Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Faction Effect

One result of the current divided state of the Christian church is that it can distort our spiritual lives. Sometimes it leads to complacency. We can believe that because we are part of a particular group, it automatically puts us in God's good graces. But we can also feel that because we are part of the right group, we need to show it by being obviously more spiritual than those ordinary Christians out there. We adopt certain rules or procedures to make ourselves holier, not just than the world, but also than other Christians. (We might question whether they really are Christians.) This used to be confined to different denominations. But while the denominational divisions have not gone away, there have grown up a plethora of other factions that people can attach themselves to. These involve philosophies or methodologies that people adopt for themselves which often transcend denominational lines. And again, we can feel that by being part of a certain group, however that group is defined, we are better Christians than those other Christians out there and we are obligated to prove it.

Now we must remember that we are saved by the grace of God (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9) and stand before God based on that grace (Romans 5:1,2; 8:31-34; Hebrews 4:14-16). And one of the results of this grace is to transform our lives so we become the people God wants us to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14) and carry out God's work in the world (Colossians 1:28,29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; 1 Corinthians 3:5-7). But this is a process that takes place over time as God works in our lives (Philippians 3:12-16; 1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:11-14). Therefore, while we should encourage others to grow in Christ (Hebrews 10:24,25; 12:12,13; Ephesians 4:11-16), we need to avoid sitting in judgment on them (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Romans 14:4; James 4:11,12. Now I am convinced we do need to correct clearcut sin or doctrinal error (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Matthew 18:15-20). But I am talking about the feeling that people are not fervent enough or are not doing enough or have not kept our list of dubious rules. Also, we are to admonish Christians to test themselves whether they are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5; Matthew 7:21-23; 13:36-43). But while there are cases where we are forced conclude someone was never a real believer (1 John 2:19), we are not encouraged to hunt such people out (Matthew 13:29,30). And we should remember that Lot and Samson, for all their deficiencies, are identified as genuine believers (2 Peter 2:7,8; Hebrews 11:32). But the bottom line is: I question that, of those who have the basic gospel message correct (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 1:16,17; Galatians 2:15-21), there is a faction that can claim blanket spiritual superiority over the others. Rather, the very existence of such divisions is scripturally dubious (1 Corinthians 3:1-4; Philippians 2:1-4; Ephesians 4:1-6).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The God of the Ivory Tower

Some people see God as someone who sits up in an ivory tower somewhere, totally detached from us and what we are going through. Someone who looks down and sort of shakes His head at all the foolish things we do and occasionally offers sage advice about how we should live. This is not the God of Christianity. Rather, the Bible says that God came down and became a human being and suffered the things we suffer so that He might rescue us and make us His children if we put our faith in Him (Hebrews 2:9-18; John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11). Further, He promises to be with us and to sympathize with us in our trials and ultimately to bring us home to be with Him forever (Hebrews 4:14-16; John 14:16-21; Revelation 21:4). This does not speak directly to the problem of evil as an intellectual issue. But on the emotional level it makes a huge difference that God is not pontificating somewhere off in heaven, but came down into our world to deliver us from the problems we are in. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reaching Out to Those in Need

Scripture makes it clear there is a requirement to help those in need, and it uses strong language to encourage this (James 2:14-16; Matthew 25:31-46; Proverbs 14:31). Now there are many fine Christian organizations that have worked to carry out this mandate, both in this country and around the world. But I have also noticed a definite tendency to minimize or marginalize what is commanded here. Now part of this is undoubtedly simply love of money (1 Timothy 6:3-10; Matthew 6:19-24; Colossians 3:5) or simply lack of faith (Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:10-19; Proverbs 3:5,6). These are perennial parts of the human condition, and I admit to struggling with them regularly. But there are other factors in our culture that can militate against our taking these commandments with the seriousness required of them.

One problem is the issue of the work ethic. Now the Scripture does prescribe a work ethic (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10; Ephesians 4:28; Proverbs 6:6-11). It says we should be willing to work for a living in a diligent manner. But this should not be confused with the capitalist ethic that says that if you work hard you will necessarily get ahead and if you are poor you must be lazy. Certainly this is not found in Scripture. Now there are those who are poor as a result of their own bad choices. But even then God calls us to be gracious to sinful people, just as God has been gracious to us (James 2:13; Luke 6:38; Galatians 6:10). There is here a fear of being taken advantage of. I do not believe that Scripture requires us to be credulous (2 Thessalonians 3:10, Proverbs 22:7; 6:1-5). But am I convinced it is better to be taken advantage of than ignore a real need (1 Corinthians 13:7; 6:7,8; Matthew 5:38-42).

