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

POLLUTED SACRIFICES (Malachi 1:6-14)

Among other things, the Old Testament sacrificial system was an object lesson to God's people and to the nations that God is holy and that the sin of the people had offended that holiness. The animals sacrificed -- as the type of what was to come -- had to be without blemish. The perpetual shedding of the blood of substitutes served as constant reminder that God was continually holy, the people continually sinful. The promise, then, was for a once-for-all substitutionary sacrifice.

God's indictment of his people in Malachi for offering polluted sacrifices -- those that were lame, defective, sick -- was not (primarily) because God needed meat and was getting less than he deserved. The people were due chastisement because their substandard sacrifice profaned the type, and muted the lesson it was intended to convey. If the people could offer blemished sacrifices, perhaps, then, the Messiah could also be blemished.

The severity of our sin and the holiness of our God require that the substitute be without stain. Our sacrifices and offerings ('present your body a living and holy sacrifice') must, therefore, also be the best we can muster, not because we satisfy God with our best -- after all, our best is not good enough, and God has already been satisfied in Christ -- but because even after we have beheld the Lamb who took away the sins of the world we need constant reminder of his holiness, and the perfection of his redemption.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

REGENERATE CHURCH MEMBERSHIP

I once recommended to someone on the church's 'Membership Committee' that we begin to visit all of the people who were still listed among the church's members, but who had not attended any service of the church in as long as 15 years, and encourage them to attend faithfully or remove them from church rolls. The suggestion got around to others, and the responses ranged from typical resistance to change to disturbing ignorance of biblical teaching: 'we just don't do that here', 'people don't want to be told what to do,' 'who are we to take people off God's roll?'

That was years ago, and nothing has changed. Only thirty to forty percent of the church's 'membership' attends on any give Sunday, and no one seems to care.

Fortunately, the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination to which I and my church belong, has taken steps to address the regenerate membership issue by passing resolutions encouraging churches to admit only those who exhibit signs of regeneration and to return to the practice of church discipline, in which the church actually demonstrates concern for the ability of its members to live a Christian life.

With the types of resistance that are entrenched in most SBC churches, one wonders how long it will take for the Convention's non-binding resolutions to have any effect upon local congregations. George Barna and other researchers of Christian culture have found that so-called Christians behave no differently than those claiming no religious faith at all: trickle-down cannot occur soon enough, it would seem.

EVOLUTION AND REVENGE

"Don't take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God" (Romans 12:19).

Proponents of evolutionary theory suppose that every characteristic that now exists in beings today, most especially humans, is the product of natural selection, wherein blind, impersonal forces choose which mutations to keep and build upon, through countless millennia. The survival of the fittest asserts that only those characteristics best able to preserve the existence of the species is selected in this process.

But many things cannot be explained in this way. Such human emotions as love and affection, melancholy and irony don't fit this scheme. What purpose would these emotions serve in preserving the human species?

Revenge, the saying goes, is best served cold. Which leaves it an unappetizing dish and wholly unsuited for preserving offspring. Unlike the huge tusks of a bull elephant, representing his health and vitality, revenge does not accomplish the dominant male's right to breed or the abundance of his progeny. In fact, revenge is reputedly best when it has no utilitarian (Darwinian) benefit whatsoever. Revenge is delicious to the one serving it up when he has already been shown to be the least fit, so to speak.

CHRISTMAS CARDS FROM ORPHANS

Should an alien be charged with the task of assessing just what sort of beings existed on earth, and what was important to them, but could only do so by visiting a post office in December, he might very well conclude that all of the people on earth were children, wore white clothing and lived at the beach. He might also conclude that everyone had credit problems.

I am looking now at a 2007 Christmas greeting card -- the kind that incorporate a family photo -- still magnetically affixed to our refrigerator. We received quite a few of them, and of all that we got I only recall one that included parents in the photograph. It's as if the only people truly interested in Christmas are the kids.

