Revealed: The Need for The Spirit

23 01 2014

Friends, I have some tough words to speak today. I fought doing it, but I can’t keep them to myself, and I have to trust that being charitable doesn’t mean hiding from concerns.

I’ve written about translations before. It’s a complicated topic. No translation is perfect. No translation really ever will be. There will always be a need and a benefit to honest, unbiased scholarship. However, in the English-speaking world, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, we’re been exposed by God for hidden motives behind our translations, and the complications have been brewing for several decades.

Some translations will claim to be more “dynamic” or take a “thought-for-thought” philosophy. But this philosophy by itself is vain. This approach allows someone to believe they are less responsible for seeking God behind the text, when in reality it takes more active seeking to pay attention. It allows someone to believe they understand the original cultures of biblical times, when in reality the only culture they may understand is the one the translation chose to reflect. It allows someone to believe they have the intended meaning more often, when in reality they have been subjected to lowered defenses, and as a result take the translators’ opinion (as well-intentioned as it may be) as the intended meaning.

Some translations will claim to be more “literal” or take a “word-for-word” philosophy. This philosophy by itself is also vain. This approach allows someone to believe they possess the actual Word of God in their hands, when the actual Word is Christ Himself. It allows someone to believe they have the actual words of God Himself, when in reality the actual words are in other, ancient languages. It allows someone to believe that thier positions are simply “as God says it,” when in reality they too have been hindered in the natural duty to test the spirits; thus, they take hidden agendas behind the translation as gospel. For example: both the NRSV and NASB claim to be more literal. Yet the NRSV deliberately seeks to eliminate engendered language and in the process yields terminology inconsistent between testaments. Likewise, the NASB deliberately and unnecessarily seeks to limit words to a masculine form wherever possible, and in the process yields terminology that feeds subconscious sexism. Both of these translations are faithful to their intentions — those intentions just don’t safeguard as much as we want. Only God can do that.

See, often times, the translation is not about being “literal” or “dynamic,” but about being socio-politically conservative or liberal, and hence finding a specific “niche” in Church readership. Even those translations that seek to balance the two create the same problems for the same reasons, and the reliance upon these philosophies, indeed the fact that we use them as descriptions instead of the real perceptions we hold about Scripture, can lead to impoverishment. “Don’t worry about the problems with translations: just compare as many as you can.” So instead of being enriched, the believer is burdened with more work, more doubt, more confusion, and more costs. “Don’t worry about the other translation philosophy, just trust us.” And the believer is open to all sorts of influence for any number of unchecked biases, an influence which eventually causes division in the Church along social, political, and economic lines – none of which ought to hold the Church hostage.

What are we to do? This modern English-language Diaspora has revealed much about us as a Church. Firstly, it seems we need to make sure we are not taking any preconceptions about God or the world, and their respective intentions, to the biblical text. Secondly, we need to make sure we are not taking any preconceptions about translation to the text. The only way we do that is seeking God’s Spirit in Christ before seeking Him in the text. God did lead the Church to canonize the bible as it stands, after all. Does God break through the barriers we have to understanding Him? Absolutely. But does God also leave us responsible for our intentions in coming to Him? Just as absolutely.

The bottom line, friends: are we relying on something as if it were God in order to subconsciously stop seeking Him, or are we earnestly trying to listen to God and let Him lead us by and in accordance with His nature? Anyone can read any bible for any reason, and we know it. What differentiates the Church (or should differentiate it) is trusting in His Spirit. We need to continue seeking His Spirit in community, in prayer, in Scripture, and in shared activity. We need to continue trusting that His Spirit has been working in the Church historic, just as much as we need to continue trusting that His Spirit is working in the Church today.


The “Biblish” Bias

20 01 2014

There’s a threat to the gospel, and I’m going to call it “Biblish.” It’s the concept that one’s own understanding of Scripture is the only understanding of Scripture, or even that it is God’s own view of Scripture. If you’ve not encountered this, congratulations and do everything you can to keep yourself unstained by it.

As an example, I give you a “study” by Barna from 2004. The group claims only about half of all pastors in protestant branches of the Church tree have what they call a “biblical worldview.” Already, you should be asking yourself what they meant by that phrase. Good job. It means a delineation of six things, ironically not so unfamiliar to those of highly conservative evangelicalism. Go on, check the link.

