Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good thoughts from Dave Black on trust

From last Saturday at Dave Black Online:

Henry Stimson, the diplomat of the World War II era, once said, "The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him." That saying gnawed at me this morning as I read Acts 14:23:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. With prayer and fasting, they turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Presumably Paul felt that the young churches in Asia which he had planted only a few weeks earlier could stand on their own, apart from his presence and leadership. In my mind, there's something that doesn't compute about appointing men as leaders who had been Christians for less than 3 or 4 months. Could it be that Paul believed in the power of the Holy Spirit? Could it be that he saw in these men a maturity that the people could not help but respect? Ronald Reagan had no foreign-policy experience when he became president, yet he had more than a little to do with ending the Cold War. Likewise, Paul took an extraordinary step when he refused to settle down as his convert's "pastor." The fact is that they already had a "Senior Pastor," and their elders could rely upon Him for direction.

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Russell Moore on deacons

A very interesting post on the topic of deacons by Russell Moore of Southern Seminary, Is a Deacon just a servant?. I like much of what he wrote but I am less enthusiastic about other sections. Especially where he seems to equate Baptist church traditions with Biblical commands. For example, I liked this:

Some have asked if I believe deacons are “just to be servants,” not leaders in the congregation. Now, first of all, there’s no such thing for followers of Christ as a category of “just a servant.” Servanthood is not menial. Our Lord Jesus himself is the servant of all, and is thus Emperor of the universe.

Not so much this:

Pastors and teachers can’t give up “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2), but they certainly are not the only Christians who pray or proclaim the Scriptures. Every Christian is called to interpret and explain the Scripture, to exhort unbelievers to know Christ and to build up the rest of the church with the Word of God. Pastors are uniquely given over to lead the Body in these gifts, to equip the rest of the Body to take the gospel everywhere (Eph 4:12). The office of pastor is unique because the pastor is, week-by week” teaching his people to “preach,” to their families, to their neighbors, to themselves.

Is Acts 6:2 a reference to pastors or is it referring to the apostles who were engaged in evangelism? Are most sermons designed to teach people to preach? Is "pastor" an office?

Give it a read and let me know what you think.

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More books!

Just redeemed my latest Amazon gift card that I got through my debit card rewards. I ordered Ron Paul’s new book, End the Fed. I also ordered an intriguing book, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. I heard an interview with the author, Jim Belcher and I liked a lot of what he had to say. Finally, to round out my gift card and get free shipping I ordered the Autobiography of George Muller. I expect the autobiography of this godly man to be challenging to me. I am not sure when I am going to read these books but that has never stopped me from buying them before!

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A Bible and two sheep

That is what we should issue every new Christian. As my wife commented to me this afternoon, you really can’t understand the analogy of sheep and shepherds that is so prevalent in the Bible unless you understand the nature of sheep. Understanding sheep is not something you can read about and understand, it is kind of something you have to experience.

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The Shepherd and His sheep

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10: 11-16)

I love the Good Shepherd discourse. You could spend years studying and unpacking what is going on here. One of the main points of the Good Shepherd discourse is that God recognized that we couldn't be trusted to shepherd ourselves! Sheep don’t lead sheep. We used to own sheep and the smartest of our sheep was still dumb as a stump. The problem, as is so often the case, is that what we see in the Bible is not what we see in the church. The picture we are given in the Bible is of one Shepherd leading one flock. The reality we live in is of many, many flocks led by many "undershepherds" all going in different directions. In spite of their good intentions, sheep have their own motivations and they are rarely the same as the shepherd.

I have been thinking about John 10 a lot over the last couple of days. What got me thinking about this was something I read on Facebook from Ligonier, written by Tom Ascol (a man I respect enormously). The article, “A Solemn Discharge of Duty”, is about properly “firing” a pastor. I have more to say about that in an upcoming post, believe me! But one thing really jumped out at me, not because it was unusual but just the opposite: it is such a commonplace idea in the church that it often gets stated without challenge. Here is what he wrote:

The relationship between churches and pastors is vitally important because Christ has ordained that His sheep are cared for by qualified, called, and equipped undershepherds. The dissolution of that relationship should never be regarded lightly or pursued haphazardly.

It concerns me when men consider themselves to be “undershepherds” and the local gathering of the church to be their flock. The man who is your minister is a sheep, just like you. Whether he is paid or not, whether he has a seminary degree or not, no matter what title you give him, he is a sheep the same as you. When you lift yourself up as something more than your fellow believer, that is a problem. You can dress it up in all sorts of religiously approved humble language, but when push comes to shove when you consider yourself an “undershepherd” you have lifted yourself above the rest of the Body. You have a special calling, special authority, special responsibilities. You may affirm in theory that we are all one and the same, but in practice there is a division among the sheep and that division is not healthy.

We don’t see this sort of separation in the New Testament even among those who were apostles and the local pastor of First Baptist Church of Hindquarters, Alabama is not an apostle. Even in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem council we see the elders and apostles all gathered together and they came to a consensus and that was an issue of the Gospel, not a minor quibble about the organization of the local church.

There is one place where you can sort of see the genesis of this idea, when Jesus is speaking in John 21 to Peter asking him three times if he loved Jesus. Three times He asks Peter if he loves Him, and three times Peter says yes. In response, Jesus tells Peter to tend His flock, feed His sheep, tend to His lambs. In the NASB it reads:

He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Shepherd My sheep." (John 21:16)

I fear that from that we have created a role for men to be shepherds in place of Christ. But notice that it is an action, shepherd as a verb, and that Christ is clear that these are His sheep, we are His flock. Later it is Peter again who writes of shepherding the flock of Christ, but agains as a verb, not as an office:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5: 1-3)

“Shepherd” is not an office of the church that men hold. There is but one Shepherd in the church of Christ. We have One who is our Shepherd, we have One who is our great High Priest, there is one Body with only one Head. Human shepherds have failed again and again. In Ezekiel 34: 1-10 God rebukes in the harshest possible terms the shepherds who were supposed to be leading Israel and in the next verses made a glorious promise to His people:

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Eze 34: 11-16)

Notice how often God refers to Himself: I will feed them, I will rescue them, I will seek them out, I will be the shepherd of my sheep. If you have a flock of sheep, you don’t send them out into a pasture and tell the smartest sheep in the flock that he is in charge. You send them out under a shepherd. Christ is the Great Shepherd who leads the flock, guides the flock, protects the flock. He is the shepherd we need to depend upon.

Now I don’t think that too many ministers think that they are the real shepherd of the flock but I do think that using terminology like “undershepherd” to refer to a cleric and “flock” to refer to a local gathering is a dangerous precedent that creates in the mind of the minister and in the greater body a division between one Christian and another based on an alleged office in the church. No less harmful is the idea that this local church is one flock and that local church is a different flock. There is only one flock of Christians. There is no doubt in my mind that men should be recognized as elders and that those men should willingly and freely lead the church. There is also no doubt in my mind that in exalting men, giving them special privileges and deference we do harm to the work of the Gospel. We are called to be fellow laborers (more on this in my next post), not a corporation. The hierarchy in the church is pretty simple. You don’t need a class on ecclesiology or org charts to figure it out. It is Christ and then every Christian. We are all His sheep and He is our shepherd. There is no other and we need no other.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

How do you get started in homeschooling?

