Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Leader or Tour Guide?

Ten spies with a bad report outvoted the two with a good report, and the word they brought back to Israel about the Promised Land reflected their attempt to justify their own reaction (Numbers 13:30-33).

Israel then 1) raised a loud cry; 2) wept; then 3) grumbled against their leaders (Numbers 14:1-4) -- a familiar sequence in ministry. In their dialogue with themselves (there is no record that they actually discussed this with Moses, or with God) they concluded "Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt."

In this instance they did not want a leader: they simply wanted a tour guide. They had already decided what they wanted and "leadership" -- from God or otherwise -- was the last thing on their minds. Leaders such as Israel wanted in this instance are the ones used to trip the booby traps or be the first ones eaten in a bear attack.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is the Lord's Hand Shortened?

Before Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6) he had just delivered a sermon in which he based his authority to forgive sins on the fact that he only did what the Father gave him to do. Interestingly, he cites to them the example of Moses (John 5:45), and that because they did not believe Moses, they would not believe him.

Moses, it turns out, dealt with the same problem in Numbers 11. The people grumbled against God and his provision of manna, and God promised to fill them so full of the meat they craved until it “comes out at your nostrils” (Numbers 11:20). Moses, like Philip and Andrew after him, couldn’t see how God could provide meat to 600,000+ hungry Israelites. God told Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (Numbers 11:23).

The people followed Jesus because of the signs he performed. Philip and Andrew thought that Jesus’ hand was shortened: how could he feed 5,000+ hungry groupies? And Jesus – forgetting all ‘seeker-sensitive’ principles – told the crowd that they only liked him because he fed their bellies.

Using the incident of Moses, manna, nostril-filling quail, and the loaves and fishes, Jesus points out that they don’t really need to have their bellies filled, but they really need their souls filled. And what was it that would fill their hungry souls? Why, the same Jesus who worked only what God told him to and fed 5,000+ in a miraculous way. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “Fill yourself with me.”

Indeed, now you shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Reverse Copernican Revolution

Scientists, intellectuals and those generally predisposed against organized religion railed against the resistance of the church and other conservatives to the notion that the Sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system. That resistance remains the basis of criticism that the church and conservatives are "anti-scientific."

What a difference a few centuries makes.

Now, the church and conservatives are advocating restraint against the wholesale reordering of world societies -- and the economic and social upheaval it will cause -- around the generally unproven notion that there is such a thing as "man-made global warming."

Now, it is the so-called scientists and intellectuals who advocate "green" everything with dire predictions (whose deadlines are constantly revised) of the melting of polar ice caps, submerged Caribbean islands, and the images of hapless polar bears with no ice to call home. Apocalyptic language, it seems, is not the sole province of religious types. Then again, the "blind faith" frequently ridiculed by intellectual culture seems now to be held by those worshiping at a green altar.

With revelations that green science may, in fact, have intentionally manipulated data in order to promote its agenda, it would seem that they are the ones now insisting that the earth is the center of the universe.

Perhaps this is the Copernican revolution in reverse.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


"He is no leader who does not recognize leadership in others. He is no Christ-follower who cannot see the gift of the Spirit in his brother."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Zero Tolerance for Functionally Illiterate Congressmen

Speaking of "Zero-Tolerance," if it's such a good thing for catching those subversive Boy Scouts and their confounded camp tools, why not for Congressmen who don't read bills?

By the way, the little-known and only recently discovered Federalist Papers, Part 2 reveals that many of the Framers had a solution for awful Congressmen who keep getting voted in by their districts: once a year each State could exercise an Interstate Veto and fire a Senator or Reprentative from any other State.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zero Tolerance Policy Saves School from Spork

Citizens should take comfort to know that the increased efforts of law enforcement to protect society from dangerous elements has resulted in the capture of two would-be criminals, Matthew Whalen and Zachary Christie.

In Lansinburg, New York, Whalen, a high school student, was prevented from “surviving” when a two-inch survival knife was confiscated from his locked car on school grounds. Such weapons have been used to cut twine and open envelopes in the past. Whalen hid his lawless intent behind a veneer of respectability, having joined the “Boy Scouts,” obtaining the rank of “Eagle Scout,” and going so far as to save a relative using CPR he learned there.

In Newark, Delaware, officials uncovered the plot of Zachary Christie, a grade school “Cub Scout,” to eat his lunch with a camping tool. These alleged “camping tools” include such dangerous implements as a fork, a spoon, and a butter knife, which when placed in cups in the cafeteria lunch line pose no threat, but when combined in one utensil and wielded by a trained subversive such as Christie threaten the peaceable enjoyment of lunch everywhere.

One cannot help but notice the common theme in these recent law enforcement successes. Both suspects are members of the “Boy Scouts,” a subversive organization engaging in such anti-social and lawless behavior as “Pledging Allegiance,” praying, selling popcorn, and “camping” – a thinly-veiled and poorly hidden training ground for survival after they have succeeded in overthrowing the government and lawful society.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that these ruffians have also come into contact with homeschoolers, engaged in hunting, shopped at Wal-Mart, and read the Constitution of the United States.

Sleep safe, America.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Church Health: When NOT to spend $90k on an organ

The vast majority of churches in the United States have them. Most church members wouldn’t know how to operate one. You risk your life if you leave your cup of coffee on top of them. They are emblazoned with the nameplate of the benefactor who donated them. It takes several brutish men to change their location.

No, I am NOT talking about the media center copy machine.

There was a time when an organ was considered against good taste, at best, and an instrument of the devil, at worst, especially when used in the church (gasp!) in which case the devil himself was attempting to sabotage the saints with the sort of frivolous diversion that characterized the theaters from whence they came.

Now, we say that about drum sets.

Perennial debates about how to spend resources in the church abound. Some things must be paid: salaries, insurance, licenses, mortgages. Other things fall within the discretion and wisdom of the church: how much to contribute to the Cooperative Program (for Southern Baptists), how much to give to local missions, how much to provide in local benevolence, and so forth.

Whether to spend $90,000 for repairs to an organ that is as old as the church is, contrary to sentiment, optional. That is, having an organ is not necessary for the ministry of the church.

Some will contend that the organ is like the furnace or the roof and must be maintained in order to be good stewards of the church’s physical plant. Yet an organ is merely a musical instrument, and if the furnace has outlived its usefulness and would cost more to repair than it’s worth, the church would consider buying a new HVAC instead.

Some will content that the people expect the church to have an organ and need it for worship. Perhaps that is why God broke the organ in the first place.

The decision to have an organ, or to fix one that’s broken, is certainly an individual church’s to make. But the church should consider other ways that $90,000 could be used to further God’s kingdom. For that money, the church could easily support two or three foreign missionaries for a year. It could purchase thousands of Gideon bibles, hundreds of copies of the Jesus film, or support many children in poverty-stricken areas of the world through organizations such as Compassion International.

Ninety-thousand dollars to hear wind blow through a bunch of pipes, or to hear the wind of the gospel of salvation blow through unreached areas of the world? It’s really not much of a choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Sermon is Not a Music Video

In Part 1 I began a discussion for those called upon to listen to sermons. Here we will review some basics to distinguish sermons from other contemporary forms of communication.


I know. This comparison may be lost on those to whom music video is just as anachronistic as “butter churn” or Vitalis. But the medium of communication inaugurated by the music video shaped entertainment and limited the collective attention span in a mighty way. We should not expect a sermon to last only 3 ½ to 5 minutes or have great special effects, heavy make-up, pyrotechnics, or teased hair. The preacher should not enter the pulpit through the mist and smoke created by a fog machine.

Some say that the modern audience is no longer able to focus on an average-length sermon. But the content of a proper sermon is infinitely more valuable than a music video, an episode of Law & Order, or even the three-hour finale of The Apprentice. If we can sit through those, we can pay attention to a 30-, 45-, or (whoa!) even hour-long sermon about matters of eternal consequence.


In the world of constant, rapid change, blogging is old news. It’s also sort of like navels: everybody’s got one. They can also be anonymous, untrue, and vicious. Not the sort of thing with which to compare sermons.

But sometimes our temptation is to treat sermons the same way. The preacher might use the (anonymous) material of another preacher or throw assertions out without foundation or let the proverbial comment stream go wild until – after 732 posts – the thread is finally exhausted because the people are, too, and no one remembers what set the whole thing off.


