Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Repost: The greatest source of idolatry in evangelicalism

Back in August of 2009, I put up a post on making an idol of the local church, The greatest source of idolatry in evangelicalism. My point was a fairly controversial one, namely that something that is revered and beloved in the church, namely the institution of the local church, is the greatest source of idolatry among God's people.

This is an odd statement for many people to even contemplate. Our lives as Christians revolve around the local church, or at least it revolves around "my church" with little thought to "your church" other than how I can entice you away. We support our local churches with our time and our "tithing". How can something so beloved be a source of idolatry?

This was originally posted when I was just starting to think through some of these issues but in spite of some over the top language and hyperbole, the points I raise still bear contemplation. If we raise the "local church" to a position above the Kingdom, above the Bride, above the mission of the church, we have created an idol. Read and let me know what you think...

If you listen to a sample of evangelical sermons, you are almost certain to come across at least one dealing with idolatry. Often these sermons will point to any number of idolatry culprits in the world: money, possessions, entertainment, pleasure. Ah how easy it is to stand behind a pulpit and give a mea culpa for our idolizing the television!

What is the essence of idolatry? Can something secular be truly idolatry? Or is idolatry something that of necessity has a spiritual context? When we look at idolatry, is it not a misrepresentation of the proper worship of God? We don’t see God’s wrath descending on the Israelites because they spent too much time playing Fantasy Chariot Racing. We see them altering the worship of God to suit themselves. Whether the sons of Aaron offering strange fire or the Israelites crafting a golden calf, idolatry has as its source a wrong view of the worship of God.

So again at the risk of having my “Reformed” secret decoder ring taken away, my assertion is that the source of the greatest idolatry among Christians is…

The local church

Please note an important caveat here. There is a difference between the local gathering of the church and the “local church” as we traditionally have known and practiced it. We have often blurred the line and exalted the local church above what is healthy or what is Biblical. Christ did not come to redeem the local church. He came to redeem His elect and as a result of our common salvation we gather together. The local gathering of the church plays a vital role in the life of the Christian and I don’t see that as a source of idolatry, but I am seeing signs of it in the expression of that gathering.

There seems to be a recent uptick in the number of people who are making assertions linking the local church with the Bride of Christ. Often these are accompanied by statements that amount to: “How can you say you love Jesus but don’t like His wife?” or “How can you love Jesus but say His bride is ugly?”. Let me be blunt:

The local church is not the Bride of Christ!

The local church may contain members of the Bride of Christ, of His Body, but Christ did not die to redeem the local church. Many, many people mistake the “local church” for the Bride of Christ, as if they are synonymous. They probably would reject that claim if you asked it in a straightforward way, but in practice that is how it looks especially among many of my reformed brothers.

Some of our most revered confessions blur this line in the same way. Take for example the following creedal statement:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

That sounds an awful lot like something you might coming from Rome and it actually is very similar. But that is not something from Rome, it is from chapter 25, section II of the Westminster Confession. You can’t overstate that last sentence, “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”. Does that strike you as a Biblical idea or a Roman one?

The great danger of idolatry in and of the local church is that it doesn’t seem in our eyes to be idolatry. Someone who spends too much time playing X-Box, like me, can pretty easily see the problem. The local church is above reproach in the eyes of many or most Christians. Critique of the local church, especially the Western model of organized religion with professional clergy distinct from the laity and heavily structured meetings, is tantamount to hating the Church.

Here are a couple of places where we have made more of the local church than is warranted or demonstrated in Scripture…

We have made an idol of the pastoral “office”. Think this is not true? Imagine a local church where the pastor has just resigned and suggesting that rather than form a pastor “search committee”, you recognize and raise up men within the existing congregation to serve as elders without pay instead of hiring a professional from outside of the congregation. How do you suppose that would be received? Like the Israelites, we desire men not to lead us but to rule over us. We revere them for their education and set them apart because of their seminary degree. We put their names on our signs and our vans. That is not entirely the fault of pastors, although I have met a few who were borderline megalomaniacs who seem to be in vocational ministry to exalt themselves. I think the blame lies in the pews, on men who are content to let one man do the hard work of ministry for minimal pay so that they are not called on to sacrifice of themselves.

We have made an idol of our buildings. Think this is not true? Suggest to someone in the midst of a building campaign that perhaps building a new facility is poor stewardship. The church in America owns billions in real estate, owes enormous sums in the form of loans and interest on those loans and shows an insatiable appetite to build bigger and better buildings. This is not a symptom of the seeker-sensitive model megachurches but is true of churches that most would consider highly orthodox. Is it wrong to have a building? Not at all. There are a lot of really ugly but functional buildings that serve as a great place for God’s people to gather. Is it wrong to build magnificent palaces and modern day temples? Absolutely.

We have made an idol of our church traditions. Think this is not true? Try suggesting that the local church replace its VBS and Sunday school with age-integrated worship.

We have made an idol of our rituals. Think this is not true? Try modifying the ritual observance of a local church like the Lord’s Supper. Instead of passing around oyster crackers and grape juice in little cups, say we are going to share a common loaf and a common cup and do so in the course of a full meal among believers. Or for a less traumatic change, suggest changing the order of service. Even something as simple as eliminating bulletins can cause apoplexy among some.

We have made idols of our distinctives. Commitment to social justice, commitment to expository preaching, devotion to this creed or that confession, association with this denomination and not that. There are whole ministries that seem to be devoted to proclaiming their doctrinal distinctives. We are this and not that, and often neither the "this" nor the "that" has much basis in Scripture.

These are some of the idols of our worship of the local church. Why do we have such a violent reaction to chnages like the ones I have listed above? It is not because they are supportable from Scripture. It is because they are what we know and are familair with and that is a pretty poor reason to do almost anything, especially something as important as the local gathering of God's people, His church.

What a wonderful blessing it is for the church to gather together for fellowship, love, edification, prayer! What a shame that we have taken that wonderful gift and crafted an idol of our own imagination to take its place.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The curtain drawn back on mormonism

An unusually candid interview with a mormon leader shows just how tenuous a grip their leaders really have: The Fo-Mo Chronicles: The truth will set you free. People are fleeing in droves. Are we ready with an answer for the truth that is within us? Leaving mormonism for atheism doesn't change that person's eternal destination. We must be willing to comfort and confront in love those who have been freed from this cult and all other cults. The Gospel demands nothing less.

Cringe Inducing


So I stumbled over to the Wall Street Journal Opinion Pages, a daily destination for me on the web, and right at the top was an editorial with this title:

What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism

Before I even started to read I knew that was going to be trouble. I was not disappointed (or maybe I was, I am not sure). As I finished it up and swallowed the bile back down, I noticed that the author, Aryeh Spero, not only had an unusual name, he (she?) is a Jewish rabbi. Nothing wrong with that per se but when you title an essay "What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism", you are going to get a lot of osetnsibly Christian folks to read it. What was missing of course was any sort of interaction with the New Testament which makes sense since the author is Jewish. That didn't stop those commenting on the essay from making the leap from Old Testament teaching against sloth and envy and applying it to Christian teaching. One guy said:

Great article Rabbi. I would add that when Christ chose his 12 disciples, they were not idle, they were at work. so even in the Christian part of our beliefs, we see examples of work being a characteristic that signals to strong, dependable individuals.
Which seems to miss the point that not only were the twelve neither strong nor particularly dependable, they also quit their jobs to follow an unemployed teacher around the countryside, a teacher who specifically sent His disciples out without moneybags and depending on the generosity of strangers for their meals (Luke 10:4-8). That comment was pretty typical of what you find in the over three hundred comments (and counting).

