Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Chance

A few months ago I pointed out a great sale on a useful (but otherwise pricey) pastoral tool: CCEF booklets. It's back. You can buy a whole set of 27 for $39.99 (50% off) or a 5-pack of one title for $1.64/booklet ($3.99 regular price).

These aren't magic bullets. They may be merely a first step as men and women desire to fight sin and pursue godliness in the midst of difficult circumstances and seductive temptations. But they can be an extraordinarily helpful way to put people on a trajectory towards biblical thinking and repentance, particularly if they're shamed by their sin and not yet ready to speak with a pastor.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elders and Theological-Pastoral Development

Over the past several years, beginning long before I was here, our elders have set aside time in our bimonthly meetings to discuss the content and pastoral implications of one chapter in a book. We've worked our way through Grudem's Systematic Theology, and we're about to finish Believer's Baptism. Lord willing, in a few week's we'll start a new study. These books are theological enough to offer some real meat to chew on, but the pastoral implications are pretty obvious in most of the chapters. And at some point we may also work through some of the dialogues on sanctification that have emerged in the blogosphere in recent weeks.

These conversations have been fruitful in three ways. First, we've each grown in our understanding of Scripture and how various texts relate to each other. Second, we've identified areas in which we still don't agree completely and considered what we really do and don't need to agree on in order to function together as a church—even as elders. And finally, we've wrestled with some practical pastoral questions outside the context and pressure of a real-life situation.

Let me encourage you to create these sorts of conversations among your elders. And, of course, if you don't like the historically Baptist ecclesiology of elder-led congregationalism, you might even find this sort of thing helpful among your pastoral staff. Or even with the deacons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who Should Marry Cohabiting Couples?

This post raises a thought-provoking conversation for pastors to consider. I agree in principle with Doug Wilson that it's better for non-Christian*, cohabiting couples to get married than to continue cohabiting unmarried. I also agree with those who note that this creates an opportunity for a conversation about marriage and the gospel. (Well, a couple people sort of reference the gospel, at least.)

But there are other issues that no one addresses and only Al Mohler even approaches. For example, why would a cohabiting couple even desire marriage by a pastor? Do they want a "church wedding"—a Christianized ceremony conforming to societal expectations and endowed with a pastoral imprimatur? Is that something a pastor really wants to offer couples in an ongoing state of unrepentant sin?

My dad's a mayor and (at least so far) marries everyone that the law allows. Couples leave that ceremony with no illusion that they have the blessing of a religious sacrament. I think I could marry a non-Christian, cohabiting couple, but only if I'd thoroughly persuaded them of that same fact.

*The post doesn't explicitly address whether the couples are believers or not, and some of the commenters unhelpfully increase that ambiguity.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Does Racial Sin Undermine the Gospel?

I get the sense that's one of the key questions John Piper's new book addresses. You can read an excerpt from it in Christianity Today—though not one that addresses the exegetical issues. I suspect you can get a hint at his ultimate conclusion from this comment:
The Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages but sees them as a positive good for the glory of Christ.
It reminds me of some comments Michael Lawrence made in a sermon a couple years ago.

Piper's excerpt raises a number of personal and historical perspectives. This reminder draws on both:
[T]here is no mystery in it as to why a young black man [Jesse Jackson, taken in context] growing up [in Greenville, South Carolina]—or a Martin Luther King growing up in Atlanta a generation earlier—would get his theological education at a liberal institution (such as Chicago Theological Seminary or Crozer Theological Seminary). Our fundamental and evangelical schools—and almost every other institution, especially in the South—were committed to segregation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Did Decisionistic Revivalism Marginalize Baptism?

Ardel Caneday argues that it did in his thought-provoking article, "Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement," in this book. Here's his case:
Ironically, since the Great Awakening, [zeal to isolate baptism from Christian conversion] has permitted "new measures" of various kinds, such as the "mourner's bench," the "invitation system," or a recited "sinner's prayer" to displace baptism as the rite of conversion, thus shirking and even marginalizing Christ's command to the church. Zeal to avoid "baptismal regeneration," which many perceived to be the necessary consequence of Alexander Campbell's teaching, actually spawned another error, "decisional regeneration." This was an error rooted in revivalism that is now a traditional element in American evangelicalism. If the former error is to relegate regenerating efficacy to the rite of baptism itself, the latter error assigns the same efficacy to the human decision to act upon whichever measures preachers may use.