A prchr cnt rdc t msg 2 its strppd cmpnts & xpct 2 b bff 4vr w/ t cngrtn.


But, if it were:
10:17 a.m. – Walking to the pulpit.
10:18 a.m. – opening the Bible. Turn to James 1:16-18.
10:19 a.m. – What good is God?
10:24 a.m. – Sorry, been in the bathroom (swine flu).
10:26 a.m. – Walking stage left and gesticulating: Stand firm in trials.
10:45 a.m. – Battery went dead; had to recharge
10:52 a.m. – Out of cell range for a while…
11:04 a.m. – Genuflecting: Pray with me.

A sermon is not a book, an owner’s manual, or a “Idiot’s Guide” to whatever. It is the proclamation of the word of God to the people of God through the man of God whom He has called and equipped for that purpose.

So, dmnd gd srmns that prclm Gd’s wrd. BFF, lol, CU ltr.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Preachers or Managers? What are Search Committees Looking For?

Search committees are charged with the significant responsibility of locating a church’s next pastor. And it isn’t as if at the conclusion of the committee’s first meeting the Holy Spirit drops on the conference table the resume of the man the church will eventually call. Countless hours are spent poring over resumes, listening to sermons, talking with references.

It is, to be sure, a huge job.

But do search committees make things harder on themselves than they need to be?

There is an old saw that when polled regarding what it wants in the new pastor, a congregation decides that the ideal man will have a Ph.D., a wife and three kids, 15 years of senior pastor experience, and still be in his 30s. And if the search committee honors this request it might as well be searching for a polka-dotted unicorn.

One search committee chairman spoke with me regarding the progress the committee was making. They had interviewed a few candidates, who each had been deemed inappropriate because what the church really needed was a man “with experience handling a staff.”

I recalled that this church had started its search process about six months prior, and that, to my knowledge, all had not come to a grinding halt without a senior pastor. The doors were not chained shut, the power had not been turned off, God had not withdrawn the church’s lamp stand from its proper place. In fact, the church had been managing to worship for those months with good teaching and leadership from other staff ministers and guest preachers.

Who, I thought to myself, had been ‘handling the staff’ in all these months?

Many churches will go six months, or twelve, or even a couple of years before locating and calling their new pastor. The business affairs of the church – and to a large degree even the ministry function of the church – continues without interruption during this time. Yet many will, just like the chairman I spoke with, require that their new pastor be a good ‘manager.’

It does not occur to many churches looking for new pastors that what they are missing without senior pastoral leadership is not ‘management’, but proclamation.

There is only one man in a congregation charged with the responsibility to proclaim God’s word to God’s people – the preacher. God usually blesses many in a congregation with management skill, organizational ability, and administration gifts. When a church focuses on whether a pastor can ‘manage,’ rather than on whether he can preach, they may end up with a harmonious and efficient staff, but one that surrounds an anemic pulpit.

Pastors – even young ones – can learn people skills on the fly. They usually don’t learn how to preach.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't Preach for Content (use visuals)

“Sermon time is not a time for a pastor to call attention to himself through style or content. It is time to help worshipers experience God through faith in the risen Lord Jesus.”

And, by the way, it is a time to use lots of visual aids.

So says Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist in the September 17, 2009 issue. At first blush, Terry’s statement about preaching seems to meet biblical muster. It denies that pastors should call attention to themselves. It affirms that worshipers should experience God. It speaks of faith in Jesus. What could possibly be wrong with such things?

Or content”, that’s what.

In his editorial, Terry covers much ground, including smart-sounding research about the attention spans of adults, impressive data regarding how people learn better when additional senses are employed, and how dynamic speaking styles might actually detract from a gospel message. In short, people are dumb, preachers must use lots of pictures, and preachers themselves must be dull.

I must admit that I am probably confirmation of at least one of Terry’s assertions: I have a short attention span for dull, shallow preaching. But that is not the point.

What is significant is that Terry believes it wrong for a pastor to call attention “to content,” and that he further sets up a false choice between that “content” and helping “worshipers experience God through faith in the risen Lord Jesus.”

How, precisely, can a preacher – or anyone else – help people worship, help them experience God, or facilitate the operation of faith in Jesus without content? And, if a preacher is prohibited from calling attention to 1) himself, and 2) content, what is left to call attention to?

What Terry is opposing here is not the failure to help people worship. It is not a lack of focus on Jesus. It is not omitting an emphasis on experiencing God. What Terry opposes is biblical preaching that actually proclaims something; preaching that fills listeners with the word of God, challenging them to employ their will, emotions, and yes, even their minds, in worshiping God and in serving him.

Most people have no attention-span problem in the classroom, in the courtroom, or in the conference room. People have no problem focusing when they set up their Twitter account, follow their Facebook postings, or monitor their blog threads. What people have a problem following is dull preaching.

And dull preaching is dull even if there are lots of pictures.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tranformation! (And if you act now...)

Many will describe the appeal of the Christian life as ‘transformation,’ as in, “If God can transform the life of Paul, who persecuted and killed believers, he can transform your life, too.”

But reports of changed lives can be greatly exaggerated. For instance, I recently heard a pastor talking about the work involved in preparing sermons. Comparing his efforts before the advent of computer programs and afterward, he remarked “The computer changed my life forever.”

When we talk like that, we invariably cheapen the idea of transformation. It becomes not so much like the radical reorientation of a man’s soul as is described in Scripture, as it resembles more a late-night promo for ShamWow®, Mighty Mendit™ or anything else promoted by Billy Mays, where we all anticipate the ubiquitous “But wait! If you act now…” and the amazing deals and life-changing properties of the Awesome Auger™.

We are surrounded by promises of things that will ‘change your life forever.’ Most of them fail to deliver. And, most of the time when we claim something has ‘changed my life forever,’ what we are usually saying is that it has improved my life, at least for now.

Is personal improvement the company in which we should place the gospel, which is the ‘power of God for salvation’? (Romans 1:16) Or do we think the gospel is the promise of a ‘better life now’? And, that if you call in the next 30 minutes, streets of gold and a mansion made of pearls is thrown in for free?

The Bible does speak of transformation. But it is not the slickly marketed idea of change that we can put on our credit card for three easy payments. It is no less than the conforming of our sinful image into the holy image of the Lord Jesus Christ. And to receive Biblical transformation, modifying our outward appearance and behavior won’t do, for as the Bible says, we don’t need ‘transformation’ as much as we need resurrection, because we are dead in our sins until God makes us alive together with Christ.

The real issue, then, is not what will transform a man’s life, but what will create life where there has been none.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Do Words Mean Things?

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, like many nominees, has come under fire for the things she has said.

In defending her judicial philosophy that she would hope that a ‘wise Latina’ would make a better judgment than a white male, Judge Sotomayor pointed to a remark that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had made: that a wise woman and wise man should be able to come to the same conclusion. Judge Sotomayor, contrasting their respective statements, concluded that Justice O’Connor could not have meant what she said.

Judge Sotomayor also defended these and other of her remarks by claiming that she was ‘misunderstood’.

Let’s review: a justice is required to take the words of another, apply them to a set of facts, and issue a ruling that explains the application of words to facts.

In Judge Sotomayor we have a Supreme Court nominee in whom are combined first, the presumptive ability to discern what a Supreme Court Justice could not have meant by her plain words, and second, the almost unbelievable inability to make herself ‘understood’.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Profit Motive' or 'Bank for the Buck'?

In promoting his ambitious reprise of Hillary Care, President Barack Obama addressed the concerns some Americans have expressed regarding the government panel responsible for deciding what treatment would be granted under government health care.

Obama pointed out that the market system has its own "panel of experts" in the insurance officials who approve payment, and that his "experts" are better. Obama was asked why people should be willing to abandon the market's experts for government experts, exchanging the devil they know for the devil they don't know.

According to Obama, the current system utilizes health care dispensers who are governed by the "profit motive," while government health care dispensers under the government system are governed instead by how to "get the most bang for the health-care buck."

Despite all the utopian haranguing, this is, it seems, a distinction without a difference.

That is, if market health insurers are seeking a "profit motive" in attempting to serve its customers while keeping costs as low as possible, this seems remarkably similar to Obama's omniscient, beneficent panel attempting to keep government health care costs as low as possible.

