The Bible Teaches What?

This week, our favorite evangelical whipping boy Prof. Peter Enns wrote a blog about what the Bible doesn’t teach.  In his preview to his series of blog posts, he’ll engage some famous scholars on when they realize that the evangelical church has been teaching something that is not quite biblical.  His blog also quotes from my friend Prof. Greg Carey’s HuffPo article on where liberal scholars come from.  In Greg’s own article, he talks about key events in his life where he had moments of illumination when he realized that the church party line is not always correct.  Enns’ blog especially deals with the inerrancy issue.

Although I’m nowhere near the fame of these two men, I can share when I too realized that the church party line on biblical inerrancy had fallen off the track.  That moment came for me when I was still in seminary.  I recall reading about the editing process of the Hebrew Bible and then it dawns on me that the Hebrew language was not as old as Moses and that its uniform style indicates a synchronic editing period among the scribal elite.  That moment didn’t really bother me as much as the reaction of many of my classmates as I discussed this issue with them.  Here’re some of the responses I got.  Why are you so concerned about such minutia of faith that was not “written in the Bible”?  Why can’t you just take what Jesus said literally and be done with it?  Why are you always asking critical questions?  At that stage, a more severe question came to my mind. Why are evangelicals so afraid of the truth?

The problem, as I saw it, has to do with the (false) dichotomy between having an evangelical heart and a critical mind.  I recall classmates and even some professors distinguishing between “evangelical” and “critical” scholars (because they just don’t want to call the critical people “liberals”).  Such a dichotomy shows that many evangelicals simply think that having a critical mind is bad and that being evangelical means leaving behind your critical faculty in favor of “faith”(whatever that faith actually means).  To me, faith is often the synonym for being real stupid. In my many conversations, people would often ask me whether I’m an inerrantist. I usually have to ask them to define the term.  Most stumble over themselves trying to come up with the short Sunday school answer. At the end, many of them simply shrug and say, “You just believe that the Bible is full of errors.”  At that stage, a more severe question came to my mind. Why do evangelicals attribute motives and convictions on people who believe in neither?

Having said the above, I’m not saying that the “Bible” (whatever that term actually means) is full of errors, but as N. T. Wright recent stated that evangelicals often give the right answer for all the wrong questions.  The models we have been using simply do not work for both the content and formation of the Bible.  The problem is really the questions we ask.  We are afraid of asking the right questions because we’re afraid we don’t have the short Sunday school answer for our simple faith (I mean, stupidity).  The longer I’m working at this, the more uncertain I am about simple faith (or you may say, the more “liberal” I am).  What’s so bad about uncertainty?  Well, uncertainty calls for faith.  That’s what. For some, that kind of faith IS bad.  For me, my journey does not take away my trust in biblical authority, but it does help me to reevaluate what authority means.

 

PS. For what else the Bible does not teach, please feel free to read my book Right Texts Wrong Meanings.

Headhunters for Jesus?: A “Secular” Way of Doing Church

A friend of mine has been looking for a ministry position since he got laid off from his pastoral office.  He is a young minister who always tries to better himself and has faithfully served the church. Trouble is, even after a very good interview (according to that church), the interviewing church says that it needed to go back to the search firm (aka headhunter firm) in order to make a decision.  This and many such cases raises some issues for me.

Do you know that for a successful hunt for a candidate such as the senior pastor, the search firm, what I call “headhunters for Jesus”, can earn up to 40,000 USD? Yeah, according to this article I read in CT, churches must be loaded with a  huge budget of throwing away 40,000 USD on top of paying their senior another 100 grand per year.  There’s an economic crisis? Where?  Most churches I know have some kind of economic crunch, according to their leadership, but throwing an extra 40,000 USD in an “investment” doesn’t match the picture I see.

I think the current picture just about summarizes the many problems the church is facing in this new electronic age.  In fact, just based on this picture, I can probably write a book on the problems of the church, but let me pinpoint some of the main problems.

Here’re two challenges that will come the way of a church that relies solely on such headhunters.  First, despite what they claim about guarantee on your money, there’s no guarantee about anything when it comes to bringing in a consultant, assessing a problem, finding THE “solution” and then building up the church. I’ve seen a few churches bring in consultants that gave THE solution.  The churches either ended up NOT following the advice (because obviously the church knows better) or the advice just doesn’t work.  Well, the hard-earned money of the congregation members was spent, but the real solution is still gone adrift at sea.

Second, headhunter firms quite often use statistical tools and other analyses.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with such tools. In fact, I’m in favor of using some tools to analyze whether a candidate has the right traits to work in a certain environment, but we must also admit that such tools are based upon presuppositions, sometimes unknown to the innocent user.  There’s no such thing as an objective tool in these cases, despite claims to the contrary.  Something dehumanizing happens when we solely rely on such tools, I think. Ministry has a very human dimension, in spite of all the claims for the glory of God by certain idealists.  Tools can be dehumanizing when people rely on them too much.

