How the Organized Church Changes

I apologize for the two-week gap in blog postings. It has been a really distracting time for me.

In November of 2014 at a meeting of the Adventist Society for Religious Study, I heard a paper from Dave Thomas, Dean of the Religion Department at Walla Walla University. The title of the paper was “From ‘Ekklesia’ to Something Else.” Ekklesia is the NT Greek word for “church” meaning those who are “called out” from the world by the gospel to form communities of believers. In this paper he explores some of the trends in Adventist organization that affect its options for the future. I thought the paper was so significant that I asked Dave’s permission to publish it as a guest blog on my site, which permission he graciously granted. What follows is a series of blogs sharing Thomas’ paper with some edits on my part to conform to the style of a blog (including the title I chose). From here on until completion the words are primarily those of Dave Thomas. I have made some alterations to explain or replace technical terms for clarity to a non-specialist audience.

In this paper I (Dave Thomas) wish to reflect on the church as organization. In particular, I wish to reflect on how church as organization may, for reasons that will be explained here, experience an unconsidered or non-deliberate change in its own ecclesiology (doctrine of “the church”) effectively moving it away from the concept of church-as-a-community-of-believers to something else. For those whose view of church is formed by the scriptural idea of a community of called-out believers, this would be an unhappy eventuality indeed.

I was first alerted to this prospect of an unconsidered change in church organizations through a comment made by Katie Funk Wiebe (”The Christian Leader,” Christianity Today, volume 33, number 17, August 1989). She wrote, “I sense that we are allowing business terms to creep into our language. . . I am convinced that because language shapes our thinking and actions, we change the nature of the church and its leadership if we substitute business language for ‘body’ language. An organism quickly becomes an organization if it is thought about that way.” This statement struck me with force. Could it really be that a change in language use could result in a change in theological perception that, because language shapes our thinking and actions, the use of “business language” rather than “body language” could actually result in a shift in the church’s self-perception, effectively changing a living organism into a mere “organization?” This disturbance of my thought equilibrium sent me on a search, the reflective results of which I want to share with you in a series of blogs here.

To be continued. . .

The Implications of the Cross, Conclusion

A second difference the cross makes is, at first glance, the very opposite of the first. We all have a fundamental need to value ourselves and to be valued by others. But how can we value ourselves when we recognize that the seeds of evil are within? It seems that the better we know ourselves the more we will dislike ourselves and the worse we will feel. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.
How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twenty or twenty-five dollars. But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Kobe Bryant. Suddenly your value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software the majority of the people the world use, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!
You see, we are valued in terms of what others see in us. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .
So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of a particular Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just an atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It provides hope for a better world. How?
The best hope for a troubled world is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the evil within ourselves seriously but also sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world. Once we know the right question, it is obvious that “Jesus is the answer.”

The Implications of the Cross

This blog stands by itself, but can also be read as the conclusion of the previous blogs in this series on the problem of evil in the world. What was the cross all about in God’s purpose? What difference did it make? I’d like to highlight two things. First, the cross changes the way we look at our personal lives, particularly our mistakes and failures. According to the Bible, human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. Those who crucified Jesus acted no differently than we would have, given the same circumstances. In other words, the struggle to overcome evil is not, first of all, a social or political task, it is a struggle against the evil within.
This “repentance” is not fun. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. We will never change until we are willing to be changed, until we recognize that change is needed.
The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).
Tragedies like September 11 and the Holocaust are more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, they are symptoms of deeper issues that plague us all. The struggle to recognize the evil within us all is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin V

