Friday, May 29, 2015

Bearing one another's burdens

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
- Galatians 6:2

I know the context here is not quite what I am going to talk about and the appeal I am going to make but the essence is the same. As the church our primary functions are not to "worship together" but to love one another. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one has need, we all have need.

Part of the church in our area are hurting and they are in need. I am asking for your help. I don't do this often but this is a situation that is quite literally close to home.

A local family recently lost two of their daughters and one is fighting for her life at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. They were involved in a collision with a semi just a few miles down the road from my house and while we don't know them personally, we do know some of their family and their local church.  Here are some of the details from  their GoFundMe page:
May 21, 2015 is a day that changed the lives of the Schmucker family forever.      It was early afternoon when Lori age 20 and three of her younger sisters were heading home on Campbell Rd. They had just turned onto State Road 101 when they were hit by a semi truck and trailer. Lisa and Lydia ages 13 and 11 were killed instantly. But Lori(20)  and Sarah (8) were airlifted to Parkview Hospital with Sarah being in critical condition. Lori was released after a five day hospital stay, and is recovering well. Sarah was then transferred to Riley and her condition is still critical          We are trying to raise funds to cover all of their expenses during this difficult time. None of us can fathom what they are going through.  The parents are staying with her in Indianapolis .        We are praying for a full recovery for Sarah and for God's grace to be poured out on the lives of Jerry and Ada Schmucker, but financial assistance is needed and would be greatly appreciated.Most of all we desire prayers that we could surrender to Gods will. We marvel how God has strengthened the family trought this. Jesus says my grace is sufficent for thee,my strength is made perfect in weakness.2 Cor 12:9
You can also listen to their uncle speak about them in a video from a local news story on the accident.

I am asking for your help. For certain please pray for this family. They seem strong in their faith and loved and supported by the community but this would be trying for anyone. If at all possible please consider donating to help with their expenses. They are going to have a lot of medical expenses and a lot of other expenses that come with that like staying in Indy with their young daughter. Also please spread this around. Retweet, share on Facebook, toss it a plus on Google+. However you can. As the Schmucker family starts the long road of recovery please lift them up in prayer and support them however you can so they can focus on their family and have less to worry about with  their bills.

Thank you to anyone who takes time to pray, who shares this post and who helps them financially.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thinking About Religious Leaders

Dave Black posted this on Monday.
In the Palestine of Jesus' day, the religious authorities enjoyed an allegiance with the imperial forces that were occupying their nation. In the Gospels, Jesus is consistently portrayed as resisting both the religious and political authorities of His day. Political allegiances are always problematic for followers of Jesus. This is true in today's American politics as well. When I heard a certain Republican candidate for president's belligerent talk yesterday -- "If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I'm not gonna call a judge. I'm gonna call a drone and we will kill you" -- I could certainly see where he was coming from. Whereas the teachings of Jesus should be a check and a critical corrective to such statements, the assumption among many conservatives today is that world power is politics. They are right, of course. Yet it might be helpful to admit, with Kierkegaard, that much of evangelical Christianity today is "playing Christianity" -- a child's game, a counterfeit even, an ersatz Christianity that masquerades as genuine Christianity but lacks any substance or depth. Being a disciple of King Jesus is meant to be a game-changer. If we are not very careful, political loyalties can easily displace our allegiance to Christ. And if we are not very careful, American Christianity can become so diluted that it ends up mixing easily with allegiances that demand killing without due process of law. Indeed, this already seems to be happening in our nation.
With respect I think Dr. Black might be far too optimistic here. It isn't happening, it already has happened and it gets worse every day. The Republican candidate for President he mentions, Senator Lindsey Graham, is a dangerous and quite possibly unhinged individual, someone who is quite willing to send men and women to kill and be killed to defend some misguided notion of "freedom" and curry political favor with the bloodthirsty among our electorate. Of course the Senator also described himself as a veteran of the first Gulf War even though he never left the U.S.. So no surprise there.

What is interesting though is how Dr. Black's earlier statement rings true today. Like the first century Palestinian religious leaders, many "conservative" religious leaders today have a comfy relationship and even a tacit alliance with the military and imperial forces of Caesar in America. Sure they dress that up in flowery language and noble intentions but there is a very real unequal yoking going on.

One of the dirty secrets of the religious conservative movement is that very few of the prominent thinkers and speakers are Christians. Look at talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and especially Glenn Beck. Not a one of them is a Christian as far as I can tell, although all of them make noise about being Christians despite being part of a cult (Beck) or being thrice divorced like Limbaugh who was serenaded at his fourth wedding by open homosexual Elton John. The few that are Christians are largely clowns (Ralph Reed) or embarrassing (Mike Huckabee). There are some bright writers and thinkers like Rod Dreher and the writers of National Review but by and large they have some serious theological issues.

Unfortunately a great many Christians, or at least church going Americans, look for direction on matters of doctrine and practice to these individuals, not because they know anything about them but because they are famous and influential and of course they spout the proper political talking points. Having the right political philosophy or at least saying you do is not a qualifier for being a leader who ought to be listened to and emulated in the church. This is not unique to conservatives of course, so-called "progressives" will embrace anyone who says the right things about gender or denying hell or embracing homosexuality. It does tend to be far more prevalent among conservatives simply because there are far more Christians who are politically conservative than there are those who identify as being "progressive".

