Thursday, December 31, 2009

Casting out Demons

Demon possession sounds like something out of a horror movie. Yet casting out demons was practiced by our Lord and His disciples. Today, some claim it is the key to spiritual freedom. Others claim it no longer applies or cannot apply to Christians. What does the Scripture say? We must start with a question of translation. A more strict translation of "demon possession" is "have a demon" or "demonization". The question is, what are the symptoms of this condition, and do they amount to "demon possession"? They include physical ailments (Matthew 9:32, 33; 12:22; Luke 13:16), seizures (Luke 9:38-42), supernatural abilities (Acts 16:16-21), and exceptional strength (Mark 5:3, 4; Acts 19:16). Note that not all illness is caused by demons, as shown by "demonization" being listed as one of the afflictions Jesus healed (Matthew 4:24; Luke 7:21; 9:1). There were also two men dwelling naked among tombs, cutting themselves and reacting violently toward anyone nearby (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). One of these is said have had a legion of demons, showing them to be an extreme case. There are cases where Satan fills people's hearts to sin, but it is not clear if this the same sort of thing (John 13:27; Acts 5:3).

Also, when a demon is confronted, the demon will sometimes speak (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 8:26-32; Mark 1:34) and, in one case, also act (Acts 19:13-16) through the demonized person. But this seems to be a temporary thing that happens at the point of confrontation. If a demon can have continuous control of the actions of its host, the only example I can find is the demoniacs among the tombs mentioned above. I would therefore conclude that "having a demon" does not necessarily involve possession. Scripture is not clear on whether a Christian can have a demon, but much depends on what this means. If it means possession, I would say probably not. But since having a demon seems to mean being in some way afflicted by a demon, I see no basis for believing a Christian cannot have a demon.

What place, then, does casting out demons have for us today? It is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, nor is there a basis for saying it is no longer valid. However, when we go to the epistles, where the Christian life is systematically dealt with, it is not mentioned. (Though these do give generalized principles for dealing with Satanic influence; see Ephesians 6:10-20; James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 5:6-10.) What I am forced to conclude is that, while it is an appropriate procedure, it is not the standard way to deal with every situation nor the key to Christian spirituality. (Many of our spiritual problems come from our own sinful nature; see James 1:14-16; 1 John 1:8-10.) Nor is it necessarily more effective than prayer, as prayer was recommended when it failed (Mark 9:29). Nonetheless, there may be situations where it is the appropriate approach. But it is not a panacea for all a Christian's spiritual problems.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Expecting the Unexpected

When Christ came the first time, few if anyone seemed to get it. Not only did His enemies not understand what was happening, but His own disciples were confused (Matthew 16:21-23; 20:20-28; Mark 9:30-32; John 16:29-33). Nor is this totally surprising, because it was difficult to know how to fit together the Old Testament prophecies regarding the First and Second Advents. Should we expect the Second Coming to be any different?

The fact that Christ is personally, physically, literally coming back is clearly taught in Scripture (Acts 1:9-11; John 14:1-3; 1 John 3:2, 3; Matthew 24:30, 31). But the details of the events surrounding that coming have been much disputed. Most who have endeavored to approach these events have gone to two extremes. There are those who have all the events figured out in great detail. There are others who have taken the specifics so symbolically it is hard to see how anything could be certain. Also, both sides have those so dogmatic about their interpretations they are willing to divide from those who take a different approach. Could the truth lie somewhere in between?

It is clear that a certain amount of prophecy is symbolical. (No one expects an actual animal such as that described in Revelation 13:1, 2 to roam the earth.) On the other hand, there comes a point where one can interpret passages in such an allegorical manner they can be made to say anything. This allows everyone to read in their favorite opinions and prejudices. There also is a tendency on both sides to interpret prophecies in terms of current events. People therefore jump to conclusions that Napoleon or Hitler or the Pope or whatever current figure we happen to dislike is the Antichrist. May it not be better to wait and see how the prophecies are really fulfilled rather than jumping to conclusions prematurely? Is it possible that God puts less value on our being clever enough to figure out all the details before hand (1 Corinthians 3:18-20; 8:1-3) than on trusting Him even when things do not turn out as we expect (2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:6)?

Now do not get me wrong. I do not want to forbid the study of the prophecies of the Second Coming. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). What I am suggesting is that we hold our interpretations with a light hand and avoid dividing over them. It was the Pharisees and Sadducees who had everything pegged (John 8:45-53; 9:13-34; Matthew 28:11-15; Acts 4:1-3). And they were totally wrong. Extreme dogmatism on things where the Scripture is not dogmatic can be a dangerous strait-jacket. I am not accusing either side of having reached this point. But I do think there are pitfalls, real and potential, that need to be avoided.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Can We Legislate Morality?

"You can't legislate morality." This is often heard when we try to legislate based on Christian principles. But is this true, and what does it mean? To make this more difficult, there is a confusion between two meanings of the word "morality". Let's look at what the options are.

The first meaning of "morality" is principles of right and wrong. It is difficult to see what else we do legislate. We say murder or racial discrimination is wrong, so we make it illegal. Now we could say that all legislation should be based solely on convenience. This means if it happens to be convenient to kill 6 million Jews in gas chambers, this is an appropriate thing to do. But let us put aside the initial reaction to this and look at it logically. The first question is, "Convenient for whom?" One might respond for society. But society exists for the good of the people in it. If not, why should we support it? Now this implies that what is good for them is solely the pursuit of selfish pleasure. And this ultimately leads to anarchy. Also, this is certainly not a position a Christian can accept on any level (Matthew 7:12; Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 13:8-10).

But the issue is not quite so simple, for there is a second meaning of "morality". One can, at least in theory, make a distinction between "morality" and "justice." "Justice" is the clear-cut requirements a society should place on the behavior of its people. "Morality" is seen as the expression of the inner character of a person. That a person does not steal or murder is a matter of justice. Whether they are kind or patient is a matter of morality. I would agree that, under this definition, we cannot legislate morality. You cannot make someone a better person just by passing laws. The problem is, there are things our society regards as morality that are, from the Christian perspective, a matter of justice. We regard the ideal for sexual behavior of one man and one woman for life as being a fundamental requirement of the societal structure (Matthew 19:1-12). If not committing murder is a matter of justice (Exodus 20:13), than the question concerning the unborn is whether they are in fact human from the point of conception and therefore should not be killed (Psalms 51:5). The issue is what behavior falls under which category.

It is not my purpose to come up with a legislative agenda. I am convinced that we are not going to Christianize this or any other nation simply by passing laws. But I do believe a Christian must stand for justice in society. This is, I believe, a difficult, long-term task in which we need to pick our fights and how we fight them carefully. But I do want to clarify a confusion that makes this more complicated.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Family Values

If we put second things before first things, we can lose not only the first thing but the second thing as well. (See C. S. Lewis' essay First and Second Things printed in his book God in the Dock.) If we ask what Evangelical Christians have put first in recent times, the first answer that comes to mind is family values. Yet never have family values been at a lower ebb, including among Evangelical Christians. Is there some relationship?

Now do not get me wrong; I am not opposed to family values. I am firmly convinced that God's ideal is one man and one woman for life (Matthew 19:1-12), that sexual activity outside this context is wrong (Hebrews 13:4), and that the parents have the primary responsibility for raising the children resulting from their union (Ephesians 6:1-4). But even a correct position can become distorted if it is blown out of proportion.

If we make something central when it does not belong there, it can become a panacea for solving life's problems. We look for the perfect mate expecting to be made unfailingly happy. Now in Christian circles, it is frequently recognized that marriage and family is something you need to work at. As an antidote to the "Some Enchanted Evening" view of instantaneous romantic perfection, this is a good thing. But it can backfire and produce a legalistic burden. If my family, for whatever reason, falls short of the picture-perfect ideal, then obviously I have not worked hard enough. And if someone else does not meet this standard, it is easy to condemn.

