The Marginalization of Christianity and the Mission of God

By now you’ve probably heard more about the realities of the postmodern and post-Christendom society that pervades much of North America. So I won’t bore you with those details but I mention them because they have a big impact on the cultural landscape that we do ministry in. Whether you’re a church planter, a pastor serving in an existing church, like myself, or a Christian leader in some other aspect, the cultural landscape is no longer the same landscape your grandparents grew up in.We can’t ignore the changing cultural landscape of North America and what it means for churches participating in the mission of God. Another reality that we cannot ignore is the decline of Christianity in North America. I don’t have stats for Canada but the number of Christians in America will be a minority in fifty years. According to recently released research from the Pew Research Center, “…the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, ‘nones’ would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population.” 

All this is to say that the way Christians are going to organize as a church, that is be a church, is going to change. I can only speculate on what those changes will look like but it’s not a stretch to imagine a day when many local churches no longer own a building of their own. Perhaps they rent a place in some shopping strip or just meet in homes but they likely won’t have the finances to own their own building. That also means those who are called to serve as ministers of the gospel with these churches will likely do so as bi-vocational ministers, working another job because the churches won’t have enough money to support the minister with a full-time income. That also means the way we educate and equip ministers to serve will change because the cost of seminary education may not seem prudent for bi-vocational ministry (something I lament).

None of the changes I foresee will make doing church incomprehensible but it will take some new thinking that opens space for reimagining how churches live on mission with God. This is especially the case, I believe, for people whose Christian background is the Churches of Christ and the wider Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. I say this because we have a heritage that has sought to replicate a church pattern that has been constructed from the New Testament through ad hoc proof-texting. This pattern became the pattern for every church in every region with little consideration for the local context and this reading of the Bible has actually become a hindrance to participating in the mission of God.

Now, this might seem a little self-serving but I actually wrote a book that was published earlier this year that addresses the way churches read the Bible for participation in the mission of God. The book is called Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God, published by Wipf and Stock, and is available pretty much wherever books are sold. The description on the back of the book reads:

Many people realize that the cultural landscape of North America has shifted significantly. With such changes, new challenges for how churches live as a proclamation of the gospel have and continue to emerge. These challenges are related to the church’s participation in the mission of God and particularly how local churches live faithfully to God while remaining relevant to such challenges. Because Scripture is revered as God’s word, this matter also pertains to the way churches read Scripture, since the Bible does shape how churches embody the gospel.

Gospel Portraits addresses the intersection of mission and hermeneutics for churches within their local contexts. Believing the gospel calls the church to follow Jesus and bear witness to the kingdom of God, this book proposes that churches should read the Bible as a Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented narrative. This reading of Scripture allows churches to reimagine how they might embody the gospel within their local contexts.

Discerning what a contextual embodiment of the gospel involves, churches portray God’s new creation in ways that are coherent with the biblical story and relevant to their local context. In doing so, churches live as Christ-formed and Spirit-led communities portraying the gospel.

If that’s not enough to convince you to get a copy for yourself, you can listen to the Discipleship Conversations podcast hosted by Mission Alive’s Jeremy Hoover and Steven Carrizal. These guys were kind enough to invite me on as a guest for an episode called 12 Bar Blues and Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God—A Conversation with Rex Butts by Discipleship Conversations.

Yes, I want my book to sell but I wrote it because I believe the book will help churches begin learning to read the Bible, not in order to try reproducing first-century Christianity but instead to live as faithful followers of Jesus within their own context. And I wouldn’t pitch my book to you if I didn’t think it would help.

Let me say one final word about the decline of Christianity. As the number of churches shrinks and Christianity is relegated more and more to the margins, there will be frustrations. In such moments of frustration, the temptation is to find quick-fix solutions but such attempts often fail and only lead to more frustration. The only way forward will likely encounter some significant difficulties but we travel with God the Father, Son, and Spirit on our side. Renewal always seems to start in the margins, so we need not fear the marginalization of Christianity — even when relegated to last place. We just need to keep serving with our faith in God, for at the end of the day Jesus is still Lord!

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Listen to Jesus

One of the more important stories told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. In the story, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain with him where they encounter Moses and Ellijah talking with Jesus. There are a lot of details in this story but the most important is the fact as a cloud descends upon them, the disciples hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7, CEB).

God says that Jesus is his Son and that we should listen to him!

Listen to Jesus.

Of course, we understand that we must listen to Jesus. We can’t follow Jesus unless we’re listening to Jesus and we know that. But knowing doesn’t necessarily mean doing. Regardless of our ministry and church context, we need to remember that we must listen to Jesus because we live in a society saturated with many voices. From the news to social media down to the most mundane messages we encounter in the office, at our favorite coffeehouse, etc…, there are many voices vying for our attention.

