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Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings

Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA

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When left to their own devices, conflict and lingering problems can be extremely costly to the wellness, growth, and finances of a church congregation. It costs little or nothing to pursue concerns before they escalate. Ideally, there are capable representatives within the church body who can offer guidance, as well as some understood local practices for helping conflicted parties be in their best form and minimize the need for more expensive help.

Much of the foundation for conflict resolution in congregational life is grounded in the Old Testament’s dictate for the use of competent third party guides, the requirement for impartial investigations and the pursuit of justice, although Christ’s Sermon on the Mount significantly upgraded the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is being suggested that church leaders do as Moses did—set up wise, understanding, respected and impartial representatives to run point, on matters in their local tribe
(Dt. 1:9-18, 1 Cor. 5:5).

In the Old Testament, a problem handler might be a tribal leader, a priest, a king or other dedicated officials (Dt. 1:15, 21:5, 1 Kings 3:16-28, 2 Chr. 19:4-11). According to their mandate, the figure must not be a party to the concern itself, have skin in the game in terms of the outcome of a matter, or be perceived as being prejudiced towards one party. The primary goal of processes was to seek “justice and justice alone” (Dt. 16:20) with the general hope that parties would be satisfied with the outcome and/or the fairness of their hearing (Ex. 18:23).

The words concern and problem are used here in a broad sense to refer to the following: conflicts over sin/offense, unsatisfactory feelings with respect to an unmet need, an unresolved dispute/grievance, difficult relational dynamics, or a contest over competing values. It is important to identify which of these are present, and if there are more than one, so that the guiding intermediary can start from the best position.

It is important to establish two crucial practices. First, it is often the case that one party usually feels the problem more than the other. According to Jesus, the subject of a complaint, innocent or not, should be proactive in clearing up a matter (Matt. 5:22-23). Second, if the concern is a sin, then there must be witnesses to the perceived offense in order to utilize the simple path prescribed by both Moses and Jesus in Dt. 19:15-18 and Matt. 18:15-17. Witnesses to the offense are to be vetted because their testimony matters. If a matter has become one person’s word against another it is no longer a Matthew 18 issue—it is a relationship to be mediated or a grievance for arbitration.

The following recommendations for the third party problem-solvers and peacemakers are meant for more difficult situations, where actual witnesses don’t exist or are viewed as party to the conflict. A reasonable way to proceed is for the congregation’s leadership to deputize someone to be the third party facilitator, with the agreement of the disputing parties, and with the possibility of the third party facilitator continuing on as mediator or arbitrator. 

If you are a church leader or a church member needing to engage in a process of conflict resolution in your congregation, here are some first steps you can take:

1.Propose an Opening Process. The facilitator will assume responsibility for gathering the concerned parties and assimilating them into a mutually agreeable process for improving general clarity. This includes coming up with a safe location, ensuring everyone knows who will be in attendance and why (parties, witnesses, advocates, other resources). The facilitator should speak to the main parties in order to agree upon the topics to be discussed, then release an agenda of no more than three to five general topics. Parties should have options available to them to ensure that the sessions are agreeable. It should be communicated that the upcoming meeting is not intended to resolve the matter, which takes pressure off of everyone.

2. Gather Parties to Obtain Clarity. The facilitator should begin with warm words of hope and prayer, and then guide the first discussion to obtain helpful background history. He should then discuss the agreed upon topics and reframe them in the most useful and least offensive language. Future sessions can then make use of the increasingly clear picture, which usually comes into better focus as progress is made. The facilitator seeks to understand and record each party’s felt interests, makes a timeline and records personal observations. There is no pressure to solve the matter in this session. The goal is to obtain an integrated perspective of the issues and to inspire confidence in future resolution. 

3. Determine the Roadmap. The facilitator is now ready to make a few decisions. First, he must decide if the clarified matter requires mediated relationship, arbitration, a separate moderation process or a combination of these options. Second, the facilitator is ready to determine if he is competent to proceed, or needs to form an assisting team, or must turn this matter over to a more qualified third party. Third, the facilitator should now identify everyone who will take part in the process, obtain their consent to continue, and determine what their roles related to the matter are, as well as review everyone’s schedules and general availability.

4. Preparing the Parties. In many cases, even those not requiring mediation, the parties will be relationally strained. Even secondary parties are sometimes caught in the crossfire. It is recommended that difficult problems be accompanied by spiritual and emotional guidance. Two resources are Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a free PDF workbook that I wrote, entitled Preparing for Mediation.

5. Mediate Before You Moderate. Do not attempt to resolve an issue of doctrine, decision-making or preference of worship styles, etcetera, without first repairing a relationship which has been broken over those issues. It is more straightforward to solve a problem when two parties are thinking alongside each other. Two examples of moderation are in Acts 6:1-7 and Acts 15:1-35. Moderation uses representation and reasonableness to negotiate and address needs (such as food distribution) and values (such as obligations for Gentile believers). This subject is beyond the consideration of these pages; however, it is worth reemphasizing that moderation of problems is very difficult to accomplish when there are unresolved feelings between the parties.

6. Mediation and Arbitration. The difference between Christian mediation and arbitration is more evident near the end of their processes. Mediation aims to reconcile the relationship, and arbitration is about deciding an outcome; sometimes they occur concurrently. In both cases the third party focuses on creating the atmosphere for parties to give voice to their views — he draws out and listens, reframes, and nudges the parties. Private caucus is used to address topics deemed too risky for group discussion.

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:

  1. Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.

  2. Recognizing Each Party’s Interests—sometimes hidden drivers include unmet needs, respect/honor, hopes, fears, et cetera. A facilitator will draw these out when the parties are feeling safe, either privately or during a mediation.

  3. Obtaining Responsibility — throughout the process, it is important to seek appropriate expressions of lessons learned, owned responsibility, sympathy, appropriate defense, meaningful mea culpa and healing words—wherever appropriate.

  4. Explore Outcomes—forgiveness, various types of reconciliation, and negotiated steps for improved dynamics.

Closure—the parties create written statements, including lessons for a better future. Determine who needs to hear of the outcome. Prayer. Planned follow up.


Stephen F. Staten is the Founder and an Organizational Health Consultant at Bridging International.

PHOTO CREDIT:

Reconciliation, Coventry Old Cathedral. In 1995, fifty years after the end of The Second World War, this sculpture by Josephina da Vasconcellos was given by Richard Branson as a token of reconciliation. An identical statue has been placed in the Peace Garden at Hiroshima on behalf of the people of Coventry. Both statues remind us that, in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.







The Power of Story to Divide or Unite Us

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

Conversations That Can Unite or Divide

Stories are incredibly important. Every person and group has a story. Stories help to shape and craft our identities even when we don’t realize it. The grand stories that shape our self-understanding and the way we view and interact with the world are often called meta-narratives. When it comes to groups and societies, these meta-narratives are passed down from generation to generation. The impact of embracing these meta-narratives can be felt by future generations even if they have lost all or part of the meta-narrative itself.

The Grand Story and Identity of God’s People

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One example of an identity forming meta-narrative comes from the biblical text. Each generation of Israelite children heard and read the incredible story of the Passover. They thrilled as their parents and grandparents recounted the events that led their ancestors to the revelation that they were God’s special people. They marveled at all that God had done as he led them out from under the enslaving hand of Pharaoh.  And this set their self-identity in stone. They were God’s people and would never again be slaves to anyone, regardless of circumstances that might seem to temporarily point to a different conclusion.

In John 8:32 Jesus challenges the identity created by the Passover meta-narrative. He implies that the children of Abraham need to be set free which elicits a series of protests and emotional responses. That response was, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” (John 8:33). Any other group of people would likely not have taken such offense at the implication of being enslaved, especially when Jesus explains that he is speaking of the universal slavery to sin (John 8:34). But meta-narratives and their ensuing identities are powerful. These identities become deeply held and we cherish them without typically fully realizing how important they are. The Passover meta-narrative had cemented in the nation of Israel’s mind that they were God’s children. No matter what tough temporary circumstances they might face, like the occupation of their homeland by the Roman Empire, they were still God’s family and would never be slaves. Jesus challenged both of those dearly held foundational identifiers.  The pushback and vitriol were palpable. 

Conflict is Unavoidable

Whenever two people are involved relationally to any significant degree, conflict is virtually inevitable. In this context, conflict is simply the incompatibility between two or more perspectives. Conflict itself is not necessarily sinful. You can have conflict without overt sin. Conflict will happen. The difference is in how we handle that conflict. The danger, of course, is that most human conflict does lead to sin.

In fact, it will happen often in a family of churches like ours.  The more diverse a group is socially, historically, and culturally, the more opportunities there will be for conflict. We will have different perspectives, experiences, cultural expectations, history, preferences, and so on. This will be a constant challenge to our unity, especially when difficult subjects such as race and culture are being discussed.

Yes, conflict will happen. But when that conflict involves pushing up against one or more meta-narratives, that conflict can get passionate, and negatively so, rather quickly. That’s when conversations and even relationships can start to break down.

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Healthy Families Talk

By way of example, let’s say that a Bible talk group sits down to discuss an incident that has been in the news involving a white police officer and a young man of color, resulting in the tragic death of the young man. As the group begins their conversation, conflict quickly erupts. Some in the group identify with the police officers and are prone to trust them and take their side without much in the way of questions. Others may or may not realize it, but somewhere deep down, they don’t trust police forces inherently. Even though we have a room full of disciples of Jesus Christ, tensions rise and before you know it there is a heated debate. Within twenty minutes, factions have formed, divisions have arisen, and hard feelings have developed.  What’s even more pronounced and problematic is that these divisions are often (though not always) along racial or ethnic lines.

