Sunday, October 30, 2016

Announcing the Launch of "The Reformation Project'

Tomorrow marks the 499th anniversary of the date on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, setting off sparks that inflamed Europe in what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. For the historically minded, a grouping that includes an unfortunately small ratio of American Christians, the year leading into the 500th anniversary will be one of analysis of what Luther has wrought. Was it necessary or needlessly divisive? Do the reasons for Luther's actions continue to hold sway or have they been resolved? What relationship do those events bear to the current state of the church?

As an advocate of reformational theology who believes that Luther (and Calvin and others in the Reformed stream after him) helped to recover the Gospel, this blogger obviously has already taken sides in many of those upcoming debates. Nonetheless, on this blog readers will find in the coming year a different focus. While historical events will be in view -- Christianity is, after all, a religion in which believers, having been united together with Christ, have a connection with other believers in this and prior ages through whom the faith has come down to us -- the focus in the coming year will be on the current state of the church, with the intention of answering a question: does American Christianity stand in need of another reformation? In asking that question, the intention is not to assert that American Christians face the same set of issues as those confronting Luther and those who came after him, though some of those earlier issues have similarities to those facing the church today. However, it will be asserted that the church today faces problems of a comparable magnitude to those that Luther found when he set off events that changed the face of western Christianity.

The method for this study will be as follows: a while back I made visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, taking into those visits a working hypothesis that in those churches I would find indications as to the future direction of American Christianity. I remain convinced that is a defensible hypothesis, and I will defend it in a future post. The first portion of my study will focus on narrative summaries of what I encountered in those visits, with later follow up analysis of the significance of what was witnessed. In the last half of the study, I will develop a series of my own theses for consideration designed to get believers to look at the state of the church and determine if deep reform is required. Do we, like the reformers of a half millenium ago, stand in need of recovering the Gospel?

This is an ambitious project -- arguably a pretentious one for a layman in a Presbyterian church. Nonetheless, if the Gospel is truly at stake, then there are few subjects that could be more worthy of our time.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Book Review: “Introducing Christian Ethics: a Short Guide to Making Moral Choices,” by Scott B. Rae

Shortly after beginning my first pastorate, I was called upon to help a family in the midst of making decisions about declining medical treatment. Realizing that there was some difference of opinion among family members, as well as uncertainty about what the hospital would be willing to accommodate, I knew that I would need to have clarity with regard to what my pastoral counsel should be. I would also need to be able to communicate that counsel compassionately and convincingly to a hurting family.

Of course, I had thought about those issues in the abstract, but being confronted with a real situation was different, and I have to confess that I initially felt completely lost. Fortunately, a former seminary professor answered my late night call and walked me through the issues, helping me to apply biblical truth to my specific situation. While I am grateful for that professor, it occurs to me that I could have also been helped by a book such as Introducing Christian Ethics, a newly published book written by Scott B. Rae.

Dr. Rae, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, teaches ethics to business students at Biola University and to seminary students at Talbot School of Theology.

The opening four chapters of the book are foundational in nature, establishing the sources of ethical authority from a Christian perspective and placing the Christian understanding of ethics in the context of other contemporary views. These introductory chapters conclude with a helpful model for ethical decision making, particularly in complex situations where ethical considerations seem to conflict. In that chapter, Rae develops an example of a manager attempting to determine the right course when obligations to his employer and to his friend seem to be in conflict.

The remaining chapters develop a Christian understanding of a variety of contemporary ethical concerns: abortion, the use of reproductive technology, genetics and biotechnology, issues related to death and assisted suicide, capital punishment, war, sexual ethics, and economics and the value of work. For each of these, the author develops realistic examples in order to identify areas of ethical impact, lay out the Christian position(s), and answer objections.

Because this is an introduction, and, as the title indicates, a “short guide,” one should not expect an in depth treatment – obviously, each of these issues could take up its own volume. For those wanting a deeper understanding, each chapter provides a bibliography of two or three other works that the reader might consult.

Rae points out that Christian ethics requires that we learn to think through what we believe: “Often we focus on what position someone holds on a specific moral issue. That’s important, but it’s also critical to identify how they think about right and wrong more generally and how they justify their position.” This book will help the reader to think as Rae suggests we should.

This book could be useful in a variety of ways. Because it is not overly technical, it is accessible for both pastors and laymen. As such, it could be consulted by pastors developing sermons on these issues or looking for a quick guide for his pastoral work. It could also be used by small groups, and to that end each chapter has a list of review questions that could be used for group discussion.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Does American Christianity Have a Woman Problem?