Is that as it should be? Is the only compelling reason for a thing that it is "for the children"? (Recall Dr Joycelyn Elders' proclamation that we need 'safer bullets' for the children, but not, apparently, for adults, who are able to handle dangerous bullets just fine). Do adults not have a compelling interest in Christmas, in the advent of Christ? Have we become so anti-adult, so pro-child, so enamored with Peter Pan that we have unwittingly become kidolaters?

Sure, Jesus was a child for part of his earthly life, but no significant role in his ministry was occupied by anyone other than an adult. During his short ministry he was an adult, his disciples were adults, his opponents were adults. Yes, children are important, but primarily because they will, eventually, become adults.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

NAME DROPPING

Charles Stanley has said that some people are not really Christians, but are merely 'name droppers.' These readily report 'I am a Christian' and 'I'm blessed' (which necessarily implies that they are blessed by God or Jesus). The ubiquitous phrase 'Oh My God!' in innumerable -- and sometimes completely incongruous -- circumstances begs the question of what those uttering it are actually doing; it strains credulity to suppose that all of them are redeemed through Christ, rather than simply needing some filler to cover the inadequacy of vocabulary to express a bubbling emotion. Only recently the cross was seen everywhere -- and some places that it shouldn't be seen -- and this seems to have become the new cross, typed without thought into history through texting -- or saying -- 'OMG' whenever space demands.

Rather than being a mere name-dropper, we should, instead, be sure that we are 'name-callers'; not in the schoolyard taunt sense, but in the sense that we 'call upon the name of the Lord,' in recognition of our weakness and inability to save ourselves, and his utter capacity for strength and salvation.

Friday, June 20, 2008

TO LABEL OR NOT TO LABEL

As Jonathan Edwards said, labels are necessary. Even as basic as labeling someone 'Christian' or 'American' conveys much important meaning without redundant detail or explanation.

But if labels are misused? They are frequently employed to immediately stop discourse -- usually when the one using them is losing the debate -- as when one is called 'racist' or 'Calvinist.'

What people usually object to when they use these labels is a caricature of the thing, not the thing itself. Most are objecting to a stylized straw man, and easy target for those ignorant of the real issues.

When believers, for instance, object to 'Calvinism' because it teaches that people are robots and God created some people just to condemn them, who wouldn't object? The Democrats accomplish the same thing by claiming Republicans are for dirty air and water.

It is very easy for us to create a caricature of our opponent, or of his position, and then attack that. It is usually much easier, and more successful.

WATCHING THE PAINT DRY

Why does watching song and dance bring such pleasure, such pleasure and enjoyment that we might even pay to see others do it well?

Why don't we consider other things -- performed just as well -- worth watching? Would we pay to see a carpenter build a bookcase? To watch the baker mix batter for a cake? To see the cleaners iron our shirts? No, we simply want the result of those things: the bookcase, the cake, and pressed shirt.

This must have significance in the area of worshiping God, who we don't see but whose results we do see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

THE LIFEBOAT THEORY

Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What) proposes that we all act as if we are in a cultural lifeboat, in which permission to remain in the boat depends upon the approval of the majority in the boat. This requires us to jockey for relative position, presenting ourselves as being more valuable to the group than others.

This would include attempting to be more valuable to the group because we make more money, or because we know more people, or because we are better looking, more influential, more entertaining. This is consistent with the error that the disciples made in asking Jesus "who is the greatest in the kingdom," and Jesus chastisement of them that we can't believe because we receive glory from each other and not from him. What those who live according to the lifeboat theory don't realize is that satisfying the other occupants of a boat in a shipwreck situation might be useful, when those occupants decide whether you will remain as a potential survivor or as lunch.

But life, as it were, is not that situation. Sure, we need rescuing. But it is not the others in the boat that determine whether we stay long enough to meet the rescuers. That determination belongs only to God, who determines which ones are in the boat to begin with. So satisfying our fellows is not important, but satisfying God is. And the only way to satisfy God is to rest in the satisfaction made by Another, Jesus Christ.