Something is deeply askew when the church largely looks to famous celebrity men who embrace Caesar and his sword for the sake of political influence rather than taking our guidance from simple men and women who love and serve God and their neighbor right down the street. When we are more interested in hearing what pagan Glenn Beck has to say on an issue than the Christian brother who lives around the corner it is little wonder things are such a muddled mess in the church.

The sooner the church loses our influence, power and wealth in America, the better off we will be.

Why Would Any Christian Need A License To Preach?

This morning Dr. Russell Moore posted a picture on Instagram of his "license to preach". You have to click the link apparently on Instagram, I couldn't figure out how to embed it. He also posted the following statement:

20 years ago today, I was licensed to preach. Grateful for the past two decades of getting to serve the Lord.

What a baffling statement. A Christian needing a license to preach? You might as well issue a license for a fish to swim.

I am not in any way trying to mock Dr. Moore who is by all accounts a wonderful brother in Christ and a godly man who seeks to serve God. He has been a profitable teacher for me from afar and his heart for orphans is commendable. I am sure this means a lot to him, both when he received it and today looking back at 20 years of professional ministry. I imagine it is for a lot of men a major achievement.

Nevertheless, the notion that some ecclesiastical body, distinct from and in competition with the rest of the church, is authorized or required to provide a license for certain Christians to preach is so foreign and does such violence to the New Testament description of the church and the Gospel ministry that it demands we show the false assumptions that it relies upon.

The idea of a license to preach is one of those things that I have to assume most Christians know deep down is ridiculous and quite possible dangerous but we just go along with it anyway. Men who have studied the Bible far more than I accept and grant these licenses and put them in frames on their wall as if to declare that they have a special insight or that they are unique oracles of the Lord. We aren't talking about a brother being sent on mission to a far away land where the fellowship that is sending him is commending him on his journey. This is a license for a regular guy in a permanent part of the gathering being licensed to "preach". There are a lot of reasons why this is unbiblical and two big reasons why it is dangerous and I want to focus on that.

First, it confuses the word "preach" which is typically used in the New Testament to describe telling unbelievers the Good News of Jesus Christ and calling on them to repent. It is never used to describe a monologue sermon delivered to the church but that is what this license is talking about when it says "preach". The holder of this license is permitted to teach in the church. Many Christians reflexively assume that when the Bible talks about preaching it is really talking about giving an engaging talk with an intro, three main points and a conclusion (perhaps with an altar call thrown in). This leads to many of them thinking they can't "preach" which leads to my second point.

The big reason why this is so dangerous is it says to the average Christian that they are unable, unqualified and not permitted to preach the Gospel. It kills me that we have so many clergy that, just being honest, whine about the average church member not sharing the Gospel and yet they hang a "license to preach" on their wall in plain sight that says to the average church member "No license? No preaching for you!" This mindset, not just demonstrated by "preaching licenses" but in myriad subtle and not so subtle ways, has effectively muzzled 95% or more of the church for most of the contemporary history of the church. Christ has commanded His church to spread the Gospel and used the foolishness of ordinary, unlearned men and women to do so but religious leaders, keen on retaining their privilege and power whether intentionally or not, have created false and dare I say anti-Kingdom barriers to the church spreading the Good News.

If you are a Christian, you already have a license to preach written on your new heart with the ink of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The only one, THE ONLY ONE, who can call you to preach is the One we preach about. Christian leaders, instead of bemoaning the "decline of Christianity in America", how about you let go of some of your power and encourage in word and in deed the church to go out and spread the Good News. The best way to slow the "decline" is to make more Christian via the Gospel proclamation and we don't have near enough professional clergy to make a dent. We do however have the greatest evangelistic force in  the world, sitting mutely every Sunday morning in pews.

Release the church and watch the Holy Spirit move or muzzle the church and cry on social media about the lack of evangelism.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Blessing Or A Stumbling Block?

As I reflect back on Memorial Day I am reminded yet again on the very odd experience of the church in America. I wonder what the early church would think of her spiritual descendants in the faith living wealthy and comfortable lives and spending a day memorializing the sending of soldiers to kill and die to keep us wealthy and comfortable? I am pretty sure they wouldn't applaud us for where we are and more likely would send us epistles warning us against the love of money and being unequally yoked.

In general the church residing in America sees ourselves as "blessed" because we live lives free of any real persecution and our wealth and influence is the envy (or so we suppose) of the church in the rest of the world. Whether in the barren religious wasteland of Europe where a church-state partnership failed so dramatically or in hostile countries where the church is actively persecuted, we presume that the rest of the church gazes longingly at the church in America with envy. But you simply can't read the New Testament and come away thinking that wealth is pretty much always seen as a probable stumbling block and humility and contentment are consistently seen as blessings and desirable traits. So should we really be cheering on those we send to violate the commands of Christ so that we don't have to in order for us to maintain a life that the Bible at a minimum warns us to be very leery of and often is outright condemned by Christ and His disciples? I am thinking no.

