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.