In situations like this, what often happens is that an awkward fear develops in one or both groups and they determine that the best solution is simply never to talk about these matters again within the body. This is deeply problematic. Healthy families talk. In fact, healthy families can talk about virtually anything. The degree to which there are off-limits or taboo subjects is the degree to which a dysfunction is bound to develop in that family. 

Going Below the Surface

Here’s the real problem. In many situations, the different meta-narratives that we have lead to sharp disagreements. But we tend to not recognize that it is these underlying identity-forming stories that have led to our very different perspectives and resulted in severe conflict. Because of that, we stay at the level of the surface conflict and never get to the roots of it.

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Let’s go back to the Bible talk group and see how this plays out. Some probably grew up in a middle class, predominantly white environment like mine where the police force was always presented as a positive thing. Every year we would have “Officer Friendly” come to our school and spend time connecting with the students. We looked forward to seeing police officers in town because they would hand out baseball cards to the kids. We were always told that they were the good guys; they would save us and help us if we ever needed it. This is why so many defend and support police officers before they may even know the specifics of a case. They just trust them naturally. That was my meta-narrative and many of you may identify with that. It formed a specific aspect of my worldview and identity in relation to those that are given the responsibility “to protect and serve.”

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My wife is African-American and grew up with a very different community meta-narrative. The roots of many police forces, especially in the deep South where her family migrated North from, were as slave patrols. After slavery, those forces morphed into police forces, but they often had the objective of keeping black community members “in their place.” The lines of justice were frequently blurred and they often intimidated, brutalized, and terrorized the black communities. So, the meta-narrative formed that policemen were not a group that could be automatically trusted. They were to be rightly feared and meta-narratives like this are powerful and do not easily go away. They are passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Even if a group is removed from the original context, the story and worldview often remain in place. And events that might seem like unfortunate, isolated incidents to those from one meta-narrative, serve as powerful reinforcements of the negative image for those from a different meta-narrative.

It can be incredibly destructive if we are unable to get down to that level of understanding one another in our church life. When we stay at the surface level of conflict, we simply argue. We waste our breath trying to convince one another but will very rarely be able to succeed. It is like two people staring at a white wall, one with rose-colored glasses on and the other with blue glasses on, who insist on arguing about what the color of the wall is. They will never get anywhere if they focus on the wall and fail to recognize that they have on different-colored glasses. 

That’s how it is with these meta-narratives. We must go beyond the conflicts and seek to understand each other. Ask deep questions. Try to comprehend not just what a person believes or what they perceive, but why. They may not even fully grasp their own meta-narrative at first. There are many members in my wife’s family that were raised with an inherent mistrust of authority figures like the police but have little idea of why or where that fear comes from. 

This is not taking sides on an issue or any specific incident involving police. If you’re focused on that, you’ve missed the point of this article. That was simply a relevant illustration to help us understand the powerful forces at work that can weave conflict into our relationships. The next time you find yourself in conflict with a brother or sister over a serious matter of this nature, don’t stay at the surface level of the conflict. Go deeper. Ask questions. Hear one another. Find out what some of their identity forming meta-narratives are (and we all have many).  We may not ever fully agree on everything, but we can at least start to understand the different perspectives that others may hold, and we may learn a lot more about ourselves.  When we understand one another’s meta-narratives, their perspectives start to make a lot more sense and we often feel empathy and a desire to reconcile rather than pull away or continue the conflict.

Practical Steps Forward

Here are some practical steps to help us begin to discover and navigate the waters of the meta-narratives of others.  First, I have a big warning though. Don’t attempt to do this with others until you have examined your own meta-narratives and presumptions. Only then can you have a reasonable chance of understanding and empathizing with others.

1.    When a conflict occurs, don’t focus on the “what,” become curious about the “why”.

2.    Ask as many questions as you can to respectfully pull out someone’s background and story, where they might be coming from and why they see the world the way they do. Some sample questions from the above example involving responses to the police might be:

a.    Do you think you tend to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to police or official government versions? Why do you think that is?

b.    Do you think you tend to automatically mistrust police and people in authority? Why do you think that is?

c.     What has been the past experience of yours or previous generations in your family with police officers in the past? 

d.    Do you think you have had any pre-conceived notions or beliefs about those in power or the underdogs in society that might influence your thinking?

3.    Everyone’s worldview makes sense to them given their meta-narratives, so seek to understand as much as you can about a person’s views from the perspective of their meta-narratives rather than your own.

4.    Listen to other’s story without comment, objection, or rebuttal. You are trying to learn and understand not teach and educate at this moment.

5.    Try to avoid the “whats” in a conflict until you have a really solid grasp of the other person’s “whys.”

6.    Together you can examine, not the meta-narratives themselves, but the identities and presumptions that have resulted from them. Are they in sync with a kingdom worldview, a godly perspective of others and a biblical response?

7.    Together, do either of you see that perhaps some of your identities formed by your meta-narratives need to change in light of the gospel?  How do you go about that?

8.    You may have to agree to disagree at times, but at least you now hopefully can better understand the perspective of your brother or sister and respect and understand their views rather than thinking that they are just “out of their mind”.

Deep Waters

Proverbs 20:5 says that “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Our meta-narratives are certainly deep waters and when we take the time to learn our own and draw out those of others, we move one step closer to the kind of unity in Christ that God desires for his people.  A willingness to examine your own meta-narratives and identities and those of others, won’t solve every problem but it is a very healthy step in the right direction.

 

A Brief Review of STEP : Scripture Tools for Every Person

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Joey Harris  --  Augusta, Georgia, USA

The STEP Bible (STEP stands for “Scripture Tools for Every Person”) is a free digital Bible software project run by the Bible and religious book publisher, Tyndale House.  The underlying software powering the project is based on the popular open source SWORD Project, managed by The Crosswire Bible Society.  Many volunteers, publishers, Bible societies and others contribute to the STEP Bible by volunteering time and by donating translations, tools, commentaries, interlinears, dictionaries and other resources to the project. 

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There is a vast array of easy-to-access tools for scholars as well as the average Bible reader like you or me.  There are dozens of English translations and commentaries, in addition to dozens of ancient language versions (great for the scholars among us).  You can easily research multiple translations in modern languages (including both the NIV and ESV as well as many others), mouse hover Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic original words behind the translations, definitions, cross references, commentaries, original language grammatical help, interlinears, and concordances in original languages as well as modern languages.  I was very impressed with how easy it was to use and with the extremely organized and well-designed user screens.  There is generous use of popups so that you remain on the screen you’re already working on as much as possible.  You can easily look up every instance of a Greek or Hebrew word in both directions (e.g., every time the word “love” is used and the different Greek and Hebrew words translated as “love” in your English translation OR every time the Greek word “agape” is used in English (even when it’s not translated into English as “love”).

All of this is available not only online (and works fairly well on a smartphone and very well on tablet browsers), but there are also free, downloadable apps available for Microsoft Windows™ and Apple Macintosh™ desktop computers.  Finally, you can download the entire project onto a thumb drive and distribute it for free to people without an Internet connection.

I highly recommend the STEP Bible for all users, from those just beginning to study the Bible to veteran students and scholars of the Bible.

 

An Introduction to "Crossing the Line" by Michael Burns

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

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In 2007, my wife and I moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, with our twelve- and four-year-old sons to lead the Fox Valley Church of Christ. Despite the idyllic scenery, small town charm, and loving church family, it was not all roses; especially not for our older son. I am what society has labelled “white” and my wife is what society calls “black.”  One day our older son was confronted by another student who informed him, in “joke” form,  that the difference between a bench and a black man is that a bench can support a family. 

Not long after that, he went to sit by a friend at lunch in the cafeteria and was told by another boy that he had entered the “whites only” part of the lunchroom and needed to take his “nigger” self somewhere else. He was in a school of nearly 1,500 with fewer than ten black students and didn’t have many positive options available to him and talking to the school officials yielded little to nothing. 

In the end, nothing much happened, and our older son struggled in that environment until 2012 when we finally moved to the Twin Cities and I began to serve as the Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ. 

What he, and to a lesser but still significant extent, my wife and younger son experienced in the community at large, was a sharp contrast to our experience in our family of churches, the International Churches of Christ. In fact, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was the first thing that drew us into the Milwaukee Church of Christ where we were converted.

We have continued to love the ethnic and cultural diversity in our family of churches but along the way, we learned that this beautiful diversity has its challenges. The more varied and diverse a people are, the more difficult it will be to create and maintain unity. That’s a fact. And while we heard of and experienced little dustups or complaints over the years, for the most part what we saw and felt was this amazing and manifold kingdom of God that consisted of people of every tribe, language, and nation, so to speak.  

But division is Satan’s specialty; and, like anything, cracks in our unity and diversity have started to appear over time. Not on the surface, of course. You can come any Sunday morning and see the same amazing mix of cultures. But in the day-to-day life of the community, tensions seemed to be rising. 

As my wife and I have travelled across our fellowships we have learned that most disciples love their church and they love the kingdom of God. They love the ideal of being God’s one family of all nations, and they love their brothers and sisters.

But we also found that many of our brothers and sisters of color were grieved, and a part inside of them was in mourning; not all, but a definite majority. What I heard primarily was fear. Fear that the prejudices and inequities of the world had crept into our beloved church. They were bothered by the pattern of silence in the face of incidents of racial injustice that were playing out in the media. They were concerned at the perception of a mounting lack of representation of people of color in all levels of church leadership.

As I continued to listen, I heard a growing pattern of dissatisfaction in many churches about the cultural environment. People of color, particularly African American brothers and sisters, often felt that there was a dominant white culture in the church and that their voice and culture were either allowed only token input or not heard at all (although there are a few cases where the opposite is true).  Many have expressed the feeling that they tend to feel welcome in the church as long as they “act white” and embraced expressions of white culture.  And many have confirmed that even in our beloved fellowship they have experienced cases of prejudice or bigotry. Not to the level or degree of the world, but still, it is there.

