June 29

The Lordship Debate Is Missing the Point

One of the advantages of aging is that you see cycles.  In governments, people, history, organizations, and organisms – the last being a reference to that God-ordained organism, the Church.  Cycles are evident in the Church universal – comprised of all Christian believers of all time and all places – and the local church which, in the United States, is a 501.c.3 tax-exempt entity housed in building somewhere in a neighborhood near you.

One of the recurring issues of concern for various factions within the Church is that of Lordship Salvation: the point of contention is whether or not a person must make Jesus the lord of every area of life in order to be saved or whether trusting in Jesus Christ as savior alone is sufficient.

The tide is out at this time for the lordship debate; how long it will be before the tide comes in once again and accusations are hurled and books written and re-written, no one knows. What I would propose is that when the tide does come in again, the Church take a different approach.

We can have our usual tribal skirmishes over the precise details of the gospel to determine “us” and “them,” but in so doing we are overlooking a critical aspect of lordship. Rather than focusing on lordship as a matter of salvation, we might do well to shift the focus to lordship as evidence of salvation and a necessary effect of salvation.

My position has been and remains that a surrender of every area of our lives – lordship – is not necessary for salvation to occur but it is something that must follow if salvation has taken place.  This is far more than stating that lordship is what happens subsequent to salvation; it is stating that an absence of lordship means no salvation took place to begin with.

This isn’t just my opinion.  It is arguably the opinion of John as reflected in his first epistle. He writes,

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. – 1 Jn 2.3-6, NASB

John is direct and unequivocal in his statement: if you know God by virtue of trusting Jesus Christ as Savior, then obedience to His commands and walking as Jesus walked must follow.  Not should or might or ought, but must.  Lordship is a natural and necessary outcome of salvation, not something that some Christians submit to and others forego.

But two questions immediately present themselves: what commands are to be kept and how did Jesus walk?  Two questions but essentially one answer.

Stackhouse has summarized the commands as four: two creation or eternal commands and two redemption or temporary commands.  The creation commands are (1) to exercise stewardship for the earth and (2) to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. The redemption commands are (1) to love other believers with the same quality of love that Jesus has for us and (2) to make disciples.

In his letter, John is focusing on the commands that compel us to have love for God, one another, and others.  To keep the commands is to love and to walk in love – that is, to walk as Jesus walked.

Of course, Jesus broadened the meaning of “neighbor” in his parable of the Good Samaritan.  Our neighbor, he said, is anyone with a need that we have the ability to meet. That is love.

With his typical, blunt-force approach, John writes that “The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.”  Marshall, in his commentary on John’s epistles, brings the point home forcefully:

We would say that there are persons whom we do not love, but this is not the same thing as hating them . . . But John will have none of this.  His concept of love is caring for the needs of others, even to the point of self-sacrifice.  If I am unwilling to do that for somebody in need, I love myself more than him; I am not being merely neutral, but am actually hating him. – p. 131

The proof of salvation, according to John, is walking in love, which is to obey God’s commands.  To walk in love is to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ; walking in love is the fountain from which all our obedience flows.  If there is no walking in love (as a continuing lifestyle), there is no lordship and there is no salvation.

My contention, to state it once again, is that the importance of lordship is not to be found primarily in whether it is necessary for salvation but instead as proof of salvation and submission to Christ as Lord.  If a person does not walk in love, then that person does not know God and cannot claim to have fellowship with him or a saving relationship with him through Jesus Christ.

There are no second-tier Christians who are content with one day sitting in the cheap seats in heaven.  There is but one type of believer: those who walk as Jesus walked, who are obeying God’s commands, who – consciously or unconsciously – have committed and submitted themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ as a welcome result of having been redeemed.  All others are tragically and eternally mistaken.

February 24

Responding to Non-Christians in Christian Discussions

[It is my hope that no one would conclude that I am hijacking a discussion that I not only joined late but kind of killed.  I am posting on my blog for convenience, not for the purpose of driving traffic.]

Introductory Stuff

Let me begin by quoting a verse that I have tried to make applicable to myself.  It addresses how to respond to others in general and has specific and valuable application for online interactions with those who do not believe in Christianity.  Such people are, from the Bible’s perspective, incapable of comprehending the significance and ultimate meaning of the gospel and the Scriptures.

This does not mean they cannot intellectually know what the Bible says; it does mean that they don’t know it intimately as a believer might.  This does not make them bad people – some are honestly wrestling with spiritual issues (although, sadly, it seems clear now that “Kirk” is not one of them) – it means simply that they are limited or restricted.  In fact, believers are only able to know God and the Bible intimately because of the indwelling Holy Spirit who illuminates God’s words to us.  Without Him (the Holy Spirit) we are no better off that non-Christians.

Here is the verse I referred to earlier, along with a couple of others that I’ll remind the reader of:

. . . but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”  — 1 Pet 3.15, emphases mine.

What I want to draw attention to at this point is the attitude we should have when talking with those who ask about or question our faith.  First, we are to be gentle or meek with others; we are never to be arrogant, condescending, or impatient.   It is not an easy thing to do, in no small part because we take their objections personally.  But typically they are not.

Second, we are to be reverent.  This means we should treat all people with the respect and honor they deserve since they, too, bear the image of God.  They are wonderfully and fearfully made.  They are sinful (as are we) but they are foremost image-bearers.

Finally, we are to keep a good conscience, i.e., we should conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called (Eph 4.1).  We should talk and behave in a way that demonstrates respect not only for them as people but for Him who created them, i.e., God.  We are, after all, just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.