I have gotten several emails recently asking the question: how does one go about getting started in homeschooling? For those who have been homeschoolers for a while, it perhaps seems like an odd question. But it can be intimidating and as a family who has only homeschooled for a while, I can attest that it is a daunting proposition initially. It is so culturally ingrained that you stick your kids on a bus and the state takes care of the rest that I think a lot of people don't homeschool even when convinced of it because it can seem impossible to even contemplate anything else. My intent here is not a dogmatic defense of the theological foundations of why you should homeschool. I have plenty of posts on that if you are interested. This is more a practical, once you decide how do you make it happen post.

This is not how we got started. It is how I wish we would have! We are just starting to get the hang of it, and still have a long way to go. I think the following points will help make your transition easier and will be a good base to get started in the very exciting, very tiring but infinitely valuable practice of educating your children where they should be educated: in a Christian home by those who love and know them best, their parents.

Find out about the laws in your state

Every state has different laws regarding homeschool. Some states, like Michigan, have very loose laws. You pretty much tell the local school "We are homeschooling" and that is all she wrote. Other states, like Ohio, have more restrictive rules and many are borderline draconian. The Home School Legal Defense Association has a great database of state laws here. No sense in getting in trouble with the law or being intimidated by local school bureaucrats. Be armed with the laws and your rights, join the HSLDA and exercise your right as a parent to educate your own kids.

Find a support group in your area

Many areas have local homeschool groups. In central Michigan we have CHESS and in Northern Michigan there is a more loose knit group. I would bet that most states at the very minimum have a state wide organization. This is important: you need to find a support group. You will find that many people in your community, in your family and even in your church are not going to be keen about you homeschooling your kids. You need other godly parents to talk to and to support you. We have all been frustrated and it is incredibly hard when it feels like no one understand or supports you. Guess what, lots of people have had those same feelings. It is eminently Biblical to learn from those who have gone before. Homeschool does not need to be a recreating of the wheel in every home.

Talk to your kids

Getting pulled from school can seem like either a huge problem for social kids or an enormous occasion for celebration, either "when will I see my friends?" or "Sweet, I don't have to go to school tomorrow!" Homeschooling is not a punishment and it is not an endorsement of being ignorant. Make sure your kids understand why you are electing to do this, what your expectations are and what they can do to help. You don't need to ask permission but you should make sure they are in the loop.

Have a plan

Looking at curriculum and lesson plans and methods can be bewildering. There are so many choices and you can spend a bunch of money on something only to find that it doesn't work for you and your circumstances. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and what you want to accomplish. I would recommend going to a convention and talking to the vendors. Spend time with them, they are enthusiastic about their products and about homeschooling. Start simple and don't be afraid to try different stuff and don't assume that works for the Jones family will work in your family. We use a computer based curriculum because frankly we aren't very organized. Our days are very loosely structured. Some people have the day broken down virtually to the minute. There is not a right or wrong way to do it, the beauty of homeschool is that you do what works best for you and for your kids. Don't ruin that by trying to conform to what others do.

Don't seek approval from your family

Many families that elect to educate their own kids find that their own extended family is cool to the idea at best and outright hostile to it in many cases. You are not homeschooling to please your family and you don't need their permission. It is doubly hard when your family is not a Christian family. It is best if they support you but their support and their approval are not necessary. Inform them gently and politely why you are homeschooling and ask for support.

Have fun!

Homeschool is not an onerous duty, it should be fun! Enjoy the fact that you can go to the zoo whenever you want or change the topic for the day to address recent news or adapt your day as you need. Enjoy that your kids are with you, not a stranger, all day long. You can never replace with quality what you lose in quantity. Parenting takes time and homeschool gives you lots of time, infinite number of teaching opportunities each day for lessons formal and informal. Is homeschooling hard? Yep. Is it frustrating at times? YES! Is it worth every frustration? Absolutely!

These are just a few ideas I came up with. I know there are lots of homeschoolers who read this blog, so please post your experiences. If you are considering homeschooling and have questions, please post them and let others who have far more experience than me give you some advice.

(The HSLDA has a great webpage, You Can Homeschool! that I recommend you check out if you are considering homeschooling and are not sure where to start)
How do I start homeschooling

Homeschool laws by state

Homeschool resources


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Friday, September 25, 2009

Must we choose?

Ray Ortlund posted My Church or the Kingdom? . His point is that we demonstrate our commitment to the Kingdom in how we view the local church congregation.

If you care about the Kingdom, be the kind of person who can be counted on in your own church. Join your church, pray for your church, tithe to your church, participate in your church every Sunday with wholehearted passion.

We build great churches the same way we build great marriages -- real commitment that makes a positive difference every day.

I understand what he is saying and Ray is an excellent scholar, but I would say that we work toward Kingdom growth by proclaiming Christ, by loving and serving one another and not by "tithing" to your local church organization or by joining in membership. I wonder what Ray would say the average lay member does to "participate" on Sunday's with wholehearted passion?

I would encourage you to read his post and post some thoughts.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

A little more on Kevin Jennings

In my prior post I referenced the new "safe schools czar" who approaches education with a pretty radical homosexual agenda, Mr. Kevin Jennings. One of the other criticisms is that he is hostile to faith. From the original article:

The religious right is also alarmed by Jennings' personal views about religion. In his memoir, he wrote of his views while he was in high school:

"What had [God] done for me, other than make me feel shame and guilt? Squat. Screw you, buddy -- I don't need you around anymore, I decided.

"The Baptist Church had left me only a legacy of self-hatred, shame, and disappointment, and I wanted no more of it or its Father. The long erosion of my faith was now complete, and I, for many years, reacted violently to anyone who professed any kind of religion. Decades passed before I opened a Bible again."

Terkel said Jennings was writing about a "low point" in his life, and he now considers himself a religious person.

"Since then he has been involved in the Union Theological Seminary," she said. "He does consider himself religious. He tithes -- I just don't see any evidence that he is hostile to religion."

Jennings is on the board of the Union Theological Seminary, which describes itself as "progressive and evangelical."

That changes everything. He is on the Board at a seminary, he must be a man of faith! So I thought I would check out this "seminary" that he was associated with. Sadly I will be unable to attend a seminar they are holding today and tomorrow that takes a, um, unique look at the book of Revelation:

Sex & Empire

Public Lecture and workshop by Prof. Stephen Moore of Drew University

On September 24 and 25, Union Theological Seminary's Bible Consortium will host a public lecture and workshop by Prof. Stephen Moore of Drew University that explores the Revelation to John through the lens of feminist studies, queer theory, postcolonial studies, and eco-criticism.

Note: This mini-course can be taken for one-point credit and in this case includes a 5-page exegetical essay to be e-mailed to the guest-professor no later than October 9th who will grade it Pass/Fail and give brief feedback. Everybody is strongly encouraged to attend both events (even without formal enrollment).

I honestly never really saw the linkage between Revelation and "queer theory". If association with this school is the sign that Kevin Jennings is not hostile to God, I think the defense is in trouble.

I like atheists better when they admit they hate God instead of hiding behind religion.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yet another reason to not send your kids to public schools

These are the sorts of people who make policy at the highest levels for public "education"

President Obama's "safe schools czar" is a former schoolteacher who has advocated promoting homosexuality in schools, written about his past drug abuse, expressed his contempt for religion and detailed an incident in which he did not report an underage student who told him he was having sex with older men.

Conservatives are up in arms about the appointment of Kevin Jennings, Obama's director of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, saying he is too radical for the job.

