Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The danger of being right

Christianity is one of those things you just can’t be wrong about. In fact it is unlike anything else in that it has eternal consequences with no “do-overs” for being wrong. There is nothing more dangerous that being wrong about Christianity.

A distant second but a real danger nevertheless is being right. Why is being right dangerous? I like being right and I pretty much always assume that I am. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about topics where I put forth a position held by someone else and then tell you why they are wrong. But as Alan Knox (beating me to the punch!) wrote, being “right” is not ministry:

So, we get distracted by these kinds of arguments (eschatology, soteriology, and, yes, even ecclesiology) and we call our distractions “ministry.” Meanwhile, real ministry (serving other people) never gets done… or rarely gets done. But we think we’re doing good things… all the while we’re distracted from the things that God has called us to do.

The foundation of this problem is that we’ve been distracted by rightness. There’s a misconception that our goal is being right and that we should always point out where (we think) other people are wrong. Of course, this is normally true when it comes to the gospel, but (especially since the Reformation) Christians have begun to separate over, demand allegiance to, and defend all kinds of teachings and doctrines that are not related to the gospel.

I think that captures exactly what I was talking about. For example, I think it is wrong to baptize infants and in some ways I think it is dangerous to baptize someone and raise them thinking that they are part of the church because of that. Having said that, me arguing and even proving my position regarding baptism is not ministry. Instead of staking my claims about baptism, I ought to be taking the Gospel to people and watching God work in their lives to regenerate their hearts. I would go so far as to say that in much of the church, arguments about who is right on a matter of doctrine takes up so much time and effort that our desire to be right interferes with carrying out the very doctrines we are talking about.

I love having deep conversations about theology but I and many others need to remember that talking about the Gospel is not the same thing as proclaming the Gospel.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Afraid of orphans

Great essay by Russell Moore this morning: Is the Orphan My Neighbor? . He suggests (and I think he is correct) that many Christians are afraid of orphans and because of that avoid them entirely.

The reason I think about this conversation so much these days is because I am finding—more and more often—that one of the primary obstacles for Christians in advocating for the fatherless can be summed up right there in that measuring tape: the issue of fear. As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us don’t think much about orphans because, frankly, we’re scared of them.

Orphans are unpredictable. Often we don’t know where they’ve come from, what kind of genetic maladies and urges lie dormant somewhere in those genes. Moreover, in virtually ever situation of fatherless, there is some kind of tragedy: a divorce, a suicide, a rape, a drug overdose, a disease, a drought, a civil war, and on and on. We’d rather not think about such things, and we’re afraid often of what kind of lasting mark they leave on their victims.

As Dr. Moore also points out, pretending orphans don't exist is not an option for followers of Christ:

The followers of Jesus should fill in the gap left by a contemporary Western consumer culture that extends even to the conception and adoption of children. Who better than those who have been welcomed by Christ to care for the most feared and least sought after of the world’s orphans? After all, who are we, as those who are the invited to Jesus’ wedding feast? We are “the poor and the crippled and the blind and the lame” (Lk. 14:21). Since that is the case, Jesus tells us, we are to model the same kind of risk-taking, unconditional love (Lk. 14:12), the kind that casts out fear.

Yes, orphan care can be risky. Justice for the fatherless will sap far more from us than just the time it takes to advocate. These kids need to be reared, to be taught, to be hugged, to be heard. Children who have been traumatized often need more than we ever expect to give. It is easier to ignore those cries. But love of any kind is risky.

Amen to that. I am more and more heavily burdened by the plight of orphans in light of the very easy life I and my family live. Jesus is calling us to die to ourselves and live for others, I certainly am not doing a very good job of that.

Book Review: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

There are not many books that rattle the status quo in the church and simultaneously get accolades from the broader evangelical church. David Platt's Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream has endorsements from “big name” Southern Baptists like Russell Moore, Johnny Hunt and Daniel Akin. That is interesting and important because in many ways the SBC embodies what David Platt is talking about: affluent, middle-class values that are inextricably linked with Christianity. The very title itself is provocative and the fact that it is tells us an awful lot. To many Christians, there is little difference between the American dream and the Gospel. I would go so far as to say that in much of the evangelical world, even in places that decry “prosperity gospel” theology, we operate in a functional prosperity gospel, i.e. God has blessed us materially as Americans and that is a sign of God’s favor that makes calls for self-sacrifice beyond a pittance in giving almost unthinkable.

I liked the whole book and I will admit I was on guard before I picked it up. A book about living radically for the Gospel written by a traditional pastor in a Southern Baptist megachurch? How radical can it possibly be? I fully expected the extent of his radicalism to be “give more to your local church”. I was pleasantly surprised but also haunted by what he wrote. Platt calls the church on the carpet (and himself I will add, this is not a “you stink, be like me” kind of book) for our neglect of the poor. Pull into any sizeable suburban evangelical church on a Sunday morning and you will be greeted by a palatial building surrounded by acres of parking lots full of millions of dollars of cars. One fairly typical evangelical church my family and I attended in the past looked like a new car dealership in the parking lot. When you enter the building you find yourself in the midst of people in their "Sunday best" doing their religious duty for the week, waiting for the clock to strike twelve so they can go about their lives comfortably oblivious to the suffering of people around the world and down the street.

One of the most powerful things Platt recounts is that when we change our mindset, it can really expose how indifferent we have been to the poor. The mindset change I am thinking of is described by Platt as Christians not asking “How much can I spare?” but instead asking “How much will it take?” That one question makes a huge difference. Instead of looking at our lifestyles lived as we want and then seeing what disposable income is left over to give away, we should approach our budget with the Gospel first. I live in a modest home but it is bigger than we need. We don’t eat luxuriously but we could eat just fine for less money. We don’t have cable but we do spend a lot on internet. We only have one cell phone (only one!) but we do pay for unlimited data. We still live in opulence unheard of for most of my brothers and sisters in Christ who have the "misfortune" of being born in a Third World country. If we saw the Church as the Bible sees it, not as a bunch of more or less unconnected local churches who do their own thing, but a living Body of believers who are scattered around the world and responsible to one another, I think we would have an easier time seeing radical discipleship as something that forms all that we do instead of a line item on our budget under discretionary spending. "What will it take" demands real sacrifice, "How much can I spare" relegates mercy and Gospel proclamation to the same category as vacations and movies.

A few quibbles and they are obvious ones. Platt still seems to see the traditional church as the proper model for the gathering of the church and indeed as the primary engine for radical living. While that makes sense for someone who is an employee of a 4000 member traditional church, I also see the traditional church in America as one of the great impediments to living as disciples and followers of Christ. It sounds like The Church at Brook Hills where Platt is pastor is an exceptional group but that would be the exception, not the norm. Until evangelicals untangle themselves from the worldly model of success that permeates the church with its mortgages, capital campaigns, enormous staff and building expenses and all of the other associated costs that absorb an enormous percentage of Christian giving, we are not going to live in anything even resembling a radical lifestyle. Adding a new wing to your building or hiring more clerical staff is not radical living for the Gospel. Stylistically the book seemed a little herky jerky in some places, it seems like I was reading about one topic and then he shifted to a completely different topic that made me stop and backup looking for the non-existent transition. That is kind of to be expected, he is not a professional author. I just found it a little distracting.

I can only hope that this book is not one that Christians read, say “Wow, we should do more”, give a little more in the plate the next Sunday and then slip comfortably back into the middle-class stupor we live in. Read for what is written, there should be no way that a born-again believer in Jesus Christ can just accept and embrace the affluent status quo as if there is nothing going on beyond our borders. It is unsettling to think that what we cherish for ourselves and desire above all else for our children, i.e. the “American Dream” might actually be contrary to living our lives for Christ. We are way overdue to be unsettled in America where Christians have made an idol out of being American. It is time to smash that idol and start using the material prosperity of this country to help those who are in need instead of enriching ourselves and propping up our cultural religion.

Will we read this book and more importantly look afresh at the words of Christ and give up all to follow Him or will we walk away sadly and refuse to follow Him like the rich young ruler because we love our possessions and security more than we love Him?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

This should go without saying

but it needs to be said.

A starving child doesn't care if you are pre-, post- or amillenial.

The widow isn't really all that interested in congregational or Presbyterian forms of church government.

The fatherless child isn't going to reject food because the one offering it is an Arminian.

The Christian in a third world country without a Bible is not going to refuse one because it isn't the right version.