A corollary of this is found elsewhere in Paul’s writings:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” — Eph 6.12

Unbelievers or even atheists are not our enemies but slaves in service to the true opponent: “the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Ours is a spiritual battle against spiritual powers, not against other people.  We should address their ideas and misconceptions but we should not attack them.

Another passage should be kept in mind when discussing biblical matters with unbelievers or non-Christians.  It, too, is from Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” — 1 Cor 2.14

A “natural man” is a person without the Holy Spirit; without the Holy Spirit, the things of God are “foolishness,” or, more accurately, “moronic” to an unbeliever.  We need to keep in mind that a person lacking the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth is restricted in their understanding.  They are doing the best they can (sometimes) with what they have, often with a clear conscience.  We should not fault them or criticize them for their inabilities.

And now to the point I hope to make in this post.

Those of you who followed the back-and-forth between me and “Kirk Roos” (if that is his true name) are aware that he has stated that he will “let sleeping dogs lie” and not engage me any further in the present venue.  That is fine; I respect his decision.  As he said, the discussion was not going to be resolved: he could not persuade me or I him; indeed, he seemed to take issue with my attempt or attempts to find common ground – or at least a common language.

Rather than refute what he has said I want to focus on two matters, one in this post and another in a post to follow.  The next post will explain what philosophers and logicians call “informal logical fallacies”; this post will examine what appears to be Kirk’s “worldview” or practical philosophy in hopes of enabling Christians to better identify such argumentation and thereby know what they are up against and how to proceed.

Before going any further, let me attempt to calm any fears that might be emerging at the thought of delving into philosophy and, specifically, postmodernism.  The latter is a term that seems impressive and reserved only for those with Ph.D.s in lofty ideas.  In reality, it is easily understood and just as easy to detect.  So read on without fear, knowing that if you don’t understand, it is my failure to explain and has nothing to do with your ability to comprehend.

Postmodernism

At the risk of being too simplistic, the approach reflected in Kirk’s interactions falls under the philosophical heading of postmodernism.

There are three individuals whose works either laid the foundations for postmodern thought or provided the framework for those who would follow: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.    Wittgenstein’s philosophy later in his life (after renouncing pretty much all of what he had done before) affected language and communication.  He saw language both as a tool and a game; the nature of the game allowed every individual participating to create their own rules.  If you think this leads to confusion and people talking to themselves and past one another, you’re correct.

Foucault followed, bringing relativism with him.  He believed that truth changes over time and from culture to culture; truth, therefore, is determined by cultures and individuals and cannot be imposed on others.  What Wittgenstein had done for language — or undone, as the case may be — Foucault did with the concept of truth on a bigger scale.

Derrida is identified with the philosophical school labeled deconstruction, another of those concepts and words that intimidate without reason.  James Mannion (2006) explains:

Deconstruction is the process of breaking down of a thing (in Derrida’s case, language) to show that what is being stated is in fact inherently false . . . He sees language as a flawed means of communication, arguing that the reader can not really know the author’s true intent, and for that matter, neither can the author. The text you are reading may have an entirely different meaning to you than the author intends, and the author may not even have a clue about what the meaning of his words are.”

The underlying narcissism of such a position is obvious: the postmodernist maintains that the author has no idea what he is really saying but you, the reader, can claim to know what is really meant.  But, the reader must admit, it is a personal understanding and not necessarily one that anyone else would hold.

Mannion goes on to describe postmodernism as a manifestation of latter-day Sophism (another of those words!).  Socrates argued against the Sophists of his day (c. 469-399 B.C.) and Plato (Socrates’ most famous student) had very little positive things to say about them.  The Sophists were the forerunners of infomercials: they could argue persuasively for or against any position or concept because they were skilled rhetoricians.

Protagoras is considered the earliest of the Sophists.  He thought everything to be relative and denied the notion of the existence of absolute truth (truths that are true for all people of all time in all places).  He and the other Sophists had little time for spiritual matters.  Mannion writes,

Protagoras also had an apathetic view toward the gods.  His attitude was that you can’t really know if they exist, and because you can never know, they do not really matter much in your day-to-day life so you may as well forget about them . . .”

This has a modern ring to it.

The following quote from the movie The Wind and the Lion captures a written exchange between the movie’s dark hero and then-president Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt has successfully overwhelmed the sheikh with support forces in the form of the U.S. Marines:

To Theodore Roosevelt – you are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours. – Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates.”

Postmodernists do not know their place, either, for the simple fact that they have none.

Proceeding

What are we, as Christians, to do when we encounter postmodernists/Sophists?  Perhaps the best thing to do is to resist engaging them further when we sniff them out: this saves time and eliminates the possibility of greater frustration on all sides.  In addition to praying for such people (always), we can try to communicate our love for and acceptance of them.  Very few people come to Christ as a result of argumentation; most come (humanly speaking) because they have been loved even though there is disagreement.

It is also possible to turn the tables on such people if they are not especially skilled in rhetoric.  But that is a subject for another time.

February 13

Changing the World: “Here Come the Beatles!”

images (1)When The Beatles came to the United States on Feb 9, 1964, and performed on The Ed Sullivan show, it did not change the world. Not at all.  That came later.

To say the country or world was changed at that moment is like saying that Jesus’ birth changed the world.  Well, yes and no.  Certainly His birth was the sin qua non of His ministry but He changed the world during His later life, i.e., in His death, burial, and resurrection.

