Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Knowing whom to believe in

For decades, I have seen G.K. Chesterton quoted in various works, but, to my detriment, I have never read anything by him -- not his mystery novels, his works in Christian apologetics, or anything else. I say "to my detriment," as last night while browsing the selections at Barnes & Noble, I picked up his "Orthodoxy" and was arrested by the very first page. The following thoughts result from my reading only the first couple of pages -- reading the rest will come later.

Chesterton describes himself as walking down a London street with his publisher, who remarked that a person he was working with could go a long way if he just learned to believe in himself. Chesterton replied that insane asylums were filled with people who believed in themselves more than Napoleon or Caesar had believed in themselves. When the publisher challenged him to provide an alternative for people putting their faith in themselves, Chesterton decided to write a book.

Part of the reason that this drew my interest is that while Chesterton's conversation occurred over 100 years ago, it has a very modern feel. "Believe in yourself" is a modern mantra, and it is arguably the chief end not only of pop psychology, but also of much evangelicalism -- just before looking at Chesterton's book, I had flipped through the pages of Rev. Steven Furtick's execrable "Chatterbox," and the thinking of the books would not have been more different if Furtick were an atheist.

The Apostle's Creed, which was written well after the apostolic age but nonetheless summarizes in broad terms the historic faith of Protestants and Catholics alike, begins: "I believe in God the Father Almighty...." When Christians recite the creed, we tend to think of it as a series of propositions that we adhere to -- and it is at least that. However, Christians hold that this word "believe" does not affirm mere intellectual assent. Belief is a matter of both the intellect and the will. It is a matter of trust, as well as assent. As such, the Creed is the Christian's affirmation of both truth and ultimate value.

There is a sharp contrast here. Our culture -- including much of our religious culture -- tells us, with regard to our hopes and aspirations: "Believe in yourself!"  In the Creed I confess my belief in God. Why would I believe in myself as the basis for hope and aspiration, when I instead have the option of believing in God the Father Almighty? I choose the latter.

Of course, the modern religionist assures us that belief in God leads to belief in self, but this is nonsense that results from thinking out of the wrong categories. It is true that belief in God the Father Almighty leads his people to engage in bold and energetic enterprises. However, those who want to put believing in self alongside belief in God always end up making much of themselves and little of God. In that thinking, we always end up in the big roles, while God plays the supporting actor. However, God does not share his glory with his creatures, and our power is minuscule beside his. This making much of self is exactly opposite of the way it should be.

Why insist on believing in myself, when instead I can believe in God the Father Almighty?

We should be plain about forms of Christianity that encourage belief in self: they are anti-Christ. The goal of the Father from all eternity was that Christ would have the pre-eminence. The work of the Holy Spirit, as described by Jesus, is to speak of and glorify the Son of God. Christian teaching that is indeed Christian points to belief in -- trust in -- Christ. Teaching that urges belief in self is something else.

In myself, there is weakness and sin. Yet, I go forth in life. I don't trust in myself. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Furtick's Sad Confusion on "I AM"

Steve Furtick, the founder and pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, North Carolina, which, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, averages over 13,000 in weekly attendance, has received much unflattering attention of late. 

First, Todd Pruitt applied a spotlight to Mr. Furtick while using the word "cult" in the title of a blog post  featuring an image of a children's coloring book produced by his church extolling the vision given by God to the pastor, who therefore, it claimed, must be supported.  Numerous other bloggers, both before and after the Pruitt post, have noted similar themes emanating from the church. The day following Rev. Pruitt's post, Stuart Watson, a reporter for the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, produced this excellently sourced report suggesting that Furtick had made use of manipulative methods in order to get people to come forward in a service to commit to baptism. 

These things are bad.  With a sermon entitled "I Know I am" by Mr. Furtick posted on the church's website, it gets worse.

The sermon is part of a series he is preaching in his church based on his just released book, Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God's Voice Above All Others.  Much of what he says is the sort of standard self-help fare common nowadays in evangelical pulpits, but the minister ultimately leaves orthodoxy in his rear view mirror on the way to his concluding thoughts. 