An important question to raise is how do we listen to Jesus? After all, we don’t have the ability to have a one-to-one conversation or small group conversation with Jesus. In the absence of having Jesus directly speak to us, it’s also easy to tell ourselves we’re listening to Jesus when we actually listening to ourselves or some other voice and just telling ourselves that’s Jesus. So how do we listen to Jesus?

The most obvious way of listening to Jesus is by reading the Bible. Since all scripture testifies about Jesus (Jn 5:39), reading the Bible allows us to listen to Jesus. I also believe we can listen to Jesus when gathered with our church for times of worship, and fellowship. It will take a little more discernment but whether we are listening to a sermon, praying together, or just having a conversation, we just might hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us.

We can also indirectly listen to Jesus in the sort of people we give our attention to as conversation partners. Whether these conversation partners are found in the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, or else, it’s possible to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us.

We may be even more able to hear the voice of Jesus speak through others if we’re willing to diversify who we read and/or listen to. For example, I love to read and I have a lot of books on my shelf. However, a few years back I had someone ask me how many books were written by people of the majority world or women. As I thought about this I realized that almost every book on my shelf was written by a White man of European descent. Now that’s somewhat to be expected since the majority of the theology of the last several centuries has flowed from Europe to the United States. Nevertheless, since then I have tried making a more conscious effort to read books written by minorities and women.

Listening to Jesus always requires discernment and that happens best with a few others we trust to tell us what we need to hear rather than what we want to hear. Discernment with others helps us avoid the trap of self-deception which is more likely to happen when we are not considerate of what others might say.

So I’ve reminded us that we must listen to Jesus and have shared some ways we can do so. Are there other ways of listening to Jesus? If so, please share in a comment.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Church Renewal Begins With Us

Having posted two previous articles about the decline among the Churches of Christ and the need for planting new churches and campus ministries, I would like to share some more thoughts about church renewal.* As the title suggests, church renewal begins with us.

By us, I mean the people who are the church. That should be rather obvious but I’m not sure if it is. Having served in ministry as a minister for the last twenty-two years, I’ve heard and engaged in many conversations about church renewal. Numerous books, articles, blogs, and podcasts have been published, with many of them addressing the issue of church renewal as it relates to the challenges of leadership and conflict, spiritual formation and the mission of God, as well as even evangelism and reaching the next generation. Such conversations are necessary and generally helpful. However, all the methods, strategies, and theories won’t make a difference unless the people who constitute the church are being transformed by God through the Spirit in the way of Christ.

This is why it’s so important to remember that church renewal is Christian renewal. Our local churches are us. We are the church. Yes, we organize ourselves in a manner so that we may function as a church community. And yes, sometimes the way we organize becomes a hindrance to our participation in the mission of God. However, before we can tackle the organizational and theological challenges present in church renewal, we have to ask if we are being renewed by the Spirit in our faith as followers of Jesus.

Some years ago I went through a series of seminars with Mission Alive that focused on church renewal. Very appropriately, the first seminar dealt with our own personal faith. That’s because, as Mission Alive states, “The first ministry of any spiritual leader is to his or her own soul. Your leadership board, group, team or committee cannot lead others into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with God if they are running on empty” (Mission Alive, Renew).

To speak of church renewal as Christian renewal, we must talk about the practices or disciplines that open us to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an ever-deepening faith among us. Just as the proper disciplines of diet and exercise correlate to good physical health, so does proper discipline correlate to a fit faith as followers of Jesus. We are not talking about earning our salvation in any sense. We are simply talking about participating in the activities that will allow us to live as healthy followers of Jesus, exhibiting a courageous and convicting faith that is fueled by the Spirit of God at work in and among us. There are plenty of books written on spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on scripture, prayer, fasting, solitude, self-examination, etc… Two recommendations include the now classic book by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms.

I’ll confess that I am neither naturally inclined to physical fitness nor to faith fitness. I’m always a few pounds overweight and I’m still struggling to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. So I have to be intentional about watching my diet and getting exercise, which typically involves walking (having a 125-pound Saint Bernard dog helps). Walking also opens space for me to reflect and become aware of both the ways I see God working and the ways I am struggling in my faith. That open space is where I become intentional about praying, which can still be a struggle. I also have downloaded on my iPhone several apps for reading the Bible as a discipline, not for sermon and Bible class preparation but simply so that I might hear God speak through his word in anticipation of seeing as God sees and joining in his work as a follower of Jesus.

I’m neither an expert on physical health nor an expert on church renewal and maintaining a fit faith. However, one key reason church renewal doesn’t come without Christian renewal is we now live in a time where churches are increasingly made up of Christian consumers. Such Christian consumerism means participating in a local church depends on whether that church provides desired goods. The consumer mindset is not one of how can a Christian serve with their church to participate in the mission of God but instead seeks to be served by the church. Such consumerism, which is antithetical to following Jesus and a hindrance to church renewal, seems especially prevalent among younger adults and students (Kinnaman and Matlock, Faith For Exiles, 27-28).

