Lack of faith

I still have the same faith in God that I’ve always had. I’ve lost faith in church.

Which is to say, I’ve lost faith in people.

And I’m not sure that ritual — however much we may think we need it — is the best way that worship is communicated; that single-use once-a-week buildings and structures are effective or cost-justifiable in getting God’s work done with Him in this world; or that human authorities, hierarchies, teachings and traditions that judge and exclude others glorify Him or draw others to Him at all.

I retired from a short stint in preaching ministry three years ago, but this conclusion is a long time a-comin’. Decades. More than half of my 67-year life.

I can’t apologize for this.

It’s a doubt that is deeply and honestly held.


They seem to be the centerpiece of the worship service at church, no matter how long they are or what they’re called: sermons, teachings, messages, homilies.

I’m not sure they should be, but they kind of are by default for almost a couple thousand years now.

I would vote for the eucharist, the Lord’s supper, to take that honor and let Him host and be the center of worship, honor and praise.

But, hey, nobody asked me.

So we surround the sermon with all our other acts of worship (singing, prayers, reading of scripture, etc.), and — like I said — it becomes the centerpiece of the table we surround by default.

And what do we hear?

I attended church from before the time I could think or speak until just a couple of years ago. I think I can fairly say I’ve heard about every kind of sermon imaginable, from the very best to the very worst.

I learned a lot, I’m sure; and some of what I learned, I had to later unlearn — because what I heard was not valid, or helpful, or sometimes just wasn’t true. Occasionally it didn’t even conform to what scripture said, and even rarely contradicted and defied it.

But looking back, I think the very best sermons I heard gave me insight into the life, teachings, example and nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

They conveyed His humanity and divinity, His winsome appeal, His unflagging love for all, and His refusal to judge people while being unflinchingly judgmental about how to speak, act and relate to others in a world that God made and God cares about and God watches over all the time.

Sermons like that made me crave that nature and yearn for that living grace; they challenged me to imitate it in what I do and say with the goal of making it my nature.

I genuinely don’t know how you can preach a gospel sermon without talking about Jesus; He is the very best of all the good news in scripture. I tried preaching for several years, but it is not my gift. When I did preach, I genuinely tried to draw my listeners to the grace of Christ.

To the cross, yes, sometimes; even to the empty tomb. But, you see, that’s what the Lord’s table is for; that’s largely His story to tell in His inimitable way — by living it to death and then living it forever.

I can’t do better than that.

And you see, if that were all there is to His story, we would miss out on the part that makes it whole and full and complete: the incredible life of love and compassion that He lived. That, as much as anything else, is what proves He was/is/will always be the Son of God.

God could have raised anyone from the dead — it’s not like He’d never done it before! But who else but His very own Son could have lived such an exemplary life, seen and communicated the loving grace of heaven so clearly, had the unalterable faith to let mankind do its worst and still speak words of forgiveness?

Sermons come and go. A million every Sunday, maybe, all around the world.

But they are only heard by the people who listen to them; and if those people don’t leave that church inspired to live what they’ve heard, then only words have been spoken. Not The Word, the living Logos, the meaning of what God spoke into existence, the why of being, the purpose of living, the joy of loving, the embodiment of grace.

Well, I’ve rattled on here long enough. If I could live like that, I could still try preaching. But I know there is no credibility in what you say if you don’t practice what you preach.

So I’ve chosen to leave that to others of better qualifications, and just do my best to live up to some poor semblance of the One that I most admire.

They say that’s a sermon too.

I Don’t Know Anything About God

And neither do you.

What we say we “know” are items accepted on faith, communicated through scripture, written by mortal men. We accept them as inspired; we accept them as factual — but we accept them on faith.

I think it’s important to recognize that. Constantly.

Because overconfidence in what we “know” leads to an overweening pride in our own ability to interpret what we have read and accepted. Leads to arrogance. Leads to sects and parties and division and downfall.

Leads to loss of faith. Loss of faith, in favor of “knowledge.”

And I have to confess that in the past few years, my faith has changed. I hope it has matured, but I know it has changed.

