The Church As We Have Known It is Ending, and That Might Be a Good Thing – Part One

Here at The Table, we are enjoying a weekly Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark (we meet at the church on Wednesday nights, gathering together downstairs in the Fellowship Hall starting at 6pm, bringing our own food, and eating together, before starting the study at 6:30pm: join us if you’d like!  Okay, mandatory plug over.)

This last Wednesday, we covered Mark 11 and the beginning of chapter 12.

We are very reliant on Dr. Gene Boring’s fantastic “Mark: A Commentary” from Westminster John Knox Press (2006).

Some of what he wrote about Mark 11:12-25 (Jesus cursing the fig tree and over turning the tables in the Temple) really stood out to me.

From Dr. Boring:

 “The destruction of the temple was a deeply traumatic event for both Judaism and the new Christian movement, especially its Jewish Christian segment.  What could it mean that God had allowed the unthinkable to happen?  Zealot defenders of the temple had to the very last proclaimed that God was testing the believers, that divine deliverance would come at the last moment, that they needed only to have faith.  But the temple in flames meant that both temple and faith had to be rethought.  Both Jews and Christians were refashioning their faith and theology in the light of the temple’s destruction.  The ultimate curse on the fig tree, from which there could be no recovery, meant that whatever the future path for God’s people might be, to hope for a restoration of the temple was a vain hope.”

The loss of the temple for the Jewish faith especially, but for early Jewish Christians as well, was a powerful blow to their faith.  How can our worship of God, our very understanding of church, go on now that the temple is destroyed?  It was a real question that didn’t have an easy answer.


In many ways, we are facing the same question now today.  Numbers are regularly released that show the declining numbers of worshipers at churches in all denominations, across all beliefs.  Even churches and denominations that still have strong numbers are seeing the decline, and none of us are immune to this inevitable change.


The way we have known and done church for the past few generations is coming to an end.  The church as we know it is dying.


And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.


We have seen from our very own Scriptures that such change has necessarily happened and been survived before, and we will adapt and survive now, even if what “Church” becomes is something that is completely unrecognizable to us right now.


The beginning of Mark 12 (1-12) is Jesus telling the religious leaders of the temple a parable.  He talks of a vineyard (using language very similarly to Isaiah 5:1-7, cluing us in to the fact that the Vineyard of the parable is Israel).  He proceeds to tell a story that mirrors the relationship between Israel and God, as the vineyard’s owner sends servant after servant to try and get the tenants of the vineyard to give the owner his due.  Just as Israel rejected and mistreated (even occasionally unto death) each and every prophet that God sent to Israel.  Finally, the vineyard owner sends his only son, and the tenants kill him and toss him out of the vineyard.

Jesus concludes by saying that the vineyard owner will come and remove the vineyard from the hands of the tenants who ignored his wishes, who harmed those whom he had sent, and give it over to new hands.


We can see that in many cases the people in charge of the church today, or at least some of its most vocal and up front proponents, are misusing that power, much like the religious leaders Jesus deals with in Mark.  They are ignoring and even blatantly causing harm to God’s own people, much like the tenants of the vineyard.


Just this week, we saw a church where a minister admitted to sexually abusing a high school girl while he was her youth minister.  He received a standing ovation from his congregation.  She wasn’t given a voice at that service, however.   Why did he admit to this?  Only because she came forward about it more than 20 years later in light of the “Me Too” movement.  Right after forcing himself on her, using his position to abuse her, he forbid her to tell anyone.  She, however, told another minister of the church about it at the time.  The other minister also advised her just to keep quiet about it.  After this abuse was made public, he told his congregation about it.  He said he sinned, had apologized, had done everything biblical to move on.  He was applauded by his congregation for a full 20 seconds.

Even worse, his senior minister in front of that congregation preached about the sin, making it seem like the victim, a 17 year old girl who had been abused by her youth minister, shared in that sin.