A more accurate date for The Beatles’ culture-changing impact might be August 28, 1964, when Bob Dylan truly introduced the group to marijuana.  It was their first real experience with the drug and being stoned; the effect on their music was obvious.

Consider the following lyrics from the early ’60s, before Dylan decided to “Meet The Beatles” and more:

I Want To Hold Your Hand Lyrics

Oh, yeah, I tell you something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something’s
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Oh, please say to me
And/You’ll let me be your man
And, please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
I/You’ll let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you, I feel happy inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hi’e

Yeah, you got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something’s
I wanna/I’m not gonna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you, I feel happy inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hi’e
I can’t hide
I can’t hi’e

Yeah, you got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I feel that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

She Loves You Lyrics

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

You think you’ve lost your love
Well, I saw her yesterday
It’s you she’s thinking of
And she told me what to say

She says she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
Yes, she loves you
And you know you should be glad

She said you hurt her so
She almost lost her mind
But now she says she knows
You’re not the hurting kind

She says she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
Yes, she loves you
And you know you should be glad
Ooh!

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
And with a love like that
You know you should be glad

You know it’s up to you
I think it’s only fair
Pride can hurt you too
Apologize to her

Because she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
She loves you
And you know you should be glad
Ooh!

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The-Beatles-the-beatles-32839194-999-855Earth-shaking?  Paradigm-shifting?  Hardly.  I’m never even sure they were particularly clever. They were typical, run-of-the-mill lyrics of the pop/rock’n’roll culture of the day.  Certainly The Beatles, by virtue of their attractiveness and charisma, made the songs famous and memorable.

“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were both released in 1963, meaning they were written prior to the group’s encounter with Dylan.  In contrast, look at the lyrics for two songs released just a few years later:

For No One Lyrics 

Your day breaks
Your mind aches
You find that all her words
Of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you

She wakes up
She makes up
She takes her time
And doesn’t feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You want her
You need her
And yet you don’t believe her
When she says her love is dead
You think she needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You stay home
She goes out
She says that long ago
She knew someone
But now he’s gone
She doesn’t need him

Your day breaks
Your mind aches
There will be times
When all the things she said
Will fill your head
You won’t forget her

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

Eleanor Rigby Lyrics

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No-one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?

the beatlesBoth of these songs were released in 1966 and, presumably, written shortly before their release.  The subject matter in “For No One” is a common one: Neil Sedaka had already sung “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” in 1962.  But notice the tone and emotional valence of The Beatles’ tribute to breaking up: it is hardly upbeat and, in a word, melancholy.  It was typical of most of The Beatles’ music once drugs became a fifth member of the group.

And then there’s “Eleanor Rigby”:  where did that come from?  It reflects the isolation and lost-ness of (at least) young people of the day.  Prior to the Beatles, I know of no singer or group that included funerals and death in their catalog of dance tunes.

Things had changed for the Beatles; things began to change for people.  Melancholy and tragedy was a frequent theme in their music and in the moods of their fans.  Not all their songs in this period were sad but almost all of them were unlike anything that had gone before.

Here are two of my personal favorites, taken from Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966):

Norwegian Wood Lyrics 

I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn’t a chair

I sat on the rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
“It’s time for bed”

She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn’t
And crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

She Said She Said Lyrics 

She said
“I know what it’s like to be dead
I know what it is to be sad”
And she’s making me feel like
I’ve never been born

I said
“Who put all those things in your head?
Things that make me feel that I’m mad
And you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born”

She said, “You don’t understand what I said.”
I said, “No, no, no. You’re wrong.
When I was a boy,
Everything was right.
Everything was right.”

I said
“Even though you know what you know
I know that I’m ready to leave
‘Cos you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born.”

She said, “You don’t understand what I said.”
I said, “No, no, no. You’re wrong.
When I was a boy,
Everything was right.
Everything was right.”

I said
“Even though you know what you know
I know that I’m ready to leave
‘Cos you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born.”

She said, she said
“I know what it’s like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.
I know what it’s like to be dead . . .”

 images
Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall Pat Boone or Elvis Presley singing lyrics like these in the ’50s and early ’60s.  And, for that matter, neither did Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, or Little Richard.  These are drug songs, not necessarily about drugs (although some of their post-Dylan lyrics were) but certainly reflecting the effects of drugs on their minds.

And this doesn’t even get us to 1967 and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which profoundly changed rock music from something to dance along with to something to sit and listen to, reflect upon, and embrace.

And it also doesn’t cover The Beatles’ use of LSD, which began somewhere between March and July of 1965.  A fascinating account of their initials trips and comments from John Lennon and George Harrison can be found here.

In light of this, I find it surprising that so many Christian writers have seemed to embrace The Beatles and their music in recent weeks.  It is as though Lennon’s statement that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus – which might have been true with young people in Britain in those days – or the album pyre that took place in various places in a ridiculous reaction to his words never happened.  And what of John and Oko’s famous “sleep-in”?  Or, more importantly, The Beatles’ tremendous influence on their fans that resulted in marijuana and other drugs suddenly being in vogue among middle-class, white teenagers in the ’60s?

I will close by saying that, as an outlier and atypical Evangelical Christ-follower, I have no problem with The Beatles.  I own vinyl albums, tapes, CDs, and digital copies of almost all their music and continue to listen to it 50 years later.  And it is especially the post-Dylan songs and albums that I enjoy most and most frequently.

