Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Here's to a better year next year

It hasn't been a great year for me for a lot of personal reasons that I am not yet ready to share publicly. I am desperately hoping for some fresh starts in 2014 and trust in the sovereignty and providence of God that His will in my life will be done. Of course amidst all of this we as a family continue to be blessed. My children have never gone hungry or lacked clothing (even if they need to change the clothes they are wearing more often) or went without a roof over their head. While not rich y American standards, we have so much more than the vast majority of my brothers and sisters around the world. Praying for better stewardship as a family next year.

It has been a rough year on the blog as well. I published half as many posts as I have in any year since 2007. I started quite a few and they fizzled out. Hoping so see more consistency next year. Blogging and other writing projects are an important mode of expression for me, getting out on virtual paper what is bouncing around in my head.

2014 looks from this vantage point as a year of major, even seismic, shifts in my life and for our family. We just added another teen to the mix meaning that more than half of our kids are teens or older. Our youngest is 6 so it has been a long time since we have had a baby in the house. That is pretty unusual for a family that has had at least one baby around for more than 20 years. Even though I am "only" 42 we are already getting that itch for grandchildren and that is kind of freaking me out a bit. With three kids in college classes our family is really moving in a new direction although it sometimes doesn't seem so with all 8 of our kids living at home.

2014 promises to be another year of major changes in the church in America. The pace of the collapse of our Christendom based civil religion is breathtaking and showing no signs of slowing. Just the opposite in fact. Around the world the Gospel is spreading but so is persecution, often in places where American foreign policy intervention has created the environment for renewed hostility toward the church. At the same time, both here in America and abroad, Gospel orthodoxy is under assault. Biblical illiteracy in the church is growing in spite of the incredible access everyday Christians have to the Bible and study materials giving all of us access that twenty years ago would put the finest seminary library to shame. Running in parallel to Biblical illiteracy is a growing undermining of the authority of the Bible as a trustworthy and authoritative revelation. Many voices of heterodoxy on a variety of topics are gathering an ever larger audience seeking to have their ears tickled. Just as the internet is a great source for Christians to converse and occasionally argue, it is also a convenient way for false teaching to get in front of untold numbers of people. Now as much as, or perhaps more than, ever there is a dire need for clear, unapologetic teaching of the crucial doctrines of the church.

Also, if you are looking for some worthy ministries to contribute to as the year comes to a close, please consider The Haiti Orphan Project, a ministry near and dear to my heart. Also for those in Fort Wayne check out A Hope Center or for those in Toledo Heartbeat of Toledo. Both ministries are on the front line in the daily fight for life. You can find your local pregnancy resource center by checking out Care Net's Pregnancy Decision tool. Even better find a way to volunteer your time at one of these ministries, it is life changing for you and life saving for babies!

Anyway, enjoy the final day of 2013. Here's to a better year in 2014!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Some Links To Like

First comes a post from my brother across the pond Christopher Dryden pondering whether we are seeking to be edified or entertained: Edify or Entertain? . Da Man CD recognizes the value of uplifting entertainment but also the difference between entertainment and edification:

Often however, I get the impression that the desire is to be entertained rather than edified.  The desire is to get a cheap thrill and a token God-shot to tick the criteria of being a moral person.

It reminds me of Paul’s warning to Timothy,

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3)

Reading those words is sobering.  It suggests there has to be a desire towards seeking to hear and be built by what stands for sound doctrine.  It makes my life following Christ not like the consumer-culture at all.  I cannot afford to just digest the stuff that pleases me.  I cannot just pick and choose what I want to take on, because it is pleasing to me.  That also implies my desire of encounters with God, His Word and His People, is not primarily for the purpose of being entertained.

One note that should help us to think through this. Edification. in the New Testament is a mutual act, something we all do for all of us. It is not a top down, expert-centric, professionalized series of information lectures but brothers encouraging each other to stir one another up for the work of ministry. I also think that depending on your background it is easy to see what other Christians do as people-pleasing entertainment and what I do as edification. I enjoy a deep sermon on theology. It certainly edifies me to an extent, although I rarely remember what was said weeks later, but it also entertains me. Likewise some people sneer at contemporary Christian music as being mere entertainment while getting the same entertainment from classic hymns. This is something we all need to be aware of.

I saw this yesterday (HT: Robert Martin), Resolved: Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014. It looks like the increaingly over the top rhetoric that marks the conservative/liberal divide is growing wearisome for my brothers on the left as well as for those of us on the right. I am not familiar with the blogger, Zach Hoag, but I do appreciate what he says:

This is not a call-out post, so I won’t be naming names or linking links. That’s not the point. The point is that the Progressive Christian conversation has lost its way, primarily because of the third word in the label: the Internet. The Internet has fostered a disconnect between the Progressive Christian Internetter and rooted, relational church realities, such that the ideology expressed online has become an end in itself rather than a means tethered to the end of ecclesia. The conversation is increasingly non-incarnational. Whereas evangelical church-planting culture is often plagued by shallow pragmatism, the Progressive Christian Internet goes to the other extreme, philosophizing its way out of any substantial, practical ecclesial application.

And in the attempt to be ideologically Progressive, it often fails to be substantially Christian.

You can replace some of the words and get the same problem among conservatives. It is worth your read. I don't think Zach is calling for complete disengagement, nor am I obviously, but a change in the tone and the method is warranted. The internet is wonderful for many things but it is pretty poor at developing the sort of relational conversations that actually get to the heart of these issues. Instead we get warring factions that snipe at one another and circle the doctrinal wagons to have conversations among people who mostly agree with each other.

A post from Eric Carpenter today makes the list, No Longer Could I Serve in the Military. Like Eric I have come to this same conclusion and it is largely based on this:

Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. How could I possibly serve in the military when I might be ordered to kill someone in the name of the USA? Killing and loving do not mix.

It is simply impossible to simultaneously love someone and kill them. I have seen all sorts of tortured explanations for why it is OK but they simply make no sense.

A quick political link on Rand Paul & the Christian Right. I like Rand Paul quite a lot, knowing full well that he is a politician with all that entails, but I see him as a refreshing new voice against a lot of the sacred cows of the perverse marriage of neo-Con interventionists and Christian culture warriors. I have been encouraged to see a groundswell of changing attitudes as a war weary nation, and especially Christians, grow disillusioned with the constant wars that always seem to do more harm than good. Especially heartening are posts like Eric's above that show a move away from supporting war, something that the church in America has been to eager to do as our leaders embrace the hawks on the political Right as the cost for support for the moral issues that culture warriors care about. A few years ago someone like Rand Paul would be relegated to sitting in the same corner that the GOP establishment put his father Ron in. Today? We are seeing something very different happening and it is a positive development. As the church gets out of the culture wars business and stops providing a steady supply of soldiers from our families for the American war machine perhaps we can get back to our actual calling as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace.

One last one I thought was funny/disturbing:  2013 is the year that proved your ‘paranoid’ friend right. It seems like it happened overnight but a lot of people are pretty spooked at the surveillance state, the abuse of power in law enforcement, the encroaching of government into our most basic liberties. Hopefully more people will wake up and smell the proverbial coffee!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why worry about things that don't matter?

Time for a little pushback.

I have been thinking more about the whole flap over Duck Dynasty and the implications for the church. I often find that once the initial furor dies down it is helpful to think through the issues when the "heat of battle" is not quite so hot. I used to be pretty fervent about the culture wars and while it may not seem like it, especially if we are friends on Facebook or you follow me on Twitter, but I don't care nearly as much as I used to about politics and economics. There is not a "Christian" system of worldly governance or economics and our mission transcends and supersedes those sorts of concerns. Winning the culture wars wouldn't make a single new disciple of Christ (see Eric Carpenter's post on this topic, What If Conservatives Actually Won The Culture War?). I also believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, from the smallest detail to the rebirth of a sinner dead in their trespasses. That raises a question in my mind and certainly others: why care at all about these apparently irrelevant issues like economics and politics?

I care, probably more than I should, because believe it or not I care about people, even people I don't know and who aren't even born yet. Ideas and policies have consequences. I believe as firmly as I believe anything outside of the Gospel that some ideas are harmful to people, ideas like institutionalizing children, policies like the creation of a state replacement for family and especially fathers, notions like unborn children being reduced to an dehumanizing term like "choice". Not every transgression amounts to persecution but just because it isn't persecution doesn't mean it is irrelevant.