No comment was made on the fact that what occurred was statutory rape and illegal, and none of the authorities of the church where it occurred did anything about the illegal acts that had occurred.

And the victim herself was shocked by both her attackers speech about it at his current church and their response, calling it “disgusting.”  She also reported the crime to police when it happened, although apparently nothing was done about it by police either.

The fact that a minister abused his position in this way with zero consequences, and in fact when talking about it received a standing ovation, is exactly the kind of thing that have driven people away from the church.


And we can’t think that this is a solitary incident either.  The reputation of the minister and the reputation of the church were seen as more important than the victim.  Both 20 years ago when the event happened and again this week despite being a different congregation in a different state!


The tenants of the vineyard aren’t upholding their end of the bargain – this fig tree can no longer bear any fruit.


Also this week, our president has shown again by his own words and actions, that he is a racist.  This is another opportunity for the evangelical leaders that support him to disavow him.  However, I’m sure no one is surprised that Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, has instead, again, come out in support of our racist president.

While Jeffress claims that perhaps the president shouldn’t have used the word he used, the sentiment is correct.

In other words, Jeffress gets it completely backwards.  Honestly?  I could care less if the president swears in the Oval Office.  I can guarantee he’s not the first to do it.  It isn’t the word “shithole” that any of us are objecting to, it is the racist sentiment behind it.

He questions why we allow people from “shithole” countries into the United States, pointing to countries where the majority of people are people of color.  He follows this up with wondering why we can’t instead have people immigrate from Norway, a country where the majority of people are white.  That’s the sentiment that Jeffress sees as a correct one.  That only white people should be allowed to come to the United States.

It is a blatantly racist sentiment that stinks far worse than any offensive word or the literal fecal matter to which the offending word refers.

Robert Jeffress:

“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.”


When these are the representatives of God’s church, defenders of sexual abusers and defenders of blatantly racist sentiment, is it any wonder that the church is losing numbers?


The tenants of the vineyard aren’t upholding their end of the bargain – this fig tree can no longer bear any fruit.


It should be pointed out that the church as we know it radically losing numbers is primarily an American and Western European phenomenon.  In many of the places our president so vulgarly referred to as “shitholes,” the church is exploding.


Which brings me again to the parable of the vineyard from Mark 12 – it strikes me that the words the tenants speak when deciding to kill the son of the vineyard’s owner are identical to the words spoken by Joseph’s brothers, “Come on, let’s kill him,” (except, you know, in Greek) in the Septuagint version of Genesis 37:20 (the version of the Bible Mark would have been familiar with and used, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).

A story that we, and Mark’s audience, know ends on a much more hopeful note.  Joseph doesn’t die.  In fact, after being sold into slavery, he ends up becoming a person of prominence in Egypt, a person of prestige and power, a person who happens to be in a position of power when those same brothers who tried to kill him come to try and secure food for their family when suffering from a drought.  Joseph tells his brothers not to be dismayed.  He basically tells them that what they did for evil, God has turned to good.


So yes, the church as we know it here may be dying.  Many are doing and supporting evil in God’s name.


But what the world may do for evil, God can make good.  And God will make good.


So the church as we know it here may be dying, but maybe that is a good thing, because it will allow what God has planned next room to grow.


Mark closes his section on the fig tree and the temple with a statement about faith and prayer

Mark 11:22-23

Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”


Dr. Boring in his commentary on Mark notes that for many, the mountain on which the temple resided was the eschatological, or end times, temple to which God’s promise of all nations united to God’s promise would finally come to pass.  The destruction of the temple, of that very mountain, shook the faith of God’s people to its core.

