Category Archives: Apologetics

The Cult of the Selfie-Stick

“And also, I say that I will not continually drive them out from before you, but they will be at your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”

(Judges 2:3)

And thus, the warning given in Numbers 33:55-56 comes to pass. Barbs in the eyes, thorns in the side, and trouble — this is indeed the result of compromising with sin. Thus, while the word “thorn” is not present in the actual text, it is inferred from the context. Interestingly, the Greek translation of this text inserts the word sunoch/ (sunoche), which literally means “distress” or “anguish,” but is also the term that Paul chooses in 2 Corinthians 2:4 when he speaks regarding his distress over the people of Corinth who had been abandoning his teachings. How these faithful parents must distress the idolatry that will be enticing their children.

This statement is hauntingly relevant to us today as well. The snares are all around us — the gods of money, reputation, vanity, recreation, entertainment, etc… — and while as believing adults, we are discerning enough to recognize the dangers, those snares are dragging our children down faster than we are willing to admit. Even whole church movements have fallen prey to the trap that the time of worship is to be a time of entertainment and that church growth is about who can put on the best show. And indeed, that is not at all what church worship is to be about. Worship is about giving honor to God for who he is and for what he has done — not about giving honor to man for man’s creativity and cleverness. Worship is about sitting under the instruction of God’s Word and prayerfully seeking to apply that instruction to one’s own life. Worship is not a matter of feeling good about oneself; it is a matter of recognizing that we have a long way to go until we arrive at perfection — something that won’t be completed until we are in God’s presence eternally. Worship is about a communal gathering of God’s people and publicly pronouncing that God is the sovereign king over our land, not political parties and special interest groups.

But because we have allowed the gods of vanity and self to inundate our society, we have created the cult of the selfie-stick. And until people are made to realize the emptiness of vanity, there is no going back. But, do we really want to go back? Do we really want to go back to the world that preceded the selfie-stick? I would challenge that we don’t because sinful hearts are always drawn to anything that elevates self — just as a moth is drawn to a flame. What we want is to push through — to demonstrate to the world that the selfie simply leaves one hollow and empty and there is nothing compelling about it. Instead, what is compelling is the Lord of Hosts who can not only fill us and satisfy our longings, but who can show us how we need to leave behind these snares that entangle and grow in Truth and Grace.

Tearing Down Idols Around Us

“And you were not to make a covenant with those who dwell in this land; its altars you shall pull down. But you have not listened to my voice; what is this that you have done?”

(Judges 2:2)

I fear that we have lived in a pluralistic society too long to really understand the fullness of this statement. Certainly, as Christians, we can understand the prohibition about making covenants with those who are pagans, but what of the language of tearing down the idols of the pagans?

Of late there has been a great deal of discussion in the news about how the Islamic State, as it conquers new regions in the Middle East, has been tearing down “cultural artifacts.” Now, certainly I am not in sympathy with the wicked Islamists who are doing such things…particularly as they slaughter innocents in the name of their false god, but I raise the question simply to point out that in their eyes, they are destroying reminders of paganism from which they hope to purge the land. Is this not exactly what the Israelites were called upon to do?

Now, we have already explored the notion of MårDj (charam — verse 17) and should remind ourselves that Joshua’s invasion of Canaan was meant as a picture of God’s final judgement in the end of days. In those days, before the coming of Christ, God used his people as a witness against the pagans of the land. In these last days, after the coming of Christ, God speaks through his Son and the Son will be the one who executes judgment upon the wicked as he subjects all things to himself. Thus, while governments are given the power of the sword to execute justice, we are not given the power of the sword to execute vengeance or to purge the culture of the wicked. This is why you do not see Christians committing the kinds of crimes that you see being committed in the name of Allah today. Indeed, our weapons of warfare, as Christians, are spiritual in nature because our true enemy is spiritual as well.

At the same time, as Christians, we are called to destroy every argument and tear down every lofty opinion that is raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Sounds a lot like this passage, doesn’t it? In fact, when you pair this passage with Paul’s language of not being unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14), we have, in essence, everything for which the people are being condemned by the Angel of Yahweh. How little times change…

Today, when we look at idols (whether they are made from stone or metal or whether they are made out of ideologies), we tend to see them as things to be preserved as cultural artifacts. And while cultural artifacts they may be, what happens when the society becomes inundated with such artifacts? And what happens when the Christian church becomes rather illiterate as to what the Bible teaches as truth and error? What happens? Sadly, the answer can be found by looking out of the window at the culture around us. Because we have not faithfully pursued truth ourselves, we have not faithfully taught that truth to our children. And because we have not faithfully taught Truth to our children, they are being seduced by the Pied Pipers of this world.

What is the result? Faith is and has been minimized. People typically see faith as that which carries them through difficult times only and they forget that while faith will carry you through difficult times, faith is meant to guide the entirety of your life and pursuits. The institutional church is treated much like a kind of club that one might participate in and Sunday worship is seen as optional if it fits into the busy schedule of athletic events and school activities that are “required” if one is going to be socially “well-rounded.” Kids are taught that their social lives, too, are more significant than their family lives. And we can go on and on. And it all stems back to the fact that we have been too lenient in the way we have handled false ideas and in the way we have taught our children the truth.

So, what shall we do? To begin with, we can do much like the people did when they received this judgment from the Angel of Yahweh…we can genuinely lament the hole we have allowed ourselves to fall into. But there is more…and it is what the people failed to do in the verses that followed in the book of Judges. They failed to repair the problem by teaching their children Truth. We know that because the next generation falls away. We need to be proactive with our kids that they know truth from error more clearly than we have ever thought possible. And to do that effectively, we who are adults, need to pursue Truth with a renewed vigor that is fueled by the grief over the wickedness of our land and the fear of our children falling repeatedly into the errors that the Israelites so quickly fell into in the book of Judges. And we can work to tear down the ideological ideals that stand against the knowledge of God — things like secular humanism, false spirituality, mysticism, situational ethics, pluralism, and the modern versions of gnosticism and sophism that have crept into the church. And in doing these things through a repentant spirit, we need too to pray that God would use us as a spiritual sledgehammer in this world to tear down the influence of those teaching error.

The Fool Says … Bill Nye and Abortion

In the February 8th edition of the Big Think Newsletter, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is featured with an article entitled, “A Message from Bill Nye to those trying to Defund Planned Parenthood,” in which Bill Nye seeks to defend the premise that those seeking to remove Federal funding from Planned Parenthood are well-intentioned but confused about science. And in doing so, Nye once again demonstrates his complete ignorance as to the question at hand, the role of law in society, and the use of logic. His argument is poorly constructed, largely attacking straw-men and making arguments of equivocation rather than addressing the question at hand. And as a result, does little more than puppet the rhetoric of his liberal affiliates while seeking to cloak it in the lab-coat of science.

Nye begins his argument by stating that not every fertilized egg becomes a human. Obviously, some definition needs to be added here when defining “human.” What Nye is speaking about is the actualization of the potential that the fertilized egg happens to have. Every fertilized egg is a human (has full sets of DNA, for example), though not every fertilized egg will be born full-term and grow into an adult human. There are other things that must additionally take place, is Nye’s argument — namely that the fertilized egg must attach to the uterine wall.

While Nye is exactly correct, if the fertilized egg is to does not attach to the uterine wall, it will not develop and will be passed through the woman and the potential will never become actualized. The same, though, can be said of a child that is mis-carried or sadly that dies in the womb due to trauma from an accident. Yet, we do not dismiss these children who die in the womb as non-humans or without rights. For example, when a pregnant woman is murdered, the murderer may be charged with a double-homicide thus extending the rights of a human to the developing embryo.

More importantly is the failure in Nye to accurately establish his analogy. He seems to want to say that because many fertilized eggs do not bond to the uterine wall that abortion is not as heinous an action as many Christians would suggest. Yet, the whole point of an abortion is to destroy the fertilized egg that has attached to the uterine wall and begun forming the embryo and developing — potential becoming actualized. Further, fertilized eggs that are never implanted in the uterine wall are not being actively “murdered” or harmed (and thus Nye’s statement about whose fault it is and who you sue is irrelevant). Their passing through the woman’s body is an act of God and we would treat it no differently than we would treat a person struck and killed by lightning or from a falling branch in a storm. They are things out of our control and no one is at fault. No, we need not imprison anyone, Mr. Nye.

Further, this is not due to a “deep scientific lack of understanding” as you assert, Mr. Nye, nor is it a result of “men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance.” You seem to like to equate anyone who does not agree with your position with someone who does not understand science. Sorry, things don’t work that way in the real world. In logic, you have made a form of an ad hominem argument that is sometimes known as the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” The bottom line is that you assume that anyone who is a true scientist will hold to certain ideas — namely your view on abortion. By extension, you are presuming that if someone disagrees with you then they must be scientifically ignorant (a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc argument).

Your failure in logical argumentation not only shows your unwillingness to address the real question, but it is also insulting. What of the many people who are not of European descent who also believe that abortion is immoral? In fact, there are many who are laboring very diligently in the pro-life movement who are of African, Asian, or South/Central American descent. In fact, some of those who have been most vocal in the “Defund Planned Parenthood” movement are not of direct European descent. In addition, their labors to pass such laws that honor the life of the fetus are not based on ignorance; they are based on informed moral conviction; do not conflate the two.

Mr. Nye, you are correct that the moral standard upon which those of us base our pro-life position is the Bible, but you may want to do your homework on that area as well. You falsely state that the Bible is 5,000 years old; clearly you are not a student of history. The earliest portions of the Bible were written approximately 3500 years ago, not 50 centuries as you falsely suppose. Further, much of the Bible was written as recently as 1900 years ago. Further, the Bible does not teach that: “when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby.” In fact, the Bible constantly teaches that it is the Lord God who opens and closes the womb (Genesis 20:18; 29:31; 1 Samuel 1:5).

Yet, Mr. Nye, I believe that the most preposterous statement you make comes in the following sentence:

“To pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.”

Surely you do not believe that the laws of the land should be consistent with nature? In fact, virtually every law to which we hold is inconsistent with nature. Our laws that prohibit murder, rape, theft, abuse of women, and even bullying are inconsistent with nature. The Law of Nature — the “Law of the Jungle” — is ruthless where only the strong survive, yet we have built a society that protects the weak and cares for those who cannot care for themselves. The principle of nature is not that of compassion toward the weak, but that the strong survive. Are you advocating that we abandon this compassion, Mr. Nye?

