Monday, October 26, 2009

Hitherto shalt thou come

I stumbled upon a speech by President Lyndon Baines Johnson which he delivered at the escalation of the Vietnam War. He asked, "Why must this Nation hazard its ease, and its interest, and its power for the sake of a people so far away?" His answer? US soldiers would fight and die in Vietnam because Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had committed the US to support the government of South Vietnam. Moreover, Johnson declared, "I intend to keep that promise." His commitment was based upon a moral principle. We as a nation had vowed an oath. "To dishonor that pledge, to abandon this small and brave nation to its enemies, and to the terror that must follow, would be an unforgivable wrong." He elaborated,

We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Viet-Nam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next. We must say in Southeast Asia--as we did in Europe--in the words of the Bible: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further."

Johnson quotes God's discourse in the Book of Job, Chapter 38. God asked Job whether Job had commanded the oceans, saying, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?" Job 38:11 (KJV)

Perhaps Johnson overreached when he compared his resolve to stop totalitarianism with God's command of nature.

Although Johnson promised, "We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement," the Nixon administration did exactly that, and the war in Vietnam ended badly. The Killing Fields of Cambodia followed with millions paying the price of America's capitulation.

Today America's enemy knows we lack resolve. The question they ask is not whether we lack resolve, but how long before we grow tired of war. Iraqis are dying en masse again because US troops have withdrawn from the cities. US leadership equivocates regarding Afghanistan telegraphing the Taliban that they have indeed won; it is only a matter of time. Iran, North Korea, and even Venezuela beat drums of war while America talks compromise. America lacks resolve to finish the fight. We lack the resolve to deal more brutally against our enemy than they deal with us. We ignore Johnson's warning, "To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next." Perhaps there is wisdom in our cynicism. In Johnson's words,

We often say how impressive power is. But I do not find it impressive at all. The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure. They are necessary symbols. They protect what we cherish. But they are witness to human folly.

Perhaps we no longer believe, as Johnson did, that righteous wars will someday end war. Instead we see war after war on the horizon and we, like the French in Indochina, prefer capitulation to conflict. C'est la vie. Perhaps we realize, unlike Johnson, that victory will not end conflict. Consequently, we choose life above sacrifice, and assuage our moral conscience with SSRI's. How we feel about life, rather than what we do in life, becomes our standard of our self-examination.

In the 1960's, President Johnson tried to entrench against a wave of aggression in the world. His successor capitulated hoping for the praise of the people. Instead Nixon resigned in disgrace after abusing the power of the Presidency. Today America faces enemies in other parts of the globe. Nevertheless, American leadership has failed to grasp that you cannot foster freedom abroad while infringing on freedom at home. America's enemy is totalitarianism; however; we fight and eventually capitulate to external enemies while condoning the decay of freedom within our borders. If we must fight foreign wars, we should fight for stability, not freedom. Perhaps we should instead defend freedom at home with the same zeal with which we try to impose it elsewhere.

The church today is engaged in war. The dramatic cultural changes of the last century challenge the church to respond. Some churches have endorsed a Christ-less Christianity. A few months ago we visited a church in a city where we used to live. In the entire service, the name of Jesus was mentioned once and then only in an empty context. The songs and the sermon were ambiguous. The production quality was somewhat better than we remembered, but the content was void of Gospel truth. I suppose the church leadership would take this criticism as a compliment because this was the direction toward which they had chosen to go. Before we moved away, they expressed determination to do anything to make church attractive to the culture. Returning, I could see nothing distinguishing them from the culture.

Some church denominations are entrenching, confronting cultural change at the front door, saying, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." Yet the congregations lack the resolve to remain traditional. The liturgies of old seem empty and irrelevant. Reaching out to a specific demographic succumbs to pandering to a demographic. The effectiveness of church is judged based on how it makes people feel rather than its faithfulness to the Truth and the Light. Cultural morass creeps in disguised as youth programs and activities. The question of surrendering to the culture is not "whether" but "when." We fight a war of attrition to slow what we perceive as decay within the traditional church. We fail to see that the battle is not beginning, but rather this battle has continued from the beginning.

Jesus warned the Galileans, saying, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." Matthew 11:12 (NASB) Jesus warned that violent men use religion to increase their own power and influence. This is not a new concept. Jesus referred to John the Baptist's ministry. John the Baptist had rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized by him, saying, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance." Matthew 3:7-8 (NASB) The Pharisees and Sadducees would submit to John's baptism if it meant that they could remain relevant. Paul warned Timothy that the battle would continue.

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

1 Timothy 4:1-5 (NASB)

The real battle lines are not drawn then between traditionalism and modernism, but rather the battle lines are drawn between truth and deception. To the extent that the emergent church and the traditional church both promote church above Christ, they are merely opposite sides of the same coin. They both seek power and influence at the expense of their congregants. The congregations seek leaders who tell them what they want to hear. Both define church as something that Paul never described 1 Corinthians 14.

In Gary Hamel's Management 2.0 blog, "Organized Religion's 'Management Problem'", he writes, "Back in the first century, the Christian church was organic, communal and mostly free of ritual—and it needs to become so again . . ."

To the extent that church models supplant the organism—the body of Christ—with an organization, they misrepresent Christ.

We organize, but we are not organic. We take "Communion", but we are not communal. Whether we rock or recite our liturgies, we ritualize the Christian experience. From a first century perspective we have fallen away. We are the apostate church the New Testament warns against.

The apostate church battles amongst itself regarding methodologies that achieve the same eventual alienation from Christ. The assembly, the body of Christ, is not a place where unbelievers should feel comfortable. We should evangelize, but we should not compromise. Likewise, the assembly, the body of Christ, should not be cold and sterile, ritualistic and intermittent. The early Christians lived together as family because the Apostles taught them to. Do we presume to understand Christianity better than those who walked with Christ?

We have forgotten that only God can say, "Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further." Christian leaders of any variety can no more define church than Job could command the oceans. The Apostle Paul described church very clearly in his letters, especially 1 Corinthians chapter 14. What we feel that church should be has little relevance compared to the Apostle's command, but we drown our guilt with professional performances or perpetual programs.

The choice confronting Christians today is not a choice between traditionalism and modernism. Rather the choice confronting us is, as it has always been, obedience or disobedience. After hearing God's discourse, Job repented in sack cloth and ashes. What will we do?

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