Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should We Be Progressive?

It has been said the eight last words of a church are, "We have never done it that way before." But is this true?

One of the principles put forth in Scripture is that we are to hand down the truths of God pure and unchanged (Jude 3; Galatians 1:8,9; 2 Timothy 1:13,14; 2:2). However, there is danger of confusing our traditions and what we have always been taught with the word of God (Matthew 15:3-9; Jeremiah 18:18; Colossians 2:8). But we are also to test any new thing to see if it really accords with God's truth (1 John 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:21,22; Acts 17:11). The most basic standard, then, is not if something is new or old, but if it is Scriptural.

Now one of the things taught in Scripture is the careful balance of being in the world and not of the world (John 17:11). We are told not to simply go along with the world and its values (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4). But we are not to become self-righteous, separating ourselves unnecessarily from the people we are called to reach out to and erecting rules God never commanded (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Luke 15:1-7; Colossians 2:20-23). This is a difficult balance and is made more difficult by the tendency to drift in both directions. But it is never all one way, and it is dangerous to say we have no other duty than to keep up with the current state of the world. However, we can also trade this for being conformed to an older condition of the world, which is no longer up-to-date.

Therefore, we are called to communicate God's unchanging truth to a changing world. Being progressive or not progressive is a red herring. Now a Christian is to progress, but that progression is toward a closer conformity to who God wants us to be (Philippians 3:12-14; Hebrews 12:1,2; Romans 8:29). G. K. Chesterton pointed out that there are two ideas of progress. One is progress toward a fixed standard, like a runner racing toward the finish line. The other is where you change the basic standard, like changing from running to football to basketball to baseball. And this second concept prevents any true progress, because if the rules change, you can never make any real progress toward winning the game because the goals change on you.

But the bottom line is that being progressive or striving to not be progressive takes your eyes off of trusting God and His power to accomplish His purpose in the world (Psalms 127:1,2; Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:10; Romans 8:28). It causes us to trust in our quick fixes or our established procedures rather than God's continuing work in the world. The result is to get us caught up in things that are not that important, rather than encouraging us in what is important, which is obeying Christ (John 14:21; Matthew 22:37-40; Matthew 28:18-20).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come

What is the kingdom of God? Now God is always king over all things (Psalms 22:28; 103:19; Daniel 4:32-37). But there is another kingdom that at least at one time was future (Daniel 2:44,45; 7:13,14; Isaiah 9:6,7). This kingdom is based on the promise of a kingdom to David's descendants (2 Samuel 7:12-16), but is enlarged to include the whole earth in a reign of peace (Isaiah 11:1-10; 2:2-4; Psalm 2). This promise is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:64; Luke 1:32, 33; 1 Timothy 6:14-16). But there are still questions.

What time does this kingdom begin? There are verses that seem to indicate the present time (Matthew 13:1-43; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20). But there are others that see it as yet future (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 22:29,30; Acts 1:6). The simplest way to take it is that both are true. That Christ, at His first coming, initiated in a new way the reign of God on earth, but that the full realization of this awaits the Second Coming. This fits in with the prophetic practice of identifying two related events such as the return of the Israelites from Babylon (Isaiah 45:1-7) and the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 42:1-4). Also, whichever view we take, we must admit there are some verses that have to be taken the other way. But, we say, the real kingdom is the one we favor. And so we interpret as many verses as possible our way, seeing those that remain as special cases. It seems simpler, though, to admit the Scripture teaches the kingdom in both senses and to interpret each verse in the way that best fits.

The other question is: how long does the kingdom last? And the Scriptural answer is forever and ever (Daniel 2:44; 7:14; Isaiah 9:7; Luke 1:33). Now the millennium, from Revelation 20:1-10, can, if it is accepted as future, be seen as part of the kingdom. But the promise is not for a thousand years but forever. (I have personally struggled over the question of the millennium, but concluded that Revelation 20:1-10, taken in the most straightforward way, would indicate a future millennium. But I do not see it as the fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom.)

