Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grazing on Astroturf

One of the most puzzling conundrums of the church in the West is that in spite of the overwhelming availability of religious stuff, there are very few mature or at least maturing Christians. So many Christians are barely more mature than they were at the moment of conversion or they get to a certain level and then plateau. When you think about it, it is really incredible how many opportunities to "go to church", attend Bible studies and read the Scripture we have. There are hundreds of places online to read the Bible, Bible apps for phones and tablets, even a Bible in virtually every hotel room in America. We have "Christian radio", "Christian schools", "Christian book stores", "Christian television channels". Can't make it to "church" on Sunday? You can download one of thousands of sermons online or watch a "worship service" on TV. Political candidates trip over themselves to pander to religious voters by promising this or that. Even in a society that is increasingly secularized, it is nigh impossible to avoid getting religious bombardment at every turn.

So why are people not growing in Christ, not drawing closer to one another, not dying to self and picking up their crosses? Not even people in churches with famous pastors who are acclaimed as great Bible teachers. Even those people who are self-motivated, "self-feeders" tend to be mostly the theology nerds, wannabe theologians and amateur apologists, which doesn't really translate into disciple making grace dispensers.


The sheep are grazing on Astroturf.

What's wrong with Astroturf you ask? Sure it looks like grass. Sort of. It is green(ish) and sort of has blades like grass. At a glance it might be mistaken for the real thing but it clearly is not grass upon closer inspection.

Astroturf is great in some ways. It doesn't require much maintenance compared to grass. Whether it rains or not, or the sun shines or not, it looks green week after week. When a game is finished on Sunday afternoon and the crowds leave you can come back the next week and the AstroTurf looks exactly the same as it did when you left it. No mowing. No watering. No fertilizing. It is predictible and uniform, week after week with only minor maintenance. Whether it rains or snows, AstroTurf is the same. That might be OK for a football stadium (although I am morally opposed to playing football on AstroTurf or playing in a dome), it is not OK for the church.

God never intended for His people to be munching on fake plastic grass.

Jacob Sheep Ram
The Great Shepherd knows what His sheep need and He left pretty explicit instruction and example in His written revelation. His most glorious creation after He created man is the church, the adoptive family of a people who once were not a people but now are His. The church is where God's people are to be fed and nurtured. In order for that to happen the church should be lush pasture that feeds the sheep. Not just in studying Scripture, although that is a crucial aspect of being fed. Not just showing up for a 45 minute lecture bracketed by some singing. Really being fed means nourishment.

Sheep who are fed nothing but AstroTurf will die.

Sheep (and other livestock of course) on pasture are part of a natural cycle. They eat the grass and then they fertilize the pasture and the pasture grows back with the aid of rain and sun. It is a natural, kind of beautiful cycle ordained and instituted by God.

Sure pasture gets muddy. It is unpredictable. It depends on the weather. It is messy and far from neat. Walk around a pasture for very long and you are likely to twist your ankle in a hole or step in some manure. That is what you get when you are being fed with the real stuff!

Now I don't think you can only find true pasture in a certain church model. I have been in some simple/house model gatherings where nobody was being fed or encouraged or equipped. I have been in some meetings with (some) of the trappings of traditional churches where I was greatly edified and encouraged and equipped. Certainly there are aspects of a gathering that are more conducive to feeding others and being fed. I think smaller is better that larger. I think that a meeting where all of the brethren are allowed and encouraged to speak is far better than having only one or a few men speaking. I think that in a traditional setting most of the most crucial aspects of the church are suppressed and often discouraged.

What is truly important is that we have the church functioning in the ways that the Bible describes for feeding the sheep. So how does that happen? It happens primarily in the way we relate to each other...

Fellowship over meals where we laugh and love one another in the vulnerable and intimate setting of eating, something that may or may not take place during every single church gathering and may often take place outside of "official" meetings. Community where our lives overlap more and more as we grow together and not just "at church". A ministry model centered on mutuality and focused on "one anothers". A sense of sharing exhibited by sharing among the church materially/financially, sharing in suffering and in joy alike, sharing in the work of ministry and mercy and evangelism. The special feeding that can come only through exploration of the Scriptures in a community hermeneutic rather than a expert based hermeneutic. Growth through service and ministering to others, one of the most neglected ways we grow. If we never turn teaching into practice, teaching is worthless.

I am less concerned with where that happens. I mostly am concerned that it actually does happen. Every step we take toward simplifying church and make it more about mutuality, the better. Unfortunately there are too many local churches where the sheep are content to graze on AstroTurf even though they are starving. I am not focused on starting up a group that looks just right. I am far more focused on finding people who are open to what God has revealed, who are willing to lay down their expectations and traditions. God has surrounded each of us with people who are His and we need to go to them instead of expecting them to come to us on Sunday. In fact I am less concerned with the "official" church meeting at all and more with how the church relates to one another in our day to day lives.

I think we are entering a completely unique time in the church, a challenging time but a time of great opportunity. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic but I feel like we are entering an age of tearing down and building up, tearing down the crumbling structures of Christendom and all that comes with it: professional subcontracted ministry, endless cycles of giving and spending to grease the wheels of institutionalism, competition between factions and denominations and local organizations, the perverse blend of nationalism and patriotism mixed in with cultural Christianity, etc. and at the same time the building up of something far smaller and messier. Not to get all hokey and melodramatic but in my mind the church restored, growing like a flower coming up in the crumbled foundations of Christendom, is on its way. The true church has always been there, just under the surface but we rarely see it because of the religious trappings that dominate our culture, the fake and plastic AstroTurf that tries to pass for real pasture. There have always been those who humbly served God but rarely were noticed or recognized. I am looking forward to the day when we get rid of the showmanship and performance and money and get back to simple loving service. When we embrace the church as a family, a people of God who live lives of service and support for one another we will find the green pasture that God ordained and leave behind forever the AstroTurf that never changes and never nourishes.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What if we got fired up about the Gospel?

I have a dirty little secret to confess: I listen to NPR on my drive to and from work each day. Don't tell anyone....

Today in the car I heard a story about an evangelical voter registration drive, To Get Out The Vote, Evangelicals Try Data Mining. The story looks at an effort by Bill Dallas and his organization, United in Purpose, to indentify unregistered Christian voters and get them to register to vote. They have an ambitious goal:

Dallas hopes UIP will register five million conservative Christians in the next year — a number he believes could help decide the 2012 presidential race. He points out that in 2008, key states such as Florida, North Carolina and Missouri were won by very small margins — much smaller than the number of unregistered Christians in those states.

5,000,000 new registered voters! Wow, that is awesome (assuming of course that they will all vote Republican)! That is something that gets American Christians fired up and willing to invest both time and money.

Just imagine if we could harness that sort of energy for something that actually advanced the Kingdom.

If only we could get evangelicals fired up about trying to proclaim the Good News to 5,000,000 people who have never heard the Gospel. If only we could get Christians excited about helping 5,000,000 people in need with food or shelter. If only we could get 5,000,000 Christians to commit to loving their enemies.

Maybe we should be getting this sort of response out of the things that matter for eternity, not just for the next election cycle...

How to market the church?

Wow. Just read a blog post with this title: 3 Ways to Effectively Market Your Church

How did Jesus market the church? By telling people that if they follow Him they would be persecuted and hated. By demanding that they leave all to follow Him. By appealing to the outcasts, the lepers, the tax collectors and the poor and alienating the rich and powerful. Not exactly a solid marketing strategy.

Jesus wasn't a very good marketer. Maybe He had the right idea....

An interesting new series

Alan Knox is starting a new series on a somewhat familiar topic, Elders and Financial Benefits. His intro post is up, Elders/Pastors and Financial Benefits: Introduction and this promises to be a fascinating series. This does sound a little like an older series Alan did on whether or not elders should be paid salaries but this seems to be a broader look that goes beyond just salaries. From his first post:

In this series, I do not plan to rehash my argument concerning elders/pastors and salaries. (By the way, I will primarily use the term “elders” in this series. However, if your traditions uses “pastor” or “bishop” or “minister” or anything else, you can assume that I’m referring to those people also.)

