Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Post-Election Reflections: One Pastor's Dilemma

How should a pastor address those issues that are at the nexus of biblical morality and politics? As someone put it recently, we ought to avoid partisanship, but anyone who provides pastoral leadership will necessarily address political issues. Here's a sampling of my pastoral dilemma, as I've been wrestling with it for some time now:

1. How do I speak clearly and directly to foundational moral issues that appear in the political sphere, without sounding like a shill for the Republican Party?

2. How do I explain Scripture's warnings to a congregation in a nation shaped by a party whose platform incarnates Romans 1, without ignoring flawed or unjust—if less cataclysmic—elements of another party's platform?

3. How do I criticize the immoral aspects of the President's agenda without appearing to deny my African American brothers and sisters the appropriate opportunity to rejoice in our nation's progress, and without glossing the white evangelical racist past?

4. How do I assess and respond to complex structural injustices in the American society and economy, without embracing imprudent public policy or marginalizing other justice issues such as abortion and religious liberty?

5. How do I speak plainly about the erosion of religious liberty and the emerging pathway towards tangible repercussions for pastors and churches, without undermining the obviously biblical truth that we should expect persecution?

We're only beginning to see what new challenges will confront pastors who will not abandon Scripture when gender, abortion, and religious liberty issues converge. Long after this President's term is done, the electorate that reaffirmed his party's platform will remain. Perhaps it's time to read more about the Puritans in the mid-17th century.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scalping the Gospel

Suppose you're an evangelical celebrity, you write a book about the gospel, and you go along with your publisher's proposal for a book tour. Do you really want to charge $25 a head for tickets? Really?

What exactly is "peddling God's Word," if it's not that?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

"Eat Mor Chikin . . . Just Not Today?": Reflections on Clumsy Evangelical Cultural Engagement

Though I've had some fun with the Chick-fil-A controversy over the past week, I've also had some more serious questions rattling around in my head. Brighter folks actually figured out what they thought in advance, and wrote about it days ago. They also tended to write in traditional essay form, whereas I've just tried to answer my own questions in a goofy self-interview thing. So it is what it is . . .

How many Chick-fil-As (hereafter CfA) are there within five miles of your home?
Four or five.

Did you check on that before you moved there?
Of course.

Why are so many people eating CfA today?
Probably one or more of several reasons, depending on the person.
1) Because it's tasty, and this made a good excuse to eat a piece of nicely-seasoned white meat chicken, fried under pressure in peanut oil to retain it's juiciness. I mean, it's not like the big-city mayors were putting the squeeze on White Castle.
2) Because CfA has become a symbol for the culture war. Evangelical Christians and other cultural "conservatives" feel like they're losing their grip on the America that they know and love, and they want to put their money in the pockets of someone who's on their side, rather than another politician who pretends he is.
3) Because this issue has been cast as a gay-rights issue, and that's one of a relatively small number of issues that's particularly polarizing—as illustrated by the decisive role traditional marriage initiatives on swing-state ballots had in the 2004 election.
4) Because there's a very real First Amendment, religious freedom issue in play. Right or wrong, there is no question that a wide spectrum of religious Americans feel that their rights are increasingly and unprecedentedly threatened by numerous local municipalities, the current presidential administration, judicial decisions, and cultural-commercial forces.
5) Because this was a way to cast a sort of vote, and in a public way. Unlike the polls in November, people know what you're voting for when you stand in an hour-long line. It created a social media event that could be splashed all over Facebook and Twitter.

What message did it send?
I'd be stunned if CfA didn't smash its previous single-day all-stores sales record. That says there's still a significant commercial force that's poised, at least in some cases, to overwhelm any negative impact of a boycott. I'm sure it also sent another in a long series of "us vs. them" messages—that evangelicals hate/fear/are disgusted by the homosexual lifestyle and those that practice it.

Is that latter message the one people were trying to send?
I don't think that's what it was about, at least not for the most part. My sense is that this was about a perceived threat to a way of life, not a statement about a category of people.

Why the breakdown in communication then?
Both sides are at fault. The cultural progressives tend to label theological or ideological disagreement as intolerance. And intolerance must not be tolerated! (As D.A. Carson has pointed out, they're completely blind to the irony of their own inconsistency.) They assume that disagreement—especially one that leads to a moral conclusion—entails personal animosity, even hatred. Cultural progressives can't separate ideas from the people that hold them. That poisons public discourse, whether it's in the political, cultural, or—in this case—commercial sphere.

Evangelical cultural conservatives have sent mixed messages on whether they're more interested in conserving culture or proclaiming the "evangel"—the gospel. That's probably because evangelicals themselves aren't too sure. If you ask a cultural progressive what evangelicals are, he's going to tell you they're religious people who want to impose their beliefs on America by getting political power. Gospel theology is going to be the furthest thing from his mind. And that shouldn't surprise us, because most evangelicals don't talk much about the gospel, and many of them couldn't articulate authentic gospel theology, let alone live a life that's shaped by it. They're certainly not interacting with non-Christians in a way that portrays an accurate picture of the gospel. And by "an accurate picture of the gospel," I mean a biblical understanding the universality of both human depravity and the offer of grace and forgiveness. These foundational truths have not penetrated cultural evangelical hearts in a transforming way: We are all equally deserving of the full outpouring of divine wrath, and none of us has merited the grace we have received.

Should believers have eaten at CfA today?
That depends on two things, I think: 1) why they went, and 2) what the outcome was. Both are difficult to assess, but the latter is particularly troublesome. This opens a conversation that's much too large to resolve in this context, but suffice it to say that I believe Christians may, even should, engage publicly in political and cultural issues. Nevertheless, we walk an arduous path when we do. What will that engagement communicate about our priorities? To what degree will our mission as ambassadors be compromised? How will we guard our own hearts from the corruption that accompanies proximity to power and the hope of possessing it? And what do our Facebook posts and tweets communicate to the hundreds of people reading them, many of whom are presumably not believers and justifiably draw conclusions (whether accurate or not) about what is most precious to us?

