On Church Assemblies Not Meeting

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, more affectionally known as Pliny the Younger, lived from AD 61 to around 113. In his letter (10.96) to Emperor Trajan, Pliny sought guidance in handling the Christians to which Trajan offered his counsel (10.97).

When Pliny first encountered Christians in his role as proconsul (legatus Augusti) of the province of Bithynia, he was uncertain about how to deal with them. He asked the Emperor a variety of questions. Should Christians be punished just because they are Christians? Should they be punished if the recanted of being a Christian? Should Christians be punished only because they have been caught doing something illegal?

Pliny stated

… this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they have con­fessed, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished. There were others who displayed a like madness and whom I reserve to be sent to Rome, since they were Romans citizens.

From those who renounced their allegiance to Jesus, Pliny learned their guilt or error was basically this

that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally (Lat. carmen … dicere secum invicem) to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath (Lat. sacramentum), not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the con­clusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food

But, Pliny continued, they had ceased the practice of meeting after he had issued an edict forbidding the meeting of “secret societies.” Wanting to know more, Pliny tortured two female ministers (Lat. ministrae) but found only a “depraved and extravagant superstition.”

Noting the impact that Christianity had had on the culture, Pliny closes his letter with this last paragraph:

The matter seemed to me to justify my consulting you, especially on account of the number of those imperiled; for many persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes are being put in peril by accusation, and this will go on. The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well; yet it seems ca­pable of being checked and set right. There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have been long neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found. From this it is easy to imagine what a host of men could be set right, were they given a chance of recantation.

Pliny’s letter to Trajan is a fascinating window into the world of the earliest Christians. I encourage you to the read the letter in full for yourself. Also, because we have Trajan’s letter reply to Pliny, we get to see how the Romans viewed Christians before AD 117:

You have taken the right line, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those de­nounced to you as Christians, for no hard and fast rule can be laid down, of universal ap­plication. They are not to be sought out; if they are informed against, and the charge is proved, they are to be punished, with this reservation—that if any one denies that he is a Christian, and actually proves it, that is by worshipping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation, however, suspect he may have been with respect to the past. Pamphlets published anonymously should carry no weight in any charge whatsoever. They constitute a very bad precedent, and are also out of keeping with this age.

Here we see that the earliest Christians were willing to give up public gatherings to play their role as exemplary citizens. What the faithful would not do is denounce their allegiance to Jesus or bow their allegiance to Caesar.

Oh, and for the record, these Christians were really being persecuted by the government.

 

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The excerpts above are from Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).

 

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Recently I was reminded of a Charlie-ism, a saying of the late Charles Siburt, who had a knack of compressing a great amount of wisdom in a few pithy aphorisms. Since I did my Doctor of Ministry work under his leadership, I heard many of his sayings first-hand. One was “Most wounds are self-inflicted.” And how true that is for leaders–at least, I can give testimony of this piece of wisdom.

I wondered if this might also be true of congregations. As I have coach and counselled churches and their leaders through the years, I have come to realized that getting churches to quit doing the counter-productive things was nearly as important as helping them do the right things. For example, if a church is not collecting basic information on visitors, then there can be no follow-up. Or if a church is not tracking individual attendance, then, they cannot be proactive in caring for people who are thinking about leaving.

While pondering the meaning of Charlie’s statement, it occurred to me that Peter Wagner in his book The Healthy Church (Regal, 1996) gave a list of what he called “Church Diseases” and, as I noticed, most of them were self-inflicted. Here is Wagner’s list with a quick explanation:

Ethnikitis happens when a church finds itself in an changing neighbourhood and refuses to adapt to serve the people who now actually live in their community.

 

People Blindness occurs when we look past the different kinds of people around us. The people are there but we, for various reasons, seem not to be able to see them.

 

Hypercooperation happens when a church works harder to get along with other believers rather than focusing on God’s mission .

 

Koinonitis is the disease we experience when our local fellowship is too tight to let new people in.

 

We suffer from Sociological Strangulation when the potential of growth is there but we can’t keep up with leadership and structural development to support growth.

 

Arrested Spiritual Development is the condition where long-time “disciples” of Jesus have not progressively grown into becoming like Jesus..

 

Saint John’s Syndrome is apathy, or “lukewarmness.”

Wagner was being somewhat playful in naming his “diseases,” but his goal was to help us do critical self-reflection and assessment in our work as congregational leaders. My point in sharing is that it’s possible in congregational life for most wounds also to be self-inflicted. And this leads me to another Charlie-ism, “If you can name it, you can manage it.”

 

How Should We Then Live

One of my favourite readings from early Christianity is this excerpt from an unknown writer offering a defence of what it means to be a Christian to a certain (also unknown) Diognetus. Writing about the end of the second century, the author seeks to show that Christians have a certain relationship to the countries and governments under which they find themselves living. Given the present politicized environment, it might be good medicine to help the church get back to being the church.

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. 2 For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. 3 This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. 4 But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. 

5 They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. 

6 They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. 7 They share their food but not their wives. 

8 They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh.  9 They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10 They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. 

11 They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. 12 They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. 13 They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. 14 They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. 15 They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. 16 When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. 

17 By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility. 6:1 In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.

Epistle to Diognetus 5:1–6:1

[Paragraphing added to aid reading]

“The Truth is Your Friend”

I’m not sure when I first heard this aphorism, but I’m fairly certain it came from the late Charlie Siburt, who was over the DMin program at Abilene Christian University. Charlie, a mentor of many a preacher, became well known for his pithy quips he used to help leaders think more deeply about their leadership.