I am quite certain that many Christians will gobble this up as theological cover for living however the heck they want as long as they go to church and put a check in the plate. The contention that swirls around money in the church is reason enough for us to be very cautious about how we approach the subject and very careful that we don't mask our own cultural values with Biblical cover.

There is nothing inherently pro-capitalism in the Bible. Nor is there anything pro-socialism. There certainly is not much that would permit one political party or persuasion to claim the Bible as their own. Let the politicians argue about tax policy. We have a Savior to show the world.

Compulsory Community

Had just an incredible blessing Saturday morning! My wife and I had breakfast with two other couples and spent over two hours just talking about big stuff, about family, about church, about Christ! I can't imagine much that is better than that, doing what Christians have been doing since the first days of the church: breaking bread together, praying together, encouraging one another. If that is not what church is all about, I am completely misreading the New Testament.

We got to talking about the church and about China because of a unique connection one of these brothers has with that nation. As the church grows, explodes perhaps is a better way to put it, in China, it does so under constant threat of persecution. I am not sure if that is as true now compared to how it used to be but still it is a totally different cultural context. Anyway, the point we got to was that when the church is under pressure and persecution you are not able to drive thirty minutes to the church of your choice. You might need to sneak over to the house of your neighbor who is a Christian, perhaps under cover of darkness and not after checking to see what denomination they are. Oddly (at least in our minds) history shows us that it is precisely under these circumstances that the church thrives and expands while in our "Christian nation" the church has been unhealthy for a long time (perhaps always) and is rapidly fading into irrelevance, a circumstance that most of the church is completely unprepared to deal with. Under pressure the church truly depends on one another and it is not a "can I borrow your chainsaw" dependence but rather "can you watch over my family so that they have food in case I am jailed" dependence. Fellowship is a matter of survival, not a matter of personal preference. Persecution compels Christians to set aside differences for the sake of survival.

In the west? Our association is completely voluntary. I am not compelled by any outside force to associate on other Christians and I am likewise not dependent in any meaningful sense on others. I can take my ball and go home if I don't like something and there are plenty of other gatherings that will accept me with open arms. I don't have any sort of commitment to the church because I really don't need the church in any appreciable sense. What we are left with are these very loose knit, competing organizations that try to guilt or blackmail people into "membership" so that they don't scamper off to the next organization. Many Christians are on a quest to find a church full of people just like themselves and they are not only able to do this but encouraged because there are not any external pressures that make "personal preference" irrelevant to community. We fight and feud over secondary issues but what would we do if survival itself was our primary concern? I am guessing that we would be less concerned about our neighbor's position on the end times and more on how we can support one another.

Our strongly held secondary positions: baptism, eschatology, soteriology, etc. are important and worth working through in the church but they pale in comparison to true unity with the community of Christ's followers. We don't advance the Great Commission by winning debates about baptism or smiting an Arminian with a clever argument about Calvinism. The greatest issue in the church is not whether T.D. Jakes was invited to a conference that few people paid attention to other than for the controversy and when we focus on that sort of stuff while the church is splintered and competing with itself speaks volumes about how disunified and divided we truly are. Is modalism a heresy? Yeah I think it is but so is division in the Body of Christ.

We are not really in community with one another when our "community" is based on a voluntary association that caters to our preferences that we call "church". I am quite certain that the culture my children will find themselves in will be very different than what I know and have experienced. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the future of the church, the actual church and not organized religion, in America is going to be far more difficult but far healthier in the years to come. The "visible church" in the West is way overdue for a winnowing and that day is coming soon. When it does, it will be the community of Christ that will be revealed amidst the persecution and an unmistakable witness will finally be visible. God grant us the strength to face those days without the crutch and hiding place of organized, culturally acceptable religion and instead finds us relying solely on Christ and the community He has created.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to raise a billion dollars for international missions

Eric Carpenter has figured out a sure fire way to raise $1,000,000,000 for international missions just from the Southern Baptist Convention alone: A Pilgrim's Progress: Over $1 Billion for Missions from the SBC.

Seems like a great idea. I wonder if it will gain any traction in the SBC? After all, the SBC was formed as a cooperative venture for the cause of missions, so I am sure that missions trumps any other program....

Saturday, January 28, 2012

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Check out the latest giveaway from Home Educating Family magazine, giving away several free subscriptions! Weekly Giveaway–January 25, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

The gathered church is the result of community

We typically assume that community is manifested when we gather as a local church, whatever form that takes. Our local church becomes our "community" because we have chosen to associate with that particular church. That church might be a traditional church or a "house church" or an urban church or any of the hundreds of different styles and flavors you can find around the country. In other words, we define community largely by whatever manifestation the local church takes on in our lives. My local church is my community.

I would propose that the gathered church is an outgrowth of community in Christ and not the other way around, or at least it should be. So many of us have friends, family and neighbors who are Christians that we spend time with and know very well but we are not associated with the same local church, so we don't view them as part of our church community. I found something that Alan Knox wrote this morning to really tie into this post. Alan wrote about organic church life as being relational, not structural. In speaking of organic church life, rather than "organic church" or "house church", in his post Why Is It So Hard To Find Organic Church Life? Alan said:
A group may have a specific weekly meeting (or more than one) and share this kind of life in Christ. Or, they ma not have a regular weekly meeting. Then again, a group may have a weekly meeting (or even meet together more often) and yet not share their lives with one another in Jesus Christ.

When these groups do get together, it is relational not structural. Thus, as the relationships change or the people involved change, then the group will change as well. It is fluid and dynamic.
It seems that we really do focus on the structure, even unintentionally. I sometimes find myself daydreaming about how an organic, simple church would look but it almost always focuses on the gathering. As I think through this I guess I somehow assume that the gathering will lead to community. If we have just the right kind of gathering, community will spring forth as a result. This sort of structural or model approach might explain in part why so many of us want something more than we find in organized religion but are still searching seemingly in vain for it.

I do not think it is the intent of authors like Frank Viola or Neil Cole to suggest that what we need is to just form "organic" churches or house churches and that will fix our problems but I do think that some people read their works and come away with that impression. At times I know I have! If we look to structural solutions, I think we are going to miss out on the richness of community because there is so much more community out there than we are ever going to experience in church meetings.

For example, this is kind of what our week (tentatively!) looks like...

On Tuesday I spent the evening ministering at the pregnancy resource center. I got to talk to several men in a dad's class on the topic of power and control as fathers, a very interesting conversation with three other men in very different places in their life. I also got to talk for a while with one of the men one on one, a very hard conversation with a man who needs a lot of prayer and mostly needs Jesus but he is also very disenchanted with the church. We got to talk about the Gospel a bit and about the church. I hope it was encouraging to him and that he will keep coming back. During the evening I also got to fellowship with Christians from a wide range of churches who also minister there.

Wednesday I took the kids to an evening activity at a local church and participated in an adult Bible study.

Last night my wife and I had dinner with a couple from a completely different local church. We had a great and very interesting time of fellowship over the table! We also got to talk to a random guy who came up to us and was talking about Catholicism, Mormonism, Mitt Romney, Nostradamus and the end of the world. That is what happens when you go out in public! Best of all we got to clearly declare the Gospel to this man and contrast it with whatever he was talking about. 

Saturday morning we are having breakfast with yet another Christan couple from yet another local church.

Sunday afternoon we are taking the whole family and having a meal with another family in their home.