Did you eat CfA today?
Yep, sure did. (But only once.) I chose not to rub my homosexual neighbors' or unbelieving Facebook friends' noses in it, but that doesn't mean my presence and money didn't contribute in some way to a cultural polarization that's rooted in miscommunication and misdirected priorities, and which ultimately obscures the gospel.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Apologetics: Fertile Soil for Heresy?

Though I didn't attend T4G this year, one of the themes I appreciated from the talks and the panels was the explicit recognition that a desire to see people embrace the gospel often dilutes the gospel through attempts to make the gospel palatable to unbelievers. In this panel discussion, Peter Williams said we need to be careful to understand that apologetics often leads to heresy. Al Mohler argued that apologetics‬, detached from biblical authority, becomes a mechanism for denying Scripture.

Not all apologists and apologetic approaches make these concessions. (See "White, James R.") In fact, my experience is that many apologists understand the centrality of Jesus' resurrection to the Christian faith better than most evangelical pastors. (Thank you again, Christopher, for all those reminders of how badly we pastors fail on this point.)

Having said all that, I've been listening to a series of apologetic addresses in secular contexts. I've been grateful for some of them, but I have to say I've been more disappointed than encouraged. Few things are more frustrating to me than when the person designated to represent the orthodox Christian position, simply doesn't.

Here's one example from John Stott's Veritas Forum at Harvard University. In response to a comment about the arbitrariness of demands for faith in Christ, and a question about the people who've never heard, Stott replied:
With regard to those, for example, who have never heard the name of Jesus, I would want to say this—that the only people that I feel fairly confident will be lost on the last day are those who have heard and have deliberately rejected the word of salvation which they have heard and understood. That seems to be very clear in the New Testament. But with regard to those who've never heard, I don't find the New Testament clear at all. Certainly, none of us deserves to go to heaven, and none of us can enter the presence of God in heaven by our own morality or righteousness. Christians certainly can't. We don't trust in our own righteousness to get to heaven, and nor can anybody else. Self-salvation is out, because if he caught a glimpse of the majesty, the glory, the holiness of God, we know that we're utterly unfit to come anywhere near him in the tattered rags of our own morality. So I know that, and I'm prepared, therefore, to leave the rest to God. Meanwhile, our responsibility is to take the good news that, by his grace, we've come to accept, and to spread it—make it known—as far as we can.
In addition to the point I make about apologetics above, I believe these comments also serve as an illustration of the fact that people who write really good things can also believe things that are contrary to Scripture. They also provoke a discussion about the influence of ecumenism and perhaps even the long-term effects of paedobaptist ecclesiology—how it may predispose its adherents to embrace ecumenism because they've already deliberately welcomed unbelievers into the church. But those conversations are for another time.

Friday, July 13, 2012

An Alphabet Soup of Militancy

In this interview, Rick Phillips (senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina) describes the struggles within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) over the regulative principle of worship, Roman Catholic-derived forms of the Lord's supper, and theistic evolution. It's a fascinating perspective from a militant conservative, if you're at all interested in the PCA or the broader trends within American evangelicalism. Phillips sounds as if he wouldn't be a bit surprised if the denomination split down the middle within the next decade.

Though the PCA's membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) hasn't yet become a focal point of contention, Phillips expressed his frustrations and hopes that the relationship could be severed. For any of you who appreciate irony, Phillips couldn't resist mentioning that Bob Jones University (BJU) prohibits faculty and staff from attending his church, precisely because of the PCA's affiliation with the NAE—an organization that Bob Jones Jr. helped to found. Perhaps he might be more fondly received if he were to abandon his defense of the regulative principle and host, say, a local drama team. [wink]

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shirking the Problem of What Is Good

I'm not sure whether it's more remarkable to me that G.K. Chesterton wrote these words from Heretics when he was about 30 years old, or that he wrote them over a century ago:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about "progress"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about "education"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. 
The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it." He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it." He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children." 
(p. 13 in this edition, paragraph break added)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Very Brief Recommendation

Some of the most fruitful times I've experienced in church staff meetings have been those occasions when we've thought through the theological foundations for why we do what we do. Obviously, there's an abundance of tools for generating those conversations, not least among them, Scripture itself.

One non-inspired book that I've found to be unusually helpful for guiding our examination of pastoral ministry is Charles Bridges' The Christian Ministry. You won't agree with Bridges across the board. You certainly shouldn't. But it raises a wide range of important conversations. It's also an old book, and a significant advantage of using an old book is that we can explore the underlying, abiding principles that shape our ministry while maintaining some distance from the pressures that perpetuate our allegiances to our traditions.

I've just learned that the book is now available in paperback at a much lower price than the Banner of Truth hardback. And it's on Kindle for less than $1.

Friday, May 18, 2012

On the Unbiblical Meta-Narrative and Christology of Both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology

I've been eagerly anticipating publication of this book since before I started dating my wife, made first contact with the church where I now pastor, got married, moved halfway around the country, and had three children. Which in my universe is, well, just over three years, actually. (We had twins.) But it felt like much longer.

On several occasions in the past couple years I've referred to a chapter written by Steve Wellum, one Kingdom Through Covenant's co-authors, which formed the backbone—literally and figuratively—of Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright's book on baptism. That chapter is available for free here. I've also just listened to a dense, provocative lecture by Wellum on the relationship between limited atonement and Baptist ecclesiology. (The best part of that lecture was Wellum pointing out how Reformed (non-Baptist) ecclesiology is actually incompatible with limited atonement, much to the consternation of his forthcoming book's Presbyterian publishers.) I wouldn't be surprised to see some of that material in Kingdom Through Covenant as well. I'm less familiar with Gentry, but somewhere out there is an insightful lecture from him on what holiness is, as the language is used in Scripture, not pop theology.