I don’t think that we can ever end ethnic and cultural divisions, and institutions like racism in the world, nor is it prudent to even try. What we can do, however, is to address these issues openly and honestly in the family of God and to stand out like a bright light in a world of division and sectarianism. 

Why talk about this? Imagine what would happen if my wife came to me today and requested that we have a heart-to-heart talk about some issues that she would like to address in our marriage.  Rather than listening to her, though, I tell her, “No, we’re not going to talk about this.” She looks a bit taken aback, but before she can respond, I continue. “We have a great marriage; things are good. Why are you trying to mess that up?”

“Think of this biblically,” I go on. “The Bible makes it clear that we were once two separate people but when we came together in marriage, we became one flesh. That’s all there is to it,” I proudly state. “Why dredge up things from the past?”

She listens to me and then calmly says, “I want to talk about something from this morning.”

“Ahh,” I quickly blurt, “that’s the past!”

“Right now we are unified,” I continue, “because we are one. It’s great to be one. I love that we are one. That’s biblical truth. Nope, no argument there. No conversations needed. I think we’re good and we should just move along and enjoy our goodness.”

It probably will not take you a long time to figure out that if this was my actual response, the rest of the week is probably not going to be a pleasant one for me.  You don’t get married, become one, and now the work is over and all that’s left is to preserve the perfect unity and oneness that you have achieved.

In the same way, imagine if a black brother or sister wanted to talk to me about what they have experienced in their multi-ethnic church, why they feel culturally marginalized at times, or the hurt they feel from what is happening in our country. What if I responded in that conversation the way I described speaking to my wife? What if I said, “Brother, why are you trying to cause division? There is just one race, the human race. The Bible is very clear on that. The only answer to racism is not to complain or see it as a boogey- man behind every bush. We are all one in Christ, so you need to repent of this divisiveness. God has already joined us together and there is no black or white.”

And imagine that, when my friend asks if it’s a conversation that we could have as a church and maybe even do some teaching on it, I respond by telling him that such conversations are pointless because they’re just going to dig up conflicting feelings and perspectives and divide our fellowship.

Yes, we are one in Christ. There is no question that there is great truth behind this and similar ideas, but if we leave it there, such beloved truths of God’s kingdom can quickly become empty platitudes.

The truth contained in those statements is that we are all one in Christ. That’s an undeniable biblical reality for those that have been immersed into his life. There is only the one, human race, say the Scriptures. But as in a marriage, this is the starting point. When God’s people seek to obey the Scriptures by being comprised of all nations and people groups, a difficult process has begun. What comes next is a lot of hard work. These little slogans that we toss out, like “There is just one race, the human race,” and “We should all be colorblind” often serve as conversation enders, not starters. If I responded to my wife with the idea that she shouldn’t bring up issues or try to work on our marriage because we are one, that would be flippant. It would twist a truth into an agent of stagnation. The same is true if we toss out platitudes when it comes to the topics of racism, race, and culture.

Here’s the rub: statements like “We are one” are true, but they only remain true if a lot of effort, honest conversation, and difficult changes are constant. The minute that that environment fades away is the moment that those statements cease to be true. Bringing up concerns and wanting to talk about them in an open and real way is not disruptive; it is the foundation for true unity and continued growth.

The fact is that being a family of all nations is central to the Gospel (Matthew 28:28-20; Galatians 3:7-9), so the idea that we won’t constantly need to address issues of racial unity and cultural inclusion is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. 

There is no question that issues of racism, race, and culture have once again taken center stage in our society. These are issues that bring out deep passion and potential conflict in the world; and because disciples live in this world, they affect us, our mission, and our unity.

If we’re not careful and don’t address these topics biblically and with great love, patience, and grace, they could wind up ripping Christians apart. Every potential problem like this, though, can be a pitfall or a platform. It can be our undoing or an amazing opportunity to put the power and wisdom of the true gospel on display. It is encouraging that these conversations are now taking place in some locations. I am under no illusion that this book is the beginning of something. It is a continuation and it is a call for learning, understanding, and, most of all, open and honest discussion.


Michael Burns is a Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul church of Christ. He is a graduate of Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University (MA). He taught high school history in the central city of Milwaukee for nearly ten years. He is a national and international biblical teacher at churches and workshops. He is the founder and director of the Ministry Development and Training Academies centered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and serves as an instructor in Ministry Training Academies in Africa. He is the author of the twelve-volume C.O.R.E. Curriculum books.  He married his wife, MyCresha, in 1997. They have two sons and reside in Roseville, Minnesota. 

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The Teaching and Practice of Submission in the Life and Ministry of Jesus

by Cynthia P. Fetherman -- Denver, Colorado, USA

Introduction

"Yet you, Lord, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand."—Isaiah 64:8

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Perhaps no analogy best exemplifies the spirit of submission as the molding of clay under the hands of the potter.   In this paper, the teaching and practice of submission in the life and ministry of Jesus will be discussed.  Submission will encompass several other names:  obedience, subordination, allegiance, reverence, trust and self-denial.  Submission is at the heart of discipleship.  It acknowledges the lordship of Jesus over every aspect of life.  The concept of submission involves relinquishing one’s individual rights in favor of another.  It is only through complete submission that a follower of Jesus is able to open one’s heart so the Holy Spirit may be received and dwell in it.  Partial submission is not an option for one who calls Jesus Lord.

Submission, self-denial, obedience and any other name by which this spiritual discipline is called requires progression.  Spiritual formation will be viewed through transformation—from hard clay to a vessel fit for use under the guidance of God, the potter.  As clay goes through several steps, so does the individual who yearns for the inner transformation promised by the prophet Ezekiel:

"I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.  Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  They will be my people, and I will be their God." – Ezekiel 11:19-20

Upon reading this paper, I hope the reader walks away knowing that total submission is indispensable to the Christian walk.  The gift to be transformed from within is from God, as He gives the believer a new heart.  But the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission puts the believer on the path of making it possible to receive that gift.  Submission is not something obtained when someone becomes a Christian or a disciple of Jesus but a lifelong practice that paves the way for the transformation of the individual who is being changed from within-- from mere dust to a useful vessel under the hands of the Creator.  

The Teaching and Practice of Submission

"If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it." – Mark 8:34-35 (HCSB)

As a spiritual discipline, Thomas à Kempis (1955) defines submission as follows:  “…but if we desire that God be among us, we must sometimes set aside our own will (though it seem good) so that we may have love and peace with others” (p.40).

Submission is servanthood.  Submission is self-denial.  It is obedience and disregard of one’s own will in favor of another with the goal of establishing peace.  It is the pledge of allegiance to someone else.  It is the essence of discipleship to Jesus Christ.  

The word submission only occurs six times in the scriptures, yet underneath the entire story of the Bible lies the concept of submission.  The closest Hebrew root for reference is יָד yâd, (yawd), meaning “to give the hand, to pledge the fidelity of the giver.”  In the New Testament, the Greek root word of εὐλάβεια eulábeia, (yoo-lab'-i-ah), means, “reverence toward God, godly fear, piety.”  It is also used in the context of ὑποτάσσω hypotássō, (hoop-ot-as'-so), “to subordinate… be under obedience.”  Á Kempis (1955) notes:

"An old habit is not easily broken, and no man will readily be moved from his own will; but if you cling more to your own will or to your own reason than to the humble obedience of Jesus Christ, it will be long before you are a man illumined by grace" (p. 48).

Further, À Kempis (1955) speaks of Jesus’ example of obedience as:  

"I made Myself the humblest and lowest of all men, so that you would learn to overcome your pride through My humility.  Learn, therefore, you who are but ashes, to be humble for my sake; learn to break your own will and to be subject to all from the heart” (p.124).

I grew up playing with clay pots.  Not every girl in my neighborhood wanted a set.  But I did.  I remember my mother coming home one day with a clear, plastic bag in her hand filled with used newspaper.  I unwrapped them gently from the paper protecting them.  They were brown, clay pots, shiny from the glaze and painted with flowers.  They came with lids and a stove.  They were beautiful, a little girl’s treasured possession, and I showed them to anyone who would pay attention.  They eventually broke.  I outgrew them as I entered adolescence but the memories of playing with them are remembered fondly.  As I became a follower of Jesus later in life, my fascination of pottery was reignited as I read the scriptures.  Obedience to God is the ultimate act of submission.  As clay in the potter’s hands, we are to submit ourselves to the potter’s molding:

"Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" – Romans 9:21

Old Testament

From creation, God has laid before man the choice of submission—obedience or disobedience.  From the story of Adam and Eve to the nascent nation of Israel, submission has been presented as a choice between life and death.

"See, I Set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands… and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess." –Deuteronomy 30:13 (NIV)

From patriarchs to judges, kings to prophets, we see people called by God to submission.

Genesis 12:1-4—Abraham’s ready obedience testifies to his submissive spirit to God’s plans for him and his family

Judges 7:15—Gideon displays self-denial as he sets aside his fear and trusts in God’s deliverance

2 Samuel 7:18—David sets aside his plans and expresses gratitude for God’s guidance at a time in his life when he may be most tempted to assert his power as king over Israel and with the people favorably disposed towards his leadership

Isaiah 6:5-8—Isaiah surrenders to God’s plan for him despite his acknowledgement of his personal shortcomings

Jeremiah 1:4-10—Jeremiah submits to God’s appointment despite difficulty of his external circumstances

New Testament

In the New Testament, submission is practiced and taught by Jesus.  We see the radical call to submit to Jesus’ discipleship in John 12:24-26:

"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me."

"Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."—Mark 9:35

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything cannot be my disciple".-Luke 14:33

"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."—Luke 9:23

More than teaching about submission, subordination, allegiance and self-denial, Jesus lived it to the point of sacrificing His own life:

“'Abba, Father,'” he said, 'everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.'”—Mark 14:36

"… Christ Jesus, 'who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!'” -Philippians 2:5-11

Submission is at the heart of discipleship to Jesus.  Beyond teaching about obedience, Jesus’ lifestyle was one of submission and obedience.

F.F. Bruce (1979) notes, 

"The person who enlisted in His cause, He taught, would need to deny himself (34), i.e. abandon the attitude of self-centeredness, and take up his cross, i.e. be prepared to face martyrdom, ….  He would have thus to be willing to lose his mortal life; and all this, for Christ’s sake and for the gospel (35), i.e. for the sake of spreading abroad the good news of the kingdom of God; for only in this way would he attain the true life, that of the age to come" (p. 1167).

"During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  And he learned obedience.  Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…."—Hebrews 5:7-8

We see the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission in:

John 1:30-John the Baptist makes way for Jesus and acknowledges Him as the Messiah spoken of by the prophets and awaited for by Israel.  Rather than keeping his band of followers, John the Baptist points them in Jesus’ direction.

John 3:30—John the Baptist tells his followers, “He must become greater.  I must become less.”

Mark 14:36-Jesus surrenders to God’s plan for His death and crucifixion.

Luke 23:46-Jesus surrenders His spirit to God on the cross.

Submission in the Gospels

It seems odd to pick the parable of the prodigal son to talk about submission, but the story has elements that highlight a lack of it—self-centeredness, a lack of regard for others, irreverence towards authority and allegiance to one’s interests alone.  Yet in the end, the story highlights the transformation which God is able to perform on the heart of one who takes the path of submission.

Jewish culture considered, "honoring your father and mother," a command of utmost importance.  The beginning of the parable sees this command violated as the younger son asks for his portion of the inheritance.  Moreover, Jesus’ audience was shaken from its cultural view of the younger son being the rightful heir (think: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, David and Joseph over their older brothers).  By highlighting the profligate ways of the younger son, Jesus’ audience is being asked to change their way of thinking.

As the younger son wastes away his inheritance, he reaches a point where his choice lands between starvation and going back to his father’s home, albeit in a different capacity.  His internal dialogue in vv. 17-19 shows that, while his previous actions may have been to cut off his family ties (vv. 12-13), in his time of need, he recognizes that he is still his father’s son (emphasizing the father-son relationship in vv. 17-19).  On his return journey, the son takes the path that would bring him home to his father.  The younger son recognizes the condition by which he must present himself before his father—unworthy, capable only of being a hired servant, a sinner who has dishonored and severed his allegiance to his family.  On this same path, the father meets the son and restores his position, regardless of how unworthy the son may be.  

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This story teaches us about the path—how the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission paves the way for God to meet us where we are transformed, not by anything we do but by how the Father treats us.  “It’s not the disciplines themselves but God at work through them that enables us to love him and love our neighbor more and more” (Johnson, 2017, p.79).

In the practice of spiritual disciplines today, we ought to develop an awareness of our own unworthiness as we make our way back to God.  We are sinners, servants who can only do our jobs.  Yet in practicing submission and obedience, God meets us along the way and transforms us—from how we view ourselves to how He views us—as children who belong in His family, worthy of the fattened calf, of restoration to His family, regardless of how we may have mistreated Him in the past.  In God’s story, the reconciliation facilitates the transformation.  It is a story of the prodigal father more than that of the prodigal son.  It expresses the lavish, extravagant scale by which God loves us—unconditionally—the gift we receive for the price of our submission.

It is the same call throughout the scriptures—travel the path of submission.  In this calling, one is asked to relinquish his own self-interest and submit to God to find life everlasting.  As God called Israel to submission in Deuteronomy 30, so Jesus calls all nations to discipleship in Mark 8:34-35:

"Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the Lord is your life…."—Deuteronomy 30:19-20

"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." – Mark 8:35

Conclusion and Application

The practice of spiritual disciplines is merely a path.  On the journey to be reconciled to God, the practice of submission puts us on that path.  Submission is the physical manifestation of denying oneself, not giving in to our pride, not promoting self-reliance, but rather allowing submission to nurture hearts that would be open to being transformed into hearts of humility.  Submission allows us to take the journey back to God, to acknowledge our decisions’ shortcomings when we choose to live away from God’s family, and, recognizing our inherent need for God, to belong to His family; and that a life outside the family of God leads to spiritual starvation and death.

Calhoun (2005) lists the desired outcomes of the spiritual discipline of submission as follows: 

  1.  being free from the need to be in charge, 
  2.  teachability, 
  3.  esteeming and honoring others more than yourself, 
  4.  being free from a rebellious and autonomous spirit, 
  5.  surrendering and losing your life to find it, 
  6.  developing approachability, gentleness, humility, and 
  7.  expressing a deep regard for others and what they might have to offer (p. 118).

In the discipline of submission lies a heart of trust, obedience, self-denial, allegiance, subordination and reverence for the One who desires to reconcile all to His family.

The parable highlights the heart that God has displayed to His chosen people from the beginning—His prodigal love for Israel as He brings them out of Egypt, His prodigal promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, His prodigal love to all nations as He sends His only Son, making reconciliation possible.  It teaches that God will meet us halfway, if not more, when we submit and take the path back to be reconciled to Him.  

In the story of the prodigal son, I find myself as the younger son, concerned about myself and how I’m going to survive, how I’m going to live, and going back to my father so he can provide for me.  Like the younger son, even when I have tried to walk the path back to God, it is because I recognize that I need Him for how he can provide for my wellbeing.  What I fail to see is the extravagance of the father’s love as I have continued to love myself and looked to God to take care of me.

In St. John of the Cross’ spiritual direction, it is the internal purity of the soul—the destruction of all self-love for the love of God above all—rather than the externals of life’s action that are of paramount importance.

"For God, although he resides in the soul as a hidden God, cannot fully occupy the soul with the lustrous radiance of His love when there remains in it anything of a selfish self-love; a self-love or attachment to anything even to the slightest degree, which excludes love for Him and for His greater glory" (Kozlowski, 1998, pp. 336-337)

As I strive to get rid of all self-love in my heart and submit all of my self, relinquish all my desires and align my will to that of God’s for my life, I am reminded of similar vows I made to my husband when we got married—that all my thoughts, love and desires have been pledged to him in this life.  Comparing this allegiance to my marriage, my acknowledgement of Jesus’ lordship in my life demands that all my desires, all my love be submitted to Jesus as well.  The parable of the prodigal son reminds me of my shortcomings in my understanding of the greatest commandment:  to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul and strength.

    Like the younger son, I have walked this path.  I had pledged my allegiance to God and made Jesus Lord of my life.  At some point in my discipleship, I decided to walk away from the Father.  Living an immoral life where I took control of my choices rather than choosing to be obedient to God and continuing to be a part of His family, I made my way back to the world with the illusion of having the freedom to make my own choices.  Along the way, I broke relationships, dishonored my pledge, severed my ties with God’s family.  It was months later when I finally broke down and realized how empty my pursuit has been.  I found myself with nowhere to turn except back to God.  The heart of the younger son in vv. 17-19 resonated with me.  I resolved to go back with the heart that I had nothing to offer God but my sinful life and my broken heart.  I would ask him to take me back and face whatever consequences came my way.  It has been over 20 years since He took me back.  I have been welcomed with the fattened calf, I have partaken of the great banquet and been restored to the family of God.  Truly God is gracious:  he took my sinful life and made it beautiful.  He took my broken heart and made it whole.  The privileges I enjoy now, being married to a son of God, having a family of my own, the gift of purity in our relationship, are expressions of the extravagance of God’s love for me.  I had nothing to do with it.  I only made the decision to take the path back to God—with a heart that was willing to submit and obey.

"…whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."—Matthew 5:19

Submission has not been an easy path for me.  A single mother in a matriarchal family raised me.  When I became a disciple of Jesus, my lack of submission showed in the way I treated authority, especially male authority.  This weakness showed in my relationships.  I justified my lack of submission with scriptures like Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” or with other religious-sounding arguments or twisting of the Scriptures’ meanings.  Over the years, I have studied, sought advice and practiced what I thought were ways that helped me develop a more submissive spirit.  The study of spiritual disciplines has shown me that I have quite a way to go on this path.  As I have grown older, I have come to rely on outward practices rather than dealing with my heart.  I have been content with outward expressions of submission rather than true reverent piety towards God.  As I reflect on my life, I look back on the innumerable times God has continued to open His arms and welcome me back when I have strayed from submission.

"Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life." – Proverbs 4:23 (CSB)

I have a very humanistic approach to my relationship with God.  I tend to deal with external behaviors and evaluate my faith accordingly.  As such, I tend to work from the outside and then make my way inside.  It is self-reliant.  I have found that spiritual formation is not an easy journey.  But perhaps the easy yoke Christ speaks of in Matthew 11:28-30 is a place for me to start.  I need to look at the spiritual disciplines as the true means to taking up the ‘easy yoke.’  This can start with the practical steps recommended by Calhoun (2005):

  •  seeking God’s will (no matter where it leads) and doing it
  • allowing others to mentor, disciple, teach, correct and guide you
  • being a good follower
  • laying aside the need to be in charge
  • willing and eager obedience to God and those to whom you owe obedience
  • being an eager learner, trainable and tractable (p. 118).

"Godly submission is rooted in God’s good and loving intentions for each one of us. …  Therefore, biblical submission does not … rob them of their freedom.  Submission is a way we allow God’s kingdom agenda to shape our choices, relationships and vocations.  And it always works in conjunction with personal freedom" (Calhoun, 2005, p. 119).

