Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Review: Elders in the Life of the Church

If there is a topic that needs a lot more study and discussion in the church, it is elders. What are they for?
How do they function? How should they be chosen? How many should a local congregation have? Many churchgoers have no idea what elders are all about or that they appear so frequently in the New Testament and our lack of understanding is crippling to much of the church.

Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker attempt to answer these questions from a decidedly baptistic perspective in their joint effort, Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership from Kregel Publications. That they are Baptists is critical to understand as elders are usually thought of as a "Presbyterian thing". Many Baptist, especially Southern Baptist, churches operate with a "Senior Pastor and a bunch of deacons" style of governance, so the advocacy for a plural elders style is quite unusual and often seen as a threat. They tackle the topic with a back and forth style, alternating chapters between Phil and Matt with Phil penning more "theoretical" chapters that dig into the Scriptures more heavily with Matt providing more "practical" chapters on how this looks at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C. where he is on staff and home to Mark Dever and 9 Marks Ministries. Phil Newton is someone I am quite familiar with, back in the day when I was doing a series "preaching" through the book of Acts I turned to his series on Acts before I completed a single sermon as he had far and away the best treatment of the book from a Reformed and Baptist perspective. I am pretty familiar with Matt as well, mostly from disagreeing with what he publishes online! More on that in a moment. The "back and forth" style rarely works well but I thought this book pulled it off. I did find myself starting to skim Matt's chapters to get back to Phil but even so the transitions were pretty smooth. Even a cursory reading would show that these two brothers in Christ are earnest and serious about this topic and did a great job in making their argument. However, even a great argument can be wrong on many levels.

This is a book I would summarize as "oh so close and yet so far away". So close because both Matt and Phil (mostly Phil as he has the more substantive chapters) understand the importance of elders and have done the hard work of both deeply researching this topic from Scripture as well as living out life in a plural elder setting. So far away because they simply seem incapable or perhaps unwilling to step away from the institutional church paradigm. They never address, much less challenge, the notion that some elders are "called to preach", i.e. deliver a weekly sermon or two, and that they should be paid while others should labor in the church free of charge like Paul. They assume that a paid "senior pastor" can be "first among equals" when that very idea is self-contradictory. I can't imagine anyone at Capitol Hill Baptist confusing who has more authority, some random guy on the elder board or famous pastor Mark Dever. So much of the book caused me to furiously jot notes in the margins to the point that I found myself looking more for what was wrong than what they were trying to say. Elders in the church should be the very antithesis of the institutional style of religion rather than key players in perpetuating the system.

The strongest chapter by far was the last full chapter on the topic of Leadership Development in Hard Places, looking at elders in the church in the "less Christian" parts of the world where the supposed "benefits" of our Western religious system (like professional clerical training via seminaries) are absent. The ideas presented in this chapter were largely on target. There is a real danger in trying to replicate Western style "church" in developing nations where it makes no sense. When I was in Haiti it was jarring to see a pastor wearing a suit and tie when in their culture that was so incredibly out of place. On the other hand they also recognize the serious danger of the frenetic church planting movement, where "converts" by the hundreds are made and left to fend for themselves, devolving inevitably into syncretism and heresy. Recognizing, training and supporting indigenous leaders is critical to healthy evangelism but "spent three months ministering alongside 5 men to help them understand critical doctrines" is not nearly as sexy as "487 baptized in one day!" reports back to the states, and those reports are what keep the money flowing.

If you are comfortable with the institutional church paradigm and curious about elders, especially in a plural setting, you will find this book very useful. I would rather see a plural elder led institutional church where godly men labor side by side in the ministry than I would a single pastor "one man show" institutional church. Plural elders is a step in the right direction. Having said that I believe the same study methods used to arrive at plural elders, taken to their natural conclusion, lead one to reject institutionalism as a man-made religious invention. Not many who read this book will agree and sadly not many who reject institutionalism in the church will read this book. In spite of the flaws it is still a well researched and thought-out book. As the church we need more discussion and study on this topic so my appreciation goes out to both Matt and Phil for their effort.

Perhaps Dave Black could pen a new book on this very topic as a follow-up to his Seven Marks of a New Testament Church? What say you Dr. Black?!

I received a copy of Elders in the Life of the Church free of charge and with no compensation from Kregal Academic in return for publishing an unbiased review.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Repost: Israel, Gaza and the Gospel

This is a topic that is at the top of the news once again and once again a subset of Christians who grossly misunderstand the Old Covenant and consistently misapply Old Testament passages along with random New Testament eschatalogical passages come out of the woodwork. This is greeted with the glee of a kid on Christmas morning by secular media outlets for the stream of foolish and Gospel harming quotes that these individuals provide. Case in point, a recent Slate article at a convocation of the ever mind-numbing John Hagee and his acolytes, Inside the Most Insanely Pro-Israel Meeting You Could Ever Attend. Now from Slate you should assume the worst when it comes to anything religious but some stuff is hard to deny, especially the last few paragraphs (emphasis mine):

“There is an entire generation being raised in southern Israel, barely any of whom do not suffer from PTSD due to the rocket fire,” said Anthony. “The entire Zionist experiment rests in no small part on what it is we do during this campaign.”

What the IDF needed was a total victory. “Rocket factories can be destroyed,” said Anthony. “Weapon factories can be destroyed. Terrorists can be eliminated. Tunnels can be dug out.” But it could only happen if America resisted the temptation to criticize Israel or to stop the operation.

“Hamas started this war,” said Anthony. “The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.