And I’ll stop just short of endorsing or approving of marijuana use for other than medical purposes.   But as a past pot head, I will say that I understand the nature and direction of The Beatles music subsequent to their introduction to drugs.  I find the songs neither pro- nor anti-Christian, although the messages certainly do not align with the Bible’s view of life, meaning, and purpose.  But as far as originality, creativity and excellence go, there aren’t many other groups that come close to The Beatles.

January 19

Addendum to “On Being a Misfitting Christian”

Having put down my thoughts in the original post, I’ve been able to reflect a bit more on the matter from a slightly different perspective.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

It may be that what has set me apart from so many others is not as much commitment as it was and is the depths of desperation that had possessed me so deeply in the events immediately leading up to the moment of my conversion.  I have said many times in the past that I had sought for meaning and purpose in life throughout my teens and early twenties and, having found nothing in life truly worth living for, had given myself to “drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll” — the hedonism and nihilism mentioned in the earlier post.

The last vestige of hope remaining for me back then was the hope of love: of finding someone I could love and who would love me.  When that last rope of hope was finally hacked in two, I was set adrift.  I was free to do and be nothing in the meaningless experience I called life.

And then the hedonism and pleasures and distractions finally failed me, too, and I was truly in despair: a total absence of hope of and for anything.  It was into that despair that Christ sent me; it was out of that despair that He saved me.

But before that happened I had hit bottom. Hard.  In retrospect, I needed to.  I was emotionally and intellectually spent.  There was nothing that could prevent me from free-falling into absurdity and existential loneliness.  I was utterly helpless.

I had lost my life and had become lost in life.  The emptiness and desperation were inescapable and all-consuming.  I had no place to go and no reason to go.  Anywhere.  Life was silent and deafening, empty and overwhelming; echoes of an endless void within me.

But while there was nothing that could help there was still Someone who did help.  When Christ came along it was all-or-nothing for me because I had been and been to nothing and couldn’t survive there.  So it was all in all the time with Christ.  It wasn’t any moral or spiritual superiority that drove me to that point.  It wasn’t even extreme gratitude.  It was, once again, desperation.  Christianity had to be true.  If it wasn’t, then that was it.  Maybe insanity would have been all that could be left.  A Nietzchean solution.

And so I sold myself and gave myself and devoted myself and did every other thing I could think of to commit myself to my only hope in life.  The gratitude and the thankfulness came later.  Jesus had died for me – given His life for me – and I swore to give my life to Him as much as I possibly could.  And while that sounds real spiritual you must remember: my life was skubalon1 at that point; it was even less than crap.  My life wasn’t worth anything to me so giving it away was hardly a big sacrifice.  My life for His?  How could I not make that deal?  Give nothing for everything?  Really?

So maybe all of the above is part of the explanation, too.  I’m sure it’s not all of it.  But it’s an important part of it.

Maybe the men around me have never felt such deep emptiness and despair.  In some ways, I hope they never have.  Maybe they didn’t have to; I don’t know.  I can’t really explain someone else’s life. I’m still trying to figure out mine.

_______________

1 The NT Greek word for crap, used by Paul in Php 3.8

January 18

Reflections: On Being a Misfitting Christian

This could quite possibly be the most misunderstood thing I’ve ever written and then posted online.  It’s not meant to be derogatory but sometimes it will take some effort not to take it that way.  It’s also not intend to sound like I consider myself as being better than others – far from it – but what I write certainly can be construed to say as much.  In essence, I’m trying to explain how I can make sense of the differences I see between myself and others.  As you will read,  I don’t take any responsibility one way or another for that difference.  It just is what it is.  Like one man being short while most others or tall.  I don’t know why God chooses some to be shepherds – I know I didn’t volunteer – but it’s probably because we’re like sheep.  And there are differences between the shepherd and the sheep.

_______________

At some point in my past — I can’t actually remember a time but there probably was at least one — I thought I would have my life all figured out by the time I was 30.  When that mile marker came and went, I figured maybe 40 was the magic age.  Then it was 50.  And 60.

Now I’m 64 and I’m still figuring things and myself out.  I have a feeling this is not unusual — why else would Socrates’ quote1 be so popular? — but, since few people admit to as much, who knows?

Yesterday, as I was bemoaning my misfortune of being a Bible-study misfit, the swirl of words in my head seemed to revolve around one or two facts that provided clarification for me.  The first was that I’m a shepherd/pastor and am always looking for sheep to tend and feed.  I do curative or reparative work with people all week long but after-hours groups give me a chance to do some preventative work.  It’s a nice balance to the weekday work.

If the people in the Bible study don’t seem to be hungry or don’t want to be shepherded, however, I’m at a loss (at best) or angry (at worst). That people wouldn’t want to feed on the life of Christ or discover how to live more in keeping with God’s intent for us is baffling to me.

That was one thing that came to light.  Another — bigger and more awkward to explain — has to do with levels of commitment.  Before going further, it must be said that I don’t take any credit or look down on others: I didn’t orchestrate all the details and events of my life.  There are many things that happen to all of us of which we are largely unaware that become determinative and adjust the course we’re on.  I believe it is God’s superintendence of our lives and so no credit can be assigned.

I’ve long known that, having been to seminary, I was a bit different from most of the other men with whom I fellowship and associate.  These men are Christians, to be sure, but there’s something different about them.  Or about me.  Which it is doesn’t matter.