Corporally, we could emphasize imitating Jesus individually more rather than organizing activities that only serve to make us look like every church in our community.  In practicing submission, our congregation could nurture relationships in the family of God that would promote healthy guidance in our “one-another relationships.”  Our emphasis on external, corporate activities tends to drive the individual away from practicing spiritual disciplines as we lack the time and direction to develop them personally.  

We are part of an increasingly-connected global environment.  Every moment of our lives can be documented or filled with entertainment at the touch of a fingertip.  Peace comes at a premium as people tend to want to go to far-flung places, secluded and away from all that civilized life offers in order to find a break from the pace of their lives.  Living in a society that moves at such a frenetic pace, the parable of the prodigal son offers the world the peace that counters the prevailing culture—freedom through submission, victory in surrender, a full life if you relinquish everything.

To help us reach the world for Christianity, I believe the story of the prodigal son helps us understand that reconciliation with God is not dependent on our transformation of ourselves.  There is nothing we can do on our own to facilitate the transformation of our hearts.  It would be exhausting work if it was left up to us.  A heavy yoke versus Jesus’ easy yoke.  In the same way, sharing with others about God is not about what people ought to ‘do’ in order to be reconciled to God.  Rather, we ought to teach of the most important decision that the younger son has taken—that of walking the path that would take him home to his father.  God will do the rest.

"Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground.  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’…."—Isaiah 45:9

In pottery-making, kneading is a very important first step.  After taking clay, water is added to it.  Water is distributed evenly but if the clay is really hard, it needs to be soaked in water.  Only after this step does the clay become moldable.  Likewise, it is only after the believer is immersed in the waters of baptism is one’s heart ready to be transformed by God.  

Clay in the Potter's Hand2.jpg

The next step is molding.  When a potter makes something, you learn to love everything about the finished product.  You love it because you made it—every curve, every contour, every shape, every imperfection.  In this way, God already loves us even as He makes us into His finished product—every shape, every imperfection is lovingly formed.  Working with clay also produces the best result when one works daily.  Working on it inconsistently would return the clay to its harder form thus requiring more effort from the potter next time.  So it is that the spiritual practice of submission aims for consistency.

In molding, the pressure needs to be even AND gentle—not too soft, not too strong.  The good potter knows that the pressure on the inside of the clay vessel needs to be the same as the pressure on the outside.  At times, we may feel hard-pressed but God knows how much pressure to put—inside and outside—as He molds us for His use.

Once it has taken the shape that the potter intended, the pottery is now put through the heating process.  The heating process allows the clay particles to stick together.   At the end of the first heating process, the pottery is not ready for use yet.  It’s formed but brittle.  One could compare it to our younger years of discipleship as God gently forms us and molds us. 

In order to be useful, it has to go through another heating process that requires more heat.  The temperature required during the heating process depends on the purpose or intention of the potter for the vessel.  The times in our lives when we feel the most ‘heat’—of suffering, persecution, we are being molded according to God’s purpose for our lives. 

Finally, the potter applies glaze to the pottery.  Glaze is not inherent in clay.  It can only come from the artist.  This is the grace we receive from God.  It is Jesus’ blood, the sacrifice of His life that covers us so we are reconciled with God.  It is not something we can do on our own; it can only come from the Father.  

When the potter is done, the original clay is no longer visible—only the glaze.  So it is with our lives, when God, the potter, is done molding us and transforming us, it ought to be Jesus who is on display.

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."– 2 Cor. 4:7-10

It is easy to fight the process of submission, to fight the process of being transformed.  But as the clay needs to remain under the hands of the potter in order for the transformation to occur, so we should practice the spiritual discipline of submission for the inner transformation of our hearts to happen.  Let us then imitate our Lord’s attitude towards submission, as death was set before him: 

"Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour?’  No, it was for this very reason I came to his hour.  Father, glorify your name!'” – John 12:27-28

 

 

Bibliography:

À Kempis, Thomas. (1989). The Imitation of Christ. Gardiner, Harold S.J. (Ed.) New York, NY: Image.

Bock, Darrell. (1996). Luke, Vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  Silva, Moisés (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (1995). The Cost of Discipleship. (Munchen, Verlag & Fuller, R.H., Trans) New York, NY: Touchstone.  Original work published 1937.

Bruce, F.F., gen. ed. (1986). The International Bible Commentary with the NIV.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. (2005).  Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP.

Easton, Burton Scott. (1926).  The Gospel According to St. Luke: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary.  New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Eerdmans Bible Commentary Third Edition. (1987).  Grand Rapids, MI: WM B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Ferguson, Gordon. (1995).  The Victory of Surrender.  Woburn, MA: DPI.

Foster, Richard & Griffin, Emilie, ed. (2000) Spiritual Classics.  San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Foster, Richard J.  (1988). Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.  

Johnson, K.D. (2017).  Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World.  Christianity Today, 61(7), 77-79.

Kinnard, Steve G. (2006). The Way of the Heart: Spiritual Living in a Legalistic World.  Newton, MA: IPI.

Kozlowski, Joseph Paul. (1998)  Spiritual Direction & Spiritual Disciplines.  Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing.

Levine, A. (2014).  A parable and its baggage: what the prodigal son story doesn’t mean.  The Christian Century, 131(18), 20-23.

Powell, John S.J. (1978). Unconditional Love.  Allen, TX: Argus Communications.

Rolheiser, Ronald. (2014). Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. New York, NY: Image.

Tobkin, M.J. (1998).  The tension between justice and mercy in the parable of the prodigal son.  Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa, 22(2), 26-43.

Willard, Dallas. (1988).  The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes

Lives. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Williams, B.J. (2010.  Brotherhood motifs in the parable of the prodigal son.  Restoration Quarterly, 56(2), 99-109.

Wirt, Sherwood, ed. (1983).  Spiritual Disciplines: Devotional Writings from The Great

Christian Leaders of the Seventeenth Century.  Westchester, IL: Crossway.


About the author, Cindy Fetherman:

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I was baptized in the US territory of Guam 24 years ago.  After moving to Denver from four wonderful years in Cambodia, I started pursuing my MABT in the Rocky Mountain School of Ministry and Theology.  I recently transferred to Lincoln Christian University and hope to pursue a MA in Biblical Languages as well.  My husband and I currently serve in our youth and family ministry and we hope to use what we are learning to serve in smaller churches in the future.

SALT

Part 2 of 2

 by Kay McKean -- Sterling, Virginia, USA

 

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Don’t people complain about unsalted food?
    Does anyone want the tasteless white of an egg?
My appetite disappears when I look at it;
    I gag at the thought of eating it!

(Job 6:6 – 7 New Living Translation)

The passage above is one of the oldest scriptures ever written, and what is Job’s complaint? Food without salt!

The book of Job contains a host of hypothetical questions. He was searching for a reason for his suffering, and was left unsatisfied. In this passage, the question he asks is almost humorous. But he brings it before God as an imploring complaint regarding his unanswered requests for clarity. Some take this passage to refer to the conversations that have been going on around Job, meaning that they have been insipid and meaningless. Whatever was on Job’s mind at this point, it’s absolutely accurate to say that food is not as tasty without salt. He refused to eat what had no flavor!

Certainly things haven’t changed through the centuries. Although we’ve admitted the modern dangers of overly-salty processed foods (see Part One – “Salt”), we have also acknowledged the true danger of living without a supply of salt in our bodies. We truly can’t live without it.

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As we move through the centuries following the time of Job, we see further reminders of the importance of salt as a part of the covenantal relationship between God and His people:

 Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring. (Numbers 18:19 NIV)

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)

When God gave the Israelites the instructions about sacrifice, he promised this as a covenant of salt. Salt was the emblem that represented that which was incorruptible and permanent. Therefore, this covenant was one that would last. It was a binding alliance. Salt was also used in the grain offerings to the Lord. So we see salt as the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.

God was always willing to keep His promises, but unfortunately the political turmoil that followed the Israelite nation revealed that the people weren’t always willing to keep theirs:

Abijah stood on Mount Zemaraim, in the hill country of Ephraim, and said, “Jeroboam and all Israel, listen to me! Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? Yet Jeroboam son of Nebat, an official of Solomon son of David, rebelled against his master. Some worthless scoundrels gathered around him and opposed Rehoboam son of Solomon when he was young and indecisive and not strong enough to resist them. (II Chronicles 13:4 – 7)

Abijah, the rightful king, was appealing to those who knew that the royal line of kingship should come from the line of Judah. David was from that line, and the dynasty was to remain with his descendants. When civil war broke out, Abijah, David’s great-grandson, addressed the rebels by reminding them of the “covenant of salt” – an agreement that was to last for all time. Although the rebellion began by the poor leadership of Abijah’s father, he still maintained that to resist his kingship was to resist the Lord.  The message was clear: regardless of poor leadership and the mistakes of the past, the commitment to God’s plans were to be upheld.

Salt continued to play an important role in Israel’s history as we come to the time of the prophet Elisha:

The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.”

“Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.

Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (II Kings 2:19 – 21 NIV)

Elisha was the protégé of Elijah, who had just been taken into heaven. So the incident with the water was Elisha’s first official miracle before the people. In this case, the salt was an emblem of purification. It brought about the healing of the water. While we understand that one bowlful of salt will not purify a spring, we do know that God can purify it. Elisha was clear in emphasizing that it was the Lord who healed the water.

The Jews weren’t the only ones who recognized the important nature of salt. Later in history, the Greeks exchanged salt for slaves. That’s where we get the phrase, “He isn’t worth his salt.” The Romans gave salt rations to their soldiers, calling it “Salarium Argentum”, which eventually became our word, “salary”. Even today, the traditions surrounding salt are plentiful. The British made it a point to bring salt to a newcomer’s home. Nelson Mandela made this appeal: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”

When Jesus declared that His followers were to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), He meant it in the best possible way. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities of His time. It was crucial for survival. Jesus calls each of us to see our incredible value. He wants us to remember the eternal covenant that we have been invited into, knowing that God will keep His promise to us. His desire is for us to keep our commitment to uphold His leadership in our lives. He wants us to see that because of God, we are instruments of purification and healing among those that are in our sphere of influence.