RELATIONAL JESUS (John 7:43-46)

Men sent by the Pharisees to capture Jesus reported back to their bosses that they were unable to catch him. Scripture records that "no one laid a hand on him" (John 7:44). The Pharisees, not surprisingly, were a bit miffed about this, and asked the temple police officers why they had not brought Jesus back.

"No one ever spoke like this man!" was their reply (John 7:46).

Many people would agree with Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What) and Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis, Sex God) that the primary reason Jesus came to earth was to enable men to have a relationship with him, that Jesus was the preeminent example of how to relate to people. Thus they would reduce the total of who Jesus is and what he did (Christology) to his being "relational Jesus."

Yet the temple lackeys failed to arrest Jesus not because he "related" to them, but because of what he said! Men who came to Jesus initially as his enemies, as those who would deliver him over to one who would kill him, left completely different men. And they were different not because Jesus "related" to them, but because of what he taught. His words were what kept these men from capturing him.

Lest we think that Jesus' words were designed to "relate," like the pseudo-psychiatric babble coming from the lips of Oprah or Dr Phil, here is some of what Jesus said: "if anyone wants to do God's will, he will know about my teaching" (7:17); "Hasn't Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law!" (7:19); "do not judge according to external appearance, but judge with proper judgment" (7:24); "you will look for me but will not find me, and where I am you cannot come" (7:34).

Jesus at times did speak words of comfort and encouragement. Yet he also spoke words of truth, words that challenged the assumptions of the religious leaders that their acceptance by God depended on their inherent worth, that exposed improper notions about the goodness of men, that revealed truth about God's holy character, Jesus' mission, and the Holy Spirit's future work.

Monday, June 16, 2008

COME AS YOU ARE

The mantra of many a congregation is that everyone is welcome to attend their church 'just as they are.' This usually -- and rightfully -- means that those outside the church should feel comfortable to attend without changing themselves to look like those inside. (One would hope that no one means, by 'come as you are', that they arrive in the same condition as when they had just gotten out of the shower.)

We also say that God welcomes sinners 'just as they are.' When this means that one need not become holy before coming to God, it is an accurate representation of biblical teaching, for no one can be holy without God, and everyone comes to God with only his sinful condition in hand. It is after one has come to God that God makes those changes, where necessary.

Frequently, however, what we truly mean when we recite these phrases, and what we are teaching those we attempt to invite by uttering them, is 'Come as you are, and leave as you came.' But the Bible tells us that if a man has actually come to God, he will leave a different man. Not necessarily different in his outward, physical appearance, but different either in that his standing has shown confirmed in his rejection or acceptance of God, or different in the attitudes of his heart having met the living God.

Sure, 'Come as you are,' but leave as God wills.

WHY MEN RULE

In a recent post to his website (www.albertmohler.com), Al Mohler refers to an article in Foreign Policy entitled "Why Men Rule -- and Conservatives will Inherit the Earth." The gist of the article is that society will experience a return to patriarchy, and despite feminist doom saying, this will be a good thing.

One wonders whether -- if accurate -- this prediction will also affect the evangelical church, which, while almost exclusively patriarchal in terms of pastoral gender, has become almost exclusively matriarchal in government. There is no dispute that there have been abuses in the exercise of male authority. We are, after all, sinners. But there is also abuse when the authority pendulum has swung to the other extreme and matriarchal influence is in ascendancy.

Some church women, aware of the virtually all-male leadership in evangelical churches, might now be thinking "What female authority?" But one must realize that there is official authority and then there is unofficial authority. Most churches present a paradigm of de jure male leadership and authority, but engage in practices and procedures that result in de facto female leadership and authority. Deacons (and/or elders) are typically male, but the various systems of committees and ministries ensure that women, who generally are more involved in the average church, are the ones actually doing things and exercising authority.

Some might say that this is not so bad, and given the fact that many male church leaders don't measure up to the biblical standard of spiritual leadership, that argument has legs. But it is not the picture of the church that God paints in Scripture.

