Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Legalistic Definition of Legalism

First, a clarification. I am not among those who think that legalism is the worst bugbear out there in the culture or in the church. I think it's a pretty big one, but it's not the only one. I don't think every sermon we preach ought to be against legalism. There's a lot of antinomianism out there, too.

That said, legalism is fresh on my mind because I am preaching through Matthew 23 and 24.

So, the legalistic syllogism goes something like this: Legalists believe in salvation by works. I don't believe in salvation by works. Therefore, I am not a legalist.

I would argue that is a legalistically narrow definition of legalism. It appears to me to be a far narrower definition than Jesus himself gives.

And, I would argue, it is not an accurate understanding of the scribes and Pharisees at all. It is misleading. Almost nobody fits that definition precisely. Therefore, I am safe in my semi-legalism.

As Sinclair Ferguson once pointed out, the Pharisees were not Pelagians. They did not believe they were saved by unaided good works. They were, rather semi-Pelagians --the God helps those who help themselves crowd. Want proof? What does Jesus' parable Pharisee say? Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men are..." He credits God, then credits himself. How savvy of him. God made him who he was. It was God who spared him from being like that publican. There, but for the grace of God, go I. I know better. I obey, by the grace of God. You don't...

Jesus' definition of legalism is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. It is hypocrisy. It is tithing without mercy and faithfulness. It is loving long flowing robes and greeting in the marketplaces. It is long public prayers. It is the seat of honor at banquets. It is a love of titles. It is phylacteries and tassels.

It is putting burdens on people that are too heavy to be borne.

In short, legalism is robbing people of the joy of relationship with God by the imposing of rules. Rules that take Scripture's grand principles and convert them into minute expectations. Rules that convince me that I am doing a better job at living this Christian life than you are. Rules that show me how good I am, and, incidentally, how bad you are. Legalists did not so much add to Scripture whole new lists of requirements as they did take the spare Law of God and codify it into a bazillion provisos, caveats, whereases and heretofores. We can grant that they did it with the best of intentions --they were serious about obedience to God. They were so serious they couldn't keep their own rules, so they made loopholes to ease the burden of them.

Before long, the rules became stuff that, if I do, makes me one of the "in," and you, if you don't, one of the "out."

Conservative evangelicalism of the Reformed type seems rife with these sorts of well-intentioned unwritten rules. Rules about education, about holidays, about childrearing, etc etc. Often we confuse the wise choices with the iron-clad right choices. We deny mitigating circumstances; we deny Christian liberty. We substitute legislation for counsel. Wisdom, however, takes into account mitigating circumstances --that there is not always one "right" answer, for everyone at all times, about all matters. Wisdom skillfully takes God's truth and applies it to one's own life.

Let me give you an example. My children go to public school. At one time, I thought I would never send my children to public school. I knew there were good Christian teachers in public schools, but I wanted my children in fine Christian schools or home schooled. God gave us an eldest daughter with special needs. Christian schools can't meet all her needs. In our judgment, at this point in her life, home school couldn't meet all her needs.

Public schools here aren't hostile to Christianity. God broke my legalism about public school, and it has been a blessing. I still commend Christian schooling and home schooling to parents. They can be very wise choices, sometimes the wisest choices. But they aren't "Thou shalt" obedience issues. They are wisdom issues, and liberty issues. I don't feel superior to parents who make other choices. Yet, there are churches in our own denomination I could not pastor because I choose to let my children go to public school. There are people in our denomination that think I have made an evil choice; I've met some and they've told me.

Legalism kills joy. Legalism kills community. Legalism is excessively concerned with the business of other people. God, show us our lingering legalisms, and help us to put it to death.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Thoughts

It can be challenging to come up with fresh approaches to the Advent Season year after year. Yet, the Glorious Event is so significant that it bears a fresh sounding of every note. In previous years, I have done the songs of Advent (Zechariah's, Simeon's, the Angels', Mary's etc), and the prophecies of Advent.

This year, my series focuses on the various reactions to Advent by the affected parties. I am fascinated by those God chose to be witnesses to the obscure event. One can see God's plan of salvation clearly revealed in whom he chooses to witness and announce the birth of his Christ.

The shepherds, for instance --the unclean people of the land, beloved in Scripture but derided by the establishment of Jesus' day. God loves the outcast and came to cleanse the unclean through his Great Good Shepherd. Shepherds, like women, could not testify in court. They were considered unrealiable. God chooses shepherds to bear witness to his incarnation, and women to bear witness to the empty tomb. God values what man despises.

Then, the angels, who speak of God's dual, intertwined purpose in the Incarnation: Glory to God, and peace among humanity. In the incarnation, God will vindicate his glorious purposes by setting into motion the reclamation of both humanity and his creation. God's glory and his creation's good are intertwined purposes.

Then, Herod. The kings of the earth rise up, rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed. Yet, God in Christ came to displace the wicked reign of the powers that be with the peaceable reign of his son. This troubles all the Herods of the world in Christ's time and ours --and it should, because Christ will one day assert his crown rights....

Then, the Magi. The Gentiles shall come to thy light... Christ's saving purposes extend to the nations.

Then, Mary herself. Her soul magnifies the Lord and rejoices in God her savior --exaltation and humility, submission and contemplation. Who is she that God should choose her? She is no-one, yet she bears the Son of God. Like her, we "carry" the Son of God, despite our low status. We bring God's glory into the world by the power of the Spirit.

The Advent of Our Lord was one of the signal events in God's work of redemption, and indeed in all human history. Let us rejoice!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Good Stuff from Mark Driscoll


On churches and how they ought to be like families, and why sometimes they don't feel that way.

This, of course, is one side of the story. There are other sides. Sometimes churches haven't quite learned to function like families, sometimes they have cliques that function like families whilst leaving others out, and sometimes they are a bunch of people collected around a particular style, set of doctrines or a personality.

There are things that can be done, both from the side of the individual and the side of the church, to bring about the family Christ intends, whether the church is small, medium or large.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Heaven Is Like an Idealized City

Okay, so Tim Keller's comment on my last post got me thinking....

In Revelation, the vision we are given of the eternal kingdom is that of a resplendent city. John, in recounting his vision, strains at the limits of his understanding and of human language to describe what he sees, "The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel...and the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass...and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and its lamp is the Lamb...and there will be no night there. (Rev 21).

One wonders how a first century man, as John was, would describe a modern city. How would he describe the Chrysler Building or the Hancock Building in Chicago? What would he think of street lamps --ancient cities were dark, and today's cities are permanently alight? No night in the modern city. Concrete and asphalt would seem a wonder compared to streets of dust. I am not arguing that John saw twenty-first century Manhattan, I simply find the thought intriguing.

How is heaven like an idealized city? Not the modern, cookie cutter oversized inconvenient office park cities of recent vintage, but the grand old industrial and financial center cities. Think Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, or Detroit in its glory days. How might heaven be like those, shorn of avarice, crime, sexual sin, and corruption?

