Sunday, March 30, 2014

Repost: God's covenant people are an olive tree not a corn field

This post from 2011 has consistently been one of my "most viewed" which should tell me something because it is pretty brief and to the point. Perhaps my book length posts are not as awesome as I think! Anyway I was reminded of this post the other day and how this analogy speaks to the way the one Body of Christ has been brought together from many disparate people that we have subsequently been trying to either create false unity based on conformity backed up with violence or that we have done our very best to divide again and again to suit our own preferences.

As I was thinking about this unity in Christ, I was again reminded of how often we get appeals from the religious among us for unity at any cost, "unity" that is based in error. True unity is based on the Word of God, both the Only Begotten Son who is the living and reigning King as well as the revelation of the Son preserved for us in the written Word of God, the Bible. Knowing the Bible without knowing the Son is lifeless, empty theological intellectualism dressed up as piety. Trying to know the Son without likewise knowing and submitting to the Bible is the source of most aberrant teachings that have plagued the church for centuries.

Ultimately, until we abandon the ecclesiastical model that pits one group of Christians against all others we will continue to see a church that resembles a field of corn with shallow roots and a short life expectancy rather than a venerable olive tree.


We seen an image of God's covenant people, especially as it pertains to those of us who are not Jewish by ancestry, as an olive tree in Paul's letter to the church in Rome.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Rom 11:17-24)
Not to overly anthropomorphize this but I believe there are some important lessons to be drawn from this

Olive trees have deep roots and many branches. There are many different branches but all of them are interconnected. The branches on an olive tree are interdependent, all drawing the source of sustenance from the same root system.

Sometimes it seems that God's people are more like a corn field than an olive tree. Corn plants in a field grow alongside one another but compete for resources. They look identical from a distance but when you get closer there are slight variations.

Whether it is competing for nutrients, sunlight, water, whatever, corn plants are competing with one another even though they are after the same goal: making ears of corn.

It seems that the church is like this. We all are claiming to follow Christ and seek to make disciples and teach those disciples. We also are divided up into row after row of nearly identical local churches, all in competition with one another for precious resources: people, money, facilities, influence. My corn plant/local church grabs what resources we can and make a few ears of corn. The corn plant/local church next to me does the same thing. The whole system doesn't look much like the church, much less an adoptive family.

Rows of corn plants in a field makes for good agricultural practice but not very good ecclesiology. We need to constantly remember that we are all grafted into the same olive tree.

Monday, March 24, 2014

I Am All In Favor Of Christian Unity. This Ain't It.

I have written many times on the importance of Christian unity and bemoaning the lack thereof. That should not be construed to mean an anything goes abandonment of the very heart of the Gospel. I was deeply troubled (although not surprised) by the announcement from Richard Stearns, the president  of the mammoth, ostensibly Christian charity World Vision that they would employ people in a legal "gay marriage". To compound the error his rationale for this move is (or at least should be) befuddling (emphasis mine):

World Vision's American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.

Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America's largest Christian charities.

In an exclusive interview, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained to Christianity Today the rationale behind changing this "condition of employment," whether financial or legal pressures were involved, and whether other Christian organizations with faith-based hiring rules should follow World Vision's lead.

Stearns asserts that the "very narrow policy change" should be viewed by others as "symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity." He even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.

In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently "tearing churches apart" over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.

Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision's home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.

Embracing as normal what the Bible describes as sin, disordered and contrary to nature for the sake of "unity"? Let me state unequivocally as someone who yearns for genuine unity in the church: unity that is founded on a lie is not Christian unity.That policy might make sense for a secular employer but for an organization that seeks to be intentionally Christian it is a theological trainwreck.

Those who struggle with homosexual attraction and those actively involved in this sinful lifestyle deserve and demand our love. That love means speaking the truth to them, humbly as those who once were lost but now are found. Loving the sinner doesn't mean affirming their sin as OK, it means telling them of a different way. The Bible speaks very clerly on this issue in Paul's letter to the Corinthians:

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. 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. (1 Cor 6:9-11)

Those who are unrepentant sinners, whether homosexuals or drunkards or thieves, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. All of those of us who are regenerate, born again Christians were once sinners like that but the key here is the past tense. We are not that way any longer. We may struggle with sin but we no longer embrace it. I doubt World Vision would hire a convicted and unrepentant embezzler to run their accounting department or a guy who shows up drunk to work to drive workers around. yet they will normalize as acceptable what the Bible calls destructive.

