Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Unity on my terms

I don’t think I have met many Christians who reject the idea that we should be unified. At the very minimum we like the idea of unity. How great it would be if we all could “worship” together (i.e. go to church on Sunday morning together)!

Here is where it falls apart. Unity in our eyes means you come to where I am. I am right so why should I accommodate you? I chose my church because it is the most rightest one out there based on our doctrinal statement/denomination/music style/location/service time/etc. You should choose my church too. If you refuse to come to my church, well then the disunity in the church is on you, not me. I am very willing to have you come to my church (on our terms of course, we need to keep out heretics and crackpots. Fencing the table and all that.). How much more open to unity can you get? We will provide you with a handshake and “We’re glad you are here” and perhaps even a welcome package to tell you what we believe and why what you believe is wrong and why we are glad you have seen the error of your ways!

Is that what Jesus Christ was talking about? Is that the picture we see of the church in the New Testament, if I can get all minimalist and primitive on you for a moment? Thousands of little self-enclosed and self-sufficient enclaves?

I am making myself physically ill just writing this. How can a people of the Book be so dismissive of that very Book when it talks about the people?

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Creeds and confessions: unifiers or dividers?

Alan Knox has an interesting post on creeds and confessions today. Alan’s basic point is that the earliest creeds and confessions of the church served to differentiate between believers and unbelievers. The well-known and larger later confessions that we are most familiar with (Westminster, London Baptist, etc.) serve a different function: dividing believer from believer.

For example, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is a very famous and popular confession written in the 1640’s. But, there are few people (perhaps a few extremists) who would claim that disagreeing with parts of this confessions would indicate that a person is not a Christian. The same could be said of many, many confessions written since the Reformation.

So, what’s the purpose of these confessions? We’re no longer interested in differentiating between Christians and nonChristians. Now, we’re more interested in differentiating between one Christian and another. In other words, these confessions separate brothers and sisters in Christ from one another.

I think Alan has a very valid point. The confessions and creeds that came out of the 16th and 17th century are not dividers between believers and unbelievers but declarations of distinctive beliefs that divide one group of Christians from another. I agree with parts of the Westminster Confession but not all of it. I agree with far more of the 2nd London Baptist Confession but again not all of it. So as a consumer looking for a “church”, I am going to gravitate toward those churches who hold to the 1689 LBCF as opposed to those holding to the WCF.

In the same way, we use denominational labels to separate from one another. When we moved to Lansing and were looking for a church, I pretty much had no interest in churches with “Lutheran”, “Episcopalian”, “Pentecostal” or “Methodist” in the name. I knew they didn’t subscribe to the same set of distinctive beliefs that I did, so there was no need to bother with them.

What we are left with are a series of dividers to help us narrow down and restrict who we fellowship with. Sure people in other churches are Christians and in theory we are brothers and sisters in Christ, I just don’t want to have anything to do with them because they are wrong about (insert doctrine here). What is ironic is that many of the people who are most vociferously opposed to consumerism and “church shopping” are the ones who are most likely to demand a church that is just right based on their set of doctrines and similarly most likely to separate from other believers without a second thought. One man’s church shopping individualism is another man’s principled stand for the truth!

The Gospel is divisive, that is clear from Scripture. It stands against the world and all that the world holds dear. Truth is a divider and I am OK with that. On the flip side, modes of baptism, styles of church government, end-times beliefs are not issues that I can in good conscience separate from my brothers over. I can and have no problem with arguing that position A is the more Biblical position as opposed to position B. I just don’t see where we can separate from other believers based on those doctrinal positions. I am the only Calvinist where we gather on Sunday morning and probably one of the only non-dispensationalists. It is hard to swallow at times but if these are my brothers and sisters gathered as the church, where do I get Scriptural warrant to separate from them?

It seems that we should use our declarations of faith, our creeds and our confessions, to declare our unity with one another and our common witness to the lost and dying world. If we spent as much time and effort and study and prayer on reaching the lost as we do in finding ways to differentiate between one another, how powerful would our witness to the world be?

Maybe we should spend more time separating from worldliness instead of separating from fellow believers.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grab your torches and pitchforks!

Oh boy. Some independent, true blue fundie (not like those other, pseudo-fundamentalists, this guy is the real deal!) is claiming some sort of unverifiable yet incontrovertible proof that John Piper is having Rick Warren as a keynote speaker at the Desiring God conference in 2010. Granted, the Desiring God 2010 conference webpage doesn't list the speakers yet but this guy is in the know! I have a hard time believing that Desiring God hasn't listed or verified the speakers on their own webpage but they did verify it to this guy with an axe to grind with Piper, with John MacArthur, with Al Mohler, with the Sharper Iron blog, with....well with everyone apparently.

Ugh. Maybe this is true, more likely it is not. It sounds out of character for Piper. It certainly is not verified (although one commenter suggests that perhaps Piper is not saved based on this unfounded rumor). I will reserve any judgment on this until we hear from Dr. Piper. Regardless, this blog posting of a rumor is further incentive to steer clear of people who are more concerned with being "Jen- Ewe - Wine!" fundamentalist than pretty much anything else.

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Media bias? What media bias?!

The latest from the neutral, unbiased news media, this time in the form of language control from National Public Radio (you know, the publicly supported radio station that gets government funding from our tax dollars) regarding how to describe the sides in the abortion debate:

Here's the memo that was just distributed to all NPR staff:

"NPR News is revising the terms we use to describe people and groups involved in the abortion debate.

This updated policy is aimed at ensuring the words we speak and write are as clear, consistent and neutral as possible. This is important given that written text is such an integral part of our work.

On the air, we should use "abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)" and "abortion rights opponent(s)" or derivations thereof (for example: "advocates of abortion rights"). It is acceptable to use the phrase "anti-abortion", but do not use the term "pro-abortion rights".

Digital News will continue to use the AP style book for online content, which mirrors the revised NPR policy.

Do not use "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in copy except when used in the name of a group. Of course, when the terms are used in an actuality they should remain." [An actuality is a clip of tape of someone talking. So if a source uses those terms, NPR will not edit them out.]


David Sweeney
Managing Editor

Ah. So people who are pro-abortion are described as supporting a "right". Those who are anti-abortion can still be called that (at least when convenient like 'anti-abortion activist shoots doctor') or preferably they can be described as being opposing a "right". Note they can never link the words "pro" and "abortion", because that makes it sound like you are in favor of abortion and of course no one is in favor of abortion, not even those who profit from them. Abortion advocates are merely champions of a fundamental "right".

Seems like they are taking a stance based on the language they use. Nah, this makes perfect sense. I guess I am just being paranoid. Maybe we can start calling people who support school choice as "education rights opponents" or those who call for pedophiles to be arrested as "sexual rights opponents". Makes for a convenient set of labels!

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The latest salvo on the Calvinist resurgence

The Christian Science Monitor is the latest publication to examine the resurgence of Calvinism in the church. The article, Christian faith: Calvinism is back, takes its readers to Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., home of one of the T4G founders, Mark Dever, and parent church of 9 Marks Ministries. There is little that is new in the report, it includes many of the same talking points we see over and over including the obligatory quote from Colin Hansen.