While consumerism is certainly bred and reinforced by American culture, it is also learned from inauthentic Christianity encountered in church. We must resist the consumer impulses ourselves by attending to our own faith, engaging in the exercises that allow us to maintain a fit faith — a faith that follows Jesus rather than consuming religious goods. Ultimately, the goal of church renewal is participation in the mission of God but that goal begins by attending to our own faith as people committed to following Jesus. Such faith is the authentic Christianity that breaks through consumerism, embodying the gospel and igniting church renewal.

* This article is a revision of a previous article titled “Church Renewal is Christian Renewal” that I wrote for Wineskins 23 (March 2020).

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

A Word About Church Renewal

It’s not a secret that many churches throughout North America are declining and this is also true among the Churches of Christ. The declining number of people committing their lives to serve as ministers also comes with the decline among congregations. In some ways, this is a crisis in the making, which I discussed in the previous Mission Alive blog post The Future of Church in North America: Crisis, Reckoning, and Hope.

There are various reasons for the decline among churches but it is also one reason for the push behind church planting. We need to raise up more ministers willing to plant new churches and/or campus ministries that are capable of reaching the growing number of unchurched and dechurched people with the gospel. Yet, one objection raised in the form of a question is why not send more ministers to revitalize the declining churches.

This is a fair objection but I wonder if the people who raise such an objection understand what they are really asking. I had several people raise this objection in response to the previous post but their objection seemed to assume that renewal among an existing church is simply a matter of plugging in a minister to serve among that church. However, that’s a bad assumption. The reasons why any congregation is in decline are complex and have developed over many years, so to think the solution is simply hiring a new minister is naive. It is an attempt at a quick-fix solution and when it fails, as most quick-fix solutions do, the problems will only increase.

Most congregations among the Churches of Christ are fifty years plus in age and have an ethos and habitus that is deeply solidified. That is, the self-identity of the congregation, how it perceives the gospel and the world around them, and the way of being/doing church is firmly engrained as the way of life. For most churches, this way of life was established within the first five to ten years of existence. More often than not, there are also some unhealthy theological praxes among declining churches. These may stem from leadership issues and unresolved conflict to even some misunderstandings of scripture that all contribute to the decline. In my book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God, I explain how misreadings of scripture hinder participation in the mission of God.

I say all this to say that it is unrealistic to believe any minister can simply begin serving with an existing church and lead the church in renewal. I am not saying that church renewal is impossible. Everything is possible where God is working and Mission Alive even offers consultation to existing churches seeking renewal. However, for such renewal to take shape, churches must be willing to reconsider some deeply entrenched assumptions and ways of being/doing church. That means churches must make adaptive changes, which are adjustments and modifications that require new ways of thinking and new practices. Some churches seeking renewal will find it but some won’t and sometimes the path to renewal might be so disruptive that it might not be worth the pursuit.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that we should give up entirely on existing churches because I certainly have not done so. I serve as the minister of the Newark Church of Christ, which was established in the 1960s and is trying to discern a new way forward as participants in the mission of God. But the most effective way in which Churches of Christ are going to reach a new generation of people with the gospel is by planting new churches and campus ministries. These new churches and campus ministries will do some things different from the way existing churches have done things and we have to be okay with that. My hope is that Churches of Christ will support more ministers to plant new churches and campus ministries.

If you want to know how your church can help with church planting, please contact Mission Alive. I know that Tod Vogt, the Executive Director of Mission Alive, would love to chat with you. I also serve on the board of Reflect Campus Missions, currently serving as the President of the board, and would love for you to contact us if you want to know more about planting campus missions. The Lord is giving us a pathway forward and it includes planting new churches and campus ministries.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

The Future of Church in North America: Crisis, Reckoning, and Hope

“I am usually slow to use the word ‘crisis’ to describe a situation, but it may well be apt for our day.” That was the first sentence of an article that Carson Reed wrote in a short article for the Mosaic blog titled Ministers in Short Supply. The crisis that Carson speaks of is that facing the Churches of Christ and I presume that most of the people reading this blog have some ties to this declining church tribe.

For those who don’t know who Carson Reed serves now as Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. He also has served as Executive Director for the Siber Institute for Church Ministry. This work involves helping match ministers with congregations that are seeking ministers to serve with these congregations. But a problem has emerged. According to Carson, there “is a sheer lack of persons to serve as ministers in our churches.” That’s the crisis he is referring to. In the article, Carson notes how the number of congregations seeking a minister and ministers looking for new ministry opportunities with churches was about evenly matched. However, that has changed, with there now being about a 1:15 ratio of one minister for every Church of Christ congregation seeking a new minister.