I believe God exists, that He loves, that He cares, that He saves.

That means that I believe God cares in a divine way that I don’t necessarily comprehend. Perhaps even cannot understand.

For instance ….

Because I have faith in God, I have faith that God will let bad things happen to good people. He is God, and He can do what He likes in His own way and wisdom and time. I don’t know why. I don’t have to know why. If I needed to know why, I have faith that He’d have told me.

I have my own ideas on the matter, but they’re mine and they could be wrong — and ultimately they’re not important.

If they were important, I’d have answers.

I hope that doesn’t sound cynical, but I’m sure it does — especially to people who are certain that they “know” a lot about God. I think it’s just a recognition of reality.

But I also believe that God came, was and is present as human — in the form of the One whom we call His Son, Jesus — and therefore cares in a human way as well as a divine way.

Yet still lets bad things happen to good people. Lets good things happen to bad people (like grace). Lets things of all kinds happen to all kinds of people. And all the praying in the world will not sway His will if we are praying for something that is — in the divine perspective — not ultimately good for us; not something that can be within His will.

This is the God who let His Son suffer and die to give us the perspective of grace, a glimpse at eternity, a taste of blood and bread and the way that His world should be.

So we pray from a human perspective and receive our answers from the divine perspective. And the divine perspective calls on us to try to see them from His point of view. Even if we can’t do it. We must try.

Because we are also called to be part of the human answer to human prayers. Forgiving. Generous. Gracious. Kind. Loving. Self-sacrificial.

Part of the effort to make good things happen to all people. I believe that creating us, giving us His Son, showing us His grace, was all the work He needed to do; that it is sufficient. I can pray all I want to. But in the final analysis, I might as well just recognize that my prayers have (and must have) the power to change me. That’s entirely up to me.

Whether they have the power to change what He has planned to do in order to bring about good is entirely up to Him.

That’s what I believe about God. Just what I believe. Not what I know.

Because I don’t know anything about God.

And neither do you.

Sometimes I’m Sad

… that I can’t be the kind of Christian everyone expects. You know?

The kind with a contemporary Christian hymn in their hearts all the time. The kind who is always eager to tell someone about Jesus at the first excuse. The kind who goes to church faithfully, every time the door is open. The kind who gives generously every week he attends. The kind that can vote a certain way with no qualms in their conscience. The kind who believe God is in control of every minute detail all the time because He chooses to be. The kind whose kids turn out the way everyone expected them to. The kind who doesn’t question the traditions. The kind who gets along.

But that’s just not me. Some of those things were never me; I just didn’t make a big deal about them.

The fact is, I can’t be that kind of Christian. And I won’t pretend.

I’d rather be genuinely me than someone who says and does what must be done to fit in.

The contemporary Christian hymns — frankly, all the songs sung at church — are not the comfort they once were. They remind me of my departed Angi, who loved them and had them in her heart all the time and listened to them in the car and on her iPhone in the office. And that just raises difficult questions for me about God’s goodness that nobody actually has answers for, so it makes the faith and the trust in Him that I still have even more difficult.

My eagerness to share a gospel message is not what it was. For one thing, people find it off-putting and self-righteous and often not credible from people who can’t live up to it, and I am one of those far-from-perfect people. I’ll be glad to tell anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that lies within me (to put it in scriptural language), but most of the time it’s all I can do to try to be like Jesus of Nazareth. I used to preach. Now it’s just a matter of practice. In this case, practice won’t make perfect. He has to do that. I get that. I grasp the concept of grace, even if I can’t fathom the depths of it.

And I haven’t been to church but a couple of times in the past two years and more. I have questions and concerns about what church is and should be and how it’s done and what its purpose and expectations are that far exceed the word count of a readable post.

Giving to support some of those things I’m not sure I can believe in … well, that’s just not an option right now. I can give to support people I know who are in genuine need; I can give in other ways in total anonymity; I can give to the kinds of things that Jesus of Nazareth talks about giving to support. Did you ever notice He never once talked about giving to His church in scripture?