In the statement that follows, you assert, “you can’t tell somebody what to do.” Really? Isn’t that what you are telling those of us who are pro-life? More importantly, every law we have is a law that tells someone what to do or what not to do. Even speed limit signs tell us what we are not allowed to do — and if you doubt that, try driving at 70 mph down a road where there is a 40 mph speed limit. You will discover very quickly that the purpose of law is to constrain our actions — to indeed tell us what to do and what not to do with the intention of providing a safe environment wherein we all can live.

As many before you have chosen to do, you raise the question of a woman who is raped and should she not have the right to not have the rapists genes affecting her. Let me suggest three things. First is the moral argument: we do not punish the child for the sins of a parent. To do so would be immoral. The second is the humanitarian argument: often there is a great deal of healing that comes to the raped woman by carrying the child full-term because she sees something beautiful developing even as a result of a very evil event. The third is an argument of extent: how far do you take your argument? You state:

“She has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy who got her pregnant.”

First of all, Mr. Nye, that is a horrible way of describing what we are talking about because it opens up the door to things well beyond rape. So, for example, a young pregnant lady gets in a fight with and breaks up with the man who is the father to her child. By your own admission, it seems, you are giving her the right to kill the child in the womb because she no longer wants to be connected to him. Really? Are we going there? So, what happens when a husband and wife get a divorce over an affair, should the wife be permitted to execute her toddler and make a fresh start of things? Really, Mr. Nye, do you see the implications of your logic?

Of course, you will say that the rules for children outside of the womb are different than the rules for children inside of the womb. But why? Location? Abortion is never a question of a fertilized egg that simply passes through the woman, not implanting itself in the uterine wall — I am not letting you fall back on that argument because it isn’t one. How far, Mr. Nye, will you take your logic? You suggest that we have more important things to deal with than this question — but what could be more important than preserving human life?

You even insist that we are “squandering resources” as we fight this fight. First of all, they are our resources to squander, if indeed we are squandering anything — which we are not. Second of all, the debate about defunding Planned Parenthood is about squandering our resources. There is not one non-abortive community service that Planned Parenthood provides that cannot be acquired through privately funded agencies that do not abort babies. As Planned Parenthood is supported through our tax dollars, then we have a right to hold them accountable as to not squander our money — in this case, on immoral practices. Knowing that you, Mr. Nye, place a great deal of importance on education and learning, how would you feel if our government were using our tax dollars to fund marijuana for teens. I expect that you and I would be on the same side of that argument (though I am still hoping that your use of logic might improve a bit…)

Your insistence on logical fallacies continues as you continue your views. You again assume that if you are pro-life you reject science and technology. Sir, this is nothing more than a straw-man argument and you ought to know better. We love science. And one of the things we love about science is that it has helped us to discover the near-infinite complexity of this world we live in and, in the case of the pro-life position, using science to demonstrate that a baby…even that smallest fertilized egg, is a human, though its potential has not yet been fully actualized.

You state:

“Closing abortion clinics. Closing, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies.”

So, are you suggesting that the society in which we live today, where abortion is readily accessible to those who want it, is a “healthier” society? As I look to the violence of the last several years, I question whether that view is based in reality. If we simply look at the classroom, can we honestly say that education and the classroom environment is better today than it was before Roe v. Wade? As a former educator, I do not think that is the case overall in our nation, and that grieves me. It also grieves me that as an educator yourself, you would not also be lamenting the state of our education as a society. As the culture has become more secular, education and inventiveness have declined. Have you ever considered the connection between the two, Mr. Nye?

You close by going back to a former argument that we ought not tell women what to do. Yet, again, the law tells all of us that there are things we are not allowed to do. You cannot do illegal drugs, you cannot drive too fast on the highway, you cannot take your own life or that of another, you cannot steal, etc… In America, we describe ourselves as one nation “under law.” And in that context, if there is a practice that our nation is enduring, the proper way to address it is by changing the law. That is what those trying to defund Planned Parenthood are doing. It is our civil right to do so and for those of us who are Christians, I believe it is our spiritual and moral obligation to do so.

In the end, this discourse should be a matter of sharing ideas fairly in an open forum and then reasoning through them in a civil but critical way. Your statement has some of the first but very little of the second. You are putting forth propaganda and not engaging the facts. You are also speaking in a forum where you feel safe as most people will agree with you. Why not engage in a more open forum and actually address the issues at hand with those who hold a view different than your own. You put on airs as if you were an expert in this and then do little more than parrot the propaganda of the left. Let us look at this critically and let the facts speak for themselves…not just the facts as you see them, but all of the facts…and let us address the questions at hand without setting up a series of straw-men to knock down.

If you want to view the entire Bill Nye video, click here.

The Culture War: Win, Lose, or Rebuild?

In the battle of Gibeah (recorded in Judges 20), the armies of Israel drew the defenders of Gibeah out toward the highways and away from the city by a feigned retreat. As Israel fell back, appearing to route, the heart of Israel’s army lay in ambush around the city, thus defeating the city while the city’s defenders were chasing after a decoy.

As I meditate on what is typically called the culture war, lately it has been occurring to me that we (the conservative evangelical church) may be acting a lot like the defenders of Gibeah. As we look around us at the broader culture, it is clear that the church has been losing influence. In many segments of society, the voice of the church has been relegated to the irrelevant and thus we find ourselves speaking only to ourselves and thus not influencing the culture around us as salt of the earth and light of the world.

Maybe we have been duped — duped into thinking that we are still fighting a legitimate war and as we pour out all our resources and energies against our perceived enemy, they have been gladly giving ground because they are nothing more than a distraction and the real battle has already been lost.

LOST?

Before you get all angry and storm off, just hear me out because I am not a defeatist — in fact, if anything, I usually am called a “triumphalist” by people who don’t like what I am saying. Just bear with me for a moment.

What if we have been duped? What if the culture war was something that was lost a generation ago when people began allowing prayer and Bible instruction to be taken out of our schools? What if the culture ware was lost when evolution and situational ethics began to be accepted as the norm instead of a divine creation and absolute morality? What if the church’s acceptance of “Tax-Exempt” status (as if the Government ever had the right to tax a Church) upon the promise that the church would not play an active role in politics was the point where we lost the war? What if the cultural belief that “religion is a private matter” is where we lost the war? What if we have been fighting decoys while the enemy lay in siege and infiltrated our congregations and our homes, leading the next generation to stray from the church? What if the creation of the “Christian sub-culture” has been nothing more than a colossal failure whereby we have removed our own influence from the wider world? What if we are doing nothing more than fighting ghosts that don’t need to win because the real war has already been won? What if?

MAYBE?

Do I have your attention? Just maybe? If we have lost the war, then that changes the whole paradigm and approach, doesn’t it? It has been said by many, the world around us today is more like the world of Paul’s day than the world of Luther’s day. If so, how do we react? How do we think differently?

What if the change in paradigm means no longer fighting a culture war that has been lost but instead, consists of building a new culture. No, not a sub-culture like we see around us today — that has not proven compelling (sorry, folks, my intent is not to hurt feelings). What if we let go of the whole Christian sub-culture thing and began really competing on the same footing and level as secular artists, writers, musicians, and dramatists? No, not in a preachy way, but what if the most compelling stories, music, books, ideas, etc… came from people who happened to be Christian and their Christian worldview informed what they produced (but was not what they produced). What if the best book, work, video, etc… in every field just happened to be produced by a Christian whose worldview was again, below the surface, informing what was thought.

What if, by building a new culture that was more compelling than the old culture happened to be (even to the non-Christian), was our tactic and approach. What if we realized that this is also not a new idea, but that others, like C.S. Lewis, were arguing for this kind of approach nearly 60 years ago — yes, when many of those things I mentioned at the beginning were lost! What if we approached this world as builders…though not unlike the builders of Nehemiah’s day, with spears in one hand while work was being done by the other. We need to defend agains the attacks that the enemy will really bring when they realize that we realize that their feigned retreat was a ruse. Something to think about…

Canaanites Remaining in the Land…Will We?

“Manasseh did not drive out the House of Shean and its villages, or Taanak and its villages, or those who dwell in Dor and its villages or those who dwell in Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the intention of the Canaanites was to dwell in that land. When it came to pass that Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor but they did not disposes them entirely.”

(Judges 1:27-28)

And now one after the other, we find regions that did not entirely fall to the Israelites. The phrase that we find repeatedly, such and such a city “and its villages” literally reads, “and its daughters.” This is a figure of speech that reminds us that in the ancient times you would find that once a city was established, smaller villages would spring up around the main city. This provided both trade and protection for those living outside of the city walls — thus these villages could almost be seen as daughters of the main city.

Two things strike me as interesting as we enter into this string of partial victories. The first is that we often take for granted that the Canaanites would just be pushed out of the land. Yet these tribes and villages had been there for generations…many of them even before Abraham arrived in that region. As a result, they intended to fight for their land. God had given Israel the land, indeed, but they would need to take it from those who dwelt there and they would have to take it by force.

The second thing that strikes me about this passage is that the author points forward to the time when Israel would be established in the land and they would put these Canaanites to forced labor. Not only were the Canaanites unwilling to leave as the Israelites moved in their direction, the Canaanites were unwilling to leave even if it meant becoming slaves in the land that they still considered their own.

Somewhere we need to make the decision as to where the line is drawn when it comes to the land. In our more modern day, we celebrate the Pilgrims who traveled to America for religious freedom. Yet, the fact that they came here means that they left behind their land in the Old World to find new land here. For many of these Pilgrims, their faith meant not only were they persecuted in England, but had they stayed, they would have in essence become a servant to those around them (at least in religious matters). For many of them, that meant leaving for the hardships of the new world was the only reasonable option.

Here in modern America, though, I wonder sometimes whether there will come a time when we will have to make that decision ourselves. As America grows increasingly liberal and paganistic, to we remain and continue to be salt and light or do we immigrate to a place, perhaps like Africa, where we will be able to worship more freely? My prayer is that we don’t come to the point where we will have to make such a decision, the question we must ask ourselves, though, is when such a decision needs to be made and at what point do we act upon it. Again, let us pray that this is not a decision we will be forced to make.

Apologetics and the Relocation of Luz

“And the man went to the land of the Hittites; and he built a city and he called its name Luz. It is named that up to this day.”