All things being equal, a society with a free exchange of ideas is better than one without. A society with an opportunity based economic system is better than one with a false outcome based system. A nation where children are not murdered in the womb is better than one where they are. A nation that incentivizes and protects marriage with a mother and father is better than one that waters down marital relationships to an unlimited number of permutations that all demand equal recognition no matter how harmful they are. A peaceful nation state that restrains her own powers both domestically and abroad is a freer and better neighbor than one that treats all of her citizens as potential criminals and interferes over and over in conflicts that are none of her business. I believe that a people who individually, voluntarily and collectively work together to aid the poor, the widow and the orphan is preferable to one that confiscates from some to give to others and where individuals subcontract mercy work to the state or the religious institution. I believe it is profoundly immoral to bankrupt future generations with an enormous debt burden because of the greed, selfishness and incompetence of past and present generations. There are lots more but you get the idea. Just because something doesn't have eternal consequences doesn't mean it ought to be ignored. Feeding a poor person or visiting a widow doesn't make one a believer but that doesn't mean it is unimportant.

Free market economics is not the Gospel (nor are income redistribution schemes). Likewise our individualistic, "I earned it, it is my money and I will do with as I want with it" attitude is cause for concern and correction in the church. Nevertheless I honestly believe that a freer society with freer markets where people have the opportunity to take risks and be rewarded for enterprise and initiative is better for all people than a centrally controlled economy. The economic history of the world bears this out.

Here is the point I am trying to make. I can believe the above positions and even advocate for them at the same time I serve God and proclaim His Son. Granted there needs to be a prioritization because my calling as an ambassador of the King trumps every other concern. The Gospel proclamation is our highest and only eternally relevant task. Free markets are not the Gospel. Traditional marriage is not the Gospel. Even protecting unborn children is not the Gospel. That doesn't make them irrelevant or value neutral. All across the political spectrum, left and right equally, the church has tried to link the Gospel with their political cause but that error and abuse doesn't lead to a shoulder shrugging attitude of "who cares?". Because I care about people I care about issues that make their lives better or make their lives worse.

So please don't dismiss as petty any issue or position that is not directly Gospel related. Not everyone, or even very many people, will respond to the Gospel's offer of unmerited favor that forgives sins. That reality doesn't mean that we sit in our Kingdom bunkers and watch the world collapse in misery and despair. Nor does the opposite hold true, as some seem to suggest, that winning political victories and achieving cultural dominance is our most pressing concern. In this area, as in so many others, balance is of the utmost importance.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Need For Skilled Labor

It is often assumed that domestic manufacturing, once the industrial backbone of America, is gone forever, a victim of cheap labor overseas, free trade agreements and ease of transportation. The reality is somewhat different. I listened to this piece from NPR this morning, Manufacturing 2.0: Old Industry Creating New High-Tech Jobs. It is about five minutes long, give it a listen....

What was especially interesting was a quote near the end of the piece that sounds like the same thing we hear from Mike Rowe, the former host of Dirty Jobs:

While many higher-tech firms are growing, other less-competitive firms are dying. And the government projects U.S. manufacturing jobs overall will decline a bit by 2020.

At the same time, though, a lot of manufacturing workers are older — and getting ready to retire. "There are millions of jobs that will open up in manufacturing as the current workforce retires," Bluestone says. Many of the manufacturers he's talked to "tell us their No. 1 issue is where will the skilled workers come from to replace those that are retiring today," he says.


We hear all of  concern about the affordability of college and how it is necessary for anyone to have a decent life and yet the sort of white collar office jobs that people seem to think will never go away are not nearly as a) available and b) lucrative as many people think. Unless you are getting a degree in some sort of specialty, like nursing/health care, computer science, accounting, engineering, etc., there are not that many jobs that require a college education. At the same time manufacturers are desperate for people with high tech blue collar skills. The recruiting webpages for my area are full of ads for people with manufacturing and production experience and education. A new high school graduate can get an associates degree in a technical field and get a good paying job by 20. Or that same high school grad can spend twice as long and ten times as much money to get a B.A. in Philosophy or Women's Studies or Underwater Basket Weaving and have no practical, tangible job skills.

That is not to say that it is never a good idea to get a 4 year degree, just that it is not a good idea for everyone. We need to get over our cultural disdain for work that requires physical labor. I believe we have sent an entire generation of kids to college only for those kids to find themselves living at home with few job prospects and a ton of debt. I would rather see my sons get 2 year degrees and get a job than spend their 20's living at home with an education that doesn't do much to educate them and next to nothing to prepare them for the workforce of the 21st century. America needs fewer cubicle dwellers who shuffle paper all day and more welders, CNC experts, etc. Parents of kids in or approaching high school should be having these conversations instead of just assuming that college is the only way to go.

Is It The Church Or A Non-profit Incorporation?

On sort of the same theme as my post yesterday I ran across this blog post last night by Jason Savage Why I'm Leaving The "Ministry". It is written by a vocational pastor who is leaving that behind. I really appreciated this paragraph and want to focus especially on something he said (emphasis mine)

The reality is, I can no longer handle the “professionalism” of the church. I’m tired of running a non-profit incorporation that calls itself a church. I’m tired of feeling limited in the scope of relationships because of some strange “loyalty” to a particular name on a church that pays my salary. Truthfully, I don’t particularly like what God showed me about myself in these last seven years. I realize now he was first calling me to preach repentance to myself.

That is so incredibly true, especially that third sentence. When you depend on a paycheck from one religious organization it twists your relationship to other Christians and especially other local churches. Whether you admit it or not, or even are aware of it or not, our religious system turns what should be co-operative entities into competitors, all looking to create their own market niche in the form of distinctives. Come to our church, we are Reformed! Come to our church, we have a great youth program! Come to our church, we offer both contemporary and traditional worship! Come to our church, we have a sweet latte bar! Come to our church, we are an independent, fundamental, King James Only church! When you look at the church ads in publications you start wondering if you are gathering with the church or shopping for a used car. Making disciples is hard work but poaching church attenders from other churches is pretty easy. Of course the same existing church attenders are being marketed to by other churches and they are also aiming for your people so not only do you have to be constantly refining your marketing plan to get new attenders in the front door, you also have top be careful of losing check writers members out the back door. Any successful business knows this, a great sales strategy is worthless if you don't pay attention to retention.

I think there are a lot of vocational pastors who feel the same way as Jason but as he notes: .

I know many paid leaders in churches would be liberated by not being paid by the church. The problem is they haven’t been trained to do anything else. So out of fear, they stay. I wish more would actually leave the “Ministry”.

Eric Carpenter can tell you first hand how difficult the transition can be. It was a great post to read, I would encourage you to give it a read and leave a note. It can be a lonely road when you do something that doesn't make sense to most people in the church so kind words of encouragement would certainly be welcome!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Well because you see, it ISN'T a business

I saw a posting from the Resurgence, the online mouthpiece for Mars Hill (i.e. Mark Driscoll) a few days ago and wanted to wait until after Christmas to blog about it. The story caught my eye because of the title: An executive pastor calling. You might wonder what an executive pastor is (as opposed to a senior pastor, or a youth pastor, or any of the hundreds of extra-biblical offices we find in institutional churches). An executive pastor is usually someone with financial and/or business acumen who manages the money and operations of a "church". Usually a church has to be pretty big and pull in lots of money to warrant one. I actually applied for a position as an executive pastor back in the day, given my eagerness to be involved in ministry and my private sector business experience in financial services it seemed like a good fit. Alas they discovered from my questionnaire answers that I was a dreaded "Calvinist" and that my theology just wouldn't fit. I am glad in retrospect.

Anyway, the post in question is the story of Sutton Turner and includes the requisite story of how wealthy and successful he was until his conversion and calling as an executive pastor. Much to his chagrin it turns out that the church that hired him was in pretty shaky financial straits and needed someone to fix it. That is when we come to the money quote (emphasis mine):

I had to tell Pastor Joe that he would be up against a huge mess unless somebody made some changes very, very fast. I was completely shocked when Pastor Joe turned to me and said that I was the man for the job.