In spite of the clamor from the small group of self-appointed watchmen in places like Westminster Seminary in California, the energy in Calvinism is in places like Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota and in conferences like Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. Those are places where the great doctrines of grace are given their proper preeminence and the myriad extra-Biblical baggage that comes with the Reformed tradition take a backseat. That doesn’t sit well with some corners of the church that see that as a betrayal of Calvinism. In doing so they demonstrate a troubling misunderstanding of what Calvinism is all about or at least what it should be about. Calvinism at its heart should be about recognizing and giving all glory to God instead of exalting Reformed church traditions over all other traditions.

I think the article exposes the good and the bad in the resurgent Calvinist movement. On the one hand, I like this:

In addition to Sunday worship and Wednesday night Bible study, they spend hours each week in small-group study or one-on-one "discipling." They say those sessions – a time for confessions, encouragement, and prayer – are the most challenging and rewarding feature of church life.

"Christian fellowship is so much more than hanging out with friends," says Claudia Anderson, a magazine editor. "It involves spiritual intimacy, support, learning, counseling, and stunning acts of kindness."

Christopher Brown, a lawyer, concurs. "I came for the theology but stayed for the community," he says. "As Americans, we're so individualistic. But the New Testament rebukes this 'rugged individualism.' We're not saved to be lone rangers."

It is very interesting that they see the time outside of the Sunday morning service as "the most challenging and rewarding feature of church life". On the other hand …

Membership at CHBC isn't for the faint of holy. Classes on theology and Christian history are required before joining. At the "Lord's Supper" once a month, members stand and recite an oath that ties them to one another.

An oath before sharing the Supper? Where is THAT in Scripture? The teaching at CHBC is described as “preaching for PhDs” and I can attest that the sermons are very meaty. I fear that many men fall into the trap of trying to emulate what they hear from Dever, Al Mohler and others and in doing so are teaching way over the heads of most people (and frankly way over their own heads). Simple teaching is often the best teaching.

So there is good and not so good in the article. I think that anytime we see people getting more serious about their faith, about Scripture and ultimately about God, that is a good thing. There is no doubt in my mind that the renewed emphasis on Calvinism is a boon to the church. Of course it has its downside. There is a very real sense that a lot of what we find in Calvinism, old and new, is quite academic and cerebral. In place of action we see lots of studying. There is a lot of knowledge about God but not as much action on behalf of God, if that makes sense. My big concern is that Calvinism becomes the end in and of itself. As long as you are Reformed and getting more Reformed, you are good. I have fallen prey to that thinking myself but I have since come to a somewhat different mindset:

Reformed theology/Calvinism is not the pinnacle of Christian maturity. It is the beginning.

A recognition of the sovereignty of God over all creation and particularly over salvation is the beginning of our understanding of God. It is the foundation but a building is more than a foundation. Soteriology is not the final piece of the puzzle, it is the first. Calvinism, new or old, should spur us to study the Scriptures more deeply and in doing so I have found that many of the traditions that I have held don’t match up with the Bible even though they sound good. It drives me nuts when people ask “Is it Reformed to do such and such” instead of “Is it Biblical”? The answer may be the same either way but in many areas, especially ecclesiology, what is traditionally Reformed is not terribly Scriptural. My hope is that as people respond to the ancient doctrines of grace, they will search more deeply in the Scriptures. Not just for proof-text regarding predestination and election but also about the fellowship of the saints in the community of the elect, the Lord’s Supper as a meal among the redeemed instead of a religious ritual, a real and functional priesthood of all believers instead of a hierarchical ministry. I pray that the “New Calvinists” will keep searching backwards to guide our path forward, not merely to the 16th century but all the way to the 1st. That is what real reformation looks like!

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Monday, March 29, 2010

How to view Passover

Sunset today marks the beginning of the Passover for Jews worldwide. It is of course one of the most important celebrations for Jewish families, marked by a number of ceremonies and traditions. It is a huge deal for Jews and I get the impression that it is true even for less observant families.

As Christians, how should we view the Passover?

First I think we need to recognize what the Passover is all about. It is a celebration of the sovereign work of God to free the Jews from captivity in Egypt. When the final plague struck, slaying the first born males in all of Egypt, the wrath of God passed over the homes with blood on the doorway. It was the blood that caused the wrath of God to pass over the homes of the Jews in Egypt:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12: 12-13)

There are clear implications for the Passover in Christianity. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper while celebrating the Passover with His disciples, a key event that appears in all four Gospels preceding the crucifixion (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13). As importantly, at the cross Jesus shed His blood and that blood serves in a similar fashion for those covered by it through faith: it covers us from the judgment and wrath of God. Through His blood we have forgiveness of our sins and at the judgment it is that blood-bought forgiveness that will cause God’s wrath to pass over the elect. So the Passover is very important in Christian theology as well, although for a different reason.

It certainly seems that for the last two thousand year, post-Calvary, the celebration of the Jewish Passover has been an empty ceremony. The Passover as understood by Christians in light of the cross was a preparatory ceremony that prefigured the cross of Christ. We read that Christ has fulfilled the role of Passover lamb on our behalf:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor 5:7)

So how should we view the Passover? I think it provides a great opportunity to recall Christ and Him crucified. It is a wonderful reminder of the promises of God to His people, fulfilled in Christ Jesus once and for all time. It is also a great opportunity to discuss Jesus with Jews. The celebration of the Passover is an obsolete ceremony and a reminder of an old covenant that has been fulfilled in a far greater way. For all of these centuries Jews have been celebrating the Passover while missing the great fulfillment of Christ. God can never be satisfied with the sacrifice of a literal lamb. He is only satisfied with the cross of His Son who became a perfect sacrifice provided by God for His people.

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Another great news story for Michigan!

As if we don’t have enough trouble and bad press in Michigan, now we have a news story featuring the FBI raiding a “Christian militia” group compound in Adrian, Michigan. Set aside for a moment the oxymoron of a “Christian militia” and that the media will have a field day using that misnomer. Having grown up in Toledo I was already familiar with Adrian and I also have a client there so I get down to Adrian on at least an annual basis. It is not what you would think of as a hotbed of militia activity, it is just the opposite: a small, sleepy Midwestern college town.

This is going to be great fodder for the news media. See how crazy those right-wing Christian nutjobs are! Every tea party type is in church on Sunday and in the woods running around in camo with a rifle on Saturday. Quotes like this one from the website of the group called Hutaree are going to be gleefully reported over and over again:

Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment.

