Is ordination biblical?

EDIT: I just wanted to say that thanks to my buddy Clay I realized that I probably shouldn’t have written this post as a direct criticism of Hirsch. I should have probably, instead, just written about the idea of the clergy/lay distinction. I apologize for overstepping here.

I will leave my post as is because I don’t think it would be honest to edit it to make the bad things go away. I own my mistake.

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I just arrived back from Seedbed’s New Room Conference in Franklin, TN. New Room is a gathering of Christians from the Wesleyan tradition who are seeking to reconnect with John Wesley’s early vision of the Methodist movement. In the present-day chaos that is the United Methodist Church, Seedbed’s “return to roots” focus is a hopeful and refreshing way to move forward. The organizers did a fantastic job facilitating discussion and bringing clarity to our common goal. I desperately hope to see this vision grow.

I was inspired and challenged by several talks, especially those by Phil Meadows, Philip Tallon, and Kevin Watson. However, I want to address some problems that I found with one talk in particular: the closing address by Alan Hirsch.

Alan Hirsch is a leader in the missional church movement who believes that we should rethink the way that we envision Christian community. If you are familiar with Hirsch’s work, you know that he sharply criticizes the clergy/lay distinction and refers to it as a later “Catholic invention”. As a citation, Hirsch refers to the New Testament teaching that we are all one body in Christ, and though we are many members in Christ we are all one body (I would argue that he misunderstands this text, but that’s not the point here). Hirsch simply says that the clergy/lay distinction is not in the New Testament and it is, therefore, not true. He even had the audacity to suggest that the Wesleyan movement should repent for their participation in the “unbiblical” clergy/lay distinction and the oppressive nature of church hierarchy.

I know that Hirsch is not alone in rejecting the clerical office. People have been arguing against church hierarchy since the Radical Reformers (led, in part by Ulrich Zwingli who died in 1531) sought to set up societies that looked, from their perspective, like the “New Testament Church”. The vision of re-establishing a New Testament Church was the focus of many movements, especially in America (e.g. the Stone-Campbell Movement), throughout the last 300 years. The underlying belief of these movements is that the Catholic Church ruined Christianity, and it is up to us to get back to the real roots. From this foundation, they believe that since Jesus never mentioned the priesthood or ordination in the New Testament, the priesthood must have been a tool of oppression that was invented by the Catholics.

I believe that there are several problems with this reasoning, but I will just focus on one three-part argument.

1) In the first 2/3 of our Scripture we have numerous explanations of the rites, liturgies, and vestments used by Jewish priests. In Jewish tradition, men of the tribe of Levi are set apart for special service in the priesthood. Though the priesthood involved special acts of prayer and service for the community, the primary role of the priest was to stand as a mediator between God and the people. The priest would offer sacrifices for the people and enter the sacred place, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God dwelled. We know that if someone who was not a priest entered the Holy of Holies (or if the priest entered the Holy of Holies unworthily), they would die. (Leviticus 16) Not only must someone be set apart for the office of the priest, they must take it very seriously.

2) We know that Jesus and a majority of his early followers were Jewish. We know that Jesus went to the Temple and the synagogues. We know that Jesus celebrated Jewish festivals and submitted himself to the instruction of the rabbis. To suggest otherwise is to erroneously remove Jesus from his Jewish context.

Some think that Jesus was completely opposed to office of “priest” because of his addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He called them hypocrites, sons of hell, and lots of other damning things. The problem is that there is zero New Testament evidence that Jesus thought that the office of the priest was corrupt per se. He certainly saw abuses and criticized the way that some leaders were holding the office. That is not debatable. But he never explicitly abolished the priesthood. Why would he? He was a devout Jew.

3) In several first-century letters (including his epistles to the Magnesian, Trallesian, and Smyrnan churches) Ignatius of Antioch referred to bishops and priests as part of a hierarchical structure. He even demands that the congregations obey their deacons, bishops, and presbyters. This means that within 70 years of Christ’s ascension there is evidence that the priest/lay distinction exists and that the lay should, in some ways, submit to these specially appointed leaders.