Even in the initial part about self-help, however, he says some unusual things.  Thus, he begins by reading from Psalm 139:14 -- "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well."  The "phrase fearfully and wonderfully made" clearly in context refers to the power and wisdom of God in making us, but Mr. Furtick argues that the phrase should inform our self-image.  Saying that the first part of the phrase could be translated differently, he claims that we are expressing agreement with God if we tell ourselves and others that "I am awesome and wonderful."

Be that as it may, the sermon is mainly drawn from Exodus 3 and 4, where Moses encounters God in a bush that burns but is not consumed, and which Mr. Furtick finds to be primarily about Moses learning to deal with his insecurities.  In fact, the minister claims near the end of the sermon that preachers, including himself in the past, err when they imagine that Moses struggles to believe in God's power.  Rather, Moses fails to believe in himself.  It doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Furtick that Moses would have realized his very real deficits were not relevant if he had faith in the power of God to fulfill His calling.  Nonetheless, Mr. Furtick finds Moses' insecurity to be the ultimate matter of concern.

Mr. Furtick says that God finds a way to help Moses with his feelings of inadequacy, and his supposed solution takes one's breath away.  The minister has looked at Moses' excuses and declared him to be making several statements of personal insecurity: I am dysfunctional.  I am deficient.  I am doubtful.  I am.... fill in the blank.

At this point, Mr. Furtick has his listeners look back to chapter 3, where Moses asked God his name, and God responded with, "I AM."  After claiming that he has "meticulously" studied the meaning of this phrase, the pastor ultimately claims that God is telling Moses, "I am the God who is whatever you need." God's "I AM" counters our negative, internal "I am deficient."

Thus, God is promising by his revelation to Moses to fill our psychic neediness.

One hardly knows where to start. It is difficult to avoid calling it blasphemy.  It will take some time to explain the choice of this strong word.

One might begin by suggesting that this is an inexcusable error for someone trained for ministry (Mr. Furtick is an ordained minister who received an education from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).  For various reasons, this is a crucial passage in both Old Testament studies and in biblical and systematic theology.  Any first year seminarian or Bible college student should know better than what has just been said.

God's revelation of himself as "I AM" and "I AM WHO I AM" is linguistically related to his covenant name of Yahweh, by which he reveals himself as the sovereign, self-existing, covenant making God.  The name is so revered by some devout Jews that for centuries, and to this day, some refuse to pronounce the name orally.  While that may reflect a level of superstition, it does point to the reverence that has been shown for the divine name.  God will proceed to tell Moses (Ex. 6:3) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had not known him by this name.  This seems odd -- the patriarchs had, in fact, used that name -- until one realizes that God is saying that he is about to reveal himself as the covenant making, delivering, redeeming God in a way that he has never done before by delivering Israel from Egypt by his mighty power.  Jesus also made use of this scene by telling a group of Pharisees that "before Abraham was, I am," (John 8:58), and showing himself to be the great covenant making, delivering, redeeming God by dying for our sins and being raised for our justification.

This is a whole lot different than promising to help us out with our insecurities.

The bizarre claims do not end here.   Mr. Furtick correctly points out that Christians have been united with Christ, but then he becomes confused.  After quoting the third commandment (prohibiting taking God's name in vain), he argues that because we have identified ourselves with Christ, that to say "I am" and to be insecure and to doubt ourselves is a violation of the third commandment.  Let me repeat, he is claiming that by doubting ourselves, we are violating a commandment against taking God's name in vain.  Thus, to take our own name in vain is equivalent to taking God's name in vain.

After listening to this sermon, I talked at length with my wife about it.  She asked if there was nothing that his denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) could do about it.  The inability to deal in any formal way with men who are going off the rails is a weakness of non-connectional church bodies.  Nonetheless, one hopes that Mr. Furtick has orthodox friends who will confront him about this sort of thing.  This abuse of the biblical text, dimunition of our sovereign and self-existent LORD, and confusion of the creature with the Creator are not things that can happen in a pulpit that would call itself Christian. 

Mr. Furtick has a lot of sheep, and they need a shepherd.