The financial bind that threatened my church wasn’t the result of any malicious activity or misappropriation. The guy in charge of operations simply didn’t know how to run a business.

Um. Yeah. Perhaps that is because the church was never intended to run like a business?

Whether unwittingly or not, Sutton Turner (who shockingly happens to have a new book out called Invest: You gifts for His mission, weird how that happens) reinforces what many of us have been saying for a long time, namely that the institutional church of organized religion operates more like a corporation than a family, less like a people of God than a people checking off a box on their religious checklist with as little inconvenience and discomfort as possible.

If the church treated money as it should, we wouldn't need "executive pastors" because we wouldn't be sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in our bank accounts, hundreds of thousands of staff and billions of dollars worth of real estate. We wouldn't have this racket where big name celebrity "pastors" endorse the books that they all seem to pump out on a regular basis that apparently are written by ghost writers a lot of the time or plagiarized (again note that Sutton is employed by Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll's "church" and Mark has come under some fire lately for, um, failing to properly cite the work of someone else). If we were doing the mission of Christ as His ambassadors our need for financial security in the church and ease of donation via mainly anonymous "Giving Buttons" on church websites would go away. We would not seem more concerned with perpetuating the system and keeping the lights on at our local church so that believers can "worship" in comfort than we are with seeing the lost come to know Christ.

Corporations can't operate like the church and the church can't operate like corporations. That should be self-evident. The sad reality that it is not to so many people says volumes about how far astray we have gone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

How Much Is Too Much?

As someone with a strong, and growing stronger, libertarian streak I have no issue with someone making a lot of money, whether than person is an orthodontist or the CEO of Wal-Mart or a Peyton Manning. In the private sector where income is based on demand for an individual's talent and experience you should get paid as much as your employer is willing to pay you. I don't buy Denver Broncos jerseys or attend their games. It is none of my concern how much they pay Peyton (and for the record I declared him washed up and Denver fools for giving him another chance in the league. He just set the single season record for TD passes. 51 touchdown passes with a game to go. I will now eat my hat.). On the other hand I do shop at Wal-Mart and I know the CEO makes a ton of money and I have no problem with that. Private sector pay is not a Kingdom issue.

When it comes to the church? That conversation changes. It must change.

Dave Black posted something interesting Sunday morning:

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just listed the compensation packages for college and university presidents in the U.S. (One example: Liberty University, where the president is compensated $504,490 annually. The head football coach makes $429,993). For Religious Non-Profits, go here (e.g., Samaritan's Purse: $612,884). None of this is illegal or (in my opinion) immoral. My point is simply that God has clearly  provided more than enough money in the U.S. to meet all the evangelistic and church-planting needs in the Two-Thirds World. It costs about $5,000 to build a very simple meeting hall for believers in Ethiopia. Which means that a church sanctuary built in the U.S. for, let's say, 7 million dollars could build 1,400 meeting halls in Ethiopia. That same amount could practically guarantee that the Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to an entire Ethiopian state -- or even some smaller countries of Asia. Please, I am not speaking out against these salaries. I am saying that to whom much is given, much is required. As we respond to the needs of the Great Commission around the world, and as we do what we can in the name of Jesus (and each of us can do something), others will hear the Good News of forgiveness from sin through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and entire nations will be blessed. My heart breaks when I think of how I have hoarded God's blessings. My earnest prayer is that, in my own life, the love of Christ may be shown in tangible ways that draw others to the Savior. Jesus desires that "the poor have the Gospel preached to them" (Matt. 11:5). If that is not accomplished, we in the West have failed. 

I acknowledge that  individuals have every right in our economic system to earn as much as they can. I also know that Franklin Graham at Samaritan's Purse runs a very large organization that sends out tons of fund raising letters. I usually just pitch them in favor of giving to local ministries or ministries like the Haiti Orphan Project with virtually no overhead. As the head of this organization which ran a deficit in the most recent reporting year according to their disclosure on the website of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability Franklin Graham made over $600,000. Do you think people who read that at the Huffington Post are more or less inclined to donate to Samaritan's Purse? You might say that people who read the Huffington Post wouldn't be inclined to donate anyway but I know of a decent number of Christians who do read it on a regular basis.

How we deal with money in the church impacts our witness. Even Paul, an apostle who often functioned as an evangelist and church planter and as such had the right to expect financial support, declined that support as an obstacle to the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12). When the world sees our leaders, and the world doesn't distinguish between Franklin Graham or Charles Stanley and rank apostates like Paul and Jan Crouch, it sees quarter million dollar salaries that place the recipient in the top 1% of wage earners it understandably makes us seem like we are more interested in bank accounts than saving souls, more concerned with how much we bring in than in how much we give away.

It sometimes seems that our cultural attitude about money and the Kingdom imperative to make disciples run head-first into one another and the former too often defeats the latter. Dr. Black's point about the relative cost of a new "sanctuary" versus 1400 simple gathering places in Ethiopia is a powerful one but it holds little sway over an American audience. We think we honor God by our opulence, our palatial church buildings, wearing our Sunday best and being on our best behavior. many Christians walk out of multimillion dollar "churches" to freshly blacktopped parking lots and climb into brand new SUVs with little thought to Christians who have what would seem like rags to us to wear, walking to the gathering of the church with no shoes and meeting in a building devastated by an earthquake or bombed by Islamic radicals. Sure we give lipservice to the persecuted church but there always seems to be the unspoken "glad it is not me" that goes along with it.

Billions of dollars spent on buildings and clergy. Hundreds of millions spent on fundraising. Top 1% salaries. These realities have a negative impact on our witness. As the cultural American style Christendom religion fades and the money spigot starts to shut off, how we think about and treat money will become ever more important. We can no longer afford to talk one way about money and then act in the exact opposite way. The world is watching and has been for a long time. What the world sees should embarrass us.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Putting The Persecuted Church On A Pedestal

There is a tendency in online Christian discussions to play the trump card of the persecuted church. I have done it too and I shouldn't. How it works goes something like this. Someone raises a culturally specific issue in America. Someone else gets outraged and says: "Well if we had real persecution here.... ". The outraged individual sits back, smugly confident in his morally superior position. The point apparently is that none of the cultural trends that impact the church in America are worthy of discussion because we are not persecuted and therefore any concern we raise is irrelevant.

I get that the church is not persecuted in any meaningful sense in America and that we get wound up at stuff that Chinese or Libyan Christians wouldn't understand.

I would also point out that we who live in America are there because that is where God placed us and until He moves to call us somewhere else this is the nation, these are the people we are called to minister to. Integral to that is understanding how the culture sees the church. Using the persecuted church in other countries as a way of quashing discussion in this country doesn't do the persecuted church any good. All it does it give the person laying down the persecution card a cheap "victory".

How the culture views Christianity and the church and how we live impacts our witness. As the prevailing culture becomes more hostile to overtly presented Christian, it has a real impact on the church. We don't have to couch this in terms of culture wars, I am not calling for a boycott of the A&E channel (there really aren't any shows on that channel I would watch and we don't have cable anyway). I am also not saying that we should pretend that nothing is shifting around us. There are going to be real consequences for speaking the truth in love, even when done in a less crude and more nuanced way than Phil Robertson.

I honestly don't care if Duck Dynasty leaves A&E or goes off the air or whatever. The family has plenty of money and freely admits they don't need the show. Millionaire TV stars are probably not the epitome of the church. Nor am I interested in boycotts or letter writing campaigns or protesting outside of the headquarters of A&E. I do care about the shifting cultural landscape that we are seeing, a shift that is accelerating even faster than I expected. I am very concerned that the church often looks befuddled or angry when this sort of thing happens because we are utterly unprepared thanks to generations of failure to equip the saints and I am likewise irritated by the pseudo-pious dismissal because the church in America is not sufficiently persecuted to warrant raising our awareness. We should anticipate a hostile response from the world when we shine the light of Christ. John wrote:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God." (John 3:19-21)

The darkness of the world will hate the truth. It cannot be any other way. When the light of the Gospel that saves from sin confronts the lost they either turn from wickedness or they turn from the light. How we respond to the hatred of the world matters. Yes we must choose our fights but at some point we must choose how and where we respond.

