Monday, October 31, 2011

A reform in deeds as well as in doctrine

Dave Black weighs in on Reformation Day and has some excellent thoughts...
In a nutshell, the way of salvation is just that: a way of living. This does not mean that the Gospel is not worthy of our best theological thinking. It is worthy of the best of everything. But the genius of Christianity, as far as world religions go, consists in the fact that its beauty lies in another direction altogether. Its glory lies not in clever phrases but in the Spirit and in power. There is no simpler way to state it than in the words of the apostle Paul: "The only thing that matters is faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).
If we reform our thinking but not our living, we haven't really reformed a thing. That is the great danger of a reformation only half done and it is far too apparent that we often seem content to be "halfway men" like Luther and his fellow magisterial reformers.

Another plea for consistency

Eric Carpenter wrote a great post dealing with the idea of consistency in hermeneutics, A Pilgrim's Progress: Why Believer's Baptism?. Eric addresses one of my personal challenges and something I think needs far more attention in the church: consistency when interpreting and applying the Bible. As Eric points out, many of us are pretty inconsistent about how we interpret and apply what we read in the Bible.

Personlly, I hold to believer's baptism because that is what we see in scripture. I also hold to the other above things for the same reason.

What I'm begging the church for is consistency. We need to treat the biblical model fairly and consistently. Picking and choosing what makes us feel comfortable is simply not a fair way to handle the bible.
The reason I hold to believer’s baptism is the same as Eric: it is what we see demonstrated and commanded in Scripture and further it is the only position that is consistent with the change to the way God deals with His people under the New Covenant. This is the same reason my wife covers her head and that I choose to educate my children at home and that I hold to the doctrines of grace. Where I find myself struggling is when I see what Scripture teaches and yet kick against the goads because it runs contrary to my traditions. The use of the sword by Christians is a perfect example. The Bible is painfully clear on this issue. Christians are to seek to live peaceably with all people but that runs smack dab into our Western tradition of asking God to bless our troops while they are killing the enemies of the state we were placed in and the exaltation of military service by so many in the church. It has been a hard road for me and one that often is lonely but that is the price for trying to be faithful and consistent in interpreting and applying the Bible. The Bible is not a 21st century morality manual, it is a ancient document that depicts a radical change in life for those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, a radical way of life that is going to cause friction with the world.

If we say we love Jesus and want to conform ourselves to Him by studying the revealed will of God in the Bible and applying it in our lives, we must seek to do so consistently. We are so often guilty of picking and choosing, taking one portion of Scripture as a hill to die on but then taking another portion of Scripture and relegating it to the culture of the day. Sometimes we do this within the same chapter of Scripture! Baptism, infant or believer’s only. Election and predestination or “free will”. Congregational or Presbyterian or Episcopal church government. Pre, post or amillenial. On and on.

Being consistent is pretty difficult because we are often blind to those areas of Scripture where we are less than consistent. No one that I know of is proudly proclaiming how inconsistent they are in interpreting Scripture! This is why an individualistic hermeneutic is dangerous (2 Peter 1:20). Unfortunately the “solution” typically put forth in the church as a defense against heresy and error is an “expert hermeneutic” where one man, usually the pastor who has a seminary degree, is given virtually all of the interpretive authority in a local church so that each local church functions under a very narrowly focused hermeneutic lens. That is just as dangerous as an “every man for himself” hermeneutic because this is a breeding ground for inconsistency and often heresy.

This is where a community hermeneutic comes into play. When all of the brothers in a local assembly are engaged in the teaching and interpretation of Scripture rather than just one man it is far more likely that a consistent hermeneutic will appear. A Southern Baptist pastor trained in a Southern Baptist seminary and ministering to a Southern Baptists congregation (as his job no less) is likely to produce a Southern Baptist hermeneutic and no one is going to question it. If an individual does come to a different interpretation, they will more than likely just leave that church because they don’t really have a say in the interpretation of Scripture unless they are the pastor or perhaps one of the elders/deacons. I think we fear letting people say the wrong thing or ask the wrong question so we restrict the conversation.

Brothers, we must constantly strive for consistency and be willing to lay it all on the table, all of our presuppositions and traditions and pet peeves. When we hold back one area, one tradition, one favorite or culturally popular doctrine we are being unfaithful in our interpretation. The Body of Christ must not fear itself. We who are born-again believers in Christ all have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and that is the best teacher any of us can have.

Happy Reformation Day!

October 31st is a day for the annual reminder of the traditional start of the Protestant Reformation and a reminder of how important these issues are still today. It is also crucial that we remember that the men so many revere as "heroes" and "great men" of the faith were no less flawed than any other Christian and that the Reformation itself only went part if the way to restoring Biblical Christianity.

Sola Fide! Sola Gratia! Solus Christus!
Sola Scriptura! Soli Deo Gloria!


October 31, 1517

On this day in 1517, a German monk nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany and launched a movement that would change the world. While much of the world celebrates Halloween, we will celebrate Reformation Day with popcorn and a private home viewing of Luther.

The issues with Roman Catholicism are as true and pressing today as they were then. Justification by faith alone, one of the cornerstones of the Gospel, still stands anathematized by Rome. In other words the Gospel is declared anathema by the man who styles himself to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. The words of the Council of Trent still stand, and until Rome rejects those teachings there can be no reconciliation between Rome and Christianity.

Today is a day we should celebrate our Lord raising up flawed men like Martin Luther who He used mightily in the propagation of His Gospel against those who would reject it. It is also a day of sober reflection on the constant assault against the Gospel and the perpetual need to guard the faith delivered once for all, and entrusted to the church for all time. Pray that God will continue to raise up men like Martin Luther. We certainly could use some today.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thoughts on titles

Good thoughts here from Brian Daniels on Andreas Karlstad, What would you rather be called, "doctor" or "brother"?.... I have come to see that titles among believers serve to separate and divide the church and as such are prideful and harmful traditions that should be rejected. Check it out, good stuff on the day before Reformation Day!

Are We Too Gospel Focused?

What an odd question?! How could we be too focused on the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ? If anything it seems clear that we are not focused enough on the Gospel!

Here is what I am thinking. Some parts of the church seemed focused on using the Gospel, or at least what they misunderstand to be the Gospel, as a slogan to add members to "their church". Other parts of the church seem to view the Gospel as a mandate for social change, either "social justice" which is defined as liberal political activism or "restoring Judeo-Christian values" which is defined as conservative political activism. Still other parts of the church see the Gospel as a doctrine to be studied and parsed over and over again. I think all of these views of the Gospel are missing the boat.

When we think about the Gospel, there are two questions we need to ask. What does the Gospel tell us and how does the Gospel compel us?

One can spend a lifetime reading about theology, digging deep into the ordo salutis, studying the great thinkers and preachers and writers of the church and miss the significance of the Gospel. It is spiritually unhealthy to spend all of our time talking about, thinking about and reading about the Gospel while not actually living as the Gospel commands us. We end up with spiritual bodies that have giant brains and bodies withered away from atrophy. While the Bible speaks clearly about predestination and election, justification by faith alone, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man, etc., it also is quite clear about what these truths compel a believer to do. Not "do" as in "do this to be right with God" nor "do this as a trudging ritual you feel obligated to do in remembrance of me" but "do this out of love because of the change that has been made in you". "Do" as is caring for the poor, "do" as in every Christian being called to proclaim the Gospel, "do" as in teaching and training our children, "do" as in visiting the widow and the orphan. That "do" has been largely missing in the church since the Gospel was reclaimed during the Reformation and still is today. Our call to "go" and "do" has been reduced to "stay, pray and pay".

My wife and I spent six hours driving yesterday and during that time we listened to some talks from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology. The talks dealt with the topic of justification and were deep and rich, saturated with Scripture. Yet something was missing. These were not evangelistic talks aimed at unbelievers. These were talks targeted at mature believers but the talks were all about "what and how" and virtually nothing about "what now?". The speakers lamented that we don't talk about the Gospel enough but I wondered what the people in "Gospel centered churches" understood the necessary consequences of the Gospel to be? Coming to church? Being a "member"? Getting baptized? Obeying the church authorities and contributing to the operation of the church? These talks and books and sermons that are "Gospel focused" seem to me to be like reading half of one of Paul's epistles, the parts where he speaks of the Gospel proper, while ignoring his admonitions and examples of how the church is to live as a family and to live as witnesses to the world. So when I ask, "Are we too Gospel focused?", this is what I mean...

