Category Archives: The Church

When Identity Clashes With Evidence

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”      (Hebrews 11:1)

Some time ago, I published a piece which made a case for leaving room in the Church for those who valued their tribal, language and/or national identity.  This call for space was, in part, an acknowledgement that these markers reflect our respective cultural comfort levels, and are valid from a Christian perspective to the extent they do not presume superiority of one to another.  Despite differences in tongue, historical culture, or church emphasis, there remains “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).  These identity markers must be subservient to Christ if identity is to be Christian.

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Last night (I am drafting this on a Monday afternoon) I was working my way through a book review I regularly read, and came across a statement in a review of a book which analyzes contemporary identity politics (I’ve paraphrased the comment to make it a little more readable): Identity attachment accepts arguments only from an authority closely tied to that particular identity, because evidence is always subordinate to identity.1

The author means, by “identity attachment” the way some folks assign a psychologically pleasing definition or set of characteristics to themselves and others in whatever particular group they are jointly members of.  The “evidence” the author references are the facts which may contradict the preferred definitions of a group.  An easy example might be a view that says: men don’t have a need to express their emotions.  Men who like  being perceived as stoically unemotional can easily buy-in to this view, despite ample evidence that the emotions of men run just as deeply as those of women, but are often expressed differently.  Different expression is not the same as no expression.  Sadly, gender self-bias may just scratch the surface of the ways “identity attachment” is manifest in the circles in which most of us travel.

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 Buy-in to unsupportable views of self is encouraged by persistent fellowship with those who think similarly.  The result is group-think identity that ignores the facts because the facts inconveniently undermine the preferred way we want to think of ourselves, particularly when someone we regard as an authority figure encourages us to do just that.  Another way to state the author’s point is that some people choose to ignore truth because they prefer the distortions promoted by another person, persons and/or institution.  This, according to the book’s author, is the basis for the kind of reactions in attitudes and behaviors that advance divisions among people.  There certainly appears to be sufficient support for this in the world’s socio-political environment, both in empirical evidence (i.e. sensed and observed) and by data-driven evidence.

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An important issue for me is the implication(s) for the effective functioning of the body of Christ if the identity attachments of its members are not rooted in and submissive to Christ.  Even now, I hear the voice of Paul in my head warning against divisions and factions in the Church (Romans 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 3:3; 11:18-19), calling it carnal and therefore not worthy of Jesus Christ.  This is not to denounce identity attachment as being fundamentally non-Christian; we need not deny our humanity nor how that humanity is expressed outwardly.  I clearly have my culturally-based preferences, and gravitate to and enjoy them often.  It is, however, a denunciation of identity attachments when they, knowingly, contradict and attempt to subvert the will of GOD.  That is called sin.

There is a little-discussed branch of theology called “Theopolitical” which views theological beliefs through the lens of social and political structures and considers political beliefs that may be implied in Christian teachings.2  A commonly used example of this is the use of Paul’s teaching on submitting to leaders in government because they are placed in authority by GOD (Romans 13:1).  This argument is used by many Christians as an endorsement of their preferred political leader(s) as having GOD’s favor.

What is often missed (or ignored) is that while Paul’s teaching stresses the inherent goodness in a believer’s submission, he offers no explicit statement about inherent goodness (or lack thereof) in the authority to whom submission is to be given.  The focus of Paul’s teaching is on the believer who is to demonstrate faith in Christ by submission; the focus is not on the person in authority.  This is why Jesus was able to say, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17).  Perhaps it is also why men and women like Nebuchadnezzar, Jezebel, the Herods, Herodias and her daughter, Pontius Pilate, Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the various despots and petty dictators currently in positions of political authority today were/are allowed by GOD to be in power.  The Christian response to these may be just one component of faith being tried over the long course of history (see Job 23:10).

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A danger of “theopolitical” thinking that encourages identity politics is that it can facilitate little difference between the attitudes (and sometimes behaviors) of those inside the Church from those outside the Church.  When this happens, those who are called to be the salty, peculiar people of GOD, actually better resemble those around them who are in need of saltiness and the peculiar influence of GOD’s holy presence.  This happens much easier when the goal of faith, and the way it is practiced daily, is about belonging to a group(s) whose socio-political worldview is under-girded by the local church, or in the least, not challenged by the local church.  The goal of Christian faith has always been union with GOD (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17), nothing else.