Yet there is a disconnect. We don't see most of that other list other than the Wednesday evening Bible study as "church", much less "community". Why do we exclude so much of the way we gather together with other Christians from legitimacy? The more I think about it, the more it seems that I am finding "organic church life" or "community" in lots of different places but most of them are outside of what we see as "church". I think that is true for a lot of people who have friends, family and neighbors who are Christians; they spend a lot of time with those Christians but a separate "church" group that they see as community based on where and how they gather.

The order is all backwards. Community must precede "church", in the sense of "church" describing the scheduled, formal gathering of Christians, and "church" proceeds from community. In the times I have described above, I found myself encouraged and stirred up to good works in every event with the exception of the actual meeting at "church". If I am encouraged and edified and stirred up outside of "church" and not so much when I am in "church", which is really "church"?

I see myself moving away from looking for a particular church model or structure and just seeking community with other Christians where my family and I will be encouraged and equipped. Rather than predetermining how that is going to look on Sunday, I am trying to focus on building relationships wherever and however I can and letting it kind of come to whatever form works out, fully recognizing that the form will be pretty malleable and not at all static. Not sure how that is all going to work out but I am confident in God's hand guiding it.

My least favorite conference name ever

Preaching Christ: The Pastor As Herald of The Gospel

A couple of pastors telling other pastors why pastors are uniquely heralds of the Gospel?

I am afraid I can't make that date.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Didn't go quite as planned. Had some interesting ideas but nothing came together plus work was kind of hectic. Should have some stuff tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christians and government

In 1527, the early days of the "Radical Reformation", the Anabaptists wrote the Schleitheim Confession. This brief confession is somewhat unique in this period because it is one of the few formal statements by the Anabaptists. Whereas the magisterial Reformers had plenty of time and opportunity to write lengthy creeds and confessions, safe and secure for the most part, the Anabaptists were typically on the run, being persecuted, imprisoned and martyred often by the same people writing the magisterial creeds (not the actual authors of course). Of course many of their leaders ended up on a stake being burned alive or tortured in a dungeon or in hiding, so writing confessions was not really a priority.

One of the most fascinating sections of the Schleitheim Confession has to do with the sword and the magistrate. The sword conversation is a pretty well-worn topic but the issue of Christians as magistrates, agents of the state, is a whole other story. Here is the applicable section, it is fairly long and archaic in language but worth the read....
Thirdly, it will be asked concerning the sword, Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? The answer is as follows: They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness. For He Himself says, He who wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Also, He Himself forbids the (employment of) the force of the sword saying, The worldly princes lord it over them, etc., but not so shall it be with you. Further, Paul says, Whom God did foreknow He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, etc. Also Peter says, Christ has suffered (not ruled) and left us an example, that ye should follow His steps.

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian's are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian's citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian's weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.
That is pretty archaic like I said but the gist as I understand it is that serving as a magistrate (basically an officer of the government, whether President, police office or dog catcher) is inherently a conflict of interest between serving the interests of the world and living as a citizen of the Kingdom. By serving the state, you are in conflict with serving the Kingdom. I am not sure how far you take that, for example by working at a "secular" job am I entangled with the world? It certainly seems that human government gets different treatment in Scripture compared to having a "regular" job. Perhaps this is because of the inherent function of government that uses compulsion or even force to exert its will. If you don't pay your taxes, the IRS can put a lien on your house. If you don't properly license you dog, the dog catcher can take your dog to the pound and compel you to pay a fine. If you are in the middle of committing a crime and are interrupted by a police officer, there is a chance that you will be forcibly detained or perhaps even shot. A President as part of his duties must be ready to use military force to defend his country (Which is why no one who is a pacifist should seek that office. Ever.)

When I look at how entangled Christians are with politics, even the vast majority of us who do not serve in any sort of government office, I have to think that the authors of the Schleitheim Confession might have known what they were talking about. Everything about government seems antithetical to the Kingdom of God. More cynically, the way that so many public officials make vulgar appeals to people of faith for political support is hugely troubling.

The allure of doing what we see as God's work by the methods of the world is seductive. We look to government and think that we can pass laws making sinful, unregenerate men into saints or at least constraining their behavior. Who among the followers of Christ doesn't want to see abortion end and marriage affirmed? Still. If we ban gay marriage, will we have a more "moral" society? If we outlaw abortion will that make the unbelievers around us less ungodly? If we smite the Iranians, are we doing God's will? Is there anything at all we can accomplish via the governmental and political process that advances the Kingdom? If not, should we be joining with the magistrate that is an "...avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:4)? I have a friend who is a police officer and we have had some discussions regarding what this means to him, namely that in his role as a police officer (and formerly as a soldier) he might be called upon to use force, even deadly force, in the execution of his duties. It is pretty deep stuff, very hard to work through.

It is interesting to look at the Scriptures and see the reaction of Jesus to the tyrannical rulers of that day. Jesus didn't seek to overthrow Caesar or demand societal rights for His followers. He didn't rail against unjust taxes or military occupiers in Jerusalem. He actually taught His disciples to expect hatred and persecution from the world. The first century Christians didn't form legal defense funds, they expected to preach Christ and Him crucified and perhaps pay for it with their lives. American Christians not only want the freedom to worship, we want a seat at the table in the halls of earthly power.

Lower taxes or higher taxes. Green energy jobs or manufacturing tax credits. On and on. For all of our altruistic notions, I am starting to really think that we should avoid being an agent of the state because in so many ways being an agent of the state, a magistrate in 16th century lingo, invariably requires us to engage in behavior that is contrary to what Jesus and His apostles taught and exhibited in their actions.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Does our way of life impair community?

Dan Edelen has another excellent post with another provocative title: Is the Organic House Church a Myth? You should read the whole post but Dan observes that in spite of all the talk about organic church life, actually finding this life is pretty difficult for many of us.

I made the following comment on his post:

I have had a somewhat similar experience but I also know of “organic” gatherings that are thriving. As for me, trying to find people who are actually serious about a more organic form of the church has been a struggle. A lot of people are fed up but it seems that inertia just keeps us going.

I think the problem comes in when we try to replace one church model with another church model, without addressing the more important question of community. If we have a community of believers living their lives with one another, the church will happen fairly naturally. if we try to substitute a model of church, even one with lots of Biblical support, for community it is bound to fail.

I know that “community” is an overused word to the point that it has lost most of its meaning. It still is the right word to use to describe what we see in the New Testament and what we should see in the church today. Defining it is one thing, seeing it lived out? Quite another.
Dan replied with an especially good comment:

I have long written on this blog that the New testament demands a way of living that flies in the face of what we consider normal, societal living. Our entire lifestyle in America wars with Christianity. As a result, almost every model of church one tries is either going to be broken by that lifestyle or is going to make for some serious angst should one fight societal norms tooth and nail.

Where it becomes hard is that change only comes if we commit to it and simultaneously address the problems of both church models and societal models. That so few smart Christians are taking on greater societal structures and talking about it publicly makes it hard for the little guy to make gains.

That is borderline blasphemy! “Our entire lifestyle in America wars with Christianity”? Doesn’t he know that America was founded as a Christian nation and all we need to do is get back to our Judeo-Christian roots and all will be well?!

I think Dan is on to something here. If we refuse to really consider the issues caused by our cultural and societal structures, are we ever going to be able to move past religiosity and into community? If my life as a disciple is competing, often very unsuccessfully, with my cultural preferences where is the self-denial, the sacrificial life? Denying yourself flies in the face of American culture while living the American dream while attending church on occasion gives the appearance of the best of both worlds. I get my public piety and get out of hell but I can still have all of the trappings of America affluence.

