Monday, December 30, 2013

Reading the Bible Through in One Year -- or Two

Many Christians make a commitment to read the Bible through in a year.  My church has encouraged members to do that, and it is a laudable goal.  For various options for doing so, see Justin Taylor's post here (Hat Tip:  Denny Burk, who offers an plan that he developed, via The Aquila Report here)

I just finished reading through the Bible from front to back on a two year plan and have started anew in Genesis.  The idea for two years occurred to me when I downloaded a free version of the ESV on to my Kindle and realized that I would read the Bible completely in less than two years by doing 1% per week.  Being a bit of a numbers geek, that appealed to me. I then did so by reading one or two chapters per day (depending on the length), and then finishing out my percentage for each week on Sunday. 

That has worked for me.  For years, I struggled with one year plans:  miss a few days, and one can start feeling like he is so far behind that it becomes de-motivating. More postively, reading the smaller amounts daily in order to finish in two years allows more time for closer reflection on the text. While this may not be the right plan for everyone, it has made me a more consistent Bible reader than at any point previously in my life.

By the way, Amazon recently updated my version of the ESV, and the numbering system and large number of footnotes no longer support my 1% per year plan.  To compensate, I am now using a physical copy of the Bible to scope out my plan, and then I do my actual reading on my Kindle. Thus, my hard copy Bible has just under 1600 pages of Bible text, which means that by reading 16 pages/week, I will have read the Bible in less than two years -- one or two chapters per day, finishing each percent on Sunday.

Finally, I would note that some people would struggle reading consecutively through the entire Old Testament like that.  If so, you will need to find a plan that moves back and forth between the Old and New Testament.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rightly Dieting (?) but Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth

Christian ministers who rightly hold to a robust, historical understanding of the divine inspiration of Scripture sometimes fail to recognize the solemn and awesome responsibilities that should accompany such a commitment.  To hold to the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible is to claim that the Word of God constitutes the words of God.  If we acknowledge that the Ninth Commandment requires of us that we not misconstrue the words of our fellow man, how much more ought we to take care not to treat flippantly or make false claims about the words of God, Himself.  In addition, if we regard the Bible as God's gift to His covenant people, by which He reveals Himself to mankind, we should take seriously and humbly the need to communicate it accurately, whether in the pulpit or in other contexts, so as not to misrepresent God's Word.  I would add that while ministers are correctly teaching Bible content, they should also model proper methods of biblical interpretation, thus equipping their hearers both to read the Bible and to evaluate the preaching of others, lest they be led astray.

All of this came to mind when today's mail arrived with an advertisement from a Christian bookstore featuring prominently a new book by Saddleback Community Church pastor Rick Warren entitled, The Daniel Plan.  Noticing that one of the medical doctor co-authors had the first name of Daniel, I briefly hoped against hope that this doctor had given the diet his name. Alas, it was not to be.  According to the product's website, which also features, in addition to the book, a DVD, study guide, cookbook, and journal, "The Daniel Plan is not just another 'diet.'  It's a healthy lifestyle based on the Old Testament story of Daniel."  Given that no one can really read the story in Daniel chapter 1 and construe it as some sort of tale of either diets or healthy lifestyles, it is easy to reach the conclusion that the Word of God has been reduced to a mere marketing tool designed to hawk this set of products. 

Certainly, there are a range of interpretations of the significance of the first chapter of Daniel.  Readers will recall that youthful Daniel and his young friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), were forcibly exiled from Jerusalem and assigned to the court of Nebuchadnezzar.  As part of their training in the court, they were to receive an allotment of food. Daniel, in behalf of himself and his friends, argued that they would be defiled by this food and ultimately prevailed upon the administrator to allow them to eat vegetables and drink water instead. 

In discussing the reasons for Daniel's refusal to accept the king's food, E.J. Young, in his classic commentary on Daniel, provides the most common interpretation by favorably quoting from Keil:  "The partaking of the food brought to them from the king's table was to them contaminating, because forbidden by law... [because] the heathen at their feasts offered up in sacrifice to their gods a part of the food and the drink, and thus consecrated their meals by a religious rite; whereby he who participated in such a meal participated in the worship of idols...." While acknowledging the possibility of that view, Sinclair Ferguson argues that Daniel saw "an effort to seduce him into the lifestyle of a Babylonian through the enjoyment of pleasures he had never before known....The good life that Daniel was offered was intended by the king to wean him away from the hard life to which God had called him."

While I prefer Young's reading of the passage, I would note that both of these views emphasize what seems clear from the text:  that Daniel's courageous decision regarding the food rested on a question of loyalty to his covenant God while living in a strange land. Yet, Rev. Warren somehow finds a different understanding:  "But Daniel knew this wouldn't be a healthy diet, so he asked that he and three of his friends be allowed to eat healthier.... [H]e understood God wanted him to live a healthy lifestyle so he could serve God no matter where he was located.

Warren's reading of the passage is so laughable that it hardly needs rebuttal.  Not only are we left to ask on what basis Daniel might have found the nutritional data to suggest that his own diet would be more nutritious than the king's "defiling" (a rather strong word, if it merely means "less nutritious") food, but the notion of a "healthy lifestyle" is a modern concept that likely would not have occurred to a late 7th century B.C. Middle Eastern youth whose homeland of late was being subjected to savage military attack and siege.  Given the paucity of support for reading this as a story about losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle, one is left with a couple of unsettling possibilities. Either Rev. Warren, who holds a degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is an ordained Baptist minister of long standing, is so ignorant of biblical interpretation as to arrive at this bizarre conclusion or, even worse, he knows better but is pushing this because giving a biblical facade to such a product makes for good marketing.

Either way, this is an abuse of the Word of God, and those who care for His Word need to point it out.  Rick Warren, while liked more by some groups of Christians than others, is hardly way out there on the spectrum of modern American evangelicalism.  He is successful and mainstream.  To abuse the Word of God in this way in the marketing of a line of products is offensive, even vulgar, and Christians who know better need to shout, "Stop."

Finally, while the name of the program itself is the most blatant abuse of sacred scripture found in the marketing materials, looking through the website reveals additional carelessness with the Bible. The most ironic -- amusing in a sense -- is the use of Philippians 4:13:  "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  Commenting on that verse, the website contends, "God is the power and the energy behind all transformational change and that includes making the lifestyle choices necessary for you to become healthy."

Perhaps Rev. Warren should re-read that letter, which was written from prison.  St. Paul, the prisoner, said that he had contentment whether in plenty or want.  Whether overwhelmed or starving, he had the strength in Christ to be content.  Sitting in prison, his "lifestyle choices" were somewhat limited

Thus, those spiritually invigorating words are not the stuff of a diet plan.  If Rev. Warren wishes to use his position and his pulpit to hawk a diet (pardon me, lifestyle) plan as his latest thing for people to spend 40 days on, I might shake my head and wonder if that falls within the proper mission of the church, but so be it.  However, I wish he would cease to abuse the Word of God while doing so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The First Hypothetical: my response, his rebuttal, my rejoinder

The purpose of this post is to continue the debate and discussion of the marks of the church with my friend, LC, who is the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle. For those readers who may be just joining, LC writes from the vantage point of an American evangelical Anglican.  I am a former Baptist minister who has been licensed to preach by my presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America.  We both represent the Reformed strand within our respective traditions. 