The lost person down the street doesn't need to hear about your denomination or how great your church is or what a wonderful preacher your pastor is, they need to hear about Jesus.

We spend so much time and money fussing and feuding about issues that are important but pale in comparison to what we have been called to do, proclaiming the Gospel and showing mercy as we have been shown mercy. Eternity will be spent with all sorts of believers. It will have arminians and Calvinists, people baptized as infants and adults, people of all denominations or none at all, people who read the King James Bible only and people who only knew the NIV. The one kind of person you won't find there is the one who never heard of Jesus because they starved to death as a child or never had a Christian come to their tribe or worse yet never heard about Him from the person living next door in their suburb. With thousands of people entering eternity without Christ today, where should we focus our time and money? On buildings, on programs, on arguments about theology? Or should we focus every penny on seeing that people who don't know Christ hear His name and His Gospel?

We are not called to be in the business of making Christians into better informed Christians, we are called to the business of taking the Gospel that saved us to those who need it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Best of the week entry 3

Is a two-fer from Provocations and Pantings and deals with the situation in Haiti. The first post, Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti? Pt 1 deals with the heartwrenching situation of the ground. Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti? Pt 2 deals with why there is hope, hope in the form of a young man from Haiti who came to America to help his people, not by looking for a handout but a job:

Joseph didn’t say much. His English was rather broken, his heart even more for his people. Like most Haitians, he was well-dressed, and every time I approached him, he responded with a quiet hello and bowed head. I just thought he was here to visit some family (which he was), but soon I came to realize it was so much more. In the earthquake this past January, Joseph lost nearly everything. His father, hero, and mentor was killed while in the church building where he invested his life pastoring God’s people. Joseph’s house was completely destroyed, his wife trapped inside and now medically impaired. The three-story building in Port-au-Prince where the church and orphanage was located collapsed, killing nine orphan children. In this building was stored all the Bibles, musical instruments, sound equipment, and teaching materials for all nine churches he had started over the past 15 years. On top of this, one of the members in the church in Port-au-Prince, a high-ranking government official who funded a large amount of the food supplies for the orphans, was killed in the earthquake, leaving Joseph will a state of desperate need one can only imagine bearing alone.

So a homeless 33 year-old man who just buried his father and sent his wife to a hospital in the Dominican Republic ended up in my city because, as he later told me, the children in his churches “no longer had food to eat”. He didn’t come to get a handout from our church. He came looking for a job so that he can bring some money back to feed these children who looked to him as their grandfather. What he did not know was there are no jobs here in our city (that’s another story), and so he was left to attending church at Grace while trusting God for a miracle.

Wonderful story and it gives you hope in the midst of despair. Give them a read.

Best of the week entry 2

Thomas Spence, writing for the Wall Street Journal, looks at the issue of the literacy gap between boys and girls: How to Raise Boys Who Read:

When I was a young boy, America's elite schools and universities were almost entirely reserved for males. That seems incredible now, in an era when headlines suggest that boys are largely unfit for the classroom. In particular, they can't read.

According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, for example, substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.

The good news is that influential people have noticed this problem. The bad news is that many of them have perfectly awful ideas for solving it.

The solution seems to be a steady stream of silly and gross books that pander to young boys and rather than encouraging them to grow and stretch their minds, actually promote them remaining immature indefinitely. The problem, rightly pointed out, is not that books need to be gross or vulgar for boys to read them. The bigger problem is that boys have competition for their attention from video games and other electronic media that require little thought.

I will affirm this as well. I read far less than I used to and some of that has to do with having a large family but a lot of that has to do with electronic media. I play more than my fair share of video games and I also read a lot on the internet. Reading blogs is different than reading a book. Blogs have to make their point in a few paragraphs, books have hundreds of pages. The best thing we can do to get our sons to read is to get them unplugged. Easier said than done.

Best of the week entry 1

Albert Mohler looks at a recent event where three lesbians are welcome as members of the clergy in, surprise!, the Evangelical Lutheran Church: What Would Luther Say? — A Church Apologizes for Church Discipline. What was interesting was not the welcome they received, it was something else that happened…

The most interesting part of the “Rite of Reception” was a confession voiced by the congregation. Look closely at this:

We have fallen short in honoring all people of God and being an instrument for that grace. . . .We have disciplined, censured and expelled when we should have listened, learned and included.

That’s right — the church actually confessed the “sin” of having once stood on biblical ground and the “sin” of exercising church discipline.

There are many things the church has to confess and repent of. Not embracing sin is not one of them.

I am not in total agreement with the model of church discipline that is common in conservative traditional churches and is espoused by leaders like Mohler. Clearly though there is Biblical warrant for those in unrepentant sin to be disciplined by the church through the breaking of fellowship. There is no way to read the Bible and come away with a picture of the church that tolerates and celebrates open sin. The number of Christians willing to point that out seems to be shrinking every day.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Adoption in the Wall Street Journal

There is a great essay in this morning’s Wall Street Journal that takes a brief look at the rising interest in adoption among Evangelicals: Adoption Season for Evangelicals. I read it last night and liked it a lot. This is such a natural for God’s people, people who have been adopted into His family and are commanded to care for the widow and the fatherless to open our homes to children who are in need. What was interesting, and something I was unaware of, was that Focus on the Family has been very active in this area especially in foster care. That is something commendable. Something else I found fascinating and hadn’t thought of before was how counter-cultural adoption and fostering is:

Foster children are also likely to be of a different race from their new adoptive parents. As more and more evangelical churches take up the cause of adoption on a large scale, their congregations have begun to look like the multiracial sea of faces that Christian leaders often talk about wanting. But it does involve parents giving up on having children who look like them.

All of this makes the growing evangelical interest in adoption seem particularly countercultural. With the widespread availability of artificial reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization, many couples who previously would have chosen adoption can now use surrogates, donor sperm or donor eggs to have a baby who shares their DNA (or whose DNA they have carefully chosen), and whose prenatal care they can closely monitor. Taking a child as he or she comes to you may be a difficult choice for some parents to make these days.

I like that. We often lament that Sunday morning is so segregated but I think that is changing. As couples have smaller families, later in life, more and more people want “perfect” kids that look just right in those couple of hours a day that they see them when they are not at school, daycare or some sort of character and resume building activity. Adopting or fostering a child means taking that child, with all of the accompanying quirks and foibles and problems. Isn’t that exactly what was done for us, that in spite of our sins and rebelliousness and dead hearts God adopted us anyway? What a beautiful way to live out the Gospel, bringing an orphan into your family and loving them in spite of their problems. You want to pass a plate to pay for church staff or mortgages or building projects? No thanks. You want to take up a love offering to help couples adopt or foster children? Count me in.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thinking about theocracy

A lot of Christians really struggle with the Old Testament. It doesn’t get the same emphasis in the church that the New Testament does, it is full of strange events and it is pretty confusing to someone who is only familiar with our cultural Christianity. This makes it doubly hard to understand a lot of the New Testament, especially in places like the book of Hebrews which many Christians find very difficult to understand and interpreting the foundations of the Lord’s Supper and the cross in light of the Old Covenant. Because of this, there is an inconsistent application and misunderstanding of a lot of what we read in the Old Testament. For example, how many times have you seen this verse…

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

…applied to America, often shown festooned with a bald eagle and the American flag? Of course, like so many verses plucked out of context, when you look at it in context it seems silly to apply it to America:

Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord and the king's house. All that Solomon had planned to do in the house of the Lord and in his own house he successfully accomplished. Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’

“But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7: 11-22)

What is being spoken of here is specifically directed at the nation of Israel and the land given to them by God and the temple built to honor Him in that land. Verse 14 is talking about an actual drought, plague of locusts and disease on the land. It is not talking about American citizens voting for Barack Obama or banning government sanctioned prayer in secular schools.

The Old Testament contains moral precepts and commandments and it also contains a number of laws that are applicable to the nation of Israel. While the moral precepts of what constitutes sin are eternal, the response to them is not.

For example, the Bible consistently and especially in the OT is clear that homosexuality is an abomination, a perversion of the natural created order and purpose of men and women: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22). As a response to that, the civil law of the nation of Israel set forth punitive measures in response to this behavior that include capital punishment: If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13). Sexual immorality like homosexuality and adultery and other perversions of naturally ordered human sexuality are both a violation of God’s law and a reflection of the immorality of the people who are being supplanted by the Jews. As such, God commanded His people to purge this immoral behavior so that this nation would remain pure and set apart. By purge I mean put to death. The dividing line between Jew and everyone else was clear and bright and inviolable, in fact the sins of His people throughout the OT are often associated with the Jews adopting the practices of the people of the land (worshipping false gods, burning their children, immoral behavior).