Yeah. So basically, only half of pastors have a “biblical worldview” because only half of them are literalists. This comports with the “findings” that the group with the most “biblical” pastors are Southern Baptist, who tend to interpret the bible quite literally. I have absolutely nothing against the Southern Baptists as siblings in Christ. However, I do have something against a group such as Barna that conveys itself as unbiased while holding an obviously biased view of the Scripture in order to conduct research.

“OK, Mike. How would you define ‘biblical’?”

A fair question, to be sure. I’d define it as that which hold the Bible as central and primary in authority, allowing it to speak for itself. This may not sound very different from literalism, until you remember that such a definition encourages (or even demands) accounting for context and for the Bible’s own explanation of itself. This allows multiple views to be considered biblical. Let me illustrate by way of a few questions:

-Where’s Barna’s required criteria of caring for the poor as part of the gospel?

-Where’s Barna’s required criteria that Jesus is a Jew, and not a white United States citizen?

-Where’s Barna’s required criteria that context is a necessity to interpret the text, so we avoid, say, justifying slavery?

See, a pastor not having a biblical worldview is dangerous, yes. What is also dangerous is labeling people unbiblical simply because we wish they interpreted things just like us. That’s Biblish.


Have A Blessed MLK, Jr. Day!

15 01 2014


The Case of The Abandoning Parent

13 01 2014

Read that title again. Not “abandoned.” Abandoning.

In L.A. County, in fact in all surrounding counties as well, there is no shortage of strange and disparaging stories. The “baby in a dumpster” phenomenon might rightfully be considered the most depraved. But it is also a nationwide issue, and not isolated or sporadic in practice. A more recent case being one in Rockland County, NY, a baby was killed before being found at a recycling center

What’s our usual reaction to incidents like these? I know mine: initially I feel repulsion, confusion, and anger at the responsible party. What I have been challenged to feel is the root source of that grievous, highly unthinkable act – desperation.


“Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn,

     because there is no grass.” – Jeremiah 14:5


In context, the above verse doesn’t lose its applications to the one responsible for the helpless newborn, who becomes literally trashed. A helpless living being is clearly exposed to the harshest of all realities, starvation and death, by another being of like kind. In context for this passage, likewise, the circumstances causing the act are brought on by people who forsake the recognition of God as source of goodness and health. Theologically, one could argue both deified action and natural consequence for this behavior by the people of Israel; but it does not at the same time cover the fact that the action was taken “because there is no grass” – namely, because there is no sustenance, reliable or otherwise, for that living creature.

Inevitably, we hear some say at times like these, “This behavior was brought on by the individual person or people group. No one else can be blamed for this.” Surely Mary would’ve never abandoned Jesus for lack of provision, yes? Yet those circumstances are so far above and beyond our own normal lives that they are commemorated and joyously celebrated to the point of perpetuating a massive adherence to love, joy and salvation for centuries on end! We can’t possibly expect this same behavior of the everyday person, and yet still others sadden us by claiming that the only reason people like our poor abandoning parent suffer is that they don’t conform to a previously expected and imposed set of religious ideas, most commonly coined as “God’s wrath on the sinner.” The plain fact is that, in our case of the abandoning caretaker, not everyone can act like God or Jesus would be unnecessary, and whether or not there is a spiritual cause for the depraved behavior doesn’t silence the fact that whoever abandons an infant feels somehow driven to desperation. In fact, even if it were true that people automatically suffer due to a lack of faith, that can really only be known as a reason when the physical cause is silenced.

The direct point: are we, as the Church, willing to address physical causes for misguided, immoral, or desperate behavior? Are we, as the Church, willing to act out the values that we experience or at least hear clearly touted during the Advent season? Are we, as the Church, willing to own up to the reality we claim: that God is the only stable, resilient, legitimate hope for humankind?

If so, that all-encompassing truth can only be known by virtue of the Church exercising not judgment of the world, but empathic action towards it on all fronts.


Romans 9-11: Beyond the Salvation Debate

9 01 2014

500-year-old debates can be boring. And frankly, if a debate goes on for that long, one could be forgiven for wondering about the debate’s relevance. And yet, still to this day, millions of us Christians will debate whether or not salvation can be lost and/or regained. One of the key passages brought up in such a debate is Romans 9-11, and for good reason: both sides can find indicative support for a view.