Jennings was appointed to the position largely because of his longtime record of working to end bullying and discrimination in schools. In 1990, as a teacher in Massachusetts, he founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which now has over 40 chapters at schools nationwide. He has also published six books on gay rights and education, including one that describes his own experiences as a closeted gay student.

Do you want men like that creating education policy for your kids? Read the whole article to see who the education establishment thinks knows what is best for your kids.

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Imagine a world with no denominations?

Dr. Albert Mohler featured a discussion on the death of denominations a few days ago and it was an interesting show: Life in Post-Denominational America. Dr. Mohler had a particular expertise and vested interest in this question as an employee of a denominational seminary but I think he also gave the subject a fair treatment.

I think by almost any measure we are witnessing the death throes of the denominational system. Not necessarily the underlying doctrinal distinctions, but the system of denominations itself. Many churches that hold to what used to be characteristic of a particular denomination are adopting a less obvious name (so and so community church, etc). Churches that would hold to virtually all of the historic Baptist distinctive are tripping over themselves to not call themselves Baptists.

On the positive side, denominations do an awful lot of cooperative work among member congregations especially when it comes to mission work and to a lesser extent when it comes to seminaries. I remain utterly unconvinced that the seminary system is a good one, but I do see value in some sort of academia in the church. I do see the value in pooling money to support mission work at home and abroad even though I recognize the inefficiencies that can crop up in that system.

On the negative, denominations carry a lot of baggage. The first is that they are absent completely from the New Testament. There were not Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist local churches in the primitive church. There was just the church. Denominations tend to add to the confusion among Christians (which one is “right”?) Denomination after denomination has slipped into theological liberalism and you can argue that even those that haven’t (like the Southern Baptist Convention), have still wandered away from the core purpose of the church. Denominations can and often have been choked with bureaucracy and become the source of petty fights over power and money.

I think that the trends are pretty clear. Americans at least are by and large moving away from organized religion and into more vague forms of spirituality. Walking hand in hand with this trend is the trend away from hierarchical denominations and more toward autonomous and independent local churches.

What do you think? Is the death of denominationalism a long overdue event that should be viewed as a positive? Or is it the latest sign in a world of watered down doctrinal fidelity? What does a denominationless world look like?

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Visit from the mormons

Check out a brief summary of our visit from the mormon missionaries last night at The Fo-Mo Chronicles!

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is Scripture vital for doctrine but not for practice?

Excellent post from Alan Knox, The Church in the New Testament. Alan asks the question: why is Scripture so important for our beliefs but not for our practices? I think many people would take umbrage at that. Of course our church practices are based in Scripture! I think an honest assessment of most gatherings of the church will yield an admission that there is at best sketchy evidence for many of our practices, which is one thing. It is entirely another when our extra-Biblical traditions impede the life of the church, which is far too often the case.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

He’s a little bit traditional, I’m a little bit primitive

(OK, so the title is not quite as catchy as the Osmond’s “A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll” but you get the point.)

I got a question privately the other day that has generated a lot of thought for me. If a woman becomes convinced that the traditional model of church doesn’t jive with Scripture but her husband still desires to be in “membership” with an institutional church, what should the response be? Go along with something that you believe is in error or not submit to your husband? Here is my response:

First, I would say: Be glad your husband wants to be involved in the Body of Christ! There are way too many women sitting in pews by themselves while their husbands sit at home.

Having said that, I have been thinking about this a lot. Where I come down on this is that while I see that the traditional way that we “do church” with professional ministers and liturgies and rituals is without Scriptural warrant, I don’t think it amounts to sin. On the other hand, Scripturally failing to graciously submit to your husband’s headship in the home would qualify as sinful behavior. So in picking the right path here, my recommendation is that you gracefully go along with your husband at this point, prayerfully hoping that he will come to a recognition that “church as we know it” is not “church as Christ intended it”. The weight of tradition and inertia are hard to overcome and it takes time to untangle manmade rituals and traditions from Scripture.

Now if your husband was going to a Catholic church or a mormon church or even a “health, wealth and prosperity gospel” church where the Gospel of Christ was being denied, that would be different. That would qualify as picking your spouse over Christ and that is not OK.

None of this precludes asking questions. There is a difference between questioning your husband’s decisions and asking questions about his decisions. 1 Corinthians 14: 35 specifically calls on wives to ask their husbands questions at home. I would also say that you should open your home to fellow believers of all stripes, have the Body of Christ into your home and through this interaction see that love and fellowship should take precedence over doctrinal distinctions. That is not to minimize the foundational doctrines of the faith nor should you invite false teachers and professors into your home except to witness to them. Spend some devotional time as a family in the book of Acts and in 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Really study what it says instead of what we assume it says. There isn’t a perfect gathering of the church on earth but that doesn’t prevent us from seeking a better, more faithful expression of the gathering.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Very helpful answer on regeneration preceding faith

I hold that regeneration precedes and causes faith. I found this at Monergism in response to a questioner who was told that John 20:31 proves the opposite (which makes no sense at all but I digress). I especially liked this explanation of the relationship between regeneration and faith.

Faith is to regeneration as heat is to fire. They do not happen at different times but simultaneously ... yet we know that one causes the other. Similarly When one strikes a pool ball and it hits the other ball, the two actually strike one another at the same time, but it is actually the momentum of one which causes the other one to move. When a baby is born, he breathes. Likewise, when the Spirit regenerates us, we believe. It is part of the new nature to do so. And the Spirit does it in conjunction with the word, with preaching. The preaching of the word is like seed cast into the ground, but for the seed to take root, God must plow up the fallow ground of our hearts and like rain from heaven, he must geminate the seed with the Spirit. Without that we are hardened to the gospel and remain unfruitful. So all the glory goes to God alone in our salvation.

It is inadequate as are all analogies by nature, but it makes a lot of sense as do the verses quoted in the body of the response. Faith is a result of, is caused by regeneration. With regeneration, faith is impossible.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pastor WALL-E

The movie WALL-E came out a few years ago and was kind of a surprise hit. The movie featured as its main character a little robot that didn't talk for the most part. It reminded me in that way of Castaway with Tom Hanks where his co-star was a volleyball. It was kind of eco-preachy but it was a cute movie. Anyhoo....What got me thinking about WALL-E was a comment on a prior post and how WALL-E and the humans in the movie reminded me of pastors and laity in the traditional church.

Humans in WALL-E were depicted as fat and lazy, distracted by entertainment and unable to even stand on their feet because they were so used to machines doing the work for them. Robots like WALL-E cleaned up, made food, took care of children, everything. Human beings did nothing more than sit in floating chaise lounges and eventually after generations of this their muscles atrophied to the point of being unable to even support their prodigious weight. If one fell out of his hover chair, he rolled around helplessly until a robot picked them back up and put them back in their floating chair.

Near the end of the movie, the humans realize what has happened to them and start to stand up. Once they do, they remembered that they were capable of doing more than sitting around being served. It is harder and sometimes messier, but infinitely more rewarding. They are scared at first and it is a little chaotic, but it turns out to be a happy ending as the humans start to clean up the mess left behind after years of neglect left to a handful of overworked robots.

You might be wondering: Nice little summary of the movie. So what does that have to do with the church?

The laity in the church is not expected nor welcome to do much more than shuffle in, sit down, stand when told, sing when told, sit back down and then shuffle out after an obligatory handshake. Year after year this is what happens, generation after generation, and like the humans in WALL-E, the spiritual muscles have atrophied, the brains have turned to mush and many of us are at the point where we are not only not willing but not able to do much else but fill space in a pew and fill lines out on a check. Most of the church doesn't know that they can and should do more because the idea of "church" is so entrenched in the culture and tradition that any other model seems scary, inconvenient and weird. Meanwhile more and more of the burden falls on Pastor WALL-E.

