Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remember the Opposition

From the beginning Christians have experienced opposition, even to the point of being put to death for what they believed. Now this does not prove Christianity is true. But it does call into question some of the common explanations given to explain Christianity.

The book of Acts presents the Christian church as being opposed from its very inception. But even if you claim that Acts is a work of pure fiction written later, within about 30 years of its founding, Christians were being put to death by Nero. It is the consistent testimony of the ancient church that the apostles all suffered persecution and all but one died from it. Even if you question this, how did they convince others in so short a time to be willing to die? Some would claim that Nero, being a tyrant, would not have allowed Christians to back out even if they wanted to. But if they had had no determined conviction, they would have simply dumped this belief when it became dangerous. Certainly they would not have kept coming for future persecutions.

There were also many arguments made against Christianity. There was Galen, who claimed that miracles were a violation of physical laws. There was Lucian, who presented Christians as a bunch of naive do-gooders who could be taken advantage of by any scoundrel. There were the vicious rumors that Christians mingled babies' blood in the Eucharistic elements and engaged in orgies after the service. Many arguments against Christianity were there from the very beginning. It is therefore significant to note the ones that were not. Arguments like "Jesus never existed" or "He was just a great moral teacher" and "no one ever claimed He rose from the dead until long after the fact." Or "Christianity grew up gradually over time" and "Christians changed what they believed multiple numbers of times." If these were true they would have been obvious, and Lucian and Celsius and Porphyry would have trumpeted them everywhere. And it is difficult to see how the Christians could have hushed the whole thing up.

This brings us to the basic questions. Who was Jesus Christ? Was He a legend that grew up before the critics could notice it? Was He the greatest con-man of all time, and if so how did He pull it off (and what did He think He was going to get out of it)? Was He a crazy who thought He was God, and if so how was He able to appear sane enough to get people to die for Him? Or was He really who He claimed to be--God who became man to pay the penalty for sins. What really happened to leave the tomb empty that Sunday morning (and if it was not empty, how did people come to believe it was)? The existence of the opposition to Christianity does not answer these questions. But it does call into question certain simplistic answers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

It is claimed the current church is an institution. Some want to preserve the institution. Others want to destroy the institution to unleash the real power of God's people. Who is right?

It is interesting the New Testament has very little to say about the organization of the church. Now it needs to be made clear that the church is not the organization but the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22,23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), into which all true believers in Christ are placed (Ephesians 2:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 12:4,5). Also, this body is to be organized (Ephesians 4:11-13; Hebrews 13:17; Titus 1:5), but beyond basic principles, such as that we are to have qualified leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-13), we are not given a lot of details.

God could have outlined the organization of the New Testament church in great detail. He did so for the divisions of the Levites in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 24-26). The fact God does not do this for the organization of the Christian church indicates He did not intend to. But if God was against organization, He would have commanded against it. I do not find any such commandments. I am forced to conclude that God, beyond the basic principles He has laid down, did not intend to command a specific form of church government. But if He has left it open, could it be this is because it is not that important?

Could it be that attempting to save the present church by tinkering with the organization is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? But the Christian church is not the Titanic, and though it is hit by iceberg after iceberg, it still does not sink. Could it be there is an invisible hand underneath holding it up? Could it be God is still in control of the world and of His church (Matthew 16:18; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7)? Meanwhile, we are panicking and running around rearranging the deck chairs. Or insisting they not be rearranged. When what we really need is to trust God. I am not saying that there is nothing we can do to improve the present condition of the church. But it needs to be done with a calm confidence in God, not in a state of desperation. Also, it must be done with an eye for what is really important. And it requires the realization that it is not surprising if the world at large despises God's truth and His people (John 16:1-4; 1 Peter 4:12-15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Should we be surprised if the world does not respect us? Is that not what God promised us would happen? But while I would not want to hinder those who would realistically attempt to further God's work in the current world, we should not put much stock in the arrangement of the deck chairs.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where Did We Come From?

There are questions for which our culture's naturalistic view of the world has no good answers. Here are some key ones.

