Monday, November 30, 2015

It Is A Sin To Criticize Your Pastor?

This article popped up a while ago and it was one of those headlines that I definitely was going to click, Billy Graham: It's a Sin toCriticize Your Pastor. Oh boy. In response to a question sent to Billy Graham about people who criticize their pastor, this response was posted:
"No pastor is perfect, of course — but if God has called someone to be a pastor and has sent them to serve a particular church, then they should be helped and encouraged in every way possible," Billy Graham responds, quoting 1 Samuel 26:9: "Who can lay a hand on the Lord's anointed and be guiltless?"
Right out of the gate we have a grotesque misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9. That passage is from David saying why he would not slay Saul when he had the chance. Saul was the King of Israel and as such David refused at that time to slay one who had been anointed by God. He was not a guy hired by a local church to be a pastor. The difference between the two is a vast chasm. Just because a church hires you, that doesn't make you "the Lord's anointed". That is such poor exegesis as to be criminal Scriptural malpractice. I hope it was one of his staffers responding to the question, not Billy Graham himself. As far as the rest of it....

Is it really a sin to be critical of your pastor? I guess that depends on what you mean. Are you talking about a spirit of being critical of someone else or are you talking about weighing and critiquing what someone says? When someone in the Bible speaks in the church gathering it is the responsibility of the church to weigh what they said:
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 1 Cor 14:26-32
There was none of this "Pastor speaks, you all shut up and listen" going on. I don't mind the sermon model of teaching having a place in the church because it can be helpful but when it is the only mode of teaching and when no one is permitted to interact it ceases to be what we see commended and modeled in Scripture. If you are going to speak regarding the oracles of God, you should expect and welcome people asking questions, seeking clarification and even providing some pushback now and then.

There is a difference between critiquing someone and grumbling constantly about someone. If the issue are those who constantly are dissatisfied and grumbling constantly, that is a different issue and it doesn't matter if the one you are being critical of is a pastor or a "layman", there is no place in the church for gossip, slander and backbiting. In fact that sort of divisiveness ought to be grounds for church discipline.

The headline is the one of the real problems here because it doesn't really reflect the article. Outside of the misapplication of Scripture, what it says is more consistent with what is the proper position, namely that there is no place for constant grumbling and in most institutional churches there is a process in place if the pastor goes off the reservation on an issue. The headline was intended to be attention grabbing and in doing so did a disservice to the actual content.

The other major problem is that pastors are elevated to such a high pedestal that to criticize them or even to give some gentle pushback is considered out of bounds. I have met and been in the church of one pastor in particular who seemed to take any question, no matter how graciously and humbly presented, as a direct challenged to his "authority". I have shared this before but on one occasion a friend and I were with this pastor at a festival where everyone was having a great time and my friend asked if he could ask the pastor a question. The pastor immediately crossed his arms and got a stern look on his face, it was obvious that he wasn't interested in answering even a clarifying question. I think that attitude, not to that extreme but still the same attitude, is common among some pastors.

In addition, because pastors are employees of the church members rather than a leader among them, criticism is almost inevitable. If I pay someone to fix my car and they do a crappy job of it, I am going to express my disappointment. When I was a manager I had to provide negative feedback on a regular basis. It comes with the employer-employee relationship. I think a lot of laity feel that since they pay the pastor, they can be critical of the performance he is paid to perform. So a lot of the problems with grumbling about pastors is directly tied to the model of church "leadership" that we have adopted.

What we need more of in the church are Christians edifying and encouraging other Christians, regardless of what title they do or do not have. This issue of being critical about pastors would disappear if everyone in the church were more focused on equipping, exhorting, edifying and encouraging one another instead of letting that entire process be dumped on one guy who tries to cram it into a 45 minute monologue. Let the church live and breathe as the church and a lot of these kinds of issues would largely go away.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Endless Source Of Eternal Treasure

Desiring God published an article a while back titled Your Bible Is a Gold Mine. The article itself wasn't all that great but the title is perfect. The Bible is indeed like a gold mine but the ore we gather is infinitely more precious than mere gold. It is the recorded oracles of God, proclaimed and preserved for His people so that even 2000 years later we have access to what Jesus and the apostles taught. As we dig deeper the vein of ore is never exhausted but indeed grows richer with each strike of the shovel, a treasure that can never be exhausted because therein is the Son of God revealed. It is not like we can figure out everything useful the Bible has to say in 20 minutes and then find ourselves looking around saying "Now what?". In fact the opposite is true. There are few more valid signs that someone is serious about the Bible than someone who recognizes how little they truly understand about it.