Son of God and Images

Last week, as part of an ongoing research project, I attended a church where mine was the only white face in an all black congregation of several thousand.  As part of his sermon, the minister attempted to make an argument that Jesus was black.  While I thought the argument was weak, I really don't care enough about the skin color of Jesus to take up the argument.

However, the minister also criticized that point.  If the skin color of Jesus doesn't matter, why have paintings of him where he is white?

Why, indeed.

For those of us who agree with this argument (hat tip:  Aquila Report) and with that expressed by James Packer in his wonderful book Knowing God, that images of Jesus -- including both paintings and movie images -- violate the second commandment, the white Italian Jesus is a problem, and we would note that part of the problem involves the tendency of image makers to re-make God in our own image.  In fact, both the criticism and the solution offered by the minister last week point to that problem:  a tendency in all of us to want to make God look or be like ourselves.  As a result, I agree with the minister last Sunday that white images of the Son of God are not proper, but I would argue against the notion of exchanging one violation of the second commandment (Jesus as white) for another (Jesus as black).

And, for the same reason, I will also not see the movie.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sheep Without a Shepherd

Whatever the skills or deficiencies of any Christian pastor, a basic expectation of most of those who attend a church would be that the minister have some basic competence at how to interpret the Bible.  One expects an English Literature teacher to know something about Shakespeare. A physics teacher is expected to have at least some understanding of Newton and Einstein.  A Christian minister knows the Bible.

Right?

So, last Sunday, I visited one of the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. The pastor, a man older than me, has been at the church for many years. 

And, he is incompetent at his most basic task. I am not saying I disagreed with his interpretation.  There are many capable ministers with whom I could disagree over the meaning of a text or a theological issue.  I am saying that what he did fell to the level of incompetence.

His sermon concerned the story of David and Goliath, which he used as a fable to show how we could slay the giants in our lives.  That is not what this historical story is about. It cannot be legitimately used in that way.

It got worse.  He read as his text I Samuel 16:7 -- "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature.... Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."  This verse actually occurs in the story of Samuel's anointing of David as king.  The verse is about David. He did not have the kingly bearing of Saul, but that should not cause Samuel to despise or underestimate David.  The minister, claiming that the Spirit had given him a new application of this verse, bizarrely said that it was about Goliath and the giants in our lives. 

Not content with having reduced David's confrontation with Goliath to a fable, the minister added to his folly by misusing the story of Jacob wrestling with God as a fable providing a paradigm for how we should overcome our internal giants. Both the interpretation and application were basically flawed.

He then moved from biblical incompetence to theological heresy. He said that our "humility and confession summon [God's] grace," going on to say that while grace is wonderful, it is of no value unless we can appropriate it.  He later added another work that brings about grace:  "Your strong vows summon God's grace."  This is semi-pelagianism, to be charitable.

I looked around me at the large group of people taking it all in.  I felt only sadness.  They were sheep who had no shepherd.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How to get accused of antinomianism

If your teaching or writing bears similarity to the first five chapters of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, it appears that some among the Reformed will compel you to answer the question that Paul asks in 6:1.

From this vantage point, that would appear to put you in good company.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Compelling Biblical Alternative to Young Earth Creationism

Watching the discussion that has taken place since the highly publicized debate between Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and Bill Nye, PBS's science guy, has proved frustrating for those of us not represented by either of those viewpoints. 

That is to say, there are some of us that reject naturalistic evolution and that are rather astonished at the philosophical naivety of those who think that they are engaged in a purely empirical investigation of scientific data. The specialization required of academics in the modern world often blinds really smart people to their level of ignorance in areas outside of their specialization, and many scientists put that on full display when their discussion of origins presses them into consideration of matters of epistemology and other philosophical issues for which they show very little understanding. 

Nonetheless, many of us also reject young earth creationism.  Believing that there is nothing in the Bible that requires one to hold that the earth is young, we are willing to leave the question to those who study such things. If scientists say that the universe is old, I have no problem with that.