The Enlightenment's high estimation of the power of human choice took root in the frontier American church. Regrettably, evangelical churches yielded to confluent streams of revivalism and Enlightenment influences. Though Alexander Campbell unwittingly yielded to the Enlightenment's overconfidence in human reason, he rightly opposed the introduction of "new measures" that began to impoverish churches by the acceptance of conversions that did not yield transformed people. (p. 325, paragraph division mine)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Theoretical Calvinism, Functional Arminianism

When I read an influential book from the 50s, I found myself thinking, "He says he's a Calvinist, but he's arguing like an Arminian—as if modern strategies, social engagement, and intellectual credibility offer our best shot at persuading people to receive our message." In these two videos John MacArthur accurately identifies pretty much the exact same mindset among the YRR crowd today. Here's what he says:
How in the world could you have a true, reformed view of the doctrines of grace related to salvation, and then think that having holes in your jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt and a can of beer in your hand somehow give you access to the lost. I mean, c'mon, that's irrelevant to what you're trying to do. So because you affirm the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation, it seems to me that you can be an Arminian everywhere else you want to be. And the fear is that the power of the world's attraction is going to suck these guys in every generation after them more and more into the culture, and we're going to see a reversal of the reformed revival.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Five Great Books on Afghanistan

I'm not saying these are the best five. Just the five I happened to read during the past few years, of the many that came highly recommended. I loved each one. In chronological order . . .

1. The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. The story of a lone American who maneuvered his way into power in the early 19th century. Great story, of the five, the one I'd least recommend.

2. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. When you hear people talk about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, this is one of the classic illustrations. It's a fascinating story of a different time—and a place people who really know Afghanistan will tell you to start if you want to understand it.

3. The Kite Runner. By now you've probably seen the movie and at least heard of the book. The movie was harder to watch. The book painted a more memorable picture of Afghanistan both pre- and post-Taliban.

4. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Absolutely gripping and well worth a read for its thorough research and wide-ranging scope, thought it's a bit tough to follow for the same reasons. It ends with the bad stuff that happened on September 10th that you probably never heard about.

5. Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. Wow. If you want a feel-good story from Afghanistan, this is probably as close as you're going to get. Did your jaw drop reading accounts of the OBL-killing mission? This one's even better. What this handful of guys did is just astonishing.

Bonus: Haven't read it, but lots of people tell me The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is quite good. Covers more or less the same time period as Ghost Wars, but I think it focuses more on Al-Qaeda and less specifically on Afghanistan.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Have You Hugged a Presbyterian Today?

Two reasons you should:

1. Should I ever attend the SBC annual meeting again, it's going to be sorely tempting to nominate Carl Trueman for our president. Here's why:
Southern Baptists should be delighted that the organizers [of the National Cathedral's 9/11 commemoration] had the sensitivity and foresight not to place them in the grim position of having to turn down such an invitation in order to avoid compromising their orthodox, Protestant identity. The public relations disaster that would have followed this elementary stand for biblical truth and exclusivity would have been spectacular. After all, how could one maintain that one is taking seriously 1 Timothy 2 while sharing prayer time with a real-life incarnate lama?

The Southern Baptists need to stop feeling disappointed that such a well-intentioned but theologically incoherent gathering does not want their presence and they should instead remember the wisdom of Marx - not Karl, but Groucho: you should never want to join any club that would have you as a member.

2. When I watched Collision, a documentary of debates and conversations between Doug Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, I was looking for a clear exposition of how Hitchens' atheistic worldview is compatible with his affirmation of the existence of objective evil. Though Hitchens addressed the issue with characteristically entertaining disdain, I didn't find his argument coherent. Unfortunately, the medium didn't really permit a sustained clash of ideas. But now Wilson's dismantling response to Hitchens' recent declaration that 9/11 was a day of "pure evil" provides exactly that. Wilson's essay is one of the rare things you find on the internet that's worth reading more than once. Here's his conclusion:
[Hitchens'] atheistic rhetoric is full of borrowed theistic words. He sounds like totalitarianism is objectively bad. His approach would seem to indicate that being vicious is a sin. The big lie would be a violation of the Ninth Commandment, of course, but I thought we had explained all that.

I for one am glad that Hitchens wants to repudiate the big lies. I am glad that he stands against vicious totalitarian ideas. Thus far I can applaud him. But in order to stand against anything, however obviously bad it is, you must have something to stand on.

Anybody Surprised? Just Curious . . .

Jonathan Leeman interviews Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen on their forthcoming book, Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Leeman asks, "Did anything surprise you when reading the answers and rejoinders of these four authors?"

