Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ambassadors-Errant?

In his classic novel Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes parodies the literature of chivalry, which many regarded in his day as pointing back to a glorious past. In contrast, Cervantes showed these books to be absurd. Only an insane man, the title character, could take them seriously, and taking them thus resulted in a terrible price paid by both him and his mostly credulous sidekick.

Can evangelical preaching and literature sometimes have similar consequences? Certainly, some Christians do bizarre things and claim that it is because of their faith. Usually, the majority of their fellow Christians will say that their extreme behavior resulted from them not truly understanding the message that they heard. But, perhaps they understood all too well. If this theory is corrct, it could be said that many people benefit from their ministers and the teaching of their churches as long as they learn without taking it all too seriously. Taking it too seriously could be harmful.

What kind of harm?  Some less mainstream, but sometimes occurring and obvious examples come to mind: the family that sells all that they have to move to a place that gives them a front row seat for the imminent return of Christ. The person that declines to save for retirement because doing so is unnecessary since Christ is coming back and saving would show a lack of faith in his return. Someone who declines to go to the doctor because he trusts God to heal.

Other examples are more widespread and subtle: the suggestion that devotion to Christ results in a never ending high and that a shortage of passion evidences a decline of faith. Taken seriously, this can lead to emotional instability and burnout. Seeing laying out a fleece as a means of determining God's will rather than, as with Gideon, evidence of a failure to trust God. Understanding God's guidance as something apart from reasoning from Scripture and listening to the input of godly friends. Basing one's closeness to God and leading in life on hearing inner voices purported to be the promtings of the Holy Spirit. All of these can lead to tragic consequences for those who think that they are seeking God's will. Notably, they badly misunderstand what Scripture says about guidance, though they are consistent with what many well-meaning pastors sometimes counsel.

Many people believe in these sorts of things and are relatively unharmed by them, although they beat themselves up for lacking faith and not taking them seriously. In fact, taking them with a grain of salt is what saves them. Taking them seriously can be extremely destructive to faith and life.

All of this should be a matter of reflection for preachers. Most -- I would say probably all -- of us would want our parishioners to take our messages seriously. After all, we are proclaiming the Word of God. It is not our intention to be taken with a grain of salt. That being the case, we must preach the Word as it has been delivered to us: as God's Word, providing truth that we can trust in and follow to God's glory and to our good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Christian Opportunity

Beginning in 1975, and escalating after 1978, approximately 2 million people fled tyrannical, war ravaged Vietnam, with over 800,000 fleeing the nation in the flimsiest of watercraft. These "boat people" created an international humanitarian crisis, and western nations, including the United States, stepped in to help in significant fashion.

Churches and individual Christians contributed much toward the American response, as many churches throughout the United States endeavore...d to "adopt a family." A large number of refugees lived in the South Central Kentucky town where I spent my teen years. I have been told, but don't know for a fact, that a wealthy benefactor was largely responsible for them being there. While a seminary student in the late '80's, I preached a couple of times for a Vietnamese ministry conducted by First Baptist Church in Bowling Green. It is the only time I have ever preached using a translater, which I found to be a fun experience. I was very young, and they were a very gracious congregation.

Christian groups have a similar opportunity today to share the compassion of Christ, as well as the gospel. The children and women crossing our border, in an effort to escape the ravages of anarchy, the drug trade, the sex trade, and much else, stand in need of the love of Christ, if only we will share it.

Regardless of politics, Christians should condemn angry rhetoric and recognize an opportunity to share the compassion and love of Christ with those in great need.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Send it home?

Photo: A little over 4 years ago, word got out in our neighborhood that we were planning on getting a dog. We looked out our window and noticed that neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, so we went outside to find out what was going on.

After exchanging pleasantries, Joe, the guy next door, came to the point. "We hear you are thinking of getting a dog," he said.

"Why, yes," I replied. "We're looking at a Rottie mix."

A murmur went through the crowd. "A Rottie," some mumbled. "A mix," others said.

George from across the street piped up: "So, why are you suddenly deciding you want a dog?"

My wife replied, "My son has been wanting one, we have the ability to take care of one, and we saw a picture online, and God just gave us a love for animals."

"Theocrat," George bellowed, before walking off toward his house.

Jim, the neighbor from the other side, also had a question: "So, where are you planning on getting this dog?"