We need to realize that we are imperfect people in an imperfect world (Romans 3:23; 8:19-23). If we recognize this, we will be able to enjoy those good things God has given us (1 Timothy 4:3-5; James 1:17). But if we put anything on too high a pedestal, we can end up losing it. Sometimes the easiest way not to obtain something is to try too hard. We will settle for nothing less than perfection and will ruin the good things we have, seeking it. And when this does not work, we can end up going from person to person looking for the perfect match. We can even throw out family values entirely, concluding they do not work. Whereas if we keep our expectations within reasonable bounds, we can learn to love the real people God has put in our lives.

I am not in any way suggesting the abandonment of family values. But family, like everything else, needs to be put in the perspective of the total work that God is trying to produce in our lives (Ephesians 2:10). For it is God who genuinely claims the first place in our lives (Matthew 22:36-38; Isaiah 43:10-13). To attempt to put anything else, however good, in that place will only result in its destruction.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christianity vs Science

Are Christianity and science enemies? Some would say they always have been. Others would claim science came from Christian assumptions. That the idea the world was created by a orderly God who is separate from creation was the basic understanding that made science possible. While I agree with the latter conclusion, I would like to approach the question from a different angle.

Before science, the chief source for the study of the natural world was Greek philosophy. But, while the philosophers had some knowledge, they also reached many false conclusions. The reason was their emphasis on abstract thinking rather than actual observation of the physical world. (The Greeks did vary in this. Aristotle did make some observations. But the general tendency was in the other way.) Underlying this was the ideal of the philosopher as one who sat in his study and contemplated the universe, as opposed to someone who actually worked with his hands to examine the facts.

Modern science deserted this position to base its conclusions on observation and experimentation, resulting in greater accuracy. It is my contention that the source of this change was Christianity. Christians believe that God is the one who directly created all things (Genesis 1, 2). (This is as opposed to Plato, for example, who saw God as spending His time contemplating the Good and the world being made by the Demiurge, a lesser deity.) Further, when God became a man, He became a carpenter, someone who worked with His hands (Mark 6:3). Also, the evidence presented for the truth of Christianity was not abstract reasoning, but what the believers had seen and heard: the miracles (Acts 10:38), the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-11), and the fact God had predicted the future (Isaiah 44:24-28). While Christianity denies that we can only believe what our senses show us, it does use those senses as a starting place for understanding the things that cannot be seen (John 1:18; 1 John 1:1-3). This is also the starting place of modern science.

Another factor is the change in approach to knowledge at the end of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages had great respect for authority, not only in the area of theology, but in every area. As a result, they had a hard time questioning the Greek philosophers in areas outside theology. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a movement in different disciplines to question the traditional authorities and to attempt to understand truth for oneself. In theology, this resulted in the Protestant Reformation. In investigation of the physical world, it resulted in modern science. (These movements were not derived from each other, but came from the same impulse.) But this is not a desertion of Christian principles, but a freeing of genuine Christian thinking from Greek philosophy and dubious authority. I would therefore conclude that science was the result of and not contrary to correct Christian thinking.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Does God Work In?

Who does the Holy Spirit work in? And what do we need to do for Him to work in us? What does the Scripture say about this?

The Scripture says that the Spirit is at work in every believer (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29; Romans 8:9). In Galatians 2:20, the faith mentioned, in context, is saving faith (see Galatians 2:16-21). We are told that in Christ we have all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and are made complete (Colossians 2:10). I would therefore conclude that the Holy Spirit works in every believer.

However, there is a command in Scripture for us to respond (Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:16). These verses do not say in so many words what we are to do, but the implication is that we are to fit in with what the Spirit is doing in our lives, by obeying God. Further, in these verses, as in other passages of Scripture (Hebrews 5:14; Colossians 2:19; 1 Timothy 4:7, 8), it speaks of a process, of God transforming us over time. It is also important to realize that the power to do this comes not from us but from God (John 15:5; Romans 8:8). Otherwise we are in danger of becoming puffed up with pride or cast down by despair. Now there are many who reach a point in their life when they make a decision to seriously follow God or to rely on God's power rather than their own. I would not at all dismiss these experiences; there are many times God teaches us a new truth or makes an old truth finally become real to us. But I am convinced, based on Scripture, that these experiences are the result rather than the cause of God's working in our lives. Also, I think it is a mistake to require our experiences of others, in whom God may be working in a different way.

Scripture does not give us any formula for starting the Spirit's working in our lives. If this existed, you would expect it to be clearly taught throughout Scripture. But we are missing any clear-cut statement of what the correct set of conditions are. There are various commandments (for example Romans 12:1, 2 or 1 John 1:9), which are pressed into service as conditions for God's working in our lives, but there is no basis for concluding that this is correct. The problem with such conditions is they can discourage the one who tries them and does not see the immediate increase in spirituality that is promised. (I have been there). It also encourages individuals or groups to see themselves as the only ones in whom God works and to look down on others who do not use their particular approach. But if we recognize that God works in all His people, changing them over time as they respond, we can avoid these errors.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Uses of the Law

"If we cannot be saved by our good works, why did God give the Law with all its commandments, if we are not saved by doing them?" This is an objection I have run into many times and would like to deal with. However, in approaching this, I am aware that among those who believe in salvation by grace there are substantial disagreements over how the Law and its purpose should be understood. One of the more useful categorization of the uses of the Law is the one by Martin Luther, which mentions three uses. But let's see if it stacks up to Scripture.

The first use is as a muzzle that serves to restraint gross outbreaks of sin. We see this purpose frequently pointed out in the Old Testament--that the people seeing sin punished would avoid it (Deuteronomy 13:11; 17:13; 19:20). This does not change the nature of those involved, but merely restrains them out of fear (like a muzzle on a wild beast). But it does make civil society possible.

The second use is as a mirror to show us we are sinners and need a savior (Romans 3:19, 20; Galatians 3:23-25; 1 Timothy 1:9-16). This use of the law cannot save, but seeing my sin sends me to Christ for salvation. My bathroom mirror may show me that I need a shave, but the mirror cannot remove my whiskers. I need a razor to do that. Paul puts this forth as the primary use of the law. There are those who would put forth something else as the primary purpose, but I believe we can rely on the direct statements of Paul in this regard.

The third use of the law is as a measuring stick to tell those who are already saved how they should live (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8-12). Now it is clear in Scripture that we cannot fulfill the requirements of the law just by knowing them; we need the work of the Spirit of God in our lives (Galatians 5:14-26; Romans 8:3-9; 2 Corinthians 3:15-18). But we also need (and Scripture gives us) specific commands to know whether how we are living fits with how God wants us to live. There are also specific provisions of the law that were done away with at the coming of Christ (Galatians 4:1-11; Colossians 2:16-23: Hebrews 10:1-14). But the substance of the law is to be written in our hearts (Hebrews 8:10) so that we will observe it. Further, when it speaks of not being under law but under grace, it speaks in context not of a change of times, but of the new state of the believer, who is saved by grace and no longer subject to the penalty of the law (Romans 6:14, 7:1-6; Galatians 5:18; 2:19-21).

Therefore, the law has uses, but it cannot in itself save or transform the individual. Only God's grace can do that.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

May the Best Man Win?

It seems like our whole culture is based on competition. Whether it's parlor games or sports, school or business, everything we do revolves around it. But while I do not want to nitpick over such things as games, I do need to ask, is this attitude genuinely Christian?

An underlying concept of our society and especially our economics is that if we all work for our own self-centered ends, somehow it will all iron out (as in Adam Smith's magical hand of God) and produce an optimal state of society. It is easy to see the attraction of this point of view. I can live for myself, compete as viciously as I want to meet my goals, and somehow it will all turn out right in the end. But does reality really work that way? Do those who cut every corner, break every rule, and use every other person as a pawn in their game end up making this world a better place? I haven't seen it. Further, I am convinced that the state of our society and even our economy is a direct result of this philosophy. Not that I espouse socialism, because that is merely the majority uniting together to use the government to further their selfish goals by taking money away from those who have more.

