Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Bible Is Not History

The Bible is theology. That does not mean that it is not firmly rooted in history. It is. The Old Testament Survey class recently read the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. As we observed carefully the details of the tower's construction and the culture of the people who built it and compared those to the technology and social milieu of the early Sumerian civilization we noticed wonderful correlation - the proliferation of religions, powerful kings, fired bricks and tar for mortar, all that is there. This event is firmly anchored in real history. But it is not history. It is theology.

The point of the story (that is the theological lesson to be learned) is that God is preventing man from doing all that they might plan. God is holding back the evil that is in man's heart until God's time for removing constraint. In particular, God is maintaining control so that in the fullness of time when he would send his Son into the world, the world would be ready.

But how often when that story is told do we hear the real point of the story?

The same is true of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2. In recent years most Christians have read that story as history, and we've gotten hung up on the details and how they do or do not correlate with the science and history we read in text books and popular news media. We have allowed the critics and skeptics to control the discussion. That is our fault. The Creation narrative is not history or science; it is theology.

If that means anything, it means the story has a point, and the point is not hard to discover. It is that God did it. He created everything. And when it comes to the creation of man, it is that man is special, unique, capable of communion with God as no other earthly creature, capable of ruling over the creation as God's vice-regent (or destroying it), and that he is a moral being having the freedom to make moral choices and the understanding of what is right and wrong.

Compare that to what we know about man today and it is right on. The Bible speaks the truth about us, a truth that we need to pay attention to, especially when it comes to the third chapter and the fall of man into sin. And it speaks the truth about God. But we get hung up on questions like when did God create, where was the Garden of Eden, and did snakes have legs.

The same is true of the New Testament. It is not history. It is theology. Now without question it is rooted in history. There are few documents from the past as specific and detailed and accurate as the New Testament, so much so that we can be as sure historically that Jesus lived, died on a cross, and rose from the dead as we can of any other event - even more so. But again, if we allow the media to set the agenda we will end up defending the historicity of the accounts rather than declaring the gospel. And there is no saving power in that.

I am convinced after years now of engaging skeptics and critics of the Bible and watching as others have that we have failed in large part because we've not declared the gospel - the theology - of the Bible. That is changing, thank the Lord. But it is worth remembering still that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, not reason and argument about less significant things.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Communion of the Comfortable

I had dinner on a night this last week with two brothers. As we talked about the church and about the many aberrations of which the church in America is prone, the topic of suffering came up. One brother reacted to the idea heard in some quarters of the church that suffering is God's plan for believers. God does not cause his children to suffer he said nor should we give thanks for our suffering as if it was a blessing of God - we can give thanks in our suffering, but not for it, was his thought.

I pondered that for several days. It seemed logical, but it also seemed somehow skewed. God would not cause suffering for those he loves, would he? But then I thought of the film we are watching in Bible class at school, The Hiding Place. If God does not cause suffering neither does he always save his people from suffering. And further, the ten Boom's, Betsy and Corrie, found that, in fact, there was a blessing in the suffering.

Is that biblical - that suffering is appointed by God for his children and a blessing? It happened that I was reading through Philippians during the time of my musing, and the answer that seemed to shout out to me was YES. God not only allows suffering but gives suffering to us as a gift (Phil. 1:29), and it is a gift we may rejoice in - that is the overall tone of Paul's message to the Philippians.

I recalled that for Paul this was no theoretical theological idea. It was real. It was his experience as he was writing this letter. He was in jail. He did not know if he would be released or executed. Not only so, but the Philippians themselves were going through similar kinds of persecution. Suffering was a reality. Death for Christ and because of their faith was a distinct possibility. In fact, Paul did die for Christ.

Was that bad? No, not in Paul's mind. He actually expects and desires the suffering that will come as he presses forward to have all he can of Christ (Phil. 3:10). It was as if he himself was completing the sufferings of Christ for this lost world.

How foreign is that to our thinking these days in America? Wow! We are the communion of the comfortable, avoiding suffering, even suffering for Christ, as much as we can. The tragedy is that in avoiding suffering we must walk further and further from the Lord, for suffering is what he is about when it comes to the lost world. God is a suffering God. And it was not something that just happened to God. It was his choice to suffer for us.