(Judges 1:26)

This phrase, “up to this day,” is found 90 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the majority of cases, the phrase is used to communicate the idea that even as this text is being written, years after the actual events, the city or location is still known to the audience of the author’s day. Why is this important? It serves two purposes. First, it gives younger members of the community the background behind the cultural tensions between Israel and their surrounding neighbors. And yes, the Hittites would become an ongoing enemy of the Israelites. Though the empire itself began to collapse in the 12th century B.C. (toward the end of the time of the Judges), there were regional groups (sometimes called “Neo-Hittites”) who still caused Israel a great deal of grief even into the time of the Kings. Most scholars today place the relocated Luz just north of the Golan Heights in the region that would have (at the time) been part of the Hittite empire.

While the first reason spoke to the people of the author’s day, the second reason for the significance of this phrase speaks to us in modern times. Were this a mythological or legendary story, as many liberals would assert, historical place-names would not be mentioned. Think about the folk-stories that you know: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, or even King Arthur. These stories are all very vague in terms of times and place names…the reason: so that they cannot be disproven.

But the Bible gives numerous place names and ties the historical events therein to many events that are outside of the region of Israel (in this case, to the Hittite Empire). That gives us a way to verify their historicity but it also stands as an apologetic to the world around who would be inclined to dismiss the text as ahistorical. Thus, as we make an apologetic for the Christian faith and for the truth of the Bible, we need to recognize that these statements were intentionally put in place for our benefit. The author is essentially saying to us, “Look, I too am separated in time from these events, but the cities and places still exist today and thus my audience can go there and verify them firsthand.” While it may be a bit tougher for us to verify these things firsthand as more history has transpired and ruins of these cities don’t always still remain, the historical record stands as a witness to us that these events were not manufactured. That should encourage us in our faith as well as be a tool in our apologetic for the faith. The bottom line is that our Bible is reliable and statements like this reinforce that great truth.

Am I Missing Something?

Normally I try and stay out of the fray when it comes to the frenzy around popular scandals and sensationalistic stories. Maybe I should make more social commentaries than I do, but guess that I would rather immerse myself more deeply in God’s word and trust people to have a little common sense that can be applied to a situation strange or otherwise. Yet there has been an odd buzzing around evangelical circles and I am feeling compelled to at least comment in the hopes that this buzz will go along the wayside sooner than later.

It seems that recently, Atlanta pastor, Louie Giglio was first invited and then disinvited to offer the benediction at the second inauguration of President Barak Obama. It is said that the invitation came as a result of Giglio’s work to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the United States. The disinvitation came as a result of a twenty-year-old sermon where Giglio presented the Biblical testimony that homosexuality is sin. And now, it seems that every major figure in evangelical Christianity along with major figures in the liberal establishment are offering us commentaries — folks, enough already! Yet, let me ignore my own advice and make a couple of comments:

 

1) Why in the world would the Obama Administration invite an evangelical evangelist to offer the benediction? And why, oh why, did Giglio accept said request? Think about it. Perhaps it would be flattering to be asked to offer such a benediction, but there comes a point when one ought to decline.

Though I have never been asked to offer a prayer at such an auspicious occasion (and don’t expect to be), as an area pastor I do regularly get asked to pray or offer a benediction at community events. In these cases, the first question that I ask is always, “Am I allowed to pray in the name of Jesus Christ?” If the answer is, ‘no,’ then my answer is ‘no’ as well. Inclusivity in presidential politics is no new thing to the scene and clearly guidelines and rules would be established for such a benediction that would water down the intentional Christian spirit of the prayer.

One might counter that this is a pluralistic nation in terms of religious beliefs, and indeed it is, but I am not a pluralistic pastor — I am a Christian pastor, and so is Louie Giglio — and thus my loyalties lie with Christ and any authority I have to offer a blessing upon the lives of others also comes from Christ.

Furthermore, when one shares the stage in a setting like an inauguration with someone, that offers an implicit endorsement of the person with whom the stage is shared. Why go down that road? How can an evangelical endorse any politician that supports the gay agenda, the pro-choice agenda, and the agenda of those who are seeking to marginalize the Christian voice from civil life (in our schools, our courts, etc…)? What fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)

 

2) While my intention is not to slam Pastor Giglio here, it seems odd to me that those pursuing a liberal agenda would have to go 20 years back to find something “incriminating” against him in his sermons. Surely, I would hope, that nearly any evangelical pastor would regularly be speaking in a way that those who pursue sin would find offensive. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “if you are not stepping on toes, you are likely not preaching the gospel.”

As preachers, part of our responsibility is to address the sins of our time in a way that reflects God’s word and not the fickle preferences of men. We are to call the culture away from its self-destruction and not chase the culture to the praise of men. We should be calling people to repent of their sins — homosexuality being just one of such wicked lifestyles our world has embraced. We should also be calling people to repent of sexual immorality of all kids, including sexuality outside of wedlock. We should be calling people to repent of pornography, slander, gossip, unforgiveness, anger, pride, adultery, and the list goes on! We should be proclaiming the truth that we are fallen sinners and that there is forgiveness in Christ Jesus alone — there is no other way to the Father but through the Son. Surely that too must be greatly offensive in our politically correct society!

This does not mean we are wagging our fingers at the world, for we point toward our own fallenness as well, and we proclaim that in Christ there is grace and forgiveness — yet Christ himself also calls us to turn away from our wicked lifestyles, not to become comfortable in them or accepting of them. “Go and sin no more” are words from Christ that echo down through the centuries.

When the issue of homosexuality was raised with Giglio, rather than to use that opportunity to speak truth into the culture, he soft-pedaled the matter and stated that the question of homosexuality had not been in his “range of priorities in the past fifteen years.” Really? Surely homosexuality is one of the most significant issues eroding the morality of our society over the past fifteen years…am I missing something? Especially given that much of Giglio’s public ministry has been focused on calling kids to “making much of Christ,” does one not think that one’s lifestyle is part of that? Were one to have a ministry that focused primarily on our older generation (let’s say 65 and up…sorry Mom and Dad!), then it would be easy to see how this social issue would not play a role in the forefront of his ministry because that generation in our culture was largely raised on Biblical moral teachings. The younger generation was not and has been encouraged to experiment with sin. One ought to keep that in as much of the forefront as sex trafficking, the use of drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors. Giglio clearly is committed to the Biblical truth on the matter, given the language of his released sermon, but why has he played down the question when raised?

 

3) It is true, as people like Al Mohler point out, that Biblical foundations are being eroded from our culture and that society is actively seeking to marginalize the influence and presence of evangelicalism from public life. That said, why do we assume (as evangelical Christians) that having an evangelical pastor pray for our president (one who rejects what evangelicals stand for) will change the current state of affairs? Don’t get me wrong, we are to pray for all of our leaders — in this case, I would argue for conversion — but the public prayer at an inauguration does not seem to be the kind of thing that Paul was speaking about when he wrote those words to Timothy.

And why should it bother us if our president would choose a liberal pastor, a unitarian pastor, or even a Muslim Imam to pray for him at his Inauguration? Why not find someone to speak words that will be meaningful to the man being Inaugurated?

Yes, as Christians we may not like the idea of our Christian presence being lost in the Presidential Inauguration, but is it really there just because a Christian offers a prayer and the President swears on a book he cares nothing for? It is said that of Evangelical Christians in America, only about 20% eligible to vote did, so why bother getting upset now? And why bother getting upset at anyone but ourselves. If we have chosen (as evangelicals) to refuse to be salt and light, then it is we who need to repent for our bashfulness. We have bought into the idea that if we put up the pretense that we are a Christian culture we will be…sadly, the Bible calls that hypocrisy. We are a nation grounded in Christian roots, but we have strayed far from the spot where we began. We need a political revival like the spiritual revival that took place in Josiah’s day, calling people in our nation back to the foundation upon which we began — the foundation that God blessed and made our nation the great beacon of freedom and liberty that is — though as we stray further and further from that foundation, we will lose more and more of that freedom and liberty that made our nation great.

 

The bottom line is that these kinds of things (disinvitations and the like) are not the problems; they are only symptoms of the problem. We, like ancient Israel, have fallen into a time where every man does what is right in his own eyes — and we are paying the price for that sin. No, I don’t think I am missing something.

 

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!

It seems that these days people speak a lot about liberty, protecting their liberties, and how their liberties are being threatened by this legislation or that group of people. “We live in a free society!” people proclaim and use that status to excuse or protect all sorts of behaviors. When the government speaks of laws that would restrict gun ownership, the conservatives yell that their liberties are being compromised. When the government speaks of controls on the spread of pornography on the internet, the liberals  yell that the freedom of speech and of the press is being compromised. When a homeowner’s association tries to restrict the way renovations are done to a house, homeowners cry out that their liberties are being infringed upon. Even in theological circles, the matter raises its ugly head. When Reformed Christians begin speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty over a person’s life, death, and salvation, the Wesleyans wave the banner of libertarian freedom for the human will. And so the debates ensue.

But do we really even understand what it is that we are saying? There is no question that there are things we oppose, and with good reason, but is liberty and freedom the right plank to stand upon when taking a stand for one or more of these matters? In fact, do we even know what these words mean in the first place? True, we know the mantras. Patrick Henry is famous for proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in the face of British oppression. We have a giant statue personifying liberty standing in the New York Harbor. As Americans, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” But if we do not understand what is meant by these statements, then the mantras become nothing more than repetitious slogans fit to adorn bumper-stickers and drink coasters and are useless when it comes to living out one’s life.

So, what is the definition of liberty and freedom? The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within a society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.”1   Liberty comes from the Latin word, libertas, which means “freedom or independence.” The word free is derived from the German word, frei, which has roots in the Indo-European word meaning, “to hold dear.”2

But what does this imply? If freedom means that I can do whatever I feel like doing, then a free society sounds more like an anarchy than something that would honor God. Surely there must be some qualifications placed on our liberty lest a free society become a horrific place to dwell.

To really understand the implications of these ideas, we need to begin by looking at the source of freedom and liberty, God himself. Though Jefferson was anything but an “evangelical Christian,” he did get one very fundamental idea correct…that is that we derive our “unalienable”3  rights from our creator — a creator who has these rights within his person in a perfect sense. God has perfect liberty, but does that mean that God’s liberty is absolute in the unlimited sense of the definition given above? Particularly for those who have grown up in a culture that has told them that “God can do anything…”, the answer to this question may be surprising. For God cannot do anything (he cannot lie, he cannot sin, he cannot cease to be God,  he cannot cease to be perfect and infinite, he cannot make a bolder so large that he cannot move it, etc…). Instead, God can do anything that is consistent with his person and perfections.