Can I go a step further and make this suggestion? The greatest cultural dangers to Christianity are not found in abortion or gay marriage or banning school prayer or removing Ten Commandments monuments or saying "Happy Holidays". The greatest cultural dangers to Christianity in America are the very things that generally are though to make America great: Patriotism. Self-sufficiency. Affluence. Success. The very things we love and give thanks to God for in our prayer meetings might just be the greatest impediments to Christian community and the most damaging to our Gospel witness.

If we try to modify the church model without also breaking down our societal norms and expectations as the church, we are invariably going to end up with an irreconcilable tension because the allure of the American dream. The American way of life, apple pie and flag waving America, truly is in direct conflict with the life of a disciple. As Dan says, if we address the church culture without taking a hard look at our cultural comfort, it is a recipe for conflict and division.

What say you? Is it possible to live and pursue some variation of the American dream while taking up your cross daily? Can we have community in America without turning our back on so much of what being American promises us?

Gospel dispensers

As a follow-up to my post yesterday Where Are We The Church? I want to keep thinking about the relationship between the community of the saints and the mission of the church. What role does the church play in the mission of God? Can the two even be properly distinguished? What is our focus? Is it on the gathering or the going?

Let me say this at the outset. If the gathering of the church you are part of is not equipping you to take the Gospel to the lost, it is failing in its calling. Utterly and completely. It doesn't matter if you have super preaching and follow the "regulative principle of worship", if Christians can come Sunday after Sunday and walk away with nothing more than some notes about the sermon on their bulletin, you aren't a Biblical gathering of the church. It also doesn't matter if you have a participatory meeting where everyone gets a say if no one gets equipped. We cannot lose sight of the primary purpose of God's collected people, namely to be the vehicle God uses to carry out His purpose in the world.

I like what Dave Black had to say regarding the church and her mission in a new entry, The Church Is A Granary

We err when we think of the church as a storehouse for converts instead of as a distribution plant. Every believer must be equipped to become a witness for Christ. And every church must become a center of Gospel distribution. Jesus sent out the 12 and the 72. I have the deep conviction that every deficiency in the church can be traced back to a failure to follow the New Testament teaching and pattern about missions. We may be completely orthodox in our theology and yet fall completely short of the New Testament teaching in our practice. Our faith must be a living thing, not just faith in itself. The earliest Christians were wholly dedicated, sold out to Jesus Christ and His cause. And because they were committed men and women, they expected their converts to be equally committed to the Great Commission, to propagate the Gospel, and to serve as Jesus served. Their leaders trained the entire church to be fulltime ministers rather than selecting a few who would devote themselves to "fulltime Christian ministry."
The church is indeed a distribution plant. We are supposed to be making disciples to send them out to make disciples, not making disciples to show up on Sunday. As we make and equip disciples, the community of the saints is what should be formed for the purpose of equipping, encouraging and sending.

Community and mission are not enemies. To the contrary, if the church is functioning correctly and hoping to impact the world for the Kingdom they must go hand in hand. I tend to focus and think a lot about the gathering, not just the Sunday meeting but the people of God living lives together. That is so crucial to the health of the church but if that gathering doesn't lead to the going, it is worthless no matter how Biblical we think it is. We oftebn get caught up in the "doing church right". If we can just make the church gathering more organic or more reformed or more "spirit driven" or more participatory, we will be OK. We need to have our end on the end result we desire first instead of the process. If you try to build a house by slapping up walls without a blueprint, you are going to get a haphazard house that will fall down sooner or later.

Conversely if we neglect the community of the saints, mission simply will never happen. Just assuming that any old church gathering is fine as long as we are personally "missional" grossly misunderstands the purpose of the church and the vital role it fills in mission. The church is the equipping and encouraging system that God has ordained. How and why and what we do when we gather has a major impact on how we carry out (or don't) the mission God has called every single Christian to. Some, I would say many, models of church gathering not only do little to equip believers, they tend to discourage mission from individual believers in favor of sub-contracting mission work to the "properly" appointed professionals, leaving most Christians on the sidelines as observers and check writers.

I would also clarify again that what really matters is the community of the church more than any regularly scheduled "official" gathering. The community of believers who make up the church is the thing, not gathering as the church and hoping community happens.

I am not sure this post makes any sense at all. It seems a jumble of stuff that doesn't flow very well. That might be because I am having a hard time even processing all of this yet again as I come around to this topic over and over. I still have more to write about this but I am afraid of adding to this post and making it worse. Certainly not my best effort in the blogging world!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Generating conversation

For a somewhat innocent YouTube video, Jefferson Bethke's video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus has caused quite a firestorm and now quite a bit of attention for Jefferson. He was on CBS news this morning and got to talk just for a few minutes about what he was trying to say with this video.

What was weird was having the the other guy, I assume he is a Catholic priest, on stage during a six minute segment. I found it interesting to hear the "priest" say that when Jefferson was baptized that he became part of the institution, a part of organized religion. First of all, that guy is flat out creepy looking and the turtleneck just makes it worse. Second I am not sure why they invited Jefferson to be on the show if they were really planning on letting the other guy keep telling Jefferson what he meant especially someone who represent the epitome of organized religion.

I think it is generally healthy to have this conversation out in the public square instead of in intramural discussions among people who are already believers. I don't know that the conversation really captures the linkage between the institutional church and the sort of religion that is antithetical to the New Covenant community of believers but I do like that it engages many people who see, to various degrees, religion as hypocritical and empty. We can spend lots of time arguing about points of doctrine among believers with a great deal of eloquence and yet find ourselves tongue tied when facing someone who doesn't talk like we do and look like we do. The Great Commission is not really a command to try to convince people who are already believers why our doctrinal stances are correct but to reach the lost, those who need Jesus first and foremost long before they need to decide which kind of church they are going to join.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Where are we "the church"?

I saw a very interesting tweet from someone I follow on twitter but don't know anything about, Karl Ingersoll. This is what he tweeted:

I think that is a great thought for us. Don't we seem to think that we are really only "the church" when we gather on Sunday? We might not say it that way but we treat it that way. Sunday is church day, "the Lord's Day" and the church is manifested visibly by our "worship services". We "go to church" as if by being in a particular place at a particular time we are being the church as opposed to any other time when we are just being Christians walking anonymously in the world. We think we are obeying Christ and following His commandments when we "go to church" and "tithe" but that is not what He commanded us. His commands to His redeemed sheep boil down to "go" and "do". Go to the lost, go to the world, go to the poor and the hungry. Do for them what the love of Christ has done for you, i.e. show mercy and love to those who are never going to repay you. "Sit", "watch", "listen" are not commands of Christ and when we assume that sitting. watching and listening is the sum of the Christian life we will find it hard to preach, wash feet and visit the widow and orphan.

I think Karl is right on the money here. We cannot merely function as the church, assuming that we even do, only or even primarily when we gather on Sunday. The church is a seven day a week life that transcends rituals and borders and organizations. When I read people saying things like: be in the Lord's house with the Lord's people on the Lord's day this weekend, it makes me crazy because it gives the illusion that one day a week one particular subset of God's people meeting in a particular location is the center of your Christian universe. Instead of just drawing people in, the church should be sending people out and I have come to see that when we are out in the world representing the King, that is when we truly are being "the church".