All that to say, I suspect that Kingdom Through Covenant is a volume that'll be quite helpful to those of us who perceive significant unresolved problems with both the dispensational and covenantal systems. How well it answers those questions remains to be seen, but I'm confident that it'll delve into some of the issues and texts that apologists for those systems too often avoid. Because of that, I hope even theologians who disagree will engage rigorously with its arguments.

I haven't found it on the WTS site yet, but Amazon lists it at a remarkable price for an 850-page hardcover, though there's some speculation this may be an introductory, limited-time offer.

And finally, as he always does, Justin Taylor has quite a bit more info and some links here, including lengthy quotes from both Wellum and Gentry outlining problems with the Christology and meta-narrative of the two traditional systems.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Disagree with Doug Wilson on Music & Culture . . . and So Does Doug Wilson.

I have a vague recollection of someone saying, more or less, that "the words Doug Wilson mumbles in his sleep are more perceptive and coherent than my most articulate moments." I totally feel that. If I debated Wilson on the utility of the yellow pages in the 21st century, and he took the affirmative, I haven't a shred of doubt he'd mop the floor with me. So while I find myself disagreeing with him fairly frequently, and on some significant issues, I'm not sure I've ever found his arguments easily dismissed, or his analysis naïvely simplistic.

That's why I was a bit surprised by his case for the three (and only three) appropriate grounds for condemning a musical form. I'm only interested in the second for the purposes of this post, and I'll get to it in a second. But first, here's the thrust of his conclusion:
Outside these [three] basic areas, if we reject a form of music out of hand because it is not the form of music we prefer, then we are trying to kick against the variegated world that the triune God created.
Now, I share Wilson's distaste for the snobbery that rejects "a form of music out of hand because it is not the form of music we prefer." And his second allowable critique does leave the door open for rejecting a particular form or genre "when that music declares openly its rebellion against God." But what if it merely declares its rebellion subtly? Is Wilson denying that's possible, or is he doubting our ability to discern it? I'm not the least bit certain the necessary conclusion is that I'm kicking "against the variegated world that the triune God created" because I think we need a more sophisticated approach than simply affirming every genre that's not explicitly rebellious.

And one reason I'm not so certain is that Wilson himself told me not to be.

Not so long ago, in his friendly but pointed critique of the most controversial portions of the Driscolls' marriage book, Wilson wrote:
I must read the Word to read the world, and I must read the world to read the Word. This extends beyond natural phenomena like planets, spiders, oceans, and lawn crickets. It also includes fallen human culture, and all its tawdry sins. I cannot understand the culture apart from the Word, but I do not approach the Word from "nowhere." . . . 
Legalists give application a bad name. Libertines give lack of application a bad name. They both lean against one another, and the only way out is to learn how to read culture like a grown-up. The only way out is to learn how to make the applications that the Holy Spirit is leading us to make. 
This is why we should not want to ban, discourage, or prohibit anything except what God has expressly prohibited, along with anything which the Spirit of God is leading us to discourage as we make necessary applications from the Scriptures. A whole host of scriptural requirements requires us to be able to read the culture in which we are making those applications.
And then he also wrote here, in a related post:
We need a hermeneutic that enables us to read our surrounding, unbelieving culture. Paul requires it here. Paul is saying that we have to look at what the pagans are doing and that we are to do something distinct from that. We have to learn how to "read" their lust, and write something different.
Put briefly, Wilson believes grown-ups are the sort of people who are equipped to deal with culture when its messages are subtle, not just when it tells you what it's doing in flashing neon. I agree with that Doug Wilson—the one who wrote back in January. He should talk to the Doug Wilson who was listening to John Mayer a couple weeks ago. And if I might, I'd like to listen to that conversation.

And now, on the off-chance Pastor Wilson catches a whiff and finds some response to be worthy of his time, I await my turn as his mop head.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


I used to joke with a previous pastor that my long-term financial plan was to hit the separatist conference circuit with a talk entitled, "There and Back Again: My Time with [X pastor] at [X church] in the [X compromising association of churches] . . . and Why I Came Home." Some thought it was funny, possibly because it struck them as a sustainable career.

But eventually I realized thad I'd been beaten to the punch. It had occurred to me that there's a sort of person who attends an academic institution foreign to his circle of fellowship, all the while:

  1. Knowing what he himself believes.
  2. Knowing what the academic institutions he attends stands for.
  3. Knowing that he believes that institution and its professors exist in a persistent state of compromise and disobedience to Scripture.
  4. Intending to learn something from these disobedient compromisers.
  5. Intending to use the education and academic imprimatur acquired from the compromised institution to advance his own institution and career.
  6. Fully intending to excoriate the institution he attended throughout the rest of his career, once his credentials are signed and delivered.

Now, I wonder, what adjectives might we apply to that sort of scheme?

Respectable? Shrewd? Savvy? Ironic? Disingenuous? Reprehensible? Doomed?