We can have and ought to have discussions in the church about the proper way to respond to a changing culture. We can also do that without wielding the persecuted church like a club.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Era of Intellectual Totalitarianism

It has been an interesting couple of days in the news. Yesterday treated us to the spectacle of a minor firestorm over some admittedly kind of crude comments made by a bearded guy on a reality show, a venue that is intentionally full of inane comments made by wannabe celebrities engaging in staged "reality". All fine and dandy, keep the masses fed thanks to Uncle Sam and passive thanks to the soporific drone of the TV. Just don't say the wrong thing...

It seems that one member of the A&E channel's star attraction, Duck Dynasty, was interviewed by GQ magazine (the old name Gentlemen's Quarterly being too many syllables for the average American reader to manage). The interview can be read here, please note that the "journalist" in question is pretty free and easy with the profanity, which includes taking the Lord's name in vain but apparently that is just fine and dandy with the thought police. In the middle of the interview we get some of the offending language (I will skip the discourse on the preferential status of female genitalia) in response to the question, what is sinful (I can almost visualize the "reporter" crossing his fingers hoping for this response):

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Where in the world did that nutcase come up with THAT! Oh, maybe here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

OK so he maybe didn't nuance his statement properly for a politically correct environment. Granting that, is what he said some off the wall, crazy teaching? Not really. Phil Robertson is quite open about his sordid past and that fits nicely with what Paul said immediately afterward: And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Co 6:11). That is just straight up Gospel talk. The unrepentant homosexual, adulterer, drunkard, etc. are already under condemnation and only Christ can redeem them from an eternal hell. That is not backwoods Louisiana voodoo talk, that is the position of the church for some two thousand years.

It is not as though A&E is a bastion of sober conversation and edifying entertainment. Wander on over to the homepage of A&E and you are treated with visuals of their offerings. Along with the now ubiquitous bearded faces of Duck Dynasty there is a show called  Rodeo Girls which apparently features half naked girls wearing Daisy Dukes and string bikini tops on horseback doing rodeo stuff. Also featuring shows on the rough and tumble world of hauling called Shipping Wars, a show about different bearded Southerners shooting invasive feral pigs called American Hoggers, a country music version of American Idol called Crazy Hearts: Nashville and a few other shows of a similar level of idiocy. Arts and Entertainment indeed! Masterpiece Theater eat your heart out! So it isn't like you are getting anything edifying from your visit to that channel.

There have been a number of excellent responses to this from Albert Mohler, Russell Moore and Matt Walsh. I won't bother repeating the obvious, namely that alienating a huge audience that watches your show to placate a very small but loud moniroty that doesn't and never will watch your show is bad business and just plain stupid. I did like this from Al Mohler:

Another interesting parallel emerges with the timing of this controversy. The current issue of TIME magazine features Pope Francis I as “Person of the Year.” Within days of TIME’s declaration, Phil Robertson had been suspended from Duck Dynasty. Robertson’s suspension was caused by his statements that homosexual acts are sinful. But Pope Francis is riding a wave of glowing publicity, even as he has stated in public his agreement with all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches, including its teachings on homosexual acts.

Francis has declared himself to be a “son of the church,” and his church teaches that all homosexual acts are inherently sinful and must be seen as “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered.”

But Pope Francis is on the cover of TIME magazine and Phil Robertson is on indefinite suspension. Such are the inconsistencies, confusions, and hypocrisies of our cultural moment.

Exactly. More on Jorge and his progressive rock star status at a later date. I want to keep unpacking this notion of intellectual totalitarianism.

At about the same time I was made aware of the Duck Dyynasty kerfuffle another one brewing in my home state and current neighboring state of Ohio. The Home School Legal Defense Association put out a memo on what t hey describe as the Worst-Ever Home School Law Proposed In Ohio. If passed this bill would mandate that parents be treated as felony child abusers before the state even considers allowing them to homeschool their own chidlren:

SB 248 is breathtakingly onerous in its scope. It requires all parents who homeschool to undergo a social services investigation which would ultimately determine if homeschooling would be permitted. Social workers would have to interview parents and children separately, conduct background checks and determine whether homeschooling is recommended or not. If it is not recommended, parents would have to submit to an “intervention” before further consideration of their request to homeschool.

Even worse, the law is justified based on the abuse and murder of a 14 year old boy, Teddy Foltz-Tedesco. As the HSLDA points out, social services had already been informed about the abuse and did nothing to save this child. His mother pulled him from school after authorities had been notified and did nothing. Using this tragedy where social services already failed a child as a way to give that same entity veto power over legitimate homeschooling is perverse and sickening. The sponsor of this bill, State Senator Capri Cafaro, has a promising career in politics as she has shown herself willing to use tragedy for her own political gain. More about this from Matt Walsh yet again, Politician: “Let’s treat all homeschool parents like felony child abusers”. One of the reasons we elected to not live in Ohio even though it was within driving distance of my job is the already onerous laws on homeschooling in Ohio, laws that might get a whole lot more onerous if this passes.

I doubt this will pass but it is the proverbial shot across the bow. The intent is clear. Many people in positions of power and authority simply don't trust parents to make decisions for their own children. The best way to minimize the pernicious influence of parents is to get hold of children as early as possible and keep them away from their parents as much as they can. We are entering, or perhaps more accurately well into, an era of intellectual totalitarianism. A small minority with outsized influence and a particular political agenda is rapidly making America into a police state. That may sound alarmist and a year ago I would have agreed. Today? The P.C. speech codes of the university world is bleeding out into the general culture at breakneck speed. The combination of a militarized civil police force, unimaginable levels of intrusion into the privacy of world leaders and American citizens alike thanks to the NSA and an ever louder shouting from  the minority cultural elites is pushing us to a state of totalitarianism. I know totalitarianism is a loaded, often misused, term but if the government can force parents to be treated as guilty until proven innocent, if activists for perversion can cause the suspension of a TV star from a show they don't even watch, if private employers can be made to violate their conscience in providing health care to their employees or services like baking wedding cakes I am not sure what other word suffices. We are in the midst of a seismic cultural shift where any asinine thought is protected except those that dare to speak authoritatively about Christ. When certain fundamental liberties are stripped away, nothing is safe and first in line on the chopping block are the unalterable, non-negotiable truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for the church? It means that basic aspects of Christian witness like expressing Biblical teaching, even when clumsy or crude, or when raising up our children as we see fit, or proclaiming the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world of religious plurality where all religions get equal treatment as long as you aren't excessively serious about it, all are going to come with a cost. If you are convicted, as we are, that homeschooling is the proper way to educate your children, be prepared for the state to come after you. If you plainly and without apology tell lost sinners that their sin is an affront to God and the only hope for eternal life is in Christ, you will be censored. If your business chooses to conduct itself in a decidedly and intentionally Christian way based on your beliefs, you will be sued, shut down and perhaps imprisoned. That is the world we are rushing toward and we had better wake up. This isn't about the culture wars. Those were lost a long time ago and rightly so. This is about our witness to the world that is increasingly hostile. The days of internal squabbling over this pet doctrine and that are at an end. The days of an unlimited annuity stream of disposable income flowing to  the church are over. The church better wake up and get our priorities in line right now because the world is not going to pause to let us catch up. Caesar is no longer content to partner with the religious to maintain civil order. Gone are the days of Caesar patting the church on the head like an especially obedient lapdog. Caesar is now openly opposed to the church and we are woefully unprepared to deal with it. We better get our collective heads screwed on straight because there is only one trajectory this is taking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Talking To Mormons

I haven't blogged much about mormonism for some time. the early years after we left are marked by a lot of blogging about mormonism as a catharsis from being in a cult. People still know my background and that background shapes a lot of what I think now, why I am suspicious of authoritarian religious models and top down hierarchy. I don't take anything anyone says at face value without first studying it for myself.

Anyway. a friend of Facebook had some questions about talking to mormons and the kind of questions to ask. Encountering a mormon family or a pair of missionaries can be befuddling. They seem so nice and sincere and use so many word that we hear in the church. I put together a little summary for her and thought it might be helpful for others who are looking to minister to people trapped in mormonism, how to talk to them, the questions to ask, the need for specific definitions. This will hopefully be helpful to others. The so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has shifted marketing strategy to try to gloss over the enormous differences between mormonism and orthodox Christianity and far too many Christians have given little thought to the central, exclusive teachings and doctrines of Christianity. Ignorance of Scripture and doctrine is a road to being deceived, something cults like the mormon "church" exploit. What follows is a slightly modified version of my Facebook message to her, it is very cursory but it gives a good starting point....


