Monday, September 08, 2014

What Fundamentalism Taught Me About Culture, and Cultural Legalism

Some months ago I heard a sermon in which a pastor explained his understanding of legalism and critiqued some erroneous teaching in the contemporary evangelical landscape. I agreed wholeheartedly with most of his argument, but I want to hone in on how he framed the issue. Here's an important portion of what he said:
Today, the problem is not so much actual legalism. The problem is accused legalism. And those who argue for accused legalism basically say that rule-keeping in any form will somehow equal a walk with God. And so they make the case that anyone who has rules in their home or in their school or in their church of any kind is essentially an accused legalist. So if you have personal standards or institutional standards, then they accuse you of legalism. 
But I don't know of anyone, frankly, who has institutional standards or personal standards that would ever advocate that the keeping and maintaining of standards somehow obtains our justification or maintains justification or, frankly, even obtains or maintains sanctification. Now, I've known a lot of fundamental pastors all my life. I have never heard a pastor say that, ever. And so I think it is a red herring and a false accusation.
Now, if there's one thing fundamentalism has taught me, it's that culture matters. How we interact with or consume culture shapes what we love, treasure, and believe. Often subtly, even imperceptibly. If that's true, then it's also true that rules in our homes and churches and schools create cultures that shape what we love, treasure, and believe. Pastors can say all the right things, but we need to be alert to how rule systems create cultures. Could anyone who believes that culture matters deny that the power of a culture could undermine even the most sound theology?

Rules aren't bad. I don't know how a Christian could deny that we are obligated to obey, at the very least, the imperatives in the New Testament. (Granted, dispensationalists will want to exclude lots of the imperatives in the Gospels, but that's another conversation.) And I'm highly doubtful that even the most tenacious antinomians really practice their principles consistently in their parenting.

Nevertheless, my experiences have led me to believe that homes and churches and schools with lots of rules far too often undermine the gospel and cultivate legalistic thinking. I've seen them lead people to believe that they can merit favor with God by keeping his rules or ours—to believe that sanctification is fundamentally contingent on personal effort. And I've seen people grow frustrated with the inevitable failure of that conclusion, give up, and grow embittered. Do you think there's any possibility that these sorts of institutions have even sown the seeds for the antinomian backlashes we're dealing with these days?

So what should we do? Maybe a part of the solution could be to evaluate whether our institutional rules might actually be counterproductive. Maybe some of them should be discarded and replaced with more heart-oriented, relationally-grounded discipleship systems. But at the very least, leaders of families, churches, and schools with robust rule and discipline systems will need to redouble their efforts to reinforce the foundation: Our standing with God is acquired and maintained by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And sanctification will never progress without the initiating, motivating, enabling ministry of the Spirit. I'm not at all convinced that the conservative streams of American evangelicalism have laid that foundation well, or even tried.

That's what fundamentalism taught me about culture. A certain kind of culture. It just took me a long, long time to realize it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Science Doesn't Even Know What It Doesn't Know

What if scientists already knew they could be deceived about the foundational nature of the universe? Do you think that would inject a bit of humility into a scientific worldview, particularly when it purports to speak about things that no human directly deserved?

Read below a jaw-dropping admission from a reputable physicist, professor Brian Greene of Columbia University, delivered in a 2012 TED Talk. (A bit of background: In 1929 Edwin Hubble realized that universe was expanding, not static. In 1998 two teams of scientists discovered that, contrary to what everyone believed, the expansion of the universe isn't slowing down over time. It's actually speeding up.)

Here's what Greene said:
Because the expansion [of the universe] is speeding up, in the very far future those galaxies will rush away so far and so fast that we won't be able to see them—not because of technological limitations, but because of the laws of physics. The light those galaxies emit—even traveling at the fastest speed, the speed of light—will not be able to overcome the ever-widening gulf between us. 
So astronomers in the far future, looking out into deep space, will see nothing but an endless stretch of static, inky, black stillness. And they will conclude that the universe is static and unchanging, and populated by a single central oasis of matter that they inhabit—a picture of the cosmos that we definitively know to be wrong. 
Now, maybe those future astronomers will have records handed down from an earlier era like ours, attesting to an expanding cosmos teeming with galaxies. But would those future astronomers believe such "ancient knowledge," or would they believe in the black, static, empty universe that their own state-of-the-art observations reveal? 
I suspect the latter.
Now, if you delivered that talk, what would be the next words out of your mouth? Would you immediately conclude that we stand at a unique moment in history when our knowledge it near its zenith? Or would you raise this question: What might we think we know with absolute, incontrovertible certainty, that may not be true at all? Of what factors are we oblivious that would turn our conclusions on their heads? What do we not even know that we don't know?

