Monday, December 22, 2008

Poor Exposition Kills Christmas

I caught part of a TV sermon last night (yeah, I know) and watched enough to figure out that the story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary about the birth of Christ and Mary's response in the Magnificat (Luke 1) had been reduced to a How-To message regarding character. Mary's actions and attitudes demonstrated, apparently, "Christian" character, which we can learn in a few easy steps: "Christian Character Submits To God", for example.

This is not, I'm afraid, an isolated method of treating the advent texts. Perhaps preachers don't know quite what to do with sermons at Christmas to make them "fresh" and "relevant." Other Christmas sermons I've heard fall into the same trap. One maintains that if God could use a bit-part priest like Zechariah and his dried-up wife, Elizabeth, then "he can use you, too" and "what great plans God must have for you!" Another opines that if God could use a no-place like Nazareth and a no-body like Mary, "he can use you, too" (starting to see a pattern?). One used the prophecy about John the Baptist as a stimulus for us to "always point people to Christ, as John did, in your workplace." Still another take on the advent text says that if "nothing is impossible with God," we should not fail to believe it when "we face that pile of work on our desk next week." Huh?

It is, to be sure, terribly difficult to avoid being sinfully man-centered. But the only possible manner in which Christmas is centered on man is the fact that the incarnation is necessary because of man: our sinful rebellion against God left us dead and in need of dramatic rescue which God provided in the Messiah. To reduce the advent story to proof that God will do something else to make my life easier or more meaningful is dreadful, indeed.

As Gabriel told Mary, Elizabeth had also conceived, "for nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). This is not a blank check for Christians to claim God's power to complete a project at work, or to dunk a basketball, or to win a political victory. God's divine grant of fertility to a barren womb and his miraculous short-cut through biological reproduction to impregnate a virgin teen were not signs that God will also "use us."

Rather than those events pointing down to man -- to illustrate how the incarnation will grant me success at work -- those events point back up to God, and to what he has accomplished for us in salvation. A good guide for us to know how to celebrate the first advent (and how to preach it) is found in the responses of some the immediate participants: Mary, Zechariah and Simeon.

After a brief expression of her own involvement (Luke 1:46-49), Mary focuses on what God has done (1:50-55). He has shown strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, filled the hungry, sent the rich away, and helped Israel. A powerful exposition of this text might explain Mary's reference to Old Testament texts to recite what God had already done before, and how he was doing this through and in the incarnation. Why speculate on Mary's anxiety about telling her parents when God has given us such rich text to mine?

Zechariah had been silent through Elizabeth's pregnancy. Finally, after Zechariah witnessed the birth of his first son, John, God looses his tongue and inspires Zechariah to recite what God had done. God had visited and redeemed his people and raised up a horn of salvation so that we "might serve him without fear" (1:74). John would serve as prophet to the Most High to give knowledge of salvation to his people. What great truth is expressed here!

And Simeon, whom God had apparently kept alive just for this, upon seeing the infant Jesus proclaimed "now let me die!" (paraphrase) because because he had been permitted to see "your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples" (2:31). And not only that, Simeon reveals that Jesus was "appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel" and because of him "thoughts from many hearts may be revealed" (2:35).

How impoverished is our preaching, how threadbare is our celebration of the birth of Messiah when our discussion ignores redemption from sin, serves as mere backdrop for a nativity scene, and focuses instead on what remains for God to do in my life to make things interesting. The drama of the incarnation is not some banal "application", but the drama is God's rescue of helpless man. As we sing in O Holy Night:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new a glorious morn.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Top Ten Lists and Christmas Giveaways

Trevin Wax, blogging at Kingdom People (www.trevinwax.com), has joined the hordes of Top 10 officianados and devised his own top ten books of 2008. He has upped the proverbial Top 10 ante, however, and is giving away a complete set of his 2008 favorites, together with a copy of the ESV Study Bible (http://trevinwax.com/2008/12/15/kingdom-people-christmas-giveaway/). Let's see David Letterman match that.

All this listing of favorites and bests and so forth is compelling me to devise my own list, not necessarily of books that were published in 2008, but ones that I read this year (I tend to be somewhat behind the curve in this respect). So, of the books I've read this year, here's a list of my favorites:

1. The Sovereignty of God (A.W. Pink).

2. He is Not Silent (R Albert Mohler, Jr).

3. The Cross of Christ (John Stott).

4. Speaking the Truth in Love (David Powlison)

5. Christless Christianity (Michael Horton)

Don't count on me to do a giveaway of my list just yet. When I hit the big time like Trevin Wax, we'll see.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Will the real Southern Baptist/un-Baptist/Calvinist/Anti-Calvinist Please Stand Up

Well, alrighty then.

I've dusted off the keys, and though still a little bleary-eyed and a bit more near-sighted than before, am none the worse for Hebrew wear. Since I last blogged:

-- Church History 1, Systematic Theology 3, and Introduction to Biblical Counseling are finished, and Hebrew, mercifully, is done (though I could say that I am 'done' with Hebrew -- or Hebrew is done with me, which would not be entirely true, because there remains the little issue of required Hebrew syntax, which, if Elementary Hebrew were likened to jabbing vowel points under the fingernails, syntax is the waterboarding of the language gestapo).

-- Metz turned 1 and Brooks turned 9 (see the family blog link to the right). This is not to say that this was the only offspring activity, since the two middle children -- Eli, 6 and Audrey, 4 -- while not advancing in age, did advance my blood pressure and begin 1st grade and kindergarten, respectively.

-- The house is on the market. Buy it. Now. Please. Hurry. Bless you.

-- Hades has broken out in the SBC blogging and conference world. Well, maybe not Hades, per se, but a suburb thereof, perhaps less like eternal perdition than a really bad beach vacation with a looming hurricane, jellyfish swarms and sand fleas in the Bermuda shorts. Ok, Hades, it is.

It is no mere curiosity of timing that all the brouhaha over Jerry Vines' John 3:16 Conference, which was somewhat reactionary to the Building Bridges Conference, together with anti-Calvinists who prefer the nomenclature "pro-non-Calvinist" throwing stones at "anti-missions-hyper-Calvinists" who actually were evangelizing Muslims at the time, and 7-point Southern Baptists alleging that 5-point Calvinists were a greater threat to the denomination than churches who can't find half their members, baptize nobody, enroll everybody, and divorce like rabbits multiply but who don't drink, play cards or go with girls who do, ALL HAPPENED WHEN I WAS NOT BLOGGING.

Now, as my college statistics professor said, "correlation does not necessarily mean causation" (he also said my fraternity brothers were a "cesspool of ignorance," but that is a different story), but the evidence speaks for itself.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How Little Grace is Too Much Works?

Not many professing Christians would assert outright that they purchased their salvation. In fact, many would list among their “essentials of the faith” the doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith.” But the tendency of the sin nature to lean toward Pelagianism and its Arminian kin is insidious, and takes more subtle forms. (Q: How do you know you’re saved? A: Well, I’m a good person.)

But if we truly believe that sin has radically corrupted our nature, so that without the prior choosing of God and the Spirit’s washing and regeneration we would willingly choose to continue in our sin rather than turn to God in repentance and faith, then the only sure foundation of our salvation is the sovereign saving and keeping power of almighty God through Jesus Christ.

We don’t talk much of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It’s considered by some as too divisive. We do, however, talk a lot about grace, singing of “Amazing Grace,” “grace that is greater than all our sin,” and saying things like “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Ironically, however, behind any notion of grace lies that old argument-starter – sovereignty in salvation.

Were it not for God’s prior sovereignty in shedding grace on us, our radically corrupted sin nature wouldn’t even reach a hand out to accept God’s gift, much less stumble around looking for it. And Paul was not concerned about being too “divisive” when he confronted Peter – in public, no less (Galatians 2). Peter’s acquiescence to a faction within the believing community (not an unfamiliar situation, to be fair) led to the appearance that he supported a view of the necessity of Gentile circumcision. Paul saw clearly that this was a direct challenge to salvation by grace (through faith).

Some who point to their belief in “salvation by grace through faith”, however, also reject debate about Calvinism, the doctrines of grace, or sovereignty in salvation, claiming that those are peripheral issues about which true Christians can disagree, and which are good for nothing but disrupting unity.

For the purposes of much-maligned argument, however, let’s suppose that the Calvinist believes that God’s sovereignty in salvation carries implications regarding the dichotomy between faith and works as the instrumental cause of salvation. Let us also suppose that the Calvinist believes that the less grace is operative in the process of salvation, the more works is operative (from the human perspective). That is, the more a man claims to have contributed to his salvation, the less room there is for that salvation to have been secured through grace (by God).

Let us further suppose that the Calvinist sincerely holds that the less a man believes that God is sovereign in salvation, the more that man must rely upon some other causal agent to secure his salvation. Since the Calvinist and anti-Calvinist alike would agree that Satan is not in the salvation-securing business, by process of elimination no one is left to procure salvation but man. And, ineluctably, if salvation is secured by human will, it is a false salvation. Those who proclaim it proclaim a false gospel.

One can see, then, that for that Calvinist sovereignty in salvation is not a peripheral issue, about which believers can disagree without consequence, but is instead crucial to salvation: is salvation of man, or is it of God? This is why reformed theology regarding salvation, Calvinism, TULIP, and sovereignty in salvation can all be referred to as “doctrines of grace.” For Paul, circumcision was not a peripheral issue about which culturally diverse believers in an era of transformational religious expectations could disagree. Instead it was a matter of preaching a false gospel. It was about believing a false gospel that could not save because it diminished grace and elevated law (works).

