Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Cringe Factor

We are told if we want to win people to Christ we must avoid the cringe factor.  That is, we must avoid doing anything that makes people cringe, particularly in our church services.  There is certainly some legitimate application of this.  There are things, such as introducing visitors in the open service, that may have made sense in their original context but are guaranteed to make the modern unbeliever uncomfortable.  There are, however, things which might make an unbeliever uncomfortable (such as administering the sacraments) that we are commanded to do (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Also, it is helpful to try to do things well.  However, it must be noted that the local Christian congregation, with its often limited resources and talent, cannot compete with the professional media as to quality.  I do not want to justify sloppiness in doing the work of God.  We are called upon to offer God our best (Malachi 1:6-14).  But we cannot beat the world at its own game and are not called to (Romans 12:1,2).  Perhaps the best remedy for this is to make it clear we are not intending to compete on the same grounds. If we give people the impression the main thing we are doing is putting on a show, they will judge it that way. If we make it clear our goal is to worship God and deliver His message, they may look at it differently.

But one of the most basic concerns is the content of the message.  Now I am in favor of explaining the message so people can understand it.  In our current secular culture, phrases like "born again," "accept Christ," and "justification by faith" will be commonly misunderstood by people outside the Christian church if we do not explain them. But there are things in the Christian message that are bound to make unbelievers uncomfortable.  There are things in the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) that, if they do not make you squirm in your seat, you have not understood.  We are told we are sinners who are under the wrath of God (Romans 3:23; 1:18; Isaiah 64:6).  That to be delivered from this we must give up trying to please God by our own good works and trust in the work of another (Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 2:21; 1 Peter  2:24,25). Further, once we have done this, we are not our own, but should live for the one who delivered us (1 Corinthians 6:20; Titus 2:11-14; Romans 12:1,2).  Very few unbelievers are going to be comfortable with this. And when we get to God's specific commands, all of us are liable to find something we do not want to do.  But we are told the whole Word of God is from Him and is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16,17).  And it is the part of God's representatives to declare His truth without watering it down (2 Timothy 4:1-5; Ezekiel 14:1-5; 3:16-21).  We can avoid unnecessarily alienating people, but we cannot alter the message.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Crimes of Constantine

Constantine the Great, who was once seen as a hero for stopping the persecution of the Christian church, is now often seen as the destroyer of the church. Nowhere is this more evident than in the claim that he made the church more institutional and subject to the state.  What are the facts on this?

When I look in the New Testament I do not find a detailed prescription for the organization of the church.  "Decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40) forbids letting the situation become totally disorderly by allowing things like everyone speaking at once.  But there seems to have been very early some form of organization (Acts 14:23; Ephesians 4:11,12; Hebrews 13:17).  Even before the time of Constantine, things had become fairly structured.  The traditional church canons put forth detailed procedures for how the church organization was to be run.  There was a tendency toward greater centralization over time.  Whether this was legitimate or not may be argued.  But Scripture does not specify where to draw the line.  It is clear that when the authorities in the church try to put themselves over Scripture they are wrong (Galatians 1:8,9; Acts 17:11; Matthew 15:8,9). But between that and anarchy (which can also minimize the authority of Scripture), there is a large spectrum of options. Constantine may have made it possible for the church to better organize and centralize by giving it peace. But there is no basis for saying he changed the church's general direction.

The relation of the Christian church to the government is also a complicated issue.  Scripture calls for us to obey government (Romans 13:1-7: 1 Peter 2:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22), as long as it does not conflict with the truth of God (Acts 4:19,20; Daniel 3:17,18; Amos 7:14-17). But beyond this, the New Testament does not give clear-cut commandments, but requires us to apply the broad principles of Scripture to the issue.  Needless to say, people throughout the history of the Christian church have reached different conclusions.  The Christian church, both before and even after Constantine, opposed using the law to force their beliefs on other people.  But despite the disagreement of important individuals, such as Martin of Tours, this viewpoint changed.  There is always a temptation, when you are in control of the government, to use political power to perpetuate your viewpoint  But all Constantine did was force Christians to deal with the question by putting them in charge.

The real issue here is how to avoid being conformed to the world (Romans 12:1; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4) without withdrawing from it so far to be unable to reach it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23: Colossians 2:20-23; Luke 19:10).  This is particularly difficult if you are the ones in power and people want to join your ranks for worldly reasons. But while Constantine had his personal failings, the main thing he did was point up the problems by making them unavoidable.  The rest was, and is, up to us.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Broken Reeds

What do we trust in to do the work of God?  Do we trust in our organizational abilities, our programs, our marketing techniques, our hard work?  In short, do we trust in ourselves?  Do we feel, if we just get our act together we will be able to accomplish God's work on earth?  Or perhaps we feel this is putting too much pressure on people and might make them into burnt-out workaholics.  So we teach them pop psychology and encourage them to feel good about themselves and to develop community so they will positively reinforce one another.  But in all of this we can marginalize any direct involvement of God. We are like the Israelites, who went to Egypt for help rather than trusting in God (Isaiah 31:1; Psalms 118:8,9; 147:10,11).  Now I do not want to give the impression we should not use diligence to do our work well. (It is beyond the scope of this post to deal with all the techniques mentioned here.  Some have value in their place.)  But the issue is, What are you trusting in?

Or we can turn away from this to a more spiritual approach.  We can turn to prayer, fasting, and Bible reading.  We can emphasize worship, the ordinances, and the gathering of Christians together.  We can emphasize true doctrine and correct practice over methodology.  If this seems  too legalistic, we can turn to trusting in the Holy Spirit to do a work in our lives and even to work miracles.  While these are generally good things and help put our focus back on God, the emphasis is still on what we do.  They focus on us, rather than on God.

But the real emphasis in Scripture is not on what we do, but on what God has done. God became a man in order to pay the entire price for sin (Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25).  He overcame sin and death and Satan and his demons and made the declaration, "It is finished" (John 19:30).  He saves us based on our faith in His work--which is itself a gift from Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; John 6:44)--and when we have faith, He sends His Spirit (who is also God) into our lives to change us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 1:29; Philippians 2:13).  He then works through us (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:4,5; Zechariah 4:6) to accomplish His purposes in the world (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Psalms 127:1,2).  Further, He is going to see to it we reach our destination, which is conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-30; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 John 3:1-3). Now I do not want to deny that we need to respond in obedience based on what God is doing in our lives (Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:13; Romans 6:12-14).  But this does mean we need to recognize that He has already won the victory (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57) and we are simply to live in light of that.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is Naturalism the Default?

One argument put forth against Christianity is that if we used the same tests on Christianity as on other religions we reject, we would also reject Christianity.  The idea is that naturalism is the obvious viewpoint which everyone uses to test religious beliefs, but everyone who believes in God makes a special exception in terms of their own faith.  But does this stand up to examination?

