Monday, August 29, 2016

Community In Action

Last Wednesday, a tornado moved across the southern edge of the Amish community near where we live. The worst damage occurred on a road we travel often, next door to a family we know well. One place was completely obliterated. The family was getting ready to eat and literally made it to the basement with seconds to spare. Their home, their barn and a very expensive and pretty new chicken barn housing over 25,000 birds were all leveled. It was hard to tell where the house ended and the barns began. Those chicken barns are all automated and run upwards of three quarters of a million dollars.

26,000 chickens with nowhere to go post tornado

This is the scene today from a picture I took this afternoon, less than a week after the tornado struck...

The house is going up, the roof is on it, their regular barn is well on the way to being replaced and the new walls for the chicken barn have already been poured.

If the Amish are known for anything, they are known for rallying around each other when a neighbor is in need. Their community suffers from a lot of the same stuff any other community does, gossip, envy, resentment, etc. The Amish have plenty of issues including an almost cultish behavior toward members who stray and outsiders. Nevertheless when it comes to helping one another they put most of the mainstream of Christianity to shame.

There is something to be said for relying on each other instead of insurance companies when it hits the fan.

I think that we are so comfortably integrated into our society that leaning on the church or being prepared to be truly sacrificial when someone is in need is almost unthinkable. Not because we are unwilling necessarily but because we assume that the social safety nets will bail people out. Insurance if your car is wrecked or your house burns down or you get sick. Government programs for the poor. A public school system to provide "education" and/or state sponsored day-care. On and on.

Maybe we would be healthier if we had more uncertainty, if we thought first of the church when things go wrong because that is the only source of relief. Maybe we would be less likely to find ways to divide ourselves and keep other Christians who are not just like us at arm's length.

Just a thought.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Still Clinging To Roman Ecclesiology After All These Years

Next year will feature an important date. October 31st, 2017 is 500 years to the day after the reformer Martin Luther  famously nailed the 95 Thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, an event that is traditionally known as the start of the Protestant Reformation. Those of us looking back half a millennium to those heroic reformers, from Luther and Calvin to Hubmaier and Sattler, see a cataclysmic event, nothing less than the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, bringing it out of the shadows of Roman efforts to bury the Gospel of Christ under layers of ritual, superstition and authoritarianism.

A lot has changed over the last 500 years, much of it for the better. While the splintering and re-splintering of Protestant, evangelical Christianity is deplorable as is the rise of the church-state Protestant monster to compete with or even replace the Roman church-state monster, there has also been an incredible movement of the Holy Spirit. Millions upon millions, tens or hundreds of millions, have been saved by the Gospel of Christ, a Gospel of free grace apart from works. It is a Gospel that is not simply different from but the very antithesis of the religion promoted by Rome. When you examine topics like justification and the Holy Spirit, it is apparent that Rome and evangelicalism are not talking about the same thing in spite of contemporary efforts to gloss over these differences for he purpose of political alliances.

There is one place where that clear and shining divider between the Kingdom and man-made religion is not as apparent and that is how the church is understood. Sure there is plenty of material that has been written over the centuries that highlight the Christian view of the church as opposed to the Roman view but in practice there is a lot that is the same. I was reminded of this in a link from Tim Challies that grabbed my attention right away. The title of the post is this question: Can We Be SavedWithout The Church?.

What a crazy and ultimately meaningless question. To be saved is to be in the church and you are in the church if you are saved. The two go hand and hand. When one is born-again he becomes part of the new creation in Christ, His Body we call the church. In other words it is impossible to be saved and not be part of the church but here is where it gets tricky. When someone is saved, born-again, regenerated they by definition become part of the church but one is not saved by becoming part of the church. Being baptized and showing up on Sunday don't save you. Regeneration precedes adoption although functionally they are happening at the same time. Being adopted into the family of God and becoming part of the church is a result of salvation, not a catalyst for salvation. So if you ask if someone can be saved and yet not be part of the church, of course the answer is no. The two are inseparable.

But that isn't what the question is asking in this post. What is being asked is this, can I be saved if I am not a participant in the ritual and practice of organized religion? That is easily answered in Catholicism. No you cannot. You cannot be a Catholic without the rituals involved in Catholic religion, the Mass, the confessional, the sacraments. As I have stated before, these sacramental rituals are given the power of justification and forgiveness specifically to be a means of controlling people. If an organized religious organization controls the means of access to God, then it controls you. If you step out of line, especially if you ask the wrong questions, you get cut off from the religion and therefore you believe you are cut off from God. So you keep your mouth shut and don't rock the boat and as long as you go to the confessional to spill the beans pretty much anything goes and can be covered by a few Hail Mary's and Our Father's. But is that true in evangelicalism, in Biblical Christianity? No but you might not realize that based on this post from Andrew Wilson. Wilson is quoting Cyprian and an author named Marcus Peter Johnson with minimal thoughts of his own. The quotes from Cyprian are pretty well known and are, as in this case, usually tossed out as authoritative and deep without any interaction:

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, said Cyprian of Carthage: "Outside of the Church, there is no salvation." Even more provocatively: "he cannot have God as Father who doesn't have the Church as Mother." Emphatic stuff.

Call me crazy but being a Christian who could be categorized as evangelical, fundamentalist, Reformed and Anabaptist means that I don't hold the opinions of Cyprian as authoritative and infallible. He said something, it is up to the Scriptures to affirm or deny in whole or in part what he said. I am not going to spend any time interacting with Cyprian because Wilson doesn't either except to remark that it is "emphatic stuff". Bill Clinton can get up and say emphatically that his "wife" would make a great President but it doesn't make it so. Onward.

Wilson quotes several paragraphs from Johnson. Here is the first one:

The first reason ... is that the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of salvation, is intimately bound up with the proclamation of the church. To proclaim the mystery of Christ includes the proclamation of the mystery of the church [he then cites and summarises Gal 3:26-28; Eph 3:1-12; 5:31-32; 1 Cor 6:15].

All well and good. Viewed through the linkage I briefly explained previously that salvation and the church are inextricably linked, that makes total sense, although the cause and effect make all of the difference. It is the second paragraph where we run into problems (bold type mine).

Our union with Christ provides a second reason ... It is important to point out that the Protestant Reformers affirmed that there is no salvation outside of the church precisely because there is no salvation outside of Christ. They were convinced that the church is the body of Christ, and that Christ is truly present in and through the church in the divinely ordained means of Word and sacrament. For them, a rejection of the extra ecclesiam would have meant a rejection of these dearly held, fundamental ecclesiological realities.