One should also consider the fact that in the fourth century (one to two hundred years after Ignatius’ letters) it was a college of bishops that closed our canon of Scripture. This means that the hierarchy of the church actually predates the formal collection of Scripture that we have today. Hirsch’s argument that a clergy/lay distinction is unbiblical is easily dismantled by the fact that Scripture was actually assembled by clergy! (Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, of course.)

So, considering (1) that the Old Testament affirms the clergy/lay divide, that (2) Jesus and most of his followers were Jewish and, therefore, at least inherited the priestly tradition, and that (3) there is evidence of the clergy/lay distinction within 70 years of Christ’s ascension, I have a very hard time seeing how we can affirm that the role of clergy was a later “Catholic invention”.

The only way that this could possibly be true is if Jesus secretly (without it being recorded in Scripture) told the disciples that the priesthood should be abolished. Then, within one generation, the disciples would have had to turn their back on his teaching and reestablish the priesthood. This situation is highly unlikely. The burden of proof is certainly on those who refute the priesthood.

I don’t know for sure, but I can’t help but assume that Hirsch is misinterpreting Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” and applying it anachronistically on the New Testament. Even if Luther’s sentiment is correct, he was not remotely suggesting that we abolish the priesthood (we know this because he was, well… a priest). What Luther was saying was that all Christians have a duty to tend to their own piety and to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That call does not erase the office of clergy.

I believe that there are a lot of reasons that the church needs to repent. We need to repent for imperialism, our support of slavery, and our role in genocide. However, among the myriad of things that we have done wrong, I simply cannot affirm that drawing a distinction between the clergy and the laity is one of them.

learning from Mark Driscoll

Back in 2006 Zondervan published a book called Confessions of a Reformission Rev. by Mark Driscoll. The book was Driscoll’s guide to teach pastors and church planters through his own successes and failures as a church planter. At the time, Driscoll had seen a lot of success and growth with his Seattle church Mars Hill. I purchased this book several years ago when I was reading and listening to a lot of the popular neo-Calvinist leaders like Driscoll, John Piper, and Tim Keller. However, I never got around to reading the book and quickly forgot that I had it.

If we fast-forward a bit, you will find me today, halfway through my MDiv at a Methodist seminary. In the last two years I have learned a lot of things that contradict with Driscoll’s theological and social approaches to Christianity. I have been shaped to see Driscoll’s brand of neo-Calvinism as misguided. I have grown to resent his harsh gender distinctions. I have found that I don’t trust his exegetical approach to Scripture.

 It was in this theological context that I came across Driscoll’s book the other day while I was unpacking a box. I thought that it would be interesting, considering my current theological perspectives, to go back and read Confessions of a Reformission Rev. and to reflect on what Driscoll is saying. Further, I want to work hard to highlight the strengths of this book because if I can’t learn from people that I disagree with, I’m not actually learning.

I thought about writing a “The Good And The Bad” review of the book, but I realized quickly that I could write 10 cynical pages on what I didn’t like about it. To be honest, the world doesn’t need any more Mark Driscoll bashing right now… there is plenty to go around. So, as an exercise I decided to only write about the good things.

Here they are… a few things that I liked about Confessions of A Reformission Rev:

1) Driscoll rejects the “generation labeling” model of social categorization. As a “millennial” I have often been frustrated by the numerous books and blog posts about how the church can “win back” people my age. I find this desire to reach young people to be misguided. We are called to reach all people, regardless of age or place. Driscoll realized early on that a healthy church could not just be one that reached college students because a healthy church must be intergenerational. If you only fill a church with young people they will not learn how to grow into responsible old people. This is incredibly valuable.

2) Driscoll believes that teaching right Christology is an important component of a healthy church. It matters that Jesus was fully God and fully man. It matters that Jesus really died. It matters that Jesus really rose from the dead. These truths are essential. If we reject these core beliefs we may as well pack up and go home.

3) Driscoll takes the Christian faith very seriously. He believes that there is power in our faith. He believes that there is something special about our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and that the Holy Spirit is doing real work in this world. So many churches that I encounter seem to have a “take it or leave it” approach to their faith. So many churches exist because a handful of people have been meeting together with the same handful of people for 50 years. This kind of apathy slowly kills churches. We need leaders that think this Christianity business really means something. 