You pick.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Special Thanks to B.B. Warfield

I'd like to thank B.B. Warfield for supplying an answer to my question in yesterday's post, regarding the reason evangelical leaders may take a stand on an issue like homosexuality as it emerges among megachurches. Warfield had this to say in his volume, Perfectionism, regarding opposition to Charles Finney's revivals that focused on methodology rather than theology:
That it was "the new measures" rather than the Pelagianism of "the Western revivals" which in the first instance at least offended the Eastern brethren is no doubt due in part to the general fact that it is always external things which first meet the eye [emphasis mine]. The external things in this instance were shocking in themselves; and their rooting in a doctrinal cause was often felt but vaguely or not at all. 
Pelagianizing modes of thought, derived from the same general source from which Finney had himself drunk—the "New Divinity" taught at New Haven—were moreover widely diffused among the New England clergy themselves. Men of this type of thinking might be offended by Finney's practices on general grounds, but could scarcely be expected, for that very reason, to assign them as to their cause to a doctrine common to his and their own thinking. And that the more that there were as yet no adequate means of ascertaining what the doctrinal basis of Finney's preaching was. Only his actual hearers were in any real sense informed of his teaching. 
When a little later he began to publish lectures and sermons the scales fell from men's eyes. The discerning had no difficulty then in seeing the correlation between his practices and his doctrines, or in clearly understanding that the phenomena of his revivals which gave most offence were merely the natural consequences of the fundamental fact that they were Pelagian revivals. (p. 33)
Thanks also to the Piedmont Baptist College library for helping me pick this up cheap in a Wake Forest used bookstore, and also to the fine folks out there who've helped the leaven of Warfield infiltrate our ranks. I think you know who you are.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Waves Obliterate Lines in the Sand: On Megachurches and "New Liberalism"

This morning I read Al Mohler's article, "Is the Megachurch the New Liberalism?" and I have to confess, I didn't see it going where it did. Fundamentalist that I am, I was strongly inclined from the outset to answer Mohler's title question, "Yes." (Or maybe, "Duh.") But I was still caught off guard by what was at best a colossal brain cramp by a megachurch pastor, and at worst a landmark compromise.

As Mohler notes, Guinness and Wells—not to mention MacArthur—have been sounding this alarm bell for decades. But his piece made me reflect on the curious role homosexuality has played in American Protestantism. We've seen denomination after denomination slouch towards Gomorrah (to borrow Judge Bork's phrase), long before these recent skirmishes over sodomy. And now the lines of that battle have infiltrated the megachurch movement.

Attentive readers will know that the odor of the "new liberalism" has long wafted within the megachurch movement. Like the mainline denominations, many megachurches have accommodated the culture, distorted the mission, and marginalized the offense of the gospel—all while selling truckloads of books explaining how they did it. Acceptance of homosexuality is an effect, not a cause. 

What's most curious to me is how homosexuality is a sort of Maginot Line among congregations and leaders that still do have some residual conservative instinct. Do they now take a stand because homosexual behavior is more easily explained to the Joe Public in the pew than complex matters of biblical interpretation and authority? Because of the remaining cultural "yuck factor"? Or perhaps because it's simply the last line of defense before, well, there's nothing left to defend?

Perhaps we need to remember that the Maginot Line didn't work out so well for the French, and the fortifications of contemporary evangelicalism are nowhere near as stout. We cannot afford to be the sort of people who pick and choose when to contend for the faith based on which turf we think might be easiest to defend. Our Enemy will deftly circumvent such cowardly strategies. Waves obliterate lines in the sand.

What's more, the ground on which we take a stand reflects a great deal about what's most precious to us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Mixed Legacies

It seems quite likely that, during this decade, evangelicals will mark the passing of four men who profoundly shaped their movement. Tim Challies has offered courageous and perceptive advice for how we ought to think and speak about the legacy of one of them, and I believe his words apply similarly to the other three. We shouldn't "pour crankcase oil over their graves," as I've heard someone else put it. We can and should honor God's servants and commend evidences of grace in their lives. On the other hand, we shouldn't gloss over the detrimental effects of their legacies—particularly when their choices undermined the clarity of the gospel. I'm not sure it's helpful either to be silent at the passing of a person with a mixed legacy (and won't we all have them?) or to redact our eulogies of all that's regrettable. Rather, I wonder if these occasions might present an opportunity to teach the rising generations. Here's a bit of what Challies had to say:
Our worldview ought to be big enough to deal with such things [as Colson's sinful—Challies' word—contributions to Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration]. To portray Charles Colson as all villain is unfair to the man; to portray him as all spiritual giant is unfair to the church. Let’s not be afraid to call it as it is.
I agree with Challies, but I actually want to drive his point a bit deeper, because it's not just our worldview that needs to be big enough to deal with these things. We need to recognize that our gospel is big enough to account for our sinful failures. And we need to recognize that our gospel is far too precious to disregard the sinful failures that distort it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Chimps with Souls and Why I'm Thankful for Chuck Colson

Christianity Today has released a breathtaking interview that suggests chimps may have souls. In God's kind providence, Chuck Colson repudiated this notion not quite four years ago:
Christianity teaches that humans are unique in all of creation: we are conscious of our existence, aware of death, capable of works of great creativity, and the only part of creation that bears the image of God. Humans alone have eternal souls, which confers unique moral status.
Unfortunately, Colson didn't have the foresight to respond to the insight that chimpanzees swaying rhythmically while staring at a waterfall may be a primitive form of worship. This is not your father's evangelicalism (and I'm not assuming you particularly admired that one).

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Never post angry.

That's why I took a half hour to cool down, physically (no small task in my neck of the woods) and metaphorically, after a jog in which I listened to a couple lectures by a dispensationalist fundamentalist.

A couple pleas:

1. My dispensationalist friends, who lament (justifiably) the frequency at which you're misrepresented, please don't do the same thing. Please understand the positions you're critiquing. And don't lump everyone who disagrees with you into the same lot, as if they all believed the same thing.