Frankly, I am horrified at the political tack that churches have taken to support a particular party and even economic/social ideology that I often find antithetical to the life that He lived and the way He loved and the extent to which He gave … even to His own life. For people who never earned it, never worked for it, never could, never will.

Because I can’t believe God shows favoritism, to rich or poor, one skin color over another, one ethnicity over another, one set of life choices over another, one religion over another, one soul over another. If He loves the whole world, then the Son He gave is for everyone. But God as micro-manager? Undoing everything in some karmic cosmic way that intentionally harms some people to the benefit of others; that’s one thing. But to undo the real-world consequences of it as if that doesn’t matter in this world at all? No. I can’t vote that way or believe that way because He doesn’t operate that way. Whether you take the story of Eden literally or not, the gist of it is that He gave us choice in the very beginning and He doesn’t interfere with the consequences and rewards of what we have chosen. Others might, but not Him. Evil still exists in this world because we still choose it; we choose self instead of others and Him. And that’s why there’s still death in the world, why there’s still suffering in the world, why there’s still inequity and hatred and greed and poverty and illness and crime and murder and bigotry and ….

Well, you get the idea. I don’t have all the answers. But that much seems obvious.

I choose. You choose. Our kids choose. Their kids choose. And we’re responsible for our own choices; no one else’s. I’m glad and proud that my kids are into adulthood, still forming their own spirituality just like their dad is. I’m proud that Angi and I helped instill and nurture a yearning for a deep spirituality in them. I can hope it leads them into good lives that care deeply about others. So far, it’s looking that way to me. What they do for a living, as far as I’m concerned, is relatively inconsequential compared to how they live their lives.

If they turn out anything like me, they’ll never accept tradition for the sake of tradition; never choose to go along just to get along; never be solely what someone else expects of them.

But sometimes I’m sad I can’t.

Rarely. But sometimes.

Because that would be easy.

Every Day or Sunday Only? Unauthorized Worship, Part 6

Tongues of Fire on PentecostI have nothing against worshiping God together on Sunday. Worship has been practiced among believers on Sunday since the early days of the church.

What I oppose is the notion that gathered worship can only take place on Sunday; that it is only “commanded” on Sunday; that it only has significance on Sunday.

Really? Where in scripture do we read that?

Oh, I’m fully aware that Acts 20:7 says, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”

I’m also completely certain that 1 Corinthians 16:2 has the instruction: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”

But to insert the word “only” at the beginning of each sentence and to bind the example of the first passage and the instruction of the second as a command for all believers for all time – I believe – is going beyond what the word of God says.

I’m also cognizant that as early as about AD 107, Christian writers were urging the observance of gathered worship on Sunday to especially commemorate the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1):

  • AD 107: ” … let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days of the week. (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chp 9. Ante-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, pg. 62-63.)
  • AD 130: “Moreover God says to the Jews, ‘Your new moons and Sabbaths 1 cannot endure.’ You see how he says, ‘The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the Sabbath which I have made in which, when I have rested [heaven: Heb 4] from all things, I will make the beginning of the eighth day which is the beginning of another world.’ Wherefore we Christians keep the eighth day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead and when he appeared ascended into heaven. (15:8f, The Epistle of Barnabas, 100 AD, Ante-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, pg. 147)
  • AD 150: “But Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day of the week and Jesus our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (First apology of Justin, Ch 68)
  • AD 150AD: “And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a city or a rural district. … We all make our assembly in common on the day of the sun, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the sun the appeared to his apostles and taught his disciples these things.” (Apology, 1, 67:1-3, 7; First Apology, 145 AD, Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1, pg. 186)
  • AD 190AD: He does the commandment according to the Gospel and keeps the Lord’s day, whenever he puts away an evil mind . . . glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself.” (Clement of Alexandria, Vii.xii.76.4)

I think that’s great! And I even understand why morning would be a preferable time for that observance! But although there is a special reason to commemorate – even celebrate! – the resurrection … where is the word “only” which limits us to this one day?