Dr. Boring writes:

“The destruction [of the temple] was a severe test of faith for Mark’s church. ‘Faith that moves mountains’ is not a general hyperbolic proverb about the power of faith, but is related to ‘this mountain,’ which probably refers to the temple mountain – the subject of the whole section.  The temple mountain is no longer the focus of the eschatological events, as pictured in Isaiah 2:2-4, when all people will come to it to worship at God’s house.  It had not been ‘thrown into the sea,’ but razed by the Romans, a powerful reversal of the Zealots’ goal of ‘throwing the Romans into the sea.’  Yet the mountain’s ‘removal’ is not a meaningless tragedy or frustration of God’s plan, but in Mark’s interpretation makes way for the ultimate ‘house of prayer for all people,’ the Christian community.  This should not be thought of as the church ‘replacing’ the temple in the sense of ‘Christianity superseding Judaism,’ for Mark is not dealing with two religions called Christianity and Judaism; instead it shows the role of the temple in God’s continuing plan.  Analogous to those Jews who saw the synagogue as the ‘house of prayer’ in which the essential function of the temple was continued, Mark sees this function continuing in the church of the Jews and Gentiles.  It may have seemed utterly impossible to the Christians of Mark’s day that the promises of God could still be realized after the temple’s destruction, but ‘nothing is impossible for God.'”


And so too for us today, the essential mission of God’s church will go on, whatever it looks like or whatever form it takes, just as it did after the destruction of the temple.  As more and more churches close and the view we have always had of what constitutes the church finally ends, and it begins to seem utterly impossible to us that the promises of God can still be realized, we must remember two things:


Even with the evil acts of the world and those who claim to represent God, out of it all, God will somehow make something good.

Because for God, nothing is impossible.


  • Rev. Josh

A Response to Dr. Robert Jeffress

This week, Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior minister at First Baptist in Dallas, TX has given some interviews in response to President Trump’s claims that the United States may soon respond with “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Many see this claim by the President as reckless and dangerous as they heighten the possibility of a nuclear war in which no one will win and far too many, most of them innocents, will suffer.

But I’m as concerned with the incredibly un-Christian response by Dr. Jeffress.

You might recall Dr. Jeffress being in the news recently for the Trump rally held at First Baptist Dallas, prompting critics to call the “service” full of idolatry (an article about this even made the local paper, The Knoxville Sun).

You might also recall Dr. Jeffress during the Presidential election explaining his support for Donald Trump by saying, “When I’m looking for a leader…I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek” (see this interview he gave with NPR).

So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when Dr. Jeffress says something un-Christian, but his responses to President Trump’s comments about North Korea are so un-Biblical and anti-Christian that I feel I need to respond to them.

Here is his statement:

“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.”

The problem, of course, is that Dr. Jeffress is taking a portion of Romans completely out of context as well as ignoring all the other times Paul spoke about political power.

What Dr. Jeffress is referring to when he says “the book of Romans,” is specifically Romans 13: 1-4.

13Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

This does seem to be a bit of a troubling passage as it seems to legitimize tyrannical leaders.  But even if we take it at face value, it still doesn’t really help the case that Dr. Jeffress is attempting to make.  After all, if Trump is ordained by God to take the actions he is taking due to Romans 13:1-4, then that necessarily means that Kim Jong-Un is also God-ordained and so sanctioned due to Romans 13:1-4.  The scripture, quite clearly if we are just taking it at face value, is referring to leader’s having judgment and power over those that are subject to their leadership, not other leaders.  So Trump has no power or say or God-given anything over other world leaders, only over those he does have authority over, the American people.

But, let’s be honest, I’m not sure that I feel much better about that interpretation of this scripture either, even if just looking at it on its face the way Dr. Jeffress does, so lets dig a little more into the context of this Scripture as well as look at a few other things Paul has to say on political leaders and the like.

First, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4 in context.

Some argue that this portion of Romans is a later addition, as it doesn’t seem to flow very well with the passages just before and after it (the portion before ending at Romans 12:21 and the next section beginning at Romans 13:8).  To be fair to those who make this argument, the transition does feel smoother between Romans 12:21 and Romans 13:8, but the evidence is not nearly strong enough for me to accept that this was a later edition as it is in other places in Paul’s writings, so I’m of the opinion that this is Paul’s writing, and he meant it to go right here in this letter.  Anyway, the fact remains that Paul’s writing or not, it is canonized text in our Bible and therefore, we need to deal with it.

