Friday, December 18, 2009

Here I stand

It has been a theologically tumultuous couple of years or so for me. One only need look back at my posts from a few years ago and compare them to my current posts to see that I have had some radical changes in my thinking. From the topics I post about to the blogs I link to, my focus has changed quite a bit. I decided that given the seismic changes to some of my positions and the occasional misrepresentation of those positions (some in jest and some not) it is necessary to clarify where I stand. Please note that I have turned off the comments for this post. This is not a post designed for conversation but for clarification. I might at some point do some follow-up posts to flesh some of this out but by and large I have addressed these questions in the past in greater detail. This overview is necessarily incomplete in that I am unable to address every single issue and some issues I am still working out, so I reserve the right to modify and clarify these stances as needed.

So here is what I believe, my “statement of faith” if you will. This is unfortuunately a very long post but I am not going to break it up because I plan to link to this post in the sidebar to hopefully avoid accusations and mischaracterizations in the future.

First and foremost, I hold the sixty-six books of the Bible as authoritative, inerrant, clear and sufficient. Interpreted properly (Scripture interpreting Scripture, the New Testament interpreting the Old Testament) the Bible provides all that we need to know in this life about God. It is not exhaustive in the information it reveals about God but it is sufficient. We should reject any so-called revelation or any traditions that run contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Likewise we need to recognize that the Scriptures are authoritative in the life of the individual Christian as well as in the life and outworking of the church. In other words it is all we need to know in faith and practice, for how we are saved and how we should live. While commentaries, creeds, confessions, etc. are useful tools in aiding our study, they are merely tools and not inspired nor authoritative. Where disputes arise among Christians, they should be settled by Scripture not by dueling confessions or by trump cards like “Well Calvin taught …”. Pragmatism has no place where Scripture has spoken. Where so-called “science” or “philosophy” contradicts Scripture, it is Scripture that I stand upon. As such, I recognize as literal the miraculous events of the Old and New Testament and hold to literal interpretations of doctrines like the six days of creation, the death and resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth and a literal, conscious hell for the unbeliever. The Bible and the Bible alone is my source for authoritative teachings and everything else bows before the God breathed Scriptures.

I believe that in the Bible we see the revelation of God whereby God created man in His own image but that in spite of the perfect fellowship Adam enjoyed, he willfully sinned against God and was cast out of the Garden. Adam is the representative head of all mankind and thus all successive generations of men were inherently sinful and lost, under the condemnation of a just and holy God. Throughout the Old Testament we see two things happening, the Jews failing to keep the law and God promising in prophecy, types and shadows the coming of a Messiah, His own Son. In due time Jesus Christ who is fully God became flesh and dwelt among us, He lived a perfect and sinless life and in doing so fulfilled the law. I believe that He died on a cross on Calvary, was buried and rose again the third day and having fulfilled His purpose and having made propitiation for the sins of His sheep, He has ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God until the appointed time when the dead will rise and all will stand before the Judgment Seat. I am in complete agreement with the historic ecumenical creeds, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, as statements of the faith which, although not authoritative in any sense, do provide a basis for common understanding among Christian brothers.

I believe in and hold firmly to the “Five Solas”: Sola Fide-Sola Gratia-Solus Christus-Sola Scriptura-Soli Deo Gloria

Those five phrases roughly translate into: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone revealed under the authority of the Scriptures alone for the Glory of God alone. That is eminently Biblical and foundational to the faith. We may disagree on the details of how that works but the essence is the same. I would also suggest that anyone who disagrees with the essence of those “Five Solas” is preaching another Gospel. That is a serious charge but if you declare that we are saved to any extent by our own works, if you accept extra-Biblical revelation or tradition as authoritative, you are preaching “another Gospel” and I stand with Paul in declaring that anathema (Gal 1: 8-9). That is not to say that there are not Christians who have a misunderstanding of the Gospel. Paul refers to those in Galatia being led astray by the false preachers as “brothers”. In those cases, it is the responsibility of the Christian to show the one in error “the way of God more accurately” in the same way that Aquila and Priscilla taught Apollos in Acts 18: 24-28. For those who are preaching “another Gospel” though, it would become an issue to break fellowship with.