We need to start thinking more carefully about what we are considering blessings and where we direct our desires for others to be blessed because I think we are confusing what the world considers to be blessings with what Scripture teaches us are real blessings.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Sober Words From Spurgeon For This Day

Unlike years past I had to work today so I have been off social media and for that I am largely grateful. Much of what is said today and on other patriotic holidays by professing Christians is enough to make our Lord weep. Charles Spurgeon had this to say many years ago (emphasis mine):
The Lord Jesus Christ is our peace in a second sense, namely, in making peace between nations. That there are wars in the world at the present time is not the consequence of anything that Christ has said, but of the lusts of our flesh. As I understand the Word of God, I always rejoice to find a soldier a Christian, but I always mourn to find a Christian a soldier, for it seems to me that when I take up Christ Jesus, I hear one of His Laws, "I say unto you, resist not evil. Put up your sword into its sheath; he that takes the sword shall perish by the sword." The followers of Christ in these days seem to me to have forgotten a great part of Christianity. How many of you would go tomorrow into a court of law and, if you were called upon to do it, would take an oath, whereas if there is anything taught in Scripture, it is expressly taught that you are not to swear at all, neither by Heaven, nor by earth, nor by any other oath! If Christ ever delivered a plain precept, it is this—and yet all denominations of Christians seem to have cast it to the winds, with the exception of the Society of Friends. And so with regard to this matter of war. Our Apostle does not mince matters when he says, "Whence come wars? Whence come fights? Come they not from your own lusts?" That is the top and bottom of it, but, wherever true Christianity prevails, war becomes less frequent. It is owing to Christianity that war is far less common—though still too frequent—than it used to be. The length of human life has been much increased by the prevalence of peace—and wars, devastating wars, though, alas, they still break out—are not so constant as once they were and we are confidently looking forward to the time when the Messiah shall wield His blessed scepter and wars shall cease to the ends of the earth! Then shall men—
"Hang the useless helmet high, And study war no more."Then shall the shrill clarion of the battlefield yield to the pipe of shepherd's plaintive melody. Then shall the weaned child play upon the hole of the asp and the lion shall eat straw like an ox. Oh, that the Prince of Peace would come and establish His empire upon a firm foundation! Then could we, indeed say, "He is our peace!"
That is the right tone for it. I rejoice no less to find a soldier or other wielder of the sword of Caesar is a believer than I do any brother or sister and yet I am saddened to see so many Christians embracing the act of soldiering for reasons of nationalism, fear or crass pragmatism. For Christians to memorialize those who died while being sent to kill because they were "our" soldiers killing "their" soldiers is to completely misunderstand the cross-national nature of the New Covenant and the pilgrim status of citizens of His Kingdom. I don't say this to sneer at my fellow believers in America as some seem to take such pleasure in doing but rather as a plea to seek the alternate way. I rejoice to see more and more Christians who hold to other orthodox views turning away from the lie of redemptive violence and "Just War" and embracing the place of humility with basin and the towel.

(Hat Tip: Linford Berry)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Suicide As Self-Preservation

Yesterday I tweeted this....
In case this was another news item you missed in the media furor of "look over there at the Duggars, something happening with a reality show family is much more important that the bogus release of a handful of carefully screened emails by the Secretary of State on the Friday before a holiday weekend so she can claim 'transparency' when everyone knows it is a farce!", Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense and inexplicably the current President of the Boy Scouts of America publicly called for the scouts to permit men who engage in same-sex sexual deviancy to have unfettered and often unsupervised access to vulnerable teen and preteen males. Or more simply to allow openly homosexual men to be Scout leaders. According to Gates, allowing males attracted to other males to be Scout masters is the only way for the Scouts to survive.
Gates said several states had passed laws protecting employment rights based on sexual orientation.
"Thus, between internal challenges and potential legal conflicts, the BSA finds itself in an unsustainable position," he said. "A position that makes us vulnerable to the possibility the courts simply will order us at some point to change our membership policy. We must all understand that this probably will happen sooner rather than later."
Gates cited his experience with a California court's decision that sparked the end of the military's so-called don't ask, don't tell policy, which banned gays in the services, and said the Boy Scouts of America must act before it is compelled to do so by the courts.
"If we wait for the courts to act, we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundational belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys," he said. "Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes."
Gates noted that the U.S. is changing and "we are increasingly at odds with the legal landscape at both the state and federal levels."
"The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate," he said. "Quite the opposite is happening."
So unless one allows the already tiny percentage of homosexual males, a number immeasurably smaller when you look only at those who want to be Scout leaders, to take positions of leadership in Scouting, the organization will certainly die from legal challenges. Keep in mind yet again that leaders in Scouting, especially scoutmasters, have an intentionally major impact on the formative years of young men. Now more than ever with so many male children growing up in homes without fathers and largely aimlessly, we need young men to be mentored by adults that instill needed virtues. Instead what is being proposed here is a cowardly capitulation, throwing young men into the fires of Baal rather than stand on principle. More on this in a moment.