So, what is my observation about such challenges?  My observation tells me that there is a set of deeper problems involved in the church’s obsession with using headhunters.

First, many such cases no longer has a leadership that has the ability to analyze both the needs of the church and the kind of leadership that would fit best. In many cases, leadership has lost the ability to think altogether.  I’m saying this after observing a few processes of pastoral search.  No outsider can tell you exactly what the insiders don’t already know, if the insiders are well-informed and pastorally sensitive.  Logically, think about it this way. How can an outsider who spends a few weeks (at most) at your place know more about your place than you when you spend week in and week out in this place for a few years?  No way!  This heavy reliance on headhunters is an indictment of leadership failure both at the pastoral staff level and at the lay leadership level.  Is the leadership so out of touch pastorally that someone from the outside needs to come in and tell leaders what to do, whom to hire and how to structure the ministry?

The second deeper problem is more serious and is completely related to the problem.  We all want certainty. We all want someone to hold our hands and tell us that the future will be bright and everything will be okay.  In fact, we all prefer a big crystal ball.  I mean, if we can’t think and we don’t know the future, why not the crystal ball.  Ta-da!  The headhunter comes to the rescue.  Based on my observation, and this should be readily obvious to all thinking Christians, the future has no guarantee even with the headhunter and the 40,000 USD you just threw at him.  Now, I’m not against using headhunters for churches that lack connections.  In fact, headhunters may be a good starting point, but we all know that headhunters charge a lot.  In other words, I fail to see how big churches would lack connections.  Reality is that such churches are very much connected. It’s usually the churches that are small that lack connections and are in the greatest need for headhunters.   We like to use our congregation’s hard-earned donations to buy a brighter future.  We can call it investment, but that’s just a secular way of doing church.

The third deeper problem is that the church is no different than a corporation.  Corporations rely on headhunters to get success.  So does the church.   Religion is big business. I’m not suggesting that we don’t need to exercise some common business sense in running our church, but is the church unable to come up with ONE single good candidate from within?  AND is the church incapable of any spiritual insight when interviewing candidates that it needs to rely on a company that doesn’t even get involved in the church pastorally to make a decision?  Some of these churches are so secular, at times, that any sense of holiness and spirituality becomes an undetectable rarity.

What is the solution?   Instead of throwing 40,000 USD at a headhunter, why not use that money to train up some future leaders, and equip them to serve? Hey, there’s an idea!  Discipleship!

Public Witness, Private Consensus and Everything Else in Between

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My friend Dr. Justin Tse (PhD in geography of religion) and his group of friends have been discussing the topic of public versus private sphere for a while.  I think my posts on Tiananmen Square and the pro-family rally have generated enough discussions for me to blog a bit on this issue of geographical spheres.  The real issue is geography, not public theology.  When I read some of the postings by people who advocate public theology (of a certain kind), they tend to be obsessed with EVERYTHING being public.  That’s a simplistic view of geography. Remember, “public,” is a geographical term.

The first lesson we should learn is that our public witness as Christians is about impact.  No matter what you intend by your public posture, the impact is the best measurement of effectiveness.  This goes for both the left and the right.  Most people think that I’m criticizing the right; I’m not.  I’m criticizing the naive view of how the public works.  The naive view is this, “As long as the intent is good, the impact will also be good.”  Utter rubbish!  If the impact of the public witness is that people see the gay issue or social work more than they see the message and person of Jesus, then, dare I say, it is already a lost cause? The only way to judge impact is to look to public reaction.  The effectiveness of Christian public witness, or as Jesus called it, a city on a hill, is judged by the court of public opinion. When people don’t begin talking about Jesus when we talk about our faith, we’ve lost completely.  Whatever our intended message is, the impacted recipients have not received it. If you think that it’s a matter of lousy communication, think again; it’s lousy geography.

The second lesson we should learn is that there’re limitations to what the word “public” actually means because it does not define what kind of public we’re talking about.  For example, the church is not a private sphere. It has a public role.  I’m going to sound simplistic here, but the church’s public role is to witness for its Lord.  That’s the church’s most public role.  The church also has its own public WITHIN its local institution.  For example, certain issues on what each denomination believe to be “biblical” about various issues can be debated within these local institutions.  Church discipline can be a good example, but if it is not done right and the law of the land is violated, the smaller public of the local congregation will immediately be exposed to the greater public of the society.  This sphere of the church’s congregational public is tricky.  If it begins to intrude on the societal public, it can start to blur the line between the church and state (and I think this is not necessarily advantageous).