"We are going to the Dallas shelter to check him out," I responded.

"The Dallas shelter? Aren't Tarrant County dogs good enough for you?"

"I'm just wanting to help out a dog. I hear they are overcrowded," I replied.

"Yeah, well, Tarrant County dogs have needs, too."

"I'm sure," I said.  "Anyway, I need to get back to work."

"Hang on a minute," Jim said. What do you know about this dog you are talking about bringing into our neighborhood?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

"I assume it was abandoned. I really don't know."

"What if the owner wants it back?"

"Well, I suppose we will deal with that if it happens, but for now the dog just needs a home and people that will love it?"

"Does it have diseases? Our dogs might not be safe!"

"I assume that they check those things out," I replied.

"Well, you know what they say about assuming," he shot back.

"Yeah, bad word choice," I said. "Now, if I may...."

"No, wait!  You said that you don't know where this dog came from?"

"That is correct. Most have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Sad stories. I'm glad to be able to help."

"Yeah, but you're being naive. By helping one of these, you're just encouraging other people to abandon their dogs, too. By adopting a dog, you'll just be making sure that more dogs are left. Before long, all our shelters will look like that Star Trek episode. What did they call those things? Dogs will be everywhere."

I could only groan.

Of course, this neighborhood conversation never happened. We don't talk that way about dogs. This kind of talk is reserved for children.
 
 
A little over 4 years ago, word got out in our neighborhood that we were planning on getting a dog. We looked out our window and noticed that neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, so we went outside to find out what was going on.

After e...xchanging pleasantries, Joe, the guy next door, came to the point. "We hear you are thinking of getting a dog," he said.

"Why, yes," I replied. "We're looking at a Rottie mix."

A murmur went through the crowd. "A Rottie," some mumbled. "A mix," others said.

George from across the street piped up: "So, why are you suddenly deciding you want a dog?"

My wife replied, "My son has been wanting one, we have the ability to take care of one, and we saw a picture online, and God just gave us a love for animals."

"Theocrat," George bellowed, before walking off toward his house.

Jim, the neighbor from the other side, also had a question: "So, where are you planning on getting this dog?"

"We are going to the Dallas shelter to check him out," I responded.

"The Dallas shelter? Aren't Tarrant County dogs good enough for you?"

"I'm just wanting to help out a dog. I hear they are overcrowded," I replied.

"Yeah, well, Tarrant County dogs have needs, too."

"I'm sure," I said. "Anyway, I need to get back to work."

"Hang on a minute," Jim said. What do you know about this dog you are talking about bringing into our neighborhood?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

"I assume it was abandoned. I really don't know."

"What if the owner wants it back?"

"Well, I suppose we will deal with that if it happens, but for now the dog just needs a home and people that will love it?"

"Does it have diseases? Our dogs might not be safe!"

"I assume that they check those things out," I replied.

"Well, you know what they say about assuming," he shot back.

"Yeah, bad word choice," I said. "Now, if I may...."

"No, wait! You said that you don't know where this dog came from?"

"That is correct. Most have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Sad stories. I'm glad to be able to help."

"Yeah, but you're being naive. By helping one of these, you're just encouraging other people to abandon their dogs, too. By adopting a dog, you'll just be making sure that more dogs are left. Before long, all our shelters will look like that Star Trek episode. What did they call those things? Dogs will be everywhere."

I could only groan.

Of course, this neighborhood conversation never happened. We don't talk that way about dogs. This kind of talk is reserved for children.

Friday, July 04, 2014

A Children's Crusade?

In the year 1212, a boy from Cologne, Nicholas, claimed that a vision of Jesus showed him that children could succeed, where their elders had failed, in relieving the Holy Land from the rule of infidels. The expedition ultimately ended disgracefully, with a large number of children being captured and sold into Egyptian slavery, and is now remembered as among the most embarrassing events of the Crusades, a sort of recognition that sets the bar unfortunately high.

The details of the Children's Crusade are sketchy, and some historians even question whether it actually occurred, but the story is indicative of what can happen when a large portion of the church internalizes the insecurities of an age, leading them to act in a thoroughly unchristian manner, and sometimes claiming the authority of religion while doing so.

