Midweek Meditation: Four Marks of the Church

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42

There exist many different types of churches from house churches to the so-called “mega church.”  Regardless of the size, the authentic and growing church will share some marks or characteristics in common.  Countless books have been written on the subject of church growth but sometimes a quick look at the scriptures, especially the Book of Acts, will provide all of the information necessary.

The Book of Acts is the history of the early church.  Not a chronological history with dates and names, but the writer of Acts gives a glimpse of the struggles of the early church and how they overcame them.  Early on in Acts, the author shares what have become known as the Four Marks of the Church.

  1. They devoted themselves to the Apostolic Teaching. Now I know this may make some of you’re a little nervous and it might even smack a little of tradition but just relax a little. What the writer of Acts calls “Apostolic Tradition” we can call the scriptures.  We need to dwell on the scriptures and make them a part of our lives.  It is nice to read the devotional material and what not, but the scriptures are what we need to dwell on.  I am not a believer that the scriptures are inerrant, but they can speak to us if we listen.  As a church, and as individuals, our lives should spring forth from these pages but also leave room for the movement of the Holy Spirit to influence us as to how they should be applied in our lives.  Our faith life will grow if we nurture our relationship with scripture on a daily basis inside and outside of the church.
  2. They devoted themselves to fellowship. This is more than just the fellowship hour after church. As the church, and as individuals we need to be invested in people. Faith is all about relationships, relationships with God and relationships with other people.  Relationships require investments, and that takes time and energy, we need to work at it. A mark of authenticity and vitality in a congregation is the quality of peoples’ relationships and then their efforts to include others in those relationships.  How open is the congregation to new people?  Are they made to feel welcome?  If there a follow-up to their visit?  These are all important questions to ask.  Devotion to fellowship means a nurturing of the habits of hospitality not just to those inside the church but those outside the church as well.  If the congregation is nurturing this concept of hospitality, then people are made to feel at home and will become part of the family.
  3. The devoted them to the breaking of the bread. It does not matter how often communion is served in the church be it, four times a year, once a month, or every week, communion should feed the congregation and the spiritual life of the members. There is a richness in the offered in Christ’s broken body and shed blood which is the promise of the Gospel that is shown in more than words. Jesus took the bread and broke it, and gave it to those with him.  He called this broken bread his body that he shared with those with him.  The example is not that we are just to share our food with others but that we are to share our very lives with them.  We are to break ourselves open and share ourselves with others inside and outside of the community.
  4. They devoted themselves to prayers. A mark of authenticity and vitality is how the congregation is involved in prayer. If prayer is just something that happens on Sunday during the worship service the community will not be vital nor will it be authentic. “They devoted themselves to prayer” this is not a causal this but a way of life.  Do we pray for the church?  Do we pray for the leaders of the church?  Do we pray for each other?  Not just in bad times but also in the good times.  Prayer, like the other three marks, is important not only in the life of the congregation but the life of us as individuals.

Our growth in faith and our growth as a church community only comes through God’s grace, but these marks of the authentic and vital church, serve as ways of nourishing the church and making the ground fertile for that grace to work.

Finding Lost Family

One of the programs I like to watch is a program on The Learning Channel called “Long Lost Family.”  The premise of the show is quite simple, a family member is in search of another family member that they have either never met, or it has been many years since they have last seen each other.  More often than not, it involves an adoption and either a sibling is searching, or a child is searching.  Like most things on television these days, it always ends with a teary reunion of sorts.

Recently, I have had my experience with finding long lost family members.  This had nothing to do with adoption but rather distance and will take a little time to explain.

My maternal grandparents had each been married before their marriage.  Each spouse had died and left each of them with three children.  My grandfather had one boy, and three girls and my grandmother had three girls.  After their marriage, they had four additional children, all girls, together and I am a descendant of one of those children.  Over the years the family, for a variety of reasons, had lost touch with the three kids of my grandfather’s first marriage until several years ago, when through a chance conversation over lunch, we were reunited with a cousin that we had not had contact with since the 1970’s.