Settling for belonging to a community of faith with whom we identify without also wholly identifying with the holy Christ and being led by the Spirit of holiness is an immature and shallow faith that is easily dented and is less than the worthiness of His calling.  My first pastor called this “living beneath our privilege.”  Beyond that, it can lead to expressions of heresy.

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It is here that our other-than-in-Christ identity can, if we’re not careful, assume equal status with our proclaimed faith in GOD.  This is a violation of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd commandments…to start with.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is an excellent illustration (Luke 10:30-37).  Both the priest and the Levite saw the seriously injured man, but took no pity on him.  Jesus seems to stress their position and status in the Jewish community, that is, their identity, to make His point.  They were VIPs, and we can assume that they were very well aware of it.  They either ascribed to themselves a superior view compared to this man or so negative a view of him that made his need insufficient to warrant their valuable time and attention.  We can also suppose that this man was a Jew because he was traveling from Jerusalem.  If he was a Jew, his outer clothing may have identified him as such, making the decision by the priest and Levite doubly damning.  The evidence of the teachings of GOD were subordinate to their identity as important people.  It fell to the despised Samaritan to demonstrate the royal law of love.  We can consider this as Jesus’ take on identity politics.

 In ascribing to our other-than-in-Christ identity positive traits aimed at supporting our superiority, we also seek to define those outside of our identity.  Our sense of superiority allows us to assume we can define others, and we do.  We find ways to minimize them in our eyes, and we may even attempt to project those views outwardly.  We assign to them traits that, when revealed, can range from subtle discounting all the way to pernicious hatred.  We seek to legitimize our views and attitudes with arguments that, though sometimes well-crafted and seemingly astute, ultimately reflect human wisdom that is at odds with the logos of GOD.  And we all have done it, and we have all experienced it.  We all have been group stereotyped, sometimes in multiple ways.  I’m thinking of at least four ways in which I’ve been subjected.

I believe this is the spirit of anti-Christ at work in people who we would otherwise say are good people.  It is that spirit because it subordinates the explicit expression of GOD’s will with views that ignore the commands of Christ in favor of those which support our preferred way of seeing ourselves and others.  This amounts to ignoring the evidence for faith in Christ Jesus, His teachings, His commands, and the redeeming, sanctifying work He accomplished at Calvary.  Anything that does this cannot be considered Christian.

I understand why this other-than-in-Christ approach to identity has so much appeal.  It feels empowering to those who feel disaffected and disenfranchised (somewhat like the Zealots of Jesus’ day).  With that, we must ask the question, ‘What is the origin and source of this powerful feeling?’  If it is not of GOD (and hopefully I’ve made the case that it is not of GOD), then it is to be disregarded and discarded, for Christ’s sake.

Identity politics which pits, whether with great subtlety or brazenly, tongue against tongue, tribe against tribe, nation against nation has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Where it exists, may GOD root it out!  Where we may have been complicit, may the Holy Spirit convict us of it, lead us to godly repentance, and give us a hunger to be united in Christ.                                         

1. In a review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Reviewed by David Frum in the NY Times Book Review, July 7, 2019.

2. Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology. “Theopolitical Theology” by Nathan Kerr, p.536.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved for text content unless otherwise noted.

Appreciating What We Have

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

 “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1Timothy 4:4-5)

 

Since starting this blog a year ago, I took on a part-time ministerial assignment: partnering with several pastors and churches whose primary language is other than English.  I’ve been involved in this ministry for close to 10 months, and it’s been very rewarding to say the least.  As I have gotten to better know these pastors and their congregations, my appreciation of their preferred language and cultures has been edifying in unexpected ways.

One of those ways is the ability to fully enter into the worship of GOD even when I know very little of what is being sung or said.  I attribute this ability to the Holy Spirit who is never confused or limited, and is able to lead us across boundaries that are, otherwise, impenetrable because of our human frailty or, perhaps, because of a lack of will.  I count this as new learning for me.