For those who require scripture to “authorize” everything that a church does … where does the authorization come for gathering to worship on any other day of the week – say, for instance, Wednesday? (And if it ain’t authorized, then worship must be forbidden … right?)

The earliest believers in the first century had no scriptural authorization to meet on the first day of the week; what scripture commanded was to observe the Sabbath.

(I suppose the “authorization” for Sunday nights would be John 20:19, though that’s really stretching it!)

Well, I’ll tell you where everyday worship comes from, if it must indeed be “authorized” by scripture: Acts 2:42-47.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Did you notice all the things they did? They shared to the apostles’ teaching. They enjoyed fellowship. They broke bread (the term used in Acts 20:7). They prayed. They were awestruck. They shared. They took Jesus seriously at His encouragement for them to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:33). They met at their place of worship, the temple courts (where women would not be excluded). They opened their homes and dined together. They praised God.

Is it any wonder that they also enjoyed the favor of all the people and that the Lord added to their number daily those that were being saved? (One would have to assume that, given the events recorded a few verses before, they were also baptizing people daily.)

They were doing all of the things we do in church – and so much more – and doing them daily. And if we try to fit all of the possible acts of worship (see Gonna Need More Fingers) into one day a week – rather than each day of our lives, as Paul recommends in Romans 12 – we’re gonna need more hours in the day!

We folks of the Restoration Movement have a kind of pride in the notion that, a couple of hundred years ago, some of our forebears in faith sought to restore the New Testament church to the glory that it had in the first century.

When you look at Acts 2, don’t you think they might not have gone far enough back?

We need to look back to a time when believers were being restored in their relationship to Christ … doing every little thing He had suggested … celebrating with thanksgiving the grace that had been given to them through His death and resurrection by generously giving and graciously receiving … dining together to perpetuate His ongoing table ministry with loving hospitality.

In other words, the earliest believers were doing everything they could to become more and maybe just like Him.

Every single day of every week of every month of every year – even Sabbaths! – just like Jesus did.

If our hearts were so afire as the tongues of Pentecost and the hearts of the believers who heard them, we wouldn’t need any command, example, necessary inference or authorization to worship God all the time … would we?

Are We Commanded to Sing?

Is every scripture stated in the imperative mood (“You do this”) automatically a command for all people of all generations to follow? I don’t think so, or we’d all be going into Jerusalem to look for a man with a donkey’s colt, drawing water for Jesus at a well near Sychar, and taking a little wine for our stomach’s sake and our frequent illnesses.

Is every scripture stated in the imperative mood even necessarily a command at all?

Here are the two that have generally been identified as commands to sing. I’ve heard a cappella-only advocates describe them that way; I’ve heard accompanied-praise advocates describe them that way. I’ve probably even described them as commands myself.

But I’m reconsidering:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.~ Ephesians 5:18-20

This instruction does seem to address gathered worship (“speaking to one another”; “to the Lord”), but not necessarily exclusively gathered worship. Yet what begins the imperative of the instruction is a call to sobriety. Being filled with spirits “leads to debauchery”; being “filled with the Spirit” leads to something quite different. And “be filled with the Spirit” is the second imperative, modified with the result of it. The third imperative is double: “Sing and make music from your heart”. If one sings to the Lord, it should come from a grateful heart that prays such praise through Christ. Plus, if there is some reason that a worshiper is prevented from singing, he/she is still heard by God for the music of the heart. No one is excluded (as some – many – were from worship under the Old Covenant).

Should the New Covenant be known and characterized by commands which, by their very nature, exclude certain things, practices and people? Or should it be seen primarily as instruction, encouragement, mentoring, promise, blessing – and, yes, very few but very important commands (like loving God wholly and loving others as one’s self)?

What about the second imperative:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:16-17

This also seems to describe a situation of gathered worship (“teach and admonish one another”), though again not exclusively.

Here, the imperative is to let the gospel enrich the believers – modified by “as you teach and wisely admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs AND “singing to God with gratitude”.