Let me say at this point that I have no skin in this game, at least not directly. We tried Scouting for a few years but my boys just weren't into it. Besides that I have some very serious concerns over the Scouts tendency to blur the distinction between Christian faith and love of country and pushing moralism apart from the necessary new birth. Because Scouting is so deeply tied in with faith and includes faiths that range from questionable to outright heresies, it amounts to unequal yoking. All that aside it has generally been a net social good in this country. teaching countless young men practical skills and moral values that make them better citizens. It is also an organization that takes all of the traditional red blooded, patriotic American values and wraps them up neatly with a bow and that makes them a critical target for those who want to destroy any notions that some behavior is unacceptable and other behavior is more beneficial to society as a whole.

Back to my point. In the face of ever more strident and vicious attacks by homosexual activists and their cronies in the media, many are preaching surrender. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em or at least let 'em join you. Being sacrificed in this move by the Boy Scouts, and it will happen, it is only a matter of time, are the young men who love this organization and who desperately need it. My reasoning on this is simple. First, Scouts take an oath that includes a promise to be "morally clean".  Setting aside yet another problematic issue for Christians, namely the swearing of an oath, mankind has always more or less universally understood homosexual behavior to be the epitome of what is not "morally clean". Some with an out-sized voice in America might be seeking to silence those who express what our culture and what the Bible have always taught, something confirmed as unnatural and harmful by nature itself but that doesn't change it.

Secondly, and this is the more disturbing issue, there is something that ought to make anyone with an ounce of honesty and common sense concerned about having adult men who practice a form of sexual deviancy and have a proclivity toward sex with people of their own gender being placed in a position of trust and access to young men at a vulnerable time in  their lives.

This is going to get a little uncomfortable and awkward but it needs to be said. Why do we not have adult men taking teen-aged girls on overnight camping trips? Why are we so careful to select chaperons of the appropriate gender to watch over teens? Because the vast majority of men are attracted to women and even though they lack the emotional maturity of an adult woman, teen aged girls do have the physical body of an adult woman. That doesn't mean that all normal, heterosexual men are pedophiles, just that it is common sense to not put adults in a position of authority with vulnerable teenagers of the opposite sex. We have seen this often enough with coaches, teaches, clergy, etc. to know that it is a dangerous business. It is something we don't want to talk about because it is an unspoken social taboo but it needs to be said, especially since those social taboos are being knocked down at an unprecedented rate and you don't have to look far to see the same arguments being used to advance the normalization of polygamy, pedophilia and other deviant behavior. It is not a sound practice for men and women to make close friendships of people of the opposite sex who are not their spouse. That all too often ends disastrously. That is doubly true when forming an intimate relationship where one party is at a vulnerable age and the other is in a position of power.

Let us not make the mistake here of accepting the counter-argument that heterosexual men and homosexual men are value neutral when it comes to tending toward or against sexually deviant behavior like pedophilia. I have heard "Just because someone is homosexual it doesn't make them a pedophile!". That is true. However, two additional observations here. Pedophilia is largely a crime of opportunity like theft, some people steal when they have access to something of value and some people abuse kids when they have access to kids. Secondly, and don't miss this, people who are homosexual have already exhibited a willingness to engage in sexual deviant behavior. Advocates for homosexual normalization have done a pretty solid job to remove that truth from our cultural conversation but it is still the truth. So pretending that homosexual men are the moral equivalent of heterosexual men is ridiculous, homosexual men by definition disregard sexual morality. There is already ample evidence that having heterosexual men in positions where they have access to teen-aged girls is a bad idea, why would we want to double down on that by putting homosexual men in that same position?

Why would the Boy Scouts do this? For the same reason that "churches" and corporations alike capitulate at the barest whisper of bad publicity, namely that all institutions are conservative in the sense of being risk averse and mostly interested in self-perpetuation and this aversion to risk and bad PR goes up the larger the institution becomes. Kevin Williamson writing for the National Review says:
For those among the shrinking minority of Americans adhering to something like the Scouts’ longstanding view of homosexuality — that it represents a set of choices and behaviors that constitute at the very least a bad example for children — Gates’s decision must be understood as simple moral cowardice: The gay-rights movement is energetic and totalitarian, and its demands are fortified more often than not by the dictates of judges. Faced with overwhelming cultural and political pressure, Gates did not have the mettle to lead the Boy Scouts of America as a kind of Nockian remnant, keeping the tablets until such a time as civilization once again returns to certain eternal truths.
His less than subtle snarkiness aside, that is pretty much it. Gates has no interest in leading a diminished, counter-cultural Boy Scouts. He wants to pretend that this move will "save" the Scouts and perpetuate the institution. With that sort of incredible vision and lack of spine he ought to be appointed to lead the United Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church, or at least what is left of them, after the Boy Scouts die.

I already said I don't have skin in this game so why do I care? The Boy Scouts neither need nor want my permission or advice. I care for two reasons. First what is happening here is not irrelevant because I am not personally involved in scouting. As I have argued before, something can be a non-Kingdom issue and still be important because how we live as a society, even for the unregenerate masses, matters and this is a serious issue. Young men in this country are already at serious risk and putting them into this situation is dangerous and it is dumb. Second what is happening here with the Boy Scouts is pertinent to conversations happening all around us in the church. That is what I want to look at next.