         Hopefully, these thoughts will make you look at salt a little differently. It’s not the enemy some make it out to be! Otherwise, Jesus would never have said “Salt is GOOD!” (Luke 14:34) When you say, “pass the salt”, consider it as a reminder that you are to add flavor and hope to the world.

References:

http://time.com/3957460/a-brief-history-of-salt/

https://www.britannica.com/science/salt

Mark Kurlansky, “Salt: A World History” Published by Penguin Books, 2003

Bringing Back the Stray

Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA

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Since the Lord restores our souls (Psalm 23), and those who are spiritual ought to restore the brother caught in sin (Galatians 6:2), bringing back the those who have strayed isn't restoration in the original sense of the word. Keep in mind:

  • To bring back the stray is Christ-like.
  • This is a process of freeing a drifting brother or sister (Hebrews 2:1) from the allure of the world and bringing him or her back to the fold. This process takes time. It is much more than simply adding someone’s name back to the membership list based on assurances of future commitment.
  • It is to be carried out gently (Galatians 6:2). This means caring for the individual, hearing him or her out, not rushing but carefully retracing steps back to the place he or she got off the narrow road. More often than not, those wishing to return to the fold already have plenty of guilt and shame. They need assurance, not an “I-told-you-so” telling off (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
  • Not all Christians are able to bring back the stray. Maturity, experience, and spirituality are essential. This is a pastoral duty, though not necessarily limited to church leaders.
  • All Christians are “shepherds” of the flock in some sense. Many congregations contain plenty of mature Christians, and these are the ones who will be most qualified to bring the wanderers home.
  • The process itself is somewhat precarious by its very nature. The temptation to over-identify with the lapsed disciple, taking on his attitudes or championing his grievances, is more than some disciples can handle. In some cases, the sin in which the person to be restored must relinquish is still ongoing.

Practicals

  • Always ask, What are the causes of the person’s leaving the church? We must make sure that we are dealing with true causes, not symptoms. Otherwise, after being welcomed back, they may slip back into the same well-worn ruts.
  • Remember that God holds the individual responsible for quitting—no matter what (Romans 2:5ff).
  • Sometimes it is largely a leader’s fault. Shepherds, through harsh leadership, can scatter the sheep (Ezekiel 34). In addition, sometimes people fall through the sin or lack of forgiveness of another (Luke 17).
  • False teaching also has a role in dragging many back to the world (2 Peter 2:1-3).
  • Spiritual “starvation” (1 Corinthians 3:2) may also be an issue. Lack of proper appetite may be a factor, but so may lack of proper diet. Milk and meat are both needed. Shallow preaching and or humanistic leadership inhibit our potential to grow. (Still, the onus is on the individual.)
  • Always speak to those who were involved in the person’s life before he lapsed. Realize, in addition, that in some cases there are “two sides” to the story (Proverbs 18:17). Make sure you are properly informed.
  • Call for additional help as required.
  • If someone is not open to returning at the moment, “leave the light on and the door open”! (The Parable of the Lost Son shows the example.) Don’t be resentful or take sinful decisions personally. This only causes us to turn a cold shoulder to them, and it prohibits them from coming back.
  • Be urgent to see the person progress, but don’t rush him. Beware of flash-in-the-pan decisions. Give them time to once again implement spiritual disciplines (personal devotional times, to begin with) and to re-integrate the church schedule into their own routine.
  • Study the Bible together. Pray together. Expect them to do the same on their own.
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  • When they have true conviction, they will probably start sharing their faith with their friends again.
  • If the lapsed Christian is married, ask the spouse what he or she thinks about the change. The spouse probably has a better vantage point from which to evaluate what is going on than anyone else.
  • While not withholding gentle assistance, expect the individual to exhibit initiative. Ultimately, it is not hand-holding that will set them back on the path to the Lord’s heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).

Conclusion
In most cities around the world there are not only active Christians, but also a number of men and women who have turned back from following the Lord. We must reach these individuals to “save their souls from death and cover over multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

Shared from www.douglasjacoby.com, originally posted March 1, 2015

Photo Credits: Stray sheep on the railway track at Bryn-y-Felin Bridge,
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © David Tyers 

Bible open to Psalm, CC0 Public Domain

Teachers' Subcommittee Report on "Love Your Enemies"

During a church builders’ workshop in Boston in early 2010 one of the presenting elders made some comments about Christians and the military. This led one of the teachers into a discussion with this elder. Following a number of developments, the teachers’ service team reviewed a paper on the subject, had a subsequent discussion with the elder, and then asked a subcommittee to study the matter and make a proposal. As a result of reading numerous emails and articles and conducting nine WebEx meetings totaling about twenty hours, our subcommittee, with unanimity, came to the following conclusion, which we later confirmed by the entire committee: 

1.    The issue of loving our enemies is one of Jesus’ most revolutionary teachings occupying a prominent place in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Kingdom ethos to be shown to the world (Matthew 5:44-48). Thus, the implications of it need to be thought through very carefully. 

2.    A Christian must act as a disciple of Jesus at all times in all circumstances (meaning in this context, that he must show love to his enemies at all times). The classic argument going back to Augustine and Luther that a Christian has a private self and a public self and can do things in his public self that he would not do in his private self is not biblical. The Scriptures know of no such division within the Christian. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17 NIV). 

3.    Every Christian needs to be taught to obey Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, pray for them, do good to them, lend to them, be merciful to them and do to them as we would have done to us (Matthew 5:44-48 and Luke 6:27-35). For this to be obeyed, disciples must be encouraged and helped to think through the implications and applications of this teaching. However, in this matter, we do not believe it is best just to tell our members what to practice, but rather teach them how to make wise judgments, remembering, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14 ESV).

4.    Romans 12:2 (NIV) reads, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.“ However, on this issue, our respective cultures’ emphases on patriotism and nationalism often has influenced how we view the treatment of enemies more than have the Scriptures—particularly, the teachings of Jesus. This must be changed and our minds must be renewed by God’s wisdom. Whatever decisions we make must be made from consciences informed and shaped by the Word of God.

5.    Although the implications of this teaching (love your enemies) may be difficult, all faithful disciples must study and pray about these matters. This is not an option. We must all seek God’s will, for that is the nature of the Kingdom life. 

6.    The examples of soldiers’ interactions with John the Baptist (Luke 3:14), Jesus (Mark 8:5-13), Peter (Acts 10) should be examined, and consideration should be given to what these situations say and do not say. Whatever conclusions we come to should address these situations, as well as the material at the end of Romans 12 and the beginning of Romans 13.  

7.    A deeper consideration of our teaching on this subject of loving our enemies will almost certainly lead to some significant shepherding issues in which we help disciples make decisions based on the Bible rather than on culture.  These will likely include: (1) Counseling a disciple who wants to enlist in the military (or in some countries is being drafted into the military) about the implications of the military oath; objectives of military training and consequences of travel away from the fellowship. (2) Counseling a disciple currently serving in the military regarding the possibility of serving without violating one’s conscience, as well as what options are available if one’s conscience is violated. (3) Supporting and nurturing individual disciples as they wrestle with and make these difficult decisions. 

8.    While we believe this area needs to be taught on and explored, we also believe that discussions and collaboration are needed with elders and evangelists in order to handle this in the best way in our congregations, so the church might be unified, built up and grow into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-16).  

9.    Our belief is that we must be a people who are very willing to examine difficult issues and hear different perspectives represented, even as we encourage each other with the greatest of love and respect to keep seeking and asking and knocking (Matthew 7:7) for the will of God. It is our hope that the process we have followed with this matter may be a model for handling other difficult issues or addressing needed changes in our teaching.  [To that end, we invited and included representatives from both the evangelists’ service team and the elders’ service team to join us on the discussion of this project, and we were grateful for their input.]

Finally, while those of us on the subcommittee do not agree on every implication and practice that should come from Jesus’ teaching on this matter, we are in complete unity that the command to “love your enemies,” in all its counter-cultural quality, must be studied and implemented by every disciple and practiced in all phases of life. This is a crucial mark of the Kingdom, for in this context Jesus said: "If you greet [show love to] only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:47-48 NASB). 

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Two Position Papers

The previous appeal was written for the evangelists’ service team and elders’ service team to summarize what the teachers’ subcommittee discussed concerning "love your enemy."  The following papers represent two different views on this topic.  These papers are given to help disciples think through this topic.  The papers are not written to tell anyone what to think, but to help each person work through the issue.  We want to develop a culture in our churches where diverse perspectives on complex issues can be discussed and respected.  In the case of these particular papers, we acknowledge that the majority of the authors are citizens or residents of the United States of America. Those who live in other countries may have a very different perspective from these authors. 

 

I. Disciples and Enemies: A Kingdom Perspective

Michael Izbicki graduated from the United States Naval Academy near the top of his class in 2008. The next year he took a psychological exam on which he found this question: If given the order, would he launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead? He answered that he would not.1

For the next two years the Navy fought hard against his request to become a conscientious objector. In finally receiving that status, only after taking his case to federal court, Izbicki became one of 300 over a nine-year period who received an honorable discharge as a CO. Another 300 applicants were denied. 

During his junior year he had taken required courses studying the just war theory, mainly as argued by Thomas Aquinas, but he became increasingly uneasy with “the frankness with which people talked about killing.” In his application he wrote:  “We calculated the extent of civilian casualties and whether these numbers were politically acceptable.” 