  • Cities are beehives of productivity. In the same building, you will find CEO's who command multi-million dollar salaries and fast food workers making minimum wage, and all of them are busy, busy, busy, making the economy of a city hum. Heaven is not a place of indolence --my father works, and I work. Part of being in the image of God is being productive.
  • Cities are multi-cultural. Since the late nineteenth century, the nations have poured in to North American cities. The mix of languages and cultures at the same mingling together and retaining their distinctiveness, add zest to the city. Heaven will be the gathering place of the redeemed of all the nations.
  • Cities are built to impress. I love Chicago, because it got a chance to "do over" after a great fire, and they did it right. Chicago is built on a swamp. After the fire, the city fathers elevated the city, so now all utility and garbage collection happens on lower level streets, below the sidewalks. You don't share the street with garbage in Chicago. They reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan out of sanitary concerns: they drank Lake Michigan water. Brilliant. City of Big Shoulders indeed. Steel girders and human ingenuity gave us the skyscraper, and skyscrapers convey wealth, beauty, and ingenuity. Many of them are iconic: Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, the aforementioned Hancock and Chrysler buildings, etc. Heaven is clearly built to impress us with the ingenuity and wisdom of God.
  • Cities are cultural centers. They are repositories of the best of cultural artifacts. Go to Chicago and see their incredible Monet collection. The Guggenheim Museum in New York is itself a work of art. There are public art installations, and theaters on every corner. Great symphonies reside in great cities. Great temple-like building are built to house them. Everything is lavish and done well. Heaven is the abode of he who does all things well, the Author of beauty and music.
  • Cities are endlessly interesting. There are always new diverse neighborhoods to explore. My wife grew up in Pittsburgh, and yet we are still discovering new neighborhoods and new things to do --and Pittsburgh is certainly far from the largest of cities. Heaven will have an infinite number of fascinating things to explore.
  • Cities gather up impressive people. Imagine what it takes to build a building in a city, with its maze of regulations, unions and challenging property. Then, think of Donald Trump. The Donald is a master of self-promotion, and I am sure there are better real estate minds, but he is the one that everyone knows. The brain flow goes toward the cities --they are places of great universities, and great minds, and great things happen there on a massive scale. Heaven will be full of impressive people --not those that impressed the eyes of the world when they were here, but those through whom God did great things, often in secret, while they were here.
  • Cities provide for every human need. Imagine the massive amounts of water needed for a city. Imagine what is needed to eliminate rainwater from the streets of a city. Imagine the emergency services needed. Imagine the amount of food that must flow into a city, the amount of electricity and other forms of power. Imagine the information superstructure that flows through cables --the massive interconnection of computers and telephones. Transportation, sustenance, sanitation, rescue, entertainment are provided by the city in spades. Heaven will be the fulfillment of all our needs, and all our sanctified wants.
Much more could be said. We are looking for a celestial city, and I am longing to see it!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How Heaven Is Like a Small Town

There is a tendency to idolize both one's upbringing and the small town, and it is not my intention to do that. I know full well the ugly side of small town life: the provincialism, the petty infighting, the divisions, etc. I also know that the small town itself is dead or dying in many places. It is the rare small town today that is a self-contained society, with a vibrant communal life and commercial and career opportunities.

When I was younger, I could not wait to get away from the small town. I grew up in a small town not too far from Grand Rapids, a mid-sized city. My parents had moved away from the city before I was born, seeking a smaller town in which to raise their family. My cousins and grandparents lived in Grand Rapids, and I was always curious about that life. Everything was so convenient. My cousin and I could ride our bikes to a convenience store. There were restaurants and movie theaters. As I got older, I discovered the cultural life there. I loved trips as a young child to the big downtown department stores, which have since perished.

Being from a small town, and now living in a suburb, I have discovered they are two very different things. Small towns are far enough from cities to have their own community life, while the suburb leeches off the city. No, heaven is not like a suburb. We live in one of the best suburbs I could ever imagine, and yet I profoundly hope that heaven is different than the suburb.

It is hard to imagine heaven being like a megalopolis either. We are told to look for the city that has foundations, which is a new Jerusalem...Jerusalem, like a city that is compact together. Even Rome, the largest city of the ancient era, was scarely larger than Grand Rapids. I'm with Jacques Ellul on this one --cities can dehumanize, as much as I love to visit them and experience them. Probably community used to happen in cities, but I sense that probably met its demise with the death of self-sufficient neighborhoods, which were like small towns within cities.

Being from a small town gives one a sense of place. You knew who you were in a small town, and other people did, too. You were somebody's child, who want to this or that church, and had this or that teacher. All the spheres of your life overlapped: some of the people you saw at church were those you saw at school, you worked for people who knew your parents, life centered on family, church, school and community events. You had a sense of place, a feeling of belonging. There was life there, and it was lived, not in isolation, but community.

My graduating class had about 65 people. We were not all friends. We did not all get along. There were pecking orders and popularity contests. It all seems so petty now --because it was. Yet, you knew everyone, for good and bad, you were bound together.

This is how heaven is like a small town, though shorn of sin and pettiness: everyone there stands in intimate, unbroken community forever. They all go to the same places. They all do things together. You know and are known. There is no anonymity, no isolation.

Lewis said heaven felt more like home than any earthly home. I'm looking forward to that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Which He Wades into the Sin / Sickness Debate, and Shows Why We Can't Just "Stop It."

And Argues Not for Either/Or but Both/And

Okay, this is one funny clean sketch, but it does introduce a question...

When it comes to mental illness, compulsion and addiction, why can't a person just "stop it?"

The snarky side of me says, "Well, why don't you just stop sinning?" Stopping it isn't so simple, is it?

Let's be clear what is not under discussion. There is no suggestion that if a person is sick that he must of necessity be a worse sinner than anyone else. That is the bad theology of Job's comforters or those sorts that ask, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind..." We live in a fallen world, and people get all sorts of sicknesses for all sorts of reasons.

What is under the Biblical microscope today are the thorny issues of the mind and innate proclivities, both in terms of mental illness and addictive / compulsive behavior, things like: schizophrenia, bi-polar, depression etc., as well as homosexuality, sex obsession (or addiction), and substance addictions.

I have had some dealings with this, seen some particularly gut-wrenching tragedies up close and personal, and have a heart both for those who struggle with mental illness and addictions. Thus, my thoughts.

I know all these are not of one kind, certainly, and I approach them as the proverbial layman. I think it will be useful to group them together for one part of the consideration and separate them for another.

Some, in the scientific/medical or psychological community, would say that certain disorders of the mind and attendant behaviors are simply illness --the products of conditioning or physiological malfunction, with no moral component at all. An affliction like depression has no element of choice (which would imply some moral dimension and possibility of sin) --it simply is, and it needs to be treated.

Depending on the specialty of the practitioner sometimes is a predictor as to what treatment is viewed to be most effective: primarily medication or talk therapy. Medication may treat the underlying physiological issue, or it may simply suppress the issue. Talk therapy may give some sort of external perspective and tools for addressing the internal and external manifestations of whatever affliction or behavior.

Sometimes Christians, either without thinking or without the best of intention, based upon positive result, will buy this model without any reservation. If a pill makes the depression abate, then a pill must be the right answer; if 12 steps help the alcoholic stay sober, then 12 steps must be the way to sobriety; if talk therapy helps conquer post-traumatic stress disorder, then talk therapy must be the way to cure PTSD.

Some in the church have reacted strongly against this. The Scripture, they say, tells us not to allow ourselves to be mastered by anything --hence in this view addiction, quite simply, is sin. Even if substances are taken by way of self medication --to quell the lasting after-effects of trauma-- it is still a wrong moral choice to take those substances. At any point, the person who is taking those substances can simply choose to stop taking them. Every needle injected and every pill swallowed is a moral choice --simply a choice to sin-- which one could choose not to do, by simple act of will.