Is naturalism the default position which everyone should assume and which we should accept when other positions fail?  On the contrary, there are serious problems with naturalism.  One is where did everything come from?  If we exclude the supernatural, we are left with everything coming into being through a coin toss when there was no time, no space, and no coins.  We are also forced to believe that everything that came into existence afterward, with all its complexity, did so by pure chance.  Also, if all our reasoning is the result of prior irrational causes, there is a question how it could have anything to do with truth.  It is also difficult to explain why people stubbornly cling to this strange idea of right and wrong or that of purpose in life, although these ideas are really accidents arising from natural causes.  Also, there is the question of how naturalism can be proven.  Simply because there are orderly principles of how the universe works does not prove that there is not a God who is beyond the principles and who can intervene to make a point.  If there is a God, it is reasonable to assume He would create a world run in an orderly way so His creatures could function in it, but He could still interfere if He chose to.  Even if there are answers to these problems, they cannot simply be ignored and naturalism treated as the default position.

Now in explaining an alleged supernatural occurrence there are various possible explanations.  It could be from God, it could be demonic, or it  could have a naturalistic explanation.  It is a rare person who claims that no alleged supernatural incidents have a natural explanation.  But this does not prove there are no genuinely supernatural events.  Because there are quacks does not prove there are no doctors; because there are counterfeit bills does not mean there is no real money.  Now it may be argued that all supernatural events are counterfeit, but this is something that needs to be proven; the existence of some counterfeits is not in itself adequate evidence.  Even if a Christian apologist too easily accepts a naturalistic explanation, this does not prove naturalism true, only that the apologist is too easily influenced by our current cultural opinions.  If naturalism is to be proved, it must be proved in its own right, not smuggled in as a default.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Draw a Circle and Call It Unity

God commands unity in His church (Philippians 2:1-2), and it is hard to fit this in with its current divided state (1 Corinthians 1:11,12). How are we to approach this problem?

One common way is to draw a circle and call it unity.  You take your group and say, We are unified because we are all in this group and we exclude those who are outside it.  Also, people can try to claim unity by holding to some individual or group as the authority to which everyone must adhere. But this is merely again defining those who adhere to your authority as the real church, excluding everyone else, and calling it unity.  Also, these groups are frequently not unified; they have many break-offs and broad disagreements within their ranks.

The other extreme is to try to gather everybody who is called "Christian" into one large church.  But these end up having almost nothing in common.  When you water down Christianity this far it becomes meaningless, and there is nothing to unify around.  If Christianity does not have something unique and important to say, why bother with it?

What, then, is the message of historic Christianity?  I would contend it is the message of grace.  The fact that God, in spite of our sinfulness (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), invaded human history (John 1:1-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 2:8-15) to be the sacrifice for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 Peter 2:24,25; Romans 5:6-8).  Also, while it is disputed, I would affirm that we are saved by faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 3:28; Acts 16:31), apart from anything we can do to earn it (Romans 3:20,21; Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6); and good works are done in response to what God has already done for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Luke 7:36-50). But if this is so, it has to put in perspective many of the other things we fight over.  For if we are sinners who have been saved by grace, perhaps we do not have all the answers on some of the incidental issues (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:2; Romans 8:33,34).  What, then, should we take a stand on? I would assert we should take a firm stand on the things Scripture takes a firm stand on.  Things like the nature of God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), the nature of Christ ( 2 Corinthians 11:2-4), the sinfulness of man (1 John 1:8-10), or the truth of the Gospel (Galatians 1:8,9). This is not a complete list, but as I look at Scripture I do not find this kind of solid basis for many of the things we contend over.  If we want to move toward unity we need to get a clearer idea of what we should be united about.  Also, we should remember that, in Scripture, unity is a commandment, not an accomplished fact.  It is a goal we work toward, not something we already possess.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Patriotism and the Christian

How patriotic should the Christian be? In the United States we tend to live between political extremes.  The super patriots who say the country can do no wrong and the hyper critics who say we can do no right.  Where should the Christian come in on this?

The Bible says we should honor and be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), but it also says there is a time we have to serve God rather than men (Acts 4:19,20; Daniel 3:17,18). The Christian cannot take the position of unquestioning obedience or total hostility.  I must respect and be subject to my country's leaders and laws as far as I can with a good conscience, even if they are questionable leaders and laws.  (The ruler at the time Paul and Peter wrote was Nero, an immoral tyrant.)  But there comes a time when I must stand up and be counted for what is right.  This is true no matter what nation I live in.  The truth is we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), and there is no perfect nation and no perfect government.

But patriotism generally involves more than just the question of obedience or disobedience; it involves the  love of country, which is more complex.  Scripture does not address this directly, but it does mention the appropriateness of natural affections, of which patriotism is clearly one (Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3).  We also have examples of such sentiments in Scripture (Lamentations 1; Habakkuk 1:12-17; 1 Samuel 26:19).  But we also are not to put anything before God (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37; Luke 14:26), and we need to see this world as not our final home (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13).  This is a delicate balance.

I would follow G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis as seeing the basic idea behind patriotism as the idea of home, the place I grew up, my familiar associations, a shared history and a shared heritage.  The person who has this kind of patriotism will understand why people from other nations would also love their home.  They will also love their nation, even if it is not perfect, and will be willing because they love it to correct its failings as far as possible. If I love something because it is perfect, I will be in danger of rejecting it when it proves it is not.  But if I love something because it is mine, then I will love it with its faults, but nonetheless be willing to do what I can to correct them.  True love is after the pattern of the love of God, which loved us enough, in spite of our being in rebellion against Him, to send Christ to die for us (Romans 5:6-8), but which will not settle for anything less than our becoming a perfect church, without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians  5:25-27).  Our loves need to follow the same pattern.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Israel and the Future

How should we understand Biblical prophecy regarding the nation of Israel?  It is clear some prophecy is symbolic.  But if we engage in unrestrained allegorizing we can make Scripture mean whatever we want it to.  Therefore, we need to use care in deciding if something is a symbol.  There are detailed prophecies about Israel that are hard to see as symbolic or as picturing past events (Zechariah 12-14; Ezekiel 38, 39; Revelation 11:1-13).  There were many historical details prophesied regarding the First Coming; should we not expect the same of the Second Coming?  In the First Coming, these details are not generally dismissed or taken as symbolic, but have specific fulfillment.

An objection to this is the verses that state Israel has been rejected by God (Matthew 21:43; Luke 13:6-9).  But these address that generation of Israel and particularly the Jewish leadership.  It is reading too much into them to conclude Israel will be rejected for all time.  Also, the Jewish ceremonial law is said to be fulfilled in Christ (Colossians 2:16,17; Hebrews 10:1-10; Galatians 4:8-11).  What about the passages that seem contrary to this? Zechariah 8:19 speaks of Israel's fasts becoming a rejoicing.  It is arguable whether this requires the celebration of particular days, but if it does, it need not be a requirement and may fall under Romans 14:5.  Malachi 3:3,4 could be fulfilled in the sacrifices of ourselves and of praise  (Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15).  Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of a celebration of the Feast of Booths (which clearly is mandatory).  The Feast of Booths is one of the Levitical feasts not specifically mentioned as fulfilled in the First Coming.  Perhaps in the Second Coming there will be a fulfillment of the feast itself or something that supersedes it .