Calvinists might be wrong that God’s sovereignty in salvation presents such an issue. They might be wrong – frequently are – to lose sight of the purpose of accuracy regarding salvation and instead focus on winning arguments. But believing it, they would be heartless, indeed, if they did not attempt to persuade their brothers in Christ.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is the Homeowners' Association more Neighborly than Church?

In my hopefully-soon-to-be-former profession, I frequently encounter people upset about restrictive covenants.

Restrictive covenants are sets of ‘agreements’ that homeowners in a particular subdivision or neighborhood abide by as a condition of owning a home there. Most of the restrictions are fairly simple, mostly common sense, and in south Alabama consist mainly of 1) promising not to put your car on blocks in the front yard, and 2) limiting yourself to 3 chickens, 2 goats or some combination thereof but not exceeding a total of 4 non-pet livestock (I can say this – in jest – because I have, at one time or another: had a car on blocks (in the back yard), raised chickens and rabbits, and grown a row garden complete with scarecrows, all only a few blocks from downtown).

People get very exercised about restrictive covenants, whether their apoplexy manifests in bristling at being told they must put white lights on a leafless tree at Christmas, or bristling that their neighbor two streets over did not put white lights on such a tree. We spend inordinate amounts of time and emotional energy stressing about whether the homeowner’s association – charged with enforcing the restrictive covenants – may, in fact, tell one of the members that his choice of landscape plants makes his house resemble a sunflower farm, and whether it should incorporate and purchase liability insurance to protect the ones unfortunate enough to tell a neighbor that his live-in RV, parked on the back patio and hooked in to the neighborhood sewer system, must go.

By significant contrast, it is virtually impossible in most congregations of Christian churches for members to become exercised about anything. Well, almost. But the things over which most congregations get exercised don’t quite seem righteous: someone sat in the wrong pew; preacher drives the wrong make of car; moderator has an “agenda”; teacher doesn’t use the right curriculum; pool hall across the street wants a liquor license.

The Bible has its own set of “restrictive covenants” for those who are truly neighbors, not merely in the geographical sense, but in the spiritual sense; those who have covenanted with each other to live kingdom lives under mutual submission to each other and to God through Christ. These covenants don’t tell us how many pets we can have, how many cars we can drive, or what sorts of decorations are approved. They do tell us that we are part of one another: rebuke one another, exhort one another, encourage one another, reprove one another. And we are not expected to act a certain way so that our property values will remain high, but so that the witness of Christ will remain pure, the glory of God remain unblemished, so that we may “present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29).

If we were as concerned to “present ourselves approved to God” – a “living and holy sacrifice” – as we are to ensure our hedges are trimmed, sidewalks are edged, and appraisals are high, we might see dramatic changes in the proclamation of the word we claim, in the sanctification of the neighbors we love, and in the glorification of the God we serve.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Spiritual Gift of Audio/Visual Operation

In some early Bible manuscripts, the lists of spiritual gifts appearing in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12 contain a little-known and anachronistic gift: audio/visual operation. Paul's admonition to "desire the higher gifts" was a challenge to excel at running the sound system.

Each of us has probably been in a service, prayer meeting, Bible study or conference in which one technological marvel or another aided in the presentation. Perhaps the sound guy overcame a mic that was feeding back. Or maybe the website engineer created a thrilling looped video feed. Maybe the techical coordinator devised an especially inspiring PowerPoint presentation. Someone might have pointed out to the congregation how the video, sound or slide show was an excellent addition to the program, thanking the one who provided it, and thanking God for providing the church such skilled and talented people.

I certainly enjoy what I call the "geek gifts" -- those things God has blessed us with that make life a bit easier. I do own an iPod, after all. I even allow that those things are not inappropriate for corporate worship. ("Not inappropriate" -- how's that for obfuscation?)

But why don't we hear thanks for those gifts God has truly given? Why aren't we thankful that someone with the gift of discernment pointed out the problem with a particular ministry proposal, so that the church avoided error? Why aren't we thankful that someone with the gift of teaching guided the congregation through a particularly thorny doctrinal issue? Why aren't we thankful that someone with the gift of leadership demonstrated the way to more faithful biblical living? Why aren't we more thankful that someone with the gift of mercy showed mercy to the downtrodden or suffering, in the name of Christ?

We talk of the Spirit operating externally to man, pulling the strings of circumstances to accomplish God's purposes. But in doing so we neglect the teaching that the Spirit's primary method of ministry is indwelling men, reforming hearts, changing wills. One specific way he accomplishes this is through the gifts he bestows on believers.

How spritually impoverished we are, then, when the only "gift" for which we thank God is someone's skill in running the sound board. Instead, we should recognize the Spirit working through men, and through the gifts he bestows, for the edification of the body. We should celebrate the Spirit accomplishing the purpose of God, protecting us from error or harm, shepherding the flock, alleviating suffering -- and all (mostly) through the gifts he gives to men.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Proof is in the Pudding (or Grades, as it were)

My wife recently told me that Russell Moore (www.henryinstitute.org) spoke about his adopted sons (any mention of adoption captures my wife's attention, though our four small children leave her little of it to spare). He reports that he became quite perturbed when people asked if the two adopted sons -- who bore no blood relation -- were "brothers." When he responded that they were certainly brothers, the next question was whether they were, you know, "really" brothers. "Yes, they're really brothers" Moore is quick to point out, and their brotherhood demonstrates the adoption we have as children of the living God.

When I tell people that I am in seminary, I get sort of the same response: "Are you really in seminary?" I suppose the fact that we have not moved to campus and go about our lives seemingly as usual contributes to the incredulity. (Plus, I still practice law - a profession people apparently consider closer to Poltergeist than Preacher). But then, I've always carried about copies of An Invitation to Biblical Hebrew.

"Is Faircloth really in seminary? He's always read that dry stuff, anyway. I once even saw him reading How to Read a Book, of all things."

"Yeah, he's really in seminary." Wink, wink, nod, nod.

Here's where I stand now: after starting The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fall, 2007 I've completed 21 hours; I'm taking 12 hours for Fall 2008, and the gpa is sure to decline afterward, not because of the work load, but because my "invitation" to Biblical Hebrew seems less like invitation and more like abduction and hostage situation, wherein my captors give proof of life via the screams elicited from scraping my bare chest with a barrel cactus -- right to left, of course.

"Daddy, why are your fingers bleeding?"

"I got Hebrew vowel points jabbed under my nails."

So, anyway, here's the list of classes I've completed:

Elementary Greek
Systematic Theology I
Introduction to Old Testament I
Greek Syntax and Exegesis
Systematic Theology II
Introduction to Old Testament II
Biblical Hermeneutics

Here's what I'm taking now:

Systematic Theology III
Introduction to Biblical Counseling
Elementary Hebrew
Inroduction to Church History I

Here's what I'll be taking in December:

Recovering Your Eyesight I
Advanced Sleep Deprivation
Re-Acclimation to Sunlight
Speed Reading for Dummies

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Just Enough Just Ain't Good Enough

The opening chapel services at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have stimulated conversation regarding the power of the word of God. Although I was not privileged to hear the sermons of fellow Alabamian David Platt, I have heard him on other occasions. As many of the comments suggest (see www.saidatsouthern.com), much is lost in simply reading the transcripts or even in listening to recorded sermons. Gauging by that commentary, though, it seems that many came away understanding that Dr Platt and others were advocating a ‘radical faith,’ or a faith that was ‘all in.’

During the past week I also read commentary regarding the problem of churches being without pastors and decrying the lack of ‘good preaching’ (see www.gritsgrace.blogspot.com), in some cases because those churches have a litmus test opposing Reformed or Calvinist preachers. I was thinking, then, that in many cases we want ‘just enough’ of Christ not to be deemed pagan. For instance, Arminians want just enough of the effects of sin and just enough of God’s sovereignty to avoid the most serious charges of self-help salvation.

The Spirit recorded for us other examples of this from the life of Jesus. In Matthew 8:1 through 9:8 we are given several examples of ‘just enough’ philosophy. Jesus had just finished the Sermon on the Mount, and this passage records events that confirm the inauguration of the kingdom of God through the lordship of Christ. Jesus here heals the leper, the centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law; rejected two would-be disciples; calmed the sea; healed two demoniacs; and healed the paralytic, and then pronounced his forgiveness.

The reaction to Christ’s lordship in these verses is instructive. Those in Christ’s presence seemed to want just enough of his power for physical healing; just enough adventure to avoid being too pedestrian; just enough sovereignty for physical rescue; just enough power over spirits to free enterprise; just enough authority for healing and forgiveness. Yet this attitude leaves us short of a lordship of Christ that demands his control over our bodies, whether in sickness or health. A lordship that calls us to leave those things in life we find comfortable and socially expected. That exhibits his sovereignty not only over the waves, but over our life. That effects reconciliation even when it disrupts commerce. And that demands and exerts the kind of authority that not only heals the body, but forgives sin and reconciles to the Father.

‘Just enough’ of God, then, is not enough.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Sablogical" -- sabbatical for bloggers

My wife has chided me recently for not posting more. I think her particular form of encouragement took the form, "I've blown past you in total hits." Of course, her blog has the advantage of posting photos of the kids, video clips of them in their hilarious antics, and descriptions of their incomprehensible kid-logic, all of which give her an advantage over a blogger like me, even a 'drummer extraordinaire.'