Common sense aside. this is going to happen anyway. It might happen this year or next but it will happen and the once venerable Boy Scouts will allow homosexuals to be leaders in Scouting. What is going to happen after that is predictable. The Boy Scouts will welcome people with an admitted sexual deviancy into their ranks to placate a tiny minority. Many, many Scout parents will understandably withdraw from the Scouts and likely form another organization. Like many mainline denominations the Boy Scouts will fade into irrelevance and die, which is precisely what those pushing this change want. Just as in the cases of "gay marriage" and homosexual clergy, the aim is to remove a social structure that dares to suggest that any behavior, no matter how destructive, ought to be avoided. I don't believe for one second that homosexual activists care about getting married or having gay clergy or spending their weekend in a tent rather than having brunch and reading the New York Times, their aim is to destroy these institutions via compromise and fear because these institutions, flawed as they are, serve as a mirror to their own deviancy. They will be destroyed and it will happen in the name of survival.

The Boy Scouts are being told by their own leader that they must kill themselves in order to save themselves.

Those being pressured in the church to accept and embrace homosexual normalization had better pay attention to this. Like Lucy pulling the football away as Charlie Brown gets ready to kick it over and over, the church is told again and again that we need to get with the times in order to survive and every time we do, the culture laughs and pulls out the football. "We have to have women pastors", "We have to stop talking about modesty", "We can't talk about sin", "We need to welcome practicing homosexuals", on and on and every time the timid in the church do as they are told, it ends up gutting that part of the church. Then a new compromise is put forth as the latest salvation for the church in a hostile culture and Charlie Brown the Church lines up once again to kick a ball that everyone knows will not be there. You would think we would learn but common sense is no match for the human desire to be acceptable by others. In another analogy, many parts of the church are like the scrawny kid at school who gives the bully his lunch money and thinks that makes him his friend. I just kind of came up with that, it doesn't add anything to the post...

Pay attention to what is happening here church because there are voices all around us, both inside and outside of the church, telling us that we need to kill ourselves to save ourselves. That isn't an option. If we believe the words of the Bible, and that is a question that needs to be asked a lot more than it is, We ought to expect to be on the outs with the culture, in fact if we aren't something is wrong. Trying to win the world while at the same time being buddies with the world in a religious version of Stockholm Syndrome is foolhardy and contrary to Scripture. When voices in the church cry "Compromise!" remember that doing so has never helped the church and even worse is an act of direct and willful disobedience. I am far more concerned with the opinion of Christ, Paul, Peter and John than I am with the opinion of Robert Gates.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

While You Slept

Thanks largely to Senator Rand Paul, the United States Senate at least temporarily blocked a renewal of the horrible law with the risible name of "the Patriot Act", risible because the sweeping and anti-Constitutional powers granted by that law are the very opposite of patriotic. The idea that in the name of keeping us "safe" we should submit to constant surveillance by the government does such violence to the principles of America in general and the 4th Amendment in particular that it never should have even been brought up for a vote in the first place.

I am sure this is a temporary setback and many people missed it due to the conveniently timed furor over the Duggar reality show which kept the news of Hillary Clinton releasing a handful of carefully selected emails on the Friday before Memorial Day. If you think that the Duggar news storm happening at the same time, on that day is a coincidence rather than an intentional move by the willing accomplices of the news media obsessed with electing Hillary Clinton (Like George "What Conflict Of Interest" Stephanapolous), I have some lovely property with mountain vistas to sell you in Indiana. Regardless each time someone can put a speed bump in the way of the government monitoring innocent citizens accused of no crime, it is a win for liberty.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I Take It Back Al!

Oh please Al Gore, I beg your forgiveness for ever doubting global warming! Five days before Memorial Day and this is the weather...


Some stuff is so patently dumb and demonstrably false that, in spite of the insistence of a tiny minority that it is "settled science", the only good and proper response is mockery.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

This Is Not Normal (And It Is Not Healthy)

We are in tumultuous times as the church dwelling in America. Everywhere we look it seems that the society is turning against us. I have written about this a lot but it seems to be increasing every day. Sin of the most egregious sorts is moving out of the shadows and into the mainstream. What was unthinkable 20 years ago is considered critically important to embrace now. What was common sense at that same time is forbidden to be uttered. We feel as though we have gone from a position of dominance and cultural acceptance to a rapidly evolving sense of being outcasts in our own culture and this has put us in panic mode.

Why?

The last couple hundred years or so in America are not the normal experience of the church or of any of God's people throughout history. We may pine for the "good old days" but really the good old days, while better socially, were neutral from a Kingdom viewpoint. Keeping the unregenerate from acting out their base desires is good but it saves no one. When we look at the history of the church, we shouldn't see the American religious climate as being normal but rather an oddity. The norm for the church is to be persecuted and despised, not because we are jerks but because the world hates the one we follow.

So enough with the doom and gloom, enough with sweating and wringing our hands over every survey that declares Christianity is dead in America because fewer people show up at cultural ordained religious events. It is going to be OK, heck it is going to be unimaginably wonderfully because Christ has already won the victory on our behalf. We just need to tell people about it and let God do the rest. Maybe our problem is that we have forgotten that and gotten a little too comfortable with getting by on our own......

Friday, May 15, 2015

What I Am (Or Soon Will Be) Reading

A quick update on what I am reading or fixin' to read these days.