The reasons for this problem are varied and Carson’s blog post list some of the reasons, which I encourage you to read. As a minister myself, I am not surprised in the least bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love serving as a minister of the gospel and I am very blessed to serve with a wonderful congregation. But I also know there are more than a few Churches of Christ who want (even expect) a minister to help the church grow numerically but do so with little authority to lead churches that have little desire to change. Add to that the rise of secularism, the challenges of a pandemic, the increase of Christians who seem to prioritize politics over the gospel, and the overall decline in church membership, all make serving as a minister of the gospel very difficult (and unless you have served as a minister, you don’t have any idea what this is like). 

I also have concerns about the number of churches that are in decline. Churches, like any other organization, have life cycles. Sometimes churches are able to reimagine a new way of embodying the gospel that leads to renewal as participants in the mission of God but sometimes they are not. But this is why there is a great need for the mission work of planting new gospel seeds in North America.

I’m using the language of “planting new gospel seeds” intentionally. The task is to embody the gospel among a particular community of people and then begin sharing the story of the gospel with a few people. Such a task is the planting of a new gospel seed. Then, like a gardener, the task of ministry also involves cultivating the planted seed with the trust that God will bring about a new community of disciples. However, such communities will differ in some ways depending on their contexts, such as planting among a rural community, a college campus, or a marginalized urban community.

Besides helping Mission Alive, I also serve on the board of Reflect Campus Missions (currently serving as the president of the board). The vision of Reflect involves training new campus ministers through a campus ministry apprenticeship and then sending them out to plant new campus ministries. Mission Alive, as you know, has a vision of transforming marginalized communities through starting and renewing innovative churches. In fact, Mission Alive has identified one-hundred marginalized communities in North America to plant churches among

The need for new campus ministries and new church plants among marginalized communities is great, and it is the way of planting new gospel seeds. As I mentioned earlier, some established churches may find renewal as participants in the mission of God and I’m thankful for that. But my plea to the Churches of Christ is please consider supporting church planters and campus ministry planters so that new gospel seeds can be planted with new lives and communities being transformed in Christ.

For the kingdom, power, and glory of God!

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

How Do We Navigate the Tension of Gospel and Culture?

We need to plant new churches and new campus ministries throughout North America. That I am 100% convinced of but I also know we need missionary planters that can navigate the tension that comes with embodying the gospel. Such tension is a question of how we live in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus and contextual to the local cultures.

Years ago I was serving with a church in New Jersey and one of the members of that church gave me a book to read, one which I enjoyed much and have since referred back to on occasions. The book I was given is called The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (2014, 2004) by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. The book, as the title suggests, demonstrates how the Bible tells a coherent story by taking the reader through the story, or drama, of scripture. 

Of course, I firmly believe that a narrative reading of scripture matters if we are to faithfully live as participants in the mission of God. Bartholomew and Goheen explain why this narrative reading of scripture matters:

Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story. …If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should (The Drama of Scripture, p. 12).

That’s the rub and the reason a narrative reading of scripture matters. The reality is that everyone is living a particular story. However, when we follow and are baptized into Jesus Christ, God is raising us into a new life that is the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. That’s our new story as disciples of Christ, which is told to us through the narrative of scripture. But if we allow the Bible to be absorbed into a different story, then we will struggle to embody the good news of Jesus Christ and our witness as participants in the mission of God will be compromised.

Of course, I’ve also just named one of the fundamental credibility problems that Christianity has in North America. There are far too many people who profess the Christian faith but continue living out of an alternative story that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. The stories they live are formed by realities such as national or geographical locations. For example, I once had a Christian justify his subtle racism expressed in his condemnation of inter-racial marriages by saying, “I was born and raised in the south and that’s just the way things are around here.” But to be a Christian is about our location in Christ rather than the location of our childhood. Our baptism into Christ says that our old life has been buried with Christ and we have been raised to walk in a new life in Christ (Rom 6:3-4). So our point of departure for how we live can no longer be where we were raised and whatever was the accepted social-cultural norms of that location.

What makes any life-orienting story a story is the worldview it projects. Worldview stories offer a particular vision and set of values that direct what goal or end (telos) people should live for and how they should live in order to reach the goal. With this in mind, we can see how political ideologies, on both the right and left, offer a rival story to the gospel. Sadly though, too many Christians these days seem to be allowing the gospel story told within scripture to be absorbed into various political ideologies. One only needs to spend a few minutes scrolling through their social media feed to see examples.

Living our of the gospel story as told within the narrative of scripture raises a question. How do we navigate the tension of embodying the gospel in a manner that is coherent with the gospel but relevant to our cultural location in society? In others, how do live as followers of Jesus in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus but contextual to our locations?

Undoubtedly, this is a big question that cannot be fully answered with just one post. However, I recently read another book by Goheen and Bartholomew called Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Wolrdview (2008) which is very helpful in addressing the tension of embodying the gospel in our society. Several options that Goheen and Bartholomew reject include simply withdrawing from society, uncritically accommodating society, or living with a dualistic stance where we attempt to live a Christian view privately but publically fit in with the rest of society. 

