Thursday, June 28, 2012

How New Is It?

Something I keep coming back to, and for good reason, is the newness of the New Covenant and how continually amazed I am that it gets such little attention in the church.

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain." But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:5-13)

Didja catch that? The part about it being new?

How new is it? Completely new. It is "not like the Old", not at all. Not a little different. No a slight variation. Not a different spin. NEW. Any doctrine, practice or theology in the church that doesn't keep that truth in sight, and indeed in the forefront, is going to be inherently flawed.

God's covenant with Adam and His covenant with Abraham are fulfilled in the New Covenant in Christ. His covenant with Noah is still in effect but that is a covenant more with Himself that we are witnesses to. His covenant with Moses is the Old Covenant spoken of that has become obsolete and has passed away. There is one covenant between God and His people, Jew and Gentile alike, and that is the New Covenant in Christ. Under that covenant He forgives our sins and we become His people.

So what does that mean for us as recipients and beneficiaries of the New Covenant when we read the Old Testament? It means that we absolutely must read the Old Testament in light of the New. When we fail to distinguish between the two, we end up replacing the realities of the New Covenant with the shadows of the Old. When someone starts defending a man-made tradition by appealing first to the Old Covenant, you should be hearing alarm bells going off. When people use Old Covenant reasoning to form practices in the New Covenant community of faith, you need to call them out on it.

That is not to suggest that the Old Testament which contains the record of the Old Covenant is irrelevant. It reveals to us both the sinful nature of man and the holiness of God. It shows who we are and how utterly unable and unwilling we are to please God. It demonstrates that the God of justice and wrath and holiness is also a God who loves and provides and forgives. It shows us that God makes promises and always, always, always keeps them. It is a glorious and critical record of God's dealing with His people. It just needs to be read through the lens of New Covenant.

A New Covenant people cannot and should not try to live under the obsolete Old Covenant.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not just telling but inviting

I read a short but very interesting post the other day by a fellow named Chris Lenshyn. Chris blogs at anabaptistly and his post, Evangelism: An Invitation to Participate, was fascinating.

Evangelism is often viewed as going out and telling people about Jesus. That is true. But it is also more than that. When we go to people with the Gospel we also are inviting those who respond to become part of His family. Chris writes...

To participate is the grand call of God in the life of Jesus. We must be careful then, as we share the gospel that we do not get caught up in mere words. If our words do not offer the mutual participation in the obedience to God in our particular place and time we become a loud, noisy gong. 

We cannot simply tell people about Jesus and when they respond ask them to politely sit and watch ministry going on for an indeterminate amount of time. Every Christian is called to minister and evangelize, making disciples who in turn make disciples.  Our task is not merely to tell people about Jesus but to also invite them to engage in His Kingdom mission, a mission that is plenty big enough for everyone to participate in. When we tell people about Jesus but then don't really expect or allow them to participate in the mission of God, restricting those functions to professionals and excusing their inaction because they just aren't "gifted" in that way, we aren't giving people the whole story. (On a side note we need to honor all of the callings of the church and not just a few. A young mother raising her kids is doing something that is every bit, and probably more, important than the brother who is leading a discussion on Sunday.)

I just had this conversation the other day with a friend. If our "local church" culture creates barriers to full fellowship and participation, how can we really evangelize? Going out and telling people about Jesus when the people you are telling are not really people you will accept until the meet a certain set of criteria makes evangelism pretty hard. That is a big reason why it seems that the more traditions a church has that make fellowship difficult (formal membership, extra-biblical standards, closed communion, etc.), the less they tend to evangelize, relying instead on poaching other already like-minded Christians. I saw a lot of this among Reformed churches and am seeing the same thing among "conservative" Anabaptist groups. Anyway, interesting thoughts. Preaching the Gospel is about more than getting out of hell in the future, it is about being a part of the mission of Christ here and now.

(HT: Robert Martin)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Blogging Through Hebrews 4:1-11

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

    “As I swore in my wrath,
    ‘They shall not enter my rest,’

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

    “They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

    “Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts.” 

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. - (Hebrews 4:1-11)

It has been a while since I did any blogging in Hebrews so I am eager to get back at it and this section of chapter 4 contains one of my favorite passages.

Chapter four is all about rest.

I love what the writer says here about rest and how he applies it back to the Sabbath day rest that prefigures the eternal rest in Christ. We often, erroneously in my opinion, try to apply Sunday as the new Sabbath and enforce all sorts of rules about what we can or can't do on Sunday. In all of our efforts to say don't do this and don't do that we end up working more on Sunday than any other day and completely miss the point! Sunday is so often a day of stress for Christians trying to please God by following man-made rules when Christ calls us to rest in Him.

The true Sabbath rest for Christians is in Christ, resting in Him, resting from our vain attempts to work to please God and resting in what He has already completely and finally pleased God the Father on our behalf.

It certainly can be hard to see that rest sometimes in a world that is groaning under the weight of sin. It is so tempting to try to do things under our own power and in our own way but Christ has already finished all the work that ever needs to be done. But when we understand the rest that Jesus calls His sheep into we should see a time of rest and peace that comes only when following Jesus and resting totally in Him.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Name Game

Felicity Dale has a series of posts up looking at some terms used synonymously to describe a similar thing: organic/simple/house church. I confess I often use them interchangeably as well. Felicity looks at all three in order:

What’s in a name? House church

What’s in a name? Simple church

What’s in a name? Different uses of the term, “organic”

I appreciate that Felicity is not as fond of the name "house church". As she writes:

Of the three interchangeable words used to describe churches–house, simple and organic, for various reasons, house church is the one I like least. Here’s why. Firstly it implies that these groups only meet in houses whereas they can meet anywhere–restaurants, parking lots, college dorms–anywhere life happens. The second reason is that  for historical reasons, people associate the term “house church” with an insular,  inward looking group of people,, reacting against the establishment, and convinced that house church is the only Scriptural way to meet.

That is quite right. While we plan to meet on our property, we are not going to meet in our house but our meeting can still be simple and organic. What is important is what happens and how the gathering occurs more than the specific location. Certainly location matters. Traditional church architecture is designed, and succeeds, in creating passivity by means of pews lined up facing a pulpit. Really though organic, family meetings of the church can happen anywhere. Check out all three of her posts, they are worth the read!

Send money to fight against blessings!

Someone linked this page on Facebook and I thought it was odd: Fight Christian Persecution. The page urges you to send money to the American Center for Law and Justice so they can oppose persecution. What does Scripture say about persecution?

"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12)

So if Jesus says that we are blessed when we are persecuted and that indeed being persecuted is a sign of faithfulness, should we form organizations and donate money to them to fight against the sign of blessing?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I think it is time

We have been resistant to going fully into the organic/simple/house church thing. I have been very leery of leaping into something out of concern that I am doing so out of pride. My preference has been to try to work from within existing groups that are more open to asking the hard questions and changing where necessary. That is has unfortunately proven futile again and again, leading to frustration and often contention that is not healthy for anyone. Most local churches, like any entrenched organization, are very change averse and religious traditions have an even deeper hold on people than other groups. After our most recent experience, a pretty bitter disappointment although not a surprising turn of events at all, we find ourselves ready to take the plunge.