The only way I can describe it is as a difference of levels of commitment.  By way of analogy, it’s as though I’ve pushed all my chips into the pot and held nothing back: my pockets, bank accounts, assets, and everything else are on the line.  The men in the game with me have pushed their chips to the middle, too, but they’re not actually all in. They have considerable reserves awaiting them when the game is over.  They risk a considerable amount — maybe quantitatively more than I — but they’re not “all in.”  They might feel the loss but it won’t devastate them. They can feel the pain, absorb it, and get on with life.

As I thought about this, a question came to mind: if it were to somehow to be determined that Jesus Christ never did resurrect from the grave — if His bones were uncovered or a book He wrote at the age of 64 surfaced, or somebody traveled back in time and saw Him sneak out of a backdoor to the tomb — if it were proved beyond doubt, would your choices in life make sense?  Would your life make sense?  Would you not only look like a fool but in truth be a world-class idiot?

Personally, my life would be absurd.2  I made choices — and my wife has always supported me — that were based on my belief that this life was not all there was, that what we do here is important only because there is a judgment and a heaven that awaits.  If that is not the case, if there is no resurrection that awaits all of us, then I have wasted whatever years I’ve had and have yet to come.  As Paul says, I should have been eating, drinking, and being merry.  I should have continued on the two-lane highway of hedonism and nihilism.3

When I consider the lives and careers of other men, I don’t see the same level of risk or commitment.4  Again, that doesn’t make me holier than them because I didn’t actually choose this path: it was made for me and I for it by God.  But the difference is huge and explains a lot to me regarding why I so often feel like a misfit when I’m around Christians. Not all Christians, of course: others that are even more committed than I are out there and, from time to time, we stumble across one another.

I’ve often wondered why other men get so caught up in football, hunting, politics and a thousand other things that Paul says — based on his own belief in the resurrection — are destined to perish.5  Their choices have confused me.

I don’t know why there are the differences there are between believers (I’m not talking about doctrinal or any other kind of difference other than that of commitment).  I pretty sure that we don’t have a lot to do with it, though.  Or, at least for me, I don’t feel like I did: I simply couldn’t do anything else.6  If there is no resurrection, life is a short joke.  But because there is resurrection — and I’m sure there is — then life makes sense.  It has a purpose and meaning. Knowing that, how could I make any other decisions than those which I have?

All the chips are in the pot; investing in other things makes no sense.  I’m just playing the hand dealt to me until the Great Croupier tells me there are no more hands left for me to play.

_______________

1 “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
2 This does not rule out the possibility that, the resurrection being true, I’m still an idiot.
3 I was in the passing lane with the hammer down.
4 I am aware that this is simply my perspective and not absolute truth. But I am looking only at behaviors or actions or lifestyles and basing my assessment on them. If I’m wrong – and certainly history has shown that to be possible – then I’d really like someone to explain to me where and how I’m off.
5 Col 2.22: “. . . things destined to perish”
6 It was a logical compulsion: the resurrection being true, to live otherwise simply made no sense to me.

January 15

Reflections: Freedom vs Security

In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” — Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

It is tempting, is it not, to hear the words of Gibbon more than 200 years after his death and quickly apply them to our own country.  And by “our own country” I mean the United States since it is here that I have lived, live, and will likely die.

Certainly there is ample rationale for thinking so.  It was in my lifetime (Jan 20, 1961) that John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  Certainly we have drifted far from the ideals of JFK, a drift at times propelled by the idealism, irresponsibility and recklessness of my own generation in the ’60s and ’70s.

But for those of us who call ourselves Christians and indeed live and look like Christ followers, who seek the kingdom even now, there is a parallel application of Gibbon’s observation, one which we ignore to our own harm.  Within the Christian subculture in general and too many local churches specifically, we have opted for security at the expense of our freedom and, inexorably, our responsibility.  The security of which I speak is a psychological one, a balm that soothes and pacifies an otherwise troubled conscience that prefers not to bear the weight of personal responsibility for Christians in this life.

This manifestation of our sin nature is such that theological arguments are constructed to allow us to evade our responsibility.  The theological arguments, at the real risk of being simplistic – not to mention unfair to those that espouse them — maintain that God’s sovereignty is such that no act is outside His control or will.  Certainly He is not the author of sin but neither is He surprised by it, the reasoning goes: even the most evil events are in keeping with His will for mankind.  So even our shortcomings and sins of omission are not and cannot be contrary to what He has determined.

Such a notion or belief effectively absolves us from moral responsibility, we hope, so that our relationship with Him remains secure; even more, our fellowship with God is not disturbed because of our inability to be all that He calls us to be: Christlike.  What we do and say, what we don’t do or say, is merely the outworking of a sovereign God who has not given freedom to us as individuals.

But while such an idea can be argued theologically, it is not biblical.

“Free will” is a term often used by believers in a manner which is contrary to what the Bible tells us.  If we are going to keep the term, we need to define it carefully.  Free will, as I understand it, is the ability to choose according to our nature: if not a Christian, then we choose according to our sinful nature; we can do no other.  But if we are Christians, then we have a true, morally culpable choice: will we follow the desires of our sin nature – the flesh – or will we yield to the desires of our new nature, one which is continually being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ?

Scripture reveals that God regards us as morally responsible people; to be responsible necessitates the freedom to choose.  That ability to choose is true freedom; that ability to choose makes us responsible before God for our choices.  Otherwise the bema seat — where we will be judged not for our eternal destiny but for our “deeds in the body” — is meaningless and a mockery.  If we are not responsible then being rewarded or suffering loss becomes a capricious act of God.

Christians are morally responsible people who also possess the ability to choose — and choose freely — what or whom we will serve and obey.  Like it or not, we are fully responsible for the choices we make because we are free moral agents, not mindless individuals merely carrying out His predetermined will.