I have a choice, don't? I can sit back with the comfortable, or I can join Christ in his suffering. Which is better? Paul's answer is that nothing compares to knowing Christ deeply and fully, and that must be also to know his suffering.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Too Simple, Too Unbiblical

I just finished The Present Future. As I indicated in a previous blog, it is worth reading; McNeal starts a conversation we all should be a part of. But it should be a conversation. The reader should not accept and adopt McNeal's viewpoint uncritically.

Before critiquing the book, however, I want to say that there is a lot that is right on. For one, the church, when it becomes ingrown and club-like, needs to recognize that it is retreating from the Great Commission. We will not reach our world with the gospel of Jesus by waiting for them to join the club. In fact, many of the strategies for evangelism including "getting them to church" that were effective in the past will not work today. Among the strategies that will not work are revival meetings and large group evangelism. There are some exceptions to the the latter, of course. Large group evangelism with a narrow focus and appeal to young people does work, but it can not stand alone. It will not work with adults.

Secondly, too many churches have created bureaucracies that demand too much of our attention and eat up too much of our energy. As an example, a church I once served had a thirty-seven page constitution that established an office for every function of the church including pianist and organist - who were elected annually by the congregation. Another church of which I was a member even established the number and times for the services of the church. In the former, we, for the most, part simply ignored the constitution and operated on an ad hoc basis. The latter congregation continues to be bound by their constitution, forever known for their stand against any surrender (read adaptation) to the contemporary culture.

That said, however, there are some serious flaws to McNeal's analysis of the church in America and some even greater flaws in his suggestions for remaking the church. The first flaw is that McNeal sees the church in black and white and in doing so he creates a false dichotomy. The true picture of the church in America is not missional versus Pharisaical. There are many churches that function in a fairly old (modern versus post-modern) organizational mode yet are actively missional. In other words, there are a lot of grays in the picture of the American church.

The greatest flaw, however, in McNeal's model of the church in a post-modern world is that it is not biblical. I know that is a strong statement, but hang in there with me.

First, McNeal calls for a new model for leadership - apostolic. He defines that on pages 126 and 127. It is missional, visionary, entrepreneurial, operates in teams, and is genuinely spiritual. I would add that it functions largely on the operational methods developed by business and corporations. Except for the "genuinely spiritual," which is left undefined, those characteristics are primarily worldly, and they are not the characteristics of the New Testament and first century church. Some of those characteristics might have described the Apostles, but they do not describe the early church leaders. In fact, they ignore the functions most often encouraged in the New Testament church - pastor and teacher (Eph. 4:11). That is a serious flaw. The church will not survive apostolic leadership alone. That is why Paul appointed elders (including pastors) in every church he planted.

Also, conspicuous by its absence is the importance of teaching scripture. That is ironic because an army of community transformers without a biblical worldview that deeply informs the doing is bound to be ineffectual in bringing anyone to Christ. Such doing will be energized by the "leadership" not by the Lord. It may be well-intentioned, but it will be worthless because it is not done in the Spirit.

I have seen that happen. In one church I attended, the men of the church served at the Union Gospel mission once a month. We provided and prepared the meal and conducted a service. Most of the men went immediately to the kitchen when we arrived and busied themselves preparing the meal. They did not find time to greet or even meet the men and women as they arrived for the service. During the service they stayed in the kitchen. After the service they served the meal and then ate themselves in a location apart from the men and women who had come to the mission. They had done their job, but they failed to touch any life in a vital way. The state or city could have done as well. The fact is they were not driven by love for these men and women. They were driven either by guilt or by the leadership. It would have been better to hire the meal done and sit with the men and women in the service and eat with them as they ate. That is the outcome of what McNel suggests.

Most importantly, McNeal misses the genius of the first century church. It was effective in reaching and changing the world around it because it was different. It was holy. Yes, Christians acted in compassion outside the church. But it was not that alone. It was their patience, goodness, love, joy, peace (yes, I'm listing the fruit of the Spirit) and their humility that purchased for them the opportunity to share the reason for their hope (I Peter 3). That is the key. But where is that in McNeals book?

