Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Drawing the Line

One of the arguments against the continuance of the charismatic gifts today is that it would be a challenge to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Now since I cannot find a basis in Scripture for saying these gifts have passed away, I have to ask it there is a way to avoid this danger. It says in 2 Timothy 3:16,17 that Scripture is profitable for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work. That is, the Scripture is the sufficient standard for faith and practice. If someone is claiming to have a new revelation regarding faith and practice, they are claiming to be providing us with new Scripture. If they do so they must pass the Scriptural tests for genuine inspiration, the primary one being that everything they say must square with the Word of God (Isaiah 8:20; Galatians 1:8,9: Deuteronomy 13:1-5). I know of no one who makes such a claim who passes all the tests. But does this answer all the questions?

Now there are other sets of questions that Scripture does not deal with, such as how to cook roast beef or how to use a computer. But there is a set of questions that lies somewhere in the middle. These involve questions such as where should I live, what should I do for a career, praying for someone that God brings to my mind, and numerous other similar issues. These must be decided some way, whether by our human reason and common sense, circumstances, subjective experience, or some combination of these. There is danger in all of these. Scripture warns against too easily trusting in our human wisdom or sense (1 Corinthians 3:18; Proverbs 3:5,6; Colossians 2:8). Nor can we simply follow every impulse, but must carefully test if it is from God (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-3; Jeremiah 17:9). Nor can we always trust in circumstances, for God does call us to trust Him in spite of circumstances (Hebrews 11:8-12; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Romans 4:17-22). While all these things should be considered, every individual situation must be carefully examined to discern what God wants us to to do. And while I am convinced God is in control of the world and will direct us to where He wants us to be (Ephesians 2:10; 1:11; Romans 8:28), it is still necessary to decide what we should do next. It is in this area I would understand the charismatic gifts (short of the claim of actual inspiration) to function. And this is where I would draw the line.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Options

What things do Christians fight over? What things, if any, should they fight over? How can we avoid fighting over unnecessary issues?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Lewis

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, On the Reading of Old Books, God in the Dock, Part II, 4 (William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970, p. 202)

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How Advanced Was Early Church Government?

It has been claimed that 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus could not have been written by Paul because the church government pictured there is more developed than it would have been in Paul's time. Now this comes from applying the Theory of Evolution from biology to other disciplines without any justification. The truth is, organizations develop at different speeds and it is impossible to predict how quickly they will develop.

There are three titles mentioned in the letters in question: overseer (or bishop), elder, and deacon. It is my understanding that overseer and elder are really two names for the same office (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7), but there are at most three offices mentioned. It is rare to find an organization without at least three offices. Even a bridge club or a chess club generally has at least three offices. Once the church became too big for the apostles to  personally govern directly, we would expect some structure to be created. This is, of course, what the New Testament claims (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1), but it is also what would be normally expected. Notice that these offices are mentioned in regards to local congregations, which suggests rudimentary leadership. Further, the idea of elders was already present in Judaism, so this system is not a total innovation (Luke 22:66; Acts 4:5; 23:14). 

It is claimed that the early church was run by charismatic leadership. Now I have been acquainted with various charismatic churches, including ones that might be considered extreme. I have yet to find one that does not have established leadership. Nor am I acquainted with any other group without continuing leadership and would be interested to know how they work, if they exist. The basis of this claim of charismatic leadership is 1 Corinthians 14. But this is not talking about leadership, but order in the service. And it very clearly implies someone in charge who can say who speaks next and make sure people take their turns. A charismatic system requires strong leadership to keep those involved under control. 

Also, this idea assumes that the Christian church is not a creation of God. Which is to assume the point at issue. But if the Christian church is from God, it can be made as complicated as He wants it to be. In fact, based on the description given, I would conclude God did not intend to prescribe a specific form of church government. Rather, He has given us broad principles but leaves the specifics flexible, allowing considerable freedom. But if God had commanded a detailed system with bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, and a pope at the top, it would not be a problem. In fact, it is not a clear difficulty for such a system to develop quickly on a natural basis. But I do not see how the system given in the New Testament is a problem on any grounds at all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Is Faith a Private Thing?

Some people say their faith is a private thing and something they are unwilling to discuss in public. Now there are many different faiths in the world. But this approach does not fit with Biblical Christianity (Matthew 10:32,33; 5:16; Romans 10:9,10). This is important because we live in a culture where faith is becoming more and more marginalized. The idea is that it is all right to believe in God as long as you do not publicly profess it or do anything about it. This idea of a compartmentalized faith does not meet the demands of Scripture that Christ be Lord of all of our life (1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 12:1,2; Matthew 10:24-26). This does not mean that we should be nasty or obnoxious about what we believe (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15). But we do need to stand firmly for the truth.

