Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

Things are way out of hand in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death by police of an unarmed young black man, Michael Brown. Last night the governor called out the National Guard because thus far escalating the presence of armed troops has done wonders for keeping the peace. Everyone else is posting
Scenes from a militarized America
their thoughts about it so why not me? Warning, this is not going to be a politically correct post which I am sure will be shocking.    

Trying to unravel this situation and look beyond the limited facts we have about this case is difficult because this is a scenario that has more than a century of history impacting it. I am going to be wandering far and wide but I hope the whole thing makes sense.

What is muddling the issue is the usual political posturing by the polar twins of politics in America. A lot of "conservatives" are pointing to the apparent robbery of a convenience store by Michael Brown and the reported presence of marijuana in his system as if that justifies the police allegedly shooting an unarmed man. It does not. Petty theft is not a crime that is punishable by summary execution as far as I know. The protests and rioting that follow are not about one young man getting shot by the police. They are, in part, speaking to a larger set of issues. More on that later. Of course there are many who are simply opportunistic thugs, just like people who used the Rodney King verdict to steal or hurt others for their own amusement. That is not the point. The point is much larger than some bad apples who are taking advantage of the situation. It is disturbing that many "conservatives" are grasping at any straw to excuse the shooting of an admittedly unarmed young man.

Many on the left are using this to complain about income inequality as if taking even more money away from some people and giving it to other people will somehow magically start to heal racial division and distrust even though a half century of trying that has just made things worse. Newsflash, the "war on poverty" is much like the "war on terror" in that it has made the problem it purported to be fixing in reality immeasurably worse. Decades of mismanaging our largest cities and wrecking them in the process has disqualified the American Left from having a legitimate seat at the table of governance, relegating them to the political version of the kiddie table.

Some thoughts on poverty

There is no question that there is a close relationship between poverty and crime in our country. If one were to map out where the highest crime rates exist and then overlay a map of where the deepest poverty resides it is certain that they two would be nearly identical. Given the rate of poverty and unemployment among blacks, and especially young black men, crime is an ever-present reality in their communities which corresponds to unbelievable rates of incarceration and an often antagonistic relationship between blacks and the police, an antagonism that goes both ways. Some see this relationship and see causation, posing the naive "solution" that says get rid of poverty and you get rid of crime. To channel Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.

Poverty is not a driver of crime in isolation. Lots of people grew up poor. My dad grew up in a tiny house with a bunch of brothers and sisters and they were poor. He became a doctor, another uncle an engineer, another a very successful welder. They were not given government college grants or Federally subsidized student loans. They worked, they served in the military, they made their own way in a world that was far less of a hand-holding society than the one we live in, a society where opportunity is irrelevant, effort is downgraded and outcome is all that matters.  So what has changed in the intervening decades that poverty is seemingly inextricably linked to crime? Simply put the entitlement mentality.

Poverty + entitlement = crime

Lest anyone accuse me of racism here let me put this in bold and all caps:


I am sure that will not placate some people. Turns out that I don't care. Far too many people firmly believe that they are entitled to a lot of stuff that they really aren't. Recall the reaction last November when the food stamp cards had a major glitch that allowed people to spend unlimited amounts and people knowing full well that they were spending more than they were allotted decided to clean out stores including one recipient that had already spent her monthly allotment, leaving her with a balance of $.59 who tried to buy $700 worth of groceries. Riots like the ones we are seeing are crimes, no matter the motivation or "justification". They are crimes driven by entitlement, driven by covetousness, driven by a popular culture that glorifies crime. I see something someone else has, I want it and I am entitled to take it. When I am told I deserve anything and everything and that anyone who has more than me is somehow fair game for my greed, it is little wonder criminal acts follow. One political party in America has been cultivating this attitude by engaging in legalized theft from some Americans used to bribe other Americans for their votes for decades. It is the only way they win elections other than pandering to those who cherish the murder of the unborn. It should come as no surprise to see this spill over into everyday life even when engaging in criminal acts like rioting and the senseless slaughter of young black men by other young black men does nothing but deepen the poverty they are already in.

Some thoughts on race

I am not black. I have no idea what it is like to be black. That is self-evident to anyone who has met me but it bears repeating because of the raw wound of racial division in America and make no mistake that the issue of racial division impacts people of all races. It is not, as it is often portrayed, a one way street. Regardless I never think about a cop shooting my adult or teen sons or arresting them. It isn't even a thought. Cops just don't harass and certainly don't shoot middle-class white kids. However that is a very real concern, and a legitimate one, for the parents of black children, especially teen and young adult men.

I grew up in a overwhelmingly white environment. Black people lived somewhere else. It was a terribly, tragically, racially insensitive environment. The word "nigger" was used freely (and I refuse to use the ludicrous "n-word" to replace the word "nigger", we all know what we are talking about and pretending we don't is ridiculous.) and unapologetically. Most of the kids I grew up with didn't know anyone that was black other than a handful of kids in our school. I still struggle to this day with the pervasive racism of my childhood peers, a racism that I was a party to and a participant in. That admission might cost me a nationally televised cooking show later in life but there it is.

There is a subtle inculcation of fear among the races. A lifetime of news reports where it seems like every violent crime story includes a picture of young black men takes its toll. A pop culture that glorified but also warned against the culture of gang violence also contributed to this. I grew up when movies like Colors and Boyz in the Hood were hugely popular among white youth, as was popularized rap music from NWA and others. The cultural message: young black men, especially in groups, are dangerous. I admit freely that in public a group of 4-5 young white men is nothing I take note of unless they are wearing something stupid, which they inevitably are. A group of 4-5 young black men? Something to avoid. I would imagine that is true for an awful lot of people who look like me whether they would admit it or not. It is not healthy and it certainly is not a Kingdom focused outlook but a lifetime of having a particular message pounded into your head is hard to shake.

Race is a real, visceral issue for America, one compounded by the division between races in terms of income and crime. Most white Americans that I know think of crime as something that happens in the city. Most white Americans I know are firmly in the middle-class. At least when I was growing up America was still the land of opportunity. For black Americans I think that the experience is radically different. It is not an exaggeration to say that the two races in question live in essentially different countries. The Trayvon Martin verdict was a prime example. Most white Americans I know, myself included, saw the shooting as a tragic and unfortunate example of self-defense by George Zimmerman. I am not at all optimistic that we are anywhere closer to racial healing and reconciliation today than we have ever been and that presents enormous challenges for our society and especially for the church. Just going to our own church with "our people" on Sunday is not getting it done.

Some thoughts on militarization and fear

"Police Militarization" is a hot-button term. Thanks to the tireless work of mostly libertarian writers like Radley Balko and more left-wing groups like the ACLU, coupled with a growing unease about the level of government intrusion into our private affairs, an increasing percentage of the population is rightly concerned with the discovery that our local cops, including police departments in relatively small municipalities have come into possession of military grade gear like mine resistant armored vehicles (to protect against roadside bombs in rural Michigan apparently) and grenade launchers.

This fear is not irrational. Quite the opposite to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of the founding of America, a familiarity that you won't get in our public school system. Functionally and practically we are creating a standing army in our midst. With Federal spending to buy military gear then being transferred free of charge to local civilian police departments we are seeing a clever end around to avoid the Posse Comitatus act. Some $4 billion worth of military gear intended for use by the U.S. military to combat enemies of the United States is now in the hands of local police departments. Makes one wonder if the citizenry of America is now considered to be an enemy of the United States?