One overlooked aspect of the Bible is that it is the great corrective to the ancient and erroneous systems of sacramentalism and clericalism. Via the system of sacraments, controlled by the clergy and valid only when administered by them, the average Christian is enslaved to the religious system. The only way they can access God, or so they are led to believe, is by first coming hat in hand to the clergy who can grant or revoke access to God by denying the sacraments. The Bible shows that people can know the mind of God in the words He preserved, gaining wisdom and access that would otherwise be denied them by those how desire power over others. How odd then that so many who are the most vocal in opposing the clergy-laity divide are also the quickest to diminish the most accessible tool in overcoming that false and ungodly division. To read some of them on social media you would think that the Bible is something dangerous that should be kept away from the people, rather than the catalyst for the Reformation and the advent of the Anabaptists.

What is the motivation behind those who disparage the Bible, set aside the Bible or discourage people from reading it too much? The most oft referenced reasons have to do with making an idol of the Bible and reading the Bible to the detriment of other spiritual disciplines. There is some truth in some cases to that, especially the most unhinged King James Only advocates, but in general it is a strawman. I think there is more at play here.

The claims the Bible makes and the truths it reveals are often powerfully critical of how we want to live and what those around us think. To take the Bible too seriously is to be labeled ignorant and perhaps a bit dangerous. Rather than seeing it as an active and current source of true wealth unimaginable, many people treat it like an artifact that must be acknowledged and then hidden away like the Ark in the first Indiana Jones movie. "We have top men working on it" which is code for keeping the cover securely shut.

The church is in an era where we need every resource we can lay our hands on and yet some want to disarm the church. A one sided theological armistice might make for fewer uncomfortable conversations but it also makes for a weak and unarmed church in a time when that amounts to suicide.

Don't put a cover over the source of the revelation of God and then declare yourself wealthy and wise. Setting the Bible aside is not a sign of spiritual maturity, it is the precise opposite. If you want to take a stand against clericalism, control and authoritarianism, encourage your fellow believer to take to heart the words that marked Augustine's conversion: Tolle Lege, take up and read.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Our Dangerous Desire For Middle East Hegemony

This is perhaps the best, most sober and cogent argument I have read in favor of a reduced American influence and policy making in the Middle East in return for a renewed engagement by our European allies in our heretofore one sided alliance: Europe’s Mission in the Middle East by Leon Hadar. Hadar's basic position is that the U.S. has dominated the influence game in the Middle East to prevent anyone else from gaining too much influence and in doing so has permitted and encouraged Western Europe to subcontract the geopolitical field in their own backyard to America. It is a great piece overall but I really liked this point.
While Obama has tried to cut the costs of upholding Pax Americana in the Middle East using a reactive and often ineffective policy, neither he nor any leading Democratic or Republican figure has come up with a proposal to replace the Middle East strategy adopted after the Cold War. That strategy, which was pursued by several administrations, was based on the assumption that when considering interests and values, it is the obligation of the United States to secure the balance of power in the Middle East. But from the Iraq War to the Syrian civil war, as well as through the Arab Spring, that policy ended up with outcomes that were harmful to U.S. interests and not aligned with its values.
This mindset is why Republican candidates for the most part trip over themselves in an attempt to one-up each other for the title of "Most Pro-Israel Candidate", as if one of the Constitutional duties of the President of the United States is to see to the defense of Israel. Some days it seems like what is happening in the Middle East is more important than the U.S. debt charging toward $20,000,000,000,000 or the disaster of Obamacare which the next President will need to address or any other of the thousands of pressing issues that concern America. The reality on the ground is that we don't really understand what dynamics are in play in the Middle East and we usually make it worse the more we try to intervene and tinker with the governments and cultures of nations that already hate us.