Besides being atrocious grammar, the problems with that stance are myriad. Statements like this demonstrate at best a gross misunderstanding of the Scriptures and at worst a literally anti-Christian cultic movement. There is no such thing as a Christian militia because Christians are never called to take up arms to slay infidels or even to defend ourselves. The church of Jesus Christ will always stand even amidst persecution because it was bought and is preserved by Christ, even amidst persecution and martyrdom. The website of this group is a theological trainwreck. Whether they have broken the law of the United States or not is for the civilian government to decide but I can say without hesitation that even if they are found not guilty by men, they stand in opposition to the teaching and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To use John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends as an excuse to play dress up and arm yourself is a perversion. Jesus died for His sheep as a sacrifice, not in battle. Jesus didn’t conquer by the sword and the Bible tells us we are to deny ourselves and die to self, not to kill the infidel and overthrow the government.

The survivalist strain within some quasi-Christian groups and unrelated cults is a powerful one. One of the little known doctrines of mormonism is the idea of family preparedness. If you search for sellers of survival gear, MREs, grain grinders and other paraphernalia to survive economic turmoil, a disproportionate number are based in Utah. A good mormon family will have an enormous supply of food in their basement, canned goods, bottled water, whole grains which are easy to store. Whether you are looking at mainstream cult groups like mormonism, militia groups like the Hutaree or individuals like Randy Weaver, way too many people blend misdirected religious fervor with paramilitary leanings and end up with an “end-times” mentality that sees us preparing for the return of Christ with freeze-dried foods and assault rifles.

Many more mainstream or perhaps to put it more bluntly rational Christians are puzzled by this strain of pseudo-Christian paramilitary craziness. There is a very specific reason it is puzzling to American evangelicals. It is because they don’t understand the militia part of it that withdraws from comfortable middle-class American society. The militarism part though? That is right in our wheelhouse. American evangelicals have been raised with a combination of Bible stories, patriotic fervor expressed in a willingness to kill or die for our secular state and a lavish helping of kookie end-times prophetic preaching. All of this combined makes for a dangerous mix. Rather than humble and meek peacemakers, Christians are expected to be patriots waving a flag in one hand and an M-16 in the other. These militia groups are a dangerous but understandable outgrowth of American evangelicalism. It is high time that we start teaching that when Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers”, He wasn’t talking about a Colt .45. It is also high time that we call out these militia false prophets and false professors who would turn the Gospel of peace into a call for war for the heretics that they are. I don’t like or trust our government but as a Christian I recognize that God is sovereign over all things, including Barack Obama, and we are called to proclaim Christ and Him crucified even if that means our deaths, not to take up arms in the woods to “defend” ourselves.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Piper free 2010?

John Piper has announced that he is taking a leave from May 1 through December 31. No preaching, no book writing, no blogging. Why would he do that?

I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, I love my Lord, my wife, my five children and their families first and foremost; and I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. I hope the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem.

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry. Since I don’t have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins.

I think that is incredible. I know first hand that for many men, their ministry as they perceive it can become an idol. It replaces relationship with family, with friends and even ironically with God. Our drive to serve can quickly become self-serving and sinful. We mistake pride and ambition for calling.

I pray that this will be a time of introspection and rest for Dr. Piper and I likewise hope that it inspires other men to likewise take a long, hard look at their ministry.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mohler and McLaren on NPR

I listened to an interesting interview on NPR talking about Brian McLaren and his new book, A New Kind of Christianity and featuring commentary from both McLaren and Al Mohler. In the spirit of disclosure I have not read this book or anything by McLaren.

A key point in the interview was when McLaren decries what he sees as a vision of God who must be appeased by blood:

"The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased," McLaren says. "If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive."

McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.

"God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering," he says.

Well, that is precisely what God has said, even if we find it unpalatable and gross in our genteel society that thinks chicken nuggets spring forth from the ground in plastic bags, ready to heat up.

The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exo 12:13)

The Passover of course is a type of the cross. This is further reinforced in the book of Hebrews, especially in Hebrews 9 and especially in verse 22:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Heb 9:22)

So yeah, God does require blood in order to be appeased and not merely the blood of animals but the blood of His own Son. I guess if you want to ignore that kind of stuff, you might as well ignore the whole Bible and make up a God in your own image. Actually, it sounds precisely like that is what McLaren is doing.

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Some thoughts on unity

Nothing new here, just some random musings this morning.

There seems to be an increasing amount of chatter about unity online, some of which is impractical and much of which is given to sense of helpless shoulder shrugging.

What is the basis of our unity? The Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed? Doctrinal statements? Church attendance (at the right sort of church of course)?

The only basis for our unity is our shared redemption. Unity can only be found among fellow born-again believers, born not of the will of man but through the power of the Holy Spirit. As important as doctrinal statements are, declarations of the ancient creeds and such, they are not even on the radar as far as unity is concerned in the Body of Christ.

It is a great folly to try to discover unity based on denominational beliefs. In the past, I would rank people in terms of unity based on where they went to church:

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc: - Not brothers in any way

Roman Catholics – Almost certainly not brothers, perhaps brothers in spite of where they go to church.

Episcopalians, liberal Presbyterians and Lutherans, most Methodists – Might be brothers but man they need to find another church

Conservative Presbyterians (PCA and OPC) and Lutherans (LCMS) – Brothers but in serious error on baptism

Most Baptists – Brothers, right on baptism, wrong on soteriology

Reformed Baptists – Brothers who are right on almost every issue, brothers unless proven otherwise

I think that is dangerous thinking because people go to church for lots of different reasons and not many of them are terribly Scriptural. My brothers who are Reformed Baptists or United Methodist are not my brothers because of their institutional church affiliation but because they are redeemed sheep of Jesus Christ. I didn’t choose Christ and I certainly don’t get to choose who else He redeemed.

Conversely, since our only basis for unity is being born-again, it is just as foolhardy to add requirements to our source of common unity. This is the tragedy of denominationalism, closed communion, dogmatic adherence to creeds and all of the other ways we divide other believers from our fellowship.

I think the reason unity is so hard for the Body to achieve is because we don’t get what unifies us in the first place. If we focused on that, unity would be a lot easier. Not unanimity for certain but certainly not the incredibly disunity we have now and have had for nearly two thousand years. What we should seek is a functional unity, a unity that transcends mere lip-service and leads to actual fellowship among believers, a common witness to the world instead of the constant bickering we see now and that I regularly participate in.

A Song of Ascents. Of David. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psa 133:1-3)

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Who can preach the Gospel?

From the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 158. By whom is the Word of God to be preached?

A. The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office


I guess if we in the laity are asked “What we must I do to be saved?”, our answer should be “Go find an ordained preacher, one who is good at it, and ask him”.

Egad. Proof positive that Rome doesn’t have a monopoly on error.

(I am feeling a bit puckish today. Can you tell?)

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Oh, so NOW it is tainted

(Rant Warning)

I have been steering clear of the latest iteration of the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church because it is an ugly event that is generating a lot of heat but little light. That was before this headline sent me over the edge:

Sex Abuse Scandals Threaten to Taint Papacy

Cases in the U.S. and Italy are the latest in a burgeoning abuse scandal on both sides of the Atlantic that now threatens to tarnish the papacy itself.