See how that is slipped in there. In one sentence you have a Biblical truth "the church is the body of Christ" but then they slide in the additional stuff, Christ is "truly", i.e. "only" present in the religious sacramental ritual of "communion" and the preached word, i.e. a sermon delivered by clergy. In that little fragment of a sentence you have the basis for a Protestant system that functions much like the Roman system, and in fact you see the definition of the church shift from the Body of Christ to religious organizations. The means of access to Christ, to be truly in communion with Him, is only found in the rituals of the institutionalized church and the church can only gather and properly function when an ordained cleric is officiating. Just a few words, not even a complete sentence, but it throws sand in the face of the foundations of the Reformation, or at least what the Reformation ought to have been.

What troubles me almost as much as assertions like the one Johnson makes and Wilson affirms is not just what it says but how unreservedly and blithely most Christians just accept  it. That is the result of both a general inability of most Christians to read, interpret and apply Scripture on their own and at the same time the people who are subcontracted with the task of exegesis on behalf of the church are also vocationally incentivized to perpetuate the modified Roman ecclesiology that makes them indispensable to the church and therefore puts them in a position to demand a permanent salaried job within the church. We can't have the church without the "sacraments" and the sermon and we can't have the sacraments or sermon without the clergy and as the regular Christian is not qualified to officiate the sacraments and sermon we have to hire men with specific religious training to do both on our behalf. These same men reinforce the notion that they are indispensable to the genuine Christian life of a disciple. 

Can one be saved apart from the church? If you define the church as the Bible does, the people of God distinct from any religious organization, then no, of course not. If you define the "church" as the people of God and a visible religious organization run by clergy, then yes you can. One doesn't have to be part of a "church" as a condition of salvation. If that were true then there wouldn't be any Christians in the Bible. The thief on the cross, the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul in the wilderness. All were saved and part of the church and in none of those cases was there a pastor giving a sermon and officiating the sacraments. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see described or commanded what we would recognize as a "worship service", not even in Acts 20: 7-12 which I have addressed on multiple occasions. 

There are many benefits to communal worship, prayer and edification, even in the context of a very traditional institutional church. I would agree that Christianity is not intended to be lived out in isolation from other believers but that doesn't demand a specific, clergy-centered, event-driven religious organization. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't possibly be saved unless you join their little religious club. Jesus determines who is His and He died for a people, a nation within nations, a family of adopted sinners made new creatures, moving from dead sinners to children of God. He didn't die and rise again to provide full employment for seminary graduates. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Remember Who You Are Rendering Unto

Perpetually aggrieved Fox News columnist Todd Starnes, always good for a post to get the patriotic-religious industrial complex frothing at the mouth, is outraged, outraged I say!, that parents have the ability to request that their children not be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance: Parents fuming over Pledge of Allegiance 'waiver'. The horror! In general people who label themselves "Christian conservatives" are all about parental rights. The school and the state should be firmly in second place at best when it comes to what is right for kids, way behind the primacy of parents. If it comes to graphic sex education, parents absolutely have the right to insist that their children not be required to sit through it. When it comes to children being forced to recite a pledge of fealty to a secular state and do so in the generic name of "God" though? That smells like commie subversiveness to me! Why exactly is it OK to force families to acquiesce to the demands of the state when it comes to a loyalty oath made to a flag but not when it comes to sex ed?

I will let you in on a little secret. I don't recite the Pledge when I am at civic events where it is being recited. I don't make my kids recite it in home school. I would not make and would actually discourage my kids from reciting it in public. The Pledge is a pledge of allegiance to a flag which represents a secular republic. That is bad enough. When you falsely invoke the name of God, it is serving to conflate the United States of America with the Kingdom of God. The U.S. is no more "under God" than any other nation.Why would any Christian who has as his or her first fealty to the Kingdom of God ruled by Christ object to someone not having a child recite a pledge of loyalty somewhere else? The Bible tells us quite a bit about the danger of having split loyalty and yet the most vocal advocates of forcing kids to recite the Pledge are usually "Christians".

At most levels of schooling, I can't imagine kids understand the implications of pledging allegiance to a flag. For little kids it is just something you say because an authority figure and peer pressure make you say it but it creates an image in the mind of America as uniquely "under God" and helps to foster the patriotic fervor needed by the state to manipulate citizens. I would cautiously suggest that at the worst, the Pledge is a sort of soft brainwashing. Get a kid to repeat the pledge over and over often enough and pretty soon that sort of loyalty to country gets deeply embedded in the mind, the kind of loyalty to state that is needed to get people to take up arms and go kill people in another country because of a threat, real or imagined, to the republic who's flag they swear allegiance to.

Forcing kids to repeat a pledge they don't understand the ramifications of over and over and then getting outraged when some parents don't want their kids participating is about the least Kingdom minded and most un-American thing I can think of. No one who loves Christ and loves this country should want anyone to be forced by the state to swear allegiance to a flag. The freedom of expression, the freedom of association and the freedom of religion are in the First Amendment for a reason and that amendment is where it is for a reason. If you think the hope for the future of America rests on forcing kids to participate in the Pledge, this country is worse off than you think and you don't really understand America, or at least what America is supposed to be about.

Todd Starnes is one of those who appeal to the basest emotions and give credence to people who think conservative Christians are mullet-wearing, knuckle-dragging ignoramuses. What is really irritating is that someone purports to champion American and Christian values when his column appears on the Fox News webpage above the tawdry links to the latest sex tapes, wardrobe malfunctions and other scandalous "news". What is likewise irritating is that on every single issue, the "conservative" position is on more solid intellectual grounds than the "progressive" position but instead of relying on a powerful and cogent argument we get breathless warnings about the "progressive" bogeyman who doesn't want every kid to pledge allegiance to a flag. The conservative and the Christian position in our society is on pretty shaky ground in large part due to this sort of flag waving silliness. So please Mr. Starnes, don't do the church or 'Murica any more favors.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Proof Humanity Is Doomed

I saw this tonight at the grocery store:

Egg free eggs. Why does the box have chickens on it when it doesn't contain anything that comes from a chicken. You might as well put a picture of a hippopotamus on the box.

So for over $7 you get 10-12 "eggs" that are not eggs.