Apart from Rand Paul there are very few rational arguments being put forth anywhere in the main
political parties that is based on common sense and reality. Normally what we hear is more involvement, more lives being spent, more billions being tossed away and less security for the very nation allegedly being defended. When you consider that the refugee crisis is properly handled by the bordering states of Europe, when you look at a map and see that the nations that sit to the immediate northwest of the Middle East, etc. all point toward a situation that should be led by Europe, not America, then the policies being put forth seem even more ridiculous. Before we get in a shooting war with the Russians, something that a lot of people in America and Russia alike have been pining for since before the end of the Cold War, we should send a nice postcard to Europe and tell them it is high time for them to open their wallets and recruiting stations and start defending themselves.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

It Wouldn't Be Thanksgiving Without It

Haaaappy Thaaaaanks Giiiiving...
This may be one of the funniest scenes in television history and it's certainly not Thanksgiving without it.
Posted by Bill Meck on Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Reluctant Epistle

I usually think of Jude as the "contend earnestly" book. It is only one chapter, 25 verses and is probably best known for part of verse 3 "...appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." This is the most commonly referenced verse for many apologists. It can appear from emphasizing that part of the verse that Jude is an enthusiastic advocate for apologetics but as I read through Jude yesterday what stuck out for me was the first half of verse 3: "Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you..." Jude didn't want to write to his audience about the need to hold fast to sound doctrine. He seemed to want instead, eagerly he says, to write about our common salvation, a more joyful topic than marking out false teachers. However based on some news or feedback he was compelled to pen this short letter to address the pressing issues that needed to be confronted.

So what was going on? It appears that as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes "there is nothing new under the sun". Specifically there appears to be a serious issue of people who are engaged in sexual sin and seek cover for their behavior by false appeals to grace. Look first at what Jude writes immediately after his "contend earnestly" verse:
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4)
Set aside for now the import of the part where Jude says that those who were condemned were designated long ago, a statement that seems to echo Romans 9. Look instead at what these ungodly people were doing. They were perverting the grace of God that forgives to the uttermost the sins of believers and with this perversion of grace had descended into "sensuality" or as the KJV puts it "lasciviousness". The NIV renders it "who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality". The Holman Christian Standard uses the word "promiscuity" and the NASB "licentiousness". However you render it, what is happening seems to be people who were engaged in sexual sin and when confronted about it waved the "grace card". Jude is urging his audience to reject this idea, an idea still very much alive and well today, that "grace" is a license to sin, in other words I am forgiven for all of my sins anyway so it doesn't matter if I sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this attitude is a sign of someone who is not regenerate in the first place. The apostle John writes powerfully in opposition to those who try to cover their licentiousness with grace throughout his first letter and especially here:
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:8-10)
That is some of the most powerful writing in the Scriptures. Talk is cheap. If you make a practice of sinning, you are of the devil and not redeemed. If you are indeed born-again you will inevitably be on a path of sanctification. That isn't a teaching that once you are born-again you never sin again, the error of "sinless perfection", but it does mean that if you wave your sin around with pride and are not only unrepentant for it but in fact pleased about you are of the devil. Those sort of words have no place in many "churches" where fornication, divorce and remarriage, homosexual perversions, etc. are out in the open and celebrated. Those words are powerful reminders for those of us who make up the church that there are many who claim to be Christians but demonstrate by their actions that they are not.

Jude continues with an interesting series of examples:
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 1:5-8)
So three things are happening here. Jesus saved His people out of Egypt but He also destroyed those that did not believe. It is interesting that Jude specifies Jesus as the one who saved the believers out of Egypt, a powerful example of the eternality and triunity of Jesus in the Godhead.  Next he looks at a somewhat curious example of angels who apparently rebelled and are kept in darkness until judgment day. I am not sure anyone has a definite understanding of that although there are several viable theories. The third example leaves nothing to the imagination. Jude references Sodom and Gomorrah marked out for the wrath of God against sin. It is popular to try to soften the Sodom and Gomorrah story by throwing out malarkey like what God was really mad about was the inhabitants not being hospitable or that it was the forcible nature of the sexual sin that made God mad. Clearly Jude is saying that God destroyed them in a "punishment of eternal fire" because of sexual immorality and "unnatural desires", i.e. homosexuality which has been recognized as deviant and unnatural until very, very recently. Certainly there was sexual immorality of other kinds going on but Jude specifically refers to the "other flesh" as the unnatural lust of same sex relationships. God clearly was already planning on destroying these cities long before the angels visited Lot based on the negotiation going on between the angels and Abraham. It requires a willful disregard of what is preserved for the church to deny that the Bible in general denounces sexual sin and also takes pains to specifically point to one type of sexual sin, homosexuality, as deserving of special mentions and condemnation.