To put on the same level marriage between a man and a woman, an arrangement instituted by God in the very beginning, with a politically popular but Scripturally unrecognizable arrangement like "gay marriage" is the height of loving the world over walking the often lonely path of the cross. It only makes matters worse to base this soul condemning capitulation ona false appeal to "unity".

The church in the days to come must come together to stand for the Gospel. We cannot base our appeals for unity on a denial of the very Gospel that must serve as the foundation of that unity. I am not sure what motivated World Vision to make this move, whether an honest if misguided effort to embrace homosexuals or a callous and cynical move from a money driven organization getting ahead of where the culture (and the checkbooks) are headed. Regardless this is the sort sad but expected move we will see from the pseudo-Christian world of religion that permeates our society. The walk of the church when standing for the truth as it becomes more unpopular will often be lonely and even dangerous but that is all the more reason to reject calls for false unity and call on the church to rally around the truth of the Gospel.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The great contradiction of American conservatism

I was reading Radley Balko's excelent book Rise Of The Warrior Cop, while waiting on an Amish guy and came across this excellent quote that summarizes the deeply contradictory position of American conservatism on its love/hate relationship with the state:

Conservatives had always held the somewhat contradictory position that government can't be trusted in any area of society except when it comes to the power to arrest, detain, imprison, and execute people.

- Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop, Pg. 144

In other words, conservatives hate the government when it is handing out food stamps and welfare checks but love it when it is wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. This has increasingly made little sense to me and helps explain in part why I have been moving rapidly away from a dogmatic political posture associated with "conservatism".

I used to try to explain this contradiction away by pointing out that national defense is a legitimate function of the Federal government but very little, if any, of the billions of dollars in military spending have the slightest linkage to national defense. Even worse the Federalization of law enforcement at the state and local level along with a far too cozy relationship between the military and civilian law enforcement is very troubling to me and I am quite certain would cause outrage among the men who drafted the Constitution, a document that is if anything designed to limit the power of the Federal government and especially military abuses.

I think much of this stems from two main sources. One is a serious ignorance of the Constitution, what it says and what it doesn't and the context under which it was drafted. This is especially odd since a lot of conservatives base their appeal on the Constitution. The Constitution was written in light of and in response to the abuses of a centralized government with a standing military and contains a number of specific articles in the Bill of Rights designed to counter the abuses of an armed force wielded by the state.  As many conservatives like to point out, the Second Amendment wasn't written into law to protect the rights of hunters or competitive target shooters, it was a counterbalance to abuses by the state by having an armed and free populace. Without the 2nd Amendment the rest of the rights recognized by the Bill of Rights exist in practice only at the pleasure of the government. In spite of this few conservatives see the armed agents of the state as the most pressing potential source for enabling tyranny.

The second source is the very effective way that reverence for military and law enforcement has been ingrained into the American psyche and national character coupled with a long running fear campaign designed to convince people living in perceived safety and affluence that there is an "other" that seeks to take it away from them, an "other" that can only be vanquished by bloodshed. As long as we think there is someone out there seeking to destroy our way of life, whether commies or pot smoking hippies or Islamic terrorists or , we will need an enormous standing army that dwarfs any other military in the world, an equally pervasive intelligence apparatus that seems mostly adept at spying on American citizens and an increasingly militarized police force. Combined they provide a false sense of security

Now don't get me wrong, the opposite end of the political spectrum known as liberalism or more ironically "progressiveness" is wrong on just about every issue and even when it is right on the problem it is invariably wrong on the solution. The direction we need to move, and given the recent outrage over the NSA spying fiasco the political climate seems to be moving, is toward more individual liberty coupled with individual responsibility. But until conservatives resolve the great contradiction there will always be a major disconnect with the electorate.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Book Review: Fight

Preston Sprinkle has done the church a service in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. This contemporary look at the question of Christians and violence is an especially pertinent one given the near universal embrace of violence and warfare as acceptable means to an end in the evangelical church. Outside of some of the historic "peace churches" like the Mennonites, Amish and Quakers, the idea of non-violence as a foundational doctrine in Christianity is relegated to the leftward spectrum of the church where it gets lost in the chatter about various other liberal social causes. As a relatively recent adherent to the non-violence stance I can say with some confidence that there is little serious literature in the evangelical world to defend this stance. Instead we find a church comfortably cocooned in a society that, if not glorifies, at the least celebrates warfare.