We are doomed.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Unseen Disease Devouring The Church From Within

By and large the church in the West, at least in America, has a really hard time dealing with people who go off script. People who don't dress the right way or who don't smile on cue or who don't always say that they are "fine". I have been part of way too many churches that are nice, middle class, white, suburban churches, which is fine in and of itself but it also was clearly uncomfortable for many people who didn't fit into the mold. People who are poor or who are poorly educated or who have a physical infirmity, these make a lot of people uncomfortable. It is a huge problem but there is another problem, one that is at least as destructive and all the more so because it is not obvious to the naked eye. This problem is mental illness and many Christians would rather spend hours in endless debates over the church budget than try to deal with fellow believers who suffer in silence and anonymity. Someone in a wheelchair might make us uncomfortable but someone who looks "fine" but clearly is struggling amplifies that immensely.

There are a lot of forms of mental illness but the one I am talking about today is the various strains of anxiety disorders. It is of interest to me because I have to deal with it, often with very little success, personally on a daily basis. I am not ready to lay out online the events that led me here other than to say in general that over the better part of the last decade I have been slowly but inexorably unraveling. It has grown more acute over the last 2 or 3 years and the sudden drop in blog volume is one of the ways it has impacted me. Honestly though for myself and for my family that is the least of our issues. Often this illness is met with uncomfortable silence in hopes it will go away or with a out of context verse, like Philippians 4:6, to make those who suffer from anxiety disorders to feel like they are doing something wrong. That really doesn't help.

What brings this up and why I have chosen to give the tiniest glimmer of a look at what I have been dealing with is a very powerful guest post at the blog of Tim Challies. It is written by Adam Ford who does comics and the almost always hilarious Babylon Bee which is a must read site for me. Adam wrote Some Things You Should Know About Christians Who Struggle With Anxiety and a lot of it was like he was talking about me. It sounds as if this is a lot more widespread than you might think and as I said above it is often the case, completely unintentionally I believe, that the very mechanism God created to provide us support, the church, has actually made things worse because so many of us feel like we have to hide what is going on in order to fit in. Believe me when I say that in short bursts I can be completely OK. I can speak eloquently and comfortably and look like nothing is wrong. It only lasts for a short time. There are also times when making a phone call or going around the corner is as insurmountable for me as dunking a basketball.

Just writing this is pretty hard and I wouldn't have done it at all if I wasn't able to point you to a website that houses one of the most widely read bloggers in any sphere of life. I hope at some point to be in a place where I can write more personally and more comprehensively. I am not there now. Even writing what I did feels like a cheap ploy to get sympathy which is the last thing I want. All I really want from others is to understand that there are a lot of people who are really struggling and often it isn't visible. They might not "skip church" because they are an anti-authority slacker but because they can't leave the house. It is something the church needs to grapple with because it doesn't seem as if it is getting better, rather it seems to be getting worse.

Give Adam's post a read. If you also suffer from similar issues it might bring you some comfort. If you don't it might give you some insight. Either way it was an encouragement to me and I hope it is to you.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Bible As A Unified Whole Rather Than A Bunch Of Individual Verses

One of the most concrete rules for the Christian seeking to drink deeply and profitably from the well of Scripture is that every verse needs to be read in context. Reading in context is much more than reading the verse immediately preceding and the verse immediately following the verse you are citing. The Bible as a whole is a unified revelation of God unfolding through the ages His interacting in holiness and glory with the sin deadened world, culminating in the cross of His Son, the heralding of the Kingdom and the inauguration of God's greatest, complete and final covenant with His people. Too often we see the Bible as a whole bunch of moralistic stories, almost as though we never advanced past the children's story book Bible stage, and/or a bunch of verses that we use after sifting through the Bible to find something to support what we have already decided.

I ran into this again in a discussion regarding Christians and the sword, something I have written about a lot. The conversation was launched based on a posting of Ron Sider's article, The Early Church And Killing. I am continually amazed and saddened by how eagerly and often angrily people who profess to be Christians knee-jerk react to any suggestion that we as the ambassadors of the Prince of Peace ought not be in the business of heading out to kill our "enemies", who historically have often been other believers, at the command of Caesar. Specifically someone responded to my comment that putting forth Luke 3:14 where Jesus says a single sentence about soldiers, telling them not to abuse their position and nothing else, is making an argument from silence as He neither affirmed nor condemned being a soldier. That leaves us with the necessity of seeking what else Jesus and the apostles taught on the topic. The gist of the reply was that the Bible speaks favorably about men of war in the book of Hebrews so God must be OK with Christians serving as soldiers.

It is not an argument I have never come up against but it is a lot more rare than the "two swords" passage or direct appeals to the Old Testament. The argument goes like this: In the book of Hebrews, specifically Hebrews 11:32-38 and Hebrews 7:1-3, the author of the book praises some of those mentioned in the Bible as mighty warriors. Therefore God is Ok with His people being soldiers. The passages read as follows (I have added emphasis where I presume those who use these verses to argue in favor of Christians engaging in warfare are focused):

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. Hebrews 7:1-3


And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. Hebrews 11:32-38

First off, what is the point here? Is it the promotion of warfare? Not really. The point being made in the first paragraph is both God's and Abraham's faithfulness. Ironically the writer of Hebrews describes Melchizedek as the "king of Salem...that is the king of peace". It is their faithfulness that lands people in positions of praise in the book of Hebrews. Being valiant for the sake of being valiant is not what the Bible is praising. Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, was a valiant warrior and a brilliant general. He also led the armies of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Vasily Zaytsev, the Russian sniper immortalized in the movie Enemy At The Gates, was a valiant warrior who reportedly killed hundreds of Nazis single-handedly. He fought on behalf of the Stalinist Soviet Union that matched the genocidal prowess of the Third Reich's Final Solution. Being valiant isn't what God is after. Being faithful is what God is expecting from His people.

Second, and this is pretty critical, the men who were mighty warriors in Hebrews 11 were living in a specific covenant nation made up of believers and unbelievers and part of that covenant was that God commanded them to drive out certain people groups by force and take possession of their lands. Let me repeat that. The heroes of Hebrews 11 lived under a conditional covenant that is now obsolete that demanded as part of that covenant the conquest of other people groups. Although national Israel was made up of both believers and unbelievers, they were all part of God's covenant people. On the other hand the nations they conquered were essentially 100% not God's people. God Himself commanded His-people to war against not-His-people. So how does that compare to now?