My purpose in poking a stick in the institutional church hornets nest is simple. I am trying to tip some of the floating chaise lounges over. I am confident that if someone gets knocked out of their comfy chair, it may bruise them a bit, hurt their pride and they might be unsteady on their feet for a while but eventually their spiritual muscles will strengthen and they will be able and excited to contribute without embarrassing themselves.

WALL-E was the last robot of his kind. The rest broke down from the sheer magnitude of the work they were expected to take on. What happens to the body of Christ when the Pastor WALL-E breaks down? Your pastor is a lot like WALL-E. He is a hardworking little fella, but years of carrying the burden all by himself have taken its toll. Instead of spraying him with a little WD-40, patting him on the head and sending him back out to work, why don't you tell him you will shoulder some of the work. He might have to spend some time showing you how but that is OK. After all, that is why Christ gave us WALL-E, er, pastors: to equip the entire Body for the work of ministry, not to do ministry for us while we watch.

(I was going to make an analogy between the autopilot "Auto" and some in ministry who insist on keeping control, but I thought that was taking the analogy a little too far)

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Live Chats with cults!

If you have visited a Yahoo! page lately you may notice that there are tons of new banner ads for the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints". Clicking the ad takes you to a live chat with a missionary, probably someone in the "MTC" (missionary training center in Provo, Utah). I may jump on later this evening and see what they have to say and I already requested a Book of Mormon (which they delivered last night and are coming back to talk with my wife and I on Monday). You can follow our conversations with the missionaries on my mormon blog, The Fo-Mo Chronicles.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Paul was a Calvinist

I thought I would throw out an intentionally inflammatory title just to spice things up. I am tired and cranky this morning while I am writing this so I am feeling blogo-cheeky. I also haven’t had a good old fashioned Calvinist rant in a while, so here goes.

I know that title seems silly on its face since Paul lived and died almost fifteen centuries before Calvin was even born. What I meant is that I am asserting that Paul would in essence affirm the doctrines we call Calvinism.

What do I base that assertion on?

First, Paul’s doctrinal statements in Ephesians and Romans especially are unmistakable in their presentation of a God who predestines, elects, effectually calls, regenerate and preserves a select remnant of lost mankind and Paul is equally clear on the lostness and utter inability and complete lack of desire on the part of unregenerate man to even look for Christ, much less make a decision for or “ask Jesus into your heart”. Paul would affirm Calvinism because Calvinism draws as its foundation the teachings of Christ as well as the writings of Paul.

Second and perhaps even more importantly is the account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9)

What is on display here? God’s sovereign grace or man’s free will? Paul is an especially delicious example because he assumed that he already was doing God’s will. He was a highly educated and fervent Jew. He was not “making a decision for Christ”, just the opposite he was persecuting Christ (Note that Christ said Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?). As anyone who was leading an atheistic life or following a false religion knows, the intrusion of Christ into your life is the sweetest, most wonderful thing that can happen to you but it is also jarring and unexpected. If you are a kid in a Christian home, it is kind of expected that at some point you will come to Christ. You are surrounded by “God-talk”, grow up in church, hear the Bible read. Christ is comfortable because He is at least academically familiar to you. For the radical unbeliever, finding Christ inserting Himself into your life is a world altering event. I am not saying that it is not for a “church kid” but it is doubly so for those who rejected God or followed a false god.

So my point? Just that those who have a problem with Calvinism have a problem with Paul and with Christ Himself. Not the various traditions that have grown up around the Reformed movement but the actual doctrines of Calvinism itself. It is easy to confuse the baggage of Reformed denominational traditions with the doctrines of grace known as Calvinism. There is a small but vocal minority of people in the church who use Calvinism as a straw man to conquer and who decry both Calvinism as heresy and its adherents as heretics. What Paul experienced and what he wrote are far more in line with what Calvin wrote and what Calvinists believe than the man centered doctrines of Arminianism and decisional regeneration popular in the church today. If I have to choose between the followers of Jacob Arminius and the apostle Paul, I am picking Paul 100 times out of 100.

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Alan Knox on ministers or attendees

Interesting thoughts at The Assembling of the Church on the phenomenon of “attendees”, people who show up at church now and again but don’t minister in a meaningful way to other Christians. I liked this brief statement:

Attendance is not our purpose. Edification must be our purpose.

The local church doesn’t need more “members”. It doesn’t need more attendees. It needs more ministers. Our purpose in gathering, as Alan points out, is not to gather just for the sake of saying that we gathered. Many people feel guilty for not “going to church” but not many people feel guilty about passively sitting around for a couple of hours and then going home. After all, they punched their religious time clock for the week so they are in good standing. You can “go to church” for decades and never meaningfully minister to your fellow Christian and feel perfectly justified in doing so. After all, ministry is what we pay the pastor to do, if I wanted to minister to people I would go to seminary! Compounding this is the reality that in most of the church, that is all that you are expected and permitted to do: show up on schedule.

A question in the comments at Alan's post really gets at the heart of where a search for a more Biblical ecclesiology invariably leads. What do you do when you look around on Sunday morning and you don’t recognize what is happening in light of the Scripture? Do you stay in place and try to make a difference or do you take your leave and gather somewhere you can minister to others and be ministered to? Our answer as a family was to leave, with no hard feelings and no acrimony, and gather somewhere we saw a more Biblical model, albeit an imperfect one. Is that the right answer?

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The anti-natalism in America

Great editorial in the Wall Street Journal about the Duggars, they of the 19 children and homespun clothing, and the underlying cause of the mix of fascination and revulsion they cause in the general population. Here are several excerpts from Duggar Economics: The Costs of 19 Kids :

Yes, the Duggars are an easy target: They have taken the idea of a large family and given it an exponential boost. And their lives are not exactly filled with suburban glamour, fancy college degrees or evenings at home reading aloud from collections of symbolist verse. The family tends toward plain clothes, warehouse-club portions and the New Testament. And yet the discomfort with the Duggars is not merely an expression of class snobbery. It has partly to do with their hyperfertility. There is a creeping anti-natalism in America that has made having large families a radical act.

Even by historical standards, the Duggars' soon-to-be-19 kids are exceptional. In 1800 the American fertility rate—that is, the number of children born to an average woman in her lifetime—was 7.04 for whites and 7.90 for blacks. (The first census was taken in 1790, and the numbers for the races were tabulated separately.) Over the years, the fertility rate trended inexorably downward. Today the average American woman has only 2.09 children, just a hair beneath the replacement rate of 2.1. The rate for Michelle Duggar's demographic group, non-Hispanic whites, is just 1.85. In 1800, the Duggars would have been odd. By today's standards, they seem positively freakish.

I don’t know that the Duggars are “hyperfertile”. They certainly have no problems getting pregnant but I think that even an average couple without fertility issues that got married early, had sex regularly and never used contraception would have quite a few kids. We have eight and we have used contraception sporadically through our 17 years of marriage. Take that away and we probably would have ten or more kids and still have several more kids ahead of us. The Duggars are not hyperfertile so much as the majority of America is anti-fertile. The industry in place to prevent or “undo” pregnancy is huge and the prevailing American attitude is that kids are something to think about when you are closer to 30 than 20 (or more frequently closer to 40 than 30!), something to consider only once you have “lived life” and travelled and certainly something to be limited to a “nice sized family”, i.e. 2 or 3 kids. This is the socially acceptable family size and tragically it is true in the church to very nearly the same extent. There are pockets of Christians with larger families but they are few and far between and often are a viewed by fellow believers as a weird blend of blessing and oddity.

