Friday, July 29, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Justin Martyr

But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

Justin Martyr, 110-165 AD, First Apology, Chapter LIV (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Ireneus, Phillip Schaff, Eerdmans, p. 243)

What do you think of this theory? Does it make sense?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Personality Cult

A characteristic of the modern Evangelical church is a tendency toward personality cults, to put certain leaders on a pedestal. Now these leaders may be godly people whose desire is to serve God, or shallow purveyors of flash who only desire the public eye, or something in between. I suspect there are some in each category, and while I have my opinion in certain cases, I do not want to make any kind of blanket judgment. But I do think that there are dangers of raising even good and godly people to too high a position.

It is important that everything taught must be checked by Scripture  (Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is true even of good leaders, for all of us are imperfect (Philippians 3:12-16; 1 John 1:8-10; Galatians 5:17). Often it is the errors of good leaders that are the most dangerous. It was good men, wanting to prevent the spread of heresy, who held we should not question the teaching of the church, which  descended from the apostles, and thus laid the foundation of the papacy. Also, if someone is uncritically following a celebrity leader, it is more likely it will be based on external appearance than on substance. Further, people will fail us (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Psalms 118:8; 146:3). (Even if the failure is more perceived than real, this can have the same effect.) When a ministry or a person's life is built around one person, that person's failure can have major repercussions.  Also, the cult of personality can result in the creation and continuance of factions (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:21-24; 4:1-5). Now there will always be areas of disagreement among Christians, but these are easier to deal with when seen as issues of fact, rather than loyalty to individuals.  Also, there is the danger that human beings may be given the honor that belongs only to God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:22-24; Isaiah 42:8).

Now we should not throw out all prominent leaders, for according to Scripture they are a gift from God (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 4:10,11; Romans 12:3-8). (There may indeed be some individuals who should not be followed, but this must be decided on a case-by-case basis.) Also, trusting only in ourselves can be as dangerous an error as trusting wholly in another human being (Proverbs 15:22; 26:12; 1 Corinthians 3:18). What I would suggest is putting even good leaders in perspective. One thing that is helpful here is having a broad knowledge of a large number of good teachers. Also, we should have greater respect for our more ordinary local leaders, who God has put over us (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17), the ones we know and who know us. (Though these too can be turned into a personality cult if we are not careful.) But above all, our primary loyalty must be to God and His Word, and other things must be judged by them.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Stunt

What kinds of things can we end up following because someone told us that they are the right things to do? How can we avoid this?

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Cyprian

Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.

Cyprian, 200-258 AD, Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church, Section 5 (T & T Clark/ Eerdmans, trans. by Rev. Ernest Wallis, p.694)

What are the implications of this statement? Is this a correct way of looking at things?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Superficial Unity

How do we promote real unity in the Christian church? There are various approaches. We can have joint meetings or involve ourselves in joint projects. This can be helpful to see what each other is really like and to get past stereotypes we have of one another. Also, if the joint project is successful it can produce some real good in the world. But then we can all go back to our own denominational groups, and any unity that was there might to be forgotten. How we get past this temporary appearance of unity to a unity that has some permanent meaning? Ever so often we see a group that gets tired of the denominational labels. So they decide to form a church that is known for being just Christian. But they end up coming up with their own beliefs and ways of doing things and become just one more denomination. Or others would form an interdenominational group and only deal with those issues they feel comfortable with, sending people back to the churches to deal with the others. Others would throw out all teaching and try to unite people under a broad umbrella distinguished by only the name "Christian." But if "Christian" is nothing but a meaningless name, what is there to unite about?

I am convinced that we need to start from the other  end. Scripture says that there exists a unity between true Christians (Galatians 3:27,28; Ephesians 2:14-19; 4:4-6). The question then is what constitutes a true Christian. Scripturally, this is grounded in a genuine faith in Christ and his death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians 2:1-9). Now there are truths implied in this that must be believed, though it is not always possible to tell what people believe in their hearts. But these truths include that Jesus Christ was God who became a human being (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9,10) in order to pay the penalty for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; Romans 5:6-8) so that He might offer us eternal life apart from anything we could do to earn it (Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6; Romans 3:19,20). Further, Scripture says that if we have faith in Christ, it will result in His working in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29) and working through us to accomplish His purpose in the world (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Matthew 16:18). This makes us part of His body, which he uses to accomplish His will in this present age (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:11-15). If we accept this, then we need to recognize that God is at work in people who are not necessarily part of our group or denomination. This will undoubtedly step on some individuals' toes regarding their doctrinal convictions or prejudices. But I am convinced it is only in this direction that we can move toward true unity. It is also the way to put the other issues we might still disagree on in perspective.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can We Please Everyone?