The Bible takes a radically different attitude. It says there is only one truly meaningful competition. To qualify for it, you need to be saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9). In this competition to be a leader, you need to become a servant (Luke 22:25-30); to humble yourself is to be exalted (Luke 18:9-14), to save your life you must lose it (Matthew 16:24-27), and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:1-16). In this, we are called to love others and treat them as we wish to be treated (Matthew 22:39; 7:12). We are to put other people's interests before our own and not to promote ourselves (Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 12:3-5). And there will be a judgment, where all we have done will be evaluated according to how it meets these principles and everything that does not will be burnt up (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

How then are Christians to live in a world riddled with competition, where even Christian ministries compete with each other for influence. First, it is helpful to know that this is not what life is really all about. Also, while we may not be able to get out of competing, we need to do this with justice and honesty, doing the best work we can and treating others (even our competitors) as justly as possible. I know from personal experience how hard this is to do or even to know how to do in the business world. But we must make the attempt. And, above all, we must not take the earthly competition too seriously (Ecclesiastes 9:11), for it is not the real goal of life (Jeremiah 9:23, 24).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Defending the Faith

"You cannot argue anyone into the kingdom." This is true, but it is often used as an excuse to avoid any kind of reasoned defense of the Christian faith. We are exhorted to build relationships and love people into the faith and avoid intellectual confrontation. I do not, in any way, want to minimize the need to love people. An arid intellectualism or rigid legalism that shows no love for others is not only unattractive but unbiblical (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 3:11-18). But does this mean totally deserting all reasoned argumentation?

First, it needs to be established that no one comes to God without a work of God in their lives (John 6:44; 10:27; 16:8-11). No method of any type is any use if God is not at work in a person's life. But God can use many different methods to bring people to Christ. So we are wise not to cast any tool aside in our efforts to reach people.

It is the fundamental assertion of Christianity that it is not just a good feeling, but it is the truth (John 1:14; 4:24; 8:32; 14:6; 17:17; Galatians 3:1; Ephesians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15). This implies something that will stand up to intellectual examination. Certainly, the apostles regarded it as such. They claimed to be witnesses of actual events that proved their point (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Acts 2:33; 3:15). They argued for the truth of God from His work in nature (Romans 1:18-20; Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-34). The Old Testament also puts forth arguments for the truth of God (Isaiah 41:21-24; 44:9-20; 24-28). After the Scripture was written, this practice continued into the ancient church, with apologists such as Justin Martyr taking up the practice of giving reasons to accept the truth of God. It is true the Scripture warns against too great a reliance on human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 3:18-20; 8:1, 2. But to say that reason can be abused does not mean it has no place (1 Peter 3:15).

The problem with throwing aside contending for the truth is it can leave us at the mercy of the subjective. There are those other than Christians who can behave in a loving manner (and, unfortunately, sometimes Christians who don't). There are those other than Christians who claim powerful subjective experiences. How does one judge which is right? Worse, how does one avoid the contention, "We'll do what works for us, and you do what works for you." There needs to be an objective basis for saying Christianity is the truth and not just one of many good stories out there. Or you end up arguing who has the better experience. I am not against subjective experiences. (I've had a few myself). But total reliance on them rather than objective fact will make it hard to reach many for Christ and will cause others to be anemic Christians once they are reached. Truth and love are both requirements; they are not options, let alone mutually exclusive.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Staying Out of the Whale

Jonah was a prophet who rejected the will of God for his life (see Jonah). God told him to go to Nineveh, and he ran off in the opposite direction. Nor did he do it with the best of motives. He did not want the Ninevites to repent; he wanted God to destroy them. Then we read that Jonah had only God's second best and was miserable for the rest of His life. Well, no. Maybe God appeared to some other person and told them to go to Nineveh. Not quite. God sent a storm, and God sent a sea creature (possibly a whale), and Jonah went to Nineveh.

But often we see finding God's will put forward as a mysterious, complicated thing in which well intentioned Christians can go astray if they do not use precisely the right method. Scripture rather pictures the will of God as something it is difficult to get out of. An even more extreme case is that of Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). Balaam was offered money if he would curse Israel, and he wanted very much to do so. But God threatened him with an angel and rebuked him through a donkey, and he ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing them. Ultimately, he was not willing to give up; he came up with a scheme to corrupt Israel through sin, and God put him to death (Numbers 31:8, 16). But even in deliberate disobedience it took work for him to get out of the will of God.

Part of the problem is we expect God to lay His whole will out before us at once. Based on Scripture, God very rarely does that. Elijah was fed by ravens at the brook Cherith until the brook dried up and he was led to a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:2-16). Paul was forbidden to preach the word in the province of Asia and sent to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10), but later Paul spent 2 years preaching the word to the province of Asia (Acts 19:10).

What I am forced to conclude is that if we will trust and obey God (and quite possibly even if we won't), God will direct us into His will (Proverbs 3:5, 6; Psalms 23:3; 31:3; Romans 12:1, 2). These promises are not conditional on our past obedience, let alone our having figured out the proper way to find God's will. That does not mean there will be no hard decisions or that we should make those decisions foolishly, but we can make them in the confidence that God is at work in our life, guiding us to where He wants us to be. We should also remember that the most important part of God's will is obedience to His written word (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:21). Even if we disobey, though, God has ways to bring us back. But who wants to go the long way around, in the belly of a whale?

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Evangelical Christians are those who genuinely believe in miracles--that God can objectively intervene in history. But while we agree that miracles have occurred, we differ greatly on whether they persist today, particularly those of healing.

There are those who see the occurrence of miracles in their lives as a proof of their faith or spirituality. Now Scripture does make a connection between people's faith and God's working miracles (Matthew 8:10, 9:22, 13:58, 14:31). But it is not quite that simple; there are cases where God works miracles when little or no faith is exhibited on the part of the recipient (John 5:1-15; Luke 7:11-17; Acts 3:1-10, 14:8-18). Scripture promises miracles in response to an imperfect faith (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6; Mark 9:23-25). God also refuses to grant miracles even to those whose faith is not in question (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 26:42). Nor are miracles the result of or a proof of the spirituality of the people who work them (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Matthew 7:21-23). Samson possessed miraculous strength, but his life was characterized by bad moral choices. While it ultimately caught up with him, it did not happen immediately (see Judges 14-16).

Also related to this is the question of whether God always heals. Jesus walks into a area full of sick people and heals one man (John 5:1-9). Paul is healing people at least to the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:8,9), but he does not seem to have been able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-27), Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:19) or Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23). Ultimately, God's working miracles always was and always is according to His will (1 John 5:14, 15; Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 26:42).

However, I also do not see any clear basis for saying miracles or certain types of miracles have passed away. (Hebrews 2:4 does not seem to me to prove this.) Also, while I do not want to deal here with the whole complex issue of spiritual gifts, I do not see a basis for saying that an individual could not have (within the Scriptural limits mentioned above) a gift or ministry in which God uses them to ask for miraculous things (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). This does not mean necessarily accepting any particular person's claim to have such a gift. It particularly does not mean accepting such unscriptural practices as charging for working miracles (Matthew 10:8) or engaging in any form of deception (1 Thessalonians 2:3).

There are undoubtedly those who, holding miracles to be a proof of faith or spirituality, may see miracles where no miracle has occurred. But it also seems to me that if faith is a factor in the miraculous, there may be those who, having dismissed miracles as irrelevant for today, may not see miracles because they are unwilling to trust God for them. This is a difficult balance to find, but I do believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Departure from Christianity

In the United States in the 1960s, it seemed our culture suddenly threw off all respect for Christianity. But was this upheaval as abrupt a turnaround as it seemed?

The adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine was a foxhole conversion. The Roman Empire was fast disintegrating in its decadence and needed something to give it stability. For the western half of the empire it proved too late, as it continued to crumble to its eventual fall. But in the chaos that followed, it was the Christian church that was the glue that held society together and worked to preserve literacy and civilization.