Read the book. Think. Compare it with what the Bible says. Let's become the church God truly inhabits.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Every Jesus follower I know is to some degree dissatisfied with the state of the church in America. This isn't new, of course. We have been trying to tweak or reinvent the church for all of the fifty some years I've been a Jesus Freak. (See the most recent "Jesus Freak" music video by DC Talk on have gone through in that time the church growth movement, the megachurch movement, the Jesus Freak movement, the small group movement, the healthy church movement, and the Purpose Driven Church movement. At the moment we are a few years into the emerging church movement. All have been responses to the disappointment many of us feel about the church in America. It is not as we believe God intends it to be.

That is the driving conviction behind a not too recent book by Reggie McNeal, The Present Future. He believes we must change because the culture has changed - from modern to post-modern - and life is done differently in the post-modern era, so the church must change if it is to speak into our culture.

He is, of course, right. The church must change. It must be able to communicate with the culture in the language of that culture. And for the most part it is not. But there is another message. The church must become missional.

By missional McNeal means outward focused rather than inward focused, which is focused on maintaining the institutional church. And he is right. But that is not a new message. And it is not a message unheard in our churches. It is what Jesus intended his followers to be. It was what he was himself.

The book is worth a read. McNeal has some cogent insights and some creative solutions. One fundamental truth that needs to be reclaimed according to McNeal is an emphasis on a real relationship with Jesus. I heartily agree. But as I read it, I was just a little hesitant about his view of the present church. I don't think it is quite as far from Jesus' model as McNeal implies. I was also just a little cautious of some of his fixes. Do we really need to develop a paradigm that is founded on a human personal spiritual trainer (read "mentor" if you are not up to speed with the new terminology)?

That might be helpful for some. But as I read it seemed to replace the personal relationship with Jesus McNeal was earlier in the book so passionate about. That's no healthier, in my mind, than the modern institutional church culture McNeal derides. But you decide. I recommend the book, even if just to stir our thinking.

Constitution Day

I recently received an email from Randall Niles commenting on the biblical foundation of our nation at its founding. (September 17 was Constitution Day.) In the email he writes: "There are more than 4,500 recorded public quotes by our Founding Fathers about the Bible, God, and yes, the importance of ethics based on Christian principles. All of these statements were delivered while government leaders stood on government properties." Relate that to today. Quite a contrast, right?

If you have been listening at all to the conversation in America lately, there has been a growing rejection of the principle of freedom of religious and religious speech. Recently two school administrators in Florida were arrested for offering a prayer at a public meeting. (Benjamin Franklin called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention, if we remember. Shocking.) But that is only the most recent example of the anti-Christian sea change. We all know that in every local school district from the Bible Belt to Olympia, WA, where I now live the mention of God or a personal testimony of faith in God whether by teachers or students is now either illegal or seriously discouraged by the threat of lawsuits by the ACLU. As an example, the school district in a small eastern Oregon town where I served as pastor for a number of years, dropped every religious allusion in the "Winter Holiday Program" even though there had been no local objection. So what's ahead?

Probably we will see further restrictions on our rights of free speech and freedom of religion. Probably we will see something like what happened in this video of a school teacher standing on her constitutional rights. The issue here was not freedom of religion, but the example of the police and the law overextending their control in the name of "protecting us" is scary. It is the very thing that is happening to our constitutional right of freedom of religion. We do not need this kind of "protection." If anything we need to be protected from it. What can we do?

First, we can exercise the rights we still have. Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers. Comment on news stories online - most news sites have a provision for that. Blog. Write to your legislators. Use the media to extend your voice. Speak personally when you have the opportunity. Defend your rights (these rights are founded on the conviction that God has given them to us, not our government; read the Declaration of Independence) and your faith. But do so with the respect and humility that Peter advises in I Peter 3:5, 16.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Another Funeral

The funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy was the third very public funeral this summer. I watched this morning with curiosity at first and then with growing thankfulness.

It is not that I have been a follower of Edward Kennedy or an admirer particularly. We differed seriously on politics, and I remember too well the scandals of his earlier life. No, what excited - and humbled me - was the depth of faith that was at the core of the service and which evidently Kennedy himself knew.