December 31

Domestic Violence

As part of my continuing education, I’m involved in a 15-hour class addressing domestic violence.  While it would be nice to say that issues like domestic violence are unheard of in the Christian community, it would also be false.  Sadly, domestic violence – in all its various forms – is no less common within the church than anywhere else.

To keep people informed and, hopefully, to begin reducing the number of adults and children exposed to it, I thought I’d pass along some of the information I’ve gleaned.

Since seminaries or bible colleges rarely prepare pastors for such eventualities, this and following posts will provide helpful information for those in ministry who deal with domestic violence.  These posts are not designed to prepare readers to deal with it but rather to help those in positions of trust and authority to identify it and have some idea of what to do when it is discovered.  All of the material below can be found in The Domestic Violence Sourcebook, by Dawn Bradley Berry, J.D.

Prevalence of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence involves at least one or more of the following: physical violence, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse.  For Christians, we need to also include spiritual abuse, a form with consequences that could last for eternity.

“Each year,” Berry writes, “literally millions of women are wounded, crippled, disfigured, traumatized, and maimed by male partners – or they die . . . Domestic violence is also a major cause of disability, homelessness, addiction, and attempted suicide.”

The author recognizes that men – at an increasing rate – are also victims of domestic violence.  Because the number of men who suffer is comparatively small in comparison does not minimize the violence done against them.  But the book is primarily addressing the more prevalent problem of violence against women.

Statistics (as of 2000):

  • “Each year, 1,500 women are killed by a current/ former husband or boyfriend . . .
  • “Studies of women killed by a husband or boyfriend show that 90 percent of the victim had reported at least one prior incident of abuse.  The average number of calls to a scene before a domestic homicide is eight . . .
  • “Up to six million women are believed to be beaten in their homes each year . . .
  • “Women who have divorced or separated from their abusers report being battered fourteen times as often as those still living with their partners . . .
  • “According to the American Medical Association, family violence kills as many women every five years as the total number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.  Homicide is the second leading cause of death for women fifteen to twenty-four.
  • “Battering contributes to one-quarter of all suicide attempts by women generally, and half of all suicide attempts by black women.
  • “The AMA reports that one out of every three women treated in emergency rooms is a victim of violence . . .
  • “One million women a year visit physicians and hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries caused by beating . . .
  • “In 1992, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that abuse by a husband or partner is the leading cause of injury to American women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.
  • “Medical expenses for treating victims of domestic violence total at least $3-5 billion annually . . .
  • “Rape is a regular form of abuse in approximately 50% of violent relationships.
  • “Weapons are used in 30% o domestic violence incidents.
  • “Up to 75% of battering victims have left or are trying to leave men who will not let them go . . .
  • “Between 25% and 50% of all women in America will be physically abused by a partner at least once in their lives.
  • “Business lose about $100 million annually in lost wages, sick leave, absenteeism, and nonproductivity as a direct result of domestic violence.
  • “74% of abused women who work outside the home are harassed by their abusers at work, either in person or by telephone . . .
  • “In a 1987 study, 20-30% of college women reported being the victim of physical abuse by a dating partner . . .
  • “28% of high school students have experienced violence in a dating relationship.  The FBI reports that 21% of the women murdered in America are 15-24 years of age.
  • “Pregnant women are especially at risk: 25% of all women battered in America are abused while pregnant . . .
  • “50-70% of men who abuse their female partners also abuse children in the home.  In homes with four or more children, the figure leaps to over 90%.
  • “In one study of violent homes, all sons over fourteen attempted to protect their mothers.  62% were injured in the process.
  • “More than 3 million children directly witness acts of domestic abuse each year . . .
  • “Studies estimate that 25-33% of men who batter their wives also sexually abuse their children . . .
  • “About 50% of all homeless women and children in America are fleeing domestic violence.”
July 24

Loving God with Ease

Not to brag but I find it incredibly easy to love God.

I mean, really, it’s just not that hard to love Someone who,

  • sent His Son to die for me
  • through faith has made my salvation possible
  • assures me of a heavenly home
  • promises me rewards for simply doing the right things
  • gives me the ability, through His Spirit, to do the right things
  • is always correct
  • never lies to me
  • never deceives me
  • loves me more than I can imagine
  • things I’m worthwhile
  • listens to me without fail
  • _____________ (add your own favorites here)

Loving God?  No problem.  

But there is a related problem.  It appears in Jn 13, what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  It’s good that I’m not a Greek exegete because, if I were, I’d try to find a way to make it read differently than it does.

Here’s what it says:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (vv 34-35).

It’s a problem because John tells us that we know we love God when we love other believers.  If we say we love God and hate other Christians, we don’t – as in DO NOT – love God.  That’s 1 Jn 4.20.  You can look it up.

I get curt, impatient, and downright angry with Christians.  In fact, I get more upset with Christians than with non-Christians.  Unbelievers have a hard time doing the right thing for the right reason – they can do it at times, of course, because they do bear the image of God – but believers really have little excuse.  We have God’s revelation to tell us what the right thing is and we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do it.

I am more forgiving and tolerant with new believers or those who have not been discipled properly.  Those who should know better, however, are at the top of my list when it comes to being objects of my dismay, disappointment, and – I’ll admit it – derision and disgust.

But that really is beside the point, isn’t it?  Jesus calls me to love other believers, i.e., to desire what is best for them and to provide it if possible.  He doesn’t qualify it with exceptions like “if they’re being obedient” or “if they’re living up to their calling” or even “if they are being loving.”  He just tells me to love them.