Perhaps the clearest picture we get of this is the attitude of many in the church towards homosexuality. It is interesting, as an aside, how quick we are to condemn sins which may hold no particular temptation for us, and how quick we are to excuse sins of which we are guilty. If I leer at a woman, then that is simply natural: men are supposed to be attracted to women; but, if a man leers at another man, then that is gross and disgusting. The truth is --all sin is gross and disgusting. Gossip is gross and disgusting, so is envy, strife, slander and vainglory. Sexual sin is not disgusting because of its physicality (which after all is created and observed by God) and is very good within moral boundaries) but because it is disobedient to him.

Many in the church treat homosexuality as if it were a simple choice --a young man or woman, in a simple act of rebellion, chooses to be sexually attracted to their same sex. This is absurd in the extreme. No choices of that magnitude are simple choices --there are a multitude of conditioning factors, some of which may be genetic predisposition and gender confusion early in life.

It is, however, important to add that genetic predisposition does not remove human sexual attraction from the realm of moral consideration. Human beings are broken by the effects of the fall --we are born with all sorts of baggage and proclivities, some of which we must resist with might and mien.

Understanding those factors helps us to be compassionate to the person struggling with gender identity, who may have given in to that attraction on occasion, or may have adopted it as a lifestyle. Yes, homosexual lust is sin. Yes, homosexual behavior is sin. Yes, a homosexual lifestyle is sin. It is a particularly powerful sin. It is particularly a mark of mankind's rebellion against God's order, even expressed in his general revelation. In that sense, it is a mark of the brokenness of our entire race, as much as it is an indictment on the individual who engages in it.

It also points us to the work of the church, which is not the sort of condemnation that leaves people in despair, but rather rescue. It is not moral people helping the immoral, but rather immoral people saved by grace helping other immoral people find the same grace that both restores them to God and rescues them from the particular manifestation sin has taken in their life, acknowledging that this particular sin does not easily die (and in fact, at the desire level, may not die till glorification). Sin is not a simple choice --it does not simply go away.

Addictions and compulsions are different. Yet, often these are not simple choices, either. It is possible that a young person may simply start using drugs recreationally out of peer pressure, rebellion or to have a good time, and this young person may find himself ensnared. Another person may live through a trauma, and "self-medicate" and be ensnared. Another may have a prescription narcotic and become ensnared. These are not morally equivalent.

Is the addiction disease or sin? Yes. Addiction works physiological changes in the body (at least according to my friends in the medical profession). A body begins to crave substances, and withdrawal itself can be a physically dangerous proposition. Yet, the choice to engage in the addiction or compulsion, even with the physiological "need" factor, involves moral consideration --namely, sin.

We need to say, however, that our idea of sin is flawed. People get very angry when a behavior is labeled "sin," as if that means the person who is engaging in the behavior is worthless, less of a person, or morally inferior to others who do not engage in that sin. That is not the image the Bible gives us of sin. Sin is a want of conformity unto or transgression of God's Law. That is a freeing thing. God is in the business of delivering us from sin, allowing us to repent of sin, and freeing us from the guilt and power of sin. To call something sin is to highlight the beauty of God's willingness to forgive sin, and his help in turning us away from sin (that is, repent).

None of this is easy or a simple choice --this cannot be reiterated enough. Turning away from sin may require years and much help. This is where I argue for a "both / and" approach. Depression has a physiological aspect. I know some of this up close and personal. I also know, however, that self-pity, which seems to be a feature of depression, involves a moral choice. On what battlefield do I fight this? The physiological or the spiritual? Well, why not both? The depressed person can be helped by medication. He may be helped by truth-based therapy. Yet, he can also be helped by hearing the good news that God forgives him of the sin of self-pity, and is willing to help him turn away from it.

Schizophrenia and bi-polar, and the combination thereof are probably the thorniest of these issues. A person loses his grip on reality. He sees and hears things that aren't there. He may see demonic manifestations ordering him to harm himself or others. He may take his own life. There is a physiological defect of a profound nature. Does that mean there is no moral choice involved? It is very difficult to say. I have known a fine, kind, gentle young man who was afflicted with schizo-affective disorder --the worst of both schizophrenia and bi-polar. He took his own life. What killed him --the disease or his own hand? The secrets are locked away in the dark recesses of the tormented mind. Yet, suicide is sin, but God forgives sin. Making a moral judgment on suicide does not mean there is no hope for forgiveness.

We are body-soul unities. These sorts of questions are impossible to separate out --what is sin and what is sickness? In fact, they are both. They are the products of the fall and affected by moral choice. Therefore, we ought to attack them on all fronts. Medication. Talk, Repentance. Grace. Hope. Love. Our weakness in dealing with these things is separating body from soul. One person only looks at the physiology, another only at the psychology, another only at the sin. Someday, we will learn to pull all these together, and maybe then gain more substantial victories over thorny sins, addictions and mental illness than we can today.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sermons: Information or Encounter?

Not a hard and fast line: encounters have information, of course! The beloved Doctor says:

The life of Christ is in us! It is not theory, it is a life-giving teaching, it is a life-imparting teaching. If I am preaching in the Spirit, as I pray God I am, I am not only uttering words to you, I am imparting life to you, I am being used of God as the channel of the Spirit and my words bring life and not merely knowledge. Do you accept that distinction? I am almost afraid sometimes for those of you who take notes, that you may just be getting the words and not the Spirit. I am not saying that you should not take notes, but I do warn you to be careful. Much more important than the words is the Spirit, the life; in Christ we are being taught, and built up in Him. So that in a sense, though you may forget the words, you will have received the life, and you go out aware of the life of God, as it were, pulsating within you. David Martyn. Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity (Studies in Ephesians, Chapter 4, Verses 1 Through 16) (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 114.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Words on Silence

I spill verbiage for a living. I need to have something to say, at least enough to get through the various lessons and sermons of a week.

Lately, however, I've had little more to say or write than that. God bless the prolific bloggers, article writers and authors --I simply don't know how they do it. I have a book in process, but have not written on it in weeks --I simply lack the words.

Silence can be the result when life itself feels oppressive. Some people pour forth out of the difficulties of life --think of David or Job's many words. For others, it renders them mute.

Sometimes it feels as if God is not speaking to us. I know, the theologue will point out that God has spoken and has said all he needed to say. Yet, in our experience, it can appear that, however much we may speak to God in prayer, he has nothing to say to us in return.

I am hoping against hope, however, that God's silence is a way of his communicating to us, as maddening as it can be. And sometimes, we just need to be silent before him.

I do not like silence. I fill my silence with music to lift my spirits, and with the mindless blather of talk radio to quieten the solitariness that accompanies the pastorate (solitariness is different from loneliness, mind you --I have friends). Yet, I need to leave room for silence.

Maybe God is speaking to me about the importance of silence.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Good Old Basic Vanilla Bible Doctrine

After hearing Rush Limbaugh opine that the Golden Rule was not part of the teachings of Jesus, and reading this article from USA Today on the beliefs (or lack thereof) of professing Christians, it becomes clear to me that the church has remedial work to do.

I remember when I got my first taste of Christians who hadn't been taught much doctrine. An acquaintance in college painted himself as something of a super Christian. He did not have much patience for struggling sinners --he, himself, didn't struggle at all. And, he didn't know that one of the great promises of the Christian faith is that we would be raised, bodily, from the dead just like Jesus was. He still resisted it even after I told him to go look up 1 Corinthians 15. This was a bright young man, raised in a Christian household, the product of a Christian school, and an evangelical church. In many respects, he was far more an upstanding model of the Christian life than I was at that point, but he didn't know a basic core belief, and, when shown it, resisted it.