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Reflecting on my attempts to cross cultures has drawn me to another conclusion: sometimes we are more appreciative of the “new” than we are of what has been present and available to us all along.  This, I think, is common to most of us.  We certainly see it in our young children, but the dynamic is not limited to them.  It’s as if the newness of something opens our eyes with joy and appreciation in ways that the equally valuable, but previously present “thing” failed to do.    Here, I refer specifically to women who are 50%+ of the world’s population, and, more often than not, the primary doers of work and sustainers of ministry in the local church (there’s much objective data, both historical and contemporary, to support this last point).  Women have been a major part of the Church, working and often leading, from the beginning, and have been under-appreciated, stymied, and stunted, for my two cents.

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Our “appreciation and celebration” of diversity in the Church need not take on over-sized proportions if we allow ourselves to be molded by the Spirit and the Word.  When we fail in this molding, we often try to make-up for it by making “big deals” out of what should be an accepted reality: unity in the Church.  If the Church of Jesus Christ reflected more of a Trinitarian model of inter-relationships between its members rather than a spiritually outmoded and divisive model more reflective of the hierarchical, patriarchal, and dominant culture dynamics common under the Old Covenant, valuing some members over others, the separations of groups so common in the world would not be so common in the Church, as it still is today.  This model, so inconsistent with the New Covenant, is the Church’s version of the doctrine of separate but equal.1  The dynamics of separation create inequality, a fact underscored by Galatians 3:28.

I’m grateful for the teachers, mentors, and colleagues in the faith (of all hues and genders), who have and continue to influence my faith.  Each has blessed me.  I want to highlight one, Rev. Shirley Goodman whose recently published book, Riding In Cars with Men2, was an eye-opener.  I’ve been privileged to call her friend and to work with her for many years, and I highly recommend you consider reading what she has to say.  Who knows how it may impact you.

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  1. The doctrine of separate but equal was codified as the law of the land by the Supreme Court in 1896 through Plessy vs. Ferguson. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, were not discriminatory, if they did not otherwise violate the constitution.  It was not overturned until 1954 when the Supreme Court heard and ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education.

  1. Riding In Cars with Men by Shirley Goodman (TheSheRev, LLC, © 2019) is available through Amazon in both paperback and electronic formats.

 

 © Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content unless otherwise noted.

Addendum: Is Compassion Justice?

I don’t ordinarily do this, but was moved to share this thought from noted theologian, Walter Brueggemann.  The language may be a little academic for some, but I think it’s well worth working through.  It is a reminder of how utterly different and unique the kingdom of GOD is when compared to the kingdoms of this world.

“Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion.  Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.  In the arrangement of ‘lawfulness’  in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.  Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms.  Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.”

Quoted from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers And Other Servants, The Upper Room, Nashville, TN, 1983.

Is Compassion Justice?

“When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:37)

 

Recently, I heard someone try to make a case that compassion is equivalent to justice.  I’ve been thinking about this ever since hearing this because justice (or a perceived lack of it) dominates many thoughts and conversations in the world.  Let’s take a minute to unpack this a little.

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The yellow-jacket protesters in France believe many of the economic and social policies of the French government are unjust. The Rohingya minority in Myanmar (formerly Burma) for years have made claims of brutal repression by the Myanmar government.  Both pro-Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers in England are convinced their positions are the most just for their nation.  Venezuela seems on the brink of civil war, with a significant number (if not majority) seeking to oust the controlling communist-leaning government, which is largely seen as an unjust oppressor of all but its supporters.  Worldwide, ride share drivers have protested what they believe are unfair “labor” practices by the companies with whom they contract (the drivers are technically not employees but independent contractors).  Mass public teacher strikes in the US seem to happen more frequently than ever because of pay, benefits and a general belief that they are grossly under-appreciated and supported.  A Saudi royal and “friend” of our government may have been complicit in the brutal assassination of a journalist, without the penalty of serious repercussion, all because the journalist was critical of Saudi policies and of this royal member in particular.  Refugees and asylum-seekers around the world are opting out of their home nations thinking they can get a better deal for themselves and their families elsewhere …and the elsewhere countries are, ambivalent, if not outright hostile to receiving them.  Abortion and sexual orientation issues along with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter nearly seem like last year’s news because of the prevalence of so many other things now being associated with social justice.  And the examples here are just a snapshot.