The real difference in the two schemes is something Obama and universal care proponents don't wish to acknowledge: that the "profit motive" inherently includes the profiteer's realization that he must also please his customers, or those customers will find another insurer.

Getting "the most for the health-care buck" under Obama-care revolves around the government attempting to keep costs low (so that the 'savings -- read, 'profit', can be spent on bridges to nowhere). The government -- in contrast with those 'evil' profiteers -- does not need to concern itself with satisfying its customers, as our experience with the United States Postal Service should confirm.

Do we really want the same people who mangle our magazines and crush our FRAGILE boxes to determine when and how we should receive a proctological exam?

Is good health care a moral good? Sure. Is health insurance the only way to deliver good health care? No. Is government the better option? No. Government only does a few things well, and attempting to be a market player in the delivery of goods and services is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Theft OK if Booty is for Education

In an article entitled “$100 mill. pulled from Rainy Day Fund”, it is reported that the cash-strapped State of Alabama is delaying sending out tax refund checks because public education is in proration and there is an anticipated shortfall of funds.

WFSA anchorman Bob Howell described the situation aptly in suggesting that taxpayers aren’t getting their refunds yet because education is a higher priority.

Apparently, per the article, “By state law the education system has to be funded before refunds are sent out.”

Let’s review some facts:

· There is a “Rainy Day Fund” for education from which $100 million has been pulled.
· There is apparently much more left in the “Rainy Day Fund.”
· Tax refunds are the money that the State has OVER-COLLECTED from taxpayers.
· OVER-COLLECTED taxes do not belong to the State.

I don’t know about you, but I would suspect that the average taxpayer who is due a “refund” doesn’t have the luxury of a “Rainy Day Fund” from which to operate when money is tight.

By the way, a tax “refund” is no such thing. It is, actually, a “return” of money that never belonged to the State and shouldn’t have been taken out of the taxpayers’ pocket. But Orwellian language manipulation is at work when the document taxpayers send to the government to report how much money they made is referred to as a “tax return”, giving the impression that taxpayers are giving something back to the government, while the government’s return of the taxpayers’ money – which it never should have had – is deemed a “refund”. Go figure.

Conceivably, then, if someone in Alabama state government decides that education had not been properly funded, no taxpayer will receive his “refund.”

There are many indications that public education has taken on a level of importance in our society wholly incommensurate with its actual worth: bloated bureaucracy, teachers’ unions in lock-step with liberal apparatchiks, poor graduation rates, totalitarian control over content. But delayed “refunds” should reveal just how subservient society has become to public education.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t advocate educational anarchy. But public education is supposed to be a servant of the people. Government is supposed to be a servant of the people. They are not supposed to collude together in thievery against the taxpayer.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How to Listen to a Sermon, OR What to Demand of Preachers (Part 1)

Part of healthy church life is faithful expository preaching. In fact, one could say that expository preaching is foundational to the life and health of any local congregation. (see Mark Dever’s 9Marks of a Healthy Church analysis here.)

Much is written for preachers to help them prepare biblical, expository sermons. One would think that listening to them doesn’t require much instruction. After all, everyone should already know how to do that.

Years ago, Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book. Material abounded to help authors write books, but Adler demonstrated that just because someone possesses the mechanical skill to read it doesn’t necessarily give him the ability to comprehend a book. In the same way, just because someone possesses the mechanical ability to hear doesn’t necessarily mean that he is able to listen to a sermon.

What I hope to do in this series is explore the issues related not to the producing of sermons, but to the reception of them, both to increase the congregation’s expectations of what should occur when a preacher preaches, and to edify the body of Christ to the glory of God.

What Is a Sermon?

The concept of sermons and preaching has entered the vernacular of our conversation in many ways. When someone is trying to tell us what to do, we might tell him “Quit preaching at me!” Or we might describe his attempt at persuasion as “sermonizing.”

For now, we might define preaching as “proclaiming, explaining and applying the Bible” and a sermon as “a particular event of preaching.” Given those definitions, it is still quite possible that someone might tell the one delivering a sermon “Quit preaching at me!” and it is still quite possible for him to be guilty of “sermonizing.” It is also quite possible that those who think they are delivering sermons are actually more soporific than watching paint dry.

What might be helpful in this discussion (because I wish someone had told me these things long ago) will be such things as How to Tell Good from Bad Sermons, How to Listen to a Bad Sermon, and How to Wake from Dozing During a Bad Sermon and Make Others Believe You Were Listening. For now, it might be appropriate to talk about what sermons are not.

That, however, will be the topic of Part 2.

Disciple Making and the Great Commission Resurgence

At the recent Southern Baptist Convention held in Louisville, the SBC voted to appoint a task force charged with examining if and how the axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence (Dr. Danny Akin) should be implemented in the denomination.

It seems that a primary concern of Dr. Akin and others is that the prior Conservative Resurgence in the denomination has not translated to an appropriate increase in emphasis on and success in evangelism and missions.

For Southern Baptist Christ-followers holding to the Bible as God’s revelation to man, it should go without saying that we should “content earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3) as historically understood by Baptists, an idea represented by the Conservative Resurgence. It should further come as no surprise that we should be concerned to understand and obey Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), an intent expressed in Dr. Akin’s Axioms and the Resolution passed by the SBC.

In many efforts to counter error or address inadequacies, however, there is a tendency in those efforts to distort the overall teaching of which the particular emphasis is a subset. For instance, efforts to counter teachings of works-salvation sometimes give the appearance of antinomianism. Efforts to counter cheap grace sometimes give the appearance of legalism.

While I do not suggest that Dr. Akin and other proponents of a Great Commission Resurgence have contributed to such a distortion – or that such a thing exists, at all – some of the language appearing in commentary surrounding this issue could lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Great Commission (or serve to reveal that such a misunderstanding already exists).

Because the Conservative Resurgence was aimed at securing Southern Baptist doctrinal foundations, some characterize its focus as “inward.” And, because the Great Commission Resurgence aims to re-examine our denomination in terms of missions and evangelism, some characterize its focus, in contrast, as “outward.” Similarly, some denominational focus is characterized as being “local”, while the focus of the GCR is characterized as “missional” – addressing evangelism and missions across the globe.

Yet the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:18-20 doesn’t seem to draw those distinctions, and certainly doesn’t support the inward-outward/local-missional dichotomy that seems to be presumed in these discussions.

Jesus commissions his church to “make disciples.” These disciples are made in the local church, and disciples made in the local church are ones who make other disciples. Truly, when disciples are taught to “observe all that I [Jesus] commanded you” they will behave as disciples, making other disciples, both near and far. Biblical doctrine leads to a desire for biblical obedience. Orthodoxy produces orthopraxy.

Some have suggested that when we are too “inward”, “missions” is neglected. This may be true, but not because there is such a distinction inherent in disciple making. And what is sometimes forgotten is that if we play into this supposed dichotomy and focus only on the “outward”, disciple-making is neglected.

The reason, perhaps, that we see either the “inward” or the “outward” being neglected at various times is that we act on a false dichotomy. “Disciple making” requires both inward-outward and local-missional in balance. Let us not forget that Jesus does not divide the Great Commission task into “inward” and “outward” elements, but simply commands us to “make disciples.”

The interest shown in a Great Commission Resurgence is encouraging, but my hope is that the SBC’s exploration of the matter will address this perspective.

After all, if we were truly making disciples, lamentations over the lack of evangelism should be moot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Church Health: Catching the Summertime Blues

It seems to be fairly common practice for churches to cancel or limit services during the summer, the most common victim of this summer sacrifice being the Sunday evening service (for those churches that still have one).

I suppose the theory is that summer is the time when most church members are vacationing and attendance will be down.

But this cause/effect relationship leaves us with compelling questions. First, if lower attendance means eliminating services, then we should also cut the Sunday morning service and the Wednesday night supper/prayer meeting. After all, very few vacationers stick around for the Sunday morning service, and none come back from the beach for Wednesday's pot luck supper or for a progress report on Aunt Matilda's bunion.

If lower attendance is not the reason for cutting summer services, then perhaps it is too avoid offending the consciences of vacationers. One cannot feel guilty about missing church if there is no church to miss. But, alas, this also leads to other problems. If cutting evening services eases the beach-bound member's conscience, then why cut only one service? The conscience would be eased three times as much if all three weekly services were cut. Furthermore, if easing the conscience is the goal, why ease it only in summer? Why not cut Sunday morning services during hunting season? Why not cut them when a big golf tournament is going?

