20081210

Reason For The Season?

So it’s the Christmas season once again. The older I get, the more Christmas annoys me. Don’t get me wrong, I love many aspects of the holiday. I like the “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” part. I like the lights, smells, food, and fun that go with it.

The thing that presses my hot button is the commercialism. For decades now, we’ve been inundated with nonsense about the “True” meaning of Christmas. When I was a kid back in the 1960’s, the line was that the “True” meaning of Christmas was “brotherhood.” Really? Then we got into the 80’s and 90’s where the “True” meaning of Christmas was family. That got to be such a cliché that we’d make jokes: “Christmas; it’s all about the children!” Gag me. The current favorite, with all its deliberate ambiguity, is that the “TRUE” meaning of Christmas is “giving.” That line isn’t on your T.V. because of theologians; it’s there because of credit card companies.

First, let me tell you what most of you already know. Christmas is a bit of a confusing holiday. For some time the early church paid little to no attention to the birthday of Jesus. The church was busy trying to do what Jesus actually told them to do: make disciples as you’re going about living your life, love God and people, assemble together regularly – and do all that “until I come again.”

Now, historically, a couple things happened. The church started losing its Great Commission and Great Commandments focus – that’s bad enough. The other thing was that the society around them was getting more and more corrupt and degenerate. There was a Roman holiday called “Saturnalia” that happened each year in December. Initially, it was a celebration of the god Saturn and included feasting, drinking, and candles. Why? Because it was the cold and dark time of year. What happened is that this holiday got more and more out of control such that it became a threat to public safety – it had already compromised public morality. By the way, instead of greeting each other with “Merry Christmas!” they would greet each other with a hearty “Io, Saturnalia!”

Well here’s where the church stepped in. They recognized the need for people to celebrate the winter time (who doesn’t like a party?) and they had some pretty good evidence that Jesus was born about that time (see other folks research on that). The church did what it has done many times since. It redeemed that holiday and re-shaped it to a time to honor Jesus. And - this is the wild thing - the church was successful! Yay! And that's obvious; after all, not many people greet you with "Io, Saturnalia!" this time of year. Well; or any time of year, for that matter....

Now that’s actually a good thing. But it does call into question those bumper stickers: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Why? Because, originally, that wasn’t the case. Of course Jesus is the reason for every season. But that’s another topic.

Again, do not get me wrong here. Jesus IS the reason for the season for Christians. But for others; not necessarily. For your average guy coming home drunk from a “Christmas Eve” party; well, as a functioning pagan, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. When people don’t acknowledge Jesus for who he is, they just revert to their pagan roots. It’s nothing more sinister than that.

Here’s the problem: when Christians approach Christmas with exactly the same attitude, motivation, and behaviors as the pagan winter-feast celebrator, then we’ve got no claim to state what the True Meaning of Christmas is.

Here’s my claim: he who does not have Christ in his heart will not find Christmas under the tree.

20081104

Election Perspective

So I’m writing this on Election Day with the intent of it being posted on the day after. I was thinking about some things I read recently from one of my heroes, Mark Driscoll.

First, congratulations to the winners - what a big day for you! Second, my condolences to those who didn't win this one - there will be another chance in the future.

Today, if there is not another protracted legal battle for election results, there will be some disappointed people in this country. Some will have “won” and others will have “lost.” The unfortunate thing, from my perspective, is that many Evangelical Christians will be too invested in the results.

Here’s my concern: too many Christians are bought into an insidious form of idolatry. It is the problem of political messiah-ship. During this season, too many Christians have been enticed away from the raw fact that Jesus is not Republican and he’s not Democrat; he is the Lord.

Far too many Christians in both parties have been seduced into bad theology: “The country is going to Hell in a hand-basket if the election doesn’t come out my way.” This is, seems to me, a dangerous denial of God’s sovereignty.

Of course it’s important to vote, to be in the political process. My dad, as well as numerous civics teachers, impressed upon me that voting is not a privilege but a positive duty. For those of us in the United States, it seems to me that Romans 13:1a - “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” - applies to our duties as citizens. If the Constitution (our governing authority) gives a duty to vote, then our Christian obligation to the governing authority is to fully engage in the political process.

Still, there are too many, who should know better, that take their duty to participate to such an extent as to become idolatrous. They invest their time, treasures, talents and even spiritual well-being into politics to such a level that can only be compared to worship.

It seems to me that such a posture, for a Christian, is wrong. We worship Jesus; not our party, candidate, ideology, or political position.

For some of us, after seeing our candidate lose, we will need to repent of our sin of idolatry. Others of us, who have seen our candidate win, will need to repent of our sin of idolatry and resist the temptation to continue in that sin.

Others may talk of political history, cultural healing, "unifying the nation;" but there is a spiritual issue in how we've allowed politics to become our 'functional savior.'

That’s how it seems to me.

20081031

Parabolic Interpretation

I was privileged to preach twice in the last two weeks and it so happened that my biblical texts for both sermons were Jesus’ parables. In the first sermon, there were two parables: the parable of the friend at midnight and the one about the evil judge. In the second sermon, the primary text was the so-called parable of “the Good Samaritan.”

One of the interesting things I learned in seminary was how to interpret the Bible better. Rather than relying on what my favorite radio (or podcast) preacher tells me, or what I read in a book (devotional or commentary), or whatever interpretive prejudices I might bring to the text; the point is to let the text speak for itself. The whole science of interpretation (“Hermeneutics” is the technical term) is to prevent, as much as possible, those potential errors of interpretation and get at what the original authors really meant.

Parables can be really tricky to interpret. In any good work on hermeneutics, there’s usually a short laundry list of the “rules” (more like strong guidelines) to interpret parables. Other forms of literature found in the Bible (narrative, poetry, etc.) have their rules but Parables seem to always get special treatment.

But here’s the Number One, Primary, Unalterable Rule of Parabolic Interpretation: If Jesus or the gospel writer actually gives the interpretation of the parable, then that’s the interpretation.

So, what if you go through a parable and come up with a significantly different interpretation of the parable than Jesus gave? Well, let’s just say that you need to go back and do your homework again.

Now - can you believe it? - there are actually people who would disagree with that principle of interpretation. They believe that they can fragment the text, sever the parable from the interpretation given by the parable’s author, and do with the parable whatever they want to. Oddly enough, these people who want to fragment the text are postmodernists in love with “deconstruction.” So the postmodern deconstructionists are actually giving themselves permission to make stuff up as they go along, seems to me.

The approach I gave to parabolic interpretation additionally affirms the canonical approach to Biblical theology: look fully to the text before you use external resources to aid your interpretive task.

So let’s look at a couple of the examples. The friend at midnight parable is found in Luke 11:5-8. The parable is squarely connected to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the previous four verses. After Jesus tells the parable, he spends then next five verses explaining the parable. There you are – there’s the interpretation.

In the parable of the widow and unjust judge, found in Luke 18:2-5, the writer (Luke) gives the point and interpretation of the parable in the introduction in 18:1. The point of the parable is that we should pray and not give up. There it is, that’s the parable’s interpretation. After the parable, Jesus gives some interesting teaching about God’s love for his people and justice, the nature of faith, and affirms that he’s coming back.

Even the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) yields the same result. What’s the point of the parable? Within the context of obeying the great commandments (10:25-29), Jesus’ point is crystal clear: “Go and do likewise” (10:37). There it is – right in front of us.

So the point here is that while parables can sometimes be tricky to interpret; there are several parables where that hard work is already done for you.

Sometimes you don’t have to look for the answer; you just have to see it.

20080904

Thoughts on Hebrews 11

I’ve been thinking about that famous chapter of the book of Hebrews, chapter eleven, frequently called the “Hall of Fame.” The chapter begins with a discussion of the nature of faith. The writer of Hebrews (we don’t really know who that is) does something that neither John, Paul, nor James do – he defines the word “faith.” And, wouldn’t you know?, he uses the word a tad differently than the other guys (who all use the word differently from each other – a topic for another day). Faith, for the writer, is both a rational thing and an action thing.

ByTheWay, no Biblical writer ever suggests that faith is a “blind leap” like wishful thinking. That is a completely un-Biblical understanding of the word.

The point of this whole section (and the writer has been working up to it throughout the book) is that faith is what saves. Hebrews 11:2 “For by it the people of old received their commendation.” That is, the idea of salvation by faith is not some new-fangled idea invented by John or Paul. It’s been around from the Very Beginning.

There are some really interesting things to notice in the chapter. First, the writer seems to emphasize a ‘declaratory’ nature to faith in the time before Moses. People are commended, speak (4, 14), are warned, are called, condemn, receive promises, bless, and make mention. These are all words related to speech, to declaring something. At the same time, notice that these people also are doing things. Kinda a ‘speech-act’ notion. Interestingly, after Moses faith is demonstrated pretty much only by action.