Church instruction is not something we think of often. We spend relatively little time, inf light of our overall lives, being instructed out of the Word of God. Most churches no longer have evening services or midweek programs. Small groups may study Scripture, but systematic instruction is probably not something in which most small groups engage.

Christians are rightly concerned with acting out their faith through deeds of mercy. They are rightly concerned with how to apply their faith to the challenges of their lives. But, as sadly becomes clear here, many of them don't know the basic content of their faith. It is no wonder, then, that so many of us are so poor at living it out. We borrow our understanding of compassion from statism: namely, let others do it instead of doing it ourselves. Our understanding of God comes more from Oprah than from Scripture. Hence, Mark Driscoll's book Doctrine is a much needed tome.

Doctrine lights few fires among modern Christians. Even in the seminaries, Biblical studies faculty sometimes deride studying doctrine in systematic fashion. Churches resist anything beyond Biblical instruction. We spend a lot of our time on program and show. We spend some time on compassion and mercy. Yet, here we see we must make time for doctrine.

Doctrine means teaching the catechism, but it means far more than memorizing the catechism. It means fleshing out those truths, demonstrating them, helping children particularly to internalize them. It means making sure parents understand, value and love doctrine so they can talk about it with their children.

The Christian life is far more than doctrine, but neither is it less than doctrine. The danger in today's churches, even conservative and Reformed ones, is that we assume knowledge of doctrine. What is assumed by one generation is forgotten by the next. Our job, at least in part, is to pass on the content of the faith, and we need to do a better job at it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Legalism Is Far More Dangerous than Licentiousness

Among religiously conservative people, legalism is the respectable sin. We figure, I fear, that it is far better than license --a necessary corrective to the wanton rebelliousness of our age. Better to be a little scrupulously over-obedient than to dwell in the tents of wickedness with the prostitute and the addict and the tax collector.

Aren't we free to make up rules as we try to work out the thorny issue of obedience?

Admittedly a very difficult issue. Making up rules and expecting others to keep them seem to be evil twins, yet heartfelt obedience is important. How do we keep the Lord's Day without a few rules that govern how we keep it? How do we reign in lust without a few stipulations about what we will allow our daughters to wear, and what entertainment we will watch? No easy answers --it would be legalistic to give them!

Still and all, Jesus has far harsher words for those who are scrupulous about obedience (and, incidentally, often excuse a world of their own disobedience) than he does for the prostitute and the tax collectors, who indeed "go into the kingdom ahead of you." The scrupulous seem inevitably to "treat others with contempt." I know I do.

We make a tragic mistake when we restrict Pharasaism to a strict category, and write ourselves out of it. Our syllogism is simple:

Pharisees believe in justification by works
I believe in justification by faith.
Therefore I am not a Pharisee.

Phew! Glad I got that settled. Not so fast. First, Pharisees weren't (to paraphrase Sinclair Ferguson) Pelagians, they were semi-Pelagians. In plain speech, they didn't believe they were innately free from sin's corrupting influence, who could merit unaided eternal life. Rather, they believed that, with God's help, they could be good people who could lead lives that pleased God --"Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are...." They were not sinless, but they were not sinners either. They were good people who sinned. The difference between seeing ones' self as a good person who sins, and a sinner is the difference between winding up in Heaven or in Hell.

Jesus tells his disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." Christians can have Pharisee leaven in their dough. Peter acted the part in Galatia. I am a Pharisee every day, when I comment to a friend on the life choices of a congregant. I am not saying at all that we should never speak to anyone about their sin. I am saying, however, when I think or talk to another in passing judgment on a third party, I am pretty well convicted of being a Pharisee.

Pharisaism is dangerous. It is far more dangerous than lust or greed. It is dangerous precisely because it masquerades as righteousness, as surely as Satan masquerades as an Angel of Light. It is, however, the farthest thing from actual righteousness. Pharisee righteousness is self-derived --the product of God's work in me. True righteousness is derived only from God, by faith. I have no merit and standing with God based upon my obedience, either before my salvation or after. My only hope is God's patience and grace.

We ought to accord various sins the same weight Jesus did. The greatest church in the world would be the one where: a.) sinners were regularly coming to Christ and b.) alongside CEO's and politicians there were strippers and addicts. It would really be awesome to be the pastor of a church like that. I think I'll ask God and see if he'll make it happen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Barometers of Church Health

Yes, if you are a regular reader, you will notice this photo, one of my favorites of all time. The former home of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit, aka "St. Curvy's." It's my favorite picture of a church corpse.

My intrepid assistant pastor has a famously insightful and provocative father (who has written books about citizen soldiers and men in leather hats). Last week, the senior said to the junior something quite interesting, something along the lines of "A church's health is inversely proportional to the number of staff it has." He got that from Donald MacGavran.

Now, my purpose is certainly not to knock the large church. Bigger churches need more staff, and actually may have less staff, per capita, than smaller or mid-sized churches. What is meant, I think, is that the amount of staff is a barometer of church health. Are people invested in the ministry? Do they care enough to do the work? Or, do we need to hire it done?

Again, a qualification. Some positions require special skills, etc., or such copious amounts of time that they legitimate full time work. There is no fixed list of what these things are. That does not, however, negate the overall point. People need to come to church to do --to roll up their sleeves and engage in the work. Moreover, they need to feel so responsible for the work that, if they don't do it, it does not happen. The problem with having paid staff, in some cases in my own experience is: a.) we have someone to blame when things go wrong, and b.) we pay someone to do this, so we don't have to. Not healthy, not healthy at all.

That's one barometer, I think, of church health. The other is more troublesome to me. I have begged, pleaded, cajoled and scolded to get people (especially elders) to various prayer venues. My standard isn't high. We have several prayer venues in a given week. Just go to one, semi-regularly.

I have been positive, I have been negative. I have threatened to firebomb their houses. Okay, not really....

Then, I came across this when I was re-reading in one of my favorite little books, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, a quote from Spurgeon:

The condition of a church may be very accurately gauged by its prayer meetings. So is the prayer meeting a grace-ometer, and from it we may judge the amount of divine working among a people. If God be near a church, it must pray. And if he be not there, one of the first tokens of his absence will be a slothfulness in prayer.

There are other barometers to be sure. What are they?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mark Driscoll, Legalism, and Your Average PCA Congregation

Prophetic words from one of our cultural prophets. Driscoll sometimes makes me nervous. Yet, I give him props for speaking unvarnished, rugged truths to an urban audience.

And today I thank God for him for speaking unvarnished, rugged truths to me and my situation. He, like CJ Mahaney, uses doxological humor to great effect here.

I am becoming more and more aware and convinced that many, many people in the PCA do not understand the real nature of the Christian life, and it kills our kids, it kills our joy, it is pervasive among the leadership, and I hate it in myself.

The whole thing would bear watching. But, if you don't have the patience for an hour long sermon, start at 35 minutes.

Notable points at 50:50 and 57:50.

If you're in the PCA, especially listen at the 59 minute mark, where he expounds on "How to Become a Legalist:

1.) Make rules outside the Bible.
2.) PUsh yourself to try and keep your rules.
3.) Castigate yourself when you fail.
4.) Be proud when you do keep your rules.
5.) Appoint yourself as judge over people.
6.) Get angry with people who don't keep your rules or have other rules.
7.) Beat the losers.

