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?