The climax of the story of Jesus, and the whole reason for His coming to earth, took place one Friday in Jerusalem, a sequence of events dramatized in Mel Gibson’s recent movie, The Passion of Christ. As the “God-man” he was designated to experience all the consequences of human evil in His own person (1 Pet 2:21-24). His death on the cross would sum up all the pain, all the suffering, all the regret, and all the rejection that evil has caused the human race. He would suffer loss of meaning, loss of relationship and all the misery of human sickness and death (Isa 53:1-12). His anguish was much more mental and emotional than physical (in contrast to Gibson’s movie).
Arriving at Golgotha, the place of execution, Jesus was nailed to the cross through the wrists and ankles and put on display between two common thieves. Three hours later He was dead, more from emotional and spiritual anguish than from physical causes. Rich friends of Jesus then secured His body and placed it in a cave-tomb nearby, closed off behind a huge rolling-stone door.
The story reaches a climax about 36 hours later, early Sunday morning. Several women decide to visit the tomb and anoint Jesus’ body with spices, to preserve it and show Him honor, even in death. But when they arrive at the tomb the stone has been moved away and the tomb is empty. One or two men are standing nearby in dazzling apparel (one witness calls them angels). The women are told not to seek the living among the dead. Jesus has risen from the dead and will appear to His disciples again.
God’s answer to the problem of evil, therefore, is the answer of love in the most self-sacrificing form of that word. He does not seek to change the world by force, but by the power of a loving character, exhibited in the self-sacrificing actions of Jesus in our behalf. He wants to be acknowledged as God, not for what He has or the power He can wield, but on account of His character, which is evident at the cross. Why is this event so important? Stay tuned.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin IV

As powerful as God was and is, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom in the universe were not many. What was God to do? God decided to neither rule the universe by force nor to sanction the evil that infected it (see previous blog). Instead, according to C. S. Lewis, the great British scholar and novelist, He did a number of things to gradually turn the tide away from evil and in favor of love and justice. These are outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) And He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which He sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.
Then God did the most amazing thing of all. 4) In Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem in the Middle East, a baby appeared, whose birth we celebrate every year at Christmas time. As the story goes, he was born in a manger, and visited by both shepherds and wise men. He was then forced to flee with his parents to Egypt because he was a threat to the reigning king (Matt 2:1-25; Luke 2:1-20). The reason the Christmas holiday is the high point of the year in Western countries is the conviction that this man, this single, solitary man, was the most important person who ever lived. His name was Jesus.
When Jesus reached adulthood, he went about doing good (Acts 10:38). He had an amazing ability to heal the sick (Matt 8:1-17; John 4:46-54) and, on occasion, even raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44). He brought delight to a wedding couple by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). He fed thousands with a handful of bread and a few fish (Mark 6:30-44; John 6:1-15).
He also taught some memorable things. There were great one-liners like “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other” (Matt 5:39), and “Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:35).” He told unforgettable stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), and the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23). He had memorable encounters with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) and a dead man named Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
But none of that is the reason Jesus’ life was the most important in the history of the world. It was the strange habit Jesus had of going around talking as if He were God. Others have healed people, some have even claimed to raise the dead. But Jesus went beyond that, claiming an eternal relationship with God and doing things that only God can do.
Jesus is often referred to as a good man, or even the best man who ever walked the face of the earth. But neither description is accurate. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
If Jesus were merely another prophet, a man among many, he would be a fraud for claiming to be God. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. And they are the key to explaining how a loving God, who is powerful enough to stop it, could allow so much pain and suffering in this world.

The Infinite Value of Christmas

I interrupt the series on The Problem of Evil to post some thoughts on the meaning of Christmas.

Many people in today’s world are concerned about self-esteem or self-worth. We all have a certain sense of personal value or lack of it, often grounded in childhood experiences. People can spend a lifetime searching for value and few seem to find it in ways that are both satisfying and lasting.

What does this have to do with Christmas? Christmas is not about what we think we are worth, it is about what God thought we were worth when He sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. In the words of Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” In sending Jesus to be born of a woman, God placed a high value on human existence. It was something like the architect of a church becoming a cricket or a beetle to explain to the insects in the church the meaning of their existence and environment.

There are three basic ways that people attempt to find value for themselves. First, they seek value in the things that they possess. This is expressed by the bumper sticker on the Mercedes: “He who dies with the most toys wins!” This is the bottom line approach: the more you have the more you are worth. But it doesn’t really work. The things we buy rot, rust, scratch and crash. The more you have the less value you find in things. And in any case, you can’t take it all with you when you die (although the Pharaohs really tried!). It may feel good to buy stuff, but the feeling doesn’t last. Ask any rich person.