This “taints” the papacy? As if the papacy has been a swell institution all of these years? This taints it? In no way am I diminishing the clear evidence of cover-ups and abuse of power in the child abuse scandals and certainly there are few things more horrifying than pedophilia. Even in an age where all manner of sexual deviancy is not only tolerated but celebrated most people still have a natural revulsion to the abuse of a child. Of course given the course of our culture, can “Pedophile Pride” parades be far away? But I digress. Let’s examine the idea that this latest scandal taints an otherwise pristine office….

Not the overseeing of innumerable horrific executions of “heretics” who committed crimes like translating the Bible into the language of the common people. Charming behavior like flaying people alive, ripping out tongues with tongs, burning in a variety of methods at the stake to inflict the maximum agony. All done with the approval of the papacy.

Not the grotesque manipulation of the various European states that caused them to take up the sword against one another and led to years of war that caused untold death and destruction or the incredibly costly and ill-advised wars to retake the “Holy Land” from the infidels. The Crusades may have started out as a reaction to invasions of Europe but in the end it was merely a cynical and heretical attempt to reclaim a piece of land by the sword under the banner of the cross.

Not the use of threats and torture to try to create “converts” during the Inquisition, declaring success when a person recanted under methods of torture that make waterboarding look like a day at the beach. Those same Inquisitors also had the role of sniffing out "heretics" and showing them the error of their ways through torture and murder.

Worst of all, not the distortion of the Gospel into a series of empty rituals and the perversion of the fellowship of the saints into a dead institution that has given countless people throughout the ages a false sense of hope based on religious rituals.

No, none of those acts of villainy tainted the papacy. Only now, in 2010, do we see an incident that taints that office. I recognize that there have been atrocities perpetrated by Protestants over the years and many are every bit as grotesque (just ask the Anabaptists). The difference is that when someone who claims to be an evangelical does something sinful and contrary to the Gospel, I can point it out without fearing that it damages the church. For Rome, her “pope” must be above reproach. Make no mistake that the scapegoats will be numerous and the deflections vociferous and the faux outrage of the Roman church over the “smear campaign” against the beloved pope will be over the top.

I have friends, family and co-workers who are Catholic. I make a distinction as best I can between individual Catholics, even local parish priests, and the institution in Rome headed by a man who adorns himself in regal attire befitting an earthly king, who accepts adoration as “Holy Father”, who claims to infallibly speak for Christ (“The Vicar of Christ”), a man who wags his finger disapprovingly at the wealthy of the world for ignoring the poor while living in unimaginable luxury, a man who permits and expects people to bow down before him and kiss his ring. To me the papacy is little different than any other authoritarian religious leader who leads people astray. Evangelical Christians used to recognize this in pretty stark language. The Westminster Confession referred to the papacy like this: VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God. That sort of language is jarring to our ears in an age of ecumenism and Manhattan Declarations. I guess it was easier to think of the papacy as Antichrist when you were so close to the time of burnings at the stake.

The papacy has been long tainted by fallible men claiming a place of preeminence that no man is been offered and no man has a right to. Joseph Ratzinger is no different, either when he was a mere cardinal or now that he styles himself Pope Benedict. The notion that after a millennium of heresy and inhuman acts in the defense of the power of Rome we suddenly find the papacy itself tainted is ridiculous. The very basis of the office of the papacy is tainted and an affront to the Gospel of Jesus Christ from its inception. It is high time that those who perpetrated these crimes against children be held to account and that those who enabled these crimes through overt actions or inexcusable indifference likewise be accountable as criminals.

(End Rant)
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making the invisible visible

Regarding this “visible” and “invisible” thing in the church. Alan Knox restated one of my comments and I think he does a better job of summarizing my view than what I wrote:

"The invisible church is invisible because we over-emphasize the local church."

That kind of captures what I was thinking. The surest sign, in the eyes of both the world and the church, that a person is a Christian is attendance at church. That is unfortunately not at all what we get from the Bible. The signs that a person is a Christian in Scripture are love for Christ exhibited in obedience to His commands, loving others as ourselves, conspicuous love for one another (i.e. our brothers and sisters), humility, meekness, service. That is tangibly demonstrated in breaking bread and sharing meals with one another, caring for the poor and the widows and orphans, a willingness and indeed an eagerness to share materially with one another, spending time together and living lives with one another. Glaringly absent is a call for religious expression like…church.

If we were doing what we are called to do and living as we are called to live, the church universal wouldn’t be invisible because our identity as Christians would be conspicuously obvious to everyone. We would be living our lives “worthy of the Gospel” (Phil 1:27) and in doing so we would by our very lives be witnesses to the world (Phil 1: 28). The Christian should be so distinct from the world, even while living amidst the world, as to stand out like a proverbial sore thumb. We are so concerned with “getting people to church” so they can hear a sermon that we forget the powerful witness of our lives. Our Christian identity must not be something we put on for Sunday morning like a suit and tie but rather be the defining characteristic of our lives.

What a powerful witness we could be to the world if we stopped worrying so much about 11 AM to noon on Sunday morning.

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Come to us or go to them

At the chapel where we gather with the church, we have been trying to find new ways to do outreach to the community. We have been sponsoring a movie night periodically and the youth and some adults are going door to door in the surrounding neighborhood to invite people. Our building is very small and doesn’t really look like a church from the road. One person said at the last movie night that she thought it was a small apartment building! So we are really ramping up our efforts at getting the word out that we are there and welcome people to the chapel.

My concern is that most people have been so marketed to all of their lives that they are leery and suspicious. Just about every local church does outreach and much of it is “Come to our church and do *insert activity here*!” So amidst the barrage of stuff they get from various groups, here is our little assembly trying to draw them in. We met as a group last night after prayer and Bible study to talk about how the outreach is going and I suggested we try going out to people, right where they are, to minister to them. Maybe they need help with trimming or raking leaves in the fall, maybe they are moving in and need some help. It is easier and cleaner and safer to invite people to our building but I think it might be more effective to just help people where they need help, whether it is tangible or just friendship and prayer. It can be uncomfortable to go to a strange place, even or especially a church. Having someone come in jeans and a sweatshirt to help you out? That is a lot easier for folks. It is a little odd in our assembly because we don’t have a pastor, so instead of deferring to him to figure it out, we are figuring it out on our own.

Has anyone else tried something like this? We are not interested in marketing strategies, we are interested in service strategies. Have you gone out to the community, what are the pitfalls (like becoming permanent unpaid lawn care!), what seemed to work?

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So does Jesus love the "visible" church?

What spurred this thought was an email announcement from a Reformed book seller of the upcoming release of yet another “Jesus loves the church and if you love Jesus, you will love the church!” book. I don’t think it is necessary to name the book or the author. If you want details you can email me but it isn’t really that relevant to the point. What I really found interesting was the table of contents (see following):

Jesus Loved and Still Loves the Church

The New Testament was a Church Book

What is the Church? Church Universal and Church Visible

The Centrality of the Church in Redemptive History

What is the Purpose of the Church?

