What’s in an identity?

When I first came into contact with First Baptist Church of Fort Dodge, IA back in the fall of 2009, I realized that two things would need to be a priority at the start of my ministry (if God led me there, which I am thankful He did!) in their midst: unity and identity.  From a variety of sources, I came to the belief that this congregation had been hurt and damaged, and due to this, there was a struggle with unity.  (As a side note, I mentioned to someone in the church the first summer I was here that, back in the fall of 2009, God had not allowed me to see and understand just how deep that hurt and damage went.  I am thankful for that, for if He had, I told this person I would not have come to Iowa, am I am so thankful that God led us here!)  

Unity through a mutual trusting, respect-filled and loving relationship between the congregation and her pastor was the top priority when I came to Fort Dodge.  That relationship exists.  Unity through healing was also very important.  That healing has occurred for which I am most thankful to God.

Over the last 18 months or so, the emphasis has slowly shifted from unity and healing to the issue of identity as a local expression of God’s people here in Fort Dodge.  At the core of this identity is the question which we have been exploring since October 2011: What does it mean to be God’s people here in Fort Dodge, IA in the 21st century?

I have long had the fear that the gathering, the community of God’s people, has really become nothing more than a service club.  I am a proud member of the Fort Dodge Noon Kiwanis club.  We, as a club, do some wonderful service in our community and contribute to some national and international causes.  I often wonder if the typical expression of God’s people in community has really become nothing more than what my local Kiwanis club does.

Yes, the community of God’s people are to be involved in our communities, sharing the love of Jesus in very real ways, seeking to bring the qualities of God’s kingdom and his character into this world in real situations and to real people.  But, if that has become the true and practical identity of a church and someone who is a child of God, then there are many without a faith basis who would qualify, but we know that it is only through faith in Jesus Christ through which a person becomes a child of God, not just a creation of God.

So, what is involved in the identity of God’s people that sets us apart as different than a service club?  Well, I find the obvious answer to be the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and our response to his power, presence and movement.  The problem is this: there is a much more difficult aspect to this obvious answer becoming a real and functioning reality in our midst.

It is with this problem with which I have been wrestling over the last number of months.  That second priority, that of identity, is now at the forefront of my ministry here among and with the people known as First Baptist Church of Fort Dodge, IA.  Inside that identity as a local expression of God’s people is creating an atmosphere where the Spirit is loosed to work as he desires and people not only given the freedom to participate and followed but actually empowered and encouraged to do so, in whatever form the Spirit decides he wants it to take.

It is the creation of that atmosphere, that environment, that now invades my thoughts constantly as God moves forward through my ministry with and to this congregation.  Inside that environment and for it to be experienced at its fullest and deepest level, I am finding it to be necessary that there be less form and more function, less structure and more allowance for the spontaneous movement of the Spirit, less emphasis upon us and more upon God. 

I don’t know.  More to come.


Being a Biblical Theologian: Part II

In Part II of “Being a Biblical Theologian,” I would like to give an example of what with which I ended Part I of this post.  First, let me say that, some years ago, I came to the conclusion that there is much “Bible abuse” happening.  “Bible abuse” occurs when a passage or passages are used to justify a position when said passages are not doing so.  “Bible abuse” frequently occurs when a passage is not seen in the light of the circumstances to which it was written.  Let me give what I believe is an example. 

In my formative years, I was taught that Scripture prohibited a woman from being a pastor or an elder.  There are two passages in Paul’s first letter to Timothy which were used to justify the position that only a man and not a woman can be a pastor.  The first one is found in what he says are the characteristics of an elder/pastor (I Timothy 3:2).  Paul says, “…the husband of one wife.”  The argument, then, is that this prohibits a woman from being an elder or pastor.  What I find interesting, though, is that many who hold to this view have no problem with a single male being a pastor.  What happened to the married part of this characteristic being a requirement?  Inconsistent much?

What if we look at Paul’s words through the lens of the specific situation of the church at Ephesus, which is where Timothy is located?  What if one of two situations was Timothy’s reality?  The first one is that there were both men and women elders but it was only the male version which was having issues with fidelity since it was commonplace in that culture for men to have not only a wife but also mistresses and other lovers.  If this were the case, why would Paul address a situation which did not need addressing?  I don’t think he would waste time and precious resources to do so. 