Instead, I’m going to look through several passages of Scripture that connect elders and financial benefit. Interestingly, there are only a few passages of Scripture that mention elders at all. And, among those, only three discuss elders and finances together. I’m going to discuss those three passages in canonical order in four posts:

Acts 20:33-35
1 Timothy 5:17
1 Timothy 5:18
1 Peter 5:2
I am looking forward to the rest of the series. The topic of money and the incredible influence it has on the church is one that should be of interest to any Christian, whether you are a Christian living in the West where the hold that money has on the church is a daily reality or whether you are a Christian outside of the West who would benefit from seeing the mistakes we have made in the West in order to avoid them. Regardless, I would encourage you to check out his series and interact with it whether you agree or disagree.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

About that offering this morning...

Check out this pictorial from the Boston Globe that gives a tiny flavor of the scope of world poverty. According to the article, one billion people live in slums around the world and that number is expected to double by 2030. That is...

1,000,000,000 people, many of them children, living in unimaginable abject poverty

So when you put your check in the plate this morning, ask yourself where that money is going. Is it staying in your neighborhood, in "your church", to make "going to church" more pleasant and convenient for a couple of hours a week for affluent "Christians"? Or is it going to reach those desperately in need of food and shelter and most of all the Gospel? Look at this little girl before you complain about the parking or the color of the carpet...

How is your building fund coming along?

(HT: Tim Challies)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Aspiring to be a nobody

Loved this from Dave Black yesterday regarding the desire to raise up leaders.

Personally, I'm not all that eager to raise up a new generation of leaders. I want to raise up a new generation of butlers and scullery maids. A generation of nobodies who are content to be obedient to the simple teachings of Jesus. A generation of Christ-followers who die to family, fame, fortune, success, patriotism, and the American Dream. A generation of Dietrich Bonhoeffers who realize that "when Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die." I want to raise up a generation of men and women who give without counting the cost, who deny themselves, who willingly take the cross as the path of union with Christ, in whom there is no trace of triumphalism, who put their lives at Christ's disposal with unconditional surrender, who place Christian allegiance over their national allegiance, who act as though they were part of an upside-down kingdom, who die to all claims of the self-indulgent life, who refuse to lionize success or repudiate pain, who "share in suffering as good soldiers of Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 2:3), who stand high and lift their drooping heads because the Son of God inhabits their lives in the power of His resurrection. We cannot all be seminary grads or professional ministers. But we can all be engaged in fulltime Christian ministry. We can all bring others to faith in the Savior. We can all be devoted to prayer. I am concerned not so much with raising up a generation of leaders but with training a generation of men and women who are consumed with a passion to understand Christ better and make Him known. This does not invalidate the educational enterprise. It gives it purpose.
I just liked that a lot. The best word in that entire paragraph? "Content". If only we were content I think we would see so much more zeal for Kingdom work.

What is missed in so many circles is the utterly Biblical sense in which the true leaders in the church are universally the servants, the nobodies. Not only do we miss this, we tend to go in just the opposite direction. We raise men up, we elevate them, ordain them, exalt them. We buy their books and listen to the talks and attend their conferences. We cleverly drop their names and post their quotes on Facebook and Twitter. If they are dead, that is even better! I believe more each day that those who we will see as “great” in the Kingdom of Heaven will be people we never heard of or those we know but rarely paid attention to.

We don’t need more leaders, we need more nobodies!

Good thing we finally got it right!

A funny and kind of sad graphic from The Gospel Coalition today, History of Church Movements...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Christian Nationalism Apparently Not Just For Americans

Thought of my friend Christopher when I read this article:

Pickles demands return of Christian Britain

Eric Pickles has become the latest minister to demand a return of Christianity in Britain's public life, as he outlined a new community cohesion strategy today.

The local government secretary's comments are particularly revealing coming so soon after Sayeeda Warsi used a trip to the Vatican to launch a campaign against 'militant secularism'.
I guess Americans don't have a monopoly on this sort of silliness....although I get a kick out of his name and the title of the article!

Will you pray with me?

You need to go read this, like now: Chloe's voice: Helpless to help the helpless. When one of our brothers hurts, we all hurt for them. Please read Bobby's post and join me in praying for him and for his wife and sweet daughter.

A Lesser Evil Is Still Evil

I find Doug Wilson, who blogs at the cleverly named Blog and Mablog, to be, in spite of some puzzling positions on issues like baptism and ecclesiology, one of the finest minds in the church today. Even when I disagree with his position I usually find his clearly thought out arguments to be refreshing in a day and age when dialogue often devolves into online shouting matches and one-upmanship. I found myself reading an interesting essay he wrote the other day, Santorum, Just War, and False Equivalence. Doug is disturbed by the questions some people, like me, raise when it comes to “Christian politicians” who claim the title “pro-life” based on opposition to abortion but simultaneously are quite comfortable and rarely challenged regarding their enthusiasm for war. His concern is that we are making a (false in his opinion) equivalence between support for abortion and support for war.
Equivalent what? I am speaking of the civilian casualties of war, what is sometimes infelicitously called "collateral damage," and the fatalities that result from abortion-on-demand. When these two are placed on the same moral plane in the heat of debate, it is an understandable mistake. Just as there is a fog of war, so also there is a fog of debate. But a studied, steadfast refusal to distinguish them is in reality a moral failing and we really need to be done with it.

Let me set this alongside a comparable moral failing -- the refusal to acknowledge a distinction between a deliberate targeting of civilians (as when Hamas blows up a pizza joint full of teenagers) and when one of our units targets combatants who place themselves in close proximity to civilians, so that the civilians might get caught in the crossfire. If the rules of engagement instruct our troops to do whatever is possible to protect the lives of such civilians, then this is completely different from the first scenario. These are two military actions which result in the deaths of civilians, but they nevertheless occupy two different moral universes.
At the outset let me say how troubling I find it when Doug, and the vast majority of other Christians, refer to American soldiers as “our troops”. They are not “my troops”, not in any sense. I am not interested in God blessing our troops as they vanquish the foes of America. When “our troops” are bombing someone else, whether they are targeting civilians or military targets, they are not doing so on my behalf. My political, economic and even religious freedoms are not really all that important and the presence or lack of them does not change my calling as a minister and evangelist of the King. It was by God’s providential hand that I was born and live in America but it was also His providential hand that placed Japanese children in Hiroshima and Dresden, Germany. Our fascination and admiration for the military is unbecoming for followers of the Lamb who was slain.

As far as the war=abortion equivalence, I have made that connection as well, speaking not specifically about politics but rather how Christians view political issues, in relation to candidates who espouse “our values”. There is a serious disconnect between issues where we take seriously that all people, including unborn children, are made imago dei , in the image of God, and other places where we tacitly reject that notion when the image bearer in question is wearing the wrong uniform or living in the wrong country. I have run into far too many people who claim to be Christians that see nothing wrong with defending as a necessary evil (if they even see it as evil) the killing of Japanese children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki while expressing outrage over the murder of unborn children in the womb.

However, I recognize that Doug has a point. The loss of innocent life in war is not precisely the same thing as the willful murder of a child in the womb. The intent is different, the circumstance are different just as a child in the womb killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting is a different setting than the cold clinical setting of an abortion clinic. That is simply reality.