If you read here at all you will know that my study of Scripture has clearly left me desiring something very different from what our religious culture has to offer. All of the different denominations and movements offer slightly different versions of the same basic thing. We have tried a number of iterations of more traditional churches but none have really captured the spirit of what we see in the New Testament and further none have really seemed interested in going down that path. In every group we have tried there are barriers, places they would not go, traditions they would not challenge, entrenched interests that would not budge. This far and no farther seems to be the motto.

You might be reading this and thinking that I am just a perpetually discontent person who needs to quit searching and just settle. Actually as I type this I sort of feel the same! Perhaps this is just a personality flaw on my part. Regardless I feel like this is where we have been heading for a long time.

What are we going to do on Sundays? I am not sure. I don’t really have an order of service and that is kind of the point! I would expect that sharing a meal and breaking bread would be the centerpiece of the gathering. Maybe a study and discussion of the church from the New Testament to draw together the pieces. I suppose some singing and definitely prayer. Really wherever God leads. That sounds scary. What happens if no one has anything to say? That might happen but that is also OK. We have this almost pathological need to fill silence with something no matter what that filler is. It seems to me that sometimes silence is OK, the whole be still and know that I am God kind of silence. I wouldn’t even have a problem if the church gathered and nothing super religious went on, just spending time talking and praying together would be fine as long as the end result is that Christians are encouraged, loved, edified and equipped for the work of ministry.

Practically speaking, we have a number of outbuildings on our property including a pretty nice workshop that I think will be perfect for a gathering of the church. It is a decent size with a heater when it gets colder and good lighting. I can easily see 6-7 families able to gather together without much trouble. If God blesses this work and it grows past that, we simply will have meetings in two locations instead of one. I never intend for this to be “The Arthur Show” or for us to meet in the same place or the same way every single Sunday (or even for certain on Sunday at all!)

I really believe that there is a desperate need in our area for a simple church gathering that permits people the room to mature in Christ and that still maintains good relationships and cooperation with other more traditional groups. Our area has a lot of people that are very gun shy about organized religion having come out of the Amish or other heavily authoritarian religious groups, fundamentalist or legalistic or “conservative” backgrounds. We need a gathering where people from different backgrounds can come together without preconceived barriers and grow together in Christ. We have made a lot of contacts with other local churches and feel quite comfortable in reaching out to them as needed. I am not sure how receptive they will be but that really isn’t up to me.

In the final analysis, the main reason for making this move is that I just don’t see an alternative. I don’t believe I can be a part of perpetuating a system that I think is unbiblical and harmful to the Kingdom mandate but I also don’t believe God is calling us to be a force for division and conflict. Our best option in my estimation is to seek to work with other Christians from more traditional contexts in the work of evangelism and mercy ministries here locally wherever and whenever we can while gathering in a simpler context. I have no idea what this is going to look like. We might be sitting around in a couple of weeks by ourselves.

House church simple church northeast Indiana fort wayne Hicksville Ohio Harlan Indiana spencerville st. joe butler auburn Indiana organic church participatory meeting woodburn home church

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


This is a pretty searing indictment of short-term mission trips,Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips , Here is the intro....
I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers.

I have seen or know of teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year but don't send a dime to help them otherwise; teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the best vacation Bible school material for evangelism when the national church can never bring people back to church unless they have the expensive Western material; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.

Not sure what I think about this, there are some legitimate points but he is short on alternatives. Apparently there is another post with some ways to make these trips more effective. Curious to read that, I share some of the concerns he has but I also cannot discount the transformational impact of these sorts of trips.

Give it a read and let me know what you think. Have you been on a short-term mission trip and if so do you agree? 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Subversive Act of Blogging

I try not to take my blogging too seriously as that is a disease that infects far too many bloggers. When I see people blog that they have a really important post coming up the next day I always chuckle. Blogging is in a lot of way the electronic equivalent of graffiti. Just as there are a lot of self-important graffiti artists, there are a lot of self-important bloggers and a lot of what shows up on the blogosphere is just junk. Many people, including me, would lump most of my writing in that category. So why blog? For me it is not just a creative outlet, although it certainly is, but it is also a subversive act.

I blog in two distinct but often parallel worlds and in both of them I see blogging serving as a subversive force that undercuts self-declared authority figures: politics and religion. In both worlds there has long been, even in this country, a cabal of self-appointed arbiters of what is or is not information that is approved for public consumption. When people form opinion and think through issues but only have a very limited and controlled perspective, they are not going to come up with conclusions outside of the predesigned positions.

In the world of American politics we have long been at the mercy of the media, to the point that the oblivious New York Times declared itself as the “newspaper of record” that provides “all the news that’s fit to print”. The breathtaking and undeserved arrogance of that is lost on those who blithely perpetuate this myth. For a very long time the American public was spoon-fed news and information from one ideological viewpoint and distributed by the three major networks (NBC, ABC and CBS for those who don’t realize that at one time we only had three networks) as well as a few large newspaper outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and other big city newspapers. Only the news they saw fit to disseminate made it to the public and what news did make it to the public was spun in a particular way, down to the pompous statement that closed out “Uncle Walter” Kronkite’s evening news report, “And that's the way it is” as if Kronkite, “the most trusted man in America” was the only credible judge for how things really were. For many years the priesthood of media declared from on high what the unwashed masses should hear. With the advent of cable news, first CNN which perpetuates the leftist slant on the news and then Fox News which is just the opposite, along with talk radio, the stranglehold on information was starting to break. With blogging the control once held by the media elite was shattered. Blog outlets like Breitbart, the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report often are way ahead of the “mainstream” media and offer an unfiltered view of the news, for good or for ill. The genie is out of the bottle and no matter how much it is decried by the former overlords of information, that is never going to change if the staff reductions across the world of newspapers are any indication.

In the world of religious discourse we have had an eerily similar caste of experts and professionals in the form of clergy and academics that decided what could or should be discussed. For nearly a thousand years that arbiter was the Roman Catholic Church and dissenting opinion was not only not permitted, it was met with violence in the form of persecution, torture and even church sanctioned murder. With the advent of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation the shackles came off to an extent but still the church was divided up into competing factions with each faction sponsoring their own subclass that dictated the discussion. With the advent of the internet and the ability to communicate instantly and search out an almost limitless pantheon of ideas, the common guy now has access to material that previously was only accessible in the library of a seminary or a rare book collector. When I first started to question the institutional church I searched some sort of phrase regarding paid clergy and stumbled across Alan Knox. From there a whole new world opened up. I have read so many different opinions and points of view. Many I have read, considered and discarded. Others I have thought through and adopted or modified. Few of these perspectives would have been available to me 10-15 years ago.

In both cases many of those who are most entrenched in the system and have the most at stake in terms of money, power and prestige are also the most vitriolic in their contempt for the common medium of blogging or other forms of subversive communication outside of the accepted streams.

Many detractors of blogging sneer that blogging is a lowest common denominator form of communication where any Tom, Dick or Harry with a computer is free to spew ignorance, hatred and outright lies at will. In part that is a valid opinion. There are plenty of crackpots and kooks on the internet. There are also plenty of tyrants, heretics and liars in the world of big media and big religion. We are faced with a choice between a Wild West of information where the heretic and orthodox have equal time and an authoritarian system where a central authority decides what information should be disseminated and which ideas are worth discussion.