We can get so caught up in studying the Gospel that we forget to live out the Gospel.

As we approach the 494th anniversary of Luther famously nailing the 95 these to that church door in Wittenberg it is high time for the church to start giving the Gospel its due. It is far more than a slogan to make "converts" to add names to membership rolls. It is in no way a political platform to be claimed by one party or the other. It is not an esoteric academic concept to be studied over and over. It is the declaration of what God has done for His elect that leads to what God calls His elect to do: be ambassadors of Christ, serve others with the towel and basin, love our neighbors as ourselves in deed and not just in theory, take the Gospel to the lost, be salt and light in the world. Believe me, I cringe when I hear a lot of people talking about "the Gospel" with only a vague, fuzzy comprehension of what the Bible reveals it to be but I also cringe when I see people so caught up in their studies that they fail to see the need to love their neighbor who lives across the street. We need to understand the Gospel far better in the church but that understanding must lead to going and doing. The Gospel compels us to action and if your understanding of the Gospel doesn't capture that, you don't really understand the Gospel at all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Battle for Haiti

My wife and I watched this tonight. It is a look into the parts of Haiti that we know are there but don't see from the windows of our bus that takes us from the airport to the orphanage. It is hard to watch but this is the reality, this is the world that the orphans often come from.

Watch Battle for Haiti on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

A great post on Christians and capital punishment

My mom sent me a great link this morning. Ben Witherington has a simply outstanding essay on Christians and capital punishment, Why Capital Punishment is not such a Capital and Christian Idea. Ben takes on not only capital punishment but the use of violence by Christians of all stripes. In this essay., Ben properly distinguishes between the ethic of secular worldly government, the topic of Romans 13, and the Kingdom ethics of the Lamb who was slain while also recognizes that violence is incompatible with a life following Christ. Here is a portion:
Jesus did not tell his disciples, pick up your swords and follow me, he said pick up your crosses and follow me. And when in extremis two desperate disciples at the Last Supper said ‘we have two swords, we are ready to rumble’ Jesus’ response was ‘enough of this!’. Sadly they had not gotten the point after lo those many months of his teaching them the ethic of non-violence and forgiveness. And when one of them actually used a sword to try and prevent his capture, Jesus not only stopped such action dead in its tracks, he paused to heal the wounded servant, on his way to execution. Who lopped off the slave’s ear? The very person who asked Jesus about forgiveness (see below).

Jesus wanted no violence at all done in his name. It is not merely an irony, it is a disgrace that Christians later thought Jesus might endorse a Crusade or two. Those were some of the most shameful things ever done in the name of Christ, but of course, we could name much more recent examples from the Holocaust or the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa.

Christians still have a capacity for deafness when it comes to Jesus’ life ethic. Jesus you see was totally pro-life—- not just pro birth, pro life. And above all, he believed that justice, if we are talking life and death here, should be left in the hands of God. The Biblical message is clear— ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay’.
These are hard words for many Christians today to swallow, so entranced we are with the lures and lusts of the world: property, country, our own lives. The world says rise up and defend what is yours, Jesus says give it all away and I will repay.

I yearn for more and more Christians to seek not a life of being a "good Christian" and instead pursue a life with a downward trajectory as a follower of Christ. There will be glory to spare in eternity, we who have that promise have no need of it today.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giving to a worthy cause

Maybe orphans aren't your thing but here is another worthy cause...

Thoughts on income disparity and the 1%

I wrote up a fairly lengthy and highly partisan post on my politics blog discussing why the Occupy Wall Street movement railing against the "1%" is foolish: The bogus issue of wealth and income disparity

Just in case you are interested...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I agree with Joseph Ratzinger on something!

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict, issued a statement expressing regret and shame that Christianity had used force in the name of Christ over the last two thousand years…
"As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith," he said in his address to the delegations in an Assisi basilica.

"We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature," he said.

It was one of the few times that a pope has apologized for events such as the Crusades or the use of force to spread the faith in the New World. The late Pope John Paul apologized in 2000 for Christianity's historical failures.
I of course reject any pope’s assumed authority to speak on behalf of Christianity as a whole but I do appreciate that he recognizes the often violent and bloody history of the Western world where so much of that violence was perpetrated with the tacit approval or even cheerleading by those claiming to be Christians and leaders in the church. Especially given his position as the head of an organization that engaged in so much of the violence and bloodshed, his recognition of this gross sin in the past is appropriate. We sometimes seem afraid to admit our past failings for fear that enemies of the faith will use them against us.

This admission on Ratzinger’s part is in sharp contrast to the defenders of violence in the name of Christ among Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, defenders who invoke the idea of “just war” as cover for Christians going to war in the name of Christ or who try to gloss over the Crusades or the Inquisition or the various tortures and executions perpetrated by Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Protestants and Catholics and Protestants alike against Anabaptists. If even one person was tortured, persecuted or martyred by someone claiming the name of Christ it is an anti-Christian atrocity and when it is carried out in a systematic and widespread fashion it is cause for deep sorrow and repentance. Of course no one alive today was involved in the Crusades or the Inquisition or the persecution of Anabaptists but we must recognize and remember the danger of seeking earthly, secular power. Seeking worldly power inevitably corrupts the church and that is every bit as true today as it was in the medieval era. We may not march off to war, although sometimes the language used in American military actions seems like we see our engagements as holy wars, but we do seek the approval of the world far too often.

I applaud Joseph Ratzinger for his willingness to own up to and recognize the often violent history of the organized church. We can never learn from our mistakes and change direction when we stubbornly refuse to admit where we erred, whether we are speaking of the Crusades or support for slavery and apartheid. The church is the church, from the first century A.D. to today and we who are called in Christ are all part of that same church. Where we have sinned and failed, we must learn from those errors to avoid repeating them in the future.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why go to Haiti? Why not just send the money?

Les from the Haiti Orphan Project reposted something I wrote a while back, Why go to Haiti? Why not just send the money?. I still feel just as strongly today about this. Jump over and check it out and while you are there read up on the work going on to care for the orphans in Haiti.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

The other day I was at the library with some of my kids and while browsing the depressing wasteland of books that make up the “Religion” section I came across an older, slender volume that turned out to be the C.S. Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters. I grabbed it down to give it a look and ended up a third of the way through before I knew it. It only took a short time to read but was a rich and interesting tale.

Obviously this is a fictional, satirical book. It needs to be read that way. Read in that light it is a thoroughly enjoyable story that makes important points. Lewis, in spite of his flaws, is an engaging writer and even though The Screwtape Letters is somewhat dated it is still a highly enjoyable read. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is set up as a series of letters written by a senior demon tempter named Screwtape to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood. Wormwood has been charged with turning a recent Christian convert away from God by all manner of temptations and distractions and Screwtape responds to messages and questions from Wormwood. I won’t spoil the ending for you but Lewis tells a story that hits on many of the traditional Western themes of morality. That might be the great weakness of the book from a theological perspective, the idea that men can lose their salvation or swing back and forth in God’s favor hoping that they die when they are on the positive side of the pendulum swing. I would not recommend someone read The Screwtape Letters as a primer on soteriology! As a satirical and fun read for an afternoon, this book rightly deserves its status as a classic in Christian literature.

As I finished up this book, recognizing of course that it is not a theological treatise but rather a whimsical and clever story with a serious message, I wondered what old Screwtape would write to his nephew Wormwood these days….maybe we can dig up some correspondence in the next day or two…

Monday, October 24, 2011

Orphan Care in Haiti

It is so encouraging to see so many different ministries getting involved in caring for orphans around the world. Check out this video from Together for Adoption. The sound quality isn't great but the message certainly is!

Where should Christians stand?