We began this discussion with an intent to focus on the subject of church discipline, and we are steadily making progress toward engaging in that discussion, but in laying foundation we have found significant disagreements in the area of the sacraments, and we have spent considerable time exploring those differences.  It is the point of this post to respond to his latest points. 

While I was glad, though not surprised, that LC distanced himself from positions commonly referred to as New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision, it was disappointing that he quoted favorably at length (perhaps unintentionally) from a leading proponent of the federal vision ideology, D. Wilson.  Wilson's more serious deviations from reformed orthodoxy -- denial of a pre-fall covenant of works, advocacy of a conditional election, redefining faith as faithfulness, and so forth -- would seem to place his positions on paedocommunion as mere symptoms of deeper problems, and Wilson would not be the best ally for that reason. The Wilson quote, and the quotation of the other blogger agreeing with him, offer caricatures of how the reformed set out to nurture their children.  Given Wilson's repudiation of much else in the Westminster standards, it is not surprising that he would set out to undermine those who use those standards for their understanding of how those standards apply to covenant children.

Leaving that aside, LC points out that our differences on the sacraments are significant.  While there is a sense in which I agree with that, I also would suggest that it is possible to overstate our differences.  Throughout Protestant history, there has been a struggle to set forth a view of the sacraments that will not be misunderstood by those outside of our particular school of thought.  All Protestants would agree, against Rome, that there should not be a confusion between the sign and the thing signified.  Because Protestants believe that Rome was guilty of precisely such confusion, this is a distinguishing characteristic of the Reformation churches. Though this point was not expressed as one of the 5 "solas" that we commonly speak of, it is implicit in the notion of sola fide.  At the opposite extreme from Rome, while still within the realm of Protestant orthodoxy, was Zwingli. Whereas Rome saw the sacraments as mechanically operative, Zwingli's followers rejected even the term "sacraments," calling them instead ordinances and thinking of them primarily in terms of our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than as a means of grace that God offers for us. Having been raised a Baptist and, thus, in the system of Zwingli, I can remember a time when I thought that any talk of sacraments hinted at sacerdotalism.  Obviously, that is no longer my view. 

Yet, it is not only the Zwinglians that struggle to understand the positions of other Protestants.  Of course, Lutherans deny that they espouse an ex opere understanding of the sacraments, but when the reformed look at Lutheran statements regarding the sacraments, we often find ourselves scratching our heads and asking how that differs from Rome.  On the other hand, when Lutherans look at reformed statements on the sacraments, they somehow think that they are reading Zwingli, no matter how many times the reformed speak of the sacraments as God's means of grace by which he offers his gifts to his people -- not exactly Zwinglian lingo.  No doubt, the confusion occurs because while the sign and the thing signified should never be confused, they are nonetheless closely connected.  The sign and thing signified may not be confused, but theologians attempting to sort it out certainly can be.

In baptism, God signifies and seals the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant of grace.  The water of baptism symbolizes the regenerative cleansing of the Holy Spirit.  As I have previously noted, the Westminster Confession of Faith (28.7) emphasizes that "the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment wherein it is administered." Quoting that statement, Michael Horton adds, "Baptism itself does not effect this in an ex opere operato fashion, but achieves its perlocutionary effect when and where the Spirit chooses."

Getting back to the subject of the proper recipients of the Lord's Supper, I would simply point out that the New Testament places on recipients a responsibility of repentance and faith for worthy recipients, and this is language that is not suggested with regard to the recipients of household baptisms. That baptism and the Supper are means of grace is not in dispute, but one must also consider the different functions that these perform as covenant signs and seals.  Whereas baptism signifies inclusion in the covenant community and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the Supper, again quoting Horton, " strengthens and confirms that faith that we have professed.  In Paul's teaching, admission to the Supper requires discernment, so as not to eat and drink unworthily."

LC concedes that paedocommunion is a recent development in Anglicanism, and I would urge him to explore further the idea that this has has been a component of latitudinarian trends in his own denomination's theology.  As he has noted previously, the 39 Articles predated Westminster, and Anglicans were active participants in the Westminster Assembly. Though the Westminster Confession was created as a consensus document, there can be no debate that paedocommunion was not consistent with it.

I do think that the differences over baptism are more significant and important for our understanding of church discipline.  To the extent that Anglicans conjoin baptism and regeneration -- the sign and the thing signified -- differences will emerge down the line regarding nurture -- and discipline.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Response to the First Hypothetical regarding Marks of the Church

This post continues the debate between myself and the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle (henceforth, LC) regarding the marks of the church.  As a reminder to those reading, LC is an Anglican who is self-consciously in the historically reformed tradition of that communion.  I am a Presbyterian who is also writing from the perspective of the historically reformed.  While we initially set out to discuss the issue of church discipline, we have spent most of our bandwidth thus far in dialogue regarding the sacraments.  This has been helpful, as we have identified areas of agreement while also discovering differences that will be helpful in elaborating on our differing perspectives on the matter of church discipline when we finally reach that destination.  I have enjoyed and benefited from interacting with LC on this, and I would encourage readers to scroll through our posts, as I believe that this represents thoughtful theological discussion could be helpful to others.

In the beginning of his latest post, LC presented some responses to my most recent points, and I think that he aptly summarizes some areas of agreement and difference.  As our conversation is moving to a new phase, I won't offer further response other than on one point. I had previously stated that he had underestimated the value that Presbyterians see in the Lord's Supper, and he graciously conceded the point while also pointing out that the Supper has a more central place in Anglican liturgy. I want to concede back a bit of what he has conceded to me. In our confessional documents, I would continue to stand by my contention that Presbyterians sufficiently value the Lord's Supper. However, I should also admit that commitment to a more formal and uniform liturgy helps conservative Anglicans to withstand the influences of broader American evangelicalism to which conservative Presbyterians have been perhaps too susceptible. Given that evangelicals frequently are not quite sure what to do with the sacraments, and especially the Lord's Supper, toward which evangelicals typically hold to Zwingli's views, this has had a detrimental impact on Presbyterian worship in many quarters.  While I am deviating a bit from the goal of interacting with LC on these issues, I wanted to use this opportunity to urge any Presbyterian and broader evangelical readers to think deeply about the significance and place of the Supper in our worship.  While I would not restructure our services after the Anglican format, I would prefer that we be more influenced by the Anglican example and less by the trite and ahistorical patterns of modern evangelicalism.

Returning to the subject at hand, LC sets up a hypothetical example of a child of parents in the church.  In interacting with his discussion, I find some points of agreement and difference in belief and practice:

There is much about the baptism of covenant children that we share in common.  By baptism, covenant children of one or both believing parents are welcomed into the covenant community.  The parents of the child take vows acknowledging their child's need for the saving blood of Christ and renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, claiming the covenant promises in the child's behalf, and promise, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit, to set a godly example and bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The congregation vows to assist the parents.  However, as we have already discussed, there is a significant theological difference with regard to what happens at baptism.  Whereas, the Anglican view seems to be that elect children are regenerated at baptism, Presbyterians don't hold that normally to be the case.  Certainly, baptism bears symbolic testimony to both the cleansing blood of Christ and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit while also functioning as a means of grace and as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace to believers and their households.  However, we take care not to confuse the sign with the thing signified, and while it is good that Anglicans don't make the same error as the Roman church in claiming an ex opere relationship between baptism and regeneration, nonetheless, we would argue that they go too far in claiming that baptism is the means the Spirit uses in regeneration.