In talking to mormons and asking questions the first answer is never enough. Who is Jesus? The Son of God. Ok so far so good. What does that mean? That is where the differences come up. The issue a lot of Christians run into is that we use many of the same words as mormons but they mean different things, so a solid definition is critical to any meaningful conversation.

I usually lead with questions about the person and nature of God the Father and Christ. Are they unique? Have they always been as they are? Can mankind become like them? That can burn up a lot of time. It is critical to know what Christianity teaches and why. It is also helpful to know what mormonism teaches, namely that God was once a man, Jesus and Satan are spirit brothers and that mankind can attain godhood. Questions like "Has God always been as He is now?", properly couched, is a tough one to answer because the mormons know that the answer is no but they don't like to say it. Other good questions have to do with salvation, how is a sinner saved? The proper mormon response is a lot more complicated than faith. This is from the official LDS webpage:

Salvation from Sin. To be cleansed from sin through the Savior's Atonement, an individual must exercise faith in Jesus Christ, repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (see Acts 2:37-38). Those who have been baptized and have received the Holy Ghost through the proper priesthood authority have been conditionally saved from sin. In this sense, salvation is conditional, depending on an individual's continuing in faithfulness, or enduring to the end in keeping the commandments of God (see 2 Peter 2:20-22). 

One of the issues that mormons bring up is that "God always used prophets to lead His people so doesn't it make sense to have prophets today?" The response to that is the beginning of the 1st chapter of Hebrews which I have found many mormons and even their missionaries have never noticed.

Mormons are pretty cagey about their real beliefs. The Book of Mormon, a ludicrous book that is pretty obviously (in retrospect) the work of Joseph Smith, contains very few distinctive mormon doctrines. Things like vicarious baptism for the dead, holy undergarments that are supposed to provide protection, the idea of Jesus and Satan being brothers, the exaltation of man becoming a god, polygamy, etc. are not found in the BoM but are found in their other canonical works, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

There are a couple of good webpages I use for reference. I have a lot of the actual materials but these groups specialize in witnessing to mormons:

Utah Lighthouse Ministry

Mormonism Research Ministry

CARM's page on mormonism

God never sinned

Hope that helps, I am happy to provide any other info you can use!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: Extortion

We live in a era where many people are highly suspicious of the government and nauseated by politicians in general. People are angry, disenchanted, fed up.

Let me just say that no matter how fed up you are, it isn't enough.

In Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets Peter Schweizer lifts the lid on the garbage can known as our political process and shows the way our elected representatives extort money from the evil "special interests". Turns out that it is not special interests corrupting our otherwise noble and pure as the driven snow politicians, it is just as much (if not more) that our politicians use their power and our money to extort money from the deep pocketed special interests. If you want favorable treatment from the government, or just as often to keep something bad from happening, you better show up with your checkbook when Congress or the President calls.

This is an incomplete list of the way our "public servants" enrich themselves with the power they have granted themselves detailed in Extortion.

- Pitting competing interest groups against one another with less than subtle threats to bleed both sides dry.
- Using their influence to get jobs for relatives or the more direct route of hiring family as "consultants" and campaign staff, even if they run unopposed.
- Funneling excess contributions to other members of Congress to buy their support.
- "Loaning" their campaign money and paying themselves back with double digit interest from campaign funds.
- Creating insanely complicated laws that only the people who wrote them understand and then leaving the government for private sector lobbying or consulting jobs interpreting the insanely complex laws they wrote. (I work in an industry that is so complex and convoluted that many companies are probably out of compliance and don't even know it because no one really understands the rules)
- Using PAC funds for non-itemized expenditures on expensive hotels, meals, golf outings, sporting events, etc.

Oh yeah, all of this is legal. It is pretty convenient to be able to write the very laws that govern your behavior. It is kind of like giving car thieves the keys to every car in America and then being surprised when they steal even more cars.

There is a reason that even during the worst of the recession we are still in, Washington D.C. seemed immune. The malls were full and driveways sported brand new cars. The suburbs surrounding D.C. are some of the most affluent in the country thanks to this system of extortion, bribery and influence peddling. No surprise that these folks tend to support the people who will keep the money flowing to Washington.

What is really irritating is that for all of their pious bleating about how much they empathize with the little guy, many Democrats in Congress lead unimaginably lavish lifestyles funded by the same "special interest groups" that they rail against from the floor of the House and Senate. They go to the best golf resorts, eat at the finest restaurants and travel in the most luxurious style while bemoaning the plight of the poor.

Schweizer proposes a number of rules based fixes. Most make sense but I think he misses the reality that Congress creating laws to regulate themselves is license to create loopholes to keep the money flowing. The only way to fix this is to take away the checkbook. When the government has trillions to spend, it is easy for everyone to get a piece of the extortion racket. To kill the beast  we need to starve the beast. Take away the ability to spend so much and these shysters will find different rackets.

If everyone knows this, or at least suspects it, why do we tolerate it? Well the most successful of our public servants do a great job of building a mythos around themselves. There is a reason that Congress is so universally reviled when people are polled and yet we keep electing the same people over and over. We like our Congressmen and Senators, it is all the rest of those rascals that we hate! Between the myth of being on "our side" and bribing voters with their own money, what Schweizer calls the Permanent Political Class has created an endless stream of income for themselves. People who care about the long term future of this country rather than being concerned with which realty show is on and how much loot they can get from the government need to read this book. It is stomach churning but ignorance and apathy means more of the same until we either go bankrupt or wind up in a new civil war.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Scandal Of Disunity

Take a look at this and tell me what you think!

I might have more to say but I loved the comment that the world looks at our disunity and it is little wonder they don't take us seriously!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Some Linkage You Might Like

There have been a few pretty interesting things online the past week.

This is a fascinating look at the lengths people will go to in order to coax gold from the ground to satiate the incredible demand for this particular metal: A Journey Into The World's Deepest Gold Mine. Few people give much thought as to where their gold comes from. We assume that just as our food magically appears in grocery stores each night to restock the shelves like manna, we assume that gold comes from jewelry stores. Well it doesn't. To meet the demand mining companies dig deeper and deeper into the earth where the rock is over 100 degrees and prospective miners are put through a stress test to make sure they won't overheat and die underground. Many still do, clawing the yellow metal from the earth in Africa to adorn the fingers, ears and neck of our loved ones. When you are in the mall passing a jeweler or see someone with an expensive gold necklace remember that people die to get that metal to America. It makes gold lose some of the luster.

The New York Times reports that the F.D.A. Restricts Antibiotics Use For Livestock. Thanks to the unnatural conditions industrialized livestock are raised in, disease runs rampant. To combat this farmers use huge amounts of antibiotics, even using them on non-ill animals to help them grow faster. This practice has made the livestock industry the largest consumer of antibiotics. No one really understand the impact of this massive use of livestock and what it means for humans. Does it leach into the ground water? Is it responsible for antibiotic resistant disease strains? This move by the F.D.A. is expected given the recent media coverage of this issue. I am not a big fan of government regulations but I am also not a big fan of having substances that might be harmful in my water supply, especially since we live very close to a hog confinement operation.

Income inequality and generational systemic poverty are also a major social issue today as the wealthiest among us seemingly get richer and the ranks of the poor who are dependent on government aid swells. Mona Charen looks at this issue and highlight the number one indicator of someone likely to end in poverty, namely not being married. In her essay The Marriage Divide she looks at the powerful evidence that moving away from a traditional marriage culture to one where many women, often through no fault of their own, are left to raise kids by themselves while the fathers move on to greener pastures. Unfortunately many of the most vocal advocates for the poor also are the most vociferous when it comes to creating the system that perpetuates this situation through single motherhood as well as undercutting what is rapidly becoming a luxury good for the well-to-do, traditional marriage and family.