The second way people seek value is in performance, to be the best at something, whether it is sports, business, politics, fashion or even church. “If I can be the best, then I’ll be somebody.” “If I become president, then I’ll be somebody.” And achievement really does mean something. But again, as the basis for self-esteem, it does not last. Athletes get old and decrepit, teachers get old and senile, beauty queens wrinkle and fade, and even if you are at the top of your game, you can still have a bad day, and then what?

The third way people seek value is in other people, what others think of them. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan in the eyes of a young Prince Charming. People drop names of the celebrities they have met. Parents find pride and meaning in their children. But even this method doesn’t last. The people you love may move somewhere else, change their minds, betray you or even die. And nothing is more damaging to self-esteem than divorce. Relationships are meaningful parts of the value we sense in ourselves, but they are rarely permanent enough to based one’s self worth upon.

The bottom line is this. If possessions, performance and people solved all of life’s problems, Tiger Woods would be the happiest man on earth. He is worth a billion dollars, has achieved the top all-time rank in a high-profile sport, and obviously has the attention of more beautiful women than he knows what to do with. But would any reader really want to trade places with him right now? The rich know that things don’t truly satisfy. The high-achievers know the limits of satisfaction that performance provides. The well-connected know how fragile relationships really are. The rest of us are dreaming about things that will not get us where we need to go.

It seems to me that there is only one path to genuine and lasting self-worth. And that is to find our value in relation to a unique kind of friend, someone with the following four characteristics: He or she is genuinely valuable, knows all about us, loves us just the way we are and lives forever. The love of such a friend would provide a sense of worth that would even out the emotional ups and downs of life, it would provide inner peace and stability. To be loved by such a person means it would no longer matter what other people think of us.

Such a friend lives! His name is Jesus. Is He genuinely valuable? He made the whole universe. He knows all there is to know about us, yet loves us just the way we are. Having died on the cross, He will never die again. No one can separate us from His love. To know the love of Christ is have a sense of infinite value, He would have died just for you. And no one, not even death, can take that away from you. That’s the infinite value of God did on the original Christmas day.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin III

Imagine a couple of angels in heaven having a whispered conversation just outside the pearly gates. One angel whispers to the other, “You know, I’m not so sure anymore that God is as loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be. You know what I just heard. . . .?” As the other angel leans forward to hear the juicy tidbit a lightning bolt flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the complaining angel.
Stunned, the other angel seeks out an old friend. “You won’t believe what I just saw! Charleburt was just saying some negative stuff about God and got vaporized by lightning, just like that! You know, maybe he was right. Maybe God isn’t so loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be.” And at that instant another bolt of lightning flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the second angel.
If this kind of thing were to go on for long, what would all the angels be doing? Looking for lightning bolts, worried that they will be next! It would be the end of love and the beginning of fear in their relationship with God. From that time on they would do the right thing and say the right thing, not out of love for God, but out of fear. So eliminating evil the instant it occurs was not an option for a God of love.
A second option for dealing with rebellion would be to sanction it. God could change His law and character to reflect the new realities in the universe. Everybody would be allowed to do whatever they wanted. But this too would be the end of genuine love. It would result in anarchy, “every man for himself.” Evil would become the reigning doctrine in the universe and a destructive chaos would be the result. Injustice would reach even greater proportions than what we now experience, as everyone sought to take what they could from others. Sanctioning rebellion, therefore, was not an option for a God of justice.
As powerful as God was and is, therefore, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom were not many. What was God to do? The Bible offers the answer, which we will cover in the next blog.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin II