Another problem is government involvement. It is thought that the government will take care of the poor. But I see no place in Scripture where it says we can just leave this to the government. I am convinced there is something special about individuals personally reaching out to those in need rather than trusting  people to a mechanical bureaucracy. Now there are also those who oppose helping the poor because in the long run it will build up government power, which would be damaging to our liberties. But if we do not want government gaining power by helping the poor, the logical thing to do is to bend every effort to help them ourselves so they do not have to depend on the government. Even if we cannot compete with the government in this area, the fact they are not the only source of help makes a difference in how much power the government can expect to exercise based on this. But we need to get past our prejudices and excuses to do what God has commanded.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Touch of Humor - The Meeting

Is there a way to make meetings less painful? What things can be done to help?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Grace

If grace is greater than your sin, should it not be greater than your neighbor's?

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Lewis

Any moralist will tell you that the personal triumph of an athlete or of a girl at a ball is transitory: the point is to remember that an empire or a civilization is also transitory.  All achievements and triumphs, in so far as they are merely this-worldly achievements and triumphs, will come to nothing in the end.

C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, The World's Last Night, The World's Last Night and Other Essays (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1960, p. 110) 

How should this affect our perspective on life? How should we live as a result of it?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Equipping the Saints

A key controversy in the church today is revolves around a comma. The comma is after the word "saints" in Ephesians 4:12. It asks whether it is the job of a leader to do the work of the ministry or to equip the whole congregation to do the work of the ministry. In the nearly 40 years that I have been involved in the Christian church, the most openly advocated position has been that all Christians are ministers. But for all the push, this view never seems to gain general acceptance. Why this is so?

Scripture pictures the church as a body, with every member having an important function (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10,11). Therefore, every Christian has a job to do. But this also implies that every Christian has a different function and is not simply to be pushed into the same mold. But it is common to see only one methodology for doing ministry and to try to force everyone into it. Now there is no gift of evangelism listed, and I am convinced that all Christians should be involved in evangelism, but they should be involved in a way that reflects their gift. Again, there is a tendency to expect everyone to use a particular method.

I am convinced that Christ is at work within His church to accomplish His purposes (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Colossians 2:19). I believe that God's purposes are not so easily thwarted that questions of organization prevent them from being accomplished. I am convinced there is much ministry that takes place informally and flies under the radar. Also, those whose gifts are best exercised in a position of leadership tend to seek such positions. But we are imperfect people (Philippians 3:12-16; Romans 7:14-25; Galatians 5:17) in an imperfect world (Romans 8:19-23; John 16:33; Acts 14:22). Therefore, it is not surprising that the church organization does not perfectly reflect the actual body of Christ. There are undoubtedly people in certain positions who should not be and people who are not in positions that they should be in. There are people who are not involved who should be and people who are doing things they are not qualified for. And though we should work to correct things wherever possible, we also need to trust God to accomplish His purposes despite them (Psalms 127:1,2; Romans 8:28; Ephesians 2:10). And we need to avoid unrealistic expectations of a perfect church. Now I do think there is too much tendency to put the good of the organization above the good of the people and to see the clergy as mediators who we go through to get to God (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:14-16; Acts 4:12). But I am convinced that the main thing we need is a real desire to grow in Christ. If we have that, the organization will not stop us, and if we do not, it will not help us (Romans 12:1,2; Colossians 2:6,7; Titus 2:11-14). 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Repetition of Miracles

God divided the Red Sea for Moses (Exodus 14). Later He divided the Jordan River for Joshua (Joshua 3,4). He repeated this for Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2). Does this mean you are not a true follower of God if God does not split a body of water for you? God does repeat miracles, to make a point and to show it is the same God at work. But for someone to demand that God do a particular miracle for them or give them a specific experience where it is not clearly commanded by God is wrong. It can end up encouraging people to drum up things that God has not intended for them in order to please others. Therefore, while we should not discourage God's working in a person's life, we should not force on them things just because they happened to us or others. God is working to accomplish His will in each of our lives, but we need to trust Him to do it in His own way (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Growing Up in the Community

One idea  put forth by critics of Christianity is that it grew up slowly in the community. But is this plausible? Theological beliefs are not like dinosaurs, whose origin was in prehistory and could not be directly observed. New faiths have come into existence in the full light of history and continue to do so. And I do not know of any that originated by growing up in a community in the prescribed manner. Religions generally have a founder or founders who set down the basics of the new faith. Later they can develop and change, but there needs to be a hard core there to start with. Now there are cases like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy where parts of the same faith have drifted apart due to time and distance. But this generally requires long periods of time and is over minor matters. But I know of no example of a belief system slowly growing from something insignificant into a major innovation.