One thing this implies is our open involvement in the public square based on our faith. There are dangers here. There is the danger that we can think we can produce a Christian nation or at least a moral nation just by passing the right laws. But while laws may have a function in restraining blatant evil (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13,14; Deuteronomy 17:8-13), even God's perfect Law cannot genuinely change people without a work of grace in the heart (Romans 7:12-14; 8:3,4; Galatians 3:19-22). But we are called to stand up for truth and rebuke evil (Acts 5:27-32; 1 Kings 21:17-26; Proverbs 14:34). I would conclude this includes working for good laws wherever  possible, though with a realistic understanding of what they can do. But we must not accept a neutered faith that applies to only a corner of our life.

Now one argument by those who would restrict the influence of Christianity on society is to bring up past atrocities such as inquisitions and witch trials. But it is clear that atheism has shown itself capable of its own atrocities: the Soviet Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields. As an argument against any view this is simply mud-slinging. Any belief may be twisted into being used as a basis for tyranny. But the practical moral is that everyone is capable of taking their beliefs and forcing them on others and we need to be wary of this no matter what the position involved is, including our own. Nor does it solve the problem simply to have no definite belief. The Roman Emperors were very broad-minded and persecuted Christians for being obstinate and not going along with what they thought reasonable. The only escape is for all of us to be allowed to openly avow and follow our beliefs, but not to force them on others. It is only then that Christians can confess  their faith as they should, in a peaceable but firm manner, without it leading to force being employed by one side or the other.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Lodge

How far should we go to make people feel comfortable at our church services? Is there a danger in this?

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Clement of Rome

Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He was made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this every moment. The day and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord's providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.

Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians, about 99 AD, v. 24 (Early Christian Writings, The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Matthew Staniforth, Penguin Books, c, 1968)

What do you think of this? Is there any value to the idea expressed here?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does It All Add Up?

We live in a church context that is frequently dominated by numbers. The higher the numbers the more spiritual the church or ministry. We live in an age of mega-churches and the exaltation of the leaders of mega-churches. However, as in all things there is the danger of a reaction in the opposite direction. We can automatically condemn large numbers as being evidence of ungodliness and catering to the world. There is always a danger of people on both sides of an issue being pushed to extremes in reaction to the other. But where does the truth lie?

God's criterion is not numbers but faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:1,2). Further, the only ultimate judge of that faithfulness is God (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Now the question must be asked, will not faithfulness produce numbers? The answer is, not necessarily. Scripture tells us that to the world at large, which wants to hear what it prefers, the gospel is a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:22-25; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4; 2 Timothy 4:1-4). Now this does not prove that every one who attracts large numbers is wrong. But it calls into question the idea that they must necessarily be right. Ultimately, what determines the increase when the leaders are faithful is not their ability but the power of God (1 Corinthians 3:4-9; Psalms 127:1,2; Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:10).

But how does this work out in practice? Jonah preached, resulting in a great revival, and then went out and pouted because God spared the city of Nineveh (see the book of Jonah). Jeremiah wept over the destruction of Jerusalem, but had few if any results (see Jeremiah and Lamentations). The Lord Jesus was followed by multitudes (Matthew 4:25), but many stopped following Him when He pressed His message home (John 6:66), and in the end the crowd called for His crucifixion (Mark 15:11-15). The apostles enjoyed great success (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 17:4), but they also faced great opposition (Acts 8:1-3; 14:19; 17:5).What I would conclude is that trying to evaluate a ministry one way or the other by numbers is a mistake. There is certainly a point in examining what we are doing and honestly asking, are we doing the right thing? And if numbers are low, we may want to at least ask why. But the issue ultimately comes down to faithfulness, including faithfulness in proclaiming what God has actually said. For it is His truth we must proclaim (Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; John 17:17), regardless of the numbers.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Important Thing

What are the reasons people can have for choosing a church? What are the right reasons?

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Bunyan

"Yea, thou also art ignorant of the true effects of saving faith in this righteousness of Christ, which is, to bow and win over the heart to God in Christ, to love his Name, his Word, Ways, and People; and not as thou ignorantly imaginest.

