Monday, October 31, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Scary Costumes

Are people of the world scared of Christians? Why is this so, and can anything be done about it?

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Writer of Epistle to Diognetus

The Almighty Himself, the Creator of the universe, the God whom no eye can discern, has sent down His very own Truth from heaven, His own holy and incomprehensible Word, to plant it among men and ground it in their hearts. To this end He has not, as one might imagine, sent to mankind some servant of His, some angel or prince; it is none of the great ones of the earth, nor even one of the vice-regents of heaven. It is no other than the universal Artificer and Constructor Himself, by whose agency God made the heavens and set the seas their bounds; whose mystic word the elements of creation submissively obey; by whom the sun is assigned the limits of his course by day, and at whose command by night the obedient moon unveils her beams, and each compliant star follows circling in her train. Ordainer, Disposer, and Ruler of all things is he; of heaven and all that heaven holds, of earth and all that is in earth, of sea and every creature therein; of fires, ether, and bottomless pit; of things above, and things below, and things in the midst. Such was the Messenger God sent to men.

Writer of The Epistle to Diognetus, The Epistle to Diognetus, approximately 124 AD, Section 7 (Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 178)

What are the implications of this statement? What does it mean for our lives?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beside the Church

What does it mean for a ministry to be parachurch? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? It is claimed that a parachurch organization is an organization alongside  the ordinary church. Now the church is the body of all genuine believers in Christ (Colossians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 12:12-14; Ephesians 5:25-29). A parachurch organization may be the church carrying out a particular function, it may be different divisions of the church coming together to meet a specific need, or it may be many other things, but it is still the church.

It is the obligation of the church to teach the whole will of God (Acts 20:27; Matthew 28:20). Now some (though by no means all) parachurch organizations deal with only part of God's teaching on the ground that they are not the church. However, the traditional church organizations have often divided over minor issues (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Philippians 2:1-4). It is understandable why some would want to avoid getting involved in these questionable disputes. But the solution is not to ignore them, but to ask what things are essential from Scripture. Now there may be a place for groups with differing beliefs to work together for a specific purpose. But this should not be done if it prevents the preaching of truth.

An issue that is commonly evaded is the issue of the sacraments. Again, this is not surprising, as there are many debates here over details. But the ordinances are commanded by God (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and on analogy with the Old Testament ordinances are the signs and seals of faith (Romans 4:11). Minimizing these seems questionable. However, while there are real issues here, the traditional church organizations have not only become caught up in detail. They have also also sometimes made an issue of who administers the sacraments, something that Scripture never addresses, though it makes sense they should not be performed in conjunction with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).

I am convinced that Scripture does not command a specific form of church government (Deuteronomy 4:2), but there are principles. Parachurch organizations can sometimes put unqualified people in leadership (1 Timothy 3:6) and can take a highly individualistic approach to ministry (Romans 12:4,5). But traditional church organizations can limit leadership to the older members (1 Timothy 4:12) and can see only a few people involved in the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:16).

I have some sympathy with both sides of this dispute. But both sides are Christ's church, and the ideal is for them to come together as that church. But this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Until we do, I think both sides of the debate have useful things to contribute. But we should work to find ways to reintegrate the parts of Christ's body into one church.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Re-Posted from "Meditations of a Charismatic Calvinist Who Does Not Speak in Tongues".

What is a witch? Are we to accept the idea of an old crone with a broomstick and a black cat familiar? Or should we look at a follower of the modern practice of Wicca? What does the Bible mean by a witch?

There are various things addressed in Scripture that fall into this category. There is the practice of divination, attempting to determine the future by various means (Acts 16:16-19; Ezekiel 21:21-23), of casting spells (Acts 19:19; Isaiah 47:8-15), of performing wonders by one's own power (Exodus 7:11; Acts 8:9-11), or of being involved in communicating with the dead (1 Samuel 28:3-25; Isaiah 8:19). The underlying principle is the serious practice of magic (as opposed to the stage magician).

Scripturally, God is the only legitimate source of supernatural help. And He cannot be manipulated, only asked. From the Christian viewpoint the main issue is not good intentions versus bad intentions (white versus black magic), but taking to ourselves a power that belongs solely to God. Nor is the issue explicitly worshiping Satan. While I am sure Satan is flattered to be directly worshiped, in the final analysis he does not care who you worship so long as it is not God. While much of it is charlatanism, I do believe Satan and his minions can supply the supernatural power behind serious magic. (Acts 16:16-19 suggests this.) But this is not dependent on the practitioner's consciously following Satan. I know in my youth I dabbled in such things, and it at least seemed to work for me, though only on a small scale. But whether or not it works, it is wrong.

