Saturday, September 30, 2006

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

Brother Michael Leach offers an interesting look at pastoral theology, the centrality of the Scripture, and African American churches. His conclusion:
Our most important task, therefore, is to recover pastoral theology from the sinister grasp of modern practitioners and to place it squarely and soundly on its rightful Christological and soteriological foundation, so that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal truths of the gospel may be applied to the existential conditions of all God’s people, regardless of the nature of their particular angst.
Helpful: Eric Zeller is thinking about preaching and offering a good reminder about mixed audiences and good questions to consider in sermon prep.

Church & Technology: Have you ever heard of the "ATM"? No... not that one. The "Automated Tithing Machine." The L.A. Times ran this story about a church that's implemented three in its building. (HT: Riddleblog)

Friday, September 29, 2006

Warfare and Pastorate; Authority and Love

Lig and Mark at T4G have posted some helpful and encouraging words over the past couple of days. Lig quotes Spurgeon on the warfare of pastoral ministry, and Mark offers a good reflection on the relationship between authority and love.

This Weekend

This weekend, I trust, will be a special one. I have the great privilege and honor of being installed as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman. Though the term "installation" sounds painful, I'm looking forward to it.

I've come to love this church very quickly. I can't say enough about the sweet joy, humility, love, and patience of this congregation. For me, the weekend will be about them and the Lord's work in the life of this church.

For three years the church was without a pastor. In that time, they continued together in faith and perseverance. They moved to elder-led leadership during that time because they wanted to be faithful to God and His Word. In that time several couples and individuals have gone off to seminary or the mission field, with the church providing essentially for their full support. And despite a painful episode in the life of the church and the loss of a much-beloved member, the church has persevered in joy and hope.

While this is an event to mark the "beginning" for me, for the congregation it is an event that commemorates the "continuing" faithfulness of the Lord to this body. And how faithful He has been! In a few months time, we will celebrate the church's 30th anniversary... three decades of God's faithfulness. Together, we're praying for and reflecting on what the next three decades may hold should the Lord Jesus tarry. It's an exciting time.

My brother Mark Dever will be here to preach the ordination sermon. He'll be accompanied by his lovely wife and outstanding son. The McBrides, friends from CHBC, are also visiting for the weekend. It will be great to share this time with them.

We will also have the opportunity to observe the Lord's supper together. What a fitting thing, it seems to me, to come to the Table together as pastor and people on this weekend. I'm looking forward to it with joy!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 3: Membership

In this series of posts, I've maintained that the defining feature of nominal Christianity is that it blurs distinctions. It blurs distinctions about conversion and salvation, and it lives on the kind of preaching that fails to distinguish, to divide, to bring into relief real differences between Christian thinking and living and uredeemed living and thinking.

Well, nominalism also blurs the distinction between God's covenant people and the surrounding nations and culture.

One can not read the Bible without seeing that God's great purpose in history is to gather together for Himself a special people. He created Adam and Eve to enjoy fellowship with Him and to worship Him in the Garden. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to make of his seed a special nation. Isaac became the seed of promise, not Ishmael. The Lord chose Jacob the younger brother but not Esau. Israel is loved by God as His special people, marked out through the covenant of God and distinguished from the pagan nations surrounding them. They were to be holy, to observe His statutes, to avoid mixing with the unbelievers, and to serve God forever. They were to await the Messiah who would fulfill all the promises of God. And, as the New Testament reveals to us, they were to become one new nation with a new covenant along with Gentiles who believed on the Messiah. And this nation, the Church, is to be the revealed wisdom and glory of God to all the powers of heaven and earth, spiritual and natural. The church--the called out gathering of God's people--is the focal point of God's redeeming work and the revelation of His divine wisdom.

How incredibly important it is, then, that membership in the church, the body of Christ, be made distinct, clear. By its very nature, the church is something that distinguishes. It clarifies who belongs to the covenant community of God and who doesn't. Our individual petition to join a church is a confession of the saving work of God in our lives. And the church's admittance of an individual member is the corporate "affirmation" of that individual profession. Together, the individual and the corporate community testify to God's work of redeeming and separating to himself a special people, a royal priesthood.

Living distinctively Christian lives depends in good measure on establishing effective ways of distinguishing between those inside and those outside the church. It depends on good membership practices. Otherwise, those who may never have tasted the saving work of Christ may be left to think that their status before God is secure and to wrongly assure themselves of a salvation that is not theirs to claim. And the church runs the risk of giving affirmation to this false profession and false assurance.