Rather than withdrawal, accommodation, and dualism, the authors call for discernment that considers both the gospel and the culture of society. It is an exercise in critical thinking in which “we discern between the creational structure and design in all things and the religious misdirection and rebellion that pervert God’s good world” (Living at the Crossroads, p. 136). In other words, within every culture, there are likely aspects of life that reflect God’s creative and redemptive intent but also aspects that are departures from this intent. So for example, we can think of sex and sexual intimacy. God obviously created sex and sexual intimacy as a natural expression but we also know that sex and sexual intimacy have often departed from God’s intent in a fallen world corrupted by sin. This is one reason why when someone says, “It’s only natural,” we must critically evaluate whether the claim of being natural flows from God’s creative-redemptive intent or from a fallen-corrupted understanding.

I have mentioned and interacted with both books Bartholomew and Goheen because I find them helpful for us to think about the missional task we face as followers of Jesus living in North America in 2022 and beyond. If you’ve read the books, then great. If you haven’t, I would encourage you to add them to your list of books to read in the not-to-distant future.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women (Acts 2:17-18)

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time. 

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28), 

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations. 

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here. 

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift. 

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!

* This is a repost of the same title originally posted on johnmarkhicks.com, June 9, 2019.

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John Mark Hicks, Ph.D. is a Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Additionally, he has served many years in ministry among the Churches of Christ and has authored numerous books, including his latest Around The Bible in 80 Days: The Story of God from Creation to New Creation. He and his wife, Jennifer, have five living children and two deceased.

Listening and Lament: A Posture for Missional Engagement

The temptation when we look at Paul’s missionary activity in the book of Acts is to assume it is a blueprint for how we might evangelize today in our context. Our cultural context is widely different today from what Paul was working with.  For one, Paul was a Jew. He knew the Jewish people well because he was one of them. In fact, the reason he could keep going to the synagogues to discuss scripture is that Christianity had not yet become separate from Judaism.  Paul had not just spent extended time listening to the Jews but had grown up a Jew (Leong, Race and Place, 117). When he went to a new place he was going to a people whose culture was familiar because they were his people.  

In fact, we don’t see Paul shifting his attention to the Gentiles until Acts 18:6-11. This is a significant turning point for Paul. Whereas we see God opening up the door to the Gentiles through Peter in Acts 10-11, up to the point of Acts 18 in the narrative, we have no primary focus on a Gentile audience. The conversions of Gentiles appear to be both secondary and accidental. Jacob Jervell points out the fixation Luke has on the Jewish mission for much of Acts: “For Luke it is more important to show the growth of the church up to the beginning of the Gentile mission… In the Jerusalem period, nothing seems to fail for the missionaries when the goal is winning Jews for the gospel. Only the leaders of the Jews, or at least some of them, reject the message…the ‘noble’ Jews are faithful to the Scriptures, and these are the ones who are converted (17:11ff)…” (Luke and the People of God, 46). Even during Paul’s message in Athens, Paul is trying to reach the Jews there with the gospel (17:16-18). When Paul decides to turn his complete attention to the Gentiles, it is for the first time. This was a profound discovery for me about Paul, since previously I had the impression that he immediately became an apostle to the gentiles, and that this was his focus throughout his whole ministry.  In fact, it was much later in his ministry that this became the case.  Another reminder of how fully rooted early Christianity was in Judaism.

In today’s context, when it comes to the Jewish people, they have now endured a long history of antisemitism and hatred at the hands of Christians. This is vastly different from Paul’s situation where Christianity had little history except for the history of the Jewish people and of the cross.  Paul, as well as all the Christians at this time, was identifying with the oppressed, not the oppressor. The message of the cross was still scandalous in that it involved the lordship of a man who had made himself powerless. For Jewish people and many others, Christianity now has come to resemble nothing different than other power-hungry, violent, greedy, and corrupt institutions of this world. This is perhaps most true for Jewish people today since their oppression at the hands of Christians has been the most extensive throughout history.  In Acts, it seems that people were able to retain their Jewish identities when becoming Christians.  Perhaps this is one way Jews today who become Christians might do so without having to identify with a Christianity that is so different from Christ, and instead with the more primitive faith that still existed under the umbrella of Judaism.

Likewise, how does mission look in a place where white Christians have used their power and privilege in abusive ways for hundreds of years? The ironic support of slavery, lynching, and continued racism from American Christians throughout its history is a disgusting reversal of primitive Christianity. How could we ignore this context that is so vastly different from the situation Paul was operating within? How can we ignore a context where it is not obvious that the Christian faith is different than other religions in its orientation towards power?

When we go to Acts it’s easy to detach how the mission of God played out in Acts from its context. If certain parts of Acts are mapped onto some missional efforts today without considering our own context, it may very well end up perpetuating colonial approaches. This is why Leong suggests the practices of listening and lament before evangelistic engagement (Race and Place, 117-120). Especially in the American context, and many other contexts throughout the world, these practices are imperative in building trust and establishing a different orientation towards power within communities. There are a variety of ways one can listen to their community, but this is a subject for a later blog.