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How does compassion, for the people who have legitimate complaints, amount to justice? A working definition of justice that fits well with concepts in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is to make things right.  The phrase “do justice” is common to Scripture; it is a verb phrase, an action or series of actions.  As I’ve thought about the original question, I realized that the disconnect I was experiencing about compassion equating to justice was because I conflated compassion with a feeling rather than an action.  I wonder how many of us never view compassion as anything other than a feeling of pity, tenderness and/or concern.

The compassion Jesus experienced went to the core of His being, and the result was action that impacted individual lives in a way that made things right for them. More so, He set in motion a movement, the very purpose of which was to challenge that which was not right in the world and to make or influence those very things to be made right.  That movement is called His Church.

“Tomorrow is always another day to make things right” – Lauryn Hill 

I think the Church is still in the business of making things right and influencing the growth and power of justice in the world; however, we can’t have success if the only kind of compassion we experience is limited to feeling bad and wishing things were different…and we don’t know how many more tomorrows we have.  I can’t credit anyone with these words because the speaker is unknown, but it is worth repeating, “Sympathy sees and says, ‘I am sorry.’  Compassion feels and whispers, ‘I will help.’”*

Thank you to the many who help, whose compassion results in justice-seeking by combining their faith with actions that bless, uplift, love, challenge and are willing to say, “That’s not right! There’s a right way, a good way, a godly way.”  The world needs that from the Church.

* Found in Deep Fire, a book of quotes compiled by Harold Vaughan, Christ Life Publications, Vinton, VA, 2013.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

Still Up for a Surprise

“…You shall have a sacred assembly…” (Leviticus 23:7)

 

I have never been one who got excited about attending large meeting gatherings. I’m sure that’s directly related to my introverted temperament.  My feelings have always been the same, regardless of whether the events were connected to my previous secular employment or, in more recent years, the church.  But like so many things in life that don’t align with my personal preferences, I make whatever adjustments are needed to accommodate participation.  It comes with the territory.

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Later this week is our annual district assembly, a large gathering of pastors and lay delegates and district officials who, historically, come together for two days to review the past year, conduct business assigned exclusively to the collective group of delegates, and to cast vision for the future.  Interspersed throughout the two days are times for worship and proclamation of GOD’s Word.  The preaching is done by a leading elder in our denomination, who also presides over the whole shebang.  These assemblies take place across much of the world at different points on the calendar.

Many people love these occasions; it gives them a chance to hang-out with their delegation, eat multiple meals with friends at nearby restaurants, and catch-up with folks they haven’t seen for a time. It allows them to hear about other things happening on the district and to hear the heart of their own district leader.  Sometimes there is a sense of spectacle not normally found in a local church setting.  The whole thing is somewhat like theater except that those who attend are sometimes the actors and sometimes the audience.  In all honesty, none of this has ever caused me to want to attend…but I did (and do) because being a part came (and comes) with my ministerial role and responsibility.  And I need to say that I’m confident that I never attended with a scowl on my face like I know I did when my mother used to take me to the doctor many decades ago.

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So it’s somewhat of surprise that I’m looking forward to attending this year’s assembly later this week. The reason is that there will be a lot more emphasis on worshipping GOD and seeking GOD, together, and less emphasis on report sharing and other district business than in my memory.  It will look and feel more like a sacred assembly than a really big annual church meeting.  I’m looking forward to this and to being both an actor and a member of the audience.  Perhaps all of us, from the various corners of our geographically large district, different walks of life, diverse races, cultures and languages, and wide range of occupations and interests will hear from the One we all claim as Lord, celebrating Him, first of all, most of all.  May it be so.  May it be sacred.

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© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content.

 

A Church Reality

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” — Revelation 7:9-10, NIV

Note: While this post, like the others,  is consistent with the aims of my blog, some readers may find the content a little more weighty than usual.  Still, I hope you will read it thoughtfully, and hopefully discover something useful.   Blessings.

 

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I like the picture that John paints. It reminds me that there is room for everyone wherever GOD is the center of worship.  That room does not require uniformity, in fact, external differences are highlighted, but in all of this there is unity.