I also hold firmly and unapologetically to the “Five Points of Calvinism” as expressed in the acrostic TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Preservation of the Saints. Calvinism is not about Calvin and would be just as true (although called something else!) if Calvin had never lived. In holding to these Five Points I do not exalt Calvin above other men nor do I find Calvin’s flaws to reflect upon the validity of Calvinism. Even as I find the Five Points to be an accurate system to help explain the Biblical doctrines of grace, I don’t see these “Five Points” as issues to divide over. I would not break fellowship with a brother who doesn’t agree with limited atonement. I would certainly open the Word and talk to him about it, but this is not an issue to break fellowship over. The “Five Solas” and the “Five Points of Calvinism” are critical issues in that they speak to the grand story of redemption and how a just and holy God redeemed a remnant of lost humanity. This is an area where I am in agreement with many of my brothers and they are truths that need to be taught more, not less, in the church.

Where I find myself at odds with many of my brothers is in how our salvation is lived out in the gathered church. In many ways I would be described as a “radical” in the sense that I don’t see any room for pragmatism or compromise or tradition in the gathering of the church. Like the Biblically orthodox majority of Anabaptists, I seek a return to the more primitive expression of the church. This may be more properly described as a Restoration rather than a Reformation. The Roman Catholic church was not and is not an institution that can be “reformed” because it is fundamentally flawed at its core. It has never been a Gospel organization and as such can never be reformed because it was never orthodox in the first place. We should turn to the 1st century, not the 16th, when seeking to fix what ails the church today. The best teachers on the church are not Luther and Calvin but Christ and Paul.

While I appreciate much of what was accomplished in the Reformation, specifically the denial of the Mass as heretical, the recovery of the authority of the Scriptures and the reaffirmation of justification being by faith alone, I am not seeking a return to the 16th century Protestantism. I find myself in agreement with the assessment of the early Anabaptist leaders who referred to the great Reformers like Luther and Zwingli as “half-way men”, men who we on the right track but who didn’t follow through. Much was corrected but far too much was retained.

This is not merely a dispute over infant baptism. It is no secret that I find no Scriptural basis for infant baptism and that I think it is an erroneous practice that misunderstands the purpose of baptism and misapplies it to those who not only have not but cannot exhibit the requisite repentance to be baptized. Infant baptism is a traditional practice that is a leftover from Rome and one that should have been eliminated during the Reformation but was not. Because of the long tradition and the emotional nature of infant baptism, it has been retained hundreds of years after the church broke free from the grip of Rome. Infant baptism applies the sign of covenant membership upon those who cannot possibly have demonstrated that they are indeed part of the Christian community. Having said that, infant baptism is just one of many areas where I see the Reformation as incomplete.

I believe that the entire system of clericalism, like infant baptism, is likewise a holdover from Rome. While not without its attractiveness to humans, by and large the division of the Body of Christ into professional clergy and passive laity has crippled the Body and left most Christians in a state of perpetual spiritual infancy. The practical result of a professional, separate clergy has been generations of general apathy, passivity and ignorance among the laity and overburdening, distance and pride among the clergy. I believe that the Scriptures paint a far different picture, one where all members of the Body minister to one another. I don’t see room for professional clergy, distinguished from the laity by office and education , being supported by the giving of that same laity. Ministers who are employees of a local organization have a necessarily different set of motivations from those who serve voluntarily. Paul found his reward in preaching the Gospel free of charge (1 Cor 9:18) and likewise we should not “hire” elders nor pay them a regular salary. Elders of all stripes should support themselves like Paul, by the labor of their own hands and not from the giving plate. Where elders are in need, the church should support them. That might include monetary support but it is no different from any other believer who should be ministered to by the church. We should recognize elders from within the local gathering, not by hiring men from outside of the local gathering.