A baptized child is a member of the covenant community and, as such, is entitled to all of the privileges granted to communicant members of the church, with two exceptions:  the child cannot receive the sacrament of communion, and the child cannot vote on church matters.  There is no particular age at which a child is permitted to become a communicant member -- that is left to the discretion of the elders to determine whether a child understands the Gospel and is able to make a credible profession of faith in Christ.  We do acknowledge that children raised in the covenant community may never recall a day when they did not believe in Christ.  With regard to the instruction of covenant children, we are seeing some healthy trends among conservative Presbyterians.  For a long period of time, partly due to the overall liberalizing of the church, the catechizing of children has fallen into disuse -- that is not to say that it had disappeared, but fewer churches were using this kind of instruction.  In recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on the use of catechisms, particularly the Westminster Shorter Catechis.  There is also a simpler catechism appropriate for younger children that is commonly used. This is a healthy trend.  The catechizing, if provided, may occur at any point through childhood. 

Typically, a child who is now professing faith in Christ will meet with one or more elders for appropriate counselling and explanation regarding that profession.  A child may also attend membership classes similar to those provided for adults.  A child who has professed faith in Christ and completed the instruction required by the church will be presented to the church and take his membership vows.  Often this is done on a communion Sunday, with the result that the new communicant member will participate in his first communion.

As indicated, non-communicant children do not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper -- please note that I did not say that they don't participate, as being present is a form of participation, and the child observes the proclamation of the gospel provided in the sacramental meal. I was surprised to learn that Anglicans allow children who have not been confirmed to partake. LC indicates that this is a development of the last 40 years and may be tied to the liberalization of the church.  I would be interested to know if there is push back on this from conservative, reformed Anglicans. 

While paedocommunion makes a bit more sense in light of the Anglican view of baptismal regeneration, I would suggest that it is not a necessary inference of baptismal regeneration.  This issue has in recent years become controversial in Presbyterian circles, as it is clearly outside the Westminster standards and, I would argue, not consistent with biblical injunctions that, for example, recipients of the Supper examine themselves and remember the Lord's death.  Certainly, the Lord's Supper is a means of grace, but it is an instrument of sanctification for those who have been regenerated.  Not believing that regeneration occurs with baptism, we do not find it to be appropriate for children. I mentioned that this has become controversial in Presbyterian circles, and those who have tried to push for paedocommunion among us have frequently been tied to the "federal vision" movement that also affirms a conditional baptismal regeneration while also redefining justification to deny that it is a once and for all forensic declaration and making it conditional on our covenant faithfulness, rather than being based on faith alone. N.T. Wright has had a significant influence on those adherents.

I suspect that LC will distance himself from those latter views, but I would be interested in further information about the history of paedocommunion among Anglicans. I had been of the impression that it is rather unique to the Eastern Orthodox church and not practiced by any of the major western churches.

It is interesting that there are so many layers of both agreement and disagreement regarding our hypothetical covenant child. I will look forward to LC's next post.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Debate on the Marks of the Church: Response to the First Clarification

This post continues a conversation I have been having with the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle ("LC") on the subject of church discipline.  You can find his latest response to my previous post here, and I would urge you to read it.  At that location you will also find links to our earlier posts. As a sign of our commitment to discuss the issue thoroughly, I would note that after writing this present post, LC and I will each have written multiple entries while barely touching on the ultimate subject of our discourse.  At this point we are continuing our discussion of the sacraments and a bit of church government. These are foundational issues that lead to differences down the road.

Before responding to LC's latest entry, I wanted to pause to say a word to our readers who don't come from a confessional background and may wonder about our persistent references to his Anglican Book of Church Order and my Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith.  Why not just get back to the Bible?  We would both -- I'm presuming to speak for LC here, but I am doing so with considerable confidence -- affirm that the Bible is our only final authority for faith and practice, and it stands above all creeds and confessions, which only have authority insofar as they agree with Scripture.  However, while we look ultimately to Scripture, we do not talk about the Bible as though it fell out of heaven the middle of last week.  These questions have been discussed by Christians for two millenia, and LC and I stand in two historic streams (frequently convergent streams, I will add) of that discussion.  We look to the Bible ultimately for our faith and practice, but neither of us is arrogant enough to suppose that we should look at the Bible in a way that suggests that this 2,000 year discussion has not occurred.  Rather, we openly represent viewpoints that have been informed by that discussion.  The failure to engage doctrinal and ethical issues in this way is a significant weakness of the modern church.

It should also be said, though, as LC implied in his latest post, that it is not helpful for us to try to represent all who stand in our respective streams.  Even among conservative Presbyterians, there is a fair amount of variety in terms of confessional adherence.  Some Presbyterians in my denomination, the PCA, are more or less evangelicals who believe in predestination, while others are more thoroughly covenantal and confessional in their orientation (of note: in recent years I have moved from being more like the former category to more like the latter).  Anglicans have at least that much variety, and this has impacts in terms of worship, confessionalism, the sacraments, and, of course, church discipline.  While this does not mean that LC and I are representing just our individual viewpoints, it does mean that the conversation will move best as we set out to represent that portion of our churches' positions with which we most closely align.

With this background, I will now set out to respond to some of the key points in LC's latest post.

  1. In response to my criticism of Anglicanism's holding to 7 sacraments, LC took more time to distinguish between the two sacraments instituted by Christ and the other "sacramental rites," which I suppose should be called everything you could want from a sacrament, and less.  Snide remarks aside, while I would suggest that the designation of "sacramental rite" is unhelpful and open to confusion, I don't know that our differences here are terribly important to our discussion.
  2. Regarding the Lord's Supper, Presbyterians agree with LC's statements that Zwingli's memorialist only view is insufficient and emphasize both communion and baptism as means of grace. Chapter 27.3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith declares, "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers."  While LC did not address the subject of the nature of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, I would note in passing that Calvin, and Presbyterians after him, held to a mediating position that differed both from Luther's consubstantiation and from Zwingli's symbolic view, with Calvin maintaining instead that by the Holy Spirit, Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine to the faith of the partaker.
  3. On the subject of the relationship between baptism and regeneration, LC provided helpful clarification, but it is also clear that we have substantial differences in this area.  I would agree with his statement that "election and covenant inclusion are not synonomous," as this is crucial to understanding the distinction between the visible and invisible church.  The visible church (that which we can see) is made up of all who profess faith in Christ and their children.  It is essentially equivalent to the Kingdom of God.  The invisible church is composed only of the elect, meaning those who are not elect and never actually believe are excluded. In Presbyterian ecclessiology, baptism is open to believers who were not previously baptized (we hold to believer's baptism!) and to the children of believers (when at least one of the parents is a Christian).  However, not all baptized children who come of age ultimately believe, and so some of them were not elect. Because Anglicans hold to, if I am reading correctly, baptismal regeneration for elect children, that leads to a different thological approach to their understanding of both baptism, which is received differently by elect and non-elect children, and reprobation.  While I would recognize baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant which, as such, signifies regeneration, I would not hold that in baptism the Spirit brings about regeneration for the elect or, of course, the non-elect (at least not in the normal course of things:  the Spirit willeth as He moveth). The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully breaks down the issue this way:  "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administeredyet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time."
  4. While it will be interesting to see how the topic in the above item unfolds, it appears to me that this distinction explains to a large degree why Presbyterian talk about church discipline and fencing the table at communion strikes someone holding to the Anglican view as indicating a quasi fall from grace or a type of light legalism. While I think that we recognize that both of us, in fact, hold stringently to the doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone and to the perseverence of the saints, it is not hard to see how misunderstandings can emerge. That is the theme that LC develops over a few paragraphs in the latter half of us post, and I think he is largely correct regarding the nature of the difference in understanding. I do disagree somewhat in that I think that he underestimates the extent to which Presbyterians value the Supper as a means of grace and instrument of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (though I concede that since most Presbyterians don't observe it as frequently as do Anglicans, we don't seem to give it as much priority).  However, I think that the differences over baptism and regeneration lead to some profound downstream differences.
  5. LC clarified that the episcopol hierarchy relates to the offices and not to the persons holding those offices.  While I don't see a need to belabor the point, I will remind him that this remains a significant difference from Presbyterian ecclessiology.  There is no hierarchy of elders in the Presbyterian church.  We have only two ordained office -- elder and deacon -- with the latter office being one of service and the former having spiritual authority.  Within the elders, there are no positions of greater authority -- thus, there are no bishops, archbishops, etc., within our structure. Regional jurisdiction is just made up of elders who have convened in accordance with the bylaws of a presbytery, synod, general assembly, etc. However, there is nothing higher than an elder, and while most Presbyterians distinguish between teaching elders (seminary trained and ordained pastors) and ruling elders (ordained laymen), in the courts of the church the two have equal standing.
I enjoyed the quote from Luther and have found these interactions illuminating.  I will look to LC to respond to these points as he sees fit and decide where we proceed next.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Church Discipline: an opening response