But what if that passage relays both sides as a cue that the passage isn’t about whether or not a group is “God’s people”? What if the fact that Romans 9-11 can’t answer that question definitively means it isn’t meant to answer it? What if the passage instead stood to relate the experience and expression of God’s goodness and faithfulness?

See, the key to a question about being “saved” is one of identification – are we seen by God as his? However, Paul seems rather to assume that God’s identification of people is already obvious, and doesn’t really discuss that identification (what it is, how it’s attained, etc.) in detail. He simply names them as they are already identified. He names Israel as a specifically separate group from the Church, which would be a problem for the Calvinist if the debate were about salvation. And he states explicitly that “God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn” (11:29), which might otherwise be a huge problem for the semi-Pelagian. Comparisons are made exclusively with Israel in terms of their experience and understanding of God’s promise to Abraham – a promise of faith. And notice that Paul calls the Jewish people “Israel” even when referring to their disobedience and/or unbelief.

Paul speaks about a lot in this passage, but get this: what he doesn’t say is whether or not being a branch can change, because that’s not his point. What he does say is that Israel can and will experience faith again. What he does describe is being connected to God by that faith.

We might be able to debate what being a branch means, but that would be like substituting sugar for aspartame when the recipe calls for salt. Instead of debating who is who, Paul assumes identity is obvious to argue instead that believers ought not be complacent, or think of themselves as any more special than the Israelites. He even states as much directly (11:25). In fact, I’d even go so far as to say Paul literally negates the discussion is about willing or working for anything. Romans 9:16 literally translates to: “Therefore, then: neither from the will nor from the work but from the mercy of God.” The words “will,” “work” and “mercy” all agree in ending. For you fellow Koine nerds out there, that means they’re paralleled, referring to the same concept. The discussion is not about who wills what, or who works for what, but about God having mercy. And mercy is only appropriate if the receiver doesn’t deserve it.

Hence, the purpose of the argument seems not to be determining whether or not someone can lose salvation, but to promote humility after understanding God’s plan, while being the continued physical expression of God’s message to the world. Humility is the key — humility is the point. If we’re concerned enough about forensic identification to attempt to construct an argument out of a passage that doesn’t seek to settle the question, perhaps we need to make sure we’re not ignoring the greater calling: the right attitude to have while experiencing God.


Love-Motivated Translation

6 01 2014

“Which translation are you using?”

Such a question is so common in some Christian circles that we may be getting used to glossing over the controversy behind it. In the question lay a whole host of potential motives, motives none of us can predict flawlessly. One motive might be to more closely follow the example of a fellow believer, or to expose imposed values we attach to one or another translation. Another motive may be to debate the accuracy of one bible translation against another.

The debate is something that seems to recur in my spiritual life, perhaps in concert with a Church that is “ever reforming” by God’s guidance. But at the moment, the debate seems to be closed to me, because one tiny phrase – used in the bible itself – blows the debate wide open. And it’s probably not the phrase most readily in mind.

In many translations, that phrase is: “this word means.” Found in John 9:3, one would certainly be forgiven for thinking the phrase anything but monumental. Of all criteria, it contains a vague pronoun. But taken as a whole, it signifies something deeply foundational to translation philosophy: the type and level of clarity reproduced in a desired (or “target”) language. And this phrase reveals a desire to clarify something directly.

While I’m aware of the temptation to claim a false dichotomy here, there seem to be two major ways to view the meaning behind this phrase: 

(1)   The author or copier of the text at least believes that everything in the gospel account will already be clear to the audience, and therefore anything that could be misconstrued must be clarified in the text itself. 

(2) That which is unclear will be made clear by the text itself, if necessary.

These two approaches appear, quite obviously, vast in difference. Which one do you lean towards?

I ask because I’m willing to bet that each interpretation would naturally appeal to someone for whom a certain style of biblical translation is also preferable. Those of use favoring a more literal translation probably thought (2) the more rational option; those of us favoring a more conceptual translation probably thought (1) the more likeminded choice.

As a pastoral figure, when I’m asked that question at the top of the post, I’ll always encourage the translation that speaks to the believer’s heart most effectively. That of course is easy to suggest when as a pastoral figure I have 10 translations on the top bookshelf (yes…literally). And I certainly do vacillate between them, but that vacillation is also measured by temperance and context. The bottom line is that not everyone can be, or should feel that they have to be, numbed by and inundated with text up near their eyeballs.

