Monday, December 25, 2006

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

Watching late night TV on Christmas Eve is an interesting experience. One can find a spiritual smorgasbord as you surf the channels. As I jumped from program to program, I found a Roman Catholic Mass, a Christmas Eve service from a main-line denomination, a Christmas Eve service from a Baptist church, and an old local network production which included engaging conversation between Santa and a puppet wearing a bakers hat. Interesting indeed.

As I viewed segments of each of these programs, I was more and more disheartened by the ironic absence of a straightforward gospel message in any of these venues. Of course, I did not expect it from the Roman Catholic mass. Their presentation was quite consistent with their stated theological positions. The focus was the eucharist in which, according to Rome, the elements of bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. These elements then become a means of receiving saving grace. The priest offered a pre-communion prayer asking God to help the communicants merit the grace they would receive. Nothing unusual here. It was a very sacramental view of salvation.

The main-line denominational service included traditional carols and musical presentations interspersed with written prayers and a sermon. The pipe organ was beautiful. The sermon was sincere and well-presented. Yet, it lacked any substantive exposition of the Christmas story. It mentioned homelessness as an issue the church should help resolve (no argument here). It assumed faith in God and Christ as necessary but offered no clear understanding of how one might enter into such faith. It was a nice liturgical candlelight service predicated on the "we are all God’s children" sentiment. Again, no surprises here.

When I happened onto the Baptist service, I thought to myself, "OK, now I’ll get to hear some clear biblical teaching on the meaning of Christmas." Boy was I disappointed. The broadcast began with the children’s choir singing Jingle Bell Rock complete with a "kickin" guitar solo. There was some Winter Wonderland thrown in also. A few contemporary Christian Christmas songs followed. All of this was taking place on a lighted multi-level stage with large snowflakes and ornaments hanging all around.

I switched channels to find Santa and the puppet guy with the baker’s hat. So, I turned back to the Baptists to see what was happening. What I found was a lady reading the entire Dr. Seuss story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. She had cool monitors behind her that changed shades of green as she read the whole thing. Now, here is the irony. I turned back to Santa to find him reading the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke to the puppet and the boys and girls in TV land. Santa then said to the viewers, "Now children, this is the real Christmas story straight from the Holy Bible. This is why boys and girls around the world celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus." Imagine my angst at finding myself in a situation in which Santa Claus was giving me more Bible than the Baptists. Unfortunately, Dr. Seuss got more run from the Baptists than Matthew or Luke.

The thing that just floors me as I reflect on my wacky Christmas Eve viewing experience is that I found more biblical focus from the main-line church and the local network Santa than from an evangelical church. That evangelical church was the place where I should have found a clear, biblical gospel presentation of the meaning of Christ’s birth. Yet, they shrouded the Christmas Story in pop culture and glitzy production values.

Twas the night before Christmas, the world’s in a lurch
No clear gospel message, not even in church.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just In Time for Christmas: The Secret Lives of Jesus

The National Geographic Channel has produced a special called The Secret Lives of Jesus which aired Sunday night. This program purposes to reveal the alternative perspectives on Jesus which come from other "gospels" such as the Gospel of Thomas. This program reveals to us a young Jesus who uses his supernatural powers to harm those who annoy him. It shows us an adult Jesus who has a special relationship with Mary Magdalene. It presents an alternative crucifixion story in which Jesus takes off his crown of thorns and puts it on the head of Joseph of Arimathea who proceeds to carry the cross to Golgotha where he, not Jesus, is then executed. Jesus steps into the crowd and laughs while Joseph carries the cross. Jesus goes on to live a full life.

This whole scenario is wrong on several points. First, it is a not-so-veiled attempt to discredit the traditional, biblical understanding of Jesus. To air this sort of shockumentary in the middle of the Christmas season is an obvious cheap shot. Of course, the producers tell us it was all done in the spirit of exploration and discovering the alternative versions of the Christ story.

Second, this program is based on documents which date well after the events of Jesus' life and death. Thes so-called gospels were gnostic documents which presented an alternative view of Jesus based on their dualistic philosophy. Unlike the canonical gospels, none of these alternative gospels were written in the first century by eyewitnesses of the actual events. The gnostic gospels were second and third century documents which sometimes used the names of known Christian figures (like Thomas) to lend credibility to them. The program is predicated on documents that New Testament scholars would repudiate.

Third, such programs present a double standard all too common among those who lean to the left. Jesus bashing has become a favorite passtime of many liberal scholars and TV producers. But imagine what would happen if a conservative group produced a documentary presenting the secret lives of Muhammed. It would start a riot. Once again it appears that the only ideology exempted from the generous tolerance ethic of society is conservative Christianity.

Jesus had no secret lives. As Paul said to King Agrippa when declaring the gospel to him, "For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner (Acts 26:26)." The story of Jesus is not a hidden story. It is out in the open. The fact that the gospel of Christ's life, death, and resurrection ever "got off the ground" so to speak, is owing to the eyewitness accounts and verifiable historicity of the story.

The truth is that the very public life, death, and resurrection of Jesus occurred to free us from the shame of our own secret lives. For that, we should be forever grateful.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Encouraging Words from SBC Leaders

There is a great deal of controversy swirling among Southern Baptists over various issues as we come to the close of 2006. Issues like baptism, private prayer languages, and Calvinism have been points of contention among Southern Baptists. Of course, I have my personal convictions on all these issues as do others. My biggest disappointment in the course of these debates has been that some have distorted history, mischaracterized the positions with which they disagree, and driven the debate with emotionally charged rhetoric rather than historical and theological facts. It is always easy to burn a straw man.

