOC 3.0 in the first place. I have followed our statistics for years. When I first became an elder in our then flagship church, Boston, in 1989, my fellow elder Al Baird showed me a graph that hit me like a kick in the gut. It showed one line for the baptisms and one line for those leaving the church. The latter was moving in an upward direction faster than the former, meaning that when the walkaway rate (by whatever term you prefer) intersected the baptism rate, the overall membership decline would begin.
As a movement, we are now in a similar place. I mentioned some statistics last year in my book, My Three Lives. The overall growth for our movement of churches in 2015 was 1.9% and that of the US and Canadian churches was 1.3%. Our movement growth dropped from 1.9% in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016. Do you think we need an updated version of our IOS (operating system) in the ICOC? The answer seems obvious.
Not unexpectedly, the younger generations among us loved the honesty and the urgency with which I wrote in my book, while some older leaders had quite the opposite reaction. I suppose they didn’t like me making our statistics public, but we have to remember that the church is first of all the church of God and then the church of the people. It is decidedly not just the church of the leaders. Our members have a right and a need to know where we are as a movement. They are a part of the problem and must be a part of the solution.
An Introduction and Commendation!
That statement provides us with the ideal segue into the article I am introducing, written by a dear friend of mine, Jim McCartney. Jim is a member of the Boston church and one of the most reasoned and reasonable brothers I know. Jim understands that being a disciple means by definition that you must be a learner, and that being a learner means you must be a listener. He listens to those in all segments of the church, especially those of the younger generations. He is one of the most in-tune older brothers I know. His article is entitled “ICOC 3.00,” described by him in this way: “my thoughts are ancillary to ICOC 3.0, not a recommended revision or next version.”
To me, ICOC 3.0 is quite an obvious need, while the details of designing and implementing it are not yet so obvious. Having said that, I agree with the thrust of Jim’s insightful article, that deeper needs must be met if any organizational structure is to help in the long run. In a word, spiritual issues are far more important than organizational issues. I don’t think it is an either/or situation, but a both/and need, and an urgent one at that. Please read what Jim wrote, carefully and prayerfully – and keep your seat belts buckled tightly! Enjoy!