How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.

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Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).

On Working Out a New Theology

Last year a bright friend of mine who is a missionary in Jordan found himself realizing that big parts of the theology he grew up with could no longer be sustained by the Bible. This was causing him a pretty grueling experience of trying to sort it all out. I sent him this note:

On theology: several times in my life large chunks of my theology exploded in front of me. It felt like safety to run back and dive in to what I had formerly believed, but it would have been intellectually dishonest and fake, because I knew it had too many holes in it. I couldn’t “unlearn” the new facts that had shot holes through my former theology. It’s ok for it all not to come together again right away. Some times it took me several years. I stuck doctrines (or how several fit together) in the “pigeon hole of suspended judgment” and kept reading, talking and thinking and let it take as long as it took to piece together something new. Sometimes it was several years. Each time a piece clicks into place it’s very encouraging. I know the (for me frustrated) feeling of not being able to express what I believe about something even to close people like my brother in law, because I’m not sure what to say and how to even fit it together or even what it is. That’s all fine. Growth takes time. Wiser, smarter men than us have been through this in other generations and now it’s our turn to be faithful to go thru it. As long as you keep loyal to Jesus throughout the process, the doctrines can wax and wane, come and go, piece together or be full of gaps – I think it’s all fine with God. He knows if I love Him or not.  People get loving God and loving doctrines confused. It’s easy to feel like a heretic when you are on your way to a new theology. It’s not heresy, it’s just that you are still looking for what the new theology is that takes into account the “externalities” that blew up your former one. The road to a new, honest theology that brings glory to God is pretty cloudy and foggy while you walk it (unless it’s not for geniuses, but I’m not one). Stuff will start fitting together as time goes by. What I would hate to see you do is shut down the process out of anxiety and “go back” to believing something that you may have seen has some serious holes in it. It’s an understandable psychological move people make – but it’s dishonest about what they’ve learned about the bible – sort of like sticking their head in the sand in order to avoid the tough work of sorting something new out. You are too gifted, too bright, too all kinds of things to be wasted doing that.

I just backpacked Pine Creek Gorge with my son

Every year before he goes back to college my oldest son and I go backpacking somewhere for two or three days. This year we climbed the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon/ Pine Creek Gorge into the Natural Area and then packed down to the creek and camped under the hemlocks beside the stream. Juvenile Common Mergansers, a bald eagle and perhaps the nicest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught were some of the creatures we shared the Gorge with.

Each year we take along a couple copies of a recent theology book and have a blast reading it simultaneously laying in the tent at night and talking back and forth about it.  This year we took N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, a book that’s been out for quite some time, but which Tanner had never read. I heartily recommend it:  it’s one of the best introductions to what we really mean by Christian spirituality for the postmodern world. Wright is the leading New Testament scholar on the planet, an Anglican who has been at the forefront of both Pauline and historical Jesus research for more than two decades.

As we were soaking up the extreme beauty of the Gorge we talked about the bizarre Left Behind version of Christian eschatology in which they imagine God abandoning  His good creation – the earth – and destroying it. “Why would anybody be attracted to such an ugly and disheartening  story?” I asked my son rhetorically as we stood in the creek. We commented what a joyful addition to our lives the biblical doctrine of the renewal of all things has been for us. That is, the Bible teaches that, rather than betraying it, God intends to renew the world, healing Creation of all its ills – and all of the mountains, rivers, dolphins, bluejays, wildflowers  et etc  will still be around for us to thrill to enjoy in the Age to Come. What a better, more Gospel “Good News” story than the toxic, twisted Left Behind plotline.

In the next blog I’ll cite the biblical references for the healing of all Creation.