Then he says, "If you parent like this, you will destroy your child."
Then he says, "If you are a boss like this, you will destroy your employees."

And if you lead like this, you will destroy your church. And if you lead like this, you will destroy your church. And if you lead like this, you will destroy your church....

Then he names the campuses of his own church most prone to legalism.

Then he says, "If you're sitting back, saying, "Yeah, I'm not a legalist. They don't drink, I drink. etc..." you're a reverse legalist, a libertine.

Both the legalist and the libertine are trying to do the same thing: please God by what they do or don't do.


What's the answer? Resting in Christ.

Which is basically the point of every sermon I'm trying to preach of late. Too often we're missing it, folks. We are legalists and libertines, when we need to be loving Jesus.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Culture and Its Distinctions

In my last post, I mentioned Christians, the church, and relationship to the culture. As I stopped to ponder it, I wonder if "the culture" is too broad a category to brand as friendly or hostile to the Christian view of the world.

Here's what I mean: Beethoven is not NARAL is not the Kinsey Report is not The Brothers Karamazov is not The Economist is not Joe Biden is not Lady Gaga. All are cultural icons. None are neutral. Some might be conceived of as friendly to the Christian worldview (go Ludwig, though Mahler is edging up on you in my estimation of composers and Fyodor!!), others might be a mixed bag (not Lady Gaga, but maybe The Economist), and others are downright opposed (Hey, Dr. Kinsey! and NARAL).

So, the Christian cannot be simply pro or anti culture. Like in most things, careful distinctions are required of us.

Like "Do not love the world or the things in the world. Friendship with the world is enmity towards God."

And "For God so loved the world that he gave..."

Distinctions. Nuance. Different senses. The very things with which so many Christians are so very impatient.

The Church, The Gospel, The Truth

How the church is to relate to the culture is a matter of much debate, and has been for some time. Decades ago, sociologist of religions Richard Niebuhr released his classifications, ranging from churches held captive to the culture to those who argued for complete separation from the culture.

Most people in the Reformed world fall far to the middle, and yet even there how we are to relate to the culture makes for some strange bedfellows. For instance, both a conservative and a more progressive evangelical may argue for what is called a "spirituality of the church" or "radical two kingdoms" position.

The progressive might say that the church's sole interest is the gospel, not how its members cast their ballots. The church, they say, is in danger of getting between people and the gospel if it becomes the Sarah Palin campaign headquarters. Democrats need Jesus too. Usually, the progressive would not allow such a view to get in the way of clothing the poor or feeding the hungry; it rather issues forth in a concern that the church not appear too partisan, and be blind to the faults and failings of the predominant political persuasion of its membership.

The weakness of this position is that the Scriptures address far more than the gospel, and Christ is our Lord in the voting booth, too.

The conservative 2 kingdom type may proceed on different grounds. He, too, is concerned about the purity of the gospel, and is very wary of the "social gospel," the confusion of the ethical demands of Jesus with a liberal political agenda. He may argue that, liberal or conservative, the church is a redemptive institution, and its sphere of authority and influence relates to "first table of the Law" type issues --man's relationship with God. It has nothing to say to the broader culture, who aren't listening anyway, and it has no right to try to shape the public opinions of its members.

Both of these groups seem horrified at the thought of being identified with anything that might smack of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.

The other side of the spectrum are those who make no real distinction between the world and the kingdom of God. Again, this takes both a liberal and a conservative form. The liberal form could be identified with Sojourners Magazine, the writings of Ron Sider, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. Christ told us we must care for the marginalized, the downtrodden, the "least of these," and had harsh things to say to the complacent, the wealthy and the powerful: therefore, vote Democrat and usher in the kingdom of God.

The conservative form is: America has forgotten God. Our heritage is a Christian country. We need to elect those who will appoint strict constructionist judges. Here's a voter's guide, which shows why the Republican candidate is always the best choice.

I want to hasten to add that, of these last two options, there is absolutely not moral equivalency. The reason there is not moral equivalency is abortion and associated life issues. If I have to pick between Jim Wallis and Jim Kennedy, it's Jim Kennedy every time, rest his productive soul. Besides, Jim Kennedy did lots of stuff for the poor too, and I don't see the progressive evangelicals doing much more than begrudgingly saying that while life is important, it is not as important as, well, you know, the minimum wage and stuff like that, um er...

Please don't fill the comment box with comments about liberalism and school lunches and poverty. I live in the midst of all that, and believe me, liberalism has done few favors for the poor. Whatever good one can point to, it is far outdone by the harm.

My own position, as you may have guessed, is none of the above. The church can't be quiet. It must be prophetic without being political. If it isn't, stuff like THIS happens, and people get the idea that it is perfectly legitimate to be a Christian and yet be free to form their own opinions about it. Yes, absolutely you can be a Christian and in favor of legalized murder. NO YOU CAN'T. Sorry. You can be a Christian who commits a murder and repents of it. But you absolutely cannot think it's okay. Woe to those who call good evil, and evil good.

You can be a Christian who struggles with homosexual temptation or sex outside marriage and repents of it, but you absolutely are not free to think those things are right. You can't be a Christian and think that it's okay for Mr. Civil Magistrate or Rev. Caspar Mainline Milquetoast to conduct homosexual weddings. Don't call good evil and evil good.

The danger of being political is obvious. First, politicians love to have the church as their patsy --just ask Thomas Beckett. Former friends make heads roll when the church sticks its neck out --sorry, couldn't resist. Conservative Christians elected presidents who gave us Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Tell me the cause of life advanced with those appointments.

Second, it is very possible for Christians to be duped into thinking that a party with several correct moral positions has all the correct moral positions. Low taxes are equally as important as outlawing abortion. Just for the record: I think taxes should be low, but I would vote for a socialist who would end abortion. No moral equivalency there, either.

Christians have supported all sorts of bad stuff under the banner of the "spirituality of the church." Stuff like this: Dateline 2010, not 1965. That banner cannot continue to fly. Let's take it down and hide it in the closet. Better yet, let's take it out, stomp on it, and burn it for all the world to see.

The gospel sets people free, but not apart from the truth. Jesus spoke the whole truth, and was the embodiment of the gospel. He offended people all the time, yet his sheep heard his voice. Why should we be afraid that we might offend someone away from God by speaking his own truth? Who knows, they might just get convicted of sin, and seek the Savior.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Accountability, Christian Friendships, and Holiness that Transcends Behavior

Perhaps fueled by the Sonship movement that was prevalent in the PCA in the 80's and 90's, for a long time it was stressed that Christian men needed accountable friendships --another man to whom they could confess anything, and who would hold them accountable for doing the right thing.

Let me state from the first that I think this is a good thing, albeit a difficult one. Men seem to have difficulty forming fast and intimate friendships, particularly in this age when people move about so much. My closest friends are men I rarely see face to face. I don't like this one bit, but it is the way it is.

Yet, as with everything else, we need to make sure we don't confuse a good thing with being the only thing. A man may successfully avoid the pitfalls of lust and greed and the destruction to which they might lead, may treat his wife and children self-sacrificingly well, and may be a generous tither and a devoted churchman and have regular times of study and prayer and still fall far short of godly manhood.

Far too often we have confused holiness with mere behavior: doing and not doing. Yet, Scripture is filled with warnings about doing without being. What do I mean? The fruits of the spirit are not concrete "doing" things --they can't be defined by an accountability list. How are you doing at the love thing? What about the kindness thing? These are matters of the heart. 1 Cor 13 says we can even give our body to be burned (doing in the extreme) and have it all be in vain because of lovelessness (a being thing).