Since the dismantling of the nation of Israel, the destruction of the Temple and the inauguration of the New Covenant there has never been a war fought to compare to that situation under the obsolete Old Covenant. God has never commanded His people who are the Bride of Christ, the citizens of the Kingdom rather than the world, to go to war based on which secular nation-state they live in and kill people from another secular nation-state. In every war of Western Europe and America, believers have been sent out by Caesar to kill their enemies who often are their brothers in Christ. To narrow down our focus a bit let me make a succinct, clear statement:

Every single war America has ever fought has included believers killing other believers for no reason other than they wore a different uniform and a different leader told them to do so.

Every. Single. War.

Two men, bought by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, pointing spears or sword or muskets or rifles at each other with the intent to take another life bought by Christ. That is perverse and I would argue blasphemous. Little wonder that in every war America has fought, clergy have been enlisted by Caesar to put their stamp of approval on these wars, from the Revolutionary War to the invasion of Iraq, to convince Christians that God is on "our side" and He is fine with Christians killing other people because He obviously is not on "their side". Of course clergy on the other side are assuring their fellow citizens that God is in fact on "their side". Imagine this. Before many battles in the Civil War, clergy prayed on behalf of their side while fellow American believers were praying a stones throw away on behalf of their side. The hope of each was victory which means killing more of them than they kill of you.

Is that why Jesus redeemed us? So we can kill each other because some leader, often an unbeliever, sends Christian to fight Christian? Perish the thought.

We are supposed to think that God wants His own people to kill for the state because men were commanded to fight under an obsolete covenant? God has placed the sword in the hand of the state (Romans 13:1-5) and immediately before that He has forbidden His people to take up the sword (Romans 12: 16-21). Context.

Viewed in the light of comprehensive Biblical context it is clear that the conditions that existed when God commanded His people to go to war under a now obsolete covenant relationship no longer exist and as a people who are mixed into all the nations, Christians are never commanded and in fact are forbidden from taking up the sword to kill our enemies. The enemies of one state are not automatically our enemies just because we live there. Even if they truly are our enemies, the only response to an enemy we are given in the Bible is to love them. The world overcomes evil by the sword. The Church overcomes evil by the Spirit of God leading His people to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). If you want to be a hero, show your faithfulness and devotion with love, not with a sword.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Holding Firm To Your Convictions While Being Welcoming To Others

Many churches and denominations have certain positions that they hold with a great deal of conviction. You don't find a lot of people holding fast to something that they are ambivalent about, which partly explains the mass exodus from more liberal/progressive denominations. While we live in an era of cookie cutter "non-denominational" churches with virtually identical websites and a predictable propaganda offering, there are still a lot of groups that have specific convictions on specific issues. Some of them are a little goofy like exclusive psalmody churches, some are downright ridiculous and counter-productive like the King James Only folks. Others though are simply people who have found in Scripture attitudes, doctrines and practices that they feel are important enough to hold to them firmly. What I have found is that many of these distinctive beliefs and practices are correct and worthwhile. I have also found that too often they serve as a barrier to fellowship with others who are not quite on board.

About the same time that I posted The Anabaptist Option > The Benedict Option, Simon Fry wrote a great piece, When Culture Takes Precedence Over Evangelism. In this essay he examines something that I have observed first hand, namely that it sometimes seems like preserving and protecting conservative Anabaptist culture is more important than fulfilling the Great Commission. In general here I am not talking about the Amish who absolutely have no interest in evangelism outside of their own community. I am speaking here more of Mennonites, Beachy Amish, other conservative groups that are more integrated (at least in their vocational life) with the rest of the church and the community at large and seem eager to try to reach the lost, but often without much success. Simon writes: 

Anabaptists tend to have smaller groups that know each other well and have a close “brotherhood”. This closeness is often noted by outsiders and looked on with envious admiration. But often it is our close brotherhood, much like an exclusive social club, that keeps out the very ones that we should be bringing in. Is it possible to evangelize without losing that closeness and even our culture (the customs of a particular nation, people, or group) that we guard so zealously? And if it is not possible, which is of greater importance –culture and close brotherhood, or reaching the lost?

That is a pretty tough question and there is not an easy answer. Many religious folk in America would say the answer is obvious, of course reaching the lost is more important! The problem with that assumption is that what many religious people are "reaching the lost" with is so watered down that it doesn't even qualify as Christianity.

To compound the difficulty of the question, as someone who irregularly attends a very conservative Mennonite church, is that I think there is much that is praiseworthy in what they practice. In principle I think that they are more right on their ecclesiastical and fellowship practices than not. The problem is that for people new to Christianity as well as to people who have been Christians for a while in a different setting is that for all of the positives of conservative Anabaptism there is also a sense of being "all or nothing". You are either on board with every practice and position or you are relegated to being a perpetual visitor or guest. A classic and rather personally raw issue is the Lord's Supper. The blessing and privilege of the Lord's Table is one that is extended to all Christians and commanded of them. Yet it is often held hostage to manmade rules and culture that lumps believers with different practices in some areas with unbelievers and those caught up in unrepentant sin. I have experienced this first hand and based on Simon's post and his previous posts so have a lot of other people. Near the end of his post he writes a good summary:

Churches that allow differences in personality, temperament, social status, and dress style will have a church with a greater potential of growing. Think about it, if a doctor, a farmer, a trucker, and a redneck all attend church together, (no this is not leading into a redneck joke) that is four different types of people that could be reached by evangelism by these individuals. If we all look alike and only allow certain types of people to be accepted, we are very limited in our evangelism.

When a visitor sees a variety of dress styles, they will be more likely to feel they will fit in somewhere than if there is only one accepted dress style. When only those who feel comfortable in one particular style are accepted, new additions are very limited.

If a the church has both women who wear head coverings and women who don’t, new converts feel welcomed. Don’t chase away the women who God has not yet convicted to wear head coverings. Perhaps He has other things that He deems to be of greater importance that He wishes to work on in their lives first. We cannot put limits on God. Preach the Word faithfully and allow Him to work at His own pace. His timing is always better than ours! Perhaps He waits because there are some others He wishes to bring into the church that would never come if they were the only one who did not wear a head covering. If we truly believe that God can convict someone, than why don’t we act like it? Forcing people to do something by rules enforced by using communion as a hammer never changes anyone’s heart. Only God can change someone’s deepest heart beliefs.