To find out what Dr. Greene had to say, you'll have to watch the end of the TED Talk embedded below.

But I bet you can guess.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Seeking Clarification from Non-Calvinists

Two questions from anyone who would not consider yourself to be a 5-point Calvinist:

1. What would you call yourself?
2. Would you agree with this language?:

Jesus Christ died at Calvary's cross, taking all the penalty of all the sins of all the world—everyone that's ever been born or ever will be born. Jesus Christ bore all their sins in that transaction there between him and his heavenly Father, when he paid the debt for all of us, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Does Presbyterian Church Government Really Provide Superior Accountability?

Removing Tullian Tchividjian's blog was a big win for TGC's credibility regarding the "G" in "TGC." I'm inclined to agree with PCA pastor and Ref21 blogger Rick Phillips when he argued recently that Tchividjian's truncated (at best) understanding of sanctification constitutes "false doctrine."

I'm grateful for Phillips' bold, clear words, as well as several others' at Ref21. But I was intrigued by his concluding frustration with TGC's apparent reluctance to remove Tchividjian's blog.

Obviously, we know that TGC has taken this action, so that that point is now essentially moot.* But what seems to me to be a very live issue is the fact that Tchividjian pastors a PCA church—a church in the same denomination as Phillips, and not merely a denomination, but a Church—a capital-"C" Church. Now, I don't understand everything about PCA polity—not by a long shot. But I understand from a recently-ordained PCA pastor (converted from the Baptist/baptistic world) and Ref21 blogger, Todd Pruitt, that Presbyterian polity has an established process in place to deal with doctrinal error and abuses of authority. Not long ago, in reference to the Steven Furtick fiasco, he asked Southern Baptists, "Is there no mechanism in the Southern Baptist Convention that can provide oversight and correction to such abuses?"

Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the mechanism available to Baptists is the local congregation. Congregations sadly run amok, but local church autonomy is one of the areas in which we allegedly-but-inconsistently "Bible people" have stuck to our story. But on the other hand, no, in the sense that we don't have a governing body sovereign over local churches that's empowered to hold them accountable. Unlike the PCA, we're merely a Convention organized to cooperate in pursuit of our mission, not a capital-"C" Church. Scripture teaches that we need to deal decisively with false doctrine, and it speaks most specifically to false doctrine within a particular church—or Church, as the case may be. Granted, another PCA pastor has proposed a debate with Tchividjian, but wouldn't "false doctrine" require a Church to respond with more than debate? Perhaps that might be a first step.

So having said all that, I'm quite interested to see how a PCA pastor's accusation of "false doctrine" internal to the PCA plays out in PCA polity. I wouldn't have been surprised if an inter-denominational parachurch ministry created to foster evangelical unity had struggled to reach consensus or take decisive action. And I'd expect a Paper Presbyterian denomination to minimize doctrinal error. But that's not what I think the PCA is. And I don't think it's what the Ref21 PCA men think it is either. I pray they find wisdom and success, for the sake of the gospel.

*In fact, it appears from Tchividjian's messianically-titled post ("I've Come to Set the Captives Free") that TGC made the decision no later than Thursday. TGC's post corroborates the timeline. Phillips posted on Friday. Perhaps he, a Council member, already knew the action had been taken. Or perhaps it matters little either way.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Giving up Lent for Gospel Clarity

All the cool evangelical kids are starting to tell us again this year why we should recover the Christian calendar and give Lent a try. I'd like to suggest that perhaps we should first consider how Lent has in many cases been misunderstood to merit favor from God—simply in the [not] doing of the act. In light of its checkered past, I wonder if the very worst time of year to fast from something might not be the time of year when it's most likely to be misunderstood.