All well and good but here is the problem. The New Testament is clear that by the cross Jesus has shattered the dividing line based on ethnicity and nationality. No longer are we Jew and Gentile, divided, but one people united in Christ:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2 :14-16)

Under the New Covenant, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). In America (or any other country) we are not “God’s people” by birth and nationality who need to return to God. We are a mixed nation of believers and unbelievers, elect and non-elect. No amount of legislation or school prayer or GOP congressional victories are going to make the unbelieving majority of Americans into God’s people and unbelievers, by their very nature, don’t seek the face of God. That is why they are unbelievers and that is how they stay until acted upon by God.

Thus we have the problem with some of the fringe movements in the “Christian Right” who espouse dominionism or other forms of theocratic rule. God sends us to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, not to conquer or rule over those nations or institute some sort of new model of ancient Israel in a secular state full of unbelievers. I have been doing some reading on this topic today and I am concerned because some of the advocates of this sort of thing run in the same circles I do and I think these advocates are dangerously influential on homeschoolers and others. I don’t homeschool my kids to turn them into some sort of conquering army to take over the culture and the halls of power in America, I homeschool them out of obedience and because I want them raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I don’t see that Calvinism taken in its most basic form leads us to seek theocracy, just the opposite in fact.

God is not calling His people to conquer and reign. His Son already conquered sin and already is reigning at the right hand of the Father. Let’s be sure that we don’t use patriotic fervor and misapplication of the civil laws of Israel to advocate what God has not commanded us to do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A convicting decision

A Pilgrim's Progress: I've Resigned from Professional Pastoring

Talk is cheap but what do you do when you are faced with a difficult conclusion that is Scriptural but very, very hard? Check out what Eric Carpenter decided to do and please join me in praying for him and his family.

Maybe I can convince them to leave the sweltering south and move to Michigan?!

One Size Does Not Fit All In Education

I read an interesting story on community homeschooling this morning at CNN of all places, Communal homeschooling on the rise. While the story is supposed to be about community homeschooling, it oddly doesn’t spend much time talking about that but I really appreciated this commentary…

Just ask the Sobrals, who are homeschooling their five children. For them, “one size fits all” education just doesn’t cut it anymore. “What we've learned now is that it's unnatural fitting 20 children in a room and learning from one teacher, on the same schedule, on the exact same material in the same way,” says Courtney Sobral.

The Sobral kids each have their own interests and learn in different ways. Sobral says since she’s the teacher, she can experiment with teaching techniques to see what works best.

Her husband, Alex, says that’s not always possible in public schools. “You’re taught that you have to go to A, B, and C…and if you’re not excelling here and there, there must be something wrong with you.”

That is a great perspective. It is completely unnatural to cram twenty, thirty or more kids into a room based on little other than their birthday and expect them to learn and absorb information at the same rate and in the same way. Public schooling says “this is the age you read” and “this is the age for pre-algebra” on an arbitrary basis. I get why because the schools get a whole pile of kids every year and all they know about them is that they live in a certain area and are a particular age. I was a pretty proficient reader before I even started kindergarten and remember sitting in the stairwell with an older student reading from Readers Digest while the other kids learned to read because I didn’t fit into the age expectation and there was nothing else for the school to do with me.

For me, the most compelling reason for homeschool is that I firmly believe it is what is expected of us as Christian parents. But there are additional solid reasons for homeschooling. As I said above, I agree with the Sobral’s in that I don’t see it as natural to expect dozens of different children with different abilities, backgrounds, learning styles and maturity levels to all learn the exact same material the exact same way. In the work world, you aren’t assigned a job based on your birthday and street address. Not everyone who is 30-35 in a given zip code is assigned the same job because not everyone has the same ability or background.

I am always glad to read something positive or at least not negative about homeschooling in the “mainstream” press.

Monday, September 20, 2010

This is tragic and foolish all in one

While it used to be standard fare on my blog I haven’t done a post like this in a while but I read this and was so struck by how tragically erroneous it was. Maybe I am just in a bad mood. At the same time I think this sort of teaching is becoming more and more prevalent as the Gospel is watered down to make “church” as palatable as possible to as many people as possible. This sort of teaching is becoming more commonplace in traditional churches and is so muddled as to be unrecognizable as even a poor representation of the Gospel, instead turning into some sort of “other gospel” that is powerless to save. So anyway, I am about to let loose with both barrels so if that bothers you, please stop reading now.

This morning Albert Mohler pointed to a response to something he twittered. It had to do with an interfaith service at a Baptist church that was a celebration called “Honoring All Sacred Texts” at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. In response to this event honoring the "sacred texts" of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism Dr. Mohler tweeted: Here is where ‘interfaith’ means ‘denying the faith’ at a former SBC church. Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist, responding in a blog post titled “Denying or Defending Christ?" gives his response to Al Mohler and in doing so demonstrates a troubling misunderstanding of the very foundations of the Gospel. From his response to Dr. Mohler:

The intent of Honoring All Sacred Texts was not to deny or dilute the role of Jesus, who is central to our message and mission at Highland.

But which Jesus? The Jesus of inclusion or exclusion?

The Jesus I find in scripture blazes a singular path of self-giving love rather than a path of domination over others, be that others within his band of followers, or the religious leaders, the Roman authorities, or other religions. His way is one of reconciling Love rather than polarizing division. The only ones Jesus excluded were those driven by a spirit of exclusion. And while there are passages that say He is the only way to God-- and He is the way we follow at Highland-- other Bible passages are clear that God's bigness and love extend to all the earth, to all peoples, to all nations who come in reverence before God.

Our intent on 9/11 was to mark the day our country was wounded by the violence of extremists. Honoring All Sacred Texts invited people of all faiths to come together to speak a word of witness against this kind of divisive, hate-filled ideology, found in every nation and religion, by reading what we believe is fundamental and common from our various sacred texts: love, humility, peace, reverence before the Creator.

We invited each to read what they believe best represents their faith's understanding of God, rather than us scouring their texts looking for lines we find threatening or violent. Every sacred text--including the Bible--has passages that extol violence, which can be misunderstood and misapplied by outsiders (and by insiders!). We can no more understand the context of a verse by a cursory reading of another's sacred text than I can understand clearly the dynamics of someone else's family system by simply looking at their front door. While their text is not ours, we can honor the fact that it is their sacred text, their attempt, as is our Bible, to use language to speak of experiences of Holy Mystery being revealed to humanity.

Egad. So you gather people under the pretense of being a Christian church and then invite and welcome unbelievers to stand up and present their views of who God is? When Peter was asked at Pentecost in response to his proclamation of the Gospel “What shall we do?”, his response was not to tell these men to go to their faith traditions to see what it has to say about “God”. He boldly called them to repent.

The Gospel is not about “belief in God” although that amorphous definition is popular in our religious culture. It is about belief and faith in Christ, in His sinless life, substitutionary death and victorious resurrection. One cannot have varying understandings of who God is and be in “good standing” with Him if you deny the Son, which is what sets apart Christianity from all of the other false world faiths. Jesus said this clearly in many places (assuming you actually read and believe the Bible), like in this passage from Luke:

“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

If you reject Christ as who He declares Himself to be; i.e. uniquely God, eternal, uncreated, the only begotten of the Father, then you explicitly are rejecting God the Father ("him who sent me"). Any view of God that denies Christ as God is blasphemy. I know that word is jarring to our ears in 2010 and perhaps considered impolite but there are times when being blunt is necessary. Inviting people to your church to stand up and blaspheme is not being a good Christian, it welcoming something that the Bible calls anathema. As if that was not bad enough, he followed with this doozie:

I can hear the rebuttals that excuse our Bible from this kind of level playing field--that the Bible is the only real sacred text because it is more inspired, infallible, without human influence, having been dictated from the mouth of God, who is a Christian God alone. But how is this different than Joseph Smith’s insistence that his golden tablets appeared from heaven to him alone?

