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.