When he said that, a standing-room crowd of pastors and activists and politicians rose to its feet, waving the twin flags of the countries God loved.

What is really disturbing is that even though this is in Slate I have no trouble at all believing this happened.

As I write below you can make a decent argument from a secular, geo-political position that Israel as a sovereign state has a right and a duty to defend her citizens from attack. I have no doubt that Hamas loves to see dead Palestinian children as a PR tool in their war against Israel. People with an agenda, whether the leaders of Hamas or Benjamin Netanyahu, are always looking for the crass PR opportunity to score political points on the talk shows and via their proxies.

Where I have an issue is when this conflict is turned from a secular squabble that never gets any better and into a theological one where Christians in America are assumed to have a Kingdom obligation to support a secular people group in a war that appears to kill far more civilians than combatants against another secular people group. Let me say this as plainly as I can: A nation created by international proxy that is overwhelmingly populated by people who deny Christ is by definition not "God's people". One cannot simultaneously be in favor with God and denying His Son. That was true in the 1st century A.D. and it is still true today. That basic fact of Christian theology didn't change when a guilt driven world carved a new secular homeland for Jews out of Palestine. I seriously do a literal :facepalm: on a daily basis when I see some things fellow believers say about this conflict. We should be weeping and praying for peace and for the innocents killed on both sides, not taking sides against others based on a faulty and dangerous theology that has its roots in Left Behind and other crappy apocalyptic fiction. There is no small amount of manipulation for political gain and for the selling of books that goes on at events like these and still Christians flock to them. People need to put their end-times flow charts away and try reading the Bible for a change. 

Also of note, another post that mostly is a copy and paste from John Piper who pretty much nails in on this issue, One of the best summaries of the relationship between Christians and the modern state of Israel I have ever read.

The conflict in the Middle East is rife with danger for Christians because many of us have been inundated with years of bubblegum pop eschatology that inextricably links the Israel of God with the current nation-state of Israel (see, this chart here shows that Hillary Clinton/Ted Kennedy/Barack Obama/insert liberal here is the anti-Christ!). That linkage causes many Christians to reflexively support Israel, no matter what. I happen to support Israel the nation in the current conflict; the same was that I support Taiwan against mainland Red China. I think people should support Israel, but I think we should support Israel for the right reasons.

To begin with I don’t think that the nation-state of Israel is the Israel of God because it bears the same name and is made up mostly of people of Jewish descent.

Is there a Gospel future for the Jews? I certainly think so, one that involves a massive (future?) conversion of Jews to Christ. Romans 11 bears this out. I do not think that this means that God is intending to fulfill the land promises of the Old Covenant. Why would He? So they can have a physical homeland when Christ has provided a spiritual home? So they can rebuild the temple and make sacrifices, putting the cross of Christ to shame? God has a plan for His people, Jews and gentiles, that is so much greater and more magnificent than a piece of property in the Middle East.

I think it is vital that the Christian manage to look at Israel as two separate entities, the Israel of God on the one hand and the political entity of the nation-state of Israel on the other. Being Jewish does not save you. Romans 11:26 says that all Israel will be saved but it is clear through the Bible that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation and many, many Jews have rejected Christ. So if all Israel will be saved, but not all Jews are saved than it must mean that being the Israel of God is not of necessity a Jewish thing. In Acts 2: , Peter was speaking to a Jewish audience and when the asked “Brothers, what shall we do?”, Peter didn’t say “Nothing, you are Jews so you are all set!”, he told them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. There are Jews and gentiles who are God’s elect and they are born-again and come to saving faith in Christ and are saved. There are likewise Jews and gentiles alike who are not elect, who do not come to faith and are lost. Romans 9: 6-8 tells us that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and Galatians 3:7 and 3: 29 tell us that those of faith are the heirs of Abraham’s promises. So I don’t buy into the corollary that tells us that Jewish automatically equates to Israel. Nor do I think it is logical to assume that a Christian is duty bound to support Israel in her attacks against Hamas simply because they are Christians and Israel is Israel.

From a geo-political standpoint, the nation-state of Israel absolutely has the right to defend herself. Try to imagine living in a nation that is surrounded on all sides by “neighbors” who to some extent are committed to your destruction or at least reject the idea that Israel has a right to exist at all as a legitimate and free nation. We have been at peace with Mexico and Canada for more than a century, Canada probably since the end of the War of 1812, so nearly 200 years. But imagine if you will terrorists in Windsor, Ontario launching rockets into Detroit (pretend for a second that Detroit is a city that would be noticeably damaged by rocket fire). I would hope that the U.S. would take drastic steps to stop the rockets. In fact I think the Israeli response has been pretty measured and restrained compared to what they could be doing. The Israelis have one of the most powerful militaries in the world, even given the fact that the nation itself is tiny. It is not unthinkable that they could simply level the Palestinian settlements in the Gaza strip with minimal effort. So while they have been responding with necessary military force, and that force has caused civilian casualties, the Israeli’s have taken great pains to try to avoid civilian casualties. A spokesman for the IDF stated that they have scrubbed 90% of their proposed targets to avoid civilian casualties.