The Christian life is not an easy thing, and accountability is certainly a useful tool towards holiness. It is not, however, the magic pill. No created thing is. This ought to cause us to rely more upon existential connection with the Holy Spirit, who alone can work his true fruits in our lives.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Church as Community or Speaking God's Yes and No

Christian community sounds very attractive in today's consumerist world, at least until you try to practice it. Many people would like Christian community to be like an affirmative therapy group, where only sympathy and support are ever given.

Truth be told, Christian community is more like a family. The arena is one of love, but true family love must also involve correction of thoughts and behaviors. The motive behind fatherly discipline of children, however imperfect, is always love. Every parent, however, will make selfish mistakes in discipline: disciplining a child because he has become an annoyance, or has made a public spectacle, rather than patient guiding of the heart. This can happen in the church, too.

When someone steps out on a limb, and attempts to offer some sort of course correction to us, we can have several responses. A common one is resentment: "Who does he think he is?" I know this because I have been there. People have dared to come to me, and offered helpful critique. I fumed. I fussed. I self-justified. I took it to God. They were right, and I was humbled, and set about correcting course. Not easy. Not fun.

The most common one in today's church is leaving. Find an easier place, where we can hide. Frankly, this is part of the appeal of the mega-churches. This is not just my inkling; I have heard many people voice this as just their reason for leaving a smaller church, where they had to shoulder some of the burden of leadership, or service, or "everyone being into my business." Biblical community is uncomfortable, and I want to hide from it.

Incidentally, this impulse is behind the failure of many marriages, and the pervasive lonesomeness many feel in our world. We don't want to be hurt; we figure solitariness is safety, and there we can always get our own way, so we cut ourselves off from anyplace where we might have to bend or yield our will to another, or be hurt. In our Wal-Mart culture, it is easy to do. We can go places and be surrounded by more people than ever before, and yet be lonely, because we do not connect.

This shows itself in the virtual world, too. Real relationships are too costly, too messy, and inconvenient, so we enter into a world of artificial reality, where we can project ourselves to be whoever we want, and "befriend" those who ask nothing of us, and who can be "un-friended" at will, and who, incidentally, are not their real selves, either.

I think many Bible-believing churches are succeeding today by speaking only the pleasant truths. When the unpleasant truths are brought to bear upon us personally, then we can assuage our consciences by going to other "Bible-believing" churches where the unpleasant truths are simply ignored, as if by doing so, we can escape God's all-searching gaze. This is a fool's errand. While we can escape scrutiny on our lives for awhile, and perhaps find some rest of conscience, or (worse) a passive acceptance of our self-destructive sinfulness, God always sees.

Life in community is no easy thing. God did not intend for it to be easy. The alternative is Hell --being left alone, with ones' self, to become one's worst self-indulgent, self-destructive self, with a worm that never dies, a fire that never goes out, and a thirst that is never quenched.

But, life in community here will often cause us to cry out for the perfection of the life of community in the world to come. Its very imperfection shows us it is a pale copy of the true. The father's house has not mansions, but rooms. Heaven is a place of dwelling together, shorn of all that makes dwelling together here difficult and painful. Yet, life together here can give us a warm foretaste of glory. Lewis said if we would have pleasure, we must have pain too. That's the deal. Those who cut themselves off from the pain, miss the pleasure. If I never connect to another living soul, I will never face the bereavement of death. If I am a faceless face in a crowd among the people of God, who will ever help me see my own sins and shortcomings, let alone show up with a casserole when I am sick?

God save us from our selfish selves....

Random Morning Thoughts

When "Thou shouldst" or "Thou mayest" becomes "Thou must," Christian liberty gives way to legalism.

Another thought...

How many people are okay with the church being okay for "sinners," but worry that it will be polluted if it welcomes SINNERS...

Just a few thoughts. I might flesh out later....

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Doctrine of Intended Unintended Consequences

I don't know who first said it, but it makes sense: Aim at happiness and you will miss it, but aim at virtue and you will quite possibly have happiness thrown in.

The Christian might say: Aim at happiness and you will miss it, but aim at loving submission to God and others, and you will certainly have joy thrown in. It is an intended unintended consequence. The goal really is joy, but the pathway is not selfish pleasure-seeking, but questing after God and following his way.

Church life is similar. Most every church longs to grow. Growth, we think, means health. Indeed, growth can mean health, but it doesn't always mean health. Some trees grow fast, but are structurally weak, and quick to blow over in a storm. Other trees grow slow, but grow strong. It is no accident that the life-cycle of many mega-churches appears to be one generation.

Far too often, churches think they grow by being attractional: having pretty people and offering every possible service: in short, being a "good" church. It is true: churches do grow that way, at least those that are the best at what they offer. The problem is: there can only be one best, by definition.

Yet , God has purposed that there be many churches. Not every church can be the "best." In fact, aiming to be the best is like aiming at happiness --probably the church will fail, because pride attaches itself to being best, like some voracious lamphrey sucking the life out of its host salmon.

The church should concern itself with "doing good" more than "being good." It should be more concerned about becoming a place that employs the saints with works of kingdom service than a place that exists to meet all their felt needs. If we are doing our job as parents, we are not meeting all our children's felt needs. In fact, the good parent knows that the worst thing he could do for his child is meet all his felt needs. The best thing he can do for his child is to love him, and to train him in the primary virtues --the most primary one being, if Calvin is right, self-denial. It goes without saying that this is done in the warm womb of love, support, encouragement, and loving correction. And, it goes without saying that people will have their needs met, even as they are encouraged to give, as well as receive.

If the church is to become even more a place of joy, then it must be about the way of taking up the cross: a place where the self is denied, and we lose ourselves in service. That sounds glorious, until we realize that service may be cleaning up after floods, or teaching elementary Sunday School. Too many people wait for some grand opportunity of heroic self-sacrifice, when "mundane" kingdom service is right in front of them waiting to be done. In fact, the heroic may be just another opportunity for self-indulgence, when the mundane and seeming unimportant task is the one that requires true self-sacrifice.

What is true for individuals is also true for the church. A church that wants to be noticed is seeking the wrong thing. The church should concern herself with doing good, and leave the results up to God. If the church is busy about kingdom activity --doing good to the least of these, proclaiming the gospel, extending the hand of mercy, and so on-- it may please God to grant her growth, or it may not. That is God's concern, not ours. Yet, there will be a sense of kingdom vitality about a church that does good, whereas the "good church" can all appear rather plastic and shallow.

In fact, the church doing good is just the church being the church. The truth is upheld. Works of mercy ratify the truth of the message. The love that grows in the hearts of the people shows they have been born from above. Their self-denial brings about a satisfaction for which they have sought and longed, but never been able to find in the world, and it pours over the edges of their lives and becomes attractive to others.

That is my prayer for my church.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Evening Worship and Why I Like It

Ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed evening worship. Part of this is nostalgia, but this does not render it any less significant. Journeys with my father to old Fourth Reformed in Grand Rapids, perhaps stopping in to see my grandparents briefly before the "long" 20 minute ride home, conversations less important for their content than the fact they happened. Later in life, the sonorous Bronx accent of Charles W. Krahe, so striking to Midwestern ears, on the Seventh Reformed broadcast on the car radio on treks back to Hillsdale College after weekends at home.