That doesn’t mean indulging their sinful behaviors or looking the other way.  It means I confront when confrontation is necessary and even excommunicate (formally or informally) if repentance is lacking.  It means that my purpose and goal in all my dealings with a sinning or repugnant brother is to restore them to fellowship with God and other believers.

That should come naturally for me – it’s part of the image of God that I bear and that is being renewed within me – but due to the fact that I, too, am sinful, it doesn’t happen like it should.

But that’s my calling.  And to that calling I aspire, moving toward it in the company of other believers who somehow, by God’s grace, find it possible to love someone as unlovable as me.

May 21

Al Mohler and Cerebral Evangelicalism

The tornado that killed men, women, and children yesterday in Moore, OK, and elsewhere was an horrific tragedy.  That’s how, it seems to me, we should regard it.

Al Mohler thinks about it differently.  He says, in part, “The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.”

Not to pick on Al but, well, he pretty much asks for it.  When you’ve positioned yourself as the leading face and voice of Evangelicals (with apologies to Joel Osteen), you accept the responsibility of representing millions of people.  With the responsibility comes accountability.

So this is the gnat calling the hippo to task.

Two things about Mohler’s response deserve rebuke or correction.  The first, which is the lesser of the two but still significant, is his use of the term “evil” to describe what happened in Moore.  Granted, he calls it “natural evil” (a curious coupling, actually: evil is natural?  Really?).  The word “evil” may personalize the forces of nature but it also tends to depersonalize the people affected by the storm.  Tragedy, I think, is a better choice.  It’s personal.

The greater point to address is his contention that such events as happened in Moore are a great theological challenge for Christians.  This is an example of one of the great blunders of the church throughout history, i.e., missing the point.

An unnatural event — whether tornado, flood, fire, or otherwise — is not a puzzle for us to solve.  It is not a lesson that our Heavenly Teacher has presented for our edification.  It is, rather, a tragedy that should result in actions instead of words about theodicy.  Words of theodicy too often resemble theo-idiocy in the ears of suffering people.

“People all over the world are demanding an answer to the question of evil,” Mohler writes.  I’ll allow that Al certainly knows a lot more people than I, but I still suspect that — if we were to ask the people who were in the path of the tornado if that’s what they wanted most — they would disagree.  Empty words of theo-idiotic comfort just don’t cut it at times like this.

They want physical, practical help. They don’t need a cerebral Evangelicalism swooping in to fill their heads with logical defenses of God; they need a visceral, loving Evangelicalism that will demonstrate its love for mankind by being there, doing what it can, and just being there when there’s nothing to be done.

Sadly, like most of us, Mohler doesn’t see the people of Moore.  He sees victims, perhaps, or evil, or a combination of the two.  He sees representatives or examples of theological categories that “need” an explanation.

I broke down at one point while watching the televised aftermath of the tragedy.  A local reporter was talking about the elementary school that had taken the full brunt of the tornadic winds.  But he didn’t make it.  He began to cry and couldn’t go on.  At that point, the reporter saw not victims but people — the young, lifeless people who were and then suddenly were not; they had ceased to be victims in his eyes.  At that point, the reporter became a person, too.

I’ve been that guy, although never at a tragedy of such scale.  But back when I was a newspaper reporter I saw death and destruction up close.  I heard it.  Smelled it.  And it was horribly and hauntingly personal.  I saw dead people, not just victims of evil.

What the suffering people need – what I needed – is not a theological treatise on God and evil.  They don’t need to make sense of things, not at that moment.  When everything you thought was reliable and stable is suddenly gone with the wind, nothing makes sense.  The most cogent argument bounces off ears deafened by horror and incomprehensibility.

People need something else.  They need a shoulder to cry on, someone to lean on, another human being to help carry the crushing burden that follows in the wake of tragedies.  They need love, not education.  They need God in a human form.  Someone who cares.

They need a Christianity or an Evangelicalism that is visceral and cerebral, both feeling and thinking. People who will cry with them, help them, and do for them what they can no longer do for themselves.

We do need to be mindful in our loving, doing things for the right reasons.  But the feeling and loving must always come first.  Otherwise we’re just adding to the noise and confusion that has already overwhelmed them.  Clanging cymbals.  Tinkling brass.  Cold, impersonal, unloving.

Three things remain: faith (which has a cognitive aspect), hope (which is similarly cognitive), and love.

But the greatest of these is . . .

 

March 6

In Praise of Two Local Pastors: Fisher and Osborne

Say what you might about Pastors Brian Fisher of Grace Bible Church and Chris Osborne of Central Baptist Church, there is one area in which they are above criticism and thus deserving of both respect and praise.

It may be that you do not particularly like this or that about one or the other – maybe it’s their personality, preaching style, leadership, governance, or whatever (all of which say as much about the critic as the pastor).  These two men, although quite different from one another, stand shoulder to shoulder on at least one issue.

I’ve been re-reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and find myself drawing to the end of his chapter “Accommodation.”  This chapter (and “Resistance,” the one that follows it) describes the response of many denominations and churches to the cultural changes and challenges of the past several decades.

Accommodation, according to Douthat, seeks “to forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that [are] undercutting orthodoxy.”

Led by men such as Teilhard de Chardin (albeit posthumously), Harvey Cox (The Secular City), and John Shelby Spong, the movement sought to present a diluted, denuded, and deluded Christianity that would appeal to a more cultured, modern audience.  The idea that powered these changes was inclusion and tolerance.