Ultimately the Palestinians are pawns in this struggle between the nation of Israel and the Islamic radicals who deny her legitimacy and seek the utter destruction of Israel and every Jew. Hamas will never defeat Israel by launching a few crude rockets or using suicide bombers. That is ludicrous and is not the intent. The goal of those who fund and supply these terrorists, terror patrons who live outside of Palestinian territories, is to provoke a response from Israel and use the resulting calamity to turn world opinion against Israel and by association against America. I am certain that there are many who are gleeful when Palestinian civilians are killed, especially children, because the graphic nature of that violence better serves their sick cause. I don’t think the terror financiers in the Islamic world care one bit for the Palestinian people as anything more than a means to an end. If hundreds or thousands of Palestinians have to die, whether in suicide actions or at the hands of Israeli soldiers, so be it. They are mere foot soldiers, pawns, expendable assets in the greater struggle against Zionism. The sooner the Palestinian people realize that they are being used by people who don’t care anything about them, the sooner there can be peace in the Middle East.

Should Christians cautiously support Israel in her actions against terrorist in Gaza? I think they should. Should Christians support Israel because they are Christians and Israelis are Jews? No. There is not a theological basis to support the nation-state of Israel in this or any other endeavor.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church

There are no lack of books on the topic of the church. Most, and I say this with no hesitation, are garbage and consist of feel good malarkey and repackaged business wisdom applied to religious organizations. It therefore was a welcome change to read Dr. David Black's newest work from Energion Publications, Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. These are the seven marks he chose to look at (with the disclaimer that these are not the only seven marks, an important note)....

1. Evangelistic preaching 
2. Christian baptism 
3. Apostolic teaching 
4. Genuine relationships
5. Christ-centered gatherings 
6. Fervent prayer 
7. Sacrificial living

It is probably inevitable given my background that I compare Dr. Black's book with the well known 9 Marks of a Healthy Church put out by Mark Dever and the aptly named 9 Marks ministries. Mark and company are some of the most prolific writers out there on the topic of ecclesiology and come from a reformed, baptistic, plural elder viewpoint. While I disagree with a lot of what Dever writes, I appreciate the thought and the Scriptural study that have gone into their works. Nevertheless I found far more to commend in Dr. Black's compilation than Mark Dever's.

The thing I liked best about Seven Marks versus 9 Marks is that it is believer-centric rather than clergy-centric. 9 Marks is designed as a "top down" system, get the right elders leading the right way and preaching the right sermons and teaching the right theology and you have a "healthy church". Members will follow. Dr. Black starts at the ground floor with an "every member shared ministry" that far more closely follows the apostolic pattern. The church is built from individuals working as a community for the mission of God. Leaders are enablers who help others be prepared for the work of ministry:

The essence of all New Testament teaching about church leadership is that leaders are to be enablers. They are not to do the work of the ministry as much as they are to prepare others to do that work (see Eph. 4: 11-12).

Black, David Alan, Seven Marks of a New Testament Church: A Guide for Christians of All Ages (Kindle Locations 338-340). Energion Publications. Kindle Edition.

That is the sort of plain wisdom we need a lot more of in discussing the church in the waning days of Christendom. Top down leadership and top down centered ecclesiology is great for creating top heavy organizations but for the church we need to flip that order around as Dr. Black has done here.

One thing that sort of confused me. While Dr. Black talks a lot about love in every chapter, love doesn't get a chapter of its own. Jesus said that all men will know we are His disciples by our love for one another ( John 13:35 ). Love is the key, foundational mark of the church. Indeed without it the church cannot be the church. I am not sure why it was not given a chapter but if I were rewriting the book I would add at the top of the list!

In spite of my one quibble this is a book I can unreservedly recommend for anyone studying the church, whether one is seeking to reform an existing group and starting a new group from scratch. It is not long and it tends to raise a lot of questions, making it perfect as a study guide or introduction to ecclesiology. Get a copy, read it and then pass a copy or three on to your church friends. They might be surprised by what they read!

(You can also get Seven Marks from Amazon for the Kindle, that is what I did because I like to be able to electronically mark important passages)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Quisling "Christians"

For those unfamiliar with the term, "Quisling" refers to someone who collaborates with the enemy. It goes back to a man named Vidkun Quisling, an infamous Norwegian leader who collaborated with the Nazi regime in World War II. His name has become synonymous with collaboration in much the same way that Benedict Arnold's name is associated with treason ( or at least it used to back when history class included instruction in history. Yes, this is going to be one of those posts). Being a Quisling means placing personal safety, convenience, enrichment and acceptance over the well-being of others. In other words it is not a compliment.

We live in a religious/spiritual world that is rapidly being overtaken by the loud voices of religious Quislings, people who lack the conviction or fortitude or courage to stand for hard truths when there is a cost. Sure when something is popular and happens to line up with the truth it is easy but once that stops being true they stumble over themselves switching sides.

Just look at the news...

American clergy embracing homosexual marriage.

Theologians denying Creationism, hell, sin, the atonement, anything that might get them disinvited from the next cool kids academic mixer.

The Church of England voting to ordain women "bishops" in a response to incredible pressure from the secular centers of power even though England is already an incredibly secular nation and making women into "bishops" isn't going to do a thing to stem the tide.

On and on.

Compromising with the culture has gone from a niche hobby of people like the risibly named "Red Letter Christians" to a mainstream sport that resembles a race to the bottom. It has gotten to the point where even the most stunning betrayal of orthodoxy and Biblical common sense barely raises an eyebrow these days and seems to simultaneously be a badge of honor and a guarantee of book deals and blog traffic.