Thabiti Anyabwile is one of the bright stars of the new Reformed movement. He is also unusual in that he is not a 30-40 year old white guy. His recent essay, What Are We Going to Do with Our “Crazy Confederate Uncles”?, looks at an issue that many of us don't even think much about, namely the fringe of the church that pines for the gold old days of the Confederacy. He writes:

Every theological family has, if you’ll permit me the term, their “crazy uncles.” The uncles who are “not quite right,” who normally keep to themselves in their own rooms and usually don’t bother anybody, but occasionally need an intervention. The family knows they’re there and wish they were better, healthier, and able to join the rest of the family in the regular routines of the tribe, but for everybody’s sake leave them in their rooms.

For us theologically reformed types, I call these folks our “crazy Confederate uncles.” Somehow they’ve managed to hold onto the old blending of southern Presbyterianism or Reformed theology and are trying desperately to keep the old world in this new one. So, they make videos and give speeches about the South being the “greatest Christian civilization” or slavery “not being that bad.” They show up with flammable comments whenever “racial issues” dominate the news, like when a South African president dies or a teenage boy is killed. And it seems that our “crazy Confederate uncles” have been out of their rooms a lot lately, talking crazy about Christian hip-hop, interacting with the town folks and leaving a lot of people aghast. Even as a family member, I’ve been pretty embarrassed and sometimes angry.

Like I said, as a white guy in the north I don't see or at least notice this as much but it clearly is there. The issue of race is still an open wound in the church and for our black brothers and sisters this issue (as well as immigration for our Latino brothers and sisters) is an issue that causes division that is unhealthy and unhelpful. I am glad for brothers like Thabiti who will speak to these issues in a thoughtful, Cross centered and winsome way. We have had too much rancor and the world we are heading for is not one where we will have the "luxury" of dividing ourselves up based on race or ethnicity.

Tim Challies just today is starting a series on the ancient church councils. These councils are not well understood by many contemporary Christians but they have a lot to say about why the doctrines and practices of the church are what we are used to. Check out 7 Councils: The First Council of Nicea

That kind of wraps up this list. I have a lot of things I am reading, writing (for my blog and elsewhere) and thinking about. Perhaps they will show up on this page, I am really trying to get back in the habit of blogging more frequently.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Repost: Marriage and Membership

I got into a discussion about the merits or lack thereof of the traditional church membership system. I went back and looked at some of the posts I wrote up about this topic a few years ago and thought I should repost this one. Turns out I was talking about getting the church out of the civil marriage business back then!

What I wrote here still rings true. If you don't know who to love without a membership list that speaks to a much broader problem.


A few days ago, I posted about "church membership" in a post titled A quick thought on ‘church membership’ and titles. Alan Knox picked up on that theme and wrote a companion post of his own, Is this the connection between love and membership? The comments that followed were interesting, including one that compared formal church membership with marriage. The point of the comment was that there is a need for church membership and suggested that is you didn't believe that, try suggesting to your wife that a marriage certificate and wedding ceremony are unneccesary. I thought that was a very interesting comment and it got me thinking about our cultural traditions that surround marriage and the parallels with the church.

If you are married, think about your marriage and what it means. Ask yourself a couple of questions:

- If you didn't have wedding rings to wear, would you still be married?

- If you didn't get a marriage certificate from the state, would you still be married in the eyes of God and one another?

- If you didn't have a wedding ceremony, would you still consider yourselves wed to one another, forsaking all others?

I would imagine that most people, and especially Christians, view marriage as transcending the wedding day and the marriage certificate and the wedding ring. I would also hazard a guess that the argument comparing weddings and marriage certificates to “church membership” would resonate with many Christians. My response to both assertions would be similar. If you need a wedding ring, a wedding ceremony and a marriage certificate to demonstrate your commitment to your spouse, you have a pretty shaky foundation for your marriage. If you require oaths and covenants of fealty to a local church organization to identify who you should love and serve and which men to follow you don’t have much of a foundation in the church.

Biblical marriage is a binding covenant relationship, not a legal contract, and being part of the church is a relationship rather than a formalized system. You cannot substitute contracts and formalities for either one. As I said in the prior post, If you love one another, “membership” is completely unnecessary. If you don’t love one another, “membership” won’t make a difference anyway. The same holds true in marriage. If you love one another, the wedding ceremony and marriage license are superfluous. If you don’t love one another you marriage will never last or at least never be one pleasing to God no matter how big the diamond or how lovely the wedding ceremony. You should check out Alan’s post and the comments that follow.

To get on my soapbox for a minute, I have long thought that the church should not be in the business of performing wedding ceremonies in partnership with the state. In other words the church should not serve as an agent of the state to facilitate legal weddings. I think that it turns “church weddings” into just another cultural institution and along with that it loses value as the culture devalues marriage. Marriage between two Christians who become one flesh in the eyes of the church should be completely separate from two generic people getting married in the eyes of the state. Two Christians do not need the approval of the state, the blessing of an ordained cleric or a piece of paper to be wed. If Christian couples who wed want to go to the justice of the peace to get legal recognition for various purposes in the eyes of the state after the fact, that is fine. I just think that the weird system where the state recognizes marriages performed by the church yokes the two parties together and we certainly should avoid that wherever we can. The church never makes the state more holy but the state certainly infects the church and diverts it from the work of the Kingdom wherever the two are combined.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Review: Twelve Years A Slave

I finished Twelve Years A Slave last night. This work which has been made into a critically acclaimed movie is the autobiographical story of a free black man from New York, Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped and sold into slaver. The Kindle version I bought for $.99 also includes
5 other classics of the era like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Life of Frederick Douglass.

The initial impulse, at least of a white middle aged man in Indiana who has known nothing but respect and comfort for four decades, is "why wouldn't he just say who he was"? As you read you come to realize that for a black slave in the 19th century, claiming your rights was a sure ticket to a whipping or death. As the story unfolds you see very clearly how helpless Solomon Northrup, known as Platt as his slave name, truly was. In America. The land of the free and the home of the brave, a nation that prides itself on our belief that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The entire book screams out a sense of wrongness.  This is not America, this is not the country we pledge our allegiance to, that we cherish, that we kill and die for. But it is. We still suffer from the repercussions of a nation that was built on the scarred backs of millions of slaves who received unimaginable treatment, both physically and emotionally, by being reduced to little more than clever animals to be used and discarded like any other livestock. Maybe it is because I grew up in the North and we were the "good guys" in the Civil War that I can look at slavery as something "we didn't do". No one in my family, as far as I can tell, ever owned slaves but I still live in a country where it was tolerated and blasphemously defended from a false reading of Scripture.

The language is some places is foreign, written in the manner of speech from 150 years ago, but the narrative flows smoothly and it is a pretty easy read. Solomon is an excellent story teller and his anecdotes about little inventions and small pleasures amidst the brutality of slave life make for pleasant breaks to the unrelenting story of misery and dashed hope. Even knowing the outcome (the book title tells you the exact time frame of his captivity) one cannot help but despair of Solomon ever regaining his freedom and being reunited with his family. One thing that really stuck with me, and we will see how the movie handles it, is just how devout Solomon and his fellow slaves were. The faith of the slave population and the way various "masters" handled faith themselves provides  a interesting subplot. You cannot overestimate the impact of their faith for slaves and it makes me wonder how modern day Americans of any race would fare under similar circumstances.

Twelve Years A Slave is an excellent work worthy of reading. It is troubling but the reality of this part of American history is crucial to understanding many of the issues we have struggled with since the Civil War. At only a buck or free from the library this is a work more people should read.

Are You A Pastor Or Just A Supporter?

These are the kind of things that irritate me. Last night I saw someone posting for a free e-book from Tim Keller. I am all about the free e-books and I like some of Keller's stuff so I followed the link to sign up. Then I read the sign up form....

So now there are only two kinds of people in the church, pastors and "supporters"? What does that even mean? Do clergy get a different e-book? Are supporters equivalent to laity? I marked pastor check box anyway as I try to care for and shepherd in the church even if I don't have a jazzy ecclesiastical title, favorable tax breaks or a reserved parking spot.

Turns out the free "e-book" is a couple dozen page .pdf file that has only 17 actual pages of text. Yeah it was free but in this case I got what I paid for, an oversize pamphlet and an inadvertent insult.

The Gospel proper and the implications of the Gospel: One and the same?