4) Driscoll is fantastic at engaging the artistic community. Too often churches try to engage artists by telling them to “paint a picture about God’s love” or to choreograph a dance to a Christian worship song. Throughout the book Driscoll seemed open to trying new things with their worship music and visual arts. He gives the artists room to try and fail and figure things out. This has led to Mars Hill’s thoroughly developed art culture.

5) Mars Hill values the Sacraments enough to have regular baptism services and to take communion every week (however I doubt that either of those practices mean the same thing to Driscoll as they do to me). Their services are 1 and ½ to 2 hours long so that they can have time for communion every week. While many mainline Protestants may scoff at this duration and then retreat back to their 60-minute services with 12-minute homilies, a survey of Orthodox and Coptic Christian traditions from around the world shows that longer services are quite common everywhere outside of the United States.

6) Mars Hill has had to go through a lot of trial in order to survive. They have had to frantically change locations on several occasions. They have had to piecemeal their leadership teams and worship leaders. For the first decade they had to set up and tear down and move and change constantly. Through their uncertainty, the church survived and kept walking forward toward their mission. This laboring helped to grow the church into a community of focused Christians.

I think that a lot of the apathy and complacency in modern churches is a product of their stability. They don’t have to actually do anything in order to be a church. When nothing is required of you, you don’t try and you become apathetic. Church plants like Mars Hill don’t allow you to be apathetic because apathetic Christians don’t wake up at 6am every Sunday so that they can help set up a church from scratch.

7) As Mars Hill started to grow, Driscoll worked with church leaders to set up intentional living communities. These communities served as centers for bible studies, community meals, and leadership formation. Even though I value intentional community and have heard several people talk about it, I could not currently name for you a Methodist Church that is intentionally setting up communities like that.

8) It is really tricky to talk about Mark Driscoll and gender roles. I almost completely disagree with Driscoll’s stance on women in ministry and his insistence on traditional gender roles in marriage. With that said, there are things about the way that he challenges men that we can definitely learn from. I don’t buy into his hyper-masculine, cage-fighter Jesus or his willingness to abusively insult some men for being effeminate. Those things are flat-out wrong. But I greatly appreciate his determination to look at young men and require them to step up to be better Christians.

Driscoll requires that young men in leadership stop sleeping around and looking at porn. Men who bear the name “Christian” should not be taking advantage of women like that. He also pushes young men to get stable jobs and to stop taking advantage of their parents for shelter and financial support. I think that these requirements are spot on. We do need to challenge these destructive attributes of the modern masculinity complex… a complex that tells men that they can do what they want with women and should spend their days smoking weed and playing video games.

With that said (and I want this to be very clear here) I think that his bullying of men that don’t fit into his gender molds is absolutely wrong. Men should not be insulted for not being aggressive and for talking or dressing differently. I have no patience for that side of his gender dialogue.

grumpy dads

The other day our family went to Pullen Park over in Raleigh. Pullen Park is one of the best public parks we’ve ever been to. On top of having lots of great play structures and wonderful green space, Pullen Park has a train that runs around the park, a carousel, and a pond with pedal boats.

Our family was in line to get on the pedal boats and we were standing behind two families with about 6 children between the two of them. The fathers of the two families spent the entire 30-minute wait complaining. They complained about our wait time. They complained that the park charged a few dollars for the pedal boats. They even began to complain about things that had no immediate consequence: The cost of a vacation at Disney, the fact that food costs way too much at amusement parks, and how kids love to buy over-priced junk in the parks’ gift shops. There they were, surrounded by their kids and families, wasting half an hour complaining about how expensive everything was.

Unfortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time around guys who waste their time this way.

I have two immediate thoughts about these two dads (and the thousands like them).

1) I don’t want to spend my life complaining. I don’t want to be unhappy all the time. Being frustrated is miserable. It doesn’t make me feel good. I don’t like it. I have, at times, lived like this… but I’ve learned that everything in my life is happier (and everyone else’s life too!) when I’m not criticizing everything that I see.