On the lightweight, fun reading I am doing my best to read the entirety of the Star Wars "Expanded Universe" canon of books before the new movie comes out. This is a daunting task as there are literally hundreds of books it seems.

Another book that I am looking forward to reading once it arrives from the library is a new one from Charles Murray, a somewhat controversial author who wrote The Bell Curve back in the day. His new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, proposes a solution outside of the impossible political process to the ills that beset America. I love his writing as it is incredibly detailed, thoughtful and well researched while remaining accessible to most readers.As someone who is more and more politically libertarian, I find Murray's writings to be of special interest.

Another new book is one I purchased, partly because it was unavailable from my library and also because it is incredibly cheap, a 600 page (over 700 counting the bibliography) hardcover scholarly work for only $8 from Amazon! Written by Anabaptist author Theron Schlabach the book is War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics. The somewhat unwieldy title speaks to the development of the Mennonite social ethic in the 20th century by looking at one of the key figures in this field, Guy Hershberger. If you read my blog often that name may seem familiar to you because of a glowing review I gave of his book, War, Peace and Nonresistance. I maintain that War, Peace and Nonresistance is the finest Biblical defense of the practice of non-resistance in print, apart from the Bible of course. Needless to say I am very interested in delving more into the life and writings of Hershberger to get a more complete picture as I continue to develop my own position in the non-resistant camp.

Repost and Addendum: What Not To Wear

I wrote this post three years ago because I was thinking about the practice of dressing up in our "Sunday best" when we gather as the church.

I want to look today at the practice of clergy wearing special or distinctive garb when the church gathers as a signature trait of institutionalism. I suggested on social media that the wearing of a suit and tie by pastors or other forms of distinctive garb by clergy is a prime trait of institutionalism. An individual took umbrage at this so I want to expand on my thoughts on the topic of clergy dressing distinctively from the laity.

This practice is pretty common across the religious spectrum, particularly in Christian and pseudo-Christian groups. Many "high church" types have clergy adorned in vestments with fancy robes, sashes, etc. Conservative Mennonites wear the simple coat and white dress shirt. Most Baptists pastors, especially proponents of a certain antiquated translation, wear the suit and tie as do the clergy of most evangelical churches, with the exception of those local church gatherings where the pastors are desperately trying to seem hip and cool and instead of a suit and tie they wear v-neck t-shirts, hipster glasses and sport some tattoos because that makes them seem "authentic". Even religious groups outside of orthodox Christianity have their uniforms, from mormon men being required to wear a white dress shirt to pass out "communion" to the elaborate and distinctive "priestly" garb of Roman and the various "Orthodox" faiths. When you walk into a religious gathering of this type you can usually pick out the clergy right away, some more than others but they are usually readily picked out of the crowd.

Why do clergy dress differently than the laity? Because it distinguishes them from the church. It says to anyone who looks that "they" are different from "us". Our culture places a lot of emphasis on what you wear as a sign of power, prestige and authority. If I go somewhere in public wearing a suit and tie, I get immediate deference. In contrast if I show up somewhere in shorts and a t-shirt I fade into the crowd. I have observed this first hand more times than I can count. When clergy wear special garb or even a suit and tie in a room full of khaki pants and polo shirts, it serves to create a sense of authority, just as religious titles and standing behind a pulpit serve as artificial means of exerting a sense of dominance over and separation from the rest of the church. This only compounds the clergy-laity divide and further deepens the love-hate relationship between the two. As our general culture grows more and more casual, this difference becomes even more pronounced.

That is of course not how it is spoken of by clergy and the proponents of the clergy-industrial complex. The suit or other garb is seen as sign to being sober and serious, an indicator that you take seriously the responsibility of being a pastor and "preaching" the word of God. I get this, I always wore a suit and tie when I was "preaching" but looking back I can see why I did and it wasn't as pious as I thought.

So why is the suit a symbol of institutionalism? Simply put, keeping a distance from the laity and being perceived as having a special authority over them is a critical component of institutionalism. For the institutional church to survive it requires a separate and distinct ruling class and conversely this ruling class depends on the perpetuation of the institutional system. Hierarchy is the lifeblood of institutionalism and the attire of the clergy is one of the key distinctive features of the hierarchy. In a family setting you know who the father is, or who the older uncles who are wise and worthy of being listened to are because you can see their age and you can hear their wisdom when conversing with them. In the institutional church we lack that sort of intimate fellowship so we not only select our elders and leaders by an extra-biblical (and I would say often unbiblical) method, likewise we recognize and honor them extra-biblically, recognizing them by the attire and honoring them by the payment of a permanent, regular salary.

The Bible has some things to say about how we dress as the church but it has nothing to say about how the elders of the church should be attired distinctively from the rest of the church when we gather. This distinctive attire is a deeply ingrained cultural expression of the institutional church, and it is especially evident because so many of us don't even realize it.

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Duane Liftin, former president of Wheaton College, writes for Christianity Today with an article titled Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church.
Over the last several generations, American attire in general has lurched dramatically toward the informal. A feature that quickly dates an old photograph, for instance, is the men wearing fedoras; most today wouldn't know where to find one. Those who are old enough can remember when travelers got spiffed up to board an airplane. Today's travelers think nothing of flying in duds they might wear to the gym. Or consider the rise of the term "business casual." In most parts of the country, though not all, even the corporate setting has grown less formal.