But then Moses comes along. There are three Great Heroes to the Hebrew people: Abraham (Father - identity), Moses (Prophet), and David (king). The writer deals with two of them, Abraham and Moses. Like Paul and James, the writer affirms that Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by vital faith. Even more startling to the readers (Hebrews) is that "The Law Giver," Moses, was approved before God because of his faith – not his ability to keep the Law! Even today we refer to that governmental, sacrificial, and ethical complex of rules as “The Law of Moses.” But the writer slaps that down pointing out that even Moses wasn’t justified because of The Law that bears his name.

But the REAL agenda that the writer wants to emphasize is that it is only Jesus who is the standard, source, and object of faith. It is clear that every person mentioned in the so-called “Roll Call of Faith” was a sinner; some of them notoriously so. But Jesus is the perfect example of faith. The writer says, in 12:1-2, (pardon my paraphrase): ‘While you have all of those examples of so-called “Great Faith,” you’re looking in the wrong direction. You need to look at Jesus – he’s the Real Deal.’

So the writer’s argument is that it is faith in a proper object, from a proper source, and actually relied upon that saves. And it has always been that way.

20080824

"Grey" Scripture

One of the questions that was brought up during this last course was a question about the concept of the "sufficiency of scripture." One of my classmates provocatively asked whether the Bible speaks mostly in guidelines, suggestions, and is mostly "grey" rather than being "black and white." That got me thinking.
We learn, in Bible classes, the Interpreting Scriptures course, and the theology classes that the Bible is "sufficient." But we don't spend a lot of time poking at that idea.

I'm going to quote a guy named Ken Myers:
We don't hear much about the "insufficiency of Scripture." But it is an important point to keep in mind when thinking about Christianity and culture. Scripture does not present itself as the only source of truth about all matters. It does not even present itself as a source of some truth about everything. It presents itself as the only authoritative source of truth about some things, and they are the most important things.
So, seems to me that the issue is whether the Bible presents the down-to-the-last-detail truth about those important things. In agreement with the folks posing the "grey" question, I think the answer is occasionally: "no." That is, not all the details of how to live life are filled in by the Bible in such a way that we in our modern (or post-modern) mindset would like. I think that God does grant us the dignity of discovery and wants us to work a bit at connecting the dots that he's laid out.

As to the not-as-important-things? For example: the Bible doesn't directly speak to whether I should buy and use a Mac or PC - much less whether I should use electricity. From that, I would conclude that issue (Mac or PC) is not really as important as stuff like: what's our relationship to The Creator; do we understand that we have a HUGE sin problem; do we see that the answer is Jesus; do we connect with a well-done church; do we do (as well as believe) a true gospel? Those are The Important Issues and the Bible speaks clearly to them. Though not even those matters are always covered in complete detail.

While I am, even now, going through a thought experiment about the concept of biblical "ambiguity" (in a technical sense) I'm not at all comfortable with the thought that most of the Bible is 'grey.'

But I sense that's not the core of the question. It seems my classmate is responding to an overly-literalistic tradition. And to that, I certainly agree that scripture gives us more freedom and liberty in Christ than some of our Fightin' Fundies brothers and sisters are willing to admit.

20080817

Acts 2:42 - Not the ideal for the church

I've also occasionally wondered at our use of that Acts 2 passage as an example of the perfect church. Or, for that matter, of our attempts to become "like the first century church."

The thing we like (and should like) about the church of that time was their rootedness in the "Apostles teaching" (that's 'Bible' to us), their influence by and general obedience to the Spirit, their zeal for both growing in Christ and sharing Christ (eventually), and so forth.

But, while I certainly applaud my brothers and sisters as they followed Jesus 1,900 years ago; it is obvious "that was then and this is now." Even Paul touched on this when he stated that David served his generation and then went to be with his Lord (Ac 13:36). My Bible survey professor keeps hammering on us that The Apostolic Age was pretty unique in church history.

So these, and a recent semester of church history, lead me to tentatively consider that there may not be some Golden Model of Church. In fact, it may be that church is far more a child of its culture and time than we are comfortable with (I ruminate on this here).

And I'm not the only one that may be questioning this Acts-2-church-is-the-perfect-church idea. There's a whole church-planting network out there called Acts29. The idea behind the name is what-if the book of Acts continued on past chapter 28 to record the expansion of the Kingdom in our own time? That would become the '29th' chapter of the book of Acts.

I think the big idea is that the church holds tightly to the gospel and is in firm contact with its culture; not some idealized way of doing church from "The Golden Age." To even suggest that the Church had a "golden age" is to dismiss that the church's best days are yet to come.

20080810

Communicating Gospel Cross-culturally

Seems to me that given the general biblical illiteracy of the culture we find ourselves in, as well as the general inability of most people to think critically (most thinking seems to be more bumper-sticker or sound-bite polemic), we can't go to the Bible very quickly when we attempt to communicate the gospel to our Post-modern culture and society.

I read a Christian thinker a few years back who suggested that we need to become better Natural theologians rather than better Systematic theologians. What he meant by that is that we should get a better grip on Thomas Aquinas' massive thought-experiment that we now call Natural Theology. Aquinas' experiement went like this: we know Paul says in Romans 1 that everybody knows some pretty basic things about God. So using the evidence we have before us and our own reasoning power, just how far can we get along into our theology without having to rely on Jesus, the Apostles, or scripture? Aquinas got pretty far along, and while others that followed him thought he resorted to a couple of logical cheats to get there (unintentionally), still he made lots of interesting points.

The guy I read said we ought to do a similar, though not as intense thing. Can we converse with a dude in the epicenter of Portland "wierdness" (say on Hawthorne) about the existance - not of God - but of basic good and evil? Can we argue about the sanctity of life - not from Psalms - but from our own feelings towards children and infants? Can we argue about a creator - not from Genesis - but from the amazingly balanced world around us? And then, from there, can we make the move to point them to God, human uniqueness, and creation?

And even to a moral standard? Consider this exchange:
PoMo: "Dude, your metanarratives don't do it for me. I don't need somebody doing their power trip on me; telling me what's right and wrong."
XnDude: "OK, so let me ask you; do you have a sense of right and wrong?"
PoMo: "Sure I do."
XnDude: "Do you, according to your own standards, ever fail those standards?"
PoMo: "Yeah, 'course I do."
XnDude: "Then you -right there - agree with me that you are a 'sinner.'"

The thinker's point (who I mentioned before) was that if our culture denies us the use of scripture, we are not left without authority to speak. God has still given us an ordered world in which he is displayed. We can use that and build upon it to bring the specific good news about Jesus, salvation, and redemption.

What do you think? Would that play in the espresso shop on Hawthorne?

20080804

Immediate or Delayed Baptism

As I may have mentioned before, I've been doing lots of thinking about baptism in the last three or more months. I've also been looking at baptism from a church history perspective.

The very early church (within 100 years of the Ascention) practiced 'delayed' baptism. The ritual was performed after a period of training as they saw baptism partly as an 'initiation.' Before the convert was to be accepted by the local church, they needed to get some basic training (replacing their previous pagan background with what we might now call 'a biblical world-view') and show real commitment ("Do you truly renounce the world, the flesh, and the Devil?").

Post-convert-pre-baptism folks were called "catechumans" (because they were in the process of "catechesis," or training). There actually were some of these catechuman guys who delayed getting baptized for years because they weren't *quite* ready to seriously renounce the world, flesh, and works of Satan. One of our early Best-And-Brightest guys, Augustine once quipped, "Lord, give me chastity - but not quite yet." Of course, Augustine eventually got with the program.

Anyway, all of that just gets me thinking about folks who we may allow to become members of our churches.

Let's be clear about this historic position of 'delayed' baptism - it is not necessarily saying that these converts were converted only when they were baptized  There is some confusion on that point. Still, the emphasis was on, as we put it, "affirming by an outward sign an inward reality."

So that was the argument for 'delayed' baptism - the local church wanted to see a level of evidence that the convert really had engaged the gospel. In this view, the Ethiopian (Ac. 8:27-38) clearly already had a biblical world view - he was reading a personal copy of Isaiah so knew the OT pretty well and was asking good interpretive questions. The Ethiopian already had a good 'biblical world-view.' So Philip, goes this reasoning, could baptize the Ethiopian immediately. Again, the Phillipian jailer (Ac. 16:25-33) got training and instruction directly from an Apostle (16:32) so he and his family - after showing evidences of conversion and commitment - could be baptized very quickly by that Apostle.

These don't capture all the arguments for 'late' baptism, but it is worth reflecting on the issue. The very early church faced the same problems that we do: so-called "believers" who turned out to have been admitted into the local body too soon. The result, for those true believers long ago, was severe persecution and death by 'turncoat Christians.'