One such quip, “The Truth is Your Friend” has been a quite useful, and sometimes painful, reminder that all of us sometimes have difficulty telling it like it is—and most often we don’t even tell ourselves the truth. Honestly, it takes discipline and resolution to face the truth in the eyes.

In the context of leadership, truth refers to seeking reality as it really is—to the best of our abilities. This discipline requires us neither to maximize nor minimize the actual state of things. But it also requires us to face our own propensity to deny reality. For example, I may know that my organization is not doing well financially and month after month I avoid looking at the books and getting a real dollar amount for what the organization really owes.  This situation will only get worse until I do the hard evaluation to gather the facts, or the truth. Then I must do something to change the course that has been laid. Obvious, right? But we all have practiced some form of avoidance, perhaps, in our finances but certainly in other areas of our lives.

We do this every time we hope something will get better by doing nothing about it. Perhaps doing nothing is the right thing to do, but only if nothing is done intentionally. And we should alway remember that even doing nothing, whether consciously or through avoidance, is a decision to “do” nothing.

There are several things we need to become more truthful about—and doing this will increase our pain at first but will produce positive fruit in the end. Here are some that I find painfully helpful.

  1. How is it with my soul, really? Our internal life is what we will play out in the various arenas of our lives. In short, if we are not good people we will not be good leaders.
  2. How well am I taking care of me? Leaders need to remember that their primary “tool” of effectiveness is how they manage themselves.
  3. Why am I avoiding painful, but necessary conversations? We all need to have these painful conversations. But when we find ourselves avoiding one we know we must have, then . . . the truth is our friend. The first truth, however, might be that we lack courage.
  4. What tasks am I putting off? We all favour tasks we like but sometime the ones we do not like so much are important for our and our organization’s success.
  5. What are things I really can not change now? The truth may be that while something needs attention, it does not necessary need to be now.

Perhaps you can think of some other questions or situations where “the truth is your friend.”

Motivational Speakers or Motivated Leaders

Following in the vein of yesterday’s post, those in leadership—to get their “data fix,” as Edwin Friedman would call it—often seek after the next best thing to catapult their leadership to the next level. One of the ways leaders seek to improve their leadership is through conferences decorated with a list of motivational speakers.

While thoughtful speakers can always teach us something, the one thing they cannot “teach” or “instill” in us is motivation. Of course, a speaker can inspire or guilt us into acting better (for a while) or give us a euphoric high as they describe the possibilities in front of us. But they cannot really “motivate” us and certainly not at that level of personal responsibility. That is a choice we must make and it will probably not be the result of having heard a great motivational speaker. Rather, it will be the brave act of confronting oneself about why we think and do (or don’t do) that things we do.

The subtle allusion here is that motivation is somehow externally activated. This is what gives power to quick fix mentality (go to this conference, read this book, listen to this speaker, ad infinitum) that promises that next year’s event will be bigger and better. Somehow we confuse attending conferences (and I do my good share of those) with actual training. We even give Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for just attending a lecture or a series of lectures without any proof that the experience changed anything.

Rather motivation is something the individual must own. Motivation is closely related to personal responsibility. For example, I do not get up every day to face the hard choices of leadership because I read a good book, went to a great conference, or heard a moving speaker, but because  I choose (everyday) to be a certain kind of leader. I bet the same is true of you.

What if leadership was actually less about motivation and more about who a person is? Less about doing and more about being?

Leadership Binges

Leadership has become a big and important word in my life—I have been involved in some form of leadership my entire adult life–both in the life of the church and now in Christian education. In Walker Percy-style, I get this nagging sense that what most are saying about leadership isn’t quite on target. Sure, there is a nugget here and a nugget there, but what is missing is something more comprehensive, something more wholistic, something that is more than just what leaders do, say, or how they act. And like Percy’s character Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, I find myself on the quest for something elusive. And like Binx, I don’t always have this nagging, gaping sense I’m missing something because I’m distracted by the details of everydayness, but when it comes, I can empathize with Binx:

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

The connection with the nature of leadership is that leadership is not (and should not be) a quest for the latest technique, the latest conference, the latest leadership guru who somehow, perhaps, might offer me the secret key to the mysteries of leadership. No, ultimately, the journey we call leadership is the same quest Binx is on. To find himself, or rather, more precisely, to find a self—A self that does not disintegrate under all the  pressures to conform to everyone’s demand that you be for them what they want you to be. However, a self that can remain connected to those around them so that that thing we call “leadership,” can actually happen. After all, it is true that if no one is following, you are not a leader.

Furthermore, this journey called leadership is prone to all kinds of false quests, that feels like one is on the quest, but ultimately leaves a person with that nagging, gaping sense that something is missing. The late Edwin Friedman noted in A Failure of Nerve that leaders today are “data junkies” under the false assumption that one more piece of information, one more technique, one more something, will some how make a leader, well, a leader. From this perspective, the chasing after the next conference, the next book, the next motivational speaker is more like an addictive binge than a real quest for what makes leaders whole. Thus, this chasing after the next “fix” is to confuse expertise with what really counts, namely, a leader’s presence.

In the next several blogs, I would like to continue to explore my own quest. If you are on this quest as well, please, let me know of your experiences of the quest.

Stop “Advancing the Kingdom” Now!

What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.

In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)

True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth  is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.

The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)

Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).

Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)

Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.

So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?

In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.

So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?