This blog post will be the first in a series in which I interact with the writing of the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle regarding the marks of the church generally and the issue of church discipline in particular. He is addressing these issues as an American Anglican with historically Reformed commitments; I write as a Presbyterian with the same commitments. Both Presbyterians and Anglicans were present and engaged at the assembly which created the Westminster Confession of Faith, so those who adhere to our historic faith commitments have much in common.

He has started the discussion with two posts here and here. In those posts, the blogger outlines a bit about how our discussion came about, points to the significant areas of agreement that we have theologically, and provides detailed information regarding the Anglican understanding of church and worship. I learned a great deal about his Church through those posts, especially the second of the two. All of this will serve as important background as we get into the nuts and bolts issues of church government and discipline.

The origins of our discussion go back nearly two years, when that blogger and I met at a conference devoted to a discussion of a need for another Reformation comparable to the one that occurred in the 16th century. That he and I were both in attendance at the conference is an indication of our shared theological beliefs, and in his first post, he does an excellent job of emphasizing that this is an intramural disagreement among friends. Thus, while we may decide to take off our gloves and spar vigorously, onlookers should recognize this discussion for what it is. We debate and discuss as brothers in Christ with a shared interest in and passion for the glory of God and the Gospel of Christ. The matter that we are discussing is not a difference between apostacy and orthodoxy. That is not to say that it is unimportant, either. Nonetheless, I would expect these conversations to be vigorous, yet respectful. If we don't ultimately find agreement on all things on the other end of our debates (and because we both have spent coniderable time arriving at our present positions, that is the likely outcome), we will have nevertheless, I trust, sharpened our own respective views while also understanding each other's positions more clearly. Understanding Christ's glory as our ultimate end, these are worthwhile goals.

At that conference of nearly two years ago, one of the suggestions that arose regarding the needs of the modern church concerned church discipline, which is rarely practiced and widely misunderstood these days, and on that issue there was disagreement between those coming from a Reformed perspective and those operating from a Lutheran or Anglican understanding. The other blogger and I debated this issue over dinner during those meetings. As he outlines in the first post linked above, our discussion was recently renewed when I posted definitions of legalism and antinomianism on another website. The definitions I posted are as follows:

Definition of legalism: any attempt to use the moral law as a set of requirements by which a person can attain favor with God; or, for a Christian, any attempt to use the moral law as posing a threat to the believer or creating a system of punishment and rewards.

Definition of antinomianism ("no law") -- failure to recognize the moral law as a universally valid measure for human conduct before a holy God, by which measure we all fall short; or, for the Christian who has been delivered from condemnation, the failure to recognize the moral law as a guide for how we can show gratitude to God.

I was attempting to offer definitions related to these two misunderstandings of the nature of the law by importing what is often referred to as Calvin's first and third uses of the law. According to Calvin, the first use of the law, or the so-called pedagogical use, is to make so clear our sinfulness as to drive us to faith in Christ as our only hope. Thus, the first use of the law relates to issues of sin and guilt with condemnation as an end. The third use of the law is that of an encouragement and a guide as to how the justified sinner can show gratitude to God for his amazing power and grace. To mistakenly apply the first use of the law to a believer is to attempt to bring him back into a state of condemnation and to deny him of the joys of peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and freedom from condemnation (Rom 8:1), as well as the assurance that nothing can separate him from God's love (Rom. 8:39). To deny the third use of the law is to abandon the way that the biblical writers use the law as a guide for those who no longer are under the law as an instrument of condemnation (see Galatians 5, for example). This is a common understanding of Reformed Christians, sometimes actually heard in churches, and the other blogger amplifies these points nicely in his first post.

Nonetheless, the other blogger suggested that my definitions, while agreeable, presented the appearance of legalism when churches exercise discipline toward their members. That brought us to this discussion of the marks of the church. As he pointed out, in the Presbyterian understanding, a church is said to exist where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is exercised. That last point is the one that we are going to look at.

Before delving into the issue of discipline a little more deeply, I want to say a bit about the sacraments, as I think that some disagreements on those issues result in downstream differences on church discipline. If I understood the Anglican position correctly -- and I am asking for clarification here -- what is being affirmed is baptismal regeneration. That is, in baptism, the Holy Spirit works to actually regenerate the recipient of the baptism. While that regeneration is not ex opere, meaning a mechanical operation, as in Catholic theology, it is the means by which regeneration is effectuated. If that is correct, this would differ markedly from Presbyterian theology, which would consider that to constitute confusion between the sign and the thing signified. It is true that in Scripture -- and in our confessions, that the sign and thing signfied are often so intertwined that the sign is sometimes referred to as effectuating what it signals, but it is nonetheless important not to confuse the two. If baptism brings about regeneration, one is left with choices which don't seem to be biblical, as it seems to follow that either 1) all of those who receive the sign of the covenant are elect; or 2) some are regenerated but not elect. Without getting into a litany of texts at this point, neither of those options seems biblical to me. Nonetheless, this difference may account for the allegation at the end of the first post that church discipline assumes "an implied ability of a person to fall from grace." I don't agree at all that is the case, but will look forward to further discussion.
The other sacrament that Presbyterians recognize is Communion, and the other blogger rightly understands that we give much attention to what we call "fencing the table," that is, explaining who should participate in it, with I Corinthians 11 providing the primary authority. Presbyterian practice on this and other issues related to the Lord's Supper varies significantly from congregation to congregation. Generally, Presbyterians will say that Communion is open to baptized persons who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ and are members in good standing of an evangelical church. Those who have known sin that they refuse to repent over are urged not to participate. The point of that is not to exclude Christians from Communion, but to urge them to repentance.