Is it possible that allowing unprepared "believers" into church membership too early could cause harm to our local churches? Is that a risk we run today?

So, some suggest that the Biblical model is immediate baptism  Why don't we go back to that? My response is to challenge whether 'indiscriminate' early baptism truly is the Biblical model. The very early church did not seem to think so.

20080728

Gal. 1:15; Election To Salvation and Mission

So the great Calvinist-Arminian debate...

First, I'm going to annoy some people and suggest that the debate has been shaped a bit unfairly. For one, the debate has been shaped by "Reform" writers who seem to ignore that Jacob Arminius was, in fact, a Reform theologian. For two, the debate (again, from the side of "Reform" writers) describes "Calvinism" (rather than what Calvin explicitly taught) and "Arminianism" (which casts Finney-ism as the straw man, rather than the Weslyan tradition). So the whole thing is a bit of a set-up.

Second, The Debate goes (very simplistically) like this: either God pre-ordaines and decrees people to be saved before any consideration as to how those people might choose, which smacks of fatalism; or God is a bit dense (or powerless) and has to look forward to save those people who actually will respond to the gospel.

Dr. Breshears, in an attempt to square the circle on this matter, suggests that when faced with an intractible apparent contradiction we should look for an untested assumption. He suggests that such an assumption exists in the election issue. The assumption is that God always acts exactly the same way with all people. Is that assumption warrented?

Maybe God acts differently with different people. Maybe some people are persuaded and others are decreed. That popped into my head as I read Galatians 1:15: "But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, ..."

What's interesting about Galatians 1:15 is that Paul only speaks for himself. He says that he was called apart even before he was born. Why didn't he say the same thing about all the other believers in Galatia?

Now the traditional view of this text is that Paul is talking about his calling to preach the gospel to Gentiles - to a specific ministry. But the grammar here is a bit uncertain. There seems to be room to read that as, "God (the same who called me to salvation) was pleased to reveal Jesus to me in a way that would allow me to do this special ministry to the Gentiles." That is, Paul was affirming two callings: (parenthetically) one to salvation, the other (the main point) to a special ministry. "set me apart..." and "called me through his grace" seem to be subordinate clauses to the main thought: "But when God ... was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might (do this special mission)."

So that gets me wondering about the nature of election. Do we assume - presumptively  - that God must act with everyone in exactly the same manner?

20080723

Acts 17 - Paul's Seeker Sensitivity: Rebuttal

So one of my friends gave me some good-natured push-back about my line of reasoning that Paul was "seeker sensitive" and "culturally relevant" (see the post on 20080708). My friend poked specifically at the Mars Hill discourse at Athens. The line of reasoning goes like this: Paul's attempt to be culturally relevant was ineffective: not many converts, no recorded church in Athens, and The Bible tells us so - look at the text! Therefore, we should jettison all this "culturally relevant" garbage and Preach The Word!

OK - certainly we should preach the Word. I'm not in any disagreement with that. But let's take another look at the text.

First, the evidence actually in the text doesn't support the proposition that Paul's cultural engagement was ineffective. Some people in Athens were converted, there were requests to hear more from Paul, and it's not surprizing that no church was recorded planted as Paul's mission wasn't to plant in Athens - he was on his way and Athens was a lay-over while he waited for Silas and Timothy. Finally, the scripture doesn't signal or otherwise indicate that Paul's work on Mars Hill was bad, ineffective, or inappropriate.

The real, larger, question that my friend is raising (of course) is one of 'cultural engagement.' Is Christ against culture, above culture, accomodated to culture, or in culture? Several of you will recognize those phrases as the premise of the book, "Christ In Culture" by R. Niebuhr - a very important work. His answer is that the best - and especially the most Biblical - answer is Christ in culture: the church engaged in society.

So, my friend's arguement - seems to me - is not as compelling as advertised and the larger issue (as well as the best Biblical answer) is that Paul was right to do what he did. By the way, my friend doesn't really hold his argument, he'd heard it from a mis-guided fundamentalist.

Those are my thoughts.

20080716

Colosians 3:11 - A Final Word

I am taking my last course in seminary for this degree as a combination of lecture-on-DVD and online interaction by a Wiki-forum tool. Several of my last blogs have come from my contributions to this forum. The folks in the course seem to have begun a “Final Posting” tradition. I like the idea and like the thought that each person posts on one last final Big Thought. So this is a revision of my "Final Post" on a little phrase from Colossians 3:11: “… Christ is all…”.

David Bryant, in his book Christ Is All makes the point that modern Evangelicals have drifted into what I’ll call a “Generic Protestant Judaism.” We hear from the podium and sing from the screen lots of stuff about “God.” But, oddly, we shy away from actually talking about “Jesus” or even “Christ.” Younger Evangelicals are recapturing this, thankfully.

The point is even more forcefully made by Bryant when he asks us to listen to the conversations among Christians in the church lobby during Sunday morning. How many times do we ask each other, “Hey, so what’s Jesus been showing you this week?” That suggestion strikes many of us as, well, a little weird.

And that’s the point. Why? Why should that be weird? That kind of conversation should be completely normal for us as Christ followers. If we can’t talk about Jesus normally to each other, then how can we expect to talk to Jesus with unbelievers?

In the last few years I have had to come to grips with my deteriorating theology about Jesus. Do I really worship him? Do I really believe that he is the God-man who is not merely The Famous One, or my hero, but worthy of veneration and worship? Is Christ all for me? Too many times the answer was no.

I’m working for that to change. I’d be happy to have your company with me as I make that journey.

20080712

Phil. 4:8 - What Kind Of Person?

I was reading Philippians 4:8 where Paul tells us that we should be spending our thinking resources on the things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, good reputation, excellent, and worthy of praise.

And then I thought, what if I turned this around? What would be the result to a person if they dwelt (continued to think, obsessed, concentrated) on things that were:
• False
• Shameful
• Wrong
• Corrupt
• Ugly
• Bad reputation
• Mediocre
• Unremarkable

What would such a person have in their life? How would they spend their time? What would they shop for? Who would they vote for? Who would be their friends? What movies or CD’s would they like? What would be their fashion identity? What bumper stickers would adorn their mode of transport?

Maybe that’s a description of what our “mission field” looks like?

20080708

1Cor. 10:23ff - Paul Is Seeker Sensitive

Again, my Bible course gave me a new insight (which I suppose is the point) on this little section about Christian liberty (1 Cor. 10:23ff).

Here, Paul states that 'all things are lawful, but not profitable or edifying.' The presenting issue is eating food knowingly sacrificed to idols. Such meat was less expensive (like day-old bread) and many Christians (rightly) felt it was fine to buy that as there was no real spiritual power to that meat. But there were some folks (both new believers and "seekers," if you will) who were still pretty superstitious and creeped out about that meat. As the course (wonderfully taught by Dr. J. Carl Laney) pointed out; this specific issue was clearly decided during the Jerusalem 'Council' several years before. The council's decision was - by now - well known and published abroad.

So why didn't Paul just appeal to the authority of the Council? He was there, he fully participated, certainly he was in agreement with the conclusion and decision - why didn't he just tell the goofy Corinthians: "Look, this was decided years back. You know the decision - just obey."

What I find so refreshing is that Paul goes a completely different track. He doesn't respond authoritatively, he responds evangelistically. Paul says that (v.24) it's not about what's good for you, but what's good for your neighbor. I think he's implying that the "neighbor" is a non-believer or else he'd have used the word "brother." Later (v.27), he specifically refers to unbelievers. And in verse 28, Paul asks the rhetorical question (paraphrased), 'Why should I, knowing better, be prevented from enjoying inexpensive BBQ?' Paul's answer is clear: because you have a greater calling and that's to proclaim the gospel. If eating meat offered to idols is going to be a barrier to a gospel presentation, then you have got to give up your 'theologically pure' practice of inexpensive BBQ.

I think Paul is offering up an arguement for what has been the big point about being "seeker sensitive." Here's the big point about being seeker sensitive: if pews are a barrier to people meeting Jesus, rip them out; if special terminology ("justification," "propitiation," "redemption," etc.) prevents people from understanding the good news, find other words to make the same ideas understandable; and if people who don't know Jesus are actually willing to show up on a Sunday morning (but no other time of the week) to hear the gospel, then we need to move our more serious teaching experience to another time of the week and make our Sunday morning worship service comprehensible - at the least - to those who are interested learning about Jesus.

I think the take away from this passage (and Paul's point) is to put aside our preferences so that whatever we do, we glorify God towards those who do not know Him yet.

20080705

Gal. 3:3 - Monergism or Synergism?

OK, I admit I picked my subject line to be deliberately controversial. The controversy is this: how much does any person contribute to the work of salvation done in their everyday lives?