What I’m saying here is not that conversions or evangelizing should never take place before years of listening and lamenting, or to even say that going into a community simply to evangelize with the gospel is wrong. To say this would seem to be putting God in a box. God can still move people towards the Christian faith, in some cases rather quickly, in ways that are often unexpected and not according to plan. However, our posture ought to be one of listening and lamenting so we can understand those we are trying to reach. This could take a long time of listening and lamenting, of people seeing the light of our good deeds (Matt. 5:16) before people will trust the Christian message enough to give their allegiance to Christ as Lord because of the obstacles mentioned above. Such a change in posture may also influence our evangelistic efforts in general so that evangelism is no longer incompatible with a posture of listening and lamenting.

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Jonathan Lichtenwalter has written and edited for the website evidenceforchristianity.org, articles for renew.org and his website jonwalt.com,  He has studied under John Oakes, Ph.D. (creator of the website evidenceforchristianity.org), and is currently getting a Master’s in Missional leadership from Rochester University. He is passionate about missional theology, apologetics, and biblical studies. He loves to use his writing and studies to build up the faith of others, to help disciples grow deeper in their understanding of scripture, and to share the truth of the gospel with others. You may contact Jonathan via email: j.dean_licht@yahoo.com.

Following Jesus: The Meaning and Challenge of Discipleship

I’m here in Malibu, California at Pepperdine University attending Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures. I believe this makes my tenth time coming to this beautiful campus. As I enjoy the scenery, the classes, and reconnecting with many friends, I am thinking about ministry. I can count the years I have served as a minister of the gospel by the calendar year, as I first started preaching for a little church in Arkansas back in 2000. So 2022 makes twenty-two years of serving as a minister of the gospel. The reason I mention this is because, for most of these years, the subject of discipleship has remained a popular topic. One of the reasons is that discipleship remains a struggle for Christianity in North America and this struggle is related to participation in the mission of God.

The Easter worship gathering of the Newark Church of Christ, whom I serve as a pastor.

Of course, history includes many examples of discipleship failure in Christianity. Germany and Rwanda are notable national examples. However, the United States is also an example of what happens when discipleship is trivialized. Regardless of what the founding fathers of this nation intended in its founding, the atrocities committed against Native Americans, Blacks, and other minorities that were carried out and/or supported by people claiming to be Christians remind us of how easily people fail in living as followers of Jesus. And the same can be said for Canada too.

The Meaning of Discipleship

I have already hinted at my understanding of what it means to be a disciple and take discipleship seriously. Yet one of the problems I have observed in twenty-two years of ministry is unclarity about what discipleship is. That’s a problem because if we don’t understand what discipleship is, we are certainly unlikely to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Understanding discipleship, for me, begins with hearing the call of Jesus to follow him. We can read of this calling in all four canonical Gospels but for our purposes, consider Mark’s Gospel. According to Mark, Jesus says, “Come, follow me . . . And I will send you out to fish for people” (Mk 1:17). In the original language, there are actually two words, deute and opisō, that have to do with following Jesus. Jesus is calling us to come to him and follow behind him as a learner, which was the typical Jewish practice of a student learning from his teacher (Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 74). So to begin with, discipleship or to be a disciple of Jesus means that we become students of Jesus learning from him. And within the context of the Mark, as well as the other three Gospels, this discipleship involves following Jesus in order that we learn to live the kingdom life he lives.

Later on, Jesus begins to speak of his impending death on three occasions but every time he does, the disciples show their misunderstanding. They don’t understand yet what living as disciples means for the way they are to live life and so their misunderstanding elicits corrective teaching from Jesus (cf. 8:31-38; 9:30-37; 10:32-45). This is important to note because Jesus is not simply trying to teach his disciples a few new doctrines or a few new disciplines for living a good life. Rather, Jesus is trying to (re)form the very mindset of his disciples, replete with new beliefs, values, and practices that will result in a new way of living – the kingdom life.

So over twenty-two years of congregational ministry, I have come to understand discipleship to mean learning to live in the way of Jesus. That’s my simple way of defining what discipleship is. (On a side note, as one who preaches regularly, this understanding of discipleship very much shapes how I preach from the Bible, regardless of whether that’s from the Old Testament or New Testament. However, I am also aware of the limitations that as important as preaching the word of God is, preaching alone will not form Christians to live as disciples.)

