Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sooners Number One at Being Number One

With a 35-10 victory over TCU last Saturday, the Oklahoma Sooners vaulted into the number one spot in the AP and USA Today polls. With this recent top ranking, the Sooners now have the distinction of being the team which has been ranked first more than any other since the polls began in 1936. The Sooners have been ranked number one 96 weeks. Notre Dame is number two at 95 weeks.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A "Green-Letter" Bible?

Time magazine reports that Harper Collins is releasing The Green Bible for eco-sensitive readers. In this edition, thousands of verses which mention nature are printed in a forest green color. Using recycled paper and soy-based ink, it is a truly eco-friendly edition of the Bible. Evangelical eco-activist J. Matthew Sleeth, writes in the introduction to the Green Bible that "creation care"--the Christian catchphrase for nature conservancy--"is at the very core of our Christian walk."

My problem with this kind of specialty Bible is that it indirectly imposes a framework for understanding Scripture which is bound to distort the meaning of the text at some point. The point of the Bible is not ecology. Of course, we can discern important principles for taking care of the created world from the pages of Scripture. But there is no such thing as an ecology Bible. There's just the Bible. Any time we impose on the Bible a certain framework, like a conservationist framework, we are in danger of bringing presuppositions to the text which will distort our understanding. This is especially true when we highlight certain verses in green as though they were more important than other verses.
This is not just a problem for ecologists. It is a problem for all of us. We all run the risk of imposing on the text of Scripture a framework which can distort our understanding of it. The task of the interpreter is to get at the original meaning of any text. What did the author mean when the text was written? That is the question we are seeking to answer. Once we have a proper understanding of the author's intent, then we can properly apply the text to our time and situation. But the Green Bible is already predisposed to render a certain angle on the text by imposing an ecological framework upon its words.
What is next? The Baker's Bible in which all the verses about cooking bread are highlighted? Or perhaps the Hunter's Bible where all the verses about wild game or bows and arrows are highlighted? This sort of thing could reach the point of being ridiculous. Such attempts at specialty Bibles usually lead to misunderstanding and misapplication of the biblical text.
What we need is just the Bible. We need to read it in its historical context. We need to appreciate the various genre of Scripture. We need to pay attention to its grammar. We need to pursue authorial intent with great care. The Author of Scripture worked through the authors of Scripture to record for us His very words. Our task is to understand them the way He intended them to be understood.

Would You Go to Church Even if the Music Stunk?

Mike McKinley over at 9 Marks hits the nail on the head with this post. He writes about getting a glossy ad for a church in his area that boasts playing songs from popular bands and refusing to "Jesus-up" the lyrics. They boast that their music doesn't s*ck. Read the whole post. I couldn't agree more with what McKinley says.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Near, Yet Holy

Working my way through Exodus 19 this week, I was struck with the balance between immanence and transcendence in the passage. This chapter records the preparation of Israel to meet God on Sinai. God invites them into covenant relationship with Himself. He saved them out of bondage. They are His special possession. As a kingdom of priests, they will have an intimate relationship with God unlike the nations around them. Indeed, God comes down on the mountain to meet them. God provides visible and audible signs of His presence on the mountain.

Yet, with all these indicators of God's nearness and desire to have a covenant relationship with Israel, there are staggering signs of His holiness, His otherness. God warns them not to touch the mountain or they must die. He commands them to wash their clothes, abstain from sex, and prepare themselves to meet with Him. God warns the people and the priests not to come up to the mountain lest He break out against them.

There are two examples of God "breaking out" against people. In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah is killed by the Lord because he reaches out to steady the ark of the covenant and touches it. When he touches the ark, God kills him. In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu, priests and sons of Aaron, bring strange fire into the presence of the Lord which He did not command. Fire comes out from the Lord and consumes them. Why? The text says because God will be treated as holy by those who draw near to Him.

These things remind us that we must never lose the biblical tension between God's nearness and His utter holiness. God is dangerously holy. He is not to be trifled with. In today's Christian culture, the nearness of God has been overemphasized at the expense of His holiness. Some of the songs we hear on Christian radio could just as easily be sung to your girlfriend as your God. People address God and speak about God in terms that border on irreverence. The familiarity many people have with God betrays a lack of appreciation for His holiness.

It is the wonder of grace that God comes near. It is amazing that He desires to have an intimate relationship with us. We never want to underestimate this invitation to intimacy in which we can say "Abba" Father. But let us not forget that the God who calls us near is also the God in whose presence we tremble. We say with Isaiah "I am ruined because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isa. 6)." Draw near? Yes, absolutely. But draw near with trembling and awe to One who, though He comes down to us, commands us to treat Him as holy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Powlison on the Therapeutic Gospel

David Powlison has posted some articles on Boundless about the therapeutic gospel. These articles are excellent. Powlison challenges this version of the gospel which has become so common in many circles today. Here are some quotes from the first article that really got my attention.