2) Don’t spend all of your time with your families complaining about how much everything costs and how unhappy you are. A lot of dads feel like they are doing something saintly by just showing up to hang out with their kids. Sure, your presence is better than your lack of presence… but it makes your kids feel awful to listen to you complain about the thing that they wanted to do. It makes them feel like the things that bring them happiness are annoying.

It tells them that the things that are important to them are worthless.

I would venture to say that it would be better for you to stay at home than show up and criticize everything. At least your lack of presence communicates indifference to your children instead of outright scorn.

The Great Lent

I just realized that I haven’t posted since January. On top of that, the last post I wrote ended with a statement that I was going to write more posts. I should really stop promising things on the internet.

I know that we aren’t supposed to talk about our fasting (Matthew 6), but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m giving myself amnesty because I’ve pretty much failed at my lenten discipline. There is no pride happening here.

This year I decided to give up music. If you know me you know that I love music, I am constantly listening to music, and I am constantly making new playlists and finding new artists. However, I found that my love for music had become a serious distraction. I could not study without music in the background. I could not drive or sit or do anything without a soundtrack. My busy and distracted mind was keeping me from focusing on important things like prayer or reflection on my life.

When I say that I failed I don’t entirely mean that I’ve given up. I am still listening to less music than I had been (I’m not listening to any music right now). But I have made a lot of concessions and given myself a lot of opportunities to put my mind at ease by listening to some of my favorite songs.

Anyway… I thought that you might find this interesting. It has been a weird experience for me. It was much harder than I could have imagined but it forced me to think about some things that I had been neglecting… like self-care and my family responsibilities.

My second year in seminary ends in 3 weeks! My time in school has flown by. But, with that said, I’m exhausted and looking forward to the next steps in life.

Grace and peace to you.

Losing Our Humanity

We all know the benefits of communication technology. Communication technology allows us to see and hear people we don’t get to see very often. It allows us to read more, see more, and open ourselves up to new experiences. Communication technology gives us websites that let us order pizza without actually having to talk to a human… or put on pants. Technology is beautiful and valuable.

However, I’m afraid that our culture has too eagerly consumed communication technology without considering the ways that it actually forms us. Humans have been around for a long time… iPhones have only been around since 2007. The way that communication technology is shaping our culture is much more profound than anyone realizes. In all of our years on this earth we have never seen anything like it.

Media and technology give us the ability to perceive that we are a part of something that we aren’t by allowing us to observe, like researchers in a laboratory, things that are going on in other parts of the world. We feel intrinsically connected to Middle East freedom struggles, impoverished children in Africa, and the inner-workings of CIA surveillance programs simply because we are able to read about them, see pictures and videos, and listen to first-hand accounts. We do not actually experience these things on our own. We simply consume the stories of other people who may or may not have actually experienced it.

It is one thing to look at pictures from a war and be emotionally stirred by them. It is another altogether to experience war firsthand. When we read stories about the world we pretend like we have experienced them. We decide who is right and who is wrong. We even identify ourselves with whoever we decide is the victim. But our emotions, no matter how sincere they may be, are only dim shadows of reality. Seeing a picture of a dead protestor is not the same experience as standing next to a protestor as she is shot to death.

This way of engaging culture is intrinsic to the way modern people live our lives. We consume stories, pretend like we are a part of them, then turn around and comment about the stories as if we have any real knowledge about what is going on. We have become natives in a world of perceived reality.

This perceived reality affects our relationships too. When our relationships are primarily located in communication technology we do not experience the full range of human emotion that communication requires. We do not have to look someone in the face to deliver bad news or give criticism. We don’t even have to hear their voice. Part of the human experience is learning that our lives affect the lives of others. Our words matter. Our actions matter. Technology allows us to say more without actually experiencing more.

You have probably watched the clip from Louis CK on Conan a few months back. If not, go ahead and spend the next 4 minutes watching it (the video has some profanity).

Watch: Louis CK on Conan

In the video Louis brings up the point that using smart phones has ruined our human ability to feel. We are scared to be alone with our souls so we fill the loneliness with constant communication. We use technology to keep ourselves from experiencing human contemplation.