How, then, is the Christian respond to such things? First, we should avoid the use of all such things. I have known Christians to make excuses for such practices. It is also possible to approach spiritual gifts from an attitude of witchcraft, where we start to see them as our personal power rather then depending on God. But we can also become unnecessarily paranoid of witchcraft and everything associated with it. We need to remember that God is victorious over Satan and can protect us (1 John 4:4; Colossians 2:15). Therefore, we should avoid panicking at every mention of witchcraft or reading it in when it is not there. Witchcraft is wrong, but it is no more wrong than many other things our society takes for granted. We should not condone it, but we should face it boldly through faith in Christ.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Witchcraft and Paranoia

Few things seem to promote a knee-jerk reaction in the evangelical church today more than witchcraft or Satan  worship. There is a violent response to anything perceived to be associated with them, like the Harry Potter series. They are associated with hidden conspiracies bent on corrupting our society. This is nothing new.

In the old pagan times, witchcraft was seen as a dangerous reality that helped explain why things went wrong. When someone was sick or there was a destructive storm, perhaps a witch had cast a spell on you and you needed to counteract the spell. While there were undoubtedly some people who dabbled in evil magic, it was more commonly used as a scapegoat. Christianity originally  minimized such things, claiming that the powers of demonic forces, though real, were limited and that God was more powerful. Therefore, those accused of such practices were condemned, but not generally severely punished or excessively feared. But many of the old pagan beliefs continued underground and, over time, came to influence nominal Christianity. Satan was perceived as more powerful, but his methods as more crude and those who followed him as more blatantly evil. A key person who helped make accusations for witchcraft a common practice was Philip IV of France (1268-1314). While his motives might be debated, he appears to have used it as a method to smear his enemies by accusing them of various magical and unChristian practices. From there the condemnation of individuals for witchcraft, with all the overtones of paranoia and conspiracy theory, developed into the notorious witch-hunts. Later, in reaction, people jumped to the simplistic theory that there are no witches.

Now whenever you tell people they can obtain great power by doing something, even something regarded as highly objectionable, there is the danger some people will take you up on it. The present sects of witches and Satan worshipers are examples of this. (Note that witches and Satan worshipers are two different groups, but they reflect two differing interpretations of Medieval witchcraft.) But we need to be careful of reading into them the historic fears connected with witchcraft. Therefore, we must remember that God is all- powerful and in control of the world (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Isaiah 43:13). Also, while I am sure it flatters Satan to have people actually worship him, any belief which people embrace other then the truth of God  is following Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4; Hebrews 2:14,15). All idolatry is the worship of demons (1 Corinthians 10:20), and the putting of the things of this earth before God is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Therefore, while witchcraft cannot be condoned from a Christian point of view, neither should it be regarded as more evil than the multitude of other non-Christian choices available in our culture. While we must stand for the truth, we must do it with gentleness and love and not be carried away by fear (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6).         

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Touch of Humor - Sunday Best

What is reverence? What should genuine reverence look like?

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Voice from the Past - John Calvin

For, first of all, the pious mind does not devise for itself any kind of God, but looks alone to the one true God; nor does it feign for him any character it pleases, but is contented to have him in the character in which he manifests himself, always guarding with the utmost diligence, against transgressing his will, and wandering, with daring presumption, from the right path.

John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 2, Section 2 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, p. 41)

Is this true? What should it mean for our approach to God?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Glitz and Glitter

If we believe it is the power of God that brings people to Christ (John 6:44; 1 Corinthians 2:1-4; 3:6,7), how should that affect our approach to evangelism? I am not even here primarily talking about predestination and free will, though I am convinced God chooses people (Ephesians 1:4,5; Romans 8:29,30; Acts 13:48). But the question is not God's choice versus our choice but the importance of the cleverness of the evangelist. The problem is that there a tendency to rely, not on even if we are doing it wrong. But some methods are geared to produce false converts). There is also the basic issue of honesty. Are we honoring God when we try to do His work in a questionable way? And in the end, if we follow this path we can become superficial imitations of the world. But we cannot beat the world at its own game. It has more resources and more experience in this area then we do. And if we become all glitz and glitter with nothing of substance, what do we have to offer anyone? But the bottom line is, what am I trusting in? Am I trusting in my clever strategies, or am I trusting in God (Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6). Because if I am trusting in God, I am more likely to avoid questionable ways of spreading His truth. But if I am trusting in myself, I am likely (perhaps even in desperation) to adopt the approach which seems, at least at this moment, to get the job done.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Psychological Legalism

It is ironic, but secular legalism can be worse than theological legalism. Most theological legalists will settle for obedience to a set of moral standards. We cannot obey these because we are sinners (Romans 3:23; John 15:5), but they generally are not in principle impossible (Romans 7:7-13). But secular legalism often prescribes things that we may not have any control over. We are required to be successful: to have money, fame, power, and be appealing to the opposite sex. One particular form of secular legalism is connected to the field of psychology. 

