In Churches of Christ we are well known for our discussions on “how”. How do you baptize, how do you sing, how do you interpret scripture? These are all very important things, things that should require study and prayer and the answers we reached must be firmly rooted in the pages of scripture.
What I am seeing more and more is the tendency to answer these questions in a binary or mechanistic way that often misses the very point of the texts that are being used. It feels like there is a missing piece in how we go about reading scripture and then discussing it together (if you can call some of what I see out there discuss). I see people who are trying desperately hard to nail down the “how” question with venom, arrogance, and anger. It seems they aren’t reaching for the “why” because the “why” would result in not just scripture-centered doctrine but also Christ-centered lives and actions. We need a more holistic approach that takes into account more of the meaning of scripture (as scripture does give us the why over and over again), not less.
Here is one example from the Old Testament to illustrate the point from Micah 6:6-8,
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
From a mechanical point of view, just reading scripture for exactly what it says…dotting i’s and crossing t’s…most of the initial question would be exactly what God requires. God did tell them to do burnt offerings. God did tell them to offer rams as sacrifice. God even told them to offer olive oil (Lev 2:1)! Certainly God doesn’t desire nor require human sacrifice…but that isn’t the point (a bit of hyperbole here). Micah asks God a perfectly legitimate question with potential answers drawn straight from scripture. Game, set, match. Of course God said He requires that people come before Him doing those things but that wasn’t the point. Just doing those things alone isn’t what it is about.
There is an approach that gets the text mechanically right but still comes out wrong in the end.
The point wasn’t to come up with a list of ritual obedience and obey it…doing it just because it is to be done as commanded in scripture. The point in those offerings was that there was to be an inner transformation that runs far deeper than making sure you do your offering to keep God happy. God isn’t pleased by obedience for obedience sake without inner transformation.
So there is another question we have to start asking and answering. This question is the one people are asking but we often fail to address. It is the question of “Why?” We often fail to address that question because that is not typically an “insider” question and most ministers live in insider land. Then we wonder why outreach is so hard when we are talking over and past people (if we even have an audience with them in the first place) without first taking into account the questions they may actually be asking. We also wonder why people aren’t very committed…how committed are you to a list of “how’s”? I don’t know about you but I am more committed to a person I love who gives me the how’s than I am to the how’s on their own. This impersonal approach to biblical interpretation, doctrine and practice has hurt the church and brought many people down with it. We are seeing more and more that how you do something doesn’t matter much until you know why it is important. Both are important but one has been lacking. Time for balance.
So let’s talk about “why?” a bit. Why do we do these things? Is it because God said so (there is a place for that at times…do something purely because it is the right thing to do or just because God said it even though we don’t get it) or because these acts do something transformative in the world? Why do we assemble? Why do we baptize with water by immersion? Why do we take the Lord’s Supper every week? Why do we sacrifice for others? Why do we follow Jesus? Why, why, why? It is a perfectly legitimate question and one that must be answered before we are able to answer the “How?” question adequately and even accurately.
Last, much of this comes down to relationship. Why do I dust the house? I don’t do it because I like to…truth is I really dislike dusting the house. I dust the house because my wife appreciates it and she knows that I do it even though I don’t like to. It isn’t done because it is on the “to do” list either. I do it because I know it makes her happy. The bi-product of that is, it helps make me just a bit more into the image of Jesus…submitting where I wouldn’t otherwise care to submit…doing things that I don’t enjoy doing….participating in a real, loving relationship that involves choices, love and connection. THAT is to “walk humbly” with my wife…just as the things I do in my life that connect me with God. I don’t do the faith thing and all that comes with it just for the sake of doing it. Instead, I have faith and live that out because doing so is me “walking humbly with God.” There is no other place I would rather be or thing I would rather do! Along the way the “to do’s” will get done because that is part of connecting with God. There’s my “why” and it doesn’t diminish in the least the fact that God requires things or expects things of me…it just gets me there through a more Christ-like door than getting fixated on only addressing the “how?”
So keep asking how…but make sure that you back up and work on the why questions as well. By the way, God never desires you conclude a “how” that requires you to be rude or arrogant to make it happen.