So, if neither low attendance nor easing the conscience is the goal, perhaps it is something as yet unconsidered. Perhaps we cut services during the summer because members need them less. Perhaps we've worshiped God enough during the previous nine months: we've built up a "worship credit" against which to draw while we absorb the rays. Or, perhaps we've fellowshiped enough with believers and need to spread joy among the unchurched on the beach.

Or, perhaps there is less need to feed the sheep and guard the flock during the summer months. Spiritual ignorance, indwelling sin, and spiritual warfare are, perhaps, inversely proportional to the number of vacations the congregation takes.

So, if our spiritual leaders are concerned about their members' collective conscience, unused 'worship credit', fellowshiping with the unchurched, and spiritual vitality, there is, really, only one conclusion to reach: more vacations means more spiritual vitality, and the deacon board should mandate that members stay away from church year-round, so that piety and church health can reach new levels.

Hypocrisy and Gov. Sanford

Many authors have documented that the image of religious people – particularly Christians – held by non-religious people is dominated by the idea of hypocrisy. Southern Baptists were stung a bit recently when an informal poll taken by Thom Rainer resulted in summary description of us as teetotaling-fundamentalist-legalistic-fried-chicken-eating-bingo-parlor-opposing hypocrites.

Governor Mark Sanford earned the “hypocrite” label when it was discovered that he was committing adultery with an Argentine. His “hypocrisy”? Having been married with kids while committing the adultery.

This is not new, of course, as Jesus himself pasted the hypocrite label on the religious leaders of his day.

But it seems that in many cases the label “hypocrite” is thrown on anyone who sins, and who has formerly said, in one fashion or another, that we shouldn’t sin.

But is that hypocrisy? Is Governor Sanford a hypocrite?

Southern Baptists are rightfully called hypocrites when we spend such time and energy on certain sins – gambling, liquor – while completely ignoring others – greed, materialism, idolatry.
Hypocrisy is NOT when a man believes, or even states, that adultery is wrong, and that his covenant with his wife is sacrosanct, yet then commits adultery. That is simply sin. Hypocrisy is not when one believes that false witness is wrong, but then lies about something. That is simply sin.

Hypocrisy is the idea that one can say something is wrong only for others. If Gov. Sanford had explained himself with the claim that what he did wasn’t really adultery (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky”), or that it was alright for governors to do but not citizens, that would be hypocrisy.

If Southern Baptists claim that because they don’t gamble or drink, they have no sin problem, that is hypocrisy. If Southern Baptists claim that liquor is wrong for everyone else, while maintaining a lifestyle of drinking, that is hypocrisy. If Southern Baptists claim that God is not concerned with gluttony, lying, materialism, or adultery (except when Gov. Sanford commits it), that is hypocrisy.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

At the Fulcrum or End of the Lever

"No matter how good they [pastors] are at listening, hand-holding, and personal encouragement, if they cannot teach the word of God they are disqualified from the office/role of pastor/elder/overseer. ...

"Conversely, however, preachers who are nothing more than pulpiteers, who display few Christian graces that enable them to love people, work with people, listen humbly, exhort patiently, encourage graciously, and rebuke engagingly, are simply disqualified."

D.A. Carson, in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching (ed. Ryken & Wilson, Crossway, 2007, p 175).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Power of the Pulpit

"There are many evangelicals who have a high view of the Bible and are willing to do battle for it, but who have a very low view of the Word of God as proclaimed in the sermon. This is one of the strangest paradoxes in the church today: vigorous defense of the Bible as the Word of God hand in hand with low esteem for the preaching of that same Word to build up the church of Christ. ...

"Bible study, small groups, and religious sharing are increasingly urged as the route to revitalization of the church, while faith in the pulpit fades and grows dim. I am convinced that it profits a church little to have a high view of Scripture if at the same time it has a low estimate of the preaching of the Word."

(James Daane, Preaching with Confidence: A Theological Essay on the Power of the Pulpit (Resource Publications, 1980), p viii.)

Not much has changed in almost thirty years...Very little of what passes for evangelical preaching today is able to inspire and uplift a congregation, because it omits from the proclamation the power of God in it. Moralism, ear candy and how-to messages take the place of the "power of God for salvation." Yet history bears out the ineluctable result that when the preacher, the man of God, proclaims the power of God through the Word of God to the people of God, the church is edified, God is glorified, and the lost are evangelized.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who You Gonna Call?

Thom Rainer posted an article June 15 called "Crisis at County Seat First Church" (www.thomrainer.com) in which he advocates not giving up on established churches that either have been around for a long time or are otherwise set in their ways, are in decline, and are without a pastor.

The temptation in these churches is to let them be and start another, less moribund congregation. Or, as one state denominational church planting guru said, sometimes encouraging such a church to start a plant itself is the bloodless split it might need.

Yet I agree with Rainer that whatever is left in the established church is worth saving. One problem, however, is the unrealistic standards for pastor these churches set and which lead them to lament the absence of "realistic candidates."

The types of men these churches most likely need are the types they are unwilling to call, those that are faithful to orthodoxy and denominational distinctives but are not bound to archaic notions of what Christian practice must resemble, and are willing to preach the whole counsel of God without fear, without compromise, and without hesitation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Functional Authority of Scripture

Many people who identify themselves as Christ-followers claim to believe the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, and, in the words of a famous confession, is the only sure guide as to what God would have us believe about him and what duty he requires of us.

Yet one author has pointed out that the claimed authority of Scripture is much different than the ‘functional authority of the Bible,’ that is, whether Scripture actually governs faith and practice in the life of the church.

Judging by what people say, there is not much functional authority goin’ on out there. Some of the most revealing statements come from church leaders, such as deacons. I collect anecdotes of the things leaders say, and for a long time the winner (loser?) in this area was the following:

Anecdote #1: The deacons at a church were discussing the formation of a search committee for pastor, and worldly standards of education, prominence, and so forth had been governing which members had been suggested to serve. One deacon then stood and read the various passages of Scripture teaching that the body is made up of various parts, each one fulfilling a specific role, and suggested that the deacons look to the spiritual qualifications and giftedness of its members to determine who should comprise the search committee. There was no discussion, but another deacon stood and began his defense of the former option with, “I don’t want to disagree with the Scriptures, but…”

That example has been relegated to position number two by the following:

Anecdote #2: The pastor had expressed his objection to the proposed Christmas program, which was more “It’s a Wonderful Life” than Advent, and a deacon, obviously growing tired of the preacher’s explanations, said “Biblical, biblical, biblical. Does everything this church does have to be ‘biblical’?”

Well, one would hope so…

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Keach on the Importance of Preaching

"I am sure the devil has no greater delight than to know that preachers consort with his purpose of elevating the world above the Word. As long as anything appears more agreeable and palatable than the feast of grace set forth in Scripture, you forfeit the ordained means of grace and threaten to fill the church with mere professors and not true Christians."

--Benjamin Keach
Quoted by Tom Nettles in The Baptists, Volume 1, Beginnings in Britain (Mentor, 2005).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Neither "Beauty" nor "Queen"

Context for the titles of two recent posts should clarify their use.

But, in the event there remains any confusion on the issue, I am claiming to be neither a “Beauty” nor a “Queen,” nor especially the confluence of those descriptors, a “Beauty Queen.”

In fact, my only beauty queens are my wife, Carrie, and daughter, Audrey.

Sorry, boys: “Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails” is especially apropos, although I wouldn’t expect that you prefer to be characterized “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

A Beauty Queen Looks at Federalism

In a previous post, I presented my perspective on how moral beliefs operate in a republican, federal system of government: If New Hampshire wants to recognize “gay marriage,” perhaps it should be able to. But Alabama, if it does not, should not be forced to go along with the nefarious nuptials simply because it, too, is one of these United States.

Some might respond that permitting New Hampshire to violate God’s law regarding marriage and sexuality is being disobedient, or giving in to decadent cultural forces.

But consider how federalism has operated with respect to abortion.

Many years ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided that abortion, in certain circumstances, should be legal. This interpretation of law is considered binding on all the States. (There is considerable weight to the legal opinion that such decisions violate the Constitution’s grant of power to the central government.)

