Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Who's got change?

I taught yesterday from the book of Acts, as our church begins to consider what God has for our future. I pointed out the reality that things were constantly changing in the early church, as she moved from uniformity to diversity (Jews + Hellenist Jews) to greater diversity (Jews + Hellenist Jews + Samaritans) to greater diversity still (Jews + Hellenist Jews + Samaritans + Romans). Along the way, not only did the demographic of the church change, as new people were added who brought different cultural views and perspectives to the table, but the rules changed as well. Circumcision was dropped as a requirement for salvation, as was abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols.

At the end of the sermon, I mistakenly declared, in a concluding bullet point, that 'the only constant' is change. Someone replied to this in following manner:

"...were does God's truth play into this? Are His Word and 'the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints' mutable just as, apparently, His Church is? The main point I took away from the discussion of Acts was that nothing is lasting - let alone everlasting - not even God's decrees concerning His Church in the New Testament."

I appreciate the feedback, and felt that it would offer a good basis for some discussion. I'm interested in hearing your opinions regarding the following questions:

#1 - What is it about God that is 'unchangeable'? Covenants seem to come and go. The Bible says that, in response to Moses' prayer of intercession, God changed His mind. God moved from revealing Himself through a gathered nation (Israel), to revealing Himself through a scattered people (the church). So what are the parts of God that are 'changeless?'

#2 - How would answer this person's question: "Are His Word and the 'faith which was once for all delivered to the saints' changeable?"

This is an important discussion because it centers on issues of sorting out that which we must hold to tightly (like the virgin birth, the death and resurrection of Christ), and that which is mutable (like what kind of music we'll have in our churches). I've chosen easy examples... but of course, the rub will always come with the harder examples.

I welcome your thoughts!


At 8/9/08 17:22, Blogger Kristie said...

HI there,

I like this question.

My instantaneous reaction is to think that the Word, as spoken in John 1:1, Jesus, is unchanging. God's love and grace for us never change. This is the constant and soothing truth of the universe I find so compelling. Most things, like you state, do change. This to be sure. We have to be willing to change with our culture and adjust or we end up being stuck.

The truth though that Jesus is constant and unchanging in His love for me is deep and beautiful.

I think of the feeling I have about my parent's house. They live on Lamer Street in Burbank, CA. They've lived there since their 2nd year of marriage, and they brought me home from the hospital to this house. Along with the physical sameness, I really have experienced the constant love and availability of my parent's love, listening ear, and support.

In the last month my parents have added 8 feet on to the dining room. They've added a carport, a front porch and a ramp which I joke with my dad as "wheelchair prep".

The house is now gray, and not light brown. It truly looks like a house you'd see on the front of a Restoration Hardware magazine...not the 70's relec it once was. It has changed. It has changed to accomodate a changing dynamic of them getting older, their having a little more cash to fix things the way they've wanted, and even bring this up to look like the culture.

What hasn't changed is the fact that I will always have a key to the front door, I am welcome there 24-7 for love support and care. I love this. I can count on this.

While there will be day when my parents don't live there any longer, I see this as a clear analogy to my relationship with Jesus.

I have changed, and I have come to know him better. The church has changed, and grown to accomodate the culture around her. (or not in many many cases)

What does not change is the nature of who God is. He is still the same Father. He is available. That doesn't change...and we can always come to Him with our needs, and expect His love and grace to reside in this "home".

At 8/9/08 17:41, Blogger TheMinorAdjustment said...

To answer the first portion of the first question, I'd point you in the direction of the Christian Research Journal. In the Vol. 31, No. 3, 2008 edition, Hank Hanegraaff says the following about God knowing the future... not an all together different subject:

"... Finally, while open theists suggest that God cannot know the future exhaustively because He changes His plans as a result of what people do, in reality it is not God who changes, put people who change in relationship to God. By way of analogy, if you walk into a headwind, you struggle against the wind; if you make a u-turn on the road, the wind is at your back. It is not the wind that has changed, but you have changed in relationship to the wind. As such, God's promise to destroy Nineveh was not aborted because He did not know the future but because the Ninevites, who had walked in opposition to God, turned from walking in their wicked ways. Indeed, all of God's promises to bless or judge must be understood in light of the condition that God withholds blessing on account of disobedience and withholds judgment on account of repentance (Ezek. 18; Jer. 18:7-10" (CRJ, 2008, p. 54).

At 8/9/08 18:21, Blogger greg said...

I'm glad for this blog post. :) It was something that I had concerns about as well. Richard, thank you for your humility in writing this.

I think one of the big distinctions here is the old covenant vs. the new covenant. A big change occurred in that transition. It wasn't a continual gradual change, although it took some time for folks to "get" things. :) So much of the change we see in the book of Acts is because of the coming of the new covenant.