That reality does not in any way make one acceptable in some circumstances and the other not acceptable under any circumstances, especially for a follower of Christ. Jesus speaks directly to this when He talks about things like adultery as an act and lusting after a woman in your heart or the act of murdering someone versus hating someone in your heart. Far from creating a “sin hierarchy” where adultery in lust is lower than adultery in fact, Jesus creates an “equivalence” between the two. Likewise with murder and hatred. Jesus was not known for His nuanced positions. You will look in vain to Christ for an exposition of “just war theory”. Jesus didn’t say that murder was bad when it was an innocent child in the womb but potentially OK in a military action, especially if it is done on behalf of a free republic founded on “Judeo-Christian” values. If anything Jesus is drastically expanding what is unacceptable for God’s people or rather pointing out what was always the case. It was never OK to hate someone as long as you didn’t kill them. It was never OK to lust after a woman even if you never consummated the act. I think we would say that hating someone in your heart is “not as bad” as actually taking the life of another but that doesn’t mean that we should assume that in the eyes of God the two are in different moral universes.

In war, innocents die. That is simply the way of war, even in this day and age. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will result in civilian deaths and the resulting backlash will result in untold more. Simply assuming that if America is the one dropping the bombs that it is somehow more justified than another country is comforting to those who live under the stars and stripes but that is probably less than comforting to a Christian in Iran or North Korea. Whether we admit it or not, and often it is not only admitted but trumpeted, Christians in America view our military as distinct from the armed forces of any other country. When “our troops” kill innocent civilians in a military strike, it is a tragic but unavoidable situation. When the opposite happens and the aggressor is one of our “enemies”, it is a war crime.

This truth alone should dissuade Christians from blithely supporting someone as “pro-life” who advocates for war, especially pre-emptive strikes on a nation that has not threatened America and that we are not at war with, even though that candidate is adamantly anti-abortion. That is not to suggest that Christians should only vote for one candidate or another. Whoever becomes President (or is re-elected) will be in a position where national interests likely will demand a decision that leads to killing. As such we should find ourselves removed more and more from the political process and the governing of a state.

Aborting a child is a horrible thing. It places a mother in the most unnatural possible position, a position where the one person who cares for and protects their child more than anyone else finds herself ending her child’s life. Seeing the results of “collateral damage” in the broken and burned body of a child is likewise horrible. The end result is the same regardless of the circumstances: a child is dead.

I appreciate the nuance that Doug is putting out there and the thought that he puts into his argument, flawed though I find it. It is perhaps a sign of the political times that we live in that we tend to make moral equivalences in places where they may not be appropriate but it is also a sign of the enormous influence of American culture on Christians who live here that permits us to compartmentalize certain types of evil as “necessary in some circumstances” and others as “unnecessary under any circumstances”. Our calling as Christians, if we are indeed Christians, trumps political considerations, economic and religious freedom and our “rights” to self-defense and self-determination. We may be called to lay down our lives but we will never be called to take the life of another, or to actively support actions that lead to that result. Abortion is evil and wrong. Killing a child (or an adult for that matter) in a war between nations or ideologies is also evil and wrong.

A lesser evil is still an evil.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Local churches are divisive

Alan Knox makes a bold claim in the title of a new post...

God does not view your local church as distinct from other local churches in your area

Yowza! That is a sharp stick in the eye to one of our most cherished institutions, something that many people identify with far more than they do with the universal church throughout the ages. It is also completely crazy for many people who cannot comprehend the church outside of our carefully constructed traditions.

Alan goes on to make some similarly inflammatory statements....

We cannot choose to love, serve, teach, encourage, etc. those who are part of a certain “local church” but not recognize our responsibility and privilege of serving other brothers and sisters who are part of our lives but who may not be part of the same “local church” as us.

In reality, the modern concept of the “local church” – a concept and division of the church that began during the Reformation – is a division among the church that is outside the scope of Scripture. There is nothing in Scripture written specifically about or to the “local church” but the “local church” – as it is understood and practiced today – is not found in Scripture.
I say amen to that. We can dress up our notion of "local churches" in all of the religious, pious language we want but the end result is extra-biblical traditions that lead to division. Check out Alan's entire post, it is worth your time!

What attracts people to cultural Christianity?

Everybody else is talking about Jeremy Lin, why shouldn’t I? Has any athlete ever had a better name for making cool headlines from? I mean "Linsanity", how awesome is that?

I read something interesting about Jeremy and his faith as viewed in the broader context of Asian-American Christianity, Jeremy Lin emerges as emblem of burgeoning Asian-American Christianity. The article is quite interesting; especially when I read the stat that from 2000 to 2010 the Asian population in America grew 43.3%. That is huge! While still a small percentage of the overall population, the number of people of Asian ancestry in America is exploding. This raises some interesting questions for the mission of the church and reaching this burgeoning population, along with the enormous numbers of Latinos that runs in the tens of millions, in a church culture that is primarily driven by white, middle-class values and norms. When we lived in the Lansing, Michigan area there were a lot of specifically Asian churches, especially Koreans churches, of al flavors. Certainly for many people who are first generation immigrants, having a church gathering in your native tongue is appealing but at some point those churches need to integrate second generation Asian-Americans, like Jeremy Lin, into the broader church culture. Anyway, as interesting as that is, that isn’t want caught my eye…

I found one section of this article to be quite troubling and it had to do with the reason that Christianity, at least Western style cultural Christianity, appeals

Fenggang Yang, author of “Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities” and a professor at Purdue University, said Asians are drawn to Christianity partly by values that dovetail with Asian culture, including thrift, education and family.

“In that way it helps them assimilate into the U.S. culture while preserving important aspects of their cultures,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Evangelicals tend to have a value system that fits a widely held Asian desire for order and success, he writes in his book, adding via e-mail that Lin is being lifted up as an example of those values.
Should that concern us? I believe it should. Christianity isn’t something that should help you to assimilate into the culture, it should do just the opposite! In the West, we see this all the time in parents who drop off troubled kids at youth events or admonishing people to "go to church" to get their lives turned around. In the Bible we see Christians being assimilated into the culture by ending up on a cross or fed to lions.

Having said that, I think that what Mr. Yang says is true for not just Asian-American populations but a lot of church-goers. I know it is partly what drew us to mormonism: the political conservatism, the family focus, the upright and industrious reputation of mormons. We liked the culture and a lot of people like “church” as a cultural identifier. One can be seen as upright, moral, and a good citizen based in large part on attending weekly religious services. Being part of a “church” is seen as one of the marks of adulthood and the Americana. I understand the reasons behind that but I also am concerned that what we call “Christianity” seems to be dumbed down to a cultural assimilator and a subset of society rather than a counter-cultural, called out people.

I am fine with people being thrifty, successful and orderly but that shouldn’t be what draws people to “church”. The earliest Christians were not looked up to as paragons of societal virtue but were outcasts, mocked for their beliefs. Some may think that just getting people to church, or at least to the “right kind of church”, is worthwhile. I am more concerned with the followers of Christ living distinct lives that witness to the world, not being a comfortable way for immigrants to assimilate into America.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Meds for Orphans

Are you looking for a quick and easy way to directly help some orphans? The Haiti Orphan Project is headed down for another trip in April (25th thru 30th) and they are looking for some children's medication to take down to the new orphanage, Village de Vie. It probably goes without saying but when Haitian orphans get sick they don't have a Walgreens around the corner with hundreds of brands of medication, making these medications both difficult to obtain and very expensive compared to the cost of buying them here.With a new set of regulations in Haiti now in effect, each orphanage is required to have a supply of medicines on hand and the new orphanage sponsored by the Haiti Orphan Project needs to get some supplies in place to stay compliant.

I just ordered some stuff via Amazon and had it delivered to:

HOPE C/O Keane Insurance Group
KIRKWOOD, MO 63122-4022

Took me all of a couple of minutes. If you order enough ($25) you can probably get free super saver shipping or if you have a Prime membership like me you can get all of it shipped two-day for free. If you prefer you can always buy stuff at your local store and mail it to Missouri.

Here is what they need (suggestions in the links)...

1. 3 (eighteen) gallon containers (here is an example):

2. Children's Tylenol liquid (or similar product)

3. Boxes of assorted bandaids

4. Tubes of antiseptic cream, any brand

5. Elimite/Permethrin Topical Lotion

7. Pepto Bismal - bottles or boxes of chewable tablets

8. Imodium AD - bottles

9. Rehydration Salts - are effective in a cholera outbreak, to keep the children hydrated. They can be mixed locally with water.