More on this later. Now I have to "get ready for church" myself!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

You tend to meet people where the people are

Today is the third birthday of January for my kids so we took our daughter to breakfast this morning and then to the hay auction at the local feed store. Nothing says happy birthday to a little girl like standing outside in the cold for an hour watching people bid on hay! We aren't desperate for hay but we thought it might be nice to get some grass hay rather than feeding the critters a straight alfalfa hay which is kind of rich and a bit of overkill. The cow doesn't much care what she eats although the sheep and horses are a little pickier. So we stopped by to see the action. We bid on a few lots but ended up not buying anything, the prices were not to our liking, but in a hour or so we got to talk with a bunch of people.

In the time we were there. we got to talk to a couple of brothers we already know. One guy is the auctioneer and is borrowing our Jacob sheep ram and we are "test driving" an Appaloosa gelding that we might buy. He is formerly Amish and has lots of connections in the community. The other guy is someone we met at a Mennonite church and have bought hay from a few times. We also got to talk to a couple of other men. One just moved here and is also a former Amish guy who has come to Christ and meets with the large fellowship that is mostly people with a similar background in the area. He has nine kids and the oldest is 16! As a side note, it is nice to live in this area for a lot of reasons, not least because there are so many families that look sort of like ours. We are not the only huge family with a fifteen passenger van. My wife is not the only woman around who covers her head. When we went to breakfast this morning several women at the restaurant were covered, as we were leaving a van of younger Mennonite ladies were arriving and as we drove by again heading home there was yet another van load arriving. Far from being an oddity, we kind of fit right in! The other man we spoke with at the hay auction was a younger fellow who still dressed in the Amish fashion but was very outgoing and was talking to everyone he could. I overheard a conversation he was having with an Amish guy in his mid twenties and for some reason they were talking about the Milky Way. The Amish guy was looking at the other guy like he had three heads, it looks like he had never even heard of what we would call basic astronomy terms. It just struck me funny. Anyway we had a nice conversation with him as we were bidding on hay.

Most Saturdays this wouldn't happen. My wife and I would go to breakfast and then come home to do our own thing. I am usually OK with that. My preference is to just be home. I am perfectly happy to hang around in my house or going out to work with the livestock or perhaps taking a nap. Although that is my preference, it is just kind of selfish. The weekends are prime time to get out and meet people, making connections with other Christians and meeting people who need to know Christ. It is kind of unlikely that people are just going to wander in to our house (although we do get a fair number of visitors!). We really need to get out more and not let apathy set in. Granted we know a lot of people in our area, far more and far more quickly than really anywhere else we have lived but I still want to get to know even more. The first step to community is knowing people and in our culture that is going to require some effort. We were talking the other night with the auctioneer we know in one of our outbuildings and he commented that it would be a great place to gather the church. He is right! It is fairly large and open (except for the stuff we have stored in it!) and has a very nice heater that warms it right up. My wife and I talked at breakfast this morning about having some potluck meals out there very soon and inviting people from lots of different church groups in the early afternoon (Bean, you interested?) and I am eager to give that a try.

I am thankful to God for today, thankful for the Christians we met and for the time to reconnect with others. With half the day to go I would encourage you to seek out a place where you can meet new people or get in touch with others you already know but haven't see in a while. It is hard when for many of us Saturday is the only day we don't go to work or gather with the church but that is what makes Saturdays such a great time to get out, especially with people you don't normally meet with on Sunday. We make community too formal and complicated at times but it still takes some effort. That effort is well worth it!

Friday, January 20, 2012

If only we were as zealous for missions as we are for defending organized religion

The Wall Street Journal has an article out this morning in the "Houses of Worship" column with the provocative title: Can You Come to Jesus Without Church? The author, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is the latest person to respond to the video by Jefferson Bethke that has defenders of institutionalism all up in arms and like so many others he equates "church" with "organized religion". It seems an odd question since everyone who came to Jesus in the New Testament did so without the "benefit" of organized religion but let me allow Mr. Fitzgerald to speak for himself in his conclusion.
Stating that religions build churches at the expense of the poor, as Mr. Bethke does, turns a blind eye to the single greatest charitable institution on the planet. Blaming religion for wars ignores the fact that the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century—indeed in all of history—killed for nonreligious reasons. And advocating for a kind of Christianity that is free of the "bondage" of religion opens the door to dangerous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals and absolutely antithetical to biblical Christianity.
That statement is chock full of error. Anyone who cannot see that there are people that are starving and in need of shelter all around us while church after church building new buildings, renovating their sanctuaries to make it more comfy for the couple of hours a week it is open, paying clergy to minister so that the average church-goer can feel absolved of the need to do anything beyong payin’ and prayin’, etc. is out of touch with reality. Again I issue this challenge. Look at the budget of most churches and ask where the money goes. Is it going to the cause of missions and aiding the needy, within and outside of the church? Or is it going primarily to sustaining the machinery of institutionalism, keeping the church doors open and the ministers employed?

Mr. Fitzgerald's opinion that just because religious organization do some charitable work and that not all wars are started by religion is setting a pretty low standard for what is supposed to be the church. I don’t think our standard of financial stewardship is really “marginally better than the world”. When Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, I don’t think He was thinking that “peacemakers” are those who only start half of the wars or are not quite as efficient in killing others. Being not as bad as Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot is not quite the message of the Sermon on the Mount.

As far as the breathless hyperbole that we would face “theological anarchy” without the protective confines of the institutional church. Decorum prevents me from posting the cattle influenced phrase that leaps to mind so I will restrict myself to “Baloney!” I would rather have theological anarchy where people ask questions and seek the truth over empty religion of passive sheep shuffling in and out of church each week. Better that many seek to find the truth and some find it than everyone passively being spoon fed dollops of religion in exchange for a check in the offering plate, spiritually withering away on the vine. I hate to point out the obvious but there has been far more error and heresy and division propagated by organized religion than all of the “young evangelicals” and others who reject organized religion combined by far.

The comment stream that accompanies this essay and the other rage that has swirled around this fairly innocuous video by a young brother who seems quiet sincere, humble and teachable has been instructive. It is disturbing that many people who are not stirred to action by the billions of people who don’t know Christ around the world and around the corner, who are apathetic about orphaned children and homeless families, or who see nothing wrong with sitting one pew away from a family in serious financial distress, get incensed and spring to battle to defend institutionalized religion. If only the defenders of organized religion were as zealous for the Gospel and for mercy as they are for religion.

Wonder Bread Christianity

Compare these two lists. Which list of words do you find more appealing?

- The America way of life                                    - The way of the cross
- Individual freedom                                            - Community
- Self determination                                             - Submission to others
- Financial freedom                                             - Serving God not mammon
- The right to private property                              - Calling nothing your own
- The best defense is a good offense                     - Strength through weakness
- Patriotism                                                          - Citizenry in a nation with
                                                                              no land, army or flag
- Pride, power, prestige                                        - Mockery, hatred, reviling

Now which one seems more in tune with the life of a disciple before being a disciple was cool? If you are like me, you find that first list more appealing, perhaps inserting your own national identity in place of America. That second list is just a glimpse of the more difficult to handle doctrines in the Bible. Those truths are truly the hard sayings of the Bible but they are also crucial to the life of a disciple.

Why don't we teach the simple truths, the hard truths in the church? Not the pretty theological terminology that we can argue about from behind our keyboards and feel triumphant when we score a point. I mean the doctrines that challenge us, break down our strongholds and expose our weakness. These doctrines should be front and center in the church but they get passing attention, if even that.

