I am listening to the Bible in a year while walking country trails. Listening to a whole book in a long walk or two, helps me see “the big picture” of Scripture and its themes.
The Prophets have grabbed me. You just don’t mess with those Prophets, because God is with them.
And yet, it’s a lonely vocation. They are second-guessed, feared, hated, threatened like Elijah, or beaten up and imprisoned like Jeremiah. On the edge of society–menaces, who say what is terribly unpopular, and terribly true.
Their single strength—this mysterious thing that keeps happening to them: And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah… or Isaiah… or Elijah.
And they have heard that Word before, and it has never let them down. They recognise it from long experience, and so they trust it.
Even when no one else does.
How can they convince anyone else of this essentially private revelation? They can’t. They are ultimately believed because of all the other times the words they heard (or overheard, Is. 6:8) and repeated were absolutely true.
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Some reformed bloggers submit their blogs to pastoral oversight or to a committee.
There was no way the prophets could have done this. Their committee would have said, “Don’t say that—the King won’t like it; the priests won’t like it. The people won’t like. The army won’t like it. X, Y, and Z will think you mean them, and be hurt. And ‘fess up, you do mean them, don’t you?
Why should we trust you a layman rather than the professional priesthood? God has never said that before. It’s too weird. Too impossible. Are you sure you heard the Lord say this?”
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The advantages of a committee of trusted readers: One does not want to reinvent the wheel theologically—to write with dewy-eyed naivete on a subject on which thought has evolved far beyond your first wonderings. And one doesn’t want to write a blog post asserting something which is simply stupid, or factually or theologically incorrect, which an astute reader can instantly point out.
However, Theology-by-committee will give you safe, don’t-rock-the-boat theology. It probably will not be able to capture where the wind of the spirit is blowing.
Throughout Scripture, when God speaks to men, he generally speaks to individuals, not groups.
The prophets could never, would never have submitted the Word of the Lord to other people’s judgements. Just as well, because the words were so strange, so risky, so unverifiable, that few would have approved them. They had a direct, unmediated relationship with God.
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Throughout Church history, dominant theologies have been quite simply wrong, though backed up with proof texts and Scripture verses.
As Brian McLaren writes, the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) and wrong on homosexuality.
John Piper, the influential Reformed writer, writes extremely honestly of his racist past, “ I was, in those years, manifestly racist.”
At the great Urbana Missions Conference in December 1967, Piper writes, “Warren Webster, missionary to Pakistan, answered a student’s question: What if your daughter falls in love with a Pakistani while you’re on the mission field and wants to marry him?
The question was clearly asked from a standpoint that this would be a racial or ethnic dilemma for Webster. (This was four months before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.) With great forcefulness, Webster said something like: “Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!”
From that moment, I knew I had a lot of homework to do.
The perceived wrongness of interracial marriage had been for me one of the unshakeable reasons why segregation was right.”
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I was fascinated and appalled by Piper’s humble, honest and contrite essay on his racist past, racism which he and other Christians in the American South (Christian and theological colleges in the South did not accept blacks) backed up with Scripture verses.
Wow, powerful theologians can honestly believe things, and back them up with scripture—and they can be wrong!!
That’s why it’s important to return to the spring of living waters, to the quietness of God’s presence in his throne room, and hear what He is saying for yourself.
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There are dangers to this, of course. Yeah, private pipelines to God could lead to weirdness and evil like David Koresh, Jim Jones and the Guyana suicides, and the Twelve Tribes, a repressive, economically exploitative, weird cult which uses child labour, and requires long working hours, 80-100 hours weekly, of its members, while its leaders lead plush, privileged lives. (My brother-in-law, Dr. David Mathias, a medical doctor, joined them in 1992, and has worked at both medical and manual work from early in the morning till (often) past midnight for twenty years, contributing all his earnings to the cult–and leaders.)
So how does one keep hearing the word of God, without either falling into the weirdness of cults like Twelve Tribes, or accepting airless, airtight theologies without the wind of the Holy Spirit?
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I suppose the way the prophets did? Though the word of the Lord came to them in solitude, it was never for them alone.
The word of the Lord always led them to the King, to the council, to the community, where they were reviled by the many, and revered by the few.
And then, the final test: God validates them. Things turns out just as they predicted. And so people begin to believe them when they say, “Thus says the Lord.”
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It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in Scripture, God rarely speaks to groups or committees (there are some exceptions in Acts). He speaks to individuals, giving them words of enough force and power, ratified by events, for them to influence the crowd.
Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah. Nobody would have had the heart to encourage them on their dangerous paths. Or would have had the heart to take on the responsibility of encouraging them in their risky prophecies. They just had to go it alone.
And though it was a lonely job, and we see Elijah and Jeremiah grow emotionally overwhelmed and skirt the edges of depression and burn-out, the word of the Lord was never for them alone but also for their community. And in the community, though often rejected and beaten up, they found sanity, grounding, and even, occasionally, comfort and friendship.