You see, it is the perfection of God’s own character that limits his own liberty. That does not mean that God’s liberty is imperfect, far from it. The liberty to be chaotic and inconsistent is hardly a true liberty at all; instead, it is deprivation. In God’s perfect4  liberty, he acts in a way perfectly consistent with his attributes and perfections (His holiness, righteousness, joy, etc…). At the same time, his liberty is restrained by his character so it is expressed in a fashion consistent with his character and ethical norms (which flow out of his character).

Thus, while we often talk about our need for unlimited liberty in society, such liberty is no liberty at all, but chaos and anarchy. What is best for us is liberty that is constrained by an ethical norm, yet if this ethical norm is not outside of us as humans, it cannot provide a consistent norm within which we can enjoy our liberty. And, since human government is nothing more than a gathering of people exercising authority over other people, neither the individual nor the government can establish such norms — as mentioned before, anarchy is the result of the former and governmental oppression is the natural result of the latter. What is necessary is to appeal to a norm that is transcendent and greater than human existence who also is benevolent, not malicious, in his character.

With that in mind, then, true liberty becomes living in a way that is consistent with one’s character and personality (not under coercion or intimidation) but that is also in accord with an ethical standard established by God. In turn, when we pursue immoral ends, we sacrifice our liberty by degrees that are equivalent to the immorality that we have chosen to pursue. When Jefferson argued that we have the unalienable right to liberty, this is the sense by which he understood liberty (remembering that this liberty he speaks of is endowed upon us by our creator — if we share God’s liberty as a result of the Imago Dei, then our liberty must be of the same kind and category as our creator’s liberty). He sought to advocate for perfect liberty in contrast to unlimited liberty, which is no liberty at all.

Sadly, as a society, we have lost the vision set before us by our early American Fathers and our Christian Theological heritage. It is neither taught in school nor in church and then we stand and wonder why it is that our culture has gone astray and that moral chaos reigns in the culture. The book of Judges is an excellent commentary on American life today; when every man does what is right in his own eyes, the culture will fall into immorality and bondage. Christ has established the church to be the agent by which the culture is preserved (we are salt and light); yet, the message of the church has been anything but preservational. We have feared the culture rather than fearing for the culture (given the direction it is bent toward). And thus the church has tended to follow rather than to lead. And, with that in mind, it is well past time where we begin to step out and engage once again, bringing truth into dark places and the life-preserving salt of mercy to those in our midst. And in that, let us learn ourselves first what it means to exercise perfect liberty and then teach the world to do the same.

 

1 From the Oxford American Dictionaries.

2 Not surprisingly, the word “friend” also comes from this Indo-European root.

3 Unalienable means that something can neither be given up nor taken away. It is part of the very essence of the thing. Thus, were humans to no longer have these “unalienable rights” we would cease to be human. The only way that such a right can be part of our essential being is if we are made in the image of one who also has these rights (in an ultimate sense) as part of His essential being. As Christians, we refer to this as the Doctrine of the Imago Dei — we are made in the image of God and thus these rights that are perfectly found in God are also found in us, though in imperfect ways.

4 Notice that I am using the term, “perfect” and not, “unlimited” here.

Knowledge Without Understanding

It seems that we have an addiction to knowledge without an interest in understanding. We go to conferences and seminars but we return home and little ever changes. In the church, we hear sermon after sermon exhorting us to live this way or do that and, like a fad diet, we might try out a few suggestions for a day or two and then let it go by the wayside. We have become junkies for academic degrees but tend to divorce what we are learning from life. Game shows glamorize those who have memorized endless strings of facts with absolutely no emphasis placed on being able to apply or to interpret those facts in a way meaningful to life. As the early church father, Tertullian, lamented, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Or perhaps, to put it in today’s vernacular: “What does real life have to do with book learning?”

In the world of Artificial Intelligence, there is a running debate over the question as to whether it is possible for a computer to “think.” In other words, can a computer ever be designed and built in such a way that it will be able to use inductive logic and make inferences based on new situations. Though the science-fiction community has been toying with the idea of thinking robots for quite some time, science-realty has not been able to produce such a machine. The simple reason is because no matter how fast or sophisticated the computer processor or the algorithms that make up the software, a computer is little more than a processor of information.

The Philosopher, John Searle, developed a useful analogy to help understand the limitations of computers. He described a man placed in a room that contained nothing but two books written in Chinese. There was also a slot where pages could be put in and a slot where pages could be sent back out. Imagine, he continued, that a man were put into the room that had never studied or even heard the Chinese language. The process would look something like this. A page of paper would be put in through the first slot that contained Chinese characters. The person in the room would then compare the characters on the paper to the characters in the first book. When he found the matching character, that book sent him to a page in the second book and then the man would write down the characters he found in the second book on a page of paper and send it back out the second slot.

Over time, one might expect that the man in the Chinese room would become proficient at his task and thus become both very swift and very accurate in his writing of the symbols. In fact, the man might become so proficient that he would no longer need to use the books as references. Yet, at no point will the man ever learn Chinese. The symbols themselves only carry meaning in terms of which symbol he is to write and not with the thing or idea that the symbol represents. And essentially, a computer chip is little more than a man in a Chinese box (just much smaller!).

Yet, as computer engineers seek to develop a computer that “thinks” more like a human thinks, humans are becoming conditioned to think more like computers…essentially as repositories of vast quantities of information but never applying that information to life. We gorge ourselves on information, but never slow down and reflect enough to incorporate all of the data we ingest into a unified system of thought and life.

The reality is that technology surrounds us and has become a part of our daily lives. While we can control our obsession with information, we cannot step away from the reality that information is a part of the DNA of our times. What we can do, though, is to better filter that information through a mature and unified worldview…one based upon the Scriptures of the Bible. All the while, always discerning how new ideas fit into the whole. If ideas are consistent with the fabric of the Bible then they should naturally fit into ones system of though; if not, it should be held in suspect while seeking to understand the Biblical ramifications of the new view. Is it corrective or destructive to the whole system? The one direction that we cannot afford to go, though, is the direction we are traveling…that of holding many contradictory ideas in tension, never unifying them in a system, but affirming any bit of information as equally valid and considering that knowledge of many things is more valuable than the understanding that comes from being able to apply those things to the whole.

The Problem of Thanksgiving for the Unbeliever

I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.

To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.

And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.

Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”

Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.

If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.

The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.

The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).

So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).

Bread and Circuses

Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”

I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.

It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.

But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?

In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.

Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.

So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.

 

Embezzled Grace

“Nevertheless, love those who are hostile to you — do good and lend money without disappointing anyone — and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is benevolent to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate just as much so as your Father is compassionate”

(Luke 6:35-36)

 

“Yahweh is good to all; his mercy is over all his works.”

(Psalm 145:9)

 

“In the generations which have gone by, he permitted all of the nations to go on their own paths. Yet he did not abandon them without a witness. Doing good giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and cheerfulness. Even with these words, they barely caused the masses to cease sacrificing to them.”

(Acts 14:16-18)

 

When Christians talk of God’s grace, we talk about it in two separate ways. We talk about God’s Saving Grace, given to those that God has elected from all of the earth, by which he draws men and women to himself. And we talk of God’s Common Grace, which is the grace that he gives to all of the world — the rains in spring, the sun to make the crops grow, joy, laughter, and fellowship — things that the believer and the unbeliever enjoy alike, things which come from God’s own hand. Scripture tells us that this Common Grace is given so that no people at no time can ever say that they have not known the reality of a God who created the earth and who created them (Romans 1:18-20), yet the masses of people in the world choose to worship the created order or the works of their own hands rather than the one who created them.

The question that this raises is why does God show Common Grace to the world and when will that grace end? In the broadest sense, the answer to the question, “why,” stems back to the character of God. As the psalmist states, God is good and as a result of his goodness, he is merciful to all of his works. Jesus clarifies that statement even further in the Sermon on the Mount where he states that God is benevolent to the ungrateful and to the wicked and then, of course, God’s benevolence becomes a model for our benevolence toward the same class of people.

Yet, to narrow this matter down somewhat, we can pose another related question. What is the purpose of this grace? In a portion of the Apostle Paul’s sermon to the people at Lystra, Luke records Paul teaching that God has given his grace in this way as a witness to them — a sign of his existence with the intention that the sign would point people toward seeking the God who had set the sign into the world. In his letter to the Romans, Paul develops this line of thinking further by stating that because of this Common Grace, all men and women of the world instinctively know and understand the “invisible attributes” of God — his power and divinity (Romans 1:19-20). In turn, all mankind, because of God’s Common Grace, are left without excuses in terms of the day of judgment for their actions.

For the unbeliever, Common Grace is just as undeserved as Saving Grace is undeserved for the believer — yet, there is a distinction that must be made. While the believer is undeserving of Saving Grace, the cost of that grace was paid for by Jesus upon the Cross of Calvary. If you will, by his perfect life, he earned the glory of heaven and by his sacrifice, his shed blood atoned for the sins of those trusting in him as Lord and Savior. Believers stand before a righteous God clothed in the righteous work of Jesus Christ, not in our own works.

And thus, Common Grace is not so much the design of Jesus’ work on earth as it is the byproduct of what Jesus did. Were Jesus not to have agreed with the Father to take on flesh and to atone for fallen man, there would have been no reason for God to have done anything other than to enter into judgment and to allow this world to become as bad as it could be…a veritable “hell on earth.” Yet because of Jesus’ work, redeeming the elect through all of the generations from Adam to the end of time as we know it, the goodness of God can be seen by all through Common Grace. The unbeliever who will not trust in Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior — those whose names have not been written in the Book of Life since before the foundation of the world — benefits from Common Grace because Saving Grace is given to others.

The term “embezzle” means to misappropriate something that does not belong to you though it may happen to be in your trust. Thus, an accountant who steals from his employer by fudging the books is called an “embezzler.” Common Grace truly belongs to God and is shed into this world because he has given his Son as Savior to those who would come to him in faith. But, as mentioned above, Common Grace is also designed to demonstrate to the unbelieving world that God does exist and that they stand guilty in rejecting the God who has given them such grace. Thus, the one who would receive such Common Grace and not acknowledge the God from whom that grace is coming, is in a real sense, guilty of embezzlement. Certainly, it is not embezzlement without God’s knowing (like an accountant who would embezzle from his employer); God knows and allows it to go on as the unbelievers enjoyment of the benefit of Common Grace simply heaps judgment upon his or her own head. In a sense, it is like the employer who discovers his accountant is stealing from him, but lets it go until the accountant has stolen so much that any judge in the land would throw the book at him without question.