John Bunyan, 1628-1688, Pilgrim's Progress (Books for Christians, 1972, p. 166)

What do you think of this? Does it reflect reality?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catching the Wind

A major dispute among evangelical Christians is who has the Holy Spirit working in them. Scripture clearly teaches (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:9; John 7:39; Galatians 3:2-5) and implies (Philippians 2:13; Colossians 2:29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6) that the Spirit works in all genuine believers. That is, those who have put their faith (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 2:16) in Christ's death for them on the cross (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) for their salvation. Now we need to respond to this work of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). But this is a process that happens over time (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:11-14; Ephesians 4:11-16) and involves effort (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Philippians 3:11-16; Hebrews 12:1-3). Now every church organization has marginal people, who are not living according to Biblical standards. The question is whether any group can claim the Holy Spirit is at work exclusively among them.

One of the things that is commonly seen as a mark of the Spirit's working is a specific experience. While Scripture calls us to put God's will before ours (Romans 12:1,2; 6:12-14; Matthew 16:24) and to renounce our sins (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13; 2 Corinthians 7:10) and to trust in God's power rather than our own (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127;1,2; Ephesians 2:10), it does not prescribe a required experience. Rather, the Spirit of God intervenes in different ways in different contexts (1 Samuel 10:2-13; Acts 4:31; 13:9-12). Nor is the gift of tongues the sole sign of the Spirit's working in us, as we are not all to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:27-30) and no gift is a proof of spirituality (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Now the chief means the Spirit uses to work in the lives of believers is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 4:1-4; Hebrews 4:12). Another means often classed with it is the sacraments . Certainly these ordinances are commanded of us  (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Acts 2:38). But does an individual's receiving the benefit of the sacraments depends on their belief regarding them or the  method of administering them? Now if the correct understanding or exact mode of administering the ordinances were crucial to their validity, I would expect Scripture to spell it out, not leave it for us to infer. But while Scripture does speak against obvious abuses such as turning the Lord' Supper into a drunken feast (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), it does not specify the details. Now we should investigate these issues and follow what we conclude is the correct method. But I have a problem with basing the work of the Spirit on issues the Scripture does not categorically command.

I would therefore go back to my original conclusion that the Spirit is at work in all those who genuinely put their faith in Christ. And while we should all work to understand and obey God's commands, we are all still in the process of growing in Christ. And we need to approach our disagreements from that perspective.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Exercising Authority

"Because I told you so." Have ever heard that as an answer to why a thing should be done a certain way? There is a temptation for those who are in authority to use to use that authority to support their decisions rather than explaining them. But this can be a dangerous practice, particularly in the Christian church. For in the Christian context, we are told the proper way to be a leader is to be a servant (Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-27; 1 Peter 5:1-4). But if we become more concerned with upholding our authority than God's truth, we are in trouble.

The ancient Christian church was assailed by many groups which claimed their new-found variations were better than traditional orthodoxy. To protect the ordinary Christian, the early leaders of the church came up with an idea to help. They pointed out that Jesus had taught the apostles, who had passed on His teaching to the leaders of the early church. Therefore, who are you going to believe, the church descended from the apostles or some upstart peddling a new doctrine? This reflects a degree of sense, as one argument to consider. But it grew into a magic talisman for determining correct teaching: the church descended from the apostles must always be right. Or take the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. While there were issues involved, such as the date of Easter and the required degree of clerical celibacy, the real question was who was in charge. Or take the movement in the later half of the Middle Ages to reform the lax spiritual state of the church. It started out as an attempt to correct legitimate abuses (though I disagree with its endorsement of clerical celibacy). But it ended up in a pure power struggle with the civil authorities. As a result, the church authorities became more corrupt than the civil authorities they opposed. In fact, they had made themselves so unchallengeable that they prevented all moderate schemes of reform and only the Protestant Reformation was able to break their hold.

Now I have deliberately placed this discussion in the past to give it perspective, but even among Protestants who started out fighting this idea there can be a danger of relying on authority to settle issues rather than on the truth of Scripture. It is always easier to rely on being in charge and to uphold the way we have always done things rather than grapple with truth. I have never been a pastor, but I have been in church leadership positions for many years, and in my experience I am in an extremely dangerous position when I start worrying about my authority rather than what is right before God. That is not to say we should not be subject to those God has put over us (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13; 1 Timothy 5:17). But once the issue becomes the leaders' authority, the discussion has already taken a wrong turn.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Skateboarder

Can we feel we have things under control when they are not? How can we avoid this?