Hansen replies:
I was surprised to see the close resemblance between Mohler's confessional evangelical position and the fundamentalist view, at least as described by Kevin Bauder. John Stackhouse and Roger Olson respond with alarm as they point out this similarity.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Exegeting the Church's Mission

I've speculated previously that the increasing tension among reformed, conservative evangelicals over the church's mission may lead to a deep fissure between those who otherwise have much in common theologically. As this conversation points out, when you start talking about the church's mission, you inevitably wind up in a difficult conversation over soteriology, ecclesiology, and even eschatology—just not the "Left Behind" kind.

A big part of the trouble here is that far too often the debate is cluttered with flimsy exegesis. That's why I'm looking forward to reading this book. Back-of-the-book endorsements sometimes skew towards hot air. But scan these comments and you'll see a consistent emphasis on Gilbert and DeYoung's sound exegesis. And take a look at who's saying those things, and I think you'll find the sort of people who know what sound exegesis looks like.

And by the way, for the next couple days you can get an outstanding deal—about half what Amazon's listing it for, with a special quantity discount if you want to create a good discussion among your elders, church staff, or missions team.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Your Best Life Now: A Review of Milltown Pride

I'd like to affirm that David Oestreich [seems at this time to be misspelled on SI] "hit the ball out of the park" with his review, but I have to be honest that I haven't seen the movie. Nevertheless, he's a thoughtful guy, skilled in aesthetic issues. I suspect his critique is spot-on. But what I'm most interested is his conclusion, which exposes the film's pseudo-gospel. Here's a portion of his argument:
Unlike the prodigal son, Will moves from one comfortable situation to a different comfortable situation, the latter complete with a cushy job, a girlfriend and the unfettered pursuit of baseball!

Which brings us to Milltown Pride’s worst weakness—an incomplete portrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to use characters as a means to a narrative end. It is quite another to so use the gospel. But when the outcome of Will’s conversion is not only the erasure of nearly all his personal problems but a clear path to realizing his goal of playing professional sports, there is but one thing for a viewer to think: trust Jesus, and all your wildest dreams will come true.
Perhaps easy-believism and a partial message might be forgiven in the film genre. Perhaps. (As someone used to say, "I speak as a fool.") But when the producer/actor/BJU Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication argues that Unusual Films' "primary mission is to produce high-quality films that clearly present the Christian message" because "older forms of Christian expression aren't as effective any more," you better make extra special sure you get the gospel right.

According to Oestreich, they didn't. Not even close.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Utilitarian, Prophetic Religiosity: The Handy god of Evangelical Politics

In a campaign appearance last weekend, Michelle Bachmann said,
I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Washington Post blogger and President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, responded:
[Ms. Bachmann] imagines not only that there is meaning and purpose to such events and that they are controlled directly by God, she imagines that she knows the mind of God and can tell America what such events mean. That is called prophecy, especially when done in such an immediate and direct way, and as far as I know Michele Bachmann doesn’t claim to be a prophet. Or does she?

While not making that claim overtly, Ms. Bachmann consistently approaches both politics and religion from a position of absolutes - the kind of absolutes which, if not absolutely 100 percent correct, can be pretty dangerous. From defaulting on our national debt to abortion to this weekend’s hurricane, there is, according to Michelle Bachmann, only one right answer - hers. And unless someone speaks with the absolute knowledge that most believers ascribe to God or prophets, that’s a pretty dangerous way to speak.
Though I'm rather confident that Hirschfield and I don't share the same view of God and the gospel, I agree with every word he wrote about Bachmann. But because of what I do believe about God and the gospel, I'm persuaded that there's more to be said, and I'll get straight to the point.

Bachmann's comments are utterly indefensible. Some, Hirschfield apparently among them, believe her speech will further damage our national political discourse. I agree, but I suspect it (and so many others like it) is actually more detrimental to the Christian faith. As the prophet Joel reminds us, God does intend for natural disasters to direct our attention toward the certainty of future and greater divine judgment on human rebellion. But the notion that judgment falls on us for rampant spending grossly distorts the human condition and cheapens the gravity of our fundamental need. Bachmann claims the comments were made in jest. If that's true, she's treating God and his verdicts lightly—taking his name in vain—and the offense is only greater.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "We will never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more." (You may have read that somewhere before.) The price of Bachmann's comments is the marginalization of the gospel of God's eternal kingdom in exchange for immediate and temporary political influence. I wish evangelicals and the God-users they vote for would learn what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes knew—that fixing our hopes on that which cannot last and will not satisfy is emptiness and striving after wind.