In our increasingly politically and culturally polarized nation we are seeing battle-lines being drawn by two groups, groups that stand outside of the traditional political process and that are shaking the political landscape. These two groups, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, have very different goals even if some of their rhetoric sounds superficially similar. You can be sure that politicians on both sides of the aisle are running scared because these groups tend to eschew the normal niceties and rules of politics as usual. They are vocal, energized and inflexible and don’t seem interested in the ways things are done in Washington. They are also a serious threat to the church.
Many evangelical Christians identify with the Tea Party because of its emphasis on individual liberty and conservative economic policies. The message of the Tea Party fits well with the narrative of conservative evangelical American Christianity. I would be willing to say that many Tea Party supporters are church-going evangelicals and likewise many church-going evangelicals are in sympathy with the positions of the Tea Party. That is troubling to me. Not because the policies are wrong, quite the contrary by and large I agree with them and vote accordingly. Rather it is troubling because the line between a political/economic issue and the Gospel has become blurry. Low taxes are not a Kingdom issue. Opposition to socialized medicine is not a Gospel issue. An overemphasis on the relationship with an earthly political agenda, no matter how correct that agenda might be, can cause a stumbling block to unbelievers and brothers alike and we need to avoid that wherever possible to ensure that there is no doubt that the Gospel is not a right wing political issue.

Equally troubling are those who wish to anoint the Occupy Wall Street protestors with the mantle of Christianity based on some fuzzy notions of “justice” and because they carry signs poorly written in crayon decrying "greed". Predictably there are some in the church on the activist political Left who are trying to claim that the Occupy Wall Street crowd somehow embodies Kingdom values and is worthy of support by virtue of its alleged concern for the poor. Of course there are lots of groups and organizations that are concerned for the poor that are either ambivalent or antithetical to the Kingdom of God, from secular groups like the United Way to heretical organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which has a large mercy “ministry”. So neither mere lip service in favor of disastrous economic policies like what we are getting from the Occupy Wall Street movement nor actual care for the poor is inherently Kingdom work if it does not have its foundation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, none other than Jim Wallis made this declaration a few weeks ago regarding the Occupy Wall Street crowd….

Here are a few things I do know about the Occupy Wall Street protesters:

When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.

When they stand with the hungry, they stand with Jesus.

When they stand for those without a job or a home, they stand with Jesus.

When they are peaceful, nonviolent, and love their neighbors (even the ones they don’t agree with and who don’t agree with them), they are walking as Jesus walked.

When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.

That is an incredibly sweeping statement and one that is likewise incredibly dangerous. Is an ardent atheist who is protesting in New York City in favor of income redistribution which will allegedly help the poor “standing with Jesus”? Is a Muslim or a mormon or a Buddhist who denies Christ but is handing out food “standing with Jesus”? The order here is backward. We who are in Christ are likewise called to aid the poor and the hungry but just because someone is helping the poor and downtrodden does not put them in right standing or even emulation of Christ. Merely mimicking Christ’s earthly ministry while denying His divinity does not make one “standing with Jesus”. Jim needs to be far more discerning and probably should quit entirely when it comes to declaring who “stands with Jesus” based on a liberal political stance.

We need to walk a fine line here. On the one side, we have done a miserable job by and large as the church in caring of the poor, the downtrodden, the widow and the orphan. On the other side our failure is just that, our failure, and the solution is not to abandon the basin and towel mandate in favor of a flawed and self-defeating system of income redistribution by government confiscation. Rather we must continue to call on the church to repent and change and to demonstrate by our actions the lives of a Christ follower we see modeled in the Bible by His followers and Christ Himself. There is no worldly substitute that will do.

Where should we stand? With the Tea Party? With Occupy Wall Street? I say neither because neither movement is rooted and grounded in a risen Savior who is Lord of all.

As witnesses of Christ and ambassadors of the King we should neither identify with the Tea Party nor with Occupy Wall Street. We should identify with Christ and be awfully concerned with any overreliance or over-identification with any secular political movement. I believe that the policies we generally refer to as “conservative” or “libertarian” have the potential to create the greatest economic opportunity for the greatest number of people. I also believe that there is absolutely no correlation between economic security or economic opportunity and the Gospel proclamation. Quite the opposite. In places where people have the most opportunity (America) or the greatest, up until recently, economic security (Europe) we also see the Gospel witness stagnant and stale. Religion and ritual rule the day. Where the Gospel is exploding are in places like Africa, Asia and South America where life is much harder by almost any measure. Our focus must not be on winning political battles or utopian visions of free markets or social safety nets. Our focus must instead be first and always on proclaiming Christ and Him crucified as the only solution to the only problem that matters. In the end wealth or security will matter nothing to the soul lost outside of Christ.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking up and laying down

And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:21-27)
I encourage you to read this stirring and sobering story from Dave Black, True Homeland Security. The work of the Kingdom goes on daily in the hard places of the world, places where the threat of death is a constant companion of those proclaiming the Gospel. Places where taking up your cross means more than the sermon running five minutes over and delaying your lunch plans. Places where for believers taking up your cross and laying down your life are often one and the same. Stories like this make me more than a little ashamed of our squabbling and nitpicking in America but they also encourage me because I see that God will equip and strengthen His tools for whatever trials they must face and that should He call me to lay down my life for the Gospel that He will give me the courage and strength to do His will. Read and be encouraged. Our God is mighty to save!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Real Men Love Orphans

I love this simple post from Les at the Haiti Orphan Project, Real Men Love Orphans. We live in a world of false bravado and fake manliness that is little more than big men acting like little boys. Real men love their wives, love their children, love the widows and the orphans and love God above all else. In fact there is no quality that is more indicative of a man being a "real man" than his willingness to love others.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sitting around waiting for someone else

I am not much of a contemporary Christian music guy but I really liked this video from Josh Wilson. Apparently it is quite popular but today was the first time I have heard it...

That song really hits on some important points. We as the church have been content to sit around and watch, waiting for someone else to help those in need even when we knew, deep down inside, that no on ever would and that we really didn't care anyway.

Thank God for young Christians who have a zeal and passion for those in need. I used to mock people like this, assuming that they had "bad theology" and needed to sit down and shut up and listen to more good sermons. I am thinking that a lot of these younger Christians are the ones who have the right theology, not the guys who argue about every subtle nuance of this point of doctrine or that. I have been a Christian for around ten years and read lots of the right books and espoused the right theology and blogged a ton but I only recently started living for and serving Him.

The church doesn't really need more theologians or professional sermoizers, it needs more "regular" Christians to get out of their pews and comfort zones and go to those who actually need their love and their service. We need to put down our hymnals and pick up towels to gird ourselves for the loving act of washing feet. I pray that God will continue to burden me in a greater way each day to love my neighbor as myself and seek out ways to serve them rather than hiding in my comfortable religious shell.

Doing Double The Good!

Here is a chance to make a donation that makes double the difference! An anonymous donor has offered to match any donations made to the Haiti Orphan Project between now and Reformation Day (i.e. October 31st!) up to $1000. Check out this post, The Haiti Well Challenge, for details.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The sheep don't pay the shepherd, the owner of the sheep does

Very interesting post from Eric Carpenter, A Pilgrim's Progress: Sheep Don't Pay the Shepherd. Shepherds care for the sheep but they get their provision from the owner of the sheep. What do you think?

Real Life Saving Ministry

Listen to this powerful testament to the life saving power of being available to those who need support and love. Most of the women (and men) coming into crisis pregnancy centers already know what they did and now they are reaching out for help.

This is the kind of thing happening every day in pregnancy resource centers all over America. Please support these life saving ministries in your community or even volunteer your time. Virtually every community has a pregnancy resource center that does this kind of work and needs your help. You can find a local center here.

Being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Free Book Giveaway!

