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.