This is because no one would bother with a belief system that did not offer some new, significant insight. This is particularly true if the group involved is under pressure because of their beliefs. Also, while there are legends that grow up often fairly quickly about the founders of religions, they do so only after the basic tenets are in place and a core of followers have been won to the belief. Religions tend to be conservate about their core. Even though later tradition deified them, the basic teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu and Buddha have come down to us substantially intact.  The main place you even find this idea of growing up in the community suggested is in the case of Christianity. It is seldom used to explain other beliefs.

Christianity faced opposition from the very beginning. Even if we discount the book of Acts, it is a historical fact that Christians were being put to death by Nero about thirty years after Christianity's origin. Now people will die for a lie. It is unlikely they will die for something they know to be a lie. But no one will die for some vague idea that has not developed yet. Further, there were plenty of moral philosophers and learned rabbis in those days. The idea that someone beyond a few close associates would die for such an individual seems unlikely in the extreme. Also, all the earliest sources for Christianity picture Jesus as the Son of God who conquered sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection. Even the pagan observers saw the main distinctive of Christianity as being the worship of Jesus. The question is not the adding on of legends as additional extras, but the fundamental beliefs of Christianity being totally changed over a very brief period of time. I know of no parallel for this. This does not of course prove that Christianity is true. But it would indicate that, however it originated, it was not through growing up over time.       

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Bad Examples

How can we avoid misunderstanding grace? How can we live out the right understanding?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Pyramid

Building a teaching on one verse is like building an upside down pyramid; it is shaky and hazardous at best.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Anselm

Not yet, then, have I told or conceived, O Lord, how greatly those blessed ones of thine shall rejoice. Doubtless they shall rejoice according as they shall love; and they shall love according as they shall know. How far they will know thee, Lord, then! and how much they will love thee! Truly, eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man in this life, how far they shall know thee, and how much they shall love thee in that life. 

Anselm, 1033-1109, Proslogium, Chapter XXVI, (Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo, translated by Sidney Norton Deane, The Open Court Publishing Co., 1926, p.37)

What perspective does it give on eternity to see it as believers rejoicing in the love God? How should that affect our life now? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

God Is Not The Force

The Force in Star Wars is very convenient. It is always there to tap into. This is true whether you are good or evil; you just tap into a different side. It is there to help you accomplish your goals. To give you ability to do what you want. Some Christians see God that way. That He is someone we tap into to accomplish our purpose. A power source we can use to obtain supernatural abilities. Or even just a source we can use to meet our personal goals for holiness. But this is not who God really is.

The Christian belongs to God, and we are obligated to live entirely for Him (1 Corinthians 6:20; Romans 12:1,2; Titus 2:11-14). This is because He redeemed us (Romans 5:6-8; Colossians 2:13,14; 1 Peter 2:24,25) when we were unable to help ourselves (John 15:5; Romans 3:10-12; Isaiah 64:6). And while God does empower us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:3), it is to accomplish His purposes (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29). But it is easy to fall into the idea that God empowers us to accomplish what we want. When we do, we can start to see God's power as a kind of magic that we control. Then we can become discouraged and blame God when we feel He does not come through for us. Note that in this I am not just speaking of the health-and-wealth preachers, though they are the most obvious offenders. It is easy to take a more spiritual-looking approach but allow pride to slip in the back door. When we do, we can become more concerned with the things that will make us look good rather than doing what God wants (Philippians 2:3,4; Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters points out that there are different senses of the word "my." Satan's strategy is to reduce all the senses down to the level of "my boots." It then becomes possible to reduce "my ministry" or "my church" down to something that is my possession, that exists to feed my ego. It then appears to us that we are working for something spiritual when we are working for something selfish. That we are building the kingdom of God when we are really building our own little domain. This is one of the most subtle of temptations and one that all of us (including me) need to be continually on the on the alert for. For God is not our servant to accomplish our purposes; we are His servants to accomplish His. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Missing the Will Of God