Since that time, sentiment regarding abortion in the seat of central power, Washington D.C., has been intractable. Those who abhorred abortion and lamented the Supreme Court’s decision used the federalist system to their advantage, seeking instead to change public opinion in individual States. In the process, citizens in many States have modified their view of abortion, and their States have severely restricted its legality.

The result of this approach is that public opinion is now decidedly different than it was in 1973. Recent surveys suggest that the number of abortions is at an all-time low, and that for the first time in many years a majority of Americans oppose unrestricted abortion.

Homosexual advocates have been using the same tactic for years, and are seeing the benefits.
So, federalism is a two-edged sword for Christians: opponents of decency and morality can seek to change public opinion and law just as we can. Yet federalism is decidedly better than the alternative. If all such decisions were made in Washington, so that the installation of a new administration or new congressional class changed such fundamental issues for the entire nation every two or four years, change would be constant and radical. The federal system, by contrast, requires that wholesale change be both slow and difficult.

(The appearances of “crises” such as occurred in the Depression, the current economic situation, and the Swine flu “pandemic” are frequently used to circumvent the federalist preference for slow and deliberate change.)

Alexis de Toqueville recognized the ingenuity of the U.S. system of government in that each branch of the central government served as a check against the unrestrained power of the other. In addition, the States serve to check the rampant power of the central government. The Federalist Papers sees the need for checks as stemming in the fallen nature of man. If all men were angels (holy and righteous), the Papers argues, we would not need any checks on government.

At present, the kingdom of Christ rules in the hearts of men, not in the halls of Congress. Until the Lord returns to fully consummate the inaugurated kingdom, federalism is perhaps the best we can do.

If I Were A Beauty Queen

Well, things would be strange, indeed. One would expect that the Mad Hatter would rush in at any moment, Alice would take a pill and grow into a giant, and the Queen of Hearts would recite her all-too-familiar mantra, “Off with his head.”

And headless I should be, if I were to merely enter a beauty contest, much less be crowned something or other.

I thought I would escape comment on Carrie Prejean – Miss California, and runner-up in the Miss USA pageant – but with ongoing revelations of the “windy day” photos from earlier in her career, the story just keeps on going, like a risqué Energizer Bunny®.

Most everyone should be familiar by now with the question that the contestant judge – Perez Hilton – asked Prejean about “gay marriage.” Another state had decided to permit it, so what did she think? Prejean indicated that she was pleased that our civic arrangements permit people choose to engage in such rites, but that her rearing taught her that God desired marriage to be between one woman and one man. Prejean did fairly well, I thought, for a 21-year-old. (How has she responded since then to the fawning Christian community and the ‘windy day’ photos? Not so much.)

So, I wondered what I would have said to such a question. At the age of 21, I probably would have said something coarse and completely unbiblical. So, I rejected what would have been the indiscretions of my youth and wondered what I would have said now.

Put aside, if possible, the image you might be having of a 41-year-old male beauty contestant, “drummer extraordinaire” or not.

You must know that I am an ardent traditionalist, in the sense that I believe God designed and gave to us the marriage relationship, and that any given marriage should be between one man and one woman. Given recent scientific developments and medical advances (see Al Mohler’s article about gender confusion), I should probably say that marriage should be between one-who-has-always-been-a-man and one-who-has-always-been-a-woman, not in the man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body sense, but in the Garden of Eden sense, fig leaves and all.

I am, also, an ardent federalist, not in the sense that all power should be concentrated in a central government (as in ‘the Feds’), but in the 10th Amendment sense that these United States retain power not explicitly granted by the Constitution to the government in Washington, D.C. (see, e.g., the Federalist Society and the Tenth Amendment Center). Local groups of citizens (the States) are better able to reflect their moral consensus than bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. If, for example, my fellow citizens in Alabama decided to permit ‘gay marriage,’ and if I felt strongly enough about it, I should be able to move to Arizona, where they don’t. The beauty of the U.S. system is that not all States are required to do and believe the same things.

(Some years back a couple of law school friends and I were discussing a federal judge’s ruling that Alabama must remove the Ten Commandments display from the State Courthouse. They simply accepted – as undisputed historical truth – that the central government could order a State what to do with its own property. When I suggested that the Alabama governor ignore the order, they were incredulous. This attitude that the central government is sovereign over all issues is part of the cause for many of our problems today.)

So, my response to Perez Hilton’s question might have gone something like this:

“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom I serve in the Lord Jesus Christ, gave mankind the institution of marriage as a gift to enjoy and as the means by which we populate the earth, and he instructed us that it is to be between one man and one woman. However, the United States is not the kingdom of Christ, and the citizens of the several States should be free to determine this issue as their respective faiths and consciences dictate.

“My hope would be that as God draws men to himself, prompting them to repent of sin and turn to righteousness in Christ, that my fellow citizens would determine this issue in a way that glorifies God.”

Come to think of it, if I gave this answer, Perez Hilton might have said nasty things about me, too, and someone would have inevitably dredged up some “windy day” photos of me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Useful as a Park Bench in a Graveyard

People go to great lengths in attempting to deal with the grief associated with death.

The cliché is the parents of a young child who keep his room perfectly preserved as a memorial. Such memorials are becoming increasingly public. We’ve all seen the makeshift crosses on the side of the road, indicating that somebody’s loved one died. Some announce the lifespan of a deceased friend or family member with decals emblazoned on their car windows.

Certainly we do the same thing with headstones, grave markers and even crypts in the local cemetery. But there, all the dead are assembled together, a macabre collection of memories available to whomever wants to take note at their own leisure. Roadside crosses and automobile obituaries are just the opposite: as we go to work, to church, to recreate we are compelled to take note. Whereas cemeteries are mass testimonials to the universal grip of death, roadside and mobile memorials single out one particular death, as if it – in contrast to the life that preceded it – was somehow unique.

Perhaps most indicative of an unhealthy relationship with death is the cemetery accoutrement I saw recently: a finely carved marble park bench matching the headstone it faced. A park bench in a cemetery is as useful, as they say, as a screen door on a submarine.

But all of these devices – roadside crosses, automobile obituaries, bedroom shrines, cemetery benches and even the pedestrian headstone – reveal the longing we all have to somehow remain in contact with those who have died. It reveals an inherent understanding that physical death is not final.

Yet instead of provoking us to cling to whatever wisp of reality remains of the dead, this understanding should encourage us to consider our own destination, to ensure our own post-material reality, when those who survive us have erected roadside markers, or drive around with car obituaries, or place park benches before headstones emblazoned with our names.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Orderly or 'Dead Asleep'?

I frequently lament that much of what passes for worship in church services, of what substitutes for prayer by believers, of what masquerades as preaching in our pulpits must be seriously devoid of whatever fueled the New Testament examples of those things.

I also frequently lament that all the ‘great ideas’ that come across my synapses get taken by others before I can broadcast them. To wit, I thought about a preaching series on the significance of the gospel long before David Platt ever preached it (see the Church at Brook Hills sermon archives). Now, if I preach what I originally intended, people might think that I took it from him. This is, I am painfully aware, a mini-lesson in humility, and how the body of Christ should work together when credit is not at issue.

But chalk up yet another pre-empting at the hands of no less a figure than J.I. Packer, who said this about power:

“First Corinthians 12-14 is a passage of Scripture which makes painful reading for thoughtful evangelical believers. … These chapters make painful reading because, whatever evils they confront in us, they do at least show us a local church in which the Holy Spirit was working in power. So reading the passage makes one painfully aware of the impoverishment, inertia, dryness and deadness of so many churches at the present time.

“If our only reaction to these chapters is to preen ourselves and feel glad because our churches are free from Corinthian disorders, we are fools indeed and ought to think again. I fear that many of our churches today are orderly because they are asleep. And in many cases I fear it is the sleep of death. It is no great thing, is it, to have perfect order in a cemetery?”

(J.I. Packer, Serving the People of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer, Volume 2, Paternoster, 1988, p10.)

SBC: Vice Squad?

The Alabama Baptist and other media outlets associated with the Southern Baptist Convention are frequently dominated by stories of efforts to curtail gambling and alcohol use. Any why not? Wasting the family’s grocery money at the slot machines and driving drunk hurt everyone. But should those things dominate both our discussions and our energies and become what the SBC is known for?