Perhaps, if I posted video of me playing drums in a rotating cage, head banding, hair flying, dry-ice-smoke wafting...

I started the blog between semesters. During the spring I had taken 12 hours, and was anxious to release in some way. I started fall semester recently, taking another 12 hours. With the full-time job, getting the house ready to sell, co-rearing four kids, and doting on my lovely wife (ok, she is definitely lovely, but my 'doting' may be a bit too generous), something had to give. It has been, obviously, the blog.

So, I suppose I must officially take a break. I'll post occasionally during the semester, but don't count on anything near 30 per month.

By the way, 10 years ago, today, I married well above my station. Happy anniversary, Carrie!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When All is not All

Questions regarding the extent of salvation, the effect of the atonement and other things that bring up frequently nasty debates about Calvinism often revolve around "all" passages of Scripture. One advocate cites the Limited Atonement prong of the TULIP acrostic, the other refers to God desiring "all" to be saved. (I, like many, prefer the term "Definite Atonement," because it conveys the idea that Christ actually accomplished atonement, rather than simply making it possible).

While extended exegesis of biblical terms is not on the horizon for this article (all you Greek geeks check back later...by the way, the term "Greek geeks" throws college stereotypes on their collective head: in college, the "Greeks" were the cool dudes and chicks, whose knowledge of Greek probably ended with the ability to recognize jerseys and determine who the opponent was on the intramural field -- I know, but I was one, too) -- what a parenthetical! -- sometimes simple comparison with other passages of Scripture prevent colloquial and dogmatic interpretation of pet verses.

For example, in Genesis 6:17 God informs Noah, in explaining his marine construction project, that "everything that is on earth shall die." That's pretty close to an "all" statement: in fact, most of us would admit that apart from some spurious quibbling over what "everything" is, or what "earth" is, or what "die" means (yes, a few would), that this is about as absolute and inclusive as a statement can get.

Yet just after this, God instructs Noah to prepare a boat not only for him to pilot (steer? drive? ok...ride), but one big enough to handle his family and two of every kind of animal, plus some. As we know from the rest of the story, those on the boat did NOT die.

"Wait a minute, God!" some will say. "You said everything that is on earth will die. What gives?"

What gives is common speech between sentient beings. Noah, his family and maybe even the animals knew that everything on earth would die, everything, that is, except for those God chose. Our speech with each other today confirms the use to which Scripture put these terms yesterday: "all" and "every" as they occur in Scripture -- or in everyday language -- cannot be reduced to mathematical precision in the same way that "1+1=2" or the area of a circle can, nor do we expect that they would.

In Noah's time, everything died except those God chose. The same is true now: all die except those God chooses to save. All will live except those God does not choose to save.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Is Conformity to the World a Benefit?

A recent sermon I heard attempted to treat the text of Romans 12:1-2. The theme or point of the sermon was represented in two questions asked of the congregation: What is commitment? and What does it cost?

The first two verses of Romans 12 speak of presenting our bodies a living sacrifice to God, and of being transformed by the renewing of our mind instead of being conformed to the world. According to the preacher, the commitment of Romans 12:1-2 involved presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. This sacrificial presentation required ‘total commitment’ involved in a ‘once-for-all’ sacrifice. Accordingly, no ‘rededication’ is necessary for the believer who presents himself a living sacrifice.

The transformation that comes from mind renewal involves 1) submission to the Holy Spirit; 2) adherence to the word of God; 3) prayer; and 4) a pursuit of God. I’m not quite certain that I agree with all of the preacher’s applications, or the method that he arrived at them (ok – I don’t agree), but those things were minor compared to what I considered a crucial error.

The preacher considered the ‘cost’ of commitment, the adverse effect of presenting ourselves as sacrifices and being transformed, as avoiding conformity to the world! That is, if we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – which is posed by the text as the opposite of conformity to the world – the ‘cost’ to us is no longer being conformed to the world. Perhaps, to give the benefit of the doubt, the preacher meant ‘cost’ in terms of ‘counting the cost’ – being aware of what we must ‘give up’ in order to follow Christ.

But I don’t believe this is the tenor of Romans 12. Here, the reader has been instructed for 11 prior chapters about how great is God’s grace to choose his people despite their wretchedness, and chapter 12 constitutes instruction about what great things that means for the believer! Instead of being a ‘cost’ of renewal, of sacrifice to God, nonconformity to the world is a tremendous benefit. Because it is in nonconformity to the world (the age) that we ‘prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.’

Those who have their minds renewed by the grace of God no longer view the world’s things or thoughts as benefits lost by joining God’s kingdom. Instead, we view conformity to the world as part of the old man, gladly left behind so that we can put on the new man through Christ. Avoiding conformity to the world is a benefit to the believer who has been transformed and renewed.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dirt Is Dirt

Or Not.

With four kids, one quickly realizes that there are many different kinds of dirty. There’s the sandy dirt that falls off kid shoes and collects in the floorboard of the mini-van. Then there’s the cakey, earthy dirt that coats hands and faces after a round of making mud holes and mud pies. Then there’s the red clay ubiquitous on sporting fields throughout the Southeast, the stains of which won’t come out of anything, no matter how many gallons of bleach is applied.

Gardeners and farmers have known this for, well, forever. Some soil is good for planting certain crops and plants, some not, and some requires rehab in order to be productive.

My green thumb has long ago proven to be black, and I kill more plants than I tend well. We were sprucing up the greenery around the house, and discovered that the dirt there was the hard clay variety. I had to use an assortment of pickaxes, shovels, and sticks of dynamite to produce a hole big enough for a geranium. I mixed the clay with good soil from other parts of the yard in a big pile in the driveway, and while doing so I noticed something very strange.
When mixed, a very small proportion of good soil would quickly turn a much larger pile of red clay into good, brown dirt that could go directly into the hole with the new plant. The small amount of rich, life-sustaining material rehabilitates a large amount of sterile, life-snuffing material.

’The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” Matthew 13:31-33.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lo! the Power of the Laptop

I've recently suffered the crash of a laptop, for which I thought I was prepared by making copies of files on an external drive. Then I discovered that I had not considered all those programs that I had purchased online and downloaded, which in my crippled computer's moments of lucidity shone tantalizingly at me through their desktop icons, teasing me from the ephemeral safety of some ghost of a motherboard.

Then there are the email addresses, numbering in the thousands but when culled for use, age and likelihood of actually contacting me, are immeasurably fewer but nonetheless out of reach. This is not to mention the messages themselves, not much use except for mining the email addresses of those I was too lazy to add to the address book, which, one regrettably recalls, is also in cyber exile.

Another category of lost bits and bytes is programs which can be reloaded, but whose information, entered painstakingly over many moons, may not be. iTunes, for instance, can easily be updated to the newest function of Pi (version 3.14159, and counting), but once those tunes are stuck to a certain CPU, they won't tune again for you. And for especially IT-savvy bookworms, Bookography allows one to enter not only the titles of books and their authors, but comments, keywords and other nerdy stuff. What is a geek to do when he is unable to review the notes he made while reading How to Read a Book?

Whatever did people lament when information systems were not so complex? Of what would IT crashes of one thousand years past consist? Of two thousand years? Three?

Perhaps the monastery denizen, a bit woozy from stimulating conversation and strenuous calisthenics, spills his gruel onto a freshly illuminated manuscript. Or the Roman librarian, testing the pyrotechnics text in which he is so engrossed, finds that as it has been reported, one can fry ants with the concentrated sunlight through a refracting lens, but not until they've crawled off that stack of dusty scrolls. Or the Egyptian bookkeeper who finds that his meticulous records, scrupulously inscribed upon clay and carefully dried in the desert sun, have been decimated by a group of wayward teens who made great sport of skipping the hardened tablets across the waters of the Nile.

Some right now might be considering writing to tell me that despite my earnest despair, my info may be recovered. Don't. Let me wallow in technological misery, fondly recalling the simple non-techno life of Thoreau's Walden.

(Unless, of course, you can get my music from the iPod to the new computer.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Seeing is not Believing

In the movie, The Eye, starring Jessica Alba, Alba’s character has been blind since childhood and has received a cornea transplant, which is causing her some difficulties (she sees the donor’s visions).

An eye specialist, attempting to help her process the new information that her brain has not received for so long, tells her “Your eyes will want to dominate how you see the world, but you can’t trust them…not yet.”

For believers in Christ, it is the flesh in general that wants to dominate how we see the world. The lingering sin nature wants to dictate to our renewed heart how to view reality, how to perceive truth, how to relate to man and to God. But we can’t trust its interpretation of those things. Not yet.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Granting Letters or Buying Vowels?

Every month, Southern Baptist churches engage in an odd ritual. Given our propensity for oddness, perhaps I should say “engage in a particular odd ritual.” Many congregations, in their monthly business meetings, take a vote on whether to “grant letters” to someone seeking to join a different Baptist congregation.

Having participated in many of these, I fear that not everyone truly knows what’s going on. I secretly wish that one day, to stir things up, the process would go like this:

Moderator: All in favor of granting letters for John and Jane Doe to the First
Baptist Church, Everywhereville, USA, signify by saying “Aye.”

Congregation: “Aye” (anemically, full of fried chicken and very sweet tea).

Moderator: All opposed, by like sign.

Lonely voice: Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel.

What gives with “granting letters”? Are we solving puzzles? Completing crosswords? Playing Scrabble?