Then, the delight of listening to John R. de Witt at the grand, long, full evening services at Seventh Reformed when I was privileged to serve under him: multiple weeks on the story of Blind Bartimaeus by the roadside begging, expositions of Genesis, chapter by chapter, and the singing of sturdy, old hymns.

In our present context, an informal setting, sometimes with heart-stirring spontaneous prayer, different hymn tunes and instruments than the morning, and folks lingering a good while afterwards in fine Christian fellowship and the cords of love.

I have pleasant associations with evening worship. Yet, that is not the only reason I like evening worship. I would greatly miss it if I served a church that did not worship, whether together, or in small groups in homes, on Sunday evenings.

1.) As many have noted, a Sunday without evening worship can, and often does, become the Lord's hour, not the Lord's Day. I notice this when I travel and stay with family. Our Sabbath evening ritual gives a nice balance to the day, keeps Christ in view, and prepares us for the week ahead.

2.) Evening worship has a different feel and flavor. Even if the format of worship is the same, the timbre of it has always differed at night. I have noticed this from my youth, to my days in seminary at First Presbyterian here, in Virginia, and our evening services at Trinity. Sunday morning has a majestic, rousing feel, and Sunday evenings have a softer, intimate feel.

3.) Compared to our ancestors, we sit under a paltry amount of preaching. Sermons have grown shorter and shorter, and services fewer and fewer. Most churches no longer have midweek prayer and preaching services (we don't either, though I often wish we did). Evening worship gives us another opportunity to hear from God.

I hope no-one will take this as necessarily an indictment against not having evening worship. It is more a plea for an old way that has fallen off in many quarters, and which I, for one, am sad to see go.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Standing Alone: More Lessons from Old Winnie

I read a lot of biographies, and, take my word for it, Manchester's 2 completed volumes on Churchill (The Last Lion) are without peer. I look forward to the third, which another must complete, Manchester having met his demise.

Of course, he could hardly have had a more interesting subject. The second volume is entitled "Alone." Alone Churchill was. Reading a chronicle of British leadership in the 30's would be comical, if it weren't so sad, and if it hadn't cost millions of lives. The portrait of Churchill is of a titan of a man --greatly flawed, as great men often are. Yet, he was a man of his convictions. He was miraculously prescient in regards to Hitler, and what he would do, when many British weren't so much cowering in fear, but gaping with admiration. The latent anti-Semitism of Britain, coupled with its own sense of defeatism, led Baldwin and Chamberlain, and the vast majority of their elite countrymen not only to kowtow to Hitler, but to help his cause. The Times suppressed the accounts of Kristallnacht, and accounts of the persecution of the church. Anything that did not fit the overriding narrative of peace, and even alliance, with Germany, was suppressed. Edward the Abdicator frolicked with the Fuhrer. The "Dear Vicar," PM Stanley Baldwin, refused to rebuild the nation's defenses while Germany rebuilt the Ruhr, and reclaimed and fortified the Rhineland, all to public acclaim.

Churchill was dumbfounded. Was this the Britain that had won the Great War? The one that caused the Kaiser's government to fall and sue for peace? Churchill had opposed Versailles, and its draconian demands on the German populace. Yet, he saw the same Britain, so merciless at Versailles, now aiding and abetting a country of 70 million people in central Europe, preparing once again to menace its neighbors.

The lesson is this: the right thing is seldom the popular thing. Sometimes it requires being ostracized and standing alone. The difficulty is in knowing when one's opinions are, indeed, in the right. But, as was Churchill's case, sometimes it really isn't that difficult to know. The difficult thing is to stand fast, despite all ostracism and ridicule. The civilized world may not have survived if it hadn't been for Winston Churchill. Because of him, it did.

The Heidelberg and Subjective Religion

One of the great things about the Reformed understanding of the Christian faith is its emphasis both on the objective (things as they are) and the subjective (what it means for me.) Sometimes, these poles cause friction against one another. Occasionally, people either operate out of reaction against one of the poles, or take one pole to an extreme. But, held together rightly, they are glorious, filled with both comfort and challenge.

Nothing short of Scripture holds the subjective and objective better than the old Heidelberg Catechism. Consider this:

Question 27. What do you understand by the providence of God?

The almighty and ever present power by which God upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but from God's sustaining hand.

Question 28. How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us?

Answer. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from God's love. All creatures are so completely in God's hand that without the divine will they can neither move nor be moved.

Positively Davidic. Not pollyannaish. Realistic. Life is hard. Things go wrong, even (and maybe even especially) for the children of God. We are not unmoved movers, but flesh-and-blood being, subject to the tumult of experience.

We act, we suffer, we are morally culpable, and somehow God is sovereign over it all. God is sovereign over suffering --a hard truth that is, but also comforting; how much worse would it be if certain things were out of God's control?

What Christ gives us is hope. Hope for the despairing melancholy. Hope for the person who has made shipwreck of his life. Hope for the one caught in the clutches of thorny rebellion. If we are his he has saved us from the just consequences of our lives, and will save us from all that currently plagues us. If we are not yet his, his hand is out to us to bring us this resilient hope: nothing can separate us from the love of God: peril, tribulation, nakedness, famine, or sword.

Good news.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mercy, Justice, the Fourth Commandment and the Service Economy

In which he asks, "Has Sunday morning become a white-collar affair?"

I am struck, in our 24-7 world, at how difficult it would be to bring those who make their living in the service economy into the life of the church. The decline of the concept of a day of rest in our society and among the people of God has created a problem I hear precious few Christians addressing, namely, when is the person who makes his living at Home Depot or Burlington Coat Factory allowed the luxury of a day of rest and worship?

I remember when we were living in VA, an ancient blue law, never enforced, being mocked and ridiculed. The law guaranteed the right of the laborer not to labor on Sunday. In all the rights guaranteed to workers in this day and age, this one is not, and I wonder why the church remains largely silent on it.

We often treat the Fourth Commandment as a private affair: we are not to work, but to rest and worship. It is a gift, not a burden. But, the Fourth Commandment is largely addressed not to the individual, but the one who has others in his employ. It is not just that he is to rest, but his servants, his animals (those whose labor he owns) and his guests.

So, let's say the church does its job and shares the gospel with those in the service economy. When can we incorporate them into worship, into the life of faith? When do they get their day of rest? It is a rather callous response from the church to tell them to find another job --most jobs in the service economy do not come with weekends.

I suggest we do three things. First, perhaps churches need to band together to offer other opportunities to worship than the Lord's Day. This is not making the Lord's Day optional. It is a provision to thos whose schedule is not their own, just as the Christian slaves used to gather after sundown, when their workday was done. It is accomodating a society that has abandoned a day of rest.

Second, we need to speak prophetically to the culture. Christian business owners used to close on Sunday: Truett Cathy is the one remaining example, JC Penney and Sam Walton in not-too-distant memory. Christian workers deserve the freedom to observe their day of rest and worship. In a world in which every accomodation is made to every sort of religious practice and scruple, the First Day observance, joining in the corporate life, worship, and fellowship of the people of God is fundamental to Christian community.

Third, we need to teach on the Lord's Day. We need to present it not primarily as a list of don'ts. It is for man, not man for it. It is for rest, and for worship. Yes, there are things we must do, and things we ought not. But, primarily, it is a day for families to gather in the Family, around the altar of God, call on his name and hear his voice. We have let this great gift be trampled upon by society, and are the poorer for it.

Part of justice for those who are less in command of the culture is just that the church cry out for them to be given a regular Christian Sabbath. Remember the soul of the person who waits on your table next Sunday....

