Friday, August 27, 2010

He Now Remains

Reading On the Incarnation by Athanasius was a real treat this week (especially as it coincides so well with our series of messages on the Gospel of John). I'm looking forward to discussing Athanasius and his work in our seminar this coming Lord's Day. In a justly praised introduction to On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis pays high praise to Athanasius with these words:

It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

May God grant us the courage and the faithfulness to see what matters eternally!

A Christian Consensus

The more I study, the more I believe that this article is on target.

"How Christian Were the Middle Ages?"

Follow Me and You Will See

"Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

What did Nathaniel see that caused him to cry out this confession of faith?

Join us this Lord's Day to see for yourself.

Songs
Come, Christians Join to Sing (#67)
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness (#400)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (#87)
Hark! the Glad Sound (#126)
Praise the Savior (#17)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 8:1-19; Psalm 25
New Testament: Matthew 5:31-48

Sermon
Follow Me and You Will See - John 1:35-51

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Reasons to Leave a Church Evaluated (Part 3)

Here are some final thoughts on Jason Helopoulos' challenging post "Good Reasons to Move On." I hope these thoughts spur us on to maturity and thus on to unity in Christ.

Reasons Often Used Which are Insufficient

1. Children’s Ministry—The Children’s ministry at another church is better. This cannot be a reason for changing churches. It is rather an opportunity for you to get involved in the children’s ministry of your church.

…or to realize that you as a parent carry the primary responsibility for your children’s spiritual training and that your children do not need a better children’s ministry in order to thrive spiritually.

One of the worst things parents do to their children is teach them that life revolves around them. Parents might never say this, but their actions shout out, “My child has to have what makes him happy, and if you can’t provide it, phooey on you.” They are teaching their children that we get involved in the church for the benefits we perceive ourselves to get from it. There is nothing here of biblical love, which is at the heart of true Christianity. If parents want their children to thrive spiritually, they should model Christ-like love.

2. Buzz—Many people will flow to whatever church in town has the current “buzz.” The argument will be that the Spirit is at work there and we want to be part of it. But buzzes come and go. And so do the people that follow them.

Amen.

3. Youth Group—The unhappiness of our teenage children in the current Youth Group, because of activities, other youth, etc. is not a reason for leaving the church we have covenanted with. I know this one will be controversial. Believe me, I have empathy as a parent and a former Youth Pastor. But our children are not the spiritual directors of our home. They should not be choosing the church we attend based upon their social status and network.

Again I will say, Amen.

4. Church has changed—Churches always change. Unless the changes are unbiblical then we don’t have a reason to move on. We don’t move on when our wife or husband changes! [Why] are we so quick to do so with the church we have covenanted with?

Amen.

5. New Pastor—A new pastor is not a sufficient reason to change churches. It doesn’t matter how stiff, impersonal, unfunny, etc. he is. The list is endless. It doesn’t even matter if he is not the most interesting preacher. He is the man God called to this church for this time. And this is your church. Again, unless he is unbiblical why move on? You haven’t covenanted with a man, but with this body.

Amen.

6. I’m Not Being Ministered to—I tell every one of our new member classes, “If we all walked into church each week and had a list of people we were going to try and ‘touch,’ encourage, or minister to, do you know how dynamic this church would be? Just on Sunday mornings, let alone if we did it during the week. If we each were concerned about the other person and walked in each Sunday with that in the forefront of our mind instead of, “Why didn’t he talk to me?,” “Why doesn’t anyone care about me?,” “Why isn’t anyone ministering to me?” Start ministering to others and you will find that you are being ministered to.

Amen and amen!

7. Music—Not a reason—whether it is slow, fast, traditional, contemporary, Psalms, hymns, or gospel choruses. Stop using it as an excuse!

Given what I have said so far, one might expect that I would keep singing and turn this evaluation into a seven-fold Amen. But I’m not going to do that, so please bear with me. I want to use this as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of what is actually going on in the music debates in churches.