But the search for any relatives from one of the other girls, Frances, always seemed to come to a dead end.  She was divorced from her first husband and married to another man whose last name was the only piece of information we had, and this had come from an obituary from the 1970’s.  Search after search on Ancestry brought up nothing at all for information until last week.

While looking for information on another relative, I came across the family tree of someone who had some of the same people in her tree that I had in mine and low and behold one of them was Frances.  The disappointing part was she only had the same information that I had about Frances, birth date, and place but no record of death. A family story laced her death at some time in the late 1970’s around 1974.

But what this tree had that I did not have one mine was a complete listing of France’s children and in some cases their children.  So I started a search to find a living relative, and this brought me to Facebook.

Armed with necessary information from the tree that I found, as well a census information, I was able to determine where this one particular person was born and where they had gone to high school.  So I searched Facebook for someone with that name, and that had gone to high school in that same city.  Bingo, I got a hit.  I felt like I was in an episode of “Long Lost Family.”  I sent a Facebook message and a friend request, and then I waited.

The next day I received an answer to my message, and it was my first cousin once removed. After literally 20 plus years of searching, we had found the long lost family members and started sharing all sorts of stories about her particular branch of the family.

What a joy it is to connect with relatives no matter how distant they are.  It also shows that no matter the road block, perseverance in genealogy work eventually pays off.  One little bit of obscure information will lead to another piece that leads to another part.

There has been a lot of negative things written about social media and what it is doing to society, well for this writer, social media led me to find family members that I had been searching for, and that makes all of the nonsense worth it.

OTD: May 6, 1890, The Mormon Church Officially Renounced Polygamy

Polygamy was practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for much of the 19th century here in the United States.  The history of the Church will show that between 20 and 30 percent of the members of the LDS Church practiced polygamy or “plural marriage” between 1852 and 1890.

The private practice of polygamy was instituted in 1830 by LDS founder Joseph Smith, and the public practice of plural marriage by the church was announced and defended in 1852 Orson Pratt, who was a  member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, at the request of church president Brigham Young. The practice was very controversial in society as well as in the LDS Church itself.  At one time the Republican Party made reference to the practice as “the twin relics of barbarism—polygamy, and slavery.”

For more than 60 years the LDS Church and the United States were at odds over the practice.  The Church claimed they had the right based on their understanding of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution granting the Church the freedom to practice their faith without interference from the government.  It has been suggested that the Utah War of 1857-58 was specifically over the issue of polygamy and designed to expose a weakness in President James Buchanan’s approach to both polygamy and slavery.

In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories but despite the law, many church members continued to practice polygamy citing freedom of religion. In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy. However, this did not dissolve plural marriages that were already in existence but it improved relations with the United States, and Utah was admitted as a state in 1896.

Plural Marriages continued until a second manifesto was released in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress.  After this public denunciation, several smaller groups split off from the LDS Church to maintain the practice of Plural Marriage.  The Mainstream LDS Church has gone out of its way to distance themselves from these splinter groups and has a statement on their official website saying that “the standard doctrine of the Church is monogamy.”

Author Interview with Spencer McBride

Spencer W. McBride, PhD, is a historian and documentary editor at The Joseph Smith Papers. A specialist in the history of the American Revolution and the early American republic, McBride frequently writes and speaks on the evolving role of religion in American political culture. He lives in Salt Lake City. Follow Dr. McBride on Twitter @SpencerWMcBride Follow this link for more information and to purchase the book Pulpit and Nation.

What was the reason that led you to write Pulpit Nation?

The foundation for Pulpit and Nation was my doctoral dissertation. As a doctoral student, I set out to discover the actual roles of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. I read numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations, as well as church records (including vestry minutes), sermon notebooks, and an assortment of other records in archives up and down the Atlantic seaboard. While conducting this research, I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book in part to enable readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion (with clergymen as their partners) as a tool for political mobilization.

Without giving away too much of the content, what is the main argument in Pulpit Nation?

During the American Revolution and in the era that followed, early national political leaders strategically allied with the country’s religious leaders in an effort to forge a collective national identity among Americans. In part as a result of this alliance, religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, but it was often as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

Why should people read Pulpit Nation?