Female influence typically -- perhaps stereotypically -- includes such concerns as unity, affirmation and nurture. The paternal instinct, by contrast, includes the interest in assessment, progress, classification and repair. The resulting conflict can be readily seen in the interest of the male Sunday school director attempting to implement a method of training and evaluating bible teachers when it meets the maternal interest of teachers themselves, who are far and away predominately female, to preserve unity and harmony. The director wants to ensure that all bible teachers are properly handling the word of God, while the female teachers see that effort as a threat to the self-esteem of teachers.

The tension between the patriarchal and matriarchal influences can also be seen in how each proposes to handle the problems that inevitably arise in churches. The feminine response to problems includes: 1) "I don't want to talk about it" or "There is no problem", 2) it is not 'loving' to speak of the problem, 3) it will go away, 4) if we 'love on each other' all will be well. Men, too, have been feminized to the extent that they avoid conflict, contention and struggle of any kind.

Much has been written about the reasons men are staying away from churches in droves. David Murrow wrote about this in Why Men Hate Going To Church. There is also The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Leon Podles), No More Christian Nice Guy (Paul Coughlin) and Manly Dominion in a Passive-Purple-Four-Ball World (Mark Chanski), to name a few. Undoubtedly one of the reasons that men stay away from church is the feminization they find there, which is most significantly manifested (how's that for irony?) in the exercise of authority and the style leadership employed.

Women are vital for the health and vitality of the church. The maternal instinct, influence and interests are crucial for the church to fulfill its role in God's kingdom. But male interests and passions are also indispensable for the balance and vigor of the church, as can be readily seen where the masculine influence has been forsaken in favor of the feminine.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

EVALUATING TEACHING, PT 2

Churches of all stripes typically suffer from abysmal attendance rates as a function of membership. On any given Sunday in Southern Baptist churches, for instance, fifty percent or less (usually much less) of the recorded membership is present at morning worship. Even fewer attend morning Bible study.

We do not tolerate such rates of apathy in any other context. Civic groups, for instance, require attendance at a certain percentage of meetings on threat of expulsion, and harbor no pangs of conscience for expelling someone who fails to meet the club's standards.

Yet churches are curiously different, refusing to address the non-attendance of 'members.' One might say that the church should not treat membership as the world does, and in a certain sense, that is true. But the church should not treat membership with less respect than the world does, but more, and in different kind.

Similarly, we do not tolerate the lack of evaluation or the imposition of standards in other circumstances. We expect our plumbers, electricians, doctors to have met some minimum standards to ply their trade, and many of those trades require continuing education to remain licensed to practice in their area of expertise. Even volunteers, such as those involved in disaster relief and 'Candy Stripers' receive training.

But mention the idea that Sunday school teachers should be trained and evaluated and you'll find much weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would seem that in the context of the Christian church there are no expectations of membership, and when it comes to handling the Word of God, not merely for one's own edification but for the instruction of others, no standards need apply.

The effect of this phenomenon is that it is more difficult to gain membership in the Rotary Club or the Exchange Club, and once a member, to remain so, than it is to become a member and remain in good standing in the average church. We are required to think more, exert more, and feel more in our jobs, our hobbies and our interests (the example of sports boosters says it all) than we are ever asked to do in our church.

I do not speak here of becoming a member of God's church universal, the kingdom of Christ, to which no man can add standards of entry or requirements of membership. But God, in his Scripture, has provided certain standards that his people are to apply. Participation in God's kingdom, through the local church, should certainly stimulate more of our minds, our energies, and our passions, and in much more profound fashion, than does our participation in the world.

TRUTH IN A COFFEE CUP

What's more common than a cup of coffee? One would hardly expect to discover anything profound there. Yet you might...

Sugar dumped from your teaspoon into the coffee makes a distinctive sound, like that of tissue paper quickly torn. And, if you pour creamer in just afterward, the creamer will ride the current created by the sugar.

What is the profundity, you ask? Perhaps that significant truths can be demonstrated in small, seemingly insignificant events.