Some Baptists might recall that this arcane practice hearkens back to the days when we also knew what “good standing” was, and “granting letters” meant that we were assuring the new church that its prospective member was not subject to discipline at the time he sought to join another church, that he was thus in “good standing,” and that the old church would write a letter to the new church confirming such. Hence, “letters of good standing,” or simply, “letters.”

In light of today’s technological and informational revolution, perhaps the process should be characterized as “sending IM.” (For those who need help here, “IM” is instant messaging, an Internet tool available to those for whom email is not quite fast enough.)

Is there still a place for granting letters/”sending IM”? Absolutely. In an age of “church hopping”, many churches even in the same town or association have no real knowledge of prospective members’ reasons for leaving their former congregation. Many times, members “hop” to another local church simply because they were offended by someone, and declined to address the matter biblically (see Matthew 18), or wronged someone without attempting reconciliation. Perhaps they “skip” to another congregation when it appears they might be “found out,” for who knows what. Or they might “jump” over to a congregation that does not require anything of them. Granting letters would notify the new church of illegitimate reasons for leaving the old one.

Furthermore, in an age when the convention needs to pass resolutions regarding regenerate membership and church discipline, we tend to accept members to our congregations with little or no knowledge of their profession of faith. One walks down the aisle Sunday morning, claims to have “professed faith” in Eastaboga or Timbuktu, and wants to join by “transfer of letter.” A call for vote and hearty “Amen” later, this unknown quantity is a member, no doubt shortly to be installed as a Sunday school teacher. But what if the “letters” demonstrated that he had never joined the previous church? Had never professed faith? Had actually taught heresy or caused a schism or been run out of town on a rail? Proper use of the “letters” would prevent membership before those issues could be resolved.

Proper use of granting letters presupposes, of course, that we retain proper notions of “good standing.” This has, unfortunately, not been the case of late for Southern Baptist churches, which gave rise to the convention’s membership resolutions. Our churches would do well, in keeping with those resolutions, to recover the practice and thus help to ensure the health and faithfulness of our congregations.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Godly Counsel Worth the Time?

Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. 2 Samuel 18:14

In this episode from the tumultuous life of David, Absalom has subverted David’s authority as king and conspired to usurp the throne and reign over Israel. David and those loyal to him have left Jerusalem, but David and his men are fighting to capture Absalom and retake Jerusalem.

As David sends out the army to defeat the army of Absalom, David instructs Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

Joab had earlier recognized David’s grieving for the banished Absalom and arranged for an anonymous woman to speak wise counsel to him, which convinced David to bring Absalom back from banishment. He also helped Absalom (after Absalom set Joab’s field on fire!) obtain audience with David to complete the reconciliation between the two of them.

In this episode, Joab finds himself the beneficiary – or victim, depending on perspective – of divine providence. In a scene reminiscent of a spaghetti western or Monty Python movie, Absalom gets stuck fast in the branches of a tree and is dangling there by his head when Joab’s man finds him.

Scripture records that Joab’s man reported to Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Star Trek’s Mr. Spock could not be more deadpan in reporting such a thing.

Joab, on the other hand, becomes apoplectic, chastising the man for not killing Absalom on the spot. This anonymous man, though, takes Joab to leadership school:

“Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom.’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.”

Joab responded, “I will not waste time like this with you.” In other words, “You’re wasting my time, you nameless nobody!”

Not many anonymous foot soldiers in God’s kingdom dare to oppose those in charge, yet this puny peon challenged mighty Joab. The basis of his challenge, however, was not his own pride, nor his will to power, nor a claim to fame, but a steadfast devotion to carrying out the wishes of the king.

He even recognized Joab’s spurious leadership style: had he actually killed Absalom, Joab would have “stood aloof.” In other words, although Joab would have secretly been thrilled over Absalom’s death at the hands of the foot soldier, he would have quickly distanced himself from the soldier and denied any responsibility.

Joab could not be bothered with the impudence of one with so little standing in Israel that Scripture does not even record his name for us. “I will not waste time like this with you.” One can almost hear the disdain Joab had for the man and his advice. Joab also rejected the subject matter: “I will not waste time like this with you.” He thought he knew all he needed with regard to Absalom, David, and apparently, murder. Joab also fell victim to the tyranny of the urgent: “I will not waste time like this with you.” Absalom was not going anywhere. Joab had plenty of time to discuss the matter with the soldier, with other respected men, with David, with God, in order to get it right.

We frequently fail to consider wise counsel. Most often we reject it because it comes from someone who is not like us – someone who is younger, uglier, poorer, less education, not as “important.” We deem the appropriate consideration of that counsel to be “wasting time,” as if we can afford no delay in carrying out schemes that are important to us but are obviously contrary to the will of the king. (Proverbs 1:16 – For their feet run to evil and they hasten to shed blood.)

On the other hand, we frequently fail to take opportunity to speak wise counsel. We do so because we are the younger, uglier, poorer, less education, not as “important.” Or perhaps we fear the rebuke of those to whom we speak, or the breach of “peace” that would ensue, or being accused of not being “loving.”

We do not find ourselves facing decisions of whether to kill the king’s son. Two things, however, remain as true today as in the time of Absalom: boldness in men will speak wise counsel, and wickedness in men takes no time for it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Eternity and the Brain

Skeptics frequently criticize Christianity (and other religions) for its views of eternity. Even believers, without a biblical understanding of what happens when we die and when this world passes away (eschatology), are a bit reluctant to grasp the concept wholeheartedly, thinking that eternity with God is sitting on cloud, strumming a harp. Forever.

Critics point to the observable world and rightly conclude that nothing in the created realm is eternal. Things here may last a very, very long time -- like diamonds, uranium, Styrofoam, plastic bottles. But even fruitcake is not forever. So, they ask, how can we believe anything is eternal?

But God gives us glimpses of eternal realities in the fading one in which we find ourselves.

Scientists know that during times of extreme stress, the human brain releases chemicals and hormones that enable it to process information much more quickly. Mere seconds of "real time" feel like much more, enabling the brain to better direct the body to react to the crisis. We've all had some experience like that. Mine was when I jumped a ten-speed bike off a five-foot ramp. As soon as the wheels left the ground, everything went "super slo-mo," and although I had no time to change the outcome, I did have time to count each click of the turning wheels, look at the saucer-shaped eyes of each of my bystanding "friends," mentally draft my Last Will & Testament, and imagine taking each bite of an entire pepperoni pizza before the bike and I inverted and I landed head first.

Scientists also maintain that we really use only a small percentage of our brain's capacity. One might imagine, then, a supercharged brain processing information so fast that one minute "feels like" five, five minutes feels like sixty, and so forth until time is virtually "standing still." In fact, that is how we frequently describes those instances of stress: "as if time stood still."

And, if time "stands still," it is no longer time, but eternity.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 3 of 3)

What Can Be Done?

(from Part 2: "Jesus warned us against using 'vain repetitions' and attempting to be heard 'for our many words.' If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.")

If we recognize our weakness in prayer and if we desire to change, what can be done to improve? Although prayer cannot be reduced to a formula or program, there are several things that can help us engage in more dynamic corporate prayer.

1. Consider the audience. Unlike individual, private prayer, in which the only one hearing is God, corporate prayer has a dual audience: God and the congregation (I know: just hear me out...). That we should only seek to please God is no less true for corporate prayer than it is for private prayer (probably even more so). But an additional consideration in corporate prayer is that it should also edify the congregation. The one praying is not only praying for himself, but also for the entire assembled body, which must be able to identify with the content of the prayer to truly join the petition as its own. Otherwise, the congregation is merely a rather large group of prayer voyeurs. This means that while a request for God to forgive the congregation's sin and for unity of the body is appropriate, it is not appropriate during corporate prayer, for example, to launch into a confession of the supplicant's most intimate sin details or to pray for disruptive members by name.

2. Consider the occasion. Prayer should be appropriate for the function or circumstance in which it is offered. While petitions for the collective forgiveness of sins and for the salvation of God's people are always appropriate, some topics are not. One would not want to engage in a detailed request for the ill and infirm during the invocation, which is a time to invoke God's presence in worship, his mercy, his aid and his Spirit as we celebrate his worth together.

3. Prepare. Despite conventional wisdom, "preparation" in relation to corporate prayer is not a dirty word, and does not quench the Spirit. Any reading of the Psalms reveals that most of them were the result of quite a bit of thought and preparation, and were not likely composed without deliberation. But does their preparation make them any less sincere or inspiring? To that end, it is entirely acceptable to write your prayer beforehand. You would not want to use a canned prayer that someone else wrote, but jotting down your prayer thoughts beforehand enables you to focus on the audience and the occasion, to be concise, and to be sincere.

4. Plagiarize. It is also perfectly acceptable to plagiarize in prayer, provided, of course, that you are plagiarizing the right source. In prayer, God does not enforce his copyright. In addition to studying the prayers and supplications of Scripture, the whole of Scripture is suitable material for prayer language. When praying the invocation, use the language of the Psalms in describing the majesty and glory of God, of approaching his tabernacle, of his promises to dwell among his people in worship. When praying for the ill and infirm, use the language of Scripture related to the frailty of the body, of God being glorified in our weakness, of the hope and assurance of the future state when the bodily effects of sin are no more. When praying before the offering is taken, use scriptural language of God's ownership of all things, of our stewardship over the created realm, of our complete and utter dependence upon God for every thing, cheerful giving, and sowing and reaping bountifully. In short, pray God's specific promises over specific needs for specific results.