How often do we describe “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” as a command to be followed? Or “teach and admonish one another”? This is not just a question of emphasis – though I’m trying to point out Paul’s emphasis in phrasing these instructions – but a question of intent. Are these all commands, or are they more accurately described as instruction, encouragement, mentoring, promise, blessing …?

Are they intended for all believers for all time? Or for those who couldn’t/can’t remember how to behave in gathered worship … what and whom/Whom to remember while worshiping … or even that worship and mutual encouragement is supposed to be taking place?

Do we miss the point of both of these passages by classifying them as “commands”? Something to be done and checked off our order of worship in church, having done it in some way “correctly”?

Isn’t the point of both of them that we lift up each other in our musical worship and do so through Christ? That we should not forget each other nor Him?

Now, where I think we really miss the mark is when we re-classify passages which are examples as being “commands,” thereby promoting them to new prominence in our hierarchical CENI (command, example, necessary inference) hermeneutic. Because Jesus or Paul did something, are all people of all generations commanded to exactly repeat and imitate it? I don’t think so, or we’d be riding donkeys into Jerusalem and having all of our Timothys circumcised (but not our Tituses).

What are the examples of singing in the New Testament? (I list only these because there would be too many in the Old and too many who do not accept what they do not wish to accept from the Old anyway.)

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord …” ~ Luke 1:46

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ~ Luke 1:67

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. ~ Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Acts 16:25

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.” ~ Romans 15:8-9

So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. ~ 1 Corinthians 14:15

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. ~ James 5:13 (Okay, not strictly an example, but an imperative in the singular – bear with me for the reason it’s here.)

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. ~ Revelation 5:9

And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. ~ Revelation 14:3

And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb: ~ Revelation 15:2-3a

I think that’s it. I believe that’s all. If I’ve missed any, I apologize and will add them if you’ll point me to them.

But I think what these ten examples reveal may explain why they outnumber the imperatives five to one.

Let me cut to the chase. In each of these examples, was there anyone singing who had to be commanded to do so? Was there anyone who was not deeply motivated in some way – joy, sorrow, challenge, need, awe, reverence, thanksgiving, missional enthusiasm – to sing? Did they have to wait for someone to show up with a bound book of New Testament scripture bookmarked to the first two imperative passages above?

My point is simply this: Believers who recognize the kindness and severity and justice and mercy and grace and all-consuming love of God the Father expressed exquisitely in Christ confirmed powerfully by the Holy Spirit through the church throughout all generations do not have to be commanded to sing their fellowship and brotherly love and mutual encouragement and praise and gratitude and adoration and submission and petition and joy and sorrow and reverence.

Those who don’t always perceive these things might need to be reminded to remember each other and Christ when they do sing. They might need to be urged not to let their gatherings cease worshiping and get out of hand when they worship in song. They might need to be persuaded to stay grateful.

But the believers who don’t need those nudges; people who are literally and figuratively inspired … you don’t have to order them to sing.

You can’t stop them.

The Instrumental Music Issue

The Instrumental Music IssueToday, the latest edition of New Wineskins goes live with an introductory article by Guest Editor Jay Guin outlining the contents and direction of The Instrumental Music Issue.

We debated the merits of inviting advocates from both sides of this contentious issue to add their thoughts, and in the end agreed that one side has already had, perhaps, more exposure than the issue deserves. And there are always the comment boxes available below each article for registering one’s view. (I only remove entries there which are spam, abusive or slanderous, duplicated by software/user glitch, or with which I disagree. Just kidding on that last one.)

As WebServant for New Wineskins, my own views on the matter are pretty much represented on this blog and also available for public scrutiny – most of them at the worship or unauthorized worship category links at the far right.

Spirit and Truth

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. ~ John 4:24

What does Jesus mean by that: “in spirit and in truth”?

I have heard it taught – perhaps you have, too – that when Jesus says “in spirit,” He means that the spirit of the worshiper is engaged in worship, and when He says “in truth,” He means that the worship obeys God’s commands for worship.

Where does that interpretation come from?

Does Jesus use the word “spirit” exclusively to describe the spirit of an individual person? Is it possible that He is speaking of the Holy Spirit within an individual person instead – or also?