The third lesson we should learn is that the church ought to understand where its limits are.  Every posture of the church with every issue should be done with geography in mind.  The lack of geographical sophistication will continue to expose the church to unnecessary risks, the greatest of which is the public loss of witness.  Events such as 518 and other such pro-family (with possibly other agenda) rallies both in Asia and in the US are the typical intrusion of the local church institution into the public sphere.  Its impact has proven to be more harm than good.  Those same standards about family or sexuality or social work would work just fine WITHIN the local congregation, but when they’re postured in the same way in the society, they have the opposite effect. Know your limits.

The fourth lesson we should learn is that the practice of piety is dependent on our understanding of geographical spheres.  One issue Tiananmen commemoration is forgiveness.  Activist turned Christian Chai Ling has stated publicly that she forgives those who oppressed her, but then continued to say that she would hope that there’d be greater forgiveness in China’s society.  All this sounds so wonderful and Christian, except there’s one small problem.  She’s confused her personal piety with the government’s public responsibility.  You can’t forgive people who haven’t even had the slightest hint of remorse.  She said that she would forgive Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, the two chief engineers and butchers of the event.  Well, neither men had asked you for your forgiveness, Chai Ling.  The problem is not Chai Ling’s alone.  It is pandemic in the evangelical church.  Again, when she said that she would wish for China to be a forgiving society, she’s talking in the abstract about a system.  I dare say that if we study the history of China, the problem does not lie in the individual oppressors but with the entire system (much like ALL incomplete and human political systems). You can’t “forgive” a system!  That’s what places like the Hague is for.  This is what the Nazi trials are for.  Systems need other systems to hold them responsible.  Our tiny corner of holy huddle just won’t do the trick to contain such great evils.  Even if we say we forgive and love the enemies, it doesn’t follow that we can allow the enemy to continue killing and harming others.  If we allow the evildoers to do what they want, that isn’t really love; that’s stupidity.  The publicness of political systems is about justice and responsibility.  Sure, a person may CHOOSE to forgive in her private piety, but s/he may fail to reckon with the greater issue, accountability.  This is why I feel a sense of disdain towards many church leaders who fail to grasp the seriousness of events like 64.  The church’s public responsibility is to stand alongside of justice and not to settle on a private piety of silent or in the case of Chai Ling, vocal forgiveness.

People typically ask me whether the idea I espouse is biblical or not.  I think someone no less than the Apostle Paul had understood the geographical issue perfectly in 1 Corinthians 6.  He distinguished settling problems within the church so that the problem doesn’t have to spill out into the public court.  Thus, geography is theological.  Rather, perhaps, let me put it in reverse: theology is geographical.  Thus, before we do another rally or some other public act related to social justice, we’d better think geographically before calling anything GOOD public theology.

 

Contemplations from the Heart: Foreword by Donald K. McKim

samtsang98:

I enjoyed this book thoroughly. I will write a review soon in Chinese and eventually post the English one here.

Originally posted on Grace Ji-Sun Kim:

RESOURCE_TemplateMy new book, Contemplations from the Heart is now available for purchase on Amazon.  i am very grateful to Dr. Don K. McKim for his generous Foreword to my book.  Below is the Foreword posted here with permission.

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The Utilitarian Mindset is Killing the Church!

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I’ve read an article that gave me the inspiration to write this blog.  It’s one of those articles that is half right, and I so want to agree with, BUT I CAN’T.

The author began by decrying our crime of substituting relationship with ritual.  I find myself nodding with a hearty “amen.”  However, as I read on, I began to feel troubled.  The author then suggested that we should do in-depth Bible studies in order to build that relationship.  I still say amen. After all, how can I argue against Bible studies, especially if my PhD is in biblical studies?

At this juncture, the thesis takes a turn for less than best.  The thesis basically states that if we build relationship by in-depth Bible studies, our number would increase.  Now, make no mistake about it.  I’ve enjoyed speaking on biblical studies, and I’ve spoken in some of the largest North American Chinese churches as well as some gigantic churches in Asia.  My most recent half-month trip to Richmond Christian Community Church in Toronto (pictured above, I’m the bald guy with the biker leather jacket and earring) had given me the opportunity to speak at a vast multi-lingual congregation that was eager to learn about the Bible.  This was my second year with them.  This is the fact!  We like numbers.  We like big venues.  It’s very American; it’s very human.  Yet, the kingdom of God is not about numbers because there’re problems associated with numbers.