As outlined in the previous blog, God created the world and filled it with loving gifts for the human race. He gave the original humans the gift of His love, but He also gave them the gift of freedom (Gen 1:26-28; 2:9, 16-17). He placed His loving heart in their hands to cherish it or reject it. God opened Himself to pain and suffering in order to experience the genuine love of His creation.
And, according to the Bible, things went terribly wrong. First, in heaven there was a being called Lucifer who became enraptured with his God-given abilities and position and led an insurrection against the government of God (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:13-15). Echoes of that insurrection can be found in Rev 12:7-9, NIV. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down– that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Second, Lucifer/Satan did not give up the conflict when he was cast out of heaven, instead he transferred the insurrection to earth by enlisting the support of the first members of the human race, Adam and Eve. In the primeval garden he raised doubts about the character of God and turned Adam and Eve’s trust away from God to themselves (Gen 3:1-7). In the process, their loving relationship with God was broken, and pain and suffering were introduced into the world, resulting in decay and death (Gen 3:8-24). To make it even worse, Adam and Eve’s rejection of God left them subject to the domination of Satan, who had enticed them to no longer trust in God’s love for them.
From that point on in the Bible it could be said of every human being, “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5, NIV). The world became a place of greed, exploitation, murder and chaos. From that time on the earthly evidence regarding God’s nature was a mixed bag, tokens of love mixed with portents of suffering and death. And worse yet, the Bible tells us that the world is the chief battleground of a universal civil war, and its citizens are held hostage by rebel forces. Evil does not exist in this world because God is evil, it exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory.
The question arises at this point. Why didn’t God simply put a stop to evil when it occurred? Why didn’t He stop it in heaven before it ever got to earth? Why not just eliminate evil-doers on the spot and give their squandered freedom to others more worthy?

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin

By popular demand I am re-posting a series on The Problem of Evil that was lost during the shut down of the blog site earlier this year. Hope it’s as good or better than the first time.

There is clearly something wrong with this world. Between acts of genocide, suicide bombers, widespread pollution, random street muggings, sexual abuse and smart bombs that stupidly kill children, we can all tell that some sort of pervasive evil has twisted the minds and hearts of human beings. We long to believe that the world and those who live in it are basically good, but the most of the everyday evidence seems to run in the opposite direction. Can God be good and yet allow so much pain and suffering into the world? Is there any reason to hope that something better lies beneath the surface of what we see and experience?
The Bible tells us that things were not always this way. According to the Bible, before there was an Earth, before there even was a universe, there was an Eternal Lover, a Being whose very nature was and is love. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” this Being declares (Jer 31:3). Before there was an earth or any human being, this loving God envisioned what it would be like to have a universe full of creatures that could love and be loved. Like a woman who falls in love with a baby before it is born, God loved the creation before it was created. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
The Bible goes on to tell us that God prepared the way for the creation by filling it with innumerable tokens of His love. There are the flowers, almost infinite in variety, with hundreds of shades of every imaginable color, with incredible perfumes running from light and delicate to rich and dusky. There are the fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables, with their infinite variety of smells and tastes (Gen 1:11-12; 2:8-9). There are the animals ranging from the awesome and magnificent, like the lion, the tiger and the bull elk, to the unbearably cute, like the koala, the kiwi, the chipmunk and the meerkat (Gen 2:19-20).
The incredible delight one finds in the plants and the animals is not a necessary feature of existence. We could live without a variety of colors and tastes. We could live without animals. But life would not be nearly as enjoyable. We could also live without the songs of birds, but who would want to (excepting perhaps the annoying screech of the sulphur-crested cockatoo)? And that is only the beginning of God’s gifts.
I could speak about mountains and lakes, beautiful sunsets over the ocean, the smell of fresh-cut grass and many other delights. The Bible tells us that these unnecessary but enchanting features of our world are the gifts of an extravagant Lover, who wants to fill the lives of those He loves with exquisite joy (Eccl 3:13; 5:19; Jam 1:17). And in spite of the evil we experience in the world today, these tokens of God’s love are still there to be noticed and enjoyed. But if God’s intentions were so good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the midst of this beauty?
It all goes back to a choice that God made. When it came time to create beings, God had to decide whether these beings would be controlled by Him or whether they would be truly free. One wonders at times whether it would be better if human beings did not have free will. As “robots” we could be programmed to be good and kind and to function in a way that enhances the good of the whole creation. In a world of such beings things would never go wrong.
But there is a problem. Full robotic control leaves no room for love. Imagine your spouse were a robot with a computer for a brain. Imagine you could program him or her to have the perfect body and to respond with loving words and actions in all circumstances. While this may sound like the perfect partner at first blush, the delight in such an arrangement would quickly wear off.
“I love you so much,” you say to your favorite robot.
“I love you with all my silicon,” the robot responds.
When you realize the response isn’t free, the words rapidly become empty. Genuine love requires free will. Genuine love is only meaningful when it is chosen and given as a gift to the other. Genuine love occurs only when someone is also free not to love, or to love someone else. But when someone else is free to love you they are also free to hurt you and reject you. The possibility of love requires the possibility of evil. Freedom is the greatest of all risks.
The bottom line is that love and freedom go together. In order to have one you have to have the other. So when the God who is love, who is the Eternal Lover, decided to create, He also decided to make Himself vulnerable to the choices of His creatures. He made all things good (Gen 1:31), but he also allowed His creatures the freedom not to love, the freedom to reject Him. Ultimately, evil exists not because God is a tyrant, but because He is committed to openness and freedom. Evil exists in this world not because God is powerless, but because He wanted human beings to be powerful in ways that mirrored His own freedom of action.