What was troubling was a paragraph of stats that the author, Jonathan Last, inserted in the middle of the story:

There are scores of reasons for society's decreased fertility. Better medical care reduced infant mortality. In 1850 more than one in five children died in infancy; today that number is just a little over one in 166. With more babies surviving, families needed fewer births to achieve their desired family size. Effective birth control reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies. And, beginning in 1974, widespread access to abortion reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies that were brought to term. Forty-eight million abortions have been performed in America since Roe v. Wade; for perspective, the entire baby-boom generation comprises 75 million people.

The sheer number of abortions in America is staggering and when you look at the baby boomers about to retire and whining about Social Security insolvency, feel free to point to the nearly 50,000,000 workers who will never pay a nickel into the Social Security trust fund because they were murdered in the womb. We are reaping the fruit of a bloody harvest in the form of social insecurity for a whole generation because children became choices and now that same generation that exulted in their new found freedom to prevent and terminate pregnancy at will is looking around at am empty trust fund and demanding that someone do something about it.

Being the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Last examines the economics of children and it is fascinating:

Whatever its merits, the welfare state is a disincentive to childbearing. Each generation of workers pays for the retirement benefits of the generation ahead of it. The system is powered by babies, who grow up to become productive little FICA contributors. But even if you never have children, someone else's kid will eventually pay for your Social Security benefits.

Even as economic incentives for childbearing have diminished, costs have grown. The welfare state required an enormous new tax burden, for instance. When Social Security was first instituted, in 1937, only 1% of earnings up to $3,000 were taxed. Today Social Security and Medicare eat up 7.65% of earnings up to $106,800. According to a study by the Tax Foundation, the median American family in 1955 paid 17.3% of its income in taxes. By 1998, the median two-earner family paid 40.9%. All of which makes family formation much harder. As demographer Phillip Longman observes, young white men since the 1970s have seen a 40% decline in income relative to their fathers—for young black men the figure is 60%.

While the government started taking more of a family's money, the expense of raising a child shot to the moon. The Agriculture Department estimates that the costs of raising a child from birth to age 18—that is, clothes, food, health care—averaged $207,800 in 2007. In real dollars, that's a 15% increase since 1960. But the department's numbers leave out three big-ticket items: child care, college tuition and forgone salaries.

The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that in 2008 the average cost of a full-time nanny was $9,630; the average cost of full-time day care was $14,591. That's as much as a year at college. The average cost of state-university tuition, along with room and board, is now $14,333. Private colleges average a good deal more— $34,132. But what's really striking is the rate of increase. During the past 35 years, the real-dollar cost of college has increased by 1,000%. That's not a misprint.

I especially liked the part where we see that the total tax burden on Americans has exploded from 17.3% in 1955 to 40.9% in 1998. Little wonder that so many families think they need two incomes to survive. In spite of the healthy tax deductions for kids, our society as a whole is structured to discourage children at the same it depends on a steady stream of new workers to fund the welfare system, which is really what Social Security and Medicare are: a welfare system writ large in the form of generational income redistribution. Instead of saving your own money for your own retirement, you pay money into a system to pay for the retirement of someone else and then you rely on an as yet unborn worker to pay for your retirement. Great system! At least until the fertility rates plummet and the post-retirement life expectancy jumps up. This self-defeating system is brought to you by the same people who want to take over health care. No thanks!

Ms. Last ends with this:

The Duggars have mortgaged their financial futures for their children. Yet we're the ones who will benefit. In 1940 there were 160 workers paying the tab for each person collecting Social Security. By 2006, there were just 3.3 workers supporting each pensioner. The Social Security Administration estimates that by 2034, there will be only 2.1 workers for each person collecting a government retirement check.

In an era when it is rare for a bourgeois couple to have even three children, the Duggars are helping subsidize our retirement at considerable costs to themselves. Instead of mocking them, we ought to thank them.

Amen to that!

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In praise of being unprepared

Sermon preparation and to a lesser extent Sunday school preparation are hallmarks of a faithful ministry in evangelicalism. Not many people are going to fault brothers for spending too much time preparing a sermon or a lesson. There is also no doubt that things tend to run more smoothly and be more pleasing to the ear when they are prepared. Who is not pleased when a sermon is neatly laid out with an intro, three main points, a conclusion to wrap it all together (on time of course!) with a sprinkling of clever anecdotes and “Amen!” lines?

May I suggest that being “unprepared” in the sense of not coming with a preconceived sermon/talk/lesson can be valuable as well?

I have found that an unscripted, unprepared meeting where brothers open the Word, comment on Scripture, request songs that are not picked out and practiced ahead of time and pray spontaneously brings out the best in others and in me. It takes some getting used to. The silence can be deafening at times to ears that are you used to the constant hum of something always going on “in church”. Sometimes you are going to get a clumsy talk or someone may get up and then lose their train of thought. It may end early or it may go longer (almost always longer in my experience).

Where is the room for the Spirit in a highly planned out meeting? When everything is planned out based on a minute by minute schedule, the presence of the Spirit is relegated to a feeling instead of a leading. In far too many cases we are either full of what we perceive as the Spirit and utterly lacking in the Word, or we are steeped in the Word and the Spirit is locked away. It doesn’t have to be this way, it should not be this way.

I don’t think that many ministers outside of a few kooks on the fringe of the “Truly Reformed” extreme would disagree that there needs to be some sort of participatory component in the gathering of the church. The reality of it is somewhat different because typically there is little opportunity for the average Christian man to be involved with the gathering of the church because those gatherings are tightly compressed time-wise and subsequently rigidly scheduled.

One of the greatest preachers in the church was the English Baptist Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon is known for his lack of “sermon preparation”, famously not even starting to prepare until Saturday night for a Sunday morning sermon and not preparing his Sunday evening sermon until Sunday afternoon. That seems incomprehensible in the church when it is not uncommon for men to spend 10, 20 or more hours a week in deep study and preparation of their sermons. So how could Spurgeon pull off sermon after sermon with such minimal preparation? Well he was of course a rare intellect and had an amazing gift with words. It may be that he was more concerned about who he was preaching about than how he sounded to the audience. More importantly though he was deeply immersed in the Word. The Word seems to have come naturally to him because he spent a lot of time in it. Well, you may say, not everyone is Charles Spurgeon. I would agree that he was an extremely gifted man. That doesn’t mean that other men in the church can replicate what Spurgeon did by spending half of their week in their studies. It does mean that we need to spend more of our time in prayer and in the Word.

I think there is a place for a planned, prepared talk in the church. I appreciate systematic Bible studies and expository sermons. But if that is all we have, if the church gathers and 99% of the Body has no voice, how can they truly be a part of “worship”? The Holy Spirit isn’t obligated to abide by our schedule. God is a God of order but God is also a God of Spirit. An orderly service without the Spirit, if I may be so bold, is not a Christian worship service at all. A worship service where we watch is not a worship service because it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Worship cannot be something I watch someone else doing, can it?