Friday, July 2, 2010

The General Assembly and the Glorious All-Sufficiency of Jesus

The tendency when one returns from a church meeting is to bewail those votes that did not go one's way, or to bewail the hijinx of one's opponents, etc.

Yet, as I reflected upon it, I am probably more grateful for the PCA now than I have been in awhile. Part of it was just being duly reminded of some great truths by Drs. Duncan and Keller in their presentation.

But, part of it is the glorious irrelevance of the GA. I do not mean that at all in the sense that we do not need each other, we ought not to be connected, etc. I mean it only this way: I will return home, love my family, repent of my sins, and try to minister in Jesus' name to my flock and those around. The man sitting in front of me who voted the opposite on everything will return home, love his family, repent of his sins, and try to minister in Jesus' name to his flock and those around.

And, maybe, just maybe, he learned something from me, and I from him.

That would not be true in many, many denominations. So, I am grateful for the PCA. Our denomination probably grates on all men in every camp from time to time. But, grating is not all bad. It is grating that smooths off rough edges.

I do have repenting to do. Skip Ryan gave a beautiful presentation on the effects of the bondage of sin in his life, and the root of those things being man-pleasing. I see so much of this in myself. I have this inherent desire to agree with whoever I am with at the time. I might agree on most things, but I need to be willing to disagree in love, on occasion, as well! Unity and uniformity are not the same thing. My fear for the PCA is that every group loses sight of this truth.

Jesus is all-sufficient. While I will not step the pulpit this Sunday, my brothers will. Many of them voted completely the opposite of the way I did this past week. Yet, the gospel was not at stake. It was not up for a vote. Policies, procedures, rules, and vision were. Those things are adiaphoral. Christ is pre-eminent. Oh, how I need him.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

General Assembly Thus Far

1.) The human brain has a very hard time processing all the detailed arguments of committee meetings, at least this one does.

2.) GA is a hard place for introverts. I see people I'd love to meet in person, not to schmooze, but inherent shyness makes this difficult.

3.) I think some people unfairly trade off their prominence. I do not think all prominent people do this. God gave some people prominence, and they are generally good stewards of it. Others, not so much. I mean, does the president of the seminary really have to be the first person at the microphone to nominate a chairman? C'mon! I wonder if his evil plan is to take over the PCA --once he is elected to the SJC, his hegemonic power will be complete. Okay, this is tongue in cheek. Sort of.

4.) I am grateful to God to be debating the issues we debate, and not the issues most other churches have to debate. Our big issues are small, unlike those in more mainline denominations.

5.) Good time with friends old and new is a good part of General Assembly. It seems tragic, however, to walk by the Ryman Auditorium every day, and not be going to an Opry...

Quite obviously, my brain is frizzled from long hours in committee. Who ever decided that windowless rooms work well for meetings ought to be shot then hung.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tim Keller nails it

If you are interested in the life and the story of the Presbyterian Church in America, you would do well to read this. It is 26 pages, and probably the best and most fair-minded analysis of the PCA, where it came from, and where it is.

At the very least, read from page 19 on.

I agree with Tim's historical analysis, and I am generally on board with this vision of each correcting the other. He says what I have tried to say for a long time, but not nearly as well.

And, I felt convicted.

And, I felt confused, because I feel like a meld of all 3 branches!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Marginalization and The Christ Party in Corinth (or of the PCA GA)

You know Corinth. It was a very messy church. It reminds us that the church has always had BIG problems. One of the problems was factions, each of whom claimed to follow a man: the Cephas party, the Paul party, the Apollos party (he was such a splendid orator!). And then there was the "Christ" party. I don't know, but I am willing to bet they were the most annoying of all. Kind of like the Church of Christ, who says on the radio here, "Are you tired of man-made creeds? Do you want a church that just follows the Bible? Yes, we're the New Testament church." Every church claims to follow the Bible, which is why we need creeds --but I digress.

Anyway, I stand on the cusp of our annual denominational bacchanal, the General Assembly. And, being of a sociological bent, I always find what people say both regarding and during GA interesting, for it is human nature on display. It is not always what is intended that is most interesting, but the subtext of words that I find interesting. Each of us wants to think that our own motives are pure (the purest!), our own positions are most consistent and well-reasoned, and therefore the other guy stinks.

Perhaps that is even true of me as I write this blog.

What so frustrates me about the PCA, other than our overweening pride, is just the way we marginalize those who disagree with us. If you are a member of the PCA, go and watch this video here. Tell me if you catch him marginalizing those with whom he disagrees. Here's a hint; it's about @ 1:30.

Note well, I do not think President Chapell INTENDS to marginalize. He simply assumes certain things, and his assumptions sneak into his choice of words.

Another example would be found here, paragraph 3. Those who think we need a new strategic plan genuinely believe, as Pastor Robertson does, that it is a needed next step in denominational development. I disagree, and that disagreement is fine. At least it is to me. According to Pastor Robertson, it is not. He writes, " Some are threatened by it as they are by anything new, but over all it is something we must adopt if we will continue to be a leading denomination for biblically faithful churches." To be against the plan, you see, is to be "threatened...by anything new," (and yes, I've written George about this).

Other examples can be found across the blogosphere. Conservatives in the PCA fit Jim Hunter's definition of disaffected groups, but those who devised the plan, are spirit-led and prayerful (Vintage73.com). I have no doubt the planners are prayerful and spirit-led, but could this not be equally true of those who dissent? Why must we marginalize?

So, what's the problem? I want to note that my problem is not with the "hungry progressives" because they are progressive. Though my own convictions fall on the conservative side, I do not think that everyone must agree with me. What I detest is marginalizing someone for dissenting: the "I count, you don't count" statement. I would hasten to add that conservatives can be just as guilty of this. It is just that the conservatives are not in power.

The powers that be are presenting a plan that will "unify," but in the process, it becomes apparent that by "unity" they mean "uniformity," or, perhaps, "leaving behind those who disagree." Suppression of dissent is, to my mind, a mark of insecurity.

Even if you're not PCA, and have no idea about the issues, it makes an important point. We each want to cast ourselves as the "Christ" party --above the fray, looking down at those insular, short-sighted, fractious nincompoops who don't understand how to behave in a gospel way. We, the enlightened, are above all this, and if others could just see it our way, they would understand. We are, after all, good men, entrusted with positions of leadership.

As I often point out, whether one is a good man or not is important, but not determinative. I have no doubt that there are many good men with whom I disagree. Being good (and truly there is none good but God, I know a bit of my own heart) and being right are not the same thing. I can be wrong; they can be wrong.

All of this is why my main fear for the PCA is not liberalism or even cultural capitulation. My main fear is that we are a proud lot, and I put myself and my conservative brothers right in the midst of that indictment.

At the same time, I am grateful for our leaders, past and present, who are anything but proud. I had the honor of working for Cortez Cooper, and of counting him as a friend and mentor. Corty was one of the most prominent and visible men in the PCA in his day. To this day, at almost 80, though he is not as visible at the denominational level, he continues to pastor. He has done interim work at churches of over 2000, and of churches of 20. He has labored in places as diverse as Greenwood, MS, St. Louis and Narrows, VA. He goes where he is called, preaches to presidents, stock car drivers, sturdy mountain folk and catfish farmers. He is a humble, godly man. I pray that many of our more prominent men might manifest the spirit of a Corty Cooper, and not think of themselves more highly than they ought.

Me included.