The offer of a cure logically skips lightly over the sin-bearing Savior. It's more important that He meets your sense of need than that He was crucified in your place. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness and self-centeredness is not really the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to the new life that is life indeed.

Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word "Jesus," but He has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus' work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.

Powlison concludes the article with this observation.

There are no prayers or songs in the Bible that take their cues from the current therapeutic felt needs.
That mere fact should give serious pause to anyone drifting in the direction of a therapeutic understanding of how unexamined desires link up with Jesus' gospel. Imagine, "My Father in heaven, help me feel that I'm OK just the way I am. Fill me with self-confidence. Protect me this day from having to do anything I find boring. Hallelujah, I'm indispensable, and what I'm doing is really having an impact on others, so I can feel good about my life."

Have mercy upon us! Instead, in our Bible we hear a thousand cries of need and shouts of delight that orient us to our real needs and to our true Savior.

(HT - Justin Taylor)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ray Boltz Comes Out

Ray Boltz recently went public with the news that he is gay. You can read about it in his words here (this links to a gay publication with the story). You can read a Christianity Today article about it here. Todd Pruitt offers some insightful comments about Boltz's revelation in comparison to Romans 1 here.

We need to pray for Ray Boltz that he will repent and find restoration.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Preaching and the Battle for the Bible

Lifeway Research recently published their findings on how Southern Baptists view Scripture. The survey revealed some interesting things.
  • 100% of SBC pastors surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture."
  • 97% of pastors strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture."
  • 76% of people who attend SBC churches once a month agreed with the statement, "the Bible is the authoritative source of truth and wisdom for daily living."

Statistics demonstrate that the SBC has made some major progress in relation to our theology of the authority of Scripture. When 100% of the pastors surveyed said they believed in inspiration and 97% said they believe in inerrancy, we must conclude that the conservative resurgence in our denomination has made an impact on our stated theology. However, when 25% of those who attend our churches question those doctrines, we have to wonder if the views in the pulpit are making their way into the pews.

The real battle for the SBC at this juncture is not theoretical but practical. It is not the authority of Scripture which is being denied. It is the sufficiency of Scripture which is being ignored. There is a battle being waged for the pulpits of our churches. It is largely a battle between text and technology, between revelation and relevance. It seems to me that more and more sermons are being driven by the latest cultural fads rather than the faithful communication of God's Word. Costumes, props, and movie clips have taken center stage in many churches. Where there used to be a pulpit and a faithful preacher, there is now a projector and a stage set. What message does this communicate about the sufficiency of Scripture?

I am not arguing against the use of all technology in preaching. I am arguing that preaching is not about appeasing audiences or catering to their short attention spans. I am arguing that preaching must have as its aim the faithful communication of the text of Scripture. If the preacher comes out in a Superman suit or on a Harley in his leathers, even if he throws some Bible into the mix, I have to wonder if the people leave thinking about the Bible or the props. Of course it is appropriate to connect the Word to our audience with references to contemporary culture and illustrative material that throws light on the biblical message. But the illustration should never be the sermon. If we preachers don't keep the noses of our people in the text of Scripture, then we are sending an indirect message that our stories, props, and clips are the point we want them to remember.

I recently attended a function where a well-known guest preacher was delivering the message. I don't want to be unkind, but it was more like a blue-collar comedy act than a serious message from God's Word. It was full of one-liners that made the people laugh and clap. But it had little to do with the faithful exposition of the text which was announced. I liked much of what the preacher said. He had a good sense of humor. Many of his observations were true and helpful. They just didn't have anything to do with the text. In the final analysis, if our sermons don't flow from the text of God's Word, they are just our opinions. They might be good and helpful. But they have no authority. Even more, they do not model to our people how to use Scripture. If our sermons flow from the text and our observations and applications are clearly connected to the text, we not only preach faithfully, we also model to our people how to read and understand the words of God.

We can bang the drum for inerrancy all day long but if we fail to demonstrate through our preaching that we value the Word of God, then our theological positions ring hollow. It is inconsistent for us to insist on inspiration and inerrancy and then largely ignore those very divinely inspired words in our preaching week by week. If we would have churches that are anchored in the revelation of God, then we must have preachers that make His Word the sum and substance of their preaching. This kind of preaching models in practice what our confessional statements declare.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Against Using the Pulpit to Endorse Political Candidates

There is a new development in the ongoing battleground of the church and politics. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is initiating a movement to test the constitutionality of the IRS ban on churches endorsing candidates. Currently, the rules are that pastors and churches cannot officially endorse any political candidate. If they do, they run the risk of losing their 501C3 status as tax exempt, non-profit organizations. The ADF is seeking to enlist some churches and pastors who are willing to preach sermons publicly endorsing or opposing candidates. This would provide a platform for testing the constitutionality of the ban in court.