To reiterate my own views:  I am a Christian who holds to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture and to the historic teaching of the church as expounded in the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds, and the 5 sola's of the Reformation.  I subscribe to the Westminster standards.  And, I believe that the earth is likely very old.  Even billions of years old. No problem.

Some people seem astonished at that, but they shouldn't be.  The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, who along with B.B. Warfield provided the intellectual heft behind modern understandings of biblical inerrancy, wrote in the late 19th century while being well aware of what was at stake with the incipient theories of Darwin.  Hodge vigorously opposed naturalistic philosophy while acknowledging that the earth could be very old.

J. Gresham Machen was the most outstanding conservative Presbyterian theologian of the first half of the 20th century and the key leader in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminister Theological Seminary.  Machen had no concerns about the earth being very old.  Historian Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, argues that evangelicals did not become insistent about young earth creationism until the 1950's, when it began to be raised as a litmus test for orthodoxy initially by, of all things, a Seventh Day Adventist -- hardly the center of the evangelical universe.  Nonetheless, the writings of Henry Morris of the Creation Research Institute gained a significant sway among populist fundamentalists and evangelicals, who have extended it deep into the roots of the home school movement. 

This is an enormous mistake, both doctrinally and apologetically:  doctrinally, because nothing in the Bible requires belief in a young earth; and, apologetically, because it causes many evangelicals to stake their argument where their evidence is weakest.  That is to say, without dispute the universe has the appearance of being designed, and it has the appearance of being very old.  Why on earth do Christians want to focus their attention on the age? If I am going to argue about origins, I would much rather be talking about whether purely naturalistic random mutation and natural selection can account for complex cellular systems.  While I have friends who have advanced degrees and are very smart and who hold to the young earth view, I have to say, with regret, that I think that holding it up as a test of orthodoxy and as an apologetic imperative is destructive of the Christian mission.

But what about Genesis 1?  Does Genesis 1 require a believer to adhere to a young earth?

No.  The best reading of Genesis 1 understands it as having nothing to say about the age of the earth or the length of time of creation. I suspect I need to explain.

Genesis, written by Moses, was part of the Book of the Law provided to God's covenant people, Israel, who had been delivered from Egypt.  Now, neither the age of the earth nor the details as to how it had come about were paramount on the minds of the Israelites, who did, though, need to know about who God was and how he related to his people and his creation. The opening chapters of Genesis begin to provide that account.  The Israelites would have been familiar with the outlandish and chaotic understanding of creation held by the Egyptians.  In contrast, Genesis 1 presents the one true God creating and ultimately establishing his covenants in an orderly manner. 

Of course, Genesis uses the term "days" in the creation account, but there is no reason to believe that either the term "days" or the poetic "evening and morning" language are intended to refer to a 24 hour period.  The fact that the sun was not created until day 4, in fact, ought to provide a clue that periods of time predicated on the earth's rotation and relationship to the sun are not in mind at all.  It should additionally be noted that the creation account explicitly mentions natural processes with regard to God's creation activity.  Genesis 2:5 says, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up -- for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land."

See that:  natural process. There was no vegetation, because there as of yet had been no rain.

Further, a close examination of Genesis 1 shows that the account is not intended to be chronological.  Rather, it is topical.  Thus, in the first three "days," God creates what he fills in the second three days. Day 1, the heavens and the earth, corresponds with Day 4, when he fills the heavens with the sun and the moon.  Day 2 divides the firmament (sky and water) and Day 5 fills them with birds and fish.  Day 3 is the creation of land, filled with land animals and mankind on Day 6.  The passage is accurate without being chronological. It describes God's orderly and purposeful activity in creation, but does not do so in a blow by blow chronological account.  And it says nothing about the length of time.

Young earth creationists typically bring two objections to this approach when used to justify an old earth view (notably, this "framework interpretation" of Genesis is consistent with either old or young earth views).  First, it is objected that this conflicts with Sabbath teaching where the time of God's creative activity serves as the basis for man's Sabbath rest.  However, that objection is answered with the understanding that God performed and revealed his creative activity with this Sabbath principle providentially in view.