There is so much that the Body of Christ has to offer but it rarely gets a chance. So much power, so much service, so much love and so often wasted. Little wonder that a small segment of the Body is wounded and weary and the rest of the Body is atrophied and lazy. Participatory meetings are neither an anachronism that “doesn’t work” today nor a sign of new fangled emergent practices. It is an ancient path that has command and example in the Scripture and that is more than we can say about an awful lot of what passes as “Christian worship” in even the most conservative evangelical churches.

Preacher, take a chance. Let the Body worship as the Body. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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Should the church encourage singles to adopt?

Dr. Russell Moore, one of the leading advocates for adoption in the church today, mentioned an article in Christianity Today on the Her.meneutics blog, Adoption: Single Christians Need Not Apply. The author, Julia Duin, complains that adoption resources always speak about couple adoptions and she thinks there needs to be an embracing of single adoptions in the church.

Here is a snippet:

Christian groups report that there are 132 million orphans in this world. If so, every available resource needs to be freed up to care for these children — meaning singles as well as couples. There are 100 million single persons over 18 in the United States alone — one-third of the population. I think it’s safe to estimate that at least a third of all adults in a typical U.S. church are single. Why is it verboten to mobilize the unmarried so they too can nourish and bring up children?

I think that is a troubling thought process. I know that conditions in orphanages are horrific, but is this the solution? A 19 year old college student is an adult, should they adopt? How does a single woman fulfill the role of a Christian father in raising children? How does a single man provide the care and nurture of a Christian mother?

I wonder if this is not mere pragmatism under the guise of compassion. Should singles adopt? If you believe as I do that the family structure that is Biblical is an intact two-parent (of the opposite sex!) family so that men and women can fulfill their roles and pass on those same roles to their children, then the answer should be a qualified no. Can a single provide a nice, loving home to an orphan? I am sure that they can, but so can polygamous families or homosexual couples. That doesn’t mean the church should be involved in placing children in those homes.

While I recognize that in this world the perfect family doesn’t exist and that reality often intrudes on our ideals, and I also recognize that some kids do just fine in a single family home and some kids do really poorly in a two parent home, I truly believe and can support from Scripture that there needs to be two parents wherever possible. Part of the desire to get married stems from a desire to have a family. Now we would skip that step in the church and start handing out orphans? No need to get involved in a messy marriage, you can just adopt kids! What about single guys adopting teen girls from orphanages, is that a good idea? We should do more to encourage Christians to get and stayed married, not to stay single and adopt kids anyway.

I think the church could and should do more for adoption. I know people who would adopt and can’t afford it. We would adopt even though we already have eight kids if we could swing it financially. I truly believe that the church needs to spend way less on programs, buildings and staff salaries and divert at least some of that money to help couples adopt children. I don’t think that the church should be in the business of encouraging singles to adopt children. It is hard enough raising children as a couple, we shouldn't seek to make it harder and less Scriptural.

What do you think? Should the church encourage singles to adopt for the sake of getting kids out of orphanages?

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Perhaps the most important person of the 20th century just died…

…and most of us have never heard of him.

A man named Norman Borlaug died on Saturday at the age of 95. I had never heard of him until this morning. Who cares that some old guy died? Billions of people do. His is an amazing story. Norman Borlaug developed agricultural techniques that revolutionized the raising of crops in third world nations, many with harsh climates that are unsustainable for American crop strains. Yawn. Farming is boring.

How about this. His work in large part averted wide scale famine in India and other nations and saved the lives of as many as a billion people.

1,000,000,000 people

I read a fascinating story about him this morning, The Man Who Defused the 'Population Bomb'. Norman Borlaug helped people feed themselves and spent a great deal of his life apparently in some of the most impoverished places in the world. He also seems to have had little use for environmentalists who care more about the issue du jour than they do about children starving to death. This quote really struck me:

"some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Unlike many so-called social activists and environmentalists who sit in cushy offices and wag their finger at America, Norman Borlaug spent his life helping people raise the crops to feed themselves. It is easy to sit in an office sipping a $5 latte and complain about global warming but when you are living in a hut trying to feed your family, you don’t care much about Kyoto and cap and trade legislation.

I don’t know a thing about Norman Borlaug’s politics or religious views. I do know this. His was a life well lived and impacted the lives of untold millions in a real way. Yet because he isn’t an athlete or a famous singer, his death goes largely unnoticed. Michael Jackson dies and the world nearly ended. Everyone is abuzz over Kanye West and Joe Wilson. Meanwhile a man who did more to feed the world than perhaps any other person in modern history dies and nobody cares. What is wrong with us?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Meditations on the Word: 1 John 2: 7-11

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2: 7-11)

This is one of the most convicting and troubling passages so far in 1 John for me. I know the lingo, I affirm the core truths, I can argue theology all day long, I can teach and preach reasonably well. But loving my brother? That doesn’t come easily to me. How great it is to have someone praise a sermon or to make a solid argument in a theological discussion. The applause and adoration of man is a seductive elixir. Loving you’re your brother? Done properly and no one is going to applaud or say amen. You probably won’t get any credit for it and that is what makes it love. The Bible is clear that we don’t get salvation points for our own good works but that regardless of that our good works are still required. How weird is that? What is the point of self-sacrifice if it doesn’t change my eternal destiny? Plus it is hard to be Biblically loving. Really, really hard.

No Christian that I have ever met is as loving as he ought to be toward his brother just as no husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). The standard is a pretty high one:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22: 34-40)

Can I get a cyber show of hands from anyone who loves God with all of your heart and soul and mind? How about those who truly love their neighbor or anyone else as much as they love themselves?

Here is the rub. We are not given the option of throwing up our hands and saying the standard is too high, so I am going to just ignore it. Jesus said that those two commandments, loving God and loving our brother are the foundations on which all of the Law and Prophets depend. Think about that!

We must love our brothers and if we don’t, we are still in the darkness. Period. It is categorically false to say that you are a Christian who hates his brother. It can be easy to be blinded by everything out there, even things that are worthwhile endeavors. We can get blinded by church, by study, by worship, by distinctive, by apologetics, by good works and in doing so forget to simply love one another in fact and not just in confession. Ultimately it is about love. All the confessions in the world won’t suffice. Hours of expository preaching won’t suffice. Complaining about the traditional, institutional church won’t suffice. Nothing we do means much if it isn’t done in love. In the next chapter John is going to get even more explicit as he describes people who don’t love their brothers.

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Religious holidays in a pagan state

A headline today in the Wall Street Journal reads: Muslims Press for School Holidays in New York City. My question: why shouldn’t they? I don’t buy into the notion that America is now or ever has been a “Christian nation” because by the very nature of Christianity that is impossible. Nations are not Christian. Organizations are not Christian. People are Christians. Even if America was 100% without exception regenerate Christians, this still wouldn’t be a “Christian nation”. Were many of the Founding Fathers Christians? Of course (although many weren’t). Is much our law and culture founded at least vaguely on “Judeo-Christian values” and acceptable exhibitions of public piety? Sure. That doesn’t make America a “Christian nation”.

From the editorial:

Muslims groups here are pressing city officials to close public schools on two of the faith's holiest days, just as schools do for major Jewish and Christian holidays. But the groups have yet to persuade the man in charge of New York City schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Muslim groups have asked the city to cancel classes on Eid Ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid Ul-Adha, which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

New York is one of many public-school systems now struggling with appropriate ways to recognize religious holidays for a diverse population. An estimated 100,000 Muslim children are enrolled in New York City schools, about 10% of the enrollment.

