Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Outside of the Box?

In a conversation, someone posed an interesting and much needed question to me. "Is it wise to think outside of the box?" There are many, including myself, who have used this phrase. Wisdom would seem to dictate that this, like many other things, should have a caveat to it. Many things pressed to the extreme can be self-defeating and have just the opposite effect we desire. As I reflect on this question, I am not thinking of things such as science, medicine, and technology. We all can readily see the great progress and improvements we have had in these areas due to "outside the box" thinking. Of course, there are some serious caveats, such as the issues associated with cloning, abortion, and other things that "outside the box" thinking has brought. There still has to be some sort of limitation when you go outside the box, especially in the area of ethics. But this is not what I am thinking about.

I am thinking about our faith in God as we live it out in our daily life. Is it wise to "think outside the box" as it relates to my faith? As I reflect on this, I need to back up and ask myself the question, "What does this phrase mean?" The idea of a "box" suggests limitation. Limitation is not inherently a bad thing. God placed bounds on the sea so that it would not inundate the dry land. This is a limitation that is a blessing to us land-lovers. God also set a boundary between night and day. Without this limitation, our world would either freeze to death or burn up. God gave the Torah to his people, which also had limitations. It would be similar to putting a fence around the yard to keep the children from wandering out into traffic. Keeping the Torah was a limitation that God gave for the good of his people. God has limited even our life span. In the beginning, it appears that humans lived nearly a thousand years. During that time, the world became very wicked, and God was grieved about what had happened to man. Imagine the amount of knowledge, wisdom, and technical expertise you could amass if you could live that long! Since sin had corrupted mankind, imagine the amount of godless pride you could also amass as well! God decided to limit man's years. Though the text does not say whether this was a punishment or gift, this limitation can be seen as a blessing by limiting the amount of pride we could amass in a lifetime. So, a box is not inherently a bad thing.

On the other had, a box is not inherently a good thing either. If the box means falling short of God's will, it is actually a bad thing. Those who think outside of the box cast off whatever falls short of God's will. Some examples include people like Hezekiah who did not accept the status quo and enacted reforms in order to be more faithful to Yahweh. He broke down the high places, which had been around for so long, the people accepted them as a part of life. He also destroyed the bronze serpent that God had instructed Moses to build because Israel began to venerate it and burn incense to it. Then there was Josiah, who also enacted reforms that not only included destroying the high places, but also destroyed the first shrine that Jereboam ben Nebat had built at the beginning of his reign 300 years earlier. He even went so far as disinterring the graves associated with the high places and burning the bones on their altars in order to defile them. This was definitely "outside of the box." For the Jews, especially the Pharisees, Jesus himself was way outside of the box. His actions on the Sabbath, his revolutionary teachings about the nature of greatness, mercy, and justice were all outside of the box. The inclusion of the Gentiles into the Kingdom was way outside the box for many Jews, including Peter the Apostle. He had a lot of trouble with accepting this to be the new norm. Throughout history, there have been others who have went outside the box, such as John Wycliff, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell and Pardee Butler. Going outside of the box resulted in death threats for people like these. One translated the Bible into a language all people would be able to read and not just those with advanced degrees and training. Another was very innovative and used the printing press to distribute scriptures to the common man. One was a professor of theology that dared to question the doctrines, practices, and beliefs of the church. Another taught that as God's people, we are not of the world; therefore there is no such thing as a "state church." God's people are citizens of Heaven. One decided to preach the Gospel outside in the open air to the lowliest classes of people who did not attend a Cathedral, and then enrolled them in classes dealing with holy living after their conversion. Before this, preaching was confined to the cathedral to those acceptable classes of people who attended. Another taught that we should discard all creeds because they tend to be divisive, and that our only authority should be the word of God, and that all who claim to be Christians should unite rather than divide into various sects. Then there were those who made moves to abolish slavery, speaking out against those brethren who waffled on the issue and those who supported slavery. Many brethren not only accepted, but actively promoted slavery. For many Americans, including Christians, the rejecting of slavery was most definitely outside of the box. These ideas were revolutionary. They were outside the box. So, a box is not inherently a good thing either.

So, what of the question? Is it wise to think outside the box? I suppose it depends on what you mean by the "box." By itself, this is a nebulous question.

As I reflect further, it occurs to me that we all have a "box." It is our way of understanding the nature of our world, our humanity, and the nature of the God who created it. It consists of what we think is right, good, and proper. Fifteen hundred years ago, the "box" included the belief in "Christian" monarchies, and that the government and God's kingdom were one and the same. Since the time of the reformation, especially the Anabaptists, that has changed. This is one example of something in the box that did not belong there.