All of which brings me to a modern crusade against children who have found their way in massive numbers, most often unaccompanied by adults, into the southern region of the United States. Knowledgeable accounts suggest that most have fled from frightening conditions in three Central American counties -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While federal officials try to figure out what to do about this massive influx of young, huddled masses who often need medical care and reassurance after enduring terrifying circumstances, many of those who compose the coalition of "social conservatives" railing in favor of "family values" know exactly what should be done: get them out of here -- now.

It seems that these children, rather than being regarded as children, have become the latest props representing a cause. This is not a humanitarian cause. It is an immigration debate.

Now, regarding political causes, persons should be cautious about taking positions in behalf of the church on issues on which the Scriptures do not speak, and certainly the entire immigration debate is a complex one that addresses many issues -- economic, legal, geographic, and social -- to which the Scriptures do not speak directly. Nevertheless, while humbly refusing to commit the church to a cause, one can consider relevant material to suggest the position we should individually take on issues. Those of us who do so may not all come down on the same side, but looking for relevant Scipture is the sort of exercise that every Christian should undertake. Too many individual Christians do not do this. Rather than carefully consider the relevant biblical material, they fall in knee jerk fashion into the arguments of their normal allies. When this happens, Christians commit themselves to political positions that may or may not be utterly anti-Christian.

So what is the relevant material on this issue? Nowadays, it is common to say that Christians should love everyone, or perhaps there is a bit more clarity in saying that we should be compassionate toward the unfortunate. That is not the normal biblical way of speaking. Rather than speaking in generalizations, the Bible puts specific human faces on the sorts of people who should receive our compassion.  For example, from Zechariah 7:9-10 (ESV):

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.

The designation of those four groups of people -- widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor -- as worthy recipients of compassion is not unusual in the Old Testament (this set of groupings occurs several times elsewhere), because that represents four specific groups of people who were largely helpless in the ancient world. Treating these people compassionately is represented as essential to obedience to the moral law, and failing to do so violated God's covenant with Israel.

The children crossing the American border comprise at least two of those groups, and some perhaps would be among at least three of them. Of course, I am not claiming that Christians in the anti-child lobby have no responses to these types of verses -- I could probably try to raise some counter arguments myself if I were so inclined. However, my question is: have you tried? Do you even consider the biblical material before crying for their immediate deportation? Medical care be damned, lest we somehow encourage others to show up.

Of course, the political repercussions are complex. The answers are not simple. However, the humanitarian need is also complex, and these are children, not pawns in a political debate.  If many conservatives are joining the anti-child lobby, I would call upon Christians to come out from them and be separate. If you are pro-family, contribute to a discussion on how to show the love of Christ to these poor, destitute children.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

When Practical Religion is Impractical

While attending a conference a while back in the northeast, I had dinner with a colleague who I occasionally see at those sorts of meetings. Our conversation was interesting and wide ranging, touching on our work issues, politics and current events, history, and our personal backgrounds. With regard to the last of those, the subject of religion came up.

He grew up a Southern Baptist somewhere in Oklahoma, graduated from OU, and then headed off to a prestigious law school. Somewhere along the way, he decided that the faith he had grown up with was not credible, and he dropped out until, like many, he married and had children, at which time he found his way into an Episcopal Church. Although his children are all grown, he remains very active in his church, serving in various capacities.

Unfortunately, he said that he was not sure that he believes in God and doubts that there is any kind of an afterlife. Pragmatism, not truth, had brought him back to the church. He returned and remains active in a church because in practical terms it is the best way to raise a family, provide stability to a society, and perform good deeds for the needy. The church provides for life to be ordered in a way that is for him meaningful, providing satisfaction that he is doing good for others.

Yet, he is terrified of growing old and dying. He visits a nursing home in behalf of his church, taking along his dog because the residents love the little animal. He says that he doesn't do this for the residents, but it is "exposure therapy" for himself. He cannot come to grips with the fact that he will grow old (he is currently in his 60's), become "useless," and die. He is hoping that by visiting these people, that he will gain a level of comfort with his inevitable future.

I expressed regret that he had not found resources that would have helped him appreciate the viability of orthodox Christianity and told him that my hope for my future was grounded in the fact that Christ had risen from the dead. Trying to find a point of contact with him, I mentioned some Anglican writers that had been helpful to me, and he brought up C.S. Lewis as someone he had read. When I pointed out that Lewis, though practical in style, argued in favor of Christianity not because it was practical, but because it was true, he noted that as a point that was worth thinking about. We agreed that we would talk more at some point in the future.

