Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dislike Christmas

I know Christians who regard Christmas as their favorite holiday. I am not one of them. While I receive benefit from sermons about the significance of Jesus' entry into the world and enjoy listening to the music of Handel's Messiah, there is enough crassness and excess about the overall holiday to make me wish it would go away.

This opinion piece, written by someone who I gather would not describe himself as a Christian, nearly perfectly captures my own ambivalence regarding the modern celebration of the holiday. From the article:

"Okay, sure, much of the terrible Christmas music we’re now force-fed like detainees at a very festive CIA black site is sorta-kinda more secular, and so therefore ought to be more appealing to those who object to having a religious holiday crammed down their ear holes. But I’d take a profound messiah over a half-a***d shopping gimmick any day. I’d rather be exposed to two months of transcendently great religious art than a single week of noxious shopping gimmicks dressed up in Santa drag."

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who Threw God Out?

A while back a friend made comments on Facebook that were similar to sayings that most reading this have likely heard before. He lamented that the United States Supreme Court had "thrown God out of the public schools." In response, I noted that the Supreme Court decision had been by a vote of 7-2 and lamented that even with the help of two jurists from the highest Court in the land, God's omnipresence had now been compromised by the seven justices who ordered him to get out and stay out. Either God had become deplorably weak, or those justices had fearful power over him.

This friend, seeming wounded by the criticism, angrily told me that I knew what he meant. Actually, I have no idea. I would be happy to have someone turn that phrase into something that is doctrinally sound.

Someone has said that the time to find out what one's theology actually consists of would be when a person does not believe that he is talking about theology. If that is the case, and it seems at least a plausible possibility, then large segments of American Christianity think God is a bit actor in the drama of this world. The decisions and power of people -- such as the Supreme Court -- are what really count. Of course, put that way, most Christians would disagree -- "you know what I mean," they might say. However, what one says might, in fact, be closer to what they believe. If that is the case, not only are their thoughts unbiblical, but they also cut that person off from the courage and the comfort offered by the biblical understanding of God's sovereignty.

Biblically, even in those times where it seemed that the enemies of God had the upper hand, God's people found encouragement in their understanding that God remains everywhere. The Psalmist, in Psalm 139, found solace in the realization that even if he descended into Hades, God was there. In the year that King Uzziah died (the good king dying meant that his monstrous son would take power), Isaiah "saw the Lord high and lifted up." Daniel and his friends recognized God's sovereignty, even after their nation had been destroyed, their temple had been raided and its artifacts brought into the service of pagan deities, and they had been forcibly been exiled. Rather than telling their contemporaries that Nebuchadnezzar needed to let God back into the palace, they confidently asserted that God would deliver them from persecution, whether by life or by death, and that ultimately a kingdom not formed by human hands would reign eternally. The Book of Revelation, read properly, asserts the final triumph of God in the midst of a world in which death and depravity seem to have come out on top.

Of course, believers ache when evil seemed to triumph, and some of the Psalms take the tone of asking God why He is allowing the same. In the end, however, the faith of Christians is that God's purposes may remain mysterious to us, but that the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Even when the evidence appears otherwise, God is triumphing both in this world and in the one that is coming.

That is the theology -- and the faith -- that Christians need at all times in a broken world. While some times and seasons will be more pleasant than others, ultimately our citizenship lies in another land. While we should enjoy God's blessings in the life that is here, including the exercise of the vocational gifts and pleasures that He has provided us, we look with certainty toward a nation whose builder and founder is God.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When Rights Are Violated

Should Christians and churches in countries that acknowledge a right to the free exercise of religion diligently and lawfully resist those who would deny that right?
The question has arisen out of recent actions by the City of Houston, which issued subpoenas demanding that certain churches turn over materials related to sermons and private communications on issues involved in a lawsuit to which those churches and individuals were not even parties.
The subpoenas certainly trampled on these churches' First Amendment rights. Under heavy criticism, it appears that the City of Houston is backing down. In any event, it is almost certain that the subpoenas would not have survived a court challenge.
Even so, some well meaning Christians responded that the churches should happily turn over their materials (the focus tended to be more on the sermons than on the private communications).
However, the denial of recognized constitutional protections should not be taken lightly, and New Testament precedent would seem to suggest that Christians are within the parameters of their faith commitments in insisting upon their rights as citizens. The Apostle Paul, while affirming that he was a citizen of a kingdom not of this world, also was a citizen of Rome. As such, on multiple occasions he asserted his rights as a Roman citizen in order to escape the hands of local officials that were acting unjustly.
We should be glad when our nation acknowledges the human right of freedom of conscience, including the free exercise of religion. When those rights are violated, we would do well to exercise our rights to due process.