Now I want to be careful here. There are people who have clear psychological problems that need help. In my opinion the current state of psychology is similar to the state of medicine before the discovery of microbes. It is still trying to establish which parts of its various theories are correct. But I would not discourage such people from looking for help were they can. What the right answers are to these situations may be debated, but there is here a legitimate need. But there is a deeper problem.

Psychology puts forth a standard of a well-adjusted, psychologically normal person. If we do not meet it we have psychological problems that need to be fixed. Given that we are sinners in an imperfect world, it is not surprising we do not meet the standard. Therefore people who do not have serious psychological problems can still have psychological abnormalities that produce feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Now sometimes these can be Biblical sins and need to be dealt with on that basis. If these quirks can be cured on other grounds, I certainly would not forbid someone from doing so. But we should not carry around a load of guilt based on something that is not a Scriptural standard.

This psychological standard is based on being considered normal by others around us. But Scripture states that while there is a place to fit in with society (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 13:1-7), there is also a place to follow God before what others think (1 John 2:15-17; Acts 4:19,20). Psychology frequently claims we must accept ourselves and let out the true qualities we hide inside. But Scripture says we are sinners and there are things inside us that should not be let out (Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). Psychology frequently advocates an ideal of independence. While there is a destructive kind of dependence which amounts to idolatry (Isaiah 43:10-13; Romans 1:25; Colossians 3:5), the Biblical standard is one of interdependence (Romans 12:3-8: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; 1 John 3:13-24). But the big problem with setting up something other than the Biblical standard is that it evades grace. Under the Biblical standard we have forgiveness of our sins in Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25) and God at work in our life to change us  (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 3:12-14). Therefore, we must avoid erecting a new standard in opposition to the Law of God, or we are placed back into bondage.    

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Head Count

How important are numbers in understanding the health of a church? What is the right perspective on this?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Charles Hodge

Philosophy, in its widest sense, being the conclusions of the human intelligence as to what is true, and the Bible being the declaration of God, as to what is true, it is plain that where the two contradict each other, philosophy must yield to revelation; man must yield to God.

Charles Hodge, 1787-1878, Systematic Theology, Volume I, Chapter III, section 6, #7 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, p. 58)

Is this true? What are its implications?

The Evolution of God

It is dangerous to take a theory that works in one area of knowledge and apply it to another without basis. I question whether the theory of evolution really works in biology. There are serious problems with the theory. But applying it without proof or mechanism to another area of study is illegitimate.One place where this is done is in the area of theology. It is claimed that the idea of God has evolved along certain lines from the simpler to the more complex. But is there any real evidence for this? It is clear that people's concepts of God can change, and we see certain basic ideas recurring. But is there a discernible direction or pattern or some hidden mechanism at work here?

One basis for saying there is such a process is an examination of primitive people.   But "primitive people" have been around just as long as civilized people. It may even be argued that they once had a higher  technological development and lost it through isolation and disuse. It is not surprising that those who have a similar technological environment would have similar theological beliefs. But in general, in theology you have a number of concepts of God that continuously reappear and trace back either to antiquity or to a particular individual or group that originated them. In theology, as in many other disciplines, it is the rare case when you come across a truly original idea.

Another approach to proving this point is to try to find passages in the Old Testament that show the Jewish people once had a more primitive idea of God. One argument is to take references to the gods, which in the context can be most simply taken as hypothetical, and use them to prove the Hebrews believed in more than one god (Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 8:19; Psalms 95:3). We ourselves frequently speak the same way when we speak of the Greek gods or the Babylonian gods. Paul uses the same kind of language in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8:5). Also, they are forced to invent complicated theories to explain the composition of the Old Testament because other verses that say there is one God are found in the same contexts  (Exodus 34:13-17; Deuteronomy 6:4; 4:32-39). The fact that such complicated maneuvers are needed to maintain a point calls it into question. There is also the attempt to interpret, "You shall have no gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3) to mean that you can have other gods as long as you put God first. There are rare cases where "before" in Hebrew means this, but its normal meaning is "in the presence of," speaking of the presence of God with His people. This whole approach depends on reading things into the passages that are not found there in the most straightforward meaning in context. The whole idea that God evolved seems to be speculation, rather than anything that can be demonstrated.     