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible and believe it inspired by God. I read it devotionally every morning and hear God’s Spirit speak to my heart through it. I study it and preach from it four times a weekend (I suspect Highland reads more Bible in worship than many churches which claim they revere it more than we do). But can we not acknowledge that our faith’s text is a disparate collection of inspirations and understandings which must be allowed to interact and thus inform each other? And that its meaning must be continually explored, in concert with the Spirit, to discern its intent?

So declaring that the claims of inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible is hardly different from Joseph Smith’s claims regarding the Book of Mormon qualifies as “loving” the Bible? Saying I love the Bible on the one hand but then dismissing it on the other is hardly a rational statement.

Jesus is not competing in the marketplace of ideas, He is not one of many more or less equally valid versions of the truth. He IS truth and anything that denies Him is by definition false. Christianity stands apart from all of the false belief systems in the world, whether false religions like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. or the similarly misguided and false denials of God in atheism and agnosticism. There is nothing to honor in the “sacred texts” of Buddhism or Islam. They fundamentally present a view of God that is contrary to who God reveals Himself to be in the Bible and are not acceptable alternative views.

God through the Scriptures calls all people everywhere to repent (note, He does not beg, plead, request, cajole, etc. He commands) but also demands that all other religions be cast aside as idolatry and blasphemy. There is room in Christianity for anyone, any sinner no matter how serious the sin, who repents and calls upon the name of Christ but there is no mercy for those who deny Jesus Christ in any way, shape or form. Lumping Jesus in with all of the world religions as merely one understanding of God is blasphemy, pure and simple. Standing before the throne and declaring Jesus as the alternative that you preferred because of your cultural preferences is a one way ticket to hell. Period.

Mr. Phelps asks a simple question in the title of his blog post: Denying or Defending Christ? It seems pretty clear from what he wrote that the answer, tragically, is denying. Any view of Christ that denies His exclusivity denies who He is and if He is not who He claims to be then there is no Good News, no Gospel, no redemption and we all are still condemned in our sins. There are many things you can be wrong about and still be a Christian but denying who Christ is doesn’t make that list.

A tale of two sins

From Radical:

So what is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. (David Platt, Radical, pg. 111)

Ouch. We are quick to condemn sexual immorality, whether extra-marital sex or homosexuality but boy when it comes to something that hits a little closer to our affluent middle-class values, we seem to clam up. The Bible is every bit as harsh and unequivocal in its condemnation of ignoring the poor as it is on sexual immorality but we accept one and not the other. The church makes it easy on us, drop a check in the plate and feel like you are doing your part. Then go out to lunch in your nice car and go home to your nice house without a thought to those who are starving all around us and all around the world.

Case in point was something I read about a "megachurch" in my hometown of Toledo celebrating a milestone and making plans to raise additional funds:

...the goal is to raise $4.5 million by 2013 - $1.5 million for each of the two new sites, $500,000 to pay down debt on the West Toledo property, and $1 million to give to local, regional, and Third World ministries.

Give them credit for raising money for unnamed ministries but the real goal is building a bigger empire.

It seems incomprehensible that a reading of the Scriptures would lend itself to multi-million dollar building projects but the sad truth is that much of what we understand as Christianity in America is a social construct more than a Biblical reflection. We turn to the traditions of our culture and fit the Bible in where we can (and sometimes cram it in where we cannot).

I think David Platt raises a troubling and unanswerable question in this paragraph. The sin of ignoring the poor is a very real one and one that is as unacceptable among the followers of Christ as sexual immorality because it is associated with many of the same core sinful attitudes: selfishness, hard heartedness, pride, idolatry. Granted, Christians by and large are very generous when it comes to giving compared to unbelievers but when you look at where those dollars go and how relatively little most Christians give away, it is more than a little shameful. Being a little better than unbelievers is hardly something we should hang our collective hats on. Why then is it so easy to stand behind a pulpit and rail against sexual promiscuity and sexual deviancy but seemingly so difficult to address poverty and Christian responsibility to the poor? Perhaps, as David suggests, because one is a comfortable topic among our middle-class churches and the other hits a little too close to home and makes people uncomfortable.

The implications for what David is saying, if true and I think they are, raises some very troubling questions for the church.

The Gospel is not a political platform

Interesting essay from USA Today written by Carrie Sheffield, Why the GOP needs non-believers. Ms. Sheffield argues that the GOP risks alienating non-religious political conservatives.

I think she has a point in that clearly the proportion of “church going” Americans is shrinking. America clearly has a more secular future. Church attendance or the lack thereof is no longer a requirement for entrance into polite society. So you can see as a political strategy that the GOP becoming the party of Christians and the Democrats becoming the party of minorities that will someday soon be majorities is a winning one long term for the Democrats.

It is an interesting question that she answers, Why the GOP needs non-believers. I think a more pertinent one is: why do believers need the GOP? There is nothing especially Christian about lower taxes, about border security, about how the secular government defines secular marriage, about national defense and winning the war on terror. Of course there is nothing especially Christian about income redistribution policies, or environmental regulations, or promoting homosexual “marriage”, or whatever other drivel the left is promoting these days. Christianity is apolitical although Christians individually might be quite politically inclined. Christianity is not a political movement, although you would be hard pressed to recognize that in America.

That is why I segregated my blogs and carved out my political thoughts and also why I so rarely write on these topics. They just aren’t as important to me. Not one sinner is going to be saved because the southern border of the United States is secure. Nor are sinners going to be saved by taking money away from one person and giving it to another. There are no political solutions to the one and only problem that faces mankind, i.e. sin. You can try to make people act more morally but their sin will simply go “underground”. What America needs is irrelevant to Christians, what Americans need is the Gospel and that is completely relevant.

Frankly, secular conservatives need religious ones far more than religious political conservatives need them. Secular conservatives flat out cannot win most elections without the backing of religious conservatives. The GOP has invested a lot in wooing religious conservatives and that is where they have hung their hat, like it or not. The GOP has placed all of its hopes in the religious right. Conversely, the mission of Christians has nothing to do with the outcome of elections. Somewhere along the line this message has been lost among Christians living in America and we have hung all of our hopes on the next election cycle.

Whether the next President is a reelected Barack Obama or someone like Sarah Palin will be largely dependent on the votes of Christians but as Christians we need to realize that there is nothing in the party platform of either party that has much to do with the Gospel.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Best of the week entry 3

This entry comes from Lionel Woods and is a doozy! I like a lot of what Lionel says and even when I disagree with him he boldy but not arrogantly stands right up and challenges you to show him where he is wrong. In this case, Lionel asks a vital question and one that is just assumed in much of the church: What is the purpose of going to church?

I really liked Lionel's list of reason you should not "go to church" because it sounds so culturally jarring but is absolutely Biblical.

You shouldn’t go to church to hear good sermons, listen to good singing or network. If you are going to church for any of those reasons you should stop going today. You shouldn’t go to church because the youth ministry is good, the couples ministry is fun, the church has nice programs or because the “pastor” is popular (Potter’s House, John Piper….). If you are going for those reasons, save your money and reduce your carbon footprint. You shouldn’t go to church because that is the church your family has gone to or goes to, you shouldn’t go because they have a nice building and most of all you shouldn’t go because you think it is the right thing to do. Even more importantly and what may get me in a little trouble is that if you are going to church to WORSHIP God then you also going for the wrong reason (look it up if you don’t believe me). If you are going for any of the reasons above stop and spend quality time with your friends and family, it will serve you and others better. Also please note that if someone tells you, to come to church because Jesus needs you there they are gravely mistaken and you should let them know this isn’t true.

The church gathers together for edification, to be equipped to do the work of ministry not to "worship" or be ministered to and certainly not to listen to sermon. The church should be about the going, not about the gathering.

Best of the week entry 2

Comes from Alan Knox and is a repost of an interesting discussion of the idea of Qualifications and Examples regarding elders.

So, according to Hammett, elders are not perfect. I agree with this. In fact, I would suggest that no one can live up to the list of “qualifications” given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Perhaps that is why Paul does not call the lists “qualifications”.

What are the purpose of the lists then? Well, I think the lists are not given for the benefit of the elders, but for the benefit of all the people. If leaders are to be examples as Hammett says – and I agree with this – then which examples do we follow? I mean, everyone is an example of something. Which examples are we supposed to follow? Who should we look to as examples?