The other blogger mention that Anglicans recognize a total of seven sacraments, with five additional ones often relegated to the status of "sacramental rites." I hope that he will pardon me for thinking this to be evidence that the Anglican apple did not fall far enough from its Romish tree. Similarly, Anglicans have an episcopal form of government complete with claims of apostolic succession. Presbyterian government has courts made up of representative elders while affirming the parity of all ordained elders and denying apostolic succession. This last matter may have important implications for the issue of church discipline.

The Nature of Church Discipline

I will close this post shortly in order to give the other blogger an opportunity to respond, but I want to say a bit about our main subject concerning the nature of church discipline. First, while even Presbyterians tend to use the term entirely in the negative sense of sanctions imposed by a church court, in fact the term "discipline" embraces both positive and negative aspects. Thus, the PCA's Book of Church Order (Chapter 27) states the following:

Discipline is the exercise of authority given the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ to instruct and guide its members and to promote its purity and welfare.

The term has two senses:

a. the one referring to the whole government, inspection, training, guardianship and control which the church maintains over its members, its officers and its courts;

b. the other a restricted and technical sense, signifying judicial process.

Because the term "discipline" includes both positive and negative aspects, having as their goals the glory of God, the purity of the church, and the repentance of sinners, it is considered as "a benefit" to which church members are "entitled." Thus, discipline should not be understood in just a negative sense.

With regard to judicial process, our Book of Church Order specifies five types of censures. Two of those are related to the suspension or removal of ordained officers from their positions. The three which are applicable to laymen are:
  • Admonition, which is a formal reproof
  • Suspension from sacraments, which is temporary exclusion from the ordinances; and
  • Excommunication, which is only to be exercised in instances of gross sin or heresy.
I am going to stop at this point. I will look forward to questions, comments, and even snide remarks.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A New Reformation

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther, acting on his growing sense that his church had lost its way, posted a list of 95 propositions for public debate. The result was the Protestant Reformation. In the last three weeks, I have visited the three largest and most influential churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.  My experience suggests to me that something comparable to what happened in Luther's day needs to happen again.  Christianity, as expressed in American evangelicalism, has lost its way, and it has done so in many of the same areas that Luther addressed.

The Reformation centered around five "sola's" ("alone's").  Justification is 1) by grace alone 2) through faith alone 3) in Christ alone 4) for the glory of God alone.  The only authority that can bind men's consciences is 5) Scripture alone.  These matters strike at the very heart of the Christian religion.  To lose them is to lose the Gospel, the good news that liberates from tyranny.  A church that has lost the Gospel does more harm than good, placing burdens and guilt on its followers without offering freedom in Christ, and rests its teaching on improper authorities.  Luther's concerns were central concerns.  To the extent we have lost these sola's, we are losing Christianity.

This brings me back to the three churches I have visited recently.  Regarding Scripture alone, all of the churches I visited would claim adherence to an authoritative Bible.  Yet, all of the ministers either neglected or badly mishandled biblical texts. One treated the Bible as a sort of Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations, taking verses out of context to find words that would go along with his theme for the day. Another limited his text to a few verses that would appear to support the central assertion of his sermon, when reading the wider text clearly shows that his interpretation was unsustainable and irresponsible.  Another treated an event in the life of Moses as a kind of Aesop's Fable for teaching a moral lesson -- which was not the point of the text. None of the ministers grappled with the context of the passages that they used, and none of them dealt with their Scriptures in the context of the history of redemption that serves as Scripture's central theme. Claims of belief in biblical authority ring hollow when ministers give such shoddy attention to the text.

Regarding the sola's related to justification: they were simply ignored by the ministers on these three Sunday's.  The glory of God never arose as an issue in any of the sermons, and only one of three made any mention of the redeeming work of Christ -- the other two made none, not even in passing.  While I was glad of the one sermon that mentioned Christ's work, I nevertheless thought that the point was lost because it was unrelated to the minister's central theme.  One of the pastors I heard managed to talk about being released from bondage without a single mention of any aspect of Christ's redeeming work -- not a single mention. I guess for him Christian liberty is unrelated to the work of Christ.

All of the church services had large, exuberant crowds, and I couldn't help but remember the religion of Huxley's Brave New World, which was emotional, communal, and devoid of content.  The Brave New World religion was cathartic, being designed to provide an outlet from the banality of their lives, but it provided nothing of transcendent significance.  If American Christianity is drawing crowds in this manner, then the churches have certainly lost their way.

Luther's discoveries followed a long period of anguish:  the religion of his youth provided no relief from his sense of guilt over his sins or his fear of divine retribution.  When he discovered that "the just shall live by faith:" that is, when he realized that God saw us in our hopeless state of spiritual death and depravity and determined to justify us through faith in Christ's death and resurrection and based on no merit of our own, he found joyous freedom.  What Luther found in Scripture needs discovering again.  To lose it is to lose the Gospel.  Without it, we have nothing to offer the crowd.

May God see fit to restore these truths as central to our churches.

Happy Reformation Day.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Truth and Tone

A couple of decades ago, I read two different books regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and the claims of the charismatic movement:  Keep in Step with the Spirit by J.I. Packer, and The Charismatics by John MacArthur. Both books set forth a cessationist position, and they understood various scriptural texts and theological concepts in similar ways; yet, the books were otherwise quite different.  The MacArthur book was combative, and he had a tendency to lump the views of more moderate charismatics with those who were more radical.  Rev. MacArthur has never been known to bend over backwards to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt.  On the other hand, the Packer book, while unapologetic, was irenic in tone, frequently noting positive contributions that charismatics had made to the evangelical cause before digging into shortcomings of the movement.  Because it was more carefully argued and irenic, I found the Packer volume to be much more persuasive.  I should add that as a general matter I like the preaching of John MacArthur.

This past reading was brought to mind by the recent Strange Fire Conference put together by Rev. MacArthur. Both theologically and as a matter of pastoral concern, I side with Mr. MacArthur on these issues, and I think that the matter is serious enough to merit serious concern.  As a pastor, I witnessed a suffering church member castigating herself for not having enough faith to be healed and, watching her anguish, I despised the doctrinal system that added to her hurt.  I have also seen damage done to a church by someone who claimed direct divine revelation ("God told me to....") as a rationale for taking a hurtful action. This type of language is far too common across evangelicalism and has influence well beyond the confines of the charismatic movement. I also mourn the cruelty entailed by the spread of the prosperity gospel from the United States to some of the poorest regions of the world.  I suspect that this unbiblical theology, while popular in places now, will eventually create a backlash among populations that have suffered while being manipulated to enrich a few.

Yet, while I think the substance of the conference was needed, I wish that it had been done by someone other than John MacArthur.  It was of interest to see Mike Riccardi, who serves on staff at MacArthur's Grace Community Church, defend his pastor's arguments (Hat tip:  The Aquila Report), and I agree with most aspects of that defense.  However, I disagree with his suggestion that the tone of the conference should not be relevant.  I disagree wholeheartedly.

Now, anyone who wishes to make arguments about tone has to take into account the occasionally harsh tones of the biblical writers.  In the Old Testament, we have imprecatory Psalms and hard words from prophets.  In the New Testament, to look to an obvious example, Paul pronounces a curse of eternal damnation on those who preach a false gospel and later in the same letter, Galatians, he says that he wishes that those who made so much of circumcision would go further and emasculate themselves.  Three things need to be said here:  1) That strong language is surrounded by carefully stated arguments about the gospel and the errors of Paul's opponents; 2) such language is reserved for situations where the gospel itself or something of similarly fundamental importance is at stake; and 3) Paul did not use intemperate language as a matter of habit.  Harsh denunciations must be considered both in light of what was at stake and the cultural context.  Paul did not argue with Onesimus in the same way he did the Galatian Judaizers.  This last point should be considered carefully by Mr. MacArthur, who has been known to condemn non-dispensationalists with the same fervor with which he takes on charismatics, liberals, and other apostates.  See Kim Riddlebarger's excellent rejoinder to his dispensationalist diatribe here.