11. Children's cold medicine - any brand (tylenol, vicks, pedicare, sudafed, dimetrapp, triaminic)

If you can, please consider helping out by ordering some supplies or sending some funds. We often take for granted how accessible medication is for our children but there are many kids around the world that don't have access to some basic medicines like Tylenol and Imodium.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact the Haiti Orphan Project via their contact page!

What good is our religion to a dying child?

Interesting quote from Eberhard Arnold's biography, Against the Wind....
“Humanity must turn around. What good are all its religious practices, what good are all its church services, what point is there in all its devout singing if God’s will is not done and hands remain steeped in blood? What does people’s faith mean if injustice is done to the poor as casually as one drinks a glass of water? What good is it to profess the divine if not even a little finger is lifted when countless children and poor people die?”

Eberhard Arnold, from “god and the future of humanity,” a lecture
Something to think about...

Two decades down

Four more to go? Five more?

Twenty years ago today I married my best friend. I know that sounds trite but it is absolutely true. I didn't and I don't have a group of buddies I hang out with to relax. When I have some down time, I want to spend it with my wife. Granted my idea of spending time with her might include playing the X-box but still. My wife is the one I gripe to, the one I bounce ideas off of, the one who keeps me focused, the one who knows things that no one else knows about me.

In those twenty years, we have beaten the odds. We dated as teens. We got married very young (I was twenty and couldn't even legally drink champagne at my own wedding!). We also had children very early. My wife got pregnant in the first year of our marriage and we had two babies while I was still in college. We did everything that prevailing wisdom says is a recipe for disaster. By God's grace (with heaping helpings of patience from my wife) we are still together twenty years later and neither of us can even imagine life without the other.

In those twenty years a lot has happened. We grew up together unlike those who marry at an older age so our formative years as adults were spent together. Rather than finding out who we were and then getting married, we got married and found out together. Not much will speed up the maturation process like marriage and family! We came to faith together. We have had a ton of kids. We have moved way more than we wanted and lived lots of places, from New Hampshire to Wyoming, northern Michigan to Kentucky. Through it all, the one consistent factor was each other and the presence of God working, even during those years when we didn't realize it.

God knew what He was doing when against the odds He brought together a farmer's daughter and a doctor's son from opposite sides of Toledo. a guy who learned to be a pretty good cook and a lady who can outwork most men. His hand is clear in bringing us together and keeping us together throughout the years. I honestly say I look forward to growing old(er) together, becoming grandparents and perhaps great-grandparents together. May God use our marriage as a witness to the world that testifies of His grace and may God grant us strength, patience, humility and grace in the face of struggle like He has with Becky and Dave Black and others. Our marriage is not about us. It is about Him. May it always glorify His name!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Membership is no substitute for fellowship

I normally appreciate what Desiring God postss but this morning not so much. The post from Desiring God this morning is written by Tony Reincke and is titled “He Knows My Name!” A Defense of Church Member Directories. Here is what he starts with:
Compiling church member names and contact information into a directory is useful for a number of reasons: it helps members connect, it reminds pastors of the souls they are accountable for, and as Mark Dever stresses, it encourages pastors and members to pray for one another.
I have run into a lot of apologetics for church membership hitting the web lately. Perhaps there is an increasing backlash toward these manmade notions of "fellowship" as people yearn for real fellowship with one another and recognize these attempts at artificial relationships for what they are. Perhaps it is the death throes of American style Christendom trying to hang on to our system that is dying all around us. Tony then links back to a John Piper article from 1983. Piper wrote this to the "members" of Bethlehem Baptist encouraging them to have their picture taken for the church directory:
If this makes sense to you, then please make every effort to get your picture in the new church directory that Olan Mills is doing for us. There are over 850 members at Bethlehem and we simply can’t call each other by name unless we have some pictures to help us. (This directory costs the church nothing and only costs you if you buy some prints).

If you believe the use of names transforms a society into a family, you will want to help us make the new directory as complete as possible. I promise to learn every name pictured in the book.
We simply can't call each other by name unless we have pictures? Yikes. Perhaps trying to have a "church" with almost 1000 people who see each other a couple of hours a week in events that are largely designed to aid in remaining anonymous is the underlying problem? To make matters worse, John tries to somehow compare employees of a local church using a photo directory to memorize the names of people they barely know otherwise to Jesus calling His sheep by name in John 10:3.

I posted this on Facebook:

What a tragedy that we need directories to know who to pray for, that we have reduced the fellowship of the saints to the equivalent of name tags that read "Hi, my name is John" because we don't know each other and we especially barely know those we are to imitate because we have turned them into employees instead of brothers.
How can we imitate the lives of those more mature than we are if we need an appointment to talk to them and if they know us only because they memorized our name from a picture in a church directory? If the gathering of the church you are involved in is so large and impersonal that your leaders don't know you other than by a picture in a directory, if you don't know the other people you gather with not only by name but by their lives, you are missing out on the richness of church life. The gathering of the church is supposed to be about so much more than a well written and delivered sermon and "worship music" with a great song leader and high production value. I would rather gather together in a setting where no one can hold a tune and the talks are clumsy every week than gathering with people I don't know for an hour before going home.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

That is (unfortunately) what I am talkin' 'bout

Rick Santorum, ostensibly the candidate who embodies "Christian values" is pondering the Christian credentials of the man he hopes to face in November...

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum challenged President Barack Obama's Christian beliefs on Saturday, saying White House policies were motivated by a "different theology."

A devout Roman Catholic who has risen to the top of Republican polls in recent days, Santorum said the Obama administration had failed to prevent gas prices rising and was using "political science" in the debate about climate change.

Obama's agenda is "not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology," Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.

When asked about the statement at a news conference later, Santorum said, "If the president says he's a Christian, he's a Christian."

But Santorum did not back down from the assertion that Obama's values run against those of Christianity.

"He is imposing his values on the Christian church. He can categorize those values anyway he wants. I'm not going to," Santorum told reporters.
A theology not based on the Bible? I assume Rick is aware that Roman Catholic theology is largely based on "sacred tradition" rather than Scripture so he is not exactly in a position to throw that charge out there. A theology not based on the Bible? You mean like chomping at the bit to pre-emptively attack a sovereign nation that has not attacked or threatened America? While I support the vast majority of the GOP platform, I don't think that it is more "Bible based" than the Democrats and very little that Rick Santorum stands for has any basis in the Bible. Neither does much of anything Barack Obama, or really any other politician, stands for.

This has less to do with politics proper and more to do with the way that politicians of all stripes pander to Christians or at least to religious church-goers. Were I to write an open letter to Rick Santorum, I would be sure to remind him that Christian values are not restricted to defending "traditional marriage" and opposing abortion. There certainly are plenty of political positions to oppose President Obama on without turning to the "I'm the Christian candidate" malarkey. I have watched the comments from Santorum multiple times on TV this morning and they are more embarrassing each time I watch them.

Frankly these comments by Rick Santorum are despicable and ugly. They make him look foolish and they are shameful for someone who claims to follow Christ. It takes a lot for me to be sympathetic toward Barack Obama, congrats Rick you have accomplished the nearly impossible.

Where may the true church found?

An important question in a world where many claim that "this" is the "true church" and "these" are the "marks" of a "true church". In asking these questions we miss the wonderful reality that wherever you find God's people, that is where you find the church. A church not reliant on ordained men or religious rituals or the acceptance of the world. God's church is found among God's people and nowhere else.

Check out this great post from Aussie John quoting J.C. Ryle, CAESURA: THE TRUE CHURCH- Part 1

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More on money

This makes my head hurt

Presbyterians Consider Divesting From Select Companies In Israel

A major body within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted Friday to recommend that the church vote to stop investing in three companies "until they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.”