I read a blogpost yesterday arguing that Lent provides an opportunity to disengage from a culture in which all our needs can be effortlessly satisfied to the point of excess. That's a valid concern. But when in the year is that opportunity not available to us?

I really have no desire to fight anyone over this. Surely that wouldn't help anybody. If you choose to observe it in some way and it's helpful to you, I'll rejoice. Think of this as food for thought. Unless that's what you're giving up.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Finney's Ghosts and the Furtick Fiasco

I have to assume that any reader here has already heard about and been instinctively nauseated by this and this. (They have pictures!) In light of that assumption, I have just one comment about Furtick, but three about some associated ironies.

1. I'm hesitant to criticize a guy simply for having a huge house. There are all kinds of explanations for that, some of which are legitimate. My beef is with the attitude, the crafted celebrity image, the lack of internal accountability and transparency, and the deceptive, manipulative methodology.

2. As much as I agree with the general sentiments expressed here, I could do without the scoldings from the Baptist-turned-Presbyterian. As a member of a less-personality-driven-Presbyterian-denomination has pointed out, Presbyterians are not without their baptisms under false pretenses. Though I might like to insert a personal footnote that the plastic dolls were every bit as baptized as any live baby.

3. This morning, when I started plotting a post, I vaguely remembered stories of Billy Graham crusade organizers encouraging counselors to step out immediately at the invitation to "prime the pump." As I began to brainstorm what Google search terms would dredge up the facts, one Baptist leader tweeted just what I was looking for. So Furtick is no innovator. Though his antics may be more theatrical than Graham's, the difference is largely a matter of degree. Graham was no Furtick, but I'm struggling to understand how one could be intellectually consistent while criticizing Furtick on this particular point without similarly criticizing Graham.

4. Lest our independent friends find too much glee, is there really cause for rejoicing in the fact that the slick evangelical horror houses manufacture better reproductions of Finney's ghosts than their separatistic cousins'? What year was it when a particular University's drama teams stopped prowling the pews during prolonged invitations to compel closed-eyes-hand-raisers to relent and walk the aisle?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Negligent Pastors, and Their Enablers

The longer I serve in pastoral ministry within a functioning, healthy (and always pursuing further growth) body of elders, the harder it is for me to understand why any pastor would not make every effort to identify qualified men and equip them to share leadership, teaching, and shepherding responsibilities. It's equally incomprehensible to me why anyone who trains pastors would in any way minimize or marginalize this responsibility, let alone build a case intended to excuse those who do not. Why do you think a pastor would want sole responsibility to shepherd a congregation? Why would a pastor disregard his biblical responsibility to identify and train qualified leaders? Why would anyone want to supply an excuse to them? I have a few ideas, but I'm curious what you think.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Crusaders, Hopefully for the Last Time

Two brief reflections on this article.

1. "Crusaders" has always been a dreadful mascot for any Christian institution, most particularly a Baptist Bible college. The article suggests that abandoning the Crusader moniker is due to an increasingly global society rather than Baptist theology and history. I prefer the principled argument over the pragmatic.

2. Wheaton College went through a similar switch several years ago. Then-President Duane Litfin framed the issue rather helpfully, as a clear matter of principle:
It was not until I became aware of how offensive the image of the Crusades is to large segments of the world that I was forced to take another look at these historical events, and what I discovered was anything but ideal. Christians massacring Muslims; Muslims massacring Christians; Western Christians killing Eastern Christians and vice versa. We are hard-pressed to find anything in these disastrous waves of fighting that our Lord might have approved, despite the fact that the conflict was ostensibly carried out in His name. Try, as I did, reading up on the Crusades, searching for anything with which you would be willing to identify; you will find it an eye-opening exercise. It is little wonder that so many view these unfortunate historical episodes so negatively...

[Some might respond that] that the cross is offensive too; are we going to abandon that? To which, of course, the answer is no. We will stand or fall with the scandal of the cross. But we must not complicate that scandal by introducing our own scandals into the equation, scandals that may block others from seeing Jesus in our midst...