2. Please get your facts straight. Don't spread blatant inaccuracies. (We used to call them lies.)

3. Please stop insinuating that everyone who rejects your position does so because it's the hip, popular trend.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Like a Moth to the Flame

No matter how hard I try, I just can't quit this blogging thing. But life's much more busy now, all of a sudden. (If you're a facebook friend, you already know all about that, but this blog isn't about me—FB clearly is.) So in light of that, posting here may be intermittent, or even less than that, but I ain't done yet. I've stepped up my game a bit on Twitter though. You can follow me there @ben_wright_ for worthwhile links, poor-man's observational comedy, and attempts at pithy commentary. Here's a sample:

~Had lunch today with a dear brother who came to Christ through the ministries of @JohnMacarthur and Hal Lindsey. #synergy

~Keller on commuter churches (video, start at 52:12):

~Bridges: "Though perseverance is developed in the crucible of adversity, it is energized by faith."

~Piper's #Bloodlines, special discount @WTSbooks: (discount appears when you add to cart)

~Helpful @SBTS panel on Christian ministry & #Islam: (I remember that Toledo mosque 30 years ago.)

~#SCOTUS on #Obamacare: fascinating. Most justices interested in essential legal issues. Others simply want to advocate policy.

~Sills: "80% of pastors pastor within 200 miles of their wife's mama. I've gotta wonder who's calling whom."

Now if that wasn't fun enough, I have a couple photos for you.

I think the first one is of a 1970s Acts29 pastor:

And the second one . . . well, let's just say this wasn't a difficult choice, at least not for me:

Friday, March 09, 2012

How Many Unconverted Children Do You Want to Baptize?

Challies' post on when we should baptize children who've made a profession of faith has generated discussion in various places. Here's my response to a friend's question about the issue:
I think it comes down to a question of what you believe the church is doing when you baptize. You might think that you are merely telling the church that the person has professed faith in Christ. So anyone who says he's a Christian and wants to be baptized, you baptize: the upper-middle-class tidy-life couple, the town drunk, or a 4-year-old kid.

On the other hand, if you think baptism is a declaration of allegiance to Christ, affirmed by the church, and linked to church membership with all its privileges and obligations, then you're going to think it's pretty important for there to be some sort of examination of the credibility of the person's profession.

If you go the latter route, you're going to have to ask yourself (in light of Scripture) what constitutes a credible profession of faith, and at what point a child is ready to bear the burden of congregational rule and accountability to church discipline. It's very difficult to discern the credibility of that profession in the life of a young person, particularly one inclined to fear of man and people-pleasing, while the child is under the primary care and authority of his or her parents. For that reason, I'd do all I can to avoid baptizing a pre-teen, and the more I'm seeing in pastoral ministry, the higher that age is getting in my mind.
If you want to make the argument that conversion and baptism are linked in Scripture, I'd agree. Wholeheartedly. In fact, it's precisely because I agree so strongly that I think it's generally unwise to baptize young children. Frankly, I believe there's a far greater problem in contemporary American Christianity because we regularly baptize unconverted young children, than there is because we unreasonably withhold baptism from the genuinely converted.

In other words, I'm arguing that we have a foundational problem in our understanding of conversion. We really need to get that problem sorted out before we get too upset over people "delaying" baptism—or before we give any more kids the false impression that they're eternally secure.

Finally, I don't know of a better combination of theological clarity and practical application on the matter of baptism than what you'll find in this book—one of the most helpful things I've read in the past five years.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Nothing draws a crowd like end times preaching"

Promotional advertising for churches, from the B.D. (Before Driscoll) era. IOW, before sexually explicit sermon series describing visions of assaults:

Makes you wonder what's the next big thing coming down the pike.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Those Who Fail to Learn from History . . .

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' nine conclusions, following extensive examination of the key texts, reproduced from his address, "The Basis of Christian Unity":

1. Unity must never be isolated, or regarded as something in and of itself.

2. The question of unity must never be put first. We must never start with it, always bearing in mind the order stated so clearly in Acts 2:42, where fellowship follows doctrine.

3. We must never start with the visible church or with an institution, but rather with the truth, which alone creates unity.

4. The starting point in considering the question of unity must always be regeneration and belief of the truth.

5. An appearance or a facade of unity based on anything else, and at the expense of these two criteria, or ignoring them, is clearly a fraud and a lie.

6. To do anything which supports or encourages such an impression or appearance of unity is surely dishonest and sinful.
The world will not be impressed by a mere coming together in externals while there is central disagreement about the fundamentals of the faith. It will interpret it as an attempt on the part of the church authorities to save their institution in much the same way as it as it sees business men forming combines and amalgamations with the same object and intention. The question the world is asking is, What is Christianity? What is your teaching? Have you anything authoritative and powerful to offer us? It is interested in this rather than in organizational matters, and rightly so. It is also ready to respond to it.
In other words, MLJ believed that Christian unity in the fundamental doctrines is "missional."

7. To regard a church, or a council of churches, as a forum in which fundamental matters can be debated and discussed, or as an opportunity for witness-bearing, is sheer confusion and muddled thinking.

8. Unity must obviously never be thought of primarily in numerical terms, but always in terms of life. Nothing is so opposed to the biblical teaching as the modern idea that numbers and powerful organization alone count.

9. The greatest need of the hour is a new baptism and outpouring of the Holy Spirit in renewal and revival. [I'm quite sure I'd disagree with MLJ's understanding of the baptism of the Spirit, but I suspect I'd agree with the main thrust of his point.]