Second, some would object that allowing for an old earth results in the presence of death and decay on earth prior to the Fall.  However, it can be answered that the Bible does not require one to believe that no death or decay appeared on earth prior to the Fall.  It only requires us to understand that death and decay did not exist for man as judgement for sin prior to the Fall.

Thus, there is an insistence in the Bible on a first man and woman, the direct creation of God, who fell into sin and brought damnation into the human race.  On those issues, there is a clear boundary.  As to the age of the earth:  it may be very old.

I have provided a popular level description of this approach to the opening chapters of Genesis. For those who would like to dig deeper with a more technical article, see Meredith Kline.

Why Pastors Are Losing Trust

In response to statistics provided by the Pew Research Center revealing that only 37% of Americans have a favorable view of clergy, Thom Rainier, CEO and President of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, has compiled a list of 11 reasons that ministers are held in lower esteem.  Those reasons include widespread attention to moral failures, the marginalization of Christian faith across the culture, short tenures of pastors, and the use of social media as an outlet for criticism.  While all of those -- and the others mentioned by Mr. Rainier -- are true as far as they go, I think that he has left out a significantly important one that points to the trade offs that have been created in the way many are now approaching church.

Clergy are perceived, correctly, as figures of authority.  As a result, the manner in which they receive and maintain their authority is going ot impact whether they are viewed as trustworthy.

Ministerial authority, in the most visible sectors of American evangelicalism, now rests almost entirely on charismatic authority (likableness, ability to emotionally connect to people, leadership dynamic, etc), not on external forms of authority (education, credentials, relationship with institutions, etc).

Charismatic authority will always tend to be fluid, and Americans tend to have a love/hate relationship with those who mesmerize them.  On the one hand, we elect them as our leaders and we buy cars and other stuff based on their ability to sell themselves to us.  On the other hand we will criticize them for being self-serving and manipulative.

They tend also to be galvanizing figures:  to their fans, they are heroes who can do no wrong; to their critics, they are only out for themselves.  Thus, in sports, Pete Rose is thought by some to be a victim who really didn't do much wrong and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, while others see him as damaging the integrity of the game and getting what he deserves.  In politics, some see Senator Ted Cruz as principled and courageous; others think him to be only too eager at the game of self-promotion.  Some see President Barack Obama as too intelligent for the country he leads.  Others see a deeply flawed, power hungry politician.

Of course, the presence of charismatic authority in the Christian movement is nothing new, and in the United States it certainly can be traced back as far as the First Great Awakening.  However, the trend is accelerating, as churches become increasingly unmoored from anything approaching a traditional liturgy, educational institutions become more distant from how churches view their missions, denominational structures become less relevant, and marketing and personality driven ministry overtakes distinctives based on heritage or theology.  Many will argue that these are positive trends.  Perhaps so, but recognize that clergy respect will continue to take a hit as a result.

Consider this:  100 years ago, when a Rev. Smith approached his pulpit in the downtown church, the congregation was aware of the following: he held credentials from an educational institution validating his expertise in the Bible and theology, he had been examined by and was accountable to representative bodies of his denomination, and he was also accountable to a group of leaders of the congregation that had for the most part been in place before his arrival.  For all of that, he claimed that his ultimate authority was derived from the Word of God and, in that vein, he may have worn a Geneva gown to signify that it was the Word, not his individual personality, that counted in the pulpit.

We may or may not appreciate that style of ministry or find it to be a good thing in our day, but there is much there to command respect.

So, contrast that with today, when Pastor Eddie strolls out on stage in his skinny jeans, untucked shirt, and spiked hair, conveying to the amateur sociologist in the crowd that individual personality counts for everything.  His bio on the website doesn't mention if he has ever been to school and only discusses some individual accomplishments: he made this church grow and speaks in lots of places.  If there is any connectedness to the larger church, it is well hidden, and, in fact, one almost gathers that this church -- and its satellites -- constitutes its own little cloister fulfilling God's purpose in the world.