But the church paid a high price in terms of its own corruption through conformity to the world and departure from Biblical teachings. Also, as its representatives became rich and powerful in the secular realm, this prestige had a destructive influence. While there were those who attempted to reform the church and recall it to its original purpose, it continued to deteriorate.

Once European civilization was reestablished, it began to depart from the belief it had embraced in its time of desperation. It searched for a replacement in Greek philosophy, ultimately ending up in modern science. It was furthered in this by the evident decay of the organizational church, which had departed far from its moorings. Despite attempts such as the Protestant Reformation to recall Europe to traditional Christianity, it continued in its downward spiral.

Many of those who wished to seriously follow God left the Old World and its lukewarm state churches for what was to become the United States. But while there were those who came here for religious liberty, there were many others who came simply to make a profit. Both strands were part of our history from the beginning and have continued to fight each other ever since. But in spite of many attempts from the Great Awakening to Billy Graham to call us to follow God, the general trend has been the erosion of Christianity until what was left in many cases was a shell, an outward profession of Christianity with no depth of belief. Then in the 1960s many gave up the pretense and threw off the shell.

I do not want to say the results were inevitable. But I do think that it was the natural course for things to follow without a decisive return to God. Western Civilization embraced God at a point of desperation and deserted Him when the calamity was over. The clear implication of this is that we cannot simply go back. Rather, we need to let go of the past and accept we are Christians in a pagan society and rebuild from there. I do not want to limit the power of God, but I am convinced we need to be prepared for the long haul of impacting a hostile culture for Christ. Trying to go back, though, will only lead to frustration.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breaking the Warning Light

Suppose I am driving down the road and a warning light comes on on the car's dashboard. There are several things I could do. I could ignore it and keep on driving. Worse yet, I could try to find a way to break the light so it does not light up any more. Or I could take the car in to have it looked at to find what is wrong with it. The last is the only wise option. Granted, warning lights can malfunction and light without reason, it is unwise to assume this without having the car checked out.

Guilt is the warning light on the human vehicle to warn us of the existence of sin in our lives. Unfortunately, due to our being sinful people in a sinful world, there is a much higher tendency for our guilt "warning light" to malfunction than our car's warning light. How do we deal with this?

It is clear that the answer of our society to this is to break the warning light. To take the position there is no right and wrong and no reason to feel guilty. We claim everyone should accept himself and that any wrong thing we do can be blamed on how someone else has treated us.

This is not the Biblical position. The Bible says that ultimately we feel guilty because we are guilty (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). But God has provided the solution in Jesus Christ. He is the one who has paid the entire price for our sins (Romans 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:4-6), and we can be declared righteous before God by faith in Him (Romans 4:5, 6; 3:28; Philippians 3:9).

But what about those who have already trusted in Christ--how do we deal with guilt? We need to honestly admit our sins to God (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13), trusting in His forgiveness, and then press on with God, putting our sins behind us (Philippians 3:13,14) and trusting Him to work in our life to change us (Romans 12:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 3:18) into who He wants us to be. But how do we decide if guilt is legitimate? A helpful passage on this is 2 Corinthians 7:9, 10. It is speaking of sorrow for sin (guilt) and says proper guilt leads us to come to God and admit our sins (repent) and accept His forgiveness. The wrong kind of guilt leads us to try to hide or deny our sins. Then it says this repentance should be without regret. This does not mean we do not wish we had not sinned or try to avoid the same sin in the future, but it does mean we should put it behind us and go on. Beating ourselves up over old sin already repented of is counterproductive. Guilt, therefore, is good when it drives us to Christ, who is the only mechanic who can truly fix the problem. But breaking the warning light solves nothing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Use of Science

For many years (though some have come to doubt it) there has been a naive faith in science. It was thought science could solve all our problems and answer all our questions? But is this really true?

I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to science. I have no desire to go back to warming myself and cooking over an open fire. But it is not opposing a thing to ask how it should be used.

Science is an attempt to make generalizations about how things happen in nature. It can tell us what will happen and why it happened that way and how it could be made to happen differently. But it cannot tell us what should happen. Science allows us to do whatever we do more efficiently. It allows us to save lives--and destroy lives--on a grander scale than was ever thought possible before. But it needs something beyond science to inform it as to what the goals should be. What works is not an adequate criterion. Atomic bombs work quite well, but we need to consider carefully before dropping them.

Another issue is whether science is the only source of truth. The answer to this is that science cannot deal with all the questions. Science tells us about what will happen in the normal course of nature. But it cannot deal with unique events. If you want to know if Washington crossed the Delaware, you cannot answer it by doing an experiment and having a group of similar people with similar equipment try to cross. You have to check the historical record. If you see science as the only source of truth, than you end up with the absurd position (following Dave Hume) that a person who lived his entire life in Southern California is reasonable not to believe in snow because he has never seen it. You also make science impossible because every scientist would have to repeat every experiment and observation for himself before he could believe it. This sheds light on the question of whether science disproves the existence of miracles. Whether there is something beyond nature that can intervene in its normal course is not a subject science can even deal with. Science tells what will happen if nothing intervenes. It cannot tell if something will intervene.

In the final analysis, science cannot by itself solve all our problems and answer all our questions. It needs to be informed by something beyond itself. It is my assertion that at least part of what science needs to be informed by is Biblical Christianity. That the two are not contraries but complementary aspects of truth. But whatever you add to it, science by itself is not able to deal with all the issues. This is not an insult to science. It is not an insult to a screwdriver to say it is a poor tool to pound nails with. Everything has its proper use.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where Is the Power?

God has promised us power to do His work through His Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). How do we obtain this? If we look at the Book of Acts, we find that the disciples were not filled with the Spirit of God as a one-time thing, but that the same people could be filled again to meet new situations. Now there are two words translated "filled". One, in Ephesians 5:18, refers to God's enabling us to obey Him. But the one used in Acts refers to God's empowering us for service. At Pentecost, those present are filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). But later Peter and John are filled again (Acts 4:8) when faced with opposition by the Jewish leadership. Paul is filled at his conversion (Acts 9:17), but later was filled in a new way to handle an opposing sorcerer (Acts 13:9). "Filled" is in the passive, and while one time it was in answer to prayer (Acts 4:31), it is pictured as something God does to us. The ultimate case of this was John the Baptist, who was filled and acted on that filling in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15, 41). But is this filling connected at all to what we do?

Let us look at the case of King Saul. Saul was told by Samuel to go to a certain oak and receive two loaves of bread from the people there. Then he was to go to a certain hill and meet prophets playing music, and the Spirit of God would come upon him (1 Samuel 10:1-13). No one that I know of claims the way to be empowered by the Spirit today is by doing these things. Later, God took the Spirit away from Saul because of two acts of disobedience (1 Samuel 16:14). Now he was not told, "You have two strikes and you're out," but God knew Saul's heart and decided that was it (1 Samuel 15:22-31). Later, King David committed two more serious sins (adultery and murder; see 2 Samuel 11), but he prayed that the Spirit would not depart from him (Psalms 51:11) and He did not. But later, Saul is in pursuit of David with murder in his heart. He is as far from any truly spiritual state of mind as a man can be. And the Holy Spirit comes upon him, causing him to prophesy so David escapes (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The empowerment of the Spirit is given by God to fulfill His purpose, even in ways we would not anticipate. But if we are attempting to follow God, if we are trusting in Him and praying for His assistance, God will provide us the power we need to accomplish His purpose in our lives. But it is His purpose, not necessarily what we want (Romans 8:28, 12:2; Ephesians 1:11).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Christ of History

Conservative Christianity is one of the few systems of belief that is firmly rooted in history. If Confucius was totally unknown to history or if he were someone else, his teachings would be substantially the same. If Buddha was not Buddha, his beliefs would remain unchanged. But if Jesus Christ was not who He claimed to be and did not do what He was claimed to have done, Christianity becomes a totally different faith. This is why those who try to water down Christianity to fit modern philosophical convictions end up with something wholly unlike the original.