Wielding the Law

It should be of more than passing interest that in the New Testament the Law is never used with the intention of conforming the behavior of those outside the church (This is partly, but not entirely, due to the fact that the church had no power to require conformity by outsiders). It is used with those outside the church to show guilt in order to then point people to the good news of the gospel, whereby they receive forgiveness through Christ.
This is an important distinction. While the Law provides a guide for conforming behavior to the Word of God within the Church. It functions differently in preaching to those outside. There, it is used to draw people's attention to their need for Christ.
I am struck with the fact that many Christians use the Law in precisely the opposite way of the New Testament prescription. That is to say, they use it as an instrument to require conformity for people outside the church, and they use it as an instrument of condemnation for those inside the church.
This is a grave error. The church taught better when it recognized it had no power.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Not "Left Behind" -- Again

It behooves any Christian addressing questions related to the return of Christ and the end of the age to do so with humility. Even a cursory reading of Christian history reveals that earnest believers adhering to a high view of scripture have held to varied views on this subject, which for the most part does not rise to the level of raising questions of orthodoxy versus heterodoxy. Thus, one should be cautious about expressing certainties in terms that would suggest that anyone who believes otherwise is guilty of rejecting the Bible. Too many Christians eschew such caution.

Nonetheless, in an effort to approach this subject both transparently and humbly, I will begin by stating that at an earlier point in my life I held passionately to views that I now consider to be the worst (meaning, the least likely to be correct) of the various mainstream views -- that is, the theology expressed in the soon to be released Nicholas Cage movie based on the "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye. This view, known to the theologically oriented as "premillenial dispensationalism," is arguably the most widely held position of all American Christians and almost certainly the majority view of American evangelicals. Given its widespread support, many would be surprised to learn of the short history and scant biblical support for the view.

During my teen years, I not only believed these views to be true, but I was passionate in my belief. I read everything I could get a hold of on this subject of biblical prophecy, and before I was 20 I had consumed not only Hal Lindsey's wildly popular Late Great Planet Earth, but other books elaborating on similar themes by authors such as John Walvoord, Harold Wilmington, Tim Lahaye, and Jack van Impe. Back then, my church held a week of revival meetings twice a year, and most of the time when those meetings were held, one night would be devoted to the subject of the return of Christ. I always looked forward to those as an opportunity to hear new insights on how the Bible actually predicted things taking place in the Cold War era that would soon end with the triumphant return of the Lord. And, I loved sharing my detailed knowledge of these things with my friends. As such, I knew that the 10 nations (at that time) of the European Common Market were the 10 horns in Revelation that would eventually be ruled by anti-Christ. I knew that the anti-Christ would require his mark (666) to be placed on every person. I knew that the Soviet Union was prophesied in Ezekiel 38 and 39 to launch an attack on Israel that would end in spectacular defeat. I knew that the Book of Daniel and Jesus' Olivet Discourse spoke of a temple in Jerusalem that would be rebuilt.  And, I knew that prior to all of those things, that Christians would be delivered out of the world by a secret but calamitous event referred to as the Rapture.

In short, I knew lots of things that I now think are untrue. Some would read this in shock and claim that I have turned from the Bible. To the contrary, I think that I have now rejected bad theology and embraced a more biblical understanding.

Under my old view, to say that one was reading the Bible next to his newspaper was a statement of faith, as it revealed one's belief that in the Bible God revealed things that otherwise could not have been known so far in advance. While well intentioned, I now believe that this approach dishonors the Bible. All of the Bible's contents, including the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation, were written by particular authors, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to particular recipients. In some portions of the Bible, the author and recipients are not clearly identified, but in Revelation, they actually are. According to the opening three chapters, Revelation was written by the Apostle John to a group of seven churches in Asia Minor.