Even still many Americans, especially those who perceive that they have a lot to lose to faceless thugs (i.e. mostly white suburban middle-class Americans) in contrast to those who generally see the police as oppressors, are completely willing to let the police be armed like a military occupying force and to have the NSA spying on us because they believe that will keep us "safe". Safe from Muslim terrorists, from illegal immigrant, from violent minorities, from pot smoking hippies, from commies, from whoever is the threat du jour. As long as their is an "other" that is seen as a threat, many of us are willing to trade liberty (because we don't think it is threatened or particularly valuable) for security. That tide is turning, although all too slowly, but it is quite possible that it is too late. As long as we let the authoritarian forces use fear of others to control us, we will turn a blind eye to the real threat that is right in our home town.

Having an "other" is critical

Without an other to fear, people ask questions. Questions are inconvenient. Questions impede the march of progress. Stop asking questions because that terrorist/communist/black kid/dope smoking hippie over there is trying to take away what you've got. When you have the "other" for people to fear you can paint any who asks questions as being allied with the "other". Question the militarization of the police? You are pro-criminal. Question the "war on terror"? You are aiding the enemy. As President Bush helpfully painted it in stark either-or terms, you are either with us (and support our policies without question) or you are against us (and therefore an enemy). The "other", perhaps shadowy, perhaps real, perhaps a useful pawn, is how the state keeps people in line and in subjection. If anyone really thinks that armed personnel carriers and grenade launchers are necessary to community policing, I have a news flash for you. They aren't. No, I am not a cop but I know a little bit about the world we live in. Cops are not engaged in regular gun battles with thugs wielding military weapons. The one example from L.A. was a) in one of the very largest cities in the world and b) many, many years ago. In other words, stockpiling military weapons by a civilian law enforcement agency "just in case" is a potential threat far beyond the possibility of a pitched gun battle that requires gear more suited to the battlefields of Iraq (where we shouldn't be anyway) than they are to the streets of Fort Wayne. That is not being "anti-cop", one of my good friends is a cop and we talk about this all the time. I just think that having a pervasive armed force beholden to the government in our midst is a dangerous precedent.

So why isn't anyone trying to solve this?

Who benefits from this state of fear and conflict? It is not the average white person that lives in fear of the growing minority population in America. It certainly is not the minority community that has suffered under crippling policies designed to keep them essentially enslaved. The powers that be in our country benefit from a state of fear that drives spending which grants power. Keeping America in fear while encroaching on American liberty helps those who are already powerful stay powerful. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is just common sense and simple observation. There are those who intentionally keep Americans at odds, who pander to the fear of average citizens, who design systems that keep people as chattel by incentivizing poverty and dependency and in turn bribe those chattel, not with economic freedom or opportunity but with the wages earned by others.

So back to Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown. What is on display is portrayed by much of the media as an isolated incident but there simply is too much unofficial and frankly subversive reporting going on to make that notion stick. We are seeing the boiling over of decades of anger compounded by an increasing sense of distrust and aggression by the state toward the citizenry. I think this is just the beginning. I also would be very surprised if some new "crisis" wasn't suddenly ginned up by the state to distract people from what is going on. Pay attention people. Things are only going to get worse.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One sentence says it all

Tim Challies weighed in, as I knew he had to as one of the most widely read bloggers around, especially in the "Young, Restless, Reformed" or "New Calvinist" circles, on the firestorm around Mark Driscoll. At the outset let me say that I have never been a big fan of Driscoll. Even though he has largely been on the money on issues of theology his manner always struck me as a school kid trying too hard to get the cool kids to like him. I know a lot of others really admire him and I think secretly like his pseudo-tough guy machismo talk about cage fighting and stuff but not me. Anyway Tim put up a post (and probably wisely made a bogus excuse as to why comments were closed) titled Character Is King. His point is that in the New Testament what we see emphasized in calling elders is character rather than education or success. What grabbed my attention though, and why I think this public disaster was inevitable, is captured in one sentence (emphasis mine):

both he and his church have been removed from Acts 29, the church-planting network he helped establish.

That is the problem right there. Mars Hill, The Resurgence, etc. were all about Mark Driscoll. It is a common problem in the church and it is a cancer. Many pastors refer to the church they serve as "my church". Local churches pastored by well known pastors are known as "so and so's church". Most churches put the name of the pastor on the church sign. It is especially pronounced in "reformed" churches and ministries. Grace to You is all about John MacArthur, Desiring God is all about John Piper, 9 Marks is all about Mark Dever and Lignoier is all about R.C. Sproul.

Of course not every one of these ministries ends up like Mars Hill seems to be going. Combining the man exalting nature of our religious culture with a personality that craves it was a combustible mix. However the culture itself that makes ministries an extension of the personality of one man is a dangerous one, dangerous for the men involved and their families and dangerous for the church when the inevitable fall comes.

If your church or ministry is about a man, it cannot be about Jesus no matter how much you say it is or how proper your theology. We need a lot more people who make much of Jesus and lot fewer man-centered "ministries" that collect money from the church to provide a platform for one man and his personality.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Living By The Sword

Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

- Matthew 26:52

With these words Jesus rebukes Peter for striking the servant of the high priest with his sword. Peter meant well. He lashed out with his sword to defend Jesus even though doing so against a "great crowd with swords and clubs" was a suicidal move. His heart was in the right place. It turns out that history is replete with what seemed like well intentioned decisions that ended up going horribly wrong. The church in America has an internet front row seat to a prime example right now.

Unfortunately this teaching of Christ is not restricted to just those who draw the sword or that particular event. Whenever violence is employed on a wide scale, innocents suffer. Millions died in the World Wars, many millions of them civilians. Mothers incinerated with their children, the elderly dead under the rubble of bombings. We even have a nice clinical name for it, "collateral damage". There simply is no way to wage war on a large scale without innocents suffering, even when that suffering is unintentional.

The news coming from Iraq is ugly and for Christians is especially heart-breaking. The once small but relatively secure population of Christians in Iraq is on the verge of extinction, as is the case all around the Middle East. Forced conversions, torture, rape, murder and the defilement of bodies are all happening right now to our brothers and sisters. Many of us sit in our homes in America aghast that this could be happening in 2014 and we are filled with a combination of impotent anger and horror at what we see, knowing that there is little we can do other than pray (and prayer is no small thing). What reminded me of  "live by the sword, die by the sword" is the very real part that American Christians unwittingly played in setting the stage for this atrocity that is happening to our family in Iraq.

It is hard to remember the Middle East as it was before 9/11/01. For the last dozen plus years we have known nothing but war. When September 11th happened, America as a whole was looking for vengeance. Someone to hold responsible and someone to make pay. To be honest I am not sure we much cared who that was. Like President Bush said, if you aren't with us you are against us. Given a general lack of "hard targets" America invaded and eventually occupied Afghanistan, home of the Taliban. Concurrently a case was made, leaning heavily on alleged weapons of mass destruction, to invade Iraq and finish the job we left unfinished under the first President Bush. As anyone could predict, American forces steamrolled the Iraqi military and we set up shop with dual occupations for the next decade, a decade that was drenched in blood, both American and Iraqi.