One of the great fears of many Christians is missing the will of God. This is not as easy as is frequently taught. Jonah tried very hard and very deliberately to miss the will of God. He failed. We are told that God is at work in our life to bring about His purposes (Ephesians 2:10; 1:11; Romans 8:28). I am not advocating determined disobedience, though God can even bring that around. But I am questioning whether by some slight misstep or small inadvertence we can find ourselves out of the will of God. God is not so easily thwarted as that.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is Truth Important?

Does it really matter if we believe truth is relative? What difference does it make if I say something is true in the absolute sense or is just true for me? Does not the end product look very similar?

Now we need to understand that no one really believes in relative truth. If I get up in the morning and flip the light switch, I expect the light to come on. If it does not, I conclude something is wrong. I do not expect it only to come on at random intervals. Now no one knows in any given case whether deep down the person who claims to hold to relative truth really does. They may surprise you, or even themselves, in finding out under test that they really believe what they profess. But the whole tendency of relative truth is to undermine depth of conviction. To produce people who are more likely to give up or modify their beliefs under pressure. It allows us to avoid having our beliefs become quite real. But a conviction that will not stand firm under pressure is no conviction at all. It is when the chips are down that we find out what we really believe.

Also, Christianity is the one belief in the world that can least afford to embrace an idea of relative truth. If you are advocating keeping a moral code, you can try to claim that it does not really matter who originated it or where it came from. If you are embarking on a program of social reform, you can try to make the same claims. If you are only interested in a mystical experience, the content of that experience may not matter. You can try to claim that all that matters is these things are true for you. But Christianity says that God has invaded history to break the power of sin and death. If this is not in the absolute sense true, it is great folly and our faith is a game. And the general tendency of relative truth is to move us away from this basic truth. But to do so is to give up the very essence of what Christianity is.

Also, to believe in relative truth is to walk along the edge of an abyss. You may come to really believe it. For you see, if truth is really relative, nothing makes sense. And while no one can fully believe this, you can go a long way in that direction, ending up with a world that is absurd. I know, for I was headed in that direction before God turned me around. But if this view leads to a world that cannot be understood, where we cannot know anything, should we not reject it out of hand? Whatever is real, it cannot be this.     

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Role Models

How can we help prevent people from being overworked in the church? Are there those who take on more than they can handle, and if so, how can we help them?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Answers

If we think we know all the answers, we have not heard all the questions.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Gregory the Great

And such peace we truly keep, when we treat the faults of the proud at once with charity and with persistent justice, when we love them and hate their vices. For man is the work of God; but vice is the work of man. Let us then distinguish between what God made and what man has made, and neither hate the man on account of his error nor love the error on account of the man.

Gregory the Great, 540-604 AD, Epistles of Gregory the Great, Epistle XLIII, To Eulogius and Anastasius, Bishops (translated by Rev. James Barmby, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume XII,  Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997, p.179)

Is this the right way to deal with sin? If so, how do we go about implementing it?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tale of Three Kingdoms

There was a man who grew up in the kingdom of Epicuria. In school he was taught that he was the product of a universe run by blind chance. Therefore he was told he should do whatever gave him the greatest amount of pleasure. This seemed an attractive option, and he proceeded to live that way. At first he reveled in it. But in time, the things that had originally pleased him became monotonous. Also, some of his pleasures were habit forming, and he was not sure if he controlled them or they controlled him. Further, other people objected to doing the things that brought him the maximum amount of pleasure. He felt there should be some greater meaning to life. His pleasures made him feel guilty, even though he had been assured this belonged to the defunct world of primitive taboos. And if these ideas were remnants of primitive superstition, why could he not eliminate them entirely from his thinking?

So becoming more and more uncomfortable, he left home to seek his fortune. He ended up in the kingdom of Moralia. There he learned that pleasure was not the ultimate goal of life. There were basic moral rules, which involved forgoing certain pleasures to do what was right. This fit with the man's inability to totally deny the idea of right and wrong. Many of the inhabitants of Moralia held they were not the product of random chance, but the creation of some form of God. This meant that life had meaning and the rules had meaning, for they were the product of something beyond human beings. But the man had a problem. He could not keep the rules. He would try hard and convince himself it was working for a while. Then something would happen, and he would fall flat on his face. Also, other people had the same problem, pretending they were doing a better job then they were or watering down the rules so they could keep them. They were rigid and unwilling to allow others to see their true selves. They would often put down others just to reassure themselves they were doing well. When he reached the point he could not take it any more, he left.