I would never tell conservative Anabaptists that they should jettison their distinctive teaching in order to placate the world. I simply am asking if they have given as much thought as perhaps they should to how they can be more fully accepting into complete fellowship people who might not share every doctrine and practice that conservative Anabaptists hold dear. If congregations would make room for people who are not where everyone else is without holding the Lord's Supper hostage, something intentional rather than merely by default, I think you would see a lot of these conservative Anabaptist churches reaching more of the lost, seeing growth in their ranks from something other than baptizing their kids or poaching from other conservative Anabaptists and perhaps even learning some challenging ideas to shake them up. It can be very easy to get into a routine that never asks the hard questions and it is just as easy for that routine to go from years to decades to whole generations of people who have never been seriously challenged to grow or to reassess their culture and traditions. People are searching for churches that have solid convictions but they aren't looking for a 20 page document telling them what they have to start doing to be actually welcomed in. For example, the Pilgrim Mennonite Conference, a very conservative Anabaptist group that has a lot going for it, has a document that details their beliefs on the web. There are 7 pages of doctrinal statements on the typical subjects one finds in a confession of faith. There are also around 40 pages dealing with how one should live, what to wear, how to call ministers, using tobacco, listening to the radio, driving cars, etc. So you would not be wrong to wonder why core Christian doctrines on matters of grace and salvation and the nature of God get less than 20% of the pages devoted to rules and regulations.

The comment section of Simon's post is over 40 comments and growing. I have a lot of respect for Simon for being as interactive as he is with those who comment. Many of the comments are very good and add a lot to the discussion. If you are interested in these sorts of questions, questions that appear in Reformed churches or any other high commitment denomination or faction, give Simon's post a look.

Addendum: Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I haven't done this before but I wanted to offer an addendum to my recent book review of J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy.

In reading my review, Vance's book and the reviews of others you might come away with a completely pessimistic and negative view of these people we call hillbillies, sitting in their "hollers", complaining about the tough hand life has dealt them and shooting heroin. There is a lot of that. There are also some very real cow patty sammiches that they have been served outside of their own control.

Many blue collar jobs have been shipped overseas. Many industries and companies have been given preferential treatment because of political contributions. In many ways the game has been rigged against them. Union bosses have gotten rich pushing destructive demands on companies that just encourage them to take their jobs elsewhere. The Republican party has been raking in their votes with empty promises that are set aside as soon as they get in office. Working class people in Youngstown, Ohio are not really all that concerned about lowering the capital gains rate, which is a worthwhile idea, they just want their kids to be able to get jobs in their own home town. By insisting that every kid go a a four year college instead of encouraging them to consider trade schools, our society has created a brain drain where kids who can make it at a university leave and don't come back and those that can't are left looking for jobs at Taco Bell. Right or wrong they see a government that ignores them in favor of other people in poverty while cultural elites on the coasts sneer and look down their noses at the only subculture one is allowed to make fun of, accusing them of inherent racism and "white privilege" which sounds pretty laughable to a kid growing up in one of the homes described in Hillbilly Elegy.

None of that excuses the loser who knocks up a girl and then either sits on the couch while she works two jobs to support them or just flat out leaves. What it does mean is that there are real issues that are out of the control of a lot of these people, or at least they have been convinced is out of their control, and hopelessness is a lot easier to deal with when you are abusing prescription drugs or smoking pot. What J.D. Vance does so well in this book is take this entire population out of the shadows and the cliches and expose them as real people. If nothing else he deserves kudos for that.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

We live in a world of Black Lives Matter, of constant harping about "white privilege" and a focus on the trials and tribulations of the nation's inner cities. What we rarely think about, except to sneer at it, is the huge population of Americans who inhabit the rural and semi-rural white working class that dwell in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and the South, a group of people who are falling behind at an alarming pace and who suffer from the same maladies as inner city blacks except for the astronomical homicide rate. They are a largely forgotten people and many of the opinion makers in America are glad to not have to think about them.

There are some who look at the problems in this group like Charles Murray and his fantastic book Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010 but his work is a bit heavy for casual reading. Into this slow moving demographic train-wreck comes Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis by J.D. Vance. Vance comes from a world many people who live in the suburbs haven't a clue about but Vance's book comes out at a critical time in America. As I write this the Republican Party has rather reluctantly nominated Donald Trump to be President and much of his support comes ironically from this white lower class, people from coal towns in Kentucky and shuttered steel mills in Ohio who have found a champion in an East Coast billionaire. If you don't understand these people, you can't understand Trump's rise.

Vance tells his story in a simple, straight forward and pretty raw style. You won't find such salty language even in a George R.R. Martin book and it is all the more shocking because so much of it comes from his grandmother or as he calls her Mamaw. It is the story of an intensely proud, religious, patriotic people who praise the virtue of hard-work but who also seem loathe to engage in it. People who are religious but have no connection to a faith community and who show none of the signs of a believer. A people who are patriotic to a fault but who simultaneously hate the government that many of them are dependent on. Above all a people who think they lack agency, that all of their problems are being inflicted on them from outside and there is nothing they can do about it. From his unimaginably tumultuous childhood with only his extended family to watch over him as his mother engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior and relationships, to his escape to the Marine Corps (for many kids in poor, rural areas the only path out is the military) to his admittance to Ohio State and then finally to his law degree from Yale of all places, Vance tells what is really an incredibly improbably story.

A hillbilly who almost flunked out of high school going to Yale Law School. That part of his life is the most puzzling to me. Anyone can get into Ohio State if they are from Ohio. I walked into a counselors office on a lark one summer day in Columbus with my future wife and was accepted without applying and registered for classes on the spot. What still seems odd to me is that he parlayed that into acceptance to Yale. Anyway.

I am a native Ohioan but I come from a little different background. Growing up in the Toledo area the son of a doctor meant that might experience as a kid was very different. It wasn't a question of if I could get into college but which college I would attend but even Toledo has it's share of hillbillies. Toledo used to be a white, working class, blue collar union town. My mom grew up in that part of Ohio east of Columbus and south of Cleveland that looks a lot more like Kentucky and West Virginia than Cincinnati. My dad grew up in a poor Polish family in Toledo. I remember visiting family with my maternal grandpa down in the hill country and thinking it was a whole different world. My wife's family still has a lot of those roots as well with many of the same issues that Vance describes in his book. Even where we lived in Ohio and now in Indiana we are just on the periphery of this culture Vance describes so vividly.