However, we don't have a "newest covenant" and yet another "very very newest covenant". :) From the coming of the "new covenant" until now, the truths don't change, and the rules don't change; however the applications in a cultural context will, and some of our misunderstandings will (hopefully) be corrected. But God's truth as expressed in scripture won't be invalidated by some "mysterious revelation" someone has. That mistaken idea is part of what led the Roman Catholic church astray.

To quote even BCC's own statement of faith, "Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct." It is a part of our "common essentials" of our faith that scripture, the 66 books, is the supreme authority for our faith. Nothing else can change that :)

We also need to be careful to watch the separation between historical record and theological teaching in scripture. Historical record often records what happened without implying whether it was correct or not. If scripture records that the disciples and/or church leaders had a position on something, and then that position changed, that does not mean that God's "rules" for them changed. Scripture is unable to err (infallible), but it does often record when someone makes an error! :)

At 8/9/08 19:06, Blogger Odyssey said...

I think it is always important for us to remember our blurry vision in regards to such questions. The previous posts have done well in clearing the air. We are constantly changing, perhaps in response to our enemy's changing ways to turn us from God?

Consider this... I believe it was Martin Luther who pointed out that God had to know how everything would turn out. He knows how we will respond to every possibility even better than we do. The essence of omniscience. Further, being omnipotent, what He knows He will make certain happens as He expects.

If we know that God is good and seeks our best, that unchangeable fact coupled with His character of all knowing and all powerful give us great comfort. We may change in our relationship and response to Him, but if we keep to the certainty of what we can know is unchangeable, we can have total confidence.

It always helps me to keep that foundation beneath me when approaching such big questions as, "What can change?"

At 9/9/08 01:20, Blogger postcall said...

Acts 10 gives me a huge headache, for this very reason. I didn't have a chance to hear the sermon, but perhaps it was discussed.

When I was in college, the hot topic was acceptance of homosexuality within campus Christian ministries. Several of my friends (on leadership, no less) came out of the closet, and they argued for acceptance of their lifestyle. There were several arguments they used from scripture, but the most effective was to argue from analogy to Peter's revelation to eat "unclean" foods. One of my friends was struggling with his homosexuality for years, and then one day, he was crying during one of his quiet times and he heard a distinct voice say, "It's okay, it's okay." And he took that to mean God's approval of what was previously prohibited in scripture. Peter's experience in Acts 10 seems to argue that, at least in that instant, revelation trumps scripture, and my friend argued that this "revelation" was in line with God's principles of love and acceptance and ever enlarging diversity within the kingdom. An approval of previously "unclean" sexual acts, so to speak.

Unfortunately, when God says, "I'm rewriting my laws," it sets a very dangerous precedent. Things become open to interpretations such as above. I've heard many people argue that Acts 10 should be seen in the context of the new covenant, but I find that argument to be less than satisfying, and definitely not watertight. After all, if God could change his mind back then, why can't he change his mind again? And what does this say about the immutability of God's word (e.g. Isaiah 40:8)?

Imagine if 100 years from now, God decides that he wants circumcision to be mandatory for Christians again. Or that eating that bacon burger was a sin after all. What a headache ...

At 9/9/08 11:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer #1: I think that it's God's His heart and His character that are unchangeable rather than his "rules." He is Love. He is _________ (fill in the blank with His other attributes). His "laws" and His covenants do not fully define Him because they were merely put in place to show the corruption of man and the faithfulness of God. Each "regulation" is only to point out a new revelation about God- not a stringent set of parameters that we are always required to follow blindly, but an invitation to the reality that our wholeness can only be fulfilled in Christ. I fact, doesn't Paul make it clear that no one can follow these covenants and rules completely?

In regard to #2: "His Word" is often identified as the bible- but in reality, isn't the bigger context that "His Word" is Jesus? This isn't to belittle or abandon the scriptures, since in them we behold words written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- but THE WORD is and will always be Christ. Christ was the word spoken that formed the reality that we live in. Christ was the word made flesh that brought about salvation. And again, the reality of "THE WORD" is that he doesn't change. Words may change. Our perception of reality may change- but Jesus isn't suddenly different... it's usually us who are different.

And "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints"- in the context of Jude, it looks as though these people are dealing with an issue that Paul addressed in Romans, too. There are some who use grace as an excuse to do whatever they wanted. It's not a call back to a legalistic interpretation of the law, but rather the idea that we need to act in accordance with the heart of God rather than use forgiveness and mercy as an excuse for selfish behavior...

With that in mind- selfish behavior on my part can be many things. Honestly, imposing a set of regulations on other people can sometimes be selfish because it makes me feel better when I can succeed where others fail. But other times, it's selfish for me not to confront other people about things that they're doing because I'm just trying to avoid conflict and make things easier between us.