Where did everything come from? The standard explanation is a big explosion (known as the Big Bang). But even granting this is correct, where did the explosion come from? The only explanation I have ever heard is that in quantum mechanics there is a chance (howbeit an extraordinarily small chance) that everything could come out of nothing. This means that the universe came from a coin toss with no time, no space, and no coins. It also means a scientific law can exist and do things when there is nothing there yet for the law to be about. Now even from a scientific point of view the Big Bang has problems, like how do you get the products of an explosion to condense into stars and planets? If you are willing to allow the involvement of God, then it is simpler to say He created stars and planets intact. Why, then, is the universe expanding? According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, if you do not put in the questionable Cosmological Constant, the universe should be either expanding or contracting. Expanding makes more sense. But irregardless, we still need to know where everything came from.

Also, where did life come from? It is claimed amino acids could be produced by an accident, for instance lightning striking in the right mix of chemicals. But there is huge difference between a puddle of amino acids and a living cell. A cell is a complex structure made up of a number of complicated parts that have specialized functions. It is like a tiny factory. You do not get a factory by throwing a batch of parts in a field and waiting for them to come together, no matter how much time is involved. Further, while there are serious problems with the Neo-Darwinian concept of evolution, it cannot even start to work until a large proportion of the cell's systems are intact and functioning. In fact, the whole idea of something as complex and interrelated as a cell coming into existence slowly over time makes no sense. Nor do viruses work as a transition form, as viruses live off of cells.

Further, what about human beings? If our thinking is just the result of natural processes, how can it have any validity? Do I not simply think what I am conditioned to think, which has no necessary correlation with what happens to be true? Also, how did this product of purely natural processes develop consciousness? or philosophy, morality, science, and the arts? And why, if we are the meaningless product of a meaningless process, do we long for some overarching purpose in life?

Now I do not want to advocate a God of the gaps. I am convinced God created everything. But I do want to point out that there are huge gaps in naturalistic thinking. And the answers are far from satisfactory.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Who Is the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is God. This is the affirmation of historic, orthodox Christianity. But do we really believe it? And do we act like it?

All too often there is a tendency, even among those who affirm His deity, to treat the Holy Spirit like He is a power source we tap into to accomplish our purposes. We decide we want to be holy or we want to minister to people, and we feel if we will use the right magic formula, we can get the Spirit to produce this for us. But is this really the Scriptural approach?

Let us start by establishing the facts. The Scripture teaches the Holy Spirit is God (2 Corinthians 3:17; Acts 5:3,4; 1 Corinthians 3:16) and that He performs the acts of God (1 Corinthians 2:10,11; Romans 8:11; 2 Peter 1:21). Also, He is a person (Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 12:11; Ephesians 4:30) and does the deeds of a person (Romans 8:26; Acts 8:29; 13:2-4). He is not an impersonal force.

The Scripture says that God lives in those who genuinely trust in Christ for salvation (Romans 8:9,10; 1 Corinthians 6:19; John 7:38,39). He is working in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29;) and to accomplish the things He desires to accomplish through us (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Zechariah 4:6). The fundamental issue here is one of attitude. We are to do His good pleasure; we are created to do the good works He has prepared for us; we are adequate to be servants of His covenant. But we can reverse this and see the Holy Spirit as a magic genie who, if we rub the lamp the right way, will grant our wishes. The ultimate issue is who is in control of our lives and whether we are attempting to glorify God or ourselves. We are to give ourselves as His instruments to accomplish His purposes (Romans 6:12,13); we are His body to do His work in this world (Romans 12:4,5); we are not to exalt ourselves (Matthew 6:1-18; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

Now we can choose to hinder what the Holy Spirit is trying to do in our lives, and we are commanded not to (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 5:18; Romans 12:1,2). The picture is not of us trying to get the Holy Spirit to do something, but of our need to respond to what He is doing. The picture is not that of a far-away, rich uncle who, if we jump through the right hoops, might give us money. Rather, we have a rich uncle standing right beside us handing us money, and we are pushing it away because we think we do not need it, we can take care of ourselves. As an attitude toward our Creator and Savior, apart from whom we can do nothing to obey Him (John 15:5), this makes no sense.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Service of Aphrodite

C. S. Lewis once called sex the last thing venerated in an age without veneration. There is a lot of truth to this. Further, this religion seems strongly evangelistic, throwing enticing images at you everywhere you turn.