Hillbilly Elegy describes a world where about everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. In deep rural areas all around the South and Rustbelt Midwest heroin, meth and prescription drug abuse are rampant. Unwed mothers are common place. Welfare and food stamps sustain a lot of people. But what is most troubling, and if I am honest infuriating, is the fatalism so many people exhibit. Nothing is their fault, everything bad is being done to them rather than being the consequences of their own poor decisions. Boys grow up sneering at academic achievement. Girls seem drawn to absolute losers who knock them up and then move on to the next girl. A lot of people I grew up with mocked blacks for being dependent on the government, being lazy "welfare queens" while living in pretty much the same manner. Vance spins a compelling story that is hard to put down. Living in a home where books were always at hand, where classical music often was playing, where as a family we would watch The McLaughlin Group together for fun this world was completely foreign to me as much as the world portrayed in movies like Boyz n The Hood talked about a foreign world to me. The world J.D. describes is a bad situation and it is getting worse.

So what is the solution? What is perhaps most troubling is that there isn't one. The "War On Poverty", the bottomless pit of "education" spending, a myriad of social safety nets, all of these programs so beloved in Washington have cost us untold tens of trillions of dollars and it can be argued have made things worse. Vance closes out his tale with this:

"I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better." pg. 256

The hard truth that people in permanent underclasses need to realize is that at some point it is up to each individual community to make things better. People in Washington and New York and Boston can't really fix a problem that they don't understand and trillions of dollars in spending has proven that. It is up to the hillbillies to say enough is enough, enough with the refusal to work to support a family, enough with the constant turmoil and violence in families, enough with the dependency on government and drugs. It doesn't make for a storybook ending but it is the truth and in these times the hard truth is far more valuable than the comfortable lie. I can say without reserve that Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most compelling and most important books to have hit the scene for many years.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Against Hessian Pastors.....Repost: Home Cookin'

Hessian mercenaries,
American Revolution Era
There are some posts I have written over the years that I keep being reminded of again and again. That doesn't mean they are particularly well written but rather that the issues that led to me writing them keep cropping up over and over. My post from 2009, Home Cookin', is one such post. My main beef in that post that still troubles me today has to do with the ubiquity of mercenary pastors, men who are largely unknown to their hiring church, often lured away from their current church with the promise of more prestige and more money.

Of all of the negatives that come from a professionalized clergy, few are more damaging than the practice of hiring mercenary pastors who come to a church based on a few interviews and some sermon samples, a pre-packaged, ready to plug in guy who usually doesn't know the city he is moving to or the people he is supposed to be serving as an elder and on the other hand has no real attachments to those people apart from getting a check every week. Sure they often come to love the people they are hired to pastor but it is amazing how often those same pastors feel "called" to go to yet another church that coincidentally offers them more money and prestige. 

During the American Revolution, the British hired mercenaries from Germany to fill out their ranks. These mercenaries, called Hessians, had no stake in the war. It didn't really matter to them if the British prevailed or if the colonials won their independence. They were being paid to fight for one side and that is what they did. I think most of the guys who are these mercenary pastors have a good heart and think they are doing the right thing but our model of professional clergy makes many guys think that is the only way, and ironically the Biblical way, of doing "ministry". 

What we see in the Bible are not mercenary pastors who are hired from outside because training men up from within the church is too time consuming and difficult. The church in the early days appointed men from within the body to serve as elders and leaders. These were men who presumably knew the rest of the church and that the rest of the church knew. They weren't called as elders based on a few interviews and a website, they were men who had been observed by their peers over time. This takes time and it doesn't lend itself to men being professional, paid clergy because presumably they have had jobs already. It does lend itself to men sharing the burden rather than hiring someone to take it all on. 

The fellowship we attend somewhat irregularly has a few men who share the leadership of the church. Each of them has a job outside of the church to provide for their family. Each of them has been in this fellowship for a substantial time. Certainly there are issues with having little exposure to the church outside of that one fellowship but I think the advantages of having men raised up from with rather than hired from without outweigh those concerns.


I was looking over Dave Black’s page and I read through an interesting post called Returning Biblical Education to the Local Church. He brings up something I have mulled over for some time: the inherent problem with hiring men from outside of the local body to lead that local body. That is not the primary thrust of his post but it really got me thinking afresh and asking the question: Why do we seek men who are strangers to come to our local body and lead us? Would we not be better served with men who led us because they came from us? Is a professional, prepackaged minister a better and more importantly a more Biblical man to be an elder? Dave obviously doesn’t think so and neither do I…

“Clergy” becomes a whole way of living, an ecclesiastical subculture. The church, however, predates the seminary and will outlast it. The book of Acts reminds us that the earliest church leaders were homegrown nobodies. They were not parachuted in from the outside with all of the proper credentials. They were already full participants in their congregations – they had homes, they had jobs, and they had solid reputations. If at all possible, I think we too would do well to train people for leadership in our local churches, equipping them for evangelism and other ministries, thus complementing the work of our seminaries and Bible colleges. The early church knew that leadership is best learned by on-the-job training, not by sending our most promising leaders off to sit behind a desk.

I think this phenomena of professional ministers is a product in large part of two factors. First, we are a country that by and large draws its identity from Europe and with her state sponsored churches, professional clergy is part of the fabric of the society. Second, and more importantly, we are Americans. We live in a prepackaged, processed, microwave age. Sure home cooked meals from scratch taste better and are better for you, but it is such a hassle! I can spend an hour or two cooking up a nice meal for my family (and even that requires pre-cut meat, canned veggies, boxed side dishes) or I can get some pizzas. In my family we get pizzas or something similar pretty often and in families where both spouses work it is even more common. We want it quick, easy and disposable.

The church seems to think the same way. Training and raising a man up within the local body who can grow in knowledge and maturity until he is ready to lead as an elder takes a long time and is hard work. It may not always work out, he may move, he may lack the aptitude for it, he may turn out to not be a very good elder. It is a whole lot easier and faster to find someone who already is “qualified”, i.e. has a seminary degree, who we can interview and “call” to ministry. Of course he will probably have to move and so to entice him we need to pay him. If he were already a part of the congregation, he would have a job and a home and ties to the community. He would know and be known by the local body because he is a part of that body. They would know him and his wife and his kids, and that would make it possible to know if he meets the qualifications for an elder listed in the Bible instead of meeting the resume credentials that are often the entry level for being considered to be a pastor. It makes more sense and it is more faithful to the Bible to raise leaders up internally but that just takes too long. So instead, church after church hires strangers to come in to lead and love people they have likely never met. It only adds to the separation between the clergy and the laity to have a paid professional come on the scene. Hard to believe with that great set-up that so many men leave the ministry, that churches have such high turnover in pastors and the men who stay are often frustrated and burned-out. When you view the pastor as a paid professional, someone hired and brought in from the outside, why not get rid of them? Paid, professional clergy are employees and as such they are disposable. A church can always find someone else to pay to lead them. On the flip side, when ministry is your job you can understand why men leave church A with 100 members for church B with 250 members. If you are from within the congregation and not getting paid, why would you leave? It is not a job, it is truly a calling.

