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M. W. Bassford

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Everybody Thinks There's a Pattern

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Since I started blogging about five years ago now, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of religious commentary on my blog feed and Facebook page.  Some of it has been thoughtful and enlightening; some of it, um, gives me the opportunity to engage with ideas with which I disagree.  In the latter category, I would put the following commentary on my instrumental-music sermon, forwarded by a reader:

While I don’t agree with instruments in worship, this line of thought is legalism.

1. Take a concept (follow the pattern)
2. Seek to find the guidelines (command, example, necessary inference) within the NT that backup the concept
3. Make it law
4. Impose that law on everyone else
5. Ridicule others that don’t follow your concept

Pharisees did it ALL the time.

There are certainly some questions that come to mind when I read this (“Other than the conviction that it’s unlawful, why on earth would one disagree with instruments in worship?”).  However, rather than chasing those bunny trails, I want to address the main critique:  that interpreting the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct is legalism. 

The thing is, though, that literally everybody who is a Christian will, at least to some degree, interpret the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct.  There are certainly those who pick and choose the parts of the Bible they like with all the fussiness of a three-year-old at a vegetable buffet, but even those people will point to some things in the Bible and say, “You have to do that.”

For instance, let’s say that I wanted to found the First Aryan Church of Christ (note to readers:  I do not actually want to do this; it’s an illustration.).  I know that Jesus was white like me (I’ve seen the pictures!), I don’t like Jews and black people much, so I’m going to start me up a church where folks like that aren’t welcome.

I’m pretty sure that if I advanced my scheme to self-professed Christians all across the religious spectrum, I wouldn’t get, “Hey, bro; you do you.”  I’d get an indignant, “You can’t do that!”  I’d hear about how we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, I’d hear about how there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, and so on.

All of those arguments, though, would take the form described above.  They would presume the existence of a Scriptural pattern for people to follow, use command, example, and inference to interpret Scripture (we have to infer that Galatians 3:28 is about black people too), and define that interpretation as binding on others.

Everybody (nearly everybody, anyway) agrees that we need to follow the teachings of Jesus and His apostles when it comes to racism.  Why, then, are the teachings of Jesus and His apostles not relevant, indeed central, when it comes to worshiping Him?  How do you distinguish between reasoning from the Scripture in Galatians 3:28 and reasoning from the Scripture in Colossians 3:16?

“Legalism” is an epithet to conjure with these days, but it doesn’t boil down to anything more than, “You’re doing what I do with some passages to other passages where I don’t think you should.”  Here, I think, is where we find the genuine Pharisee:  not in the one who zealously seeks to follow the whole law of God, but in the one who honors some parts while neglecting others. 

Unless, of course, Matthew 23:23 isn’t one of those Scriptures we’re supposed to reason from.

During Withdrawal

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Sometimes, I get the same sermon request from multiple sources.  Such is the case with this evening’s sermon, on withdrawal.  Not only has one of the members here asked that I address the subject from the pulpit, but the elders want me to do so as part of the congregation’s practice of teaching on it regularly.

This is, of course, not anybody’s favorite topic in the Bible.  None of us like to think about any of the members here being so intent on sinning that they force us to formally separate ourselves from them.  However, none of us are devil-proof, and bitter experience has shown all of us that time and again, he entices Christians to leave Christ behind.  Not because we want to, but because we have to, let’s spend some time this evening considering how we should behave during withdrawal.

First, we must REMEMBER THE STAKES.  Here, consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:4-7.  This is part of his discussion of how the Corinthian church should handle the man who has taken his father’s wife.  Obviously, this situation is a little different than ours.  Paul is an apostle, and he is wielding his apostolic authority to tell the Corinthians, “You must withdraw from this sinful man.”  Nobody can do that today.

However, the reasons why Paul has taken this action remain valid.  First, he shows us that withdrawal is important for the sake of the soul of the sinner.  These people by their practice of sin already have severed their relationship with God.  When the congregation withdraws from them, that severing of relationship is a visible sign of the invisible disaster that has occurred.  It’s one last desperate effort to get them to realize the seriousness of their plight.  If we withdraw from someone as a matter of bureaucratic correctness rather than as a way to get them to repent, we’re doing it wrong.

Second, withdrawal is important for the sake of the church.  This is what Paul is getting at in vs. 6-7.  Sometimes in Scripture, leaven is used metaphorically of something that’s good.  That’s not true here.  Instead, when Paul is talking about leaven, he is talking about the corrupting influence of a sinner who is allowed to remain as part of the congregation.  It is sad but true that once a congregation accepts one sin, it soon will accept every sin and become no different from the world.  Ultimately, then, we practice withdrawal not only for the sake of the sinner, but for our own sakes as well.

