M. W. Bassford
Several weeks ago, I encountered an article called “The Devolution of Christian Congregational Worship”. Judging from the title, I predicted that it would be another grumpy get-off-my-lawn rant about contemporary praise songs and the damage that they are doing to Christianity. I was not wrong.
As always, I am struck by the inability of many in the worship wars to find a middle ground. I love the great hymns of centuries past, but I also am aware that there were just as many stinkers written hundreds of years ago as there are now. Many praise songs written in the past 20 years resonate with me, and I can accept and appreciate even ones that don’t for the sake of my brethren who love them.
I suppose that if you are tethered to instrumental worship of some kind or other, you have to pick a side. Organ music is organ music, and praise-band music is praise-band music, and never shall the twain meet. However, within the churches of Christ, we don’t have that problem. It’s easy for us to sing “A Mighty Fortress” (circa 1529) and “Behold Our God” (circa 2013) in the same service without the result sounding discordant.
I think it’s a mistake to junk every hymn that wasn’t written in the past 20 years. However, I think it’s also a mistake to try to turn our worship repertoire into a museum. The only things that don’t change are dead, and new songs inject new life into our assemblies.
The key, I think, is for worship leaders to recognize and accommodate the different tastes that exist in a congregation of any size. The correct response to that old dude with the hearing aids in the back who grumps about “not knowing any of the songs” is not to reply, “OK, Boomer.” Instead, it’s to make sure that every service contains a few hymns that he does know.
Anybody who thinks that hymns from 100 years ago can’t be relevant to today’s Christians hasn’t thoughtfully considered the lyrics of those hymns. Maybe they’re not as accessible as the latest Hillsong smash hit, but all of us can benefit from examining our faith from a cultural perspective that is not our own. I suspect too that if Boomer feels like he’s not being ignored, he’ll be more willing to learn a song or two that he doesn’t know.
On the other end of the scale, you have younger brethren who are impatient with the status quo, who want to sing songs written in a culturally relevant style, who predict doom for the church if church music doesn’t sound like the world’s music. They shouldn’t be dismissed either.
After all, new things are always uncomfortable, and that goes double for what we sing in worship. 75 years ago, the radio hymns like “Victory in Jesus” and “This World Is Not My Home” met with fierce resistance from brethren who thought they sounded like hillbilly music. 150 years ago, the revival hymns of Fanny J. Crosby and Robert Lowry were critiqued for their vulgarity. 300 years ago, Isaac Watts had to sell congregants on the idea of singing anything in worship besides metrical psalms.
So too it is with the praise songs of today. Most of them will be mercifully forgotten. The best of them will be incorporated in the repertoire alongside “When I Survey” and “I Am Thine, O Lord” to be defended by tomorrow’s traditionalists from whatever the next worship movement will be. There is nothing new under the sun, not even when it comes to new songs.
For now, the best thing for us to do is to anticipate the results of the process. When we continue to sing from our musical heritage, while adding to it the best and most useful of what is being written today, the results should be acceptable to everyone. They should ensure that God is glorified by our unity as well as our song.
Without a doubt, the greatest marketing campaign of the modern era was (and continues to be) staged by the gay-rights movement. The recent sea change in the national attitude toward same-sex relationships is the result of a brilliant, decades-long initiative in framing and public relations. Though I don’t approve of the object, I can’t help but admire the skill with which it was carried out!
Consider, for instance, the erasure of the word “homosexual”. The progressive attitude toward the word is well summarized by GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, which says, “Please use gay or lesbian to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’ it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered. . .”
Indeed, just as there is no “I” in “team”, there is no “H” in LGTBQ+. I am skeptical, though, that the use of “homosexual” in a clinical context 75 years ago is the reason that it ended up on the ban list. Instead, it is because “homosexual”, unlike “gay” or “lesbian”, contains the word “sex”, thereby reminding the speaker and hearer that same-sex relationships are sexual relationships.