But a big problem is the temple description in Ezekiel 40-48.  It is too detailed to be easily dismissed as just a symbol.  But it describes a revival of the temple ritual, including what seem to be atoning sacrifices (Ezekiel 45:17).  How do we understand this?  Perhaps there is a way, despite Christ's fulfilling the Law, that the old ceremonies can be re-instituted in honor of Him without denying His work.  Maybe this is a description  of a Jewish temple built in disobedience before Christ's Second Coming which is superseded when He arrives (Ezekiel 43:1-5).  Or this could be some sort of complicated allegory, though it is not clear what it would be an allegory of.

Could it be we do not know all the answers?  There are certain things we can say dogmatically about the Second Coming. It will be physical, personal, and literal (Acts 1:9-11).  It will be obvious (Matthew 24:23-27).  It will be a surprise (Matthew 24:36-51).  But in terms of all the details, could it be we will all be wrong, including me?  At the First Coming, almost no one seems to have had it figured out until after the fact. Could it be the Second Coming will be the same way?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Perfect World

Sometimes there is a tendency to reduce God to some sort of mathematical equation.  I call this The Blob with Pins in It View of God.  It sees Him not as a person but as a mixture of attributes that we can deduce things from.  Nowhere is this more evident than when we are looking at the world as God created it.

Leibniz claimed (and Voltaire ridiculed the idea) that God had created the best of all possible worlds.  This asserted that God was required, by the logic of His nature, to create one specific world. Now God cannot create a world that is contrary to His nature, but the idea He is limited to one or a few choices turns God into a thing instead of a person.  Sometimes Christians can fall into this way of thinking when we speak of the course of history as glorifying God.  Now it is true that everything that happens will glorify God, but that does not mean there is some kind of equation which constrains God to do things this way because it gives Him slightly more glory. There are undoubtedly paintings Rembrandt could not have painted or music Beethoven could not have written because it would have conflicted with their characters.  But this was hardly a severe limit on their creativity.  Also, the world as we meet it is a fallen world and is not the way God created it.  And while I do believe God is in control and will ultimately use what has happened to His glory, that does not mean a real rebellion has not taken place.

What claims to be science can sometimes follow the same logic.  It is claimed the similarities among animals cannot be explained by God using a common blueprint because there must be some ideal form for each type of animal. There must be an ideal form for a flying creature rather than a land creature. But this is philosophy and dubious philosophy.  Or God could not have created marsupials because they have a inferior ability to survive compared to placentals.   But this presumes that the only value in God's sight is ability to survive. The assumption is made that God would create animals uniformly over the earth wherever they were able to live, which conflicts with their present distribution. But there is no reason to believe this is so. Also, from the Christian point of view, much has happened to the world since God created it, and to think the present condition of things reflects His will is a mistake.

The bottom line is it is a very dangerous thing to think we can know exactly how God would do things, and viewpoints that are based on this rather than on what is revealed to us in His Word are suspect. For the Christian, our philosophy must be based on our theological convictions, not the other way around.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why Go to Church?

Why do we as Christians go to church?  Is it a duty we need to fulfill, and is God impressed just by our showing up? What does the Scripture teach?

Scripture does not command us to go to church, but not to forsake the assembling of our selves together (Hebrews 10:24,25; 3:13; Acts 2:46).  Now the point of this is to encourage one another and provoke one another to love and good deeds. The church is pictured as a body, and Christians are all part of that body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:13-16).  God has also given us leaders and teachers to assist us (Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrew 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17).  The purpose for this is that believers should build up one another and grow strong in Christ together.  This is very clearly pictured as an reciprocal thing, that as we are built up we have an obligation to build others up (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10,11; 1 Corinthians 14:26).

The problem is that what is meant to serve a purpose, to build us up and give us an opportunity to build others up, can become simply a duty we fulfill as an end in itself.  This can result in people who feel they have entirely fulfilled their obligation simply by showing up every Sunday.  It also can lead to people who feel they need to show up every time the church door is open, even if the particular event is not really that helpful to them personally. God has some rather harsh things to say about those who go through the motions of worshiping Him without any substance or just to impress other people (Isaiah 66:1-3; Malachi 1:10; Matthew 6:1-18).

Now my purpose here is not to discourage people from going church, but to encourage us to make it something more than a form we go through.  Now it might be said we can worship God anywhere, and this is true (Psalms 34:1; 119:164; Acts 16:25).  But the point of assembling together is to be encouraged and instructed in the worship of God by others of the same faith.  And we need to face it, if we are unwilling to put aside some period of time in the week to learn to worship God, how likely is it we will do so when we get a flat tire on the freeway or the business deal we have worked so hard on falls through?  If a member of a sports team did not show up for practice,  if he knew none of the plays and very little about his teammates,  how likely is it he would be useful on the day of the game?  The church service is the practice session for the game of life.  If the Christian is not involved, he will have trouble worshiping God in the rest of life.  But if he shows up just to show up, it will not help him like it should.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Probability Game

Miracles are things people do not commonly encounter.  Because of this miracles are improbable.  Does this improbability of miracles mean they cannot occur?  So goes an argument most commonly associated with David Hume.  But does this position really hold up?

Hume himself admits that, under his logic, a man who lived all his life in India would be reasonable not to believe in snow because he had never seen it.  Once someone admits their position leads to conclusions that are contrary to known facts, should we continue to entertain it?  Many historically known facts seem contrary, not only to our known experience, but general historical experience.  Is it believable that thirteen backwoods colonies would win their independence from the superpower of the time? Does it seem probable an obscure monk of relatively low rank named Martin Luther would spark a revolution that would change the theological and political map of Europe?  Nor if we turn to science will we fare much better.  According to science, if an object is moving at near the speed of light relative to me, I will see it shorten, become more massive, and time there pass more slowly.  Though a person on the object would notice no difference there, but see me as shorter, more massive and slowed down.  It is possible, according to science, for something to be a wave and a stream of particles at the same time. There is a measurable probability that a particle will go through anything less than an infinite barrier. None of this fits our normal experience.  In fact, under Hume's theory, science becomes impossible because every scientist must redo every experiment in order to believe it.  The bottom line is that while our past experience is one factor to use in measuring the truth of a thing, it is not the sole criterion.

Now Hume's theory is based on the rejection of cause and effect.  He does this based on how difficult these are to define (often it is the simplest, most obvious things that are hard to define).  Now, as Hume admits, the logical result of this is that we cannot know anything.  But Hume finds this inconvenient. But instead of reconsidering, Hume decided that, while a lot of scepticism was bad, a moderate amount of scepticism was a good thing.  But he gives no proof to support this. Now Hume claims we customarily act as if cause and effect is true in everyday life, so it is appropriate to continue to apply it there based on custom.  But in his view, it should not be applied to ultimate reality.  But if this is a good custom, it should reflect reality all the way up.  And if it is a bad custom, then it should be rejected across the board.  But the idea of rejecting miracles based on an argument that also rejects large portions of other knowledge and originates in the idea we cannot know anything seems dubious in the extreme.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Scripture and Charisma

Do charismatic gifts conflict with the sufficiency of Scripture?  Now we are told that Scripture can make us adequate for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16,17) and that we are not to add to Scripture (Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:6). But this sufficiency is for faith and practice, for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness (see 2 Timothy 3:16,17).  It is obvious Scripture does not teach us how to cook or drive a car or do mathematics.