The vote proposed by the General Assembly Mission Council on whether to continue investing in the corporations -- Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard -- will happen at the church's General Assembly, a national meeting of church leaders that will take place in late June and early July in Pittsburgh. The assembly meets every two years.
Oh how very noble and P.C. (pun intended!). Of course this is not a paltry sum of money we are talking about here. In another article I read the following:

The denomination had more than $28 million in total investments in the three companies as of its most recent financial reports — small fractions of their combined market capitalization of about $150 billion.
$28,000,000 in just those three companies? I couldn't find how much we are talking about in total but I imagine it is a substantial amount of money.

I have a better idea. Why stop there? If you truly want to follow Christ, may I recommend the the P.C.U.S.A. and all other churches divest themselves of investing at all. Period. The notion of Christians banding together to collect and horde money for the future when people are starving and more critically dying outside of Christ every day, is perverse.

The poisonous leaven of money infects even those "churches" that boast in their social justice and liberalism. When it comes to the deadly love of money, there is little difference between Left and Right.

Going up?

In religious news, Timothy Dolan has been "elevated" to the office of "cardinal"...
VATICAN CITY – New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been elevated to cardinal in a ceremony at the Vatican.

Dolan was one of 22 prelates formally welcomed into the elite group in the Roman Catholic Church in a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday.

Cardinals are the pope's key advisers and are members of the group that will eventually elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. The former Milwaukee archbishop is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Are those who are called to serve being "elevated"? As we mature in Christ are we moving on up or moving on down?
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
The only way that Jesus was elevated during His ministry was being elevated naked and bruised on a cross. It seems to me that the more we grow in Christ, the less concerned we become with acclaim, with titles, with honors. Fancy robes and a cardinals hat are hardly symbols of someone who is a servant.

This is certainly not restricted to Roman Catholicism. Protestants in their own way do exactly the same thing, without quite as much pomp and ceremony. In many ways Protestantism is a poor imitation of the errors of Rome.

When will we learn?

That's Right

This is what winter is supposed to look like. I sort of forgot...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A vital post to read

I wanted to draw your attention to a very important post, the first in a series that will be critical to the church in the 21st century. From Joe Thorn, Bearded Gospel Men: J.C. Ryle

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Religion is big business

Skye Jethani penned an interesting post on the celebrity culture in the church, a topic that as he notes is drawing attention from all over the spectrum, left to right. His post, The Evangelical Industrial Complex and the Rise of Celebrity Pastors, is pretty insightful but one paragraph near the end really caught my attention...

Consider the scale of the evangelical industrial complex that survives by perpetuating this system. The Christian Booksellers Association, representing 1,700 Christian stores, sells $4.63 billion worth of merchandise a year. And that doesn’t count retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Some estimate the total evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. Evangelicalism is a very, very large business…that’s why I call it an industrial complex.
That is a pretty huge number, a number I contribute to on a regular basis. Is that healthy, especially when you think about all that goes into the Christian book publication and its symbiotic relationship with the Christian conference system? Without knowing this for certain, I would suspect that a relatively small number of authors make up an enormous percentage of that seven billion dollar figure. While it is easy for me to point at authors like Max Lucado who seem to churn out a new book weekly, there are favorite authors of mine who likewise are pumping out new books almost as fast.

I am not concerned with books per se but I am very concerned with the hold that money has on the church. Huge sums of money pass through various channels in the church: local churches, clergy, books, conferences, music, bureaucracies, charities, etc. It is unthinkable that having billions upon billions in circulation doesn't have a serious and often detrimental impact on the way we relate to one another and how we think about finances and possessions. I really think that money needs to be less of a factor in the church but that is going to require a really radical change in some of our most deeply held beliefs.

Can Someone Be Wrong And Still Be Saved?

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately immediately refused to have anything to do with him and wrote a series of blog posts to explain why he was wrong to believe as he did. (Acts 18: 24-26 remixed)
You know what is really the problem with the church? It is full of people who are just flat out wrong about stuff. Really, really wrong about lots and lots of stuff. How can these people claim to be Christians and be so utterly clueless? Makes me really wonder…sheesh!

One of the hardest things I have had to overcome is my desire to be "right". About everything. Not just the big stuff but even little ticky-tack stuff. It is absolutely a character flaw and sinful pride and it is something I struggle with all the time.

There was a time when I didn't really see this as a problem. We are called to contend earnestly for the faith after all and if that doesn't mean smiting the ignorant, what does it mean? I used to scour the interwebs for somebody saying something I could point out the flaws in and I cut my blogging teeth on the offerings of the Reformed semi-professional attack bloggers.

Those days are (mostly) in the past. I have grown weary of the constant fighting, slander and hatred. I expect that the world will hate us and persecute us but shouldn't we expect something different from our brothers, even those that are "wrong"? When Jude calls for us to "contend earnestly" I don't think he meant the online version of screaming in someone's face or snarkily cutting them down to look cool in front of the other kids. Given that I have modified many of my own positions as I have studied and contemplated, there are times  when I look back at what I wrote in the past and think that what I said then is “wrong” now. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t a Christian just because my positions were not as “nuanced” as they are today nor does it mean that I am not going to be a Christian in the future. The stark reality is that the church is full of people who will spend eternity in Christ along with me that I think are dead wrong on some stuff and who no doubt would think the same of me (if they knew me).

For example....an Arminian who belongs to Christ, even if he wrongly thinks he chose Him of his own "free will", is my brother in Christ and if he declares Christ to the lost and cares for the widow and orphan, he is someone I should try to imitate. A Calvinist who also belongs to Christ but thinks that blogging about how wrong Arminians are is the extent of his calling is not someone I care to imitate even if he can explain the doctrines of election, predestination and monergistic regeneration with the best of 'em.

I do believe that there are people who are saved that either misunderstand or even actively deny important doctrines like the Trinity. I think there are lots of people who are saved who think that a priest transforms a wafer in the Body of Christ and wine into His blood even though I think the doctrine of transubstantiation is an abomination. I think that those who apply “baptism” to infants are wrong but many of my closest friends who live praiseworthy lives also have “baptized” their children for what they believe are valid and biblical reasons and that doesn't make them people to avoid.

So what do we do with this information, how do we live in this reality where brothers and sisters in Christ are off the mark, sometimes quite seriously? The typical response is to keep them at arms length. That certainly is easiest and the most pragmatic but I am not sure how Biblical it is. The harder course is to love one another while working this stuff out. If we refuse to have any contact with those in need of correction, how does that help? If Aquila and Priscilla had refused to have anything to do with Apollos, would he ever have known the “better way”?

Ultimately I believe that God has His elect is all sorts of places and not just in "Biblical churches" that follow the "historic creeds" and hold to an "orthodox theology". One is not part of the elect because one affirms certain doctrinal statements and creeds or is a “member” in good standing in a “biblical church”. Those may be the result of being one of the elect of course. Likewise there are many of God’s elect who “go to church” in the wrong kind of church and who probably believe a lot of stuff that is wrong. When God removes the heart of stone from us and replaces it with a heart of flesh that He writes His Law on, there is not a section set aside for the 1869 Baptist Confession and because we know this, do we not have an obligation to help our brothers and sisters grow in the faith?

Again hear me out. I would hope if you have read here very long you know that I consider many doctrines to be hugely important, and getting them "right" is crucial. Just glossing over everything to get to a lowest common denominator is not healthy for the church and it must not be a method to draw the unregenerate into the fellowship by smoothing down the rough patches in the Gospel. The balance must come in being unified in word and deed with our brothers and sisters while still working out in a community hermeneutic the crucial questions of doctrine and practice. I am by no means an expert at this and I have a long way to go but I think that getting to that place should be the desire of every follower of Christ.

Creationism in Public Schools

I hold unapologetically to a six 24 hour day creation position. I am familiar with the arguments for other positions and find them unpersuasive. However I have no interest whatsoever in seeing secular public schools teaching the Genesis account in science classrooms, something proposed in my state and fortunately squashed. From the Indianapolis Star....