People should read this book because it demonstrates that while religion mattered in the founding of the United States, its role was different than what most people think it was. The ongoing debate about America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs. But in Pulpit and Nation I examine the history of religion in early American politics in all of its complexity, free from the constraints of the ideologically narrow and historically problematic “Christian Nation” debate. The result is an elucidation of how religion’s relationship to American power structures appears when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. In short, this book is helpful to any who want a fuller context for the roles religious language, symbolism, and persons played in the politics of the Revolutionary era.

Of all of the people in the book, who is your favorite and why?

I think that it is impossible for me to pick a favorite, but for me Bishop James Madison is  easily one of the most fascinating. He chose to spy for the American cause by smuggling documents from England in his luggage, navigated the Revolution on the faculty at William and Mary, and after independence supported the disestablishment of the episcopal church even as he served as a bishop therein. In Bishop Madison, we see the attempt to blend religious belief with enlightenment philosophy that was occurring throughout the country in the life of one man.

When did you decide to become an historian?

I loved history from an early age. When I entered college I declared history as my major and never looked back. I not only enjoyed reading well-written and deeply-researched history books, but aspired to contribute to the field myself. I think that my desire to be a historian was fueled in part by my study of the Enlightenment, particularly the optimistic notion that if we can understand how the world came to be as it is, we can better understand the path forward to make it as we would like it to be. Like any profession, being a historian has its rough moments. But on the whole, I really love what I do!

What are you working on next?

I currently have several projects in the works, but the one that I am the most excited about is a book on Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign. This little-known campaign—which ended in the first assassination of a presidential candidate in American history—illuminates several of the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in the United States during the 1800s, as well as today.

Confederate Monuments: History or Hate

Yes, the headline is intentionally provocative as is the issue at hand.

I am not usually one that jumps on the bandwagon for the latest cause or subject but since I have some pretty strong feelings on the subject I thought I would add my voice to the debate on the issue of the removal of the monuments to Confederates in the South and other places.

I have heard the argument that removing these monuments is denying history, but I disagree, if we needed monuments to teach history, or to even remind us of the past, we would not be able to walk around cities like Boston or Philadelphia for the sheer number of monuments that would be necessary for all of the events that happened in these two cities.

History can be taught, and remembered, in context, without any monuments or statues for the collective memory of the nation is how we learn history.  Monuments, by their very nature, are designed to glorify a particular person or event, and if that person or event should not be praised, then there should not be a monument to that person.  For example, I have searched the internet and have found no references to pictures of Adolph Hitler in Germany, but they certainly do not deny their Nazi history.  I also recall that after the fall of Communism in Russia a concerted effort was made to remove statues of Lenin and Stalin, and I do not think Russians deny their history by the removal of these monuments.

As a living historian, I will admit to a little bit of romance when it comes to the Civil War, brother against brother, and all that.  I get that there is some nobility in fighting for what one believes in, and granted by this definition the founders of the United States were traitors, which is true, the difference is self-government was granted at the close of the Revolutionary War, this was not the case at the end of the Civil War.

If we wish to be accurate about our history, then we need to call the leaders of the rebellion what they were, and that is traitors to the United States of America.  Now before you go and get all righteous about Confederate being granted veterans status and what not, I do not buy that argument for a second.  These men took up arms against their country and by that very definition are traitors, if they were not, why did President Johnson pardon those 1868?

The pardon document reads in part:

Now, therefore, be it known that I, Andrew Johnson President of the United States, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested by the Constitution and in the name of the sovereign people of the United States, do hereby proclaim and declare unconditionally and without reservation, to all and to every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States or of adhering to their enemies during the late civil war, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.

A pardon does not mean that the crime was not committed, it means the guilty cannot be prosecuted for it.  Treason still happened, and we do not glorify treason.

Monuments have their proper place in the wider context of the history of the Civil War, and that begins with telling the truth about what the war was fought over.  All one needs to do is read the various Documents of Secession to realize the overarching issue was the right of white people to own black people.  I have also heard the argument that many of our founding fathers owned slaves, and this is true; however, they did not take up arms against their country to try and prevent slavery from ending as did the leaders of the Confederacy.  Sure, the Civil War is a very complicated time in our history, but if we hold to the statement that the war was not about slavery then we are not telling the truth about our history, in fact, we are rewriting it.