Fast forward to more recent years. In 2011 the so-called "Arab Spring" kicked off across the region. Formerly stable regimes in Egypt and Libya collapse. America is interfering a little here and a little there. Syria is embroiled in a civil war that still rages. Iraq is destabilized and with the withdrawal of American forces there is nothing to stop the ISIS other than the ragtag efforts of Iraq's military. Religious minorities are persecuted, notably for us many Christians who face unspeakable atrocities.

In a tragic irony, the collapse of Iraq and the ensuing conditions that allowed the ISIS to seize huge areas of Iraq and persecute Christians were a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that deposed Saddam Hussein (a dictator that largely tolerated Christians) in an unprovoked assault of a sovereign nation that was widely supported by American evangelicals. While I disagree with him on a lot of issues, I think Jonathan Merritt is largely on target in his piece, Blame Obama and U.S. evangelicals for the persecution of Iraqi Christians. Without the widespread and largely unquestioning support by American evangelicals of a preemptive invasion of Iraq, it is possible that America would not have gone down that road. I know of what I speak because I was pretty vocal about my support of the decision by President Bush to invade and occupy Iraq. In other words, in our thirst for vengeance over 9/11 and our ungodly fear of terrorism, Christians supported a decidedly unjust war that set the stage for unimaginable persecution of our brothers and sisters. Of course the sins being gleefully committed by the ISIS and other satanic groups in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are on their own heads. Should God not grant them repentance and a regenerate heart they will perish to face a holy justice that will last for an eternity. That doesn't absolve American evangelicals for their role in helping to create the conditions that ISIS is thriving in. This is just another example of Christians being manipulated by the powers of the world into supporting their machinations and yielding unintended consequences, just as the church was manipulated into supporting World War I which led to Hitler and Stalin and the persecution of Christians as well as Jews and others.

Some may say and not without justification, that this is not the time for theological point scoring, not while our brothers and sisters are being tortured, raped and brutally murdered. I say that with all due respect, and I am as deeply grieved as anyone, this is precisely the time to have this conversation. We are seeing the unintentional fruit of a misguided and unbiblical war of aggression enthusiastically supported by the church. In an era when memories are short and attention spans are measured in 144 characters, we need to open our eyes now, not just to the tragic events we see playing out on social media but also to the events that have led to this situation because we will forget all about it once the news is replaced by something else.

We must stop turning to Caesar to advance our own agendas because it always turns out badly for the church when we yoke ourselves to the godless power of the state. We need to repent in sackcloth and ashes and beg forgiveness from our brothers and sisters in Iraq. I especially need to do this because I was driven by the fear of man to support a war that endangered my family in Iraq and elsewhere. We need to vow to stop letting Caesar manipulate our fear or greed or selfishness to support his wars with our witness, our treasure and our children. How many Christians have sent their children to be sacrificed on the altar of Baal to appease Caesar and accomplish his goals? I say no more. No more wars for gold or pride or power. No more of our children sent to die and to kill for Caesar. No more endangering our brothers and sisters in other lands to preserve our ungodly lifestyles in America. No more living by the sword and being surprised when we perish by the sword.

No more.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Animal Farm and the Doctrine of Vocation

Two seemingly unrelated events crossed my mind the last week. One had to do with a discussion of the doctrine of vocation in the church. If you are unfamiliar with this idea it actually goes back quite a ways and is probably best championed by Gene Veith.  He writes:

The word "calling," or in its Latinate form "vocation," had long been used in reference to the sacred ministry and the religious orders. Martin Luther was the first to use "vocation" to refer also to secular offices and occupations. Today, the term has become common-place, another synonym for a profession or job, as in "vocational training." But behind the term is the notion that every legitimate kind of work or social function is a distinct "calling" from God, requiring unique God-given gifts, skills, and talents. Moreover, the Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that God himself is active in everyday human labor, family responsibilities, and social interactions.

That seems to make sense, right? Stay with me. The other event was that I sat down and read Animal Farm, a book I have been meaning to read for some time, having never been required to read it in school. As an aside, the list of classics I haven't read in spite of a college prep background in high school and a liberal arts B.A. is amazing. I am kind of glad because now I can read them and probably get more out of them but still it is little wonder we have such ignorance in this country. Anyway. The point being that all vocations have value in the eyes of God.

So what does Animal Farm have to do with the doctrine of vocation? Animal Farm is a biting satirical tale of a farm taken over by animals with the Soviet era promise of equality and shared prosperity. As the years go by it becomes apparent that in spite of the empty rhetoric some of the animals are working really hard and others (the pigs mainly) are living off their labor as the intellectual leaders of the farm. They are kept in line by slogans that seem to indicate that they are invaluable to the farm but it is obvious that they are being used by the pigs. The original commandments of Animal Farm are abandoned and replaced with one commandment.


Orwell, George (2009-07-01). Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (p. 118). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

This is where the connection clicked for me. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others. All vocations are equal but one is more equal than others.

In spite of  the claims of the doctrine of vocation that all vocations are equally valuable in the Kingdom, the uncomfortable reality is that one vocation expects all of the rest of the vocations to work to earn a paycheck to in turn support them. It is pretty hard to say that God values the work of plumbers and cashiers as much as the vocational pastor when the pastor pays his bills with the wages earned by the rest of the church. In fact it sounds rather like a self-serving doctrine when you get down to it. The church needs members to be content to show up day after day at their job to earn a check that they can give part of to the church so that the church can keep paying her bills, most especially the salary of the pastor. While Joe is swinging a hammer all day and Steve is answering the phone in an office, Mike is sitting in his office preparing a sermon, relying on the others to bring home a paycheck so that he can get a paycheck. Little wonder sermons on giving are so awkward. I think more and more Christians are questioning this whole system and wondering why they are busting their humps all week to pay someone else who is perfectly capable of getting a job.

All vocations are equal but some are more equal than others.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Some Linkage

Some stuff I have been reading and pondering the last week or so....

As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, it is instructive to remember that religious freedom being under assault in America didn't start with Obamacare. This is a great time to remember Joseph and Michael Hofer, two Hutterites imprisoned, tortured and eventually martyred for refusing to be soldiers. Two other Hutterites, a third Hofer brother named David and Jacob Wipf were also mistreated and tortured but survived their imprisonment despite treatment that sounds like something done by a medieval inquisitor rather than American servicemen. You can read their story here: The Martyrs of Alcatraz and recall that misguided nationalism has cost many innocents their lives in America.

The "pope" has been vocal in calling for a "poor church" but the vestiges of wealth and privilege are hard to overcome. CNN, no friend of religion (or at least not of religion that takes religion seriously) ran a story on The lavish homes of American archbishops. In contrast to the often very humble living quarters of mere parish "priests", many "archbishops" live in lavish homes valued at over $1 million and with amenities like hot tubs and wet bars. It must be an increasingly tough sell to get parishioners to donate their hard earned money to pay for sexual abuse lawsuits and lavish homes for clergy. Of course Protestants have plenty of the same silliness in their own ranks to be sure.

I had some conversations on Facebook regarding the proper role of Christians, the church and the state. I am contintually amazed at the unwitting acceptance of Constantinian Christendom by so many believers when everything about it is anathema to the church. I went back to an oldie but a goodie from Dave Black, The Anabaptists and State Religion. It is worth your while to read to get a flavor for how Constantine changed the church for the worse and how the Anabaptists modeled a different way that we can learn a lot from in a post-Christendom environment. I disagree with his conclusion about the appropriateness of Christians engaged in lethal violence on behalf of the state but otherwise the essay is quite good.