I know, I know. I am being:


Honestly I don't expect unregenerate people to act differently than they do nor do I think that making all sin illegal will stop unregenerate sinners from sinning. However when someone claims the name of Christ and chastises others who do for holding firm to positions that have long been settled in the church until the last five years, then I have an issue. Smiling at sin and even blessing it. Saying all is well when it is not. Being blown to and fro by the winds of the culture. Standing for nothing except not standing for anything. These aren't signs of spiritual maturity, they are signs of surrender, capitulation and accommodation. If you don't care that is your business but don't condemn those that do.

The Quislings are not alone in their misdiagnosing of what is going on around us and how to respond, as I have remarked before.  Others are seeking "enemy of my enemy is my friend" alliances with "conservative" heretics and blasphemers of all sorts in the  vain hope of winning a temporary reprieve for Christendom in America. Still others are "more of the same is the ticket" types, who hope that repackaging the same old religious nonsense, just with better presentation and more money, will suddenly make people sick of religion fall back in love with religion. Yeah right. Yet others are calling for returns to venerable religious traditions and institutions, some more ancient and corrupt than others but all nevertheless more deserving of a primo spot on the ashbin of religious history than they are in being revitalized after self-inflicted implosion.

While this is troubling, it is not surprising. It is painfully clear from the New Testament that the greatest threats to the church will come from within, not from without. Consider the words of Paul in his final instructions to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Act 20:29-30)

History has perfectly fulfilled the prophetic warning of Paul and there is ample evidence of this today in people ranging from Frank Schaeffer to Joel Osteen to Rachel Held Evans to Todd Bentley. Religious charlatans who tell the world what it wants to hear in return for gathering influence, followers, power or money (or some combination of all four). They often (thinking RHE and Frank here) respond to orthodox criticism with cries of persecution and misunderstanding, making themselves martyrs and crying "Woe is me, I am so misunderstood! Buy my book!" while reaping the benefits of the acclaim of the world. Nothing like using a public platform to advance your agenda and then crying foul when others use the same public platform to refute your claims.

There is nothing mean or hateful about pointing out the ravenous wolves that Scripture itself warns us to beware of. I am conscious of my tone and I know it can be less than helpful but the ranks of the Quislings seems to swell by the day and the silence from the church grows more thunderous. In a church terrified of a future with no money, no influence and few friends in the halls of power, there often is simply not enough time for worrying about hard to understand and divisive stuff like doctrine. Who has time for that when their are lawsuits to file and tax breaks to defend, bank accounts to pad for a rainy day and church activities to plan? You might think this is unfair and that many sincere Christians have come to these conclusions based on their own study of Scripture. I have no doubt many sincere Christians hold these beliefs quite sincerely but here is the catch: if these were not culturally popular I don't think they would hold them. Besides, sincerely teaching error is still....teaching error.

If you want to stand on the sidelines, bleating piously about not judging, be my guest. I will not. I cannot.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting the wedding ring question

My wife and I stopped wearing our wedding rings a few years ago after 20+ years of marriage. It still feels a little weird after so many years of marriage. You can sort of see the mark the ring left on my finger even years later but we don't really think much about it anymore. This morning a friend linked an audio clip from John Piper asking the question Are Wedding Rings a Waste of Money? While he recognizes that they are not necessary, he then proceeds to break down why he thinks they are both helpful and not a waste of money based on a) serving as a warning to the world that the wearer is off the market and b) serving as a reminder of marriage to the wearers. I get what he is saying. I disagree. No surprise I wrote a post about this topic, reprinted below.

I am confident in saying that John Piper is a better husband to Noel than I am to my wife by a wide margin. Having said that and with the deep respect I have for John Piper I think this issue of wedding rings is rather analogous to "church membership" as being a unhelpful tradition. I will loop back to that in a moment but here are my objections to his two points.

First, if people that get to know you well enough in a setting where they might be sizing you up for a relationship, they darn well ought to know that you are married whether you wear a ring or not. The wearing of a ring is sadly not a dissuasion to many people seeking liaisons and the lack of a ring ought not be a green light to anyone that knows you. If you are hanging out in places where people hook up without getting to know each other, what the heck are you doing there in the first place? Pretty much anyone who knows me for very long knows that I am happily married with 8 kids.

Besides, the Bible already a) gives a warning about adornment, specifically costly materials like gold and pearls and b) also provides a symbol of marriage in the wife's covered head. Many Christians think nothing of wearing gold wedding rings and often with a very pricey stone set into one of them because that is what our culture and the jewelry industry marketers tell us we have to have but recoil at the idea of a wife covering her head. Imagine a Sunday morning in some 250-500 attendee suburban evangelical church where the parking lot is full of new cars and most of the ladies in attendance are fashionably dressed with the latest hairstyle being told that they shouldn't be wearing that $1000+ wedding ring and that they should have their hair covered. Hopefully that pastor updated his resume Saturday night!

Second, the same goes for our relationship to one another. If I need a ring to remind me I am married to my wife, that is a flaw in my relationship to Christ, something that a ring won't fix. Since my wife is still as selfless in our relationship as she has ever been it clearly wasn't the ring making her do it. The "symbol of our love" is our clinging to one another through thick and thin, including some pretty tough times (like right now). It is our children. It is not some golden adornment that can be slipped on and off the finger at will.

That may sound harsh and I don't intend it to, nor am I calling as sin the wearing of rings by fellow believers. I would however like to see the church as a people start to reject the perceived requirement of buying weddings rings made of the costliest materials as a requirement for getting married in the upcoming generations as they marry. Our marriages and our weddings already look indistinguishable from the world, the eschewing of the wearing of wedding rings might be a good place to start in distinguishing Christian marriages from whatever concoction the world thinks up next to call marriage. I did appreciate Piper's brief rant against the obscene amount of money people spend on their receptions. Now that really is a waste of money!