Jude goes on to warn his readers that these people are among them, falsely portraying themselves as part of the church.
These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him." These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage. (Jude 1:12-16)
The hidden reef picture is a powerful one. You can be sailing along on a beautiful day with calm, blue waters until you hit the reef and sink your ship. People who practice sin as Jude is pointing out are often found in the church, on the surface looking like "one of us" but with deadly danger just below the surface. What also strikes me is the language of wrath and judgment associated by Jude to Jesus Christ, the brother of our Lord who undoubtedly knew Him very well even though he has very little preserved of his writings. The language he uses is so foreign to so much of our religious culture that portrays Jesus as a simpering ancient version of George McFly.

Jude goes on to remind his audience that this was all predicted by the apostles and as such we shouldn't be shocked to see false teachers in our midst:
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 1:17-19)
Then amid all of the dire warnings and stern word pictures we get a beautiful closing with the promise of God, the calling of the great commission and a beautiful doxology:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:20-25)
It seems as if Jude were writing to the contemporary church, beset from without but especially from within. So many of us are sort in a stunned inaction, so disarmed by the ferocious attack on the faith that they don't want to move for fear of upsetting what little stability they have left. Many more want to sing contemporary Christian music more and more loudly to drown out the voices of warning all around them. Easier to pretend all is well than to face the ravening wolves. As Jude shows us, we cannot simply sit around in indifference while the church is under assault from false teachers who lead others astray. Jude was desirous to talk about other topics but he recognized the need to speak out when the church was under assault. We should be the same.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Romans and Refugees

I have avoided saying anything about the refugee situation that is the justice crisis du jour. As a reminder, there have been refugees for pretty much ever. Our local city is home to a huge number of Burmese refugees. There are lots of Somalians in Minnesota for some reason. So this is not a new crisis, it is just one that happens to juxtapose with other world affairs and hot button topics in an election cycle so it gets a lot of attention and will promptly be forgotten by the social media warriors shortly. That is not to make light of the situation, rather I am just pointing out that the attention span per crisis in America is awfully short.

One thing I want to get out of the way up front. If you are trying to draw an equivalency between the Syrian refugees and the flight of Jesus to Egypt, please stop because it is silly. When you drop the "This is just like what Jesus...." card, you have announced that you don't really have an argument. In the first century there were no formalized borders, immigration procedures, citizenship processes, etc. that modern nation-states have. The issues of concern regarding Syrian refugees didn't exist in that era. They didn't go thousands of miles away, across the ocean, to seek asylum, Jesus and His family went to Egypt, a relatively close neighboring land and they only stayed until they got word to go back, they didn't become permanent residents. Other than going from one place to another, there really isn't that much similarity at all. So please stop. There are actual valid reasons for accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees, use them instead of trying to force Jesus into a contemporary event that bears little similarity to the actual experience of Christ.

The current refugee situation is a perfect example of the idea of two kingdoms. First the Kingdom of God, of which Christians are members and duly authorized ambassadors. Our calling as Christians is to love our neighbor, to esteem them more than ourselves, to be generous and sacrificial without expecting or demanding anything in return. That means that a refugee ought to be loved and cared for, not just in flowery words or self-righteous Tweets but in actual real and tangible ways. It doesn't matter to me as a Christian if my neighbor is a red-blooded, born in 'Murica citizen or if they are here illegally. A human being, a fellow image bearer of God, in need demands my help. The church is not the government and the government is not the church. America has Christians dwelling here but America is not Christian. We cannot entangle our response as the church with the secular political actions of a nation-state. Even my neighbor who is an Islamist jihadi in need ought to be loved as Christ loved His enemies that now make up His church. Jesus didn't save anyone who was on "His side" before they were born-again. In sum, our response to refugees as followers of Christ is distinct from what the government does.

The other kingdom, the kingdom of Caesar and the world, has a different mandate, one to enact and enforce laws. Any reasonably functional nation has an interest in maintaining borders and enacting sensible immigration policies. Just because there is a flurry of posts on Facebook, a nation shouldn't fling open the doors to any and all. That means that a nation like America has a reason and a responsibility to have a policy and process that governs people emigrating to this nation, whether people are here temporarily to work, whether they are asylum seekers, whether they are students or whether they are seeking permanent residency and citizenship. We shouldn't expect Caesar to act like the church and we shouldn't want Caesar to act as a proxy for the church. Two kingdoms with two different sets of priorities and principles.