My buddy James is giving away a copy of Except For Fornication, a book I recently reviewed (see here). Please check it out for a chance to win: Deliver Detroit: Free Book Giveaway: Except for Fornication. This is a very worthwhile book on a crucial subject, you won't be disappointed!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The dangerous world of dominionism

I mentioned a while ago that I have been thinking more about dominion theology or Christian reconstruction or theonomy or whatever you call it. It is a tough thing to pin down because there are so many variations on it. It is doubly hard because almost no one accepts being called a dominionist and a huge percentage of American Christians are infected to one extent or another by a certain amount of dominionist thinking. It is just such a common attitude in the church that it is hard to avoid. Some dominionist thinking is overt but a lot of it is more subtle and manifests itself in talk of restoring America as a Christian nation or other similar attitudes.

What is especially troubling, to me at least, is that there are some places where dominionists often hold positions that are at least superficially the same as positions I and many other Christians hold as well. Homeschooling is an area of common ground although the underlying philosophy is quite different. Calvinism is common among Christian Reconstructionists. By and large they are sober, serious about the Bible and generally people that I would be comfortable hanging around with in most settings. The same is true of many other fellow believers. Because of that there is a real danger of getting some decent information lumped in with some really, really bad information.

A primary example comes from an essay on the webpage of American Vision, an organization devoted to a mission to "Restore America to its Biblical Foundation—from Genesis to Revelation.". That phrase resonates with a lot of American Christians who see America as a specially blessed and chosen land founded as a "Judeo-Christian nation" that has gone astray from its alleged Biblical roots. American Vision has lots of meaty articles right in the wheelhouse of conservative American Christians. Lots of stuff railing against government, taxes, immorality and liberalism in general. Unfortunately it also frequently features essays like Amish Presbyterians: PINO, a not so clever shot suggesting that any Presbyterian that doesn't embrace militarism and American exceptionalism is little different from the Amish. That apparently is supposed to be an insult since the author describes the Amish as "parasites", which doesn't seem to jive with what I know of them.

Anyhoo, the author, Bojidar Marinov, a self-described missionary to his home country of Bulgaria, is responding to an anonymous Presbyterian (called simply "K") who has the temerity to question militarism.
K.’s life, liberty, and property today are well protected, and he doesn’t have to fight every day for the right to keep what’s his own. He can afford that because even today America still maintains a certain form of that original consensus, that the sword must be used ACCORDING TO THE GOSPEL in order to preserve the social order in our land. Even today there are still Christian men who are not reluctant to pull a trigger in obedience to Christ. Even today there are still sheriffs and judges who believe in the original mandate handed down to us from those early Presbyterian ministers who enjoined public servants to serve as unto the Lord. K. enjoys the fruit of their beliefs, their courage, and their labor; and then he has pious “concerns” about the theology that gives moral justification to those beliefs, courage, and labor.

The sword is just a tool. And like every tool in human hands, the sword — or the musket, or the surgical scalpel, or the M-16 — preaches some “gospel.” What “gospel” it preaches depends on what use it is put to. It can preach the Gospel of Christ by fighting the British, or executing criminals, or shooting robbers. Or it can preach the “gospel” of death by torturing political enemies, or dismembering unborn children, or cutting the life support from a hospital patient, or burning a persecuted Christian family. The sword will always be there in any culture before the Final Judgment, and the sword will always preach some “gospel.” There is nothing magically or intrinsically bad about the sword. If a Christian doesn’t use it according to the Gospel, a pagan will use it against the Gospel.
Where to even begin. Preaching the Gospel of Christ by fighting the British? How exactly does one preach the Gospel when people are shooting one another, especially when presumably many involved on both sides are professing Christians? I get that Mr. Marinov is not a fully representative example of everyone who holds some sort of dominionist view but views like his have an outsized impact on the church.

There are several faulty assumptions here that are common among dominionist thinking such as...
  1. God has intended the Old Covenant civil laws of national Israel to carry forward to secular nation-states that of necessity contain a mixture of New Covenant believers and unbelievers.
  2. The Gospel calling and mandate includes not just preaching Christ to the lost but bringing nations under the rule of Christ here and now by force and killing if necessary.
  3. Changing behavior is a mandate of Christians and enforcing those laws by the use of violence is permitted and perhaps even encouraged achieve that end.
  4. Some nations, particularly America, are specially chosen under the New Covenant as "God's people" or at least as nations founded on "Judeo-Christian morality".
This is all dangerous stuff and it hampers the witness of the church around the world. God has people in every nation, among every tribe and speaking every tongue. There are no special nations no matter how much pious talk and vague religious language the founders of a nation incorporate into their founding documents. Nor is there anyway to read the New Testament and come away with a calling to conquer and have dominion by force. How far astray we have gone from a church that flourished in persecution and thrived in spite of that persecution under a reign of terror unlike anything any of us can imagine.

I like something John Piper wrote back in 1994, Dominion Theology or Reconstructionism:
The closer we get to Dominion Theology the closer we get to living by the sword. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight." This seems to mean that we are not moving toward a true understanding of the kingdom of God in this world as we move toward a greater and greater use of the sword to authorize kingdom values.

It is not the priests who are given the sword but the magistrates. And the magistrates rule not by virtue of their claim to revelation but by virtue of their claim to providential authorization. In some cultures this providential authorization has been through a line of kings, in other cultures through various contests, and in our own culture through a democratic representative process.

It seems that the theocratic ideal of Israel in the Old Testament was specifically abandoned in the New Testament as the Gospel ceased to be focused on an ethnic and political reality called Israel (Matt. 21:43) and became a multicultural, multiethnic worldwide movement without ethnic or political definition. It will be fitting, when Christ returns, that he be given the right to establish a kingdom of more specific political boundaries. But in the meantime we do well to exert our influence in ways that do not put the sword into the hands of the priests.
Piper is right on the mark here. We are all priests and none of us has been called to carry the sword or to conquer lands in the name of Christ or to establish theocratic nations that enforce the civil laws of Old Covenant national Israel. The church needs to recognize dominionism when it appears and stand against any hint of dominionism.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How rude!

In the spirit of cross-pond solidarity, I got a kick out of a cartoon Christopher Dryden posted this weekend from the naked pastor:

Would Jesus be welcome in our neat and tidy and oh so formal "worship services"? How would we welcome this Jewish guy in old clothes, wearing road worn sandals with filthy feet? He never seemed very interested in religious formalism or following along in  the bulletin. I am not sure that we would welcome someone like Jesus today.

How rude he would seem! Gathering children around Himself to love on before it was time to dismiss the kids to "Children's Church"! Speaking to the widow sitting by herself, right in the middle of the announcements! Encouraging the brother who just lost his job but is putting on a brave face because no one likes a Debbie Downer when we are gathered to "worship". Gently taking the offering plate from a deacon and giving the contents to the family about to be evicted. Why that money is a special love offering that is going toward the building fund!

I don't think we would much like the real Jesus at all. Sure we like the Jesus of our Western imagination, the Jesus who smiles upon America and blesses our wealth and affluence and cheers on our troops when they take the field to bring justice and liberty to the world (at least when a Republican is President). The Jesus we see in the Bible? I am not sure He would be very welcome in our churches today. I am not even sure we would recognize Him.

Maybe if He would throw on a decent outfit....

Friday, October 14, 2011

Guest Post: The American Church - From The Outside Looking In: An English Perspective

A few months ago I asked my friend Christopher Dryden if he would be willing to pen a guest post for me on the topic of the church in America as seen from outside of the U.S. I think we have a real tendency to assume that in America we do church right, perhaps even the only proper way and in doing so miss a lot of our blind spots and tend to be more concerned with exporting American style church than the Gospel to all people and nations and cultures. I really appreciate what he has written and I hope it causes my fellow Christians in America to think about our outsized influence on the church. FYI, I also am a fan of Family Guy and Simpsons. Don't tell anyone.

Christopher regularly blogs at Life With Da Man CD which is always a worthwhile read (except when he writes about soccer, I don't understand what he is talking about in those posts)

The American Church - From The Outside Looking In: An English Perspective

Personal Context

America has influenced me hugely. Childhood memories are around US programmes on television from He-Man and Thundercats to A-Team and Knight Rider. (Am I still following Christ if I confess to having watched Family Guy and The Simpsons?) I loved super heroes and comics which were all products of the US. I am still a fan of pro-wrestling WWE-style.