The Atlantic takes a look at the shifting environment for paid pastors, Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy. As the religious culture changes at breakneck speed, more and more clergy are taking on "secular" employment to make ends meet. Being bi-vocational is nothing new but it always seemed like a stepping stone until a pastor could find full-time employment. Now we are seeing this shift the other way as fewer churches can afford to pay a man enough to support his family. I don't think this is a bad thing, it seems to be far more healthy to have elders in the church, no matter their title, out in the world working for a living just like the rest of the church rather than being cloistered in their office expecting the congregation to earn money to support him.

Timothy Paul Jones penned an interesting article that proposes a new name for those who subscribe to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism and yet do not belong to a historical Reformed tradition and reject some of the secondary issues that are commonly associated with Reformed theology. As I fall into that camp I was interested to read his piece Naming The New Calvinism. He comes up with the name "Neo-Dortianism" which I think makes some sense. Now the last thing we need in the church are more dividing labels but I appreciated his thought process.

More recent news has the IRS agreeing to monitor some sermon content from 99 suspect churches. I guess this is not unexpected but it still has ominous undertones not just for religious liberty but for liberty in America in general. Check out The IRS's God Complex.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

You say you want a revolution....

Each July 4th I repost my essay Happy Violation of Romans 13 Day! The point of my essay is that in spite of the rhetoric about the "Christian founding" of America, the very revolution itself was an ungodly act of rebellion against the lawful authority of England and by proxy an act of rebellion against God. I have been encouraged by a lot of the comments I get back on this post, some in agreement and others not. I have also seen an increase in the number of others who are making similar points (See Chuck McKnight's post What Did Jesus Think of the Revolution?). As should be expected this has led to some push-back as it contradicts one of the sacred tenets of the American pseudo-Christian cultural religion, namely that America from her very founding was uniquely blessed by God. The latest that came across my desk was linked by a good friend, an essay written by Rod Martin for WORLD magazine Was the American Revolution Sinful? As one would expect from an essay in WORLD the answer of course is no. I read through the essay and posted some thoughts in response to my friend, below are my comments to him:


You will be shocked to find that I found his argument unpersuasive. His argument is based on three points, two brief points that misapply or fail to apply at all the Scriptures and a third lengthy post that deals mostly with irrelevant minutiae of English law.

Point 1 has nothing to do with the American revolution. Paying taxes is not an unlawful order.

Point 2 deals with national Israel under the Old Covenant and is irrelevant. America is not Israel and George Washington is not King David.

Point 3 presumes an out clause in Romans 13 that basically says that whenever we think the government is doing a bad job we should rebel violently against it. Under that logic we would have been justified and/or obligated to violently rebel against the current American system at any number of places in our history including our invasion of Iraq.

He does point out the glaring flaw in his own argument with the common tactic of recognizing the counter-argument to your own by downplaying and dismissing it:

"Your friends will at this point say something about Rome, and note that Paul was speaking to people under a far worse regime when under the Spirit’s inspiration he wrote Romans 13. They will be right, so far as that goes. But these are apples and oranges. Again, I will leave a proper discussion of Roman citizenship, and of Roman rule in Israel, for another day, but Scripture must interpret Scripture, and Romans 13 is only applicable to lawful commands no matter what position you take (see item 1 above)."

Which is fine and dandy except that it depends on his first point which has nothing to do with the American revolution. The unlawful orders clause would only apply when rendering something to Caesar that rightly belongs to God, i.e. aborting a child or worshipping a false god. Conversely Jesus disarmed the question about paying taxes to a tyrannical reign by pointing out that the very currency being collected for taxes was Caesar's and even though it was being used for the most ungodly of purposes (including the crucifixion of Christ). As distasteful and onerous as the situation was for colonial subject of England prior to the Revolution, it pales in comparison to the situation in Rome for Christians. This is the great flaw in his argument and explains why he tries to disarm it. If ever Christians were permitted and indeed obligated (as he suggests with his statement that "To support the king was to reject right and support sin, period.") to violently oppose and overthrow unjust rulers, one might wonder why Jesus never called on His followers to revolt against the Roman rule, a rule instituted on the people of that region by conquest rather than a rule of people who accepted that they were English subjects of the King. If ever there was a time for Christians to be called on to rebel against an unjust ruler, it was in the first century against Rome. Yet they were not.

His essay is eloquent and chock full of fun 18th century legal trivia but it relies on obsolete and inapplicable Old Covenant examples, unspoken clauses in Romans 13 and an utter suspension of historical context in spite of his attempts to the contrary. The American revolution might be considered a good and proper event from a secular standpoint and one can easily argue that America has been a greater force for good than it would have been had it stayed a British colony (although, for example, slavery might have been outlawed in America sooner ,without a bloody civil war and the subsequent racial tension that still plagues us had we remained English subjects). However a violent uprising against ruler far more lawful than Caesar cannot be considered to be a sinless act nor one pleasing to God as it directly violates Scripture in multiple places.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Review: Elders in the Life of the Church

If there is a topic that needs a lot more study and discussion in the church, it is elders. What are they for?
How do they function? How should they be chosen? How many should a local congregation have? Many churchgoers have no idea what elders are all about or that they appear so frequently in the New Testament and our lack of understanding is crippling to much of the church.

Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker attempt to answer these questions from a decidedly baptistic perspective in their joint effort, Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership from Kregel Publications. That they are Baptists is critical to understand as elders are usually thought of as a "Presbyterian thing". Many Baptist, especially Southern Baptist, churches operate with a "Senior Pastor and a bunch of deacons" style of governance, so the advocacy for a plural elders style is quite unusual and often seen as a threat. They tackle the topic with a back and forth style, alternating chapters between Phil and Matt with Phil penning more "theoretical" chapters that dig into the Scriptures more heavily with Matt providing more "practical" chapters on how this looks at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C. where he is on staff and home to Mark Dever and 9 Marks Ministries. Phil Newton is someone I am quite familiar with, back in the day when I was doing a series "preaching" through the book of Acts I turned to his series on Acts before I completed a single sermon as he had far and away the best treatment of the book from a Reformed and Baptist perspective. I am pretty familiar with Matt as well, mostly from disagreeing with what he publishes online! More on that in a moment. The "back and forth" style rarely works well but I thought this book pulled it off. I did find myself starting to skim Matt's chapters to get back to Phil but even so the transitions were pretty smooth. Even a cursory reading would show that these two brothers in Christ are earnest and serious about this topic and did a great job in making their argument. However, even a great argument can be wrong on many levels.

This is a book I would summarize as "oh so close and yet so far away". So close because both Matt and Phil (mostly Phil as he has the more substantive chapters) understand the importance of elders and have done the hard work of both deeply researching this topic from Scripture as well as living out life in a plural elder setting. So far away because they simply seem incapable or perhaps unwilling to step away from the institutional church paradigm. They never address, much less challenge, the notion that some elders are "called to preach", i.e. deliver a weekly sermon or two, and that they should be paid while others should labor in the church free of charge like Paul. They assume that a paid "senior pastor" can be "first among equals" when that very idea is self-contradictory. I can't imagine anyone at Capitol Hill Baptist confusing who has more authority, some random guy on the elder board or famous pastor Mark Dever. So much of the book caused me to furiously jot notes in the margins to the point that I found myself looking more for what was wrong than what they were trying to say. Elders in the church should be the very antithesis of the institutional style of religion rather than key players in perpetuating the system.