Situations like the Syrian refugees are a good time for the church to take a step back and take a breath. Demonizing Syrian refugees as all being potential terrorists is not based in fact nor is it reflective of the Christian ethic. Neither is demonizing fellow Christians for expecting the secular government to take appropriate and reasonable cautions. Let's all try to keep in mind that we as the church are supposed to be on the same team, maybe we can have rational discussions without meme wars and slander.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why Jesus Needed Paul (And We Do Too)

I saw another silly meme the other day and while I try really hard to not give much credence to this form of "discourse", I still get riled up by them because a lot of people think that they actually do represent serious thought. I guess it comes from a social media, tiny attention span world. Anyway the gist of the meme is that somehow modern Christians have figured out that a) Paul didn't really mean what he wrote in any number of places about gender in the home and church and b) what he wrote somehow didn't match up to what Jesus taught about gender. The meme itself isn't important at all because it was pretty dumb but it did bring back to light the serious danger I have observed in religious circles of pitting Jesus against Paul.

In the New Testament, Jesus of course dominates every page. The whole book is about Him, points to Him and refreshes and encourages His followers. Apart from Jesus though, the New Testament is hard to read without seeing Paul as a towering, critical figure in the preserved revelation of God, a man that was specifically chosen and who's writings make up so much of the New Testament. Without the writings of Paul our New Testament would be more like the New Pamphlet and we would as the church be largely lost in many matters that Jesus didn't speak much about but Paul did.

Paul makes some people uncomfortable. He speaks in words of doctrine, he specializes in boldness, he seems completely unfamiliar with nuance, he speaks about topics in ways that make our modern sensibilities get all out of whack. So for some people it is easier to just pretend Paul doesn't exist or to place the preserved writings of Paul on a lower level than the Gospels, as if the Gospels were handwritten by Jesus Himself. "Just give me Jesus!" is their cry, foolishly forgetting that much of what we know about Him we know thanks to the writings of Paul as well as the Gospel writers.

Why don't we have 20 Gospel accounts and call it good? If what Jesus verbally taught is all we really need, wouldn't that make more sense? We need to try to think about the writings of Paul from the perspective of the intended audiences. If you read the Gospel accounts and then the rest of the New Testament you have an advantage the Gospel audiences in place when Jesus taught did not have, namely you know what the whole point of the earthly ministry was, the cross and the resurrection. Jesus didn't come primarily to heal people and deliver ethical teaching. He came to live, be crucified and buried and then to rise again. Paul fleshes this out and helps to explain and apply those precious truths.

Knowing this, can we categorize the New Testament canon, which reveals sufficiently and completely the preserved revelation of Jesus Christ, into two main categories?

The Gospels tells us what Jesus did, who He is and what He taught

The Epistles tell us what all of that means and how we should respond.

It is pretty obvious from what we can glean from the Epistles and other non-Gospel writings that it was critical to go from description to application, and do so in the right way, in the very earliest days of the church. The basic Gospel proclamation is pretty simple but it leaves you with the question of "OK, I am a Christian. What do I do now?" and while the Gospels are long on sweeping themes they are kind of short on specifics.

When I read the New Testament, the calling of Saul into Paul, the persecutor becoming the servant, the bane of Christians becoming the greatest church planter ever, is the single most powerful event after the ascension of Jesus in the Scriptures and indeed in the history of the church. Nothing else comes even close, not even the Reformation. Paul, it bears repeating, was a recognized apostle and a man who communed directly with Jesus. He knew the intent and heart of Christ better than any of the contemporary mumbo-jumbo spewers that dominate the interwebs. It is plain that Jesus called Paul to be a voice among the nascent church, to settle disputes and answer questions, to spread the Gospel far and wide. It borders on criminal malpractice when people who presume to be teachers in the church try to put Paul in the corner and shut him up.

Let me put it more forcefully. The church without Paul has no idea how to be the church. Jesus told us to break bread and share the cup. Paul tells us how and why. Jesus said to baptize all the nations. Paul tells us what baptism means. Jesus said to make disciples. Paul explains what a disciple is. Jesus said that whosoever believes in Him has eternal life. Paul tells us why that is necessary and how it happens. On and on. On so many topics and issues Jesus uses Paul as His spokesman, speaking the truth to the church and exposing the lies spread by so many.