Now about learning to live in the way of Jesus . . . This is easy to write about but much more difficult to do. That’s because following Jesus as his disciples always takes us to that place where we are called to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus to his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

The Challenge of Discipleship

Perhaps I’m wrong but as it appears to me now, I probably will never literally have to bear a cross for the sake of Jesus and neither will you. I’m thankful for that and I’m thankful for the faithfulness of our Christian brothers and sisters in other regions of the world who are persecuted because they follow Jesus. Yet, there is still a great challenge for us in learning to live our lives in the way of Jesus as we go about our daily responsibilities here in North America. Simply put, learning to live in the way of Jesus calls us not just to the cross (cf. Mk 8:34) but also to become the least of all as a servant to all (cf. Mk 9:35) so that, like Jesus, we too become servants who give of ourselves for others (cf. Mk 10:45).

In a society where might makes right and the strong survive, accepting the way of life we learn from Jesus is difficult. In fact, some will try dismissing and employ a host of hermeneutical gymnastics as they read the Bible in order to dismiss living in the way of Jesus as necessary and essential to being a disciple or Christian. So to guard against such a dismissal of discipleship, we must learn to not just believe in Jesus but also believe in what Jesus says and does. Then, and only then, does this difficult challenge of discipleship begin to make sense. When we learn to believe as Jesus believes, then his way of life – his beliefs, values, and practices – makes sense.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jim Elliot who wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Along with four other missionaries, Jim Elliot was murdered while attempting to evangelize the Waodani natives of Ecuador. His words are the expression of one who believes Jesus and therefore believes that God answers the wretchedness of the cross with the glorious promise of resurrection.

Disciples and Churches

Coming back to where this article began, in twenty-two years of ministry I have learned how to help maintain a church but making disciples is still a challenge. Sometimes I wonder if I even know how this is done but then other days I see the way the church I serve embodies the gospel and I am pleased by what I see. I’m sure our Lord, Jesus Christ, is too. I’m sure many of you have similar thoughts, whether, like me, you serve as a pastor among an established church or whether you’ve planted a church, have started a campus ministry, or however you are serving in the kingdom of God.

That said, I can’t help but think of how many churches there are and know that there are far fewer disciples. As I say that, I recall what Mike Breen once wrote “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (Building A Discipleship Culture, pp. 11-12).  It’s hard to argue with such an observation.  

I don’t want to be misunderstood here either. I love the church, the big worldwide body of Christ because Jesus loves her and gave his life so that she could live. So I’m also thankful for the existence of local churches and the many good works that are done in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I also believe we need to plant more local churches and new campus ministries, which is why I also work with both Mission Alive and Reflect Campus Missions

Yet before making disciples we face another challenge. We cannot make disciples unless we are disciples, believers learning to live in the way of Jesus. As we do live in the way of Jesus, we’ll be the church Jesus has called us to be. That is, we’ll be that church living in the way of Jesus, forming others in the way of Jesus as they too become the church of Jesus Christ. Selah.

 

The Truth That Sets Us Free: Freedom, Rights, and The Bible for Followers of Jesus

Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “man is condemned to be free.”*

Really? Are people really condemned to be free? Perhaps so. Or perhaps it depends on the person that people follow.

Jesus once said, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32, KJV). Although this quote from Jesus is often cited in legal contexts, such as an inscription on the walls of a courthouse, the freedom Jesus speaks of seems to be a blessing. 

Of course, freedom, as commonly understood in America, is highly valued as a God-given individual right of liberty. As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So from an American perspective, every person is free to do as they please, to speak freely without any restrictions as to religion, politics, the press, and even the right to assemble. The only caveat is when the exercise of freedom by one person causes harm to another but other than that, freedom in America means individual autonomy to do as one pleases.

Many Christians also seem to assume that there is a certain kind of liberty in Christ. To speak of “freedom in Christ” as the apostle Paul does in Galatians 5 often seems understood as freedom from traditions and legalistic practices of the Christian faith.

But I wonder if people really understand what freedom is or what it means to be free.

The Source of Freedom

When Sartre spoke of people being condemned to be free, he did so as an atheist and believed that existence proceeds essence. In other words, people are created as physical beings but who they are is yet to be determined and must be decided by them. “Man,” according to Sarte, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Sartre, Man Is Condemned to be Free, 1948). Why so? Because there is not any God whose image people bear by virtue of their creation (divine nature) and with whom they are to have a relationship. So the essence of who people will become is entirely up to them. Such freedom is condemnation because even though people did not create themselves, they still possess the liberty to determine for themselves and bear the responsibility for this liberty (Sarte, 1948).

Well, I agree with Sartre insofar as if the way people conceive of freedom is their own liberty, as is the case of most Americans, then condemned they are. For Christians though, who take the Bible seriously, the story or narrative told within scripture compels us to think differently about freedom. That’s because the story that Christians are living, as it is told within scripture, begins with God and culminates in the kingdom of God.

Christians believe that all people are created equally in the image of God and so something of human nature or essence proceeds existence. Although it seems too much to make a claim of determinism and say that the entirety of human existence is decided by God before creation, bearing the divine image does make a claim about the purpose of life for people. When we turn to the story of creation in Genesis, we discover that bearing the divine image of God also comes with receiving dominion over the rest of creation. That is, God created people to serve as participants in his temple (the earth) by caring for the rest of creation in a benevolent manner, reflecting the image of God. 

