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