Next, we must FOLLOW THE PROCESS.  Jesus sets it out for us in Matthew 18:15-17.  Sometimes, I think we read this process as having three steps.  Really, there are four.  Step One is confronting the erring brother with his sin.  Step Two is involving others, typically the elders, in the process.  Step Three is bringing the brother’s sin before the church.  Step Four is regarding this brother as no longer part of our fellowship.  Of course, if the brother in sin repents at any point of this process, we rejoice and don’t follow it to its conclusion.

The first thing that I want to observe about this is that all the steps of this process must be followed in order.  Too much of the time, Christians want to skip Step One and go straight to Step Two.  They know their brother is in sin, but they don’t want to talk with him about it because those conversations are unpleasant.  Instead, they want to take the problem to the elders and dump it in their laps. 

Brethren, that’s wrong.  We have a God-given responsibility to go to our brother ourselves.  Only when we have that conversation and they don’t listen to us should we go to the elders.

Second, we must honor its results.  Once a Christian has been withdrawn from, things can’t be the same between us.  They can’t continue to have a role in our assemblies.  They can’t even be people we socialize with and have a good time with.  Obviously, there are exceptions here due to family relationships, and I’ve discussed those things before, but that does not overshadow the general rule.  Withdrawal has to mean a significant change in relationship.

During the withdrawal process, though, we must TRUST THE ELDERS.  Consider, for instance, the admonition of Hebrews 13:17.  I’m well aware that second-guessing the elders is one of the favorite hobbies of many Christians.  Indeed, I have noticed that the difficult decisions that face elders often seem simple and straightforward to those who are not actually called on to make them.  I think that’s generally problematic, but it’s especially problematic when it comes to erring Christians.

This is true for two reasons.  First, we owe the elders deference because of their position.  There is no such thing as a perfect elder, and ours are no exception.  However, they are the ones who have been selected by God to lead our congregation, which means that it’s God’s judgment that they are better suited to make those hard decisions than any of the rest of us are. 

This means that we should consider our own judgment with skepticism.  If we think the elders should be doing something different with a Christian who is in sin, we might be right about that, but probably, we aren’t.  If brethren were as quick to question their own wisdom as they are to question the wisdom of the elders, the elders’ job would be a whole lot easier!

Second, it’s often the case that the elders know more about the situation than we do.  Brethren will often get upset about the perceived unfairness of the elders withdrawing from one in six weeks while continuing to work with another for a year.  In my experience, that’s not because the elders are being whimsical.  It’s because they are addressing different situations differently, often on the basis of information that the congregation does not and should not know.  If the puzzle doesn’t make sense to us, that’s probably because we don’t have all the pieces!

Finally, we must SPEAK TRUTH IN LOVE.  Look at Ephesians 4:15.  There are three elements to this idea, and all three must be present for us to please God.  First, we have to speak.  Second, our words have to be the truth.  Third, they must be loving.  If we leave any of those things out, if we leave out speaking, truth, or love, we aren’t doing Ephesians 4:15 right.

This is challenging.  It’s easy to say nothing to a brother who is sinning or even has been withdrawn from.  It’s easy to make polite small talk that ignores the elephant in the room.  For that matter, it’s easy to self-righteously blast the sinner without recognizing that we are directing our scorn at a real human being who fears and hurts and suffers like we do.

However, disciples of Christ aren’t called to do easy.  We’re called to do hard.  Jesus spent His whole ministry speaking truth in love with justice and compassion.  He expects us to learn how to do so from Him.  We shouldn’t expect to be good at this the first time we try it.  Like so many other spiritual disciplines, this is a skill we develop with practice.  However, the more we grow in our experience and especially our love, the better at it we will become.

Mary's Testimony

Monday, January 20, 2020

In Luke 1:1-4, Luke claims to be engaged in the practice of inspired history.  He hasn’t accumulated his knowledge of Jesus via direct download from the Holy Spirit, nor is he an eyewitness to the events of the gospels.  Instead, he has consulted those who were eyewitnesses and pieced their stories together into his narrative.

Luke most likely carried out his investigative work between 57 and 59 AD.  So far as we can tell, he was neither a Jew nor a native of Palestine.  Instead, he appears to have joined Paul when the apostle passed through Troas toward the beginning of the second missionary journey (note the shift between “they” and “we” in Acts 16:8-10), stayed in Philippi when Paul left (“they” again in Acts 16:40), left Philippi with him toward the end of the third missionary journey (“we” in Acts 20:6), and remained with him through the end of the book. 

Unless Luke had other travels we don’t know about, then, the only significant chunk of time he spent in Palestine was when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea during those years in Acts 24.  If he had circulated through the Galilean and Judean churches at that time, he would have had no trouble finding disciples who remembered the momentous events of Jesus’ ministry, 30 years before.