We should look to people who most closely live according to the lists given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (among other lists). We do not look for perfect people to follow – there are none, other than Jesus Christ. We look for people who would be godly examples, people who are mature followers of Jesus Christ. They will fail to meet some of the “qualifications” – all of them will – but they will also be known for repenting and confessing when they do fail, to paraphrase Hammett’s description.

But, these people are not living a certain way in order to be leaders. They are living an exemplary life in response to God’s work in their own life – in obedience to the presence, conviction, and leading of the Holy Spirit. These people do not become elders and then begin living an exemplary life; they are recognized as elders because of the life they are already living.

I like it. The idea that the lists we are giving are some sort of job description is untenable and leads to people making up all sorts of extra qualifications that have no basis in Scripture (able to teach means likes to read the rights sorts of books). People become leaders based on the life they are leading, not based on titles or offices. In other words, they are leaders because people follow them instead of expecting people to follow them because they are designated leaders.

Best of the week entry 1

Carl Trueman is spot on with his critique of the mixed message from the religious right regarding Glenn Beck: No, Mr Beck is Part of the Problem. Here is a hint, it is not just his mormonism that is a problem. It is also his over the top rhetoric that turns discussions over very important issues into emotional exchanges of one-upmanship to see who can throw out the best zinger.

Yes, his lectures are entertaining; I would go further -- they are actually entertainment. And the tragedy of much American politics these days is that those on both sides of the substantial issues -- and I stress both sides here, for the left is no better than the right -- mistake such entertainment for intelligent argument and cast their votes accordingly.

If democracy ever dies, it is unlikely that it will be by act of Congress; more likely it will be because of the failure of the electorate to engage in an intelligent, civil manner with the democratic process. Sadly, Christians seems all too often to be in the vanguard of such uncritical incivility.

People like Beck on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left are poster children for the childish tantrums that have replaced rational conversations. Beck and his ilk are crass opportunists and demagogues who are cashing in on pseudo-political discourse. We face an enormous crisis of culture, politics and economics in the very near future but we cannot even begin to address these questions as a nation with men who have illusions of messianic grandeur forming the conversation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Florida fool

I have avoided saying anything about that fool with matches in Florida but now that the day has come and gone, I thought I would pass on some observations.

In the aftermath of the “will he/will he not” Quran burning fiasco that elevated a crackpot to the level of a prophet we rarely see outside of Punxsutawney Phil, many people are providing all manner of post-mortems on what happened (or didn’t as the case may be). A lot of these center on the idea that we (i.e. America, Christians, etc.) were afraid of offending Islam and that we were collectively bullied into calling for “pastor” Jones to cancel the Quran burning.

I can’t speak for others but I am not concerned about “offending Islam” at all. Quite the contrary, I fully expect that the Gospel will be offensive to many people and that in fact it is completely in character with faithful Gospel proclamation to expect that it will lead to offense, persecution and often even death. So it is not the offense of the Gospel I and others were concerned with but instead it was a completely different sort of offense. It was the offense to the teaching of Scripture to engage in this sort of tawdry showmanship and blatant act of ignorant hatred in the name of Christ. It was also a case where the offense of the cross that tells sinners that they stand condemned without Jesus is replaced with offensiveness of the most banal kind. Jesus responded to the hatred of those who were His enemies by dying on a cross for them, reconciling them to the Father by His love and His blood. Jesus didn’t burn Caesar in effigy, He died meekly. Burning a Quran does nothing to thwart Islam or promote the cause of America or the Gospel (two polar opposites that Mr. Jones and far too many others cannot distinguish between).

The only upside to this whole sordid affair was the near universal condemnation of it by the church. We as God’s people have suffered far too many fools for far too long but in this case we finally see the church united to condemn a man who was seeking to exalt himself and bring shame to the cross of Christ.

If Mr. Jones really wants to take a courageous stand for the Gospel against Islam, he should pack up and go where Muslims are and be a witness to them, loving them even when they hate and persecute him in return and perhaps even being willing to lay down his life for the sake of the Gospel instead of pandering to the most base emotions of fear and hatred in the misguided name of religious nationalism.

Haiti still needs help

In contrast to the furor over the perceived slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Haiti gets very little press now that the news has grown old. That doesn't change the terrible tragedy that still unfolds every day. Fox News reports that nine months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, only around 2% of the rubble has been cleared....

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — From the dusty rock mounds lining the streets to a National Palace that looks like it's spewing concrete from its core, rubble is one of the most visible reminders of Haiti's devastating earthquake.

Rubble is everywhere in this capital city: cracked slabs, busted-up cinder blocks, half-destroyed buildings that still spill bricks and pulverized concrete onto the sidewalks. Some places look as though they have been flipped upside down, or are sinking to the ground, or listing precariously to one side.

By some estimates, the quake left about 33 million cubic yards of debris in Port-au-Prince — more than seven times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam. So far, only about 2 percent has been cleared, which means the city looks pretty much as it did a month after the Jan. 12 quake.

It may not be in the headlines but Haiti (and Pakistan and many other places) is still in desperate need of assistance. We need to be sure that we look up from our relatively comfortable American lifestyle and realize that there are people who are suffering from much more than a poor economy. What can you do to help? Check out the Haiti Orphan Project or other Christian charities. The need is enormous and our calling as followers of Christ is clear.

What’s in a name?

There seems to be as many names and descriptions of churches as there are Christians:

Organic church, reformed church, simple church, urban church, missional church, rural church, house church, fundamentalist church, emergent church, community church. Baptist church, Lutheran church, Presbyterian church, Methodist church.

What do all of these titles have in common? At first blush, very little. There is little that a confessionally Reformed church would agree with a house church about. An old line Northeastern Methodist church in Connecticut and a funky emergent church with a name like “Lifestream Community” in Oregon are seemingly night and day.

Here is the common ground: all of these titles are at the core about “me”. These titles are declarations to the world of what I believe in and where I stand by my attendance at this particular local church and conversely what I don’t believe. I am a Baptist. I am a house church guy. I am Reformed. I am a Lutheran. One of the first questions Christians ask one another when they meet for the first time is “Where do you go to church?” because that question establishes some boundaries right away. If someone says “I am a member of Limited Atonement Reformed Baptist Church of Topeka”, you get a pretty good feel for where they stand doctrinally. It is especially cool if you are a member at a church with a recognizable name and a famous pastor: “I am a member of Saddleback” or “I am a member of Capitol Hill Baptist”. You get some instant street cred if John Piper is your pastor.

There is a real problem with identifying our allegiance based on the name of a group we gather with or finding our identity in that description. As I have mentioned before, because we spend so little time with one another, these names and descriptions help us to eliminate unacceptable fellowships right away. No need to waste precious Sunday mornings with people you disagree with, you can eliminate lots of “churches” right off the bat just by their name. How convenient is that?! What is really happening is not so much declaring our affinity with one group as it is declaring our disagreement with everyone else. I f I liked you and we agreed on doctrine, I would "go to church" with you. Since we don't and in spite of all of our feel-good platitudes to the contrary, I don't "go to church" with you because it is inconvenient or I disagree with you or flat out don't like you. How is that for Christian unity?

The other problem is that it is so easy to answer with the traditional response because trying to answer the question “Where do you go to church” with “First Presbyterian in Akron” is easier than “We gather together with other Christians on Sundays at a place off of 14th street”. That answer is going to lead to puzzled looks and either more questions or more likely the person saying “Oh….” followed by an uncomfortable silence. So we typically revert back to the old stanby answer because it is just too exhausting to try to explain it any other way. Dividing ourselves by our names may be wrong but it is easy.

There is only one name that should matter to us and that is Jesus Christ. He bought us, He redeemed us, He called us and He made us His own. Anything we do to sunder what Christ has brought together should concern us greatly.

An important but unfortunate event

Very interesting statement and retraction at WORLD Mag

Check out the unfortunate events that transpired at WORLD Magazine regarding Glenn Beck. As I and many others have warned, too many people who profess Christ seem unable to distinguish between Christianity and traditional morality/patriotism/conservatism.

Irony Alert!

I found this amusing…

Thousands of cheering Catholic schoolchildren feted Pope Benedict XVI with songs and gifts Friday on his second day in Britain, offering a boisterous welcome as the pontiff urged them to ignore the shallow temptations of today's "celebrity culture."

Do ya see the irony of a man surrounded by throngs of screaming fans decrying the "celebrity culture"? I guess the celebrity culture is OK when it is accompanied by a religious title and vestments.