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Athanasius

As for the wisdom of the Greeks and the grandiloquence of the philosophers, I think that no one has need of any argument from us, as the miracle is before everyone's eyes that whereas these wise men among the Greeks have written so much, yet have been unable to persuade even a few from near-by places about immortality and lives of virtue, Christ alone by means of simple words and through men unskilled in speaking has persuaded crowded congregations of men throughout the whole world to despise death and think of things immortal, to turn away from things temporal and consider things eternal, to take no thought of earthly glory but only to seek immortality.

Athanasius, 295-373 AD, Concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God (De Incarnatione) 47:22-32  (translated by Robert W. Thomson, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1971, pp. 253, 255)

What do you think of this statement? Does it make sense? Does it still apply today?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Backside of One God Too Many

One argument used by atheists is that their reason for not believing in the Christian God is the same as our reason for not believing in all the other gods. Therefore, if we just realized this we would become atheists. Now the assumption here is that we are basically naturalists who have tacked our belief in God onto our naturalism. But the question is, Are we? And should we be?

Now it is not surprising that Christians are influenced by naturalism. It is the underlying assumption in the classes we take, the shows we watch, and the books we read. It is, in fact, so pervasive in our culture it is difficult for us as Christians to weed it out of our lives. I am amused when I hear the claim that Christians hold to their beliefs because they are raised in them. In the United States if a person maintains a belief in a supernatural God into adulthood, they are going against the flow. The idea we can maintain someone in their Christianity by protecting them from all other ideas is futile.

 But naturalism is unproved and unprovable. Just because there are orderly laws that govern the physical universe does not mean there is not Someone above the laws who can intervene if He chooses. It cannot even prove there are not beings mightier than us (for instance angels and demons) whose actions from our perspective would appear like magic. (There are also other problems with naturalism, such as where the universe came from and how life began.)

But do we as Christians see the world through naturalistic glasses? The reason Christians should reject other gods is not through a naturalistic aversion, but because we believe in the one true God and He forbids us to believe in the others. This does not mean there are not specific agreements against the other views. But if, having weighted the arguments pro and con for all the views (including naturalism), we conclude that Christianity is true, we are required to reject all other gods (Isaiah 43:10; 44:8; 1 Corinthians 8:5,6). But because we believe in only one God does not mean we should reject all other supernatural influence in the world. I am not saying that actual demonic beings appeared to individuals such as Mohammed and Joseph Smith, but I would not preclude the possibility. There are two opposite reasons for believing in only one God. You can believe that God is immensely great and powerful and the other beings called gods are meaningless and unnecessary in the presence of His majesty. Or you can want a God who is  marginal and irrelevant. Who possibly started and superintends the universe and then leaves us to live our own lives. And compared to Him, the other gods are seen as too much. We as Christians need to honestly ask ourselves which God we believe in. Do we believe in the true and living God or a pale imitation?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Grace and Effort

How do grace and effort come together in the Christian life? Now in terms of salvation it is easy. We simply have faith (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Galatians 2:16) in the work that Christ has done for us (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But living the Christian life is more complicated. We want to avoid the idea that God has left us to do it alone, but we also want to avoid the idea it is easy or automatic and can be neglected. How do we put these two together?

It needs to be seen that grace undergirds the Christian life in a number of ways. It provides the motivation for us to live for God (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Luke 7:36-50). It also provides us with the power to do so (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). This means we can have confidence in God that He deals with us in grace (Romans 5:1,2; 8:31-34; Hebrews 4:16) and will ultimately lead us to victory (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 5:4,5). But it also forms a basis for humility in that we have not yet reached where we should be, but we press on toward it (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:16,17; 1 John 1:8-10), knowing we cannot stand before God based on our good works (Galatians 2:21; Romans 3:19,20; Philippians 3:9).

However, we are told that the result of salvation should be obedience to God (Titus 2:11-14; Romans 12:1,2; James 2:14-26). We are also told that this process requires practice and endurance (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:12-14; 12:1-3). This many require obedience through hardship (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18), and may even, on occasion, involve God's discipline in our lives (Hebrews 12:5-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30-32; Revelation 3:19). Now there is a balance here. I do not believe that God calls us to live in an atmosphere of constant fear of His displeasure (Romans 8:15; 14:4; 1 John 4:18). Nor are we to take lightly the call of God to live a life in obedience to Him (1 Peter 1:14-16; Romans 6:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:20). The Christian life involves finding the right perspective on these things so we are not cast down in despair or puffed up in self-righteousness.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Tourists

Can we expect the world to be built around us or for our convenience? How do we avoid this attitude?