The bill approved by the state Senate would have permitted local school districts to teach creationism as long as the curriculum also incorporated origin-of-life theories from multiple religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Scientology.

The original bill proposed by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, simply called for allowing schools to teach creationism, but the Senate revised it to include references to multiple faiths.

House education committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said last week he believed the multiple faiths requirement made the proposal unworkable because it would be almost impossible to find teachers who would know about origin beliefs from so many religions.
That doesn't sound like a terribly good idea. Lumping in Genesis 1 with the crazy story L. Ron Hubbard made up, and have it all taught by whoever happens to be the teacher? I am pretty sure that is not the intent of the oirignal bill but it seems perfectly reasonable in a religiously pluralistic society. If we are going to teach creationism alongside evolution, it naturally follows that we open that up to all religious viewpoints. So when little Johnny and little Suzie are in science class, they would be presented with the creation account in Genesis right alongside the Scientology belief of human beings as eternal aliens called thetans. Maybe Tom Cruise can come in for a guest lecture?

I am glad that Indiana is not going down this path. If you want your kids to learn about creationism from a Christian viewpoint, don't send them to a public school.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Conformity is not a fruit of the spirit

I wanted to draw your attention to another post from Dan Edelen, Misfits of the Church. Dan has noticed something that confounds many of the leaders and thinkers of the church, namely all of those misfit Christians who don’t go along to get along, as Dan describes them, the proverbial square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Dan’s conclusion to his post is spot on….

I keep encountering more longtime Christians who are giving up. They’re not abandoning Jesus; they simply don’t know how to fit within the typical church. And it’s not for trying. I know these people have tried. But they’re weary of always receiving the left hand of fellowship, and they despair of ever contributing their God-given gifts because The Church™ does not want those gifts or it places ridiculous qualifications on their use that have no basis in Scripture and every basis in human selfishness and pride.

We talk, talk, talk, and talk about community in the Church, but what kind of community do we really have when someone is told to stop being the person God Himself is making him?

The Kingdom of God is filled with misfits, so how come our churches aren’t?
Ah but there are many people who see turning your back on the organized church as tantamount to turning your back on Jesus, something that is silly on its face but awfully damaging to a lot of people who have come to a Biblically based conclusion, or who have been wounded by the traditional church or who just are tired of the hypocrisy and “going through the motions”. I am finding more and more people who have not only not stopped following Jesus because they have walked away from "church" but might just be following Him more closely. In spite of that, there brothers and sisters are chastised and slandered and often feel like they are alone in the world. In reality there are far more of them than anyone might think.

This is one of the best treatments I have seen on this topic. So many church-goers read the New Testament about a ragtag band of persecuted and reviled nobodies that are goofballs and social pariahs but they are united by following the King, a King who not only tolerates them, He welcomes them and indeed He chose them to be His followers. Then they look around at the sea of conformity that we call the church, a conformity that tolerates no dissent, no challenge and they start to wonder where we went wrong. If you think that is not true, try commenting on a blog post and questioning the conformist status quo. Try acting or looking different. Ask the wrong questions, be too open and vulnerable, operate outside of the confines of a “local church” and you will quickly find yourself branded “anti-authority” or worse.

The evangelical, middle to upper class, white suburban church in America expects “Christians” to look a certain way, dress a certain way, live a certain way, vote a certain way and above all else to not rock the boat. It sometimes seems that we prefer religious unbelievers who look, act, think and vote the same way we do to an actual believer that is irreligious, radical and makes us uncomfortable. Little wonder the misfits are walking away.

Jesus chose what was weak, foolish and unlikely from the world to be His first followers and He still does so today. It is a troubling question indeed to ask why the church looks more like a PTA meeting than a band of followers who have abandoned all for the King.

An inward focus or an outward focus

Yesterday Baptist Press reported a modest increase in the Southern Baptist Convention Annie Armstring offering in 2011 (the Annie Armstrong offering goes entirely to support overseas missionaries)

Southern Baptist churches gave three percent more to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions in 2011 than they did in 2010.

For the year ending Dec. 31, 2011, the offering totaled $56,040,868.
That sounds like a big number at first blush. Fifty-six million dollars, all of it going to support missionaries! Hang on a second...

It comes to about $1200/ SBC church. For some churches that would be a lot of money but even for a small church that is a fraction of their operating costs. When you look at some of the really big SBC churches and examine their budgets that number sounds less impressive. When you compare that figure to the real estate holdings in the SBC of over $40,000,000,000 or an average of over $1,000,000 per church, it really should be sobering. A denomination ostensibly founded in part for the purpose of supporting missionary that gives such a paltry amount to missions is cause for some serious soul searching, not celebration.

The bigger issue is that in spite of the "Great Commission Resurgence", the Southern Baptist Convention and most other traditional churches are still not very focused on reaching the lost. That may sound like a harsh indictment but given the reality that outside of baptizing children of believers and adding new "members" from other churches, many (most) evangelical churches are primarily inwardly focused on the operations of their own organization far more than they are on reaching the lost.

The gathering of the church is vitally important but it is not important for its own sake. It is important because of the equipping and encouraging that is supposed to go on. If all we do week after week is listen to sermons and sing a few songs but never mature beyond knowing a few new tidbits about a passage of Scripture gleaned from the sermon and Sunday school, frankly we are wasting our time and might as well stay home. A church that doesn't see those who gather there on a regular basis being equipped, released and engaged in mission is failing. I don't care how many people are on the membership roll. I don't care how big their budget is or how famous their pastor. If rank and file Christians are not reaching the lost and caring for the poor because they are not being equipped to do so on Sundays, the church that they gather at should be closed down, the property sold and the proceeds given to those who will take the Gospel to the world. We simply cannot afford more palatial manmade temples that put on a religious show but do little other than spoon feed the sheep. We need gatherings that are Gospel cannons firing equipped believers into the world. The field is far too white and the laborers are far too few for us to do anything else.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Focusing on can rather than can't

Few discussions in the church generate more heat and less light than gender discussions. As a topic it is heavily influenced by our prevailing culture which makes it doubly difficult to have a calm discussion. This is tragic because it is an important topic to understand, both from an interpretive standpoint (for example why Jesus speaking to the woman at the well was so scandalous) and from the standpoint of practice in the church and in the family. It is easy for me to point the finger at those who I believe are influenced by the prevailing feminism of the day and are trying to force those contemporary cultural mores into the Scripture. I make no apology for that but I also recognize that on our end those holding to and advocating for a more traditional understanding of gender roles have done a pretty poor job of approaching a topic that carries so much cultural and emotional baggage. Part of the problem has been that we somehow have ended up with Mark Driscoll as the most visible figure in the complementarian camp. That certainly doesn’t help especially given the serious scholars and academic work that has been done by less…flashy…spokesmen, men like Wayne Grudem and John Piper. The other problem, and the one that I think is far more crucial, is the way the issue has been framed.

I think we have gone the wrong way by focusing on what women can't do instead of encouraging them in what they are called to do. Most arguments about gender roles, complementarianism vs egalitarianism, patriarchy vs Christian feminism, whatever you call it focus on the negatives and go like this:

- Women can't be elders. Yes they can!
- Women can't teach men. Yes they can!
- Women are to be silent in church. No they aren't!
- Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. No they aren’t!

Round and around we go, getting angrier and more strident as we do. Whether these are valid and applicable, and I believe they are, it turns discussion on gender to the negative leaving complementarians saying "You cannot" and egalitarians saying "Sure you can!". The debate centers around restrictions on what the church, wrongly, assumes to be crucial functions like "preaching" and often ignores what women are called to do which tend to be overwhelmingly what the Bible values most highly, functions like serving and caring for others.

Let's face it, no one likes to be told what they can't do.

Conversely, telling someone what they want to hear is always easier but it is rarely helpful.