These changes are part of a broad shift toward the convenient and comfortable. It's a shift we see on display every week in our worship services. In many churches casual wear is de rigueur. It's easy to imagine how one might look over-dressed there, but less easy, short of immodesty, to imagine being under-dressed. Jeans or shorts, tee shirts or tank tops, flip-flops or sandals: these draw scarcely any attention, while full dresses or a suit and tie appear strangely out of place. Relaxed, even rumpled informality is in; suiting up in our "Sunday best" is out. The question I want to raise here is, What should we make of this shift in worship attire?

Many seem convinced it's a good thing, because, again, it's the heart that counts. Yet precisely for this reason—because it's the heart that counts—I want to suggest that what we wear in our public worship may matter more than we think. To grasp this connection, let us draw on some helpful insights from the field of communication.
Duane's basic argument is that how we dress when we gather as the church, "to worship", is a reflection of our heart and how serious we are about our faith. This is a pretty common belief in the church (followed in a close second by those who think that intentionally dressing in a culturally hip way makes them more "authentic"). I am afraid I must disagree.

Where Duane goes wrong starts right with his assumptions about the church. He speaks again and again about "worship" but I have come to really question if religious observations are what the Bible meant when it speaks of worship. Is "worship" the reason we gather? Is there a correlation between the Old Covenant forms of worship with careful ceremony or is the New Covenant form of worship completely different from the Old? Much of his argument is based in two streams of reasoning. One is that our culture attaches unique significance to how we dress. The other is the Old Covenant with its carefully ordered forms of worship, esp. in the tabernacle/temple. Neither of these streams of reasoning is especially compelling. It is not like Paul wore a suit when he met with the church. In fact I would be willing to wager that he often ministered to people, preaching the Gospel and teaching the church, while wearing dirty work clothes.

The idea of church as consisting of sacred time observing sacred activities in sacred spaces by holy men has a serious hold on the church culture of the West for centuries, going way back to the early days of Roman Catholicism. I also believe that is where we get our traditional understanding of the church gathering as a modified Mass. The people gather for a religious ritual, wearing their "Sunday best" to differentiate between the sacred world of  "church" and the profane secular world of everyday life. I was always a suit and tie guy for church, esp. if I was teaching. Now, I feel free to wear khakis and a polo shirt or even jeans. Many people will affirm that church is about more than the Sunday morning meeting but boy we sure make it seem like that hour or two on Sunday is the focal point of the church.
Then there is this....

Evangelistic gatherings can in many ways be designed to fit the unbelievers we are trying to reach. But this is harder to do with our corporate worship. The church must first shape its worship to honor God, a goal to which all else must be subordinate. But thankfully, watching believers do what they do can have its own evangelistic effect. When Christians are worshiping as they should, says the apostle, and "and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14:24–25). Attire that genuinely reflects a God-honoring attitude toward worship may well contribute to a similar result.

Is that true? Or is it perhaps more likely that those who truly need to hear the Gospel, those most desperate for the King, are discouraged from coming to a neat and tidy "house of worship" where they don't fit in because their clothes are shabby and wrinkled? Are we impressing people with our dressing up and external piety or are we portraying the religious hypocrisy that Jesus so despised? Is church designed to be attractive to the already religious even though we assume that non-believers are welcome to come and hear the Gospel? Are we like the Pharisees:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-28)
I kind of feel like we are actually being counter-productive in a lot of the church by presenting Christ as an organization to follow, a culture to join, traditions to embrace more than a King to follow. I don't think that the "church" draws people as much as it repels them or at least discourages them. I am quite comfortable in "church culture". I have a bunch of conservative suits, dress shirts and ties so for me dressing up to "go to church" is easy. For someone who doesn't know how to tie a tie or who doesn't own any clothing nicer than faded jeans? Is there a welcoming place for them? I don't mean someone saying good morning, shaking their hand and giving them a "visitor packet". I am talking about feeling like they can be a part of this community. The people I meet in places like the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer are not going to feel comfortable in our Western church culture and if our church traditions and culture are a barrier to the Gospel how can they be healthy?

The Bible is not silent on matters of our attire. Women are to cover their heads when praying or prophesying, something few women even in the most formal church. Few preachers bring it up because it is far easier to talk about wearing nice clothes to church than it is for women to cover their heads and mess up their carefully coiffed hair. Women are also called to dress modestly (at all times not just "at church") but that often clashes with our notion of fashion and appropriate church attire. What is clear is that cultural expectations of "proper" clothing to worship is entirely absent. I think the last thing the church was worried about in the first century was making sure that they wore culturally appropriate attire to gather with the church. In fact it seems that this is a symptom of a church that has nothing better to worry about. We don't face real opposition or persecution. We are comfortably cocooned in the culture. So we find stuff like this to worry about or "worship style" or nuances of theology or any of the myriad other stuff we fight and fuss about. All the while those who need Jesus are dying all around us, many of them in church wearing their nicest suit.