In response to this movement, a group of clergy are protesting that this blurs or destroys the line of separation between church and state. These clergy members are suggesting that the ADF "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is a stunt that will ultimately harm the church. They are skeptical of the legal and religious grounds from which the ADF is launching this effort. Referring to the initiative as "reckless," they are encouraging churches to oppose it.

Personally, I believe the move to encourage pastors to endorse candidates from their pulpits is a step in the wrong direction. My objection is not driven by constitutional issues or the separation of church and state per se. I believe that such a move will simply pull the church further into the political machinery of this world. It will diminish the ability of the church to focus on its primary calling in the world. Jesus was clear that his kingdom was not of this world. In John 18:36, Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom was a worldly one, his followers would fight to get him released. The mission that Jesus came to accomplish did not depend on earthly political structures. The focus of the church is on making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). This is done by the preaching and living of the gospel.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in the political process through voting, campaigning, or even running for office. The gospel certainly has implications for every arena of life, including politics. Yet, the church should not become a political action committee. Do we really think that if we get all "our candidates" elected that we will have accomplished our mission? Like the people of Jeremiah's day who wanted to depend on alliances with Egypt to protect them instead of the Lord (Jeremiah 37), we run the risk of putting our trust in the wrong place. I am wary of anything that would distract the church from her purpose in this world.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why All the Church Dropouts?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an editorial on a new book entitled Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It. The book by Julia Duin reports that, in her opinion, there is an epidemic of evangelicals leaving their churches. According to the editorial, Duin locates the problem within the churches themselves. These churches have problems ranging from inefficient leadership, sub-par teaching, and scandals among leaders, to simply being out of touch with their congregants.

While I would not dispute for a moment that all of these problems exist to some degree among evangelical churches, it seems to me that the issue is something much deeper. The very subtitle of the book implies a contradiction. If they are truly faithful, why are they fleeing? It seems that the underlying assumption of the book (as well as the proposed solutions) are playing into the hands of a consumeristic evangelical culture which contributes to the very problem it seeks to address. Faithfulness is about staying the course when things get tough because one has a higher calling. The problem is that we haven't taught the "faithful" what faithfulness really means.

The assumption seems to be that if the church doesn't provide what I want or perceive I need, then I will simply quit going. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the anemic ecclesiology which has become so characteristic of many evangelicals. It is an ecclesiology which turns on the individual. The church has been convinced that the way to "grow" is to find out what people want and serve it to them in as appealing a package as possible. For example, people like movies, so build your sermons around movies instead of biblical exposition. If the problem is that people are not happy with your product, give them a better or different product and they will keep coming. It becomes an ever-intensifying cycle of scrambling to meet the felt needs of churchgoers.

What the church needs is to break free from this cycle of catering to the spiritual consumer. Jesus did not negotiate with would-be disciples. It was not cafeteria style Christianity where the prospective follower of Jesus could have a "designer relationship" with Him. The focus of discipleship is not the disciple but Christ. It isn't so much about what I "need" as what Jesus commands (Matthew 28:19-20).

The analogies of discipleship which Paul used to encourage Timothy seem so out of place when compared to the current emphases on "what I want" or "how I feel." Paul told Timothy to be a good soldier, a faithful farmer, and a diligent student (2 Tim. 2:1-13). Each of these analogies implies patience, endurance, and difficulty. This is the essence of faithfulness. Faithful members don't jump ship when every song doesn't fit their taste. Faithful members don't quit when the pastor preaches on hard subjects. Faithful members don't leave when called upon to work through conflict with others. Why? Because they are, well, faithful. They love Jesus and the church more than they love themselves.

We pastors and church leaders are largely to blame for this state of affairs. We swallowed the idea that catering to consumers could help us "grow" our churches. Grow we did - a mile wide and an inch deep. We grew churches where the fleshly instinct of people to please themselves was coddled instead of confronted. We grew churches where we made it clear that our philosophy of how we organize and conduct the ministry was determined by the wants that people expressed. We told them (the audience) they were sovereign and they told us what to preach or not to preach. Now we are scratching our heads when they leave or go down the street to another church with a better program and newer building. We reinforced the consumeristic instinct and it came back to bite us.

It is time to abandon the methodological madness for some theological training. We need to teach our people what the church really is. We need to teach them about meaningful membership in the church. We need to lead them to understand the corporate implications of the gospel as they are lived out in the community of God's people. They need to know about believer's baptism, the Lord's Supper, and church discipline. We need to rekindle a hunger for the meat of God's Word by stretching them with biblically saturated teaching and preaching.

When people begin to view the church as the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, and the family of God instead of a spiritual Sams Club, perhaps they won't be as likely to leave it so casually.