Further, as he points out, technology gives us (especially teenagers) the ability to be awful to one another without seeing the look of anguish on the face of the one they are hurting. Almost half of teenagers have experienced some sort of online bullying. Unfortunately we have seen multiple teenagers take their own lives as a result of the bullying they experience on the internet. The case of Rebecca Sedwick, a 14-year-old who killed herself after relentless online bullying, is particularly troubling.  Even after Rebecca took her own life one of the girls that bullied her wrote on Facebook: “Yes IK [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don’t give a F].” Even though this girl’s actions led to the death of a classmate she had no remorse and was willing to declare it publicly.

I know this seems like a rogue incident that I shouldn’t be making into such a big deal. But let me remind you… almost HALF of teenagers experience online bullying. Most of them don’t take their own lives. However, there are too many people hurting each other to ignore this. One-sided, emotionless communication is an epidemic.

This is the same reason that 30% of all website data on the internet is pornography. This is why we constantly see news stories about people getting arrested or fired for texting inappropriate pictures to one another. This is why Facebook is mentioned in one-third of all divorce filings.

We have forgotten that our lives are, inherently, wrapped up in the lives of others. We don’t have to look people in the eye when we make bad decisions. We don’t have to experience reality. We have forgotten how to feel.

Impersonal communication technology is bad for our ability to develop as compassionate, empathetic humans. When we grow up using social media and texting as our primary form of communication we do not get to feel. We do not get to hurt. We lose our ability to consider the effect of our actions on others.

We are turning ourselves into a society of sociopaths.

It is true that communication technology does give some individuals the ability to express themselves more clearly and confidently. I count myself among the ranks of the socially awkward who are bad at forming sentences on the spot. However our relationships are usually not actually enhanced by these improvements. They are distanced.

When we consume media and communication through technology we participate as spectators, not as participants. Comment sections and social media make us feel like we are “contributing to the conversation”. However, more often than not we are just creating more impersonal noise.

Jonathan Safron Foer wrote a fantastic op-ed in the in the NY Times called How Not to Be Alone. I would highly suggest that you take five minutes to read it. In the article he points out that our communication technologies are developed as an inferior substitute to interpersonal communication. The telephone gave us the ability to keep up with people we could not actually see. He says:

“These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little… I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.”

The way we are using technology to form our social interactions is making genuine, human interaction the diminished substitute. We now live in a world where setting aside real time to meet with humans is seen as an inconvenience. Our problem is not simply that we are too busy for relationships. Our problem is that we have, as a society, forgotten how to have relationships.

In the next few days I will be posting some thoughts about how all of this relates to Christian mission.

Clinging to Tradition

Our society is obsessed with the freedom for an autonomous individual to make choices about his or her own life without outside influence. The modern American ideal of freedom suggests that true thriving can only happen when we eliminate as many exterior influences acting on us as possible. It is only in the removing of outside agents that we can be as happy or wealthy or beautiful as we hope to be. This is true of much of western culture, but as an American, I will only speak to my own American context.

The idea that happiness is dependent on freedom to choose is quite apparent in American Protestant churches today. For the first 1500 years of the Western Church almost all Christians were Roman Catholic. If you were a Western Christian, you showed up at the Catholic Church, did the things that Catholics did, believed the things that Catholics believed, and submitted to the papal authority. You didn’t get to argue about theology, worship style, or how good the preacher was. You just went to the church that was closest to your home.

After the Reformation the Protestant churches began to divide exponentially. Western Christians were no longer bound by the idea that being Christian was equal to being Roman Catholic. All of the sudden you could disagree about the nature of the Sacraments or Apostolic Succession and still be considered a Christian by a large body of other professing Christians. This is not to say that other Christian denominations didn’t exist before the Reformation. We can look to the entire Eastern Orthodox Church or the Syrian Nestorians for evidence of previous Christian division. However, the Protestant movement has been the source of exponential division that is unparallel in any other branch of Christendom.

The American ideal of religious freedom stands on the shoulders of the Protestant ethic that gives individuals the ability to interpret Scriptures on their own. Surely, the ability for a layperson to be able to read the Bible for themselves in their native language is a gift. However, it is also the source of a lot of our problems. We have thousands of Protestant denominations and even more unaffiliated non-denominational churches that have split because the leaders of the churches have a different method of interpreting Scripture.