Friday, June 13, 2008

SELF-MADE RELIGION

"...a moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures. If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God's rescue operation in a message of self-help."

--Michael Horton, "Are Churches Secularizing America?" Modern Reformation, V17, N2, 2008.

LANCING BOILS

If you put on a pair of shoes and your feet hurt as a result, the problem could be one of two things. First, it might be that that shoes are too small or are poorly made. In that case, get different shoes. But Second, it could be because the foot is deformed -- with bunions, corns, blisters, extra toes. In that case, getting rid of the shoe does not help -- the next one will hurt just the same. The foot must be reformed before any shoe will fit comfortably. This means scraping corns, resetting crooked toes, lancing boils. This means pain, but ultimately all shoes fit better and the foot is healthier.

HIBERNATING BEARS AND FROST-PROOF CRICKETS

According to a program on the Animal Planet, bears 'adapted' the ability to hibernate in 'response' to food shortages. Additionally, certain crickets 'adapted' the capacity to withstand being frozen solid. In other words, evolution occurring over millions of years produced in these bears and crickets an ability they did not possess before.

Yet scientists don't know how either of these animals accomplishes its cold-weather feats. If they don't know how it's done, how can scientists be certain that those abilities 'evolved'? The idea of evolution such as this is that the accumulation of many minute changes are passed down through generations, eventually resulting in the characteristics we observe now. So, at one time, bears could not hibernate. On this theory, the first bear 'hibernated' a little bit, his bear son hibernated a little more, and so on until the great-great bear grandson made it all the way through winter.

Can anyone see the problem? The case of the cricket makes the difficulty more obvious. The first cricket in the evolutionary chain could not withstand being frozen solid. Little Jiminy, therefore, died. After attempting to survive being frozen Jiminy left no cricket offspring to whom to pass his contribution to the evolutionary process -- jumping into the freezer.

Another problem is that there are plenty of cold-weather animals that do not have this ability to hibernate. Most notable among them: men. What makes one animal 'adapt' favorably and others not? The evolutionists thus propose a position that these hibernating creatures are 'smarter' than humans. Sure, men can fashion warm clothing and build heaters, but so what?

Isn't it more reasonable, doesn't it make more sense, that these animals were designed this way?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

THROWING OFF THE SHACKLES

People sometimes speak of "throwing off the shackles" of whatever has previously bound them. When the shackles are alcoholism, drug abuse or government oppressors we know what it means to throw them off. Yet occasionally men talk of escaping the clutches of Christianity or 'religion' that has previously been a philosophical or moral oppressor.

But throwing off one set of shackles merely makes us ready to be fit with the next. Those who manage to throw off one set of shackles find themselves bound to another, whether of his own choosing or not. It is not the release from improper bondage that is problematic, but the idea that once 'freed' we are autonomous.

The man who 'escapes' the shackles of Christianity, for instance, will then be bound by religion. The one freed from religion, bound by 'spirituality' of various kinds. From spirituality, moral consciousness. From moral consciousness, cultural expectations, societal rules, conventions, wealth, fame, standing, and so forth.

Man, because we are not God, will be bound by something. The question is merely whether we will be bound to the right Master.

CRUDE ON THE COB

Certainly by now I am not the only one who has noticed the utter stupidity of current US energy policy. Of course, calling it 'policy' implies that someone has actually thought about it, which is perhaps giving a bit too much credit. Images of knees jerking come to mind.

Gas prices are soaring, the price of crude oil is soaring, and more than likely the incidents of hitherto unknown 'pump rage' will soon be soaring. Oh, and the oil sheiks across the pond are soaring off the moguls on their full-size, indoor ski slope, purchased with the profit from my driving to work and hauling rug rats to T-ball.

We are, at present, refusing to open up new oil fields for drilling and are making it as difficult as possible to open new refineries (to process Saudi oil) or build new nuclear plants. That big slurping sound you hear is China sucking the oil and natural gas from under the Gulf of Mexico. Soon our heads of state will not only be begging increased production from Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but also from the Chi-Coms. Jamaica was able to put together a bobsled team for the Winter Olympics: perhaps, they, too will soon be drilling our oil.