Now what are the limits of Scripture?  Is it limited to the books found in our Bible or can more be given?   I would very much like to believe that the books we have in our Bible are all there are, but can this be proven?  Revelation 22:18,19 clearly refers to the book of Revelation.  It is a warning against adding to Scripture, but does not say there will be no more revelation.  1 Corinthians 13:8-12, in context, clearly refers to the Second Coming.  Hebrews 1:1,2 states that revelation is ultimately summed up in Christ. But much of the information about Him was not given by Him directly, but by His followers (John 16:12), and no limit is placed on this.  Ephesians 2:20 is somewhat to the point; you do not lay a foundation again at the tenth story (also, Revelation 21:14 mentions only twelve apostles), but this is not inarguable.  The real answer to those who want to add to the Bible is to put their new revelations to the tests for Scripture, the chief of which is that it must agree with existing Scripture (Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20; Jude 3).  From what Scripture says, this is how, I believe, God expects us to approach the issue (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1-3). I do not know of any candidates that pass all the tests.

We all have decisions we need to make in our lives where the answers are not taught in Scripture. How do we make them?  We can go with what makes sense to us, but, if so, we end up basing things on our understanding (Proverbs 3:5,6).  In this case, God cannot get us to do anything unusual or unreasonable (Acts 8:26-40; 16:6-10). (These examples may involve inspired revelation, but are we to believe today God only wants us to do things we find reasonable?)  We can go by circumstances, but those are chancy (Ecclesiastes 11:4).  To trust totally in experiences is also to trust in our own understanding; we must carefully test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21,22).  But to totally reject experiences (which may include such spiritual gifts as word of knowledge, word of wisdom, discernment of spirits, or tongues and interpretation) is to put us at the mercy of the questionable standard of what makes us feel comfortable.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Attitude of Evangelism

How forthright should we be when we share Christ? And how far should we go to avoid offending people? Extreme approaches to witnessing come from the same source: thinking that whether or not a person believes ultimately depends on us.

Scripture clearly teaches that salvation comes not from our ability but God working in people's hearts (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 3:6,7; John 6:44). Now the issue here is not whether God chooses who will be saved, though I believe He does (Ephesians 1:4).  But whether we believe that salvation ultimately depends on God's choice or the person's choice, the one thing it does not depend on is the cleverness of the evangelist.  Now I am not advocating sloppiness and indifference in doing the work of sharing Christ (Colossians 1:28,29: 2 Timothy 2:10; 4:2-5).  But I am suggesting avoiding all forms of manipulation, which can only make false converts (1 Thessalonians 2:5,6; 2 Corinthians 2:17; Ephesians 4:14).  Now part of the problem, at least in the United States, is we have gone from a nominally Christian society to a largely secular one.  This can produce a condition of panic, in which, rather than trusting God (Matthew 16:18; Romans 8:28; Psalms 127:1,2), we frantically look for any method to turn the situation around.  But this is often counter-productive.

Scripture calls for us to be people who speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We are called to proclaim God's truth with boldness (Romans 1:16; Acts 4:29-31; Ephesians 6:19,20).  But we are also told to proclaim it with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6; 1 Peter 3:15).  We are not to be pushovers, but we are also not to try to bully people into conversion.  Often the biggest problem can be our pride, which wants to take credit for a conversion or win an argument. But we need to realize we are just to proclaim the truth in a persuasive matter and trust God to do the  work of actually convincing the person. Otherwise, even if we do not produce false converts, we will alienate people or confirm them in their present behavior.  Now God is powerful and is able to overcome these things.  But we should be those who carry out God's work in the world, not an obstacle He needs to work around.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Evolution Is Not

What is evolution? How do we distinguish it from related concepts?

Evolution is not survival of the fittest. Survival of the fittest says those animals most fit to survive will do so.  Now "fittest" can be seen as abstract and absolute.  This assumes that the process is fair, and it is not (Ecclesiastes 9:11).  There is no reason to believe the American bison is ultimately less fit then the deer or elk.  But they almost became extinct and quite probably would have without human intervention.  Why? Because they lived in the plains where the humans were building their railroads and wanted meat for their workers.  Also these same humans developed a fad for buffalo skin coats.  Now survival of the fittest can mean that, taking into account every circumstance (including the whims of humans), those animals best able to survive will survive. This is true but is almost a tautology.  But survival of the fittest cannot produce any new thing.

 Another confusion is with that of natural selection.  Now human beings have for many years selectively bred animals for specific purposes.  It seems reasonable that nature, by itself, might breed animals to fit different environments. But this is merely taking the genes that already exist and choosing the ones useful for the animal in different circumstances.  But while it can choose among existing genes, it cannot by itself produce a distinctly new thing. For evolution to work, there has to be something feeding new genes into the system.

Another thing evolution is not is degeneration.  It is an obvious observation that things run down and fall apart over time.  This is the opposite of evolution, which says time and chance can produce a new thing.  There is really no problem reconciling this with the Christian teaching that says things have been degenerating since the Fall took place.  Now many things that are claimed to result from degeneration in animals have been shown to serve a useful purpose, but even if there are such things as vestigial organs and junk DNA, it does not prove evolution.  In a particular case it may be used to try to prove change from one kind of creature to another.  But by itself it is irrelevant.     

The real basis for evolution as it is presently taught is genetic mutation. The idea is that, due to some sort of accident, certain genes are changed, and these changes, being advantageous to the organism, are passed on.  This is like saying if you hit a watch with a hammer, it will produce a better watch.  This might happen very rarely, but as a procedure to produce watches, it is highly problematic. But it is, in the current theory, the mechanism for feeding genuinely new things into the system.  So unless some other mechanism is found, the only way evolution can produce a genuinely new organism is through genetic mutation. Therefore, the proof of the other things listed does not prove evolution or even prove evolution is possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Small Is Your God?

How do you look at God? Unfortunately, it is easy to get a diminished idea of God.  Our culture frequently sees Him as a crotchety old man with a long white beard, sitting on a cloud.  Even if understood as symbolic, it is not who God is.  Also, Christians can see God as being our good buddy, often minimizing His greatness.  Now I do not want to deny that God is our Friend (John 15:13-15) and our  Father (Romans 8:14-17). But He is still the Almighty God who calls the stars by name and weighs the mountains in a pair of scales (Isaiah 40:12-26).

We want to bring God down to our level and make an image of Him we feel more comfortable with (Exodus 20:4-6; Romans 1:23).  But God is ultimately beyond our understanding (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:9) and cannot be seen directly (Exodus 33:20-23; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1:17), but we can know Him through Jesus Christ (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1-3).  God is eternal (Psalms 90:2; Micah 5:2) and unchanging (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).  He is everywhere (Psalms 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23,24), knows everything (1 John 3:20; Psalms 139:1-4), and is able to do anything (Jeremiah 32:17; Matthew 19:25,26).  He created all things (Psalms 33:6-9; John 1:3) and sustains them (Colossians 1;17; Hebrews 1:3) and controls all things that happen (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28).  When properly understood, this is incredible and boggles the mind. But it is easy for those who know these  things to take them for granted.  It is therefore good for us to regularly remind ourselves of the greatness of our God.