I also confess to being one who has been known to occasionally visit McDonald's which was made in the States. The biggest influence on my educational development came from Sesame Street. I loved studying American politics at A-level (the stage before degree level). I still find US politics and aspects of its history fascinating. My identity as a black man was heavily influenced by the vestiges of the Civil Rights movement over in the US and the two big figures in the movement - Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

I didn't know there was a British gospel scene for years, all the music on gospel was from across the pond. My heroes in music are mostly American from gospel people like Andrae Crouch, Steve Green, John P Kee, Keith Green, Fred Hammond, Jon Gibson and the Gaither Vocal Band (which has surely got to be a good running definition for the term 'eclectic taste') to the soul men Marvin Gaye and especially Stevie Wonder. Even some of the books I read were American!

Yet for all the Americana I've immersed myself in from the time I was conscious, I am only too aware that I am not American. I've never been to America. I would like to go there at some point only because of its huge influence on my life. I am an outsider though. Despite all the blogs I subscribe to and the like I am just a stranger who is peering into a little of what goes on over the pond, and I hope my views are considered in that light.

Initial View: Thank God For The Church In America

First, it would be easy for me to be critical, cynical and brutal about the state of the Church in America. There's a lot wrong and the blogosphere and Christian TV can appear to be designed to expose and highlight all those wrongs. Yet in the spirit of Christian brotherhood I am compelled to praise and thank God for the church in America.

There are the faithful on those shores whose pursuit of Christ and commitment to holiness while expressing life in God's Kingdom is a delight, a pleasure, an honour and a blessing to witness. Whether in good times or bad, they have displayed an unwavering faith and a real transparency and vulnerability for the edification of the saints worldwide. It has certainly been edifying to me in my Christian walk and I can say without hesitation a very large slice of what I know and love about Jesus has come direct from those faithful Americans.

What reading the New Testament reassures me is that pursuing Christ together is not about the perfect gathering with everything hunky-dory, slick and working in the altogether. Mistakes are inevitable and issues are always there to be addressed. So when I look at the church in America as I look at the church anywhere else I'm not looking for perfection. In that sense there are a number of expressions of faith in Christ in the ministries of those in the States that have done much to enable others to know and love God more. I am forever grateful for that and trust that those faithful will continue in it.

By 'those' I'm not necessaily referring to those in mainstream popular American Christianity. I'm as much talking about those passionate to live out the truths in the light of Christ and His New Covenant. Whether that's reinforcing a megachurch perspective or within the house church movement the American Church should be grateful for those faithful who don't subscribe to a party line, but are fully persuaded on the importance of really knowing Christ, really being church and really go about making disciples. There is much that is beautiful, lovely and worthy of praise to be seen in Christ through His Church in the US.

Further Reflections: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

As I mentioned, however, it would be easy to be critical of the things those purporting to do things in Jesus' name actually do. Sometimes it appears as though there is little to no difference between the church and society in America. With the simplicity and ease with which people are talking about Jesus all over the media, I could be forgiven for thinking America is a 'Christian country'.

At times however the church seems to bless and endorse the gross iniquities of the culture, whether that be church life = The American Dream; the health/wealth gospel; the pushing of the gospel as a power trip not too dissimilar from the British Empire expansion; and a Christian indoctrination that had little to do with Jesus and more to do with the power of oppressors reinforcing their values.

The amount of American Christian TV in England can be weird and the disturbing extremes of Christianity portrayed does not do the church any favours. There is also the dependence on structures that reflect the world rather than the Kingdom and has turned faith into a self-help trip that solves your personal problem as if Jesus is a technique to help you get a good home, good family, good health and a good mind.

However let me share some of my views on some American expressions of church

Charismaniacs: These tend to appear on TV most and would appear to suggest that life in faith is about speaking in tongues whilst asking people to 'sow a seed into the ministry'. If can be off-putting and also reminds me of an issue that Paul was addressing to the church in Corinth about those who thought they were part of the super-spiritual elite because of things like the tongue speaking deal.

And yet the passion with which they pursue the power of the Spirit and their openness to believe that if Jesus healed then, he can heal today is something that convicts me. I am blessed by their focus on faith and the Spirit and that has been hugely helpful.

The Religious Right: As I said I am interested in US politics and found the rise of the religious right and the politicising of faith fascinating and sad. I believe whether we like it or not we are political and the stance our faith causes us to have inevitably means we'll engage with the authorities of our day. Sometimes rather than being the prophetic voice to the nation the Church has been silent on the issues that matter. So in that sense how the Religious Right has attempted to speak out on some issues like abortion has been commendable.

Where it's been sad is seeing the Right and subsequently those who have reacted to it become arguably more politicised that centred on Jesus. So the issues have mattered more than Jesus and some extreme actions have done more to discredit Christ than remind people of the man who submitted Himself to authorities. What has also been unhelpful is mixing faith with other ideological agendas whether that's been a patriotic war-mongering objective or a liberal virtual humanist drive.

The Reformed: Undoubtedly the American influence that was pertinent most to me was the Reformed/New Reformed movement with characters like Piper, Driscoll and Mahaney - and blogs like Challies and TeamPyro. Their devotion to doctrine albeit one that can be viewed as very dogmatic in areas was wonderful.

Yet some of the things they talked about and the manner in which they conveyed it can sometimes come across as smug and arrogant. As well as that, there is a rather unhealthy obsession with formal academia as if Jesus died to save men to seminary. That and the importance of text knowledge leads to a feeling as if they have all the answers and talk of things like humility are not always matched by a humble and gracious attitude. As ever these are not traits of everyone in the movement and I remain ever grateful for their insights into faith, the Word and growing in knowing Jesus.

Emerging Church: My exposure to the folks like Piper took root in 2006 and it was also in that year that I started working for the YMCA. The trend at the time influencing a lot of the local, regional and national organisation came from the Emerging Church. My introduction to them had come from a heavily critical approach from the Reformed group who saw their questioning of everything and subservience to the postmodern perspective as a recipe for trouble. I was very tentative and cautious about embracing anything emerging or especially emergent as I was lead to believe that they were virtually embracing heresy.

My boss at the time, however, was a big fan of the works of emerging folk like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, going as far as making A Generous Orthodoxy a key textbook for doing the job. I never did get round to reading the book, but as with other areas of this American influence, it was unwise to rule out everything that emerging and emergnt folks had to say.

Their critique of the way things are regularly done in church and in traditions struck a chord with me. Though I thought some of the issues were just about following fads and trends, I did appreciate their call to review why we do what we do and recalibrate whether it fit in not with a slavish eye on the first century church, but with the heart of who Jesus is and the church he describes throughout scripture.

Although I'm hardly a poster boy for all things emerging, at least they exposed my proud and ignorant mind that did need to acknowledge the other streams of the Christian faith that enrich my understanding of faith in life and action.

Organic/Simple Church Movement: It was a mix of some new reformed stuff and emerging stuff that lead me to my favourite blogs at the moment. With that I came across regular writers who were not big name writers or superstar Christian personalities but simple participants who asked questions of 'institutional' church and bravely lived out the answers that those questions lead to. For some it was about reforming institutional church, for others it was about leaving institutional church to model a different expression of church.

Though not exclusively house based church, they featured prominently. The preferable reference was simple or organic church. I continue to find this branch of American Christianity most intriguing exactly because it is not as high profile as the other brands in the country and for its interest in ensuring that church as the called out ones is literally an assembly of all-participatory, communal existence.

Of course as with the other strands, it's not perfect and it can appear as though they cut themselves off from the 'mainstream' who misunderstands or ridicules them. For all that, I love reading their storie and seeing how they grow.

Overall Reflections: Concerns and Thanksgiving

I get the impression the church in Americal as a whole remains far too culturally attached and that compromise has a bearing on the sort of Christianity that's pumped out there such as the health/wealth gospel and popularity of megachurches.