I do wonder how the last few decades of church history, perhaps even the last few weeks, might have been different if we took the Doctor's proposals seriously.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Practical Reading: Episode IV

Counterfeit Gods, by Tim Keller
Keller certainly didn't invent the idea that idolatry is at the root of all sorts of sin (see this really old and really excellent sermon [PDF]), but I think he's more responsible than any other living human for reintroducing the concept to contemporary sermons and our everyday conversations. This book doesn't chase every thread of idolatry, but it makes the point rather well that we all ought to do that in our own hearts, and it gives us a paradigm to use as we do.
Our contemporary society is not fundamentally different from these ancient ones. Each culture is dominated by its own set of idols. Each has its "priesthoods," its totems and rituals. Each one has its shrines—whether office towers, spas and gyms, studios, or stadiums—where sacrifices must be made in order to procure the blessings of the good life and ward off disaster. What are the gods of beauty, power, money, and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? (xi-xii)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Practical Reading: Episode III

Reverberation, by Jonathan Leeman
Anybody else grow up with the song, "Read your Bible, pray every day, and you'll grow, grow, grow"? I wonder if it's not representative of a reductionistic, perhaps even mystical, view of God's Word. But Leeman does an outstanding job rebuilding a biblical theology of the Bible—"how God's Word brings light, freedom, and action to His people" as people bring their lives into contact with the Word and with one another:
[T]he "ministry of the Word indeed begins in the pulpit, but then it must continue through the life of the church as members echo God's Word back and forth to one another. The word reverberates, as in an echo chamber. In a real echo chamber, sound reverberates off walls. In the church, it's the hearts of people that both absorb and project the sounds of His effectual Word. (24)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Practical Reading: Episode II

The God Who Is There, by D.A. Carson
I'm not sure if Carson has said exactly why he wrote this book, but it has the feel of someone explaining the basic message of the Bible to someone who's never heard it. I wonder if it might not also be useful for young people who grew up hearing all the stories, but never heard how they point to Christ. Those who argue that people doing biblical theology tend towards allegory will also find less to criticize in Carson's work. Here's one representative portion:
[W]hen Paul here in Romans 3 commends faith, what he is wanting from us is a God-given ability to perceive what God has done by hanging Jesus on the cross, reconciling us to himself, setting aside his own just wrath, demonstrating his love, and declaring us just even though we are not, because the righteousness of Christ Jesus is now counted as ours and our sin is now counted as his. And he has anchored this in God's gracious self-disclosure across enormous tracts of time, across the Bible's entire storyline, climaxing in the shattering reality that the God who made us, the God who is our Judge, bled and died for us and rose again. (184-185)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Practical Reading: Episode I

I'm a nerd. I know that. Kind of embrace it. I'm particularly a reading nerd, including stuff like this and this and this and this in my recreational reading. The most "fun" book I've read recently is Soccernomics. So I think that ought to establish the point.

But I also try to organize my reading to include titles that might have a bit of a broader appeal—titles that are useful in discipleship, for evangelism, towards personal sanctification, and for pastoral insight. I want to tell you about four that I've finished fairly recently, taking a couple sentences to make the case why you should read it, and providing a representative quote. Maybe a long one. We'll go one at a time, so more posts coming over the next few days, but we'll start with my favorite.

A Sure Guide to Heaven, by Joseph Alleine

This is basically an evangelistic tract, before the gospel had to fit on a 6-panel leaflet, targeted to people who assumed they were Christians because of their baptism and their religiosity. Punchy and quotable, this is one of the most readable and enjoyable of the Puritan Paperbacks. Alleine just brutalizes the non-lordship view of "conversion"—what a friend of mine used to call the "Not So Great Salvation" view. In other words, this isn't a gospel John MacArthur made up:
The unsound convert takes Christ by halves. He is all for the salvation of Christ, but he is not for sanctification. He is for the privileges, but does not appropriate the person of Christ. He divides the offices and benefits of Christ. This is an error in the foundation.

Whoever loves life, let him beware here. It is an undoing mistake, of which you have been often warned, and yet none is more common. Jesus is a sweet Name, but men do not love the Lord Jesus in sincerity. They will not have Him as God offers, "to be a Prince and a Saviour" (Acts v 31). They divide what God has joined, the King and the Priest. They will not accept the salvation of Christ as He intends it; they divide it here. Every man's vote is for salvation from suffering, but they do not desire to be saved from sinning. They would have their lives saved, but still would have their lusts.

Indeed, many divide here again; they would be content to have some of their sins destroyed, but they cannot leave the lap of Delilah, or divorce the beloved Herodias. They cannot be cruel to the right eye or right hand. O be infinitely careful here; your soul depends upon it.

The sound convert takes a whole Christ, and takes Him for all intents and purposes, without exceptions, without limitations, without reserve. He is willing to have Christ upon any terms; he is willing to have the dominion of christ as well as deliverance by Christ. He says with Paul, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Anything, Lord. He sends the blank for Christ to set down His own conditions. (45-46)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

If It's True for Dogs . . .

My hopes were never particularly high for the first Elephant Room, let alone the second. From the beginning of its promotion, I felt vibes that raised some concerns, which I believe have proven to be justifiable, without exception.

To put it simply, the format of the conversations, exacerbated by the personas of the leading figures, made the nature of the conversation pretty predictable, and not in a good way. I mean, we've seen this movie before, haven't we? On top of that—with no disrespect intended to a couple participants–the supporting cast of characters offered minimal hope for elevating the conversation, particularly since ministry size seems more closely related to the criteria for inclusion than a relentless commitment to biblical fidelity.

Dare I say, that's maybe not quite the right format for public conversations about theology and their implications for pastoral ministry? Maybe I was naïve to think that's what it was supposed to be about, or maybe I'm just a hater. (After all, I am a blogger.)

ER2 introduced new concerns. I don't have anything new to say about them that hasn't already been said quite sufficiently, and of course we all know how things turned out.

Before I get to my main point, I do want to say that I'm convinced there's real value in building relationships outside our "tribe" and talking to people we disagree with. I've argued pretty regularly and vociferously that it hasn't happened enough. But I'm just old-fashioned enough to think that a nation-wide simulcast with tix at $99 a pop isn't the way to get that difficult work done, particularly when matters as complex and fundamental as the Trinity are at stake.