But, he preaches a really engaging sermon.  To those on board, this is great.  For others, there is a tendency toward cynicism.  One of Mr. Rainier's reasons has to do with cynicism in our culture, which takes me back to that love/hate thing I mentioned earlier.  Charismatic based authority tends to breed cynicism, especially when some charismatic leaders prove to be little more than bags of wind or particularly self-serving.

In that regard, I would like to highlight and further discuss one of Mr. Rainier's points:

9. There is a failure of some pastors in two key areas: leadership and emotional intelligence.  Some pastors are well prepared biblically and theologically. But some have not been taught leadership and healthy interpersonal skills.

Each of the three sentences here includes the word "some."  Clearly, from the way it is structured, the point of emphasis is on the lack of leadership training, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills, with the middle sentence being supplied to provide contrast. Some pastors have biblical training, but they are lousy leaders.  The point is understood.  However, while I would not want to diminish the importance of the skill sets he emphasized, I find what is omitted to be interesting.  Given that Mr. Rainier seems to be saying that only "some pastors" are biblically and theologically prepared, it is curious that this is not addressed as a reason for the lack of respect for clergy at any point in the piece.

The fact of the matter is that clergy have no authority apart from the Bible, and if they are not adequately prepared to proclaim it in light of the modern situation, there is no reason for them to be in their positions, and one would not expect them to be able to garner the respect of their culture.  Removed from proper authority, it is inevitable that legitimate respect will decrease.  As churches increasingly view their missions as disconnected from scriptural moorings and more connected to contemporary categories of thought, they will find that they will lose both the world and their souls. Lacking a claim to transcendent authority, they are doing little more than hawking a product.  Pastor as used church salesman is not a recipe for respectful trust in a post Christian culture.

I think it will also be worth the time to write a post at some point on another reason that Mr. Rainier leaves out:  the extent to which political engagement has tarnished the reputation of clergy.  Another subject for another day.

Hat Tip:  The Aquila Report

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Not a Prayer

Regarding prayer:  the important question is not about how it was removed from public schools, but rather why it has largely disappeared from the church.

In recent months, as I have visited some of the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, one striking thing that I have noticed has been the lack of time engaged in prayer during those church services. In at least one of the churches, the only prayer offered at all was a sort of tag on the end of a song, and it was not clear until the leader was nearly finished that we were supposed to be praying. The churches that I have visited have been Baptist, charismatic, and a church with a reputation as being reformed and Baptist.  What they all had in common was that, in church, they did not pray. The fact that this was not changed by the varying traditions is an indication that it is syptomatic of our times and not related to a small subset of American evangelicalism.

Of course, we should not assume that these churches therefore do not believe in prayer.  To the contrary, I would assume that they all do, and I would not be surprised to learn that their ministers and many of their leaders make commitments to spend considerable time praying privately or in small gatherings.  Some of these churches urge people to gather for prayer prior to the service. 

Yet, during the time of worship, they rarely pray. Why? Clearly, prayer is an important part of worship in the Bible.  Acts 2 says that the early Christians devoted themselves to prayers.  Many of the epistles contain multiple prayers, and it is helpful to remember that those epistles were read in the churches.  When the Apostle Paul wrote a prayer, that prayer was read to the congregation.

Why don't churches pray corporately?

In answering this, it should be noted that the declension of corporate prayer is not a recent trend, even if it has accelerated as the result of recent innovations in worship.  In fact, for the most part, corporate prayer has declined in terms of both quantity and quality for a couple of centuries.  My theory is that prayer has declined because church leaders don't know what to do with it in a public context.  We understand quiet, closeted prayer as an expression of personal piety, but what is the point of our public praying, other than in the anguished prayers of a person experiencing deep conviction during a special service?

More controversially, I would suggest that the enemy of meaningful prayer, that has caused its decline over many generations, has been the evangelical emphasis on spontaneity. In many churches, there is an emphasis on the spontaneous moving of the Spirit, and along with that comes an assumption that prepared prayers are not spiritual prayers.  Of course, there is no reason to think that is the case.  What possibly could be wrong with planning what you are going to say to God before a crowd?  What is wrong with planning the language that we will use to express adoration?  Surely, a planned prayer is no less valuable than a planned song or a planned sermon; yet, in many churches over the course of generations, if a person walked to the front and pulled out a piece of paper with his prayer written on it, there would be some in the congregation that would groan, certain that the Spirit was being quenched by that piece of paper.

