Monday, December 15, 2008

When I was Young We Sang Our Faith

[This is a duplicate. It also appears in "Family Johns." I put it here because it is more sermonic.]

When I was young singing was a lively part of our worship at the Springfield Church of God. The songs we sang were about the things we loved, our hopes and dreams. Everybody sang; everybody sang loudly; it was part of our witness. We sang our faith.

Mostly we sang about Jesus. He was our friend.

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

We could touch him.

Reach out and touch the Lord as He goes by.
You will find He's not too busy to hear your heart's cry.
He's passing by this moment, your needs He'll supply,
Just reach out and touch the Lord as He walks by.

And Talk with Him.

I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in
And then a little light from heaven filled my soul
It bathed my heart in love and wrote my name above
And just a little talk with Jesus made me whole

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry
He will answer by and by
Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
And you know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right

Sometimes my path seems drear,without a ray of cheer,
And then a cloud of doubt may hide the light of day;
The mists of sin may rise and hide the starry skies,
But Just a little talk with Jesus clears the way.

I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears,
But Jesus is a friend who watches day and night;
I go to him in prayer, He knows my every care,
And Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

We sang a lot about going to heaven to be with him.

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus;
sing his mercy and his grace.
In the mansions bright and blessed
he'll prepare for us a place.

When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
we'll sing and shout the victory!

I have good new to bring and that is why I sing
All my joys with you I will share
I'm gonna take a trip on that old gospel ship
And go sailing through the air

I'm gonna take a trip on that old gospel ship
I'm going far beyond the sky
I'm gonna shout and sing, until the heavens ring
When I'm sailing through the sky

We also sang about how happy we were to be Christians.

Oh happy day, Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
Oh when he washed
He washed my sins away/He taught me how
to watch, fight and pray
fight and pray
Oh happy day, Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
Oh when he washed
He washed my sins away/We´ll live rejoicing
ev´ry day, ev´ry day
Oh happy day, Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
Oh when he washed
He washed my sins away

And we sang about the Holy Ghost, but those songs were mostly about the ongoing work of Jesus.

They were in an upper chamber,
They were all with one accord,
When the Holy Ghost descended
As was promised by the Lord.

O Lord, send the power just now,
O Lord, send the power just now;
O Lord, send the power just now
And baptize every one.

Yes, the power from Heav’n descended
With the sound of rushing wind;
Tongues of fire came down upon them,
As the Lord said He would send.

Yes, this “old time” power was given
To our fathers who were true;
This is promised to believers,
And we all may have it too.


O spread the tidings ’round, wherever man is found,
Wherever human hearts and human woes abound;
Let ev’ry Christian tongue proclaim the joyful sound:
The Comforter has come!

The Comforter has come, the Comforter has come!
The Holy Ghost from Heav’n, the Father’s promise giv’n;
O spread the tidings ’round, wherever man is found—
The Comforter has come!
Comforter has come!

Lo, the great King of kings, with healing in His wings,
To ev’ry captive soul a full deliverance brings;
And through the vacant cells the song of triumph rings;
The Comforter has come!

O boundless love divine! How shall this tongue of mine
To wond’ring mortals tell the matchless grace divine—
That I, a child of hell, should in His image shine!
The Comforter has come!

Thinking about then and now, when I was young we mostly sang to each other about Jesus and what He meant to us. Today we seem to sing more to God and less about God. Our current songs are beautiful expressions of adoration and exaltation. I love them and never want to lose them. But I miss the old songs and I wonder how the change is affecting us.

Worship now seems more rich and personal; it comes from deep within us. However, it almost seems private, as if we come to church to sing because it helps us get alone with the Lord. Within the crowd we enter our own private bubbles of glory.

When I was young our songs were about our shared testimony. They told the story of how we found Jesus, or He found us, and what He means to us. When we sang we were witnesses to the reality of life in Christ. Singing was a way of remembering what God had done for us, what He had promised to us, and why we are here. I fear our singing today is too much aimed at our personal benefit in the here and now. It reminds me of a popular Southern Gospel Song circa 1970, “Me and Jesus got a good thing going, me and Jesus got it all worked out, don’t need nobody to tell me what it’s all about.”

My other concerns with today’s worship music are that the songs are too hard to sing and too hard to remember. Gone is the simple cycle of refrain followed by chorus; we now have bridges and transitions to contend with. Today’s songs sound great with a synthesizer and a talented praise team, but they are hard for most of us to sing in the shower. This is a problem for our culture as a whole; we are a people who have no national songs, even our commercials are missing familiar ditties (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” “You Deserve a Break today, so get up and get away.”). We have stars who sing to us. The rest of us listen and at best hum along. It dawned on me a few years ago this is a very troubling trend. A nation without a song is a nation without a soul. Our songs, the ones we sing to our children and to each other, convey the truths we hold dear. In this age of extreme tolerance and uncertainty, there is little room for public singing that conveys a message.