Just because we live in a quick, easy and disposable society doesn’t mean that is how the church should operate. It is certainly harder, more time consuming and more sacrificial to raise up leaders in the church but I believe (and I think the Bible supports) the idea that a primary responsibility of the local body is in the training and support of men from within that body to lead that body. Seminary may be a part of that training, but it is only one part of an integrated development of leaders, not an end in and of itself. Hiring pastors like an old western gunslinger to come in and clean up the town before moving on is an injustice to the local body, to those men and their families. We need to take the time to look around the cupboards, find the ingredients and whip up some home grown elders.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Anabaptist Option > The Benedict Option

By any measure the church, both the actual church of regenerate believers and the pseudo-church that hides behind a moralistic, religious facade, is headed for hard times. We can discuss whether the church losing her protected perch is a good thing or a bad thing but the end result is going to be a seismic shift in the way the church relates to the world in the context of America. The events of the last few years regarding homosexual "marriage", religious liberty, freedom of association and freedom of conscience, all of the major church-world flash-points we have observed are just the tip of the iceberg. Facing as we are a future four year term of either an arrogant, unstable wannabe authoritarian or a corrupt, criminal worshiper of the cult of infanticide, it is hard to imagine that things will change for the better.

This unshakable reality has led many a thinker, Christians and conservative religious types alike, to ask "what now?", how are we to live and function in a brave new world, taking a Gospel to a people who no longer fear the cultural stigma of being irreligious? This is especially problematic as so many of the people and groups asking that question don't even agree on what the Gospel is, either agreeing to not worry about it or seeking a lowest common denominator acceptable definition of the Gospel.

One of the more popular and coherent options being put forth for the church comes from Rod Dreher who writes extensively at The American Conservative. Rod has been banging the drum for an option that labels The Benedict Option and it seems to be gathering some serious support. The Benedict Option is sort of a withdrawal from the world, not in the sense of being disengaged but rather by being distinct from the world to preserve civilization and religion for that time when the suicidal culture we live in finally collapses. His synopsis is below:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

This has some merit. For too long the church has had a vested interest in being unequally yoked to the state, with the state providing religious protection, a favored position in the culture and favorable tax treatment and the church in turn being a public agent of the state, giving religious significance and authorization to the workings of the American empire and tragically been at the front of the line to send our young men out to kill at Caesar's demand. I would agree that being intentional in our community with one another will be even more critical in the decades to come if the church is to survive. What Rod sort of misses is that these sorts of "set apart" communities exist today. He gives passing reference to the Bruderhof but fails to mention the Hutterites, the Amish, the Old German Baptist Brethren and some of the more conservative manifestations of Mennonites who already are practicing a culture of separation from the world, although a case can be made that they do so to a fault.

Of course Dreher's vantage point as an Orthodox (Capital "O" Orthodox) convert from Catholicism is a major factor here. His Catholic/Orthodox blinders are apparent whenever he speaks of anything evangelical or Protestant, at least non high-church Protestantism. The people most likely to embrace some form of the Benedict Option outside of the Roman/Orthodox sphere are those Protestant/evangelical types that are most conservative and speaking as someone who falls into that continuum I can say with confidence that we don't find much common cause with ornate ritualistic religions headed up by popes and patriarchs and including a lot of very troubling religious beliefs and practices. You can find some of that in this part of his Introduction To The Benedict Option:

Well, what is evangelizing? Is it merely dispersing information? Or is there something more to it. The Benedict Option is about discipleship, which is itself an indirect form of evangelism. Pagans converted to the early Church not simply because of the words the first Christians spoke, but because of the witness of the kinds of lives they lived. It has to be that way with us too.
Pope Benedict XVI said something important in this respect. He said that the best apologetic arguments for the truth of the Christian faith are the art that the Church has produced as a form of witness, and the lives of its saints:
Yet, the beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message. In the end, love alone is worthy of faith, and proves credible. The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.
Note here that what Rod is really talking about is preserving not Kingdom communities of regenerate believers but more of a general sense of preserving Western culture. I very much doubt that a significant number of people were born-again based on some piece of art or music. The big issue with the Benedict Option is that it is not aimed at Kingdom formation. It is aimed at preserving civilization and along with that religious practice. What he seems to be proposing is a form of "evangelism" that negates the necessity of the spoken call to repentance and the pointing of the way to Jesus Christ. The end goal of the Benedict Option from the perspective of the Roman/Orthodox church is a reuniting of the church with the state and the culture at some point in the future. As Dreher puts it: "It’s all about culture now.". I would retort that it has never been about culture.

So if the Benedict Option is not correct, what does the way forward look like? I think the original, European, persecuted Anabaptists give us a more practical model to face. I take occasion to point out that I am speaking about the Anabaptists before the mass migration to America. The "Anabaptists" of today are split into two groups, one a largely orthodox, Gospel focused conservative Anabaptism that suffers in some ways from a focus on an external rule-making and rule-keeping model that also tends to be very suspicious of pretty much every other Christian tradition and on the other hand a rapidly imploding wannabe "progressive" form of "Anabaptism" that bears almost no resemblance to Anabaptism apart from the word Anabaptist.

The Anabaptists faced a multifaceted threat to their very existence. The state and the sponsoring religion of that state sought to suppress what they saw as the Anabaptist threat to the church-state amalgamation that dominated the Reformation period. This was true for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. The Anabaptist movement itself faced schism from within as some took the opportunity afforded them by the loosening of the religious monopolies of the day to go off in divergent radical forms that bore no resemblance to Anabaptism proper (Münster being the most obvious example). Often forgotten was a third threat to the Anabaptists, the Turks. The Turkish incursions were a clear and present danger not just to the Anabaptists but to all of Western civilization. In fact the refusal to take up the sword against the Turks and advocating the same of others got the Anabaptists in all sorts of trouble with the authorities.