I regard his situation as tragic. He has spent much of his life in churches, yet he finds no help with regard to some of the most fundamental issues that Christianity addresses. Of course, some will point out that his experience results from his migration to a liberal version of Christianity. While that is true, evangelicals might want to pause before dismissing the relevance of his testimony.

The fastest growing segments of evangelical Christianity in the United States now largely base their appeal on the practical value of what they claim to offer. Some churches even market themselves in a way that downplays themes such as sin, grace, salvation, redemption, and death. Rather, they focus on practical matters: coming to our church and hearing our message will help your kids, make you a better parent, make you more fulfilled and give meaning to your life, help you overcome addictions, provide you with a sense of community, and so forth. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, though one might point out that you can find resources for them in places other than churches.

Christianity doesn't just claim "to work;" it claims to be true. And in that claim, it asserts that God has dealt with our sins and provides a way of redemption and a future hope. That is, it deals with the truly large issues of life. In his practical religion, my colleague did not find an answer for the most fundamental and certain issues of life. It would be most unfortunate if evangelicals are leading their members down the same banal path.

It is often argued that people in their day to day lives are not concerned about these larger issues, and that may be true. But evangelical Christianity without the Christianity is nothing more than a marketed message that gains adherents without offering anything of value for the long haul. Churches should offer the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation for everyone that believes; if churches don't, they are doing more harm than good.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Rick Perry's Strange Baptism

According to a story first broken by the highly regarded online newspaper, The Texas Tribune, Governor Rick Perry submitted to baptism in the same stream once used by Sam Houston for the same purpose.  While the event itself was a private affair, its publication has inevitably resulted in fruitless and uninteresting commentary on his motives.  As for the author of this blog, the matter would not be terribly interesting, except for the odd understanding of baptism enunciated by those speaking for the Governor, and that would not be interesting, except in recent months I have heard from other quarters that these views may be becoming increasingly common among evangelicals.

While all major Christian groups baptize their converts with water, they significantly disagree over its proper subjects (believers and their children, or only believers), its mode (sprinkling, pouring, or immersion) and its primary significance (a means of grace, or a step of obedience professing faith).  These are significant divides just among Protestants, not to mention Catholics and Orthodox.

Nonetheless, while that is a lot to disagree about, both Protestants and Catholics have historically held to a consensus on some issues related to baptism:  it is a rite of initiation into the Christian community.  That means that baptism is something that occurs a single time at the front end of Christian experience, and it is the means by which a person becomes a part of the Christian community. Baptism is an initial sacrament or ordinance that is administered only once. Christians also share in common -- and disagree much about -- the Lord's Supper as a repeated sacrament or ordinance.

It is important to note that Baptists have historically agreed with other Christians on this issue, though others have criticized them for allegedly holding a different view.  The misunderstanding comes about due to the fact that paedobaptists will recognize a Baptist baptism, but the Baptist requires re-baptism of anyone who joins his church if that person was either baptized prior to believing or by sprinkling. Thus, even though I was immersed in a Baptist church, the Presbyterian Church that I eventually joined did not require me to be sprinkled -- Presbyterians consider baptism to be valid if it was administered by a proper church (for the most part, any trinitarian one, though some churches will additionally require that the church adhere to justification by faith alone) on a proper candidate (a believer or the child of a believer). Baptists believe also that baptism should ideally occur at the start of the Christian life, but they believe that the mode is crucial to the definition of what constitutes baptism, and they deny baptism to the children of believers.  Thus, in their view, baptism has not occurred if either the mode or the candidate was improper, and they, thus, require a person submitting for membership to be immersed.

With that background, we are ready to talk about Rick Perry.  Mr. Perry, by his testimony, has been a Christian for many years, so his recent baptism is not an indication that he has just come to faith.  Nor is his baptism an admission that his previous one was improper. Nor did it constitute a step toward joining a church (while the baptism was not a church event -- more on that later -- it was performed by the minister of the church where he is a member).

Rather, he was baptized, according to his spokesman, in order to "reaffirm his commitment in a way that holds great personal meaning.”

As mentioned earlier, I have recently heard of other churches doing this. Yet, baptism has never been regarded as being for this purpose historically by any major Christian grouping.  More importantly, there is absolutely no precedent for it in Scripture.  For anyone that regards Scripture as authoritative regarding Christian practice, this must be questioned.