The response from alleged leaders is noticeably juvenile. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently opined that we should be developing power from wind and solar sources and from battery-operated-cars good for 100 miles before a plug-in. I was waiting breathlessly for him to suggest that we harness the power of twisted rubber bands, or juice up every gerbil exerciser in the country.

God gave us corn. God gave us oil. He did not give us Ethanol, and for a very good reason. Corn makes delicious foodstuffs: cornbread, fritters, muffins, tortillas, taco shells, and nachos. It is also crucial for agriculture, fattening our cows, pigs and chickens. Corn is good to eat. Oil, on the other hand, is good to burn. And to lubricate the moving parts of machines that burn it.

Yet, what is our stance toward these two, God-given resources? Leave the oil in the ground and put the corn in the car.

If we rely on this logic for too much longer, household exchanges might sound like this:

Boy: 'Daddy, I sure am hungry. What's for supper?'
Daddy: 'Crude on the cob. Dip this dried up husk in some oil and suck on it.'

A Call to Comfort (Evaluating Teaching Pt 1)

"People in Sunday School should feel comfortable, welcome, loved, and willing to help." So says a long-time Bible study teacher who was advocating against the notion of evaluating church Bible teachers. Is this true? If so, then what is the difference between an alleged Christian Sunday School class and the local Garden or Exchange Club?

Is this what the calling of Christ has become? A summons for those willing to forsake all for the Christ to 'come, and be comfortable?'

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CIRCUS FREAKS

At one time the freakshow was one of the most popular attractions at the circus. Bearded ladies, and three-legged men were once the object of derision and horror in sideshows.

Now, however, men can intentionally fork their tongues, hormones give facial hair to women and breasts to men, and those body distortions and manipulations that cannot be attained by pushing, pulling, piercing, prying and stretching can be purchased through plastic surgery.

The freakshow is on the front page and walking down the street.

CASTING ABOUT IN SOCK FEET

A colleague chastises me for slipping of my loafers and walking around the office in my sock feet. There is no unbearable stench or ugly toes poking through threadbare material. He just doesn't like feet. But why wear loafers (he does) and only remove them at home? Why obtain the ability to easily remove your shoes but never use it?

CONVENIENCE WITHOUT UTILITY IS MERE NOVELTY.

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL GOOD FOR?

'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.' Romans 1:16

Presumably we Christians believe that the gospel is powerful for salvation, for bringing men from darkness to light, from condemnation to justification, from enmity with God to reconciliation with him. In essence, for assuring that those who believe in Christ will go to heaven when they die.

Yet in some areas we act as if this is the only thing that the gospel is good for - holy fire insurance - and that it has no other effect before we die.

Certainly it is true that for the gospel to be powerful to change my behavior or my condition, it must first be powerful in bringing me from spiritual death to spiritual life - 'salvation' in its narrowest sense. But then, after powerfully changing my eternal condition, it is powerful for my transformation into the likeness of Christ - 'salvation' in its fullest sense.

When we say, however, that we can't discipline other members of our congregations, or exhort those contemplating divorce to consider other solutions, or challenge men to holiness, or expect better things from those calling themselves 'Christian,' we are saying that the gospel is not powerful. We are saying that though the gospel is powerful to save me from hell, it is impotent to make me a resident of heaven.

In fact, the church has forsaken the transformation power of the gospel in favor of worldly methods. We are saying, in effect, that the the truth cannot, in fact, set us free.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

WHO IS JUDGING WHOM? (2 Cor. 5:12-13)

The congregation of a Baptist church became quite exercised when a pool hall across the street applied for a liquor license with the city. Because of the natural -- and admittedly stereotypical -- incompatibility of Baptists and beer, strategies were devised, the warnings sounded, and the forces mobilized. It was considered a great victory when the city, primarily due to the agitation of the church, denied the liquor license, and the pool hall eventually closed. (It was not reported whether the hall's patrons had also been dancing and playing cards.)