5. Practice. Not in public, but in private. Our corporate prayer is a reflection of what we do in private, and if our corporate prayer is insincere and spiritually thin, it is likely because our private prayer is no better. Worse yet, it may be nonexistent. Practice using the language of Scripture in private prayer and reciting God's promises, his character, his glory as the basis of your heartfelt petition and supplication, and you will likely begin to see a much more dynamic prayer life develop. Follow the scriptural example of prayer and make specific requests about specific results based upon specific Scripture and you will likely realize a much more healthy individual prayer life, which will spill over and effect much more dynamic corporate prayer.

6. Pray for help. Any attempt to be more faithful in corporate prayer should be preceded, accompanied, and followed by our individual petition for God to help us -- which he promises to do -- as well as gratitude for his equipping us.

Corporate prayer should not be dull, drudgery or difficult. Prayer can be invigorated to the benefit of the individual and the congregation, as well as to the honor and glory of God.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 2 of 3)

Why Are Ours So Different?

(from Part 1: "The truth about biblical prayer leads us to ask several questions: Why is ours so different? Does it matter? What can be done?")

Our prayer is so different from those expressed in Scripture for several reasons.

1. We are slaves to "impromptu" prayer. This may sound, at first, to be contradictory. How can you be enslaved -- bound to a pattern -- to something spontaneous? But when we examine the content of our corporate prayer, we find that we are not truly "impromptu" or "spontaneous" at all, but repeat the same content, use the same phrases, echo the same words in all our prayer. While the idea of permitting the Spirit to move and prompt in us "off the cuff" petitions to God is laudable, the reality is that the Spirit is excluded from prayer that is simply repetitious.

2. We are unfamiliar with the prayers of Scripture. The prayers of the Old Testament saints that we find in the historical books, in the Psalms, and in the books of prophecy are recorded as examples for us of both their content and their style. Each prayer reflects the personality and passions of the one praying, yet maintains a godward focus and humble honesty. They recognize specific attributes or acts of God and make specific requests for specific reasons. They assume a mighty God to whom the prayer is made, expect God to respond for his glory, and rejoice to participate in God's plan through prayer. Similarly, the New Testament prayers are replete with references to the promises God made in the Old Testament, acknowledge how he has fulfilled them in the new covenant in Christ, and make specific requests of God based upon our knowledge that he is the promise-keeper.

3. We are unfamiliar with the God to whom we speak. This assessment sounds incredibly harsh. But if we knew the God who miraculously heals us, who graciously sustains us, and who mercifully loves us, would we actually give a typical visitation prayer? If we truly knew the might God -- the consuming fire -- whose awesome presence we invoke to heed our feeble worship, would we actually pray as we do in invocations? If we knew the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who sustains the universe with the word of his power, who provides us with every good gift, would we pray the same way before the offering?

Does it Matter?

Does it matter how we pray in public? Absolutely. We must remember first and foremost that prayer is audience with Almighty God. If we were called upon to give remarks to the President of the United States, before an assembled crowd of citizens and statesman, we would not dare repeat someone else's words, or use content that was painfully familiar to everyone, or "wing it," depending upon our powers of impromptu speech or the spontaneous production of a fertile mind. We would prepare and we would speak with reverence. If we would do so with the President, how much more should we do so with the God who placed him -- and all other earthly rulers -- in his position of power?

The substance of our corporate prayer sets the tone for what is to come. If we use trite appeals for God's mercy over the sick, then our prayer meetings will be little more than lists of the infirm and opportunities for gossip. Banality and familiarity in the invocation establishes the expectation that not much is really going to happen in this worship gathering. Repetition before the offering leads to the impression that this exercise is little more than paying my dues to be a members of the club.

Jesus warned us against using "vain repetition" and attempting to be heard for "our many words." If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.

(Coming soon: Part 3, What Can Be Done?)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Toward More Fervent Corporate Prayer (Part 1)

Why "Impromptu" Corporate Prayer Dishonors God

There are likely times that all of us could anticipate the content of most of the prayer offered in our corporate church settings. We know all the pet phrases and favorite words. During "prayer meetings" the short, perfunctory prayer by the deacon who is reporting on visitation for the week will always refer to "unspoken needs" and will request that God "heal them according to Thy will," but won't contain much more. The invocation to start the Sunday morning service will repeat bland requests for God's favor "on those who could not attend," for God to "be with them" and to "be with us," and give half-hearted thanks "for this beautiful day of Sunday." Before taking up the offering someone will, quite familiarly, ask God to "bless the gift and the giver.

Prayer during deacon meetings (when it's done: one deacon chairman eliminated prayer on the ground that everyone should be "prayed up" before they got there), committee meetings, Bible studies and other settings does not fare much better, and is usually comprised of a mix of well-worn expressions and spiritual-sounding phrases to which no one really knows the meaning any longer and that are simply rearranged to disguise their age and to fit the occasion.

But it should not be this way!

Prayer is one of those activities that is both a great privilege and also absolutely crucial to the spiritual health of the both the individual believer and the body of believers of the local congregation. Something about prayer unites us i true spiritual communion with God, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and on the basis of the work that Jesus Christ has done to reconcile us to God. The trinitarian aspect of the godhead is truly demonstrated in prayer: the Son enables us to approach the holy God in prayer; the Spirit helps our weaknesses and shapes our prayer; God receives our prayer and communes with us through it.

Prayer in Scripture is vibrant, excited, inspiring, which leads us to ask several questions about our: Why is it so different? Does it matter? What can be done?

(Look for Part 2 "Why is Ours so Different?" soon...)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

CHRISTIANS GONE AWOL

“Like the Spartans, every Christian is born a warrior. It is his destiny to be
assaulted, his duty to attack.” – Charles Spurgeon

“Finally be strong in the Lord and in his might power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” –Ephesians 6:10-11
How many of us view the Christian life as something dramatically less thrilling that the life of warfare described by Spurgeon, and advocated by Paul? Perhaps we view it as boring, irrelevant, or uninteresting because we are unaware of the implications of our joining Christ’s “battalion.” Do we truly believe that the devil is scheming against us, our families, our churches, or do we treat that aspect of the Christian life as we would Aesop’s Fables or fairy tales? Do we view other believers as our “band of brothers” fighting together to accomplish the goal, or merely as more dues-paying members of the club?

“There are many ways in which the Christian may to a great degree forget
his military character.” – Charles Spurgeon

Most of our conversation on Sunday morning centers around sports or politics. We speak of those matters with a gusto that is strangely absent from our discussions (when we have them) of spiritual matters. Could it be that all week we have been spoiling for the fight, but released those passions in the only venue we could find? Could it be that we, as Christians, are so unfamiliar with spiritual warfare that we fight our battles vicariously through our favorite teams or preferred candidates? Could it be that we are ignorant of the spiritual battles that occur every week, every day, every moment?

Men of God (and women, to be sure) are warriors, destined for assault and under duty to attack. If we do not perceive those assaults, we attribute them to something else, something less sensational than the “world forces of this darkness.” If we do not attack worldliness, sin and the devil – or at least recognize that we are stumbling around the battlefield – we will have put ourselves in the infirmary with no injury other than sitting on our proverbial helmet. We will have gone AWOL from the spiritual battle.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I HAVE THIS BIRDBATH

I’m sort of nerdy, I guess.

Why do I say so? When you own a book called The Birder’s Life List and Master Reference, it’s not too difficult a conclusion to reach. A conclusion, by the way, repeatedly confirmed by my family units.

Me: “Wow! That’s a Crested Nuthatch!”
Family Units: “Dad, you’re a nerd.”

Me: “Look! There’s a Tufted Titmouse!”
Family Units: “Dad, you sure are nerdy.”

So I provided my feathered friends a bird bath. Nothing too fancy; just a concrete bowl with some fresh water. When it’s really hot outside, and it hasn’t rained in a while, the bird bath is a popular bird destination. At times, the congestion at the bath encourages some fairly raucous disputes between the cardinals and the wood thrushes. Once the jays got involved, and I had to call in the law.

Mostly, though, it’s a single bird stopping by for a drink and a dip. Curiously, the birds don’t seem to mind whether the dip or the drink is first. As I sat on the porch watching the dipping and drinking (remember the nerd factor), I thought “That bird has no clue where that water came from. To him, it’s just there. He doesn’t appreciate what I’ve done for him.”

But then, perhaps the bird does know. Perhaps in his dipping and drinking he is instinctively demonstrating for me and all the other nerds that the water and all other good things have been provided, not by me, but by God who created them and us. And perhaps it’s not the bird who has no clue, but instead it’s me who hasn’t a clue where all the things I enjoy come from.

Truly, though, I – and you – do know that God has provided us many wonderful gifts.

“Every good thing and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17

Sunday, July 6, 2008

REVIEW: The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism
Craig R Brown
2007 Ligonier Ministries

Perhaps you might have heard of the Sunday school teacher who refused to cooperate with department leaders because one of them was "a Calvinist." Or of the church deacon who criticized the preacher's pastoral skills because he was "a Calvinist." In neither case did the suspect call himself such, announce his doctrinal preference, criticize those nefarious "Arminians," or do anything remotely suggestive of creating or perpetuating that infamous row between the followers of Jacob Arminius and the results of the Synod of Dort.

The former suggested using Baptist catechisms in the children's Sunday school hour; the latter believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation. You might have encountered these or similar situations played out in Southern Baptist churches (and others) all over the country. I've even heard a conference speaker -- pushing his own version of a systematic theology, for sale, of course -- decry "Calvinism" and other "shade tree theologians" because Calvin had once foisted his systematic theology (Institutes of the Christian Religion) on unsuspecting believers.