As for me, I will always come down on the side of a free and open marketplace of ideas over an authoritarian system of thought police where only certain officially approved ideas are permitted. I would rather be able to pick and choose from a wide range of voices and to test ideas on my own than to allow a small group to determine what is or is not permitted. That is a messier way to be sure but a far more honest one. Blogging is what it is, warts and all, but it certainly is no less than a subversive means of communication that strikes at the heart of thought control, political correctness and elitism. Don’t make blogging more than it is but certainly don’t discount the importance of that particular voice in keeping the more mainstream voices honest and exposing people to a wide variety of opinions and information.

Sorry mom, what you do is meaningless

Yikes, I ran into an ugly morass of a feminist rant against women who let down the team by actually staying home and, the horror!, being a mother. Get a barf bag and click if you dare Elizabeth Wurtzel's screed in the Atlantic 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible. Under the headline we read Being a mother isn't a real job -- and the men who run the world know it. You pretty much know what you are going to get after that....

What follows is a litany of ugly and often crude self-loathing silliness from a woman who apparently thinks that all stay at home moms are the bimbo trophy wives of domineering rich guys who spend their days shopping and going to yoga while hubby is at work. Here is a sampling...

I am going to smack the next idiot who tells me that raising her children full time -- by which she really means going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits -- is her feminist choice. Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it? The whole point to begin with was that women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own. 
 And there really is only one kind of equality -- it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo -- and it's economic. If you can't pay your own rent, you are not an adult. You are a dependent.
I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton -- one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better -- but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed. I'm not much of a moralist -- I have absolutely no right to be -- but in the interest of doing what's right both for me personally and for women generally, I have been strict with myself about earning my keep.  
Because here's what happens when women go shopping at Chanel and get facials at Tracy Martyn when they should be wage-earning mensches: the war on women happens. 
Most mothers have jobs because they need or want the money and fulfillment; only in rare cases are they driven by glory. To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met -- none of whom do anything around the house -- live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria. Only in these major metropolises are there the kinds of jobs in finance and entertainment that allow for a family to live luxe on a single income. In any case, having forgotten everything but the lotus position, these women are the reason their husbands think all women are dumb, and I don't blame them.
Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren't all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn't really work. Yes, of course, it's something -- actually, it's something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let's face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it's a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it -- and until then, it's just a part of life. 

Yikes. Shockingly a woman who is a lawyer in New York City doesn't seem to get what life is like in the rest of the country where being a mother rather than an employee is hardly a glamorous life of pedicures and Chanel. Wouldn't have expected that. I found it especially odd that she seems to think that a leaving home mom somehow spends almost as much time with their kids as an "unemployed mother" (and the notion of that phrase being used to describe women who raise children is worth an entire post of it's own). Maybe if you count the time sleeping as "spending time" with your kids that makes some sense. Since kids leave for school and return from school at generally different times than mom, many children are not in school yet because they are under 5 and adding in the 1/4 of the year or more that kids are not in school, that idea is ridiculous on its face. Thus we have a reminder of the old saying that statistics never lie but liars use statistics.

As Robert VerBruggen writes in his rebuttal, Elizabeth Wurtzel Should Get Out More, even a half-hearted attempt to gather some facts rather than relying on anecdotal evidence gathered in an atypical city like New York would reveal stats like...

65 percent of married women who stay home with children under 18 years old live in households that earn less than $75,000 a year, according to the most recent data from the United States Census Bureau.

Turns out that being a stay at home mom is not the sole privilege of the wealthy but is actually a conscious choice made by many middle-class families that make up 2/3 of the stay at home mom population. Kind of deflates the whole premise of her article but hey that is OK because most of the people reading her article have the same myopic vision of American family life. Anything that affirms their worldview is fine and dandy.

While Ms. Wurtzel gets essentially nothing right in her entire essay, an impressive feat, there is one truth that is inadvertently written.  Being a mother isn't a job. It is a calling and a far more important one than being a lawyer, one that doesn't come with a pension or vacation time or a time clock. There is indeed a war on women and it has been going on for decades, a war against mothers that has led to generations of single mothers, millions of aborted children and an entire population of children who have raised themselves. Instead of berating women who choose to raise their children in a vain attempt to validate her own life, perhaps Ms. Wurtzel could try to encourage those who are striving to raise children in a culture that demeans and diminishes the value of home and family.

Questioning the World War II Trump Card

For a while now I have been browsing a fascinating webpage run by Ted Grimsrud, Peace Theology. Ted writes extensively from a Mennonite and pacifistic perspective on a wide range of issues and his essays are quite deep and engaging. Almost every essay I read is link worthy and I find myself being stretched as I consider what he is writing.My favorite thus far is a powerful rebuttal to the prevailing wisdom of World War II as the "good war", the war that is so often thrown out in by many Christians in response to the call of Christ to love our enemies as cover for active involvement and support of militarism. The argument is based in an alleged appeal to realism, a school of thought that says sure enemy love sounds good and all but sometimes the only way to defeat evil is with more evil. Grimsrud's essay, A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II. In this persuasive and compelling essay, Grimsrud presents an alternative to the narrative of World War II as the trump card war that is designed to provide cover for all other war.

Grimsrud presents a number of lines of critique ranging from the question of the justice of the war to whether the conduct of the war was just, given the latter stages of the war when civilians populations were intentionally targeted in places like Hiroshima and Dresden. While he does not address the root causes of the second World War which are inextricably tied to the American involvement in the first World War, he does lay out a plausible alternate narrative that raises troubling questions and pokes holes in the seemingly unassailable argument of World War II as the exception that overturns the rule.

Perhaps his best line of critique has to do with the impact of the aftermath of World War II on the identity of post-war America, namely the move to a state of perpetual preparation for war and when war didn't materialize, a conflict could always be created to provide cover for the never-ending militarization of America and trillions upon trillions spent on newer, better and deadlier armaments.

Americans, prior to World War II, would enter a war, mobilize, and then at war’s end demobilize and return to a civilian-centered, more democratic political economy. Not this time. Directly linked with Roosevelt’s desire for more unhindered power, American military leaders desired to leave behind the limits to military power that characterized the U.S. in the 1930s. Due to key unilateral presidential actions that did not pass through the legislative process, and without informing the public, the United States moved seemingly irrevocably from a democracy to a “national security state.”

That is a great observation. The pattern of mobilization, war and then demobilization stopped with World War II. My entire lifetime has been lived under this state of affairs. I have never known a demilitarized United States or really a time of peace. It has been one conflict after another. I was born in the waning years of Vietnam although I don't remember any of it. Throughout my childhood we lived in fear of a nuclear strike by the Commies. I recall vividly the Iranian hostage crisis when the Western installed puppet Shah was overthrown by the radical Islamists and the subsequent botched rescue attempt. That was the low point of American military prestige in my lifetime, the combination of the ignominious retreat from Vietnam and the Carter administration's vacillation between confused and weak inaction and incompetent action resulting in the death of eight American servicemen. With the election of Reagan the military in America began to ascend to a new position of prominence. A military build-up that bankrupted the Soviets and the irrelevant but welcome "victory" in Grenada had us back on the path to being the big dog. This set the stage for the first Iraq War, the response to September 11th and the state of perpetual war against a difficult to define enemy over the last decade that has done little to secure our nation, inflamed passions against the United States around the world, alienated one of the world's nuclear powers and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, most innocent civilians. Today the military has a position of prestige and prominence that is unpredented and dangerous.

In a nutshell....

Just because the other guy is wrong it doesn't always follow that you are right.

