It Might Be Greek to You



“It might be Greek to you, but it is LIFE to me!”

A Fish Or a Camel?

A Fish or a Camel

A Fish or a Camel

Sure, we would all like to feel like a Christian fish, always enveloped in God’s love and immersed in his constant, total provision.

But the Lord wants us to grow up to be a Christian camel, able to “stoke up” with His Spirit so that we can walk many miles in dry places without fainting.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Reading this work by Karl Barth has been in many ways enlightening.  One hears so much about him, both good and bad (depending upon the source), but it is hardly fair to form an opinion only on the basis of secondary evaluations.  One must read Barth to give a fair estimation of Barth.

Barth first shows himself to be a true dogmatist.  Using the points of the Apostles Creed as its outline, he presents to the reader an overview of Christianity as he understands it.  His theology is pre-critical:  he is not concerned with historico-critical data or exegesis.  Rather, he begins with the Creed as it stands.  It is a “given.”  As far as he is concerned, it is the orthodox Church’s interpretation of Christianity which stands — it must only be rejuvenated.  To Barth, it is not only unnecessary but impossible to “prove” that the Gospel is true.  It is to be accepted by faith alone.

In fact, the paradox of Christianity is a recurring theme in the book.  Barth is quick to allay the doubts of those who remained puzzled by what seems impossible, unnatural, or contradictory.  That is to be expected, and nothing to worry about, he says.  He does not attempt to explain away such things, or make them acceptable to reason, as would the typical apologist.  Jesus Christ — wholly God, yet wholly man?  The crucifixion — humiliating, yet exalting?  The Holy Spirit — divine and yet indwelling imperfect humanity?  Barth is right in this:  such things defy reasonable explanation.  Such things are, to the intellect, “a stumbling block, and the rock of offense.”  But to the one who, like Barth, accepts by faith the paradox of Christianity, such things are “the power of God unto salvation.”

What Barth does is to begin with the Creed, the foundational truths of orthodox Christianity, and go on from there.  It is his intention not to reinforce them, but to revitalize them and, perhaps, to set them as a reminder to those who have been slack.  Vitality is, of course, a necessary part of true Christianity.  It is the action involved in moving from a head-knowledge of the Scripture and of Christian doctrine toward the fulfillment of the Christian life.  It is the visible sign of true Christianity (although mere activity must not be confused with real vitality).

But Barth only begins with the points of the Creed.  From that simple and acceptable basis he expands, often tangentially, to what many would see as unbiblical philosophies.  A case in point:  orthodox Christianity accepts the idea of a real Hell, a real Judgment, and the necessity of rebirth (baptism to some) in order to attain eternal life.  Barth accepts their terminology, but does not adhere to orthodox interpretation.  Although not explicitly stated, Barth exhibits leanings toward Universalism.  To fit the pattern, he redefines such terms as Hell, Eternity, and Judgment:  Hell is an existing state of separation from God due to an individual’s rebellion, not a place of internal punishment.  Eternity is used figuratively (?) by the Bible, representing a state of timelessness which exists until the Second Coming.  And although Barth does have some conception of judgment (“By this we shall be judged, about this the Judge shall one day put the question, Did you live by grace …?  Have you been a faithful servant …?” p. 152), yet in this book one cannot find a definition of “judgment” other than Christ revealing himself, and proving that he is, indeed, Lord of all.  There is no punishment aspect mentioned.  Furthermore, Barth makes no mention of a continued separation between believers and non-believers after Christ returns.  As far as can be seen, Barth expects all men to be united at that time.

So how does Barth deal with the “eternal fire” passages in the Bible?  According to him, they are metaphorical — the biblical writers were expressing the horror and discomfiture of the unbeliever’s separation from Christ (in the present world) in metaphorical terms.  The literal view of Hell and a divine wrath are, to him, a product of a faulty hermeneutic.  The picture of the Wrath of God, Barth claims, is a construct of artists, such as Michelangelo, who sought sensational themes for their paintings.