I was stunned to find out that 10% of school kids in New York City are Muslim. As of 2002, around 12% of all New York residents were Jewish so at the rate we are going Muslims will almost certainly pass Jews in the near future if they haven’t already. So if Jewish kids get school days off for their holidays, why not Muslims? Because the Jews were there first?

I really don’t care and don’t have a skin in the game. My kids are not in public school in New York or anywhere else. Given the general state of public schools and especially the schools in New York, I would say somewhat facetiously that the more these kids stay home the better!

I guess what I am questioning is the extent to which the church has wedded itself to the state. There is a lot of blurring between “church” organizations & functions and state functions. For example, there are tons of hospitals and foster homes that are closely affiliated with a faith group but are also heavily involved with the state. There are numerous tax exemptions granted by the government to clergy and churches as well as deductions for most charitable contributions given to religious groups. The state recognizes as legally binding wedding ceremonies performed by many religious groups or individuals. Under the Bush administration and continued quietly under Obama, the Federal government has created an office to facilitate church and state partnerships. There are rumblings already of using the tax exempt status of religious groups to silence them. When I was pastor of a church in Northern Michigan leading up to the elections I received several anonymous pieces of mail with thinly veiled threats toward our tax-exempt status if we dared utter any political speech. I am not sure how sacrificial their giving is for most people when they can claim a deduction on their taxes because of it. It is growing kind of hard to decide who were rendering unto in America.

Should Christianity be something viewable as a part of the culture? It is pretty easy for someone in America to say that they are a Christian based on membership in a church they visit a couple of times a year, a vague affirmation of the existence of God and small acts of piety. Woe to the one who questions the religious standing of such a person! Fundamentalist and judgmental are the least of the aspersions that will be cast. The truth of the matter is that Christianity, or what passes for Christianity, is entirely too comfortable in America. We get favorable tax treatment on our giving, on our buildings and for our paid clergy. I wonder what would happen to the giving in churches if the Federal government eliminated the deductibility of religious contributions? I am guessing it wouldn’t go up.

This is not about Islam. Again, Islam is a false religious system that denies Christ and leads people to hell. The same is true of modern Judaism. I am concerned that in the push for faith based initiatives, in expressions of civic religion, in the unhealthy yoking of the church with the state, in letting the state dictate to the church how it handles donations and ceremonies like weddings we have created an inseparable link (someday I want to do a post on the linkage between government, church weddings and infant baptism). I personally think that the best thing that could happen to the church would be to lose its tax-exempt status, not because I am in favor of people paying more in taxes but because I am not in favor of their being even a hint of self-serving behavior in our cheerful giving.

So I say let Muslim kids have their holidays off. I even say let’s replace religious holidays with secular holidays. Let the state recognize state holidays instead of the uncomfortable marriage that has led to the current state of affairs. The birth of Christ is not honored by getting a day off and He is not honored by a cheesy nativity scene on a public lot. God is not honored when the Ten Commandments are used as a political club. America is not a Christian nation and being an American, or even a member of a church in America, doesn’t make you a Christian. We are aliens in a pagan land, proclaiming Christ to the lost. It is high time we start acting like it.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Karen Armstrong on Man Vs. God

I read an interesting essay by two writers titled Man vs. God. Neither of the authors is a writer I normally would read. The essay featured Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins pontificating on God (or lack thereof) and evolution. I don’t have much to say about Dawkins as his writing, while eloquent, is little more than the normal baseless dogma of a disciple of St. Darwin. Someone who claims to not believe in God has little that is useful or interesting to say on the topic of the divine. Ms. Armstrong on the other hand is famous and allegedly something of an expert on religious systems, so her half of the essay is more interesting.

This is a good sample of how Ms. Armstrong approaches the very idea of God:

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

I would say that anyone who understand God in that way cannot truly call themselves a Christian except in the most vague, religious and cultural way. If Christianity is about anything that distinguishes itself from the other monotheistic world faiths, it is that God is both transcendent and immanent, that in the person of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, “God with us”, God who was infinitely transcendent intruded upon human history. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What “we call God” is not a mere unverifiable symbol that points to something else, but a personal God who has spoken to His creatures through the revelation of Creation and more specifically the revelation of His Word.

I am really not sure how someone can be so well educated in matters of theology and yet be so ignorant of basic tenets of Christianity. The “fossil record”, the pain of the existence of this world does not shake my faith because my faith is based on an understanding of sinful man in light of a transcendent and holy Creator God and the redemption of an undeserving remnant of mankind through the incarnate Son of God and His sacrifice for sin. I expect such ignorance from Richard Dawkins, a man who has no use for God except to say that He doesn’t exist to sell books. Karen Armstrong is considered something of an expert on matters of comparative religion but apparently her beliefs boil down to living out life as painlessly as possible before you die. I guess that makes as much sense as any other worldview that denies God.

One of her most telling statements if a malleable God comes here:

There can never be a definitive version of a myth, because it refers to the more imponderable aspects of life. To remain effective, it must respond to contemporary circumstance.

Ms. Armstrong’s view of God is one of a comforting myth. When one myth stops working, you just create a new one. There are simply some things that “science” and reason cannot explain, so for those areas and for general comfort among the misery of mankind we have created a mythology of a God who will set things right. Because she sees God as unknowable, she feels free to recreate the Creator in self-pleasing shape and encourages others to do the same. God is not who He has declared Himself to be, He is whatever we want or need Him to be. That is true with much of Western civilization, which may be why Ms. Armstrong has such a large audience. God is something to be used to make us feel better at funerals even if the deceased wanted nothing to do with God, to give a religious patina over a pagan wedding between two unbelievers, a figure spoken of in vague assurance of prayer by people who don’t really believe in God as He has revealed Himself to be, somewhere to turn to in buildings with stained glass when tragedy strikes to make us feel better. That is not the God I worship and it is not the God who is revealed in the Bible.

It is a little disappointing that the Wall Street Journal elected Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins for this essay. Granted, both of them get a lot of play in the media and have a large audience but if you are going to talk about God, where is the voice of someone who actually believes in God, at least believing in God as understood by the vast majority of believers in the monotheistic faiths of the world?

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Interesting report on women ”Senior Pastors”

Barna has released a new survey on women who hold the title of “Senior Pastor”. A couple of interesting notes:

- The number of women holding the title of “Senior Pastor” has increased substantially from 1999 to 2009, from 5% to 10% of all “Senior Pastors” in Protestant churches.

- The majority, no shocker here, of these women are in “mainline” churches, i.e. ELCA, PC-USA and United Methodist type churches.

- They are also older than male counterparts, median age of 55 for women versus 52 for men (Barna also notes that the age is rising in the last 10 years, from 50 to 55 for women and for men it has gone from 48 to 52)

- Women holding a “Senior Pastor” office also tend to be paid less on average but be more likely (77%-63%) to have a seminary degree.

Barna also notes that in this same time frame (1999-2009) average attendance at Protestant churches has gone from 108 to 101 on Sundays, about a 6.5% drop.

What does this mean for the church? Well, it is no secret if you read here very often that I have little use for professional clergy and even less use for women holding a church office such as elder. What I do think we are seeing here is an acceleration, especially in the rapidly dying “mainline” churches, of the feminization of the church coupled with an abandonment of core Biblical doctrines that deal with the nature of the church and the roles of men and women.

What do you think? Is the rapid increase in the number of female “Senior Pastors” a cause for celebration or concern? Or does it matter at all?

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Don't leave the church, build the church!