Now the Christian position on this is quite straightforward. Sexual activity is to be confined to one man and one woman within the bonds of marriage (Matthew 19:3-6; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Hebrews 13:4). Within these boundaries it is acceptable and appropriate (Proverbs 5:15-19; 1 Corinthians 7:2-5; 1 Timothy 4:3-5), but looking at another woman (Matthew 5:28; note the Greek tense here implies a continuous or repeated look) is Scripturally wrong. But how are we to react to our current culture of sex worship?

We can take the attitude that things beyond the Biblical boundaries are no big deal. Or we can react in shock that anyone could behave like that. I have an admission to make. I have battled with pornography since I was old enough to do so. I have not looked at it for several years, but still fight against the desires. I have found neither of these stances at all helpful. The last thing I need is for someone to tell me the sin I am fighting is not that bad. Nor does it help to be told it is horrible to even to have those kinds of desires. Sin is sin; it is never acceptable, but it is not surprising in a fallen human race. It needs to be overcome by the power of God (Romans 6:12-14; Galatians 5:13; Titus 2:11,12) . The two greatest pitfalls here are rationalizing your sin as all right or seeing yourself as hopeless. A wrong approach to sin can produce these. Also, we need to be able to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), and the wrong attitude makes this difficult.

We also can import our culture's unrealistic expectations into our marriages, resulting in problems between us and our spouses. A good sexual relationship in marriage is helpful, but it must be put in perspective and is not a cure-all.

One of the great dangers in this area is thinking that I am strong and can take it. We must stand firmly against evil (Ephesians 6:10,11; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6; James 4:6-10). But in situations involving temptation, the Biblical command is to flee (2 Timothy 2:22; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:12,13). Scripture goes so far as to speak of being willing to get rid whatever it takes to avoid sin (Matthew 5:29,30). I do not understand this as referring to the literal cutting off of body parts, but the willingness to remove whatever it takes from our lives. I realize that, in our present culture, if you try to avoid all sexual temptation you can end up hiding in a corner, afraid to face life. But we need to take into consideration that we may not be as strong as we think we are.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Fishers and Feeders

Scripture calls us to be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19), but it also says to feed Christ's sheep (John 21:17). Originally, these were meant to go on together as two aspects of making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). But since, a major rift has developed between the two mandates.

There are those who emphasize evangelism, who end up looking down on people who are busy teaching people and not reaching people. They see Christians as staying in their comfort zone and continually learning while the world around them is going to hell. But there are also those who see the soul winners as making superficial converts, who are liable to be blown away by their first encounter with difficulty or false teaching. They see the idea of producing decisions that are not grounded in God's Word as a waste of effort.

As a result we get animosity, not just between individuals, but churches and organizations. We get evangelistic churches and teaching churches, at loggerheads with each other and each convinced that the other is out of the will of God. (There are other types of churches, such as fellowship churches, but two types are enough to deal with at one time.)

To make things worse, there tend to be naturals in both camps. I have a friend named David Garcia, and he is a fisherman and good at it. Recently we had a church men's fishing trip and David helped those like me who had not been fishing in years remember how. As a result, more from the grace of God than good management, I managed to catch a good-sized fish. (The whole point of this post is to show off my fish, but I won't tell anyone if you don't.) But David Garcia is also a fisher of men and is a natural. We have all known them--the person who finds it natural and relatively easy to tell others about Christ. (Makes the rest of us feel jealous.) But there are also those who are natural teachers (I am one) and find it easy to explain the Word of God to others. I am convinced God meant us to work together to encourage others to do both, but if we are not careful we can find ourselves at opposite corners of the ring prepared to duke it out.

We need to realize that both outreach and spiritual growth are a necessary part of Christ's church. And those who are naturally focused one way or the other need to respect each other's position and work together. Teachers need to learn and to value evangelism, and evangelists need to learn and to value knowing God's Word in a deep way. Otherwise, we are left to continue the cycle of superficial churches that win only shallow converts and knowledgeable churches that are trapped in their insulated communities and never reach out to those outside.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does Inerrancy Matter?