As for me, I love to occasionally sing the old songs with people who know how to worship through them. But I know we can’t go back. Those songs, words and melodies, were birthed in a different time and represent a different culture. However, they did communicate something of the Gospel that seems missing today. Is it possible for someone to write us some songs that we can all sing, songs that we can sing to each other and to the world, songs that proclaim the Gospel? We’ll keep our Hill Songs, I promise.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Women in COG Administrative Offices - A Response

[Note: This piece continues the previous two posts but grew out of a discussion I am having on Facebook. I am posting the articles on women in ministry on both sites.]

Our movement was born in a male dominated social setting. We had early unctions to resist those patterns but we gave into the pressures to conform to the dominant conservative religious practices. Thus our administrative offices (General and state levels, including schools) got caught up in the twentieth-century, business-driven, success orientation and obsessed on the "great-man" who would lead us to the Promised Land. The results are that our various administrative offices have developed an ethos of male dominance. The sub-systems that participate in this system are dependent on maintaining the status quo, male leadership. The closer one gets to the center, the stronger the impulse to maintain the norm.

This system requires that the women who work at these offices function well within male dominated settings. Women with strong leadership traits who enter these settings are viewed as abnormal and a threat to the stability of the system (at best). I am not suggesting the female employees who work there are not self-aware and critically reflective on their situation. I am merely suggesting they have developed the skills necessary to make the persons in authority (who happen to be males) look good and feel good about themselves. Many no doubt believe this is the way things should be, others I suspect quietly critique it. In no way do I wish to be critical of these women. They have difficult jobs and apparently do them well. From all I hear they deserve much of the credit for keeping the COG working. My point is that the women who work in our administrative offices are there because they are effective within a system of male dominance.

Neither am I being critical of the men who serve in leadership positions. They are also products of a male dominated church system and no doubt have varying views on women in leadership. I am merely arguing the ethos of our administrative offices is more restrictive on who fits well into the system and they are therefore the most challenging environments in which to effectuate change.

However, the Executive Committee of the Church of God could initiate change immediately (effective at the next Assembly) if they wished. While there are some positions that the General Assembly has required be filled with Ordained Bishops, there are more top-level, even department head positions that could be filled by any person the Committee deems qualified. They could begin to fill all of those positions with women (and/or minorities). Let us pray they get the vision and the courage to do so. This would effectuate change throughout our denomination.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Women Opposing Women in Ministry

It is very clear there are men who oppose women serving in ministry leadership roles in the church. Some have given serious consideration to the issue and have sincerely concluded it is contrary to the will of God. Others come across as simply being opposed to change of any kind. Others seem to speak out of a visceral fear of upturning a supposed “natural order.” Unfortunately, it is the later group that rises most often to speak at the biennial General Council of Ordained Bishops. We are bombarded with irrational fears of tainted baptismal pools (General Assembly, 1886), fears of the disintegration of the family (every Assembly), and horrible exegesis (especially 2008 and by a long term friend of mine). However, the reality that troubles me more than men wanting to hold on to illegitimate power is the opposition I get from women.

In 1986 the Church of God commemorated its centennial at the General Assembly in Atlanta Georgia. The General Council approved an item granting women full voting rights at the General Assembly. All that was needed was for it to be ratified at the conjoined General Assembly. Between sessions I went to my hotel room. In the elevator was a family of three with whom I was not acquainted: father, mother, and adolescent son. They had clearly met in the lobby as the mother and son were laden with shopping bags. We road upward and I listened.

“They want to let women vote at the General Assembly. Betty Sue, you don’t want to vote at the Assembly, do you?”

“Why no; that’s silly. I wouldn’t want to vote any more than I think Joe Junior should be able to vote.”

Marveling at the precise timing, I stepped off the elevator on my floor, turned, looked at Betty Sue and as the doors began to close stated, “That is the problem, Joe Junior can vote and you can’t.” [In 1986 all male members without reference to age were allowed to vote at the Assembly. That has been amended to include men or women 16 years of age or older. I don't recall the actual names; the wording is pretty accurate.]

In the fall of that year I was appointed interim pastor at the Westmore Church of God where I was serving as Minister of Christian Education. At the time of intercessory prayer during each service I would always conclude the requests with “And let us pray for our next pastor whoever he or she may be.”

During the few months of this ritual not one man challenged me on my inclusive request. On the other hand at least six or eight women registered complaints. One, who continues to be a friend, stopped by my office and gave me a royal tongue lashing.

“I want you to know I don’t appreciate you trying to force a woman pastor on us. I don’t mind women preaching, but I don’t want one for a pastor. They just don’t represent God to me.”