Paul is a rich trove of wisdom that the church needs to heed him more, not less. The only explanation I can think of for people trying to diminish or even dismiss Paul is that he lays bare the error of their contemporary theological innovations. Paul is inconvenient and uncomfortable for some so he is relegated to a second class status in the church, his writings placed under glass like an ancient artifact, nice to look at but certainly not to be touched. This is especially true now as the culture the Western church is living in looks more and more like the pagan dominated culture Paul ministered in. These are days when the church should be crying out more for Paul, not less. Jesus called Paul and sent him out as an apostle. We should be eager to hear what he has to say, now more than ever.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

He Will Never Forsake You

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?" Hebrews 13:5-6

This is more like what I turn to Desiring God for. John Piper breaks down Hebrews 13:5-6 in this video message. Check it out.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Not A Compliment To Complementarians

Desiring God almost always posts articles that are useful and edifying. A recent post on the new female mixed martial arts champion, Holly Holm, who defeated the oft vulgar former champ and media darling Ronda Rousey was decidedly neither. Adam Viramontes, who apparently knows Ms. Holm, writes a glowing article for Desiring God, A New Kind Of Champion, extolling her virtues and comparing her to Jesus Christ at the end of his article. It was obviously a questionable article given the disclaimer reproduced below:
Editor’s note: Christians disagree about whether men and women should engage in sports whose aim is to wound or hurt the other person. This is true for both men’s and women’s sports. When women are involved, the issues are compounded by the question of how God has designed for women to express their womanhood. We affirm the humility praised in this article, but would want our readers to think deeply, carefully, and biblically about the wider moral issues of the sport of ultimate fighting.
I have to question the wisdom of publishing a piece that has to make that sort of disclaimer. Desiring God is a resource I heartily recommend to anyone, wherever they may be in their Christian walk and John Piper is one of my favorite teachers but an article singing  the praises of a sporting event one step removed from mud wrestling makes me question who is running the show there. Especially since Desiring God and Piper are some of the very best apologists for Biblical gender roles. It is jarring and unhelpful. I can't imagine John Piper sitting around with some dudes and cheering on two women battering each other.

I pull no punches (pun intended) when it comes to my revulsion for mixed martial arts. It is less a sport than it is a glorified bar fight. A "sport" where the entire point is to hurt someone is a bloodsport more akin to gladiatorial games than it is to an actual sport. People get hurt in football, hockey and baseball, and the violence inherent in hockey and football is a large part of why I don't follow sports anymore, but the people getting hurt is for the most part secondary to a primary objective; scoring a goal or keeping someone else from scoring a goal, moving the ball forward toward the other team's goal line or stopping the other team from advancing toward your goal line. In MMA hurting someone else is the entire point, hurting them enough that they are forced to submit or cannot get back up. It takes the already brutal sport of boxing to the next level by adding kicks and grappling and like boxing usually features the victor standing bruised and bloodied after pummeling his or her opponent.

I am not terribly shocked by the popularity of MMA fighting. After all our entire culture is circling the drain and it only makes sense to provide ever more violent forms of entertainment to distract the masses. What is troubling is the number of Christians who are devout fans of this bloodshed. Stemming from the confused "manliness" of the Mark Driscoll variety that reflects the culture rather than the Gospel, there is something that is just wrong that Christians who were singing praises to the Prince of Peace and being thankful for His shed blood on Sunday morning are the same as those who were screaming for blood to be shed for their entertainment on Friday night. Should Christians be so enamored of these forms of stylized combat? I think that question is clear enough to answer itself. I have written before and plan to continue to do so regarding the cultural obsession so many Christians have with sports. When you combine that Kingdom smothering obsession with a gladiatorial bloodsport you have very little room left for the Gospel.

Now, when you add the fact that this article from Desiring God is about two women beating each other up to sate the blood thirstiness of men? That takes it to a whole new, perverse and disgusting level. I contend that a man hitting a woman is one of the most cowardly acts that any man can do as most men are bigger and stronger than women. Right behind that has to be men who take deviant pleasure from women beating each other up. It isn't about athletics just like Playboy was never really about the articles. There is a reason no one wants to watch women engaged in Olympic style wrestling, it isn't nearly exciting enough because the excitement is derived from the violence. I am of course not drawing a moral equivalence between a man beating a woman or suggesting that all male fans of female mixed martial arts are closet abusers of women. I am however saying that the impulse for a man to watch two women fighting each other for his entertainment, the bloodier the better, is drawn from the most base elements of unregenerate human nature, the same nature that caused Cain to rise up and slay his brother.