The strongest chapter by far was the last full chapter on the topic of Leadership Development in Hard Places, looking at elders in the church in the "less Christian" parts of the world where the supposed "benefits" of our Western religious system (like professional clerical training via seminaries) are absent. The ideas presented in this chapter were largely on target. There is a real danger in trying to replicate Western style "church" in developing nations where it makes no sense. When I was in Haiti it was jarring to see a pastor wearing a suit and tie when in their culture that was so incredibly out of place. On the other hand they also recognize the serious danger of the frenetic church planting movement, where "converts" by the hundreds are made and left to fend for themselves, devolving inevitably into syncretism and heresy. Recognizing, training and supporting indigenous leaders is critical to healthy evangelism but "spent three months ministering alongside 5 men to help them understand critical doctrines" is not nearly as sexy as "487 baptized in one day!" reports back to the states, and those reports are what keep the money flowing.

If you are comfortable with the institutional church paradigm and curious about elders, especially in a plural setting, you will find this book very useful. I would rather see a plural elder led institutional church where godly men labor side by side in the ministry than I would a single pastor "one man show" institutional church. Plural elders is a step in the right direction. Having said that I believe the same study methods used to arrive at plural elders, taken to their natural conclusion, lead one to reject institutionalism as a man-made religious invention. Not many who read this book will agree and sadly not many who reject institutionalism in the church will read this book. In spite of the flaws it is still a well researched and thought-out book. As the church we need more discussion and study on this topic so my appreciation goes out to both Matt and Phil for their effort.

Perhaps Dave Black could pen a new book on this very topic as a follow-up to his Seven Marks of a New Testament Church? What say you Dr. Black?!

I received a copy of Elders in the Life of the Church free of charge and with no compensation from Kregal Academic in return for publishing an unbiased review.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Repost: Israel, Gaza and the Gospel

This is a topic that is at the top of the news once again and once again a subset of Christians who grossly misunderstand the Old Covenant and consistently misapply Old Testament passages along with random New Testament eschatalogical passages come out of the woodwork. This is greeted with the glee of a kid on Christmas morning by secular media outlets for the stream of foolish and Gospel harming quotes that these individuals provide. Case in point, a recent Slate article at a convocation of the ever mind-numbing John Hagee and his acolytes, Inside the Most Insanely Pro-Israel Meeting You Could Ever Attend. Now from Slate you should assume the worst when it comes to anything religious but some stuff is hard to deny, especially the last few paragraphs (emphasis mine):

“There is an entire generation being raised in southern Israel, barely any of whom do not suffer from PTSD due to the rocket fire,” said Anthony. “The entire Zionist experiment rests in no small part on what it is we do during this campaign.”

What the IDF needed was a total victory. “Rocket factories can be destroyed,” said Anthony. “Weapon factories can be destroyed. Terrorists can be eliminated. Tunnels can be dug out.” But it could only happen if America resisted the temptation to criticize Israel or to stop the operation.

“Hamas started this war,” said Anthony. “The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.

When he said that, a standing-room crowd of pastors and activists and politicians rose to its feet, waving the twin flags of the countries God loved.

What is really disturbing is that even though this is in Slate I have no trouble at all believing this happened.

As I write below you can make a decent argument from a secular, geo-political position that Israel as a sovereign state has a right and a duty to defend her citizens from attack. I have no doubt that Hamas loves to see dead Palestinian children as a PR tool in their war against Israel. People with an agenda, whether the leaders of Hamas or Benjamin Netanyahu, are always looking for the crass PR opportunity to score political points on the talk shows and via their proxies.

Where I have an issue is when this conflict is turned from a secular squabble that never gets any better and into a theological one where Christians in America are assumed to have a Kingdom obligation to support a secular people group in a war that appears to kill far more civilians than combatants against another secular people group. Let me say this as plainly as I can: A nation created by international proxy that is overwhelmingly populated by people who deny Christ is by definition not "God's people". One cannot simultaneously be in favor with God and denying His Son. That was true in the 1st century A.D. and it is still true today. That basic fact of Christian theology didn't change when a guilt driven world carved a new secular homeland for Jews out of Palestine. I seriously do a literal :facepalm: on a daily basis when I see some things fellow believers say about this conflict. We should be weeping and praying for peace and for the innocents killed on both sides, not taking sides against others based on a faulty and dangerous theology that has its roots in Left Behind and other crappy apocalyptic fiction. There is no small amount of manipulation for political gain and for the selling of books that goes on at events like these and still Christians flock to them. People need to put their end-times flow charts away and try reading the Bible for a change. 

Also of note, another post that mostly is a copy and paste from John Piper who pretty much nails in on this issue, One of the best summaries of the relationship between Christians and the modern state of Israel I have ever read.

The conflict in the Middle East is rife with danger for Christians because many of us have been inundated with years of bubblegum pop eschatology that inextricably links the Israel of God with the current nation-state of Israel (see, this chart here shows that Hillary Clinton/Ted Kennedy/Barack Obama/insert liberal here is the anti-Christ!). That linkage causes many Christians to reflexively support Israel, no matter what. I happen to support Israel the nation in the current conflict; the same was that I support Taiwan against mainland Red China. I think people should support Israel, but I think we should support Israel for the right reasons.

To begin with I don’t think that the nation-state of Israel is the Israel of God because it bears the same name and is made up mostly of people of Jewish descent.

Is there a Gospel future for the Jews? I certainly think so, one that involves a massive (future?) conversion of Jews to Christ. Romans 11 bears this out. I do not think that this means that God is intending to fulfill the land promises of the Old Covenant. Why would He? So they can have a physical homeland when Christ has provided a spiritual home? So they can rebuild the temple and make sacrifices, putting the cross of Christ to shame? God has a plan for His people, Jews and gentiles, that is so much greater and more magnificent than a piece of property in the Middle East.

I think it is vital that the Christian manage to look at Israel as two separate entities, the Israel of God on the one hand and the political entity of the nation-state of Israel on the other. Being Jewish does not save you. Romans 11:26 says that all Israel will be saved but it is clear through the Bible that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation and many, many Jews have rejected Christ. So if all Israel will be saved, but not all Jews are saved than it must mean that being the Israel of God is not of necessity a Jewish thing. In Acts 2: , Peter was speaking to a Jewish audience and when the asked “Brothers, what shall we do?”, Peter didn’t say “Nothing, you are Jews so you are all set!”, he told them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. There are Jews and gentiles who are God’s elect and they are born-again and come to saving faith in Christ and are saved. There are likewise Jews and gentiles alike who are not elect, who do not come to faith and are lost. Romans 9: 6-8 tells us that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and Galatians 3:7 and 3: 29 tell us that those of faith are the heirs of Abraham’s promises. So I don’t buy into the corollary that tells us that Jewish automatically equates to Israel. Nor do I think it is logical to assume that a Christian is duty bound to support Israel in her attacks against Hamas simply because they are Christians and Israel is Israel.