I recommend Ted Grimsrud's essay as a much needed and well researched alternative to the "good war" narrative of World War II that permeates the church. We need to think critically and theologically with a Kingdom mindset about World War II. We cannot check the Gospel at the door when faced with questions that lead to uncomfortable answers in our culture. We cannot be so afraid of being accused of being insufficiently patriotic or being "anti-American" that we can conceivably be accused of serving another master. World War II was a horror, a horror that saw the population of entire continents decimated, genocide on a massive scale, weapons of mass destruction and the intentional targeting of civilian populations. The aftermath was a world of instability and virtual enslavement of Eastern Europe, Russia and much of Southeast Asia by the allies of the "good guys" coupled with a state of perpetual militarization in America. Perhaps World War II really was the exception that validates "just war" from a Christian perspective, although I don't believe that is the case, but we certainly cannot just assume that a war where tens of millions of civilians died is somehow a trump card that overrides the central Gospel truth of enemy love. While you are reading this essay, check out some other pieces he has written. I find that webpage to be a wealth of important and thoughtful information on peace and non-resistance.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Unity Is Not Optional

Good thoughts from Eric yesterday on the crucial topic of unity, United in a Person. As Eric rightly points out we are united in a Person, namely the person of Christ who has called us and united us in Him. Those who exert so much effort and time in erecting barriers between believers, no matter how noble they perceive their efforts to be, are working at odds with Christ. How to make unity in fact and not just in theory happen is a hard question. So many of us are quite content with the way things are and it often feels like a one-sided effort but Christ has made it clear that our unity is not optional. God grant us all the humility to find ways to be united with one another in Him as we pursue His commission to be ambassadors of the King.

Friday, June 15, 2012

More thoughts from Hauerwas

I haven't had time for much reading lately but I did come across yet another interesting quote from Hauerwas. Check it out (emphasis mine)

In his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark Noll asks why the Civil War, in contrast to past wars, produced no “deep theological insights from either elites or the masses.” At least one of the reasons may be, as Noll amply documents, that religious thinkers in America assumed the people of America had a covenantal relationship with God. America was identified with the tribes of Israel in which it was assumed that the federal union “created a higher bond than the bond constituted by the unity of all Christian believers in the church.” This was combined with the confidence of the Enlightenment that the common man was capable of reading Scripture without guidance from any other authority, which meant that it was a simple matter to read God’s providential will for political events. The war did not force American Christians to deeper theological insights because the war was, for America, our church.

(Hauerwas, Stanley (2011-10-01). War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Kindle Locations 782-791). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.)

There are some very interesting insights in that statement but none more so than the notion, one that is alive and well, that there is a particular covenantal relationship between America as a people and God. I think this idea, unsupportable from either Scripture or history, nevertheless infects so much of the church. Religious Americans often invoke 2 Cor 7:14 and other passages of Scripture that are clearly directed at and specific to the ancient Old Covenant nation of Israel. Little wonder we think of America as being a choice and special land in God's eyes.

Some of his other statements, like war being for America our church, are more controversial but I think you would be hard pressed to find another modern nation that has her national identity so inextricably linked with warfare. A nation born of war, almost destroyed and eventually renewed by a civil war and a nation that rose above all others based on two wars fought in the former center of civilization, wars that destroyed Europe and leaving America relatively untouched. I cannot imagine another nation that is so nostalgic about the wars of the past and so enamoured with war in the present, nor a nation that is so incessantly at war.

For American Christians we must always be on watch that we do not elevate our unity in the federal union of American citizenship over our unity as one Body of Christ. Many people who purport to be Christians flat out refuse to even associate with other Christians but think nothing of going to war to kill and die for people who don't share our common salvation but do share a common earthly citizenship. That is something that troubles me more and more each day...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lies About Abortion

I got drawn into a frustrating and likely pointless debate last night on a news story in the Detroit News about recent legislation passed in Michigan to regulate abortion. As usual arguing with pro-abortion people is a futile excercise. For the most rabid pro-abortion advocates, abortion is a sacrament that cannot be questioned or challenged and many of the same tired arguments are rolled out again and again. Here are just a few that I ran into...

1. Abortion is a women's issue and men should have no say. That is like saying that since war is primarily fought by men and historically men make up the overwhelming percentage of combat fatalities, women should have no say in issues that involve warfare. Female Senators and Representatives should therefore abstain from voting on national security issues and women are not allowed to write or express an opinion about the military.

2. Pro-life people only care about children until they are born. This is another tired canard and operates under the assumption that "caring" about children equals supporting a system that fosters depedency and has trapped entire generations of Americans in poverty. Frankly I think the best thing we can do for children is to ensure that they have a chance to be born and that once they are born that they live in an environment where they can achieve and be independent. Many pro-life advocates are engaged in helping to mentor and materially support single mothers who have chosen life. Conversely I wonder how many people who make this argument ever lift a finger to help someone in need.

3. Abortionists like Planned Parenthood provide invaluable services to women that would go away if abortion were outlawed. This is a lesser of two evils argument. Women not having access to preventive care is assumed to be a greater evil than abortion as if we must hold our noses and accept abortion so that breast cancer screenings can move forward. I reject the notion that we must accept the evil to foster the good.

4. If we outlaw abortions those "unwanted" children will grow up to be criminals or other unproductive citizens and fill our prisons and welfare rolls. I am not a statistician but I am willing to be that if we look at the percentage of the American population that is incarcerated pre-Roe v Wade versus after, we will actually find that there is a much higher rate of incarceraton after all of those unwanted children are killed in the womb before they can grow up to be criminals. There is an unspoken but very real prejudice here that sees some people, and especially some racial groups, as breeders of criminals. That is not unsurprising given the racist views of early pro-abortion people like Margaret Sanger.

5. Pro-life people are hypocrites because they oppose abortion but support war and the death penalty. Well that one has some truth to it but there are plenty of pro-life people that support neither war or the death penalty, a position I feel is the only consistent one. Even so, hypocrisy on one issue doesn't negate the argument in favor of life in another area. To be honest there are some people on the left who oppose war and the death penalty but warmly support abortion, so the charges of hyporcisy go both ways.

Trying to have a rational discussion with people about this issue when those people don't have a Biblical view of the sancitity of life and do not see every human being imago dei, made in the image of God, is almost universally futile. Winning arguments isn't going to change hearts which I certainly recognize although I still feel compelled to make the case in the public sqaure.

For those of us who recognize that human life is precious, we should be compelled to do more than say "no" to those considering abortion. We must be willing to support and love those who say "yes" to life. That might take many forms but it absolutely demands that we be visible and loving.  I cannot say often enough that it is not enough to be anti-abortion, we must be truly pro-life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some Grim Stats...Or Not?

Ed Stetzer posted a lengthy article today on some apparently troubling stats about the Southern Baptist Convention, SBC 2011 Statistical Realities-- Facts Are Our Friends But These Are Not Very Friendly Facts. Ed looks at a number of statistical measures like baptisms (dropping), "membership" numbers (declining) and number of baptisms per member which purports to show how many Southern Baptists it takes to reach one person (a number which has been rising for years). With around two baptisms per 100 Southern Baptists, the message is clear. Southern Baptists are an evangelical denomination that doesn't evangelize. I would bet that a huge proportion of the 300,000 some baptisms performed each year are the children of Southern Baptists so that number looks even worse. By most any measure this looks like really bad news.