Barth is not without his merits.  He demonstrates a high view of God.  He prefers the designation of God as “the Father” to more generic term such as “the Almighty.”  In fact, he reacted strongly against that term, and noted that Hitler referred to God in that fashion.  Barth considers God as more, much more, than some obscure power.  Father better describes God in terms of his character and his relationship to man — power is merely one of his attributes, as is Creator, and should not be separated out as a general designation.  The fatherhood aspect of God is demonstrated by his grace — and to Barth, all God does is a product of his grace.

Along with Father, another favorite designation of God is “God in the Highest”  Barth emphasizes that God is far above man, farther than man’s imagination extends.  He is not a product of man’s need to worship an ideal “higher self.”  God is GOD, and is only known by man because he has revealed himself.  God is “a timeless Being, surpassing the world, alien and supreme … the living, acting, working Subject who makes himself known” (p. 38).

Likewise, Barth demonstrates a high Christology.  However, he makes an unwarranted connection between Christ and Israel.  Barth believes, in a nutshell, that Israel as a nation was called out, not just to be a holy nation, but to evangelize the world.  Since Israel failed, Jesus Christ was sent to “fulfill” Israel.  It is true that Israel was separated out from the world in order that God might reveal himself to man, and might be glorified.  But was evangelization of the world God’s immediate motive?  Certainly, the ordinances handed down by Moses served to set them at odds with the rest of the world.  In fact, they were ordered to have no fellowship with non-believers.  This speaks against the theory of an evangelical mission.

Actually, there is a great non-parallel between the missions of Israel and of Christ:  Jesus Christ was sent in order to die for man’s sin, that whoever would believe in his vicarious sacrifice could attain eternal life.  Israel never suffered for any sins other than its own, and God never said, “Believe in Israel.”  Israel was not the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Barth’s otherwise high Christology suffers from lack of emphasis on Christ’s redeeming work.  His emphasis is upon Christ’s revelation at his Second Coming.  The Christian’s fate is to be that Christ truly exists and that He will, indeed, appear one day.  Then their faith shall be proven valid.

A secondary emphasis is upon Christ’s suffering — suffering as a man on the earth, and suffering at the end on the cross.  But this suffering, in Barth’s eyes, is not so much to pay the debt for man’s sins, as to put man in touch with his sins, to make him realize the suffering he deserves.  Man must conceptualize, mentally, his guilt.  In his realization of his guilt man is saved.

Barth never commits himself to a clear statement of Universalism, but a strong implication runs throughout this book.  He notes that Christ died for all men, and that is true.  He goes so far as to acknowledge that some men will reject Christ — but he never implies that they will be lost.  Evidently, he expects all men to be restored when Christ returns.

All in all, Barth reads like any evangelical writer.  He displays a love for God and for Christ that should warm the heart of any true Christian.  Certainly there are problems:  he leans too heavily on his own speculation and does not use Scripture often or carefully.  For instance, his misuse of Philippians 2:6, “God thinks it not robbery to be divine, that is, He does not hold on to the booty like a robber, but God parts with Himself” (p. 116).  While the thought may be perfectly good and correct, the usage is faulty.

Yet the Christian reader can feel a certain kinship with Barth, as one should feel a certain kinship with a Christian of another denomination, or even a Jew who truly loves God.  Certain of Barth’s ideas are, perhaps, erroneous — but Barth is not a heretic.  There is no reason the Christian should not read his works, if one is a mature and discerning believer, and maybe even quote Barth in a sermon.

At the very least, Barth is food for thought — and there are plenty of people whose minds could use a little nourishment.

Originally a book report presented to Dr. Gary McGee, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, for THE/HIS 636 Contemporary Theology, August 31, 1985.  Dr. McGee deemed the report “Excellent,” and assigned the grade “A.”

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

Make Way for the Spirit!

How to Have More Spiritual Church Worship

As described in 1 Corinthians 14, there are few worship activities that are as edifying and energizing as the verbal gifts of the Spirit.  However, in circulating amongst various full-gospel churches in recent years, I have noticed an absence of verbal manifestations (messages in tongues, interpretation, prophecy) in most services.  Some churches apparently go for weeks or months without hearing a fresh “word” from the Lord.