The 'hard' Reform guys say - it was God, beginning to end, and any person saved has no input or influence on God's sovereignty. There was only "one worker" (mono+erg = monergism).

The other Reform guys (remember that Arminius and Weslyans are also part of the Reformation) say - yep, God did all of the heavy lifting and that much is clear. But at some point we (as a response to God's working and 'wooing') had to grope a bit and come to some conclusion and then decide. That is, God and the person "together worked" (syn+erg = synergism, "synergy" is a similar idea). Now the reason hard Reform guys don't like 'synergism' is they get very allergic (and for very good reason!) to anything that smells like Pelagianism. It's not the heresy of Pelagius, but it can sound like that.

OK, now that's the issue with our justification. That is, justification is the work of conversion that occured when we were saved, converted, regenerated, etc. For the Christian alive today, justification is in the beliver's past.

So the open issue that this text seems to present is what about our sanctification? That is, the work that God does in our every-day present lives to transform us to be more like Jesus. For the Christian alive today, sanctification is how God continues to daily 'save' us from our past life, habits, etc. Is this spiritual work done only by God (monergism) or something we partner up with God about (synergism).

This text seems to speak against 'synergism' - that we shouldn't be 'perfected' (sanctified) by any work of our 'flesh.'

But I don't think that's the issue. I think that the issue in that text is that the Galatians were getting confused about was whether they needed some extra physical (flesh) rite to "seal the deal" (perfect) their justification. In a rough analogy to what the Roman Catholics believe, that there is a two-stage justification (gotta do good works to seal the deal), so the Galatians believed they needed to do Jewish rites to seal the deal. That, BTW, goes *way* beyond 'synergism!' Theologically, as to what the Galatians were proposing; well that just takes you right off the reservation of Christianity (Protestant, Roman, or Orthodox) - which is precisely Paul's point. Believing you need to do Jewish rites (be circumcized) to "seal the deal" of your justification is heresy.

Nope, this test isn't about sanctification, it's about justification. Paul is trying to get them back to the gospel: you have been completely saved, actually sealed by the Spirit, and as that work was completely done in the believer's past there's nothing else that the believer can do to improve upon their justification.

Now, as to your sanctification, Paul has stuff to say about that. For example, serve each other (5:13), walk with the Spirit (5:16, and keep in step with the Spirit (5:25).

So the point of Galatians 3:3 is not about monergism or synergism in our sanctification, but about a heresy of justification.

20080702

Warning Signs

For the two of you who actually read my blog, here are a couple of links discovered by my BFF Doug who is preparing a sermon on "warning signs..."

Could this, in fact, be the greatest warning sign ever? http://www.smoothharold.com/uploaded_images/helpdesk_warning_sign.jpg

This is more subtle: http://www.electricstuff.co.uk/scarylaser.gif

Thanks, again, to Doug Humphreys for these catches.

That caused me to go looking and I came up with these:


Here's one from my BackInTheDayDawg, Eric Miller: try not to die


Enjoy.

20080701

Rom. 3:21 - God Is "Tricky"

Romans 3 is really interesting! In a startling "reveal," Paul says that it turns out that God can - and does - save people apart from the Law.

Paul points out that the Law was never intended to save people. The sacrificial system could not accomplish that (Heb. 10:4). Abraham was saved before he became Jewish because (Rom 3:21), 'God has shown a becoming-saved-process that is not at all linked to The Law.' The Law doesn't save - it brings death and even greater realization that we are doomed. But God - all along - had this undercurrent of salvation by grace through faith. God's salvation was always apart from The Law. The Jewish mindset was that they needed to obey the rules to get God to like them more.

The author of Hebrews says a similar thing as Paul when he does a "reveal" that there's another order of priesthood that you-all forgot about. Everybody was fixated for the longest time on the Aaronic Priesthood. But there was this other priest - no relation to Aaron at all - that was a priest of God whom even Abraham showed submission to. This guy with the crazy name, Melchizedek, was a believer in Yahweh and acted as his priest hundreds of years before Aaron came along.

I have to chuckle at this. It's a bit like the illusionist who distracts your attention away from what's really going on and it when the effects are shown, it looks like "magic." All this time God had a righteousness and a priesthood working in the background ready to be used when The Law and Aaronic priesthood had fully taught us what we didn't want to believe. Because what we wanted to believe was that we could try really hard and get God to like us.

That could be confusing so let me restate the lesson: it is absolute folly to think you can do anything to make yourself acceptable to God.

Go 'head, try it! Here's a list of 613 commands - just 613 of them. Go ahead, keep them all.

OK, OK, that's too many and too hard. Here - let's start you out on just ten rules. Live your life so as to not violate just those ten. Hmmmm. Can't do that either.

Well, by the time people are figuring this all out, Jesus comes along and says there really are just two: love God and love neighbor. We still can't do it.

Have we learned the lesson? We can't do anything to gain acceptance by God. OK, now let's get to the real point: it's about grace and it always has been.

This must have been an earth-shattering realization for both Jews and Gentiles. An earned righteousness that is apart from rule-keeping. Mind boggling!

20080616

Acts 21:4-14; Paul Goofs?

In my coursework we are going through the book of Acts and I've developed a renewed appreciation for Paul and his ministry. But what has really grabbed my attention has been incidents where it seems that Paul has actually made a mistake.

Now let's get this straight: Paul was not infallible, he could and did make mistakes. The Bible records those (and the mistakes - even sins - of others) inerrantly. While Paul is legitimately a role-model (1Cor 11:1), he isn't perfect and even said so (1Tm 1:15).

When Paul comes back from his last missionary circuit, he stops by and has a quick off-site briefing with the leaders from Ephesus and admits to them that everywhere he's been recently the Spirit keeps saying that 'bonds and afflictions' await him. Paul says good-bye, sails back towards home, and then lands in Tyre.

In Tyre, the prophesies are a bit more explicit (Ac 21:4): "they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem." Now I don't know if there might be something hiding in the text, but it sounds like - from these words - that the Spirit is trying to tell Paul "Don't go to Jerusalem!" Now, what's the difference in Paul's reaction between this and Ac. 16:6-7 where Paul hears from the Spirit to not go to places, Paul obeys, and does not go to those places?

Paul then goes to stay with Philip and his four daughters (all prophetesses) in Caesarea. Agabus, a prophet who seems to have a good track record, makes a special trip up to Paul and warns him, again, things aren't going to go well if Paul persues this course of action. All the folks (including Philip and his daughters) take this news and beg Paul to not go further. Paul doesn't listen.

Finally, in the face of a remarkably intrasigent Paul, the folks there say, "Well, we sure hope that God can do what he wants with this situation." Now a couple of commentators I've read both see that as the folks "finally acknowleged that it was the Lord's will for Paul to go."

Really? In the face of five prophets, a Proto-Deacon who helped to break the gospel into Samaria, and the words of the Spirit from many believers for the last few months, am I to read this narrative and see that the vast majority of Christian leaders (including reliable and respected prophets) all saw it the other way but only Paul had it right?

Any thoughts out there?

20080613

Paul's Miscalculation?

As I read both first and second Corinthians and one of the minor themes was how Paul interacted with this church he’d planted. After he left, they got into a habit of disrespecting him. Paul, in both letters, has to reassert his apostolic and pastoral authority.

What’s interesting is that Paul figures this out and he identifies the cause. He jokes with them: "You guys don’t respect me because I didn’t abuse you financially." Now it’s only half a joke because, from Paul’s perspective, that’s actually a big bit of what’s going on between him and them – and that’s pretty messed up.

Paul got to Corinth and was supported by other churches in order to do his church planting work there. He had very good reasons for doing so, but the Corinthian church consistently misread Paul’s generosity on their behalf.

What is really annoying about the church is that, once the church was established, they still weren’t willing to give to support the work of the gospel! (We see that in 1Cor.9:9-14) Finally, in 2Cor.11:7 Paul says, “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God without charge?

And I wonder, seriously, was that an error in judgment on Paul’s part?

I remember a while back when we were getting ready to launch a really important ministry initiative that would involve people buying a book. Most of the people in the room said, “This is so important and so beneficial to our people that we should make sure there is absolutely no barrier for them – have the church pick up the tab and give the people the books for free!” But a couple of folks said, more wisely I think: “No, they should be made to pay a few bucks for the book. If they don’t pay even a little bit for it, they won’t value it.”

I wonder if Paul, who would certainly understood this dynamic of human nature, realized what trouble this would eventually cause for him as he worked to effectively minister to Corinthian church.

20080610

History III

History is important to Christianity.

But, oddly, history isn’t very important to Christians these days. Most believers in my tradition have a passing understanding of Jesus’ biography, the events surrounding the Apostles, know there was something called “The Reformation,” and then think of Billy Graham. That’s all the history about the church they know.