So back to church membership. I also wrote about a while ago, Marriage and membership. Basically, if the church doesn't know who to love without formal membership, it isn't much of a church. If elders don't know who they are to love and serve without a list, they shouldn't be elders in the first place. Membership and wedding rings are artificial crutches to remind us of something that should be second nature. Anyway, here is my post on this topic from a few years back.


So this is an interesting conversation that has come up among some friends and one that generates a visceral reaction when broached.

Wedding rings are firmly entrenched in our culture. The exchanging of rings and wearing of them to signify that the wearer is married is part of our cultural heritage even to the point of being the focal point in a whole bunch of country music songs (“I put that little golden band on the right left hand this time….”). Removing a wedding ring can be an indicator of a marriage that is broken. Cultural nostalgia is a big deal when it comes to these small symbols of marriage. Getting an engagement ring is a huge deal for women (if you have ever worked with a young woman who gets engaged the next day at work is filled with her friends and co-workers ooohin and aaaahing over the diamond)

Here is the question. Should Christians wear wedding rings or for that matter should Christians wear any sort of jewelry at all? My wife wears a modest wedding ring and has a couple of other pieces of frankly fairly inexpensive jewelry that she rarely wears. Should she? Why not you ask? Because it certtainly seems that Scripture doesn't permit this tradition.

Scripture seems pretty clear on this, generally in the idea of meekness and humility which seems ill served by a ring made out of a precious metal and often adorned with a pricey diamond as well as more specifically in two passages. I copied the whole section, not just the verse in question to give us a more full view and highlighted the particular verses:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3: 1-6)

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Timothy 2: 8-10)

The principle invoked here is of not being adorned with attire (which would include jewelry) that is prideful and designed to draw attention to the external but rather women in particular should be adorned with good conduct, good works, a gentle spirit and submission to their husbands.

This of course raises some questions. If we are not supposed to wear wedding bands because they are costly adornments, what about a plain band? What if the band was plain and also not gold? Should we eschew any sort of accoutrement that sets us at all apart from someone else? I also note that these two passages apply to women, so is it OK for men to wear wedding bands but not women? Is the wearing of adornments something of particular prideful temptation for women but not for men?

What about name brand clothing with logos ? Clothing companies put their logos on the outside both as an ad for their product as well as to let the wearer signify that they are wearing something more costly than you are. The horse and rider on Polo brand shirts is a great example. I used to sell The North Face jackets to rich kids because the logo tells people that this is not mere fleece or rainjacket, it is a $300 North Face jacket! I think the principle might hold true here as well.

I wonder if we should wear anything that is not plain and handmade. I need to wear suits and appropriate business attire for my job but outside of work, what about that?

There is a real issue and an important principle here that we don’t seem to address in a straightforward manner in the church. I think it might be for the same reason headcovering is glossed over, because it flies in the face of our cultural expectations. On the other hand, this can turn into a point of pride. It is easy to see your own plainness as a point of pride, that I am more holy than that person because of the manner of my dress. Those sorts of heart issues are far more troubling than external obedience and that is true not just about adornment or modest dress or headcovering but also wearing suits to church or lengthy prayers or being contentious or giving our of obligation. It is not difficult at all to be externally pious but have hearts in rebellion.

Peter and Paul are both unanimous and unambiguous about this issue. This strikes me as a topic where the text is clear, so rather than trying to prove from Scriptures that we cannot wear wedding rings, we should see this as explaining why from Scriptures that we can.

There is also a stewardship issue, is the buying of $1000 golden ring topped by a diamond foolhardy in light of the very real temporal needs of our brothers and sisters, of orphans and widows, of missionaries? That is an ancillary topic but a real one.

Is it a coincidence that the One Ring, a golden band that looks suspiciously like a wedding ring, is the embodiment of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Hmmmm…..

Seriously though. Should we give up the wearing of wedding rings or am I making too big of a deal about it? Is this an issue of hyper-literalism and legalism or are we resistant to the idea of eschewing rings because we have been so heavily marketed to by jewelry companies that we have bought into the idea that we simply must wear rings if we are married? Maybe someone more familiar with the Greek text (Alan?) can help us out here, is there something in the context that I am missing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Repost: Toward a community hermeneutic

This is something I wrote a few years back and I was thinking about it again this weekend so I thought I would post this again with some additional thoughts. I remain convinced that the proper place for study, interpretation and application of Scripture is among the common members of the community of faith rather than among celebrities in the religious culture or the distant professional academics. There is a place for professional academics (but none for "celebrity Christians") and I profit from their work but the church as a people and community is where interpretation should take place (I make that argument below). Give it a read and let me know what you think!


 I have been thinking about the Scriptures and how we interpret and apply them in the church, partly as a continuation of some thoughts from my post, How can anyone learn if they are interacting? and also based on the series Alan is doing, specifically the post A Healthy Diet For the Church – Food given directly from God.

I would hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, that the Scriptures alone (and not tradition) are authoritative. Of course that raises the question, who interprets the Scriptures? You are not going to find many denominations or local churches that proudly proclaim “We don’t believe in the Bible!” and yet the variances among secondary doctrines and practices is enormous. So how do we decide what is right and what is wrong? This is where hermeneutics comes in.