While prophecy in particular might be abused or over-emphasized in some circles, a church is ill-advised to react by trying to limit or control manifestations.

Sometimes pastors ask me what they can do to make their services more spiritual.  I offer the following suggestions:

1. Pray Up

In order to be sensitive to the moving of the Spirit, the pastor or worship leader must be spiritually sensitive. Moves of God do not always come through the leader–make sure you are on the cutting edge, not the tail! Fast and pray before each service, and engage prayer warriors to bolster that intercession.  Be sure you are cleaned up, prayed up, and “fessed up.”  Set aside all unnecessary activities and distractions, and go into the service with your mind centered on the Lord.

2. Let Go

No one can quench the Spirit like the “man in charge.”  Do not let yourself be preoccupied with the order of the service.  Never change the order when the Spirit is trying to move.  Wait!  Be secure in your spiritual authority, unafraid that you might lose control of the service.  (If you do not have spiritual authority, GET SOME!)  Do not give in to the conceit that the move of the Spirit always comes through the leader.  Avoid trying to manipulate the people, dictating their actions, or trying to stir up the Spirit by human means.

IMPORTANT:  Do not limit the opportunity to speak to a few chosen leaders.  The moving of the Spirit in Acts and Corinthians is corporate and “upon all flesh,” not limited.  (As Paul wrote, “you may all prophesy one by one,” and “let one speak, and let the others judge.”)

3. Pipe Down

The Spirit does not always move in an atmosphere of noise and frenetic activity (which is prevalent these days).  Moves are more likely genuine when they are spontaneous.  Often, the Spirit settles on the congregation with a warm, sweet heaviness.  Do not be afraid of “quiet times” or “dead air”–avoid the temptation to fill every moment with words or activity.  Do not keep the music volume so loud that someone speaking in the Spirit in the congregation cannot be heard!  (In a large church, place microphones in strategic areas, and instruct the congregation on their proper use.)

4. Slow Down

I have often felt moved by the Spirit to speak, but had no opportunity that would not interrupt the order of service.  Since I do not seem to receive an entire message until I have begun to speak, the moment was quickly past.  Again, do not let yourself be preoccupied with advancing the order of service.  Do not hurry through the worship time–if it or any other activity were a mere “preliminary,” it could be eliminated!  Do not treat the Spirit as such. A true word from the Lord is probably more important than your sermon!

5. Teach and Preach the Gifts

Give proper emphasis to the spiritual gifts in the church, teach their appropriate use, and encourage members to seek them.  (Even the best teaching will be voided if you do not then give the people adequate opportunity to exercise the gifts.)  Allow people to make honest mistakes.  Correct mistakes gently and respectfully from the pulpit when necessary, in private when possible–keeping in mind the potential for public embarrassment.  Realize that the gifts are for lay people, too!

If the above suggestions are followed, I cannot guarantee that a move of the Spirit will take place, but hopefully a lot of human barriers will have been removed, in order to encourage and make room for the gifts in the service.  Is that not what is truly important?

©1999 Paul A. Hughes

Humility and God’s Chastening

Watchman Nee likened God’s training in humility to being backed against a wall and having one’s foot crushed, like Balaam. A Christian leader, he said, cannot represent God until being emptied of the motivation of his own opinions and thought processes, but being in active subjection to God and his Word.

Indeed, the author of Hebrews (ch. 12) harks back to Job 5:17 and Proverbs 23:22 in describing God’s chastening. He says in 5:8 that Jesus “learned obedience by the things He suffered.”

We must not rebel against God’s correction and training in humility. The Lord tries to get through to us, but if we rebel, we “kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5, 26:14).