And indeed, the book of the law will be proverbially thrown at the unbeliever in the day of judgment. Thanks be to God for the redeeming work of Jesus Christ that I and all of those who are trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior will not receive what we rightly deserve were we left to our own devices. The question for us really is whether or not we will continue to allow those we care about to embezzle the grace of God to their own destruction, or whether we will share the good news of Jesus Christ with them that they too might be saved.

 

The Culture Wars

In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?

First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.

When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.

It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?

Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.

We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.

Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.

Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?

Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.

Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.

One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.

The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.

Cogito Ergo Sum

Descartes made his famous statement, “I think; therefore, I am,” to communicate what he held to be the most fundamental and irrefutable truth: his thought about whether or not he existed was proof that he did exist. He argued that everything else could be an illusion, but that this was the one principle that he could not deny. He would go on to argue that logically, the only way we can have any confidence that the things we believe to be true are true is to posit the existence of a good and all-powerful God, for without such a God, one could logically have no confidence that what he perceived was not part of a grand deception. In addition, combining elements of Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Aquinas’ Proof from Degrees, he posited that the idea of an all-powerful good God was inherently greater than that of an all-powerful demon, it must be that of an all-powerful God of good that we ought to expect to be in reality.

Whether one is compelled by Descartes’ logic or not, my purpose here is to raise the question about existence and non-existence in relationship to God’s creation. God, of course, is the one self-existent being that was necessary to bring into being all that is. Prior to God’s work of creation he existed in perfect blessedness and in perfect relationship within his Triune self. His creation was done not because of a need within him that had to be filled; his creation was done as a revelation of his glory and he created us to be in fellowship with him so that we might enjoy the fullness of his glory.

One of the key elements in medieval logic, that drove Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes was the principle that existence is greater than non-existence. For most of us, that seems to be more or less a common sense position as a pound of meat in the hand of a hungry man is more valuable to him than the idea of a pound of meat. Yet, later on, there would be philosophers like Immanuel Kant who would challenge that notion, arguing that existence is not so much a quality of something that could be found cumulative with other qualities, thus making that which existed better than that which did not exist, but that existence simply was a reflection of an item’s state of being. It either does or it does not exist, with no value statement assigned either way.

Despite Kant’s insistence to the contrary, I would put forward that the medieval view that existence is greater than non-existence is closer to the Biblical standard. Certainly a God who does exist eternally and is self-existent beyond the created order is greater than one who exists only in our imaginations, for who then brought creation into being? The naturalist would argue that nature is self-existent and has always existed, but nature is un-thinking and un-reasoning and how could an unthinking and unreasoning entity produce such uniform design throughout the cosmos? From the smallest genome to the largest stellar body, complex design is evident and design demands a reasoning designer. Hence, there logically must be one who is self-existent and transcendent from nature from whom nature receives its design — once again returning us to the necessity of a self-existent God who is existent.

As we then reflect on the nature of this self-existent God, we must first note that the God of the Christian Bible is the only God that fits the description of being both transcendent and self-existent. The Hindu gods, for example, are part of the created order and are not considered to be self-existent. Similarly, one can say the same of the many spirits worshiped in various forms of shamanism and new-age philosophy. In each case, the gods are understood to exist within the natural order, not outside of it. The one potential exception to this would be Islam, which holds to a transcendent god, yet their god presents himself as a great deceiver, which of course would eliminate him from being a candidate for being absolutely “good.” Thus, as Descartes points out, without an absolutely good God, we can know nothing for sure — even the faithful Muslim will have to confess that he does not have any confidence as to whether he will go to heaven or enter into judgment. The Christian Bible would go further in its claim about a god who is a deceiver and clearly point out that he is the Devil (John 8:44) or serves the devil (2 John 7).

Thus, if the Christian God is the only candidate for a transcendent and self-existent God, we will use the Bible (God’s self-revelation) to be our rule for understanding the characteristics of this God — namely that he is not only all-powerful and self-existent, but that he is all-knowing. This attribute is essential to our discussion of existence and non-existence. For, when we state that God is all-knowing, that means that God can learn nothing — he knows and has always known from the beginning all that will ever take place. This is a position that even most Wesleyans and Calvinists can find agreement on. The Wesleyan would argue that God knows all things because he is outside of time and thus looks down upon the whole of time and observes the events of man from beginning to end, a view popularized by the philosopher Boethius. The Calvinist would argue that God knows all things because he has ordained them to take place, a view that is arguably more consistent with Paul’s use of terms like election and predestination in his epistles.

Thus, regardless of which side you may fall on the Reformed/Calvinistic vs. Wesleyan/Arminian debate, there is agreement that God knows all things within orthodox Christianity. God knows all things and in turn, can learn nothing. The implication of this is that before God entered into the act of creation, the idea of his creation and of all created history existed in his mind. Surely, were God to have thought like Kant, there would have been no need to create, for existence and non-existence are simply states of being, not qualities of value. Instead, God does not simply let the idea of a created order exist in his mind, but he chooses to create and bring into existence all that is known.

This raises an interesting thought. While there was nothing lacking within God to cause him to create, it may be suggested that there is something lacking in non-existence. The lack is not in a sinful way, for sin did not enter into the world until the fall and sin can certainly not abide in the presence of a holy God, but the principle that existence is better than non-existence implies that that which exists in reality is better than that which exists only in the mind. Thus, in creating, God redeems non-existence by bringing creation into being. In a very real sense, this makes the entire creation account a redemption story. God begins by redeeming non-existence by making it exist then continues by addressing the formlessness and void. God redeems the formlessness by giving it order in the first three days of creation and then redeems emptiness by filling it in the latter three days of creation. Existence to non-existence, order to disorder, and fullness to emptiness, God redeems each and makes them “good.”

 

Turning the Model Around: Mentoring Evangelism

For about 5 years I have been teaching High School students how important it is to have a mentor and how to go about seeking someone to mentor them. We talk about setting goals, knowing what you would like to achieve, and about looking for a man or woman who has achieved those goals already who might be willing to serve as a mentor. We also talk a great deal about the character of the person sought as a mentor and how that character reflects that person’s commitment to Christ. And we also talk about how to approach such a candidate for mentoring purposes without making that person feel like they are tying themselves into a long-term relationship.

All of this is fine and good. We need mentors at every level—I seek out mentors myself. Of late, though, I have realized that I have concentrated primarily on the ascending relationship of finding mentors and that I have not focused much on looking downward (if you will allow me the analogy)—the looking for someone to mentor. And, to be more specific than that, as a Christian leader, I have been reflecting on the principle of looking for people to mentor for the express purpose of evangelism, not just to replicate the successes you have had in the lives of others.

Usually, as we walk though life, we are all pretty self-centered. Sorry to offend if I have stepped on toes, but all of us can be pretty-self serving if left to our own devices. We want people to mentor us so that we can get ahead in business or in other personal goals. We even want to mentor others so that we can replicate ourselves in them…sometimes even living vicariously through the person we have sought to mentor. We do it as Christians and we even do it in the Christian church. How often we attract people to the church by attracting them to the pastor (his messages, his vision, etc…). I am suggesting that the model needs to be rethought.

The Apostle Paul told the church that they should seek to imitate him, but he did not end there. Paul said that the church should imitate him so that they may imitate Christ as they see Christ in him (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In addition, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews affirmed that we ought to watch believers who are more mature than we are to learn about Christ from them (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 13:7). The principle is that we attract to ourselves with the purpose of turning to Christ.

So, what model am I proposing? To begin with, I propose a mentoring model that is driven from the top, not from the bottom. Highly motivated people will always seek out mentors above them; those who are Christians and leaders in the community ought to start aggressively looking for those they would like to mentor and then invest time and resources into that person. Take them out to lunch several times, learn their goals and aspirations, and build a relationship with that young man or young woman. Then, use that relationship as an opportunity to evangelize those who you are mentoring.

To take that and apply that to a church context, pastors ought not stop at attracting people to themselves, but should attract people to themselves for the purpose of pointing people not only to Christ but also to those in the congregation who are mature in their faith. Thus the pastor functions as one who creates mentoring opportunities between two others within his congregational context.

To a degree, churches that are building small groups are accomplishing something like this model—groups of people living life together. I am not knocking small groups, they are necessary for building community, but where the small group model can fall short is in two ways. First, small groups typically do not exist to spawn other small groups; the purpose of a small group is to live life-on-life together in a relationship that grows deep over a long period and is not necessarily focused on growing wide. The small group model essentially takes a group of people who are at roughly the same point in their spiritual walk and grows them together. Sometimes small groups will grow and spin off other small groups; this happens best as an organic division (a younger leader is rising up and is ready to “spread his wings”) and not as a programmed split (if you tell people that they will be part of this small group for two years and then split off, the relationships will never grow vulnerable, transparent, or deep).

Mentoring, though has a different goal in its sights. Mentoring’s purpose is to take someone and assist them in reaching a specific goal. There are markers and the relationship is designed to be temporary. My role as a mentor, typically, is to help identify untapped potential in you and to help you grow in your gifts to a certain end; either to accomplish a specific goal I have already achieved or to exceed the plateau that I have reached. Mentoring relationships are deep, but in a very limited respect in that the depth is focused not on life in general, but upon the specific goal and purpose that is in sight.

The second area in which the small group model sometimes falls short is that small groups can become disconnected from other small groups within the church body—especially when the church is larger. There may be unity within groups “x” and “y” respectively, but many times, not unity between those in groups “x” and “y.” Some of this “inter-group” unity can be achieved through group projects or if co-workers, family, or friends are spread between multiple small groups. Also, said connections can be found when people in various small groups serve in the larger church fellowship—fellow Sunday School teachers, on the music team, etc…

Yet, to use the analogy that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated parts or parts that only occasionally come together. In the body, all of the parts exist organically together and in harmony. We are accustomed to reflecting on this passage in terms of individuals, but the analogy also applies to small groups. The reality is that none of us are a hand or a foot or a kidney unto ourselves, but we are individual cells that are part of the hand, foot, or kidney. In a small group model, the groups as a whole are the body parts and need a means by which they can be bonded together. The “coming together” of the church body on Sunday is part of that equation, but body parts do not occasionally come together; they exist together in connection as a whole.

The model that I am suggesting pictures the church body as a giant, interconnected network—a giant constellation per say—where everyone is connected to one or two mentors and one or two people they are mentoring. This is not meant as a replacement for small groups, but an addition to. To continue with the body analogy, the network of mentoring relationships being like the network of nerves or capillaries that transport life-giving blood to every body part and provide an inter-connected network by which the small groups never become isolated from the whole. And that the mentoring process be used for the intentional purpose of evangelism and discipling (Great Commission) as well as be designed to grow intentionally outward into the community around us and not inward. In other words, while typically small groups exist to serve the church, the mentoring network not only connects the church parts internally, but connects the church externally to the community.