What are the Marks of a True Church?

Is Membership in a Church Scriptural?

Is Membership in a Church Essential?

Which Church Should You Join?

What are the Means of Grace in the Church?

What are the Privileges and Blessings of Church Membership?

What are the Responsibilities of Church Membership?

Why is Church Attendance Important?

Why can become a Church Member?

When is it Right to Leave a Church and How Should you do it?

What Opinion have Others in History had of the Church?

So by my count there are 16 chapters. Ten of them are explicitly referring to the “visible” church with 7 specifically dealing with church membership (plus one on the importance of good attendance). I don’t know how big the chapters are but just by the count above, 62.5% of the chapters deal with the “visible” church and 43% of the chapters in a book about why Jesus loves the church are dealing with church membership, ironic since neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever mentioned formal church membership in a local, “visible” church. At a glance, the implication here is that the visible (i.e. institutional) church is far more important than the church universal in the eyes of our Savior and that the key to the “visible” church is church membership and regular attendance. I know I am making some pretty big leaps here based on an email announcement with a book title and a table of contents but it isn’t like this is the first book of this genre (Loving Jesus=loving the local, visible church). DeYoung and Kluck’s Why We Love the Church was the first salvo in this push but certainly not the last. There seem to be more and more books and talks about the importance of the visible church and specifically church membership coming out. There is a new 9 Marks roundtable that just came out dealing with the connection between God’s love and church membership. So it clearly is on the radar of many people in the church at large.

All of that to bring me back to the question. Does Jesus love the visible church?

First, we have to ask what is meant by the “visible church”. The Westminster Confession describes it as:

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

That is the fancy terminology. I think we can agree that the visible church is what we would traditionally think of when we think about church: a local organization, probably with a building and at least one pastor, with pews and programs. At a minimum it would have to be clearly and confessionally Christian in doctrine with sermons and sacraments.

Second, does Jesus love the “visible church”? No? Yes? In the same way or a different way than the so-called “invisible church”?

I think we make a couple of erroneous assumptions here. The first is an obvious one: we confuse the institution of the church as we see it with the church spoken of in the Scriptures. When someone says “church” or reads the English word "church" in the Bible, most people whether Christians or not envision a building with a steeple and a sign of some sort. We link in an inextricable manner the church with what we can see as an institution. The second is assuming that the traditional church is pleasing to Christ which I don't think is true. Most people agree with my first assertion, not as many would agree with the second. If God is not pleased with a local church, it is because they are not doctrinally conservative enough or don’t preach enough or the right way. In some places that has been taken to an extreme where being pleasing to God in a local church is based on singing just the Psalms or using just the King James translation.

To answer the question of whether Jesus loves the "visible" church, we need to ask the question: does Jesus love everyone? I think the prevailing culture would say yes but I would argue that the Scriptural evidence says no. Certainly within the church I would expect the answer to be no. We also must recognize that the "visible" church is at best a mixed bag of believers and unbelievers, in the words of the Westminster Confession: The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error. So in a gathering where unregenerate people are engaging in religious ritual, even if the name of Christ is invoked and the Scriptures are read, even if a lot of the people in attendance are born-again, is Jesus honored? Is God properly worshipped by the religious observance of unregenerate people? The testimony of Scripture says no. In Mark 7: 6-8 and Matthew 15: 7-9 for example, we see Jesus chastising the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by quoting Isaiah 29:13:

And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,

It appears to be the clear testimony of Scripture that religious observation without a regenerate heart is not pleasing to God. Granted, I recognize that in virtually every gathering of the church there are likely unregenerate people present. That doesn’t deal with the question at hand: does Jesus love what we think of as the “visible: church?

How does Jesus love the church in Scripture? In Ephesians 5 we get a glimpse:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5: 25-27)

Did Jesus give His life for those who are going to spend eternity in Hell? Does Jesus love those who are not born again and are still under condemnation, those who are not His elect sheep and will never come to a saving faith in Him?

It seems to me that Jesus loves His Church, made up of all of His elect throughout the ages, and that His love is predicated on the redemption of those sheep through the propitiation of the cross. His love has nothing to do with whether you are in the “visible” church or not. Having said that, I would affirm that all of God’s elect after being born-again will invariably seek out the fellowship of other Christians but this idea of “Jesus loves the church and so should you” gets the order backwards. Jesus doesn’t love you because you are in the visible church. Because Jesus loves you, you will seek out the fellowship of the saints. So really, please, let’s stop with the inane arguments that insist that the visible church organization is the focus of Christ. That overemphasis is the source of all sorts of error and mischief. Enough is enough. We don’t need more books or roundtable discussions or blog posts that try to guilt people into church attendance or shame people into not critiquing the institutional church. Frankly it starting to look pretty self-serving as if preserving the organization is the most important issue in the church.

So the short answer is that Jesus loves His sheep in the “visible” church, not because they are in the “visible” church but because they are His sheep. Those who are in the “visible” church who are not His sheep are no different from the atheist sleeping in on Sunday.

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Does Jesus love the “visible church”?

Answer later today!

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Broadcasting or planting

John Piper responds to the question: Why not get one of the other 30+ elders at Bethlehem to pastor an extension church instead of showing them a video?

I am trying to tread carefully here but I think Piper's reasoning is the same as Sproul's church (St. Andrews) building a huge new edifice or any of the other very large churches pastored by famous or even "celebrity" pastors. People go to Bethlehem because of John Piper. Never been there but I am comfortable saying that and I think Piper would agree. People want to hear from Piper and if Piper left Bethlehem and planted a new church in Minneapolis, people would follow him. We saw what happened when D. James Kennedy passed on and Tullian took over. Many people didn't want a new pastor, they wanted a clone of Kennedy because that was why they went to Coral Ridge. So instead of taking the risky move of training and sending, famous pastors seem more likely to keep expanding the church they pastor.

I don't really agree with that. While the quality of preaching might go down, wouldn't the quality of fellowship go up in multiple smaller churches? Wouldn't more men and women have an opportunity to serve and minister? Men like Sproul and Piper and Tim Keller, not spring chickens by the way, have a unique opportunity to train men and send them out if the desire is to spawn more churches like the one they pastor. You can either build bigger and bigger and more widely reaching individual churches (even with multiple campuses) or you can plant lots of small, truly local gatherings. As these men pass on, who is going to take over these huge churches? They will either fade away over time or go out and get another well-known pastor to keep people coming back.

I love me some John Piper but I think Bethlehem would be better off in the long run by planting dozens of small gatherings through Minneapolis, affiliated with Bethlehem but with their own elders. What do you think? Should John Piper be broadcast to satellite locations or should they send out men to plant local assemblies? Should we seek the very best guy to minister through the Word to the maximum number of people or should we seek to see as many faithful men minister to people as possible?

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The rights of a Christian

CAMPONTHIS: THE CHRISTIAN'S BILL OF Christlike in a pagan society

Steve Camp republished a great list of our "rights" as Christians. As is appropriate, it doesn't look much like what we assume our "rights" are as Americans. That is a good thing.