I think we sometimes fall prey to the idea that unity requires uniformity, despite the fact that  GOD created all of this diversity.  We see this in the Earth’s flora and fauna, and we see it in humanity.  Even in the courts of heaven, as John the Apostle notes, tribal and related differences will be evident among those who will come out of the “great tribulation.”  Their unity will be in their collective worship of the High and Holy One and in their service to Him, not in any external sameness or difference. Continue reading

All Are Welcome

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” – Exodus 25:8

 Given my theological orientation, the doctrine of sanctification carries special weight with me. I believe GOD calls us all to a salvation experience through Jesus Christ (addresses the consequences of our sins), and then, in simple terms, He calls us beyond to a Holy Spirit-empowered and guided life in Jesus Christ marked by willing, loving, complete, obedient submission to His Lordship. I could say more, much more, but this post is not for the purpose of systematic theology. It is about one particular aspect of the Church.

In addition to having been a pastor in a local church, I have visited quite a few over the years, occasionally to preach, but more often to simply enter into a house of worship, enter into the fellowship of worship with other believers, and to hear and be challenged by the proclamation of the Word of GOD. Unless those visits were in churches where I was known, I didn’t volunteer anything about being a pastor or even that I was a Christian. If someone asked, I’d tell them, but I’m not otherwise interested in promoting any bona fides; I just wanted to hang out in church.

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Essential to each of these experiences was whether I was actively and intentionally welcomed, whether I felt welcomed.  I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the church signs I’ve seen that said, “All Are Welcome.”  But the only way to really know is to go inside.  Most times when I have gone inside have been positive, but there have been a few times when that wasn’t the case.  Those particular buildings all had what many refer to as sanctuaries, but they weren’t sanctuary spaces for me.

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The words “sanctuary” and “sanctification” are more like siblings than first-cousins. They both concern that which has been set aside, exclusively, for holy use.  In the case of “sanctuary,” our normal usage refers to a holy or consecrated space for the purpose of worship or refuge.  A chorus I know, sings:

So forget about yourself and concentrate on Him,

And worship Him.

So forget about yourself and concentrate on Him,

And worship Him.

So forget about yourself and concentrate on Him,

And worship Him.

Worship Him, Christ the Lord.

 Can anyone forget about themselves when they don’t feel welcomed, when they don’t feel emotionally safe? That is what I and anyone/everyone should experience when we enter GOD’s sanctuary.  It should be a place where you and I have temporary refuge from the cares and weighty issues of life and experience peace because it is holy for that purpose.  Sure, I’m more likely to experience that when I enter into the sanctuary of my “home” church, but what about the person who has no church home?  What about the visitor (believer or unbeliever) who is searching for the presence of the Holy, whether they know it or not?  This is a legitimate spiritual need and calls local church leaders to a level of awareness and sensitivity beyond what works for them and the usual crowd associated with that particular church.

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I want to be careful to not neglect what I believe to be another way to view this issue. I generally don’t prefer the King James Version of Scripture, but, in the case of the verse above, the phrasing suggests that GOD, Himself, wants to be our sanctuary.  The context of the immediately preceding verses points to the construction of a physical sanctuary as the intended understanding, and I respect that.  However, when viewed through the lens of all of Scripture, I think the idea of GOD desiring to be a sanctuary for His people is a settled issue.

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As an extended point, I believe that those made in the image of GOD, redeemed and reborn through the blood of the Lamb, should increasingly have the characteristics of sanctuary themselves. They are people who offer others temporary respite and refuge from the weights we all carry because they spend significant time in the presence of GOD, and His holiness is present in them.  They are sanctuaries on two feet, and the world needs them desperately.  If you’ve been around such people, you know what I’m saying.

People gravitate to where they feel safe, comfortable and cared for, and that includes where and with whom they worship and/or choose to be in relationship with. The converse is also true.  Church signs often say “All Are Welcome? Are all welcome or is that welcome conditional?  Local church greeters and each of us, individually, communicate both conditional and unconditional welcome.  Our smiles, extended hands, open hearts and genuine interest attract; our blank faces, frowns, grudgingly offered or withheld hands, and cursory interest don’t attract.

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GOD never has a “No Vacancy” sign in His Kingdom; we shouldn’t either.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2018. All rights reserved to text content.