Shortly after the shootings at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina, an effort was begun to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the North Carolina State House.  The flag was flying as part of a memorial to those who gave their lives in the war, but for many that particular flag has come to be a symbol of hatred and because of that, the time had come for it to be removed.  The meaning of symbols change over time, although in my opinion that flag has always stood for oppression, and this one certainly had changed.  When they symbol has lost its original meaning and is now being used as a symbol of hate and oppression, it just cannot be used any longer.

Our history is very complicated and the further away from the actual events the more complex it becomes.  One cannot tell the history of the Civil War without telling the story of slavery in the United States.  And one cannot memorialize the leaders of the rebellion without telling the whole story of what they were, traitors, and what they were advocating slavery.

OTD In American Religious History: Southern Presbyterian Church: Sex in Marriage Without Intent to Conceive is Not a Sin


The 100th General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) passed a resolution declaring that sexual relations in the context of marriage but without the intent to conceive children were not sinful.

The Statement reads:

“The sexual relation is the creation of God and is not therefore evil in itself. Within the marital bond it is to be regarded not merely as a means of bringing children into the world but also as a divine provision for the mutual fulfillment.

The bringing of children into the world is a privilege not to be lightly or selfishly evaded by married couples.

On the other hand the responsibility of prospective parents obligates them to consider well how their children are to be provided with that which will make for their best physical, cultural, moral and spiritual development.”

Pope Francis Gives a TED Talk


A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you, says His Holiness Pope Francis in this searing TED Talk delivered directly from Vatican City. In a hopeful message to people of all faiths, to those who have power as well as those who don’t, the spiritual leader provides illuminating commentary on the world as we currently find it and calls for equality, solidarity and tenderness to prevail. “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the ‘other’ is not a statistic, or a number,” he says. “We all need each other.”

OTD in American Religious History: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod was officially organized

On April 26, 1847, 12 pastors representing 14 German Lutheran Congregations met in Chicago, Illinois and formed the German Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and the Other States.  The first leader and the man considered to be the founder was C.F.W. Walther. This new synod was conservative in nature and had strong opinions on some issues to include opposition to humanism and religious syncretism.  The leaders also advocated fellowship only with other synods that were in complete doctrinal agreement with them.

In 1872 they joined with the Wisconsin, Ohio, Norwegian, Minnesota, and Illinois Synods to form the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America.  In 1947 the name was changed to the present name, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

During the time of the First and Second World War, there was intense pressure to “Americanize” the church to add English services and to eventually drop the use of the German Language altogether.  By 1947 the membership had reached 1.5 million members.

The current President of the Synod is Matthew C. Harrison and consists of 6, 101 congregations with 2 million baptized members and 1.6 million confirmed.

Among the beliefs of the synod are the following:

Salvation is through grace only not by works.

The Synod does not hold to the doctrine of Transubstantiation but rather, belief in the doctrine of the sacramental union, Real Presence, that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine.  Communion is closed and only baptized and confirmed members of churches “in communion” with the synod may participate.

There is a literal belief the calendar days of creation but no official position on the age of the earth.

A New Direction

I began writing on these pages on November 11, 2005, and this will be my 2, 996 entry.  Over the years the blog has taken several different directions, but the focus was always on some topic associated with religion and theology.

Past writing have included sermons and other spiritual writings, and that will continue but as part of the email newsletter that I send out and the focus of these pages will shift slightly in a new and fresh direction.

The header proclaims that I am a Minister, Living Historian, and Cultural Commentator.  I do not see that changing but the focus is going to shift more towards writings and research on the topic of American Religious History.

I envision interviews with authors and book reviews as well as an “On This Date in American Religious History” section.  I will continue to write from my perspective, but I will also include sermons from some of the great preachers of history as well as biographical material about the religious leaders of our American History.

I truly appreciate all of the support you have shown me over these years of writing, and I hope that support will continue with the new direction.