Now there are various objections to this understanding of God.  There are various expressions used to describe God, but they are no more literal descriptions of God than claiming that God has feathers (Psalms 91:4) or that a large arm came down out of the sky and delivered the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 6:6).  Now God does appear to people in various forms, including human (Genesis 18:1,2; Isaiah 6:1), but He also appeared as a pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21) and denies He has any fixed form we can see (Deuteronomy 4:15-24).  Also, when God appears, it is normally the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who appears (John 1:18; 12:41).  (There are two symbolic visions with some kind of representation of the Father, but these are exceptions; see Daniel 7:9.10; Revelation 4:2,3.) There are also cases where God accommodates Himself to us by responding to our actions, even though He has planned what is going to happen from the beginning (Jonah 3:10; Exodus 32:9-14).  Many of the problems people have with understanding and accepting God and His truth are because they do not know or will not accept that God is beyond our understanding.  And while I would reject the position that we cannot really know anything about God, I do believe we need a healthy understanding of God's incomprehensibility to avoid pulling God down to our level.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Darkside of Community

Community is an important thing in our culture and an important thing in the Christian church.  Yet it seems that, despite the fact the church strives for community, it frequently falls short and it is often the congregations that try hardest to produce community that fall short of it.Could it be we are trying too hard?

As C. S. Lewis points out, when even good things are made into a god, they can become a demon.  In our efforts to produce community, have we perhaps made it into an idol, resulting in its own destruction? If we make community the ultimate goal, then we can become offended by anything by that falls short of our idea of community.  Otherwise minor offenses can be blown out of portion as offenses against community.  The normal flaws of leadership can be magnified by this, as can the typical failings of those who follow. It also can reinforce errors (such as putting down outsiders) as something "we" do.

Such community can take the forms of strict conformity or of broad acceptance.  Strict conformity frequently goes beyond Biblical standards, enforcing minor teachings and petty legalisms.  But it can also often require a member to meet subtle, unexpressed standards, such as having a certain type of personality. Those communities based on broad acceptance may seem more open, but often they are not.  They often require members to be as broad-minded as the community and exclude those who are not.  They can end up excluding or reining in anyone who is too zealous or determined in a certain area.  The result may be the enforcement of mediocrity.  Also, both types of community can become ingrown and unwilling to reach out to those outside.  Or when they do, they can decide to only reach out to those who fit into their community.

Now the solution is not to go to an opposite extreme.  We cannot solve this problem by going for total individualism or for a mechanistic view that sees other people as tools to accomplish our purposes.  Rather, what we need is to put God and His truth back into the center (Matthew 6:33).  We need to recognize we are sinners saved by God's grace (Romans 3:21-28). Also, that God is at work in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18) and to lead us into works He has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).  That a fundamental part of this is loving other believers (John 13:34,35), who, like us, are still in the process of becoming the people they ought to be (Philippians 3:12-16).  If we do this, we will find the limited degree of real community available to us in a sinful and broken world.  But if we make community our chief goal, we will be like a man pursuing a mirage in the desert.  Always seeking our goal, but never able to actually reach it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Witch Is Witch

What are witches and why were they believed in?   All answers to this question are controversial, but let's look at the history.  

From our earliest records people have seriously practiced magic and had experts who specialized in such arts.  Also, it was common to distinguish between white (well-intentioned) magic and black (evil-intentioned) magic, each with its own practitioners. While people did practice black magic, this concept more commonly resulted in identifying a scapegoat.  When something bad happened, one possible explanation was a witch had cast a spell on you.  As a result, people were labeled as witches who did not actually practice black magic.

Now Christianity held all magic was wrong and the only legitimate source of supernatural help was God.  But when Europe became nominally Christian, many of the old ways persisted.  During the Early Middle Ages, such practices were not acceptable but tended to be winked at.  When someone was caught doing it, they got off with a stiff penance.  The killing of people for black magic was done by mobs, the authorities attempting to intervene to save the victims or at least give them a Christian burial.  This was because it was believed that  demonic ability to do miracles was limited and the more blatant acts attributed to them were illusions.  They did not make people fly around at night on broomsticks, but caused them to go into a trance and believe they had done so.  Some today have also suggested a trance as a possible explanation for this kind of phenomenon.

But pagan superstition crept into the church, distorting the picture.  The picture of demonic beings became more powerful, but cruder. The demons could actually do the things attributed to them, but they were less subtle in their approach to evil.  They demanded direct worship, engaged in orgies with humans, and offered benefits to those who were willing to sell their soul.  This became a useful way to slur your enemies; the established church used it against dissenting churches, Philip VI of France used it against the Knights Templar, and it eventually became a common approach in village witchcraft accusations. The result of this was the standard stereotype of witches who sold their soul to the devil, rode around on broomsticks, and had black cat familiars.  This was furthered by the paranoia connected with the black plague and the Reformation, which forced both sides to take their beliefs seriously. Later, secular people looked at the full blown stereotype and said, "There are no witches".  They then used the witch trials as a way to argue against Christianity, often over-simplifying the issues. Afterwards, some read back in the idea of an organized witch cult to explain the stereotype. 

The moral of this is we need to beware of reading foreign ideas into Scripture.  Also, while we do not want to underestimate Satan, we need to beware of making him too powerful.  This leads to fear and discourages trust in God.   

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spirit and Truth

When confronted with the question of where a person should worship God, Jesus said that the time was coming when these types of issues would be superseded and the issue would be whether we worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).  Why then is it that in the Christian church, on the other side of that transition, we plagued with issues regarding worship that are as petty as the one described here.  Now Jesus did state that there was an real Old Testament basis for Jerusalem being the the correct city (John 4:22,23), but He made it clear the method of evaluation was about to be changed (John 4:21).  Why then has this failed to take place?

Now the Old Testament does give a detailed set of laws as to exactly how worship was to be carried out.  But the significant thing is there is none in the New Testament.  Scripture teaches that God commands what He intends to command (Deuteronomy 12:32). So I conclude that God has prescribed certain principles, and the rest He has left free.  There are practices that are contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture, such as prayers to saints (Matthew 4:10).  There are other things that require some answer, such as whether to baptize infants. (I am convinced if God had wanted us to baptize infants He would have given us a clear commandment and not left us to deduce it, but I question whether this is an essential issue.)  But much of what we fight over is not clearly taught in Scripture.  Take, for instance, the question of whether Christ is physically, spiritually or symbolically present in the Lord's Supper.  There is nowhere is Scripture where it directly deals with this.  I would therefore conclude that the person who partakes in faith receives the benefit of communion, whatever that is.