Scholars, most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, have argued that Luke cited his sources by naming them in his narrative.  This explains, for instance, why we know the identity of one of the disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas) and not the other.  Cleopas was the disciple whom Luke interviewed.  Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 is probably another source.

However, this pattern breaks down during the birth and childhood narratives of Luke 1 and 2.  All the named characters are fairly major (and so would be named whether witnesses or not), and most of them (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna) are surely dead by the time of Luke’s inquiries.  Where, then, is Luke getting his information?

Our best clue appears in Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51.  Even though there is no particular narrative reason for Luke to do so, he pauses twice to note that Mary, Jesus’ mother, treasured up these events in her heart.  Of all the characters in the story, Mary is the most plausible (and sometimes the only possible) eyewitness.  If, as is commonly believed, she was a teenager when Jesus was born, she would have been in her seventies during Paul’s Caesarea imprisonment—a long life for someone in that time, but certainly not impossibly so.  

Indeed, if Mary was still available at the time of his search, Luke would have sought her out above almost all other eyewitnesses—precisely because her testimony was unique.  If Mary is Luke’s source in Luke 1-2, his statement that she stored these things up in her heart shifts from being irrelevant to being vitally important.  Like an ancient veteran who still remembers battles from World War II, Mary would have remembered the events surrounding her Son’s birth all her life, and she would have been happy to share her testimony with the Gentile historian. 

Skeptics like to dismiss the early events of Luke as a pastiche of myth.  However, we have good reason to believe otherwise.  Luke’s words imply that rather than being sourceless speculation, his account comes from the best source of all—the young virgin who spent nine months carrying the Son of God under her heart.

Grace and the Self-Defense Debate

Friday, January 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the West Freeway shooting, I put up a blog post that argued that Christians have the right to defend themselves from murderous criminals.  To my complete lack of surprise, this proved controversial.  Everybody kept their comments civil, so I wasn’t bothered by that (though I did, as per my usual practice, refuse invitations to engage in prolonged exchanges). 

I was more concerned, though, by the brethren who expressed their viewpoint so strongly that they revealed incomprehension of why anybody else might believe differently.  I think this is a problematic way to handle a difficult subject.

There certainly are things in Scripture that are easy to understand.  I can start with a dozen different passages and end up proving the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins, and anybody who disagrees inevitably finds themselves in the position of explaining away the Bible rather than explaining the Bible. 

However, the legitimacy of self-defense isn’t like that.  At first, the application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 appears straightforward, but I found that the more I studied, the less straightforward the issue became.  The very thrust of Jesus’ ministry appeared to limit the scope of His words.

Certainly, historical views of the interaction between Christianity and violence are all over the map.  Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers argued that it was wrong even for Christians to hold government office or serve in the military, while Augustine formulated a politico-religious doctrine for justifying war. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, when brethren today find themselves disagreeing.  Often, this disagreement is based as much on moral intuition as on Scriptural reasoning.  Some brethren find the thought of a Christian preparing to kill someone else (even to defend the lives of others) repugnant, while others find the thought of passively watching the slaughter of innocents to be equally repugnant.

Frankly, both perspectives make a great deal of sense to me.  My own convictions (which are still evolving) have ranged from my current position to out-and-out pacifism.  Additionally, I think the whole debate reveals the power of sin in others to rob us of good choices.  In a world that contains church shooters, we are compelled to take one troubling position or the other, but it would be much better to live in a world without church shooters.

These are complicated matters, and for as long as the world continues, I don’t expect God’s people to be able to come to a consensus.  There are many other issues like this.  Therefore, we must learn to judge for ourselves while respecting the legitimacy of the views of those who judge differently.  It is not unthinkable for a Christian to be opposed to all violence, nor is it unthinkable for a Christian to resolve to defend innocents from mortal danger.  The better we learn to understand and honor the views of our brethren, the more useful and peaceful our lives will be.

Mary, Martha, and Jesus

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

One night last year, Lauren and I were driving home from a gospel meeting, and she asked me, “Am I allowed to request sermon topics too?”  As all husbands know, there is only one possible answer to that question, and so here I am this morning, preaching a sermon on two of the most famous sisters in the Bible, Mary and Martha.

I think this is worth our time for two reasons.  First, as we learned last week, our theme for the year is “Living for Jesus”, so it’s appropriate to consider the way two women lived for Jesus 2000 years ago. 

Second, I think that Martha is in some need of character rehabilitation.  She tends to get a bad rap from Bible teachers.  There’s even a book out there called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.  However, when we look at what the Scriptures actually reveal about her and her sister, a different picture emerges.  Let’s turn our attention, then, to the interaction among Mary, Martha, and Jesus.

There are three stories in the New Testament about these two women, and the first of these is about MARTHA’S COMPLAINT.  Let’s read it, in Luke 10:38-42.  This is certainly the story that people think of first when they think about Mary and Martha.  In fact, for many brethren, it’s the only story they think of. 