I of course let her know (1) I knew there was no possibility the Overseer would appoint a woman to such a prominent church, (2) I was fully aware I had no influence on who would be appointed, and (3) my objective was to simply remind the congregation, especially the younger women, that in the Church of God pastoral ministry was theoretically open to women. It was the future I was trying to affect.

In my ministry I have had significantly more opposition to this cause from women than from men. I have many theories as to why women would oppose women in ministry: the influence of Evangelicalism, the influence of their culture, internalization of oppression, fear of having to change, etc.

I believe this group of women should be our first target group for change. Yes, we will need a majority vote of the men comprising the General Council but I believe the true battle is with the opposing women of the church. The question for me is how can we convince them it would be good, and pleasing to God to liberate all women to serve in the ministry offices of the church?

I suspect there exists a huge emotional and psychological barrier between them and those of us who desire change. We need to find common ground on which to discuss our fears, hopes and dreams. We must then come together around the Scriptures to discern the voice of God in this matter. I am open to suggestions on how to start the conversation.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Reasons for Starting “Free Our Church of God Women to Serve”

Last week I formed a group on Facebook named Free Our Church of God Women to Serve. My plans had been to create a web site dedicated to the purpose of promoting equality for women in the Church of God. I developed those plans at the Church of God General Assembly last August shortly after the General Council voted down a proposal to allow women to serve on the Church and Pastor’s Council of the local congregation. My goals were (1) to provide a site for members of the Church of God to publically declare their considered opinion there should be no restrictions on women in ministry within the COG and (2) to provide a site for the distribution of resources to promote this cause.

My hopes were to create a list of people, including prominent leaders, who would declare their belief that women should be free to serve in any office of the church according to their gifts and callings and to use that list to motivate others to honestly consider the Biblical grounds for the view.

Creating the web site required more time and resources than I have had, but last week it dawned on me I could start the process as a Facebook group and develop the web site later. A website would allow for greater distribution of resources and better interaction, but it seemed urgent to get the process started. The current group can exchange ideas by posting comments on the “wall” or following a threaded discussion.

Members of the group are asked to affirm the following statement: "I have studied the role of women in the church as presented in the Scriptures and I have concluded there is no Biblical justification for restricting women from full participation in any office or rank of ministry within the Church of God."

I am committed to this cause for three reasons (1) my experience as a Pentecostal has taught me women are equally capable of serving in ministry offices but are often unjustly excluded from having a voice in the decisions, (2) my commitment to Christ compels me to encourage everyone to give their all in Christian service, and (3) it is Scripturally required of the church.

I grew up attending the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) during the 1950’s and 60’s. Although all of my pastors were men, we frequently had guest preachers and often they were women. As I experienced them, men preachers were more dynamic (translation: they ran, jumped and yelled a lot), but the women were more instructive and relational. At the risk of gross over simplification, men were more excited about serving God; women were more excited about knowing God. Men convinced me I needed to know God; Women convinced me I could know God.

In my church, women were often up front. They sang in the choir and they sang specials. They led programs like Vacation Bible School and when I was young they were my Sunday school teachers. Perhaps most impressive on my young mind was that women testified with a fervent passion for God. Testimonies were most often given on Sunday and Wednesday evenings and women gave the majority of these witnesses for Christ. It was clear to me at a very early age that the anointing that came on the fiery preachers also came on most of these women as they gave thanks for God’s miracle working power in their lives. The emphasis here is not on what they said, but how they said it. They spake with a holy unction. Other than living with my mother, no other voice convinced me more that God was real, present wherever I went, and concerned about the conditions of my life. Every quarter we had a Church Conference where everyone heard a financial report and participated in the business of the church.

Growing up in Florida, I didn’t see a lot of restrictions on women in the church. I know the restrictions existed; I just didn’t see them. When I entered high school we moved to Birmingham, Alabama where things were different. My mother quickly became a spiritual leader in the church; she taught adult Bible classes and became the Family Training Hour Director. But in Alabama the business of the church was conducted in Men’s Meetings. I had also become active in ministry, first teaching the Junior High class in Family Training Hour and then being given the High school class in Sunday school.

One day my mother asked me, “Jack, will you do something for me?” I asked her what and she continued, “Will you attend the Men’s Meetings at church? I don’t know anything that is going on and we don’t have Church Conferences here like we had in Jacksonville.” That request changed my life. Immediately I became aware of the injustice of a system that shut out of the business of the church one of its most trusted and faithful members, not to mention one of the largest tithe-payers.

At sixteen as a male member who taught Sunday school, I, a sincere but un-Spirit-filled Christian, had more authority than my Spirit-filled mother who held one of the highest ministry offices in the congregation, FTH Director. I had voice; I could vote on the business decisions of the church. I was proud to take my place as a “man” of the church, but I grieved the inequity of the system. That situation set me on a long quest to understand the role of women in the church. There were no easy answers. There were abundant examples of women in ministry in the Scriptures, but there were also those troubling texts about submission, obedience, and silence in the church. I concluded the answers were beyond my abilities and must lie ahead of me.