Now we are told that things are to be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).  But if we look at the context, it describes something fairly informal (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).  What they were called to avoid was complete disorder (everyone speaking at once) and things that were meaningless to the other people present (speaking in tongues without an interpreter).  I am not saying no one violates this principle today, but the boundaries are quite broad.  There is also the example of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), but they disobeyed a definite and clear-cut commandment of God (Exodus 30:34-38).  This cannot be applied to things that are not clearly commanded in Scripture.  To worship in spirit (John 4:24) means we are not to simply go through the motions, but to be sincere in our worship (Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 66:3,4; Matthew 23:23-28).  To worship in truth means we are to worship God as He really is and not some distorted view of Him (Romans 1:23; Exodus 20:2-6; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4).  But to make an issue of details of worship that. God has not commanded is wrong.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Law and Order

What should the Christian approach be to criminal justice? Should we take a strict view of upholding the law? After all, we are told to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). But we do need to put this in perspective. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), who are deserving of God's wrath (Romans 1:18), but the punishment due us has been taken by Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2 :24-25) on the cross. Now this should not result in condoning evil. In fact, it should result in a new pattern of life (Titus 2:11-12). But it requires a careful balance in dealing with the wrongdoing of others, even the criminal wrongdoing. Now it is important to hold criminals responsible, but we need to avoid going to the opposite extreme and requiring draconian punishments.

Now there is a red herring here that needs to be dealt with. It is the current opinion of our culture that a person's behavior comes not from their responsible choices but their psychological condition. There is therefore a desire to replace the idea of punishment with that of rehabilitation. This sounds more humane and merciful, but it has dubious results. It means dealing with the person, not as a responsible individual, but as an automaton to be adjusted. It can result in inappropriate leniency. But as C. S. Lewis points out in his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," it can also result in a person being imprisoned until they are cured, even if it is well beyond what they deserve. Also, it is easier to reinterpret psychological normalcy than moral dessert, allowing society to punish whoever they want to punish. Now I am in favor of trying to rehabilitate criminals whenever possible (though I believe the best source of rehabilitation is the gospel), but making rehabilitation the main issue distorts the process.

However, we can replace this view with the idea of punishment as a deterrent, or as protecting society. While these are appropriate elements in the process, if seen as the sole goals they become radically unjust. If the only purpose is to deter, then the most severe punishment, even if it is disproportionate to the crime, becomes appropriate. And if our only goal is to protect society, then anything that removes the criminal from society for as long a time as possible is to be encouraged, whatever the criminal really merits. In the end, I do not believe there is anything that balances the rights of both the criminal and society so well as traditional retributive punishment, properly tempered with mercy. And I feel this is important, because the way we treat the extreme cases of our society tends to affect how we approach the more commonplace forms of human conflict.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blueprint for the Christian Life

The blueprint for the Christian life is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; John 17:17; Psalms 119:105). But too often we interpret it by the Linus Van Pelt method (from Peanuts, by Charles Schultz). We look for a verse of Scripture to back up our preconceived notions.But Scripture should be the standard from which everything else is judged (Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20; Jude 3). Now I am speaking to those who believe the Bible is the Word of God. But if we do believe it is, then it becomes the basis for determining truth. However, even those who claim to hold to the truth of Scripture can read into it their traditions, including their doctrinal statements, respected teachers, or denominational distinctives (Matthew 15:7-14; Galatians 1:10; Proverbs 29:25). Now God does provide teachers in His church to instruct us (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13), and we ignore them at our peril. But even good teachers need to be checked against Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 2:11-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:21,22). We also need to avoid interpreting Scripture based on our own understanding, including our thinking, common sense, and subjective experiences (1 Corinthians 3:18; Proverbs 3:5,6; Colossians 2:8). Now we do need to be diligent in studying Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 5:12-14; Psalms 119:1,2), but Scripture is the authority.

If the Bible is the authority, the emphasis as well as the words of Scripture becomes significant. We should avoid the inverted pyramid approach, which builds up a crucial teaching on one or a few verses. We should particularly avoid interpretations based on clever reading between the lines of the text. We are given the impression God values our obedience, rather than our ability to come up with clever answers (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). Also, we are admonished not to add to or take away from God's commands (Deuteronomy 12:32). Now there are legitimate applications of commands to specific situations, but we must be very careful of adding anything God did not command to His Word.

Now part of the problem is that we want answers to questions we think we need answers to, and we want to emphasize the things we think are important. It is therefore easy to read in things to give us the answers we want. But we need to consider the possibility that we are asking the wrong question or that our valued opinion is not as important as we want to make it. There are issues that I wonder why God was not clearer on. But I would rather trust God -- that He had a reason for what He did or did not say -- than read my ideas into Scripture when they are not there. I am convinced the best interpretation of Scripture is the simple, direct interpretation, even if the passage is symbolic. It is when we try to read in our clever ideas that we get into trouble.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Limits of Science

Science is very useful for doing the things that it does well. The principal thing science does well is to make generalizations about repeatable events. This is especially true if those events can be repeated under laboratory conditions. There are, however, events with which science can not deal well. That is, events that are unique and not repeatable. Whether it is Washington crossing the Delaware or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., these things cannot be dealt with by science. While I am dubious, there are those who would claim that all these events will one day ultimately be reduced to scientific generalizations. But until they are explained that way, we must deal with them as unique incidents. This is not a criticism of science; it is not a criticism of a spoon to say it is not a knife. But partly because of the popularity of science, there is a tendency to apply it in ways it should not be applied. It is like reenacting Washington's crossing of the Delaware to prove it happened. The truth is that a scientific experiment done this way does not prove what did happen, but what can happen.

This can be made complicated by trying to reach conclusions that go beyond the facts of the observation. It is an unquestionable fact that people in general can jump. It is also clear that some people can jump higher than others. It is also true that if we practice we can increase the height of our jumps. It is also true that human beings have gone to the moon. However, if we were to conclude that people simply jumped higher and higher until they reached the moon, we would be very much mistaken.

One place we see this fallacy being practiced repeatedly is in a certain class of arguments used to support evolution. It is concluded that because amino acids can be produced in the controlled conditions of the laboratory, this proves that it happened at some earlier period in the history of the earth and is the explanation for the existence of life here. A considerable stretch. Or it is claimed that minor instances of natural selection with finches and moths prove that this process is capable of producing complex structures like eyes and wings and that this is, in fact, where they did come from. (And this is in the face of repeated experiments with fruit flies which have failed to produce a new species.) But the cause seems woefully inadequate to the effect. The truth is that if someone were able to start from a batch of chemicals and somehow recreate in a laboratory the evolutionary process and end up with a human being, while it would give considerable credence to evolution, it would not prove that it did happen, only it could have happened. But the very limited cases that are generally put forth in this area really prove nothing at all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


One of the key principles of our culture in the United States is equality. Sometimes I think it is the only principle. How does this fit into a Christian understanding of the world?

The Biblical ideal, as evidenced by the character of the church, is unity in diversity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The picture given here is of different people with different gifts coming together to contribute to the whole. And all the members are honored, regardless of their function. It may be questioned how far this can be applied to society as a whole, but if this is God's ideal we would not expect His goals for the rest of society to totally conflict with it. Now one of the key things we are told about all human beings is they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and this is to affect how we behave toward them (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). But on the analogy of the body of Christ, being valued by God does not depend on being indistinguishable, but is true in spite of the differences. Equality does not equal interchangeability.