Is it? Well certainly there is a lot of negative statistical information here. The reality though? The SBC has millions of "members" who haven't attended services in years. We showed up on the membership list of a church in Kentucky for a number of years after we had moved away and after multiple notes letting them know that we were a) not in the state and b) part of other congregations. The SBC, since it insists on the archaic and extra-biblical tradition of membership rolls, needs to at least be honest about who is and is not a member. I would rather see the SBC with 10% of the "members" it has now if those "members" were actual born-again believers being equipped to evangelize.

The issue in the SBC with declining numbers and baptisms is really one of the culture catching up to reality. I don't think the SBC has ever had 16 million born-again believers at any time or even a fraction of that. As being religiously unaffiliated has become more sociably acceptable, fewer people see a need for "church". The bigger issue for SBC leaders with these declining numbers has to do with money. With thousands of buildings worth tens of billions of dollars, thousands more employees that rely on offerings at the local, state and national level, six seminaries that churn out vocational ministers and depend on a steady supply of churches to employ them and the rest of the machinery of the SBC, declining numbers on a trajectory like this are reason for concern or even outright panic. It certainly doesn't help when the old school faction starts an internal theological jihad against those scary Calvinists, a jihad that almost assuredly is going to drive the SBC numbers down further.

While the decline of the SBC is nowhere near as precipitous as the decline of "mainline" denominations, the changing religious landscape makes this decline inevitable. Instead of trying to cling to the past ways of doing things, Southern Baptists need to start thinking right now about how to minister in a far different America. Simply building more churches and hiring more professional ministers is not going to get it done. There needs to be a radical shift in the SBC, starting today. Otherwise the convention might as well save the ignominy of a gradual decline and just shut the doors right now.

Wounded in the hospital

When you go to a hospital because you are sick or injured, the last thing you would expect is to get hurt more. You go there for healing. The same should be true for the church. We should expect that in the church we will be encouraged, edified, perhaps even loved. Why then do so many people have so many scars from what we understand as "church"?

I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy/pregnancy resource center each week, sometimes teaching classes and regularly meeting with the male half of the often unplanned pregnancy. In that ministry, which overall is a great one and one that I wish more Christians would get involved in as it is a “front line” ministry, I meet with a lot of people who are not generally in the church culture and are in desperate need of the Gospel. Instead of the normal crowd I talk to, people who are generally deeply involved in the church culture and can say the right things and act the right way, these are people who are unlikely to ever darken the door of a church building on a Sunday morning.

As part of our initial meeting with men (and women with the female volunteers) we try to have a discussion about their religious background, so we can get a feel for where they are and hopefully get an opportunity to share the Gospel or at least set the groundwork for doing so. What I hear from people over and over, keeping in mind that a large percentage of people I talk to are not Christians, is that they have some sort of prior religious background but few of them are terribly interested in “church”. A decent percentage of them have had a pretty negative experience and that negative experience creates an additional barrier to sharing the Gospel with them.

This troubles me and it should trouble you.

There seems to be two very different views of “church” in our culture. For those who are Christians or at least nominally religious and moral people, church as we know it is a comfortable, safe place. We know what is expected of us (very little), we know what we are going to get and no one is going to say or do anything that makes us uncomfortable. It is again safe, it is predictable and it is easy. Church as we know it reinforces our own personal moral beliefs, often bolsters our political viewpoint and is a way to be surrounded by similar people. My family can walk into virtually any Protestant church and feel more or less comfortable, other than the stir we cause with a family our size.

For those outside of the church (also known as the people we are called to reach with the Gospel), “church” is a word that carries a lot of baggage and if we are honest a lot of that negative baggage is completely deserved. I think some of the internal criticism that is hurled at the church is overblown and politically or agenda motivated but conversely a lot of the perception has a basis and in this world we live in perception is often reality. The church is seen as a place of judgment, of hypocrisy, of politics, of money grubbing. It is a place where people who perceive that they are messed up, unlike the people in church who are messed up but hide it well, and who wants to go somewhere you have had a negative experience, you feel out of place and wonder if people are judging you while trying not to stare.

So there is a major disconnect and along with that there is a major problem, namely that the church sees the Sunday morning gathering as the primary evangelism tool. The church is hugely, and may I add to a dangerous extent overly, dependent on unbelievers “coming to church” to hear “preaching”. Many, many people that we need to reach are people who have some experience with church and have been hurt in some way. Telling them to “come to church” when that is precisely the place they were wounded in the first place is a fool’s errand, not to mention without any sort of Scriptural precedent.

There are two major issues I see reflected in the real lives of real people. First, the gathered church cannot be all things to all people. If we would operate the church in such a way as to focus on equipping Christians to get out and minister and preach to people instead of attending, financing and observing we would have hopefully more Christians out making disciples instead of assuming that disciples will get made by 45 minute sermons. Trying to combine the church gathering to present the Gospel to the lost and equip the believer at the same time doesn’t work. Proof positive of that reality is all around us in our highly religious but Gospel vacant culture. The church is a place to equip and send, not gather and lecture.

My other concern is that far too many people raised in the church are carrying around wounds that drive them away. I understand that the church needs standards. “Anything goes!” is not the image we get from Paul’s letters to the church. The church also needs to be wary of wolves. I get that. I also don’t think that the people I talk to who are wounded are the result of a sinner lovingly but firmly confronted with the Gospel but rather are people who have been attacked by hypocrites and busybodies from within the very body that is supposed to support one another. This is especially true when it comes to children, children who have often never been truly evangelized and are often assumed to be Christians but aren’t and are then expected to “act” like a good Christian when they are not, i.e. the VeggieTales syndrome. When kids who are treated as Christians based on parentage are expected to follow a certain moral pattern associated with being Western Christians, they invariably fail. The disappoint family and those they are taught to respect and they associate that bitter disappointment with Christianity. Little wonder church attendance is dropping like a stone and no one can seem to figure out why.

There are so many reasons we need to recapture the Biblical purpose of the church and none are more pressing than the very real scars what we call church leaves on so many people that we are called to reach. We are perpetuating a problem that is working at odds with the very purpose of the church and the calling of Christians. This must change. The enemy is already on the attack, we don't need to aid him with self-inflicted wounds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My goat either ate four bowling balls

...or she is ready to kid any time now. Hoping for triplets!

Repent and believe..and....

And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit after you become a member of our church and start to act and look like a proper Christian. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day after the local church voted to accept them as members about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:38-41 re-mix)

Do we add an unspoken set of rules to our evangelism? Do we place additional expectations on Christians, maybe not overtly but certainly implied, that we have a particular culture that we expect them to conform to? I think that we do and I am sure I have contributed to this. To make it more confusing there are a myriad of very different church cultures from local church to local church and also by geographic region and ethnic background. In essence what we are preaching is not "Christ and Him crucified", it is "Christ and Him crucified and our church culture".

When we go to the world and preach Christ, we do so in the expectation that (whatever your soteriology) some people will respond. Those people will not be out of the box American Christians (and we probably don't want them to be!). They might be former drug users or alcoholics. They might come from broken homes. We need to give people the grace and the room to grow in Christ and support them in that process, not expect that they will conform to us in every respect before they become "one of us". Every Christian is one of us the moment they are born-again. That is not my rule, that is His.