Low Sunday

A Sermon on 1 Peter 1:3-9

Many years ago, I was sitting in a church the Sunday after Easter, and as the service began, the minister welcomed everyone who had come out, looked around, and said, “well, it’s just us again.”  Of course, this was about the fact that just last Sunday the church was relatively full and that this Sunday, this “low Sunday” it was just the regulars.  Now, it is important to note that it is always nice to see people in church whether it is once or twice a year or each and every Sunday, but it is a little thin in here today.

The Sunday after Easter has often been called by many different names. The most common is the unofficial designation of Low Sunday. You’ll never see it listed that way in the newsletter or bulletin, but behind the scenes, that is how it is called.

On Easter Sunday, most every pew and chair is full, the choir is in full voice, there are “bells and smells”  the church is abloom and garlanded with decorative flowers and greens, and everyone is dressed up to celebrate the occasion.

But by this Sunday, though, things have changed. Most of the decoration is gone, the choir may have taken the day off, the bulletins are a bit shorter and less ornate, and there are a lot of empty pews. Families who spent Easter together have returned to their homes and hostesses who have had a full house take the chance to sit down, find the last bit of fake grass from Easter baskets, and plan another meal of leftover ham or roast.

In the early church, new prospective members had to undergo a lengthy period of instruction before being admitted for Baptism and inclusion in Communion. When their time of study ended, they put on white garments and were baptized at the Easter Service. They could then join the community. At the end of the octave (Easter and the seven days that succeeded it), they exchanged their white robes for regular clothing at church, marking the end of their being set apart and the beginning of their life as full Christians.

However it is called, this Sunday After Easter is a continuation of the Easter season, 50 days that lead to the feast of Pentecost. During the Easter season, we celebrate Jesus’s appearance to the disciples, Doubting Thomas being shown the wounds in Jesus’s hands and side, the road to Emmaus, and the Ascension. In short, the Easter season has a lot going on.

But we have to stop a minute. We are taught that every Sunday is a little Easter, no matter at what time in the church year it occurs. People forget that quite often during Lent but a quick count the number of days in Lent comes out to 46–if the Sundays are counted in. Subtract those six Sundays, and there are 40 days left. When it comes to Easter season, every Sunday after Easter itself is a little Easter and should be celebrated as such, if not with the full panoply we reserve for the actual Easter Day.

Several times during Lent someone would approach me to tell me what they were “giving up” for Lent.  We would have a discussion about how difficult it was, or not, and how they were looking forward to the days when Lent was over so they could go back to whatever it was.  I reminded them that Lent did not include the Sundays that came along during that period of fasting and penance and that each Sunday, no matter the time of year, was considered the resurrection and therefore not a Sunday that we should all go around wearing sackcloth and ash.  Each and every Sunday of the year is a little Easter, the day of resurrection.

The reading from the Letter of Peter that we heard proclaimed this morning is a continuation of that proclamation of Easter, “Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

This is the Gospel of Easter and the Gospel in miniature: we begin with praise, we see acts of God, and those actions enable us to do something, in this case, sing with joy.  But this passage also reminds us of the faith that we must have and what the object of that faith must be.

We believe that our salvation comes from God and the mercy and grace of God acting in our lives and moving us towards to place of repentance.  Acceptance, if you will, of the fact that we cannot do this thing we call life alone and that we need God in it.  We do not earn this salvation it is a gift freely given to us, but it comes from knowledge and a deep trust in God, a wholehearted trust, coming from the Holy Spirit acting in and through our lives, that we know that we are forgiven of our sins and welcomed into everlasting life.

But what must our faith be, what is the object of our faith?  Scripture reminds us not to put our faith in princes or in mortals who are also lost and are of no help.  Sure, we can lead someone to the place where they are ready to acknowledge they need God, but we cannot save anyone.  The object of our faith, as clearly stated in verse 8, is Jesus Christ himself.

“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your living souls.”

The Salvation of our souls is a multi-dimensional experience that is not just a single event but a series of life-long events that we have to keep working. The resurrection of Jesus Christ took place in an instant, but the message of that resurrection continued and continues in each of us.  Acknowledgment that God is the ruler of your life is the first step that will bring us joy, but the most important message of the resurrection is that God loves you for who you and where you are on your journey and you are forgiven and redeemed.