If this model is done well, you will even find mentoring relationships between local church bodies. This is not for the purpose of stealing people from one local fellowship to another,  but to build up the kingdom. Remember, Christ has one body (now we are applying this to inter-Church relationships), there needs to be an interconnectivity between Bible believing churches that runs deeper than the local pastors’ association. Surely we would all agree that any one of our towns or cities are large enough that no one church is big enough to effectively be salt and light for the whole. Getting on mission means getting out and being that witness in our community, but it also means that those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).

In this context, part of the role of the pastor is to know existing members well enough that new people to the church can be introduced not only to small groups, but to members that will reach out to them and provide them with mentoring. Also, it is his job to know the community well enough that he can connect mature Christians in his church to those who could use mentoring (and evangelization) in the community…kind of like a spiritual match-making service (though I detest the analogy).

It should be noted that this model is almost impossible to monitor. In a church that is large enough to support a connectional pastor, perhaps he can facilitate such relationships, but for most of us who pastor either single or small-staff churches, it is not realistically feasible to know who is mentoring whom throughout your church network. At the same time, that is the organic nature of the church. We are not simply a mechanical organization with rules and guidelines that can be easily charted, but we are a living and breathing entity—structured indeed, we are not a blob from outer-space—and just as a medical doctor does not always know everything that is going on within you, but will have a good sense of your overall health, so too the pastor and leadership of the church will have a sense of what is going on, but may not be able to map out the ever changing network of mentoring relationships.

Yet, is this not the relationship we find in the Bible and in the early church (one where having large buildings and facilities was not possible ala Roman law). Barnabas saw what God was doing in Paul and facilitated Paul’s connection with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul identified Timothy for the purpose of mentoring him. Timothy was instructed to find others to mentor who would hold fast to the faith handed down from person to person, generation to generation. We are part of that giant mentoring network through history and mentoring happens within our churches in ways that none of us are aware. But where I believe our churches need to go is to the next step where we become intentional about creating the network of mentoring relationships inside and outside of our church body with a specific aim of evangelizing those whom we have sought out to mentor.

Horses, Power, and a Good Salesman

The term “horsepower” is one that is commonly used in our culture to refer to the power of one engine in comparison to another, but many are not familiar with the history of the term or the way in which it was originally decided upon. Essentially horsepower is a measurement of the amount of work an engine is able to do over a period of time. When it comes to engines, one horsepower means the engine can exert 550 foot-pounds of force per second or 33,000 foot-pounds per minute.

The person responsible for making this measurement of power standard in our culture was a man by the name of James Watt (for whom the later measurement of energy conversion would later be named). Watt was a remarkable inventor and entrepreneur whose most significant contributions came in the development and refining of the steam engine. Ultimately, the engine would replace the horse, but in the late 1700s, convincing people to replace their horses with engines was anything but a simple matter.

Thus, as Watt sought to market his engines, he needed a way not only of comparing the engine with a horse, but also a way of showing how his engine was better than the horses that people had so long relied upon. Hence the development of the term horsepower. Watt began a series of experiments with work horses and seeing how far they could move a millstone over a given period of time. He then began to compare those numbers with what his engines could produce. In principle, this sounds like a simple measurement, yet different horses will be capable of different amounts of work. If Watt was going to market his engines as a replacement for the horse, he had to ensure that no farmer or miner would come to him and say, “my horse can do more work than your one-horsepower engine.

Various numbers were being kicked around. John Smeaton estimated that a strong work-horse could move 22,916 foot-pounds per minute over a reasonable duration of time. Another scientist, John Desaguliers, estimated this number slightly higher at 27,500 foot-pounds per minute. Watt found that some brewery horses could produce as much as 32,400 foot-pounds per minute, yet this seemed to be a top end. Wanting to protect his product, Watt was able to get the measurement of horsepower standardized at 33,000 foot-pounds per minute, a number that was 50% higher than most work-horses were able to produce, thus ensuring that one of his engines would not ever be outdone by the equivalent number of horses.

Watt was a good businessman and the decision to standardize a unit of power in this way was a prudent move when seeking to ensure his market-share. Yet, if you apply the same principle to the Christian life, you end up with disastrous results. How often we seek to make ourselves the central hub of all ministry in the church. Everything revolves around us and our personality. This mindset seems to be especially true amongst clergy, but it is certainly not limited to the full-time pastoral office.

In doing so we do two injustices: first, we run ourselves ragged and second, we end up making a name for ourselves rather than making a name for Jesus Christ. To begin with, ministry is not about running ourselves ragged; it is about serving Christ out of who we are in every area of our lives. Ministry may tire us, but it ought not burn us out. What we do in ministry needs to be an integral part of our lifestyle, not just one more thing we add to our plates. It also needs to be something that brings us satisfaction as we reflect back on what God has done through us in our lives. And every ministry of the body of Christ is not for every member of the local church (though every member has a vital ministry).

One of my former mentors used to say that we need to identify those things that we cannot not do and then to pursue those things because they won’t feel like work, but they will build you up and “energize” you as you go about life. That is how church life should be. The liver does not contemplate the way it detoxifies things we put into our bodies, it simply does that work because it is a liver. As a member of the body of Christ we all have those things that we would do simply as an outworking of who we are. If the liver seeks to do the job of the pancreas or the gall bladder it will fail miserably as well as burning itself out; the same principle holds true in ministry.

Yet, just as the liver is not given glory when we have a healthy body, so too, the pastor, the church leader, and the church member, should not be seeking to glorify themselves in the ministries to which God has called them. When we say, “look at me!” we distract people from looking at Christ—and he is the one upon whom we all must be looking.

So what is the solution? The solution is to nurture a culture around the life of the church where people are willing to lose themselves in Christ’s ministry. It is not about what “I” am doing in the church, but it is about what Christ is doing in the fellowship as a whole. In other words, the ministries we start can rise or fall or be handed off to another in a moment—it is the body doing the work, not me. It is not “my ministry in this church” but it is “Christ’s ministry in this church that I am fortunate enough to participate in. Just as when you look at a body you focus on the whole, not the individual parts, the same thing ought to hold true with the church.

The Gospel and Brushing Your Teeth

I publicly confess that I am not overly fond of brushing my teeth. I do brush my teeth, mind you, but it is not a part of the day that I look forward to. In fact, after I got married, one of the great sacrifices that I made to please my new bride was that I agreed to brush my teeth at least twice a day. Indeed, such monumental compromises only take place when someone is very much in love. And yes, after nearly 14 years of marriage, I am still scrubbing those teeth morning and evening as a faithful expression of my love for my wife.

Now, as random a piece of information as that may seem, there is a rhyme and reason to my madness. In our theological circles, we often talk about how the Bible is “our only rule for faith and practice” and that God’s word is there to equip us for “every good work.” Now, typically, we apply this as a guide to what we believe in our spiritual life and to what we do in our gathered worship. We also tend to be quite comfortable applying this principle to moral questions and for most, it is not too great a shock for me to say that we should rely on Biblical principles to guide our professional lives and our personal interactions in the community as well. So far, so good…

Yet, if we are going to take this language to its logical end, we ought to be able to apply the Bible and its principles to even the most mundane things that we do…well, like brushing teeth. So, the obvious question is, how does the gospel inform and even transform your teeth brushing?

Most of us will be quick to think of 1 Corinthians 6:19 and cite that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and thus should be cared for. This is a good start, though it does take a passage that is talking about not engaging sexually with cult prostitutes a little out of context. So, where else might we go? Peter reminds us that we are to always be ready to give a defense of the hope of the gospel we have within us (1 Peter 3:15) and Paul teaches us that we should be well thought of amongst the unbelievers in our community (1 Timothy 3:7). One logically might infer from those statements that it might be an impediment to sharing the gospel were we to have bad breath or a little piece of parsley leftover from dinner caught in our teeth. Moreover, if we are to be “winsome” with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-22), we ought to take care of ourselves in such a way that potential converts would want to fellowship with us and not see our presence as something to be dreaded. Yet, is this as far as the application of the gospel can go to the mundane areas of our life?

As Christians, we understand that we are made in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27). The idea that the scripture presents is that when we look at ourselves in the mirror or at others, we are looking at ones who represents God himself. Now, as you are reading this, don’t get a swelled head, the Bible also affirms just how far we are from a perfect representation as Christ is the only one who has done that for us. Yet, even so, it means that we carry within ourselves an inherent dignity and that as Christians, we have a responsibility to see that dignity preserved in others as well as in our own lives. God has given us these bodies and how we treat them with a certain degree of reverence ought to reflect the reverence for the one in whose image we are made. Thus, the abuse of our bodies is sinful because it reflects a lack of respect for God’s image and care for our bodies—even in simple ways like good hygiene—is an aspect of our worship, not of ourselves, but of the one in whose image we are made.

The atheist or non-Christian in our culture will have other reasons for their hygiene, most of which are quite practical, though some border on vanity. They will not, though, understand the fullness of their actions or root those actions in anything or in anyone outside of themselves. As Christians, we are ultimately “People of the Book,” and that book, the Bible, instructs us in not only the most significant things we do, but also in the most mundane aspects of our life. Of course, to be able to apply the book one must first know it, so I encourage you to drink deeply of God’s word and then apply it to things in your life both great and small. And, let the word of God, not practicality or vanity, guide your every action in all of life.

 

Ignorance and Vague Generalities

Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.

I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?

The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”

Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:

“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”

(Leviticus 10:10-11)

It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).

Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:

“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions  and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”

(Deuteronomy 5:31)

Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.

The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:

My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.

(Hosea 4:6)

Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.

It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.

When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.

In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.

Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?

My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.

I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.

The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.

 

Identity & Identity Theft

One of the threats within our culture is that of what we call “Identity Theft.” What we mean by that phrase is that someone has discovered enough personal information on you that they can charge things in your name, on your credit card accounts, or by withdrawing from your savings account. But surely our identity cannot be reduced to a list of numbers and bits of data in a computer somewhere? Surely our identity is based on something much more fundamental and important than our financial status.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the word Identity refers to “the fact or being of who or what a person is.” The English term is derived from the Latin pronoun, “idem,” meaning, “the same.” Identity is often abbreviated as “ID,” which is reminiscent of the Latin, “id,” which is the 3rd person singlular of the pronoun (it, he, or she). In Biblical Greek, the word  pro/swpon (prosopon) seems to convey the same idea, reflecting the entirety of one’s person—one’s physical and personal presence. In fact, when the early church fathers were discussing how to describe the fact that the Trinity contained three persons yet was one in essence, they opted to use the term pro/swpon (prosopon) when speaking of his person and the term oujsi/a (ousia) when speaking of his divine essence.