Great quote from Dave Black on church leavers:

One of the current social fads is what we might call "post-church Christianity." People are dropping out of church, especially young people who may have been converted in non-traditional settings. I must confess that much of what we see in the Body of Christ is indeed very unattractive: anachronisms, inconsistencies, hypocrisies. But I cannot agree that the solution is dropping out. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are obligated as believers to "stir one another up to love and good works." How can refusing to meet with other Christians allow us to obey this command? Each Christian is a building block in the temple of the church. Each is necessary for the Body to grow. Each has a part to play. Sadly, the word "work" has become a four-letter word in many of our churches. There are too many shirkers and not enough workers. Even Jesus said the laborers are few.

If you are a dropout from church (for whatever reason, and you may have some VERY good reasons!), my simple advice to you is this: Get to work. Jesus said, "I will build My church," and He had all of us in mind as His workers!

That is wise counsel. Again, calling for Biblical restoration of the church is not tantamount to calling for Christians to leave the church. No Christian can be healthy outside of the local assembling of the Body. I have no more use for lone wolf, "churchless"Christians than I do for those who seek to add layer upon layer of tradition, dogma and hierarchy on the local assembly. We are seeking the ancient paths, church as the apostles saw it. You can't have an apostolic ministry that rejects the methods and examples of the apostles! The reaction to the institutional, tradition bound church is appropriate but to respond by leaving is not. You don't have to choose between "Churchius Americana" and no church at all. There is a better way, a way practiced by the church in the first days and that is my goal. There is a lot to do and a lot to undo in the church and that will require hard work. That hard work is what we are called to do, not to sit staring dreamily heavenward or locking ourselves in our studies reading books. The work of the church is hard and frustrating and dirty more often than not but there ought be no more joyful labor for the redeemed.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

How did Paul train Timothy?

Was it in a classroom with a lesson plan or was it by living what he was teaching? Read this from Ligonier, written in the Pro Ecclesia: For the Church column by Michael Haykin

…Of course, Paul expected the training of future leaders to involve the handing on of doctrine. But, as is clear from a later statement by Paul in this letter, such transmission of the faith also involved the development of lifelong convictions and goals and the nurture of character -- making the leader a person of love, patience, and steadfastness (3:10). Timothy knew exactly what Paul was talking about, for this was the very way the apostle had mentored Timothy.

Timothy had joined Paul's apostolic band early on in what is termed Paul's second missionary journey, that is, around 48 or 49 AD (Acts 16:1-3). As he traveled with Paul he saw firsthand what Paul later called his doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions (2 Tim. 3:10-11). Timothy grew to know and embrace Paul's theology and doctrinal convictions. He learned that at the heart of all genuinely Christian theology is God: the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. He came to be grounded in the fact that the gospel is centered on the death and resurrection of Christ, the only way that men and women can come into a true and eternally beneficent relationship with this God, the creator of all that exists.

But Timothy also came to follow the way Paul lived, how he made decisions and determined the best use of his time. He learned Paul's purpose for living, namely, the glorification of God and of His Son, Christ Jesus. Timothy absorbed Paul's love for the church and compassion for those who were held in the darkness of sin. And he saw the way that Paul responded with patience and perseverance to difficulties and the fact that the apostle did not waver in his commitment to Christ despite persecution and affliction. In short, as Paul and Timothy spent this large amount of time together, Timothy's soul began to mirror that of Paul, and his mind became increasingly attuned to the wavelengths of the apostle's thinking (Phil. 2:19-22). This is mentoring.

What a wonderful idea this is, older men mentoring younger men. As Haykin later points out, the hard part is that this takes time:

The great challenge, of course, in this way of incarnational mentoring is that it takes time.

You can’t mentor someone quickly because it simply requires time, lots of it. Haykin is speaking about this in the context of a seminary setting, where men are trained to be vocational ministers and are supposed to learn how to do this in a few years. I am not sure that the seminary is the best place to mentor and train men because unless you are a cruddy student, seminary only last a few years.

I would ask the question, who are the mentors for young men out of seminary? You spend a couple of years in the seminary in intense training in a hyper-religious atmosphere where everyone around you (more or less) is far more fervent than the average church goer. Then you graduate and are called to a church where the vast majority of people are nominal Christians at best with a handful of fervent people. Here is your church brother, now go lead these people who are going to utterly depend on you. You are the senior pastor, so everyone looks to you for leadership! In a setting where a man is on staff with more senior pastoral staff, it works better but a lot of young (i.e. under 40) pastors are the sole pastor in their church and go it alone. I know how lonely that can be, how isolated you become. You can’t have a bad day or people look at you funny. You can’t get frustrated or the people lose heart. You don’t wear a tie and you are a lib’ral or emergent. You can’t make changes or make mistakes or people leave one assembly for another. Your kids have to be perfect and your wife has to be a living paragon of Christian virtue and womanhood every second. There are very few places to turn so you just figure it out yourself or you give up. That is not how it was when Timothy learned from Paul and that is not how it should be today.

I think this is so important and so missing in the church. We have an enormous amount of experience and wisdom right in the local gathering of the church and yet we so rarely tap it. In fact we typically leave to find wisdom. We don’t seek wisdom in stooped backs and gray hair, we seek it from men with letters behind their names or at conferences with the best speakers. Young women have so much they can learn from older sisters. It is not like you get a Biblical view of how to be a wife and mother from the media and education establishment and you can see that clearly in the confusion about gender in the church. Young women take their cues from the world and then try to make it “Christian”. That doesn’t work. Young men need to learn from older brothers. Desperately. The solution to apathetic young men in the church is not more “relevant” services, it is an older brother to firmly and lovingly kick them in the butt and telling them to man up. When we spot a fervent young man in the church, do we encourage an older saint to mentor him so he can minister where he is or do we encourage the young man to leave and go to seminary? Praise God for your desire to serve, now go away and find a congregation somewhere else! How does that make sense?! The wisest Christian I know is not a seminary professor or a pastor, he is an old man with a lifetime of wisdom and a heart brimming with Scripture, a man as Reformed as I am but far more humble about it, a man who spent much of his life in prison ministering to the unwanted of society. Those are the sorts of people we segregate out in many churches because we think that they have nothing to say to the young people, we ship them off to nursing homes where they won’t be a bother, we pit them against the young economically and politically. The greatest treasure in America is not in Fort Knox, it is rotting away in nursing homes, waiting to die. We should tear apart every young couples class and mix them in with the “Silver Saints” or whatever inane title we give the classes for our older brothers and sisters. I am far more interested in hearing what a 70 year old celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary has to say about marriage than I am listening to a fellow 30 something guy moaning about how hard marriage is after three years.

Christian education is not something that takes place primarily in schools. Not in public schools but also not in conservative seminaries and Bible colleges. A textbook doesn’t teach you how to grieve with a brother or sister. A lesson plan can’t capture even a fraction of what you will experience in life. Why should we reinvent the wheel every generation when we have so much wisdom there for the learning?

I believe that it is better to learn your theology by studying with and observing others than to learn it in a formal setting and then try to apply it later on to the real world. You want to know about depravity? Visit someone is a prison. You want to hear about irresistible grace? Talk to my friend James Lee. Books are wonderful and we need to read them more, but there is more to the Christian life than academics and there is no better place to learn than at the feet of an older brother or sister who has been where you are. John Piper is not and does want to be your mentor. The old guy sitting in the pew next to you be can be and should be.

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