To take John seriously as an author of Scripture, and his addressed readers as recipients, one must attempt to read the text as John and his original readers would have understood it. Of course, Christians also believe that these writings have been preserved in our Bibles because they have ongoing relevance to the church in all ages, but that ongoing relevance is rooted in its original meaning. Another way of saying this is to say that before we can know what the Bible means for us, we must know what it meant for its original audience. God revealed himself in his word in real space and time. The Bible is not a mystical book floating in the ether, but it is grounded in real historical contexts. Understanding those contexts is part of what we do in order to understand what it means to us today.

However, the view of Scripture taken by the "Left Behind" view seeks to pull the Bible out of the ether. If Revelation were written to describe in detail modern nations, weaponry, and geopolitical events, then not only did it have no real meaning for John and his original recipients, but it was completely meaningless to readers for the next 1,700 years or more following the time when John wrote it. The Left Behind view is not just that all of those people got it wrong: it was in fact impossible that they could have understood it at all. This is bad Bible interpretation.

Proponents of the view take the position that they are interpreting the Bible literally -- primarily because they see passages in the Bible talking about the Messiah sitting on a throne in Jerusalem as awaiting literal fulfillment -- but sadly many of their views mean that all of the readers prior to the modern age could have had no understanding of much of the Bible, literal or otherwise. In addition, though they claim to be literalists, they are quite selective about what should be understood literally. Thus, in the latter part of Revelation 13, they take the mark of the beast as being literal, but the beast coming out of the sea earlier in the same chapter is figurative. Many will claim that biblically described locusts will actually be helicopters, even while they also claim that the presence of horses described at Armageddon in the final battle are literal.

Even more problematic, they hold to other positions that are nowhere found in Scripture. Most notably, on the basis of passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18, they describe a secret "rapture" through which living believers will be transformed and ferreted to heaven, even as the unbelievers left behind are bewildered by the sudden and mysterious disappearance of millions of people. However, that very passage describes the event of Christ's return as something that is so conspicuous that everyone will know what is going on: the Lord will descend with a mighty shout, the voice of the archangel, and God's trumpet.  This hardly seems to be a way of launching a secretive event.

Most premillenial dispensationalists argue that this event launches a seven year period of tribulation. While there is no Scripture that talks about a seven year tribulation, the reasoning that produced this view is fairly clear from those who write about it, and it is important to walk through that reasoning, as it reveals more, far reaching, mistakes that are a part of this view. The notion of a final seven years in world history comes from Daniel 9, a remarkable prophecy in which Daniel explains that the completion of several events, including the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the "cutting off" of "the anointed one," will be accomplished in a period of 70 "weeks." It is not disputed that each week is a period of seven years; however, dispensationalists believe that the completion of the first 69 weeks ended with God hitting the pause button, and that history has now been on hold now for nearly 2,000 years. That final seven years will not occur until God again starts the clock at the time of the Rapture.

Why do they think God stopped the clock?

Their view is that the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Israel's Messiah was an unexpected event. It was so unexpected that none of the Old Testament contemplates the possibility. Thus, that rejection resulted in an interruption of history -- the church age -- in which the message of Christ goes out to the Gentiles. Once this time is completed, God will return to the original plan that concludes with the establishment of a Jewish Kingdom through which Jesus, the Son of David, literally rules on earth at the seat of government in Jerusalem.

It is not surprising that this view is a novel one -- no one believed it until the mid-1800's. While it would require too much space in an already long post to refute all of this, much of it seems questionable even in the description. Biblical support for this understanding is exceptionally weak.

What are the alternatives?

Sadly, many Christians have been taught that there are no alternatives. To reject the above view is to reject the Bible. This is not supported by either theology or history. There have been three primary alternative views that have waxed and waned throughout the Christian era.  These three views are referred to as historical premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism.