There are a couple of prevailing hermeneutic methods in the church. The main hermeneutic in the various Protestant traditions is the professional quasi-academic hermeneutic where the pastor, who presumably has some formal clerical training, is the arbiter of the hermeneutic of his local church. In many ways this is merely a modification of the Roman hermeneutic where interpretation was restricted to the theologians and academics as well as the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Often this is simply assumed to be correct or at best given cursory explanation by pointing to a few verses like these:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

The reason these are invoked is because everyone knows that Timothy was an elder, so Paul’s advice to him is properly seen as “pastoral” advice to modern clergy. The problem with this of course is that nowhere is Timothy identified as an elder nor should we assume that Paul's advice to Timothy is not likewise great advice to every single Christian. In Paul’s letter to Titus we get a more credible defense of the professional hermeneutic:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9)
So doesn’t that say that elders should interpret Scripture on behalf of the church? Well no, not really. Two problems. First, there is nothing is what Paul wrote that indicates that this is restricted to elders. Second, the passage assumes that these men are already doing this before they are recognized as elders. They don’t start holding firm to the word once they are appointed, it is something that (as non-elders) are already doing! So I think that the clerical hermeneutic is deeply flawed and unsupportable from Scripture.

There was a time when I would have enthusiastically supported the clerical/academic hermeneutic. That has obviously changed pretty dramatically as I don’t find support for it from Scripture. Furthermore it is highly dangerous because far too many Christians accept at face value what they hear from the pulpit, especially if it is accompanied by a quote from a famous theologian, past or present, or better yet if it is accompanied by a discourse on the original Greek to demonstrate a superior knowledge base. Americans in general and Christians in particular are conditioned to accept what an authority figure says without question. That makes for a pliable population but not for a mature Body of Christ.

The other common and often simultaneous hermeneutic is private interpretation. Practically speaking, a privatized hermeneutic is one in which each individual Christian interprets Scripture as he or she sees fit in something of a vacuum. An individual Christian decides on doctrines a, b and c and then finds a local church that is in harmony with those positions as closely as possible, thus reinforcing their decisions each Sunday. Sometimes these doctrines are important and contentious, like baptism. More often they are something like music style, preaching style, architecture, how that person was raised, etc. Even setting aside 2 Peter 1:20 for a moment, there are huge issues with people in various stages of maturity and understanding coming to whatever interpretation they want on Scripture and we see the results of that in the highly individualistic society of the West.

So a clerical/academic centered hermeneutic is unscriptural and dangerous. As is a highly privatized hermeneutic. What is the solution? I would propose that there is a third way that I am coming to embrace more and more, the hermeneutic employed by many of the Anabaptists (underlining added)

The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scripture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.

I think a lot of that resonates quite strongly with what we see in Scripture (and what we don’t see) especially when examined in view of how the Scriptures see the church, as an adoptive family rather than a religious organization. It is, however reasonable it may sound, certainly jarring in an expert exalting culture. How in the world can some knucklehead with minimal education properly interpret Scripture? Shouldn’t we trust the guys with all of the initials behind their name or with the religious titles in front of their name, guys who have published lots of thick books with lots of endorsements on the back cover? Some guy who barely finished high school is going to give a better interpretation of Scripture than the PhD? Well, what about this?

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
That verse (and this post) are not a call for a strident fundie anti-intellectualism. Rather I think that what we need to recognize is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation and that formal education, while valuable in some circumstances and with a proper place in the Body, is no substitute for a local body of born-again Christians who interpret Scripture in community rather than a “top down” approach or an “every man for himself” approach. A community of believers, whatever their background, properly equipped and discipled within the community, with regenerate hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit is by any measure the proper interpretative mechanism for Scripture.

So here is the rub. How does that happen? This is one of those places where form really impacts function. I think it is awfully hard for a community hermeneutic to function in a traditional church, especially a larger evangelical church that is sermon and program driven. It is not impossible but it is harder. It is not invariably going to happen in an “organic” setting either. If the gathering of the church is little more than sharing time accompanied by a sing-along, little progress will be made. A community hermeneutic requires an intentional effort by the community. A community that devotes itself to prayer and the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). A multi-voiced community where prophecy is shared but also weighed and judged (1 Corinthians 14:29). A community where everything that is said is not accepted without question but compared to Scripture to determine its veracity (Acts 17:11). A community that above all else is actually a community, not a religious looking organization or an organic group that meets on Sunday. Until we get to real community, a community hermeneutic is impossible and we are left with professional or personal hermeneutic with all of their incumbent flaws.

The church is not about religion.

It is not about ritual or liturgy or sacraments or preaching.

It is also not about sharing or participation.

The church is about community, family, fellowship and ultimately about mission. If we miss community and mission, the rest is just religious fluff.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Happy violation of Romans 13 Day!

My annual repost of A nation born of rebellion against God ....

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

With these words, the Declaration of Independence begins to list the grievances suffered under the despotic rule of King George over the English colonies in America. After a lengthy list of grievances, the Declaration declares that the colonies are no longer under the rule of England but are instead free and independent.

Powerful words. Solemn words. Words that, at least until recently, were taught to all schoolchildren and words that are part of our American lore. I am in awe of the power and eloquence of the Declaration and the subsequent Constitution that at one time was the law of the land in America. So that is great, we all agree that America is swell. So what is the point? Here is where I am going with this: Are these statements in the Declaration of Independence the founding words of a Christian nation, a country founded on "Judeo-Christian" values?

Simply put: No.

Why in the world would I say that?

Because America was birthed by an ungodly act of rebellion against authority.

Yikes! Stay with me here. This is a long one but I think it is important and thought provoking.