Does Jesus use the word “truth” exclusively to describe God’s commands? Does He even use it to describe God’s commands at all? Is it possible that He is speaking of truth here as the accurate proclamation of fact (as He uses it a few verses before – 4:18)?

The quote above, of course, is not isolated. It is part of a conversation with the woman at the well near Sychar, Samaria in John 4. The entire conversation is about truth. The entire conversation is about Jesus: the Truth, the Living Water, the Messiah.

As nearly as I can tell, Jesus never uses the word “truth” in John or any other gospel (or through His Spirit in any New Testament writing) to describe a set of commands from God.

He uses it to describe prophecies He shares; He uses it to describe characteristics of God’s children; He uses it to describe Himself and God’s word. His followers later use it to describe the gospel; and will speak of walking in the truth and obeying the truth or the gospel – not as a set of instructions – but as a Christlike way of life.

Not once do I find “truth” used to describe anything but the accurate proclamation of fact.

In fact, one of Jesus’ points to the woman at the well is that man’s interpretation of God’s commands are not His commands at all; where one set of forefathers or another claimed as the unique place and way of worship was irrelevant. God’s desire is worship from the heart of the worshiper, wherever he/she is. (See Isaiah 29:13 and its context … and the reason Jesus quotes it in Matthew 15 and Mark 7.)

Jesus seems to speak on one occasion in scripture of an individual person’s spirit (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). In virtually every other instance in the gospels, a writer refers to Jesus’ spirit (which He gives up at the cross) or evil spirits whom He casts out (plural) or the Holy Spirit (singular). In the remainder of the New Testament, the same holds true; the exceptions are when Stephen surrenders his spirit at his martyrdom (Acts 7:59) and several occasions in which writers speak of an individual’s spirit (Examples: Romans 8:16; 1 Corinthians 5:5, 7:34, 14:14-16).

But in the great majority of those passages in which a person’s individual spirit is mentioned, it is in the context of (hopefully) being united with the Holy Spirit. Don’t just take my word for this; check it out for yourself:

God’s desire is for His Spirit to be united with ours (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:17; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:13, 2:22, 3:16, 5:18; 2 Timothy 1:14, 4:22; 1 John 3:24).

Is that what Jesus is communicating to the woman at the well in Sychar? He has not given up nor fully given out His Spirit at this point, nor has He taught His closest followers about His Spirit in those final days of His mortality.

But this is what He tells her in the verse right before the one quoted above:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” ~ John 4:23

The time was coming; the time had come. They were right on top of it. And He says this will happen, because it is the Father’s will.

So I’ve had to come to the conclusion that what Jesus means by the phrase “in spirit and in truth” means that, in order to truly worship God who is spirit, we must be united with His Holy Spirit; we must worship as a proclamation of truth from the heart that we thoroughly believe – loving Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

And that His instruction has nothing to do with rules made up by man and attributed to God.

The Fourth of July

Now that it’s over, and the subject is no longer quite as inflammatory by being outdated, I’d like to tell you what I believe about celebrating the Fourth, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” displaying the flag and doing any or all of those things in a church building whether on a Sunday morning or not.

I believe Romans 14. Specifically, on the point of the subject at hand, I believe verses 5 through 13.

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ ” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.

This is not a cop-out answer. I believe it is the right answer, the complete answer, the scriptural answer, the answer inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and Jesus Christ, His Son about referring to our country in worship.

It ain’t right. It ain’t wrong. Get over it, folks.

Everybody’s going to have a country. Everybody’s going to want what’s best for his/her country. That doesn’t mean that everybody wants only his own country to prosper or to know of God’s love or to be blessed. But let’s face it, the folks in every country have their own flags and their own national birthdays and their own patriotic songs and pledges and fealties and loyalties and preferences.

Israel’s leaders (and later, Judah’s leaders) prayed for God to bless their nation. God often indulged their requests – when they were obedient. And when they weren’t, He reminded them through His spokespersons that He didn’t love them any more or less than the people of the nations around them.