This was and is problematic for gay-rights champions because most men in the United States, even now, are repulsed by the thought of two other men having sex. “Homosexual rights”, then, is a viscerally unappealing term to just under half the population.
The solution to the problem was to drop “homosexual” in favor of “gay” and to make the gay-rights movement about love and marriage, not sex. Love and marriage poll a lot better than gay sex does. Who can be opposed to love?
From a Biblical perspective, though, this shift focuses attention in exactly the wrong place. Scripturally speaking, a homosexual isn’t somebody who feels a certain way or has a certain kind of personality. It’s a man who has been intimate with other men, and unless you have done that, you’re not a homosexual. The doing is what the Bible condemns.
By contrast, the Scriptures have nothing to say about men with personality traits that aren’t stereotypically masculine, nor even about men who love one another. Indeed, the word encourages that! John was the apostle whom Jesus loved. Today, it’s commonplace for me to tell a brother in Christ that I love him. It has nothing to do with sexual desire and everything to with the affection that we share in Christ Jesus.
“Being gay” is not a Scripturally cognizable concept, and it isn’t the problem. Two men loving one another isn’t the problem. Two men having relations with one another is the problem.
From here on out, American Christians are going to live in a world that accepts the practice of homosexuality. We have to acknowledge that and recognize that it’s going to be yet another barrier to our efforts to reach the lost.
As we discuss these things with outsiders, though, we must keep the real issue firmly in mind. Our concern is not with anyone’s inclinations and temptations, but with their violations of the law of God. If we allow others to make the discussion about anything else, we aren’t going to get anywhere.
Some of the topics that the brethren here ask me to preach on are fairly innocuous; others are downright radioactive! So it is with this morning’s subject: how it is that Christians should vote. Obviously, 2020 is an election year, so voting is on everyone’s mind, and it is probably true that the outcome of the presidential election, especially, will have a significant effect on the country’s direction for the next four years.
In reaction to this significance, brethren have taken a variety of extreme stands. For instance, I know Christians who believe that unless you vote, and unless you vote in a certain way, you are sinning. At the other extreme, David Lipscomb and a number of other brethren in the 19th century believed it was a sin for Christians to vote or participate in government at all. These are some pretty strong views, but what does the Scripture actually teach? This morning, let’s consider the connection between voting and the Christian.
In this regard, the first thing that we must do is to HONOR THE CONSCIENCE. Here, consider Romans 14:1-4. On its face, this passage is about how Christians should handle disagreements over eating meat. However, the principles that Paul sets out here govern our interactions in any matter of individual judgment. Anytime the Bible doesn’t spell out clearly what we should do, Romans 14 tells us how to handle it.
Though this is not obvious to many Christians, voting is just such a matter of individual judgment. Here’s why. Unlike the Old Testament and the Qur’an, both of which have much to say about good government, the New Testament is a moral code meant for Christians and churches, not nations. When we try to turn it into a code for nations, which it was not meant to be, we end up using our judgment to pick and choose which parts apply.
Now to this, some might say, “That’s not true! When I’m in the voting booth, I vote the Bible and the whole Bible!” That might be our self-perception, but it’s not really what we’re doing. Let me give you an example. I think all of us here this morning are agreed that adultery is a sin, and it’s very important for all of us to avoid adultery.
However, for few of us does that carry over into politics. We don’t make their position on adultery a litmus test for candidates. Indeed, we even may be willing to vote for candidates who have committed and are still committing adultery. We have used our judgment to decide that something that is very important to us religiously is not important to us politically.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s impossible for us to vote without making these kinds of judgments, and I think that God gives us the freedom to vote as long as we do so according to our conscience and best judgment.
We must acknowledge, though, that we are following our conscience and our judgment, and therefore must not judge or despise brethren whose conscience leads them to vote differently. I recognize that there are brethren who are passionately committed to Candidate X and cannot understand why another Christian might vote for Candidate Y instead. However, our passion does not give us the right to condemn another’s conscience. Even if we think their choice is terrible, we must respect their right to make it.