So why don’t we talk about the hard teachings of the Bible? I am not talking about Calvinism here. The doctrines of grace are easy to talk about compared to the all-encompassing death to self that the Bible depicts. I am not talking about most of the stuff we fuss and feud about that we keep safely tucked away in book, blogs and the halls of the academy (in other words, a lot of what I blog about). I am not talking about meeting in a house instead of meeting in a building. Those questions may be important, and they may not be. They all dance around the core of the Kingdom life: proclamation, self-denial, community, humility, submission, willing sacrifice. They all allow us to continue to live more or less as we choose with only minor inconvenience. I find myself so easily slipping into a smug self-assurance of how right I am walking based on a few practices here and a few doctrines there. I can win arguments all day long with a clever turn of phrase online while living pretty much indistinguishably from my neighbor. The life of a follower is so much more than that. We are told that anyone who takes hold of the plow and looks back is not worthy of Him (Luke 9:62) but most of us haven’t done much more than look at the plow or walk around it to admire it as if the church is a farm show rather than a working farm. We can’t take hold of the plow because we have never let go of the world.

I think there are two reasons these teachings get such meager attention in the church.

One we don’t believe it. Oh we believe in Jesus, we believe in this doctrine and that doctrine, we believe in religion and we really believe that while “those people” are going to an eternal hell, I certainly am not but when it comes to some of the crazy stuff that Jesus and Paul and Luke were talking about? Well, maybe they didn’t really mean it or perhaps it doesn’t apply to us now. For a people who wave the banner “Bible believing” and “sola scriptura” around, we don’t seem to take the commands that require action on our part terribly literally.

The second reason is because teaching what the Bible teaches would empty out a church right quick. I think that is absolutely true. I also say: good. There is no place of lukewarm, spectator sport, subcontracting, ritualistic religion in the Kingdom of God. NONE. There are too many people who need to hear the Gospel, too many orphaned children, too many people in prison, hungry and homeless in the world for us to have most of the church sitting on the sidelines. We should never water down the Gospel to make it easier to swallow because then we end up with churches full of false professors clamoring for teaching to tickle their ears. Let me qualify that statement. That is as true in many conservative churches as it is in “liberal” churches or emergent or seeker-sensitive or whatever buzzword we use these days to describe the wrong sorts of churches. It is also lived out all around us everyday. We would have to take a step up to be the lukewarm church of Laodicea, we more resemble the church of Sardis, reputed to be alive but in reality spiritually dead with but a few remaining that still have spiritual life within them.

For a people that have been sermonized, Sunday schooled, Bible studied nearly to death, we seem to have missed an enormous amount of the message of the Bible, especially when God in the flesh is speaking directly to us in the Gospels. The question becomes how to shake myself and encourage others to shed the lethargy that paralyzes us and get involved in community in the church, global and local mission on behalf of the King and dispensing grace and mercy to those around us. I am not sure what the answer is but I know something is missing. I am desperately seeking others who are motivated for the same thing to support, encourage and prod me when I slip back into the comforts of religion. I am not nearly mature enough to do this on my own and I don't really think that is what God intended in the first place. We need each other and we need each other more than on Sunday morning and Wednesday night.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some thoughts on unity

Great thoughts from Dan Edelen on unity or lack thereof in the church: Unity & Disunity in the Church. I love it when people ask questions and start wondering why we just shrug our shoulders and accept without a whimper the sinful disunity in the church. You might not agree with all of his points but you have to appreciate that he is willing to ask the questions.

Book Review: Why We Live In Community

I read a small, fascinating e-book by Eberhard Arnold titled Why We Live In Community last night. Arnold was a German who lived in the later 19th to early 20th century and was the founder of the Bruderhof commuities. His small book, one of his many writings, dealt with the question of why he and others lived in what we might call intentional communities and you can read it for free on an e-reader or .pdf file.

Arnold’s vision is far more radical than anything you see in most of the church. It seems odd and more than a little threatening. It almost seems….alien when compared to our prevailing church culture.

Arnold’s vision combines the familial nature of the church with an emptying of self that pivots around the community of goods. He bases this not only in Scripture (Acts 2 and 4 specifically) but also in human nature and experience. For example, Arnold retells the story of two monks who live without possessions. The story is not terribly interesting but his point is:

Most important – the real theological content of the story – is that what really starts fighting is possessions. And people get into fights by preferring things to people.

Think about that for a minute. Preferring things to people. How many unnecessary things do each of us have laying around the house that we couldn’t live without while other Christians go hungry or can’t pay their heating bills or can’t afford medical care. This is not crackpot leftist dogma. This is really happening all around us but suggestions that we as God’s people give up some of our creature comforts to benefit a brother, even very modest suggestions like those in David Platt’s book “Radical”, are met with a firestorm of outrage.

Eberhard Arnold realized that living in the sort of community that the Bruderhof communities do is not necessarily the calling of all Christians nor do I agree with all of his points (although the ones I do have issues with are more pragmatic than Scriptural) but it does raise for me some troubling questions. Most importantly, why don’t we live in community? Could it be that we love our autonomy, our freedom, our wealth and possessions more than each other? Is the idea of that sort of closeness and openness in this life scary to people who affirm in theory that sort of relationship in eternity? Perhaps most troubling, could it be that we fear living community in whatever shape it takes because we don’t really believe what we read in the Bible, just as we don’t seem to believe so much of what Jesus taught or how He lived or what He commanded? Is it just easier to live lives of religious observance and to find ways to nitpick and divide from one another so that we can justify our disunity? These are troubling questions but they are hammering me.

I have a lot more to say about this but it will have to wait to tomorrow when perhaps I will be less fired up.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This will make your head spin

From the Guardian, Gay priest 'considers suing Church of England for discrimination'
The Church of England's most senior openly gay cleric is understood to be considering suing his employers for discrimination unless he is made a bishop.

Dr Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans, was forced to stand down by the archbishop of Canterbury after being appointed suffragan bishop of Reading in 2003 following objections from conservative evangelicals.

Two years ago, John – a celibate priest who is in a longstanding civil partnership with another cleric – was prevented from becoming the bishop of Southwark after the archbishops of Canterbury and York stepped in.

Reports on Sunday suggested John had become so exasperated at his treatment that he had hired Alison Downie, an employment and discrimination law specialist and partner at the law firm Goodman Derrick, to fight his case under equality law. Four years ago, Downie successfully represented a gay youth worker who was found to have been discriminated against by the bishop of Hereford because of his sexuality.

What in the world? When you have enough "openly gay clerics" that one is recognized as being the "most senior", you should see that as a problem. What would one make of a Roman Catholic priest who was said to be in a celibate longstanding civil partnership with a nun? I wonder what Paul would say about someone who is demanding that he be installed as a bishop in spite of being openly homosexual and threatening to sue if his demands aren’t met? I don’t think 1 Corinthians 6: 1-8 even begins to address what is going wrong here.

Another big issue here is not the homosexual “celibate priest” or even the notion of people who are allegedly Christians threatening to sue other Christians if they are not recognized as a bishop (as if a secular court decision can make one a “bishop” in the church). The other big problem is that this is an issue of employment law, a clergyman suing his employer, i.e. the church. When the church treats some Christians as employees and other Christians as employers, we have lost any sense of what the church is supposed to be about. I don’t care how you slice it, when a person depends on an organization for his wages and benefits he is an employee no matter how you dress it up.

And people wonder why so many Christians are so frustrated with the church as we understand it…

If I may be indulged

Voddie Baucham, one of my favorite authors and speakers on most topics, has penned an excellent essay explaining why he supports Ron Paul: Why Ron Paul? . What I appreciate is that he approaches the issues with his eyes open and he especially looks at it the idea of Israel in some detail, recognizing that much of American evangelical support for Israel is "...a sort of misplaced Dispensationalism that governs people’s sentimental attitude toward Israel." Anyway. I try to avoid political talk on these hallowed pages but this is an interesting take from a respected Christian leader and while I disagree with some of his points, I wish more Christians would look at the upcoming election a little more carefully.