What if there were only men who were elders in the church at that time?  It really doesn’t change the situation much because, again, Paul was speaking to a specific situation, not trying to address all conceivable situations.  If we look at Paul’s words through either one of these situations, would how we view/interpret his words change in how we use them to give application in our time?  I think we would; I know I did.

The second passage is I Timothy 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in quietness in all subjection; but I do not permit a woman to teach or to assert authority over a man, but to be in quietness.”  This passage is used as a support against women in ministry.  What I find interesting, though, is that Paul tells the Corinthian believers something different about proper actions of women in the public assembly.  In Corinthians 11, he talks about how a woman can properly pray and prophesy in the gathering of the church.  Why would he tell Timothy one thing and the church in Corinth something different?  Could it have something to do with the differing situations found in each locale?  I can think of no other reason, for Paul was not a stupid man and would not give what would be contradictory teaching, unless it was because both sets of instructions were given with a specific circumstance and reality in view. 

And that is what is happening in Ephesus.  There was a heretical teaching which was entering the church in Ephesus through the women because those who were proponents of this teaching were preying upon the women because most of them lacked proper education to know how it was wrong.  Therefore, due to this situation, Paul gives his instruction to Timothy.  I am of the firm belief that if it had been men upon whom these proponents were preying, Paul’s instructions would not have been against allowing women to teach, but men.

So, does viewing this passage in this light change how this passage is applied?  I think so.

It is so important when approaching a specific passage of Scripture to no impose upon it a certain view or theological position.  It also is important to not “reason” away where the passage is truly leading. 

I pray that each one of us allow God’s word, through the insight of the Holy Spirit, to lead us where God wants us to go as we deeply study.


Being a Biblical Theologian: Part I

Last week, I commented on another pastor’s blog.  The subject of the blog concerned different types of translations of the Bible.  In his blog, this pastor spoke of how he didn’t like one particular version due to one reason.  I am familiar with that version, and while I also am not a fan of it, my reason is different than his.  My objection to this translation is due to what I see, at least in one instance, a disregard for the wording of the original text, actually changing the words to match common applications of the text.

The passage is I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price; so then glorify God in your body.”

A common application of this passage is that a person’s physical body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, there are things you should and should not do to your body because it would be desecrating the temple.  This application is used as a prohibition against body modifications such as piercings and tattoos.  (I must admit, though, that I find it interesting that, for many who hold to this application, it is okay for a woman to get her ears pierced.  Isn’t that in direct contradiction of this application or is a woman’s ear not considered part of the temple?  Doesn’t this show that this application is being used to justify a particular cultural norm or desire?)

The problem with this application is that it is, in my opinion, a total departure from what the Apostle Paul is saying here.  And, as a biblical theologian, that is anathema to me for, if a passage isn’t saying something in the first place, how then can it be made to say what it isn’t saying and then make that the normative application?  The reason I take this stand is how Paul puts together his wording and what his argument is.

First, let’s deal with the grammar and what doesn’t come through in the English translation.  First, the pronouns he uses are plural.  He is talking to a group, not a single person.  Second, body is singular.  This is where the translation of which I spoke earlier diverges from the text.  This translation says “bodies” even though every instance of the word for body in this passage is SINGULAR.  The body to which Paul is referring is the body of Christ which is the sum, the gathering together of all the believers.  This is the body which he calls the temple of the Holy Spirit, not a person’s physical body.

Second, this also fits with one of the major themes of what Paul is trying to say to these Corinthian believers.  A major problem with which they are struggling is divisions.  This church is divided and struggles mightily with unity.  Read through the whole letter; this will be abundantly clear.  When Paul uses the analogy before these verses of a man with a prostitute, he is using this analogy to describe the reality of what he is trying to say regarding the whole body of the church.

While in seminary, it was drilled into me, repeatedly for which I am thankful, to be a biblical theologian.  What this means is that the text is allowed to speak for itself and must not be seen as written in a vacuum but rather to real people and real situations.  Scripture cannot be approached as though it is a textbook, written for a classroom.  The truth that is gleaned from these texts cannot and must not be divorced from these real situations and real people, otherwise, applications of any type can be made from texts even when the text isn’t saying anything of the sort.