A hostile state and culture. Divergent groups splitting off and creating their own doctrine. A threat from Islamic invaders. Sound familiar?

What also set the Anabaptist founders apart in their time of persecution in Europe was that they were aggressively evangelistic. Stories abound of massive numbers converting and becoming Anabaptist wherever they went, and that caused all sorts of problems. If someone chooses to reject the state religion, whether secular or sectarian, and keep quiet about it, it can be ignored. When someone is being outspoken about their beliefs, calling others to convert and being openly and vocally critical of the prevailing culture, that brings the church and the state/culture into conflict and in the case of the Anabaptists it was seemingly one-sided. The state had the sword of Caesar, the Anabaptists had the Sword of the Word of God. If we don't have a message other than "gay marriage is bad but check out our sweet paintings", then what use are we?

I am fully aware, painfully in some respects, that what I am calling for is going to have to take shape in a difficult adjustment. For those who are already living in tight-knit Anabaptist communities there needs to be at some point a recognition that not everyone who is walking the Christian path is going to wear headcoverings, plain suit coats and ankle length dresses (at least not at first). The tension between being welcoming to those who don't look like them and still retaining their distinctives is a real one. For others who are in the more common religious model the days are coming when the church will be few enough that our spending habits will have to change dramatically. A Sunday morning focused model with most resources being directed at making Sunday morning as entertaining and low commitment as possible was never healthy to begin with and is going to be impossible in the very near future. The Anabaptist witness ought to be a place to turn for those who find their religious model burned to the ground around them.

If the Church, i.e. the community of regenerate believers living in visible communion with one another, looks to our past to find a model of the way forward, it only needs to go back to the 16th century. It is a hard path, filled with persecution and sorrow, but it is the path that I think gives us the best example of how we will need to live in the years to come. God grant us the wisdom and humility to see this and the strength and perseverance to face the days to come, staunch and unflinching.

Friday, August 05, 2016

1 John 2 and Regeneration

I have been deeply and profoundly drawn to how important and yet how neglected the doctrine of regeneration is to the church. I think a lot of the confusion over eternal security or the preservation of the saints has to do with not correctly understanding what happens in regeneration and this in turn skews our understanding of the church. Being born-again or regenerate is not something that we drift in and out of depending on the day. When one is born-again, you become a new creation in Christ:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

A new creation. Not a change in attitude but a change in nature, in substance. Where once there was a dead in sins and trespasses enemy of God with a heart of stone there is now after regeneration a new creature, a brand new creation just as the universe was once a new creation, a living, breathing child of God with a heart of flesh with the law of God written upon it. I don't want to get too deeply into this question because it is too complex for a quick note like this. However I was watching John Piper's take on 1 John 2:18-19 and I thought it was worth watching and passing on to others. As a reminder the verses in question say this:

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 1 John 2:18-19

As Piper points out, one can be part of the visible church and yet leave but that is not because their regeneration has been undone but rather because they were never one of us to begin with. Taken together with John's Gospel account I think John (the apostle, not Piper) paints a picture of the perseverance of the saints that answers the question of how we are held safe by Christ (being a new creation after being born-again, held in the omnipotent power of God, ex. John 10:28) as well as why it seems sometimes that people we thought were Christians turned out to not have been truly born-again in the first place. Here is the video, give it a watch because I think this sort of deep diving on a verse and drawing from it the doctrines that it portrays is very important to understanding the bigger picture...

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Why Go To Seminary For A Denomination That Won't Exist In Ten Years?

The Gospel Coalition had an interesting look at the largest seminary programs in America, Why We Should Be Grateful for Flourishing Evangelical Seminaries. No surprise to me, the top ten list is mostly conservative and contains all six of the Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, with Southern Seminary headed by Al Mohler in the second overall spot, behind only venerable Fuller Theological Seminary. Also little surprise that the bottom of the list is a who's who of liberal and dying denominations:

Among the smallest accredited Protestant seminaries in the nation are three Episcopal seminaries: Bexley Hall Seabury-Western Theological Seminary Federation with 17 full-time students enrolled, General Theological Seminary with 34 full-time students, and Episcopal Divinity School with 35 full-time students. IRD’s Jeffrey Walton reported Episcopal Divinity School will no longer grant degrees after the coming academic school year. “A menu of recycled 1960s-era liberation theology themes garnished with radical sexuality and gender studies proved unappealing to prospective seminarians,” Walton noted. 

Meanwhile, it’s two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-associated seminaries that reveal another interesting contrast among evangelical institutions. Unlike the chart-topping conservative SBC-affiliated seminaries, the more liberal CBF-affiliated Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond counted 42 full-time students and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky had only 31 full-time students in 2015-16.

It is not a stretch to say that the Episcopal Church here in America is on life-support, stumbling forward by sheer historical inertia and I am quite serious that ten years from now I doubt that the Episcopal Church will even exist as a meaningful organization. I would not be surprised to see them joined in the ash heap of religious history by the United Methodists (a huge group so it might take longer), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Mennonite Church - USA, not to mention many other smaller groups. Schism is already devastating the ranks of the above denominations and nothing happening currently would lead me to believe that will change. Quite the contrary, many leaders of the groups above are doubling down on embracing heterodoxy in a breakneck race to the doctrinal bottom. It turns out that when it comes to something like the nature of man, the existence of God and what eternity holds, people are more interested in being among other people who seem serious about the topics, rather than the social justice/progressive agenda dressed up in religious finery. The dying seminaries and denominations listened to the voices that said their survival was dependent on going wherever the broader worldly culture takes them and even when that has been proven disastrous,  the battle cry is still "If we only will compromise on one more doctrine, then the world will love us, our churches will fill back up and our seminaries will swell with new students!". With each new compromise these denominations lose more and more members. Will the last Episcopalian left please turn out lights?

I am glad to see the larger conservative schools, especially Southern, relatively thriving amidst a culture growing ever more hostile to the Gospel. Whatever my feelings about a religious vocational school degree being a pre-requisite for many leadership positions in the church, you can't discount the academic work being done at these schools. Conservative seminaries like Southern, Westminster Calfornia. Reformed Theological Seminary, etc. are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in theological questions and I appreciate their scholarship and dedication.

Remember kids, when someone tells you the only way to survive is to deny everything that makes you who you are, they are probably speaking nonsense.