Do you interpret Christian justification as by grace alone through faith alone? You can be a Lutheran.

Do you tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty as God’s primary characteristic? You can be Presbyterian.

Do you think that good works are an important part of the pursuit of holiness? We’d love to have you at the Methodist party.

Because of the Reformation’s democratization of biblical interpretation we have the ability to choose what is right for us. But, honestly, I’m a bit exhausted by the need to “choose my own theology” that fits me best. This kind of project seems so selfish. Besides, every time I find myself comfortably in a theological camp I make a new friend who wrecks my ability to stay there anyway.

I have had at least half a dozen mentors from widely different theological backgrounds make a huge impact on my life. This has caused me to find a lot of good in a lot of different traditions. It has also caused me to see that there is bad in all of them.

What is a perplexed Protestant to do? Where do I find my theological home? There are a few options available to me:

  1. I can pick the lesser of the evils. I can pick a tradition based on their historical tendency to not murder. I can choose based on the way that they interact with Scripture.
  2. I can take the typical American Protestant Christian route and just start my own church. I can’t find one that I fully agree with so I will just do my own thing that is tailored to my needs.
  3. I can become Catholic and just submit to the historic authority of a church that has practically been structured the same way for over a thousand years. In the Catholic Church you never have to worry about someone coming up with a new way of interpreting Scripture or whether or not something is a sin. They just tell you what to think.
  4. I can learn to love the church that I’m in.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different churches that were incredibly formative in unique ways… but the UMC is where I came from. To be completely honest, I couldn’t have told you much about specific UMC theological stances until about 6 months ago. However, I have decided that I am going to make the Methodist church my home.

I decided that I was going to stop trying to find the right church for me. I decided to stop trying to form church in my own image… I decided that I’m the one that needs to be formed by my church.

The United Methodist Church isn’t perfect. But the United Methodist Church is my home. I’m going to learn to love it.

My quest to find the right church fell apart because I found that looking for “the right church” is a lot like looking for the right phone. I was concerned with how my new church would fit my needs and make me happy. But the church isn’t made for me to be happy. The church is made for me to worship God.

What does church have to do with me?

The Lord Came Down

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Image

I love the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1-9). I love that it is 9 verses long and is filled with the theological complexity of a much longer story. I love the way that the story is told. I preached on the story about a month ago and taught a short Bible study on it this past Sunday.

Childhood Sunday school classes tell us that the Tower of Babel is about the origins of Earth’s multiple languages. But the story says so much more than that.

For instance, at the exact center of the narrative is verse 5, which says, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” Everything that happens before verse 5 has to do with the people’s sinful actions and attitudes. Everything that happens after verse 5 has to do with God setting everything right. What happens in the middle of the story to change everything? The Lord came down.

This simple phrase is the crux of this story. God’s coming down to the world changes everything.

As Christians looking back we see this verse as a sign pointing forward to Jesus. In the incarnation of Christ we see that God came down into the world again… and everything changed.

This is what makes our faith unique. Our God comes down into the world and is an active part of our story. Our God does not stay at a distance like the deist watchmaker that sets the world into motion and steps away to let it unfold. The Creator gets involved with the creation… God’s hands get dirty.

This is just one of many potential takeaways from this dense story. This text can also be read as a direct criticism of the Babylonian idolatry that took place in the ziggurats… or a disobedience of God’s Eden command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the entire earth”… or it can speak of the danger of our desire to proudly “make a new for ourselves.”

This text is so cool.

In defense of contemporary worship

Christians of my generation and younger have been a part of a surge of energy that seeks to reclaim the historical hymnody of the church. We have grown up in churches that played contemporary worship songs because “young people” liked them while we, the young people, scratched our heads wondering why we don’t sing awesome songs like “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” anymore.

A few years ago I was speaking with a middle-aged youth leader (that I had never met before and have never seen since) who was in town to present at a conference. In a casual conversation he ranted about how “old people” selfishly didn’t care about reaching new people and went on to say (this is verbatim) “The worship in heaven is going to be contemporary.” 23-year-old-me died inside a little bit. I thought to myself, “Dear God I hope not.” 