Overcoming the blurring effects of nominalism means the faithful pastor must be willing to help people "examine themselves to see whether they are in the faith." He must not be willing to take for granted that someone is a Christian because they come to church, wish to join a church, or indicate by some mere profession that they are "Christians." He must be willing to look for evidence of God's grace that supports the profession, for saving knowledge of Christ.

A couple months ago, we thought a bit about why we should pursue regenerate church membership (see parts one, two, three, and four). One reason, quite simply, is to defeat the deafening effects of nominalism toward the call of the Gospel.

So much of the modern thinking on church membership assumes that the front door of the church should be open wide to all and the back door closed to prevent people from leaving. Actually, it seems that biblically it is precisely the opposite that God intends. We should narrow the front door since broad is the path that leads to destruction but narrow the path that leads to life. And we should open wider the back door, realizing that the seed sown in every heart does not produce abounding, abundant life in everyone. This closing of the front door and opening of the back door will help us to discriminate (yes, there is a good way to use this word) and discern on the front end and to expel and release on the back end persons who prove themselves disobedient in following the Lord in critical ways. We tend to fear letting people go, but that tendency will at various times actually be to their spiritual detriment.

Nominal Christianity thrives in places where lines are erased. It finds a home in the church because membership practices fail to erect a dividing wall between the people of God and the world. If we would conquer nominalism and the carnality that comes along with it, we should be careful with how we take people into the church. The souls of our nominally Christian friends and neighbors depend on it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 2: Preaching

At its root, nominalism blurs vital distinctions. In particular, it blurs the line between the redeemed and the unredeemed life, the regenerate and the unregenerate. The wheat and the chaff grow up together and nominalism calls it all wheat without regard to the bud or the flower when it appears.

Bonhoeffer captured this problem well:
The Christian life comes to mean nothing more tha living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace. The upshot of it all is that my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true grace must loathe and detest, has freed me from that.

Bonhoeffer added in good summary, "It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine."

Terrifying indeed to consider that so many, under the banner of "grace," may be this moment perishing in their sins because we who claim to understand the vital distinctions of Christianity have not made them clear, have not pressed them into the hearts and minds of our hearers, have not in effect loved them enough to be unpopular but faithful.

Preaching is the method for making such distinctions, for drawing the mind upward to Christ in heaven and giving the people then an aerial view of themselves. Right preaching of the Word is a mark of a true church. And right preaching of the Word is God's method for calling dead, dry bones to life. It's how nominalism will be overcome in large measure.

Well, how then might we think of "right preaching"? Better minds than mine have written and spoken on this at length. Today, I just want to add a few quick thoughts for those who are laboring, perhaps frustrated, in nominally Christian contexts.

1. Make a clear sound. Resist the fear of man that drives you away from the sharp edge of the text. Let's pray that our preaching is penetrating, that the sword is wielded with skill, dividing thoughts and intents. Be sure that essentials are proclaimed with all the confidence of Scripture. In a nominal context, we must not make uncertain noises by cluttering the sermon with our opinions, qualifications or equivocations. We must declare the entire counsel of God as straight-forwardly, lovingly, and clearly as possible--especially on essential doctrines.

2. Preach more doctrinal sermons. By this I don't mean boring sermons or sermons that are never applied. But resist that hellish label "practical" sermon, by which most mean "convenient" and "light" application. Our people will sometimes want only milk, especially when that has been the sustained diet for years. They will want sermons that are easy to hear, easy to accept, and just as easily forgotten. Their flesh, like ours, war against the Spirit and His Word. So, we must every-so-patiently but steadily wean them from milk and preach the pure doctrine of Scripture. We must include high, exalted views of God, Christ and the Spirit in our sermons. We need to pay close attention to the doctrines of the Church and conversion as we open the Word. Our task is to lift them a rung on the ladder to heaven by raising them from the mire of self-concern. To do that, we need to ground our sermons on solid doctrine. We need fewer "how to" talks and more "behold your God!" preaching.