Unlike many modern advocates of non-violence, Sprinkle has a largely orthodox set of beliefs. He recognizes the reality of hell (he co-authored the book Erasing Hell with Francis Chan, see my review here) and speaks without apology of God's wrath. I fear that it is too easy to dismiss many writers as leftist cranks without genuine interaction with their concerns. Unfortunately a lot of the literature on non-violence is muddied by authors who subscribe to heterodox positions like open theism. This makes their argument convenient to dismiss out of hand. After all if someone can get those kinds of issues wrong why would anyone give credence to much more complex questions.

Along with the typical New Testament passages, Sprinkle also looks at the Old Testament and the early church fathers. What he lays out is a convincing argument that non-violence is a normative and necessary outliving of the command to love our enemies. Also powerful is his wrestling with the usual "gotcha" questions like "what about Hitler?" and the hypothetical intruder bent on hurting your family. Those sorts of questions (I get them whenever I write on the topic on non-violence) are not designed to generate meaningful dialogue, they are designed to shut down conversation before it gets uncomfortable. Sprinkle approaches these topics with humility but conviction and his conclusions and thought process are worthwhile for every serious Bible student.

If there is a weakness in Fight it would be the narrowness of the topic. That is understandable but unfortunate. I prefer the broader term "non-resistance" to the more narrowly focused "non-violence". What we find in the New Testament is much broader than not shooting/beating up our enemies. Instead we see this idea of deferring to others in all sorts of aspects of our lives: economic, legal, etc. I get why Sprinkle focused as he did on violence proper (it is a huge problem in the Western church) but I would love to see him write a follow-up with a broader view.

Regardless of where you are currently on this subject Fight is a great entry to help the conversation. The non-violence position is a historical powerful witness and one that needs to be recovered in a church at ease with celebrating warfare and violence.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


Unlike last year we had a successful delivery of a new baby heifer calf. She is a Jersey-Dexter cross so she will be noticeably smaller than a full sized dairy cow. We are planning on raising her up and selling her to a family that would be looking for something a little smaller than a standard dairy cow but still looking for high quality milk. Pretty exciting for us and as an added bonus she is super cute. Doesn't quite make up for losing our sow thanks to my inexperience but it is nice nonetheless. Up next should be a couple of sets of (hopefully) twin lambs any day now.

Sunday Snowday Linkday

I keep telling myself "I like winter and we will be complaining about the heat soon enough". It is not working anymore..

Matt Walsh wins the internet. Again. This is one of the best things ever to grace the interwebs: Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect. You can read a million posts about men needing to be better husbands and fathers from all sorts of vantage points ranging from patriarchy to neo-feminist egalitarianism. Switch it around and talk about women being better moms and wives? Yeah that is not so popular.

I’ve discussed at length how men should treat women. I’ve written about the lessons I plan to teach my son; lessons about how he should love, honor, respect, serve, and protect the women in his life. Indeed, men need to respect women, and we, as men, are far from perfect in that regard.

Those posts — the ones where I call on us men to improve the way we treat women — tend to be very popular. They’re popular when I write them or when anyone writes them. Proclaim that women, mothers, and wives should be respected, and a chorus will shout ‘amen.’ Every day on Facebook brings us another viral post excoriating men and supporting women. I’ve written a few of them myself.

But I’ve noticed that the corollary – a message about the respect women must give men, a message challenging wives and encouraging husbands – isn’t quite so palatable for many people. Disrespect for men has become standard practice. That scene I witnessed was sad but unremarkable; we’ve all watched that kind of thing play out a thousand times over. Men are disrespected by their wives – they’re disrespected publicly, they’re disrespected privately, they’re disrespected and then told that they have no right to be upset about it because they aren’t worthy of respect in the first place.