What we need to remember is that Paul wasn’t writing this to be read thousands of years later as Scripture (Paul was a little vain, but he wasn’t anywhere near that vain) but was writing to a particular audience in a particular context.  In this situation, he was writing to the churches in Rome.

Amongst these churches were two congregations, mentioned in Romans 16, particularly, 16:10b and 16:11b.  Many translations have these as “family” of Aristobulus and Narcissus, but the better translation is “slaves” of those Romans as opposed to family of them.  Robert Jewett, Biblical scholar and expert on Paul’s letter to the Romans, surmises that these were Imperial Slaves that were working for and on behalf of local Roman government, and therefore Paul was in part assuring them that the work they were doing was also God’s work.  He writes that “the implication of Paul’s wording is that they would not be exercising their power without divine appointment” (see page 788 of Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, in the Hermeneia series, published by Fortress Press 2007).  He further writes that the wording used in Romans 13:1 “encompasses a variety of imperial and local offices” (ibid).  In other words, Paul is specifically talking about local government in Rome here and isn’t at all meaning that this should be used to apply to all government everywhere throughout the rest of time.  He certainly isn’t referring to government in 2017 in the United States of America.  And remember, Paul’s theology was such that he greatly believed that the fulfillment of God’s plan was due to commence at ANY MINUTE, so he didn’t even concern himself with the thought of how this might be taken down the line.

Secondly, while what he is writing might seem on the surface to legitimize the power of the local government, it is actually quite a subversive take on the power of the local, Roman government.  You see, Paul is quite radical in his words here.  The Romans believed themselves to have divine right to rule, yes, but a right that came down from the Greco-Roman deities that they worship, gods of war and chaos such as Mars and Jupiter, not the God that Paul had been illuminating for the past 12 chapters of this book, a God rooted in the actions of the Christ, a God whose power overcame death with the resurrection.  In other words, they have the power to rule not as they saw it, in the laws they held and enforced, but in the fact that only Christ is the fulfillment of the law (see Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes”).

Romans scholar Robert Jewett writes,

“If the Roman authorities had understood this argument, it would have been viewed as thoroughly subversive.  The the Roman authorities were appointed by the God and Father of Jesus Christ turns the entire Roman civic cult on its head, exposing its suppression of the truth.  It’s involvement in the martyrdom of Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, cannot have been forgotten by the readers of chapter 13, who knew from first hand experience of the Edict of Claudius the hollowness of Rome’s claim to have established a benign rule of law.  The critique of the law in all its forms in the first eight chapters of this letter cannot have been forgotten.” (ibid, 790)

And as this quote in part points out, Romans 13 isn’t the only place that Paul has something to say about political issues and leaders.  It isn’t the only place in the letter of Romans!

Let’s look at some of those.  In Romans 8:38-39:

38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Nor rulers, nor powers,” Paul writes.  Whatever authority they may have, Paul doesn’t believe they have the power or the right to separate us from God’s unfailing love.  God’s love that includes the people trapped under the regime of Kim Jong-Un who would most certainly perish if the President were to drop “fire and fury” upon them.  Despite what Paul says in Romans 13, he still firmly believes what he had to say here in Romans 8 as well.

Paul’s feelings about the leaders of his world are made clear in 1 Corinthians 2:8.  For fuller context, I will provide 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 for you:

“6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
   nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

None of the rulers of this age understand, Paul writes, including those he talks about in Romans 13.  Furthermore, Paul blames the powers that be, the rulers of his time for the action of crucifying Jesus.  Had they understood, had they known what God was trying to do in the world, they would have worked with and followed Jesus, not crucified him.  Doesn’t sound like Paul thought they were properly utilizing the power and authority they received from God, which means that despite having that authority, they aren’t always correct in using it.