And that’s a shame, it seems to me. Of course, we could observe how many Christians of my tradition are barely aware of what they believe (and, much worse, if what they believe is truly in line with the faith they "profess"). There are many reasons for this: an underlying suspicion of ‘intellectual stuff;’ an emphasis on felt needs and experience; an emaciated theology of the person that believes that Jesus was just joshin’ when he told us to love God with our minds; and a teaching-pulpit tradition that encourages all those weaknesses.

In any case, my point is this: we ought to pay more attention to church history. During my couple of years in seminary, I’ve been challenged by my good friend, Johnmark, to give a bit more weight to the early Patristics.

Now “Patristics” is another word for “church fathers” and they, as a group, are kind of Christianity’s ‘founding fathers’ (a term most Americans know). When I talk about the early Patristics, I’m thinking of those influential church leaders who helped guide the church as it transitioned from the Apostles commissioned by Jesus to the ‘institutional’ church that Constantine ushered in. For about two hundred years, most of these early church fathers worked very hard to preserve and teach nothing but the teachings of the Apostles. The church fathers of the first hundred years after the last Apostle died are of particular interest to me.

My current hero from this time is a man name Irenaeus who was raised in Turkey, actually was a protégé a bishop named Polycarp. Polycarp was a protégé of John, the Beloved Disciple. So it was John (Jesus’ best friend on this earth) who taught Polycarp, and then Polycarp taught Irenaeus. During that era, we don’t see much speculative theology. No, the emphasis was on conservativism: teaching what the Apostles taught – no more and no less.

Now the value of these Patristics to us is that when we have certain questions about, say, church organization or baptism, or engagement with worldview philosophy our proper, right, and God-honoring response should be to go to the Bible. But what if there is ambiguity there? I realize that’s a hot-button statement. But still, I have to acknowledge that some ambiguity on those matters exist. The next place to go is, seems to me, to those early Patristics.

For example, to those who insist that baptism is only valid if it is done by immersion might be surprised to learn that the Apostles and their protégés were not nearly so rigid. From “The Didache,” a very early document that dates from the 100’s, the understanding of Apostolic practice was that how a believer was baptized was a matter of circumstance. That is, there was an order of preferred 'modes:' immersion in cold flowing water (river or beach) was the best, second best was cold still water, third best was warm still water, fourth best was to pour water over the head three times. All of those were legitimate modes of baptism to the very early church. What was really important was that the person being baptized and the one doing the baptism to fast one or two days before. These days, we don't even think about doing a fast before baptism.

Hmmmm. Folks, that’s what was important to the Apostles: not how the person got wet, but whether they were spiritually prepared to engage in the ritual.

We say that our faith is built upon Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching but we conveniently neglect to see what the Apostles actually taught. We make ambiguous Biblical passages into doctrine and ignore Apostolic teaching.

Now I am not – read me well – in any way suggesting that early Patristic writings have the same authority as the canon of scripture. I am suggesting that they should be influential in our understanding of some ambiguities which I believe God has allowed to be in scripture.

Here's another thing; I realize that there's a current faddish re-discovery of the Patristics among Evangelicals. I applaud that movement as an attempt to get reconnected with the church's history. However I would exhort Evangelicals to go beyond the faddish find-a-quote-from-a-Patristic and thoughtfully engage with those men who struggled to carry on the Apostles' teaching.

20080606

History II

History; well, that’s a tough thing.

Why?

First, because many people didn’t have my good experience with history classes in school. For them, history is boorrrrinnngggg – a real snoozer and anytime history is brought up, their lights go out. If you ever tried to pay attention, your likely response was: “What-ever.”

Second, history is, well, old. In our modernistic culture new is good and old is bad. Progress is the goal and “history is bunk.” We have lots of clichés for that attitude: “That was then, this is now;” “What have you done for me lately?,” "What's next?," “Let’s not dwell on the past,” “Forget the past, look to the future,” and so on. Really, our culture truly, viscerally, and with extreme prejudice believes with all its heart that history is, well, evil. I don't think I'm overstating here. People these days have an allergic reaction to history.

Third, history, …. "Dude, there’s just so much of it!" Humans have been around for a long time and even within ‘recorded’ history there’s just a lot of stuff to know. History can be overwhelming and it can be really difficult to place events, people, eras, movements, and cultures in coherent context.

Fourth, history is depressing. Face it, there’s not a lot of happy news in history. A lot of it is about meglomaniacal warlords in love with their own legends; wars, battles, killing, plagues, famines, dying, and a constant theme of trajedy, injustice, and oppression. History is frequently not a happy place. Here's something from Brennan Manning: "How does one dare to propose the way of trust in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder and the terror of history?" Followers of Jesus see that matter differently, by the way.

Fifth, Yes - history can be prey to ‘perspectivalism.’ Yes, many historians wrote with almost comically transparent agendas and biases. Even those part of the ‘modern’ historical movement have been shown to be unconsciously influenced by their times, societies, and mores.

Yet, badly told history should be a motivation to demand well-told history.
  • As to boring; even in our narcissistic culture, if we want to know ourselves even better, we should want to know where we came from, how we came to be, and what shaped us. History is our own story - it is interesting.

  • And, yes, there’s a lot of history! But there have been a lot of people who have come before us and we owe it to them to try and capture their times and a small sliver of their lives.

  • For Christians, who are deeply wounded by the injustices done in the name of their savior Jesus, we see history as a painful, yet needed, reminder that people are broken and have needed Jesus all this time.

  • Lastly, that even noting the failings of historians, we still are motivated by a sense of objective truth. Those laughable ancient writers may have been engaging in covert sarcasm. Ever consider that? We become sympathetic with those who have struggled hard to get a handle on their times and occasionally came short. We applaud their efforts and ourselves take up the banner to even better understand the times.
We do history because humanity is a historical species. It is deeply ingrained in our overly large cerebral cortex.

20080603

History I

I’ve always enjoyed history. That, right there, marks me off as different from lots of other people in my society. Maybe I was just lucky, but my history teachers were good. They always seemed to be able to show how where we are now is because of what happened before. I specifically remember a professor at my Community College, Mr. Haydu, who I realized lectured in history like he was telling a story: characters, plot twists, motivations – all of those things were what made up history.

As I advanced in my education, I got the typical undergraduate stuff about perspectivalism: “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” – Voltaire. My favorite is the African proverb, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” But that attitude never satisfied. There has always been perspective, sure, but one reason why we tend to trust some historians over others is that those we trust seemed to work hard to eliminate their biases.

In any case, when it comes to history about the church, things get fun. Christianity places a Very High value on objective truth. Yet, because another high value is the recognition of human fallibility, Christianity is ‘realistic’ and recognizes that historians – operating by themselves – can record with unrecognized bias.

Christianity itself is a religion based on history: the historical facts of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. In fact, Paul states that if the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not an objective fact, then Christianity itself is just plain false. Without history, Christianity evaporates. For millennia, this has been known as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the faith. And yet, dispite this notoriously known fact, there’s been no soft underbelly to be found. Archeology and high-confidence history keep revealing more and more strength where the soft belly is supposed to be.

Judaism and Christianity both affirm the importance of history and note that the writing of history is left to its most capable people. Moses, equipped with the best education that civilization of his time had to offer, recoded a purposeful history of humanity to show how his people came to be. Unnamed prophets compiled histories of the Jewish people using the reign of kings as their narrative structure. Ezra, an extremely gifted priest, compiled a brief history of Jews returning to their homeland. Luke, a gentile physician, used his scholarly bent to compile a systematic biography of Jesus and early history of the Apostles.

And we also believe that all these writers were not operating by themselves. They had supernatural guidance. Because, even with the most gifted of people, God was there to work with those writers to not only make sure that the facts were correct, but also that the writing would accomplish the purposes that God ultimately had for those writings.

History is important to Christianity.

20080529

Heroes - Part 2

So here is part two of my hero list….

Titus – we see Titus as St. Paul’s associate. What I like about him is that Paul could count on Titus to do anything. Titus was Paul’s utility player: take care of some money transfers, do a church evaluation, step in as an interim pastor – Titus had lots of talent that God used. So he appeals to me because he was multi-talented and ministered in a broad context.

Bill Hybels and Mark Driscoll – these are two guys who both love Jesus and want others to know about Jesus, as well. They are both innovative and created models of ministry that are admirable. They are on opposite sides of one theological spectrum, which might be ironic except that they both very insistently point to Jesus. They are similar in that their younger days were marked by being both very effective and maybe a bit arrogant. They are both very committed to engaging their culture with the gospel.
(update in 2015) - of course, many in evangelicalism have heard the Mark Driscoll had an implosion. Of course this is disappointing. Yet, while this speaks volumes about Driscoll's struggles with pride and his pastoral 'heart,' I hope this does not invalidate his Jesus-centered preaching and the mission to bring the gospel to Seattle-land. The messenger has shot himself, but much of the message is still valid.