Roger Scruton says, “Implicit in our sense of beauty is the thought of community – of the agreement in judgement that makes social life possible and worthwhile…Nor is this desire for consensus confined to the public realm of architecture and garden design. Think of clothes, interior d├ęcor, and bodily ornaments: here too we can be put on edge, excluded or included, made to feel inside or outside the implied community, and we strive by comparison and discussion to achieve a consensus within which we can feel at home” (Beauty, 134-5). If this is correct, and I believe it is, there must be constant arguing toward consensus on the issue of church music, not an imbecilic and relativistic truce for the sake of so-called peace. Peace is not the absence of conflict but rightly ordered tranquility.

The seriousness of the music issue in any given church depends greatly upon the rationale used to justify that church’s musical practice. If a church has adopted a true aesthetic relativism like the society in which we live, the issue at hand is graver than debates about any particular musical style. If the church is infected with kitsch, that disease of faith which craves the sensuous trappings of belief without the reality of a true engagement with a holy God or the reality of true discipleship, then the issue at hand is much more serious than whether that church sings the music of Bach or of John W. Peterson. In other words, what we have going on here is a failure of discipleship, not primarily a style debate. That should tell us something about the spiritual condition of that church.

If, on the other hand, a church makes some poor judgments musically but is truly striving not to flow with the current of cultural relativism, then we do not have a failure of discipleship but a simple error to which all of us are prone. Not only should we not leave a church over this kind of an issue, we should instead be motivated by love to draw closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ, helping and encouraging and challenging and learning together.

Thus, endeavoring to maintain the unity produced by the Spirit may very well involve arguing over the music in a church. In fact, I would guess that in our day it will almost always involve arguing over the music in a church, in a godly spirit, of course. As human communication, music can minister grace or it can spew corruption. It can encourage ennobling affections which teach us to move with one another in the beautiful dance of unity, or it can invite the mob passions of the mosh pit which shape us to move against one another.

Our cultural forms and the understanding of life that they mediate are never irrelevant to our unity in the body of Christ (not to mention a host of other things). Rather, they are the very means we use to live out our unity. No matter how much pious talk we pour out about being together for the gospel, no genuine human community will ever be sustainable which does not develop some kind of common ground culturally. I’m all for working toward cultural common ground with fellow believers. However, when those believers deny the very possibility of better or worse in our musical choices, it makes progress impossible. When faced with that kind of deep-rooted relativism, I can’t blame Christians for despairing of sticking it out in their current church. The black hole of aesthetic relativism exerts a strong pull to suck away all virtuous judgment. A wise man foresees the evil and hides himself.

8. There are others…we haven’t even mentioned the service is too early, the coffee is terrible, the pastor doesn’t know how to shuck corn (Yep…those are all true ones I have heard).

And all God’s people said…Amen!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Good Reasons to Leave a Church Evaluated (Part 2)

Let's continue the discussion on "Good Reasons for Moving On." After considering the four good reasons for moving on, we now consider the three possible reasons for moving on. As in my previous post, my response is in italics.

Possible Reasons for Moving On – The Three S’s

1. Spouse—An unbelieving or non-church attending spouse is not willing to attend this church, but will attend another with you.

I would want to know the reasons behind an unbelieving spouse’s choice of churches to attend. If it has to do with the offence of the gospel, then changing churches would be anti-gospel, anti-Christ, and would communicate all the wrong things to the unbeliever. If it has to do with avoiding real discipleship, then it would be wrong to change churches.

You see, in my experience (for what it is worth), when an unbeliever makes excuses about not attending a church, these excuses are often smokescreen issues. They are convenient reasons behind which the unbeliever can hide his unwillingness to submit to Jesus as Lord. He wants a nice, conscience-soothing religion. He doesn’t want a Savior and Lord.

There is a real spiritual danger in choosing a church because an unbeliever feels comfortable in it.

This is not to say that unbelievers never have legitimate complaints against churches. Sometimes they see our faults better than we do ourselves. Also, those of us who have loving Christian marriages need to keep in mind the frustrating complexity and heart-rending contradictions inherent in a mixed marriage. We must work very patiently and lovingly with any brother or sister in such a situation.

2. Special Needs—Every family has special needs, so this one needs to be handled with care. A possible example may be that my family has a disabled child and another faithful church in the area has a wonderful ministry to disabled people which can help us.