Who among us would not be able to recount the efforts of our own church, or that of people we know, to keep liquor stores a suitable distance away from church property and retain a ‘sanctified zone’ for our pious goings-on? Otherwise ambivalent Christians can be counted on to mount the proverbial holy crusade to keep the pool hall across the street from getting a liquor license.

Why does sanctimony seem so appealing?

“Sanctimony” is a bit strong, you say? The April 2 issue of The Alabama Baptist carries the story of a Prattville church that successfully ‘halted’ the lease of state property – located down the street from the church and its school – to a liquor store (click here for a blog article about it). The Minister of Administration for East Memorial Baptist Church, Bryan Easley, gave the rather revealing reason the congregation was so interested in maintaining its ‘sanctified zone’: “None of us wanted to drive by a liquor store on our way to church and school and home.”


The church was not faced with an issue of its congregants needing to navigate through besotted heathen stumbling around the streets, spilling alcohol and obscenities all over children innocently skipping their way to Vacation Bible School. It was not faced with the problem of drunken revelers sleeping off their partying in church doorways, vomiting on the lawn, or engaging in promiscuity behind the church sign emblazoned with the message “Sign Broken – Message Inside.” (What if our hypothetical hung-over drunkards wanted to hear that message, and proceeded inside to partake?)

Instead, the minister did not want to drive by the store.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the minister and his congregation wanted to avoid other things:

“None of us wanted to drive by a prostitute on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a drug addict on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a mugging on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a gambler on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a homeless man on our way to church and school and home.”

Besides – none of us? On the way to church, school and home? What if they merely saw a liquor store ad in the Yellow Pages as they looked for a fried chicken place that delivers? (See the link to the Sam Rainer article below for the not-so-inside joke.)

Several thoughts come to mind, most of which I am not able to transcribe verbatim, for I would imagine that many who deem themselves followers of Christ and don’t want to drive by a liquor store would also proudly proclaim that neither do they want to “internet surf by someone speaking sternly to fellow believers."

First, let us be clear about the biblical teaching on alcohol. It is NOT forbidden. The biblical prohibition is against drunkenness. The biblical prohibition against causing others to stumble is NOT an absolute mandate to avoid drinking – or anything else, for that matter – but an indication that when a believer KNOWS that his behavior causes another to stumble, he should be willing to lay aside that otherwise permissible behavior for the sake of his stumbling brother. Sinful behavior, by contrast, is always wrong, whether or not it causes another to stumble. It is perfectly acceptable for believers to choose not to drink at all, either for personal preference or to avoid the possibility that another might be caused to stumble. It is NOT permissible for that believer, having so decided, to consider others of different opinions as less pious or less faithful.

D.A. Carson has reportedly quipped “If I'm called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotalers, I'll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, ‘You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,’ I'll reply, ‘Pass the port’.”

Second, this sentiment reveals a disturbing mindset about which sins we choose to rail against. We have no problem railing against VICES – those things that all those unrepentant heathen or backslidden believers are doing to degrade society. But poll those congregations that spend enormous energy mounting petition drives against gambling and alcohol, and count how many of their sermons in the past twelve months have railed against gluttony, greed, anger, envy, divorce or lust. We rail against the behavior of others while molly-coddling the sin that corrupts the heart.

Third, this sentiment reveals a disturbing mindset about corporate worship. Not only do we want to be left alone to worship God together, but we also want everyone who doesn’t to quit reminding us that they aren’t, and about the condition from which God called each and every one of us. We create a ‘sanctified zone’ around our church buildings to keep the ‘sinners’ – and any evidence that there are any – a safe distance away. Does the very sight of someone sinning – viewed from the protective cocoon of our late-model automobiles – keep us from worship? Does the very knowledge that someone remains lost outside the church walls keep us from worship? Perhaps our true discomfort comes when we consider that perhaps that knowledge should compel us to do something other than roll up our car window or sign a petition.

It should come as no surprise to members of Southern Baptist congregations that we are known as being ‘legalists,’ and hypocrites, to boot. (Sam Rainer talks about an informal poll on this subject taken by his dad, Thom Rainer, on his blog.)

Last, there is inherent in this attitude a presumption that to be Christian you cannot be even close proximity to certain types of sin (I’m still pondering how the mere existence of liquor, sitting in unopened bottles on shelves in a closed store, constitutes sin to be so studiously avoided…or how Jesus himself would have passed current ministerial muster). There is no thought at all given to why it is only gambling and alcohol that must be safely quarantined, and not all those other sins that stem from our creaturely pride.

Instead of faithfully doing our part as believers to herald the kingdom of Christ – characterized by humility, forgiveness, grace and redemption – we are instead engaging in the ancient lie that we can create our own tee-totaling, electronic-bingo-boycotting, man-made empire.

So, for those who maintain that we can’t drive by a liquor store and remain Christian: ‘Pass the port’.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baptist Distinctives and Presbyterian Wannabes

My Presbyterian pastor friend has quipped to me that Baptists make the best Presbyterians. This is possibly because of all the repressed Baptist interest in alcohol and cigars that blossoms in Presbyterian environs. He reminds me of an old joke that illustrates this:

Q: What do you call a Baptist in the liquor store?
A: Nothing, because he wouldn’t acknowledge that you saw him there, anyway.

And yes, it is possible to be an unapologetic Southern Baptist and have Presbyterian friends.

Much proverbial ink has been spilled regarding “Baptist distinctives,” “Baptist Identity,” “Landmarkism,” “Great Commission Resurgence,” and so forth. (I say “proverbial” because I haven’t touched a paper magazine or newspaper in ages, and the phrase “much digitally encoded data has been transmitted through human/digital interface devices” doesn’t quite have quite the same literary ring). It all seems to boil down to what makes Baptists Baptist, rather than Presbyterian, Methodist or travelling snake oil salesmen.

I noticed a good way to address this question when someone asked me why I was attending a Southern Baptist seminary. He was also planning to go to seminary, and was torn between some of the premier Reformed/Presbyterian schools and some of the Reformed-leaning SBC schools. He asked why I wouldn’t feel more at home theologically attending a Reformed/Presbyterian school. After thinking about it for a minute, I answered in a way that clarified and revealed my view on Baptist distinctive, from the perspective of a prospective pastor.

In my understanding of Presbyterian polity and theology, two issues would keep me from preaching in one of their churches. First, I could not in good conscience baptize infants. I believe that Scripture plainly teaches that baptism is for those who have professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which infants cannot do. Second, as a pastor in a Presbyterian church, I could not opt out of that practice. That is, Presbyterian polity is, well, Presbyterian, in the sense that a group of people outside the local church governs theological definition and practice. The local congregation could not decide to stop baptizing infants and remain a “Presbyterian” church.
On the contrary, even a Reformed/Calvinist pastor trained in Southern Baptist Convention schools might disagree with the predominant view on certain theological issues, but could find an SBC congregation compatible with his views. For instance, a pastor might believe that the altar call – other than following explicitly evangelistic sermons – was inappropriate. He might believe it inappropriate to admit members on a “vote” immediately following their request to join on a Sunday morning. He might believe that God is sovereign over all aspects of salvation, while believers remain responsible to proclaim the gospel (Calvinism). He might believe that the church should have both deacons and elders. He might believe that the church should practice the discipline of members. He might NOT believe in a pre-mil, mid-trib Rapture.

On all those points such a pastor would be marching to the beat of a drummer much different than and rarely heard in the majority of Baptist churches. But the SBC won’t dictate (at least thus far) that he cannot pastor ANY Southern Baptist church that wanted to call him. He might not be invited to all the premier SBC conferences, but he would still be able to shepherd a flock in accord with his calling as a minister of the gospel. This particular distinctive sometimes goes by other names, such as local church autonomy, and is manifested in the recent controversy surrounding the decision of the Georgia SBC church to call a woman as its pastor. (This incident provides an interesting example of how the concept of church discipline and accountability are not simply intra-congregational matters, but also apply in an inter-congregational setting – but that is another post).