Even people who have been Christians for a long time are going to be at different stages of their maturation in the faith. It is not like we have any consensus on...well on much of anything, but boy do we try to make people conform to us. Please note there is a difference between taking a stand and erecting a wall. I can take a stand that I think wives should cover their heads and even argue in favor of that practice without saying that I will only fellowship with families where wives cover their heads. Being willing to extend grace to others and welcome them as the family members that they in fact already are is not compromising my principled positions, it is recognizing that adoption and unity in Christ is of paramount importance.

We also need the humility to recognize that we probably don't have everything figured out quite as much as we think we do. I only need to look at my blog over the years to see that as I submit and study scripture, I find myself modifying positions. I hope that I am doing so in a way that moves away from external cultural piety and into a more authentic walk as a follower of Christ rather than just waffling.

I am not saying that doctrine and practice are unimportant. I just don't think that it is my calling or my right to dictate to people the terms under which I will accept them. In fact I am pretty sure that one of the most preeminent doctrines, a first tier, non-negotiable doctrine, is that God has ordained the conditions for accepting us and that we are obligated to freely accept those that He has already accepted.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Hand Sanitizer Cult

I got a kick out of this from NPR this morning, To Sniff Out Childhood Allergies, Researchers Head To The Farm. Turns out that researchers have found that kids who go outside, get dirty, play with animals, etc. end up not getting allergies. As I listened I chuckled, especially during this part....

Studies show children who live on farms have low rates of allergies. Dr. Mark Holbreich, an allergist in Indianapolis and a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, calls it "the farm effect."

Holbreich recently did a study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which found very low rates of allergies among Amish children living on farms in Indiana. He says the reason may be because the children get exposed very early on to dirty environments, and to a variety of dust and germs. Even young kids are often in the barn, working with animals, and drinking raw milk.

"We think there's something about milk," Holbreich says. "That's key, along with exposure to large animals, particularly cows."

Scientists don't know exactly what it is in raw milk, or in the barn, or on the cows, that helps boost the immune system. They're researching that now. But Holbreich cautions against drinking raw milk or serving it to your child. It contains too many dangerous, disease-causing bacteria.

So raw milk seems to help prevent the development of allergies but you shouldn't drink it. Huh? I am thinking that once we start milking our cow I will need to add "don't drink raw milk" to the list of "stuff that 'experts' tell me I shouldn't do but that I do anyway".

Later it talks about a possible link to antibiotic use and then they say that antibiotics are used to mitigate the symptoms. Um, I am not a doctor but maybe that is part of the problem?

We live in a society that over-medicates for every sniffle, slathers sanitizer on every surface and thinks that dirt is likely to kill children on contact. I choose not to participate in that. Kids getting dirty, playing outside, being exposed to the world they live in might not be culturally acceptable but it just might make for healthier children.

We are family...aren't we?

I posted this tweet yesterday.

What does that mean? There is a lot of background and emotion that comes with that tweet. Twitter is a poor place to make a statement but I wanted to flesh that thought out on my blog because it deserves more than a tweet. It is a common theme here but one that is so important that it really bears repeating again and again.

Take away all of the rituals and traditions and culture and what is the church? It is not a bunch of "got it together", all figured out people. The church is a collection of sinners, misfits and messed-up people from all sort of backgrounds, all with lots of baggage (some is more obvious than others but it is universal) and all on different stages in our walk with Christ. No one was born as a regenerate believer in Christ. You aren't a Christian because you were baptized as an infant (or an adult for that matter). You aren't a Christian because you dress a certain way or have gone to church all of your life or exhibit all sorts of externally pious behavior. The only thing that makes us a Christian is being born-again. That is the one thing that is universally true among the Body of Christ and always has been. The problem starts when we look around and see a bunch of other people and realize that we are all different. So what to do?

Well some 1700 years ago there was a seismic change when the church went from enemies of the state to the state religion of choice after Constantine's famous "conversion". From that point forward, for the next 1200 or so years, what was understood to be the church dealt with differences by an authoritarian forced conformity where everyone was lumped into one religious organization and dissent was ruthlessly crushed. In the 16th century things started to change with Martin Luther and the start of the Protestant Reformation followed in short order by the Radical Reformation. With the forced universal conformity broken, Christians were free to relate to one another in community in spite of, and even rejoicing in, our differences. So what we did was divide ourselves up into competing denominations and local churches that erected barriers to fellowship, leading to division and often bloodshed.

When we treat Christians from outside of our immediate "local church" as second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God, people to be approached with caution until we decide they have passed the sniff test we have devised, we make a lie of all of the places where Scripture describes us as being adopted and accepted, where Jesus prays for unity, where we read that there is one faith and one body. We say to God that perhaps He was mistaken or that just because He has accepted someone doesn't mean much to us, sort of like God is the HR generalist that does the initial screening but we reserve the right to do the final interview before accepting someone. Should our standard of acceptance really be higher than God's and by assuming that role of final arbiter are we not placing ourselves in a position of second guessing and even overriding God? I can think of few sins in the Bible that have more danger inherent in them than trying to override God.

The church is called to be disciples that make disciples that make disciples. We are not called to declare to people the terms under which we will accept them, especially since God has already made that determination. Authoritarian leadership, "closed communion", systems of "church membership", doctrinal statements and creeds, all are designed to erect barriers between one group of Christians and another. No matter how many plastic smiles we put on and polite handshakes we exchange the reality is that we are perpetuating a centuries old system that puts Christian at odds with other Christians, a system that makes people feel like second-class citizens if they fail or refuse to conform.

Oddly enough, Alan Knox posted something about this just today, Refuse to try to control others among the church. Alan says that trying to control people is not the calling of a leader and those who are leaders should instead be especially cautious about having everything their own way...

So, we only have a few choices: 1) We try to control others and make them do what we think is best. 2) We separate from those who refuse to do what we think is best. 3) We live with one another in our imperfections continuing to help one another follow Jesus Christ and mature in him.

That kind of captures it. The obvious preferred path is number three but you can run into a problem when you are willing to live with imperfections but others are not willing to live with yours. That is a recipe for an unhealthy relationship. I sound like a broken record but I am more interested in being with a group of Christians, wherever their walk with Christ, that are less interested in making sure that everyone subscribes to the same doctrinal statements or uses the same translation of the Bible or dresses the same than they are in encouraging others, ministering alongside others and loving one another.

If we are not going to treat one another like family we should stop calling each other family.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I will give you three guesses...

Father’s Day Gift Idea

I don't give a hoot about Father's Day (or any other made up holidays designed to guilt us into buying stuff) but if you are looking for something to buy for dad, check out this Father’s Day Gift Idea

Friday, June 08, 2012

A Modest(y) Proposal

Eric Carpenter has opened a seasonally appropriate can of worms on the topic of modesty, more specifically the wearing of bikini swimwear by Christian women. His post, Bikinis? , started as a Facebook post and drew quite a few comments. His post is brief but certain to draw a lot of comments because as he says there are quite a few professing Christians who fervently defend the alleged “right” to wear revealing swimwear.

My stance on this issue is probably not much of a surprise. I find it incomprehensible that a woman who claims to be a follower of Christ would intentionally choose to go out in public wearing next to nothing to be ogled by strangers, exposing herself in a way that is appropriate only within the bounds of marriage. Even more boggling to the mind is that parents seem OK with their young daughters wearing bikinis out in public to be subjected to the leering of strangers. Context aside, a bikini is functionally not covering more than underwear but women seem to think nothing of wearing a bikini to the beach. Of course we also live in a culture where you can’t really watch TV for very long without being subjected to a Victoria’s Secret commercial with women in various states of undress and many women, even in semi-professional workplaces, seem oblivious in their clothing choices that makes Victoria’s Secret into public knowledge.