In 2 Corinthians 5:12-13 the apostle Paul warns the church that it is to judge those on the inside, not those on the outside, because God would handle them. Yet the congregation that expended such energy in excising "evil" from the surrounding community turned a blind eye to the greed, selfishness, anger and unfaithfulness of its own members. To be fair, most congregations are the same in this regard, refusing to exercise discipline and tolerating sin in their midst.

The church, according to Scripture, should judge those inside, not those outside, yet we do precisely the opposite. We judge those outside as if they should know better, and ignore those inside as if they should not.

The world thus sees the church criticizing people who do not know God for drinking, gambling, sexing, spending, killing and all the rest, without offering any hope of reconciliation with God. At the same time, the world sees the church permitting its members to live however they want, without any consequence.

Perhaps Paul challenged the church to exhort its own members to faithful, holy living in order for it to establish a voice with those outside, with those who might long for an example of truly changed and redeemed lives from those who claim the gospel is powerful to change and redeem them.

Besides, given his behavior in Scripture, one suspects that Jesus would have been over at the pool hall ministering, not throwing stones across the street.

Monday, June 9, 2008

BIBLICAL OBITUARIES (Gen. 5)

One of the most popular sections in the newspaper is the obituaries. More compelling than the economic news, crime report, comics or even advice columns, most readers want to know who died. Perhaps this is due to an obsession with our own mortality -- as long as the deceased were older than we are, we feel a bit better about our own prospects. Perhaps we secretly wish to one day turn to the obituaries, expecting to read the usual fare of certain death, only to see a blank page because people have stopped dying.

For some of us, perhaps, if we are honest, there is no small amount of pleasure -- be honest! -- that even the rich, powerful, mean, and wicked sometimes die.

Thousands of years ago people also got news about death. In fact, the first Obituary appears in the Bible. Genesis Chapter 5 lists no less than eight obituaries, including the dead man's surviving relatives and age of death, which make the reports much like their modern counterparts (except that the average age was 907.5 years! Even the most severe hypochondriac among us would have been at least a little bit relieved.).

Earlier, Adam & Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden and God had pronounced judgment on them, a judgment that had previously included the warning "you shall surely die." But we don't see death recorded, at least not yet. Instead, we see Adam & Eve procreating, Cain killing Abel (but himself surviving), and Cain's progeny advancing various aspects of society. One might be inclined to decide that whatever "surely die" meant, it did not involve physical death.

But then we are told, in Chapter 5, in a rhythmic, monotonous recitation that man, after man, after man, no matter the extraordinary length of life he enjoyed, or the power he wielded, or the wealth he had, did, in fact, die, die, die. Assuredly, irrevocably, relentlessly, God's proclamation of death as punishment for sin was carried out.

With one exception.

'Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him' (Gen. 5:21). In the middle of this methodical funeral procession is the report we sometimes wish to see in our own newspaper obits: someone did not die.

Why is this here? What was special about Enoch? Not much, except that God took him. In the midst of all this description about the effects of judgment, which was itself the result of God's initiative in punishing sin and preserving his holiness, is a description of the only thing that could possibly save him from that judgment: God's initiative in redemption.

While we can be sure that God's word is true -- he will punish sin -- we can also be sure that God is able to save men out of sin and death. That this truth appears early in redemptive history, early in God's revelation to man in Scripture, makes his redemption of individuals no longer an uncertain response of men to God, but a certain, definite, and completely successful rescue operation initiated by God toward men.

FAITH IN FAITH

Posted on the marquis of a public middle school: "It doesn't matter what you believe -- only that you believe."

Lets hold off, for a moment, on the standard jokes regarding the competency of public schools to educate, and test this proposition. Lets suppose that a middle school student could actually read the marquis and began to put its truth proposition into practice (and yes, the statement is a proposition about truth, regardless of its contention that truth does not matter). Sammy Student formulates the belief, based upon his school marquis, that good grades were not dependent upon completing coursework, paying attention in class, or even upon attending school. He receives an "F" (this may be a bit unrealistic, because giving bad grades could be considered too "judgmental") but "believes" that it is an "A", and his fragile self-esteem is, at least temporarily, preserved.

