Today is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation. This means that 500 years ago today it was the one year run-up to the defining moment in modern (church) history when Martin Luther would nail his 95 theses to the front door of Castle Church and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s theses opposed the abusive practices of ‘preachers’ & ‘leaders’ who twisted the Bible, often to their own financial gain, via indulgences, rather than faithfully preaching the only doctrine at the centre of true biblical, Christian faith – the justification of grace by faith alone – Sola fide.
(If you’re looking for further reading on Martin Luther, I can recommend this book by Scott Hendrix as an accessible option).
Next year, when the 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of something so profoundly important for all of us, can you imagine the excitement and the celebration and the stories that’ll be told?
But what about the year 1516, five centuries ago today, when the scene was being set, the table was being laid, the house was being cleared (pick your own metaphor), for this Jesus-exalting rebellion on which history hinges? What was God doing in the nations that finally led to the Protestant Church denouncing the Catholic church via a band of brothers whose all-consuming passion in life was the word and glory of God?
So, it seems like an appropriate day to focus on the Bible in this blog series. How come? Because when I look at the likes of Luther and Calvin (regardless of whether I would call myself a Calvinist, or not) I see a passion and a reverence for the word of God that I only see in my dreams today. How does the passion and zeal and fashioned skill of the likes of John Calvin or Martin Luther relate to our 21st Century church context in which the Bible is often grossly mishandled with immature informality or, in other extremes, with total, heretical disregard?
I can remember listening to the ministry of the word of God as a teenager and weeping deeply because of the power and anointing of the gospel and the preached message. I don’t mean walking through the smoke machine haze into a church worship extravaganza and the hairs springing up on the back of my neck (though that’s awesome when it really is God), but just sat on my chair, listening, leaning in, and the power of the living Word kind of falling on me and beginning to swell like a balloon from the deepest space of my being. And when that happens you’re not always sure what’s going on but you do know that the speaker is anointed from heaven and that God is reverberating through them. In those moments you’d do anything for more of God, for full obedience, for a life laid down. When was this last your experience?
What’s Going On?
This kind of ‘moment’ when God is palpably in the room because His word is handled maturely and thoroughly by someone with authority and office, is all too rare.
I have worked for churches in the recent past when literally anyone in the church could be speaking and ‘ministering the word’ while the ‘leader’ sits back and enjoys his people-empowering ethos. The church would therefore be fed via ‘talks’ including maybe a few slides and, probably, a YouTube that didn’t work properly for 90 very awkward seconds.
I love seeing young people coming through and having a go, and church leaders that facilitate that with genuine joy and security; but when a church is characterised by an immaturity in the taught/preached word of God, there are going to be major problems for those in, and those not yet in, the global Church.
When We Have ‘Talks’
Firstly, in what other context, as a matter of course, would you have a relatively immature person being responsible for the health of an organisation? Would you have a junior Doctor leading the patient’s surgery? Would you have a graduate from Uni’ leading corporate strategy? What about the Plumber drawing up architectural drawings? Would Joshua have led Moses or Timothy, Paul? So, why do some churches surrender the central ministry of the word of God over to such a widely disparate bunch of people (yes, who are awesome but…) who have no calling to carry the responsibility of the ministry of the word? Why do we have Bible Colleges now where you can stop your career as a Lawyer or a Teacher or a Doctor and ‘graduate’ as a ‘Vicar’ regardless of whether or not you are called and gifted by God to lead people or minister the Bible?
It’s like a St. Ivel production line but less tasty.
Secondly, when a church only has ‘talks’ rather than systematic, even expository, taught content in their gatherings, the church in question becomes convinced that this is (stylistically) right and that anything else is legalistic, ‘too heavy’, surplus to requirements or not ‘seeker sensitive’ enough. I’m beginning to touch here again on the dynamic of the second post in this series (The Church), but when a church is only used to the diet of ‘talks’ (by that, I mean shallow, simplistic, unskilled ‘Jesus loves you’ messages), the style and bar is set for that church who are convinced that X Y & Z are unnecessary for church to be church. They know no better. This then shapes the general church culture in life groups, missional communities, call them what you will.
“Only a church deeply soaked in the gospel will live in harmony; only a church thoroughly taught the gospel will reach out with zeal”
Carbon Monoxide of Church Life
Let me suggest some of the symptoms of this way of handling the Bible:
- People young enough to be Millennials (but old enough to know better) who don’t want to listen to people older than them, convinced that ‘they know better’. (I recently listened to a conversation between a twenty something and a mature fifty something of the faith who was a leader of hundreds of people. The lad fundamentally didn’t want to listen to what the older man was saying, had no biblical basis for his disagreement with him and was almost literally tripping over himself to interrupt to speak rather than listen. This makes me want to scream! Young person, please, please don’t be like this).
- People who don’t know what their leadership thinks about key issues
- People who therefore don’t know what they think about key issues themselves, biblically
- People who haven’t got a clue where or how the Bible deals with key aspects of life
- People whose focused concentration only lasts for as long as the download speed is sweet
- People who don’t study or self-feed themselves
- People who have no experience of ever having had tears in the sermon
- People who don’t have an understanding of the Bible as a Canon
- People who don’t see Jesus in the Old Testament
In short – Biblical illiteracy…and it’s the carbon monoxide of church life.
Ultimately, the responsibility of this falls with Church Leaders (see James 3:1).
The culture of a church will either be by design or it will be by default…but there will be a culture. Why any church leader would not put the Bible thoroughly at the centre of this church culture is beyond me – I guess there will be a variety of reasons – but isn’t it gross negligence when social action, flip charts, social trends, trying to be cool or popular, feminism, millennialism, or any other kind of ‘ism, effectively take pre-eminence over the Bible? What kind of disciples are we making? How are we teaching if not on Sundays?
When you read the apostolic stalwarts in the Bible giving spontaneous sermons in their house church (or court room) with memorised scripture as their only reference and with an authority that still thunders today, or when you read Brother Yun’s testimony for example, or when you read Colossians 3:16 itself – does this look like the church you go to?
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Marriage will feature as the penultimate blog post of this series next week. The hope then is to offer a positive, prophetic outlook for the Church in the final post in two weeks time.