3. Address non-Christians clearly. This is something I learned from Mark Dever, who addresses non-Christians in his sermon as clearly as anyone I've seen or heard. Sometimes his sermons seem to be an on-going conversation with the non-Christians in the audience as he breaks to appeal to them, to probe their thinking, to ask a searching question. Most all of us may safely assume that non-Christians are included in our weekly services. We would serve them well to remove their supposed anonymity by pressing home the teaching of Scripture to their cases. Call them to listen. Say something like, "If you are here this morning and you are not a Christian..." then ask the appropriate question from the text. Admit at times that what you are preaching may seem foreign or strange to them, then expound upon the difference between a Christian (regenerate) view of the issue and a non-Christian view. Invite them into the thought life of Christians so that they might understand the distinctions, not just hear them pronounced. Ed Clowney encourages preachers to:
Use dialogue. What are your hearers saying to the Lord? Quote what they may be thinking. Think of how the Lord's Word is addressed to a person in the congregation or audience. Imagine what some of your hearers may be saying to the Lord, and declare His answer from His Word. You are mediating a conversation of a saint and a sinner with the Lord himself. Remember that His Word does not return empty, and that He is speaking it. Keep your language vivid, not by illustrations and figures of speech that steal attention from him, but by vivid references to what the Lord says and does.
4. Get to Jesus. Whatever section or genre of Scripture you're preaching, point to Jesus. Let's teach and preach the Bible the way Jesus did. "Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27, see also 44-46). Too often, preaching falls into moralism and "life lessons," especially preaching from the Old Testament. We must point beyond such small ideas to the big idea--Jesus' fulfillment of all that is written and promised. This is when preaching is piercing. Most anyone can sit long enough to hear a good illustration reinforcing some moral principle or tip for better living. After all, that serves our own needs. But preaching that points everyone and everything to Christ, insisting upon His lordship and our submission, our repentance and faith, tends to separate wheat from chaff and to make the unconverted uncomfortable. We must never fail to get to Jesus in our sermons, to lift Him up so that He would draw men to Himself.

5. Address people with Jesus' words. Following my sermon this past weekend, two good brothers gave me some helpful feedback. I had preached Psalm 119, and I had meditated on the gospel, but I had not quite "put the psalm on Jesus' lips." They suggested that should I ever preach the psalm again (or any psalm) to be sure to do that. "Of course!' I thought. This is Jesus' Word, it's a Word about Him, and it's the Word that He fulfills. Of course my preaching should place this Word in His mouth. And related to this, especially when preaching the Gospels, we should address Jesus' Words directly to the people. Our words about His words may be okay. But nothing is more arresting than to have Jesus himself speak directly to you. To have the Master ask directly, "Who do you say I am?" Or, "What do you want me to do for you?" "What Did Moses command you?" "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptizd with the baptism I am baptised with?" We must call our people to hear the Word of the Lord and quote the incisive questions and commands to them so that they are clear that their reaction is either for or against the Lord (not the preacher).

6. Preach in God's Spirit. Because nominalism is spiritual blindness, the Spirit must open eyes and give sight. Our effectiveness as preachers is not in clever speech but in the power of the Holy Spirit. He must accompany our proclamations and seal them to the heart of our hearers; otherwise, it's so much spitting in the wind. Be filled with the Spirit. Pray. Meditate on the Word of God. Plead for God's unction in preaching. Without it, our discourses will fall flat.

Nominal Christianity is deadly, but it's not intractable. Preaching into such a culture the Word of God by the Spirit of God may work a revival of true religion. Preaching is God's appointed means for proclaiming His glory in Christ. And it's preaching that will expose pretenders to that glory and awaken the slumbering. Preach as a dying man to dying men!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Justin Taylor and 666

Is Justin the anti-Christ?

Justin, just kidding brother! I noticed on your technorati info that 666 blogs link to your site. We need but one more link from a fellow blogger to dispel with all anti-Christ speculation! ;-)

Eavesdropping on Ed Clowney & Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Preaching in the Spirit

Ed Clowney, in Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, recalled this brief exchange he once had over tea with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

On one occasion I had tea with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Ealing, London, and decided to ask him a question that concerned me. "Dr. Lloyd-Jones," I said, "How can I tell whether I am preaching in the energy of the flesh or in the power of the Spirit?"

"That is very easy," Lloyd-Jones replied, as I shriveled. "If you are preaching in the energy of the flesh, you will feel exalted and lifted up. If you are preaching in the power of the Spirit, you will feel awe and humility."

Oh that we would be rebuked by God when our preaching makes much of us and little of Christ, when we enter the sacred desk in our own energy and forsake the Spirit's power! May the Lord Jesus, the Lord of glory, be lifted up and we decrease when we proclaim Him!