In his travels he came to the kingdom of Gratia. The people there asked him why he was so depressed. He said that he believed in a moral law, but was unable to keep it. They told him how their King had taken the punishment of the moral law upon Himself and that He offered pardon to all who would accept it. They still believed  the law was good and should be obeyed. But forgiveness set them free to obey it out of love for the King, honestly facing their failures and the failures of others, while the King assisted them in growing in obedience. The man left the main road and headed into the kingdom of Gratia. He had found a home.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Life of Faith

There are two concepts of faith, which at times seem at war with each other. One is faith great enough to believe God for great things. The other is the ability to believe God no matter what happens. One is the ability to trust God for a miracle; the other is the ability to trust God if the miracle does not happen. And the problem is that both types of faith are Biblical (Hebrews 11:32-40; Acts 19:11-12; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It is often hard to know what type of faith to exercise in a given situation, and we need to trust God for wisdom to knowing how to proceed (Proverbs 3:5,6; James 1:5; Psalms 46:10). David as a young man slew a great giant because he trusted in God. He then spent the years after that, to age thirty, running from King Saul, who wanted to kill him, before he received God's promise of a kingdom. God, in His plan, will normally give us opportunity to exercise both types of faith. We should not let this take us by surprise.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Forgiveness of Sin

One of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith is forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:12-14; Acts 26:18). But do we really believe it? And do we look to outsiders like we believe it? Now there is a fear that if we too easily forgive, we will appear to condone sin. Now there is a danger scripturally in condoning sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-14; 2 Timothy 4:1-4). But Scripture is even more emphatic that we need to be those who offer forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8; Colossians 3:13). Further, Jesus was criticized for reaching out to sinners (Matthew 9:12; Luke 19:1-10; 7:36-50).  I am forced to the conclusion that while we are to avoid both, being unwilling to forgive is a more fundamental error.

The root of unforgiveness is self-righteousness. We forget that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Titus 3:5,6) and start to think we are good people who deserve something from God. We can then look down on those who are not Christians or on Christians who fail. But we cannot stand before God based on our own works (Galatians 3:10-14; Romans 3:20,21; 11:6). Therefore, we must extend forgiveness to others, for we are sinners just like them.

We are told we are to approach those who are not Christians with love and concern (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:6). We are not to get up on our high horse and look down on them. We are not to excuse their sin, but must reach out to them with forgiveness, not condemnation. For this we have the example of our Lord, who reached out to those with sinful life styles not to offer judgment but forgiveness (John 4:9-26; Luke 23:39-43; 5:27,28).

But what about one of own who falls? How are we to deal with that? On this, Scripture gives clear instruction. While we are to approach the situation with caution, we are to do everything in our power to restore and forgive them (Galatians 6:1; Jude 22,23; Hebrews 12:12,13). Now this may not be possible. They may not be willing to be restored. They may refuse to repent of something they need to repent of. We may have to exercise church discipline. But even then we are not to treat them as an enemy but admonish them as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:15). But if we will not forgive our own, how can we expect those on the outside to believe we are genuinely offering them forgiveness? Forgiveness of sins is the heart of the Gospel. We must live in such a way as to show we really believe in it. And while we should avoid both extremes, it is better to be too forgiving than to follow the Pharisees in treating others with disdain (Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 23:1-7; John 7:47-49).

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Smoking Gun

Is this better than some of the things people jump to conclusions on regarding end time things? How can we avoid this?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Machine

The universe is not a machine accidentally set in motion, but a story written by the finger of God.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Calvin

Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins. On the other hand, the Lord has called his people to eternal salvation, and therefore they ought to consider that pardon for their sins is always ready. Hence let us surely hold that if we are admitted and ingrafted into the body of the Church, the forgiveness of sins has been bestowed, and is daily bestowed on us, in divine liberality, through the intervention of Christ's merits and the sanctification of the Spirit.

John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 1, 21 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, Volume II, p. 298)

How important is it to have a clear understanding of God's forgiveness? How can we develop that?