But equality from a Christian perspective also does not represent total individuality. This view of equality is rooted in total self-centeredness. The idea is that I must look for my personal fulfillment regardless of how it affects those people I have a responsibility toward (let alone right and wrong). It can involve leaving one's spouse, killing one's unborn child, rebelling against one's parents, if it somehow allows a person to actualize themselves. The Christian viewpoint is that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) and that our real identity is not who we are but who God is transforming us into (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:13-16; Romans 8:29). The result of this is putting the welfare of others and our commitments to them before ourselves (Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 7:12). Therefore, all forms of behavior must be evaluated according to God's commandments and cannot all be regarded as equal (Titus 2:11-14; Romans 1:18; 1 Peter 1:14-17). Now one of the complaints that has been made (particularly regarding men and women) is the existence of a double standard. In the past there not uncommonly existed such a double standard. But there are two ways to correct a double standard. All people should live based on a standard of responsibility and concern for others, rather than selfishness.

Therefore, Christians need to be clear on what genuine equality is in order to be able to deal with the world's view and avoid falling into it. True equality is an equality of the value of all human beings that does not negate differences in individuals or roles (which should be seen as complimentary, not a matter of differences of value). Nor does it imply the equality of all behavior or lifestyles. For it is only by striking the correct balance here that we can avoid the extremes of false uniformity or total individualism.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Problems of the Past

"What about all the evil things Christians have done?" This is an argument frequently brought against Christianity. What can be said in answer to it?

While many of the accusations brought against Christians' past behavior have been distorted, there are still a number of things that need to be responded to. In doing so, I do not want to justify particular evil deeds or the perpetrators of those deeds. But I do believe there are some things to say about their reflection on Christianity. Christians have claimed from the beginning that all people are sinners (Romans 3:23) and are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9). Not all who call themselves Christians (even leaving aside genuine doctrinal issues) necessarily are (Matthew 7:21-23), and even those who are have not yet reached perfection (Philippians 3:13-16). Therefore, it is not surprising if there are those called Christians who fall short of being the people they should be. But there is more that can be said on the issue.

Most of the crimes charged against Christianity revolve around one basic issue. Is it right to use force to impose your beliefs on others? This is not an issue unique to Christianity or "religion." The Communists attempted to impose their atheism on people. The Roman Emperors did the same with their watered-down paganism. And both persecuted Christians. If nothing else, atheism has shown itself fully capable of excelling at this type of atrocity. The real issue here is whether we can reach a point where everyone from every viewpoint can decide to refuse to behave in this way. It is not until we stop blaming others and look in the mirror that we will be able to avoid this type of incident in the future.

When a belief system is the dominant one in a culture, there is a strong pull to use political power to suppress competing views. If the adherents of a particular philosophy believe it is true, they normally believe that following that view is best for society. Therefore, to allow competing views is to endanger what they are trying to do to make their society a better place. To make things worse, after a group has been in power for some time, the people in charge see the belief system as the basis of their power and tend to enforce it to keep that power. Also, when something is respected as the basis of society, people tend to use it as the justification for carrying out their selfish desires. If you want to enslave people and steal their gold, you do it in the name of whatever your culture thinks valuable.

A temptation to use coercion is not a problem peculiar to Christianity, but a number of individuals and groups within it have opposed this. However, Christians have not generally been able to overcome the temptation to follow the normal impulse in this area. But this is a general problem faced by all belief systems and not unique to Christianity.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Following the Pathway

The Christian life is likened to a battle (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Timothy 2:3,4) and to an athletic competition (Hebrew 12:1,2; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Advancement in that life is pictured as exercise (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:14) and as a growth process (Colossians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3). But this is not always a congenial message to Christians today. It seems sometimes we have become more interested in being comfortable in this world than in living for the next in an environment frequently hostile to this.

The Scripture makes it clear we are not to be comfortable in this present world (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4), but to see ourselves as pilgrims and sojourners here (1 Peter 2:11; Matthew 6:19-20; John 17:15). Now there are those who take this to an extreme, inventing unnecessary rules and strictures not sanctioned by Scripture (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 23:4), but this does not justify total capitulation to the standards of the world. Part of the problem, at least in the United States, is we live in a country where it used to be comfortable and respectable to be a Christian. The key words here are "used to be". We are now Christians in a pagan nation, and we need to accept it and rebuild from there; but we are unwilling to do so. Therefore, we look for some quick and easy way to go back to where we were as a nation. And there is none. I believe the main reason we do not see revival in this country is not that we do not pray (James 4:1,2); I believe many of us do pray. But I believe it is because we ask with the wrong motives (James 4:3), so that we may go back to being comfortable. (I do believe in every prayer there is the question of the will of God; see 1 John 5:14,15, but to the extent the problem is with us, it is here I believe it lies.)

One of the things that stands in our way here is the idea of a magic formula that will provide instant spirituality or power for ministry. Now I do not want to minimize the need for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But that working is not pictured as a quick fix, but a process in which God works in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18, Philippians 2:13; Galatians 5:16). God also works in us to accomplish His purposes in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6), and He will produce the results He desires (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6-8; Psalms 127:1,2).

So our journey through this world is not an easy sail over a calm, placid lake. Rather, it is like a river run, full of rapids and rocks, possible dangers. But we must trust our Guide, who knows every stone and bend of the river and has promised to bring us through to the desired haven (John 16:33).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who Should Evangelize?

Who should do the work of evangelism? And where should it be done? One view would see the pastor as being the evangelist and the place as the church building. Others would see it as the duty of every believer everywhere. What does the Scripture teach?

While Scripture is very clear about the necessity of evangelism (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:14) and about the content of the message preached (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4), it does not go into details on how it is to be done. I believe this is to give us a degree of flexibility in how we do it. But we are all called to be able to explain what Christ has done for us (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:5,6; Acts 1:8). Therefore, every believer is required to be involved in evangelism. However, in Scripture there were individuals who God especially called to an evangelistic ministry (Acts 2:14; 6:8-10; 8:5-8; 13:1-3). This was both through preaching (Acts 8:4,5; 13:5) and one on one (Acts 8:26-39; 13:6-12) in many different contexts.

But there is little Biblical basis for claiming all pastors have this calling. The two positions are listed separately (Ephesians 4:11), and the duty of the pastor seems to be that of shepherding the sheep (1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2). Now the two may sometimes be both found in one man (note Peter and Paul in the previous verses). But I see no basis for expecting it in general. Further, Timothy is told to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5), but at most this shows pastors should do their part in evangelism. Now the pastor does have a responsibility to see that those under his charge understand the gospel (Acts 20:27, Matthew 28:20; 2 Timothy 2:2) and are able to communicate it to others. But the whole burden of evangelism should not fall on the pastor.