"W" at Sovereign Grace

This is funny! Enjoy.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Wonderful Weekend

I had the privilege of visiting Capitol Hill Baptist Church this weekend. It was wonderful to be back for a couple of days after leaving for Grand Cayman this past June.

I had the privilege of leading a wedding service for a wonderful couple, Chris and Tess Ambridge. It was a beautiful worship service... apart from the part where I called the couple by the wrong names during the sermon! Everyone laughed it off and we continued joyously in the Lord. My advice: don't do that, it's embarrassing.

It was a great privilege to expound God's Word on Sunday morning. We took a look at the entirety of Psalm 119--all 176 glorious verses! What a God-exalting, Word-loving, challenging passage of revelation!

A delicious meal with the elders and their wives at the Lawrence home (thank Adrienne for preparing such a sumptuous fare), an afternoon reviewing a talk Mark is giving at the Baptist Distincitives conference at Southwestern later this week, and lots of hugs and kisses with members throughout the afternoon and following the evening service, service review with a new crop of talented interns, a late night pow-wow with four amazing young ladies... all wrapped up in four days of amazing hospitality from Jim and Eileen Hollenbach. I'm thankful to the Lord for the weekend... and I'm ready to get home with my family and the saints at FBC.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ryken on Racial Reconciliation

Phil Ryken with an excellent brief post on racial reconciliation. This does seem to me to be the essence of the matter. There can be no reconciliation, no progress, no steady growth apart from relationships.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 1: Definitions

One question that occupies a lot of my attention is "How is Christianity to be distinctive in a culture where everyone assumes themselves to be Christian?"

I've thought about this and discussed this for hours and hours over the last few years. This would often become the conversation at conferences, emails, and casual get-togethers with other pastor types. The topic of nominalism might come in the form of various questions. How do we get the old "traditionalists" (in the bad sense of the word) to embrace a more vibrant form of the faith? How do we reach those who show no fruit of conversion and faith but claim to be Christians? Is there a way to increase the commitment and engagement of large numbers of inactive church members. All of these questions, and many more, really are questions that in one way or another stem from a kind of nominalism--"Christian" in name only.

This was the context in which I grew up. To put it charitably, most folks in my home town thought of themselves as Christians. Some evidently were by their profession and their lives. Some, no doubt, were not. But, most people didn't condemn themselve or think so poorly of themselves to self-identify as "practical atheist" or "unbeliever." Even the poolhall hustlers and the alcoholics claimed they knew God, "always said their prayers," and the "God knows their heart."

Many assumed the label "Christian" because they were certainly not practitioners of any other religion. They were not, for example, muslims. In fact, until I returned home during my sophomore year in college as a professing muslim, very few people had ever seen a muslim. No, everyone at least believed in some way, and that made most everyone "Christian" since that was either a family or community legacy bequeathed to all. Nominalism.

The more I think about the situation, the clearer it is to me that in trying to reflect genuine Christian distinctiveness in a nominal Christian culture definitions are critical. The root problem might be described as a failure to define "Christian" and Christianity in terms that bring into sharper contrast regenerate and unregenerate life, in terms that stress spiritual conversion, faith, grace, love and hope over and against moralism, patriotism, and spiritual relativism.