I always get a little jumpy when we put “my needs” into the equation of choosing a church. There are a couple challenges with thinking about it in this way. First, we don’t naturally interpret needs the way God tells us to (for more on this, see David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, chapter 8). God tells us that he has provided all that we need for eternal life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Second, in a church where the Word is preached truly and the ordinances administered biblically, that church is objectively providing what we need spiritually, whether we feel like it subjectively or not. We have so psychologized our idea of what we need that we tend to identify our needs with our feelings.

I do not believe, however, that this is what the author is talking about. He uses the example of a disabled child, which is clearly an objective condition. I believe this is a worthwhile consideration, as long as we have our priorities biblically ordered. At the present time we have a spunky young lady in our church who is deaf. During the week she attends the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. On Sundays she attends our church where she is the only deaf person. Her parents feel no need to find a church with a deaf ministry. They simply expect that she will develop the skills to live with people who depend upon their hearing. Yet not everyone is capable of doing that.

3. Special Gifts—Another faithful church in the area may have asked for you to use your special gifts in their midst for the building up of the body (i.e. organist). Never decide this one on your own. If it is a possible reason, then it is too easy to think too highly of oneself and go running to the greener pastures. This is always something that should be taken to the leadership of your current church and wrestled through.

These reasons are rightly labeled “possible,” not probable or likely, but in some cases remotely possible. I would take the last three sentences of point 3 and apply them to this entire section.

Remember, church membership, being the outworking of the cross-shaped Christian life, is not to be looked at from perspective of only “what is best for me.” It is at its heart a commitment for the good of others. It is a position of humble service, just like our Savior adopted when he came to seek and to save us.

Bearing Witness

Ever since the time of Christ, people have wondered exactly who he is. Perhaps you have had that same question. I would invite you to listen carefully to what the Gospel of John has to say. Since John wrote his Gospel so that we would believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is no accident that his opening scene is of a witness to Jesus' true identity. There is nothing like reliable eye-witness testimony to establish the facts of the case.

Songs
Ye Servants of God (#44)
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness (#400)
Fairest Lord Jesus (#21)
How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds (#39)
Lamb of God, Thou Now Art Seated (#160)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 7; Psalm 46
New Testament: Matthew 5:17-30

Sermon
The Witness to the Light of Life - John 1:19-34

“God was manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated by the Spirit,

Seen by angels,

Proclaimed among the nations,

Believed on in the world,

Taken up in glory!”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In Love with Our Dreams

Right now I am reading Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck for the purpose of discussing it with some pastors next Friday. In this book I came across a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together. I have read Life Together, but I did not remember this particular statement, so I was glad to be reminded of it. This statement displays a laser-like insight into the workings of our hearts as well as a wise understanding of the real-life results of our disordered hearts.

Anyone who loves the dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter even though the devotion to the former is faultless and the intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Does It Matter?

After posting the previous post (or rant), I came across this little post by Carl Trueman. I have not watched the video to which he refers, but I appreciate the fact that he modeled exactly the kind of discernment needed when we watch such things.

Here's the main gist of Trueman's analysis:

...the video seems ultimately to be making a rather insubstantial and somewhat paternalistic point - "different traditions can learn from each other" - undergirded by strong hints that what separates these two traditions is not that significant....

In this context, I suspect videos such as this succeed only in appealing to intellectuals who like a theological conversation; for pastors and people (Reformed and Wesleyan), they probably serve only to confuse them about why issues the church has thought of as vitally important, doctrinally and practically, throughout the centuries, are suddenly matters of comparative indifference.

Docu-dementaries

Have I ever mentioned that I don't like documentaries? They are a poor vehicle for reasoned discussion and an excellent vehicle for propaganda. So, enjoy them if you wish, but have your manipulation detector turned way up.

There...got that off my brain.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good Reasons to Leave a Church Evaluated (Part 1)

A couple weeks ago I posted a link to an article which I appreciated for its thoughtful engagement with an issue that many Christians struggle with - when to leave a church. I still have not thought this through as much as I would like, but since I don't want this opportunity to get away from me, I want to at least begin responding to Jason's post. I'll begin today with a response to the "four P's" - what Jason called good reasons for moving on. My response to Jason's words is in italics.