Eventually, he studied the Gospels, read widely about the early history of the church, took up Hebrew so he could read the Old Testament in the original, and started to measure his faith according to the question: What would Jesus do? He concluded, “I could not be responsible for killing anyone.” This led to his unexpected answer on his psychological test and triggered a long series of interrogations.

Izbicki’s story illustrates a crucial issue often faced by the disciple of Jesus who lives in a post-Constantinian culture where Christian military service has been taken for granted by most Christian groups for 1800 years. Disciples follow Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies.” But killing enemies is widely accepted and sometimes even expected as a part of Christian obligation.

A variety of arguments can be made against Christian involvement in war,  but the point of this paper is that it is inconsistent with Jesus’ main message, namely,  the way of the Kingdom of God—a radical new way of living in this present age: living by the principles of the age to come.. With that premise, I would put forth the following points:

1.    Jesus was the embodiment of the Kingdom. In his person and work the Kingdom of God was breaking in. To the disappointment of many,  including his own followers, Jesus' approach did not involve any embrace of nationalism or support for the violent overthrow of ungodly pagan tyrants. As a naval officer, Izbicki asked, "What would Jesus do?" He certainly would have found nothing in the Gospel accounts that would indicate that Jesus would have supported war or lethal force in any way, unless we are talking about spiritual warfare fought with spiritual weapons.

2.    When Jesus taught his disciples what it meant to live the Kingdom in this present age, that is, to allow God to be in charge of their lives, he spoke to them of a radically different ethic in which you would not resist the evil man; would turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love your enemies, pray for them, and do good to them. Jesus not only taught this, but lived it right down to his final breath.  Certainly,  what officer Izbicki was taught at the Naval Academy regarding enemies could not have been more starkly in contrast to the teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom life. The goal in war is to destroy and obliterate the enemy,  not to show love, compassion, kindness, mercy, and concern. The nuclear warhead that the naval officer might be asked to launch, the grenade the soldier may throw, or the bombs dropped by a pilot would certainly accomplish the first of these objectives, without being mistaken in any way for the second.

3.    This brings us to the behavior that we observe among the disciples as they were taught to live this Kingdom life. We have no examples of Jesus’ disciples killing anyone. The last time we see a follower of his taking up a weapon is one where there is an effort to defend an innocent and unarmed man. And, yet, in this case, Peter is told by Jesus, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NIV). This view of a culture of force and Jesus’ rationale is expressed even more clearly in his statement to Pilate, where Jesus said, "My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place"  (John 18:36). Precisely because this is the Kingdom of God, fighting in the normal way against one's enemies is not an option.  Quite in line with the in-breaking Kingdom, Jesus will set the example for his disciples when he utters these words from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NIV). Then, later, when one of them, Stephen, was stoned and was dying for his faith, he demonstrated that same heart, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60 NIV). 

As already noted, Jesus lived this new way, but the disciples understood that his life was also to be a pattern they followed. Peter initially struggled mightily with this concept. But he eventually turned and strengthened his brothers (Luke 22:32) with these words:

"To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example,  that you should follow in his steps. 'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.'  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.(1 Peter 2:21-23 NIV)

This non-violent, non-resistance was not just for the redeemer in a great redemptive moment. It is for all disciples. While such a decision looks foolish to most people, it is a deliberate choice made because one is “conscious of God,” (see the wider context) and far from being a decision to do nothing, it is a decision to “entrust” one’s self “to him who judges justly.” It is a decision to affirm that God is indeed King and his ways will be vindicated. 

4.    In each of these points we are seeing the development of a Kingdom culture. In the Kingdom of God things are done dramatically differently from the way they are done according to the patterns of this world. The Kingdom is characterized by humility, mercy, compassion, peacemaking, forgiveness, honesty, unselfishness, sacrifice, and love for friends, strangers and even those people who wish to do us harm. The Kingdom is at odds with any system where there is a culture of force, self-defense, deception, retaliation, intimidation and disregard for the other especially those who wish you harm. 

In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of the Kingdom culture and how certain things, like sexual immorality, are “out of place.”  As we try to lay learning war and killing enemies alongside humility, forgiveness, meekness, and mercy, and love for enemies, it glaringly belongs to a different world and way of living life.

As the community of Jesus, we are to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom in word and in deed. We must demonstrate a life of the age to come in this present age; we are to do God's will on Earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). If we do harm to our enemies, we show the world the typical religion they have come to expect and give them cause to doubt the reality of the Kingdom. When the crusaders placed the cross on their breastplates and shields, and then in the first crusade left their Muslim enemies knee-deep in blood within the walls of Jerusalem, they were engaged in the most oxymoronic, contradictory activity possible, and a thousand years later their actions are still doing great harm. 

We must seriously consider a real possibility. It may just be that those who believe the only safe course is to rely on arms, force and violence, need to hear the very same words Jesus spoke to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan, you don’t have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” How can the church show the Kingdom of God to the world if it does not fully embrace the qualities of the Kingdom?

5.    In order to train for war, then, a disciple must decide that there is a time and place to no longer imitate Jesus and to no longer demonstrate the distinctive Kingdom way of life. Even though he has stated that God is King, he must believe that there is a time and a place to put a cause, a commander or a country above his King. This, of course, completely contradicts the idea the absolute reign of God.

In Jesus, we do see the Prince of peace, the one who taught us to love our enemies – that is, to treat them well. In his disciples we see those who followed the way of the cross and learned from him to show love and forgiveness, and trust him who judges justly. Again and again, we hear Jesus announce the gospel of the Kingdom, and we see that the rule of God has broken in, bringing a way of living life that is in sharp contrast with that of the world, and the amazing, loving treatment of enemies is a part of that life.

Does Jesus’ teaching raise questions for us?  Certainly. So do his teachings on lust, divorce and remarriage, lawsuits, justice and possessions. But with an attitude of wanting to do what is most like Jesus, what most fits with the Kingdom and what most fulfills righteousness, our questions can be answered. 

This brings us to a final point. The world's view of things is deeply embedded in our culture and equally embedded in most of us. This means that we are often profoundly emotional about this issue—far more than we even realize. We have grandfathers, fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins who have served in the military. Nationalism and patriotism run deep. Our countries usually celebrate and honor the armed forces. In the United States, conservative evangelicals –-those most known for their belief in the Bible--- compose the most pro-military element in society, even favoring the use of torture in interrogation more than those with liberal views of Scripture. Militarism is in the American culture, especially its self-professed Bible-believing religious culture. Consequently, Kingdom-thinking (on this and other subjects) will not be found among God's people unless it is vigorously taught and then reinforced with some regularity.  We have seen how this must work with other deeply embedded cultural ideas (racism certainly comes to mind). Such thinking is not dislodged easily. 

Because the reality is that disciples have not immediately been of one mind on this issue, vigorous and respectful dialogue should be encouraged. Each Christian should listen, study and pray with a heart to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). Michael Izbicki asked a good question—what would Jesus do?  Each of us should another good question—what does Jesus want me to do?


1. Izbicki's story has been published in a number of newspapers, for example, see this story in the New York Times

 

II. Love Your Enemies—The Dilemma

An ethical dilemma arises when one faces an apparent conflict between two moral imperatives. To obey one command would result in transgressing the other. Jesus purposefully orchestrated conflicts (and resolved them) to highlight a new teaching or challenge a worldview. For example, on the Sabbath,  just before he delivers his sermon on the plain, Jesus asked a man with a withered hand to come forward (Luke 6:6-11).  The crowd of biblical experts fixed their eyes on Jesus to see whether he would heal on theSabbath (thereby transgressing their interpretation of the Law). Two moral imperatives were about to clash before their eyes. The tension climaxed as Jesus presented the clarity of the dilemma, 

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do harm, to save life or destroy it?” (NIV)

Jesus chose to do good, to save, to heal the man. But how would he have chosen to do evil, to destroy life? By doing nothing when he had the opportunity to do good -- even on a Sabbath. 

Soon after this incident, Jesus presents some of his most revolutionary teaching (Luke 6:20-49). A most provocative section commands us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” (Luke 6:27-29 NIV)

Considering this teaching, our subcommittee has wrestled with the potential ethical dilemmas that arise from our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven with its moral imperatives to both love your brother/family/neighbor (e.g. 1John 3:16) and to love your enemy (Matthew 5:44). 

Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy seeking to harm your family: to love your family/brother or love your enemy? And given the number of disciples who serve in militaries, many of our fellowship must wrestle with the dilemma on a more public level. Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy nation seeking to harm your nation: to love your family/brothers or love your enemies?

Jesus’ sermon on the mount/plain brilliantly stretches us to live beyond the cultural pressures of this present age. He strips away our small-minded self-focused entitlements. No more revenge, no more lex talionis1, no more “that’s not fair,” and no more self defense (Matthew 5:39 -- plus Rom 12:19-21, 2Cor 11:20, 1Thess 5:15). Rather, we are to love, lend to, and pray for our enemies, and so we do on our better days. But does this preclude us from protecting the innocents? Jesus makes self defense indefensible for us, but what about selfless defense? I’ve concluded that selfless defense of the innocent is not only defensible, it’s morally mandated. To do nothing when I have the power to protect (1Cor 13:7) allows an innocent to be harmed or even destroyed. Loving my enemy does not mean that I allow him to harm my innocent wife/child/brother/neighbor. If even my dearest friend were seeking to harm my wife/child/brother/neighbor I would deploy all necessary means to stop him (not for revenge or even for justice but for the selfless protection of an innocent). While my friend would thank me for preventing his malice, my enemy may not. Nonetheless, I choose to do good through selfless action and not by doing nothing. Classic pacifists argue that doing nothing is not really nothing; rather, they assert that they are doing something of immense power — they are praying. Such faith is remarkable. However, even the Pharisees would argue that they were more trusting of God by doing nothing other than praying for the afflicted man on the Sabbath in the introductory dilemma.