This question reminds me of the events of 2009 when beauty pageant contestant and church going Carrie Prejean was asked a loaded question about “gay marriage” during the Ms. USA pageant, an event featuring her and the other young women sauntering about in high heels and bikinis for the prurient pleasure of viewers. She gave a clumsy defense of traditional marriage in response to a loaded question from a judge with an agenda and subsequently came in second place, a snub attributed to her defenders as the result of standing up for traditional values (I blogged about this event here). She immediately became something of a celebrity in the evangelical culture.

For a short time, Ms. Prejean was exalted as a role-model and a champion of Biblical values and courage. Then the revelations came out of some topless photos of her done “professionally” as well as some video footage of an unsavory sort and a lawsuit over a loan for her breast implants and she sort of faded away, although not before penning a book, Still Standing. The irony is that when she clumsily stated her opposition to “gay marriage” she was in a pageant where she was wearing not a whole lot more than she was in her topless photos. Her bathing suit as I recall from the endless footage shown on TV about the issue was barely there and designed to accentuate her artificially enhanced chest. Not exactly the sort of traditional values that people traditionally understand but the hypocrisy on display was missed by most of the evangelical community. A woman on stage in front of millions wearing an outfit that leaves 90% of her body exposed is not exactly living out the spirit of 1 Tim 2:9. Yet many Christians seemed oblivious to raising her up as a champion in a tiny bikini but tossing her aside for wearing slightly less.

Modesty in attire is an issue that gets bandied about in the church a lot but with virtually no consensus. I don’t think many Christians would say that modesty is irrelevant given the Biblical evidence but what that means is pretty broad. Does it mean ankle length dresses and no pants? Does it mean almost anything goes under the banner of “Christian liberty”? Is it simply an individual issue that doesn’t get addressed in the church? We really need to have serious conversations about this because it definitely impacts how the world sees us. If the world sees us talking about sin and redemption but then walking around in a bikini our message gets lost in the rightful accusation of hypocrisy. Run over to Eric’s post and jump in the discussion, I hope it will provide light and not just heat.

Pondering Pulpits

I was part of a pretty intense conversation this week regarding pulpits. It was actually "in person" rather than online which is kind of unusual. Pulpits are such a common part of the church experience in the West that they are not given much thought at all. We assume that the most important messages in the church come from pulpits and often we see people bemoaning that this is not heard from the pulpit or that is not heard from the pulpit. A church without a pulpit is unthinkable. Needless to say, I disagree and at  minimum think we need to talk about this unique piece of furniture.

There are three schools of thought when it comes to pulpits in the church.

1) Pulpits are a sacred, reserved space for the “preaching of the Word” by those in the proper ordained position of authority. Only pastors or perhaps elders are permitted to use pulpits. When a man steps up to the pulpit, he is tasked with proclaiming the oracles of God in a unique sense and it is in a very real sense a sacred space.

2) The pulpit as practical piece of furniture. Pulpits and the platform they typically are set on, elevating the speaker above the audience, are little more than a pragmatic solution allowing the audience to better see and hear the speaker and in turn providing the speaker a place to lay out notes, a glass of water perhaps and providing a comfortable place to speak.

3) The pulpit as symbol of hierarchy. The pulpit serves as a barrier between the speaker and the rest of the church, creating a very real perception of hierarchical structure in the church and making a mockery of the notion of leaders as servants. Pulpits are a hold over from Roman Catholicism and have no place in the church. Pulpits imply a superior-inferior relationship within the church.

The first school of thought is to me the most dangerous and unbiblical. The notion of a physical space reserved for a particular class of men smacks of the Old Covenant priesthood which has been made obsolete and inappropriate in the New Covenant church. It is an ugly left over unreformed from the Reformation period and a remnant of the medieval Roman church and therefore has no place in a one-anothering church.

The second position might seem to make sense but only if we assume that a primary function of the gathered church is to listen to a speaker. That is perfectly within the cultural conditioning most of us have received for what it means to be “the church” but it is without command or example in the Scriptures. While most of the church just assumes that a monologue talk, generally called a sermon and described as the act of “preaching’, is the focus of the gathered church, I believe that the New Testament describes something more akin to a family gathering, a group of friends, brothers and sisters in fact, meeting to encourage and exhort one another rather than a weekly meeting to listen to a speaker. In such a meeting a pulpit becomes at best superfluous and at worst an impediment.

No surprise, I fall into the third category although I once was in the first. For me, pulpits and pews go hand in hand and neither has precedence or command from the New Testament. Not only is the Bible silent on the issue but the perception of the pulpit and pew is of one man over the rest. Look at the picture to the left. The picture is of the pulpit where John Calvin regularly delivered sermons, an ornate perch that he would ascend to before speaking, looking down on the masses below. We rarely see pulpits like this anymore but merely moving them down from the wall and onto a raised platform does little to change the connotation. Pulpits are one and the same with other distinctive trappings of clericalism like grandiose titles (“Right Reverend”), clerical garb like vestments and collars and demands of privilege and deference based on education and ordination. A cleric without a collar is still a cleric.

I am curious what readers think. I assume not many people that might read this fall into the first school of thought (but I would like to hear from you) but many likely fall into the second and third. Is this a big issue or not? Does the presence of the pulpit carry a connotation of authoritarianism and hierarchy or is it just a convenient piece of furniture that enhances the ability of the speaker to convey a message and the audience to receive it? Are pulpits necessary in the church, healthy for the church, even appropriate at all in the church?

As a fun aside, check out Spurgeon’s thoughts on pulpits, no one could turn a phrase quite like CHS!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Favorite blog line of the day

I was scanning Dave Black's blog and came across this line, referring to the impending election of the first black President of the SBC...

I don't know about you, but I long to see a new cross-cultural Pentecost in place of the current ecclesiastical Babel. 

Oh that is good stuff. One of the things that is interesting about Pentecost is how diverse the crowd was...

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians--we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (Act 2:5-11)

That is just amazing! The providential and sovereign hand of God was over each one of these men from around the world, bringing them all together to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Not one person was there by accident.The message of the Gospel and the practice of the church is designed to tear down walls and barriers among believers. We once were not a people but now we are God's people (1 Peter 2:10). There is one body, one bread (1 Cor 10:16-17). The cross has made those who were once enemies into something new, not just no longer enemies but eternally family. What have we done with that?

Well, we have done our best to alternately try to force conformity and a false unity by compulsion, fear, control and violence and then on the other hand we have divided ourselves over and over again into competing factions, bunkered up behind the four walls of our buildings and shielded with "membership", clergy and doctrinal statements to keep the wrong sorts out and the right sorts in. I think the comparison to Babel is an apt one. We all seem to be speaking different messages all the time and creating a cacophony of competing priorities, none of which get to the heart of the mission of the church. Few of us ask any questions, challenge any traditions or are willing to bend.

Like Dave, I am longing for a day of Pentecost in the church were Baptists and Methodists, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Lutherans all count the Gospel as more important than their distinctives and see unity as a primary doctrine worthy of our concern. There are plenty of people hurting and lost without Christ, plenty of orphans to fee and widows to visit, plenty of hungry to feed and prisoners to see. There is no need for us to fight and squabble, there is plenty to go around.