From a geo-political standpoint, the nation-state of Israel absolutely has the right to defend herself. Try to imagine living in a nation that is surrounded on all sides by “neighbors” who to some extent are committed to your destruction or at least reject the idea that Israel has a right to exist at all as a legitimate and free nation. We have been at peace with Mexico and Canada for more than a century, Canada probably since the end of the War of 1812, so nearly 200 years. But imagine if you will terrorists in Windsor, Ontario launching rockets into Detroit (pretend for a second that Detroit is a city that would be noticeably damaged by rocket fire). I would hope that the U.S. would take drastic steps to stop the rockets. In fact I think the Israeli response has been pretty measured and restrained compared to what they could be doing. The Israelis have one of the most powerful militaries in the world, even given the fact that the nation itself is tiny. It is not unthinkable that they could simply level the Palestinian settlements in the Gaza strip with minimal effort. So while they have been responding with necessary military force, and that force has caused civilian casualties, the Israeli’s have taken great pains to try to avoid civilian casualties. A spokesman for the IDF stated that they have scrubbed 90% of their proposed targets to avoid civilian casualties.

Ultimately the Palestinians are pawns in this struggle between the nation of Israel and the Islamic radicals who deny her legitimacy and seek the utter destruction of Israel and every Jew. Hamas will never defeat Israel by launching a few crude rockets or using suicide bombers. That is ludicrous and is not the intent. The goal of those who fund and supply these terrorists, terror patrons who live outside of Palestinian territories, is to provoke a response from Israel and use the resulting calamity to turn world opinion against Israel and by association against America. I am certain that there are many who are gleeful when Palestinian civilians are killed, especially children, because the graphic nature of that violence better serves their sick cause. I don’t think the terror financiers in the Islamic world care one bit for the Palestinian people as anything more than a means to an end. If hundreds or thousands of Palestinians have to die, whether in suicide actions or at the hands of Israeli soldiers, so be it. They are mere foot soldiers, pawns, expendable assets in the greater struggle against Zionism. The sooner the Palestinian people realize that they are being used by people who don’t care anything about them, the sooner there can be peace in the Middle East.

Should Christians cautiously support Israel in her actions against terrorist in Gaza? I think they should. Should Christians support Israel because they are Christians and Israelis are Jews? No. There is not a theological basis to support the nation-state of Israel in this or any other endeavor.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church

There are no lack of books on the topic of the church. Most, and I say this with no hesitation, are garbage and consist of feel good malarkey and repackaged business wisdom applied to religious organizations. It therefore was a welcome change to read Dr. David Black's newest work from Energion Publications, Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. These are the seven marks he chose to look at (with the disclaimer that these are not the only seven marks, an important note)....

1. Evangelistic preaching 
2. Christian baptism 
3. Apostolic teaching 
4. Genuine relationships
5. Christ-centered gatherings 
6. Fervent prayer 
7. Sacrificial living

It is probably inevitable given my background that I compare Dr. Black's book with the well known 9 Marks of a Healthy Church put out by Mark Dever and the aptly named 9 Marks ministries. Mark and company are some of the most prolific writers out there on the topic of ecclesiology and come from a reformed, baptistic, plural elder viewpoint. While I disagree with a lot of what Dever writes, I appreciate the thought and the Scriptural study that have gone into their works. Nevertheless I found far more to commend in Dr. Black's compilation than Mark Dever's.

The thing I liked best about Seven Marks versus 9 Marks is that it is believer-centric rather than clergy-centric. 9 Marks is designed as a "top down" system, get the right elders leading the right way and preaching the right sermons and teaching the right theology and you have a "healthy church". Members will follow. Dr. Black starts at the ground floor with an "every member shared ministry" that far more closely follows the apostolic pattern. The church is built from individuals working as a community for the mission of God. Leaders are enablers who help others be prepared for the work of ministry:

The essence of all New Testament teaching about church leadership is that leaders are to be enablers. They are not to do the work of the ministry as much as they are to prepare others to do that work (see Eph. 4: 11-12).

Black, David Alan, Seven Marks of a New Testament Church: A Guide for Christians of All Ages (Kindle Locations 338-340). Energion Publications. Kindle Edition.

That is the sort of plain wisdom we need a lot more of in discussing the church in the waning days of Christendom. Top down leadership and top down centered ecclesiology is great for creating top heavy organizations but for the church we need to flip that order around as Dr. Black has done here.

One thing that sort of confused me. While Dr. Black talks a lot about love in every chapter, love doesn't get a chapter of its own. Jesus said that all men will know we are His disciples by our love for one another ( John 13:35 ). Love is the key, foundational mark of the church. Indeed without it the church cannot be the church. I am not sure why it was not given a chapter but if I were rewriting the book I would add at the top of the list!

In spite of my one quibble this is a book I can unreservedly recommend for anyone studying the church, whether one is seeking to reform an existing group and starting a new group from scratch. It is not long and it tends to raise a lot of questions, making it perfect as a study guide or introduction to ecclesiology. Get a copy, read it and then pass a copy or three on to your church friends. They might be surprised by what they read!

(You can also get Seven Marks from Amazon for the Kindle, that is what I did because I like to be able to electronically mark important passages)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Quisling "Christians"

For those unfamiliar with the term, "Quisling" refers to someone who collaborates with the enemy. It goes back to a man named Vidkun Quisling, an infamous Norwegian leader who collaborated with the Nazi regime in World War II. His name has become synonymous with collaboration in much the same way that Benedict Arnold's name is associated with treason ( or at least it used to back when history class included instruction in history. Yes, this is going to be one of those posts). Being a Quisling means placing personal safety, convenience, enrichment and acceptance over the well-being of others. In other words it is not a compliment.

We live in a religious/spiritual world that is rapidly being overtaken by the loud voices of religious Quislings, people who lack the conviction or fortitude or courage to stand for hard truths when there is a cost. Sure when something is popular and happens to line up with the truth it is easy but once that stops being true they stumble over themselves switching sides.

Just look at the news...

American clergy embracing homosexual marriage.

Theologians denying Creationism, hell, sin, the atonement, anything that might get them disinvited from the next cool kids academic mixer.

The Church of England voting to ordain women "bishops" in a response to incredible pressure from the secular centers of power even though England is already an incredibly secular nation and making women into "bishops" isn't going to do a thing to stem the tide.

On and on.

Compromising with the culture has gone from a niche hobby of people like the risibly named "Red Letter Christians" to a mainstream sport that resembles a race to the bottom. It has gotten to the point where even the most stunning betrayal of orthodoxy and Biblical common sense barely raises an eyebrow these days and seems to simultaneously be a badge of honor and a guarantee of book deals and blog traffic.

I know, I know. I am being:


Honestly I don't expect unregenerate people to act differently than they do nor do I think that making all sin illegal will stop unregenerate sinners from sinning. However when someone claims the name of Christ and chastises others who do for holding firm to positions that have long been settled in the church until the last five years, then I have an issue. Smiling at sin and even blessing it. Saying all is well when it is not. Being blown to and fro by the winds of the culture. Standing for nothing except not standing for anything. These aren't signs of spiritual maturity, they are signs of surrender, capitulation and accommodation. If you don't care that is your business but don't condemn those that do.

The Quislings are not alone in their misdiagnosing of what is going on around us and how to respond, as I have remarked before.  Others are seeking "enemy of my enemy is my friend" alliances with "conservative" heretics and blasphemers of all sorts in the  vain hope of winning a temporary reprieve for Christendom in America. Still others are "more of the same is the ticket" types, who hope that repackaging the same old religious nonsense, just with better presentation and more money, will suddenly make people sick of religion fall back in love with religion. Yeah right. Yet others are calling for returns to venerable religious traditions and institutions, some more ancient and corrupt than others but all nevertheless more deserving of a primo spot on the ashbin of religious history than they are in being revitalized after self-inflicted implosion.