The irony of course is that for Joseph Ratzinger, and even more so for his predecessor, the whole papal office is saturated in the culture of religious celebrity. Bodyguards and handlers. Fancy digs and world travel. Wherever he goes he attracts throngs of adoring people cheering and screaming, hoping he will make the sign of the cross in their direction like a rock star throwing his guitar pick in the crowd. In many homes there are pictures of Joseph Ratzinger adorning the walls in much the same way that mormon families have pictures of the President of the mormon church and his two counselors. He is spoken of in reverential tones by his followers. In some ways, the cult of celebrity is far greater for popes because of the religious devotion that accompanies their celebrity. We of course see this in Protestantism as well but the devotion is nothing like the papal cult of celebtrity.

Just found that paragraph amusing. On the other hand, I find it particularly unfunny that so many people place so much trust in a man, or more specifically an office, whether pope or pastor or priest.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Things that make you shake your head

It never ceases to amaze me how people can take contemporary conditions and apply those conditions to Scripture, not matter how little sense it makes.

Kevin DeYoung posted a series of things that he has learned and wants to pass on to young pastors and other church leaders: More Advice for Theological Students and Young Pastors. The list is a pretty standard litany, most of them sound advice in a traditional church setting. Then we run into number 22

22. Keep reading. Please keep reading. Boldly ask for a book allowance. The rule is not absolute, but I question a man’s call to ministry if he does not like to read.

Seriously. One has to assume that this means that you read the “right” sorts of books. Reading a Tom Clancy novel for pleasure probably doesn’t count. I am not sure which aspect I found more distasteful, that not loving to read should be cause to question your “call to ministry” or that you should boldly ask the church to buy books for you to read.

Lest you think that DeYoung was making an offhanded comment, he clarified his position in response to a comment by someone named Daniel looking for clarification with this statement:

Daniel, as I said in the post I don’t think you can make a hard and fast rule about reading. Some pastors may be illiterate or have limited access to good books. And no one should be expected to read as much as the giants like Carson, Mohler, etc. But a pastor must be apt to teach. And part of teaching well is loving to learn. A desire to read is not a sufficient condition for being a good pastor, but in most cases I believe it is a necessary condition. If a man is to preach week after week, year after year, he must develop a breadth and depth of ideas and knowledge. Plus there is the practical necessity of reading each week in preparation for preaching. If the preacher doesn’t enjoy books and study he will not last long as a preacher. Or he will not be a very good one.

A desire to read is a necessary condition to be a good pastor? This was my comment on the blog:

I wonder. If liking to read a lot is a requisite for being “able to teach”, what were the elders that Paul was having Timothy appoint reading? Or is this advice from Paul just intended for us in the Reformation era forward and he didn’t really intend it for the elders of the first century? I have a hard time picturing the elders in the early church that Paul was specifically talking about being men who spent lots of time reading in their offices and who were expecting the local church to divert money from widows and orphans so that they could buy more books to read. The early church was taking up collections to aid victims of persecution and famine, not to buy books for their pastor. There certainly is a universal aspect to what Paul was telling Timothy but there was also a contemporary aspect and I don’t think you can make the case that Paul was telling Timothy that he should look for men who liked to read when he described elders as needing to be able to teach. Being a big reader was certainly not a disqualification for men when these words were penned but it is now? Perhaps we think we understand the requirements for ministry better than Paul did. Biblically speaking, leaders are men we should follow because the manner of their lives is worth emulating. I know lots of men who probably never or rarely read weighty tomes on theology but who love people and serve them. I have also run into plenty of men who read a lot and are megalomaniacs and can’t be bothered to deal with people. If you are a Christian, you are called to ministry and don’t let an extrabiblical interpretation dissuade you from serving the church.

I doubt Paul spent a lot of time sitting in his office at the church reading books. First because there were no offices, no “churches” and no theology books vetted by the Together for the Gospel crew. Second, Paul was out ministering to people and working a job. I doubt he saw the need for nor the value in and certainly didn’t seem to have the time for hanging around reading books.

I love reading and I am all for people reading. A lot. Having said that, I can hardly see how someone who doesn’t love to read can have their “call to the ministry” questioned. Sure you have a servant’s heart and love people and give sacrificially of your time and money and are a good husband and love your wife and kids but you haven’t read enough “good” books so back to the pew with you? Some of the most Christ-like servants I know are not terribly smart people but they are people who love Jesus and love their brothers and sisters, people who are willing to wash the feet of the saints even if they have never read a single book about theology or taken a single seminary class on ministry.

One of the great dangers of the Reformed culture is the intellectual snobbery it seems to foster. I write this as a slowly recovering intellectual snob. There is much admiration for the intellectual giants who wrote and read voluminously, men like Calvin and Turretin in the past and men like Sproul and Mohler and Carson today. There is little admiration beyond lip service to the simple servants of God who toil away at a job and still minister to others but don’t get asked to provide endorsements for books or speak at theology conferences. Christian ministry and leadership are many things but intellectual pursuits they are not. That doesn’t mean you should eschew any learning or that you encourage people to be ignorant but I do mean that you cannot equate 20 hours of study in your office preparing for a 45 minute lecture/sermon as “ministry”. I am someone who would be perfectly happy spending all week in an office reading theology books, listening to talks, reading and writing blogs but that is not ministry. That is not service. That is me doing what I like to do with a religious flavor.

Before anyone questions their call to ministry because they don’t read very much, they ought to look at what Paul said about leaders in the church. I think they will find much to be encouraged about that has nothing to do with reading.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Southern Michigan Women’s Missionary Conference

If you live in Michigan, our local chapel is hosting a woman's missionary conference on Saturday, September 25th. It is being held at Carriage Hill Bible Chapel in East Lansing and this is the schedule:

Loving Where You are Planted: “Love isn’t Love until You Give it Away”

9:00 am to 3:30 pm
Continental breakfast, lunch and afternoon desert provided


9:00 am to 9:30 am
Continental breakfast

9:30 am to 9:45am
Praising our Lord in Song

9:45 am to 10:35 am
Ann Bjorlie
Caring for our Sisters on the Mission Field

10:45 am to 11:45 am
Joyce Baranowski
Sharing the Gospel where you are: Heart Pin Ministry

11:45 am to 12:30 pm
Lois Swain
Loving the poor in our communities through the Gospel

12:30 pm to 1:15 pm

1 pm to 1:15pm
Chapel Rep Meeting to select next year’s location

1:15 pm to 1:30pm
Praising our Lord in Song

1:30 pm to 2:20 pm
Mary Watson
Missionary to Democratic Republic of Congo

2:20 pm to 2:45 pm
Elizabeth Imeson and Corrine Warke
Giving Love: Reaping for Generations

2:45 pm to 3:30pm
Giving your Love Away


I will not be there but my wife and older daughters will be, check it out!

Looking forward instead of backwards

I just listened to an interesting (if you are interested in Anabaptism) series of talks from 2008. This series of four talks, linked below, by Reuben Sairs delivered at Plainview Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, Kansas deals with an overview of Anabaptism, some of the ways it does and doesn't work currently and how it can work for the future.

Anabaptism, Part 4 - Why Anabaptism Has A Bright Future (4-14-8) - Reuben Sairs
Anabaptism, Part 3 - Why Anabaptism Will Work (4-14-8) - Reuben Sairs

Anabaptism, Part 2 - What Doesn't Work (4-13-8) - Reuben Sairs

Anabaptism, Part 1 - History (4-13-8) - Reuben Sairs

I like a lot of what he had to say. There is a real tendency among admirers, proponents and practitioners of Anabaptism to look back to the past and seek to recreate that era. Anabaptism is one of those movements that can be overly nostalgic about the past. In fairness this is true of lots of movements. My fellow Reformed believers often pine for the days of Calvin's Geneva or the Puritans or Charles Spurgeon. This is especially odd among Anabaptists because in the “golden age” of Anabaptism they were hunted by Catholic and Protestant alike.

Something else he pointed out was that while our ethnic heritage is vital and is something that shouldn’t be avoided by Anabaptists, it also shouldn’t divide us. I would agree in principal with what he said, that if our ethnic traditions create barriers with other believers that is a bad thing He is less separatist than many traditional conservative Anabaptists.

I think Reuben hit on the big question. The real question is what can we learn about the church from the Anabaptists and apply it to today? We aren't going back to the 16th century or the 18th century or even the 20th century. There is nothing gained from horse drawn carriages but there is far more to Anabaptism than quaint clothing traditions.