I think we can safely say that we have the right to wonder whether or not President Trump is correct in escalating tensions with North Korea despite Dr. Jeffress’s reading (incorrect and out of context reading) of Romans 13.

In an article from the Washington Post about this statement, Dr. Jeffress made the claim that those who don’t follow his understanding of these issues and his belief in some of the harsher edicts of our President towards minorities and foreigners just don’t have a strong understanding of the Bible.

“It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.”

I beg to differ, Dr. Jeffress.  I think the Bible is pretty clear in its preference for the “mushy rhetoric” as you refer to it.  The Bible, when taken as a whole, and especially the Gospels, seem to take a stand on the side of Peace and Love.

Isaiah 2:4b and Micah 4:3b

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.”

Matthew 5:43-48

“43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Mark 12:28-31

“28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’”

Dr. Jeffress, you are free to believe that the Bible tells you that war, violence, and hate are the answers.  I, for one, will err on the side of love.


Rev. Josh

Making a Difference in the Neighborhood

When the people of First Christian Church in Downtown Knoxville made the decision to move to this place and become the Table, a big part of that decision was with the intention of building community with the neighborhood we were joining and finding ways to make a difference in that neighborhood.


Now that we are here in West Haven, we hope that we are proving to be good neighbors and an important, difference making, part of the community.


We certainly felt like part of the community when the West Haven neighborhood hosted a fun picnic and get together at our church in June.

A West Haven Neighborhood picnic at the Table


And we also felt like the neighborhood was part of our community the last few weeks.


As a church, we decided to have a drive to get school supplies for the children at West Haven Elementary who might not be able to purchase those supplies for themselves.  We also opened this drive up to the neighborhood and were overjoyed by the response.  Together, the church and our neighbors gathered up enough items for 60 children at West Haven Elementary, ten backpacks with the full amount of items on the school supply for each and every grade!

Last Sunday, July 30, we packed those supplies into the backpacks

Packing backpacks with school supplies for West Haven Elementary


And then we delivered them to a very thankful West Haven Elementary

School supply backpacks delivered to West Haven Elementary


We couldn’t have accomplished this without the support and help from the people of the West Haven neighborhood, and we hope to continue to partner with them and whoever else will join us as we try to make a difference in our community!


Thanks to all who helped make this possible!

Rev. Josh

A Little Bit About Me


My name is Joshua Toulouse, and as of May 1, 2017, I am the Senior Minister here at The Table.


I am a TCU graduate (majored in Radio/TV/Film, with a minor in Religion), so that might help to explain why I wear so much purple (GO FROGS!)

Maybe once I experience a football season here in Knoxville, I might add a little orange to the wardrobe!  (But don’t expect my love of TCU to ever lessen at all!)


I have two Master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School (on the TCU campus), a Master of Divinity (M.Div) and a Theological Masters (ThM).


Besides TCU sports (GO FROGS!!!), I am also a huge fan of Chicago sports, particularly the Blackhawks, the Cubs, and da Bears.  I was born in Chicago and spent the formative years of my life in that great city.


I also am a huge fan of pop culture, especially movies and television, often of the sci-fi variety.  I proudly wear my geek love on my sleeves (or, occasionally my stoles),

and many times I will use those loves in my sermons and messages, so be prepared to hear about the latest Comic Book movie each Sunday!


But most importantly, I believe in the transformative, radical love of God, meant for ALL people, especially those to whom society attempts to deny that powerful love.  We are all, women and men, LGBTQi+ and straight, Republican and Democrat, and even Christian and non-Christian, created in the Image of God, beloved by God, and ordained by God to do wonderful things in the world if we allow ourselves to do them.  So, I hope to help lead this congregation and all who would join us in working to do wonderful things in the world and bring about the kin-dom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.


I look forward to working with you all towards that cause!


Rev. Josh