Justification and Work

I got a question over the weekend asking what I mean when I say that we are justified by faith alone. That is a very simple answer and a very complicated one and it is fraught with all sorts of peril and potential error. Most Protestants would immediately affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone, assuming they have ever heard of it in the first place. Unpacking what that means and the implications that come along with it are somewhat more difficult.

At the foundational level, being justified by faith alone is pretty simple. It is simply answering the question of how a sinful man, deserving of God's judgment, is made right with God. Justification by faith alone holds that men are made right before God apart from, and indeed in spite of, any meritorious works of our own. Humble faith in Christ alone is the only means of salvation. Conversely when we claim to be justified, even in part and no matter how small, by our own efforts we turn salvation into a co-operative process. Practically speaking many Christians would hold to what is called synergistic regeneration even though they would affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Paul powerfully deals with justification by faith alone in many places but nowhere more deeply and richly than in his letter to the chuch in Rome.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one--who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:20-31)
Men are not right with God on the basis of circumcision (or water baptism for that matter), or by observing certain laws like the sacrifice of animals for the atonement for sin (see Leviticus 16).
They are only made right with God on the basis of faith in Christ. Going to church, giving your "tithe", voting Republican. None of them have anything to do with your salvation. Faith and faith is the only basis upon which a sinner can claim to be saved.
This is where faith and grace intersect. Most Christians can repeat the generally accepted definition of grace: God's unmerited favor. That is unfortunately as far as many people get but there is so much more to it. Justification by faith alone keeps the grace in grace. As Paul's letter to the Romans continues into chapter four he makes an important contrast while extending his larger point:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,(Romans 4:1-5)
When I get paid every other Friday, those wages are an obligation of my employer in return for the work I have done for the prior two weeks. My employer doesn't just hand out paychecks to people walking by our building but rather pays those who work. If a payday rolled around and I didn't get paid for the time I worked, I would have the legal right to go after those wages. They are owed to me based on the employment agreement between me and my employer. Grace? I have no legal claim on God's grace. I can point to nothing I have done that makes me deserving of anything other than God's wrath. God is gracious to me in spite of my sins. Grace is only truly gracious when it comes with no obligation on the part of the dispenser. God doesn't owe you grace and He doesn't owe me grace. His grace is His to sovereignly bestow as only He deems fit.

That leaves us with the question: what of good works? Are they optional or ancillary, something that is a nice add-on to our justification or something only certain Christians are called to? It certainly doesn't seem that way. Paul, James and Jesus Christ Himself seem quite concerned with how we live out our faith. There is a lot of confusion over this because on the one hand the Bible speaks so often about the necessity of good works but likewise states unequivocally that we are saved/justified by faith alone. Is this a contradiction in the Bible or are we missing the relationship between the two? I think this second part is where many Christians get tripped up. We don't know what to do with the exhortations to good works or to holiness and piety. We are so afraid of any tinge of the Roman error of works-righteousness that we freeze into inaction or become unmotivated to exhort one another to good works. This is a mistake and a serious one. We hear Hebrews 10:25 quoted to us all the time, often as a stick to "encourage" us to "go to church" but the reason we gather is important and often ignored:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.(Hebrews 10:24-25)
The reason we gather together, at least one of the major reasons we are exhorted to not neglect the gathering of the saints, is not to listen to sermons or to "worship", i.e. singing songs, or to "partake of the sacraments". Rather it is to stir up and encourage one another to love and good works which implies that we need that encouragement! Now whether the traditional organized religion Sunday morning "worship service" accomplishes that or not is a question for another day. Suffice it to say that one of the primary reasons we gather is for born-again believers to encourage other born-again believers to love and good works. Herein lies the paradox of mixed meetings. If we are meeting in a such a way that unbelievers and believers alike are intermixed we run the risk of exhorting a non-believer to good works which can easil lead them to a false assurance of faith based on personal piety and good works, exactly what we are trying to avoid. Again, a topic for a different day but an important side-note nevertheless.

Faith and works are not an either-or proposition. They are not opposed to one another. We just need to ensure that we get the order right. The classic way of comparing a works based salvation versus a faith based salvation is to contrast Faith+Works=Salvation to Faith→Salvation→Works. In other words, saving faith leads to justification which inexorably leads to good works in response. Faith and works are inextricably linked but not equally. One flows from the other but the one cannot exist without the other. Let me try a bold and sweeping statement:

We are not saved by our works but we are not saved apart from them either.

Works are the result of justification which comes via saving faith. My favorite verse on this progression comes from the second chapter of Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)
What is especially pertinent in this passage is that it follows Paul's bold declaration of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, dealing with deep theology like election and monergistic regeneration. Paul doesn't stop with "by grace you have been saved through faith" but continues on from the question of "what" to "what now". God did not save us just to save us from hell. He predestined us for adoption but He also prepared works of mercy beforehand for us to walk in. Not only does He prepare the way for our salvation but also the opportunities for service that follow our justification. If God went through the process of preparing these good works, do you think maybe they are important?

So in summary, justification, our legal standing before God as justified with our sins forgiven, comes only through faith. We add nothing to it. We are not partners in it. We don't cooperate in any way. It is all of grace. As a result of this justitication and the changed heart that is regenerated by God, our outlook changes such that we will seek ways to serve God by serving, loving and witnessing to our neighbors. This is not a natural event and that is why we are exhorted to meet as the church to encourage one another.

There is nothing new here and this is merely my clumsy attempt to work through a topic that has been written about by the greatest theologians of the church for centuries. I could point you to a number of far better treatments of this topic but it is helpful to me to work through it on my own from time to time. Hopefully it is somewhat helpful or at least gets you thinking about this most precious and crucial of truths. We need to dig beyond the surface on these doctrines. Saying we are justified by faith alone is one thing but to get deeper into the doctrine, working through it and examining the implications of it, should give you a far greater appreciation of how marvelous this truth really is. When we see ourselves standing before the King with no righteousness of our own, with no claim on His favor other than saving faith in the Savior, that is when we will be able to truly sing Amazing Grace. Then we will see how gracious, precious and all-sufficient Jesus Christ truly is. There is nothing more amazing to me than to realize that He saved a wretch like me, the least likely person I have ever met and to know that He saved me in spite of and not because of whatever merit I thought I was bringing to the table. Justification by faith alone is not a theoogical "get out of hell" card but rather is the is the bedrock of the Gospel message and while it is a doctrine that we need to spend more time studying it is also a doctrine that must spur us to action: proclaiming the Gospel, loving our neighbor, visiting the widow and orphan, sharing and edifying and equipping among the Body of Christ. There is no doctrine in the Bible that is more active, more dynamic and more pertinent to how we live as Christ's ambassadors to the world. If we turn it into merely a cold point of theological correctness we will lose how truly amazing and impactful this doctrine is.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The College of Cardinals hath spoken!

White smoke has been seen pouring from the chimney of a ranch in Texas!

The annoucement ringeth forth across the land. The evangelical Cardinals have met and they annointeth Rick Santorum as THE Christian candidate. All faithful followers are to immediately throw their support (and money!) to Santorum....
TRENDING: Christian conservative leaders vote to support Santorum

A meeting of Christian conservative leaders resulted in the group backing GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins announced Saturday.