There is a real sense that the modern evangelical church at large can learn a lot from the Anabaptists. The emphasis on peacemaking and non-resistance would be a welcome change. The simplicity that is a hallmark as well as the sense of separation is important. The Anabaptist view of the church is in many ways a healthier and dare I say more Biblical model than the prevailing traditional view. We can learn a lot from our fellow Christians in the Anabaptist camp, I just don’t think that we need to emulate all of the traditions that they have accumulated over the centuries or try to recreate 16th century Anabaptism in the 21st century.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Running really fast in the wrong direction?

I read a great quote this morning from Dave Black (7:57 AM) that I think we all need to ponder. It is a sober question and gets to heart of what I am so fixated on but often write far too polemically about. I thank God for wiser and more mature brothers who help to refocus the discussion.

Last night Ronnie asked me a very important question. "What is it that keeps us from having a kingdom mindset?" We talked about the distractions of TV, football season, pleasure, comfort. I added into the mix: the church. As long as we continue to tithe to ourselves, as long as we overlook the fact that the gathering must always lead to the going, as long as we prioritize our programs and our successful ministries over making a tangible difference in the world for Christ we will never have a kingdom mindset. The greatest problem that most churches face today is not that they aren't doing anything. They do plenty. The problem is that they're not doing the right thing (Phil. 1:27), preferring soft cushions over Bibles in India. And the greatest danger most pastors face is not that they aren't doing anything. They're far too busy! It's that they don't do the essential things. Their purpose is to equip God's people for works of service. The clear command of our Lord is to go to the world.

That really captures it. It is not that we hate the church or reject the church or any of the other foolish digs people throw out to avoid having an honest, Biblical conversation about the church. It is really that I and others like me love the church, we just wonder if the church is focused where it should be. Everyone is so busy running around and doing “church stuff” that we neglect to ask if what we are doing is what we should be doing, what we are called to do and if not, is our busyness preventing us from taking a step back and asking the hard questions. We invest so much time, money and emotion into “doing church” that it seems we are afraid to wonder if we are paddling a canoe with golf clubs.

On the topic of Dr. Black, Dave and his wife Becky Lynn are heading to see the doctors this afternoon, facing a conversation I can’t even imagine having about my wife and her health. Having had my wife face surgery and treatment for the relatively mild thyroid cancer was very difficult, cancer of this sort is hard to imagine. Prayer is in order that God will give them strength and wisdom regardless of what the doctors have to say and that in this, even in this, God will be glorified.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Best of the week 1a

Also comes from Alan and deals with the notion of "membership". His post Immediate Membership is a brief but an important one. Here is the whole post:

When someone becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ – when that person is indwelled by the Holy Spirit – he or she immediately becomes a member of the church – no other membership is necessary.

At the same time, all believers who are part of that person’s life become responsible for the growth and maturity of that new believer as soon as they find out that he or she is a new believer – no other membership or covenant is necessary.

Also, that new believers is immediately responsible for the growth and maturity of all believers in his or her life – no other membership is necessary.

We become part of the church – the only church of God – the only church that matters – at the same moment that we become children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. Any other requirement is man-made.

True words. The only church membership that matters is the membership in the Body of Christ.

(be sure to go to the actual blog post because the discussion is great. 29 comments and counting for a four paragraph post!)

Best of the week entry 1

Comes from Alan Knox where he takes on the idea of "Local or Universal"

It seems to me that the “local church” and “universal church” distinctions adds very little to our biblical understanding of God or of the church. Instead, it seems to divide the church into little groups that feel that they are maintaining unity in the body of Christ as long as they are united withing their “local church”. Meanwhile, it also allows believers to ignore the “one-anothers” of Scripture if the “one-another” does not “belong” to their “local church”.

I love it. I find that the "local church" has come to mean far more than the Christians in a given locality who regularly meet together and has become a self-defining and exclusionary term that divides "my church" from "your church". Can the church be healthy when we divide ourselves into doctrinal ghettos?

An important reminder for followers of Christ

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21)

We should never forget what happened on 09/11/2001 but neither should we set ourselves to seek vengeance for those events. The Gospel is never proclaimed faithfully by someone with a sword in their hand or screaming in hatred or burning books. Our first and highest duty is to Christ and His Kingdom, not the national security of America. We as a family will remember 9/11 today, not as a call to vengeance but repentance. We will pray today for Muslims, that Christ will be shown to them in all His glory by the humble and meek witness of His followers. We will also pray for the repentance of those who call for the death of unbelievers and seek to supplant God as the dispenser of justice.

Winning the war on terror will not win a single soul for Jesus Christ.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Repost: On Authority or the lack thereof

I got an email today that got me thinking about the topic of leadership and authority in the church. I wrote something last December that speaks to this topic, On Authority or the lack thereof, and that I feel even more strongly about this today than I did back then. Authority and leadership in the church is not something that is tied to a ecclesiastical office. It comes from a recognition by the church that the individual lives a life worthy of emulation, that their manner of life is prasieworthy. Check out this post from last year and the subsequent post: More on authority or accusations of the lack thereof.

I wrote last month:

I think the solution to radical individualism is not authority. The antithesis of individuality is community, not hierarchy. We don’t overcome individuality by elevating certain individuals to rule over the others but rather through selfless service and ministry to one another. It is only when the whole Body ministers and serves one another that individuality is overcome.

That brings us to the mantra of “submission to authority”. That seems to be the solution proposed in many circles to the problem of individualism in the church, i.e. submit to the men in charge of the local church. It is the "Ninth Mark of a Healthy Church Member" for crying out loud!

Going a step further, it is generally considered an “either or” proposition. Either you accept authority as it is traditionally configured or you don't accept leadership and authority at all. It is just a given that the model of authority we see in the local church is the way it is supposed to be, without question. I have been accused and I have seen similar accusations thrown that about essentially assert that questioning the traditional systems of church government is tantamount to rejection of authority, sort of a Christian anarchy. I reject that dichotomy as false on its face.

I have no issue with what the Bible says about authority. The Word of God is authoritative (2 Tim 3:16). Christ is the head of the church (Eph 5: 23-24) and all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him (Matt 28:18). We should submit to those in civil authority (Rom 13:1). We also see places where Christ gives authority to cast out unclean spirits to His apostles (Mark 6:7, Luke 10: 19). We do see a passage in Hebrews that speaks of submitting to leaders, Hebrews 13:7:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

So that seems pretty straight forward. Hang on though. Who are these “leaders”? These leaders are spoken of earlier in this chapter in verse 7:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7)

So our “leaders” are identified as those who spoke (past tense?) to us the Word of God. I would expect that for most Christians the guys in leadership at their local church are not the ones who preached the Gospel to them when they were converted. In my case it was Rev. Sheldon Hale at First Baptist Church in Walton, Kentucky. So does that mean that I should only submit to him? That is kind of hard since he is no longer at First Baptist Church in Walton and I haven't been there in years. My point is that we read “leaders” and apply that to “pastors” in the local church. Also, how do they lead? We are to "consider the outcome of their way of life" and we are to "imitate their faith". They lead us by example as well as by teaching and we are to imitate them. This fits neatly with Ephesians 4: 11-16 where we see the goal of leadership in the church is not to be a permanent division but helping others to achieve the same level of maturity as those more mature in the faith. The goal of leadership in the church is not leadership itself but leading others to maturity in the faith (see Preaching Yourself Out Of A Job). Now I may be wrong about the interpretation of Hebrews 13 but I don't think it is as cut-and-dried as it is made out to be.

Hebrews 13 is hardly the only place we read about submitting in the Bible. In various other places we are to submit to one another (Eph 5:21). We are to submit to God (James 4:7). Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24), children are to submit to their parents (Eph 6:1) and slaves to their masters (Eph 6: 5-8). We are to be “subject to” those who are serving the church and to all who are “fellow workers and laborers” (1 Cor 16: 15-18), That is a lot of submitting going on. Is that a defense of the traditional idea of submitting to local church leaders? Eh. The “support” for submission to local church authorities seems pretty flimsy in spite of centuries of tradition.