Our sisters don’t need us to tell them what they can’t do as much as they need us to support and encourage and equip them to fulfill the noble calling of being a wife and mother. This requires two steps.

The first is kind of easy, at least compared to the second….

We as men in the church absolutely need to equip and encourage our sisters who are married in their calling as wives and mothers. The Bible speaks both positively about what women are called to, whether through example (like Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with oil and wiping His feet with her hair) and through exhortation (Titus 2:3-5; 1 Peter 3:1-6 ). There is a virtually unlimited need for the sort of service and ministry that women are not only called to but inarguably best suited for. We don’t need more people to give sermons or lead worship music or teach Sunday school. There is plenty of that already going on. We do need more serving of others, more loving homes, more mentoring of younger women by older women. This is not true just for our sisters who are already married with children. We also need to prepare our daughters and other unmarried sisters for this calling, not by sitting around pining for a husband but by ministering in and out of the Body in the ways that honor God and their calling as women and sisters in Christ. Being engaged in service and ministry before marriage is some of the best training to be a wife and mother that serves and ministers later on.

The second step is much harder, at least for me. The church desperately needs for men to step up so women don't have to fill in the gaps. That doesn’t involve watching mixed martial arts on pay-per-view, just FYI. I doubt that outside of a few ideologues who have an agenda to pursue that you would find many wives who don’t wish that their husbands would step up more in the church and the home. I fail at this on a regular basis and I am guessing most other men do as well. For the complementarian position to work, both sides need to be complementing the other and this often is an unbalanced situation where wives carry the lions share of the relationship.

If men would do a better job of encouraging women in their calling and serving as God has called them to do, I think a lot of the squabbling over gender roles would go away. Sure there are always going to be those who have a book to sell but among the "regular" folsk I think the debate would simmer down. A properly functioning, complementary and balanced marriage is one of the best witnesses to the world we have and the very best atmosphere for raising children but that sort of marriage won’t happen on its own. It is not enough and is in fact disingenuous to pound the pulpit about uppity women if we are not going to do everything we can as husbands to encourage our wives and rise to the challenge as men in our own callings.

I am not going to stop writing on this topic although I am aware that it rubs a lot of people who read my blog the wrong way. It is a subject that gets a lot of ink in the New Testament and that is reason enough for us to study it humbly and seek to apply what the New Testament teaches us consistently. I am going to try to spend more time focused on what our sisters are called to rather than what they are restricted from. I have made my position on the boundaries around gender roles very clear and now I need to spend more time working through how we equip women to serve in the vital ways that they have been uniquely called.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “just” being a wife and mother is something to be ashamed of or that you need to "do more" to be a valuable part of the Body of Christ. As I said, we have plenty of “preachers” in the church but we can never have enough wives and mothers carrying out that unique ministry.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Oooh I like this

Check out Eric's blog post from this morning. It is brief but worthwhile: A Pilgrim's Progress: Edification for Infiltration

Old Glory and the Old Rugged Cross Don't Mix

I followed a link from Dave Black to a (sort of) review by Roger Olson (even though Olson is an uber-Arminian), Stanley Hauerwas, America and war (and a question about flags in churches) . Roger Olson is reading Stanley Hauerwas’ new book, War and the American Difference (which is already in my Kindle wish list). As he is reading through, he has pondered the question of American flags in churches. This is an especially interesting topic for me. Of all of the various trappings of American style Christendom nothing bothers me more that the ubiquitous American flag that sits astride the platform (which I also dislike). Here is what Olson wrote:
It seems to me that it would be a very good test of idolatry (or lack of it) to remove the flag and see what happens. It seems to me that anyone who gets angry and insists the sanctuary must include the flag might be flirting with idolatry. Not necessarily conscious, willful idolatry, like bowing down to an idol or something, but idolatry in the sense of elevating a human symbol to absolute status alongside the symbols of the cross and the bread and wine and the Bible (as a symbol of God’s Word).
I think is a great test. It won't happen in most church gatherings of course. It would be unthinkable. Any change to the traditions and patterns that people expect to find on Sunday mornings is met with emotions ranging from confusion to outrage and especially any suggestion that American nationalism is not only inappropriate in the church, it is actually harmful and damaging to our witness. I like what Dave Black said about Olson's theory...

Again, it's easy to see this as radical and spectacular, but it's only because we live in a church subculture that has lost touch with the Scriptures. Christianity that "flies the flag" is the Christianity I grew up with. Christianity in which King Jesus alone is worshipped as Lord is the Christianity I am falling in love with.
So many Christians in America have grown up in the "Christianity" that Dr. Black is describing, a "Christianity" that is inextricably linked with American nationalism. I think the premise of Hauerwas' book is fascinating, that war is the glue that holds America together and that is true in the church as well (honoring veterans in church, "God bless our troops", waving the flag and singing patriotic songs, etc.). American Christians have got to wake up. Many of us are on the same journey that Dr. Black has been on, replacing the Christianity of America with the Christianity of the King. I pray more of us join that journey, for the sake of the mission of the church.

If your gathering of the church this morning has an American flag on the platform, ask the same question Roger Olson did. What if someone got up, very calmly came up and removed the flag and sat back down. What would people do? Would anyone be offended. Would you? If you would be, ask yourself why.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A great resource for those interested in the Anabaptists and Anabaptism

Southwestern Seminary put on a conference last month on the topic of contemporary Baptists and the legacy of Anabaptism, Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists. The conference featured several well known academics and pastors, including Rick Warren (who is not the first person I think of when I think about Anabaptism), Malcom Yarnell and Paige Patterson. I have been hoping that the audio would be made available and it finally has!

There are two different streams in the contemporary Baptist world, one that looks back to the magisterial Reformers for inspiration even though many of them persecuted the forerunners of modern Baptists and put to death those who practiced credobaptism. This group tends to be the Calvinist wing that finds more in common with Calvin and Zwingli based on soteriology  than with many current and past Baptists and Anabaptists. The other stream finds more in common with the Anabaptists although their church practices don't seem to look all that much like what we know of Anabaptist ecclesiology. This stream tends to be Arminian in doctrine as opposed to Calvinistic in the Particular Baptist mold. The conference at SWBTS focuses more on the latter stream. I find myself outside of both camps, holding to a Particular Baptist/Calvinistic soteriology but looking also to the Anabaptists for a vision of radical discipleship, community and a more primitive and biblical form of the church. Not being locked into either camp I find that I can cherry pick from both!

You can download talks like "The Impact of Erasmus on Luther and the Anabaptists", "Wounds that Heal: The Importance of Church Discipline within Balthasar Hubmaier's Theology" and even one from someone I sort of know through Alan Knox, Dr. Mael Disseau, speaking on the topic "Italian Anabaptism: Was There Ever Such a Thing?". Frankly I didn't know there were any Italian Anabaptists so that should be an interesting talk! I have already downloaded the whole set and look forward to listening to them (don't tell any of my Calvinist friends that I have talk from Rick Warren and Paige Patterson on my computer!) and if you are interested in the Anabaptists this would be a great and free resource to download and study.

You don't need a church to be the church

The recent decision by New York City to ban churches from meeting in public schools has been rich fodder for culture warriors. "Our rights are being violated" they cry! That cry is often followed by "Send some money so we can fight for your rights!". They are right about the problem if we look at this from the standpoint of being Americans first and Christians second. For a religious American, this is a travesty and worthy of a great deal of hand-wringing and lawsuit-filing and nodding in righteous anger while listening to Rush and Sean. That isn't how a follower of Christ should look at it. In a Kingdom view, this sort of thing is simply irrelevant. The church ought to be about the business of Kingdom and worrying about our First Amendment rights is not even on the radar. We don't need the ability to meet in buildings and we not only don't need but probably shouldn't even want the approval of the government. As I have written many times before, the acceptance and approval of the culture, the world, the government is not a blessing on the church, it is an indictment of our unfaithfulness.