It is still in a great position to influence world Christianity in a way that is distinct from being power centres - as Christendom ended up being. The American church can still be more in line with the alien, pilgrim tendencies of true Kingdom of God values. So while I remain really concerned for aspects of the church in America, I am also overwhelmingly grateful for what the church in America continues to be for the edification of the worldwide body.

For His Name's Sake

Thursday, October 13, 2011


It is becoming increasingly clear to me that so many problems in the church are the direct result of the church adopting the world’s understanding and definitions. Nowhere is this more evident than in our understanding of power, or to use church parlance “authority”. Christians are often asked if they are “under authority”, i.e. submitting to a properly ordained church official. We instinctively see those who exhibit worldly notions of “power” as more important in the church, directly the opposite of what Jesus taught (“the least shall be greatest”). When many Christians look around the church, they see worldly power structures dressed up in religious language and often accept them without question.This should not be so among us.

There is a certain hermeneutic narrative that sees Jesus coming not just to redeem a people but also to shake the power structures that exist. He is a redeemer in the times to come and a liberator in the here and now. If that is so, Jesus has been a pretty poor liberator. Slavery, while frowned upon in polite societies, is alive and well in the shadowy world where so many Christians dare not tread. People have been ruled and dominated for the two thousand years since the cross. His people have been martyred millions of times, sometimes by pagans and often by others who claim to be Christians. Wars rage, children starve, people are oppressed.

The world says to the enslaved: rise up, cast off your chains and grab your freedom! Jesus came to set the captives free but not by overthrowing their masters. Rather we are told:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (Eph 6:5-8)
The world says to women: get out of the house, have a career, be independent, put off marriage and children (but not sex of course)! Flaunt your sexuality, use it to your advantage. The Bible honors women who wash the feet of Jesus with their hair and tears. The Bible honors motherhood and keeping the home (Titus 2:3-5) and calls on the adopted daughters of the Most High to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph 5: 22), to dress modestly and avoid external adornment (1 Tim 2:9).

The world says that people with more education are better than those with less, people in the spotlight are more important than those on the margins, people who make more money and have more influence are to be catered to and those without are to be ignored, people with titles and prestige are to be respected and those without are to be obsequious to those that do. Even the disciples thought this way, as demonstrated in the request of the mother of James and John for Jesus to place them in positions of prominence and prestige on His left and right (Matthew 20:21).

The church embraces that view. The greatest among us are those who wield the most worldly power, i.e. the clergy and the academic. The “best” churches are those with this best buildings, the nicest amenities, the most famous pastor. We might decry "celebrity" or "rock star" pastors but the ones we like are kind of immune to that criticism. We follow men because of their titles or worldly success or education and often overlook the quiet servants among us who simply love others.

In light of this, it is little wonder that discussion about the church, about ministry, about gender, about wealth and poverty, etc. are so messed up and contentious. We are embracing the standards of the world and seeking strength through power, self-sufficiency and prestige rather than strength through weakness, humility and dependence. We seek the sort of acclaim and recognition that we should count as worthless. We revere men the world says should be our leaders instead of following men who simply live the life of a disciple. We talk a big show about honoring motherhood and marriage but we teach our daughters to approach life in a manner little changed from what the world does. We read the words of Jesus and nod appreciatively and then go right on living in a manner pleasing to the world.

We can't have conversations that make Scriptural sense until we stop trying to live as Kingdom citizens with worldly values.

James White on 'Is Mormonism A Cult?'

If you are interested in this topic, check out: The Fo-Mo Chronicles: James White on 'Is Mormonism A Cult?'

I will be listening and perhaps calling in.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who are the real “religious bigots”?

The whole blow-up over Robert Jeffress calling mormonism a cult has been driven by the media to paint evangelicals as intolerant religious bigots. See, those evangelical Republican voters are bigots! You should stay clear of them!

Here is the awful truth the media doesn’t want you to know. There are a lot of people who would be less likely to vote for a candidate if he/she was a mormon. They just aren’t conservative evangelical voters. Two news stories today show us where the real religious bigotry is found. The first article is in the Wall Street Journal, The Cult of Anti-Mormonism
Partly this has to do with white evangelicals, who are an important bloc in the Republican coalition. Thus many stories on the issue of Mr. Romney's Mormonism invoke a striking May survey from the Pew Research Center. According to this survey, 34% of white evangelicals report themselves "less likely" to vote for a Mormon for president.

That's fair enough as far as it goes. The same Pew survey, however, shows something much less reported. This is that, overall, more Democrats than Republicans are hostile to a Mormon candidacy (31% to 23%). More interesting still is Pew's finding that when it comes to this particular animus, "liberal Democrats stand out, with 41% saying they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate."

As disappointing as these attitudes might be, far more alarming for Mormons are the attacks on Mormon property and Mormon livelihoods just three years ago that registered barely a peep among the same media now so obsessed with Mr. Jeffress. These attacks happened during the 2008 campaign in California over Proposition 8, a state referendum to ban same-sex marriage. When opponents of the measure found that Mormons had contributed heavily to its passage, ugly attacks followed.

Well that is not exactly how this story is being spun. Turns out there is plenty of religious bigotry from the supposedly open minded liberals in America. There has been an awful lot of media attention about the use of the word “cult” by a Rick Perry supporter to describe Mitt Romney’s mormonism but precious little attention to the attacks on mormons following the Prop 8 vote.

The other story came from across the pond from my friend Christopher Dryden who sent me an article from The Telegraph, The new, ugly debate about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith will only push him closer to the nomination. Here is the same information…
True, there is a small but significant minority who say they would never vote for a Mormon. According to Gallup, it’s around 22 percent of the population. But opposition to Mormonism doesn’t come from conservative Evangelicals or Catholics. On the contrary, Gallup’s polls show that it’s a liberal thing. Only 7 percent of Baptists and Catholics wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, compared with 32 percent of gays and 49 percent of atheists. Amusingly, the figure is also much, much higher among Mormons, at 22 percent. That’s right, 22 percent of Mormons would never vote for a Mormon. Perhaps they know something we don’t.

So yeah, religious bigotry is alive and well in America. You just are more likely to find it on the left rather than the right. That doesn’t play well for the media so you are unlikely to hear that from them but the truth is easy to manipulate when you conveniently leave out pertinent facts.

Facts can be awfully inconvenient....

Monday, October 10, 2011

What if...

What if the "genuine", mature Christians are not the ones we think of? Jason Elam asks that question, check out his post Messy Spirituality: The Genuine Article. Here is a sample:
It's a strange reality that some of the most spiritually mature people I know don't attend church services all that much, don't believe in tithing, and have never seen a miracle take place. It's not that they are opposed to such things, but they have found what they believe to be a more authentic expression of faith outside of institutional Christianity. Many of them gather with friends in homes, coffeehouses, and parks and find that God's presence is just as much there as it would be in the most ornate cathedral. They share what material possessions they have when they hear about a need, and find God's blessing in that as much as if they had written a check to the church down the street. They sit with friends as they endure the hardships of life-personal loss, poverty, and chemotherapy treatments. They don't just pray for people in need, they actually bear the burdens of those around them. All the while, many of these spiritual giants are addicted, sick, depressed, divorced, lonely, or in some other way "unclean" by the standards of many.
As many of us have found, some of the earliest followers of Christ would not be very welcome in the church today. Good thoughts, check it out!

A seminary President compromises the Gospel and hinders the work of evangelists

That is a pretty bold and serious statement but I can't think of another way of saying it. Check out my post, The Fo-Mo Chronicles: Richard Mouw, evangelical seminary president and defender of mormonism, where we read of a seminary President defending mormonism and glossing over the very real and very dangerous teachings of the followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Did Jesus pass out little plastic cups and broken bits of bread?

Alan Knox's latest Scripture As We Live It is too good to not reprint in its entirety, Here is Scripture As We Live It #177...

Now as they were eating instead of eating a meal, Jesus took bread small pieces of bread that had already been broken, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup several small cups, one for each of them, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them passed them out, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28 re-mix)

Book Review: Except for Fornication

There are few issues that are as vitally important and yet rarely addressed in the church as divorce and remarriage. It is one of those topics that is given a wide berth, even by many otherwise bold Christian leaders, because it is tragically so commonplace in the church.