This post is not intended to bash America. I would not choose to live anywhere else in the world unless I was led to do so in God's providence. I love my country, in fact I love my country more than may be healthy as a Christian. I am also not saying that the founding fathers were wrong or that the end result is bad. Clearly America has been a force for more good than ill in the world. This statement is intended as a wake-up call to the church. Evangelicals must remember that being an evangelical Christian must of necessity take priority over being an American. I hear lots of lip-service to that effect but practically speaking our American upbringing impacts our doctrine and practice in some troubling ways. There are no special secular nations, even ones where the founding is full of religious overtones. I think this is important because there is such a blurring of the distinction between the church and America that it sometimes seems as if we are evangelists for American culture more than witnesses of the risen Christ. So if you will, please indulge me for a few minutes to explain why I would make that assertion.

The core issue here is one of submission. Submission gets a bad rap in the church in America because it is either tip-toed around or it is used as a club. Americans don't like to submit to anyone for any reason. The Founding Fathers decided that at some point they no longer wished to submit to King George, to pay his taxes without representation. I think most historians would agree that King George was a poor ruler. So it is little wonder that the colonies eventually revolted. The question we are pondering here is a dramatically different one: Is our submission to authority based on the worthiness of the one in authority? That is an important question because we are called on to submit all over the place in the Bible, a subject we looked at yesterday when the church gathered.

Let's take a look at what the Bible says about submission to authorities and it says a lot.

The first place I want to look is at the third chapter of Paul’s letter to Titus.

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1)

Paul is somewhat vague here. He exhorts Titus to remind Christians to be submissive to authorities. Who these rulers and authorities are doesn’t get much clarification but I certainly think that Paul is at least implying governing officials. The following sections of Scripture reinforce this idea quite powerfully.

Next we have a powerful statement from the lips of Christ Himself. Pay careful attention here.

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11)

Here is Christ, mere hours away from His death on the cross, telling Pontius Pilate that he has no authority (including the authority to condemn Christ to die) except that which he has received “from above”, i.e. from God. Stop and think about what Christ is saying here. Pontius Pilate received his authority from Caesar. So by proxy Caesar has been granted the authority by God to put Jesus Christ to death. I can’t overemphasize this point that the most unjust and tyrannical government ever faced by Christians was given its authority directly from God and it used that authority to crucify Christ and persecute the church for the next three centuries. Roman Emperors like Nero and Caligula make King George look like Mr. Rogers in comparison. Ponder that as we move forward.

Next, a look at what Peter wrote regarding this issue. I think this is important as well because this is not a “Paul-only” doctrine. It is something found in the words of Christ and Peter as well as Paul. Just once in Scripture should be sufficient but for purposes of staking a position I think it adds even more weight when there are multiple sources.

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Please note a few things here. Be subject to every human institution, emperor and governors. Not to be subject to only the just rulers or those you voted for. Remember again as a frame of reference that when Peter says “emperor” he must be referring to Caesar and when he refers to “governor” that likely refers to men like Pilate. Verse 17 is especially telling; we are to honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God and honor the emperor. Honor Caesar? Absolutely.

Next up is Romans 13, the seminal passage on human governing authorities.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13: 1-7)

There is no authority other than those God has instituted. That would obviously include the Roman empire and of course the good ole United States of America. Wouldn’t it similarly include Nazi Germany? The Stalinist Soviet Union? Castro’s Cuba? North Korea? England under the reign of King George? Lichtenstein! All of the above. So Paul is saying that by resisting the authorities placed over us, we resist God and bring judgment upon ourselves. We are to submit and pay taxes, whether we consider them just or not.

Look at what precedes Romans 13, keeping in mind that the chapter breaks are not in the original. What Paul wrote right before this passage is vital to understanding Romans 13: 1-7.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12: 14-21)

That is important to remember. Christians in Rome would be facing persecution just as Paul himself, a frequent guest in prison cells, was subjected to. In the face of such injustice, the natural response as an American is to overthrow the scoundrels, the whole refresh the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots thing. Paul is saying just the opposite and we must consider the end of chapter 12 and the beginning of chapter 13 as one continuous thought. Is the government unjust? God will judge that nation. Are the rulers despotic? God is the one who will avenge their injustice, either immediately (see the death of Herod in Acts 12: 20-23) or at the Judgment seat. “Don’t tread on me” is not a concept that would be understood by Paul.

What is the overarching message here? It strikes me that God is sovereign over all nations, not just Western democracies but all nations, and that God will judge those nations. We all understand this and accept this, at least in theory. Submission is an easy topic to talk about but when you apply it as a practical matter, it gets messy and sometimes flies in the face of certain ideals that we hold dear. This issue is one that is easily turned from “Scripture says” to “Well, I think”.

So that brings me back to my original point. Was the founding of America a “Christian” action? I have to say “No”. No matter that the lofty ideals espoused by the Founders sound pleasing to our ears or that we can argue that no secular nation on earth is a better one. The notion that America was once a “Christian nation” and needs to return to that state is demonstrably false because the very founding of America was done as an act of rebellion against the very authorities that God had ordained.

Am I missing something here? Is there anything in the New Testament that would lead a follower of Jesus Christ to think that we are called to overthrow unjust rulers? Should we pray for our leaders? Well certainly we should and that is perfectly Biblical. Should we take up arms to overthrow them? Absolutely not, not even if they force high taxes on us or unjust laws. Not even if they persecute the church and not even if they put Christians to death. God will avenge, not us and we are never called to return evil for evil, even when we are sure that our cause is right. We shouldn’t turn to George Washington and Patrick Henry to form our beliefs regarding human government. Our model for how we should relate to the government is found in Scripture, in Paul and Peter and most especially in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Baby pigs!