Now those with a special calling for evangelism should encourage others to be involved in evangelism in their own ways (Hebrews 10:24). But if we do not remember that people differ in their gifts (Romans 12:4,5), it can have the opposite effect. The person who is not as gifted in evangelism may become discouraged, not being able live up to the example of those who are. And the natural evangelists may come to look down on those who do not have the zeal they do. And instead of complimenting each other, they may end up at loggerheads. Now we cannot simply accept excuses such as, "It is not my gift," to avoid any involvement in evangelism. However, we must also value every person's contribution in the area, even if it is more subtle and in the background. But we must all of us ask how we may come to better serve God in this and every other area (Hebrews 12:1,2; Philippians 3:12-16).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Power of the Assumed Belief

One of the great opponents of Christianity from ancient times into the Middle Ages was Neo-Platonism. Not only did many intellectuals embrace it, but there was a tendency for Christians to compromise with it. The ironic thing is not only does it now have little attraction, but few even know what it was. But once it seemed the obvious way to understand the world.

A similar viewpoint in our modern culture is what C. S. Lewis called the myth of evolution. This does not refer primarily to the scientific theory (though I am not willing to make as ironclad a distinction between the two as Lewis does), but to a worldview that is older than the biological theory. It goes back through Keats and Wagner to the German idealists, such as Hegel. (It has been suggested it goes back further through Jacob Bohme to alchemy.) It fit with the atmosphere of the revolutionary age and the industrial revolution. It continues to find current advocates, such as Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke. It should be noted that, as a theory in biology, it began with Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin before Charles Darwin came up with a mechanism for it.

In our normal experience, things left to themselves decay and fall apart. Yet this worldview assumes it is normal for things to get gradually better over time. One of the things that justifies this is the technological revolution, where we constantly see new, better models succeeding the old. But this was brought about by deliberate planning and effort and did not just happen. (Growth of living things has sometimes also been used as a proof here, but this is a cycle, the new immature animal or plant coming from a mature one.)

All of this, of course, does not prove evolution as a biological theory is false. But something that arises so naturally out of the philosophy of the time is at least suspect. Steven Jay Gould once wrote that one of the chief reasons he advocated evolution was that it not only made biology make sense and consist in more than a system for classifying animals, but it also had applications in many other disciplines. But it is questionable to apply a concept in a wide variety of areas without any justification or mechanism. Also, people once believed that heavenly bodies were a series of ascending spheres. And each of these spheres had their own meaning and their influence on the earth. Compare this to the idea that there is a batch of stars out there, possibly with planets going around them, and our sun is one of them. And we can generally classify them and trace their life cycle and note the larger groups they are a part of. Does it not seem a shame to trade something with such deep significance for something so mundane? But it is the mundane view that is correct. And just because something captures the imagination does not make it true.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Considering the Trinity

Sometimes Christians can become embarrassed about the Trinity. They have a hard time explaining it to those who want a God they can understand. But not only is the Trinity a fundamental truth of the Christian faith, it is a clear vindication of that faith. We would expect God to be, not only beyond our understanding, but beyond our understanding in ways we would not guess. The Trinity fits that bill. The idea of a God who is three in one at the same time is not something a human being would have come up with. If we look at man-made gods, we find they all make sense, perhaps a little too much sense. They look man-made. The Trinity, by its very mysteriousness, is an argument for the truth of Christianity.

It is also necessary for understanding other aspects of Christian truth. We affirm God is love (1 John 4:16). But to love is to love someone. A solitary God may be good, He may be merciful, but He cannot be love. But a triune God can have love as a basic part of His nature (John 17:23,24). A solitary God can be austere or indulgent (Among those who hold to a solitary God you will find both), but He cannot be loving. Also, fundamental to the gospel is that Christ paid the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and we are declared righteous in the sight of God based on it (Philippians 3:8,9; Romans 3:21,22; 4:4,5). This requires someone to make the sacrifice and someone to whom the sacrifice is made (Hebrews 9:14; Revelation 5:9,10; 1 Peter 1:18,19; Ephesians 5:2). God must be both at once. Also, while it is not strictly necessary, it fits to have God inside us as another person to regenerate us (Titus 3:5; John 3:5-8; 1:12,13) and transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:16; Philippians 2:13). So it is the Trinity that makes redemption make sense.

How then do we explain this difficult idea? We must start by explaining that God is beyond human understanding (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:8,9, 1 Corinthians 3:18,20). But this is what we would expect of the real God. If we cannot understand something as ordinary as light, which scientists tell us exists as particles and waves at the same time, how can we expect to understand God? But the Trinity can be broken down to five basic statements. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10; 44:8; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19). The Father is God (John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; Luke 10:21). The Son is God (Hebrews 1:8; John 1:1; 20:28; Philippians 2:6). The Spirit is God (Acts 5:3,4; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2:10,11; 2 Corinthians 3:17). All three exist at the same time (Matthew 3:16,17; John 14:16; 12:27-30; Matthew 26:39). I have found that it helps to ask a person which of these they disagree with and proceed from there. But to deny these is to deny the only true God.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do Not Forbid

In 1 Corinthians 14:39 it says, "do not forbid to speak in tongues." Can this be reconciled with the contention that tongues have passed away? The standard answer is that this applies to the genuine gift of tongues, which has passed away, and all current claims to tongues are spurious. But this will only work if it is proven categorically that tongues have indeed passed away.

God can change His way of doing things, as He did in the transition between the Old and New Testament (Hebrews 10:9-18; Colossians 2:16,17; Mark 7:19). But these changes are clearly commanded. Has God ever clearly taught that certain spiritual gifts will pass away? Now 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, when taken in the straightforward, obvious way, would refer to the coming of Christ, when we will know as we are fully known. It is also argued that the verb used here for tongues means "cease of itself" (1 Corinthians 13:8). But since it does not say when, it may allow for the possibility that tongues have passed away but does not prove it. It is claimed from 1 Corinthians 14:21 that tongues were a sign to the Jew and have therefore passed away. But this idea, which is nothing more than an inference from this verse, only works if can be shown that tongues are confined to a clearly-defined Jewish period of the church. This is more than this verse is able to bear. Hebrews 2:3,4 says miracles were used to attest to the Word of God. But to say that their only use was to attest to the Word of God when it was being written and that they would vanish once it was finished is reading more into this passage than is there.

One question that arises is whether the canon is closed, but this relates directly only to two spiritual gifts, apostleship and prophecy, and tying other gifts to them does not seem to be justified Scripturally. (There is dispute over these two gifts, as to what may be involved in them, but that is another subject.) Also, there is not a clear-cut argument from Scripture for the close of the canon. (Ephesians 2:20 & Revelation 21:14 are the best, but are hardly inarguable.) In my experience, the best approach to those who claim to add to Biblical revelation is to apply the Scriptural tests, the chief of which is, Does their teaching accord with the teachings of Scripture? (Galatians 1:8,9; Jude 3; Isaiah 8:20). I have not found anyone who stacks up to these tests.

I am not at all suggesting we should blindly accept everyone who claims to have a spiritual gift. Rather, we are commanded to put things to the test (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1; Acts 17:11). Also, Scripture clearly teaches that not every believer is to possess every spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). But while it may be more convenient to dismiss the whole thing out of hand, I do not see a Scriptural basis for doing so.