It may sound trite but I am more concerned about what is in a person's heart and how God is working in their lives than I am with what they are wearing. What do you think, does God care what we wear to church?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Real Unity Must Be Grounded In Real Truth


How many times have we heard this narrative? The church needs to "get with the times", stop being so stodgy and primitive and start being more "affirming" and "nuanced". We are "alienating people" and being so judgmental which drives them away. We have to ditch the certainty, the claims of absolute truth, get rid of the "patriarchy" and "homophobia" to welcome people, we have to stop talking about sin and God's righteousness and focus on "love" and "forgiveness", as if we can talk about some without the others.

I will answer my own question. We have heard it a lot, and the clamor is growing louder. We hear it from megachurch "pastors", we hear it from "Red Letter Christians", we hear it from religious bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans. It is getting to the point where, if you only base your understanding of where the church is today based on popular media outlets you might assume that the only safe place for Christians is a church that stands for nothing.

That would seem true if you weren't really paying attention because the opposite is happening. One after another we have watched denominations bleed people and die. Some are still hanging around because of institutional inertia but they are dead nonetheless and while they have been dying a slow death of a thousands compromising cuts, the fatal blow is often the embrace and normalization of deviant sexual practices hidden behind the false piety of obfuscating religious language like "affirming". In spite of the clear historical record on this question, not to mention the historic teaching of the church and the clear revelation on this topic in Scripture, there remain those who insist that compromise is the only way to save the church. Case in point a recent article by Ted Grimsrud, The "end" of the Mennonite Church USA. Ted is a smart guy and some of his writing on non-resistance is quite good but on this issue he has allowed his desire for "peacemaking" to morph into something quite different. Ted writes:
I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.
What he is really talking about, although not obvious from that paragraph, is the raging controversy in the MC USA over the issue of the normalization of homosexual behavior. It is an all too common conversation in "mainline" denominations, and that is really what the MC USA is, a virtually indistinguishable part of the "progressive" wing of the church with a few historic oddities thrown in. As an interested observer of all things Anabaptist I have kept an eye on what has been going on here and it seems that further schism is inevitable. It is heart-breaking, not least because it is a completely avoidable situation.

Let me state clearly for the record that the schisms we see over and over again in mainline groups are not being caused by those awful homophobic "conservatives", rather the schisms are the doing of those who have decided in the course of a decade or so that an issue that was a settled matter in Scripture and in the church across the spectrum was suddenly going to be reversed to coincide with a change in cultural attitudes. It is those who demand normalization of sin and the muzzling of those who would rightly point it out as sin that are the catalysts for schism. Case in point from Grimsrud's essay:
Clearly the issue is not “homosexuality” or LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends who are simply trying to remain part of a church and a tradition that they identify with. The problem, I’d suggest, is more that some Mennonites have not learned how to respect and live with difference and other Mennonites have not learned to let those who can’t live with differences self-select themselves out of the fellowship.
Actual it is pretty clear that the issue is homosexuality and the attempt by some to force acceptance of something that has never been acceptable behavior in the church or society. Note the language being used here. Those who hold to the same position that the church has held for millennia are now being told to shut up about it or to "self-select themselves out of the fellowship ". That is the epitome of the sort of intentionally vague language that gives us terms like "micro-aggression" and "privilege" but what it means is "shut up or get out". It is the segment of the church that holds to the age old teachings that are now being informed that there is no room for them at the table unless they muzzle themselves but in a bitterly ironic twist they are also the people being labeled divisive and intolerant.

What is missing here from the conversation, as is so often the case, is how deeply unmoored this discussion is from the historic belief and practice of Anabaptism. One of the core teachings of Anabaptism as expressed in the Schleitheim Confession is "the Ban" on those who are recognized as part of the church but have fallen into sin. They are not "affirmed" or "given space", they are excluded from fellowship and the comfort of the Lord's Table in keeping with 1 Corinthians 5. This is done in love and with the hope of restoration but it was done. Now we are told that the only way to keep the Mennonite Church USA together is to functionally enforce the Ban on those who do not embrace sinful behavior. This is not simply a modification of the Ban but flipping the Ban on its head. Now I recognize, from personal experience, that there can be a tendency to over-enforce the Ban and start lumping in stuff that is not clear cut sin (like specifics on attire, etc.) and you can see some great conversations on this on Dwight Gingrich's blog, most recently in this post: “The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standards”. Having said that the employment of boundaries in the church, as un-PC as that might be, is as old as the church itself and the occasional abuse of the practice does not negate the need for it. Based on our current climate I would say the need is greater than ever.

1 Corinthians 5 is not talking about being intolerant, it is specifically dealing with open sin in the church and sin of a sexually deviant nature, "a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans". A man having sexual relations with a man or a woman with a woman would certainly be understood to fall into this sort of fellowship excluding sin. What Grimsrud and others are demanding is that the church set this aside and instead enforce the rule that the only transgression worthy of being removed from the church is recognizing as sin what the Bible and the church have always defined as sin.

We cannot "save the church", assuming for a second that the church needs saving, which it does not, by creating a unity based on abandonment of truth. Unity is critical, it is non-negotiable, it is a command of Christ but nowhere in the Scriptures can we read and come away with the notion that unity is only possible when truth itself is abandoned. We need to strive for unity within the church, across the various legitimate traditions and streams of the Christian faith, in more than just word but in deed, but we can never unify the church around a lie.