The group heard pitches from surrogates for Republican candidates on Friday, and voted to support Santorum after voting on Saturday.

"After three rounds of balloting this morning, and vigorous and passionate discussion, there emerged a strong consensus around Rick Santorum as the preferred candidate for this group," Perkins said on a conference call Saturday.
Reformation? What Reformation?! We are trying to "take back America" here people! We must defeat Obama's "War On Religion"! The Gospel can wait and the lazy poor people can feed themselves. Widows can send me a friend request on Facebook. Orphans? Well the state can take care of them. What? No I don't see the irony in that statement. What do you mean?

Remember. after you drop your check in the offering plate this morning, run home (after brunch of course) and make a donation to the Santorum campaign so we can elect a Christian candidate who will wink at the assassination of foreign citizens and invade Iran within hours of taking office!

A few words from Dave Black are appropriate this morning...
It matters little to me that some Magisterium in Texas has anointed Santorum or that the evangelical subculture prizes conformity above all else. Allegiance to any human institution or political party is not faith. It is misplaced faith.
Yet we wonder why we have so little Gospel impact on the world. Maybe because we are focused on the wrong things?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Talking about Jesus and religion

If the internet is good at anything, it is great at creating furious tempests in short order than blow over just as fast. This has been on full display over the last few days thanks to a video posted by Jefferson Bethke, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus

The video has, as of the time I watched it this afternoon, almost ten million views and over 100,000 likes and a similar number of comments. Oh yeah, it was uploaded on the 10th so by my calculations it is averaging a couple of million views a day. Behold the power of the internet!

The reaction it has received? Wow. Some people think this is the greatest thing spoken since Martin Luther said "Here I stand, I can do no other". On the other hand there are some who have reacted to this video as if it is the greatest threat to the church since...well since the last guy said something that questioned the church. It is the reaction to this video more than the content itself that I am really interested in because I think it exposes a couple of fascinating undercurrents.

A lot of the quibbling has to do with his use of the word "religion". That word pops up a few times in the Bible and it carries a lot of baggage. This is doubly true in our culture. Religion only has one context in our culture and it is the dominant religious expression of our cultural "Christianity". When you say "religion" in America it really only brings to mind one thing and we all know what it is. Trying to pull out our English translations and looking for the word "religion" really missed the point. I don't think that anyone can seriously look at a place like James 1:27: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" and suggest with a straight face that our cultural religion has that in mind.

Some of the anti-religion stuff is overblown. I get that. Being "non-religious" is a religion for some people. There are a lot of very religious people who make a big show of piously pointing out how non-religious they are, just as they are plenty of modest and simple Christians who are just as prideful about their plainness as a woman with a Prada bag is about her fashion sense. However I think this video really resonates with the huge number of people who love Christ but are sick to death of the empty ritualism and power struggles and political machinations and money grubbing that are hallmarks of much of the organized religious world of the institutionalized church.

What was even more interesting to me was the complete overreaction by so many Christians in the other direction, those who sense in any critique or suggestion of room for improvement in the church an attitude tantamount to heresy. The video and the response it generated led to comments in opposition from lots of quarters, often from the usual suspects. If I may be so bold, there is a sizable contingent in the church that sees any questioning of our religious traditions as a threat to their status, their power and their livelihood. Not everyone or even most of those who reacted negatively to this video fall into this category but that is certainly a factor. I asked the question last night: who benefits from perpetuating organized religion? It is not the widow or orphan that is often at best an afterthought in "the church". It is not the average Christian who spends a lifetime being semonized and never equipped for ministry, living trapped in spiritual infancy. Certainly it is not the average pastor who spends years saddled with debt from seminary getting a degree that has no correlation to qualifications for leadership and ministry and who labors under an unbelievable and unbearable burden until he burns out and quits. Organized religion is big business and business in America has been very, very good for a long time.

What has been encouraging is the way that Jefferson responded to the criticisms aimed his way, This is what he wrote on his Facebook page....
If you are using my video to bash "the church" be careful. I was in no way intending to do that. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus' bride so be careful how you speak of His wife. If a normal dude has right to get pissed when you bash His wife, it makes me tremble to think how great the weight is when we do it to Jesus' wife. The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is like a fiancé saying he loves his future bride, but hates her kids. We are all under grace. Look to Him.
I am glad to see that Jefferson Bethke recognized the controversy that ensued and made a humble statement to clarify. If only those who used this video as an opportunity to attack him and anyone else who questions the traditions of man that infect the church would exhibit the same sort of humility. I have to say that I don't know of many people who say "I love Jesus but hate the Church" unless you assume that all expressions of what we call "church" are created equal. In fact I would go so far as to say that many people, myself included, who call out the places where the institutional church has strayed from the Biblical pattern do so precisely because we love Jesus and we love His church. I love the church and it truly pains me to see it reduced to religion and so many Christians silenced and shackled while an overburdened few shoulder the entire work of ministry, a work that is so great it demands every Christian be involved rather than just a select professional few. It is not because we hate the Church or are anti-authority or want our own needs met. It is because we have searched the Scriptures and found a serious problem, one that goes back for centuries and that must be thrown down.

Let me say this carefully and clearly. Expressing concern about the tendency of organized religion to replace community within the Body of Christ, questioning traditions and rituals that men have used for centuries to control people,  suggesting that professionalization and subcontracting ministry, etc. is not bashing the Church. Not every tradition and institution that we attach the name "church" to is above reproach. Jesus Himself didn't ignore the emprty religious traditions and false piety of the religion of His day, even when that religious tradition of Judaism was God's chosen vessel to bring forth the Messiah.

So I appreciate the voice that Jefferson Bethke has given to so many people who know something is wrong but maybe can't put their finger on it or who have been cowed into silence by the religious leaders of our day. I pray most sincerely for God to raise up more men who will say the hard things and ask the tough question and for men who will humbly but unflinchingly stand up to those who would seek to shout or sneer them down. We need men like Luther and Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel who will stand for Scripture when the predominate religious culture of the day is more interested in maintaining power and propping up traditions. Turning to ritual and religion is natural for men, it takes a supernatural intervention for men to break free. The church is not about religion or ritual or power or prestige or politics or money. It is about a Person who has redeemed a people and made them His Bride. The sooner we get that truth front and center in our lives, the sooner we will see restoration take place.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Not To Wear

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is this....

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

Is that true? Or is it perhaps more likely that those who truly need to hear the Gospel, those most desperate for the King, are discouraged from coming to a neat and tidy "house of worship" where they don't fit in because their clothes are shabby and wrinkled? Are we impressing people with our dressing up and external piety or are we portraying the religious hypocrisy that Jesus so despised? Is church designed to be attractive to the already religious even though we assume that non-believers are welcome to come and hear the Gospel? Are we like the Pharisees:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-28)

I kind of feel like we are actually being counter-productive in a lot of the church by presenting Christ as an organization to follow, a culture to join, traditions to embrace more than a King to follow. I don't think that the "church" draws people as much as it repels them or at least discourages them. I am quite comfortable in "church culture". I have a bunch of conservative suits, dress shirts and ties so for me dressing up to "go to church" is easy. For someone who doesn't know how to tie a tie or who doesn't own any clothing nicer than faded jeans? Is there a welcoming place for them? I don't mean someone saying good morning, shaking their hand and giving them a "visitor packet". I am talking about feeling like they can be a part of this community. The people I meet in places like the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer are not going to feel comfortable in our Western church culture and if our church traditions and culture are a barrier to the Gospel how can they be healthy?

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

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