The first issue is who Jesus Christ is. According to conservative Christian teaching, He is the God-Man, God come in the flesh. This implies He was one of four things. He was a legend so blown out of proportion by His followers as to be unrecognizable (and if so, we have to ask why they did it). A liar of of the most viciously evil type (because He asked people to trust in Him for eternal life and be willing to give up everything for Him in this world). A madman who honestly thought what He said was true but was wrong. Or He was who He is claimed to be--God come to rescue us from our sins. But what people would rather believe is He is someone like Confucius, a great ethical teacher who was gradually blown out of portion over time. But this is not plausible. After 2600 years it is till clear to those who read his writings what Confucius really was. But in at most 200 years (probably less than that) Jesus was supposedly so distorted as to be unrecognizable (see Matthew 7:21-23, 11:27; John 8:58, 10:30, 14:9; Hebrews 1:8; Philippians 2:6).

The other issue is what Jesus did. It is the Christian contention that He died on the cross to pay the price for our sins and rose again to conquer death. Paul contends that if Christ did not in fact return to life from the dead, then our faith is vain and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). If this was some sort of a scam, we have to ask how they pulled it off, and if it was a mistake, how it was made. But this does not seem to be some later window dressing but the very heart of the Christian message (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 4:24, 25; Colossians 2:11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:15 ).

It is not my purpose here to provide a detailed defense of the Christian faith. But it is my point to show what the issue is. It is not about a moral code or a mystical experience. It is about God invading history to deliver us from sin and death when we could not deliver ourselves. This is the issue, and we must chose whether to accept this message or reject it as the biggest hoax of all history. These are the choices; there are no others.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Loving God

The first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). How do we do this? Now, the Bible says we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and if we ask how He loved us, we are told He sent His Son to die for us (1 John 4:9-10; Romans 5:5-11). Our love for God is our response to God's love for us and what He has done for us.

But how much we value the gift and the Giver depends on how much we recognize our need. Luke tells the story of Jesus going to dinner at a Pharisee's house (see Luke 7:36-50). There entered a woman who was a notorious sinner, who began to anoint Jesus' feet with expensive perfume and wipe them with her hair. The Pharisee condemned Jesus for allowing such a woman to touch Him. In response, Jesus told the story of two debtors. One owed $250.00 and the other owed $2500.00. If the lender forgave them both, which would love him more? The Pharisee correctly discerned it was the one who owed more. Jesus then pointed out how the woman who had been forgiven much loved Jesus much. But the Pharisee, who thought he had done little that needed forgiving, loved little.

Where are we? Are we in the place of the Pharisee or the place of the woman? The Bible makes it very clear that all of us, no matter who, are sinners like the woman(Romans 3:9-18, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). But sometimes we can convince ourselves otherwise. We live in a culture that says that all people (except perhaps extreme cases) are basically good, and, if we do things that are wrong, it is really somebody else's fault. Also, we as Christians start to get the idea that, while we used to be sinners, somehow we are no longer like that. The Bible does not encourage us in this opinion (1 John 1:8-10). Also, it is easy to learn to mouth the words, "I am a sinner," and to not really believe them in our hearts.

In 2 Peter 1:5-11, it admonishes us to add to our faith in God a number of other virtues. It then says if these qualities are not in us and increasing, it is because we have forgotten our forgiveness from our former sins. If we are not growing in our love for God, resulting in changes in our lives, we need to come back to the cross and remember what God did for us and how much we needed it. Also, if we do love God, this should express itself in keeping the second greatest commandment--to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 34:19; 1 John 4:20,21; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Breaking Out of the Circle

In the days of the settling of the United States, when the covered wagons headed west, they would meet with attacks along the way. When this happened, they would circle the wagons and make them a barrier behind which to hide and shoot at the enemy. This is the approach many take to theology. They pick a narrow view and circle the wagons around it, with their guns aimed outward to shoot anyone on the outside. The result resembles the state Paul deplored at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Paul characterized this state of things as carnality (1 Corinthians 3:1-8) and stated that disunity and dissension are the result of not having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11).

Another approach is to treat God's teachings like the cards in a game of rummy. We keep the ones we like or think important and discard the rest. In this, I am not just referring to those holding liberal theology (who discard just about everything). There are many from a more conservative theological point of view who follow this approach, holding on to a few key basics of the faith and ignoring the rest. But we are told that all Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16,17) and that there is an obligation to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

I would rather approach theology as a mountain climb. We are on a journey to reach the place where we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), but we are not there yet (Philippians 3:13, 14). But every step we take in learning more about God and His teachings brings us closer to being the people God calls us to become (Ephesians 4:13-16). Now don't get me wrong; there are dangerous places on the mountain. There is the "Jesus is not God" cliff, from which those who go over it fall to their destruction (John 8:24; compare John 8:58). There is the "We can be saved by our own works" quicksand, in which climbers can sink to their demise (Galatians 1:8, 9). It is necessary to enter the gate at the entrance of the path up the mountain (John 14:6). I am not by any means advocating that all roads lead to God; most lead away (Luke 13:23-30). But we are also admonished against thinking we have everything figured out (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-3). We should therefore be careful of looking down on someone who is headed up the mountain but is taking a different path than we are. It will all become clear when we reach the top. But we should not ignore any point of truth as we climb up. Every step is getting us one step closer to the top.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Opiate Of The People?

One of the charges brought against religion is that it is a plot by those in power to keep the public under control. Now, I do not know that I can respond to the charge in terms of "religion" (a vague word that lacks substantive meaning in most cases), but I can as it applies to traditional Christianity.

Our Founder was a carpenter, and his followers were fishermen, political radicals, former prostitutes, and reformed corrupt minor government officials. He was opposed by those in the position of authority to the extent they put Him to death with a method reserved for the worst criminals. Later, His followers became known as a religion of women and slaves because they appealed to the lower classes. The only one of the early leaders who was really respectable (a man by the name of Paul) ceased to be when he followed Christ. He because a wandering preacher who could not come into a town without causing a riot. Ultimately, Christians ended up being persecuted by the Roman establishment because it was against their conscience to participate in a religious ceremony that was commonly regarded as a mere formality.

Later on, Christianity became respectable. There were among its representatives the occasional individual who became an agent to support those in power. There were those leaders who stood for upholding the status quo. We all tend to uphold the status quo when we are the status quo. But, on the whole, Christians have tended to maintain their reputations as obstinate and unbending people who hold to their principles even when it costs them their lives.

But the ultimate test was arranged by one of the chief advocates of the conspiracy theory, a man named Karl Marx. He claimed that Christianity was a conspiracy to keep down the working people and they should rebel, overthrow the government and abolish it. If this were true, you would expect that once Christianity was no longer in power, without its reason for continuing, it would vanish away. It did not happen this way. When the Communists took over China, even the Christian missionaries felt the infant church there had little chance of withstanding the onrush of Communism. But, when China opened up again, they returned to find the Chinese Christians millions strong. In Eastern Europe, not only did Christianity continue, but it is claimed it was a key factor producing the fall of Communism there (see, for instance, Chuck Colson's book, The Body).

There are very few philosophical theories which have been tested in the crucible of history. This is one of them. Marx said religion was the opiate of the people. One of our early teachers, a man named Tertullian, said the blood of the martyrs (those who died for the faith) was seed, resulting in the growth of the church. The evidence of history is that Tertullian, rather than Marx, was right.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Speaking Christianeze

Have you ever been in an occupation where you used a technical language? It enables those in the occupation to speak more clearly to each other then regular English. It can also be mysterious to those outside. Christianity has such a technical language (commonly called Christianeze). The question is whether we should abolish it.

There are definite drawbacks to technical language. It can cause a people to think they are communicating to others when, in fact, they are not. Also, with Christian language there are groups that use the same words with different meanings. It is also possible to use the words in a technical language without being clear ourselves what they mean. Also, we can end up inventing technical words just to show off that we understand them, even if they are not necessary.