What could cause all these seemingly irrational and uncharitable denunciations? Calvin, and all things "Calvinist," it would seem, have become the favorite red herring and proverbial straw man against which to rail.

Craig R Brown has taken it upon himself to issue a rejoinder against some of the "misconceptions" about Calvinism, avoiding a rehash of the typical comparison/contrast between the five points or articles of each system, and instead confronting the criticisms of Calvinism raised from the standpoint of "American common sense." Brown is a layman, writing from his experience as an elder in the Presbyterian church (Orthodox and PCA).

R.C. Sproul does the honors of an introduction, notably quoting George Whitfield, who said that "We are all Arminians by nature." Sproul indicates that though Brown's effort is worthwhile, "Craig and I would not always employ the same arguments or come to the same conclusions." Regrettably, Sproul did not spell out these differences.

Before addressing various "misconceptions," Brown reviews the history of the struggle between Calvinism and Arminianism. Pelagius and Augustine first differed over the extent of original sin and its effect on salvation. In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned as heresy the Pelagian view that sin had not impaired man's moral ability. Cassian later taught that man is able to move toward conversion. Though God's grace is necessary, salvation is dependent on man's exercise of free will. The Council of Orange in 529 condemned Cassian's view -- Semi-Pelagianism -- as heresy.

Followers of Jacob Arminius drew up five articles against the teaching of Calvin and various accepted confessions. In 1618 the Synod of Dort met to discuss Arminianism, a "rehashing of the views of Pelagian and Cassian." Arminianism was condemned as heresy, and the Synod developed five articles (the TULIP acrostic) in refutation of Arminianism.

In view of Brown's recount, many believers might bristle at the idea that their concept of soteriology has been so consistently and roundly characterized as heresy.

Brown then gives a side-by-side comparison of the TULIP and the "Daisy": the five points of Calvinism compared with the corresponding Arminian version. The summary is fair, but anyone desiring more complete information about the opposing systems would need to consult other sources more directly on point. He then discusses the "dilemmas."

Dilemma One: Responsibility. That is, if God is in control, how can he hold anyone accountable? Brown points out that Arminianism posits falsely that human freedom and divine sovereignty are mutually exclusive concepts, while Calvinism posits that both are true simultaneously. Wayne Grudem characterizes the Calvinist view as "concurrence."

Dilemma Two: Motivation. If we are not saved by works, what's the point? Brown proposes that we should do good works 1) because God asks it; 2) out of appreciation; 3) from fear of the Lord; and 4) to earn rewards in heaven.

Dilemma Three: Obedience. If God predetermines everything, why pray and evangelize? Brown asserts that Calvinism, despite its caricature, promotes prayer and evangelism. We should pray because it 1) is commanded by God; 2) is a means of worship; 3) is a blessing; 4) exposes our insufficiency; 5) is used by God to execute his plan; 6) teaches dependency.

Dilemma Four: Evil. If God is sovereign and good, why is there evil? Brown handles the other "misconceptions" fairly well, if not altogether thoroughly, but in this discussion he becomes a bit sloppy. Brown makes statements such as "nothing is outside the providence of God, and that includes evil. Everything that happens in this world comes from the hand of God." Further, "Although God decrees evil, He does not directly perform morally evil deeds." I would have preferred a bit more clarity regarding what comes "from the hand of God" and regarding how, exactly, God "decrees evil" without participating in it.

Brown also proposes his own "Theory of Opposites" to explain evil. Many concepts are known in contrast: white/black; fast/slow; light/dark. According to Brown, this explains evil. "But when He created good, evil automatically came into being as the antithesis or opposite of good." However, many of Brown's examples are not opposites, but examples of degree (mathematically, the opposite of 10 is not 0, but -10). More troubling, though, is the idea that evil "automatically" came into being as an antithesis to good. And Brown does not explain how the angels, or God himself, could understand evil without the presence of evil.

Dilemma Five: Babies. Where do babies go when they die? Brown recounts some of the standard responses to this very real concern. But his "additional reasons" to believe that babies go to heaven prove more helpful, and are worth considering.

I have long believed that when most believers rail against "Calvinism" it is a caricature that they attack. If the caricature were accurate, the attack would be justified. Brown's treatment of the "misconceptions" is worth considering, and goes a long way toward clarifying common unjustified criticisms of Calvinist doctrine. Many readers will be reminded of other different "misconceptions," perhaps to develop responses as Brown has.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

WHAT TO INCLUDE IN CHILDREN'S CURRICULUM

"Teach Them to Your Children"

The Biblical Mandate

God places great value on our passing his instruction on to succeeding generations. He told Israel not to forget what they had see, but to 'teach them to your children and to their children after them' (Deuteronomy 4:9). He required diligence in that instruction: 'Teach them to your children talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates' (Deuteronomy 11:19-20). And Paul repeats the theme when he tells us 'Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord' (Ephesians 6:4).

Yet many observe that our children frequently do not remain in the church, and if they do, they don't know very much about the faith. Children who have been in church every Sunday can't describe essentials of salvation: sin, judgment, forgiveness, faith, atonement, justification. They can't name the books of the Bible, the apostles, or other important facts. They are unable to describe the primary functions of the church or the traditional spiritual disciplines.

"Tell Us Some Stories!"

Recognizing the love kids have for storytelling, those who prepare children's curriculum for Bible study focus on the narratives of Scripture, which can be especially powerful in conveying God's redemption story if used properly. The main problem with most prepared children's curriculum, and with educational programs used by most churches, is that the narratives are not given proper context: they focus on the faith, obedience, or attitude of the human actor in the story; how we should emulate (or not) the various characters; or some other secondary, peripheral or other theme that might not even exist in the text. The story of Cain and Abel might focus on anger and brotherly love, rather than on obedience to God in worship. Noah and the ark might focus on Noah's skill in shipbuilding and animal husbandry, but neglect explanation that the flood was God's judgment on sin. And lessons on events in Jesus' ministry might emphasize his love and compassion, but omit his demands of righteousness and obedience.

This leaves our children without the whole picture -- or with an easily distorted picture -- of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus and of our need for redemption and God's gracious provision. For the church that desires complete biblical instruction for its children and youth, several steps can be taken to ensure that its content is complete and biblically sound and that it is faithfully and lovingly conveyed.

To ensure effective children's curriculum:

  1. It must be comprehensive. Most children's curriculum repeat the same stories year after year, leaving kids with a stale knowledge of Noah's Ark but will little understanding of God's redemption story. By contrast, a two-year plan could easily accommodate teaching the complete Old Testament and New Testament story. Moreover, a plan to teach the basics, with other important materials, by grade six can be very effective. Any good education plan will be intentional about what material will be taught and on what timetable.
  2. It must have Godward focus. Most narrative focus on things other than that for which they were intended. Good curriculum will teach three things about each story: what it says about the condition of man, what it says about the character of God, and how it fits into the overall redemption story. Curriculum that focuses on other themes is in danger of treating God as cosmic magician or entertainer, performing great deeds for our amusement, or of treating stories as life lessons akin to Aesop's Fables.
  3. It must include memorization. Children have great capacity to learn vast amounts of data, which they will, at some point, be able to assemble into meaningful understanding of redemption and of their own need for salvation.
  4. It must include application. All teaching should aim to affect at least on of the following: belief, attitude or behavior. Much teaching will involve all three. Children and youth should be taught in each lesson that God expects them to be different, in some way, as a result of what he has taught us.
  5. It must be challenging. Teaching for both children and youth must challenge them intellectually and morally. It must not be abbreviated, the difficult subjects must not be diluted, and the unpleasant topics must not be avoided. If we tell children for more than six years that Jesus says "you are my friend" but they later learn that Jesus actually says "you are my friend if you obey my commandments" we have done them no service, and have created an integrity problem for ourselves. As youth get older and are able to use logic and rhetoric, they no longer will depend solely on narrative but their education should also include didactic instruction.
  6. It must be taught. Teachers must teach. They must believe the word, obey the word, live the word. And learners must learn. They don't decide what they want to learn about and how it applies. Jesus said to "teach them to observe all that I commanded you," not what they want to hear or what will make them happy.

Children and youth are capable of much more learning than we typically think. We should be good stewards of the mental and moral instruction and take advantage of the ability to teach them during their formative years. Our teaching should be intentional, it should be planned well, and it should be diligently executed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

WAGING WAR AND 'MAKING PEACE'

'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.' (Matthew 5:9)

But what is involved in 'making peace'? Is it merely 'making nice'? We are, unfortunately, familiar with the term 'wage war.' In the temporal realm we presume that peace is simply what happens when we stop waging war.

Yet in the spiritual realm, in the reality of man's heart, it is peace that needs to be waged. Long after outward hostilities cease, conflict still rages. Scripture tells us that peace is not our natural state, that we do not need to 'wage war' because we are already at war, both with God and with man. Warfare is our natural inclination, both temporally and spiritually.

Jeremiah warned Israel "They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said 'He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us.'" He chastised the prophets and priests -- Israel's spiritual leaders -- because they 'have healed the wound of my people lightly (superficially) saying 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace.' (Jeremiah 5:9 and 6:14). Israel merely claimed peace without waging it.