I must admit, there are times a text takes me in a direction which at first I did not want to go, but go I must and am thankful after going.  I have found a much deeper understanding of who God is, his character and how he thinks, acts, and responds to different situations. 

In Part II of this blog post, I will give an example of how this has played out in my own life.

From Scripture to the Living Word

Recently, I posted a passage from the book, Permission Granted to Do Church Differently in the 21st Century, by Graham Cooke and Gary Goodell.  Here it is: 

“Developing people means discipling them properly in terms of their experience and response to both Scripture and the Word of God. We can read Scripture and enjoy its insights, perceptions and principles. This shared wisdom is knowledge that will help us on our journey with the Lord. However, we must use Scripture to develop a relationship with Christ, the Living Word. 

It is essential here that our knowledge must give way to wisdom and revelation. Wisdom is the understanding of how God thinks about things, how He sees people and circumstances, and how He likes to do things. Revelation occurs when wisdom penetrates our hearts to the point of transformation. We see, know, and therefore, have an actual experience of the truth that changes our personality and how we act about something. Revelation is the Word becoming real in our experience of God. We become the truth that God has revealed; consequently, people around us will that truth whenever they encounter us.”

What the Spirit has told me this morning was that this sums up what I have been trying to coalesce into words over the last few years.  The Spirit brought to my attention, once again, Jesus’ scathing words to the Jews and the religious leaders as found in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning me, yet you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.”  

There are those today which fall into this same trap; they look at Scripture as an end unto itself.  Because of this, they, for all intents and purposes, have deified Scripture.  Yes, the Bible is the story of God’s working in history in very real ways and it is him revealing himself to us – who he is, what he is like and what he desires to do and who he wants to be for us – but it is not God himself.  That would be like me saying that the words I am write on this blog are the real me instead of the one whose fingers are working the keyboard.

What I so appreciate about Graham’s and Gary’s words is that Scripture, in order to fulfill its ultimate purpose, must lead us into a real encounter with the Living Word, the Christ, who is Jesus.  It is the path, it is the sign, but not the end.  It is vital to keep that distinction.  Otherwise, all that is happening is the very thing that Jesus said the Jews were doing.  Eternal life is not found in words written on the page; only the path and signs are found there.  Eternal life is found in the Living Word, who is eternal and is God himself with whom a relationship is now possible because of the work of the cross.

Scripture is only the starting point; it is not the end.  It leads us into a relationship with the Living Word and it gives us the path of how to go deeper, but it doesn’t make the relationship or the connection for us.  As we continue down the path, we continue to go deeper into intimacy with the Living Word, understanding better his character, desires and actions as we interact with him, and this goes beyond the words written in Scripture into real  and actual experiences and ongoing encounters of the Living Word in our lives and our world.

The ongoing revelation from and through the Holy Spirit, who testifies and reveals to us that which he has heard and seen (John 16:13), continues today, using the foundation established by Scripture, but taking us deeper into a real relationship with the Living Word which goes beyond Scripture as we dive deeper into intimacy with the Living Word.

This is why I so love my conversations with the Spirit as we discuss different things about God’s character, desires and actions.  The Spirit asks me tough questions and we have a wonderful conversation discussing those questions.  If one stops at what is written down on a page, it is very easy to lose the vitality and life of the relationship with the Living Word and that is when the Christian faith is reduced to nothing more than that moral philosophy of life which gives rules for code of conduct, much like what the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day did.

It is my prayer that each and every day will see me go just a bit deeper into this relationship with the Living Word as I encounter him as he is being revealed to me through the Holy Spirit.  I pray the same can be said for you.

Full Circle

Things have a way of coming full circle, especially where God is involved.  This occurred to me today, or at least the beginning of it possibly.

When I was a young seminarian, I was called to a youth pastorate position at a local church in Grand Rapids, MI.  This position was unpaid at the start, but I accepted the call because I knew that gaining practical experience in ministry was very important.  God was so good to me, because by accepting that position, he introduced me to Reverend Dr. Fred Moore, the senior pastor of First Evangelical Free Church.  Pastor Fred became my mentor in ministry, and for over 3 years, he poured himself into me.  Our time came to an end when Pastor Fred passed away in his mid-40’s, the age at which I currently find myself.