On the church. I stand firmly on the doctrine that the church consists of all God’s elect, all who ever have, are now and ever will be regenerated and come to faith in Christ through God’s sovereign choice. There can be no unbelievers in the church by the very nature of the church. I reject the idea that the church is the fount of salvation in the sense of the Westminster Confession which declares in an echo of Roman Catholic teachings that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF Ch. 25, II). This teaching is an affront to the Word of God since we see no example of this anywhere in Scripture. On the day of Pentecost, where was the visible gathering of the church? Where was it when Cornelius and his household were saved? Where was it when the Ethiopian eunuch was saved? Where was it when the penitent thief on the cross was saved? The teaching that says “This organization is the true church and that one is not and therefore you cannot be saved outside of this organization” is more akin to mormonism than it is to the New Testament.

I also hold that the New Testament example of the church is the model we should base our practice upon, rather than the leftover traditions of Rome. The visible expression of the church is a voluntary association, one that cannot be coerced or inherited. That visible gathering is not an organization or a hierarchy and by its nature stands apart from the world while proclaiming to the world the risen Christ. The notion of Christendom, that the church and the state can exist in partnership is an abomination that led to Rome and the state churches of Europe. Formal church “membership” is foreign to the New Testament church.

I recognize and cherish that God has set aside men as elders to lead the church through service. Christians should submit to one another and should recognize as elders men who exhibit the signs of maturity and service we see described in the New Testament. Elders/pastors do serve an important purpose in the church, specifically to serve, instruct, encourage and equip others with the goal of bringing all Christians to a maturity in the faith (Eph 4:11-16). That doesn’t mean that the elders should always teach because how then would others grow and how would the whole body be edified as we see in 1 Corinthians 14? Elders are a gift to the entire Body, men who have achieved a maturity in the faith and exhibited by their lives that maturity. They have no authority outside of that granted them in Scripture and are not rulers in the church.

On the “Sacraments”. Neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper are functions of the clergy as is commonly accepted by most of the church. There is simply no Scriptural command or example to limit the act of baptism or the “officiating” of the Supper to a specially ordained man or class of men. Baptism is an outward expression of an inward change, an act of obedience in response to being born-again. It is not to be applied to infants or to children who have parroted back a rote prayer, nor should it be withheld from one who makes a credible profession of faith in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal. Note the word I use is “ meal”. The degeneration of the Lord’s Supper into a somber ritual, infrequently held and consisting of tiny scraps of bread or sips of grape juice misses the nature of the Supper as a memorial to Christ and a prefiguring of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. The early church devoted themselves to the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42) and did so frequently, perhaps daily, not once a quarter or even only every Sunday (Acts 2:46). We likewise should break bread together as the Body of Christ far more frequently than we do.

We read from Paul on the pages of Holy Writ that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10). Our Savior likewise had some less than complimentary things to say about the desire for wealth (see Matt 19:16-24, Mark 4:19, Luke 6:24, Luke 12: 13-21, etc, etc, etc). We see that truth lived out all around us, every day. Unfortunately we see this also demonstrated on a regular basis within the church. Few things divide the gathered church more than money and few things segregate Christians from one another while simultaneously associating us with the unbelieving world like wealth. The Church far too often resembles the unbelieving world around us more than the gathered, redeemed sheep of Christ. The early church saw the love of money and possessions to be of no value but instead sold what they had and laid it at the feet of the apostles such that there were none among them who went without. The reward of the believer is in the life to come and so we should neither seek nor desire riches and wealth in this life. Christianity is not a branch of capitalism nor is it a type of socialism. It is something else entirely. The gathered Body should deal honestly with the world but we should deal in a distinctly counter-cultural way with one another. Our relationship to one another is a testimony to an unbelieving world and one that in the church in the West often looks little different from the rest of the world.

Money is but one of the ways in which the distinction between the church and the world has been blurred. The church must be separate and distinct from the world. Where believers try to mix the world and the church, it is the church that is changed and not the world. If the church resembles the world, the witness of the church is damaged. It is little wonder that so much about the gathered church is appealing to the world because it is indistinguishable from the world. If the unregenerate world can look on the church without revulsion and disdain, something is wrong. It is not the goal of the church to be appealing to the world but to present a contrast to the world. When we adopt the world’s methods and values, we lose the distinctiveness of the church which again is a testimony to and an indictment of the unbelieving world. Merely avoiding the “wrong” kinds of movies is merely scratching the surface of what it means to be unstained from the world (James 1:27). I contend that in the ways that truly matter, most of the church and I include myself in this condemnation live in a manner that is virtually indistinguishable from my unsaved neighbors.