But as far as recounting how one was made humble, there is a risk of being like the man whose church gave him a medal for humility, but then took it away because he wore it — or the man who wrote the book, Humility, and How I Achieved It.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

The Neighborhood Ministry Center Model for New Church Planting and Revitalization

Ministry Center Model

Ministry Center Model (Conceptual)

More than a decade ago, I began to envision a new model for the local church based on maximizing actual ministry and use of facilities while minimizing investment in real estate.  Since then, cultural and societal as well as economic forces have served to chip away at the traditional church model and render it unworkable, top-heavy, and otherwise obsolete in many cases.  There also now exists a philosophical tension and even sociopolitical prejudice regarding leader-, location-, and facility-focused church ministry, as opposed to ministry which is visibly active in the local community and accessible to it.  These circumstances make my Neighborhood Ministry Center model even more timely than before.

Church leaders ought not compromise the stated New Testament purpose of church ministry:  to proclaim the Gospel, teach sound Bible doctrine, worship, encourage one another, and mentor new believers into the faith.  But they must also recognize the non-New Testament origin of many church traditions and models, adopting a pragmatic approach to fulfilling that purpose, divesting the church of excess baggage or, in the words of Hebrews 12:1, “laying aside every weight.”

The basic idea behind the Neighborhood Ministry Center is simple:  forgo the regular practice of a main gathering of the entire congregation on Sunday morning, in order to make the acquisition, ownership, and maintenance of a large auditorium unnecessary, along with large parking areas and other expensive amenities.  Forgo, at the same time, the pressure of a growing congregation to move ever further outside current population centers in quest of more room to build.  Instead, invest funds and effort in full-time ministry personnel and staff to do the actual work of ministry, not just on Sunday, but every day of the week.

The above conceptual diagram shows just one possible design for a facility.  Activity would revolve around the leadership and church staff, teaching, training, counseling, organizing, or referring, as needed.  On further reflection, office space in the diagram should probably be balanced somewhat further to accommodate a prayer room, a nursery for care of small children during small group meetings, and perhaps one or more conference rooms, with conference tables, for Bible studies.  The size and number of meeting rooms could also vary, as well as number of staff offices.  Meetings of various types and sizes would be planned throughout the week, and ministry personnel keep regular office hours, such that diverse types of ministry would take place on a daily basis.  This procedure would thus accommodate people who seek ministry or counseling during the week, and in particular the increasing number of people who are forced to work Sundays.  A receptionist would be on hand during business hours to schedule appointments for counseling and take down requests for prayer or other assistance.

The church could employ one or more Biblical counselors (ministers), licensed Christian counselors, or, if so desired, even professional social workers, according to the need and the amount of liability (legal and otherwise) the church is able to shoulder.  An alternative to staff counselors would be to rent office space on-site to one or more independent Christian counselors, thus providing some additional income to defray church expenses.  If no professional social worker is on hand, another staff person would be designated to act as liaison with local assistance organizations.

A Ministry Center of this type, by virtue of its small size, can easily be placed in local neighborhoods and even in high-rise office complexes, utilizing leased office space, or a converted storefront, restaurant, or house.  (My dentist in Houston, along with multiple associates, offices in a converted Victorian house in Midtown.)  A single congregation might like to place Ministry Centers at multiple sites within a city, or in multiple suburbs.  Some neighborhood centers could be modeled somewhat after so-called “coffeehouse” ministries.  An important aspect of the Ministry Center model, however, is the combination of involvement with the community as a whole (not just the homeless, addicts, or street people) and the businesslike, professional operation of a well-run church that inspires confidence and people of all kinds will want to attend.

The Ministry Center concept does not necessarily preclude the need for a gym or multipurpose building for large-group meetings and youth activities, but such facilities can often be rented for short-term use, or the congregation can take advantage of community facilities like parks and meeting halls.  A large congregation with multiple Ministry Centers could share a larger facility for special meetings and youth activities.

Finally, allow me to anticipate questions that some readers can be expected to raise.  It will be asked, “Without everybody meeting together as a congregation, how can people identify themselves with the entire Body?  How will they achieve unity?”  A large group gathering together does not automatically engender unity, but often rather hinders it.  People often report attending large churches for many years, yet getting to know few people, or even seeing the same people twice.  “Ice-breaking” methods, such as having people shake hands with those around them or hold hands across the isles during prayer, strike some people as manipulative gimmicks, and insulting, countering any benefit that might be derived.  When newcomers feel insulted or manipulated, they probably will not come back.