The word "millenium" (the root word contained in each of those names) means "1,000 years." Revelation 20 describes a reign of Christ of that period of time. That is the only passage that mentions this time frame; however, how one understands that reign of Christ will define which of the views one holds to. Of course, there are ranges of understanding within each of those views, and the interpreter of Bible prophecy will need to look to additional Bible passages in order to arrive at his/her understanding. At a minimum, a person seeking to understand Bible prophecy will have to decide on interpretations of Revelation, the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24), and numerous Old Testament prophecies.

Briefly, following is a quick summary of the major positions. To reiterate, all of these views find support from Christians holding to a high view of Scripture.

Historical Premillenialism. Like dispensational premillenialists described above, this view holds that Jesus will literally reign on earth for a period of 1,000 years following his return, though it doesn't carry much of the interpretive and sensationalist baggage of the dispensational view. This position, which had wide support among the early church fathers, takes literally Old Testament prophecies suggesting that the Son of David will reign from Jerusalem. While that literal understanding might seem like an advantage, it is important to note that New Testament writers sometimes obviously do not read the prophecies in this way. Christ's Kingdom finds description in the New Testament as both already here and not yet, and premillenial views fail to account adequately for that tension. In addition, the premillenial vision of a kingdom in which glorified saints live alongside the living, both converted and unconverted, in a period that will end with a revolt against Christ is problematic, at best.The rationale for a rebuilding of a temple at which sacrifices will be offered is also inconsistent with the New Testament understanding that the need for sacrifice ceased with the accomplishment of Christ, the temple which God raised after three days.

Postmillenialism. According to postmillenialists, the millenium, which is generally regarded as long period of time (not a literal 1,000 years) is a golden age of the church, which results from an eventual nearly universal acceptance of the Gospel that is accompanied by God's gifts of common grace in generally raising human living standards, for which people ascribe to God glory. Christ comes back at the end of this millenial period. It should be noted that there are many Bible passages that describe a widespread faith in God -- "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters that cover the sea" (Hab. 2:14) -- though whether this can be pressed into service as proof of a universal redemptive reign of Christ is more questionable. In addition, it would seem that postmillenialists, sometimes in reaction to premillenialists, have an over realized eschatology in which they move into human history glories that await our eternal future. Finally, postmillenialism is generally too vague to provide an idea as to when the millenium begins.

Amillenialism.  For those keeping score at home, this is the view of this author. In one sense, this is a different variety of postmillenialism, as amillenialists also believe that Christ comes back after the millenium. However, amillenialists are much less optimistic that the Bible promises that the advance of the Gospel will lead to a golden age in human history. In fact, there is considerable evidence that both faith and unbelief will wax and wane until the very end of the age. Those who hold this view note that many Old Testament prophecies and promises are applied spiritually to events that occurred in the aftermath of the coming of Jesus, and we understand that the "millenium" is the undefined but long period of time between Christ's first and second advents. Those promises of an eternal or more blissful state should be applied to the time following Christ's return.

While some do not like what they call "spiritualizing" of the biblical text (some even, ridiculously, accuse amillenialists of being liberals because of our nonliteral reading of some passages) this overlooks the fact that it is not wrong to give a spiritual or nonliteral or metaphorical meaning to a text that is intended to be interpreted that way. When Jesus called himself the door, no one was expected to take that literally. Before one criticizes those who understand a scripture in a nonliteral sense, that critic needs to wrestle with the possibility that the intention of the text was not a literal one.

This is a long blog post, but a brief consideration of a complex topic. For those wanting more information, I would recommend this book, which contains essays and responses by writers of all four views discussed above. In the meantime, I will leave it up to readers to decide whether the Nicholas Cage flick is a thriller that will make for a fun evening at the movie. However, please don't think that it expresses the Christian view of end times.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ordinary People

I have noted that on occasion the President of the United States will say that he is "outraged" about something that has been said or done, and whenever he says that I feel a sense of relief that he is probably dissimulating for public consumption. Of course, some people get upset when a President is being less than truthful, but in this instance it is better that what he is saying is untrue. For serious matters, the President requires sound judgment, and the notion that he is "outraged," or emotionally out of control, is a more unsettling thought than the idea that he may have exaggerated about the state of his emotions.