In following chapters Douthat goes on to identify a number of false gospels that are becoming culturally acceptable in our day.  Among these heresies are those that seek to weaken the authority of the Bible by undermining the texts of the New Testament and by bringing in alternative, so-called “lost” accounts of the life – and the meaning thereof – of Jesus Christ.  The strategy is simple: destroy the backbone of the New Testament and it is easy to change the heart of Christianity.

A second heresy is found in Douthat’s chapter “Pray and Grow Rich,” the most popular purveyor of the view being Joel Osteen.  Comparing Osteen to Billy Graham, he writes,

Graham’s persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel – a series of altar calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen’s message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without  threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next.

This heresy is not new with Osteen, of course.  “Already in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the difficulty of ascertaining from American sermons ‘whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.'”  It was adopted by Mary Baker Eddy (Church of Christ, Scientist), Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, and others.

Evangelicals like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez), Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life), and financial guru Larry Burkett also drift into Douthat’s crosshairs.  Though their message have different emphases than those previously mentioned, some of the strategies and goals are nevertheless similar to the prosperity heresy.

A third heretical gospel is the God Within movement, reflected in books such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and in Oprah’s incessant preaching through her media empire.  The essence of the God Within gospel is captured by Gilbert: “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”  Oprah, not to be bettered, says,

Our mission is to use television to transform people’s live . . . I am talking about each individual coming to the awareness that, ‘I am Creation’s son, I am Creation’s daughter . . . ultimately I am Spirit come from the greatest Spirit. I am Spirit.’

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and veritably every atheist subscribes to this notion, although they would certainly deny anything divine about any of it.  Still, the center of the universe and the source of everything is found in the self.

Sadly, the typical Evangelical church has been infiltrated by this belief to some extent.  Philip Rieff, in his 1966 (!) book The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud, saw it coming.  In referring to the book, Douthat writes,

Religious man was giving way to ‘psychological man,’ not ideological man.  In place of a secularized Christianity building the kingdom of God on earth, Rieff foresaw an age of therapy, in which the pursuit of well-being would replace the quest for either justice or salvation.

‘Religious man was born to be saved,’ he wrote, but ‘psychological man is born to be pleased.’

The final heresy to be called out in Douthat’s work is what he labels “the heresy of American nationalism.”  It rests upon the false belief that corporately the United States is now God’s Chosen People.  A few quotes will suffice to describe what he means by it:

[I]f the lack of a blood-and-soil tradition has weakened the temptation toward imagining one’s own tribe as God’s real Chosen People, the obvious resemblance between America and the Christian Church – both pan-ethnic, universalizing bodies that promise to create a new man out of the old one, and redeem a fallen and corrupted world – has tempted many Americans to regard the United States as a whole as a new Israel, a holy nation, a people set apart . . .

In 2010, a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 60 percent of Americans believed that ‘God has granted America a special role in human history.’ The view was strongest among white Evangelicals, upwards of 80 percent of whom agreed with the exceptionalist credo.’

“In the right hands,” Douthat says, “the idea of American exceptionalism can reflect a healthy union of patriotism and piety. But in the wrong hands, it can be a source of dangerous theological temptations.

One such temptation is messianism. Not content with the possibility that God has particularly favored the United States, the messianic view holds that American democracy call actually fulfill God’s purposes on earth – whether by building a New Jerusalem at home, or by spreading the blessings of liberty to every race and people overseas . . . messianic Americanism turns liberal democracy into a religion unto itself, capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church . . .

The other heresy of nationalsim, messianism’s mirror image, is doom-laden and apocalyptic . . . the apocalyptic view suggests that the American founding was literally a covenanted event, akin to the biblical establishment of Israel . . .

As messianism inspires an unwarranted optimism about human perfectability, apocalyptism inspires an unwarranted paranoia about foes abroad and enemies within, and invents vast anti-American conspiracies – Catholic in the nineteenth century, Jewish and then Communist in the twentieth, and nowadays a dark combination of the United Nations and the global Caliphate – to explain whatever ills beset the United States.

_________________

By now – assuming that you’re still there – you might be wondering what all this information from Douthat has to do with two local pastors, i.e., Chris Osborne and Brian Fisher.  Well, it has a lot to do with them

In the face of forces that tempt even the most pious to succumb to this or that heresy, these two men (and undoubtedly others in the community) have not sold out.  They have remained true to their individual visions of what is truth, who Jesus Christ is, and what the mission of the church is to be.

More importantly, their respective visions are drawn from a careful and correct reading of the Bible.  They have resisted the sirens of the spirit of the age.  This is no small thing for, as Anglican Ralph Inge observed, “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower.”

Neither has played to crowd for the purposes of church growth or financial well-being.  They have consistently preached the truth of the gospel and what they believe to be true about how the Christian life is to be lived.  You may disagree with them on some things regarding the latter – they are not fallible, as both would be quick to admit – but not the former.  At their churches you will hear the gospel as defined and described in the twenty-seven canonical books of the Christian New Testament.

In our fault-finding and discontent, it is sometimes easy to overlook so critical a fact.  Again, they may be wrong about some peripheral matters but, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have remained true to the words of truth as revealed by God.

For that steadfastness they should and must be applauded.  If you are fortunate to be in either of their churches – or in any church where the pastor has done the same – you would do well to tell them that you have noticed it.  Like all of us, they need affirmation; unlike most of us, they don’t always get as much as they deserve.