As a Pentecostal everything must be measured by the Scriptures, but the Scriptures were just not clear to me on this issue. My first answer to the question came not from Bible study but from encounter with the Holy Spirit. In February of my senior year of High School, when I was 17, I was filled with the Holy Spirit “with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance.” When I was twelve I had an experience of a “fluttering tongue” and was told by the evangelist and others I had received my Spirit baptism. It wasn’t long before I realized I was not walking in the fullness of the Spirit. How could I admit to that, especially after I started to teach in church? Spirit-baptism was a prerequisite for teaching.

Upon being truly filled with the Spirit I was consumed with the awareness that every child of God needed to be an evangelist and fulfill God’s purposes in their lives. My passion was for the lost and the question about women in the church was a question of the Spirit’s anointing to win the lost. For a season the question was answered; women must be encouraged to pursue the callings God placed on their lives. To resist the work of God in anyone’s life was to resist God. At 18 I became a Christian feminist. Ironically, the greatest obstacle for my going public was the then current attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I was uncertain of all of the implications of such a move. After all, I was the product of the Western culture – deep fried in Southern tradition. My mantra became, “I am not so concerned about women’s rights as I am about responsibilities. We need every child of God using all of their gifts and talents for the work of the Kingdom. That’s why I believe in ordaining women and letting them serve in any office they are gifted to serve in. The Scriptures are hard to understand on this issue and if we must ere, let us ere on the side of trusting the Spirit. He’ll show us if we are wrong.”

Two points need to be highlighted. First, I am the product of strong women, my mother and grandmothers (and a strong man). I married a strong woman, a fellow minister. Some have assumed she influenced me to become concerned with this issue. The truth is I gave her her first feminist book, “All We Are Meant to Be” by Scanzoni and Hardesty. I held these views, at least in incipient form, before I met her.

Second, I must confess that the theory of feminism is easier to profess than to practice especially in marriage. I have not been a perfect model of egalitarian practice. I have undergone a couple of conversions and need a few more.

As noted above, Pentecostals are driven to live their lives out of the Scriptures. The Spirit and the Word are one. Ministry demands we wrestle not only with our own questions, but also with the questions of others. And we must seek our answers from the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the nature of the Scriptures. Only then will we nurture faith. Clarifying the role of women in the church became a perennial quest; or more accurately, explaining those “texts of terror” as they came to be known became a recurring theme of my ministry.

One trigger point for me was 1983 when I wrote a paper in my doctoral program titled “Authority and Power in the Administration of the Local Church.” That project focused what I already knew and made it annoyingly clear how hypocritical my church was when it came to women in the ministry. For example, a woman could serve as pastor and in that role was required to serve as chairperson of the Church and Pastor’s Council, but if she resigned as pastor she could not be elected to serve on that same council. Women could serve on and chair other boards and committees, but not that one special one. In that year I resolved I would not pastor a church that had a Church and Pastor’s Council, we would conduct all of our business in regular church conferences. With this renewed impetus and with Cheryl as a dialog partner I finally found a Scriptural approach to the issue. (In the near future I will begin a series on my views on a Scriptural response to the role of women in the church.)
About ten years ago I began to be increasingly and deeply troubled about the church’s confusing stance on women in the church. Pryor to that time it would be more accurate to say I was annoyed, embarrassed, or even frustrated. I would speak my views when the subject arose but I did little to initiate change other than to attempt to model my views as a pastor. I gained a reputation as one who encouraged women in ministry and I structured our local polity so that it empowers women to serve in any of the offices of the congregation.

At the Assembly of 2004 I saw an opportunity to act. I was a parliamentarian and so I was aware the agenda would probably be covered in time for items to be presented from the motions committee. I went to the Assembly with a motion to submit. In essence, my motion called for all offices and ranks of ministry to be opened to women. It was referred to committee for study with a report to be presented at the 2006 Assembly. That report was given but without opportunity for response. In 2008 the agenda included an item removing the restriction on women serving on the Church and Pastor’s council. It failed.

Following the 2004 Assembly I returned home with a sense of call to work for these needed changes. I led our congregation in a series of conferences on the subject. We passed a motion committing ourselves and our resources to promote the full inclusion of women in the offices and ministries of the Church of God. I confess; I dropped the ball. Time passed without our taking any action. I left the 08 Assembly deeply convicted for my past failure to act. The text that frequently reverberates in my mind is “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” Acts 17:30.

It is time for us to address this issue. The Scriptures must be our guide. The question is what does the Word of God reveal about God’s desire for women in His Kingdom?

Stay Tuned.