Or, lets suppose that Sammy believes that drugs were not truly illegal. Or that it was acceptable for him to beat another student senseless in the bathroom. Or that strapping explosives to his chest and blowing his student body (in both senses) to smithereens would make him a hero.

Would it be any comfort, or would it meet reality in any sense, for him to explain these things "Well, I believed., and isn't that what really matters?"

What I "believe" is that this vacuous, feel-good tripe is both unlivable and self-contradictory. As Sammy Student so painfully discovers, the proposition does not enable him to live his life, because he would not live long believing "It will not hurt me if I step in front of this chicken truck." Furthermore, the statement is self-defeating. If it does not matter what I believe, then I don't need to believe this statement. Because it proposes an accurate assessment of reality, it is a truth claim. But if the statement is true, it proves itself untrue.

Is this what passes for education? Or what people believe about life? I believe so, and that is what matters.

NIBBLING AT THE SKIN

We are dabblers most of the time. In most things in life, we simply skim along the surface and refuse to go deep. Relationships, work, and even our play don't get our full attention or our best efforts. For most of us in the West, even our faith is susceptible to this perfunctory treatment.

We float on the surface of the water, and then complain that it's hot and refuse to jump in for a dip.

We nibble at the skin of the apple and complain that it doesn't taste very good.

CHRISTIAN WARRIORS ON THE INJURED RESERVE

Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century Baptist preacher in England, said that every Christian is born a warrior. "It is his destiny to be assaulted, his duty to attack."

Instead, most men find themselves in the infirmary, with little injury other than having sat on their helmet.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

THINKING "OUTSIDE THE BOX"

The expression may, by now, be a bit passe, but one hears occasionally within church culture references to thinking and acting "outside the box." Unfortunately, many are willing, even anxious, to join the hordes of those who "think outside the box" (but who are most definitely, by now, calling it something else entirely), even when such thinking puts us squarely outside the confining walls of Scripture. Indeed, the "walls" of Scripture liberate, rather than confine.

The common refrain among these free spirits is that those of us who insist on permitting Scripture to limit our sin-prone mental wanderings are "putting God in a box." Yet if true this proposition would leave us in the position of asserting that God created a box that he does not inhabit and necessarily ignores.

PRAISING EXCELLENCE

If praise is, as C S Lewis proposed, the natural expression of one's pleasure in an object -- if expression of delight is necessary for the completion of delight -- then the ease with which we praise earthly things is an indictment on our reticence -- or feigned inability -- to praise God in worship.

We express appreciation to one another, with relative ease, in many earthly contexts:

--sports fans over an athlete's monster slam dunk, game-winning grand slam home run, or touchdown bomb;

--music afficianodos over the driving beat or haunting melody of the latest relase;

--investors about a great stock acquisition or windfall real estate profit;

--comedy buffs over that well-timed punchline;

--a crowd's collective 'oohs' and 'ahs' at the city fireworks display;

Even schoolboys know how communicate praise to one another when they marvel at the velocity of a burp or the pungency of a fart (for more about the spiritual ramifications of passing gas, check out Martin Luther, whose gastro-intestinal problems provided him great insight in this area).

And acknowledgment of an object's excellence is more than mere academic assessment. Some critics might assess a work of art at the museum as follows: "The composition is good, subject matter inspiring, use of color apt, and attention to detail superior." But that observer is much more impoverished in the face of excellence than the less well-heeled onlooker who, nudging the patron next to him, says "Wow! Dude, that's awesome!"

Many professing Christians and habitual churchgoers can recite the technical specifications of the God we claim to worship (doctrine and theology), but one has to wonder whether delight is at all a relevant description of our worship. Many regularly attend to the worship of God without ever having said to himself, much less to anyone else, "Wow! Dude, God is awesome!"