Bishop Irenaeus – he was born in the Orient, then ministered in Europe, and a man with a powerful love and concern for his church. He saw a faddish spiritual movement developing, recognized its toxicity for his flock, and took it on himself to argue and refute that heresy of Gnosticism. In doing so, and not really intending to, he became the first systematic theologian of the church. His name means “peaceable” and he lived up to that moniker.

C.S. Lewis – I have a real respect for bright people who can communicate clearly. C.S. Lewis was once described by a close associate as “the clearest thinking man in Britain” because of the lucidity of his writing style. He came to Jesus later in life and turned his smarts towards explaining why following Jesus was the most obviously rational thing to do.

George Washington – people of my generation went through the 60’s when it was the cool thing to trash the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson excepted. But in college I read a biography of Washington and found him to be a true hero. Not always the brightest man in the room (compared with others of the Founding Fathers), he was a man of character, courage, and talent. He made many mistakes but never repeated any of them and learned from them all. He was sacrificially dedicated to his new country.

Winston Churchill – very similar to George Washington for me: a late-bloomer, tenacious, dedicated to his nation, and a charmer. We think of Churchill today for his wit, which was considerable, but few knew that Churchill wasn’t much of a student, had a pretty obscure start as a politician, but kept plugging away until he was the man of the hour during the Second World War.

George Smiley – this is a fictional character born of ‘John LeCarre,’ a spy novelist. George is a master spy but as anti-James Bond as can be: middle aged, un-athletic, bad with women, plenty of self-doubts, a powerful thinker, hated gadgets – the character of Smiley is very compellingly drawn by ‘LeCarre.’

So there are some common themes here. Dedication and purpose to life, character and integrity, talent and capacity, mostly intellectuals or bright people. These are my heroes.

20080526

Heroes - Part 1

I was just recently challenged to make up a list of my heroes and to think a bit upon the list. I then recalled that I had a list of heroes (look to the right) on this blogsite. So I thought I’d tell a bit about why each of these are on that list.

Jesus – can’t get past this one, Jesus Christ is my hero. He is an awesome guy, lived an exemplary life, I want to be like him. I am an absolute raving fan about Jesus. I worship the dude.

Joseph Jacobson I – you know this guy as Joseph, the son of Jacob, who was a bit relationally retarded as a young guy (and a bit arrogant), got sold into slavery, languished in prison for a couple of decades, but was eventually used greatly by God to save thousands of lives. I admire Joe because God used Joe’s talents to do good and great things. Additionally, a case could be made that Joe was a late bloomer and that is something I identify with.

Joseph Jacobson II – you know this Joe as Jesus’ dad. I think Joe is the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Joe’s character, his determination to obey God, his acceptance of an unthinkable responsibility to raise the boy Jesus… Well, Joe ought to be the patron saint of all blue collar tradesmen. He loved God, did his job, took his responsibilities as a husband and father seriously, and didn’t ask for anything in return. We should honor this guy more.

Mary Elidatter – I’m using the Scandinavian formula for this gal’s name. This is Mary, Jesus’ mom. Mary is an absolutely first-class gal. She should not only be a role model for women but all us men as well. She was one strong woman. This is the kind of gal we should marry and the kind of gal we should help our daughters to become like.

Mark Etzen – this is a friend of mine who died in 2007 from pancreatic cancer. Mark was funny, supportive, positive, and wise. He sold things and was good at that; he was generous with his resources; he was a respected voice in our church’s leadership; he was an exemplary family man. All of those things made him a good friend to me. But the thing that capped off his hero status to me was the way he died: with courage, grace, and looking forward to meeting our mutual hero, Jesus.

Doug Humphreys – this is my BFF who was an attorney and has moved into ministry splitting his time pastoring and working for CRM. Doug is smart, funny, a good family man, and has had to battle some health issues. He has done so also with courage and grace. I find myself occasionally thinking that someday I want to grow up to be like Doug, even though he’s younger than me.

Jeff Logsdon – Jeff is the ‘Associate Pastor’ of Flipside church. Jeff sought me out to help him with some projects as the newly-planted Flipside was shaping up its ministry model. I soon came to admire Jeff for his courage and willingness to risk much to start the church. Jeff’s wisdom, temperament, and willingness to learn came strongly into the mix when God started speaking more clearly to me about entering into vocational ministry.

This is just part one of my hero list. Keep posted for part two...

20080523

Gifts To The Church

Ephesians 4:11-12 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; ...

In the past, I had considered the gifs spoken of in Ephesians 4 to be spiritual gifts like the lists in Rom. 12 and 1Cor. 12. But my opinion has shifted a bit. I think the meaning is that these are people. That is, God has given us gifted people who are gifts to the church: gifted people who God gave the church to fill the roles of apostles, gifted people who God gave the church to be evangelists, and so forth.

This challenges my thinking about the leaders in church. We frequently hear the idea that our pastors, teachers, evangelists are just plain folk who aren’t any different from the rest of us. Even more so that the “calling” to ministry isn’t anything different or special from the calling to be a godly computer repair guy or Jesus-loving health insurance agent.

Something bugs me about that. I get it – of course the idea is to 1) prevent pride and arrogance from destroying our leaders, and 2) to affirm those that don’t have the ‘call to ministry' that God delights in them and their work, as well.

But when I look at scripture, I do not see leaders who are ordinary guys and gals. I see very high-capacity, usually well-trained, and high-functioning people. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Jesus, Matthew, Luke, Paul, John – all of these were not ‘just plain folk.’ And when I look at the pastors who I’ve been shepherded by: Ron S., Paul C., John M., Dan B., Ben B., Jack L., , Dave G., (a string of Bible names there!) Rob A., and Keith K. – these guys have uniformly been very bright, could’ve succeeded and prospered in any field they would’ve entered, and worked hard at their roles. The same goes for most missionaries I know and the few evangelists I know about (I admit to not knowing any folks with the titles of “prophet” or “apostle”).

What is impressive to me is that God captured these folks lives, shaped them, and then gave them as gifts to the churches they served. God gave gifts of specific people to fill those roles. That's how I now understand this passage.

20080520

Acts 5:13 - Attraction and Repulsion

I was reading Acts 5 and I was interested to note that as the new movement (at that time it was called, "Followers of The Way") was starting and still meeting in the Temple courts, that this phrase appears:"But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem." Acts 5:13. Hmmm. Nobody wanted to be around them, but everybody respected them. That's both odd and interesting.

That got me thinking about what I'd heard from Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. Keller talks about how every culture has elements that both affirm and rejects Christian values. Our culture, for example, stands up and applauds our compassion, charity, and social activism to all members of our society. But our culture hates the fact that we say sexual activity needs to be restricted. In the Muslim culture, they affirm our sexual 'ethics,' but think we are plain wrong-headed to be indiscriminately charitable.

In both of those cases, Christianity speaks out against the culture. One of our tasks to to realize that we have to be faithful to Bible and affirm how the culture we find ourselves in is in alignment with Bible and speak prophetically when our culture is not in alignment.

I think it's obvious: that is one reason we study the Bible - to know the difference between God's perspective and our society's perspective. But here's the other thing: we shouldn't be surprised when the world both esteems us and hates us. I think that might be a bit of what was happening in Acts 5:13.

High Capacity Servants

It wasn't until after the Apostolic age during the Patristic (Church Fathers) period that any commentator explicitly linked the servants identified in Acts 6 with the office of Deacon. Still, it seems that it is appropriate and helpful to consider Acts 6 as the inauguration of this important, but now degraded, office in the church.

Western Seminary, rightly (seems to me) teaches a plurality of Eldership and a separate office of Deacon. However, in our modern churches we frequently place people in the Deacon office who are, well, lesser. Maybe good-hearted souls who like to help out, or good ol' Boys who mean well and need some affirmation ("Billy Bob's a good guy, let's make him a Deacon"). I think that degrades the role, function, and office I see in Acts 6.

I look at who's described here and they are very high functioning, extremely commited, spiritual exemplars and leaders of the local church. They are men of the highest integrity. Especially as they are going out to very needy women, you better believe they need to be 'one-woman' men (1Tm 3:12)!

Look at the two examples: Stephen, when he gets caught in a debate, completely holds his own, has no trouble articulately and eloquently telling truth to power, and even though he knows he's going to see his friend Jesus face-to-face very soon, has the presence of mind (while getting his brains literally knocked out of his skull) to express compassion and forgiveness. That's spiritual courage on a level that I never want to experience (coward that I am). Stephen was NOT some well-meaning guy who needed a bit of affirmation. Stephen is a genuine hero.