Then this morning I read an article, New York City Churches Find New Homes, that talks about how church groups in New York are adapting in strange and wonderful ways. For example, the church gathering led by the author, John Starke, has found a new place to gather...
Congregations such as First Baptist Church, which meets in the Upper West of Manhattan, are adapting not just for charity but also for the sake of the gospel. Pastor Matthew Hoskinson has planned to forfeit their Sunday school hour at 9:30 a.m. to allow for a congregation to meet during that time, even as he has arranged for another congregation to meet Saturday nights, and still another Sunday evenings.

Our own congregation has benefited from First Baptist's hospitality and pastor Hoskinson's leadership. Starting February 19, we plan to meet on Sunday evenings at First Baptist Church. This effort to welcome churches takes more time and manpower than what you might first assume.
Imagine that! Giving up a "service" time for the sake of other Christians. Next thing you know we will start sharing with those in need among the Body of Christ. Crazy socialists in New York...

This has had some predictable but unexpected blessings....
As churches race for space and labor for their constitutional rights, we have at least two strategic opportunities to adjust our expectations for what a worship gathering looks like.

First, there is a unusual unity that comes from sharing space among evangelical churches. Many evangelical pastors meet for prayer and planning service projects. These are hugely strategic and a blessing. But there is something different that happens when you have to figure out how two (or three) churches are going share space. We have been blessed by First Baptist as they help us cope during this season of shared space. They don't just want us to manage---they want to help other churches flourish.

Second, many churches now planning for evening services have already found this is a more strategic time for many New Yorkers to meet. Few skeptics in this city wake up Sunday morning eager to check out a church service. And on the Upper West Side, where our congregation meets, many family sporting events have been planned for Sunday morning. So we've grown excited about planning for these new opportunities for outreach on Sunday evenings.
Wow. So when Christians are forced to share time and space with other Christians, God opens doors for ministry opportunities? Being united with one another strengthens the entire church and advances the mission of God? The mission of God is not a zero sum game where we divide a finite pie and there are winners and losers? Weird, I should blog about that or something one of these days... Of course I don't care for the idea of churches "laboring for their constitutional rights" in a city of millions where most of the people are lost and many are poor and hungry. We have plenty of Kingdom issues to "labor for".

I left a comment on the post, replicated here...
The lesson here is that the church is far more than the meeting place. If there were no buildings at all to meet in, would the church just give up and stop meeting? Or would they just gather wherever they could, in homes, in parks, in secret if need be, just as Christians have done for thousands of years. Instead of clamoring about our "rights" and seeking legal redress for perceived wrongs, we ought to thank God for the way He uses events like this to prepare the church for a post-Christendom mission. He is building His church and the lack of formal meeting spaces or New York City rulings are not going to change that one iota.
The lack of official places to meet and the approval of the governing powers didn't dissuade the early church. It didn't stop the Anabaptists. In fact when the opposite is true, when the government smiles benignly on "the church" and Christians have an embarrassing abundance of expensive "houses of God" to meet in, the church seems far weaker and more likely to take on the form of a moral, religious civic club instead of a radical band of counter-cultural followers of Christ.

When events like this happen, instead of letting the radio talk show hosts, the professional  perpetually aggrieved money grubbers and the "culture warriors" turn this into a war, we should thank God for the chance to break down barriers, to find new ways to minister outside of our stale assumptions and traditions and remember that if we believe God is sovereign then not even the government of New York City is going to thwart Him!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Some thoughts on the Obamacare contraception kerfuffle

In light of the media frenzy over the Obamacare contraception mandate (which appears to be about to die during the President’s upcoming press conference), I thought I would offer a few off the wall thoughts, not so much about this particular issue but rather the deeper concerns it should raise.

Many people have framed the Obamacare contraception mandate as “Exhibit A” in proving that the Obama administration is waging a no-so-secret “war on religion”. This is a tempest that is growing in intensity and more and more prominent, mostly politically conservative, religious leaders are jumping on board to make known their outrage. The narrative is that the government, when a Democrat is in charge, is trying to overturn the (risible) notion that America is a nation founded on “Judeo-Christian” morals and to destroy religious freedom. If I were cynical I might suggest that a great deal of the uproar over this issue has more to do with rallying the troops (aka voters) to drive turnout and hopefully remove the current President from office. If I were cynical….

Here is what I think. While I don’t think the current President is a very good President by virtually any measure and he certainly is not nearly as interested in appealing to the American evangelical voting block as his predecessor, I don’t really buy into the notion that he is waging a war against religious freedom. I believe that for one primary reason.

Government loves religion.

I really think that government actually loves religion, regardless of the form or creed, as long as religion plays along with the symbiotic relationship religion in the West has traditionally had with state. That relationship has nothing to do with forced coverage for contraception. Rather, the state gives preferential treatment to religious organizations and their employees and in return religious organizations promote civic morality, help to feed the poor, serve as a provider of marriages and funerals and generally help keep the society running smoothly. Religious people dutifully support the government’s wars and often send our sons of to fight, kill and die in those same wars. What is not to like if you are the government? For centuries the state and religion have had a fairly cordial symbiotic relationship, one that has been modified in America but in spite of our “freedom of religion” and the “separation of church and state”, the state and religion maintain a comfy working relationship. That doesn’t mean that the contraceptive coverage mandate is not bad law and simply unconstitutional because it is but not for 1st Amendment reasons or as a result of the “war on religious freedom”.

The real issue with this mandate is not a matter of religious freedom at all. It is a simple matter of a violation of federalism. The idea of the Federal government requiring private employers to offer a particular kind of health care, namely contraception which is hardly medically necessary (society seemed to chug along just fine before oral contraception and other forms of birth control were widely available), under what can only be described as a perversion of federalism and the interstate commerce clause would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The Federal government in my lifetime under Republican and Democratic Presidents alike would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers: a massive bureaucracy, huge land holdings, an enormous and ridiculously expensive standing military stationed and engaged in interventionist adventures around the world. huge budget deficits, instrusion into every aspect of our lives. It would be unthinkable. That is not my concern, at least not my primary concern.

The lesson for the church is one that I have not really heard from anyone. What we should take away from this whole debacle is that the church should not be in the position of also being an employer. Regardless of the good, real or perceived, that comes from the church sponsoring private businesses, the undeniable truth is that the church being an employer is fraught with issues, not least of which is being unequally yoked. Most churches would rightly avoid being in a partnership with the mormon church or with a mosque but in assuming the role and responsibility of the employer-employee relationship the church inherently becomes tacit partners with the state and thereby being unequally yoked with the same. When you employ people you are inextricably entangled with employment law, with wage and benefit issues, government regulations, etc. When you are an employer, you place yourself in a position that the church simply should not be in, namely a partner with the state. This is probably quite controversial to many people because church sponsored employers are so incredibly common. Most people “go to church” in a setting where the leader or leaders of the church are paid employees. Hospitals, schools, universities, denominational bureaucracies, on and on. The "church as employer" is unquestioned but I believe it is inherently problematic for the church and leads to predictable issues like we are seeing played out in the media right now.

What we are running into with the Obamacare contraception mandate kerfuffle is the necessary (and avoidable) result of entangling the mission of the church and the mission of the state. The church being entangled with the state doesn’t make the state more holy but it does taint the church with worldly concerns. Also predictable is the way that many people are exploiting this for their own benefit, whether for fund raising or to gather votes or other cynical reasons (for example, right on the front page of the American Center for Law and Justice are pleas to stop Obama’s war on religion, including the ubiquitous “Donate” link). I am sure that there are many, many people who are genuinely outraged by the contraception mandate but like anything else, when we allow politics to infiltrate the church, we need to follow the money trail. Who benefits most from this controversy? Who is going to see donations flow in? Answer those questions and you will see the issue with far more clarity.

We need to be very careful to be crystal clear who our allegiance is to and what our mission is. For the entire history of the church there have been people willing to exploit believers for their own benefit and nothing has changed in 2000 years.