I do hold to some of the traditional views regarding the gathering of the church, not because they are traditional but because they are Biblical. I think it is vital that Christians gather in community, although I would reject the traditional notion that this can be accomplished by a couple of carefully orchestrated meetings for a few hours each week. I also do not see Sunday mornings are some sort of divinely ordained time to meet. I reject the teaching that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath. I would likewise hold to the idea of equality before Christ but with roles that are specifically ordained by God for the two genders. I think that radical egalitarianism in the operation of the Body is without Scriptural support and that in fact the opposite is true. Men and women, equal in Christ but different in calling, have specific roles that are ordained by God and gifted into the individual by God. Men are called to leadership in the home, family and the gathered church. Just as the first woman Eve was created as a helper suitable for Adam, so also are women in a similar role today. Women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men. I also believe that Scripture is explicitly clear that wives are to cover their heads as a symbol of authority when praying or prophesying. That is not to say women have no role, just that their role as keepers of the home and rearing children is different than that of men by design. Because we have by and large abandoned this God ordained pattern in deed if not in creed, we have women seeking to be in authority over men, men who fail to lead in the church and home, as well as children who are confused and raised by strangers instead of their mothers. Often this is a result of women seeking to “fill in the gap” where men have failed. The solution to men failing to lead in the home and the church is not to have women violate Scripture to take their places but instead to call Christian men to repent of their failure to lead.

I believe in a roughly amillenial view of eschatology. I reject dispensationalism as a system, especially where it wrongly divides the people of God into Israel and the church. Jesus Christ, having inaugurated His Kingom and reigning in heaven at the right hand of the Father, is preparing for the culmination at the Last Judgment when the dead are raised, the righteous in Christ to eternal life and those outside of Christ to eternal damnation. I think it is dangerous to try to use a wooden literalism to interpret the visions of John in his revelation. Where John is seeing images and visions we should recognize and interpret them as such instead of trying to force interpretations on the text. Excessive certitude about the end-times is dangerous and divisive and ultimately unproductive. We know the basic truth that Jesus will return, He will judge all mankind and until that time we are to live together as the church and declare Christ to the lost. That is enough to keep us busy without trying to identify the anti-Christ.

I hold that the New Covenant, the covenant in Christ for the believer, is exactly what it says it is in Jeremiah 31: 31-34 “a new covenant…not like the covenant I made with their fathers…”. Hebrews 8:13 tells us that with the coming of the New Covenant, the Old is made obsolete (speaking specifically in reference to Jeremiah 31: 31-34). We have a new and better covenant with better promises and a better mediator. We should not seek to return to the promises of the Old (i.e. the land) nor should we seek to carry on the practices of the Old (i.e. applying baptism like circumcision to infants).

I believe that the family is central to the life of the church. Families should worship together when the church gathers and the gathering of the church should welcome families of believers. Just as men are to lead in the church, they are also called to lead in the family. The family is the primary means of educating children. It is not the place of the church to educate children and it certainly is not the place of the state. The children of Christians need to be taught from their youth by their parents and that solemn task is not one that can be subcontracted to a "youth pastor" or "children's church".

I also reject most modern exhibitions of signs and wonders as nothing less than charlatanism. Speaking in tongues, prophetic revelation and miraculous healings would fall into this category. That is not to say that God is unable to heal people, He can and does. God has spoken finally and authoritatively in His Son (Heb 1: 1-2) and no longer reveals new revelations. Again, that is not to limit God but it is to say that the exhibitions of the so-called sign gifts we see today are the work of shysters and deceivers and neither take on the form nor fulfill the purpose of the sign gifts in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit certainly still works for the regeneration, edification, sanctification and preservation of believers today. If He was not at work, there wouldn’t be a saved person on earth.

As I stated at the beginning, this is just an attempt to lay out where I stand for those who stumble across my blog and are trying to figure out where I am coming from. Also as mentioned, most of what you see above has been addressed in far greater detail in a blog posting at some other time. I would welcome questions via email if you need clarification.