In fact, something approaching the opposite is true. I suspect that the lack of emphasis on prayer in today's contemporary churches is a reaction against the trite and repetitive prayers offered in past generations week after week.  That is, if whoever is called upon just prays whatever comes into his mind, and no advance thought is going into it, then the invocation, the offertory, and the misnamed benediction all start sounding the same every week. While prayer need not be eloquent, it should be thought out, and the kinds of public prayer that many of us grew up with in normal church services was not conducive to worship or piety.

Not only did these churches become repetitive in the individual prayers, but they also tended to fail to note the various forms that prayer could take in the course of a worship service. In the invocation, we express adoration and ask God that He be present during our worship.  In a prayer of confession, we acknowledge our sinfulness before a holy God and receive his assurance of pardon.  In a congregational prayer (or the pastoral prayer, as seen from a different perspective) the pastor or an elder of the church brings before God various needs of the congregation. There are other sorts of prayers that could be mentioned, but the point here is that in worship we have a tapestry of prayer that both takes our petitions to God and expects to receive from him his gifts.

These elements are missing in many churches today, both traditional and contemporary.  Their rediscovery would help us learn again what it means to worship our Savior in Spirit and in truth.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Confession and Assurance of Pardon as a Part of Worship

When I began attending a Presbyterian church for the first time 17 years ago, one of the primary reasons for that decision was an interest in learning about worship.  In my years as a Baptist pastor, I never had been satisfied that I had a good understanding of what corporate worship should look like. Don't misunderstand:  I am not blaming the Baptists for what I had failed to learn.  There were things that perhaps I should have known, but did not.  Nonetheless, in the intervening years, I have learned a great deal.  Most of what I have learned is not unique to Presbyterianism, and much of it could have been done in Baptist churches -- I am sure it is done in some of those churches, but I had not really seen it in my experience. 

Thus, when I was pastoring, my unfortunately limited view of worship essentially bifurcated the service into two parts -- the singing and the sermon.  Sure, we did other things:  we had some prayers, took an offering, did the Lord's Supper every quarter, baptized as needed, etc.  However, I admit that I placed too little value on corporate prayer and the other weekly worship activities, and while I appreciated the importance of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Baptist understanding of them as matters of our proclamation rather than God's means of grace somewhat limits their force.  Thus, I tended to see the worship hour primarily in terms of singing and preaching.  As a result, other than the preaching, the main thing that was needed was music that coalesced around a theme, preferably one that would support the sermon.

That is horribly deficient.

While I could write about many things in this regard, today I have one in particular in mind. One of the common elements in a reformed worship service is a time of confession of sin and assurance of pardon.  While the way of doing this can change from week to week and from church to church, a typical format would involve the minister reading a biblical text that confronts us with the reality of our sin and making some brief remarks about it.  This is followed by a time of prayer, which may be silent, a prayer offered by the minister, or a congregational reading of a prayer of general confession. This is followed by words of the minister, who usually reads a scripture promising forgiveness and makes remarks about God's promise of pardon for those who confess their sins and have their only confidence in Christ.

Though I never had this in a service when I was a pastor, I now feel cheated when I am in a church service that doesn't include it. Like Isaiah, I realize that coming into the worship of a holy God brings before me the reality of my own uncleanness, and as Isaiah's confession was followed by an assurance from God's throne of His cleansing grace and power, I need to hear that my sins have been forgiven through the death of Christ and that my heart has been cleansed so that I, too, may worship.  This portion of the worship service functions both to assure me of God's promises and to teach me about the power of the Gospel.  I need this teaching and these promises and assurances regularly.

Our tendency is to think of worship as a time when we bring ourselves and our praises to God.  Fair enough.  But God also brings His gifts of grace to His people.  I arrive with an awareness of my sin, and He pronounces me forgiven in Christ.  With that, I am prepared to worship.