I have met many people that share my opinions about worship since I have been at Duke Divinity School. Duke has a reputation for embracing high church liturgy and, more often than not, singing songs that have their melodies and lyrics printed on a music staff inside a hardcover book. When I first got here I loved it. I loved singing responses and communally reading the creeds. I loved the way that the organist played beautiful, complex interludes between each verse.

However, always the contrarian, I have become a bit perturbed by the attitudes about contemporary worship that I hear from the cynics of my generation. People often complain about the bad theology and weak lyricism of modern worship songs. They argue that the liturgy of the church is part of its identity and that there is something ancient and sacred about singing communally from a hymn book.

I would like to say, first of all, I completely agree and sympathize. However, I would also like to say that these attitudes are problematic.

First of all, these attitudes are problematic because they are assigning generalities to an entire genre of music. This is like the people who say that “country music is terrible” because they don’t like modern pop-country musicians like Taylor Swift or Rascal Flatts. To make this broad sweep leaves out classic music icons like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson. It also dismisses modern alternative country musicians like Lucero, Mount Moriah, or even country/folk revivalists like Iron and Wine or The Avett Brothers.

There are a lot of fantastic contemporary worship artists writing songs with rich, beautiful theological language. To say “contemporary Christian music is terrible” is to write off a lot of great bands.

What usually happens at this point in the discussion is that I name bands like Gungor, The Brilliance, The Welcome Wagon, or John Mark McMillan and I hear one of two responses: 1) They are the exception, or 2) they aren’t contemporary worship music. Let me address both points.

1) If they are the exception to your rule, that means the rule is broken. They prove that not all contemporary Christian worship is terrible. These artists are inspiring a Christian musical renaissance that is transforming our idea of music in worship. To not seriously think about what these artists are doing is to deny a very large artistic current in the church.

2) It can be argued that these bands aren’t contemporary Christian music because CCM is, well, bad… and these bands aren’t. You can say that they aren’t a part of the same machine that produces all of the bad music. To an extent, this is true. However, I have heard music from all of these bands played in worship services. Vito from The Welcome Wagon is a pastor at a Presbyterian church in New York that uses music similar to theirs within the confines of their formal, traditional liturgy. It can be done.

Further, these artists may not self-identify as contemporary Christian musicians, but it can be reasoned that they would not have made the music they are making without the influence of their CCM predecessors. Michael Gungor got his start writing CCM songs (he co-wrote “Friend of God” with Israel Houghton). The Welcome Wagon has covered a David Crowder Band song.

So, at this point, you may say, “Great, but I still don’t like contemporary worship.” I recently saw an interview with Stanley Hauerwas (condescendingly titled “Contemporary Worship vs. Worship”) where he argued that much contemporary worship is “ugly” and “superficial”. This may be true in a lot of respects. But is doesn’t have to be.

Modern people can write good songs influenced by genres that they like and sing them together without turning worship into a shallow, un-theological vanity show. Yes, this is what has frequently happened in the past, but it does not have to be this way.

I’d also like to point out that the mere fact that hymns are published in a hymnal does not make those songs any more sacred or theological than a song written two years ago by someone who likes to play the electric guitar. There are many hymns that are as poorly written and as theologically problematic as any contemporary worship song (might I remind you that “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are in the United Methodist Hymnal).

With all that said, I usually prefer worshipping with old hymns. It is my preference. But, it is just that… it is a preference. If I was to begin attending a new church this week I would choose one that sings hymns… but I would do it because I like it. We can try to make this a theological issue, but we have to ask ourselves what is at stake. Drawing lines between “contemporary” and “liturgical” worship is to feed the destructive fire that has been dividing our churches for about 40 years now. We need to honor art in our churches… and not just the art that we like.

I don’t have a solution here… just a challenge. Whatever music you prefer in worship, stop trying to assert that people who like the other types of music are somehow inherently wrong. We all live in a particular context that forms the way we worship. Let us speak humbly of humans (who are created in the image of God) and their work that is composed with the intention of giving honor and praise the God we all worship. Let us encourage each other, regardless of our tradition, to stop singing problematic songs with questionable theology. Let us point out victories in lyricism, both ancient and modern.