I remember putting together some toolboxes at one of my jobs. Everyone's toolbox had to be identical to the master toolbox, which was the standard. There was the master toolbox, and there was my toolbox. They had to match. Once put together, everyone was issued one of these toolboxes to go out and do their jobs. If something was missing from the box, no one could check out until the missing tool was found. I remember one time when no one could go home for a couple of hours because someone on the shift did not account for all his tools and we all wound up having to go look for it. This was not just an issue about missing tools, but about tools being left in equipment that could cause damage, dollars, or even death. Tools left in running machinery can be disastrous. Each tools was shadowed, which made it easy to identify what was supposed to be in that particular spot in the toolbox. This was a reflection of the "standard" of what was supposed to be in the toolbox.

It occurs to me as I think about our "box," the question should not merely be one of whether we are thinking inside or outside the box, but what is the standard for the box? What is in the box may not belong there, and thinking outside the box may be correct or better depending on what is inside the box. Without a standard, it merely becomes a subjective enterprise - "My box is better than your box."

God is a God of both freedom and limits. When God freed Israel from slavery, he brought them to Sinai and gave them the Torah, which included the limits and boundaries for their daily lives. When God created the world, he set limits for the day and night, for the land and the sea, so that they would not transgress and bring chaos and disorder to the order and beauty of the world that he had created. Limits and order go together. Limits and beauty are cousins to each other.

Unrestrained freedom brings gross distortions to what God has created. One well-known example of this is Joseph Smith and his Mormon Church with all its strange teachings. The teaching that humans become God, that Jesus and Satan were at one time brothers, that blackness of the skin is God's curse, and other such teachings are fabrications of an imaginative mind and not from the true word of God. This manufactured religion is just one example of unrestrained freedom.

On the other hand, unrestrained restrictions can also bring gross distortions to what God has created. An example is the medieval church with its inquisitions. Religious inquiry, questioning the status quo, reading the Bible for yourself, and forming your own conclusions, and things of this nature were ruthlessly suppressed. This is an example of unrestrained restriction.

What is inside the box in each of these cases? What is outside the box? It depends on your perspective. Once again, the question should not merely be whether we think and operate in the box our outside the box, but what is the standard? Going with the standard may mean going "outside the box." From God's perspective, our going "outside the box" may be getting back in the box.

The most basic questions should consist of things such as, "What is the nature of God?" "What is the nature of man?" "What is God's desire?" "How has God instructed us to serve him?" "What are my presuppositions?" "How does my background color my understanding of the world, of myself, my God, and his will for me?" "How does God guide us through these questions?" "How much time do I spend in reading his word, in prayer, in inquiry, in confession and prayer?" And the questions go on. That we should "examine ourselves" is an imperative given to us by God. The answers, as they come from God, gives us a picture of the "standard" for the box.

So, is it wise to think outside the box? If our beliefs, practices, and attitudes fall short, and "outside the box" entails a change of practice, beliefs and attitudes that are more inline with what God has set as the standard, then the answer is clearly "yes." Not only is it wise, it is mandated. Without this sort of thing, there would have been no reformation, and no restoration movement, and no back to the Bible movements. We would still be trapped in the dark ages. God has given us a "box," so to speak. He has painted a picture of what goes in the box and what does not belong in the box. It takes commitment, courage, and a humble, repentant heart to make needed changes, especially when we become so comfortable with the box that we think that this is inherently the way it is supposed to be, as many did in the dark ages.

How about some specific issues? Does evangelism happen through building church buildings? What does God's word say about this? How does the character of God illuminate this question? God modeled evangelism through the incarnation, and its implications are far reaching. In fact, any reflection on evangelism, methods, etc. should begin with a theological reflection on the incarnation and its implications (Jn 1:1-14; 14:7-11; 15:15-16; 20:21). The example in Christ, passed on to his Apostles, and to the Apostolic church, are all connected to this. Incarnation means "fleshing out" the message in such a way that it can be heard, understood, and even identified with (Acts 2:14-39; 17:22-31). It is not tied to a culture, language, or place (Mt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). As many cross-cultural missionaries learning in past decades, it speaks the language of the people, uses analogies of the people, and in turn transforms people through the power of the Gospel which can be communicated in any language and in any culture. Is evangelism cross-cultural right here in our own country? Since the Christian faith is not tied to any culture, language, or people, then any evangelism is inherently cross-cultural. Evangelism in the USA is every bit as cross-cultural as evangelism any place else. Perhaps this is why more new congregations that are effective are less concerned about owning a building, and more concerned about being transformed into the image of Christ. Maybe this is why some Christian assemblies are happening in homes, coffee-shops, rented halls, and other conventional places. Maybe this is why many are seeing Christian faith as not tied to a "place," like a church building, but tied to a people who are tied to Christ. Maybe this is why some have determined to "be" the church rather than "go" to church. Is this outside the box? It depends on the nature of your box.