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Al Mohler got a facelift! got a very nice upgrade to the webpage. The old page was....well, it was antiquated like something from the earliest days of the internet. The look now is clearer and cleaner, very nice!

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I need a new label

Most of the labels that I have applied to myself seem a little…off. I normally think of myself as a “Reformed Baptist” but I don’t think that works anymore.

Apparently I can’t call myself “Reformed”. Arbiters like R. Scott Clark and others have so narrowly defined that term that it applies to only a select few people alive today. An awful lot of people are running around using that label without the express written consent of the faculty of Westminster Seminary in California and run the risk of sanctions or worse.

“Baptist” is even more problematic. There are so many different iterations of that label that it has kind of lost any meaning at all. Many Baptists I have met have no idea why they are Baptists or what that term means other than “we don’t baptize infants” and we say “A-men” instead of “Ah-men” (in fairness the same can be said of many Lutherans and Presbyterians).

So I was thinking about a new one. Maybe “Particular Anabaptist”? It kind of captures some of the doctrinal stances I hold.

Like the “Particular Baptists” of 17th century England, I hold to the Calvinstic view of salvation (hence the name “Particular”, a reference to the doctrine of “particular” or “limited” atonement) but I don’t hold to many of the other extra-Biblical traditions that are considered the marks of being a “Calvinist”. The idea of “Particular Atonement” is not the majority report among Baptists or evangelicals in general but it is in my understanding the teaching of Scripture.

Similarly Anabaptist is more reflective of my views on the church and on the nature of the Christian life. Unlike the “pastor-centric” model of the church you find among most Baptists that is coupled with a highly ritualized “worship service” and a weird blend of cultural Christianity & American patriotic fervor, the Anabaptists as a general rule held to a view of the church that was more primitive, more in keeping with the example of the New Testament church including a clear differentiation between a regenerate church and the state. Unlike the state of constant aggrievement that typifies modern evangelicals, the Anabaptists expected persecution and were not disappointed.

Of course, I guess I could try labels that reflect my common relationship with other believers, like “follower of Christ” or even perhaps “servant” instead of labels that point out my differences with other Christians. You know, unity and all that.

Nah. Where is the fun in that?

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The ritual is not the goal

Alan Knox wrote a great post on rituals in the church, When Ritual Loses Meaning. There are lots of rituals and traditions in the church. Most of them started out having a reason but similarly many of them have lost that meaning. Only the ritual remains. The reason for the ritual is gone and what is left is the ritual for the sake of the ritual, the ritual becomes an end in and of itself. Good stuff!

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Elders as administrators

Do we need the church to administer the Supper?

I was reading an article on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog regarding what a “lay person” needs from a church. The blog post was titled Five Things reflective of the five things the lay-person needs from a church from a Reformed Baptist persepctive. Set aside the obvious problematic issues with that whole question for a moment. One of the things this designated lay-person needed was for the church to "administer the sacraments". We hear that a lot but what does the word “administer” mean? According to the handy dandy app on my blackberry it means:

1. To manage or direct

2. To give

I think given the traditional view of the Supper, the second definition takes a subordinate role to the first. The traditional view sees the Supper as something to be controlled, to be managed. It requires a pastor to bless it and deacons to pass it out. Just any old meal cannot suffice and it must take place in the sterile setting of a church building. Of course there is neither command nor example of any of that in the Scripture but it just seems more proper in our religious eyes to do it that way. It needs to be passed out on plates in utter silence (maybe the pianist can play very softly in the background) and quickly so that the whole thing doesn’t take too long. People have places to go and the church has a schedule to keep. We expect and insist upon the Supper taking the form that we are used to.

Even the second definition of “administer” has some meaning for the church. The Lord’s Supper is something that is given by the local church. You must come to us to partake. The supper is something to be restricted, to be doled out based on the rules of that local church. In many congregations, it is a closed communion, restricted to those who are in formal “membership” with that local church. The form of the Supper, the frequency, the method are all tightly controlled by that local gathering. Changing the form or frequency of the Supper is a painful affair. It is a unifier only for that local congregation with no connection to the greater Body of Christ as a whole. We go to our church and pass the plate, you go to your church and pass the plate and everyone is happy. What is lost is the great witness of the Supper as something observed by God's people for thousands of years and as importantly what is lost is the sense of fellowship and communion that the Supper should represent. You are not in fellowship with the person you met once or twice in the pew next to you just because they pass you a platter of crackers.

There are other problems with these "five things". I don’t really need someone to tell me week after week after week that I am a sinner. We spend so much time clubbing ourselves over the head about our sinful state that we never get around to what we should be doing now. If your local body of believers is made up of regenerate Christians, you really need to focus less on “what happened?” and more on “what now?” The reality of sin is vital for understanding evangelism and understanding sin is likewise essential to understanding why we don't behave as the church the way we should. From a justification standpoint though, I am no longer a sinner under condemnation but a new creature saved by grace. Saved for what? Saved for good works (Eph 2:10; Titus 2:14) not saved to keep pondering how I was saved. Again, it is a vital doctrine but we can spend so much time studying how we got saved and how it is all going to end that we pay no attention to what is happening all around us. In other words, soteriology and eschatology take up so much of our attention that ecclesiology gets short-shrift and tradition rules through inertia. In a perfect world, the knowledge of sin and of salvation would lead us to good works. In reality there seems to be a disconnect here. The local church should be a place of gathering for the purpose of sending. What it has become is strictly a place of gathering. The gathering is an end in and of itself.

I found that this list of things the laity needs from the church is pretty typical. It falls right into not just the historic Reformed notion of "the word truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and discipline faithfully exercised" as the marks of a "true church", it also matches up with our cultural expectations for what the church is and does. We expect to "go to church" and get something out of it: music, a sermon and perhaps a ritualized passing of the Supper. I also think it speaks to the way that the gathering of the church has lost its original meaning. The church gathering ought to be a place of edification, fellowship, prayer and witness for the purpose of preparing us to go into the world to proclaim Christ in both word and deed.

(I will say that I like the list of five things that we don't need the church to be far more than any of the things we do need the church to be.)

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What Benedict Bart Stupak hath wrought

If you are concerned with issues surrounding the sanctity of life, it is instructive (and nauseating) to see how men and women elected to represent the American people were blatantly bought out by Nancy Pelosi and company. If that is not bad enough, while many Congressmen got some pricey goodies for their district in exchange for their votes, "Benedict Bart" Stupak got a meaningless "executive order" and by switching his vote showed that in the end his party loyalty trumps his commitment to the sanctity of human life. Check out the link on my other blog to see the ugly side of politics on full display. We are less than eight months out from the November election, let's hope that our memories last at least that long.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

We are all called to make disciples

A refreshing word from the 9 Marks blog More on Disciple-Making:

Second, every Christian should feel the responsibility to make disciples. How can every Christian be discipled if that job of disciple-making is left to the pastors or a select few in the congregation? That simply isn't possible. Some will be better at this than others. Some will be more interested than others. But we all have the responsibility to encourage others to follow Christ more closely. We all have the responsibility to help others grow. The Great Commission is for all which means discipling is for all.