Let us be at peace with one another as we differently express the unending song:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest

 

obedient worship

At my school people love to worship. They love to come together with other Christians to sing, read Scripture, affirm our faith through the creeds, and take Eucharist. We have three chapel worship services during the week and daily morning prayer. Many at my school go to as many services and gatherings as possible.

I think that the desire to worship is great. It is good for future ministers to love doing what the church does… singing, worshipping, reading, celebrating. 

But I’ve felt a weird tension inside of me about the constant acts of worship. The problem is, I usually don’t excitedly rush to every opportunity to pray in communion. I don’t get the excited feeling in my heart every time I walk into the doors and see the communion table covered in starched white linens in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Honestly, sometimes I doubt if I really like going to church. 

And, to be honest, sometimes I just don’t go. There are weeks that I don’t go to chapel services at all. There are Sundays when I don’t find a church to worship.

This is problematic for a future pastor. I know that I shouldn’t skip out on opportunities to worship… and I should make time in my schedule to participate in communal prayer. But I don’t think I always have to be excited about it.

There are times that we have to do things we don’t want to do. It’s called being an adult. And as Christians, gathering is one of those things that we have to do. I should make myself go to church as often as possible. Since I’m Methodist now I should try to follow John Wesley’s example… who took Eucharist on average 4 times per week.

But I can’t imagine that John Wesley was excited about worship every time. I’m sure that he wanted to sleep in or hang out with his friends instead of going to worship… but he did it anyway. 

I think that is what is so wonderful about the church. We don’t have to come enthusiastically. We don’t have to have the right attitudes or have our lives figured out. We just have to come.

I think that it is more important to be obedient than joyful. If we wait to be joyful before we do things that we should do, we will never do anything (exercise for instance). For the Christian, real happiness comes as a result of doing the things that Christians do. We are formed by our practices.

To think that being happy is the prerequisite for participating in the church is the motivation that drives our rampant consumer church models. We try to make our churches happy places… with music we like and preaching that is good… so that we want to go to church.

But as our Dean, Richard Hays, is fond of saying, “It’s not about you, stupid.” Worship is for God, not for us.

I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t hate going to church a little more. Worship isn’t supposed to be comfortable. The entire point of coming together is to focus our attention on God, rather than ourselves. We can’t do that when we let our desires be the motivation for our church attendance. 

…said the hypocrite to the people.

my life is easy.

All throughout my adolescence my frequent complaints about my life were met, either by my parents or one of many other adults, with an assurance that “You have it easy” or “When you get older life just gets harder.” In a way, I have found this statement to be true. As I have gotten older I am responsible for other people. I have to work so that my son can eat. I have to make sure that I am considering the needs of my wife instead of the needs of myself alone.

However, I have also found that my life has become progressively easier. In this sense, when I say the word “easy” I mean that my life is filled with less tension and fewer mental and emotional burdens. Let me explain…

From as young as I can remember, I was filled with anxiety. I was always concerned with what other people thought of me. I wanted my parents to think I was succeeding. I wanted people at church to think of me as a kind, moral young man. But, most of all, I wanted my friends to like me. And, unfortunately, my desire to please my parents and people at church often didn’t line up with my desire to please my friends.

I was regularly put in places where I had to let someone down so that I could be accepted by others. This meant that if I was going to do the “right thing” (what my parents wanted) I would have to let my friends down… which paralyzed me with social anxiety. If I wanted to do the “wrong thing” (what my friends wants) I would have to let me parents down… which led to me lying to them and filling myself up with the anxiety of keeping a secret.

I almost constantly felt a pit in my stomach from age 14 to 20.

Through my marriage I learned to be honest. I learned to think about other people. I learned that my actions had bearing on others. I learned that it doesn’t matter what other people think of me as long as my family is content. 

These lessons helped me to shake the anxiety that sat deep in my stomach and weighed heavy on my shoulders. But these lessons could not come without the struggle and the process… of living with and caring for other people.

It is a myth of our modern, Western culture to think that we will be happier when we have less responsibility and fewer people vying for our time. It is only through the responsibility and the struggle of having people in my life that I have found how to be happy.

My life is easy.