(OK, I guess text does have to be up near eyeballs if a person wants to read.)

Yet if I had to choose one translation…just one…for every single congregant I would ever pastor…actually, I think I’d faint from holding my breath trying to decide. Maybe that’s because people need more than that. We need more than someone making a single choice, or recommendation, an easy way out to settle in and not be challenged ever again. For example: are there more possible meanings in a literal translation? Yes, and over the course of a believer’s lifetime that versatility may prove slightly more edifying, but such a wide range of possibilities opens the door for a variety of misleading or unhelpful understandings, too. See, it’s not about the translation – it’s about making sure the message of the text is clear as far as possible, and that happens through both translation and community. We as the Church exist to “translate” God’s love to one another and enjoy that, all the time.

So perhaps the key is the wider context of John 9:3. No matter what we take as the meaning behind the phrase “this word means,” we can be sure that the bible seeks to be clear to the audience. We can also be sure that such clarity was encouraged and provided for in the community of faith – the author (or a copier) clarified the Aramaic for an audience, a wider community of which the author was part. Therefore, if the bible isn’t clear to someone because of either a lack of clarity in the text, a lack of lived-out translation by the community of faith, or both, such would seem contrary to the heart of God.

Churched, Unchurched’s Beliefs

2 01 2014

As a matter of being upfront with my readership, I’m going to lay out exactly where I stand on common issues at this moment, which is January of 2014. This is not a statement of faith per se, but a disclaimer of in-flux personal beliefs, and as a matter of Christian maturity are therefore open to discussion or change. I always welcome questions.

Where I Stand

  • The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed are valid and sound in all their tenets.
  • People are saved by a faith in Christ alone that, of necessity, leads to acts of love.
  • “The Word” is Christ himself, thanks to John 1:1.
  • The bible is therefore not God, but a wholly faithful and infallible record of God’s relationship with humanity throughout humanity’s existence.
  • The bible therefore neither claims nor intends to speak with absolute certainty on matters outside of or inconsequential to this relationship.
  • God initiates relationship and seeks to interact with, not control, an individual.
  • Scripture is unchanging in essence, but that essence must be made clear as a matter of Christian responsibility.
  • The original texts in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew are to be represented as entirely as possible in any translation of Scripture, but the only languages to fully contain and reveal God’s intended meaning are the original languages of Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew – not any modern language.
  • Spiritual gifts as named explicitly in Scripture do exist, but are given at the sole discretion of God himself and should be exercised responsibly, not without biblical guideline. If not exercised responsibly, those gifts become invalid in the exerciser.
  • Women and men were initially created as equal partners; thus, they share equal places in ministry due to Christ’s restoration of humanity to that initial state by means of the New Covenant.
  • The New Covenant is that of grace through faith in Christ; the Old Covenant is that of grace through the Law of Moses. The covenants are neither mutually exclusive nor opposed, but rather steps of development and maturity in the relationship between God and humanity. Therefore, the Law of Moses still has relevance and social application, but the Law of Christ (namely, love borne of faith in him) triumphs.
  • Religious traditions exist due to social, cultural and historical circumstances; as such, they are both due respect and subject to charitable criticism.
  • The gospel is to be shown in word and deed, but in deed first and in words only if those words will be clearly understandable to the hearer.
  • Christ is spiritually but not physically present in sacraments; then again, Christ can be spiritually present without sacraments anyway. Sacraments are therefore done out of obedience as practical metaphors for the faith. The unquestionable sacraments are the ones clearly instituted by Christ himself for all his followers: baptism and Holy Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper).
  • Anything in Scripture taken as a matter of communal faith must of necessity account for the historical, linguistic and socio-cultural context of that Scripture.
  • Anything in Scripture which remains unclear or debatable after accounting for that context is therefore a matter for individual conscience only.

To my knowledge, I still have meaningful relationships across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, including Reform Jews and Roman Catholics. I’ve been a member in several denominations, including Evangelical Covenant, Free Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian (PCUSA) and most recently United Methodist. Hopefully this clarifies any questions about the direction and intent of myself and/or this ministry, but if not: email me! :D


Free Methodist


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.