Quite true. The model of a couple of people in a local body discipling everyone else doesn't work. You don't have to look very hard in the church to see the truth of this. We are all called to be in the business of discipling one another. Pastors need to be discipled and not just at once a year theology conferences and pastors cannot and should not be the only ones who disciple others. The church is a "one another" deal, not a "one to all the others".

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Knowing the commands and prohibitions is not enough

Great quote from Joseph Hellerman's When the Church Was a Family:

Simply knowing the commands and prohibitions of Scripture has proven to be an insufficient defense against the powerful socializing influence of radical individualism in the lives of American Christians. Our churches are full of people…who know their Bibles, but persist in doing what they perceive to be best for them as individuals rather than what is biblical and most beneficial for the broader family of believers.
(Hellerman, When the Church was a Family, pg. 84-85)

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Law is about love

I am sure there is nothing new here but I had one of those connecting the dots moments last night. This post is completely me working out on paper what I am thinking through.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment. The question was intended to trip Him up but since He is the author and finisher of the Law, He had the perfect response.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22: 36-40)

What exactly does that mean? At first blush it doesn’t make much sense. Moses revealed Ten Commandments and now we read that there are two commandments that don’t sound much on the surface like the Ten. We read the Ten and it is “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. Yet Jesus says that the entire Law depends on these two commandments. So what is up with the other Ten Commandments? In order to understand this, we need to turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13: 8-10)

Ah. Now it makes more sense. We read this passage last night before our time of prayer at the chapel and it really ties some things together for me. If we love God with all of our heart, soul and mind you will have no other gods before Him. You will not take His name in vain. You will not create graven idols of men or beasts to bow down before Him. Such a thing would be unthinkable. Likewise if you love your neighbor as yourself you will not lie to him or steal from him or covet what is his or even murder him. Having rules and regulations to regulate external behavior is important to prevent societal chaos but it is not the point of the Law.

You can follow the letter of the Ten Commandments and still be lost. This is the great error of the Jewish leaders of when Christ walked among them. They assumed that God was pleased by external adherence to the Law. What God is seeking is not mere external obedience, but a changed heart.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

We see a parallel passage regarding this idea of external obedience contrasted with a changed heart in Micah 6:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

External obedience is never going to suffice to please God nor was it ever intended to do so. It is also vividly clear from Scripture and human nature that the dead, unregenerate heart is incapable of the sort of “God and others first” love that is required to obey the commandments. The powerful promise of the New Covenant is that God will write His law upon our hearts rather than on tablets of stone (Jer 31:33; 2 Cor 3:3). Without the changed heart, we can never even begin to love God as we ought nor love one another and thus we can never live up to the Law no matter how close we adhere to the commandments. The Law is founded on love and without love the Law can never be fulfilled.

So this doctrine of love and the Law is essential, not in “how” we are saved but “what now” after we are saved. Our testimony and witness to the world is that we love one another, not that we obey the Law. Love and grace are not opposed to Law and obedience, rather obedience and the Law is dependent upon grace and love. That is beautifully lived out on the cross where Christ showed His love for His sheep in His sacrifice and by His grace saved us.

That is not to suggest that we are left with “Love God and love each other” and we are completely on our own to figure out what that means. There is ample support in the Bible to guide us in how we should live among unbelievers, how we should live with one another, what the church is (and is not), how believers should support and serve one another. God is fully aware of how prone to wander into our own devices we are and has left a myriad of commands and examples to fence us in. That is not a heavy yoke upon us but a joyous expression of a saved heart. John perhaps states it best when he wrote:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5: 1-5)

Those who are born again have overcome the world, not by military victories or political victories but by love lived out in His death on the cross.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More than a checklist

In the urge to see a more faithful expression of the New Testament church, it is natural to look at places where we see descriptions and exhortations to the church and rather than viewing them as merely descriptive, see them as prescriptive. In other words the New Testament writings that deal with the church, especially in Acts, are not merely quaint historic stories that reflect an unattainable ideal but are instead vital glimpses into the life of the church as it should be. The danger here that I have stumbled into on a number of occasions is that we start to view these descriptions as a checklist. In other words, we see the meeting of the church as a checklist with a series of questions we can check off one by one.

The New Testament is far more than a series of checklists. We must not treat it that way. The early church devoted itself to prayer. We pray at our church. Check! The early church devoted itself to the breaking of bread. We observe the Lord’s Supper quarterly. Check!

It is more than a question of prescriptive and normative. The underlying question has to do with the purpose. Why did the church meet daily? Why did they recognize elders? Why is everyone bringing a hymn or a lesson important? Why is putting the family of God ahead of your earthly family important? What is the reason that the church eschewed personal property in favor of the material well-being of the community?

Reading the examples and then applying (or choosing not to apply) them in the manner we see fit is not the point. Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was not compelled to record these events and depictions to create a checklist but instead to describe the life of the church and the purpose for the gathering. The purpose is not ultimately about making a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The end result is not to check the list on our clipboard to make sure we hit every task. The purpose is to see how we should view one another and how we should live as the adopted family of God in our everyday life and in our witness to the lost. I do think that if we are faithful to the purpose, the activities will follow. We just need to make sure we are prioritizing the cause and not the effect.

When we view the church as a checklist to complete, it can be awfully easy to think that we are completing the checklist better than the next church: “Well Church A down the street completes steps A thru K but we also do L thru Q!” That is not to diminish at all the vital clues we get in the New Testament regarding how the church met then and likewise from that learning how the church should meet now. Far more than that though, our ultimate goal is to determine the why. What is the purpose, what is accomplished? You can just as easily have empty formalism in a church that can check off a whole litany of primitive church activities as you can in a rigidly liturgical church.

So I guess what my point is (primarily to myself) is to avoid becoming so fixated on the form of the example that you miss the purpose of the example.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Love binds everything together

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3: 12-17)

What a great passage of Scripture! Like so many of Paul’s writings it is chock full of great doctrine as well as practical application. It think we miss that a lot, how much of what Paul is talking about is not just high minded doctrinal pronouncements but real and living faith lived out in the Body of Christ. Paul’s audience is not restricted to theologians. This concerns real life. I find myself normally running to the sweeping doctrinal statements and when I do that I often miss the “real life” application of the text.

A couple of things really struck me about this paragraph. One is right in the first verse. Paul refers to Christians as “God’s chosen ones”, a clear affirmation of divine election. We who are Christians are not Christians by chance but by choice, not ours but His. Is there anything more humbling than God’s sovereign election? Paul urges us, in recognition of God’s sovereign choice, to be kind, meek, compassionate and humble. I don’t think that describes me very well and I don’t think I would be wrong to say that it rarely describes those who hold most firmly to the doctrine of God’s sovereign election of His chosen redeemed. I don’t understand what it is about this doctrine in myself and others that drives us to be so combatitive. That God is sovereign over salvation, that He elected a remnant of lost humanity, that He sent His Son to die purposeful and effectually for those He predestined and that upon calling them inexorably, He preserves them perfectly should drive us to increased meekness and humility.