There are two considerations that should be kept in mind: one a matter of the biblical command to love our neighbors, and the other a practical matter of effective argument. Regarding the former, a Christian has the duty not to bear false witness about others, and we are guilty of violating that commandment when we attribute to others straw man arguments that they do not actually make.  As a Calvinist, I frequently feel the brunt of these kinds of attacks when I read or am subjected to supposed arguments against things that neither I nor any other Calvinist I know believes.  Mr. MacArthur engages in these same types of arguments when he takes statements by extreme charismatics and attributes them to the entire movement.

In responding to criticisms of the conference, Mr. MacArthur chose to double down on the harshness, criticizing the modern charismatic movement that took hold at Calvary Chapel as coming from "barefoot, drug-induced young people [who] told the church how the church should act. Hymns and suits went out. For the first time in the history of the church, the conduct of the church was conformed to a sub-culture that was born of LSD and marijuana." I would question both the accuracy and the relevance of that statement to the present debate.

In public debate, one must also ask hard questions about effectiveness.  A red meat tone is certainly appealing to those who already agree with you. But, is that the point of the teaching?  Was the conference only designed to reaffirm the beliefs of committed cessationists?  Or, did the organizers wish to get those on the fence to care more about this?  Was there a hope to get those with charismatic leanings to reconsider?  When the rhetoric becomes uncharitable or the arguments get reckless, is that more or less likely to gather a hearing from the squishy middle?  I think the question answers itself.

As far as other arguments against Mr. MacArthur, I think that there is ample biblical precedent for engaging controversial issues passionately and persuasively for the glory of God, but one still needs to recognize that a charitable tone and careful argument count for a great deal. The substance of the conference was mostly right.  The tone needed to be different.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pastoral Concern Requires Theological Clarity

Suppose that I were to tell you that I knew of a physician who was providing some of his patients with treatment that had no sound basis, and, as a result, some of his patients had either died or suffered permanent harm. Now, those treatments don't have the same result for all patients, nor do all of his patients receive the same treatment program, and some people would swear that he has done the...m great good. Nonetheless, it is clear that he has caused death or severe physical harm for some.

Ah, you say: he is guilty of malpractice. He should be reported to the state medical board, or sued, or something should be done to stop him from harming patients.

All true. But it leads me to a question. If we rightly become concerned about a rogue physician causing harm to people's bodies, should we not be even more concerned with renegade preachers who destroy men's souls?

Oh, someone will say, that preacher helps some people, or you are causing division among Christians. So be it. Pastoral concern should motivate those who care about their sheep to call out theology or doctrine that destroys souls.

Now, of course, not every doctrinal disagreement is about soul destroying theology. In such instances, respectful disagreement is not out of bounds. Indeed, it is a way of sharpening our own thinking, trying to better understand the ways of God, or, in some cases, trying to convince a brother that our view is better. All of these things are valid.

Theology is destructive of human souls when it compels people to look inward rather than outward to Christ, when it drives people to guilt without providing liberating freedom from guilt in the Gospel, when it encourages self-righteousness, when it drains us of energy without offering rest in Christ, and when it causes fixation on this world, rather than a healthy longing for the world that is coming, or when it promises things that God has given us no right to promise.

Some of these things, paradoxically, grow churches while destroying souls, causing people to burn out, to feel manipulated, to question shallow solutions to hard questions, or to decide that it doesn't work.

Perhaps I will get into more specifics at a later time. Differences in doctrine can be minor or of only tangential importance. Sometimes, they destroy souls, and those who care about souls must call them out.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fellowship Church Grapevine and the Bible

Fellowship Church, based in Grapevine and having satellite congregations in 3 states, has an orthodox evangelical belief in Scripture.  According to the church's website:

"The Bible is God's Word to all men. It was written by human authors under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living. Because it is inspired by God, it is truth without any mixture of error."

Yet, the way that the lead minister of the church handles the Bible is anything but orthodox. Typically, a minister will seek to expound thoughts found in one or more texts, illustrate those thoughts, and apply them to the lives of the listeners.  Illustrations are for clarification with regard to the meaning of the text and its application.  Understanding and applying the text is the main thing.

The minister at Fellowship takes a different approach.  The illustration and application are the main thing.  The Scripture provides window dressing -- or, perhaps it is just considered mandatory in an evangelical church, even one as self-consciously non-traditional as Fellowship.

Thus, in yesterday's sermon, Pastor Ed Young appeared on stage with a blender and some containers of various fruit and vegetables. His subject of the day was going to be blended families, and instead of beginning by reading a text that he planned to use to address that subject (an admittedly difficult task), he instead began by disclosing that he had a hobby:  making smoothies.  The roughly 35 minute sermon was built around his making a smoothie, with various applications as to how God can make blended families "delicious and nutritious," just like the smoothie.

Rev. Young actually spent as much time hawking a book he had written on dating as reading the Bible, but Scripture was referenced.  The Bible played a secondary role, used like Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations to provide some quotes that would lend support to his illustration.  A smoothie must have good ingredients, and so a person looking for a mate should seek out someone who shows forth the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  The ingredients must be washed, and blended families are messy, but I Corinthians 6:11 tells us that we have been washed.  For smoothies to be made and blended families to work, power is required, so Acts 1:8 was read to show that the power of the Holy Spirit is there.

Of course, none of these passages have anything to do with what the minister said. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians are listed in the context of telling people what the Spirit is producing in those who walk in Him, rather than fulfilling the lusts of the flesh.  I Corinthians 6 provides Paul's response to believers who previously had lived in sinful ways, encouraging them to now live differently in light of Christ's redeeming power and love. Acts 1:8 is the power of the Spirit to use the apostles to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, not the power to help blended families be successful.

The failure to teach Scripture in context in a serious one, as it teaches congregants to mishandle Scripture in this way, and it fails to model the proper way to understand Scripture. When I was teaching a Sunday School class recently, a woman in the class correctly noted that the failure to teach the Bible and to instruct confessionally left members, especially children, vulnerable to cults and other bizarre religious teaching.  Encouraging spiritual sentiment without defining it biblically often will lead people off the rails. To change metaphors, this is preaching that leaves sheep having no shepherd.

The way that Pastor Young is doing it is increasingly popular.  Many people don't have patience to actually grapple with a text before looking for the real world applications, and they are more interested in real world applications, narrowly defined, than in everlasting life.  The role of a minister is to resist the trends and preach the Word.  That mandate comes from God, who rules over those having itchy ears for the latest teaching fads -- and over the ministers who commend themselves to them.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Clapping in Church?

Is it ever appropriate to clap in church?  Though I understand it makes me a dinosaur in contemporary Protestant circles, I am inclined to agree with this priest, who argues that the answer is generally, "No."  While he allows for spontaneous applause in response to what might be regarded as a recognition of the activity of the Holy Spirit, he argues that applause is never appropriate in response to a human achievement, such as the performance of music in a worship service.