Dr. H. Van Dyke Parunak has put together a very detailed little book on this topic that addresses many of the common questions surrounding divorce (are Christians permitted to divorce in the case of fornication, can a divorced Christian remarry if the divorce was the result of fornication, etc.). His work, Except for Fornication: The Teaching of the Lord Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage is the latest release from Energion Press in the Areopagus Critical Christian Issues series and few topics are more critical and in need of serious study than the issue of divorce and remarriage. As an added bonus, I actually know Van Parunak and have spent some time with him and his delightful wife Anita on a couple of occassions and also know his son and daughter-in-law. So it is especially nice to be able to read, thoroughly review and unreservedly recommend Except for Fornication.

It isn't a very long book like most of the Areopagus series but it is also very narrowly focused on a single topic. Van does a wonderful job in drawing the connection between the brief statements of Jesus on divorce and remarriage and the Old Testament Law teachings that He was addressing and His Jewish audience would have been familiar with. This is one of those places in the teaching ministry of Christ where understanding the Old Testament makes a crucial difference in understanding what Jesus was teaching and how it would be understood by His audience.

If there is one caution it is that for a book this size, the material is quite weighty and some of the material is pretty technical. I am fairly familiar with a lot of what Van is talking about but some of it was quite frankly beyond me in a technical sense. That is not to say that this book is not accessible, it is, but there are places where it is deep material. I should also point out that if you are looking for a simplistic defense of our contemporary ambivalence toward divorce and remarriage in the church, you will not find it here.

When faced with the question of the teaching of Scripture, especially the explicit teaching of the Lord regarding divorce and remarriage, the church is in desperate need of renewed focus and fidelity to the Bible. Too often this issue is dealt with pragmatically or culturally but something as fundamental as breaking the marriage covenant deserves better. Van Parunak's work in studying this issue is critical at this juncture in the church and I hope it leads to additional scholarly and practical treatment of this tragic issue. A lot of pastors and elders who find themselves dealing with this uncomfortable topic would benefit from owning and referencing this work.

(I received Except For Fornication as a free review copy from Energion Press in return for an unbiased review)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Fo-Mo Chronicles: Musing about Mitt

Posted an interesting video over at the Fo-MO Chronicles about a possible Mitt Romney Presidency...The Fo-Mo Chronicles: Musing about Mitt

God does the building

Good reminder this morning from Eric Carpenter, A Pilgrim's Progress: Like Living Stones. Jesus said "I will build my church". Why then do we insist on trying to do it our way?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Addendum to the prior post

Check out the fourth comment on my prior post from Steve Bremmer at Google+ . Steve is a missionary in Peru who often finds similar territorialism in that mission field among competing denominations. I sometimes fool myself into thinking that the sort of competitive foolishness that runs rampant in America is restricted to the American church but we have managed to export this madness overseas.

Religion gone wrong

I read one of the ugliest things about "Christian" religious groups this morning I have ever had the displeasure of being exposed to. Here is how the article, Twenty-First Century Excommunication, starts off...
When the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, N.Y., left the Episcopal Church over disagreements about what the Bible says about sexuality, the congregation offered to pay for the building in which it worshiped. In return the Episcopal Church sued to seize the building, then sold it for a fraction of the price to someone who turned it into a mosque.
It goes downhill from there. You may wonder why an ostensibly Christian organization would sue to take possession of a building only to sell it to the followers of a pagan religion? Simple. Conservative breakaway Anglicans compete with the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church is having none of that.
In 2009, breakaway Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada formed the Anglican Church in North America, which now reports 100,000 members in nearly 1,000 congregations. This group has been formally recognized by some Anglican primates outside of the United States.

Bishop Jefferts Schori says this new Anglican group is encroaching on her church's jurisdiction, and she has authorized dozens of lawsuits "to protect the assets of the Episcopal Church for the mission of the Episcopal Church." The Episcopal Church has dedicated $22 million to legal actions against departing clergy, congregations and dioceses, according to Allan Haley, a canon lawyer who has represented a diocese in one such case.

Now the Episcopal Church has upped the ante: It has declared that if congregations break away and buy their sanctuaries, they must disaffiliate from any group that professes to be Anglican.
$22 million to legal action against other Christians. So much for 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. Ms. Schori has a unique read on the calling of a bishop (besides the whole gender thing)...
"We can't sell to an organization that wants to put us out of business," said Bishop Jefferts Schori, who added that her job is to ensure that "no competing branch of the Anglican Communion impose on the mission strategy" of the Episcopal Church. Indeed she has no complaint with Muslims, Baptists or barkeepers buying Episcopal properties—only fellow Anglicans.
Well I should think not! That is right in the "Pastoral Epistles" in the qualities of an elder: Guard your brand of Christianity against any other Christians who might be trying to "put you out of business". It is right there in the text, I am sure of it.

This is easy to poke fun at this even though it is not very funny. While it is a particularly grotesque example of it, we do see this same attitude reflected in far too many denominations and local churches that see fellow Christians as competitors that are trying to "steal their sheep" and "put them out of business". Just look at the marketing material many churches put out and change the religious terms into a consumer product and you get what amounts to little more than run of the mill marketing. Some churches tout their worship music or youth programs, others that they are "KJV-Only, Independent, Fundamental, Bible-believing, Soul-winning" churches, others that they hold to one of the Reformed confessions or the "Three Forms of Unity". All are marketing methods designed to get you to come to "their church" instead of "that church". Many of these groups see the problem with the methods of others but are quite blind to their own marketing methods.

When will we get to the point that we stop seeing our co-laborers in Christ as competitors to be viewed with caution and start seeing that the field is ready to harvest and there is plenty of harvesting to go around? There is no need for us to squabble over attendance and money, we should have plenty to keep us busy in reaching the lost all around us.

Another ten year anniversary

Ten years ago today President Bush announced that the United State military had commenced military strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Ten years later we have seen some 1700 of our young men and women killed, over 13,000 wounded and crippled, tens of thousands of Afghans dead. A terrible human cost which overwhelms the incredible sum of money spent, hundreds of billions of dollars and counting. Neighboring Pakistan is in serious trouble and our relations with this nuclear power are at the lowest point in recent memory.

I saw this in the Salt Lake Tribune last night:
LIMBS LOST: As of July, 1,439 troops had limbs amputated from injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service. Until early 2009, Iraq accounted for most major limb losses from battle wounds in the Army. Since then, most have come in Afghanistan.
What a terrible cost in response to 9/11/2001.

Are we closer to victory today? Or are we actually moving further away? Watch this brief video from the CATO Institute before you decide:

The most stunning revelation is that we are paying off the very people we are fighting in extortion rackets and protection for contractors.

Ten years is more than enough. We have no mission, no plan, no goal. With the lack of leadership in the White House coupled with the impossible task of creating a functioning national government in a dysfunctional region that doesn't even deserve the title "nation", we are throwing good money after bad and getting no closer to "victory".

I used to support the Afghanistan war wholeheartedly. Not any more. Bring the troops home. Stop borrowing money from China to fund the war effort. Someone needs to have the courage to say enough is enough.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

How many Steve Jobs never had a chance

The world mourns the death of Steve Jobs today. He was a larger than life figure and one of the most influential people in the exploding world of technology that shapes our lives and changes on a daily basis. By all accounts he was a brilliant man, a great leader and businessman and his death is mourned by millions. I likewise mourn his death, not because of his accomplishments but because for all of his wealth and fame he appears to have died outside of Christ and all of the worldly acclaim and huge bank accounts that seemed so important yesterday are meaningless today. His death, like all of those who die outside of salvation in Christ, is a stark reminder of how crucial the Great Commission is.

There is more to Steve Jobs than the black turtlenecks, jeans and iPods. One of the little known facts about Steve is that his mother placed him for adoption in 1955, some 18 years before the creation out of a "right" to abortion out of thin air in the Roe v Wade decision of 1973. With the advent of abortion on demand, adoption has become a far less attractive option. Had he been conceived two decades later, it is quite likely he never would have been born.