I also really appreciated this part “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It is love that binds us together and brings us into harmony. How foolish it is to think that we can find unity in doctrinal statements or that we promote unity in the Body through divisions over denominationalism. We talk and talk and talk about all sorts of things, everything except love. Sure it gets mention in passing but who wants to talk about love when we can argue about eschatology?

Finally, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” That unity that Paul speaks of, one body united by the peace of Christ in our hearts, is what the church is all about. It is not about control or liturgy or sacraments. It is not about worship or sermons. It is about the peace of Christ, the love for one another that binds us together. Among all the discussions of the marks of a “true” church, one stands above all the rest: love. Without love, all of the liturgy and worship music and expository sermons are meaningless and indeed are little more than idolatry. A gathering that has love as the bond, the Gospel as the source and the peace of Christ as the unifier is a church that truly glorifies God.

What a precious fellowship this would be: a gathering of the church that has love, peace and unity as its focus instead of marketing itself in competition with other churches.

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Troubling numbers on education

The Arsenal of Liberty: The state of education

I posted some troubling statistics on the state of education on my other blog. The picture it paints is pretty grim in a lot of ways. I think, as I keep saying, that Christians need to totally reevaluate how we view education, from our methods to our motivations.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Never have so many done so little with so much

Yikes, how true is this comment from Dave Black...

The fact is that we're not getting the job done. Not only this, but the massive irony is that at no other time in history has the church in North America been better situated to take the Gospel to every nation on earth. Yet we remain preoccupied with our own comfort and ease rather than with serving the world sacrificially. Studying Paul's teaching on weakness has reminded me that Christians can place their trust in only one thing -- the cross. Because of this, I find myself passionate in my opposition to the politicized Jesus of modern evangelicalism. (Have you noticed?)

We Americans live in unimaginable luxury in a world connected like never before. Yet we are preoccupied with political victories, with building ever more luxurious and comfortable churches, hiring more staff, buying more stuff for our homes, taking better vacations. We pay all sorts of lip service to the Great Commission but apparently we assume that the Great Commission only applies to sending checks to the missionaries on those postcards in the foyer. The Great Commission doesn't stop at the property line of our church building!

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Mohler on Beck, social justice and the limits of political discourse

Dr. Albert Mohler published a very sober and thoughtful essay in response to the comments by Glenn Beck calling on Christians to flee churches that focus on “social justice”, Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Limits of Public Discourse. I think Dr. Mohler strikes the right balance here, does so with a reasonable tone and also provides a very brief introduction to the background of the “social justice” or “social gospel” message. From his essay:

My concern is very different. As an evangelical Christian, my concern is the primacy of the Gospel of Christ -- the Gospel that reveals the power of God in the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church's main message must be that Gospel. The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted Gospel churches. Our task is to follow Christ's command and the example of the apostles.

There is more to that story, however. The church is not to adopt a social reform platform as its message, but the faithful church, wherever it is found, is itself a social reform movement precisely because it is populated by redeemed sinners who are called to faithfulness in following Christ. The Gospel is not a message of social salvation, but it does have social implications.

Faithful Christians can debate the proper and most effective means of organizing the political structure and the economic markets. Bringing all these things into submission to Christ is no easy task, and Gospel must not be tied to any political system, regime, or platform. Justice is our concern because it is God's concern, but it is no easy task to know how best to seek justice in this fallen world.

And that brings us to the fact that the Bible is absolutely clear that injustice will not exist forever. There is a perfect social order coming, but it is not of this world. The coming of the Kingdom of Christ in its fullness spells the end of injustice and every cause and consequence of human sin. We have much work to do in this world, but true justice will be achieved only by the consummation of God's purposes and the perfection of God's own judgment.

Until then, the church must preach the Gospel, and Christians must live out its implications. We must resist and reject every false gospel and tell sinners of salvation in Christ. And, knowing that God's judgment is coming, we must strive to be on the right side of justice.

Ultimately the Gospel is not about politics and the church is not a political party, either on the Left or on the Right. The Kingdom was not advanced when Barack Obama was elected President nor when George W. Bush was elected as our President. Our charge is to submit to those in governmental authority and to seek to live out our lives quietly and peacefully under that authority. Our charge is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to serve one another in love. Under no circumstances are we called to seize the government or impose a theocracy on America. We are not called to win elections or form political action committees. We are certainly not called to stand shoulder to shoulder, unequally yoked, to unbelievers (like Glenn Beck) no matter how noble the cause.

Does that mean we shouldn’t vote? I don’t think our participation in elections is prohibited at all. Should we not be involved in social change movements? Again no but there is a danger when we spend so much time fighting gay marriage and abortion that we forget to preach the Gospel. I would say that we often place undue emphasis on the political process and ascribe overly optimistic motivations to politicians. We in the church too often have a naive and unseemly faith in politicians. Politicians are by and large politicians because they seek power. That means they will use any means available to gain an advantage, including appealing to religion. I am increasingly suspicious of any man who seeks prestige, titles, power, authority over others because I see the desire for power and the exaltation of self at the heart of those goals. It is dangerous in politics and infinitely more so in the church.

Preach the Gospel. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do good for others in your everyday life. Stand for what is right and proper based on the Word of God. Trust God that He will enact justice in every sense of the word.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Brothers in unity

A Song of Ascents. Of David. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psa 133:1-3)

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fo-Mo Chronicles: Um, Glenn....hate to break this to you...

The Fo-Mo Chronicles: Um, Glenn....hate to break this to you...

Really, someone needs to tell Glenn Beck that Christians are not looking for advice from him. About anything.

Babies cost America money so we should just kill them

That is apparently the prevailing opinion among Congressional Democrats. This from a interview with Congressman Bart Stupak:

Stupak notes that his negotiations with House Democratic leaders in recent days have been revealing. “I really believe that the Democratic leadership is simply unwilling to change its stance,” he says. “Their position says that women, especially those without means available, should have their abortions covered.” The arguments they have made to him in recent deliberations, he adds, “are a pretty sad commentary on the state of the Democratic party.”

What are Democratic leaders saying? “If you pass the Stupak amendment, more children will be born, and therefore it will cost us millions more. That’s one of the arguments I’ve been hearing,” Stupak says. “Money is their hang-up. Is this how we now value life in America? If money is the issue — come on, we can find room in the budget. This is life we’re talking about.”

If Democrats push this through, Rep. Stupak should either switch parties or resign Congress. He cannot caucus with a party that bargains away human life. Set aside the issue of socialized medicine for a moment. We are going to subsidize wholesale murder of infants as taxpayers, in part because it is cheaper to abort babies than pay for them.

Call your Senators and your Representative and tell them to vote NO on tax-payer funded infanticide.

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