When we talk about "the Gospel" and talk about the implications resulting from the Gospel, a lot of the time it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. I think this is a problem. There's a huge difference between the Gospel itself and the implications of the Gospel and our missing or misunderstanding that distinction is the cause of a lot of the division in the church. What is the Gospel, the Good News that we are called to take to the world? Unlike a lot of terminology we use in the church (trinity is a great example), "Gospel" has a pretty concise and specific definition that we find in 1 Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:1-8)

So what, according to Paul, is "the Gospel"? Is it "following Jesus"? Is it feeding the poor? Is it even loving our neighbor? None of the above. Paul reminds the church in Corinth of the Gospel that he delivered to them. Jesus "died for our sins", i.e. made propitiation for the sins of His sheep. He was buried and He rose again, witnessed by Peter and then the rest of the Apostles and then more than 500 others. That is the Gospel, the Good News. All of the rest of the practices and doctrines we see in the New Testament flow from that but the implications are not the same as the central fact of the Gospel. The Gospel flows from the New Covenant wherein we have had a heart transplant, the old stony heart being replaced by a heart of flesh making us born-again and having our sins remembered no more. It is also worth noting that this would be the same Gospel that Paul warns against tampering with in Galatians 1:6-9

Many Christians, and I am thinking primarily of those in the Reformed camp here, tend to focus so much on the Gospel proper, i.e. justification by faith, that they neglect the implications of the Gospel. In other words always studying how we were saved and not what we do now that we are saved. On the other hand a growing number of Christians are expanding the Gospel and running perilously close to a works-righteousness. The Gospel becomes a way of life rather than a new birth, a dangerous reversal of the order. You are not saved/justified by "following Jesus" or walking as He walked, you follow Jesus because you are saved. The order is incredibly important for how we present the Gospel. The evangelical church in America, especially in our youth groups, has been guilty of reversing this and we end up with a bunch of morally upright, saving it till marriage, not smoking, drinking or chewing or going with girls that do, lost sinners who walk away from organized religion when they are adults because they never were confronted with more than a false gospel of behavior modification.

The question that (rightly) might follow is this: Can we separate the two, the Gospel proper and the implications thereof? Sort of. We cannot preach the Gospel and make disciples without subsequently teaching them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus makes that clear in the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:18-20)

Even in this we see the distinction and order laid out. Our commission as His disciples and ambassadors of Christ is to take the Gospel to the nations, make disciples, baptizing them (i.e. "them" being believers) and then teaching them what that means. The order is not random but speaks to the logical and biblical progression. I don't think anything is random or unimportant in Scripture so when something is laid out in a particular order, it means something.

Isn't this just splitting hairs? If the implications of the Gospel inevitably follow the life changing message of the Gospel what is the point? Just this. God has very specifically designed the Gospel to mean what it means. We are in no position to make the Gospel less than it is by making it one of many ways to be saved or just a potential salvation and we are not called to expand upon the Gospel message and add works to the finished work of Christ. The church suffers in this day and age from a serious lack of specificity. We toss words around with apparently little thought to what they mean and the result is confusion in the church and confusion outside of the church. If we don't even know what we are talking about, how is the world supposed to hear our disjointed message that often seems to contradict itself? Just look at the breathless praise heaped on Jorge Bergoglio from so many evangelicals. Certainly he is doing the sorts of things we would expect from the Gospel message received, more so than many evangelicals, but as Tim Challies points out in his post, The People's Pope, The Man of the Year, using language that seems jarring to our politically correct ears, that doesn't change the underlying theology and misunderstanding of the Gospel represented in the papacy:

How are we, as Protestants, to think of this pope? It is easy for us to be swept up in the praise given to Francis, and easy to be impressed by his public acts of faith and humility. Many Protestants see him as an exciting Christian leader and are paying tribute to him. Yet we need to think carefully and discerningly, because what is fundamentally true is this: The Roman Catholic Church is a false church that teaches a false gospel. Rome is semper eadem, always the same, never changing, and her long, long history has proven the validity of this motto. While the face of her leader may change, and while this pope’s actions may appear admirable in many ways, the core doctrine of the church is unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable.

That is not "anti-Catholic". It is simply repeating the historic position of the church that rejects Rome since the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation. The condemnation from defenders of Rome have long been as strongly worded.  I don't think what we are seeing today is a historic detente and reunification of the church, a sign of our maturity because we have risen above such conflicts. Rather we are seeing a mushy, muddled confusion that stems from ignorance and lack of precision.

So does it matter? Absolutely it does. The Gospel and the Gospel alone saves. We should as the church be continually preaching this good news to the lost. We must also as the church be constantly encouraging, equipping and exhorting one another to the work of ministry, the necessary implications of a Gospel changed life lived out by the born-again sheep. We must do both without blending the two together. We must for the sake of those we are reaching with the Gospel and for the sake of those who have been reached and ask "How then are we to live?".

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Going to the movies rather than going to the gym

This is a great video by Francis Chan, not sure how I missed it before. I wanted to share it hear along with (shocker!) some thoughts about what he says.

I agree with the initial question Francis poses. When you peel away as many of the assumptions as possible and just look at Scripture and what it says about church, what you get is not what we are used to. I think it is an important exercise for every Christian to read the New Testament and gather everything it says about the church. When you do that, and I really need to do that again, I agree with the facets of the church that Francis talks about: loving each other like a family, on fire to take the Gospel to the world, the focus was on the communion meal and that the church met to equip the church.

I loved the analogy that Francis uses later in the video, the idea of church being more like going to a movie theater than going to the gym. However you spin it, most gatherings that Christians go to on a weekly basis end up being far more observational than participatory. You might get a lot of information but are you really being prepared and equipped? Think about it like this. I can watch a documentary film about weightlifting and learn a lot about methods, theories and practices of bodybuilders but that doesn't mean I can bench press 300 pounds. You have to go to the gym for that, you have to put in the time and effort, the sweat and the blood. You may know all there is to know about bodybuilding and still not be able to open a jar of pickles.

The church is the same way. I can go to church and learn a lot about Christianity and never really get equipped to be a Christian beyond the "not going to hell" stage. We should be learning by participating in the gathering and by observing other, more mature Christians engaged in the work of ministry. That is the primary purpose of elders. The reason we don't do that because the guys we dump all of the work of ministry on are mostly busy with preparing sermons that don't equip us anyway.

It is odd to me that so many people were critical of Francis Chan when he stepped away from professional, vocational ministry. I think he gets it on a lot of issues and he is one of the more important voices in the church. Anyway, check out the video, I think you will like it!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

But We Invited Them To Church

Last night I had some downtime and used it to start reading the recent book from Tim Chester and Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission. I read the prior book, Total Church, a while back and liked it (for my review, click here). Everyday Church is only $1.99 for Kindle and has already proven to be well worth the couple of bucks.

I am about a quarter of the way through the book and it has been very interesting and highly quotable. I have already highlighted a lot of passages. Steve and Tim live in the U.K. and their perspective on the challenge for the church in a post-Christendom environment has been excellent. The U.S. is headed the same way and we would be wise to learn from those who are experiencing the challenge now. One of their main points is that in a culture that is no longer welcoming but increasingly hostile to the Christian worldview and Gospel message we can no longer rely on the lost "coming to us" to hear the Gospel. We are going to have to go to them because a huge and growing percentage of the population simply has no interest in "going to church".

Here are some quotes....

However, many of our approaches to evangelism still assume a Christendom mentality. We expect people to come when we ring the church bell or put on a good service, but the majority of the population are disconnected from church. Changing what we do in church will not reach them. We need to meet them in the context of everyday life....We need to shift our focus from putting on attractional events to creating attractional communities.

Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re:Lit) (p. 10). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

As we have seen, approximately eighty-five million people in the United States have no intention of attending a church service. In the United Kingdom it is forty million— 70 percent of the population.

Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re:Lit) (p. 25). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

John Finney’s research Finding Faith Today showed that “the most important evangelistic work of the minister appears to be not in the church and the pulpit but in two other kinds of relationships: one to one meetings with non-Christians and the ‘lapsed’ [and] group situations, particularly those where there is an opportunity to talk about the nature of faith.”

Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re:Lit) (pp. 24-25). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

In Christendom many people attended church, sometimes by legal constraint, more often by social constraint. In this context churches could legitimately speak of faithfully proclaiming the gospel, because each Sunday they had gospel-centered sermons. This is no longer the case. We cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church.