What about the nature of a Christian assembly? What is the thrust, the emphasis. Is it worship? Is it evangelism? Is it to put on a production? Is it edification? There are some more specific instructions concerning assemblies than there are methods of evangelism. The underlying theological foundation for Christian assemblies has to do with love not only for God, but love for God expresses as love for one another. The "body of Christ" (1 Cor 12) has a focus on edification in Christian assemblies (1 Cor 14; Eph 4). This makes worship distinct. It is not merely a performance by some professional worshippers to God as in the Old Testament, but a participatory event where everyone sings and worships not only to God, be especially "to one another" to edify and build up in the name of Christ (1 Cor 14:26). In Christian assemblies, there should be "mutual edification." A Cappella congregational singing to "one another" is the music of mutual edification (Eph 5:19). It is something all can participate in. It is not the time to put on a Christian production for an audience, nor is it a time for evangelism. It is a time for mutual edification even in the actions of worship. Praise bands, professional musicians, orchestras, etc., while they can be glorious in the sounds they produce for God, are not appropriate for a time where there needs to be "mutual edification," which entails participation from the whole congregation. This is why the synagogue service entailed congregational A Cappella singing. The focus there was on mutual edification. It was not like temple worship where the focus was on worship to God by the best professional musicians who were able to make beautiful music for God. Even though God approved of (Ps 150), and in one case even commanded such worship in the Old Testament (2 Chr 29:25), this is not the focus of Christian worship in the New Testament. Since we ourselves are temples of God, we ourselves make melody in our heart and we each sing to one another in worship for mutual edification. Is this outside the box? Once again, it depends on your box. For many, doing away with the choir, the band, etc. would definitely be outside the box. Or, since it is in harmony with what we see in scripture and with the practice of the Apostolic church, perhaps it is a return to "inside the box."

What about something as basic as conversion? There are a variety of ways people say it happens. Nearly all agree it involves faith. There is no question about this. Jesus is God who came to earth in the flesh (Jn 1:14), died on the cross for the remission of our sins, was buried, and raised on the third day (1 Cor 15:1-4), and ascended to the right hand of God and reigns as Lord in his spiritual kingdom (1 Pet 3:22) where he has given the Spirit (Acts 2:38) and will one day return to resurrect humanity (1 Thess 4:9-5:11), some to a resurrection of eternal life, and others to a resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:29). Most agree that this is the object of our faith, what is central to it. However, how is faith to be initially expressed? Has God given any instruction on this? In the New Testament examples in the book of Acts, conversion involved a faith that included the following: repentance, confession, baptism, and reception of the Holy Spirit. Many disagree on the place of baptism. Some relegate it to a sacrament, others dismiss it as unnecessary, and some claim that if it is performed as a part of the salvation process, then in invalidates your salvation since you are trying to be saved by works. However, God has clearly revealed that baptism is rich with meaning and is intimately tied to your salvation. As an expression of faith and conversion, it is a dying to your self (Rom 6:1-8). You are passive as you are lowered into the watery grave and raised to walk in newness of life. You become a new person. Jesus washes away all your sins as you express your faith. In fact, you cannot express your faith without action. Faith without action is no faith at all (James 2:14-24). Even the demons "believe" and shudder. In baptism we are buried with him and are raised to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4). As Noah was saved through the water, we are also saved through the water by the resurrection of Christ and the power of his blood he shed on the cross (1 Pet 3:20-22). Baptism is like the Christian's wedding ceremony to Christ (Eph 5:25-27). This is where you are united with him and start your new life in him. Bottom line is that we do not save ourselves, Christ saves us when we express our faith in him in the way he has prescribed. So, baptism (as an expression of faith) is intimately tied to our salvation. Is this outside the box? Once again, it depends on what is in your box. To practice Christian conversion in this way may seem outside the box, but in reality, it may be a return back into the box.

And the list goes on and on. So, is it wise to think outside the box? Perhaps this long reflection will help you to better answer this question.