Singing patriotic songs at church is not essentially different from singing songs like “Come to the Church in the Wild Wood” or “Precious Memories,” which thoroughly bless some people but have no intrinsic spiritual value (other than, perhaps, an oblique reference to “unseen angels”). Some patriotic songs – “America the Beautiful,” for instance, actually contain a prayer for God’s ongoing blessing of the land and its people. They don’t include or exclude others by not mentioning them. They are what they are: patriotic songs.

And to exclude them entirely because they are not specifically worship songs to God is just silly. We’re also advised in scripture to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” as well as to “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The verses sit right next to each other (Ephesians 5:19-20). They are co-equally important. Don’t give me a bunch of hooberbloob about not singing entertaining songs if you have ever been uplifted or blessed by any of the songs you’ve sung (and heard; you know you’re hearing them, too) at church. They’re meant to be entertaining to God, and above all else, to help us help each other recognize and confess His extraordinary wisdom, power, justice, mercy and love.

My advice (and that’s all it is) is to choose worship activities wisely and sparingly if they don’t express that kind of worship. We only give ourselves about an hour at best – out of the 168 that God gives us each week – to praise His name together and build each other up. Why not choose songs, pledges, oaths and symbols that express our worship as – first of all – His people; His nation … and incidentally of this nation that He seems to have superabundantly blessed?

Let’s do a few things which recognize that perception of ours and which bless people who have especially deep loyalties to this country – who may have served to defend her, or have lost dear ones who did – but let’s not go overboard with it. Keep first things first. Give honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7) and give glory and worship to Whom it is due (Psalm 29:2).

Let it all be done in peace for mutual edification (Romans 14:19); patriot for pacificst and pacifist for patriot.

Let all be done – eating/drinking, fasting; day-observing, day-ignoring – let all be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

And, uh, please … no fireworks inside the church building!

Instruments of His Peace, Part II

Wow. That Part I sure was a long time ago. Wonder why I didn’t mark it “Part I”?

Maybe because, as I confessed last year, I am a world-class conflict avoider, and I said only as much as I could stand to say.

And because I continue to encounter people of good faith and firm conviction within the fellowship of Churches of Christ who simply believe with all of their hearts that the Bible (or at least most of the New Testament) inarguably forbids worshiping God through Christ today with instruments of music other than the voice … well, because of that, I can’t just let the subject drop.

A dwindling few of them have gone beyond the pale in making personal attack, judgment and condemnation on the question (which, for them, is no question at all). Yet many more have not. They simply teach that it is sin, that it displeases God and – some would say – will eventually lead to eternity in hell.

The teaching is based on presumption of the authority of the Bible as an end-to-end book of law, its complete sufficiency in all matters and questions of right and wrong, and therefore, righteousness and damnation.

That’s the first problem I have with this teaching. Where does the Bible claim to be – or even imply that it is – only law and wholly sufficient in every possible question or practice?

The answer might go, Well, 2 Timothy 3:16, for one.

Is that what it says, though? Does it say “all-sufficient”? Or just “useful”?

How about 2 Peter 1:3?

Where does that say “scripture” or “God’s Word”? Doesn’t it say “divine power” and “knowledge through him who called us”? And if that somehow necessarily implies scripture and only scripture (and somehow I doubt that the revelation of God’s divine power and the one who called us is limited to scripture, since I see Him living through His Spirit in other Christians all the time) let’s just go there. Let’s go to scripture. What does scripture say about worship with music?

Let’s start with the examples: Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 and Acts 16:25.

Great example. If Jesus could sing with His followers on the way out to the garden and His imminent arrest, I should be able to do the same, even weighed down with my own sorrows. Same for Paul and Silas in jail. I don’t see any instruments there. I’ll grant that they probably didn’t lug any out to the garden or into the jail. (Though neither of those examples is in a church/synagogue setting.)

But Matthew 18:20!

It’s a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us when two or three of us are gathered to pray and ask God for something … but does He say that makes it a church in musical worship together?

The commands, then: Ephesians 5:18-20.