Yet, there is no Scriptural warrant.  Baptism, the gentler sign of the new covenant, finds its Old Testament roots in the rite of circumcision, given first to Abraham as a sign of the covenant in Genesis 17.  We can be rather certain that none of the sons of Abraham were circumcised a second time in order to reaffirm their faith in Yahweh.  More seriously, the New Testament simply provides no warrant for using baptism in this way. As the Gospel spread, as described in Acts and the Epistles, baptism was administered to new converts and their households.  It was an initiatory rite.  Christians were urged to remember their baptism (see Romans 6 among many other passages), but it was never suggested that they should repeat it. The only arguable example of renewed baptism is found in Acts 19, involving those who knew only the baptism of John, but that is an example of converts being baptized because their earlier baptism was not Christian. 

There are other misunderstandings present in the article.  Another person close to the governor had this to say:  "Baptism is a very personal expression of faith.”  But, that is simply not true.  In both Old and New Testament, the sign of the covenant signalled inclusion in the covenant community -- inclusion in a community is not private.  Baptists would also emphasize it as a public profession of their faith, which by definition would not be a private matter.  It should also be noted that Mr. Perry's baptism appears not to have been a church function -- it is emphasized that the governor was accompanied only by a few friends and family and his minister.  As far as we know, his church only learned of it when reading about it in the paper.  Given that Acts, from the very beginning, associates baptism with being added to the church, this is very odd, indeed.

Before someone reminds me, let me acknowledge that these irregularities are not the end of the world. Worse stuff happens both in and outside of churches. However, there is a tendency here that believers should not ignore.  Churches and Christians cannot simply take the commands of Christ and make up what we want them to mean.  If Christ is Lord -- and he is -- then he is the one who defines the meaning of what he has commanded.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Do You Do When a Total Heretic Says Correct Things?

I heard a friend ask that question recently, and I have since put some thought into organizing some longstanding ideas on the subject.

First, we should not be surprised when this happens.  Even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day. More seriously, God's common grace brings about the refreshment of rain on the just and the unjust alike, and even a heretic will typically recognize that he is wet -- and he may say something insightful or beautiful about the event.  Sometimes, even the best among us fall into this mode of thinking in which we imagine that those who are against us are wrong headed and evil in every way. Of course, upon reflection, any remotely thoughtful person recognizes that this is really not the case.  Those holding, in my understanding, even the most pernicious views -- barring some form of insanity -- will share many thoughts in common with my own. 

Anyone who wishes not to be narrow will find the need to read and interact with views that differ from his own, and appreciation for God's gifts to others will cause us to realize that God has given insight to those with whom we disagree on various areas.  While I am reformed in my views, I recognize that there is considerable variation even if I were to restrict my reading to the historically reformed, and I also recognize value in the writings outside of my own stream of thought. I recenty wrote a post commending some thoughts of G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, a Catholic with whom I would disagree about much, also said much that I would consider worthwhile, and I could encourage others to read Chesterton's books.  I sing and love the hymns of Wesley, an Arminian, and read sermons by Spurgeon, a Baptist. These I find insightful and helpful, though there are issues about which I would have strong disagreement.

And, of course, I can benefit from and publicly cite disagreements with authors that I have strong antipathy for their views. This is true in both academic and popular discourse.

But what about someone who is notorious that says something I like?  My own approach is that it is counterproductive to rely on the support of someone who is thoroughly unsound, and if I need arguments or supporting material, I should take the time to find a more reliable source.  Hugh Hefner might have over the years said something I agreed with about sexual ethics -- maybe -- but I am not likely to quote him for positive support in Sunday's sermon. Similarly, the Watchtower Society or Pelagius, Joel Osteen, or Doug Wilson, or some other unreliable person may say something I like about God or worship or the Christian life, but I am unlikely to quote them. I really don't want to encourage anyone to listen to or read any of those sources, and those aware of their reputation may question my use of source material.  In the vast array of Christian literature, there are many others that can be looked to for illustrative or supportive material.

Of course, this recognizes a spectrum extending out from my own understanding.  There are some with whom I disagree, but I recognize that their views are within the broad stream of catholic Christianity.  Others fall outside that stream, and I regard them differently in terms of the way I would cite them. All of this requires discernment and care, but this largely explains my own approach to this question.