The next example is Phillip who, after watching one of his best friends getting stoned to death, marches right into the most hated part of his region and starts preaching Jesus to Samaritans. People are responding and Phillip is showing signs of supernatural power. Such wild and wonderful things are happening in Phillip's ministry that the Big Boys, Peter and John, come over to see for themselves. Phillip's got no problem with that because the Spirit's told him to run on down to the dessert road where it just so happens that the most influential Jewish prostelyte in Candace's Queendom is heading back home with a new scroll that he bought up in the Mega-Bible-Bookstore in Jerusalem. Phillip catches him reading out loud and enters into a conversation, asks simple interpretive questions, gives a Biblical Theology of Messiahship and Jesus, sees this guy convert, baptizes him right on the spot, sends him on his way and then - apparently - the Spirit does a Star-Trek-transportor thing with Phillip plopping him 20 miles away. Phillip settles in at the influential seaport town of Ceasarea, raises some pretty impressive girls, and has a reputation as being a major Evangelist. This is no Good Ol' Boy - this guy has got Game and played it for the long term.

My point is that I think we need to re-evaluate our view of Deacons.

20080515

Looking for Ministry

So I’m looking for a ministry position. This is an interesting process and very different than industry.

First, let’s get all the negatives out of the way. Most church (small to medium sized) hiring practices are very poor. Churches are terrible communicators with their pastoral candidates. There are situations where the elders – some of whom may have never gone to college – are expecting to hire somebody with a graduate degree. Additionally, the elders may not have much experience hiring people or, if they do, it’s manual or semi-skilled labor. The search committee may, if the candidate is fortunate, meet once a week. The candidate is expected to give, up front, a ton of difficult information. Much of the information expected is extremely personal. Some liken the process to a “spiritual colonoscopy.” And then, some churches are looking for candidates who must fit a Very Narrow band of beliefs and practices: not just Calvinistic or Arminian – are they Reform seven pointers or only five pointers? Not just amillenial or millennial, but are they non-dispensational pre-trib rapture pre-millennialists? Again, a group of elders who may not have been to Bible college, much less have seminary level training, assume that they know Biblical doctrine better than the guy who they’re interviewing.

When I looked for work in industry, I hit the want ads, sent resumes, only if the hiring people thought I had good qualifications was I then contacted by phone, then went to interview, and then I'd fill in an application. During the interview they didn’t ask me if I was in the Yourdon or McCracken school of program structure; they asked if I could do it, was I qualified, and assumed that if I were competent that they didn’t have to tell me how to do the job. They asked if I could get along with people, was a good worker, and didn't ask about my marrital relationship.

This process is pretty goofy.

But, there is something rather noble in the midst of all the chaos and incompetent practices. There is the realization that God is sovereign. There is the mix of tough and tender that this process imposes on those who enter it. On one hand, a candidate must have the emotional stuff to say, “Yes, I really think that God can use me in this church to do great things.” On the other hand, the candidate is constantly evaluating and checking their motives, the clarity of their hearing for the One voice that matters, attempting to wade through well-meaning advice, and being encouraging, gracious, and polite in the face of some thoughtlessly rude behavior.

Additionally, there is the testing of calling. How clear is the candidate's vision to this extremely important role? This rather annoying process can shake the candidate to the core: this isn't just a job, it is a "calling."

This is a weird line of work.

20080425

Commencement: Courage and Humility

The time has come! I will be participating in graduation ceremonies tomorrow and the road through seminary will be mostly done. I still have one course to complete (by DVD) this summer. Again, the degree is "Master of Arts in Exegetical Theology" – I think I remember taking a course where I had to learn just how to spell all of that. :-)

As we did our rehearsal this afternoon, I found myself sitting next to a couple of very interesting guys and their stories caused me to reflect on my own journey to seminary.

Sitting two seats down from me is Mark Driscoll. Mark is one of the pastors of Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington. I’ve enjoyed listening to Mark’s sermons via podcast for the last couple of years and admire both his mission and teaching. But the thing that really impresses me is the story of how Mark got into seminary. The way I heard it was this: my theology professor, Dr. Gerry Breshears, heard Mark speak at some event and got to chat with him. He suggested that maybe Mark might want to sharpen his theological saw by going back to school. Now Mark, who has admitted as much, was not always known for his humility. He is the pastor of a very large, growing, and influential church! But instead of telling my theology professor to get lost, he said, sure, and submitted himself to getting himself better trained.
That really impresses me. And on several levels. First is that a guy like Driscoll would submit himself to going back to school. Second, that a guy like Driscoll would carve out and take the time to do all that work to get through graduate school. All of that speaks of a combination of courage and humility that I must learn from.

Sitting right next to me is David Gilford. David works at a local college and has gone through seminary part time for a few years. David and I were in a few classes together. The last one was our “theology capstone” course where we had to create a unified doctrinal statement and then defend our theological conclusions in a mini-ordination interview. Now here’s the thing – David comes from the Assemblies of God which is firmly in the Pentecostal part of our big Evangelical tent. Now you might call Western Seminary many things, but Pentecostal is not a description that anyone would apply to the school! Yet here David is, getting trained and putting up with some pretty inane comments (some of which came from me). David always impressed me as being a very bright and systematic student – he is one of the bright guys on campus. So here David was, occasionally getting some less-than-supportive comments and he has, in all that I’ve observed, responded with grace, tact, and the Bible.
David has really impressed me. He’s come to a school that does not share all of his theological convictions and, even just a few years ago, would have been positively hostile towards him. Still, he has submitted to being trained here for ministry. That’s a combination of courage and humility that is powerful.

Both David and Mark are great examples of the caliber of people that it has been my very great privilege to study with for these last two and a half years.

During this time of the year, maybe it could be a reminder to honor your own pastor and the training and education that he committed to so that he would be able to serve and care for you. Honor your pastor!

20080415

Christian Lawyers

I had a dear friend from way back send me a news story a while back, asking me to comment.

The story is, in a nutshell, about an Islamic school in Minnesota that seems to be receiving preferential treatment in clear violation of what we've come to recognize as maintaining the "separation of church and state." Of course, for political reasons and the manifest fact that Muslims are Very Touchy People, nobody in power in Minnesota seems to want to apply the very clear laws on religious liberties and religious limitations to this Islamic school.

So, as a lawyer (member of the California Bar since 1994), I look at the apparent facts, apply what I know of U.S. Constitutional law, and see that this situation is ripe for a lawsuit. Christians could sue the state of Minnesota requesting relief in requiring the state to provide equal treatment regarding religious liberties. From the facts I know, it seems it would be a slam-dunk.

Yet...

Oh, but I forgot!!!

We can’t find anyone to help us Christians sue to correct this clear violation of the U.S. Constitution because, after all…

Being a “Christian Lawyer” is a contradiction in terms! Ha, ha, ha!

Next time you need legal help, hire a comedian.

Yep, no apologies here; being made fun of, marginalized, and ridiculed for being both a fully devoted follower of Jesus and an attorney at law is not fun. Sure, why shouldn't I be insulted, jeered, and my personal integrity, honesty, and devotion to Jesus called into question??

Yep, don't you know I feel all affirmed and supported by my brothers and sisters in Christ when they tell me they know the law better than I do because some radio preacher told 'em so; when they tell me I don't have a 'real doctorate;' when I'm automatically placed in the same category with the worst example of lawyer that they've ever met or even heard of.

Yep, listening to "lawyer jokes" where people laugh at the thought of lawyers being tortured, mutilated, and killed is exactly the way I want to begin a relationship with the joke teller. Hmmmm. What an interesting way to start a relationship with a stranger: I just let you know that I'm a lawyer and the first thing you do is tell a story that apparently expresses your wish to see me dying a horrifying death. Ha-ha. Thank you; such a pleasure to meet you, as well. Please, sir, may I have another?

Ahhh; what's the matter - can't I take a joke?

Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Don't you know it; that I feel the love from my fellow disciples of Jesus!

Same thing goes for Christian teachers in the public school system, Christian business people working in corporate life, Christians working in mainstream media, and so forth. Christians who actually want to love God and love their neighbor get the stuffing kicked out of them on a pretty regular basis. They get kicked at by their workplace for being Christians, and then they come to church and get really worked over for actually trying to live and declare the gospel to people who really need to see it.

Next time you bemoan the deterioration of American culture, be sure to thank God for the foresight you exercised by encouraging other Christians *from* being a Christ-honoring presence in our culture.

20080302

Gospel, Culture, and Church?

I was listening the other day to a Portland-area Christian guru type. He said that he’d done some reading and came across a model that he shared and that got me thinking a bit.
The model is how gospel, culture and church interact. My apologies, Rick, if I didn’t get this right, but this is what I came away with…

We start with the gospel. The gospel interacts with culture (really “society”). What happens when the gospel effectively engages society? People come to Jesus – that’s a good thing! Those new believers group together because the both want to and should do. That leads to a church.
The next thing to notice is that the church then goes back to the gospel. This is a continuous thing – the church always has to remind itself of what the gospel is while staying connected to its birthing society.