The question remains, then, if identity is the basis of who you are, how then is that identity derived? Do we define our own identity and thus have the ability to “redefine” ourselves? Or is our identity something that is placed upon us by a power or authority outside of our person? This might, for example, be our parents, who name us and train us up in a particular fashion, or this might be a government that assigns us an identification number—an “id” number—and uses that number to represent the totality of our being in life and culture? Certainly, we might like to lean toward the former, but how is our identity defined and based on that definition, can it genuinely be “stolen” as many speak about?

The modern educational system operates on the mindset that we are makers of our own identity. We encourage “free” thinking, the idea of the “self-made” man (or woman), and that we are autonomous when it comes to our own life. The quirky are celebrated in our culture and are the ones who eventually become trendsetters. We have embraced the idea that a mid-life crisis is not a terrible thing to have take place (as it is a form of re-definition) and we find that it is not uncommon to go as far as to redefine ourselves physically as well as intellectually and emotionally. People do this in minor ways like changing hairstyles or hair color, some take more drastic steps and get tattoos or have their body parts pierced, and some take even more radical steps and opt for elective surgeries and implants—even to the point of changing one’s physical gender through surgery and hormones.

What is striking, though, about the modern educational approach is that while they are teaching students to make their own decisions and define their own person, the very teaching that holds up radical independence as a virtue is a form of authoritatively imposing design on the student’s identity. When you authoritatively state that all students should construct their own identities, that very axiom is a means to conform the person’s mindset to a particular ideology. I point this out not to suggest that it is bad to encourage students (and adults) to think and act for themselves and not simply following blindly along behind an authority or a charismatic leader. Such blind obedience is the way we end up with Germans goose-stepping behind Nazi soldiers and educated Americans following David Koresh to their deaths. Yet at the same time, to affirm the idea of a radically independent self-definition is not intellectually honest as experiences, influences, direction, and other outside factors influence the formation of our identity. Much like a compass that we might follow, for that compass to work, there must be a magnetic north to direct the needle toward an absolute point of reference.

If, to maintain the compass analogy, there is the topography of life that influences the actual path that we take toward our destination, what serves as the fixed and absolute point of reference? My suggestion is that the answer to this question is that God provides that fixed point most specifically in his Son, Jesus Christ. For the Christian this should be pretty much a given, but I would submit that God also provides the fixed point for the unbeliever as well, though the unbeliever seeks to reject the direction to their own destruction. It is destruction because as we are made in God’s image and Christ provides us with the perfection of that image, fleeing from Christ is also fleeing from being all we are designed to be, pursuing a continued undoing of that image that God has placed within us. Yet, as the image of God within us is what makes us human in the very first place, then an undoing of that image within us is an unravelling of our very human nature, reducing us little by little to the level of animals.

Thus, if the development of our personality is both directed by an outside source and participated in by the decisions we make, then we should pose the final question as to whether that identity can be stolen. The answer to that question must, by definition be, “no.” Certainly, our identity may be mimicked and our governmental identification numbers can be stolen and abused, but who I am is not marked or determined by the numbers floating around in cyberspace by which the government or my bank might know me. Who I am is held by God and thus is held secure by God in whose hands I am positively held. To suggest that if someone steals my social security number and banking numbers is to steal my identity is to reduce who I am to nothing more than a statistic…something to which we must not allow our culture to reduce us.

A Living Parable

It has disturbed me to see the attitude taken by many toward the creation account as rendered by Genesis One. Even within my own denomination, one which finds its theological moorings in the Westminster Confession of Faith, there are many who have accepted “alternate explanations” of the account. Some have gone as far as to say that those who hold to a literal, six 24-hour day reading of Genesis One are “trouble-makers” in the grand scheme of the theological conversation. Ultimately, people are choosing to interpret their Bibles on the basis of their science and not to interpret their science in light of the plain teaching of the Bible.

As we look at the life of Jesus, we find that he often told parables to communicate spiritual truths. These parables are not simply “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” as my old Sunday School teacher used to say, but these parables were used, according to Jesus, to blind the eyes of the unbeliever while enlightening the believer at the same time (Matthew 13:11-15). While the parables themselves were not actual accounts of events that happened, the events taking place within the parable were certainly realistic enough that they could have been either true events or based therein.

Yet, Jesus, being the best of teachers, also taught truth through the events that took place around him. One day Jesus and his disciples were in the temple observing the line of people giving their gifts to the temple treasury and amidst the wealthy people who were there to offer great wealth there was a poor widow who gave her last two copper coins and thus Jesus used that historical event to teach the truth about what it really meant to give to God (Mark 12:41-44). Similarly, when Jesus goes to visit two sisters in their home, one is busily working to prepare the meal while the other simply sits at Jesus’ feet to learn from him (Luke 10:38-42). Again, Jesus uses this historical event to teach us the truth about what it looks like when we truly love God with our entire being and submit ourselves to His priority for our life. The fact that these events are recorded to teach us a spiritual lesson does not make them any less historical. In fact, since God has ordered all history (Ephesians 1:11), we should not be surprised to see such illustrations popping up regularly all around us.

And such brings us back to the creation account. There are a variety of objections to the literal ordering of the creation account, but these objections seem to be able to be broken down into two categories: those who reject a literal reading of Genesis 1 due to its conflicts with science and those who reject the literal reading of Genesis 1 due to a belief that its purpose is to teach spiritual truths and not historical truth. Yet, as with these “lived out parables,” the very fact that spiritual truth can be drawn from the account does not take away from its historicity. By teaching that Genesis one tells us of the divine origin of all things (which it does) does not mean that Genesis one is not telling us the manner and the timetable in which all things were created. Just as we should expect that the widow in Mark 12:41-44 really was a widow and that the details around her giving of the last two coins she had were historically reliable and accurate, there is no reason not to expect the same of Genesis one.

To those who complain that it is scientifically possible for the widow to give of her last two coins but not scientifically possible for the creation event to take place in the order or timetable as recorded in Genesis one, I think that the problem lies not with their faith in science (an ever changing field) but with their lack of faith in the miraculous. God does not present the creation as a result of natural events taking place, but as a supernatural work of creation without respect to contemporary scientific explanations. And if the miraculous is going to be rejected at the creation event, on what basis would the person accept other miraculous works: the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son, the Incarnation, or the Resurrection of Christ? If you would deny a miraculous creation, why would you accept the possibility of a miraculous re-creation at the return of Christ? The Bible affirms both without compromise.

I suppose that to be fair, there is a third group that would seek to interpret Genesis one as a non-literal account, and that is a group that fears being mocked and scoffed at by the world’s scientific community. They find themselves frustrated that holding to a literal reading of Genesis one causes them to be catalogued with fundamentalists and fundamentalists carry with them a stigma of being anti-intellectual (and to be fair, sometimes this is true). Yet, in compromising the natural reading of the Genesis one text, they undermine the intellectual integrity of their own scholarship. More importantly, by their compromise they fail to understand Paul’s words:

“But God chose the foolishness of the world in order the disgrace the wise, and God chose the weak things of the world to disgrace the mighty. God chose what is ignoble in the world and despised, that which is not, in order to invalidate that which is, in order that all flesh might not boast before God. From him you are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom for us from God—and righteousness and holiness and deliverance—so that, just as it is written, ‘The one who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”

(1 Corinthians 1:27-31)

In a very real sense, the creation of this world (and all things) is a lived out or historical parable told by God not to give us spiritual fiction, but to teach the believer spiritual reality within a historical event and at the same time, blinding the eyes of those who would seek to explain all things apart from God’s almighty hand. Thus, God has told us the historical reality, but has created in such a way to leave the eyes of the unbeliever perpetually closed largely as a judgment for their unbelief. It is not the praise of the world that we ought to be seeking, but the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” spoken by our God—remembering that a faithful servant believes and submits to the words of his master.

 

Rockets Downrange for Jesus

Last week I saw this statement on a window sticker. Now, I live and work in a military community, so, it is not unusual to see slogans like this on bumpers and windows, but this one struck me as curious. At first, my “hawkish” gut reaction was to say, “Yes! Do all things for the glory of God, including blowing up bad guys!” I also thought about all of the imprecatory psalms and their outright call for the destruction of the enemies of God, and thought that this slogan was remarkably consistent with God’s call to the Israelites to lay to waste all of the cities of Canaan and the other enemies who flaunted their power against the people of God.

Then, I reflected on Christ’s command that we love our enemies and the irony of this statement really struck me. How is it that those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior can celebrate the destruction of others? Mind you, I am not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination and I do not believe that God is a pacifist. Jesus made a whip and chased people out of the Temple courts; God is referred to as the Lord of Armies 240 times in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament writings; and Jesus is depicted returning on a white stallion wielding a great sword to destroy his enemies in the final battle (Revelation 19:11-16). In addition, one of the promises that Christ gives to the faithful church is that we will join him in crushing his enemies (Revelation 2:26-27). There can be no arguing that the God of the Bible is not a God of warfare when it comes to dealing with his enemies.

At the same time, God calls us as believers to be ambassadors of peace. Also, it is impossible to share the gospel with a dead man. Christians, of course, have wrestled with the question of whether they can serve in the Armed Forces for nearly two-thousand years; I am not sure that I add anything original to the conversation. Yet, what do we do with this seeming contradiction. To begin with, God has given the government the power of the sword to punish those who would do evil. Certainly this applies to wicked nations as well as to wicked men. Similarly, we do want godly men and women to serve in the military—we are to be salt in every area of life. Thus, that opens the door to the Christian serving in the Armed Forces. In addition, the Bible does present an argument for righteous anger to be expressed without sin (Ephesians 4:26) as well as a command that God expects believers to work justice in the world around us (Hosea 12:6; Micah 6:8). While working justice in a fallen world can sometimes be worked through diplomacy, often it requires force…and rockets shot downrange.

Which brings us back to where we began. As Christians we hold to what we call a Doctrine of Vocation. Essentially that means that whatever your profession happens to be, from the pastor to the soldier to the mechanic to the lawyer to the politician and to the trash collector, you have been called by God to serve in that profession and thus should do so to the best of your ability and to the glory of God. In short, that means, if your job as a soldier is to send rockets downrange to blow up things, then you ought to do so to the best of your ability and give glory to God in the process. Indeed, Rockets Downrange for Jesus is a sign that a soldier understands that all the things we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Sadly, in a fallen world, such rockets are sometimes necessary, may they be shot well.