Similarly in the church today we cannot merely proclaim peace. It must be waged, it must be striven for. In Ephesians we are told to 'be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace...speaking the truth in love' (4:3, 4:14). The terms used here imply a military striving to prevail in the warfare that would seek the destruction of peace. If conflict is the frustration of any goal or desire (Ken Sande, The Peacemaker), it could be something simple, in which case 'love covers a multitude of sins.' But it could create resentment and bitterness.

In that case, Jesus tells us what to do to 'wage peace.' In Matthew 18, we are told to go to our offending brother and report the matter. If he listens, you win your brother. If not, take two or three more. If he won't listen to them, take it to the church. If he won't listen to the church, put him out of it. Jesus' method is certainly not passive -- in which the conflict (breach of the peace) is ignored, hidden or glad-handed away -- but is assertive, addressing the conflict head on and waging peace upon it.

Growth with God, and growth between men, does not come by claiming peace where there is none. Claiming peace with God prematurely or on the wrong grounds leads to damnation. Claiming peace with men prematurely or on the wrong grounds perpetuates warfare and conflict. Especially in conflict between men, growth happens when the causes of that conflict are recognized, addressed and resolved.

'Waging peace' is not easy. Sometimes it is not pleasant. It is certainly not 'making nice.' But in contrast to a superficial truce -- one that terminates the gunfire but perpetuates the anger, the difficulty and hard work of 'waging peace.' accomplishes a unity that is truly in the Spirit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment
Tim Challies
Crossway, 2007

'With discernment comes division. A person who seeks to be discerning must be willing to
suffer the effects of this division' (p39).

And here lies the rub: not many in the church today seem willing to suffer whatsoever, much less suffer the ignominy of being called 'judgmental.'

Tim Challies points out that the worldview of 'Christians' is no different from the rest of the population, and recognizes the need in the church for believers who are gifted with spiritual discernment. He challenges congregations to seek the gift, overcome obstacles to its use, and actually employ it in the life of the church.

Challies does a good job of assessing the effects that a lack of discernment cause and the various challenges to its use. He surveys the biblical mandate for a discerning spirit, and cautions against improper judgment before setting out what things God tells us to judge.

Challies is unfairly critical, however, of gifts assessment tools. He takes several opportunities to criticize tools such as spiritual gifts inventories and surveys because there is no warrant for these in scripture (p131). However, in the same discussion he asserts that churches must create opportunities for their members to exercise their gifts, which does not seem to enjoy the scriptural warrant he demands for assessment tools. In the right context, and employed by those properly gifted, assessment tools are merely a method of helping to discern each member's giftedness. Besides, Challies later offers 'Five Principles' for a believer to discern his spiritual gift, which itself seems quite like an assessment tool!

Despite this slight misstep, Challies provides a good discussion of the need for discernment and how it should operate in the local church. His list of practical ways to exercise the gift should identify for most readers how their congregations are failing in this area: discernment can help the church 1) separate truth from error; 2) discern the will of God; 3) identify the presence and work of the Holy Spirit; 4) identify worldliness; 5) oversee the exercise of spiritual gifts; 6) decide disputes and 7) protect new Christians.

Good discernment, as it were, would recommend this book.

Monday, June 30, 2008

PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE AND TAKE THE OFFERING

I'm as big a patriot as the next guy. (I know...anyone who has to say that...)

But I've always been a bit wary of incorporating patriotic elements or themes in the church. Do we really need to have a US flag in all of them? And what about the 'Christian Flag'? At one time it was popular in Vacation Bible School and other settings to 'pledge allegiance to the Bible.' Does anyone else have concerns?

Yesterday our church began the service (it was an ordination service for a ministry candidate, by the way) with a medley of patriotic tunes which was more a call to light the fireworks than a call to worship. Right in the middle the congregation was invited to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag and to sing the National Anthem (can you send 'Regrets' to such an invite?).

This seemed a bit much.

Certainly Christians are to be the best citizens possible. It is definitely appropriate for Christians to be involved in government, civic matters and politics. And it would be a shame for Christians not to enjoy 'baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.' Watching the city's 4th of July fireworks display, accompanied by all the familiar Sousa tunes, is a favorite of the Faircloth clan.

But left unanswered are serious questions about 1) how the Christian, honoring God, appropriately demonstrates love of country and 2) how he keeps bold the line between patriotism and worship of the God who claims our total allegiance.

Don't look for all the answers here...supply some if you have them.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

ADMONISHING ONE ANOTHER

'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing each other, in psalsm, and hymns, and spiritual songs, in grace singing in your hearts to the Lord.' (Colossians 3:16).

'And I am persuaded, my brethren -- I myself also -- concerning your, that you yourselves also are full of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, able also one another to admonish.' (Romans 15:14).

'We proclaim him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.' (Colossians 1:28).

Essential to the proclamation of Christ is 'admonishing' every man who receives the message. Our role as ambassadors for Christ is not complete without this admonishment. Further, 'teaching' -- or imparting necessary information to the learner -- is distinguished from the admonishment. We know, then, that admonishment is something different from, and in addition to, telling men about Christ.

Paul tells the Romans and the Colossians that it is his expectation for every believer they they also 'admonish' one another. It is our duty to each other as 'ministers' one to another, as fellow members in the same body, to edify each other and build each other up. This admonishment, then, is not merely the province of the preacher and of the paid staff.

The Greek word for admonish is 'noutheteo' from which some derive the term 'nouthetic counseling.' The word is alternately translated 'admonish,' 'teach,' or 'exhort' but none of those truly capture the essence of what the term means. According to Jay Adams (The Christian Counselor's Manual, Competent to Counsel) nouthetic counseling is essentially confronting another believer with what is wrong, with some problem in that believer's life, and directing him with the authority of Scripture and of the Holy Spirit to change, to his betterment and to the glory of God.

Paul seems to indicate that this admonishment should be intentional and regular, and characterized by knowledge, wisdom, grace and the desire for the betterment of our brother. Instead, we tend to 'mind our own business' and leave our brothers to their own devices. We are slaves to the culture's idea that no one can tell anyone else how to live.

But God tells us otherwise. It is our duty to look after each other, protect each other, admonish each other, to speak the truth in love. By nouthetically counseling our brothers we are displaying the grace of God and participating in presenting each man complete in Christ.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

RUNNING THE COUNTRY 5-4

In the past week the US Supreme Court has issued rulings in two controversial and closely-followed cases by the narrowest of margins: five votes to four. In the first, the Court told the State of Louisiana that it could not impose the death penalty on those convicted of raping children. In the second, it told the District of Columbia that it could not ban firearms.

Is there anyone in the United States who agrees with both of them?

Most who would support the rights of law-abiding DC citizens to own guns (and honor the Second Amendment) would also support the right of a state to execute criminals (and honor the Fifth Amendment). Most who oppose the death penalty in general, and as it is applied to rapists in particular, would also support gun control. Thus those who were dismayed by the death penalty case found themselves rejoicing in the gun rights case, and vice versa.

The very fact that so many Supreme Court cases are being decided by one vote is an indication not that the best legal minds in the US disagree about the law, but that we are permitting the Court to decide issues best left to the States and to Congress. In essence, one vote has determined whether citizens may continue to exercise a right that has been enjoyed for 230 years, and one vote has determined that 4.5 million Cajuns may not put to death a criminal that they have democratically decided deserves that punishment.

The Framers and the Constitution they devised were not nearly as schizophrenic as the Court has become in passing on them.

It is decisions like these -- groups of inconsistent decisions -- that lead one to the conclusion that the Court is no longer the Judicial Branch, but has become the third house of Congress.

JESUS SUSTAINS ALL

Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus Christ upholds the universe by the word of his power, and Colossians 1:17 says that in him all things hold together.

This means that while Jesus was speaking to first-century denizens of the Middle East about camels and needle eyes, he could have caused Neptune to explode, or a different galaxy to change locations in the universe, or cause a certain bird to eat a certain insect on the plains of the Serengeti (though it probably wasn't called 'Serengeti' then). Could have...and probably did (well, we don't think he caused Neptune to explode).

We think this phenomenal, even impossible, and the thought causes many a theologian to wax apoplectic. But is it so different (in type, that is) from what we do each day in our own bodies? Which of us thinks about making our hearts beat, or our lungs expand and contract to draw air and then expel it? Which of us directs cells to collect nutrients from blood, from food, from oxygen? Who thinks about instructing other cells to divide, fight bacteria, or collect and dispose of waste on a microscopic level?

Knowing that, it is not so far out of the realm of imagination that God, while carrying on with man, is carrying on (in a different way) with millions of planets that are circling myriads of stars, which are growing, plateauing and declining.

So, since we don't consciously control our hearts, our breathing, our circulation, is it too radical, to overwhelming, too humbling to suppose that at this very moment Jesus Christ is making my own heart beat? And yours, too?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

APPROVING THE EXCELLENT

'And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.' -- Philippians 1:9-10

Do we always 'approve what is excellent'? Obviously not, but do we realize that our approval of the good is an enemy of the excellent, that approval of the mediocre and the bad maligns Christ and his gospel?

Here Paul writes from a Roman prison to the church at Philippi, which he had not visited in ten years. But he had learned of their situation: internal strife, legalism, careless living. And 1:3-11 he tells them three things: 1) the fact of his prayer; 2) the reason for his prayer; 3) the content of his prayer.