I was excited because on public television before millions of viewers the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed. Now, I am a Protestant, and there were elements of the service that I found a little uncomfortable. But Jesus was exalted! Faith in Christ for forgiveness and redemption was proclaimed. God's mercy through the blood of Christ was extended.

When all is said and done, those are the things that matter.

I was also humbled. I am far too quick to judge and to judge on a very human level. Indeed, if I followed Jesus' instruction, I would not judge at all. I would leave that in the hands of the only one capable of judging - and of extending grace and mercy.

The scripture that Caroline Kennedy read from Romans 8 reminded me anew of that incredible and powerful mercy: "Who will bring any charge against those God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

And I should judge? God forbid! Forgive me.

My prayer is that word of the gospel that many many heard may be endued with power by the Holy Spirit and many will be turned to repentance and faith.

I was also humbled by Edward Kennedy's merging faith with action. Understand, I am a Republican, or lean heavily that way. I have serious reservations about the general political philosophy of the Democrats. Yet should I not as a follower of Christ work for mercy toward the hurting and disenfranchised in this nation? Should I not pray for and work toward their peace? As the pastor said so well, that is the force of the Old Testament, not theoretical theology but practical theology that works its way out in mercy and compassion. And it is the force of Jesus' parable in the passage from Luke the pastor read: "If you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me."

I am convinced that Jesus was there speaking of his brethren as all those with whom he shared humanity.

I stand convicted. What will Jesus say of me? Have I done all I could in mercy and compassion to the least of these my brothers and sisters? I fear not.

This man of whom I have been inclined to be skeptical, whose sins and failures I remember more than his compassion, may well receive the greater praise from the only one whose praise matters, for he did work to relieve the hurt of this nation's poor.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A New Reformation

I have been out of the pulpit and into the pews for eight years now. I have been through the purpose-driven-life phase in the church, following as it happened close behind the church-growth phase. I've been in churches where a neo-legalism has taken over. I have visited in churches where there is much enthusiasm but little spiritual depth. And I have met and become friends with good people, serious about their faith, and pastors who desire for their people to grow and for the mission of evangelism to proceed. But I have not been in one church where the full gospel has been consistently preached, or understood, or lived.

I pick up the old books from my shelves and wonder what happened to the Tozers, the Nees, the Taylors, the Murrays, and the Simpsons of a generation or two ago. When I browse the bookshelves of our Christian bookstore, I find a lot of self-help - couched in spiritual terms - and directions for spiritual formation (the current term for spiritual discipline) but little proclaiming of Christ.

Oh, there are plenty of words on the cross and salvation, and what I am saying here is not to belittle that. Life begins with Christ, with faith in his substitutionary death on the cross for us. But the gospel does not end there. It goes on to speak of our being joined with him in his death and being raised with him into new life. And it speaks, as the foundation of any spiritual good and progress toward true maturity, of Christ in us. It speaks of faith in these truths as the means, the only means, of achieving spiritual maturity or accomplishing any spiritual good in our ministries and churches. But where do we hear that any more.

Rather we see a dependence upon programs, both corporate and private. We see the use of worldly means to draw a crowd. We see the church run like a corporation and pastors as hard working CEOs. And we see, even in ourselves, a willingness to accept these external things as marks of success or spiritual progress. And sadly, even in ourselves, we see an unwillingness to turn loose of these things and to trust God to honor his word as it is fully proclaimed and lived. The poor results of this human efforts we deem to be superior to the "uncertainty" of God's power.

I stand convicted.

I listened last night to a message by one of the last of those old saints. His name is T. Austin-Sparks. You can catch him online at T. Austin-Sparks . Or listen to the message that pricked me anew at "A Livinbg Hope - Part 1". Maybe together we can begin to pray for what we Christians desperately need, a new reformation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Like most of the rest of the world, I watched Michael Jackson's memorial yesterday. I was impressed, not by the spectacle but by the man I did not know.

I was reminded of John Donne's words, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. " I was not a Michael Jackson fan. I don't know if I ever listened to a complete song. What I knew of Michael was the stuff on TV. I discovered yesterday there was a lot more - humanity.

The truth is, there is a lot more to everyone. I think that is what Paul means when he writes in II Corinthians 5:16, "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view."

So, what's the alternative? It is to see people as God sees them, as people whom he loves. May God grant me that grace.