I’m not sure I’d call them “commands,” since Jesus only gave us one that enveloped the two most important ones in the law. Why not call them “principles”? I completely agree with the principle that we should be filled with the Spirit, rather that with alcoholic spirits – and that thanksgiving for everthing through Christ should characterize our songs to each other. The setting seems to be, not so much gathered worship, as it is everyday living.

Colossians 3:16: more thanksgiving.

Absolutely. Plus the opportunity to teach and admonish each other through song. Same surround: daily living, rather than just gathered worship.

And James 5:13.

Okay, I’m not convinced that this is talking exclusively about worship in a gathered setting, since the subject and verb are singular – but it’s a wonderful principle for any of us to sing songs of praise when happy. Just as Jesus did and Paul could when suffering – Jesus before leaving for the garden; Paul while in prison after being beaten.

All right then! Finally, the rest of the commands: Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15.

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Neither of those is a command. Both say “I shall,” or “I will.” They’re expressing more of that gratitude from the heart. Are they examples? Maybe. Let’s take ’em one at a time. Romans 15:9 is quoting Psalm 69:9, perhaps as prophecy that the Lord’s name will be sung to the nations. It was a prophecy that included Gentiles – an important point in Paul’s letter to Rome.

1 Corinthians 14:15 is attempting to set straight some problems with some people speaking – even praying – in tongues during gathered worship, but without anyone translating, interpreting.

The point is that none of these passages has, as its primary tenor, the question of worship with or without musical instruments in an assembly.

Other issues are at hand, and are significantly more important. They are issues of the heart: being sober but joyful, teaching and admonishing, communicating clearly.

The question of the presence or absence of instruments just isn’t there.

If they must be authorized specifically, must not also a song leader, song books or sheet music, pitch pipes, amplification devices, slide or graphic projections also be authorized specifically in order to be scripturally acceptable to God? Does that not take these scriptures and make them say what they do not say?

Who gets to decide which of those supplements are expedient – a term not used with regard to worship in scripture – and which are not?

Does that not make the argument for authorization either man’s teaching binding on no one or God’s teaching binding in every instance in which a question of authorization might arise?

And if, as many from Eusebius until this day have argued, instruments cannot and do not praise God … do the instruments play themselves? Or are they played as the expression of human beings – plucked, stroked, even breathed into by human beings into whom God has breathed the breath of life? Can anyone watch and hear a virtuoso like Yo Yo Ma and still say that only the cello played; that the music did not come from the artist’s very heart and soul as well?

Can you do that with a pitch pipe?

When God breathes His Spirit into us, we become the instruments of His peace. He plays us as His instruments to make His music in this world. It is no longer we who live, but Christ living in us.

Finally, if the argument is made from Romans 14 (which irretrievably puts the question of instrumental/a cappella worship into the category of disputable matters and items of conscience – rather than God’s clear command), neither side can presume to say, “Then why don’t you just see it and do it my way in order to have my fellowship!”

Bottom line, then. Fellowship cannot be extended or denied based upon man’s teaching or preference or interpretation of that which is not specifically and clearly spelled out in scripture. Turning such matters into issues of salvation is arrogant judgmentalism in the extreme. If someone worships differently in such matters; in a way that offends your conscience or mine, we don’t have to worship in that way. But in order to be instruments of His peace, we absolutely must

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. ~ Romans 15:7

Good folks – whether we like instrumental worship or not; whether we agree with a cappella-only worship or not as a practice – if we have any heart at all for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must stop preaching Christian brothers and sisters into hell over an issue that our fellowship has raised as some sort of misguided mark of holy distinction from God.

Being “right” about a cappella worship is not one of what we have called five acts of salvation (or any of the other opportunities we have to accept, proclaim and be like Jesus Christ). Nor is instrumental worship “sin” – or it would it not have been in the Old Testament and would be in Revelation 5‘s kingdom-to-come, too?

No one is compelled by scripture to observe the practice they don’t like. No one has to give up the one they prefer.

But we must give up hatefulness and judgment and divisiveness and promoting man’s teachings as if they were God’s.