Does it make a difference that the Bible is inerrant? Can't we just go ahead and believe in Christianity anyway, even if the Bible has a few errors here and there? Now I should note I am here speaking to those who claim to be Christians. To prove inerrancy to the sceptic is to prove Christianity, which is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, I am speaking to those who want to have things both ways. Some would even claim it is better to hold this view because it will make it easier for people to become Christians.

I am hesitant to even speak about what the Bible says about itself because, if the Bible has errors, this could be one of the errors. But it is important to look at what the Bible does claim before deciding if we should believe it. The Bible says that truth is part of God's nature (Romans 3:4; Titus 1:2; 1 John 5:20; Numbers 23:19) and that there is a distinction between truth and falsehood (1 John 2:21; 2 Timothy 4:4; Romans 1:25; John 8:44). Therefore, the Scriptures, being produced by God (2 Timothy 3:16,17, 2 Peter 1:20,21; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13), are true (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15; Psalms 119:160; 19:9-10). Should we accept this claim?

The issue is that the only objective source for the basic truths of the Christian faith is the Bible. If the Bible is in error in other areas, why should we believe it in these. I suspect part of the problem here is we see God as being like ourselves, willing to shade the truth where it happens to be convenient. But if God is like that, how can we trust anything He tells us? Also, if God is God, we owe Him the duty of obedience. Part of that obedience is believing what He tells us. If we cannot do this, we need to ask if we really can believe in God. But to believe and rebel is inconsistent.

The real basis for this logically untenable position is subjective experience. The only reason for believing some parts of the Bible are true while rejecting other parts is because I feel it is so. But feelings are unreliable and are not an adequate basis for truth. Many people have conflicting subjective experiences which they base their beliefs on. When I was an unbeliever, I would not have considered the claim that here is a book full of errors but I should believe it anyway. The truth of God will always conflict with what the world holds (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 4:2-5). And if we water it down to make conversion easy, we risk making false converts. We do, of course, have to deal with the various problems sceptics bring up regarding the Bible. But it makes a considerable difference whether we are willing to give the Scriptures the benefit of the doubt or whether we conclude any minor problem must be a contradiction.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Peddling the Word of God

What does it mean to peddle the Word of God (2 Corinthians 2:17)? One example is the sellers and money changers in the Temple. Jesus drove them out, saying they had turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12,13). Also, there was Simon Magus, who thought he could buy the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-24), making simony the traditional name for this practice. We are told we should give out the truth and benefits of God freely, without looking for monetary gain (Matthew 10:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Timothy 6:5-10).

But Scripture also teaches that those who communicate spiritual things should be recompensed with physical things (Romans 15:27; 1 Corinthians 9:6-11; 1 Timothy 5:17,18; Philippians 4:10-19). How go these two fit together? The simple answer is we should not charge people to minister to them, but those who minister should be paid out of gratitude for their ministry. In practice, this can sometimes be a difficult line to draw.

To complicate things, there is a strong suspicion on the part of most unbelievers and even many believers that Christian organizations are just after their money. Unfortunately, there have been and are organizations that have done things that justify this suspicion. Therefore, while it is virtually impossible to allay everyone's suspicion, we need to be careful not to project that image. This is particularly true when dealing with unbelievers. Christian ministries should, in general, be supported by those who recognize the benefit of them. Paul writes about refusing to ask for legitimate recompense in order to minister to people more effectively (1 Corinthians 9:12-18; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). But Christian organizations do need funds to operate, and it is impossible to placate every overly suspicious person. We do need to make an effort, though.

Another complication is the tendency to exalt certain people as celebrities and to allow them liberties unacceptable for ordinary ministries. Now I want to be careful here, because there are high profile ministries which accomplish things for the cause of Christ that could not be accomplished otherwise. But I believe first priority should be given to your local church, the people who know you and minister to you directly. And when you do support a high profile ministry, it should be because of the real value of the ministry, not name recognition. We particularly need to avoid the obvious con men and those who offer to provide us just about anything if we send them money. We need to be very careful not to give to anyone who is blatantly peddling the gospel.

The result of these two complications working together can be to give celebrities license to get away with whatever they want, while forcing local congregations to be afraid to even teach Biblical principles on handling money because they might lose members. This is a topsy-turvy situation that needs to be corrected.