In the midst of this confusion there have been some promising words communicated lately by two well-respected theologians in the SBC fold. I encourage you to read these articles which, in my opinion, represent voices of balance in what has been in many cases a very imbalanced discussion of important issues related to the SBC identity. My hope is that in the future we will see more level-headed leadership such as these two men provide.

Click on the links below to access the pieces mentioned above.

Dr. Danny Akin

Dr. David Dockery

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Don't Be Deceived by Success

Over at the T4G blog, Mark Dever has written a brief but soul-searching post on deceptive prosperity. In this post, Dever warns that there are times when evident prosperity may have a deceptive effect on us which blinds us or dulls our senses to our sin. How true this is! We are prone to think that if we are experiencing a measure of "success" in our lives, that this is somehow evidence of God's smile upon us. We rationalize, "If I am wrong, why is God blessing me so much?"

Prosperity is not the imprimatur of God's blessing. Psalm 37 tells us that the wicked often seem to prosper by human standards though all the while they stand under God's judgment. Their success is apparent and will come to a certain end. Some Christians and churches have imbibed the spirit of pragmatism for so long that it is easy for us to equate "success" with "blessing." If what I am doing is bringing a desired result, then my life must be right and blessed. This kind of reasoning will often allow us to continue in sin with even more vigor because we think that God is blesssing us.

Even prosperity in "spiritual" things or "ministry" can take this path. Just because a church experiences numerical growth in attendance and giving doesn't necessarily mean that church is pursuing a ministry path that God blesses. Just because a church leads all the statistical categories of its denomination doesn't necessarily mean that church is blessed by God. By all means we pray for growth and health in our churches. Yet, we must be careful to evaluate our lives and our ministries by biblical standards and not just outward prosperity.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wierd Takes on Men's and Women's Ministries

I came across two articles today which alerted readers to some extreme approaches to men's and women's ministries. Both of these articles demonstrate how imbalanced understandings of biblical concepts result in wierd approaches to "ministry." In both cases, biblical concepts are taken out their context and whole systems of male and female spirituality are built upon them.

Both of these articles also point out the all-too-common phenomenon of making God and holy things too familiar. When the biblical concept of intimacy with God is divorced from the biblical concept of fearing the Lord, the result is always a distortion of truth. On the one hand, it becomes a mushy sort of sentimentalism in which people can sing the latest love song and substitute Jesus for their significant other. On the other hand, it can end up being a crude, over-the-top bravado which demeans others and uses manhood as an excuse.

What the church needs is men and women who understand their God-given and unique gifts, roles, and responsibilities in the context of what the Bible truly teaches. Blessed is the church which has men and women who embrace femininity and masculinity in their proper contexts.

Interesting Series of Posts on Pulpit Magazine

John MacArthur is providing a preview of his upcoming book The Truth War on the Pulpit Magazine blog here. I encourage you to take advantage of these posts to get a glimpse of this important new book. In addition, there is a series of posts on the emerging church which will provide more light on this dangerous movement.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Information on Emerging Church Concerns

Brett Kunkle of Stand to Reason ministries has written a concise paper regarding the Emerging Church which will be helpful to those seeking a summary of issues. The paper is well-documented and was presented at the Evangelical Theological Society. I encourage you to read it here.

The vanguard of this movement (McLaren, Burke, Jones, Pagitt) have said and written things that indicate this movement is drifting toward heresy (and in some cases is already there). Kunkle's article provides clear, documented evidence of this along with his analysis. I will offer a few of my personal reflections after reading the article.

It appears to me that the leaders of the Emergent Church are using terms which Christians have understood as defined by the historic creeds and confessions of the church (not to mention the Bible itself), but they are filling these terms with radically different meanings. As Tony Jones stated in a seminar, emergents view theology as fluid, local, and temporary. In other words, theology is always moving, always changing, and cannot be absolutely defined for all people of all places in all times. Doug Pagitt said that theology is always "our current best guess." This approach to theology is affirmed in Pagitt's statement that "the Trinity is not wrong, but it may not be the only way to understand God."

This theological fluidity (confusion seems like a better term to me) is the result of the Emerging understanding of truth itself. Pagitt says, "When we talk about truth, we’re really considering two concepts: reality (the way things are) and truth (a person’s perspective of that reality.)…No one has access to all reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the truth." Here is where the root problem of Emerging theology is located. Note that reality and truth are two separate issues for them. Truth is what you believe about reality, and reality is the way things really are. Here is where we feel the pulse of postmodernism in the heartbeat of Emerging theology. All of this adds up to an aversion to certainty and an embrace of uncertainty. There can be no dogmatism about anything. Everything is "on the table" and negotiable.

According to Emergent, the intersection of culture and theology creates a situation in which theology is always changing. As new discoveries are made in various disciplines, we must adjust and even change our theological views. This leads to "re-imagining" our theological concepts. One of the controversial personalities in Emergent is Spencer Burke. In his book, A Heretics Guide to Eternity, Burke writes, "At this point in our history, I believe God is to be questioned as much as obeyed, created again and not simply worshipped. Our views must be continually revised, reconsidered, and debated." He goes on to say, "I am not merely seeking to put a new spin on old beliefs; I am actually declaring that there are new ways of believing when it comes to the Christian story."

These statements are shocking to me. I am left with no choice but to believe the title of this book is an apt description of its author. The frightening thing is that these statements are simply the outcome of putting the guiding principles of Emerging theology into practice. The relativization of truth can only lead to this kind of theological fog.