But I question whether we can just throw the technical language out. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation on Christian subjects if every time we said "born again" or "spiritual" we had to explain it in ordinary language. It would take us hours to say anything. We would also lose precision. There is no equivalent in everyday language for words like "justification" or "atonement". We would also cut ourselves off from the majority of Christian writing and thought both past and present. Further, there is a danger of assuming that if we get rid of the technical words, we are communicating. This is not necessarily true. Many of the concepts of Christianity are foreign to people on the outside, and simply getting rid of the words will not solve it. In fact, it is sometimes easier to grasp a new concept if we have a new word to hang it on.

But the Christian has no different a problem than is faced by many occupations. Further, most of these occupations, if they want to continue to exist, have to deal with customers who do not know the language. What, then, is the solution?

We need to start by being aware of the problem. Therefore, we need to be careful whenever we speak to those who are unfamiliar with our terms and either define our terms or use ordinary language. Also, we need to be sure that we ourselves understand what we are saying. If we cannot explain our theology to an ordinary person on the street, we do not understand our theology. Also, if there are words that are unnecessary and merely make us look scholarly, we need to drop them. This means we need to be particularly careful in contexts like a worship service, where we may be speaking to both believers and unbelievers.

But the bottom line is, if you want to learn how to talk to unbelievers, you need to talk to unbelievers. Also, ask questions and listen to them so you can get some idea of where they are coming from and what they understand. Otherwise we are just talking to ourselves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Badge of the Christian

A badge is something that identifies the wearer. Whether it is the badge of a law enforcement officer or a name badge at a conference, it lets us know something about person who wears it. The outward signs of the Christian are the ordinances or sacraments. They are also one of the biggest matters of contention among Christians down through the ages. In fact, it is hard to talk about them without taking a position by the words you use. Is there any way out of this fight?

The underlying question is what the ordinances do for us. They are a confession of faith in Christ, but, beyond that, opinions range from their being purely symbolic to their actually giving something to the recipient. In the case of the Lord's Supper or communion or the Eucharist, this can go as far as receiving the physical body and blood of Christ. But the interesting thing is the Scripture does not go into any detail on this, leaving both sides to build their case on hints and implications. If, as I would affirm, God has communicated to us what He intended to communicate, I am forced to question whether this is meant to be dogmatically affirmed. Could it be that the person who receives the sacrament, receives the benefit of the sacrament. If it is a symbol, they perceive the symbol, and if there is something given, they receive whatever that something is. Nowhere in Scripture is the receiving of the benefit of an ordinance said to depend on one's theory about it. Should we divide over something the Scripture does not clearly assert.

A further issue is whether the validity of the sacrament is based on the way it is performed. Again, I do not find this delineated in Scripture. If God required the ordinances to be done a certain way, don't you think He would have told us in no uncertain terms. If you think God is unwilling to do this, you need only examine the requirements in the Old Testament Law to see He is not. I do admit it is at least relevant whether we should baptize infants. I believe the New Testament pattern is to baptize believers only, but I do not think it something worth dividing over. None of these things are a matter of emphasis in Scripture.

The final question is who is eligible to perform the sacraments. Again, the Scriptures are silent. In Matthew 28:16-20, it implies that those who are Christ's disciples, His followers (not apostles, as referring to their office), have been commanded, among other things, to baptize. There is no place in Scripture where the right to perform the ordinances is limited to certain people (or certain contexts). Rather, the issue is the heart of the recipient, not the person who officiates (Acts 10:47; 16:14, 15, 16:30-33). Should any of these matters be points of dispute for genuine followers of Christ.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Knowing God

Can you know someone without knowing about them? I like to think I know my wife. But if someone asked me questions about my wife (What is her favorite color? Where was she born, and where did she grow up?) and I could not answer any of them, you would wonder what kind of a relationship we had. On the other hand, an FBI agent might be able to investigate and find out all sorts of facts about my wife and not really know her.

We face the same problem when it comes to knowing God. It is possible to know things about God without really knowing God. But is it possible to know God without knowing something about God? What sense does it make to speak of knowing a God that we know nothing about. If I know nothing about Him, what sense does it make to call Him, "God"? And what possible difference can it make at any level to speak of knowing someone I know nothing about? If all I am looking for is a vague feeling, I can get that by reading The Lord of the Rings or watching Star Trek. Why drag God into it?. I am not opposed to experiences, but experiences should be firmly rooted in the real God who exists in the real world. Otherwise, it is all just a nice story. With this the Scriptures agree, for they connect knowing God and knowing about Him (Jeremiah 9:23, 24); in fact, there is much more emphasis in Scripture on knowing that God is God than on knowing God (Psalms 46:10; 83:18; 100:3).

How then do we come to know God and not just know about God? Scripture says that the only way to know God is through Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:27), who is the only way to God (John 14:6). Scripture explains that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), Christ paid for our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), and we can be saved by trusting in Him (Romans 4:4, 5). As a result, we can know God (Philippians 3:8-10), but if we come some other way, Christ will say, "I never knew you" (Luke 13:23-27) . Therefore, we have a new relationship with God; we are His children (John 1:12, 13), His friends (John 15:14, 15), and His future bride (2 Corinthians 11:1, 2). However, once we know Him, we are to grow in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10; 2 Peter 3:18) and to live our lives in light of that relationship (1 John 2:3-5; 4:8, 9). The Scripture does not give us a pat formula for doing this. Rather, we are to live our lives in view of our relationship with God, learning to know Him and love Him more. In this, reading and meditating on God's Word (Psalms 1:2), prayer (Philippians 4:6, 7), and praise and worship (Psalms 100:1-5) are aids in this. But these must not be done mechanically, but as communication with a God who loves us and is always with us.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

No One Knows

Two men (both named Gregory) looked out over their world. They saw a world in anarchy. They saw the government in total disarray and society falling apart. They saw people, even people who claimed to be Christians, living debauched and immoral lifestyles with few traces of conscience. They thought that surely things had reached an all time low in the world. Surely it was time for the Lord's return. They lived in the 7th century AD.

There have been many who have tried to predict the second coming of Christ, and they have all been wrong. But this does not seem to discourage the next person from showing up and trying again. And in all this, the Scripture continues to state over and over again that we cannot, do not, and will not know when Christ will come (Matthew 24:36-51; 25:13; Acts 1:7; 2 Thessalonians 5:1-3; 2 Peter 3:8-10). (There is only one passage that can be used against this, and that is 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6, but, in the context, this clearly does not mean we will know the time of Christ's coming. It means we will not be surprised if we are alert and watching.)

Now it is the Day of the Lord that will come as a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:2), and it is reasonable to believe that this includes, not only the coming itself, but the events immediately connected with it. There will come a point when it is obviously occurring (Matthew 24:27), when the redeemed will look up in anticipation (Luke 21:28) and those opposed will curse God and call for the rocks and hills to fall on them (Revelation 16:9; 6:15-17).

The question is whether it is possible, before it is blatantly clear, for the clever and knowledgeable to figure out the time. And, frankly, I see nothing in Scripture that encourages this idea. In fact, there is much in Scripture that rebukes reliance on human cleverness and knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 3:18-20). Also, Scripture gives the impression that the whole point of God not giving us a time is so we would not know, but be prepared at all times (Luke 21:34-36). That is, we will not become too entangled in this world, which is about to pass away (2 Peter 3:11-13), or desert our normal duties, like the Thessalonians, on the assumption the Day has already come (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2; 3:6-15). Therefore, we should be skeptical of those who claim to know more than the angels in heaven (Matthew 24:36), but rather trust God for His timing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

His Hands and Feet

We as Christians are pictured as united together in the body of Christ. What does it mean to be the body of Christ? It means He works through us and empowers us to do His work in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29; Philippians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Now it is clear it is His work both to build His church (Matthew 16:18) and to cause it to grow up in Him (Colossians 2:19). This is important because, while we frequently realize we need God's power to live for Him (John 15:5), we often try to carry out God's work in the world based on our cleverness and organizational ability. Or we recognize the need for God's power but see Him as a magic genie to carry out our purposes rather than the God who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11; Colossians 1:18, 19).