Second, when it comes to electoral matters, we must SPEAK WISELY. Consider Paul’s admonition in Colossians 4:4-5. Even though this is specifically about outsiders, it surely applies to the way that we speak to one another as well.
In particular, there are three elements of wise speech that I want us to consider. The first of these is that wise speech is truthful speech. Sad to say, there are many Christians who are not careful with the truth when politics is involved. I think the problems come when we do get too attached to candidates and parties. We become so passionately convinced that our candidate is the best ever and the other candidate is the worst ever that we become willing to believe every slander that is made against them. We’ll see some meme on Facebook and click “Share” because it feels true to us even though a little digging would reveal that it came straight from a Russian robot! Brethren, repeating slander is slander too, and it’s a sin. We have to be careful!
Second, we must speak graciously to speak wisely. This too is the result of misplaced zeal for politics. We become dead sure that we are right, right, right, and anybody who disagrees with us is wrong, wrong, wrong! It becomes our goal, especially on social media, to shove the truth down the throats of the folks on the other side. Well, guess what? That’s contentiousness, and contentiousness is a sin too! Over the past several years, I’ve seen far too many cases of brethren who aren’t friends anymore and won’t even speak to each other because of political disagreement. Make no mistake: that’s tragic and wrong.
Third, we speak wisely when we remember our true goal. We are called to be Christians first and political partisans second, and nothing we say as political partisans ever should interfere with our work as Christians. Offending people with the truth of Christ is one thing. Offending people over politics is quite another! Here’s a good litmus test: If somebody from the other political party read what we have to say about politics on Facebook, would they still want to go to church with us? If the answer is “No”, we have gone too far.
Indeed, the last thing that I want to encourage us to do this morning is to PUT THE GOSPEL FIRST. Look at Paul’s great statement of faith in Romans 1:16. It is the gospel that is the power of God to salvation, and only the gospel. Politics and voting never can be.
This has implications first of all for our congregation. Let me be clear. This is not a Republican church. This is not a Democrat church. This is a church that belongs to Christ. In the work of this church, we are wholly devoted to Him, and that means that we have neither time nor attention to spare for dabbling in politics. It also means that regardless of how they voted, all who seek the Lord are welcome here.
Second, no matter how attached to our political causes we may be, we must acknowledge that politics can’t save souls. Only people who are willing servants of Jesus will inherit eternal life, and no government, no matter how powerful, can make the unwilling become willing. Through the threat of punishment, the government can change actions, but it can’t change hearts. Only the gospel can do that, one heart at a time.
I’d be the first to admit that our country has a lot of problems. Indeed, we live in a world with a lot of problems. Given those problems, I understand why so many look to politics as a savior. In reality, though, the only Savior is Jesus Christ. If we want to change the world, we do that by proclaiming Him, first, last, and always.
This is why, for so many, social media represents a giant missed opportunity. They’ll share all these memes and get in all these political arguments, but when it comes to the gospel, they have little to nothing to say. Brethren, is that right? Let us never put our hope in voting, politics, or the government. Let’s put it in Christ where it belongs.
John 3:16 is surely the most well-known verse in the Bible, with even Matthew 7:1 running a close second. Most Christians are aware that the world’s understanding of the latter is dramatically off-base, but I think that even when it comes to the former, we miss the point a little bit.
The problem is the word “so”. Typically, we read that as “so much”, as an expression of the intensity of God’s love. Thus, we come away from the verse with the idea that God’s sending of His Son reveals the depth of His love for us.
I think that’s true, but it’s not really what Jesus is saying. The usual meaning of houtō, the Greek adverb translated as “so”, is not “so much” but “in this way”. The first appearance of the word in the New Testament is Matthew 1:18, which begins, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
The KJV and all the translations that followed it weren’t wrong to translate houtō as “so”. In English, “so” can mean “in this way”. However, in the context of John 3:16, “so” introduces an ambiguity that usually is misunderstood.