I have mentioned before how much his death affected me, but it was a statement by a fellow pastor and friend of us both, made to me after Pastor Fred’s funeral that was one of those catalytic statements that people experience in their lives that have a profound effect on a person.  Joe looked at me through my grief and said, “Jim, what God wanted to teach you through Pastor Fred has been taught; it’s time to spread your wings and fly.”  And that is exactly what I have been
doing since that point.

Now, there is a possibility that I could be something like what Pastor Fred was to me to someone else.  Hence the comment about coming full circle.  The person who has approached me about this possibility and I will be praying separately and together to see if this is what God wants.  If the answer is yes, I will most definitely move in that direction, but I wonder if God has more confidence in me than I might have in myself. 

I guess the reason I make that last comment is because I am continuing to learn myself what it means to be a pastor and follower of Jesus.  Through many conversations over the last 3 years, God has shown me much about a variety of topics.  I pray that if God moves me in this direction that what occurs would be pleasing to him and profitable for the one with whom I will be sharing this relationship.

As a historic Baptist, I say, “No way.”

Over this past weekend, I came across a petition that has been circulating around Facebook.  This petition from causes.com dated December 16, 2012, states the following: 

To: Lawmakers on the federal, state, and local levels.

This society allowed a few atheists to dictate to lawmakers that prayer should be taken out of schools, and that there should be a separation of church and state. Once God was taken out of our schools, evil worked its way in.

Believers should sign to let the lawmakers and the so called powers that be know we should be allowed to openly pray, and let God back into our schools. We live in the land of the free, and we should freely be able to allow God to come back in.

First, let me deal with the legal aspect before I wade into why being a Baptist who claims the  historic principles of Baptists moves me to speak against this type of idea.  What was removed from schools was formal prayer or a formal time for prayer.  It was removed because it was coercive to have a government entity require someone to pray or observe a moment of silence.  This is unconstitutional for the government to do.  

There is something that I wonder if those who wrote this petition realize – it cannot always be a Christian prayer because that would be endorsement of one faith over another.  In order for this formal prayer to not constitute an endorsement or preference for one religion or faith over another, this prayer would have to rotate between all the faiths represented in the community and maybe even in the country.  That means that the teacher would say a Christian prayer one day, then one from the Muslim faith the next day, and then a Hindu prayer the next, and then a Wiccan incantation the following day and so on until all the faiths possibly present have been given equal time.  I think that those who advocate for formal prayer in schools have the presupposition that it will always be a prayer of the Christian faith.  It cannot be so or would be in violation of the First Amendment.  I wonder how many of those who advocate for formal prayer would be okay with their child being forced by the government to participate in a prayer that is not of their faith?

Also with the legal side, prayer has not been taken out of schools.  That is a myth.  There is a joke which says, “As long as there are tests in school, there will be prayer in schools!”  Just because there isn’t a formal time of prayer doesn’t mean that students are forbidden to pray.  At a time where it is not disruptive to the educational process (i.e. when the student has free time to do whatever he/she desires), the student still has the right to pray.  Another student may choose to listen to music on her ipod as she reads a novel.  Another student may choose to spend the time in quiet meditation and prayer.  Both students are allowed to do his/her specific activity as long as it is not disruptive to the room.  All that has been removed is the formal time where students are required to participate in a religious or faith-based activity, and that a government entity cannot not do.

Second, from Baptist historic principles and beliefs, I do not want the government in the business of forcing or coercing students who must be in the classroom to participate in a religious exercise.  In the colonial period of this country, Baptists were a minority.  Baptists advocated for no interference from the government in religious affairs.  Baptists, as minorities, had to fight for the right to not have to pay religious taxes to the church of the state which was the Congregationalist Church.  Baptists were oppressed and persecuted by other Christians because of these principles.  If you read the writings of Baptist preachers of the time, such as Isaac Watts and John Leland, you will see these principles in action.  John Leland was instrumental in getting the First Amendment added to the Bill of Rights as written, and yes, behind it is the idea of the separation of church and state, even though those words do not specifically appear there.

Baptists as minorities were forced to do things, such as paying taxes to the accepted church, even though they objected to it. Because of this, Baptists were champions of the rights of the minority, seeking to protect those rights from the majority who would attempt to take away those rights.  Why Baptists of today would advocate for religious minorities of today to be forced to participate in a religious exercise which goes against their faith I have no idea.  When Baptists do that, they forget their roots and what it means to be Baptist and that, frankly, saddens me.