Also, how literally do we take the physical promises of the Old Testament regarding the kingdom? Part of the problem here is Platonism, which tends to see the physical as bad and looks for a purely immaterial after-life. Now Scripture says flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:50), but flesh in Scripture does not refer simply to the physical, but to our present condition of sin and corruption. I do not claim to know exactly how much of the Old Testament picture of the future state is literal and how much is symbolic. (Are there animals on the new earth?) But I am hesitant to relegate it all to the millennium or see it as just symbolic of the present time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Flatness of the Earth

It is claimed the Bible teaches a flat earth, a small universe, and the sun moving around the earth. Is this true?

The Bible speaks of the corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12; Matthew 24:31). We use the same expression today. The straightforward way to take it is as referring to the four compass points. It also mentions the pillars (Job 9:6; Psalms 75:3) or foundations (Psalms 18:7,15; Isaiah 24:18) of the earth (describing earthquakes). These seem to be basically metaphors. There are references to the circle or roundness of the earth (Isaiah 40:22; Proverbs 8:27) and that God hung the earth on nothing (Job 26:7). But I question whether any of these are meant as strict geological statements.

The Bible says the sun rises and the sun sets; so do we (Genesis 19:23; 2 Samuel 23:4; Psalm 50:1; Luke 4:40). This is because it is what we see when we look up at the sky. We do not say in the morning, "The earth has turned so we can see the sun." This kind of language, based on our perception, explains similar passages (Psalms 19:4,5). Also, the statement that the earth will not be moved (Psalms 93:1; 96:10) is a poor translation. The word "moved" means "totter" (also "founded", not "set on its foundation" is the better translation). The statement means the earth is well put together and not liable to fall apart tomorrow. It says of the righteous man that he will not be moved (Psalms 15:5; 112:5,6); does this mean he will not go on a vacation?

The Bible pictures heaven as up and hell as down (Psalms 139:8; Amos 9:2; Numbers 16:30; Acts 1:11), but we do not know anything about other realms and how they are related to ours. Let's take it in the crudest way possible, though. Down is the center of the earth, and it does not seem impossible that disembodied spirits could exist in solid or, in this case, liquid matter. And upwards we have a multitude of stars and galaxies, and it is even conceivable disembodied spirits and resurrected bodies could exist in airless space. It is thought primitive people saw heaven and hell in simplistic ways and that the Christian view is an extension of this. But if God revealed His truth from the beginning, the later cruder views could be a simplified version of it.

Underlying this criticism, though, is the assumption that the Middle Ages believed these fallacies and got them from the Bible. But in the Middle Ages they knew that the earth was round and that it was tiny in relation to the whole universe. They did believe the earth was stationary and the sun revolved around it. They got this from the same place they got the first two facts, from the Greek philosophers. They then proceeded to read their views into Scripture and defend them from it. The moral of this is that we need to be careful of canonizing any secular theory, as it can easily change on us.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Invitation and Predestination

How does God's choosing people to be saved affect how we invite people to come to Christ? In Scripture, people are repeatedly invited to put their faith in Christ (Acts 16:31; 13:38,39; John 3:14-19; 6:40). But we are told their faith is the result of God's choosing them (Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 9:14-18). How do these fit together?

The offer of salvation through faith is a legitimate invitation, but this faith is given by God (Ephesians 2:8,9; John 1:12,13). The reason is that we cannot of ourselves seek God (Romans 3:11), just as we cannot obey God's Law (Romans 7:12-14). Therefore, while from our perspective we are encouraged to come to Christ (Revelation 22:17), those who come are those God draws (John 6:44).

But Scripture tells unbelievers to have faith in Christ, not to pray or wait for faith. Nor should they try to figure out if they are elect. If we have faith in Christ we are elect; if we continuously refuse to believe, we are not. But waiting and praying for faith seems to imply God is sovereign over the moment of conversion but not the events leading up to it. It also seems to be looking for an experience of being drawn by God, but the issue is not what we feel, but the teaching of Scripture (Romans 8:29,30). Now I do not want to discourage people who are struggling to have faith from asking God for help (Mark 9:24) or to discourage praying for the salvation of others (Romans 10:1). The normal Biblical invitation, though, is to have faith in Christ (Romans 4:4,5). But what about the danger of a false faith? Scripture does warn against such a faith (James 2:26; 2 Corinthians 13:5). But this faith has a knowledge of God's truth (James 2:19) without a real trust in God's person and promises (Romans 4:17-22). Nowhere does Scripture say this can be avoided by praying or waiting rather than trusting Christ.