Another element at play here is the juxtaposition of female athletes and exploitative sexuality. It is just a given that women athletes have to show a little skin to get interest from male viewers. The Rousey-Holm fight featured two women in the equivalent of sports bras and skin tight shorts pummeling each other. Beach volleyball, an Olympic sport, apparently can't be played unless the women are wearing next to nothing. Even at the high school level teen girls must wear tiny shorts or they can't set, serve and spike. Women track stars run in very little as well. On and on. In an effort to overcome the huge differential in popularity between women's sports and men's, women including some of the very youngest, are exploited for their sexuality as well as for their athleticism. If you put the women playing beach volleyball in the Olympics in baggy shorts and t-shirts, what do you think happens to viewership? Even Sports Illustrated, an icon in sports journalism, feels the need to publish the hugely popular swimsuit edition even though last time I checked posing in a swimsuit so tiny that you couldn't perform even the most rudimentary athletic act doesn't qualify as a sport. This is true of all entertainment. Young female singers often vamp it up trying to make their mark. If Miley Cyrus wasn't constantly committing ever more depraved acts, would anyone care about her? How many young female actresses with great careers are convinced that they have to go topless in a movie to show how "grown up" and "serious" they are, making many women who are fine actresses into little more than highly paid strippers?

Christians, especially Christian men, need to be very cautious about their entertainment choices and choosing to watch women trying to hurt each other to assuage your own dark desires is not markedly safer than watching soft core pornography. I am sure that analogy will rub some the wrong way but so be it. I find women's MMA to be vulgar, degrading to women and counter-Kingdom. Many disagree and that is fine but we ought to take seriously the caution raised by the editors and think through the choice of entertainment that glorifies women doing to each other what a man doing the same would lead to his arrest. I think that Desiring God should have taken their own advice and not published this essay in the first place. 

Truth And Unity Are Indivisible

Check out Eric Carpenter riffing on one of the drums I beat the most often, i.e the need for any true unity in the church to be grounded in truth: We Must Not Sacrifice the Truth for the Sake of Unity. The tl;dr of it is this, unless we first ground our efforts at unity in a shared understanding of the critical truths of the Kingdom, our unity will inevitably be false. Hop over and give it a read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Future Is Muslim And There Isn't Much You Can Do About It

When you look at resources on fertility you see predominantly Muslim countries like Niger, Mali, Somalia and Afghanistan at the top of the lists where Western, "Christian" countries like Germany, Greece, Italy and Portugal are at the bottom. Even in African countries that are ostensibly Christian, there is a sizable Muslim population and pressure from immigrants. Compare the U.S. with an average of 12.49 births per thousand people (ranking in the bottom 30% at 158 out of 224) to Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population in the world with something like 220,000,000 Muslim and a birth rate of 4 more children that the U.S. per thousand. Iran is at 17.99 and Iraq has a massive rate of 31.45. So for every child born in the U.S. there are around 2.5 born in Iraq. Other predominantly Muslim nations with unstable governments like Egypt (22.90), Syria (22.17) and Libya (18.03) far outpace America.

OK, that is a lot of demographic data but so what? There are two colliding factors at work here. One is simple numbers. People in developing countries, many of which are predominantly Muslim or at least have a prominent Muslim population, are simply having way more children than Western, non-majority Muslim countries. Many "first world" nations are far below the replacement rate, meaning that their population is shrinking by the year. The other major problem is that many of these first world nations don't have workers to replace those who retire and they desperately need workers for jobs that entitled dependents of the state won't do, not to mention needing tax revenue to fund the social promises like pensions and health care that continue to balloon in cost while revenue shrinks. Between existing national debt and unfunded mandates, most Western nations are facing a perfect storm of financial insolvency and demographic collapse. The people who are left are not going to be white, "Christian" Americans and Europeans.

One might point to stats that describe the Christian population similarly booming around the third world. Yet in the West the Christian population is not growing much at all, and in fact if you use the deeply flawed metric of church attendance the Christian population is shrinking, and at the same time the legions of retiring workers in the West are being replaced by immigrants, legal and more so illegal. The simple truth is that Muslims are out breeding Western nations by a huge margin as well as apparently being highly effective at proselytizing and eventually that increased population is going to be the dominant force in the world. The West, even in "Christian" countries has been engaged in demographic suicide for decades and there is no sign of that abating. In the 40 some odd years since Roe v. Wade we have killed off tens of millions of Americans who would now be back-filling jobs for the baby boomers. Instead those jobs sit vacant, are shipped overseas or filled by illegal aliens. There are already 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and the number grows via conversion and birth at an incredible pace. What will the world look like when the United States is no longer the dominant force and power resides in the hands of the masses of the world, many of whom are poor and Muslim?