While this is troubling, it is not surprising. It is painfully clear from the New Testament that the greatest threats to the church will come from within, not from without. Consider the words of Paul in his final instructions to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Act 20:29-30)

History has perfectly fulfilled the prophetic warning of Paul and there is ample evidence of this today in people ranging from Frank Schaeffer to Joel Osteen to Rachel Held Evans to Todd Bentley. Religious charlatans who tell the world what it wants to hear in return for gathering influence, followers, power or money (or some combination of all four). They often (thinking RHE and Frank here) respond to orthodox criticism with cries of persecution and misunderstanding, making themselves martyrs and crying "Woe is me, I am so misunderstood! Buy my book!" while reaping the benefits of the acclaim of the world. Nothing like using a public platform to advance your agenda and then crying foul when others use the same public platform to refute your claims.

There is nothing mean or hateful about pointing out the ravenous wolves that Scripture itself warns us to beware of. I am conscious of my tone and I know it can be less than helpful but the ranks of the Quislings seems to swell by the day and the silence from the church grows more thunderous. In a church terrified of a future with no money, no influence and few friends in the halls of power, there often is simply not enough time for worrying about hard to understand and divisive stuff like doctrine. Who has time for that when their are lawsuits to file and tax breaks to defend, bank accounts to pad for a rainy day and church activities to plan? You might think this is unfair and that many sincere Christians have come to these conclusions based on their own study of Scripture. I have no doubt many sincere Christians hold these beliefs quite sincerely but here is the catch: if these were not culturally popular I don't think they would hold them. Besides, sincerely teaching error is still....teaching error.

If you want to stand on the sidelines, bleating piously about not judging, be my guest. I will not. I cannot.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting the wedding ring question

My wife and I stopped wearing our wedding rings a few years ago after 20+ years of marriage. It still feels a little weird after so many years of marriage. You can sort of see the mark the ring left on my finger even years later but we don't really think much about it anymore. This morning a friend linked an audio clip from John Piper asking the question Are Wedding Rings a Waste of Money? While he recognizes that they are not necessary, he then proceeds to break down why he thinks they are both helpful and not a waste of money based on a) serving as a warning to the world that the wearer is off the market and b) serving as a reminder of marriage to the wearers. I get what he is saying. I disagree. No surprise I wrote a post about this topic, reprinted below.

I am confident in saying that John Piper is a better husband to Noel than I am to my wife by a wide margin. Having said that and with the deep respect I have for John Piper I think this issue of wedding rings is rather analogous to "church membership" as being a unhelpful tradition. I will loop back to that in a moment but here are my objections to his two points.

First, if people that get to know you well enough in a setting where they might be sizing you up for a relationship, they darn well ought to know that you are married whether you wear a ring or not. The wearing of a ring is sadly not a dissuasion to many people seeking liaisons and the lack of a ring ought not be a green light to anyone that knows you. If you are hanging out in places where people hook up without getting to know each other, what the heck are you doing there in the first place? Pretty much anyone who knows me for very long knows that I am happily married with 8 kids.

Besides, the Bible already a) gives a warning about adornment, specifically costly materials like gold and pearls and b) also provides a symbol of marriage in the wife's covered head. Many Christians think nothing of wearing gold wedding rings and often with a very pricey stone set into one of them because that is what our culture and the jewelry industry marketers tell us we have to have but recoil at the idea of a wife covering her head. Imagine a Sunday morning in some 250-500 attendee suburban evangelical church where the parking lot is full of new cars and most of the ladies in attendance are fashionably dressed with the latest hairstyle being told that they shouldn't be wearing that $1000+ wedding ring and that they should have their hair covered. Hopefully that pastor updated his resume Saturday night!

Second, the same goes for our relationship to one another. If I need a ring to remind me I am married to my wife, that is a flaw in my relationship to Christ, something that a ring won't fix. Since my wife is still as selfless in our relationship as she has ever been it clearly wasn't the ring making her do it. The "symbol of our love" is our clinging to one another through thick and thin, including some pretty tough times (like right now). It is our children. It is not some golden adornment that can be slipped on and off the finger at will.

That may sound harsh and I don't intend it to, nor am I calling as sin the wearing of rings by fellow believers. I would however like to see the church as a people start to reject the perceived requirement of buying weddings rings made of the costliest materials as a requirement for getting married in the upcoming generations as they marry. Our marriages and our weddings already look indistinguishable from the world, the eschewing of the wearing of wedding rings might be a good place to start in distinguishing Christian marriages from whatever concoction the world thinks up next to call marriage. I did appreciate Piper's brief rant against the obscene amount of money people spend on their receptions. Now that really is a waste of money!

So back to church membership. I also wrote about a while ago, Marriage and membership. Basically, if the church doesn't know who to love without formal membership, it isn't much of a church. If elders don't know who they are to love and serve without a list, they shouldn't be elders in the first place. Membership and wedding rings are artificial crutches to remind us of something that should be second nature. Anyway, here is my post on this topic from a few years back.


So this is an interesting conversation that has come up among some friends and one that generates a visceral reaction when broached.

Wedding rings are firmly entrenched in our culture. The exchanging of rings and wearing of them to signify that the wearer is married is part of our cultural heritage even to the point of being the focal point in a whole bunch of country music songs (“I put that little golden band on the right left hand this time….”). Removing a wedding ring can be an indicator of a marriage that is broken. Cultural nostalgia is a big deal when it comes to these small symbols of marriage. Getting an engagement ring is a huge deal for women (if you have ever worked with a young woman who gets engaged the next day at work is filled with her friends and co-workers ooohin and aaaahing over the diamond)

Here is the question. Should Christians wear wedding rings or for that matter should Christians wear any sort of jewelry at all? My wife wears a modest wedding ring and has a couple of other pieces of frankly fairly inexpensive jewelry that she rarely wears. Should she? Why not you ask? Because it certtainly seems that Scripture doesn't permit this tradition.

Scripture seems pretty clear on this, generally in the idea of meekness and humility which seems ill served by a ring made out of a precious metal and often adorned with a pricey diamond as well as more specifically in two passages. I copied the whole section, not just the verse in question to give us a more full view and highlighted the particular verses:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3: 1-6)

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Timothy 2: 8-10)

The principle invoked here is of not being adorned with attire (which would include jewelry) that is prideful and designed to draw attention to the external but rather women in particular should be adorned with good conduct, good works, a gentle spirit and submission to their husbands.

This of course raises some questions. If we are not supposed to wear wedding bands because they are costly adornments, what about a plain band? What if the band was plain and also not gold? Should we eschew any sort of accoutrement that sets us at all apart from someone else? I also note that these two passages apply to women, so is it OK for men to wear wedding bands but not women? Is the wearing of adornments something of particular prideful temptation for women but not for men?

What about name brand clothing with logos ? Clothing companies put their logos on the outside both as an ad for their product as well as to let the wearer signify that they are wearing something more costly than you are. The horse and rider on Polo brand shirts is a great example. I used to sell The North Face jackets to rich kids because the logo tells people that this is not mere fleece or rainjacket, it is a $300 North Face jacket! I think the principle might hold true here as well.