I have become convinced that making this change is a simple matter of faithfulness to Christ.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The SBC and Cedarville's Return from the Brink

How ironic would it be if SBC influence turned back Cedarville University from the sharp leftward drift that began and progressed when it was tied to the GARBC? Read <a href="">this story</a> for details on some of the early tremors in the turnaround that's only beginning.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Imagine There's a Heaven...

A few days ago a thesis congealed in my simmering pot of mental stew. Maybe it was the serendipity of listening to a performance of a Christian musical group from the Caribbean at the same time I was reading D.A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. I'm just na├»ve enough to imagine that this thesis might be widely affirmed—perhaps even reach consensus—but my latent inner realist reminds me that I'll be dispossessed of that notion in the comments section. Here's my thesis:
The cultural expressions that emerge from any given culture will invariably reflect the strengths and weaknesses of that culture. In other words, every culture will reflect an image of God that consists of a unique combination of fidelities and distortions.
The panel discussion embedded below, recorded by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches at its recent Worship of God conference, has opened a conversation about matters related to that thesis. I'm grateful for that conversation, but I'm unconvinced that the present direction of the conversation will be productive.

In my judgment, most of the comments in the panel were ignorant, irrelevant, indefensible, or unsubstantiated. Those arguments that were true and helpful are so tainted by their immersion in and apparent indifference to folly that they've been rather easily dismissed. Again, I haven't read everything, but I've seen enough blog responses, tweets, and reader comments on the blog of one of the participants to see one particular theme emerge: Our cultural differences are inevitable, and that's okay. Except I don't think it is.

In other words, many responses say that as long as God can use a form to advance Christian mission, our cultural preferences are matters of indifference. After all, they're just preferences. One theologian both affirmed and denied that cultural forms are neutral. In the same paragraph. One group says, "Rap is bad because I said so." Another says, "Form doesn't matter. It's all good."

I'm arguing that those approaches—reductionism, shame, misrepresentation, slogans—those approaches are way too easy. I'd like to think we could choose the more demanding, narrow path. That would require us—assuming we could embrace my thesis or something better—to shine a bright light of scrutiny on all our cultural expressions. Dissect Johann Sebastian Bach, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Mac Lynch, Chris Tomlin, Keith Getty, Scott Aniol, and Shai Linne. Every one of them. Not to mention all the men and women across the centuries and around the globe who likewise deserve to be mentioned.

Each of those individuals produced(es) works of art intended for Christian worship, and each of those works of art emerged from a complex and unique cultural milieu. What's more, each individual artist produced works of varying quality in different phases of their own artistic and spiritual maturity.

So what if old, godly, theologically astute white men from Grand Rapids sat down with young, godly, theologically astute black men from Philadelphia? (And yes, the black men are godly. Godly enough not to impugn the character, courage, and motives of people just because they disagree on musical form.) What if everybody at the table agreed that every culture represented at that table (along with all the rest) both reflects and distorts the image of God? That every culture is better suited to communicate certain aspects of Divine truth than it is others? And that no human culture produces optimal cultural expressions, because no human being or human culture is yet fully conformed to the image of Christ?

What if those old white guys and young black guys really tried to listen to and understand one another, and then—instead of simply singing an ecumenical "kum ba yah"—they helped each other understand the aspects of the other group's culture that are incompatible with Divine truth? (I have in mind more or less how Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson interacted extensively on slavery, race, and history.) And what if the forms that different cultures find accessible and meaningful were refined as a result, increasingly capable of reflecting the image of Christ? I actually think it'd be a good thing for us white people to hear from some non-whites how our idealized cultural forms might actually undermine aspects of the gospel in ways we'd never have perceived.

My guess is that one of these two groups would welcome a conversation with that purpose and tone. I'm not so sure the other would see any such need, let alone display genuine desire to listen and learn. I'd love to discover that my cynicism is unfounded—merely an illusion created by my culture, or perhaps my own sinful heart.

Will we praise Jesus' name in heaven in a variety of styles reflecting diversity of human culture? Or will the consummation of Christ being formed in us mean that we find a musical center that is accessible and meaningful to all his Church, and worthy of his Name? I don't profess to know. Despite what some say, I'm not persuaded that Revelation 21 is decisive. But I'd like to think we could learn to speak to our brothers and sisters with respect and affection, this side of heaven, even if we aren't yet sanctified enough to sing together.