He describes their 'partnership in the gospel' and that they were 'partakers of grace' both in his imprisonment and the defense and confirmation of the gospel. Simply because they had been saved in Christ, they demonstrated the gospel, and their lives served to confirm (or deny) it. So he prays that their love would abound, with knowledge and discernment. But this was not the result he sought. Discerning love was to produce the ability to 'approve what is excellent.' In the midst of their trials, sufferings and difficulties they were nevertheless to approve the things that are excellent. Why? Simply to be good choosers? No, but so that they would be pure and blameless before Christ.

When we claim salvation in Christ, we become partners with every other believer in the gospel and in grace. Your friends are now mine; your enemies are now mine; your cause is now mine. Your success and your failure: now all mine. And, mine is yours. How we live -- approving the excellent or the not-so-excellent -- reflects on each other, on the gospel, and on Christ.

Paul's example is to pray, with rejoicing, that our fellow believers would 'approve what is excellent,' whether in our personal lives, work, family, or especially church.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

(UN)FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

'Honor your father and mother.' --Exodus 20:12

'There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.' --Proverbs 18:24

According to what 'they say', familiarity breeds contempt ('you know what they say...'). And I suppose that in most senses they are fairly close with this assessment. The more we get to know someone, the more we see things we didn't like and at first either didn't see or didn't want to see.

But if this truism were really true, then one would expect to see families blowing up all over the place. There are definitely too many 'dysfunctional' families, in which relationships are strained, communication blocked, and occasionally outright hostility manifested in frequent visits by the local police. Yet if it were true to say that familiarity breeds contempt, then shouldn't all of us be fleeing from one another?

What, then, accounts for the fact that family love and loyalty frequently exists -- thrives, even -- despite the full awareness of foibles, sin, disobedience, disappointment? What keeps most families out of rampant discord and hostility? It isn't only families that defy the truism. Something exists that enables people to overcome interpersonal matters that would customarily produce ill will.

Along with increased awareness of the unlovely, in the family we also see more of the lovely. In the family we see the unattractive but also the attractive; sin but also righteousness; the fall but also redemption. It is a cause -- the cause of Christ that for believers demonstrates that God shows us his glory in part through the brokenness of men -- that causes us to revel in the good while not excusing the bad, that develops loyalty in the face of contempt.

For Christians, familiarity with our brothers and sisters frequently does lead to contempt. But real familiarity, familiarity that is more familial in the truest sense of the word, leads past contempt to godly love and loyalty. It is the grace of Christ that enables us to be familial in this sense -- to view those who are not necessarily under our roof as nevertheless somehow still in our charge.

Monday, June 23, 2008

DEATH BY COMMITTEE

Q: How many church members does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: We all know Catholics use candles, not light bulbs. Presbyterians wouldn’t care, because it is obviously predestined that the light would go out. And Baptists would need 16 people: 2 to pass the collection plate for the new bulb; 2 to organize the pot luck supper to celebrate installation of the new bulb; and 12 to staff the new committee to explore conversion to incandescent bulbs.

Southern Baptists receive the brunt of committee-related jokes, and
deservedly so, since we paint a bright red joke target on our collective head called “Committee on Committees.” All humor aside, the use of committees in a church can have a dramatic and undesired effect upon that church’s ability to fulfill its mission. Many committees are service-based and organize volunteers for needed work in the church (even so, do we truly need a committee to “count”?). The problem arises in the number of committees given leadership responsibilities and their relationships to each other. Because Baptist churches are traditionally 'congregational' in government (which requires regenerate membership), authority and clearly defined leadership quickly become diluted in the average committee-dominated structure.

A contemporary phenomena in the U.S. Congress, which is apparently afraid to tackle serious issues, is the creation of special “Blue Ribbon Commissions” to decide the thorny issues so that each congressman’s position on the issue won’t create a threat to his re-election chances. Taking a cue from politics, in the typical church every idea, crisis or opportunity is met with the formation of a new committee. As a result, the deacons defer most questions and act as a board to manage the property and money, and are rarely, as a group, involved in the actual leadership of the church. The church committees are not restricted to deacons, or other appointed leaders, but are open to involvement by non-leader members.

Our committee-based church structures thus come to resemble our buildings: a hodgepodge of mismatched styles pieced together in a labyrinth of misdirection and circuitous routes, which no member could truly describe accurately and which leaves the uninitiated wanting to drop the proverbial trail of bread crumbs in order not get lost and meet an untimely demise in the redwood committee forest.

For churches that require their elected (or selected) leaders to meet the biblical requirements for deacons and elders, this presents a difficult and thorny issue. If the church is congregational in its polity – meaning that the church membership as a whole makes the ultimate, final decisions on all issues – the deacons or other leadership body makes recommendations on church life to the church. However, those “recommendations” are almost always accepted by the congregation, without much discussion as to their merits, due to the deference paid to the deacon body. Committees come to have almost the same deference and in their recommendations are rarely opposed. And thus committees, which include non-deacons, come to have almost as much authority, responsibility and leadership function as the deacons, yet are not required or expected to meet the qualifications for leaders.

Common committee structures thus pose two primary problems for the activity of church congregations: 1) the sheer volume of the committee bureaucracy burdens the church’s ability to conduct ministry and is extremely inefficient; 2) the delegation of biblical leader responsibility to committees is contrary to stated polity and permits immature and sometimes ungodly people to exert leadership responsibility.

On one occasion a local church, the deacons wanted to appoint someone to manage a Family Ministries program, which was established in the church’s by-laws but had not been created or operated. Once the deacons decided on the man they wanted, discussion turned to how to get him appointed. Pursuant to rule, either the Steering Committee or the Committee on Committees or the Nominating Committee had to recommend the appointment to the church, after which the church had to approve the appointment. The deacons decided to inform the Committee on Committees who it should select. The Committee agreed and presented the nomination, which the church approved.

This is, to be kind, schizophrenic and dishonest. In this situation no one really knew the proper procedure because so many committees, as well as the deacons, had stated responsibility in the matter. Furthermore, the committees served merely to rubber stamp the deacons’ recommendations. The whole matter was presented to the church as if it had come from the committee raising the motion. The much simpler process would have been the one that makes the most sense: let the deacons present their recommendations for the Ministry leader to the church. Or, better yet, let the deacons make the appointment without church “approval.” Discussion, much less opposition, to standing deacon or committee recommendations is so rare that the fa├žade of congregational involvement should be discarded.

On another occasion, a Sunday school Leadership Team had a vacancy in a Bible study teacher position. Because it had conducted teacher training and had firsthand knowledge of the Bible study program, it had a teacher in mind to fill the vacancy. However, because of rules it had to submit its recommendation to the Nominating Committee, which had to approve the recommendation and obtain approval from the church as a whole, a process which would take several weeks, at best. The much simpler process would be to permit the Sunday school Leadership Team to fill the vacancy, without having to obtain approval from any other committee or even the church.

When so many layers of bureaucracy and redundant “approval” exist, it hardly makes common sense to give deacons or Sunday School Teams any authority at all. The reality is that so much approval is not necessary, and serves only to impede the ministry of the church. And, at least in the occasions cited here, congregational “approval” is merely lip-service to democratic processes in the church. Those groups or committees with better knowledge of the needs should be freed to make decisions quickly and efficiently.

I personally believe that the best form of church polity, and the one most resembling the biblical example, is a congregational system in which elders manage spiritual concerns (Acts 6 – the ministry of the word and prayer) and deacons manage temporal concerns (Acts 6 – distributing resources to the needy members and other temporal needs). In such a system elders are recognized as godly leaders and are entrusted with general decision-making authority, while the congregation retains ultimate authority with its ability to choose and remove elders.

However, the most common form of protestant church government is likely the deacon-led scenario. In it deacons play a hybrid role of elder and deacon, shepherding and service. In fact, even among churches that vigorously disavow the elder form, elders are a de facto system. Responsibility for deciding spiritual matters, normally reserved for the elders, is given to various committees and church leaders, who might not be ordained members of the deacon board or elders, but who nevertheless fill the role of elders.

Some might be thinking at this point whether it makes any difference. Scripture tells us that the spiritual leaders (elders) and recognized servant leaders (deacons) must meet certain qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Instead, we select the members of leadership committees on the basis of “fair cross-sections”, egalitarianism, proportional representation, secular criteria such as business success, or – probably the worst – that inclusion on the committee might make invisible and uncommitted members more interested in church. We can select our leaders – regardless of whether they are called deacons, elders, or committee members – based upon biblical commands, or based upon our own limited, shortsighted and sinful notions of fairness. There is certainly a difference.

Churches can recover from the slow death and unbiblical leadership from which they now suffer. They can be like another church which had sixty committees for its 1200 members and which was slowly but surely dying a painful death of attrition. That church recognized the problem posed by its committees and completely changed its structure, abolished the stifling volume of committees, and adopted a board of elders and three standing committees. As a result, ministry flourished and the church came back to life.

Not every problem is caused by too many committees, and not every problem would be solved by streamlining a church’s governing structure. Ultimately it is God who grants the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Yet it is our responsibility to be orderly and efficient, and to remove any impediments to that order and efficiency. If we don’t, we will not be like the church that recovers and flourishes again, but we will be like the church that succumbed to the inefficiency and ministry-stifling agglomeration of committees:

F.B.C. R.I.P.

Here lies the putrid, festering remains of First Baptist Church, Everywhereville, which was condemned to a slow, agonizing, but altogether ignored death by the accretion of legions of blood-sucking and vitality draining vermin known as nefarious committius, which suffocated the congregation in bureaucracy and prevented life-sustaining ministry and biblical leadership.

In Loving Memory
1886-2006