Why is this?  Well, because worship is supposed to draw attention to the glory of God.  The praise of men is not an appropriate response in worship.

Of course, I am aware of biblical instructions to "clap to the Lord," but Old Testament worship was not held in the context of our modern entertainment culture, and worship services were not conducted in settings with the feel of performance halls. The change in cultural context is not insignificant.  I have heard many a church leader, no doubt attempting to adhere to the Bible's language, urge congregants to "give the Lord a hand," but these types of demands are far too chummy to 21st century ears, and one cannot help but notice that they typically arise at the end of a rousing song performance or perhaps a stirring personal story.  The cry to give God a hand may be nothing more than an act of self-delusion in that context, the real intent being to reward the performer.

I find it hardest not to cheer when children have been the ones doing the performing, and I am sure that my non-clapping provides evidence to those around me that I am a hard-hearted curmudgeon.  Isn't it right to encourage children?  Why, yes, it is.  Children should be encouraged to understand that their acts of worship are not about themselves, and that if they are privileged to lead in some aspect of worship, it is the praise of God that should be in view.  It is right that children be verbally thanked for using any natural gifts as acts of worship, but given that they are immersed in our entertainment culture, it is best not to give them the impression that said culture even gains expression in the church.

I am thankful for those who lead in worship services.  I try to remember to tell them so at appropriate times.  However, I keep my hands still during worship.

Hat Tip:  The Aquila Report

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rest for your souls: why do Christians "burn out?"

In Matthew 11, Jesus promised that those who come to him would find "rest for your souls." That is a wondrous promise that should neither be dismissed (as though it is not possible for my given situation) nor misconstrued (made out to be something other than what is actually promised).  Jesus is not telling people that they will be freed from external resistance, as elsewhere he warns that in the world they would have tribulation, and many of those disciples before him at that time would eventually suffer martyrdom. He also tells us that we continue to be subject to and afflicted by sinful impulses (see Rom. 7)

Yet, he does offer rest, and elsewhere, we find similar promises. Love, joy, and peace are listed as fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5).  Contentment with either riches or poverty are gifts from Christ who strengthens us (the true meaning of Phil. 4:13).  Behind those assurances lies the promise that we have peace with God (Rom. 5), no fear of condemnation, and no separation from the love of God (Rom. 8).

Question:  if those are Christ's promises for believers, why is it so common to hear about Christians who burn out?  While it would be a mistake to suppose that one answer fits all circumstances, I fear that one common reason is that we have been taught not to rest.  Let me explain.

While there are many differences between the traditional fundamentalist churches that I grew up in and the contemporary churches that are popular today, I see at least one common strand between them:  an effort, conscious or unconscious, to drive commitment to the church and to Christ by constantly churning people's emotions.  As one example that many of us can identify with, this can be found in an invitation system that urges people continuously to make emotionally wrenching public renewals of their commitments to Christ.  While this happens with adults in regular services, perhaps the poster event for what I am talking about is the youth retreat.  Year after year, kids experience emotional highs and make commitments that typically last for a few weeks, at most, once they return to the real world.  Given that kids are prone to emotional roller coasters anyway, this is probably not the best way to create assurance of the everlasting verities of the gospel.

Modern churches, which brag that they have shed many of the legalistic tendencies of earlier generations, nonetheless also churn the emotions:  through music that is mostly designed to work up the crowd, through personal experience laden pep talks masquerading as sermons, and from continuous calls to deeper commitment to live in extraordinary, radical, missional ways.

With this constant churning, it is no wonder that even people who crave the excitement eventually experience burnout or begin to doubt whether it "works."  Sadly, many people associate the emotional highs associated with these kinds of events and teachings with the work of the Spirit.  In fact many of us -- even if we know better -- are prone to deny that the Spirit is present if we don't feel certain emotions or even physical sensations -- heart pumping, skin tingling, a feeling of adrenaline or anticipation.  Never mind that none of these are given as proofs of the Spirit's work in the New Testament, where proof of the Spirit's work are described in terms of Jesus being proclaimed as Lord, faith in Christ and the Gospel being created and confirmed, and practical relationships being set on a proper course.

To find rest, faith needs not to look inward, but outward. When Jesus taught His disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain, he was teaching them that the critical matter was not the size of their faith, but the size of their God.  Instead of pursuing emotions or constantly doubting the extent of our inward commitment, we would do better to think more about the Gospel and the mighty redeeming works of Christ.  Looking to him and viewing the greatness of His power and love produces faith that will never be found looking inward and churning our emotions.

Turn to Him, and you will find rest.  And, shepherds, point to Him, that your weary sheep may find rest for their souls.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

God's reign over church methods, or, how God is not like a bad basketball coach

Some years ago, a high profile college basketball coach had a reputation for recruiting top caliber, McDonald's All-American type athletes, but his teams were criticized for undisciplined play, and critics contended that game management was not exactly an area of strength for him.  One such wag alleged that when he gathered his players for practice, that he simply tossed a ball out toward the middle of the court and told his team to go play.

Sadly, that seems to be close to the way that people view the Great Commission -- God told us to go do it, so that means we are to take our blank slates and go figure out how to get it done.  A friend of mine, writing provocatively a few weeks ago about his church's mission, declared that they would do "whatever it takes, short of sin" to find and reach people with the message of Christ.  However, that description is a bit question begging.  Presumably, "whatever it takes short of sin" means that they won't consider hiring pole dancers to help draw a crowd to his church (don't laugh:  on two different occasions the pastor of a large church in Grapevine has invited the creator of a website that facilitates infidelity and an advocate for polyamory to join him on the platform at his church as a means of drawing a crowd).  However, the Bible provides more guidance to the church's mission than just forbidding that sort of thing.  When the Bible tells us that our mission is to be fulfilled in certain ways, and we deviate from those ways, such deviation is sin. Any caveat restricting us to that which is "short of sin" must take into consideration such injunctions and instructions.

Please don't get me wrong: I do understand some of what agitates my friend to push the envelope. The church's worship and mission is always conducted within a particular cultural context.  Frequently, American Christians have not understood the distinction between the cultural chaff of local context and the universal truths of Christian mission.  Thus, while there has been much good accomplished by missionaries from churches in the United States spreading the Christian gospel around the world, those missionaries have sometimes been legitimately criticized for attempting to impose the ways of life of western culture on those living in other areas.  It should not be expected that musical styles, manner of dress, and other cultural matters would be the same for a church in Mexico City or central Africa, for example, as they are in a typical community in the U.S., even if the doctrinal convictions of those disparate congregations are the same. Thus, while Presbyterian churches in Dallas and Seoul should share a common theological heritage, and the content of worship should be driven by those considerations in each case, we should not expect the mission and worship of those congregations to look identical.

Now, keeping this within an American context, there are those who might expect that the church's worship and work should always look like it did in America in 1975 or in 1950, or for that matter in Geneva in 1650, but that is not so.  However, while admitting that to be true, we also must be careful not to defer naively to our cultural context as dictating either the message or methodology of the church's mission.  Culture is not morally neutral, and the failure to acknowledge the way that methodologies can alter our message can be deadly to a church's faithfulness to the Gospel.  I would argue that contextualization that defers either to an American marketing mentality or to an entertainment orientation are in fact proving fatal for churches that are going down those paths.