Now having gotten all that out of the way, I think something Justin Taylor wrote calls for a response. Addressing TGC's minimal comments on these recent events, he said:
Most of us do not know all that was said to T.D. Jakes before and after the event. Most of us do not know all of the conversations between the Gospel Coalition and James MacDonald prior to the event—or how he responded. But some critics have assumed that since they haven’t read a public statement on the web about X, then there are not hours of conversations—some winsome and careful, and some neither of those—happening behind the scenes.
Here's the deal. As a para-church ministry, TGC intends to be a help to churches. Right?:
Our desire is to serve the church we love by inviting all our brothers and sisters to join us in an effort to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Christ so that we truly speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age.
As a pastor in a church in which members and their families have been scarred by the disastrous teaching of the prosperity gospel movement, I don't feel particularly served when a present TGC council member and a now-resigned member prop up one of its most well-known proponents.

TGC needs to clean up the mess its elephant made on our lawn. "[W]e wish [MacDonald] well in his far-reaching endeavors" doesn't cut it. We don't know why JM resigned. We don't know how TGC feels about its leadership being pervaded by people who don't possess the prudence to perceive the pitfalls of participation in this parley. We don't know whether this video that implies several TGC Council members are guilty of "white idolization" is among the "far-reaching endeavors" in which TGC wishes JM well. We don't know what sort of gospel is being coalesced for when the gospel we believe is undermined, and the only sound is silence. We don't know these things, because TGC, which purports to speak on behalf of the gospel in a myriad of ways, has conspicuously avoided speaking unambiguously to this matter.

The Gospel Coalition just reminded us of the Francis Schaeffer's 100th birthday. I wonder if his words to a General Assembly of the PCA [PDF] might be a useful reminder to all of us:
[L]et us not allow any place for confusing Christian love with compromise, latitudinarianism and accommodation! The spirit of our age is syncretism in all the areas of life, in all the areas of thought. The spirit of our age is syncretism, and thus accommodation is the rule. The spirit of our age is the age of syncretism in contrast in truth versus error; and this being so, accommodation is the common mentality.

Those in the churches who said they were practicing love but who confused this with compromise and accommodation have not been static in their error. Compromise is never static. It always progresses. Thus what began as ecclesiastical compromise has become the acceptance of a series of tragedies, a series of things which deny truth as truth. A series of tragedies which rest in the loss of the realization that truth as truth demands differentiation. Accomodation progresses and it is increasingly forgotten that truth, if it is really truth and not just subjective truth inside of our own head, demands confrontation, loving confrontation, but confrontation. If I lose the concept of confrontation it must be asked, do I believe that truth is truth.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What are the 10 most important events in Church history?

What made this difficult (aside from my general ignorance) is how to deal with historical events that profoundly shaped Church history, but aren't distinctly Christian (Gutenberg's printing press, destruction of the Spanish Armada, invention of Twitter...). Another question is how to deal with major events that fall within the scope of the "Church," but had relatively little impact on the trajectory of the gospel. The Great Schism strikes me as the prime example.

I decided to narrow my list to explicitly Church-related events that affected the trajectory of the evangelical faith. And I'm not cheating off someone else's list (except for Wiki's help on dates), so I probably brain cramped and left out something big. Oh, and I'm starting with the close of the canon. Here goes...
  1. Constantine's Edict of Milan legalizes Christianity (313)
  2. Council of Nicea articulates biblical Christology (325)
  3. Conversion of Augustine (387)
  4. Publication of Luther's "95 Theses" (1517)
  5. Conrad Grebel ("re-")baptizes George Blaurock in Zwingli's Zürich (1525)
  6. Publication of Luther's German translation of the Bible (1534)
  7. Council of Trent formalizes the RCC's rejection of the Reformation doctrine of justification (1547)
  8. Publication of Calvin's Institutes (definitive Latin edition, 1559)
  9. Separation of church/state and freedom of religion in Rhode Island (1637)
  10. William Carey initiates the modern missions movement (1792)
Obviously, there's a big gap in the middle, and nothing from the past two+ centuries, though the next five that I left out would shift that a bit. It's probably difficult at this point to evaluate any event from the 20th century objectively, but which do you think is most likely to be included by a 23rd century evangelical historian?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What are the 10 most important events in the Bible?

I've tossed that question out in a couple different pastoral contexts over the course of the last few months as an introduction to discussions of biblical theology. Obviously, one of the first questions you have to answer is, "What makes one event more important than another?"

The way I've chosen to answer that, at this point anyway, is that some events have broader implications on or stronger interrelationships with the rest of the Bible than others. Some events are also more pivotal in the development of God's purposes and with mankind.

So just for fun, here are my top ten (chronological order), with limited explanation. I'll save the supporting arguments for when y'all start shooting back.
  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Flood
  4. Establishment and reiteration of the Abrahamic Covenant
  5. Exodus
  6. Establishment of the Davidic Covenant
  7. Incarnation of Christ
  8. Death and resurrection of Christ (I realize I'm cheating pretty badly here so I don't have to cut elsewhere.)
  9. Pentecost
  10. Second coming/final judgment/New Heavens & New Earth (Cheating again, though it wouldn't be quite so egregious if I were Amillennial.)
For what it's worth, the next five or so after these strike me seem fairly clear, but after that it gets quite a bit more fuzzy. Feel free to post your own list and make the case for why you'd include something I omitted.

Friday, January 20, 2012

America's Unique Climate for Exotic, Poisonous Hybrids of Christianity with Other Gods

I just started reading a fun little book by Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File. I assume I must've heard about it in this interview (which is worth a listen just for Guinness' unedited comments on Franky Schaeffer), but I haven't reviewed it to confirm.

This is a fiction work—sort of a cross between something by Lewis and just about anything by Wells (start here or here). The basic idea is that Christianity has dug its own grave by contributing to the rise of secularization, which will ultimately doom the church. Or so the "Deputy Director of the Central Security Council" believes, as expressed in a series of memos to the newly-designated director of the Los Angeles Bureau.