1. Providential moving—If my job, family, or life has moved me from Dallas to Austin then I should probably find a local church in Austin, let alone if I moved from Michigan to North Carolina. It is right and good to belong to a local church and covenant with brothers and sisters in my own “backyard.”

This reason is clearly correct. I would only change one word: “probably” needs to be dropped. You should find a local church, period. The biblical rationale for this statement is found in the nature of church membership. How can one gather regularly with people 100 or 1000 miles away? How can one practice the one another commands of Scripture with those whom you never (or rarely) see? How can fellow church members truly know what is going on in your life? How can church leadership feed and lead one whom they never see? How can the church exercise discipline?

2. Planting another church—It may be that I haven’t left my home town, but the church I belong to has decided to send me out with others to plant another church in the area. Notice though, that I am being sent out by my church, not leaving with a group of people because I am disgruntled or think it is a good idea.

Once again, this reason fits well with the biblical concept of church membership. Being sent out to plant another church is a beautiful, Christ-exalting, gospel-spreading extension of the body, not an ugly, divisive fracturing of the body.

3. Purity has been lost— It may take different forms, but primarily this occurs when the Word is no longer proclaimed. It could be that heresy is being taught, the Bible is never read or preached, or a much more prominent manifestation these days is that the Word is no longer seen as sufficient; it is used as a seasoning for the message of the week rather than the diet by which the congregation is fed and nourished upon. However, we must be careful here; patience should always be exercised and I must always test my own heart to see if I am “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

This is a worthwhile point, but it needs careful construction and delineation.

I agree with this point, in general; however, I fear it is too general to be of much help. Let's slooow down here. We need to define clearly what constitutes a loss of purity and when that loss rises to the level of a good reason to move on. We need to do this biblically because popular level American Christianity has very little theological and historical sense of the weightier matters of the law, so to speak. The existential weight of any given issue is usually driven by other factors than a deep grasp of God’s Word and a powerful love for Christ and his people.

Let’s put this point into some biblical perspective. Our starting point ought to be the ubiquitous expectation in the NT for unity. We are commanded to be eager to maintain the unity produced by the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). With that as our norm, any breach of that unity ought to be publicly demonstrable from Scripture. By publicly demonstrable, I mean demonstrable to other wise and godly Christians and Christian leaders, not just demonstrable in my own mind. This demonstration ought to be made publicly before any rash decisions are made to leave a church.

If heresy is being taught, it ought to be exposed and refuted. If it cannot be corrected, then the church itself has ruptured Christian unity, not those who leave that church. That church ought to be censured by all true churches. This will have the added benefit of making clear to younger or less knowledgeable Christians what their duty is in this deplorable situation. The same goes for moral corruption.

It is remarkable that in the NT, most churches had some problems, some of them quite severe, but no one was ever told to leave. The assumption holds that we fight for the unity of the church by seeking to purify it. In the process of doing that, we are purified, strengthened, and grown. There has always been the problem of false teachers with their ungodly lifestyles arising in the churches. It won’t be solved by scurrying away to our little enclaves that do everything “just the way I like it.”

Particular responsibility for this lies with the elders of churches. As mature and biblically informed leaders, they must lead Christians to discern what constitutes an irreparable loss of purity and what does not. Anyone coming to one church from another church ought to be asked why they are doing so by the leadership of the receiving church. If they do not have biblically sufficient reasons, they ought to be instructed and/or corrected. They ought never to be allowed to act autonomously and individualistically. When overseers allow this kind of church changing without instruction or correction, they reseed the weed of autonomy in their own fields. With this noxious weed afoot, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see the good crops pushed out.

This brings me to one concern of mine with the advice given in this list. It appears to assume the autonomous individual making his own choices without reference to other believers, church leadership, and historical helps (such as confessions of faith). Of course, these other factors may be assumed in this list, but I do not believe that they ought to be assumed. In my experience, precious few Christians carefully consider what other believers think, seek to work through issues with their church leaders, and have a broad doctrinal and historical perspective which allows them to see past the immediate tension to the enduring issues. Simply put, the average American Christian is not equipped with the spiritual maturity to, for example, stay put in an orthodox church when he doesn’t have a lot of close friends there or to leave a heterodox church when he does have a lot of friends there. I am not trying to denigrate personal responsibility at all here; I am simply saying that personal responsibility is not the entire equation.