When the dilemma to love moves from the private to the public life of a disciple, the question of military service comes into focus (as does police work). Can a disciple square military service with the ethical demands of New Testament? The same principle applies. Selfless defense of the innocents trumps doing nothing in the name of loving one’s enemy. There should be no inconsistency between our private and public ethics. If military service always violates kingdom ethics, then it would be strange for the NT to consistently highlight positive military metaphors and positive military personnel, for example:

“Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” (2 Timothy 2:3–4 NIV)

“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?” (1 Cor 9:7 NIV)

“also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier...” (Philemon 2 NIV)

“But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier...” (Philippians 2:25a NIV)

"The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:8–10 NIV)

“And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”” (Mark 15:39 NIV)

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” (Acts 10:1–2 NIV)

“When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants.” (Acts 10:7 NIV)

“He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.” (Acts 21:32 NIV)

“But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan.” (Acts 27:43a NIV)

 In addition to these references, we meet soldiers on a path to repentance that runs right into John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and Luke 3. John came preaching of a new kingdom and thus prepared the people for a radically new way of life to prepare for this new kingdom of God.  His charge to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2) is the same message that Jesus preached (Matthew 4:17) as he began his public ministry. Within this context of preparation for the new kingdom, soldiers approach John to gain clarity on what they should do in order to produce fruit that proves their repentance. He charges them to stop their extortion and rather be content with their soldier’s wage.  No “resign your post” or“put away your sword.” An argument from silence? If so, then John was ignoring the elephant in the Jordan — not his style. 

 While the examples of metaphors and soldiers in the New Testament don’t settle any issues, they do keep us from overstating the pacifist’s case. A soldier who repents and is baptized into Christ does not need to resign his post if he is not violating his conscience. If his country is engaged in a selfless defense of innocents, then he may not have occasion for moral conflict. However — and this is important to note — such righteous military action is extremely rare indeed. If his country engages in unrighteous military initiatives, then he is forbidden to kill. A professional soldier is expected to use his discretion even on the field of battle. If he is called to violate his conscience then he should seek reassignment or resign. 

<a style="background-color:black;color:white;text-decoration:none;padding:4px 6px;font-family:-apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, &quot;San Francisco&quot;, &quot;Helvetica Neue&quot;, Helvetica, Ubuntu, Roboto, Noto, &quot;Segoe UI&quot;, Arial, sans-serif;font-size:12px;font-weight:bold;line-height:1.2;display:inline-block;border-radius:3px;" href="http://unsplash.com/@zonde?utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=photographer-credit&amp;utm_content=creditBadge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" title="Download free do whatever you want high-resolution photos from Zoran Zonde Stojanovski"><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;"><svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" style="height:12px;width:auto;position:relative;vertical-align:middle;top:-1px;fill:white;" viewBox="0 0 32 32"><title></title><path d="M20.8 18.1c0 2.7-2.2 4.8-4.8 4.8s-4.8-2.1-4.8-4.8c0-2.7 2.2-4.8 4.8-4.8 2.7.1 4.8 2.2 4.8 4.8zm11.2-7.4v14.9c0 2.3-1.9 4.3-4.3 4.3h-23.4c-2.4 0-4.3-1.9-4.3-4.3v-15c0-2.3 1.9-4.3 4.3-4.3h3.7l.8-2.3c.4-1.1 1.7-2 2.9-2h8.6c1.2 0 2.5.9 2.9 2l.8 2.4h3.7c2.4 0 4.3 1.9 4.3 4.3zm-8.6 7.5c0-4.1-3.3-7.5-7.5-7.5-4.1 0-7.5 3.4-7.5 7.5s3.3 7.5 7.5 7.5c4.2-.1 7.5-3.4 7.5-7.5z"></path></svg></span><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;">Zoran Zonde Stojanovski</span></a>

 This is not a theoretical issue. I am in daily fellowship with many Christian soldiers. They are currently on career paths that steer them well clear of direct combat. Their contribution to potentially unrighteous combat is not totally different than mine as I pay taxes to fund the same effort. I have not counseled them to resign their posts. Most have been very effective at helping the kingdom break into their bases, forts, ships, and barracks as they have spread the gospel. However, if a disciple contemplates military service after baptism, I strongly counsel against enlistment as they will face compromising oaths, desensitizing conditioning, and there is no guarantee that he or she will not be assigned to a position that violates the demands of life in the kingdom.

 Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy seeking to harm your family: to love your family/brother or love your enemy? Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy nation seeking to harm your nation: to love your family/brothers or love your enemies?  We’ve failed once by allowing the world to inform our consciences on these vital concerns. That was also a failure of doing relatively nothing. The world’s propagandists shouted loudly about patriotism while the kingdom’s preachers spoke sparingly on the implications of loving our enemies. Many of us left our brothers and sisters to discern God’s will without the full counsel of God on this matter.  Let’s not fail again through overreaction. Well-informed spiritual brothers disagree on these questions. These ethical dilemmas sharpen our discernment as we strive to live out His kingdom in a fallen world. Let them also strengthen our unity through cooperation but without compromise on His moral imperatives.


1. the principle or law of retaliation that a punishment inflicted should correspond in degree and kind to the offense of the wrongdoer, as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; retributive justice. www.dictionary.com/browse/lex-talionis

 

Photo Credits: Thanks to Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons for the photo of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount; Thanks to Alpha2412 for the Swiss Soldier via Wikimedia Commons;  The much-decorated elderly Soviet military man is the father of Natasha Samonina of the St. Petersburg, Russia, church of Christ, who was baptized into Christ in his retirement and died a faithful disciple of Jesus;   thanks to Zoran Zonde Stojanovski for the British soldier at www.unsplash.com;

Introducing the Teachers' Corner

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The Teachers Service Team of the ICOC is excited to launch The Teachers' Corner, featuring bi-weekly publication of articles authored by men and women who serve as teachers in our fellowship of churches. You can find these articles highlighted on both www.disciplestoday.org and here, at the Teachers Service Team website,  www.teachicoc.org. Our first series of articles,  entitled “Jesus and the Poor,” were written by Dr. G. Steve Kinnard, Evangelist/Teacher of the New York City Church of Christ.  As you scroll down this page, you will find more material from other recognized ICOC Teachers.

As we prayerfully launch this endeavor,  here in the  first week of November, 2016, for the strengthening and encouragement of disciples everywhere, we hope that you find this growing collection of articles both inspirational and informational.

Shalom,

The Teachers Service Team

Jesus and the Poor, Part Two

Part Two of a Three-Part Series&nbsp;

Part Two of a Three-Part Series 

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            What does Jesus have to say about our response to the poor? Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  Please take a moment and read the parable.

            This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible.  It has influenced the world so much that when you say someone is a “Good Samaritan,” everyone knows what you mean.  That’s a person who goes out of his or her way to help someone they don’t even know.  Wouldn’t it be great if the word “Christian” were held in such high esteem as the phrase “Good Samaritan!”  Christians and “Good Samaritan” should be synonymous because both should mean, “we love our neighbor as ourselves.” 

            This old Jericho road still exists today.  One day, my wife Leigh and I took the kids and another couple and we had a devotional there, reenacting the story of the Good Samaritan.  My kids wanted to be the robbers and not the Good Samaritan.  I should have known we were in for trouble at that point.  Thanks to God’s grace, they are both trying to be Good Samaritans today.    

            Jesus commands us to love our neighbor.  That is a direct command.  To justify himself, the lawyer in the parable asks, “Okay, Jesus, but who is my neighbor?”  Does it sound a bit like some of us who ask, “Now who exactly are the poor?  Are they the poor in the church or those outside it?  Who am I obligated to help?”  Jesus shows what it means to love our neighbor.  To love our neighbor means to help those who are in need and to step outside nationalistic, religious, ethnic, social, cultural borders to do so.  To love your neighbor means you step up to meet needs. 

            The priest and the Levite are callous to the needs of the injured man.  They step back, step around, and step away from him.  They don’t step where Jesus would have stepped.  Here’s the “Aha” moment of the story—a Samaritan loves his neighbor.  Someone outside the covenant community demonstrates the love of Jesus, while those in the covenant community are hard-hearted and callous. 

            The priest and the Levite literally turned away from their own flesh and blood.  They stepped back, stepped around, and stepped away from the man who was hurting.  A Samaritan was the neighbor who loved.  And at the end of the discussion is the directive of Jesus.  “Go and do likewise.”

            The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan each had the capacity and means to help the needy man. Each had the opportunity to help.  What was the difference between the religious leaders and the Samaritan?  Heart and action.   On the one side we have callousness, apathy, and coldness.  On the other, compassion, care, and concern. On the one side, inaction. Stepping back, stepping away, stepping over, and stepping around. On the other side, action. Stepping toward, stepping forward, and stepping up.  Stepping in the steps of Jesus.  Jesus extols the Good Samaritan and commands his disciples to imitate him saying, "Go and do likewise."

            “Go and do likewise.”  That is the teaching of Jesus on meeting the needs of the needy.  “Go and do.”  Which will you be -- the priest, the Levite, or the Good Samaritan?  Which will we be as the church -- the priest, the Levite, or the Good Samaritan?  Will we step back, step away, step around, and step over the poor, the needy, and the hurting?  Or, will we step up, step forward, step toward those who need our help?  Will we walk in the steps of Jesus?  The steps of Jesus lead to the sick, the blind, the crippled, the leprous, the demon-possessed, and the poor.  Jesus stepped up, stepped forward, and stepped toward those in poverty. 

            We must evangelize the world. We must strengthen, teach, and disciple our churches.  We must minister to the needs of the poor.  None of these are optional.

            Allow the words of Jesus at the conclusion of the Good Samaritan to ring in your ears, “Go and do likewise.”  “Go and do likewise.”