Yet, I have also noted that the President is hardly the only one to use over the top speech about his emotional state in order to establish the bona fides of his personal authenticity. Christian leaders -- or the consultants who advise them -- seem to like this, too. Thus, one leader seeks to impress by informing his audience that he is "obsessed" with his particular mission. Another urges his followers to join him in being "radical."

These are being held forth as worthy qualifications for leadership. When did being unbalanced become a virtue, not a vice? Why is it thought that Christians and others want leaders who talk as though their primary credential is the need for mental health treatment?

The church needs leaders who pray, know their Bibles, meet the criteria for leadership in a church -- and that are more or less normal. It would behoove the evangelical world to become less obsessive about the obsessed.

Monday, September 01, 2014

There are no hidden meanings in the Bible

Many well meaning Christians will dispute the title of this post. In fact, many will claim that the discovery of such hidden meanings results from the Spirit's work, which leads to the accusation that someone who claims that there are no such meanings must be unspiritual or even opposed to the Spirit's work. Even so, it is the contention of this post that recognizing that such hidden, supposedly spiritual meanings do not exist is an essential aspect of a healthy Christian life and that the quest for deeper spiritual and hidden meanings in the biblical text is spiritually harmful and even dangerous.

The reason that it is potentially dangerous is that the person who unmoors Scripture from its historical context and proper reading can as a result make the Bible out to mean anything that comes to mind. Without objective criteria for proper interpretation, there really are no mechanisms for determining whether one's claims for finding a meaning are accurate. At worst, this can become self-delusion, as a person reads his own desires, interests, or pet peeves into Scripture. Using Scripture in this way is also ultimately idolatrous, as the practice in essence leads its practitioners to claim as the Word of God what really are their own thoughts.

Thus, the reader of the Bible should approach its teaching in a straightforward manner -- and when he does so, he finds two things that on the surface seem contradictory. The Bible is a clear book that anyone can read and understand.  The Bible is a hard book to read.

The Bible is clear in that an ordinary person can read and understand it. Scholars are not required, though it should be noted that saying that they are not required is not the same thing as saying that they can't be useful. It is hubris, not spiritual maturity, that leads some to claim that they don't want to use teachers. Those who have a hunger for understanding the Bible should enjoy the work of those who have a more thorough knowledge of its contents.

But while the Bible is a clear book, it is also a hard book to read. In order to understand why this is true, it is important to briefly review the factors that make it hard.  The Bible is 1) a very large book 2) containing a collection of works of different genres 3) written in different languages 4) to people from a different age and culture 5) sometimes in response to concerns that aren't clearly stated.

That the Bible is a large book makes it difficult to master all of the contents in a way that allows us to see how all of the parts fit together. For example, there are hundreds of references to the Old Testament in the New. Many readers have no idea that is the case; yet, understanding why the New Testament writers borrowed Old Testament language can be essential to understanding their meaning.

That the Bible contains various types of literary genres will make understanding difficult for someone who doesn't realize that history must be read differently than a proverb or a Psalm differently than a letter. Each of these require looking at the text in different ways.

That the Bible was originally written in other languages means that there may be issues of translation that most readers lack expertise to evaluate. While the popular English translations are good, the typically minor differences do create some uncertainty about meaning to readers. Idioms cannot always be translated clearly, and sometimes words or phrases from one language have no clear parallel in another.

That the Bible was written to a different age and culture means that it sometimes addresses questions in a way that is not immediately applicable to modern life. Finding the original meaning prior to determining proper application can become a difficult task. Cultural mores might be a complete mystery to the reader.

That the Bible was sometimes written in response to unstated concerns means that sometimes the reader is only getting half the conversation. For example, the reader finds Paul's solutions to problems, but there is no statement as to what the problems were that required solving. In I Corinthians, Paul clearly indicates that he is responding to questions in a letter that had been delivered to him, but the full contents of the letter are not provided. Without knowing the questions, it is possible to misconstrue the significance of the answers.

While each of these items creates some difficulty, that difficulty is not resolved by some sort of "spiritual" reading of the text. Rather, these difficulties point us to the value of good books and teachers that address them. Looking for hidden meanings in the text only adds a layer of confusion on to the difficulty.