Does one have to believe in God's election to be saved? I am convinced that what is necessary for salvation is what Scripture states is necessary. For example, we must believe in the truth of the gospel (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Nowhere are we told we must believe in election to be saved. I do not want to minimize the need to hold to all of God's truth, but part of this is understanding what is essential. There are dangers both ways. Some may trust in their faith or ability to chose rather than Christ. Others may trust in their election or the works they see as the evidence of it rather than Christ. Ultimately, whether a person is saved is a matter of the heart that only God knows. But we should not make distinctions not clearly put forth in Scripture (Romans 2:1; 14:4; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Therefore, while it is certainly proper to inform the unsaved of God's election (Jesus did; see John 6:44; 10:27-30), affirming election is not a requirement.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Speculation on Old Literature

One of my interests is folklore, myth, and old literature. It is interesting to speculate how they came about, whether they have some historical basis, and how they reached their current condition. This is an fun way to spend a weekend afternoon. But while I hesitate to say so, as many scholars have based their careers on such speculations, I have to ask whether such theories are really demonstrable.

Take, for example, Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Would anyone claim that given just Malory, they could trace the twist and turns of the Arthurian legend? The fight with Anglo-Saxon invaders which was the main point in the beginning has vanished. Lancelot, whose affair with the Queen brings about the downfall of the kingdom, is a later development. The grail quest was originally the quest of Percival until Galahad supplanted him. Could any of this be deduced from the story in its final form?

Let's face it; it may be fun to try to figure out if Hercules was a real man who killed a lion and a boar, found a clever way to drive off the birds menacing some farmer's crops, and bagged some unusual kind of deer, a man whose deeds were blown way out of portion. Or perhaps these stories were the explanation of some religious ritual or some sort of allegory. I have read multiple versions of the Celtic pantheon, including the idea they had two pantheons and the idea they were animists and had no pantheon but it was imposed on them later. But can we without external evidence conclude any certain answer to these questions?

Now there would be little point to this post, other then beating up on a few academics, if it were not for one thing. For many years people have used this same kind of approach in dealing with the Bible and have put forth their findings dogmatically as unquestionable. Now there are arguments that can be made against particular theories, but I am not going into them here. What I am questioning is whether anyone, no matter how intelligent, no matter many years of study they devote to it, can really, with absolute certainty, figure out from internal evidence how a story came to be in its final state, even with no theological bias involved. Yet we are being asked to stake our theology, our understanding of the universe, and ultimately our eternal destiny on the theories of these men whose ability to do what they claim to do I must seriously question. Now if there are things in Scripture that it is claimed are contradictory or anachronistic, we need deal with them. But quite frankly, if tomorrow I were to go back to being an agnostic, except in the places where it would be necessary not to believe in Christianity, I do not think I would even consider the claims of higher criticism. I am convinced they cannot do what they claim to do.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Just Like the Early Church

Is your church just like the early church? And is this the real goal?

If we look at the New Testament, we find the Corinthians, who were divided into factions, the Galatians, who were in danger of denying the gospel, the Philippians, who had problems with unity, the Colossians, who were struggling with a world-denying heresy, the Thessalonians, who were quitting their jobs to wait for the Second Coming. The church of Jerusalem had problems with the gospel going to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-2; 15:1-5; 21:17-26). Where does the idea of the exceptional spirituality of the early church come from?

There is their success in terms of results (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 17:6). Scripture attributes results not to our spirituality but to the power of God (1 Corinthians 3:5-7; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 127:1,2). A great revival resulted from the preaching of Jonah, who pouted because God showed mercy instead of judgment (see Jonah 3,4). The early church was not exceptionally spiritual, but they had a powerful God who we can trust in, even if we do not see the same results.