The first thing this story shows us is that Mary is kind of an odd duck.  Today, we think nothing of a woman sitting and listening to a Bible teacher, but 2000 years ago, that simply was not done.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is not only declaring herself His disciple.  She’s halfway to declaring herself to be a man. 

The lesson here, I think, is that it’s OK to be a weird disciple of Jesus.  Some people have an easy time fitting into the conventions of society, and they can be wonderful Christians.  Others very much march to the beat of their own drummer, and they can be wonderful Christians too!  Being godly is a whole lot more important than being conventional.

Second, notice that Jesus rebukes Martha not for serving, but for criticizing Mary.  When Martha is bustling around serving while Mary listens, Jesus is perfectly fine with that.  It’s only when Martha complains that Jesus defends Mary. 

In life, some people are Marys.  They’re not so great at adulting, but they’ll sit and listen to Jesus all day long.  Others are Marthas.  They’re the ones who make sure that all the Marys are fed, clothed, and pointed in the right direction. 

It’s OK to be a Mary.  The church needs Marys.  However, the church needs Marthas too, and just like Martha doesn’t get to insist that Mary needs to become like her, neither should we insist that Martha needs to become like Mary!

The second of our three Mary-and-Martha stories is THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS.  It’s funny that we associate this story with Lazarus, but from beginning to end of it, he doesn’t say a word.  It’s Mary and Martha who do the bulk of the talking.  Let’s read about their part of the story in John 11:17-35. 

The first thing I see here is that in life, everybody gets their chance to shine.  In this story, the one who impresses is not Mary.  When Jesus arrives, she doesn’t go to greet Him, which is rude.  When Martha summons her to Jesus, she storms out of the house, goes to Jesus, accuses Him of being responsible for her brother’s death, and then collapses in hysterics at His feet.  Everything she does radiates mad and upset.

Not so with Martha.  Despite her reputation as the one who cares more about housekeeping than God, she is the one who actually has a meaningful conversation with Jesus.  In v. 21-22, even though she too holds Jesus responsible for Lazarus’ death, she expresses her conviction that He can make it right.  Jesus tells her and not Mary that He is the resurrection and the life.  She, not Mary, triumphantly concludes the conversation by expressing her faith in Jesus’ divinity and power.  I daresay that if we didn’t have the book of Luke, our narrative about Mary and Martha would be very different.

Second, though, let’s pay attention to the way that Jesus deals with Mary’s emotional outburst.  He’s not angry or condemnatory.  He’s compassionate.  Even though He knows what is going to happen in five minutes, when she weeps, He weeps along with her.

From this, we see once again that we don’t have to hide from God.  Sometimes, we feel like we have to put on our church faces when we pray, and that’s exactly the opposite of the truth.  If there is anybody we can be shockingly honest with, it’s God!  He’s big enough to handle our anger, our upset, our rage.  The problems come when we think we have to hide those things from Him (as if we could!) and end up turning from Him.

Our third story is the story of JESUS’ ANOINTING FOR BURIAL.  Let’s look it, in John 12:1-8.  By now, we should know what to expect.  Martha is doing Martha things, and Mary is doing Mary things. 

If, after our visit to Luke 10, we still had any doubt about whether Jesus was OK with Martha serving, this should dispel it.  She’s not plopped down in the floor next to Mary.  She’s bustling around making sure everything is in order, just like she was before. 

That’s perfectly fine.  Indeed, it’s always right for a disciple to tend to the needs of others, whether they’re male or female.  In the very next chapter, Jesus Himself is going to perform a humble act of service to teach His disciples a lesson.  In the Lord’s body, the people who paint the auditorium are just as important as the people who preach sermons in it, and we must never forget that.

Also, notice Jesus once again sticking up for Mary.  Once again, this is a strange thing she has done.  The only thing like it that we see in the gospels is the sinful woman in Luke 7 wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as a sign of her repentance. 

This is also a very expensive thing for Mary to do.  In our terms, this is about a $50,000 perfume job!  However, whether Mary knows it or not, this is also the right thing for her to do.  She comes nearer to the meaning of the moment than any of Jesus’ other disciples do. 

As a result, when Judas condemns her, Jesus defends her.  In fact, He defends her so strongly that Judas gets offended at Jesus’ rebuke and ends up betraying Him to the chief priests.  I think Martha’s motives were a lot better than Judas’s, who only wanted his cut of the 300 denarii, but Jesus is willing to protect Mary from Marthas and Judases alike.

I think that all of us find ourselves rolling our eyes at our brethren occasionally, but we must remember that the quirkiest Christian in the assembly is someone whom Jesus loves and values.  We all take some bearing with, and some of us take a lot of bearing with!  However, God put us all here for a reason, and just like Mary did, each of us has something unique to offer.   

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