In my experience, there are some major misunderstandings, culprits really, that create confusion and cloud distinctions. Here are a few:
  • Christians are moral people. That is, being a Christian means being nice. It means doing good, observing the golden rule. A Christian is someone who is pleasant, kind, and morally righteous. To be sure, Christians are and should be moral. But being moral doesn't make one a Christian any more than being black makes you a good dancer. Both stereotypes (Blacks are good dancers, moral people are Christians) are pervasive and powerful; neither is true.
  • Christians are descendents of Christians. In other words, you are a Christian if your family members were Christians or you're from a "Christian" country or area. The fact that everyone must be "born again" should make it clear that geneaology and history are not sufficient forces for making one a Christian. But in a nominal Christian culture, your lineage is oftentimes assumed to be the only certification you need to claim the name of Christ. And in my experience, it works both ways. If your family is reputed to be "un-Christian" (a peculiar term, suggesting that somehow there was a reversal of the birthright you should have had), it would be difficult for any individual to escape the family reputation and live as a Christian. There would always be the family spectre looming over your head. Did I mention I am from a small town? This is a particularly powerful phenomenon in small towns.
  • Christians are church attenders. Well, we all know that's true. I think it was Lloyd-Jones who said that going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than putting kittens in the over makes them biscuits. An alarming image... kittens in the oven... but you get the point and no doubt you have your probably know firsthand people who believe this myth.
  • Christians are people who prayed the prayer or walked the aisle. A great deal of the world's nominalism has its roots in this shallow view of conversion and salvation. Many churches have portions of their membership comprised of persons who have prayed or walked the aisle but who have not come to savingly know and delight in the Lord. An innumerable number of people not discernibly living as Christians can make this claim. And many of them have been given every assurance by well-meaning pastors and Christians that they are Christians because they've at some point performed these outward acts. And yet, such assurances are not ours to give--especially on grounds as paltry and extra-biblical as this.
  • Christians are people who have been baptized. This is much like the item above. Superstition grows up around the act of baptism, and people begin to believe that the act itself makes one a Christian. So, there is pressure to "baptize" children. Or, there is the notion that at certain ages "it's time" or "past time" to be baptized. It's the Christian thing to do. Well, true, but only true Christians should do it.
  • Christians are people who belong to a Christian society. This one is akin to the idea that Christians are descendants of other Christians. It's simply enlarged to a geographical territory. So, "America is a Christian nation" and, therefore, I am a Christian. Or, this is the Bible belt and everyone here is Christian. I think we would all be helped if we reserved the term "Christian" for people only. Only people are able to become Christ-like ones; only people are converted, born again, given a new heart, etc. Cities, movies, books, plays, etc. may be more or less informed by principles consistent with Christianity, but strictly speaking they cannot be Christian. I'm aware that probably no one means to believe that inanimate objects are "Christian" in this sense, but this is a post about definitions. So, precision is what matters and the tendency to refer to inanimate things without saved souls as "Christian" is not helpful. It contributes to the sense of nominalism that is the problem.
These are some of the false definitions, the lies, that nominal Christianity propagates. Fruitful Christian ministry must supplant these notions with Gospel truth. Faithful Gospel labor must work against these currents to present a joyful, abiding-in-Christ, free, grace-filled, spiritually-minded, heaven-directed, Jesus following, God-loving, observant Christian witness. Our people must understand that being a Christian is not being a good person; it's being a new creation, with a new heart and a new mind wrought by the Spirit of God. They must know that being a Christian has little to nothing to do with which family you come from; it's a matter of belonging to the family of God, of being His inheritance and portion, of dwelling in His home, of being a living stone in His temple. Our people must be taught not to confuse the city of man with the city of God, the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of our risen Lord and Savior. We must impress upon them the grandeur of things to come, of the One to come, so that they don't fall for the false promises and deliverers of this world. And all of these contrasts and distinctions must inform how we speak against prevailing definitions of nominal Christian culture.

If definitions are critical for puncturing the walls of false profession and nominalism, then preaching and teaching is critical. Preaching is the one discursive event frequent enough and central enough to address this challenge. Above all things, what we need is a kind of preaching that achieves precision, division, charity, and clarity. We need something far more than eloquence; we need power in the pulpit--the kind of power that tears down facades, rips off masks, explodes through defenses and pretensions, and yet builds, constructs, engineers and designs new lives in Christ Jesus. In our next post, Lord willing, we'll consider preaching in a nominally Christian culture.

Texas Churches At Center Of Controversy

Texas Churches At Center Of Controversy Two Texas churches are appearing before the high courts of that state in defense of their exercise of church discipline in cases involving adultery. The cases are expected to set some legal precedent. Plaintiffs are arguing that the churches' practice violates their basic freedoms and makes something illegal that state law does not. It will be interesting to see if the courts will support the churches' freedom to exercise religion and pursue purity and holiness through discipline.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What "Race" Does Not Explain

Recently, I received a very thoughtful comment from a visitor to the blog who disagreed with a position I had taken. I am very thankful for the reader and the comment. While I think he missed the gist of my post (and therefore we probably disagree less than he thinks), I was prompted once again to think about the construct of "race," and particularly the explanatory power of "race." I was prompted because his underlying thesis was that racial difference explained the current state of affairs for the topic we were discussing.