Now get this part: the gospel is above both church and culture – neither the culture or the church “own” the gospel (this is what our Roman church friends miss), however the church’s function is to posses and use the gospel in culture.

Note the progression: the gospel interacts with society and a church is the result – the church is a child of both the gospel (which is easy for most Christians to see) AND the culture (which causes most Christians to squirm a little). This is important to grasp: each individual church is a product of its community, society, and culture. By the way, most PoMos get this immediately.
And, for evangelicals, this should sound right. After all, we keep saying that we want to present the timeless truths of the gospel in the relevant language of the world in which we now live. The same applies to a particular church.

Also note that the church is interacting with BOTH gospel and culture. If the church ceases to interact with the gospel and only engages culture, it presents (at best!) as “watered down gospel.” I would argue that such a church presents no gospel at all. For evangelicals of the last half of the 20th century, this is what we think happened to the Liberal wing of the church. Some evangelicals are concerned that certain segments of the emerging-emergent church are going down the same path.

If the church stops interacting with the society and culture, it is also guilty of sin: we have held our fists up to God in disobedience to both the Second Greatest commandment and the Great Commission. The church becomes insular and ineffective. There can be no impact without contact.

R. Neibuhr present four models of Christ In Culture as it relates to the church: 1) Church against culture, 2) Church accommodating to culture, 3) Church over culture, and 4) Church in culture. Rick’s model touched on three of these. A church disconnected from society is Christ against culture. A church disconnected from gospel is Christ accommodated to culture. A church engaged in both gospel and culture is Christ in culture. While Neibuhr was quick to say that each of the models he developed had biblical support, the best understanding was that of Christ in culture. That is, the church engaged with both gospel and its society.

20080208

Senior-ites

So I’ve been back in classes for about a month and I’m feeling very ambivalent.

One on hand, I have loved my seminary education and experience and will miss it when it is time to graduate. I have enjoyed the friends I’ve made, the opportunity to learn more and engage issues, and especially the experience of getting to know Jesus better. Let me assure anyone reading that I am coming out of seminary with more questions than I came in with – but I understand that’s typical.

On the other hand, I’m getting a little tired of it. Part of this is the nature of my course load this year: two languages that are beginning to feel tedious, having to commute two hours one way twice a week because that’s the scheduling, and a lot of books to read and papers to write. But the bigger part is probably just plain ol’ Senior- ites.

In High School and College it was just wanting to finish up and get on with one’s life. In law school, the paradigm was: “1st year: scare you to death; 2nd year: work you to death; 3rd year: bore you to death.” That last year of law school was ‘boring’ because by that time you felt you had enough learning the rules of the game, now you wanted to go out and play! For those of us lucky enough to get internships during school, it was actually even a little worse – we’d gotten to play a little bit and now we wanted to play for real!

So I’m coming to the end of my degree program and, I admit it, I’m itching to get out there and see how God will work. Also, like most of my classmates, I’ve had some part-time experience at my church so that makes me even more motivated to dive in head first.

At the same time, there’s anxiety about finding a ministry position. Is there really one out there for me? Will the search committees be able to look past the fact that I don’t look like the typical seminary graduate? Will my first position be affirming of my call to ministry or will it be – otherwise? Can I find a position that can actually support my family? And so forth.

These are going to be interesting days.

20080123

The Roots of My Seminary

I was browsing in the school's library and found a work, "Baptists in Oregon" by Albert W. Wardin, Jr. I thought that might be interesting - a 575 page history about a specific part of Christianity in a very specific part of the world. So I browsed the contents and then came upon a sub-heading that referred to the very school in whose library I stood.

I read about the formative history of Western Seminary. It was started in 1927 and founded by the then pastor of Hinson Memorial Baptist Church (Portland), John Marvin Dean. While he was certainly part of the Fundamentalist movement of that time, is more properly categorized as a moderate. In the Oregon Baptist history book, I found a very interesting quote from one of Dean's sermons. Here it is:

"Evangelism and social service are twins and cannot live in separation. It will be a glad day for American Christianity when all the social service theorists and faddists become soul-winners and all the evangelistic Christians become servants of the common good."

Dean had other attitudes somewhat foreign to today's so-called "Fundamentalists." Here's another quote from a report to the seminary's Board of Trustees in 1937:

"... up to date this year's service has been the most satisfactory in the history of the institution. Every year more students are learning to think independently, and to use Scripture in an honest attempt to learn what was in the mind of the writers and not to prove pet theories. If we can teach our students honestly to let the Book speak for itself, instead of using it as an arsenal of proof-texts to bolster up someone's philosophy of religion, we have performed a task well worth while."

If I may be so bold, I am happy to report that my experience at Western Seminary has so far been consistent with those foundational aspirations of John M. Dean.

20080117

1 Corinthians 13

Back In The Day, it became popular to paraphrase 1 Cor. 13. Such paraphrases are not just 'a dime a dozen,' but more like a dime a gross! Still, I came along the chapter in my devotional reading yesterday and my mind went to paraphrase mode. Here's what I came up with...
  1. If I exercise charismatic gifts but have not love, I have become an annoying ring-tone or a fire alarm buzzer
  2. If I have The Preaching Gift, and know my Systematic Theology thoroughly; and if I have the faith to change the most intransigent of Elder Board members, but do not love, I am Game Over
  3. And if I minister in an inner-city missio-community, and if I am a missionary to the most demanding and God-foresaken place on the planet, but do not have love, those are an utter waste of time
  4. Love keeps going, love is kind and doesn’t get tweaked when someone else gets the credit; love doesn’t entertain invitations to write ‘ministry success’ stories in Leadership, Outreach, or Rev!, and certainly doesn’t cop an attitude,
  5. Doesn’t get rude; it doesn’t welcome a pastor-centric ministry model, isn’t prickly, doesn’t keep score
  6. Does not gloat when someone from another movement gets trashed in the press, but rejoices in Jesus
  7. Is sacrificial in ministry, gives people the presumptive benefit of the doubt, is optimistic about the future, keeps doing ministry even when it is Really Hard
  8. Love doesn’t stumble; but if there are preaching gifts, they will be obsoleted; if there are charismatic gifts, they will be abandoned; if there is theology, it will be tossed
  9. Because we don’t have all the facts and we preach incompletely
  10. But when Jesus comes, all those gaps will be filled
  11. When I was a kid, I talked like a kid, I thought like a kid, had a child’s perspective; when I grew up, I wasn’t like that anymore
  12. Now we see in a pixilated manner, but then with our own eyes; now I have a limited perspective, but then I will see the whole thing just as I will be fully seen
  13. But now conviction, optimism, love, these things are always around; but the most important is love.

20080116

Seminary Program

I was reminded that this blog is supposed to be about things I’m learning about in seminary. I was made aware of two websites that specifically discuss going to and being in seminary. Here they are:
http://www.goingtoseminary.com/
http://seminarysurvivalguide.com/

Just in case there are some of you out there who are interested in some of the more programmatic parts of my seminary ‘career,’ I thought I’d do a blog on that stuff.

I am currently attending Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. The seminary is at the top of Hawthorne Blvd – the center of Portland’s Post-Modern community, it seems. My initial program was the Masters of Divinity (M.Div.), which is the ‘traditional’ professional degree for pastoral ministry. M.Div. programs include courses in Bible survey, Systematic Theology, practical skills, church history, original languages (Hebrew and Greek), and some electives to refine the seminarian’s knowledge base. What I really enjoy about Western’s program is that they require several Spiritual Formation courses.

After about a year, I could project that the money was running out. That meant that I would have to scale my seminary experience back. This was a hard pill to swallow, on many levels. But it turned out that I could fulfill the requirements of another degree in the time-money I had left.
That degree is the Masters of Arts in Exegetical Theology (M.A.E.T.). The MAET is basically the M.Div. without the practical ministry courses. It is useful for those who are headed for the Masters of Theology (Th.M.) degree. Personally, I’m going to miss those practical ministry courses but my plan is to keep plugging away at them part-time until I can get the M.Div.

Another unique feature of Western’s program is the “Functional” language track. Western had noticed that even the most brilliant language students, once they got into pastoral ministry, lost much of their language skills. Most seminary graduates settle into relying on lexicons, grammars, and (these days) software such as Logos or Bibleworks. Well, if that’s the case, said the Sages of Western, then why don’t we just prepare our students for what they will actually be doing in ministry? So Western offers two tracks: the “Foundational” (traditional) and the “Functional” (tool-intensive). I am in the Functional track.