Final Reflections on the Spiritual Formation Debate

Going beyond spiritual formation and the review of Peth’s book, let me briefly address what I consider a significant and perhaps dangerous misunderstanding in Adventist (and much evangelical) thinking. There is, rightly, a great concern about and fear of ecumenism. What is widely thought of as ecumenism is a process of unifying religious institutions for political advantage. When religion and politics get together bad things happen, especially to faithful believers who have captured the deeper spiritual heart of faith and rejected the political agendas of so many religious institutions. But there is another type of “ecumenism” and that is recognizing God’s call to many individuals in every religious institution on the globe (Rev 18:4). Among the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. are many people who are genuinely seeking truth and have experienced some acquaintance with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God has been in every place before the missionaries ever got there. I have found kindred spirits of genuine faith in many places that I would not have expected.

Peth has focused on the dangers of learning from others, and rightly so. I would wish that he had done so in a more reasoned and academic fashion, but I fully agree that there is a huge danger in opening oneself freely to the ideas of others without a strong grounding in the biblical world view. One can enter a slippery slope in which one gradually morphs from a biblical Jesus-follower to a self-focused eclectic. But there is an equal and opposite danger that Peth’s book does not address. And that is to allow ourselves to be so consumed with the dangers of ecumenism that we close ourselves off spiritually from neighbors, friends and family who think and live differently. God’s end-time remnant will be drawn from every nation, tribe, language and people, and yes, also religion (Rev 14:6; 18:1-4). My fear is that books like the one by Peth may cause us to see demons behind every bush and inspire suspicion of others that closes ourselves off from others at just the time when God is seeking to draw His faithful ones together.

There is an often unwritten thread in Adventist (and evangelical) thought that suggests that our religion has the truth and others are messed up. At the end of time people will abandon the mess-up religions and join ours, making up the end-time remnant (or whatever evangelicals may call it). What this thread does not take seriously is evidence that all religious institutions are messed-up, including our own, whichever that may be. All religious institutions are human attempts to bear witness to a perception of God’s action in the world. This is a good thing. We should honor the acts of God in our midst and call them to the attention of the world. But over time, religious institutions become more and more focused on self-preservation and less and less focused on the original mission. This is why reformations are needed in every faith. At the end of time all religious institutions will be split between those who want to preserve a human shell and those who have maintained or recaptured the original spirit and mission of the faith. The faithful remnant of every religion will in the end prove to have more in common with each other than with colleagues in their own religion. The final proclamations of the gospel and its counterfeit (Rev 14:6-12; 16:13-16– see the Armageddon Trilogy on the main page of the web site) will expose the human (and often satanic) side to institutional religion. God’s faithful ones will find each other in strange and surprising places. The final outcome is drawn in broad strokes in Revelation, but the details will probably surprise us all.

What I have outlined here is messier and will for many be less satisfying than a black and white treatise. But truth is often a tension between two poles (two examples: the divine and the human in Jesus Christ, and the role of faith and works in Christian experience). Finding a balance between the ditch of ecumenism and the ditch of self-important exclusivism is rarely easy. To be open and accepting of people at the same time one is discerning truth and error is challenging in practice. I hope that readers can learn the latter from Peth’s book without developing the mind and attitude of a Pharisee toward those who are sincerely seeking God in the only way they know how to seek Him. One thing Howard Peth and I certainly have in common, although we haven’t met, we both have a lot to learn.