So, is a loss of purity a valid reason for leaving a church? Certainly it is, if biblical thinking is being applied.

4. Peace of the church is in jeopardy due to my presence— This “reason” is hard to suggest for fear of it being abused, as it is by far the most subjective “reason.” However, there are cases where an individual/family can personally become a hindrance to the ministry of the local church and it is best for that person/family to move-on. If this is the reason I am contemplating leaving the church, then I must first test myself and discern whether it is because of sin on my own part. If that is the case then I must be quick to repent rather than move-on. This “reason” should always be approached with trepidation.

With the third reason I started to put on the brakes. Now with this reason I come to a stop, almost.

With my pastor hat on, I can think of some situations in which it would be a relief for a person to move on to a different church (not, I might emphasize, at my church at this time!). But just because it might be easier for me or for the church, it does not mean that it is right.

Does not the Scripture give us direction on how to achieve peace in the church? And does not the Spirit give us the power to implement these directives? Can leaving the church for this reason be deduced from Scripture?

This reason presupposes the fractured state of the church in our day. As such, it certainly has some pragmatic pull. But it does nothing to call all of us to walk worthy of the calling to which we have been called. I know well that there may be situations in which we throw up our hands and say that moving on is the best we can do. But we ought to do so with repentance, for we are tacitly admitting that our sinfulness is hindering the work of Christ and the unity of the Spirit. Thus, I would never suggest this as a legitimate reason for moving on. It may happen – no, it will happen – but that in no way justifies it as a biblical solution to our problems.

Christianity vs. Idolatry, 2nd-3rd Century Style

If you have never read anything written by Tertullian, the early church theologian from North Africa, you need to do so. Put aside your Max Lucado or Beth Moore - Tertullian is far more entertaining, not to mention provoking. His works are full of wit, irony, logic, and sometimes wind and errors. You may disagree with him, but you won't be able to ignore him. He will press you relentlessly to think about how you live as a Christian.

If you have the opportunity, read over his work "The Shows" (De Spectaculis) before our seminar on Sunday. We will have loads of fun or anguish (depending on your perspective) responding to what he wrote.

(You can find a different translation, along with the Latin, here.)

Praying Fathers

Here is a simple testimony of the grace of God at work in a young boy's life through his father's prayers. Fathers, never underestimate the power of the simple means of grace in your children's lives.

I came from a Christian home where I was taught to love the Lord at very early age. One of my fondest memories as a young boy was having my father pray for me at bedtime....

Read the whole testimony.

Common Sense and the Use of Statistics

I love Thomas Sowell for his common sense observations of the obvious, as evidenced by this recent article, "Bean-Counters and Baloney." This article not only points out false assumptions about race that plague our media, it also gives us a good example of how to treat statistics responsibly. Without a proper context, statistics are meaningless at best, and when wedded with an ideology, are potentially dangerous.

Seeing the Light of Life

God has make himself known. Do you see?

Songs
I Sing the Mighty Power of God (#19)
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness (#400)
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise (#23)
Hark! The Gospel News Is Sounding (#295)
To God Be the Glory (#16)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 6:1-22; Psalm 14
New Testament: Matthew 5:1-16

Sermon
Seeing the Light of Life: You Can Know God - John 1:1-18

Friday, August 06, 2010

Seeing Is Believing?

Once a group of Jesus' disciples huddled together, not long after his resurrection, and announced to Thomas, "We have seen the Lord!" Thomas' response earned him the nickname which has stuck until this day - "Doubting." He replied, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

Eight days later, when these same disciples were together again, Jesus appeared to them and admonished Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put our your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." The astonished Thomas responded, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus then replied to Thomas with a remark which prepares us well for our study of the Gospel of John: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

In the Gospel of John, we find the Light of Life shining brightly for all to see. How will you respond? Do you believe?

Songs
All Glory, Laud, and Honor (#11)
Praise Ye the Lord (#42)
Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness (#400)
Jesus Christ, the Crucified (#386)
Behold the Glories of the Lamb (#653)

Scripture Reading
Old Testament: Genesis 5:1-32; Psalm 24
New Testament: Matthew 4:12-25

Sermon
Seeing is Believing? - John 20:30-31