Meanwhile the West is focused on trying to combat ISIS and company using World War II/ Cold War style warfare. The talk of "containing" ISIS and claiming victories based on seizing territory exposes a continuance of the World War II mentality where holding territory is tantamount to winning the war even though the West is fighting a diffuse enemy. Why in the world would ISIS or the Taliban or Al Qaeda want to slug it out with the military of a nation that essentially outspends the rest of the world on its military? No one thinks that at this point that would result in anything but a one sided slaughter and so they refuse to line up like targets and get slaughtered. One the other hand when the extremist groups lose territory their soldiers just drop their weapons and blend in with the rest of the population. One would have thought we would have learned this lesson in Vietnam but apparently not and now the enemy is not restricted to Southeast Asia but is everywhere including within the borders of Western states.

It seems to me that the forces of jihad are playing the long game while we in America are reflexively swinging our fists in a blind rage like a drunk in a barroom brawl, indiscriminately swinging our fists and not caring much where the blow lands. We play whack-a-mole on group and another five spring up. Our leaders thump their chests about killing "Jihadi John" and they respond by the worst act of mass violence in Paris since World War II. What is incredible to me about the attacks in Paris is not that they were so "successful" but that they don't happen more often. We certainly spent millions of dollars and countless hours of intelligence to blow up one jihadi. Give me 8-10 fanatics and some guns and I can give you a death toll that exceeds Paris without driving more than a few hours. At the same time we see "civilization jihad" being waged with no one paying much attention.

For Christians the collapse of the West and the rise of Islam means persecution unlike any we have seen since the days of the Reformation and Inquisitions. We aren't going to "win" the war against nascent Islam by airstrikes that might hit the occasional hospital, oops! Nor are we going to guard against ISIS by "vetting" refugees. The truth is that the cultural struggle is already over and we lost, the only question left is how does that aftermath look and how we prepare. The world of social media is already infested with "conservatives" trying to shut the borders and "progressives" who are trying to turn a lack of hotel rooms into a refugee crisis for Joseph and Mary. Neither approach is serious and neither does anything to prepare the church for a very different future. The problem with our existence of comfort and prosperity in the West is that we are more concerned with preserving our goodies than we are about carrying out the actual mission of the church, a mission which cannot be boiled down to "go to church on Sunday". 

I have been sounding this warning for years and if anything we are even less prepared than before, terrified as we are about terrorists and the potential loss of unfettered religious liberty. When are we going to wake up and start taking our marching orders from Scripture and the example of the church under persecution throughout history rather than from social media and 24 hour news channels? 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Prevailing Against The Gates Of Hell Doesn't Equate To Being Populous, Prosperous Or Popular

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

This is a pretty well known verse, among Christians because of the promise that God's church prevails in the end and among Catholics who misapply this sentence to create whole cloth the papacy. Yet I wonder if it means what we think it means. It is often referenced as requiring an unbroken line of the church existing at all times from Pentecost to today. I am not so sure that is what it means or that is what actually happened.

One of the most troubling and rarely talked about realities for Christians is that in the nearly 2000 years since the founding of the church the majority of the time there were likely very few Christians, based on what the Bible teaches us about how a man is justified. I would not say it was a stretch that for large periods of time there were no Christians and of course no visible expression of the church that the gates of hell are not going to prevail against.

Do you find that sobering and discomforting? I certainly do. I don't subscribe to the "trail of blood" theory nor do I think it likely that an awful lot of Christians believed in Roman dogma but were saved anyway. So it is likely that for decades or even centuries there was no sign of anything resembling the Biblical description of the church. Did whole generations come and go, even in "Christian" Europe without once being exposed to the Gospel? It certainly seems that is possible or even probable.

Even today, in spite of the popularity of the "health, wealth and prosperity gospel" teaching and the comfortable perch the church occupies in America, it does not follow that the promise of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 means that the church will inherently be numerically large, powerful in a worldly sense and prosperous compared to the surrounding people. That idea probably rubs some people the wrong way, it goes against the common religious wisdom of the day but I think that what we see in Scripture and church history is that the true church has always been on the margins, a distinct and often persecuted minority. 

How does that jive with your understanding of the verse in question? Does it require a substantive presence in every time or were there periods when God had His church absent from the world? I don't have a ton of answers on this one, it is just something that has been disquieting to me.