Jesus, then, isn’t saying, “God loved the world so much that He sent Me.” He’s saying, “God loved the world by sending Me.” Of all the major translations, I think the CSB is alone in capturing the meaning here (“For God loved the world in this way. . .”).
This is a subtle distinction, but I think it reveals something significant about the love of God. This cornerstone verse of Christianity is telling us not that God loves us intensely (though He does), but that God loves us by acting.
When we are called upon to imitate the love of God, then, it is love expressed in action that we should be imitating. By contrast, much of the self-described Christian world gets hung up on feelings here: “I just love God so, so much!”
Well, that’s nice, I guess, but how is your love for God evident in the way you live? For that matter, how is your love for your brother and your neighbor evident in the way you live? There are an awful lot of folks out there who will shout their love for God to the rafters on Sunday morning then spend their week wallowing in selfishness and sin. That is not the way in which God loved the world!
Instead, love that is like the love of God always reveals itself in service and sacrifice. Maybe it comes from somebody who doesn’t get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper every week, but every week, they’re out there tending to the needs of others. Love that meets our criteria for emotional intensity is neither here nor there. If you do get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper, that’s fine too. What matters is love that manifests itself in a transformed life.
Over the past few years, one of my favorite hobbyhorses has been the need for honesty in our conversations with God. In our hymns and prayers, we shouldn’t pretend that things are hunky-dory when they aren’t. If we’re afraid, we should talk about that. If we’re angry, we should talk about that. As evidence, I cite Job, who was angry with God, yet did not sin with his lips, and the many psalms of lament.
After Bible class one day recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights approached me. He said, “You know how in 1 Corinthians 10, how Paul encourages the Corinthians not to complain like the Israelites did? What’s the difference between complaining and being honest with God?”
I paused. “That’s a good question,” I said.
“I thought it was,” he replied.
It _is_ a good question, and an important one. What’s the difference between the godly who brought their anger and fear to God and were commended for it and the ungodly who brought their complaints to God and were condemned for it? I think the answer has to lie in the way that the Israelites expressed themselves and the heart their expression revealed.
In particular, I think the Israelites’ primary problem was that they complained not in faith, but in faithlessness. I’d never noticed this before, but as I flipped through the Pentateuch, looking at every complaint the Israelites offer in the wilderness, a striking pattern emerged. In almost every instance, they direct their complaint not against God, but against Moses. Exodus 16:3 is typical. The people say to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
This is facially nonsensical. As Moses points out in Exodus 16:8, “What are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” Nevertheless, the Israelites persist in grumbling against Moses and Aaron for the next 40 years. They attribute to the Lord the power to kill them (which appears earlier, in Exodus 16:3, among many other places) but not the goodness to preserve them.
This is very different from what we see in Job. Job certainly engages his friends throughout the book, but his primary complaint is always against God. In fact, engagement with God is what he most desires. Repeatedly, he pleads for a hearing with his Creator that will give him the opportunity to justify himself and seek fair treatment. Even in his misery, he remains confident in God’s ultimate justice and goodness.
To put things another way, Job trusts in God, and the Israelites don’t. Job believes in a world where God is in control, but the Israelites think they are at the mercy of hostile terrain, powerful enemies, and foolish leaders. To them, God is nothing more than another threat.
When we are honest with God, then, we also must make sure that we are honest about God. Maybe we don’t understand why we’re suffering. Job and many psalmists didn’t. Maybe we’re frightened and angry. Job and many psalmists were too.
However, our misery must not lead us to doubt His good nature nor to reject our relationship with Him. Job and the psalmists never give up on engagement with God, but the Israelites never really engage with Him in the first place. Their refusal reveals their fundamental unbelief. Now, as then, faith and unbelief both will meet with their appropriate reward from Him.