Placing your child for adoption is a heartwrenching choice but it is infintely better than killing that child before she has a chance to take her first breath. Think of Steve Jobs and his mother who made that difficult decision so many years ago. Because she gave her child a chance to live, the world has experienced an amazing amount of innovation. Whether that is for good or ill is a different topic but it is without debate that many brilliant innovators have died before drawing their first breath, much less getting their first patent. I don't know that Steve Jobs would have agreed but his life is a powerful testimony to the value of life and the beauty of the decision to place a child resulting from an crisis pregnancy for adoption.

If you or someone you knows is in the situation of having an unwanted pregnancy think of Steve Jobs. Every child deserves the chance to live, whether they grow up to be a toll booth attendant or the leader of one of the most innovative technology companies to exist. Every child deserves life.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Best Five Day Forecast Ever

Having our cake and eating it too

It often seems that the church wants to have its cake favorable tax treatment and eat it too demand no interference from the gubmint. That is the concern in a post at the Wall Street Journal today by Michael McConnell, Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister. The topic at hand has to do with an employment dispute between an employee of a Lutheran school and the school itself. She sued and they revoked her "calling" making her no longer eligible for her prior position.
The federal statutes outlawing employment discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability contain no express exception for church employers. But for 40 years lower courts have applied a "ministerial exception," which bars the government from any role in deciding who should be a minister. Courts have reasoned that the separation between church and state protects the ability of churches to choose their own clergy just as it protects the state from any control by churches. The Supreme Court has never spoken to the issue.

But who counts as a minister? Cheryl Perich's duties included leading students in prayer and worship, but she also taught secular subjects, using ordinary secular textbooks. The sole disagreement in the lower courts was whether her job was sufficiently religious to be considered ministerial. The Supreme Court will consider, for the first time, how to make that determination.

But the Obama Justice Department has now asked the court to disavow the ministerial exception altogether. This would mean that, in every future case, a court—and not the church—would decide whether the church's reasons for firing or not hiring a minister were good enough.
Right out of the gate we have an issue here of violating Scripture. If Ms. Perich is a Christian, what business does she have in going to court against other Christians?
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)
So we have a violation of Scripture right off the bat. I am not judging the merit of the firing or the lawsuit, I am saying simply that Christians should take disputes before the church, not before the ungodly courts of the world. The other issue is that the church has a serious double standard when it comes to how it relates to the state in America. For example Mr. McConnell says:
But the government, including the judiciary, is not entitled under the First Amendment to decide what qualifications a minister should have, or to weigh religious considerations against others. Is a secular court to decide, for example, whether confining Catholic priests or Orthodox rabbis to males is a correct interpretation of scripture, or merely a vestige of outmoded and stereotypical bias?
That should be true but there is a problem. The church wants it both ways. We want to say to the government that it cannot dictate who is or is not a "minister" but the church also demands favorable tax treatment on donations and on compensation for those same ministers. We like the government when it suits us but get bent out of shape when it interferes in the very same employment relationship where we demand that they give our church employees special treatment.

Here is the solution. First, stop treating some Christians as employees of other Christians. When that happens we won't need to worry about favorable tax treatment from the government and there will be no reason for the government to interfere. As long as we stick one hand out for goodies from the government and then slap the hand of the government when it tries to interfere we are going to have problems.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Will we step back up?

Back in the day most of the social welfare in this country was handled by the church. I work with a lot of hospitals and it is amazing how many of them are affiliated with a church organization, whether Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc. Before the modern welfare state the church was probably the single biggest source of social services. Over the last century, starting in the aftermath of the Great Depression, that role gradually has moved from the church to the government. First with the “New Deal” and later the “Great Society”, the American social contract changed from a private sector focus to a decidedly security based and government focused arrangement. As the social contract has changed, the church has quietly slid into the background and become more inward focused. Whether the church was pushed out or abdicated is a topic for another day but the end result is what I am concerned with.

The results of a century of social welfare spending are stark. The government is broke. There simply is no money and no political appetite for higher taxes. In Michigan the state has announced that cash welfare assistance will be capped at 48 months. For quite a few families this means that they have already exhausted their cash assistance and are being cut off immediately with more to follow each month. Michigan has been one of the hardest hit states and still finds itself in a pretty dire situation. This means that many families are going to be in trouble. Sure you can say they brought it on themselves and only have themselves to blame but will the church look the other way? The major Federal entitlement programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid, are eating up an ever larger portion of the Federal budget and are running toward financial ruin. As a result we find ourselves in a situation unique in my lifetime where there appears to be an appetite for real entitlement change and a potential dramatic reordering of the social contract in America. Political conservatives are giddy with the prospects of the 2012 election.

In 2011 we as the church find ourselves in an odd situation. The church, while still a source for social welfare services has largely been removed from the role of being a primary provider for the needy. Sure there are still lots of groups who have that as a primary mission (the Salvation Army for example) and a lot of organizations like Samaritans Purse focus on disaster relief, often overseas but for the most part mercy ministry is an add on or an afterthought or completely absent. Perhaps a church might sponsor a food pantry or a denomination may have a relief group like the Mennonite Central Committee but generally speaking among American churches the primary focus is not on social welfare but is on the internal operations of the church. More specifically on the Sunday morning service and all that goes with that and then also on the other programs of the church (Sunday school, VBS, small group/Bible studies, etc.). This has worked up until recently in our society because for all of the rancor and disdain directed at “the gubmint” the reality on the ground is that the social welfare system has made it much easier for the church to be inward focused and prioritize the sustaining of the local church instead of serving the needs of the poor. For example, in 2009 the Southern Baptist Convention reported total receipts of nearly $12,000,000,000 from its approximately 45,000 churches or about a quarter of a million per church on average (obviously a few really big churches skew that number!). The vast majority of that giving stays within the church. Christians bring their “tithe” to the “storehouse” and that is where the church “stores” those offerings, in salaries, in buildings and in bank accounts.

We have been comfortable with this set up for decades, even if we didn’t admit it. Much as we love to hate the government, we also love being able to spend money on ourselves. We comfort ourselves with verses like these:
For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. (Mark 14:17)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
We provide ourselves theological cover and likewise view any sort of call to social justice as skirting the line between justification by faith alone and a “works righteousness”. We are told the church should be about the business of preaching (i.e. sermons to believers) and worship (i.e. singing songs on Sunday morning) and the occasional fellowship meal. Never mind that in the very earliest days of the church, when it faced the daunting combination of a brand new religion that was exploding in size and being persecuted, it was also taking the time to feed people in need (Acts 6:1-6) and ensure that Christians had their material needs met (Acts 2:44-45). Also never mind that Jesus placed an enormous emphasis on how we treat “the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40 and the converse Matthew 25:45). In spite of this the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians are also the most energized and reliable conservative voting block. I am starting to wonder if we are prepared for the results of what many of us are working toward.

Defeat Obama in 2012! Cut Medicaid and Medicare! Overturn Roe v. Wade! Get rid of welfare! Victory for conservatives!

Um. Then what do we do?

Don’t misconstrue what I am saying. I think that the social welfare state in America is on its face an unconstitutional usurpation and a grotesque overstepping of the powers delegated to the Federal government. I likewise think that the secular social welfare system is dehumanizing, inefficient and has directly led to generational poverty especially among minorities. I have no tolerance for Christians who use the faith as cover for conservative economic policies, even though I support those self-same policies, but I have even less use for starry eyed utopian socialism dressed up in Christianese. I believe abortion to be legalized infanticide that should be outlawed just as we outlaw people shooting one another. My conservative credentials are above reproach. My question has to do with the aftermath. What happens if we “win” and we are faced with the question: “Now what?” Will the same conservative evangelical Christians who consistently vote Republican and rail against the Federal government be ready to step in if the social welfare state is dismantled? Will the poor needing assistance with heating bills, the hungry in need of food, the pregnant teen in need of support find it in the church? Or will the church be to busy playing church and putting on our religious theater to be bothered?

Will we be ready to step back up?

We better be.