In the Churches of God, we say that the Bible is our only authority.
Other churches and denominations claim this as well, but few lift it up as high and specifically claim that no other creed or rule is binding over us. Only the Bible.
Most of the people in the GCCG (and elsewhere) that I talk with seem to sincerely hold this belief in the Bible. We truly believe that the Bible is our standard for belief and practice.
But I’ve found that in reality, our authority is what we think the Bible says.
And here’s what’s on my heart:
I don’t think we’ve adequately understood what the Bible teaches and models as faithful practice.
Allow me to be even bolder:
What we’ve taught, preached and modeled has actually directly contributed to our decline.
Let me explain…
When it comes to our reading of the Bible, we need to be honest and admit that none of us reads totally objectively. For the most part, we read the Bible as we’ve been taught to read it. Through a particular lens. In the church community and cultural context that we find ourselves.
This was true of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in the first century.
It was true of John Winebrenner as well.
It’s true for all of us.
Winebrenner was taught and mentored to read the Bible and apply it within the framework of what was to be expected in the German Reformed Church of his day.
It wasn’t until he parted ways with that denomination that he really began to rethink so much about what he was told that the Bible said and taught.
He opened the Bible in a fresh way and what he found there is the beginning of our story.
The question for us today is whether we are willing to have the courage of Winebrenner as we open the Bible.
Honestly, I’m not sure that we will.
And because many of us probably don’t (yet?) see anything wrong with the way that we read the Bible, change will be difficult. It will certainly not happen accidentally.
Many, perhaps most, of us agree that our culture is changing and the North American church in general and the Churches of God in particular have not always fared well through many of these changes.
In response to the challenges our body faces, our approach often feels like an endless search for new tools, techniques and plans that will make things better.
A new mission statement. A new book. A new discipleship tool. A new initiative. A new strategic plan.
While these things in and of themselves are not bad, I’m convinced at the depth of my being that none of these – now or ever – are going to precipitate the revival in our body that we desire and desperately need.
Our deeper problem is that our foundation is weak.
I believe that our common understanding of the Bible, the Kingdom of God and the Gospel have shrunken and as a direct result we are not bearing much real fruit.
I say none of this as accusation, but rather as part of my own learning and repentance process. I’ve realized that I was mistaken or misguided in the way that I was taught to understand the primary narrative and aim of God shown throughout the Scriptures.
As it relates to our mis-reading of the Bible, one of the reasons we are not making disciples is because we often believe and proclaim a shrunken gospel, not the depth and fullness of the good news that Jesus and his apostles proclaimed.
In most of our congregations (mine included), our core message involves Jesus coming to die for our sins in order that we’ll be able to go to heaven when we die.
Is ‘going to heaven’ the primary point of the gospel you preach?
Because it wasn’t the primary point of the gospel that Jesus or the apostles preached.
According to Mark’s account, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15) This good news involves God’s presence and power becoming available to us now through Jesus. As his disciples, we learn to live totally transformed lives right here and now as we “learn to obey everything he has commanded” (Matthew 28:20).
John’s gospel account directly says that eternal life isn’t what happens after we die, but rather that we are reconnected in a deep relationship with God now. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (17:3)
At the culmination of his Pentecost preaching, Peter declared, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36)
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, the believers were obviously concerned that their friends who had died before Jesus’ return and the resurrection missed out on it (1 Thessalonians 4).
If Paul’s core message was that because of Jesus you could be sure you’ll go to heaven when you die, this situation would make no sense.
How have we missed this? It’s on almost every page of the Bible that we know so well.
In most instances, we think that the primary meaning of the gospel is forgiveness of sins in order to have access to heaven because that’s what we’ve been taught.
In reality, the relentless message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God as a reality that we can learn to live in now as his apprentices / disciples, and that will one day come to fulfillment with his return, our resurrection and the establishment of the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Jesus died for our sins and defeated death in his resurrection so that we can fully, freely and passionately pursue him now, realizing that even death cannot disrupt the relationship with have with him.
This gospel – the good news that Jesus and the apostles taught and believed – led unequivocally to discipleship. Discipleship was the only reasonable response to it.
We don’t make disciples now because discipleship is optional to the gospel that we preach.
We don’t preach that gospel because we’ve read and taught the Bible again and again, but we’ve not seen the message for what it is.
Speaking personally, I’m a bit ashamed of this. I just commented to a friend today that after over 25 years of being a serious Christian, I’m just finally starting to understand what God is really up to.
We read the Bible the way that we’ve been taught. But the way that we’ve been taught is broken. The way that we are teaching is broken.
The gospel that we’ve been preaching does not lead clearly to a life of discipleship.
We all recognize that we have a discipleship problem. And while we do need to think more deeply than ever about how we become disciples ourselves and how we make more disciples…
The first step is to realize that the biblical gospel leads directly to discipleship while the shrunken gospel does not.
It’s not that we’re totally ignorant of these things. The General Conference has had speakers like New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight, author of “The King Jesus Gospel”, come to speak about the biblical gospel. In the Eastern Regional Conference, we’ve given out many copies of that book. But really nothing substantial has changed in our thinking and teaching. We tend to treat things like this as interesting ideas worth considering, but it rarely makes its way into our everyday belief and teaching.
I’ve decided to embrace repentance in this area and become willing to open the Bible with fresh possibility.
In a way, it’s almost unfathomable to think that we can read and teach and preach, and yet miss the point.
But we wouldn’t be the first ones. Of all people, Jesus’ own followers should have understood, right? Yet on that road to Emmaus (Luke 24), the resurrected Jesus had to open their eyes as he walked them through the Bible, showing them what it was really all about. They had missed so much that they should have known. (See also John 5:39.)
John Winebrenner came to that point where he realized a big part of the way he’d been taught to read the Bible was wrong. After having been a minister for some time.
It required courage for Winebrenner to be willing to do that.
Do we have the courage of Winebrenner to open the Scriptures anew?
If we do, we’ll see the beauty of Jesus’ deeper gospel and kingdom, and realize that real trust is shown in a lifelong journey of becoming apprentices to the Master.
I believe that the answer to that question will define whether or not we are really part of Winebrenner’s legacy.
Father, forgive us. Forgive us for the times we’ve missed what is so clear once we take off our tradition tinted glasses. Our desire is for you to shape every thought and belief that we have about you around your truth. Your word is truth. Holy Spirit, open our eyes. Show us the way. We pray in the life changing name of Jesus. Amen.