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.