One final note…there is a better solution than rockets when it comes to the wickedness of man in the world around us…and that better solution is the Gospel of Jesus Christ lived out in Truth and in Love. But until that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, there will be evil men and evil governments that civil authorities will be forced to contend with, and like the soldier, it is expected that they, too, do so to the glory of God on High.

 

 

Burning the Q’ran

There has been a lot of discussion as of late about a Florida pastor who desires to burn the Q’ran (some also write it: Koran) on September 11th in protest of the Muslims who were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and on the Pentagon in 2001. Such has caused a great deal of stir in the news and in churches and this pastor has received pleas not only from political leaders but from religious leaders as well to cease his activity as it would be offensive to many worldwide. The pastor has chosen to back down and cancel his event, but as I have watched this play out, several thoughts have come to mind regarding the principles surrounding the whole debate.

I must confess, my first instinct was just to chuckle, wondering why the whole world, it seemed, was interested in the activities of a small church pastor down in Florida. My second instinct was to think, if I really wanted to make a point about false religions, why not be an equal-opportunity offender and burn copies of the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, Barak Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and anything by Joel Osteen. I even thought that we could make it a group participation event and rather than burning them, set them on a large stand and let everyone from church bring their guns for target practice.

As entertaining as such an event might sound, it wasn’t long before God’s word sobered me a little bit. Indeed, we are called to tear down the strongholds of the devil (Matthew 16:18; 2 Corinthians 10:4), yet at the same time we are to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Indeed, we are to be well thought of by the unbelievers around us (1 Timothy 3:7). The principle is simple: if the world considers us a bunch of backwoods radicals, they won’t be interested in the message of truth we bring. If we earn their respect with integrity, then they will listen (though whether they respond savingly is a work of the Holy Spirit).

So, what then ought to be our response to this pastor’s call to burn the Q’ran on the memorial of September 11th, 2001? To begin with, we ought not participate ourselves in such actions as they are not consistent with the Scripture’s own teaching in the area. Should we then forbid him? Such is a different matter altogether. In terms of whether or not to forbid his action, the question needs to be raised as to whether his action is legal or not. If it is legal, then why all of the fuss? If it is not legal, arrest or fine him if he does it and again, why all the fuss? The point is that we live in a nation governed by the rule of law. Some, including myself, have argued that this is changing in American culture at least on a philosophical level, but for most of us, the law still very much governs our lives on a practical level. We have to pay taxes, drive the speed limit, and avoid stealing things if we want to stay out of jail. It is as simple as that. And currently, the First Amendment to our Constitution allows this man the freedom of expression, thus whether we may consider it wise or unwise, it is legal.

Now, it should be noted that there are times when complete freedom of speech is not legal. For example, it is not legal to yell, “fire!” in a movie theater. Some have suggested that this falls into that category given that we are currently at war within several Muslim nations. Yet, my suggestion is that we have a different situation at hand. The case of yelling fire in a movie theater is an intentional act of creating fear and confusion that will likely get people killed or injured. We are already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, things are likely not going to get worse because of a local book burning.

What I find most alarming about the entire event is the contrast between these events and the events of 1988 surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, where Rushdie addressed several verses in the Q’ran which allowed the Muslims to make intercessory prayers to three Meccan goddesses. As a result of this publication, a “fatwa” was declared by several Islamic leaders calling on all “good Muslims” to kill Rushdie. Not only did the western governments put Rushdie into protection, but the Muslims who were calling for fatwa were denounced and condemned as radicals and told to cease and desist their actions. In 2007, Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist, published several drawings depicting Mohammed as a dog. Again, people were in an uproar, several attempts to execute Vilks were made and prosecuted, and the Muslims were chided for their intolerance.

Yet, now, it seems that things have changed in our attitude toward Muslims. While it is common to publish things that mock Christianity, those things designed to mock Islam are shunned. This is where, I believe, we need to raise concerns. One of the things that my father impressed on me was that no matter how big the bully was, you do not compromise doing what is right. As Europe drew closer to its Second World War, there were many who desired to appease Hitler in the hopes that he would fade away and leave them alone. Winston Churchill had a different view, though. He defined an “appeaser” as someone who “feeds his neighbor to the crocodile hoping that the crocodile will eat him last.” I fear that the path we are on is one of feeding others to the crocodile of Islam.

A final thought and a solution: the primary reason that Muslims (as with other immigrants) are coming to America is for economic freedom. Though we are in a recession, one can still raise one’s own standard of living through hard work and persistence. And even the most modest standard of living here is worlds better than what most people in most of the world have to endure…we have running water, electricity, and air conditioning, just to start naming things! As Christians, we ought to use that to our advantage. Instead of fearing Muslims who are coming into our community, let us welcome them and then evangelize them. Can you imagine what our culture would look like if our evangelistic witness was so strong that the majority of people coming from the Arab countries were converted to Christianity. If such were the case, then we would be saying, “send us more!” rather than being worried about them sending any at all.

Virtual Church

In the 1970s, George Harrison sang about “Living in the Material World.” In the 1980s, Madonna proclaimed to the world that she was a “Material Girl.” While those songs seemed to describe the culture of their day, it seems that we have transitioned from living in a material world to living in an immaterial—a virtual world. In this world of email, texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia, it seems that more communication takes place through the transmission of electrons than through physical human interaction.

We live in a world where “virtual reality” defines a great deal of our lives. What people call “reality television” is largely scripted and edited to fit the producer’s designs for his show. If you are unsatisfied with the “humdrum” routine of your life, there is Virtual Life. If you want to know what you will look like with a new hairstyle, there is Virtual Makeover. There are virtual games, virtual worlds, and even virtual pets. In this world of virtual activities and relationships, it is no wonder that people are rejecting the traditional church model and seeking to find church elsewhere…even in the virtual world. Gone are the days of church on television, today there is even virtualchurch.com.

Where are we going in this virtual world? Has the age of a traditional church come to an end? What is the role of the church in this virtual world we live in today? I believe that the church’s role is exactly the same as it was nearly 2000 years ago when Jesus gave what we know as the Great Commission. We are to go out and to make disciples of all of the nations (including our own) baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that Jesus taught. In a sense, the church is the one stable element in this fast-paced changing world and we offer something that is tangible and not immaterial—the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the demonstration of love and grace as Christ has shown that to us.

What then of this virtual world all around us—should we reject it as “of the devil” as some churches have? No, not at all! Paul said that to the Jews he became as a Jew, to those under the law, he was under the law, to those not under the law, he became as those not under the law, etc… (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). What Paul was saying is that he utilized the culture of those to whom he was giving the Gospel. The same can be applied today. The virtual world is technology for networking and communication that is at our fingertips. Let us use it, not simply for our own entertainment, but to draw people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building Museums or Kingdoms


Museums can be a lot of fun to visit. They contain relics and artifacts from which we can learn a lot about our past. They are monuments and testimonies to where we have been as a culture and from where God has brought us as a civilization. They serve a very important role in our culture as they help us to appreciate the sacrifices and successes of those who have gone before us in the hopes that we do not become proud and arrogant as a culture and they provide useful instruction in terms of the mistakes of the past in the hopes that we do not repeat them. There are many kinds of museums, but they all have one thing in common…they do not contain any life.

Sadly, churches can also fall into the trap of becoming museums instead of being the living, breathing marks of the Kingdom of God that we are meant to be. This does not mean we oughtn’t look back and celebrate the blessings of God that have been brought in the past and not learn from our errors as well, but if we spend all of our time dwelling in the past—dwelling in the museum of antiquities—the life that we are meant to have will be sapped from us and we will decline into a testimony of what once was, and not to what is.  Remember, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Luke 20:37-38; 24:5).

Instead of a museum, we are called to build a kingdom (Matthew 6:33; Mark 1:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). Our great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is to make disciples of all of the nations—that begins here at home. Our call within our church is to be at the task of disciple-making. Those who are not believers need to have the Gospel proclaimed to them and those who are believers need to be built up in the faith. We should learn from and celebrate the past, but we must never be tempted to dwell there.  Like that favorite hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see His banners go!

Like an army, we are to march forward, and for that to take place, though kingdoms rise and fall around us, we must always keep our eyes fixed upon our great and glorious captain, Jesus Christ, who leads us on. Let us never lose sight of the goal that the church is to march onward, breaking down the strongholds of hell in this world around us.

Also, let us count Jesus’ own words to one individual as a warning against dwelling in the past:

“And he said to them, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead;

but you, go and preach the Kingdom of God.’”

(Luke 9:60)

The Conversation


“Some weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?” “Did you see the game last night?” “Did you read the paper this morning, with crime going up and unemployment going up, what is this world coming to?” “Did you hear what those democrats did?”

Conversations, we all have them every day and usually they are had around some fairly mundane subjects—weather, sports, news, politics, etc.  Most of the time, we strike up these conversations without much thought and they are over almost as quickly as they begin.  Most of the time these conversations are had with complete strangers with no expectation of ever seeing them again.  So, of what value are they?  Do they serve a purpose other than that of trying not to look unsociable and filling up dead air with useless chatter? I am not convinced that they do.

But what if even those short conversations were ones that could become significant? What if they could become eternally significant? Would we have the conversation if it contained meaning and not just noise? What if we opened our conversations with, “where do you go to church?” instead of “what do your think of the weather?

God has given us language so that we can exchange ideas with one another in community—that is what the very word, “conversation,” means—“to exchange ideas.” In addition, ideas have consequences because the ideas you offer will in turn spark ideas in the mind and hearts of those who hear them. The question is whether or not you are exchanging ideas of consequence or whether you are merely beating the air. The weightier the idea the more significant the consequence.

One of the things that concerns me, though, is that as a society we have become rather superficial not only in our conversations but in our ideas. It is almost as if we are afraid of the consequences of significant conversation so we opt to avoid it altogether. Yet significant conversations are essential for building significant relationships and significant relationships are essential for effecting change in peoples’ lives.

So, what do your conversations look like? Are they significant or do you play it safe, seeking to stay in the shallow end of the relationship pool. If we are going to effect change in our community, shallow will not cut it.  We need to enter into the deepest end of the pool and speak of the resurrection of the very Son of God who came into this world, lived amongst men, died a horrible death to atone for the sins of his people, and rose again on the third day.  There is no conversation more significant that that and there is no conversation that this world needs to hear more than that one. Will you be the one to have that conversation with those you meet, though?