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quality of Life

One of the key assumptions in modern western society is our right to quality of life. It colors many of our opinions in areas like abortion and euthanasia. We see it in the recent statement quoted from Pat Robertson about how a man was allowed to divorce his wife, who had Alzheimer's. But as I look in my own heart I find the same tendency coloring my more minor decisions. It is the feeling that I should only be expected to sacrifice a reasonable amount for the good of others and no one can really expect me to do more than that. I am comfortable giving of time and money and other things I want to claim as possessions (though none of this really belongs to me) as long as it does not violate my comfort zone, as long as it is not unreasonable. But what is the Biblical position on this?

Our model here is the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His all to save us from sin (1 John 4:9,10; 2 Corinthians 8:9; John 15:12,13). We are commanded to follow this same pattern of sacrificial love (Romans 12:1; 1 John 3:14-18; Philippians 2:5-11). We are called to live in this way. Now I do need to put in a word of warning. Any good principle may be taken to a distorted extreme. The Scripture says we are supposed to be willing to die for others, but "for" means "for the benefit of." There are those who burn themselves out by taking on more things than they can handle. They need to ask whether these things really benefit the people they are trying to help or whether these people would be helped more by a steady, measured course of ministry rather than burning themselves out by taking on too much at once. Sometimes this seems to come from too much pride in ourselves and our abilities (Romans 12:3; Proverbs 16:18; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6) and insufficient trust in God (Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6; Isaiah 40:11). Now I am convinced there may be a time to burn oneself out in God's service. If meeting the immediate need is more crucial then long-term benefits, this may be necessary. But we need to weigh this carefully. However, I suspect most people are more like me, reluctant to give too much or hurt too much for fear it will damage our lifestyles. Now I do not want to lay a guilt trip on anyone, and it is not my place to determine how much someone else should give in any area. But I do think that God would ask us to consider whether maintaining our quality of life is our primary goal. And if so, we need to reconsider our priorities. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Touch of Humor - The Chair Game

Some people put themselves forward, others prefer to stay out of the way in back. Is that a good or a bad thing? Why?

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Polycarp

Faith is the mother of us all; with Hope following in her train, and Love of God and Christ and neighbor leading the way. Let a man's mind be wholly bent on these, and he has fulfilled all the demands of holiness; for to possess Love is to be beyond the reach of sin.

Polycarp, 69-155 AD, Letter to the Philippians, 3 (Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, 1968, Penguin Books, p.145

Is this true? What implications does it have for us today?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Worship War

One of the most strident fights in the Christian church today is over styles of worship. Whether it is types of music or degrees of informality, this is an issue that frequently hits a nerve. Nor is this a new issue. Whether disputes over the date of Easter or how many fingers people should cross themselves with, even minor deviations in this area have caused great tumult. What does the Scripture say about this?

We do not find a detailed pattern of worship in the New Testament. God could have prescribed it as He did for the Jewish temple, enforcing exact conformity including the precise recipe for the incense to be burned (Exodus 30:34-36; Leviticus 10:1-3). But as we are given only broad guidelines, we must be careful not to add to God's Word what is not there (Matthew 15:8.9; Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5,6).

Worship must be in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). In spirit means that the worship is not going through the motions or attempting to impress others (Matthew 6:1-18; Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 58:1-12). This is not about an emotion, but basic honesty. Now I am far from being against emotion in worship. But we should not drum up a feeling to convince ourselves that we are spiritual or to impress others. Rather, we should focus on meaning what we say to God, and the appropriate emotion will follow. Worship in truth should reflect what is true about God and His revelation to us. Now we need to remember that we are still sinners and do not have all the answers (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-3; Philippians 3:12-16). But that does not negate our obligation to stand for God and His truth (John 17:17; 2 Corinthians 13:8; Ephesians 4:15). We must find this balance in our requirements for worship.

Worship should also be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). The word translated "decently" is a broad word. (Its basic idea is "appropriate" or "becoming"). In the context, it speaks of things that make sense. Speaking in tongues without interpretation is the example (1 Corinthians 14:7-14). This refers to something that does not communicate to others. This applies in other areas, but we need to be careful of rejecting something that is merely unfamiliar or requires explanation. "In order" refers to obvious conflicts, such as people speaking at the same time (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). But the meeting described is fairly informal, with various people taking turns speaking in the service. I am certainly not saying that no one's form of worship is in violation of these principles, but they allow a considerable breadth of acceptable practices. Now I am not rejecting all tradition or ritual. Rather, I would see Scripture as allowing for a wide variety of approaches to worship. What I would like to see is something that brings together the best of various approaches to worship. But I think we should be more concerned with what is in the mind and heart than the outer trappings.   

A Touch of Humor - The Exegete

What is the danger of reading into Scripture our own preconceived opinions? How can we avoid this?