If you had asked me a few years ago about gender related concerns about the church, I would have pointed to the fact that too many men drop out.

While that remains true, in the last year, it has become increasingly clear -- at least to me -- that there is a different kind of problem, one that results in women sometimes being treated badly. I write as someone who takes the position that the offices of elder and deacon should be held by men. I also hold that the proper exercise of discipline is a mark of what constitutes a church. All of that said, consider the following:

1. From what I have seen, nearly all of the teaching directed toward this subject is in negative form. It is hard to find sermons oriented toward how women can use their gifts in the church. When the issue is addressed, it tends to focus on gifts that are deemed feminine, such as hospitality. However, many women do not have that gift, nor do all women feel gifted to work with children. What are these others to do?

2. While there are strong Christian traditions of male headship in church and home, there are movements within American Christianity willing to take extreme views of male leadership. In recent years, a prominent American evangelical suggested that Christian women should not work as police officers because their taking authority over men pulled over at traffic stops is awkward. How in the name of Deborah do they find biblical support for extending male headship in this manner?

3. Generally, strange views result when the Apostle Paul's assertions of male leadership in specific church roles is extended to other areas of life. There is no biblical precedent for this, and it is frankly impractical. As an example, my wife teaches me theology on a regular basis. Our conversations, praise God, are not limited to her asking questions and me pontificating. The fact that I happen to have more formal training in theology and church history makes a difference, but she is smart and thinks through her beliefs carefully. We have discussions, and sometimes she changes my mind about things. This is as it should be.

4. While I think reasonable and compassionate church discipline is important, I note that every instance I am personally aware of that involved credible complaints of being abused by the disciplinary process came from women. I am sure that men have had legitimate complaints, as well. But women have too often had concerns, particularly arising out of abusive relationships, that have not been taken seriously by male leaders.

5. In recent weeks, we have seen the sad spectacle of Christian leaders downplaying a public figure bragging about sexually assaulting women. This is not intended as a political comment, and the politician's statements wouldn't be relevant to this discussion except for the fact that some Christian leaders have been openly dismissive of the issue. While ministers have admitted the language to be vulgar, they have failed to -- or chosen not to -- recognize that the language went beyond vulgarity to actual celebration of sexual assault. Christian women should be deeply offended that male leaders have taken this course. For that matter, Christian men should be offended, too.

I am not sure that I have answers to this "woman problem," but I do know that thought needs to be given to it. Churches can retain their commitments to male leadership while also emphasizing and putting into practice the apostolic affirmation that "the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all kinds of people" (Titus 2:11, my translation). Indeed, to be biblically faithful, we must do so.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Christians and the Culture

My wife and I have just begun a study of the relationship between Christianity and culture. While we are only less than two chapters into the book we are reading, our conversations have been both rich and intense. It is a good study. I hope to further review the book itself once I have read it completely.
In arguably his greatest work, City of God, Augustine of Hippo differentiated the city of God from the city of man. They have different origins, institutions, goals, and destinies; yet, he said, they are co-mingled. Christians participate as citizens of the city of man, and unbelievers can be found in the visible church. In considering the relationships between the two, Augustine saw commonality due to this co-mingling, yet he also pointed to a fundamental hostility between the two due to the condition of fallen humanity and its relation to God.
Augustine set the tone for understanding the relations between church and the state in the middle ages, but his views were over time modified in significant ways. Whereas Augustine saw hostility between the two cities, Pope Gelasius I posited a more cooperative relationship between the two spheres. According to Gelasius, the emperor would submit to the church on ecclesial matters, while the Church would submit to the civil government on civil matters. Pope Boniface VIII made further changes while also assuming a collaborative relationship. He contended that the civil ruler only held power at the will of the church.
American Christians, while acknowledging belief in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, often express themselves in terms that would be recognizable to Gelasius and Boniface. The assumption of collaboration between the church and the broader culture is odd given that most Protestants -- and all practicing Catholics, for that matter -- affirm in their historic doctrinal standards a belief in an ongoing personal and social impact of original sin. However, the extent to which Christians expect unbelievers to collaborate in and further their goals can be seen in the sense of betrayal that is expressed over cultural changes that reject Christian moral teaching, as well as ongoing efforts to enact Christian instruction (the 10 Commandments and prayer, for example) into public education and other areas of life.
As our culture continues into a path that resembles the days of the Roman Empire more than Victorian England, Christians need to rethink how our theological foundations inform the relationship of both the institutional church and individual Christians to the world in which we live.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Book Review: “A Theology of Biblical Counseling: the Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry,” by Heath Lambert

The Biblical Counseling movement is an outgrowth of the nouthetic counseling movement begun by Jay Adams roughly half a century ago. The movement is maturing and growing more prominent, particularly (though not exclusively) among evangelicals of a reformed bent. In “A Theology of Biblical Counseling,” Heath Lambert, who is the Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, has furthered that maturation by providing book demonstrating the doctrinal basis for the movement.