In Aesop's fables there is the story of the man, the boy, and the donkey. A man and a boy were driving a donkey into town to sell him at the marketplace. They passed a group of young men who laughed at them, saying, "Look at those fools who are driving that donkey when they could be riding it." So the man got up on the bach out to people where they are (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Matthew 9:11-13; Romans 12:18). But this does not necessarily mean trying to please them in everything. Especially given that what people want is not always what they really need. Further, we need to remember that the message of the cross is a stumbling block to those who reject it (1 Corinthians 1:20-25; 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3). Therefore, we should confront people with love and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6), but we cannot always expect to please them. And if we try hard to please everyone, we could end up with our donkey in the drink.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Wrong Address

How easy is it to do the wrong thing, thinking it is the right thing? How can we avoid this?

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Augustine of Hippo

That last persecution, to be sure, which will be inflicted by Antichrist, will be extinguished by Jesus himself, present in person. For the Scripture says that 'he will kill him by the breath of his mouth and annihilate him by the splendor of his coming.' Here the usual question is, 'When will this happen?' But the question is completely ill-timed. For had it been in our interest to know this, who could have been a better informant than the master, God himself, when the disciples asked him?

Augustine, City of God, Book XVIII, Chapter 53 (Penguin Books, trans. by Henry Bettenson, p. 838)

Do you agree with this statement? What are the implications of it? Why is this issue important?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mathematical versus Alphabetical

The early scientists thought the physical laws could be understood in the same way as the laws of mathematics. In mathematics there are basic premises whose truth is obvious if you understand their meaning. You then proceed to deduce the whole system based on those premises. There may be problems that are difficult, but once you have the premises all the conclusions necessarily follow from thoseomes complicated. You have to deal with quantum mechanics, which says that below a certain size, we can only measure the movements of a particle as probabilities. There is chaos theory, which says that for complex systems, small changes in initial conditions can have major effects down the road. Living things, even in their simplest forms, are complex systems which do not seem to be deducible from their component elements. While I do not accept neo-Darwinian evolution, it is based on  accidental conjunctions of mutations and environment, not necessary logic. The mathematical model for the physical laws has serious problems.

An alternative approach would be the alphabetical. The alphabet starts with simple elements that can be arranged in complex ways. There are rules for how these should be arranged, but they are not determinative rules. It is not possible to start with the alphabet and deduce Shakespeare's plays. Understanding the universe in this way would suggest there is either a mind that made the universe or it is the result of pure chance-- chimps on word processors. But the old idea of a deducible universe does not fit with the real world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unfulfilled Expections

One of the most frustrating things we can encounter is unfulfilled expectations. Five minutes is not long to wait, but if you expected someone to be on time it can be irritating. This can be a common source of frictions in churches. People expect a church to be a certain way and become angry when it fails to live up to it. Congregations expect leaders to fit a certain mold and are upset when they do not. Leaders expect congregations to behave certain ways and become bitter and cynical when this does not happen. And people on both sides can end up tearing apart churches and destroying relationships, all the while being assured they must be right. Is there a way to avoid this?

Now I do not want to deny that there are serious issues of Christian behavior or Christian teaching that must be dealt with (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Jude 3). But we need to carefully distinguish between clear violations of Christian principles and an individual or group not meeting up to our personal ideals. We are all people in the process of being transformed into who God wants us to be (Philippians 3:12-16; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10). It is important for us to encourage one another in this journey (Hebrews 10:24,25; 12:12,13; Ephesians 4:11-16). But it is easy to slip from required correction and needed encouragement to standing in judgment on another person's progress in the spiritual life (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Romans 14:4; 2:1). And there is nothing like unmet expectations to send us down this path. Now I do not want to lower the goal, which is God's righteousness (Romans 8:29; Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 4:23,24). But we are involved in a lifelong growth process, with this as the ultimate destination, and we are not there yet. Given that, we may need to put our expectations in perspective. And we need to remember the grace of God, which not only covers our sins, but those of our fellow believers (Romans 8:33,34; Hebrews 8:12; 1 Peter 4:8). Particularly when what is involved may be differences of methodology and personality rather than actual sin.