So, under this “prospective pastor” analysis, the distinctive Baptist elements come to two: believer’s baptism and congregational authority. But these both presume and flow from something logically prior: the authority of Scripture. One’s standing on the subject of baptism (believers or infants) and the mode of baptism (immersion or sprinkling) should be dictated by what Scripture teaches. Similarly, one’s position regarding the local congregation’s authority should flow Scripture. So the functional authority of Scripture is a foundational distinctive for Baptists not similarly crucial to the faith and practice of other denominations. This leaves us with three Baptist distinctives: authority of Scripture, believer’s baptism, and congregational authority.

Some might include other things as distinctive, such as our position on the Lord’s Supper, missions, cooperation with other Baptists, and cultural engagement. But there doesn’t seem to be consensus even among Baptists about what is a proper “Baptist” position on these matters. Instead, if a church rejects the functional authority of Scripture, or rejects believer’s baptism by immersion, or rejects congregational authority in favor of some Episcopal or Presbyterian governmental form, it ceases to be Baptist.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Influenza, Gingko Biloba and Dropping Pounds

So last week one of the kids gets the stomach virus…all manner of vile things flying out of bodily orifices at blazing speed. She passed it to my wife, at blazing speed. I thought the dudes of the family were in the clear at this point, because we are usually the ones to kick off the sickness merry-go-round in our house.

Not so.

Around Tuesday I started feeling bad, then Wednesday could only manage a half day at work before coming home and crashing. Thursday I could not stand up without puking, Friday I could not stand up without…well, rushing to the toilet for disturbances at the other end of the digestive tract. I stayed in the bed almost 24 hours a day until Saturday

I noticed something about the flu, as I laid in bed marveling at how bad a human body could hurt.

I noticed what I did NOT think about. That is, the flu had my attention, and all other concerns seemed to fade away. For instance, I did NOT think about Barack Obama. Not even a little bit. I did NOT think about his opening stem cell research, or relaxing abortion restrictions, or socialistic stimulus bills, or earmarks, or how many of Obama’s administration candidates have had to withdraw because of ‘vetting’ problems.

Nor did I think about the blogosphere. I did NOT think about which Calvinist was being skewered, today. I did NOT contemplate how to make a statement on a comment string and actually have others address what I said, rather than what they wanted me to say so that they can stand proudly on their soap box and opine vociferously into the digital abyss about how evil Calvinists are. I did NOT wonder how all the other guys get such cool page designs.

I did NOT think about the stock market. Or Bernie Madoff. Or housing starts. I did not obsess about how long it could possibly take to sell our house, although I did briefly imagine that I overheard the following:

Agent: Notice the open floor plan, and how there is plenty of space
for every sick member of the family to lounge around, with his own
sick bucket close at hand.

Buyer: Where is the

Agent: It’s upstairs, with the bedrooms, which makes
it very convenient to collect all of the lenins contaminated with vile
things flying out of orifices at blazing speed.
Buyer: Is this
the Master?

Agent: Yes, and notice how the great lighting lets you almost SEE the
flu virus circulating around the dad as he lays in bed, NOT thinking about
Barack Obama or the

Buyer: I’m sold! We’ll
pay full price…in cash!

The flu, it seems, is a great clarifier of mind, when it is not inducing hallucinations about selling houses in a buyers’ market. (It’s also an excellent crash diet – I’ve lost 10 to 15 pounds each time I’ve had it).

Oddly, while there was so much I did NOT think about, there were a couple of things that simply would not leave my head. Psalm 23 and Philippians 2:1-11, to be exact. For almost 48 hours straight of my bed-ridden stupor I mentally prepared sermons on these passages. Introductions, conclusions, main points, transitions, illustrations…you name it. I preached those sermons at least 10 times each to myself, my agent, and our cash buyer, as they discussed the relative merits of our home amongst themselves. They were some of the most interactive sermons I’ve ever preached.

Why don’t the sermon preparation experts talk about this?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pine Straw & Blurry Vision

I park my truck close to several pine trees, which are prone to drop needles in copious quantities throughout the year. Birds sit in those same pine trees, and those birds are prone to drop...well, other stuff in copious quantities.

We are familiar with the phenomenon of bird poo on the windshield. It always lands right in the middle of your field of vision, so instead of seeing that traffic light turn from green to yellow, you see partially digested berries and such. So we try to remove the poo: Squirt washer fluid; turn on wiper blades; observe that poo is now thinly spread in an arc across the driver side, like a macabre rainbow, promising things much different than that the earth will not be destroyed again by flood.

After several weeks of drought conditions and copious needle dropping, I noticed another phenomenon during the next rainy drive. A pine needle under my wiper blade. All drivers know what that means. But I distinctly recalled that when last I operated my wiper blades, all was clear, which raised the immediate question of how the needle came to be in its present location, notwithstanding popular notions of evolution and natural selection. After deliberating whether it placed itself there by dint of will or if someone with a wry sense of humor -- knowing my tendency to over-analyze completely meaningless phenomena -- placed it there, and after briefly entertaining the notion to exit the vehicle and remove the offending needle, I decided instead to let it be, knowing (so I thought) the rather fragile nature of pine needles, the laws of friction and motion, that I would get wet, and that even if I didn't see the yellow light, some other driver would surely honk his horn.

A month or two later, the needle persists.

Not that I haven't tried all I could think of to remove it (save exiting the vehicle). Intermittent wipers, at all the various speeds. High speed wipers. A flood of washer fluid. Defroster. Excessive wind shear (I'm not admitting anything). Yet there it sits, clinging sadly to my wiper blade. It is, to be sure, a bit worse for wear, faded, tattered, limp. But it still blurs my vision on rainy days. And each time I curse its tenacity.

I learn much from the needle.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We Don't Care Enough to Witness

Internet Monk wrote an article recently about the state of evangelism in the church, especially the Southern Baptist Convention. (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/riffs-011809-are-southern-baptists-getting-it-maybe). In it he points out that for all our efforts as a denomination, the canned presentations, training programs, “sure-fire” evangelism tools and the rest have been, at best, fruitless, and at worst, less a reflection of biblical disciple-making and more a demonstration of how various methodologies to present the truth can morph into badly designed marketing schemes, product placements, and used car pitches.

In my thirty-three years as a card-carrying member of the local Baptist congregation, and by extenuation, of the Southern Baptist Convention, I haven’t grown enough fingers and toes to count the number of different “solutions” there have been to the problem of personal evangelism (the problem being that persons don’t evangelize). Throw in the “Four Spiritual Laws” and other offerings by denominations and para-church groups other than the SBC, and the number of potential failures becomes exponential.

Not that there is anything wrong with trying. We have at least recognized for years that the average church member does not talk about his faith, at least to those who don’t already have it. All of these plans are attempts to address that issue.

I recall one summer when I learned, among other things, to evangelize “cold turkey”: to simply walk up to a total stranger and share the gospel. No one responded favorably to me, probably because I didn’t really care about anyone I spoke to. All I was concerned about was not getting pummeled with my own gospel tract and telling my disciple leader I had fulfilled my obligation. Don’t judge me just yet…you have likely done the same thing.

So I have been thinking about why these gospel-presentation-programs (“faith-in-a-box”) don’t seem to work, and why they don’t seem to result in lasting converts. It seems to come down to two things: 1) we don’t practice evangelizing our captive audience, and 2) we don’t love people.

Captive Audience. Who is this captive audience for the church? Why, our children and our congregations, that’s who. How many hapless souls have trudged through yet another faith-in-a-box program guaranteed to fire up their evangelistic fervor and to result in hordes of teeming disciples, when they have yet to even share the gospel with their own children? And what does it say to our little darlings that mom and dad are sticking them with a babysitter or in the nursery again to go visit strangers and share the gospel, when they haven’t taken the time to explain it to their own kids?

Believe me, it is tough to explain spiritual truth to the ones who are around you the most, the ones who see you curse when you slam your finger in the door, see you blow your top when you find soggy cereal in your armchair, or see you treat your spouse like a doormat. And it’s even tougher when parents don’t understand spiritual truth themselves. But if parents are able to consistently talk to their kids about spiritual matters, at every age, in every circumstance, day in and day out, then those parents will be able to talk about spiritual matters with anyone they come across.