I want the government to stay out of the religious realm all together.  Churches, houses of worship, communities of faith and the home are where faith should be taught and religious/faith activities be required, not in government-run institutions.  If government can require a citizen to participate in a religious exercise of their making or choosing, it is not too far to go to begin to tell houses of worship how they can or cannot worship.  And to me, that is anathema (curse).

This petition purports that God has left our schools.  If that is the case, then God has violated one of his promises, for Jesus promised that he would always be with us, even unto the ends of the earth.  God has not left our schools, for when there are present in our school buildings those who claim the name of Jesus, there he is also.

Formal prayer must not be viewed as some sort of magical formula by which evil will not visit our schools.  If that were true, how do violent acts happen in sanctuaries where formal prayer happens all the time?  Violent acts occurred in schools before the Supreme Court decision in the 1960’s that took formal prayer out of schools.  It is my position that having the view that having formal prayer in school will protect the school is equating this act as a magical incantation or some sort of talisman.  And that is a perverted view of prayer.

As a Baptist, I believe in soul freedom which means every person has the right, as an individual, to approach and stand before God as he/she sees fit.  Because of that, there is no place for a government entity to require or coerce someone to approach or interact with God in a way that goes against his/her own view.  This means no formal prayer or requirement to observe a moment of silence.

I understand that there are certain faith groups who advocate for formal prayer in schools, but it truly saddens me when I hear of those within the Baptist family join them for, when they do so, they truly have forgotten what it truly means to be Baptist.

What’s in a Name?

Today marks my first day back from vacation.  Today also is my birthday.  Tonight at 11:31pm  will mark 45 years since my mother gave birth to me.  She gave birth to my twin brother 5 minutes later.

My brother received the name that was after our grandfathers – John Albert.  John was our paternal grandfather’s middle name and Albert was our maternal grandfather’s first name.  I was given the name James because of James and John, the brothers who were disciples of Jesus.  My middle name, Herbert, was after the doctor who delivered us; he was our family doctor for many years.

My middle name was an easy target for ridicule and insults up through middle school.  It is not uncommon for peers in school to do this.  I did not like my given middle name, that is, until I was given a different perspective about it which happened after I had heard from God that I was to give my life to Him in full time vocation.

There have been many times that I wonder if our western culture has lost some significant aspects that are still present in other cultures.  One of those is the meaning of names.  If you read through the Bible, names are very significant.  Jesus was given his name because it means “the Lord saves,” signifying that Jesus would save his people from their sins.

I was sitting in youth group one night and the topic of discussion was about names.  My youth pastor, Jeff Minniear, was taking everyone’s names and giving them meaning.  I wondered to myself how he was going to do that with mine.  I knew that James was a derivative of Jacob which means “supplanter” or “thief.”  I wasn’t sure about Herbert.  When it was my turn, Jeff told me that my name Herbert had a Germanic background and had warrior in its meaning. Great, I thought to myself.

But then Jeff did something that was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced and became very influential in my life.  Much like what the angel did in Joseph’s dream in Matthew 1, Jeff not only gave me the meaning of my names but also what he saw as the significance of them.  This is one of those moments in my life that I will never forget.  Jeff looked at me and said, “Jim, you will be a warrior who will steal the very souls of people from the hand of Satan.”  I’m not sure if Jeff had ever considered himself prophetic, but at that moment and time, God had given him a prophetic word to speak over me.

What has become a reality of my life is that I desire to bring people in God’s kingdom.  I do not attempt to do this through brow-beating or arguing with people.  It is my goal to do this through revealing to people just exactly who my God is.  God reveals himself to me each and every day.  He and I have daily conversations.  I see his presence and power all over the place.  I experience his provision and joy all the time in my life.

But you want to know when I experience all that the most?  It is when I am in the midst of doing battle with the enemy of humanity, the one who would see as many people experience the fate that he knows is already his.  It is when I am waging war through the power of God’s Spirit flowing through me, battles in the spiritual realm, against, as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” when I experience my God the most, because what he places before me to accomplish and combat, I cannot do this without his power and presence being active and flowing.

What’s in a name?  God’s stamp of who I am and my purpose in life.