Why America Makes Boring Atheists

Really when you get past the media and the noise, the atheist population in America is pretty weak and boring.  It is by and large a pretty intellectually lazy group, mostly given to slurs and silly attacks more than intellectual engagement. It can be easy

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. 

- Hauerwas, Stanley, War and the American Difference (Kindle Location 491)

Of all of the lines I have highlighted in this book, that one takes the cake. What an indictment and how very true, sadly enough. Also interesting that we have a citation convention for e-books that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago....anyway. I think the response to the question of why the church is not persecuted here is often that this is a choice and special land, founded as a "Christian nation" and so we need to constantly be on guard and fighting to protect that heritage. I personally deny the very notion of a "Christian nation" so what we are trying to protect/recover is a moralistic religious culture that kept people in line.

Do American churchgoers really not believe in God so much as they believe in belief?\ Have we turned justification by faith alone into a perversion where transformed lives and regenerate hearts has been replaced by external piety and public morality? Is the "god" that is worshiped by most Americans little more than an American deity with Biblical language? I think that a case can be made for that. I have long felt that we face no persecution in America because, to paraphrase Hauerwas, the "god" we claim to worship just isn't interesting enough to oppose. I likewise get what he is saying re: belief in belief. Our testimony, our verbal affirmation, church membership/attendance, etc. are what many people place their hope in, not so much in a Savior that calls them to come and die to self. Many people believe in the American moral and civic religion rather than Christ. That is not intended to be a haughty statement that I have it all figured out but a call to the real church scattered throughout this land that our task is far more difficult than we have been led to believe.

What do you think? Is he overstating his case? Am I?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Three years later

Three years ago I wrote this post, remembering D-Day and the hundreds of thousands of young men on both sides sent to kill one another by someone else. What an incredible loss of life, men in the late teens and early twenties dumped into the ocean to storm a beach held by other men in the late teens and early twenties. A whole generation of young men engaged in a war that devastated an entire continent and left millions dead. I don't look back with nostalgia on this day but rather as a stark reminder of the depravity of man that is so often expressed in the bodies of young men dying for this cause or that cause. The three years since I posted this have been years when I have been transformed by the words of Christ regarding love of enemy and humble sacrifice. Patriotic nostalgia has been replaced with sadness. I don't think we will be watching Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers today.

Some still remember...

65 years ago today, June 6, 1944 thousands of young men waded ashore on D-Day. Young men, in their late teens and early twenties, men who should have been getting jobs, going to school, enjoying their youth instead signed up to free Europe from the Nazi scourge. I cannot imagine what it was like to sit in those landing craft at an age when I was in college, clutching a rifle and watching the shore get closer. A shore littered with obstacles, barbed wire and overlooked by battle hardened Nazi soldiers behind machine guns.

These young men, many who lost their lives, started the end of the war in taking and holding that beach. Because of their sacrifice and courage, the Nazis were overthrown and Europe was freed. All of Europe, and America and the world owe a debt of gratitude to these men. Without these men, one teenager with a rifle at a time, setting aside the urge to flee or hide, the world would be a far different place.

To those who served, at D-Day and everywhere else, a nation still remembers and says: Thank you.

An inevitable schism?

A storm is brewing in the Southern Baptist Convention. Not a storm over women pastors or gay marriage or evolution or Biblical inerrancy. This storm is over the centuries old debate about Calvinism. It has been coming for a long time, and like many major engagements it has had a series of skirmishes leading up to the main event. As someone who used to be part of Southern Baptists churches and church life, I watch these events from afar with a mixture of fascination and sadness. Many peripheral players have been poking at this issue for a decade or more but recently a shot across the bow has prompted a more serious response and a path that I am afraid only ends one way .

Recently a manifesto of sort was published by a number of well known and respected Southern Baptist leaders, men like Malcolm Yarnell, Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines as well as other characters like Emir Caner, brother of disgraced former anti-Calvinist crusader Ergun Caner. The manifesto is rather grandiosely titled A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation and is really just a statement of why Southern Baptists have allegedly traditionally understood God's plan of salvation in a way that is, well it is not Calvinist.

The responses have been fast and furious. Nothing is quite like a bunch of Calvinists who feel disenfranchised responding on the internet! Of those responses, two stand out. Tom Ascol of Founders Ministry has been putting a comprehensive response together and Al Mohler weighed in this morning with a sober piece that warns of the danger of creating theological traibalism within a group, a warning that he rightly applies to both Calvinst and non-Calvinist alike. These are important issues to be sure but not issues that should divide us from one another and distract from our common mission.

Unfortunately I don't see this as a friendly debate. There are lines being drawn and words being said that cannot be undone. As someone who is more clearly sympathetic with the Calvinist camp and as someone who has been a part of the SBC, I have long felt there is something of a witch hunt going on.  In my opinion the instigators have almost always been on the non-Calvinist side. I don't think I have heard any Reformed Southern Baptists pushing to drive non-Calvinists out of the convention or muzzle them but plenty of that talk coming from the Arminian side.  I think I somewhat understand why. As the "Conservative Resurgence" wound down and Southern Baptists found themselves with a Bible everyone affirmed, it wasn't long before issues of interpretation started springing up. While more old school capital "S" Southern Baptists are generally Arminian at best, the younger men coming up are more and more Reformed, thanks in large part to the influence of Al Mohler at Southern Seminary and other notable leaders like John Piper and John MacArthur. There is a disconnect between the young, enthusiastic and zealous (often overly so) Calvinists who are filling the clerical ranks in the SBC and the more traditional older men who sit in the positions of power and the pulpits of the biggest and most prosperous churches.  This conflict I believe can only end one way, ultimately a functional if not a overt split of the Southern Baptist Convention followed by unseemly squabbling over the vast wealth of the SBC.

As a sideline observer I watch this with a great deal of sadness and headshaking. When you look at the vast resources of the SBC in terms of seminaries, local churches, academic powerhouses, money and most of all people and think about those resources being used to start and refute a pogrom of purging over an admittedly important theological issue but one that does not rise to the level of the Gospel, it is nothing short of tragic. When people bemoan the powerlessness and the irrelevance of the church in America, events like this are Exhibit A. The lost among us are really not interested in the doctrine of God's sovereignty in salvation or man's free will. They are watching us and what they see all too often are a people who fight and squabble and split and hate one another . When the world looks at us, they certainly aren't seeing Jesus and they likewise don't see anything they are interested in learning more about. Who can blame them? It is not the foolishness of the cross they reject, it is the pride and foolishness of man that they reject and rightly so.

There was a time not too long ago that I would have been out on the electronic front lines waving the banner for Reformed theology, smiting Arminians with righteous fury. Those days are past and I repent of the pride that drove that attitude. I make no apology for affirming what I firmly believe is the clear witness of Scripture of the sovereign election, predestinating, effectual calling and keeping of the elect. I also make no apology to others who affirm these truths when I say I would rather stand side by side in the work of ministry to help the poor and reach the lost with an Arminian than sit around talking theology with a Calvinist who agrees with me safely surrounded by the walls of a "church".  My voice holds no weight in the Southern Baptist Convention but I plead with my brothers who do have a voice to stop the infighting before it goes too far. The SBC has plenty of issues and problems but a divided SBC is not going to improve our witness to a lost and dying world in desperate need to hear about the Lamb who was slain and rose again. Brothers I humbly ask you to step back from the brink before it is too late.