I wonder if we should wear anything that is not plain and handmade. I need to wear suits and appropriate business attire for my job but outside of work, what about that?

There is a real issue and an important principle here that we don’t seem to address in a straightforward manner in the church. I think it might be for the same reason headcovering is glossed over, because it flies in the face of our cultural expectations. On the other hand, this can turn into a point of pride. It is easy to see your own plainness as a point of pride, that I am more holy than that person because of the manner of my dress. Those sorts of heart issues are far more troubling than external obedience and that is true not just about adornment or modest dress or headcovering but also wearing suits to church or lengthy prayers or being contentious or giving our of obligation. It is not difficult at all to be externally pious but have hearts in rebellion.

Peter and Paul are both unanimous and unambiguous about this issue. This strikes me as a topic where the text is clear, so rather than trying to prove from Scriptures that we cannot wear wedding rings, we should see this as explaining why from Scriptures that we can.

There is also a stewardship issue, is the buying of $1000 golden ring topped by a diamond foolhardy in light of the very real temporal needs of our brothers and sisters, of orphans and widows, of missionaries? That is an ancillary topic but a real one.

Is it a coincidence that the One Ring, a golden band that looks suspiciously like a wedding ring, is the embodiment of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Hmmmm…..

Seriously though. Should we give up the wearing of wedding rings or am I making too big of a deal about it? Is this an issue of hyper-literalism and legalism or are we resistant to the idea of eschewing rings because we have been so heavily marketed to by jewelry companies that we have bought into the idea that we simply must wear rings if we are married? Maybe someone more familiar with the Greek text (Alan?) can help us out here, is there something in the context that I am missing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Repost: Toward a community hermeneutic

This is something I wrote a few years back and I was thinking about it again this weekend so I thought I would post this again with some additional thoughts. I remain convinced that the proper place for study, interpretation and application of Scripture is among the common members of the community of faith rather than among celebrities in the religious culture or the distant professional academics. There is a place for professional academics (but none for "celebrity Christians") and I profit from their work but the church as a people and community is where interpretation should take place (I make that argument below). Give it a read and let me know what you think!


 I have been thinking about the Scriptures and how we interpret and apply them in the church, partly as a continuation of some thoughts from my post, How can anyone learn if they are interacting? and also based on the series Alan is doing, specifically the post A Healthy Diet For the Church – Food given directly from God.

I would hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, that the Scriptures alone (and not tradition) are authoritative. Of course that raises the question, who interprets the Scriptures? You are not going to find many denominations or local churches that proudly proclaim “We don’t believe in the Bible!” and yet the variances among secondary doctrines and practices is enormous. So how do we decide what is right and what is wrong? This is where hermeneutics comes in.

There are a couple of prevailing hermeneutic methods in the church. The main hermeneutic in the various Protestant traditions is the professional quasi-academic hermeneutic where the pastor, who presumably has some formal clerical training, is the arbiter of the hermeneutic of his local church. In many ways this is merely a modification of the Roman hermeneutic where interpretation was restricted to the theologians and academics as well as the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Often this is simply assumed to be correct or at best given cursory explanation by pointing to a few verses like these:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

The reason these are invoked is because everyone knows that Timothy was an elder, so Paul’s advice to him is properly seen as “pastoral” advice to modern clergy. The problem with this of course is that nowhere is Timothy identified as an elder nor should we assume that Paul's advice to Timothy is not likewise great advice to every single Christian. In Paul’s letter to Titus we get a more credible defense of the professional hermeneutic:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9)
So doesn’t that say that elders should interpret Scripture on behalf of the church? Well no, not really. Two problems. First, there is nothing is what Paul wrote that indicates that this is restricted to elders. Second, the passage assumes that these men are already doing this before they are recognized as elders. They don’t start holding firm to the word once they are appointed, it is something that (as non-elders) are already doing! So I think that the clerical hermeneutic is deeply flawed and unsupportable from Scripture.

There was a time when I would have enthusiastically supported the clerical/academic hermeneutic. That has obviously changed pretty dramatically as I don’t find support for it from Scripture. Furthermore it is highly dangerous because far too many Christians accept at face value what they hear from the pulpit, especially if it is accompanied by a quote from a famous theologian, past or present, or better yet if it is accompanied by a discourse on the original Greek to demonstrate a superior knowledge base. Americans in general and Christians in particular are conditioned to accept what an authority figure says without question. That makes for a pliable population but not for a mature Body of Christ.

The other common and often simultaneous hermeneutic is private interpretation. Practically speaking, a privatized hermeneutic is one in which each individual Christian interprets Scripture as he or she sees fit in something of a vacuum. An individual Christian decides on doctrines a, b and c and then finds a local church that is in harmony with those positions as closely as possible, thus reinforcing their decisions each Sunday. Sometimes these doctrines are important and contentious, like baptism. More often they are something like music style, preaching style, architecture, how that person was raised, etc. Even setting aside 2 Peter 1:20 for a moment, there are huge issues with people in various stages of maturity and understanding coming to whatever interpretation they want on Scripture and we see the results of that in the highly individualistic society of the West.

So a clerical/academic centered hermeneutic is unscriptural and dangerous. As is a highly privatized hermeneutic. What is the solution? I would propose that there is a third way that I am coming to embrace more and more, the hermeneutic employed by many of the Anabaptists (underlining added)

The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scripture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.

I think a lot of that resonates quite strongly with what we see in Scripture (and what we don’t see) especially when examined in view of how the Scriptures see the church, as an adoptive family rather than a religious organization. It is, however reasonable it may sound, certainly jarring in an expert exalting culture. How in the world can some knucklehead with minimal education properly interpret Scripture? Shouldn’t we trust the guys with all of the initials behind their name or with the religious titles in front of their name, guys who have published lots of thick books with lots of endorsements on the back cover? Some guy who barely finished high school is going to give a better interpretation of Scripture than the PhD? Well, what about this?

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
That verse (and this post) are not a call for a strident fundie anti-intellectualism. Rather I think that what we need to recognize is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation and that formal education, while valuable in some circumstances and with a proper place in the Body, is no substitute for a local body of born-again Christians who interpret Scripture in community rather than a “top down” approach or an “every man for himself” approach. A community of believers, whatever their background, properly equipped and discipled within the community, with regenerate hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit is by any measure the proper interpretative mechanism for Scripture.

So here is the rub. How does that happen? This is one of those places where form really impacts function. I think it is awfully hard for a community hermeneutic to function in a traditional church, especially a larger evangelical church that is sermon and program driven. It is not impossible but it is harder. It is not invariably going to happen in an “organic” setting either. If the gathering of the church is little more than sharing time accompanied by a sing-along, little progress will be made. A community hermeneutic requires an intentional effort by the community. A community that devotes itself to prayer and the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). A multi-voiced community where prophecy is shared but also weighed and judged (1 Corinthians 14:29). A community where everything that is said is not accepted without question but compared to Scripture to determine its veracity (Acts 17:11). A community that above all else is actually a community, not a religious looking organization or an organic group that meets on Sunday. Until we get to real community, a community hermeneutic is impossible and we are left with professional or personal hermeneutic with all of their incumbent flaws.

The church is not about religion.

It is not about ritual or liturgy or sacraments or preaching.

It is also not about sharing or participation.

The church is about community, family, fellowship and ultimately about mission. If we miss community and mission, the rest is just religious fluff.