Also, there is the description in Acts 2:42-47. Many things listed here are found in the present-day Christian church. But a few things are not necessarily practiced today. There is the performance of miracles, which is a highly controversial issue. I hold that they still happen, but according to God's will (1 Corinthians 12:11-30). But many disagree, and the question is what is the correct position on this issue. Further, they had all things in common. But this was not the general practice of the New Testament (1 Timothy 6:17,18; James 1:10,11), which commands the rich to be generous, but not to contribute their riches into a common store. I take this as a special provision to help those who had lost their jobs due to being thrown out of the synagogue. But if this is a universal command, we need to start obeying it. Also, they met together daily in each other's homes. While the Scripture commands us to meet together, it does not give a required frequency (Hebrews 10:25). This practice reflected their particular situation, including the absence of church buildings. But if this is a commandment we have neglected, we should start obeying it.

Therefore, there is no solid evidence for the exceptional spirituality of the early church. This does not mean we should not work to improve our obedience to God individually and corporately. But the goal needs to be God's commandments, not a hypothetical state of the early church. The commandments of God are an unattainable standard. We must take it seriously, but are not surprised when we do not immediately reach the goal (Philippians 3:12-15). But the early church is an attainable standard, and if we have not met it, something is fundamentally wrong with us. This results in all manner of quick fixes to get us to where we think we need to be. But it is a false goal.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why I Am the Mad Theologian.

On this, my 100th post on this blog, I thought it good to pause and ask, "Why I am writing this, anyway?" Obviously, it is because I am convinced I have something to say. But it seems reasonable to inquire as to what that is and to present it in a summary, rather then piecemeal. The following, then, is a statement of my basic convictions:

1. I am convinced there are solid reasons for believing historic Biblical Christianity is true and that it is a mistake to desert the realm of objective truth for a realm of fuzzy subjective feelings, where anything can be justified. No one comes to Christ without a supernatural work of God in their lives, but that does not excuse our not upholding objective truth. see and see

2. I am convinced that if Christianity is true, then it is necessary for all believers to be grounded in this truth. Not that everyone needs to understand all difficult theological terminology, but it is the duty of the teacher to make clear the truth of God in terms people can understand. see and see

3. I am convinced that Scripture is the ultimate authority in the church, both in terms of what it teaches and does not teach. I believe the present divided state of the Christian church is contrary to Scripture, but the solution is not vague broadmindedness and good feelings, but asking what the Scripture itself regards as important. see and see

4. I am convinced we need to trust in God's power rather than our human ability and gimmicks. God did not promise that the world would respect us or make us comfortable, and we should not expect it, but rather persevere in God's service. see and see

5. I am convinced it is wrong to minimize God's grace. Rather, it is the person who has a clear understanding of that grace who will respond to God based on love for Him. Granted, some may distort this truth for their own ends, but we should not lose sight of our fundamental need of grace. see and see

6. I am convinced that the church is the people and that the organization exists for the people, not the other way around. This does not mean it is not important to distinguish between what people want and what they need or that we can ignore reaching out to the unsaved. But it does mean the welfare of the organization cannot be put first. see and see
7. But most of all I am convinced that the Christian life is a growth process, in which the Spirit of God works to transform all true believers over time. I therefore oppose all quick fixes and magic formulas for instant spiritually. They can lead to inadequately instructed people rushing frenetically around, trying to lift burdens they are unable to bear. Or it can produce complacency, where people sit around passively, feeling they have attained spirituality and leaving it to others (usually the pastor) to do the work of serving God. see, see and see

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Confessing Our Sins

It is clear from command (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9; James 5:16) and example (Psalms 32:5; Leviticus 26:40; Daniel 9:4,5; Acts 19:18) that confession of sins is a Biblical duty. But what does it involve?