I cannot tell you how many times I have overheard conversations among female co-workers in an office setting where they were complaining about their husbands. As Matt also points out our poplar entertainment media is full of depictions of husbands as clueless oafs, barely tolerated by their long-suffering wives and mocked by their world wise kids. This constant barrage in TV shows and commercials goes a long way toward explaining why relationships in America often seem like the woman is barely tolerating her partner as a burden to bear. This doesn't absolve men of their responsibility but it does in some measure explain it.

One of the most common misunderstandings when it comes Biblical relationship in marriage is that wifely submission and husbandly love is conditional. In other words wives only have to submit to their husbands when he deserves and husbands only have to love their wives when they deserve it. (The other misunderstanding that is exploited by many neo-feminist writers is that submission is a function of power, which it certainly is not.). My call to love my wife and respect her as the weaker vessel is not contingent on her submission to me. Likewise her calling to respect and submit to me is also not contingent on me loving her. We need to recover the Biblical harmony and rhythm of marriage because following the lead of the world is killing the family witness.

Here is a good post on the notion of "just war" and the positive assumption it gets in the church, Questioning the Just War Assumption. Written by Derek Vreeland this post, it hits a lot of the most common foundations that provide the framework for "just war" theory. As his brief post shows, these are pretty flimsy arguments.

Al Mohler weighs in on the swiftly changing religious liberty landscape where acceptance is turning quickly in coercion, Caesar, Coercion, and the Christian Conscience: A Dangerous Confusion

Photographers, makers of artistic wedding cakes, and florists are now told that they must participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, and this is a direct violation of their religiously-based conviction that they should lend no active support of a same-sex wedding. Based upon their biblical convictions, they do not believe that a same-sex wedding can be legitimate in any Christian perspective and that their active participation can only be read as a forced endorsement of what they believe to be fundamentally wrong and sinful. They remember the words of the Apostle Paul when he indicted both those who commit sin and those “who give approval to those who practice them.” [Romans 1:32]

This is not at all unexpected but the speed of the change is breathtaking. Homosexuals do not need our photography skills or wedding cakes. They need to hear of the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can reconcile and change even those engaged in the  most egregious sins.

Tim Challies continues his series on heretics, The False Teachers. The last two deal with Pelagius and Mohammad.  This is a good intro for anyone with a limited knowledge of church and religious history because there are really no new heresies under the sun, just recycled ancient ones.

A great essay from Dave Black makes the list, A Fowl Lesson.

When Luther reformed the content of the Gospel, he left the outer forms of the church essentially untouched. I believe it is time for new wineskins, for a reformation of structure. This is as much a theological issue as was the return to justification by faith during the Reformation. Only now the issue is not soteriological but ecclesiological.

As God changes the church, one area He is developing is the concept of Body Life – the notion of believers ministering to other believers in the power and love of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament church was a mass of small groups (house churches) where elders were no more than a part of the whole and where the whole spiritual organism flourished by the individual “ministers” (the believers themselves) finding their proper role and place in the church. The key was mutual sharing, fellowship, and participation – believers functioning as “priests” instead of the heavy professionalism we find today. They realized that God entrusted His Body not into the hands of an administrative bureaucracy but into the hands of believers who took the “one anothers” of Scripture seriously.

Modern Christianity has fled from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. There is very little “one-anothering” taking place in many of our congregations. Just as we have cars full of single people, so the church is marked by organized artificial performances in which the majority of believers are mere passive observers.

Great stuff. As I often say the Reformation reclaimed the Gospel but left the form of the church merely modified rather than renewed. That failure on the part of the magisterial Reformers is the pressing need of the day even still and the cause of many errors in the church.

I like this fun series from The Libertarian Republic, Why Christians Make Great Libertarians. Ian Huyett compares the Israelite demand for a human king to rule them to the statism of modern America.

This equation of statism with idolatry is alive and well in modern Christendom. In particular, Christians in the United States have – since before Bush left office – been moving away from federal advocacy and towards political decentralization. Whenever someone suggests that Christians cannot be a viable force for liberty, I know that person has been long out of touch with America’s Christian culture. The believers I speak with increasingly feel put upon by the earthly state and simply wish to be allowed to live as they see fit in their own communities.

I have been moving in the direction of liberty over "conservatism" since what passes for modern American conservatism is just statism dressed up in a uniform.

I hope these links keep the intellectual fires burning while you wait out this seemingly endless winter!