But why, you say, do we need to evangelize our congregations? Evidence shows that perhaps as much as fifty percent of the average congregation is not saved. (Thom Rainer has several books that treat this subject, which is where this figure comes from. See, e.g., Simple Church and Essential Church; George Barna also has some telling statistics.) Too much of our programming in churches assumes that everyone present is saved, and they just need to be told how to live well. But for one who has not heard the gospel, who does not understand it, or who has not been enlightened by God, ‘living well’ translates to a salvation by works. Besides, even believers who have heard the gospel and who have been converted still need to hear the gospel, which is both the power of salvation and the power of sanctification. Our congregations need evangelizing just as much as the ‘sinners’ do.

Loving People. “Love” has become such a manipulated concept that it is almost meaningless to speak of loving people. Today “love” means you don’t criticize, don’t correct, don’t discipline, that you always say “I’m fine”, always agree, and never remove that creepy smile from your face. But biblical love is something entirely different.

One thing we frequently miss when we, as Christians, speak of “loving people,” is that to do so we must, first, SEE people. For most of us, customarily our day is filled with nameless others constantly making life difficult. Other motorists cut us off and make us late. Cashiers are slow and give the wrong change. Pedestrians smell and take up the whole sidewalk. Even other believers get our parking spot, sit in our pew, and threaten our standing in the church.

It is an amazing phenomenon that when you go through your day with your head down, avoiding glances, only looking up and around long enough to swipe your credit card at the gas pump or the checkout lane, no one speaks to you. In fact, you don’t even ‘see’ other people, but only impediments to your speedy return home to watch American Idol. Yet when we actually consider the people we encounter as people, look them in the eye, and have a genuine interest in them, even if only for the brief minutes that we are putting our groceries on the conveyor belt, people will tell you all manner of things about themselves. It is these things that people will tell you about themselves that give us opportunity to be interested in them, to speak truth into their situation, and, if appropriate, to share the gospel to that one in whom we have only just recently developed genuine interest.

Where to start? How about our neighbors. They are not simply the ones on the other side of your privacy fence, whose guests block your driveway, whose dog goes in your yard, whose teenager blasts music and plays basketball in the driveway too late, or who you hope doesn’t discover that it was you that took his newspaper that time. Our neighbors are the ones who see us leave for church every Sunday – and possibly on Wednesday – and who wonder why we have never invited them, or even introduced ourselves, or discussed important matters of the world over – or through – that privacy fence. Our neighbors wonder why we are so willing to discuss our golf handicap, stock tips, gas prices, parenting problems, and football scores but never mention what should be the most important aspect of our lives.

So, ‘cold turkey’ evangelism and canned presentations of the gospel can be beneficial, sometimes. But the primary reason that they usually are not is that the recipients know that the one peddling the gospel product to them is only interested in the sale. Instead, when we actually ‘see’ people around us, and are genuinely interested in them, we might actually love them in the way that recognizes their spiritual plight and prompts us to share with them the truth of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christian Legalism and Different Gospels

So we know that Peter and Paul (sans Mary…well, not in the same way) got into it over the gospel. Peter had been hangin’ out with the Gentiles – without requiring them to be circumcised – until the Judaizers caught wind of the whole thing. Peter felt the pressure from a small, but vocal, element of the congregation and caved in. Sound familiar?

Paul didn’t think this was such a good idea, and decided to confront Peter. Publicly. Sound UNfamiliar?

We don’t seem to get many sermons on Galatians that focus on how we should fight for the truth of the gospel like Paul did. This is somewhat understandable, since there is not much dispute these days about cutting our sons’ foreskins. It’s also understandable in light of the fact that complaints of modern Judaizers don’t sound that bad to us. In fact, they sound pretty good. More on that later.

Paul reminds Peter that they are “Jews by birth” and not “Gentile sinners” (Galatians 2:15), then launches into a thrice-stated description of what some have called his “theory of justification in a nutshell”, that men are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of the law (vv15-16). Paul’s immediate meaning is clear: being circumcised does not save a man, and not being circumcised does not damn him. For Peter and his blade-happy Judaizers to insist that new believers had to be circumcised was peddling a different gospel. One that would not save.

Circumcision, once the mark of God’s covenant, had become a threat to the gospel covenant. But it was not the only threat faced by the early church, and it is not the only threat we face now.
Paul explains that Christ would not be made an agent of sin if they – Jews – in seeking to be justified in Him were found to be sinners (v17). There are a few ways to understand this. Some think he means that if others (like the Judaizers) view them as sinners because they hang with Gentiles, no problem. Others think he means that others might view them as having rejected the law, thus having become like the Gentiles.

It might be that the Judaizers were not so much concerned about specific transgressions of the law, as with the appearance that Peter and the others had set it aside as their governing principle. It is much easier for men to check their righteousness against lists of approved behaviors than to serve God with a transformed heart. So Paul can say that they should not rebuild what they have torn down. That is, they should not return to the checklist. If this is true, then Paul and Peter and the others were not ‘rejecting’ the law, or abandoning the law, but were actually fulfilling the law and finally submitting to its judgments and punishments. In Christ. By faith in His obedience to it and reception of its penalty for us.

Paul can truly say, then, “I have been crucified with Christ,” because in having faith in Christ, the requirements of the law are satisfied in exacting punishment on the only One able to bear it.

We don’t like Paul. We rebel against his teaching all the time. We prefer law both for ourselves (it gives us a measure of our obtaining favor with God) and for others (it gives us a measure of how others have failed to please God). What is the evidence of our legalism on this point? Don’t look for Baptists United for Circumcision or the Cutters’ Union. Instead, our legalism today looks much better than that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Does Psalm 88 Belong in the Bible? Or, Does God Work Wonders for the Dead?

I ask that because Psalm 88 appears to be merely an intense, bitter lament against God. Unlike many of the lament Psalms, which indicate a turning point after the lament which results in a renewed trust in God for deliverance, and usually end on a positive note, in 88 Heman plays the role of killjoy.

His Psalm becomes a big ol’ buzzkill by ending badly: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v18). But, sure, despite my provocative title, Psalm 88 belongs, and also points us to Christ, as well.

The cause of Heman’s lament seems to revolve around certain relationships and God’s perceived responsibility for their falling apart. In verse 8 Heman reports “you have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.” Because of this, Heman views the whole of his life as one continuous stream of effluence: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless” (v15). In fact, Heman waxes a bit hyperbolic by stating he is as good as dead: he draws near to Sheol (3), is regarded as going to the pit (4), like the ‘slain that lie in the grave’ (5), and is overwhelmed by God’s wrath (7, 16). One would think he might have taken the advice of Job’s wife, to simply curse God and die.

Yet hope abides in Heman and shines through the darkness of his emotional valley.

The Psalm begins with a recognition that the God Heman addressed is the God of his salvation (v1). Furthermore, Heman reports that his cry is to God, ‘day and night’, and beseeches God to hear his prayer even more. This expression of hope is repeated in the middle, at verse 13, indicating that despite his misery Heman knows that relief is to be found in the God of his salvation.

His may be honest questions, but more than likely are a bit of sarcasm dripping from Heman’s lips:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is
your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are
your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of
forgetfulness?” (v10-13).

One might suppose that Heman’s answer to all these is an emphatic – and bitter – No, No, No, No, No and No.

Yet despite Heman’s sarcasm and despair, we know differently. We know that Yes, God does work wonders for the dead! Whether we think we’re dead, or wish for the grave, or are actually dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2), it is precisely for the dead that God works his greatest wonders! Paul reports to his Corinthian brothers that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See Elijah raising the widow’s son. See Lazarus come forth from the grave. See Jesus’ empty tomb.

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See God making us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). See God making us alive together with him (Colossians 2:13-14). See God bringing us from death to life (Romans 6:13).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! And not only that, the ‘departed’ who have been made alive in Christ DO rise up to praise God. His steadfast love IS declared ‘in the grave’ – to those walking dead, spiritual zombies, that we all are before being made alive in him. His faithfulness IS declared in the realm of spiritual death that enslaves us until our release in Christ. His wonders ARE known in the darkness, and his righteousness IS known in the land of forgetfulness, because there is no darkness strong enough to hide the light of truth and there is no forgetting the righteousness of the Creator.

At some point, most of us feel like Heman, and like Paul. If not physically dead already, we think that we are emotionally dead, and that it’s all over but a lame graveside service and ignominious burial. But the fact that God has raised the spiritually dead to newness of life, and that He promises to someday raise the physically dead in Christ to a renewed body and creation, should give us great hope that God can work wonders among the deadness of any situation we face.

Yes, God works wonders among the dead.