It is not uncommon for well-meaning Christians to misuse passages of Scripture such as I Corinthians 9:19-23 to rationalize deference to culture in dictating the church's methods.  Did not the Apostle write that he has "become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some"?  My friend suggested that this showed Paul's "willingness to adapt his personal communication style to that of his hearer," but that is sloppy exegesis, and he should know better.  Earlier in I Corinthians, Paul has vigorously asserted his unwillingness to alter his communication style to meet cultural expectations -- in I Corinthians 2, he talks about his refusal to make use of "lofty speech" or "plausible words of wisdom" -- methodologies that would have connected him to the normal cultural expectations of Corinth for itinerant speakers.  He eschews those techniques because they would serve to distract attention to himself and away from the message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified."  In I Corinthians 9, Paul is not talking about communication style, but he is talking about his willingness to sacrifice rights and personal prerogatives (he specifically mentions giving up the right to draw a salary, if any megachurch leaders are looking for a clear example of what he is getting at) in order that his message not be impeded.

Christians make a mistake when they begin reading the Great Commission at the words, "Go therefore."  The "therefore" points to that which precedes, and Jesus had started by saying that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."  That is to say, that the risen Savior, the one who reigns as head of his church, is risen and at large and, in fact, reigns over all.  It is this risen and ruling Savior who then commissions his church to go and make disciples, baptize, and teach to observe all things he has commanded.  Among things that he has commanded, there is a great deal of information in the Bible regarding both the means and the message of Christian mission.

His message was to be spread by preaching the Gospel, which Paul reminded the Corinthians was foolishness to their neighbors, but which was also the power of God that leads to salvation for everyone who believes.  Paul told the Romans that preaching was necessary, because faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God, and that people would not hear without preachers.  That was God's ordained means of reaching people.  The mission of the church, conducted in submission to God's instructions regarding both message and method, must be understood in that light before any discussion of cultural contextualization can take place.  The culture's questions cannot dictate the message or priorities of the church. Is relevance a consideration?  Of course, but one does not become relevant to a fish by throwing a bucket of water into the river. Relevance means bringing the word of God, with its priorities, concerns, and solutions, persuasively to those who need to hear it, even if they are not predisposed to care about the priorities of that word.

Faithfulness to that mandate defines our success.  One of the problems with adopting a marketing mentality for the church is the suggestion that if we do things right that we will be numerically successful.  The goal of the church becomes putting butts in seats.  Not only is that harmfully anthropocentric -- even Pelagian -- it is also thoroughly unbiblical.  The pages of the Bible are full of stories where faithfulness to the divine commission resulted in rejection, with our Savior's own life and teaching providing a prime example. While we should long for people to be converted and to grow in the faith, and we should rejoice when they do, we should never regard that kind of success as proof positive that we are, or are not, doing God's work.

Cultural capitulation can bring about a certain kind of success, but it is not Gospel success.  The culture may not care about questions of sin, death, redemption, eternal life, and grace, but those reach to the ultimate concerns of our existence, and the church becomes irrelevant when she doesn't seek to drive both members and outsiders to them.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Conviction in Songwriting

Looking through the bulletin as we waited for church to begin last Sunday, my wife noted that we would be singing the contemporary song "In Christ Alone."  Noting the names of the songwriters, Lanette remarked that she didn't know who Keith Getty was, but that she liked all of the songs that she had noticed by him.
Now that I know something more about the songwriters, I like them even more.
The second stanza of the song is as follows:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev'ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

These words convey much important theological truth regarding Christ's incarnation, passion, and vicarious and propiitiatory death -- to say his death was vicarious is to say that he represented others in dying for their sins; to say that it was propitiatory means that he suffered the wrath of God due to others because of their sins.

According to an article that appeared recently in the liberal magazine, "Christian Century," a committee of the heterodox Presbyterian Church (USA) planned to include this song in an updated hymnal; however, they were relying on a version of the song that replaced the words "the wrath of God was satisfied" with an alternative phrase only referencing the love of God. As God's "gift of love" is already mentioned in the stanza, the purpose of the substitution is not to add the concept of love, but to remove the reference to propitiation, which, while being a central concept to historic orthodoxy, offends liberal Christian sensibilities. The hymnal committee contacted Getty Music, which refused to allow the alteration on the basis that it represented too great a departure from the original meaning of the lyrics. In the face of that refusal, the Committee removed the song from the update.

I am sometimes critical of contemporary Christian worship -- and some people assume that means that I am wedded to old styles, but that is not true. Substance, not style, is what matters, and too much of contemporary music is shallow drivel, or worse. We need more writers like Getty and Townend to supplement the songbooks of the historic faith.   Hat Tip:  The Aquila Report

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Tim Tebow and the Temple of Doom

Regarding the recent controversy involving Tim Tebow's acceptance and subsequent withdrawal from an invitation to speak at First Baptist Church in Dallas, a few observations:

1)  It must be acknowledged that First Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress sometimes says things in an unfortunately unguarded way.  While it is inevitable that some will be offended when speakers venture to opine on volatile topics, a little rhetorical self-control can help ensure that offense comes more from the substance of the issue than from the way that it is characterized.  Mr. Jeffress needs to learn that the prominence of his position -- and the rapidity of modern communication -- necessitates speaking wisely about divisive topics.

2) The ranting of CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel, who did much of the work that resulted in Mr. Tebow finding himself in a difficult public relations position, was so over the top that it would be difficult to describe his writing as anything other than either intolerant hate (thus, demonstrating what he accuses another of) or simple ignorance.  Whatever one thinks of Rev. Jeffress' most incendiary comments, Mr. Doyel's suggestion that he should be compared to the truly loathsome traveling sanitarium known as the Westboro Baptist Church is just ridiculous.  In substance, Rev. Jeffress is criticized for holding that the term "marriage" applies exclusively to a relationship between a man and a woman.  This happens to have been the primary understanding of western civilization for millenia, and it was the stated position of President Barack Obama until less than a year ago. The position is certainly one being debated, but to describe it as extreme is simply not correct.  As far as his pronouncements on Muslims and Mormons, Dr. Jeffress is arguing that the truth claims of those religions are different from those of historic Christianity. If Mr. Doyell thinks that he can prove otherwise, he should explain where he finds that Islam and Mormonism teach that the second person of the Trinity endured death in order to propritiate the sins of His people, then rose again.  One waits with baited breath.

For a more sanguine assessment of Rev. Jeffress by someone who found his views to be utterly disagreeable, see here.  One suspects that no one has ever written like this about the Westboro crowd.

3)  Christians should use this moment to reflect on the wisdom of the negative impact of the culture of celebrity that many among us promote.  In short, one might ask:

What qualification does a Christian who happens to be a professional football player have for leading in public worship in a large church?

Of course, Mr. Tebow is a devout Christian, and for some, that seems to be enough.  Since he is a genuine believer, it is fine to trade on his celebrity in order to draw a crowd.  However, if public worship primarily has to do with meeting God and being fed by His Word, then turning the festivities over to a celebrity without training in sharing that Word might be regarded as more distraction than help.  In the quest to define the meaning of church as involving any means of putting butts in seats, it is easy to forget that Christians also believe that the power of God is found in Word and Spirit. 

Having forgotten that, Dr. Jeffress, no doubt feeling jaded, resorted to his unguarded tongue again, at least implying that Mr. Tebow had wimped out.  While wishing Mr. Tebow and his faith well, we should also value the simple preaching of the Gospel, the proper exposition of law and grace, and trust God to use those means to draw sinners to himself.