Proverbs 28:13 commands an act of repentance where we are to confess and forsake our sins. 1 John gives the marks of the true follower of Christ versus a false teacher. One who claims he has no sin is a false teacher (1 John 1:8,10), but the true believer habitually confesses his sins (1 John 1:9). This individual can be confident of forgiveness, including cleansing from the unrighteousness he has not yet recognized. Therefore, confession is not a form we go through to obtain God's forgiveness, but an act of repentance of sin. Now unrepentant sin has consequences (Psalms 32), and confession can result in a forgiveness that removes those consequences (Psalms 32:5; 2 Samuel 12:13). I do not know that this is best described as broken fellowship, as 1 John 1:1-7 sees fellowship with God as the condition of all believers, but unrepentant sin affects our relationship with God.

What sins are we obligated to confess? Given that our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) and that even our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6), can we seriously believe that any of us knows all our sins? We should confess the sins we know about, but even this can be a little too simple. There are those who are complacent and seldom examine themselves; others can get so caught up in introspection that they become paralyzed and unable to do the positive things God calls them to. We need a balance here, but should ask God to show us what we need to repent of (Psalms 139:23,24).

But the real issue is what we do about sin once it is brought to our attention. In Proverbs 28:13 it says he who conceals his transgressions will not prosper. We are not to hide our sin, rationalize our sin, or deny our sin, but to come to God and admit it and forsake it. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 it speaks of sorrow for sin and says that real sorrow for sin leads to a repentance without regret. Genuine guilt causes us to come to God and repent, while guilt that is not of God leads us to hide or blame others (Genesis 3:8-13). "Without regret" here does not mean we do not wish that we had not sinned. Nor does it mean that we will not try to avoid it in the future. But it does mean that we accept God's forgiveness and put the sin behind us (Philippians 3:13,14).

Scripture advocates confessing our sin to other believers (James 5:16) and making things right with those we have sinned against (Matthew 5:23-26). Also, sin can still have consequences in our lives (Hebrews 12:4-11; 2 Samuel 12:14). But the chief thing God demands is that we honestly admit our sin to Him rather than try to hide it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking Care of Business

Many have tried to liken a church to a business. However, the New Testament does not use this picture. But may I suggest, while this is not the best analogy, the real problem is we misunderstand the implications.

We tend to see the people on the outside or marginal individuals as customers, the regular attenders as employees. Our product is spiritual enlightenment (salvation and spiritual growth), in return for which we receive money and services. Our competitors are other churches, often including other Christian churches, even those of the same denomination.

However, our real customer is God. The product is a people for His own possession (1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 1:14) to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29,30; 1 John 3:2). This could be criticized for being too impersonal, a weakness of the business analogy (a better one is that of a bride prepared for her groom; see 2 Corinthians 11:2,3; Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7,8), but it makes a point. If we look at people as customers we can take the attitude that our main goal is to try to please them and adapt things to fit their tastes. But we can also feel that if we do not please a particular customer, another one will come along. Employees can be worse, as we may see them as useful if they help meet our goals, but dispensable if they do not. But if what we are trying to produce is disciples who do all Christ commands them (Matthew 28:18-20), then we must treat them in a way that brings them closer to being the people Christ wants them to be. Now people have wills, and we cannot always influence them in the right direction. But we must deal with them in light of what God wants to do in their lives. Our real Customer expects no less (and will reward us not in this world, but the next; see Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Corinthians 3:10-14).

Also, we have only one competitor, Satan and his minions (Ephesians 6:10-12; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 1 Peter 5:8,9). Now all churches and similar organizations are franchises of one of these firms (though the franchises can switch firms). The franchises have a high degree of independence and can (without necessarily switching firms) make bad decisions. We should do whatever we can to help the franchises of God's firm to succeed. Sometimes that may mean trying to correct them. Sometimes it may mean trying to work around them. Sometimes it may even be a good idea if a particular franchise closes down so others can carry on the work. But they are not our competitors (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-9).

But on the whole, I do not think a business is the best analogy for the church. It has, however you take it, a tendency to depersonalize people and view them as cogs in the machine to make our system work. Let us return to better analogies.