Well sort of mixed results, live baby pigs which is a marked improvement but only three so far and she looks to be done. I guess we will take the live piglets and be happy for that, not sure why the litter was so small though.

Farewell Cup O' The World

With the U.S. loss to Belgium (and any sport or activity that Belgium can beat the U.S. is inherently flawed and risible) America says good-bye to the World Cup as it slips into sports obscurity alongside the WNBA for another four years.

I don't post about sports much anymore because I don't care and I am decidedly less patriotic than before but I will miss the World Cup because it gives me a chance to be jingoistic guilt-free. First because soccer is a dreadfully boring sport to watch. I mean it is actually painful to watch. Second, every four years pompous pontificators come out of the woodwork to tell you how backwards and unsophisticated you are if you don't wholeheartedly embrace soccer. The apparent logic is that Europeans and other non-Americans like it so something must be wrong with Americans because we don't.


I would rather watch a high school football game or a minor league baseball game than the finals of the World Cup. Perhaps that makes me uncouth in your eyes. I really don't care.

Baiting the soccer (or football or futball or whatever) evangelists is great fun and far more entertaining than the actual sport. Sadly we will have four years where ESPN and other outlets are forced to cover sports that people actually care about and soccer fans will have to be satisfied with MLS games until 2018.

Until then if you have a hankering for...

- People running around aimlessly

- People throwing themselves down on the ground, rolling around and having a fit

- People biting one another out of anger can visit your nearest day care center to watch the toddlers at play. As for the rest of us, we will content ourselves with the dog days of summer watching baseball and looking for the changing of the seasons that brings real football.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The bigger they are....

You know the rest: "...the harder they fall."
Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, 
yeah he is big

That makes for a great "chin up little trooper" phrase for kids being picked on by larger kids but it misses another truth. The bigger they are the harder it can be to make them fall. Try making that guy to the left fall. At 6'9" and able to dead-lift around half a ton, I could probably make him fall if I snuck up on him with a baseball bat. Maybe not...

A lot of where my thinking has gone over the last few years, both theologically and politically, is a reaction to the "big" syndrome. In other words I find similar aspects to be repugnant about Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business and of course Big Religion. There are lots of subset like Big Ag, Big Military, Big Education, but those are the "Big Four" that dominate American culture.

The larger an organization becomes, the more concerned it seems to be with perpetuating itself regardless of the original motivation. Nothing is more critical to self-perpetuation than money. How that money is gathered is different, whether in union dues or confiscatory taxes or offering plates, but whatever the mechanic it is critical that an organization both retain current sources of income (taxpayers, church members, union members) and gather new members (by expanding collective bargaining, by attracting new members to your church by poaching from other churches, finding new ways to re-tax the same income over and over, etc.). Thus people become resources: potential union members, potential voters to advance a political cause, potential church members. Self-preservation is the big thing. Politicians do anything they can to stay in power and increase their influence by increasing the size of government, whether by new bureaucracies or a bigger military. It is not a coincidence that the nation that spends more than the rest of the world combined on the military has also been in conflict after conflict for the last century. Conflict creates uncertainty and uncertainty is easy to exploit in the form of a bigger military for the stated purpose of "security". Union bosses have every incentive to not only try to get as many people on the union rolls as they can but to also have threats to combat. Big Business employs untold lobbyists that use the power of contributions to get politicians to do  their bidding and in turn those politicians use their clout to extort from Big Business. Clergy are increasingly vocal and strident about the need for formal and exclusive religious relationships, writing books and blog posts seemingly on a weekly basis urging and not very subtly threatening Christians into "church membership". "Give to your local church first" is a common theme in sermons on giving because money given directly to the poor or to mission work doesn't help perpetuate the institution.

Even people who despise Big Government often have no problem at all with Big Religion, in fact many of the most vocal critics of Big Government (minus Big Military of course) are at the same time the most ardent supporters of Big Religion. This makes very little sense to me and I am not in that camp.

One of my biggest beefs with Big Religion is that it has taken on more and more of the defining characteristics of Big Government and Big Business and in doing so necessarily abandoned the radical, otherworldly nature that the church should exhibit. It is hard to be a pilgrim church of sojourners when we seem mostly concerned with our bank accounts and retaining our cherished secure place in the secular culture. When you enter many larger suburban churches full of pomp and pageantry it is hard to imagine the church of the first century or the Anabaptists of the 16th century or the modern church in hostile lands recognizing what is going on because what is going on is not church, it is marketing. Religious marketing certainly but marketing for sure, designed to keep people coming back and attract new people to be handed the plate.

Bigger is rarely better unless you are talking about offensive linemen, pick-up trucks or hamburgers. When applied to an organization, increased size increases the incentive to focus on self-perpetuation. Especially in America we need to be on alert for the calls to get bigger, whether we are talking about government or religion. A bigger church is not a healthier church or a more faithful church. We don't measure faithfulness and blessings by the balance in the church checking account. We desperately need to change our understanding of how the church should live and how the way we live serves as a witness to the people we are trying to reach, people often treated as outsiders or worse as enemies. Jesus Christ will ensure the perpetuation of His church, His succession plan is flawless. We need to worry less about keeping the church doors open and the lights on and more about the field that is white and ready to harvest.