In all cases, I believe that the heart is what matters- God's heart and ours. As my heart changes to be more like Christ's- I'm sure that the covenant between us will change as well because I'll have a fuller understanding of "what is good and what the Lord requires of [me]: to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [God]."

At 10/9/08 11:08, Blogger Myowne said...

The existence, the grassroots Presence of God, beyond the frailty and evolution of our world is forever unchangeable. The same God in the Bible, the same God that created, the same God that gave is the One that we love and worship today. To me that is amazing to think of.

Truly the whole earth and the inhabitants of it, including you and me, will pass away, but the God that orchestrated the finite quality of our existence has the power to remain. I think it is awesome that this God that does create a temporary world that will one day no longer remain in the same place of existence can Himself remain eternal. He Who does not pass away creates human beings that will pass into another state of being (through death), into the place where He is. That is a comfort when so many other things have the capacity to fail or to one day no longer exist on this planet.

I can look to the longevity of God and know I can put my faith in that, I can put stock in the fact that the Great I Am is...not

As far as determining if He changes His mind, He can. As far as the changing climate of the Church to make it a more perfect Body, it does. As far as His Word changing to meet conditions of humanity and culture, it does not so much change as in application and meaning. I believe it is continuing what Christ started when He arrived on this earth in human form. It is yet being fulfilled and fulfilling the spiritual work and progression it was sent to do - bringing us that are part of the Body into a more mature faith, into a more perfect state (the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ). This is not a matter of God being uncertain as to what He truly intends, He gives the Word for the very reason of human transformation into what His intention was in the very beginning.

At 10/9/08 17:13, Blogger Geoff said...

Hi Richard... lots of good responses here. I agree with the statement "the only constant is change" from a philosophical perspective. I think of Heraclitus' words, "You cannot step into the same river twice..."

Of course, from a theological perspective, there is one true "constant": God. But, since none of us can grasp God's essence, we rely upon what we believe to be God's true revelation: Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. So, in effect, this revelation becomes our "constant." (thinking of LOST, anyone? :-D)

Actually, Scripture becomes more of a constant than Jesus, because it is still tangible. Jesus is primarily known via the witness of Scripture. Sure, there are spiritual experiences, but those are usually not sufficient foundations for doctrine. And that's really what we're dealing with here, right? What is the true Christian doctrine? And do we know it?

So, the "unchangeable" God (however you define unchangeable) is known to us primarily third-hand: God --> Jesus --> Bible. Of course, we believe the Spirit of God flows through all this, so God is known "first-hand" by faith, but if we're talking about tangible knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we can actually see, Scripture is the most obvious choice.

So, it seems to me that what most people mean by question #1 is really something like: "What is unchangeable about the Bible?" The assumption is that if we can figure that out, we'll know what is unchangeable about God. But is this really a fair assumption?

What if we found out (as we already have, to some degree) that statements in the Bible are not always literally true? Does that mean that our faith is no longer solid? What if all the evidence someday suggests that MOST of what the Bible speaks of is completely false? Does that mean God, or God's Word, has changed? Do we have to cling rigidly to inerrancy in order to save the Bible from corruption? I don't think so. Because God is not dependent upon the Bible, the Bible is dependent upon God.

It seems to me that the Bible gives us a broad outline of God's Truth, and we humans have, over the centuries, filled in the gaps, with various answers. Some of those have been found to resonate with the Christian faith as a whole and have remained with us, some have not. (Obviously, if we got rid of Jesus' divinity, Christianity would be pretty useless.) But if our faith in God is dependent upon the complete stability of the Bible, I think we will be disappointed, because the Bible will always be, to some degree, a reflection of the people who are interpreting it. It's just unavoidable.

This doesn't mean that we should just give up and announce that "everything is relative" or whatever. It means, rather, that we must decide where we will stand, based upon what seems the most true to us and the whole Church, and live there, relying upon God's justice and mercy to ultimately make everything right in the long run. It means that we live with (as Richard pointed out) with both grace and conviction.

So, to answer question #2, I would say, "No, God's Word (properly understood) and the gift of faith, are NOT changeable, but everything else is, and since we are humans, we will have to live with the tension of both certainty and uncertainty at work in our lives."

I think Greg makes a good point, in that Christians have only two covenants to work with: God's covenant with Israel, and the new covenant in Jesus Christ. So, we can't try to appeal to some "newer" covenant. Everything we believe has to be guided by the new covenant with Christ. So, what does that covenant look like? What are Jesus' main themes? What was his purpose? What did he tell his followers to do?

While we may never know true stability, answering those questions will guide us as we negotiate this ever-changing world. If we believe that, we won't need to fear change, because we are trusting not in our own stability, or even the stability of Scripture, but in the stability of God.


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