As the story is told, there are two trees placed among the garden where Adam and Eve dwell. One is the tree of life, of which the man and woman are free to eat, and the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which the couple is forbidden to eat from. Both trees are obviously symbolic of what is only God’s to give, which is life and the ability to discern good and evil or right and wrong (Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 124). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve choose to eat from the forbidden tree which turns out to be catastrophic as human existence just devolves into a cosmic death characterized by evil.

Instead of living under the sovereign rule of God and allowing him to determine what is right and wrong, Adam and Eve wanted to make such determinations themselves. They chose independence from God instead of dependence upon God. As with all of humanity, Adam and Eve sought the independence to determine for themselves what is good and evil, and in some sense, freedom is what they got but it came with a price too. The independence sought by eating the forbidden tree didn’t actually result in knowing the difference between good and evil. That is because knowing what is good and evil belongs to God alone and is something that can never be fully achieved independent of God. Apart from God, humans choose evil and history bears witness to what that looks like.

The Gospel and Freedom, or Tyranny

Fortunately, God has never given up and left humanity to the fate of cosmic death. Instead, God has a redemptive plan of reconciliation and restoration that will be accomplished in the sending of his Son, Jesus the Messiah. This is the good news or gospel.

For Jesus, the gospel is the declaration that the kingdom of God has appeared, and with that comes a call to repentance and faith (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus is summoning people to live under the reign or rule of God once again because that is what a kingdom is — a king ruling over his servants. So with this invitational summons is the call to follow Jesus, which literally means to come behind Jesus and learn from him how to live as subjects of God’s kingdom.

People living under the kingdom reign of God is what Jesus understands freedom to be. In coming back to the words of Jesus about the truth setting us free, the context makes this clear. Following a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees about his identity, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32, NRSV). Freedom is, for Jesus, to know the truth and that is only possible by continuing in his word. Note then that there is nothing in what Jesus says about freedom as individual autonomy to do as one determines for oneself. Rather, freedom is to live once again the life which God created people to live. 

True freedom then is living as participants in the kingdom of God as followers of King Jesus. Such participation is what it truly means to be free in Christ. This is is why in Galatians 5, where the apostle Paul speaks about freedom in Christ, he also speaks of living by the Spirit. What a contrast between the concept of freedom articulated in scripture and the concept of freedom held by most Americans.

Freedom, as it is understood in the western sense and as practiced in America, is individual autonomy. The American idea of freedom emerged from the Enlightenment, with its human-centric view that replaced God with reason as the source of knowledge. The goal of this western concept of freedom becomes the removal of any object that hinders the good(s) of human desire but in doing so it makes the idea of freedom itself the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104). In other words, the idea of freedom that most Americans hold to be true is actually just another form of tyranny itself, as it enslaves humanity to a desire that can never be fully reached.

The struggle with freedom as tyranny is played out daily on social media and in the so-called culture wars. What is worse, is that many Christians are caught up in this struggle too (I too have found myself entangled in this struggle). Over the last year or so this struggle has become visible every time a Christian insists that their individual rights outweigh the well-being of others (Christians would do well to reread Philippians 2:1-13 in which Paul holds up the example of Jesus Christ giving up his rights and becoming an obedient slave even to the point of death). Hence the protest of wearing masks in public and other social-distancing measures aimed to mitigate the threat of Covid-19.

If individual autonomy is the freedom that people seek, then the words of Sartre about people being condemned to freedom are very prophetic. And sadly so, I might add.

True Freedom: Submission to King Jesus

So here is my parting thought as a pastor writing to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity as Christians was originally given as sort of an insult because of our association with Jesus Christ. 

Not a problem, as we shall gladly wear the name Christ or be labeled a Christian. But let’s remember, and dare I suggest, recover what that means. 

As Christians who take the Bible seriously, the cross or crucifixion of Jesus Christ is very central to our faith. It’s not the only aspect central to our faith, as the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus matter too but there isn’t any resurrection and exaltation without the crucifixion first. So the cross of Jesus absolutely matters but as N.T. Wright so eloquently says, the cross matters “…so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (Wright, The Day The Revolution Began, 22).

Believing that God is putting the world to right means abandoning the false notion of individual autonomy to do whatever one damn well pleases. Instead, to be made right by God is to live in submission to King Jesus as his followers and thereby participate in the kingdom of God. Found only in Christ, this righteousness is what true freedom entails and the world around us will never know of such freedom until they see a church that embodies such freedom.

May the church of Jesus Christ in America live by the Spirit in submission to her King as participants in the one and only kingdom of God! 

* This article was originally written for and published in Wineskins 21 (September 2021) and is available here.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of the forthcoming book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God that will be available through Wipf and Stock Publishers. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.