Now I do not want to suggest total cynicism or pessimism. But I do believe there needs to be a realistic balance between that and high-flown expectations that never live up to their press. And the irony is that we can, by pursuing unobtainable goals, miss the genuine relationships that can be developed in the real world if we just take a more measured view of things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Asking Directions

Is it sometimes possible to do things without realizing their consequences? And can we then look for a quick fix to undo the problem? How can we avoid this mentality? 

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Gregory the Great

Now I confidently say that whoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others. Nor is it by dissimilar pride that he is led into error; for as that perverse one wishes to appear as God above all men, so whoever this one is who covets being called sole priest, he extols himself above all other priests. But since the Truth says, Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled (Luke xiv:11; xviii. 14) I know that every kind of elation is the sooner burst as it is the more inflated.

Pope Gregory I, Epistles, Book VII, Epistle XXXIII, 597 AD (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIII, T & T Clark/Eerdmans, trans, Rev, James Barmby, p. 226)

What are the implications of this quote? Why is it important?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

If Only We Had Enough Faith

"If only I had enough faith, things would go the way I want them to. I would see God's constant miraculous intervention, and every prayer I prayed would be immediately granted." It is not uncommon, from a Christian point of view, to feel this way. But is it what the Bible teaches? Sometimes this becomes faith in our faith. "If I just believe hard enough, what I want will happen." This can be found in its crudest form in the word-faith movement. "If I just have enough faith, I will obtain heath and wealth." But it is not limited to there. Sometimes it can come tricked out in more noble goals. "If I just have enough faith I can reach the world for Christ or overcome all my sins." But at the bottom it can be the same thing.

The Bible does not speak of faith in faith, but faith in God (Hebrews 11:6; Romans 4:17-22; Psalms 127:1,2). Further, faith in anything other than God is sternly rebuked (Isaiah 31:1; 44:6-11; Colossians 2:8-10). The basis for faith is that it is grounded in God's power (Isaiah 43:10-13; Ephesians 3:20; Philippians 4:13). Faith is not, and should never be, construed as being faith in faith. Also, while faith is important, often only a small amount of faith is seen as all that is necessary to move the hand of God (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6; Mark 9:23-27). Further, doubt in the New Testament means to waver and means to genuinely hesitate between two opinions and is not just the stray thought passing through our head (James 1:5-8; Matthew 14:28-31; Acts 11:12). Ultimately, it is clear that God can refuse to answer specific prayers when it is required to serve a broader purpose (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 26:36-46; Numbers 23:1-12).

In Acts 12:1-17 we are given the story of Peter's imprisonment. Peter was imprisoned and was sentenced to be put to death, and the church was praying for his release. Then God sent an angel and freed Peter from prison, and he showed up at the prayer meeting. And the people at the prayer meeting were unwilling to believe it was really Peter. Even with their highly imperfect faith, God had worked a miracle. But what if it works out the other way around? What if we are praying fervently for something and do not see it. While it could be our lack of faith, could it be that God, who is in control of all things (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Matthew 16:18), has a different plan and we need to trust in Him, even though we may not understand what He is doing (Proverbs 3:5,6; Habakkuk 3:17-19; Psalms 46:10)? Could this be what is really meant by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:13-16; Romans 8:24,25)?

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Fish Story

Sometimes in is hard to speak the truth (following the story about George Washington and the cherry tree). What are some times it is hard to speak the truth? Is it ever hard to know what the honest  thing to do is in a particular situation?

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Tertullian

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart." Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!

Tertullian, 145-220 AD, On Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter VII (Anti-Nicene Fathers, T & T Clarke/Eerdmans, 1997, trans. Rev. Peter Holmes, p.246)

What do you think of this statement? Does it reflect the correct Biblical stance?