It is well-recognized that the key to feeling at home in a church is getting involved; and to get involved, small groups are necessary.  Only through establishing relationships can anyone feel at home, find common interests, share common experiences, and begin to feel unified.  The Ministry Center model can be seen as an enhancement of the cell-group or house-church concepts, the enhancements consisting of more leadership, more professional staff, more extensive facilities, and more overall organization.

It might be supposed that whole-congregation meetings are necessary to establish familiarity with church leaders, as well as their authority in the church.  Do not the people need to recognize themselves as equal members of the Body of Christ, yet beholden to the leadership from the podium?  Churches have a long history of reinforcing pastoral authority through seating arrangements and building design as well as ritual and liturgy, yet no such methods originate in the New Testament.  On the contrary, any authoritarian structure all too easily superimposes the semblance of spiritual authority where there is none.  True, church members need to recognize God-instituted authority over them–something that societal changes have sadly undermined–but the establishment of the pastor-disciple relationship is not dependent on building design or a particular order of service.  Rather, that relationship is best established by mentorship, not necessarily one-on-one, but certainly up-close and personal.  Students learn best when they can see the whites of their teacher’s eyes, even better when they come to feel that they know their teacher and are known by him, with mutual caring.  The Ministry Center model provides the pastor and staff ministers with the opportunity to meet with multiple groups, on a more personal basis, throughout the week.

Then there is the question of any inherent spiritual value of a whole congregation coming together at one time.  Any theory of a higher level of spiritual benefit deriving from larger meetings, perhaps a parallel to New Age “visualizing world peace” or a kind of metaphysical union, is debatable, and also cannot be established from Scripture.  In opposition to such a notion is Christ’s own promise regarding “where two or three are gathered in my name.”  Moreover, generational and subcultural distinctions in America have become so pronounced in recent years–spawning, by way of examples, the music style and sound volume debates–that the large meeting format becomes increasingly unworkable, and a cause of dissension.  The nature of the large meeting is to impose “sameness” upon the whole, at least for its duration, against which many individuals, right or wrong, increasingly rebel.  Breaking up the at-large congregation into separate groups of interest, as in the Ministry Center model, can not only circumvent clashes between disparate groups but provide the benefit of tailoring worship style, as well as ministry types and purposes, to each group.

I must add that, as a Pentecostal, I have noted the growing tendency of larger churches to suppress manifestations of the Spirit in their meetings, perhaps fearful of confusion or loss of control of meetings.  (Surely this consequence is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand!)  Smaller meetings can afford not only more opportunity to individual Pentecostal believers for spiritual expression and edification of the Body–which Paul described as vital to “Body ministry”–but also a sense of personal contribution and “ownership” of the overall work of the church.  This can be the difference, a vast one, between being a spectator and a participant.

I believe this new model church can be used in order to:

  1. Empower church staff and connect them more closely to church members and adherents.
  2. Allow for more interactive and participatory worship as well as teaching experiences.
  3. Emphasize teaching ministry and mentoring in the pattern of Ephesians 4:7-16.
  4. De-emphasize less meaningful activities and better focus resources.
  5. Facilitate multiple worship styles, meeting types, and learning experiences in order to appeal to multiple segments of society with minimal friction.
  6. Make church an activity that is available daily, not just weekly, and ministry available daily.
  7. Maximize use of facilities while minimizing building size.
  8. Place centers of ministry convenient to target areas and populations.
  9. Expand by placing new centers of ministry elsewhere.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

The rancor we see in online Christian discussion groups these days is just a reflection of the ideological, cultural, geographic, political, and generational mega-split we see in America lately.

There are those who want to take the ideological “ball” and run away with it, meanwhile showing the very intolerance of contrary ideas of which they accuse Conservatives, unable to support their own views and wishes with facts or reason, and unable to handle debate, emotionally or procedurally.

Such individuals then blame those of contrary views for the rancor that they themselves have usually created, and like petulant schoolyard children, take their “ball,” and go home.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes


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