How, then, should the reader approach the Bible? The short answer is that the reader should approach the Bible by looking for its plain meaning. In other words, the texts of Scripture should be read 1) in their historical context; 2) using the ordinary rules of grammar and word meaning; and 3) recognizing the distinct literary form. One should also read the Scripture with a view toward its unifying themes, which might be described as redemptive or covenantal (ultimately, the Bible is a book about Christ).As indicated before, all of this is not intended to require the reader to be an intellectual. Anyone can benefit by looking at resources that help one understand things like context or how words were used. However, the emphasis here is on reading the text for its plain meaning.

While that might be a hard concept for one to get used to if he/she has been taught to look for hidden spiritual meanings in a text, it is ultimately liberating. There is no comfort to be found in the need to look for hyperspiritual meanings that can't be found by ordinary eyes. It is a joy to realize that the Bible, with the help of good teachers, is a book that is not out of reach. To find the Word of God, as Romans 10 explains it, one needs neither to ascend to the heavens nor descend to the depths. Rather, God's Word is near.

While this process is liberating, at first it may seem hard, as it removes one's ability to "claim" verses as one's own in ways that have nothing to do with what they actually mean. This means recognizing that "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength" has nothing to do with prevailing at the football game on Friday night -- it has to do with contentment, even when facing, as in the Apostle Paul's case, the ravages of prison. That Jesus' command to "judge not" comes only a few verses before another command not to "cast your pearls before swine" might give one pause before asserting the popular view of the former mandate.

When it comes to the subject of end times prophecy, the self-proclaimed spiritual interpretations get even stranger. The subject of events related to the return of Christ is a complex one that divides even responsible interpreters. Sadly, many of those who write on such subjects do so in ways that are irresponsible. While it would take more than a blog post to resolve and respond to all of those sorts of craziness, one can at least say that the above principles of historical/grammatical/literary interpretation apply even to prophesy and apocalyptic literature, which must be understood in its historical and literary context.

Recent decades have seen huge numbers of people follow after prophecy teachers that claim to find secret codes and messages, as well as odd numerological sequences. These kinds of teachers should be avoided like the plague. Spiritual illumination does not refer to secret meanings that the enlightened uncover. Instead of seeking that sort of gnostic illumination, read the Bible for its plain meaning and look for the Spirit's illumination in applying the truths that are found to life.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Ordinary Means of Grace

Peter Dietsch of Providence Presbyterian Church in Midland, penned an outstanding piece on what it means to be an "ordinary means of grace church."  From the post:

"The ‘means of grace’ refers to the concept that God uses particular means (methods or modes of communication) to communicate or give His grace to His people. When we speak of the ordinary means of grace, we are speaking specifically of ‘the word, sacraments, and prayer.’ This idea and the language used to express it comes from the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. For instance, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 88, says this:

Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
 These are the things that Christ has instructed us to use as His church to receive His grace. Of course, God is able to work through any means He wishes – or even apart from means, should He desire to do so – but the Catechism is here summarizing the teaching of Scripture that the ordinary things that God uses to bestow His grace, bless His people, bring them to faith and grow them in that faith are: the word, sacraments, and prayer.

At one time, the Lord even used a donkey (!) as a means of communication (Numbers 22; 2 Peter 2:16); however, it’s certainly not ordinary. Simply because God chose to speak through a donkey at one point in history, it does not mean that we all need to start listening to donkeys or keep one in our back yard just in case God desires to do it again. Instead, we attend to the instruction which He has given us in the Scriptures and pursue God’s grace through the ordinary means that He has given us: the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and prayer."

Sunday, July 27, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Christian Opportunity

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Send it home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

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

"What if the owner wants it back?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could only groan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, where did it come from?"

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

"What if the owner wants it back?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could only groan.

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

Friday, July 04, 2014

A Children's Crusade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

When Practical Religion is Impractical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Rick Perry's Strange Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Knowing whom to believe in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Furtick's Sad Confusion on "I AM"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son of God and Images

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

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

Why, indeed.

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

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sheep Without a Shepherd

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How to get accused of antinomianism

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

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

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Compelling Biblical Alternative to Young Earth Creationism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Pastors Are Losing Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hat Tip:  The Aquila Report