(emphasis mine) Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re:Lit) (p. 27). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

That one sentence in bold bears repeating: We cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church. That runs completely counter to the prevailing church culture. Bottom line, just giving a Gospel proclamation as part of the Sunday morning sermon doesn't cut it because the vast majority of people who need to hear the Gospel proclaimed aren't coming to church. I don't think that the sermon centered meeting has ever been healthy but even if you think it worked in the past, it is not working now. Listen to a lot of the "experts" and they will either tell you on the one hand that church services need to be more "relevant" or on the other side that they need to give people even more sermonizing. What is really in view here is what the authors talk about, moving away from "attractional events", i.e. Sunday morning services, Vacation Bible School, etc. and becoming "attractional communities" that engage the lost where they are rather than stubbornly insisting they meet us on our turf. I am already a believer, I don't need to hear the Gospel in the same way that someone lost needs to hear it but the church is largely deigned to cater to people like me instead of equipping the church to go where the lost are. Like the old saying attributed to Willie Sutton "Why do you rob banks? Because that's where the money is" is turned on its head. We need to go where the lost are in order to preach the Gospel to them.

There is a lot of emphasis by the authors on the need to change our mindset. It is not a matter of "repackaging" church but instead by moving to a focus on forming relationships and being accessible to those who need to hear about Jesus. One of my concerns about the so-called house church movement is that it sometimes seems to be just a "repackaging", doing church better but still doing a poor job of making disciples. I am sure there are many house churches that do a great job of making disciples just as there are certainly traditional churches that do the same. What matters more than how we "do church" is how we live our lives in community with other believers. Are we living in a way that enables relationships with unbelievers that we are trying to reach or are we more inward focused on our own priorities?

I also like how the authors tie this back to the Reformation, occurring as it did amidst the Christendom mindset and even embracing it. This ties back to the whole framework for infant baptism and also why the magisterial Reformers were threatened by Anabaptism leading to the persecution of the Anabaptists.

For all its vital rediscovery of gospel-centered theology, the Reformation in Europe did not lead to a recovery of gospel-centered mission by local churches. That is because the Reformers generally accepted the Christendom presupposition that Europe was Christian. To be born was to be born into the church. So the church’s mission to the surrounding society was pastoral rather than evangelistic.

Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Re:Lit) (pp. 22-23). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

We still see this today where most of our time and talent and of course money is funneled into "pastoral ministry".

I am still working through the book and will share more quotes and observations as I go but this is another one of those conversations that the church in America needs to be having right now (and should have been having a long time ago). How do we reach people when they are not ever going to come to the event driven ministries that we invest most of our time, talent and money in?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Ordo Salutis

Eric Carpenter shared this graphic from Tim Challies today and I thought it was helpful so I am sharing it with you. Enjoy!

A Quick Economics Lesson

(When I say economics please note that there is a difference between economics and what economists teach/believe. I think most economists haven't a clue what happens in the real world, kind of like professional theologians who never get away from campus except to attend theological seminars)

So anyway a couple of weeks ago the predictably left wing Huffington Post ran a hit piece on Wal-Mart because, GASP!, the CEO of Wal-Mart has a much larger pension plan as part of his executive compensation package than the average cashier/greeter/shelf stocker that works for Wal-Mart. Oh the humanity! Something must be done! I say...


I know Wal-Mart is the easy to revile target du jour. It is the unattainable prize for unions and their bought and paid for political friends. Being the single largest private employer in the country means that unionizing Wal-Mart would singlehandedly help reverse the decades long decline in union membership so the labor movement has been fanatically obsessed over Wal-Mart for a very long time. Railing against Wal-Mart is made even better because there is a subtle elitism from those who are refined and shop at fancier stores, sneering and snickering at the great unwashed hoi polloi that shop at Wal-Mart because a few of them wear lycra pants and tube tops while shopping. Chortle! What a bunch of rubes! If we can control our sneering for a moment, can we think about this?

The CEO of Wal-Mart heads a multi-national goliath with around 9000 locations, the #1 largest company in the Fortune 500 with almost $500,000,000,000 in revenue. In case you missed it, that is half a trillion dollars in revenue. It is one of the, if not the, most complex business entities in the world. What exactly would you say is an appropriate pension ratio compared to the average Wal-Mart worker, a worker that has no supervisory or P&L responsibility even at the department level in a single store and presumably has minimal experience and education? Working in the retirement plan industry for as long as I have I can guarantee you that the reason the average 401(k) balance at Wal-Mart is around $18,000 is that there are an awful lot of people who don't save anything in their retirement plans and coming up with an average when a lot of your input is a zero lowers the entire average. That is true at almost any company and especially organizations with a large number of lower income, part-time and second-wage workers like retailers. Companies spend a lot of time and effort to try to get people to participate, often selecting their retirement plan provider based in large part on their experience in education employees. Not everyone can afford to save in their 401(k), I get that, but the out of context ratio is a red herring.

Really what does it matter to you or me how much the CEO of Wal-Mart gets in his pension compared to the "average" Wal-Mart worker?  In fact what does it matter to the average worker at Wal-Mart? It really is an issue between the board of directors, selected by the shareholders of Wal-Mart, and the person who occupies the proverbial corner office. They have decided that he is worth that sort of compensation package. I know that being perpetually aggrieved over this "injustice" or that "outrage" is something of a badge of honor among a subset of the population, the same population that likes to mock the stereotypical low brow customer of Wal-Mart stores, but as a private employer Wal-Mart is free to offer various compensation packages to people for various jobs. If the average Wal-Mart worker thinks he or she deserves a higher wage or better compensation package, they should apply for other jobs and see if that is true. You only deserve whatever wage you can negotiate based on your skills and experience. If you like working at Wal-Mart and want to make more, Wal-Mart has all sorts of benefits to help you. As their website notes, "About 75% of our store management teams began as hourly associates, and they earn between $50,000 and $170,000 a year" and " Every year, we promote 170,000 people to jobs with more responsibility and higher pay". THAT is how Wal-Mart workers make more money, by working hard and taking advantage of opportunities to advance yourself, opportunities open to every employee, not by demanding an arbitrary raise for no reason other than someone thinks they should make more.

A lot of this chatter surrounds the idea of a "living wage", an arbitrary level of income that someone decided everyone needs to make. We are treated with the regular spectacle of the Left pushing for an ever inflated minimum wage, a policy that basically amounts to bribing voters with other people's money. The latest proposal demands a Federal minimum wage of $10.10. Why stop there? Why not $20/hour? Or $30?! Probably because the people who are pushing for this know that it would cause dramatic, immediate inflation. By increasing it incrementally, a buck or two here and there, the inflationary pressure is spread out. It is still there but it is not as obvious. The net results is that within a short time the minimum wage worker is still not better off in terms of purchasing power but they are made to feel better about themselves and of course show up at the ballot box to vote for the party that "cares about working class Americans:.

Let me be blunt. No one "deserves" a living wage, whatever that means. You don't "deserve" something just because you "want" something, although that is a tough sell in our society. Saying that an entire population of workers in a myriad of industries, with radically different skills and experience, living in a wide range of cities, towns and rural locations deserves an arbitrarily determined rate of pay might make for good political theater but it doesn't make a lot of sense in the real world. Many jobs are called "entry level" because that is what they are, jobs for lower skilled employees with correspondingly less experience. Employers are dying for workers with skills, skills that just about any American can get for relatively low cost and in a short time at a community college. Every place I have ever worked promoted from within so if you work hard, you move up. That is how it has always been, at least in my lifetime/, but now people want to skip the "work hard" and "gain skills/experience" part and go right to the "make more money" stage.

Kudos to Wal-Mart for attracting top executive talent and compensating them for the unimaginably difficult and complex jobs they perform. Again, if the average Wal-Mart worker is thinks they are getting a raw deal they should take their resume to the marketplace and see what employers think. Or they should take steps to advance themselves. There is no reason an 18 year old Wal-Mart worker making minimum wage can't go to college on Wal-Mart's dime and rise through the ranks to be the CEO. It takes time, it takes patience and it takes hard work but aren't those all things we are supposed to respect in America?