It's outstandingly quotable—a Twitter treasure trove. But the passage that's most stuck out to me is a bit longer than 140 characters. (Apologies in advance for the dreadful length.) Outlining strategies to raise America's level of secularization to that achieved in Europe, the CSC deputy director writes:
Certainly we have already cooled the spiritual temperature in Europe to an Arctic level where only the hardiest of believers can survive, and then only by huddling together in their spiritual igloos. ("Always winter, never Christmas," as one of their agents laments.) But, as you will soon discover [when you begin your post in Los Angeles], the steamy, equatorial spiritual heat of the United States has its advantages—not least in allowing us to cultivate exotic, poisonous hybrids which would thrive in no other climate.
If we tried to list them all, how much time could we spend?

Christianity Today Is Making More and More Sense.

Though some of these articles don't quite go far enough, and I wouldn't associate myself with everything that actually is said, I thought these observations were worth some attention:

A Spanish Service Is Not Enough: It's Time to Feed the 'Hellenized Latinos':
The church's mission is to preach the gospel to all people. It is not to preserve the language and cultural preferences of any generation, whether foreign or native born. As God's missionary people, we have been sent into the world just as Jesus Christ was sent into the world by the Father (John 20:21). We cannot allow our ethnocentrism to blind us to the prisons of disobedience evident in every culture, including our own.
How the Physical Form of a Bible Shapes Us:
Will this digital revolution cement the decline of family spirituality that was once fostered by the family Bible? God knows.
This article caught my eye because I'd just had this conversation with a couple guys from church. To me, there's an inevitable trade-off between proliferation and evanescence. Bibles and even theological libraries are now in countless places they'd have never gone before—or only with great difficulty—from cockpits to Cuba. But will the Millennials be able to distinguish the Word of God from some yayhoo's blog? God knows. But this we also know: The Church advances, and God wins.

Why Last Saturday's Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Was Dangerous:
When evangelicals are confined to a partisan kennel, it is easy to think we are exercising real power. In fact we are, to use the old Soviet phrase, serving as "useful idiots."
The Trouble with Ed Young's Rooftop Sexperiment:
In short, if there were more talk about sex elsewhere in the church, perhaps in the privacy of our communities and classrooms, we might get away with a good deal less of it from our pulpits and our publishing houses. Until then, the message will continue to get drowned out amidst the bombardment of infotainment that our evangelical world suffers from. In other words, if the message is not getting through, we might think about changing the messenger and method. Otherwise, the sensationalistic path of least resistance inevitably comes to the fore.
I want to say one thing quickly, since the article doesn't really say enough. I'd like to hear what generations of faithful believers living before the age of 2,500 square foot, 4-bedroom single-family homes would say about the preposterous notion that a healthy marriage is contingent on a dynamic sex life.

Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church:
But all of the above should at least warn us away from the glib assumption that God does not care about what we wear to church; or that what I choose to wear for worship doesn't matter; or that how I dress for church is a purely personal affair; or that my own convenience and comfort are all that need concern me. The truth is, one of the ways we express ourselves as human beings is by the way we dress. Wittingly or unwittingly, our clothing gives us away. God certainly does not need this expression to know our hearts. But as for the rest of us, we do indeed look on the outward appearance, even when peering into our own mirrors. In this way the clothes we choose for church may have things to tell us about our hearts that God already knows, but that we need to hear.
Now, just to prove I'm not going all squishy, let me just ask something: Do any of CT's ten most redeeming films of 2011 actually depict biblical redemption, or merely moral transformation rooted in unusual resolve? (I haven't seen any of them.) I'm guessing maybe "Courageous," but I'll let y'all fill me in. In any case, I get the fact that redemption has multiple meanings in our vernacular, but in our headlong rush to embrace the arts, let's not define down foundational elements of the gospel. Perhaps a Christian publication might skew toward the distinctly Christian meaning.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sequential Expository Preaching and the Holiday Calendar

Lots of expositional preachers depart from their normal practice of preaching through books of the Bible around Christmas and Easter, and maybe a few other times of year. I don't intend to dump on that practice, but I want to argue that it's often unnecessary.

In God's king providence, our church's series through Leviticus lined up remarkably well with the calendar over the past few weeks:

12/25: Leviticus 16 (the Day of Atonement). If you can't think of an appropriate way to handle that text on Christmas morning, you probably shouldn't be preaching.

1/1: Leviticus 17 (guilt, blood, life, and cleansing). Maybe a bit of a reach, but it's not too hard to see how some of those themes relate to the first day of a new year.

1/8: Leviticus 18 (laws concerning sexual immorality). I don't see any particular connection between the text and the calendar here. In fact, for awhile it looked like our pastor would land on this text on 12/25. And even I would argue against the prudence of sequential exposition in that event.

1/15: Leviticus 19 (a bit of a grab bag of laws related to holiness, but with a particular emphasis on justice and oppression in relationship to foreigners). And today we remember Martin Luther King's birthday.

1/22: Leviticus 20 (opens with condemnation of child sacrifice to idols). On the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Look, I realize that the anti-sovereigntists may argue that this is coincidence, or we just got lucky. But I actually want to suggest that you don't really need texts to line up this neatly in order to make sequential exposition connect with major holidays.

Think for a second about how many holidays relate to freedom, sacrifice, gratitude, and grace. Is it not fairly obvious how each of those themes relates directly to the over-arching message of Scripture? Or even more directly, aren't each of these themes foundational to the gospel?

Let me put all my cards on the table. I think you ought to explain what every text you preach has to do with the gospel and the big story of the Bible. And if you're doing that, it really may not be so difficult to explain to your congregation how just about any text relates to the major cultural observation that everyone has, at the very least, in the back of their minds when they walk in your church's doors.