The expanding role of the biblical counseling movement has not occurred without controversy. The movement’s distinguishing characteristic is its belief that the Bible provides a fully sufficient resource for counseling. Thus, Scripture should be used in “counseling conversations,” and biblical doctrines should have practical relevance to a counselee’s needs. This not only sets it in opposition to secular psychology -- which biblical counselors acknowledge sometimes provides correct, but unnecessary, insights – but also sets it apart from Christian counseling, which typically emphasizes an integration of Christianity and modern psychology. The early chapters of the book, which set forth a doctrine of Scripture emphasizing the Bible’s sufficiency, largely represent an apologetic in behalf of biblical counseling in opposition to Christian counseling.

While I did not find myself in entire agreement with Lambert on that issue, I am somewhat sympathetic. Certainly, much Christian counseling – and even much of the evangelical church – has followed the larger culture into understanding life through the framework of therapeutic categories often at odds with scriptural understandings of human nature, sin, and grace. Self-proclaimed integration often devolves into the inundation of a facile Christian understanding with unbiblical ideas. I would consider my own seminary training in counseling at an evangelical seminary to be deficient in that regard. As such, the biblical counseling movement – and this book –offer a helpful corrective that would benefit many of us even as we wrestle with some of its broad claims.

Though confrontational on that issue, much of the rest of the work is irenic in tone. While it is a work of theology, its focus is practical. Doctrine is not explained and defended in exhaustive fashion, but is summarized and focused on theology that can be related to the needs of people in counseling interventions. Thus, each of the doctrinal categories (God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity, sin, etc.) is expounded in chapters describing a variety of counseling encounters dealing with real life problems ranging from being victimized by a long period of sexual abuse and cutting to marital difficulties in the wake of personal tragedy to anxiety. I found these descriptions of how Scripture and scriptural categories can aid people experiencing these kinds of issues to be extremely useful.

That said, the book suffers from the writer’s painting with overly broad strokes. Most grating is his insistence that acceptance or rejection of the biblical counseling approach comes down to a matter of belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. Many evangelicals outside the movement would want to emphasize that they fully believe in Scripture’s sufficiency in all that it addresses, but they differ with a use of the Bible that seems to view it as a counseling manual. Reliance on vague terms in arguing that the Bible is sufficient for “life” and “problems” really didn’t help Lambert’s argument. Additionally, he often minimizes the value of secular psychology due to noetic effects of the Fall. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t seem to recognize that the noetic effects of the Fall continue to impact Christians engaged in biblical counseling, even though he acknowledges that sanctification is progressive and incomplete in this life.  Thus, the question of truth and error in counseling falls more along a spectrum than perhaps Lambert seems to appreciate. The sufficiency of Scripture does not guarantee the sufficiency of a not yet glorified believing counselor.

I also found highly unconvincing Lambert’s arguments that women should not counsel men because “Paul’s prohibition against women teaching doctrine to men applies equally to counseling and preaching. Counseling is ministry of the Word of God, just as preaching is.” Really? This is particularly questionable in light of Lambert’s broad definition of counseling that takes in informal as well as formal conversations and relationships. This would seem to lead to the notion that spouses and friends need to truncate conversations for fear that a woman might end up teaching a man doctrine, a premise that is both stifling and unhelpful. I doubt that Lambert intends that result, but his broad definition of counseling together with this claim would seem to lead to that conclusion. Nonetheless, Paul’s prohibition is better understood as relating to church office, not to all teaching that could include teaching doctrine.

On the other hand, I agreed with Lambert’s warnings about men engaging women alone in long term counseling relationships. While some would view that as hopelessly old fashioned, I would simply point to the unfortunate number of good men and women who have fallen into sin after bonds developed in counseling. One should not ignore the emotional connection that can develop through counseling situations.

In spite of some criticisms, I hope that this book obtains a wide reading. Those convinced by the biblical counseling arguments will be enriched by it. Those not fully on board will be helped by interacting with its arguments. Surely, all pastors should believe that Scripture and scriptural categories, wisely deployed, are necessary and helpful to those that come to us looking for solutions to life’s problems.