Again, I am not questioning authority per se. I just question whether we express the Biblical concept of authority properly in the local church. In traditional parlance, those having authority in the church are the leaders of the local body, who have authority over us based on our “membership” in that local body and by virtue of their “calling”. “Calling” is church speak for someone being selected based on a vote or appointment by an ecclesial authority. So what this boils down to is that we are supposed to submit to authorities, which typically means the men who have been elected, by whatever criteria, in the local church. The relative merit of one local assembly as opposed to another comes down to the men elected to lead that assembly.

Is that proper? Is it Biblical? Is that what the Bible means by “those in authority”? An authority based on what? A seminary degree, a solid work history as a pastor and a “calling” after a few interviews and sample sermons? I think an enormous leap has been made here. This begs the question: what are the marks of a man called to lead? More to the point, what do we view as the marks of a man called to lead? I am afraid that it may be based on many things that may make sense to us from a traditional and pragmatic standpoint more than from a Biblical standpoint. Being a good preacher, a good manager/organizer, having the proper experience and education, etc are all well and good but the picture we get in the Bible is a bit more complex and counter-intuitive. More on that in the next post.

The doctrine of vocation and calling

This is one of those doctrines that the Reformed love and I haven’t intentionally poked the Reformed culture for a couple of days. On the surface this docttrine seems pretty innocuous and hard to argue with. Who isn’t for glorifying God in all that we do? Is that what the net result and motivation for this doctrine really is? This is from Tullian Tchividjian’s latest blog post for the Gospel Coalition, Our Calling, Our Spheres:

For church leaders, this means that we make a huge mistake when we define a person’s “call” in terms of participation inside the church—nursery work, Sunday school teacher, youth worker, music leader, and so on. We need to help our people see that their calling is much bigger than how much time they put into church matters. By reducing the notion of calling to the exercise of spiritual gifts inside the church, we fail to help our people see that calling involves everything we are and everything we do—both inside and, more importantly, outside the church.

I am all for that. Our calling as Christians is far more than what we do on Sunday mornings, In fact we are called to a whole life ministry without division between “church life” and “regular life”. What is interesting is that Tullian then says at the end of the essay:

Therefore, God calls preachers and church leaders to disciple and direct people inside the church to understand just how effective they can be outside the church when they understand their calling in terms of everyone, in everything, and everywhere.

So apparently we define “preachers and church leaders” in their calling by what they do inside of the church but everyone else based on what they do outside of the church. Doesn’t that seem contradictory? In other words, there is a special ministerial calling based on functions within the church and then the general calling of everyone else. I thought that the calling of pastors and elders was to equip all Christian believers to mature ministry (Eph 4: 11-16). Hmmmm.

If by the doctrine of vocation we mean that all Christians should honor and glorify Christ in whatever we do, at work and at home, then I say amen to that! But then there is this:

Outwardly there may be no discernible difference between a non-Christian’s work and that of a Christian. A transformational approach to culture doesn’t mean every human activity practiced by a Christian (designing computers, repairing cars, selling insurance, or driving a bus) must be obviously and externally different from the same activities practiced by non-Christians.

Rather, the difference is found in the motive, goal, and standard. John Frame writes, “The Christian seeks to change his tires to the glory of God and the non-Christian does not. But that’s a difference that couldn’t be captured in a photograph.”

So Christian vocation and ministry for most people is quite possibly invisible to the naked eye? We just do a good job and do so quietly. How are we a city on a hill, a living witness to the world when we are undiscernibly different from everyone else except that we go to church on Sunday? Oddly enough, that is the opposite of what vocational ministers like Tullian do, where your “calling” is quite visible and obvious. His ministry and that of other ministers is defined by their functioning: preaching, teaching, leading, visiting. Why do some people get called to a visible, overt ministry and the vast majority toil away in relative anonymity?

I fear that this doctrine is designed to tell Christians that if you aren’t “called” to ministry, you should content yourself with being a good Christian at the factory or the office and leave the “real” ministry to those who are “called” to do so. If this doctrine is designed to divide Christians into two groups, 1) those called to ministry and 2) those called to work regular jobs, I find it troubling and extra-biblical. It seems apparent in Scripture that all Christians are called to minister and proclaim the Gospel and it also seems that the poster boy for Christian ministry (i.e. Paul) worked a regular vocational job (tent-making) and didn’t rely on funding from the church and yet he somehow managed to effectively minister. Would Tullian tell Paul to be content with being a tentmaker?

I find the whole thing somewhat distasteful. Don’t get uppity Mr. Layman. Just be a good Christian shoemaker and show up to church with a tenth of your wages. That is what God is calling you to do. Of course he is calling me to something different based on my seminary degree and ability to deliver a sermon but you should stick to shoes.

The whole “vocation” thing has troubled me for some time and strikes me as a way to perpetuate the clergy-laity distinction. It is possible that I am being hyper-sensitive to this whole issue. Perhaps I am misinterpreting the doctrine of vocation. What do you think?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The misunderstood church

Fascinating quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer I read last week...

With that we have articulated a basic criticism of the most grandiose of all human attempts to advance toward the divine-by way of the church. Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church. It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian religiosity and our church commitment, and in doing so misunderstand and distort the Christian idea.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Bonhoeffer, pg. 84)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Making excuses

Thus says the LORD: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isa 66:1-2)

So I read a posting from R.C. Sproul yesterday, Building with Conviction, in which he defends the building of ornate "churches" by appealing to the Old Testament accounts of the building of the tabernacle.

In the final analysis, we ask, what happened to beauty? Modern churches tend to look like prefabricated warehouses, or they’re designed to be functional music halls so that the production of music may have center stage. In the Old Testament, the whole person was engaged in worship. The mind was engaged with the Word of God. The music of the choirs and the instruments mentioned in many of the psalms were part of the design of worship. There was an auditory beauty. There was a visual beauty. There was even an olfactory beauty with the sweet aroma of incense that was part of the experience of worship. All five senses, as well as the mind, were engaged in biblical worship. If we are to worship God fully in truth and in Spirit, we need to incorporate beauty among the gathering of His people wherever possible. This is the model that God followed when He designed the tabernacle, His dwelling place in Israel.

There’s nothing in redemptive history that would make beauty, goodness, or truth suddenly passé or insignificant. These elements, which point to God, are always and everywhere, in every time and in every nation, significant elements of godly worship.

Look at that one sentence again: If we are to worship God fully in truth and in Spirit, we need to incorporate beauty among the gathering of His people wherever possible. So in order to worship God, we must wherever possible have beautiful buildings or at least spend time, effort and money to beautify our buildings? If a local gathering of the church has the means to buy a pipe organ, hire a professional "worship leader" and build an expensive cathedral but chooses instead to meet in a rented school room and use their money to aid orphans and widows, they are not fully worshiping God in truth and in Spirit? Sproul is a careful writer so I can't chalk this up to carelessness.

That is not only not logical, it is eminently unbiblical. I say that cautiously given the academic prowess of Sproul, a man who has been of great benefit to me in his teaching in the past but who I find increasingly hard to understand. When you see the constant appeals for more and more money that go toward foolishness like ornate man-made temples in the name of "worship", I wonder where the focus is. Is it on the Gospel or is it on "my ministry"?

I should hope it is unnecessary to explain to Christians the difference between the tabernacle where God dwelt among His people under the old covenant administration and the utter lack of any buildings or edifices under the New Covenant. In fact, the witness of Scripture is that we, i.e. the Church, are the dwelling place of God and that we manifest His glory in our love for one another, a love that certainly doesn't require us to worship in finely appointed chambers. The early church apparently spent not one iota of time or effort to construct appropriate buildings with the proper atmosphere to "worship" in. In contrast with the early church, this appeal to what we see as beautiful to enhance our worship demonstrates an underlying lack of worship. If you think God is inadequate to worship as He is and that He needs our feeble efforts to create the proper atmosphere to worship Him in Spirit and truth, your reasoning is more akin to that of Roman Catholicism or mormonism where the buildings are designed to give the appearance that something uniquely holy is happening that can only happen there.

God neither needs nor seeks our weak and arrogant attempts at creating a beautiful dwelling place to worship Him. He has indwelt what is the least lovely and impressive possible edifices: His own redeemed people. Many of us aren't much to look at. We certainly are not awe inspiring nor magnificent but we have a glory greater than any cathedral or church because we are God's chosen people, His elect. That is where our glory is, in Him and Him alone. I would rather meet with a small group of Christians in a rented hall with plastic chairs or in the home of a believer than sit in a multi-million dollar monument to man's foolish pride. I would have thought someone like R.C. Sproul would understand that.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)