Thursday, November 21, 2019

Visiting a Baptist Contemporary "Worship" Service

I stumbled into a contemporary worship service at a Southern Baptist church in the Missouri northland recently. The service was punctuated by emotional outbursts (people standing with arms uplifted or clapping to the rhythm of the music while the congregation was largely seated; loud “amens!” during the preaching).

            There was no pulpit or choir loft but the front of the auditorium was a raised stage. Three music leaders were spread out in line on the stage: a central leader playing a guitar with two persons on either side leading out in the singing. The communion table was out in front of the stage by about five yards behind which the director of the service stood, prayed, made announcements and introductions, and closed the service.

The seating of the auditorium was in the half-round style. The arrangement of the auditorium reminded me of stage performances. In my youth, however, a central pulpit had signaled the primacy of preaching in Baptist worship, but in this case the speaker of the day stood behind the music stand used by the guitar player in the center of the stage over which the speaker wandered. Three numbered hymns from the Baptist Hymnal were listed in the single sheet program guide. Two were sung by the congregation; the third was sacrificed to “praise songs” where people learned tunes by repetition from words displayed on screens on both sides of the auditorium. The mood of the service appeared to encourage the emotional displays and states of ecstasy. As an outsider I found myself rather distracted, and was reminded of Paul’s gentle attempts to correct what he saw as the emotional excesses of the Corinthian worship (1 Cor14):

14:15: Pray with spirit and mind; sing with spirit and mind
14:19: In church he would rather speak 5 words with his mind to instruct others than 10, 000 in a tongue
14:26-32: Everything done should be orderly and for edification
14:33: God is not a God of confusion, but of peace
14:26-33, 40: Things should be done decently and in good order

Naturally congregations must choose their own worship style for public worship; for not all find the same worship styles to be meaningful and uplifting—but also not all worship styles educate (1 Cor14:26). Some are even harmful—animal and human sacrifices, for example. Congregations must develop what will work for their benefit. Nevertheless, what transpired in the service that Sunday made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.*

Paul’s own view of public worship is suggested in Romans 12:1-2. He seems to have regarded worship as intelligent, rational service to God involving the whole person. He specifically mentions that worship should transform the mind rather than being conformed to what was the present rage—or as he put it “conforming to this present age.”

Paul argued (1 Cor 11:27-30) that it mattered how the community worshipped (1 Cor 11:29-30; 14:23-25). When the Corinthian saints gathered for the Lord’s Supper, for example, he said that it was “not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17), because they were not conscious that worship was a corporate or joint affair (1 Cor 11:33). The Corinthians appear to have engaged in a kind of individualized worship (1 Cor 11:17-22), but Paul conceived of worship as a “gathering of the saints” (1 Cor 1:2; 11:17-26), whom he conceived as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). Hence, worship was a corporate act involving a gathering of the body of Christ collectively. One can only wonder how Paul might have responded to the individualism reflected in a “contemporary” worship service in the Baptist tradition. Would he have seen it as being “for the better” do you suppose?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Compare what Paul says about the reactions of outsiders to public gatherings of the Corinthian saints:1 Cor 14:16, 23.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Myth and Mystery

Profiling the Early Christian Mind1

Writers of the New Testament use the words “myth” and “mystery,” suggesting that the mindset of early followers of Jesus may, in part, be described as arrogant, anxious, aggressive, and intolerant. They were lacking in critical thought and were hampered by a lack of curiosity. Features such as these might today be described as symptomatic of a personality disorder.

The word “myth” appears in a few of the later texts of the New Testament where it is always employed with a pejorative edge. The term is used to disparage the views of others and defame those holding such views (1 Tim 1:3-4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16). The word “mystery” suggests early followers of Jesus are confessing to a type of cognitive dissonance. “Mystery,” on the other hand, is generally used positively to describe the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally. There were five issues that perplexed them and oddly some of these issues still remain problems for the modern Christian mind. These five issues are: the mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission (Rom 11:25-29); the mystery of the spiritual body (1 Cor 15:51-52); the mystery of God’s will to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:9-10); the mystery of lawlessness already at work (2 Thess 2:1-12); the mystery of Christ (1 Tim 3:16).

The canonical gospels use “mystery” to describe a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to teach about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to prevent the unwashed masses from understanding his teaching (Mark 4:11-12=Matt 13:11-12=Luke 8:10). The Book of Revelation uses the word almost as an equivalent of the word “puzzle” (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7). Revelation 10:7 is obscure when it refers to “the mystery of God being fulfilled.”

What I have attempted above is to “profile” writers of certain New Testament texts. When scholars of ancient history attempt to characterize a figure of the past, they engage in “profiling.” A profile is a concise biographical sketch, but depending on the available evidence a more complete description might be possible. “Profiling” is an act whereby the researcher infers the likely character traits of individuals on the basis of the profiler’s data and reasoning. Depending on the amount of data available it may, however, amount to little more than educated guessing. In law enforcement profiling an unknown perpetrator consists in inferring the traits of individuals responsible for committing criminal acts. Speculation, however, is a conjecture without firm evidence. Hence a profile is a collection of inferences from data.

In New Testament studies drawing inferences about an author using textual data is an accepted practice. Scholars routinely describe an author’s beliefs on the basis of statements in the text. For example, Joseph Fitzmyer in his esteemed two volume commentary of the Gospel of Luke provides a rather lengthy sketch of Lucan theology.2 The author of Luke is actually unknown and scholars who describe the theology of anonymous authors are basically profiling an unknown subject (an “unsub” in police jargon). It is also the practice of New Testament scholars to profile known authors of texts—Paul for example. They will even include psychoanalytical assessments of known and unknown figures from what has been written about those figures, as is regularly done with Jesus of Nazareth.3

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This essay is an adapted excerpt from an essay recently published in The Fourth R, volume 32.5, September-October 2019, 7-10, 20.
2Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible 28 (Doubleday, 1979), 143-270.
3For example, Marcus J. Borg, Jesus a New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (Harper & Row, 1987), 39-56.