It is also important to realize that we work together as a body to accomplish God's purpose. We are pictured as a body of which each part is necessary (1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans 12:3-8). This tells against our culture's strong tendency toward individualism. There is a tendency for people to think of ministry and discipleship from a individualistic point of view rather then seeing ourselves as part of a larger body. Now don't get me wrong, I fully affirm that it is necessary to for a person to grow up in Christ rather then remaining in spiritual infancy (1 Peter 2:2; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:11-14). But we are to grow together as a result of all of us working in each others lives (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 10:24,25). Further, we see that we are all members of the body with different functions. We are not all meant to be the same or pressed into one mold. No member is to see itself as better than another because its function or to claim that others are not following God if they are not empowered with the same abilities (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 12:28-31). But all of us are to see that we have something to contribute to the welfare of others (1 Peter 4:10,11).

Therefore, we as Christ's body should work together to carry out His work in the world. That does not mean there should not be human leadership; this is required in Scripture (Titus 1:5-9). But leaders should avoid pressing everyone into a one-size-fits-all program that ignores their differences. Or leaving them on their own to try to find their personal ministries rather than working together. At the same time, every person under the leaders needs to ask how God would have them work together with the other parts of the body to accomplish God's purpose. This is not just doing one's own thing independently or waiting for the leadership to decide everything for them. Accomplishing this is a careful balance and hard to maintain, but one we need to work towards.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Imagine a stay at a beautiful tropical beach. Lying in the sun, swimming in the ocean, having a lovely, peaceful time. Then you hear one word that changes your whole perception of the place. "Shark!" Sometimes we Christians can see the experience of church as being like this. We want to see it as a calm, peaceful place where we can be comfortable and have a refuge from all the cares of the world. But there are sharks in the waters.

Scripture tells us we live in the midst of a battle and must prepare ourselves for it (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Corinthians 10:4,5), for we face a dangerous enemy (1 Peter 5:8,9; 2 Timothy 2:26). Nowhere are we told we can be comfortable in the world, but we are aliens and sojourners here (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13). This being so, one of the most dangerous things we can cultivate is a spirit of complacency. If we feel we are at home in the world, it may be the world has become at home in us (1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4).

But shouldn't church at least be a safe place where we can drop our guard. The answer is, unfortunately, no. Satan is often found to be still at work among God's people (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:1-15; 1 Timothy 3:6,7; 5:15). Now we are told that Christ has given us victory over Satan and his minions (Colossians 2:15; 1 John 4:4), and we can stand against them through Christ's power (James 4:7; Romans 16:20). But if we put this together with the earlier Scriptures, we are led to expect a long fight, not a quick conclusion. The only really safe place will be when we stand before God. Let us not expect a life of ease before then.

The problem is, we can start to see church as a perfect place where all my needs are met, rather than a place where we can encourage others and be encouraged as we fight the fight of faith (Hebrews 10:24,25). If we face life, even church life, with the idea that things should be geared to make me comfortable and happy, we will not only be disappointed, but we will miss the point of what God is trying to accomplish in our lives (see Philippians 2 :1-11). We do have to be concerned about our being instructed and growing in Christ (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Colossians 2:19), and if we can honestly say the congregation where we are attending is not assisting us in this, we may need to change churches. But part of this growth is preparing us to do what God wants us to do for Him (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 4:10,11) and to be prepared to take part in the battle (2 Timothy 2:3,4; Romans 13:11-14). So if we look for things in church or in life to be arranged to please us, we may end up being surprised when we find sharks at our beach.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Breaking Out of the Machine

Have you ever felt trapped in the mechanism of a bureaucracy? You feel like you are just a cog in a wheel, a thing being used to serve the organization's purposes. While it should never happen, sometimes the Christian church can become like that. People can be put in the position of feeling they are merely warm bodies recruited to fill some slot to make the organization work. How can we avoid this?

We need to start by asking what is the purpose of the Christian church. The purpose of the church is to bring people to know Jesus Christ and to grow in Him (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:28-29), resulting in their becoming like Christ (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:13). The logical conclusion of this is that people should be encouraged to love God and love people (Matthew 22:37-40), resulting in their carrying out God's purpose in their lives by ministering to others (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 6:9,10). This does not always mean giving people what they want, but it does mean having in mind their ultimate welfare. This can be a delicate balance of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but our goal must always be to build up people in Christ (Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 2:19). In this, the leadership must act as servants working for the welfare of others (Luke 22:24-27). This is not always easy. I know from hard personal experience that there are times you need to weigh the welfare of one person against the welfare of others. Nonetheless, we must keep the goal in view.

But the machine mentality is not like that. Rather, it puts the welfare of the individual below that of the welfare of the organization and expects people to fit in with the structure rather than seeing the structure as being there to serve the needs of people. And the goal very easily becomes the perpetuation of the machine and its systems and programs or even building up the status and egos of its leaders. And it is easy for even well-meaning people to get trapped in the machine.

The solution is not tinkering with the mechanism. The machine is like the Borg on Star Trek; it is very good at assimilating things and making them its own. You want small groups, the machine will produce small groups. You want a greeting ministry, the machine will produce a greeting ministry. Nor is the solution to eliminate or minimize the organization. The Scripture does call for a degree of organization (1 Corinthians 14:40; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:17), but. more importantly, does not, beyond that, make the degree of organization of the church a major issue one way or the other. Also, I have seen even minimal organization take on the character of the machine. Rather, what is required is a difference in attitude. This is often difficult to acquire and maintain. But only then will we be able to break out of the machine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Do We Do When the Barbarians Win?

It was a hard time for the Roman Empire. The Huns had come in like a whirlwind off the central Asian steppe, pushing before them various Germanic tribes into the Empire. This resulted in the western Empire falling, with ensuing chaos. It was also a hard time for the Christian church. The Germanic tribes that ended up in charge of what was left of the government were either pagans or followers of a belief that denied Jesus was really God. To make things more desperate, much of the Christianity existing at the time was a cultural Christianity with no real conviction. How would this situation turn out?

God sometimes seems to have a sense of the dramatic. He will produce a real cliff-hanger and then work in some surprising way to turn things around. This time He took a British youth and had him taken captive as a slave into Ireland (then a pagan country). There, God became real to him and led him out of his slavery. Then God sent him back to the people who had enslaved him, to tell them God's truth. This man, later known as Patrick, went--and the Irish listened. The Irish then sent people to preach Christ to the Scots and the Picts and to stir up the lagging dedication of Christians on the continent.

Meanwhile, in Rome, God caused a man named Gregory to decide he needed to go to the Anglo-Saxons (the pagan Germanic tribes then in the process of conquering Britain) and tell them about Christ. This was not to be. Instead Gregory was made pope and sent a delegation of others to teach the Anglo-Saxons. These converted the Anglo-Saxons, who in turn sent missionaries to Germany to preach Christ there.

Gregory was also instrumental in convincing the Lombards (who then ruled the majority of Italy) to come to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed God. God even used Clovis, king of the Franks, a man whose life was not notable for Christian virtue, to bring the area that is now France around to a general affirmation of orthodox Christianity. In the long run, all of Europe came back around to at least a nominal affirmation of Christianity (with many parts probably more seriously Christian than they were before the invasion).

We Christians in the United States many times feel we are standing on the brink of being overwhelmed philosophically and politically, and, if we do not do something immediately, all will be lost. I do not want to discourage meaningful efforts to turn the situation around, but I do want to put things in perspective. God is still in control of the world, and, if we are overwhelmed like the Romans were overwhelmed, God will in His own way and His own time bring things back around. Therefore, we should trust God--that He is in charge and His purposes will be accomplished. Even if the barbarians win.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Snake Oil Gospel

One of the colorful characters in the old west was the snake oil salesman. He would come riding into town in a fancy wagon, selling an elixir to cure all of everyone's ills. Sometimes we as Christians can treat the gospel like snake oil. We can claim it is the solution to all of everyone's problems--immediately. In this I am not just talking about the health and wealth gospel (though it is an extreme form), but there are many who would not follow this view who still seem to put forth Jesus as some sort of happiness pill. Is there any wonder we sometimes find people who say they tried Christianity and it did not work for them.