The problem comes when part of our argument is, “We should do such and such, and the number will come.”  That sort of logic doesn’t fly because it presupposes that number is the ultimate proof of whether we’re doing the right thing.  No!  Number proves nothing.  History has been fraught with massive number of people doing the wrong thing.  We do Bible studies so that our relationship with God and with each other can improve. Yes, that’s very biblical, but it shouldn’t logically follow that our church number would increase.  We don’t do it to increase the number. We do so because it is the right thing to do, if we claim the Bible as the word of God. At the very least, we should do it because we should at least be literate in our own faith.

We had better stop letting our American utilitarianism take over our faith or we may eventually be left with only have our own utilitarianism.

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Closing of the Canon and Revelation 22.18-19

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I’m going to blog about chapter 28 of my book. In many older systematic theology textbooks, Rev. 22.18-19 are cited as the proof text of the closing of the canon. The idea goes something like this.   The NT is a closed canon, and this verse proves that God has pronounced a curse on those who want to add or subtract from the number of books in the Bible.

The problem of the canon is a complex one. In the early church, there are many lists of the canonical NT. We can’t be sure all the list have all the books, in fact. This goes to show that the number of books that should be included were still being debated within different Christian communities. How do we reconcile such data.

My answer to such a question is, “There is no reason to reconcile such data.” Why? It is because this text is not talking about the canon. The verse clearly says the pronouncement was about the scroll. We’re talking about John closing the scroll he’s writing. That’s very much it.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!

How the anti-homosexual agenda are killing the Christian witness

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On my flight back from Hong Kong, I sat next to this young lady.  I found out that she swims for both Team Hong Kong and UC Berkeley Bears, my wife’s alma mater.  She happens to be a neuro science major as well.  Somehow she’s able to juggle her athletic endeavors and her studies without losing momentum with each.  In fact, I found out that she would be swimming for the Hong Kong Team in the Asia Games in September.   Naturally, our conversation drifted towards why I was traveling to Asia.  She shared with me that she’s Buddhist and how her faith impacted her life.  She further asked about my faith.  She told me that she had had exposure to Christianity because she went to the Diocesan Girl School (a famous Anglican prep school in Hong Kong).  She even owns a Bible!  At the very beginning of her inquiry, she asked, “How do Christians feel about LGBT?  What do you think about premarital sex?”  I found that quite odd.  Instead of asking about the Jesus I believe in, she asked about my views on sex.  I stated all her qualifications to say that even a highly intelligent person is asking such a distorted question about our faith.

On May 18, Hong Kong Christians had a demonstration FOR the family. It’s also known as the 518 event.  Instead of being FOR family, most people perceive the move to be anti-gay because many of the anti-homosexual parties had spearheaded the campaign.  They insisted that the event was not against homosexuals, but the damage was already done.  ALL people could think of when we talk about the faith is the gay issue.  So, when people ask me why I’m vehemently against such activities, my conversation with this young lady pretty much sums it up.  As I said often in my preaching class, the problem is not about intent or information but impact.  I don’t want people to identify my faith with what people do in their bedrooms.  If you think differently, so be it, but I’m sufficiently embarrassed for every conversation where I try to share my faith with people and we end up talking about sex.  After having such conversations repeatedly, I’m convinced that the witness of the church is totally lost in the white noise about sexuality.  You see? This young lady is not stupid, but she’s been drowned out by our white noise.  There’s no excuse for such white noise because when this white noise drowns out the gospel, we can no longer share the gospel.

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Israel and Revelation 7.1-17

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I’m going to blog about chapter 27 of my book. The passage of Rev. 7.1-17 is quite difficult. People have been fascinated by it, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. Their main fascinations by it are two. First, many would speculate on what the 144,000 people are.   Second, some may go further to what the seal meant.

 

Once again, the method to solve the identity exists both within and outside of the text. Within the text, how does number function in Revelation? As I said before, we need to make sure our system of interpretation is consistent within Revelation. 144,000 is a number in multiples of 12 and 10. How are 12’s and 10’s used in Revelation? What about the sealing of the forehead in Revelation? Within the storyline, what did the sealing mean for the entire story of Revelation itself? Is there another instance of sealing in Revelation? How about 666?

 

Another item within the storyline that deserves our attention is the identity of Israel? Who is Israel?   Many commentators just speculate that this Israel is the same as the Jews in Romans 11. Before we can harmonize Paul and John, we have to ask how language of nationality and nations functioned in the book. For the answer, we have to look at all instances of geographical locations and nationalities in the storyline of Revelation to determine the meaning of Israel instead of assigning it arbitrary meaning based on other biblical texts that may not even be related at all.

 

External to the text, what would numbering of people do in the time of John? The social and political function of numbering something we need to consider. What about the image of a seal on the forehead? How did John’s audience see a seal to the forehead? What did sealing of the forehead or any other body part do?

 

These are the hints in solving the problem.

 

As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!

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