What then does God promise? The chief thing He promises is forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7). That God took all the wrong things we have ever done and nailed them to the cross of Christ (Colossians 2:13-15). We no longer have to bear the guilt and shame of what we done, as Christ has dealt with them (Romans 8:33-34). He also promises when we accept this forgiveness, He will begin to work in us to transform our lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13) and use us to accomplish His work in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29). He also promises we will know Him (John 17:3) and be His friends (John 15:14, 15, 16:27) and His children (John 1:12). And ultimately we have the assurance of being with Him forever (1 John 5:11-13; John 10:27-30). We are also promised we can have joy and peace based on these things (John 14:27; 15:11).

But the thing we are not promised is no problems in this present life (John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12,13; Acts 14:22). We are told our troubles will produce perseverance (James 1:2-4), that God will cause them to work together for our good (Romans 8:28), that they are minor compared to the glory promised us (Romans 8:18), and that God will comfort us in them (2 Corinthians 1:3,4), but not that they will not happen. We are also not told we will never disobey God, but if we do and admit it to Him (1 John 1:8-10) we can put it behind us and go on with Him (Philippians 3:12-16).

But the bottom line is that all the things God promises are based on the forgiveness of sin (Romans 3:23-28). God offers a relationship with Him, meaning and purpose in life, and the joy and peace that come from knowing Him and knowing we are forgiven by Him. But first we must face the sin question and bring it to Christ to deal with (Ephesians 2:1-9). Let us not promise people, though, that if they do this they will have no more difficulties in this life. Let's quit peddling snake oil.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Is Progress?

Are Christians opposed to progress? I know that I, for one, have no desire to trade my computer for a typewriter, let alone a quill pen, or my automobile for a horse drawn carriage, let alone going on foot. But let us look at this more closely. What exactly is progress?

Progress means change for the better. But this implies a fixed standard of good that we are progressing to. If there is no fixed standard, it is impossible to gauge progress, let alone accomplish it. Further, as G. K. Chesterton points out in his book Orthodoxy, a changing standard makes progress impossible. It is like running a race where the location of the finish line is constantly changing. If you happen to cross the finish line and win, it is because of sheer luck. Therefore, to have real progress, you need a fixed standard.

Also, it has been my observation that real progress is generally the result of deliberate effort. If we went from typewriters to computers, it was because individuals put thought and effort into finding better ways to do things. Even when useful things are stumbled upon by accident, it takes a thoughtful observer to realize they are useful. The general tendency of things left to themselves is to fall apart. Now there is a tendency in nature for things to run in cycles, birds to eggs to birds, or trees to nuts to trees. But observation of the world around us would confirm progress does not simply happen.

The chief example that is alleged against this is the theory of evolution. It is beyond the scope of this post to deal in detail with this theory, though it is my assessment there are holes in it you could drive a truck though. Also, the extension of this theory to areas outside biology is simply an assumption based on no evidence whatsoever. But even if one allows evolution as a theory in biology (which I do not), it does not proves the concept of unlimited improvement by sheer accident, but rather occasional improvements in one realm. Even if billions of chimps on word-processors working for billions of years could manage by accident to write Shakespeare (which seems preposterous), this does not seem like a good method to build a library. The existence of an occasional lucky fluke does not make such events the order of the day.

Are Christians then opposed to progress? If by progress, we mean the deliberate effort to produce that which is good, we are not. This is true not only in the realms of faith and morality, but, except for perhaps some extreme cases, science and the arts. There is, of course, a question of what is genuinely good, but not of progress in principle. What we are opposed to is the idea that the basic standard of good changes and that whatever happens is progress. In this case, no progress is possible because we cannot know what direction we are going.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Numbers Game

One of the greatest revivals in the Old Testament was started by a man named Jonah. Afterwards, he went out and pouted because he wanted the people involved to be destroyed rather than repent (see Jonah 3-4). There is a common, often unspoken and unexamined assumption today that the success and the size of a ministry shows the spirituality of the leadership and God's blessing upon them personally. There is no basis for this in Scripture. The Bible says it is God who causes the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-9,)and unless He builds something it is done in vain (Psalm 127:1-2). It also says Christ, not we, will build His church (Matthew 16:18).

Samson, like Jonah, was successful in delivering Israel in spite of his moral flaws, although they brought him down in the end (see Judges 14-16). While Jeremiah, who wept over the destruction of Jerusalem, saw little in terms of results (see Jeremiah 13,19). It is true the apostles had 3,000 and 5,000 converts in two of their first sermons (Acts 2:41; 4:4), and they are said to have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). But nowhere is this attributed to the apostles' spirituality. The point is not the spirituality of the apostles but the great power of God, and that the God who accomplished these things is with us--even if we do not see such spectacular results.

But we should not make the opposite mistake and assume large numbers and success mean a ministry is superficial and catering to people's whims. It is true you can be successful by telling people what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4) and abolishing the stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). But one can also be successful because God is at work (see above). How then are we to judge?

May I suggest we are not. Paul advises us not to judge before the time and says he does not even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), and we are admonished not to judge one another (James 4:11,12). This does not mean that we should not correct specific errors. We are commanded to do that (Galatians 6:1; Romans 16:17). But I do not believe it is scriptural to make general judgments of other people's spirituality; only God can do that (Romans 14:4,10-12). There may be those we think are impressive whose works turn out to be wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) and obscure people whose works turn out to be gold, silver, and precious stones. (Or there may be people who appear impressive and truly are and obscure people who are just obscure. We should avoid judging what only God can judge.) But we should rather ask how can we better follow God (Philippians 3:13-14) and better reach out to those who need to know Him (Matthew 28:18-20). If the example or procedure used by someone else helps us in this, it is all to the good. But let us not be confused by mere numbers.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Who Has Received the Authority?

“By what authority are you doing these things?” This was a question that was hurled at the Lord (Matthew 21:23-27). While Jesus treated the question with disdain, it is still asked in Christ's church, sometimes with serious practical implications. What, then, is the basis of authority in the Christian church?

It is based in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). A mediator is a go-between, and anyone who claims that we have to go through them to get to God is setting themselves up as a mediator in place of Christ. The ultimate expression of Christ's authority is the Bible, and it is by the Bible that all things are to be tested (Galatians 1:8,9; Acts 11:17; 2 Timothy 3 :16,17). Human authority is justified by the teachings of Scripture (Hebrews 5:4-6).

But where does human authority come from in the church? In John 1 :12 in the Greek, it reads “But to those who receive Him, that is to those who believe (have faith) in His name, He gives the authority to become sons of God.” (It is clear here in the context that “sons of God” does not mean everyone, but those who are born again of the Spirit of God; see John 1:13, 8:42-47; Romans 8:16,17). Peter professed faith in Christ (Matthew 16:13-17) and was promised the authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 16:18-19). It is those who have the faith of Peter who share the authority of Peter. Christ, after claiming all authority resided in Him, told the 11 disciples (note: not "apostles," referring to their office, but "disciples," referring to their being followers of Christ) that they had the authority to make other disciples, baptize, and teach. Christ, speaking to his disciples on the subject of church discipline (Matthew 18:1, 15-20), stated that they all would have the authority of binding and loosing and what they would agree on when they gathered together would be established. When the followers of Christ gather together, they have the authority to do the work of the church. I do not see this as advocating a specific procedure (such as voting), but as grounding whatever is done in the consent of the disciples of Christ. Leadership is based on this authority, but once instituted there is a obligation to be subject to them (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). But leaders are to act as servants (Luke 22:25,26) and not lord it over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4).

In all this I do not see a specific system, but a set of general principles, with considerable latitude in their application. The real basis of authority is obedience to Christ and to His word. The emphasis in Scripture is not on what individual is in charge, but that those in charge are to decide issues based on what Christ wants and what His word says, not on what pleases them.