It is often the case, whether in the social sciences or in political debates or discussions about athletic prowess among other things, that "race" is trotted out as an (and sometime the) explanatory factor to be considered. So, we think about educational achievement, in part, along racial lines. We think and write about race as a factor in history and politics. We assign certain social and cultural customs to "race" as an explanation of difference. And we even huddle to worship in racial enclaves, insisting oftentimes that "race" explains preferences in everything from music to preaching to fellowship choices.

The economical explanatory shortcut that the construct suggests is powerful and seemingly intractable. For once you enter into "race as explanation" for whatever you're discussing, it is almost certain that you will never emerge with a solution premised on anything but "race." In other words, you can't solve problems associated with "race" by thinking about them racially. In my experience (as a trained psychologist focusing on racial identity attitudes, as a student of African and African-American history, as someone who has put in his time working on "racial" justice at grassroots and national policy levels), "race" is a trickbag that tears away at the more fundamental anthropology revealed in Scripture from Gen. 1:26,27 to Acts 17:26a.

Though it poses as an efficient explanatory variable in the popular and scientific mind, "race" as a construct does not in fact deliver on its promises to explain very much. So, here's a short list of things that are not explained (or perhaps a better word is "caused") by race, in no particular order, with brief suggestions as to why the construct fails. It's a partial list, perhaps a debatable list, but one that I hope triggers us to be less anchored in a way of viewing people that falls short of how God views people.
  • Individual educational achievement. You're proficient at what you practice.
  • Prevalence of certain diseases. Usually has more to do with an individual's or family's diet and lifestyle.
  • Election of God. Obviously.... Eph. 1.
  • Crime rates. Perhaps James 4 is a better explanation.
  • Musical preferences. Cases in point: the success of Hip Hop in Japan... and Mark Dever bobbing his head to Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle... or my strange enjoyment of country music.
  • Illegitimacy. Rates are high across the board, but the biggest decreases in recent years have been among African Americans (teens in particular).
  • Church preference. Allowing there may be many positive reasons for making a choice, on the negative side spiritual immaturity can play a prominent role here as the superficial trumps the fundamental. And, a certain idolatry of the group self plays a part.
  • "Receptivity" to spiritual things. Romans 3:9-18.
  • Athletic ability. Again, you're generally proficient at what you practice.
  • Sexual habits or ability. Everybody does it... with varying frequencies and enjoyment levels.
  • Reading levels, eloquence or writing ability. Did I mention you're generally proficient at what you practice?
  • Racism and racist attitudes. Idolatry is a better explanatory factor and cause.
  • Quality of preaching. Good and bad to go around.
  • Political orientation or party affiliation. Self-interest, even incorrectly calculated, is probably the bigger factor.
The sharpest way of putting it is that "race" as we've grown accustomed to thinking of it... social and cultural practices rooted in biological differences and categories... does not exist. And since a thing doesn't exist it can not explain very much... much less cause anything. It's like saying the universe came into being "by chance." "Chance," strictly speaking, doesn't exist. It's a mathematical device for explaining probability (i.e., "the chances of something happening is..."). Chance is not a power, has no substance in reality. Likewise, we may use "race" to discuss probabilities of a sort... but strictly speaking, "race" does not exist as a power or causal agent in the many areas of life we care about.

However we understand ourselves, it's essential that we recognize our overwhelming sameness, all of us having been made in the image of God, from the same blood, fallen in sin, and in need of the Only Savior, Jesus Christ. And though there are observable differences between nations (ethnos, ethne), the purpose of God in creating such difference is to reflect His lordship over all (Eph. 1:22; Rev. 5:9) and His unsurpassed wisdom in the Gospel and the Church (Eph. 3:6, 9-10), not so we could further the alientaion of men by erecting a new middle wall of separation called "race."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Still Digging on Driscoll

Justin Taylor includes a great quote from a recent Driscoll post. I still dig this brother!

McChurch Franchises Coming Soon...

The Dallas Morning News featured an article on the grand opening of Ed Young's new church in Miami, FL. Many of you will know Ed Young as the very popular pastor of the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX.

The article was interesting because it detailed a growing trend among some megachurch pastors and leaders: satellite churches at long distances from the "home" church. Satellite campuses have been around for a long time. I've talked a little bit about the technology used in this approach and some implications elsewhere. What's interesting and new about this phenomena is that now some pastors are crossing state lines, time zones and entire continents to create "franchises."

Fellowship Church boasts weekly attendance of about 18,000 at its main campus in Grapevine. Another 5,000 attend sites in Plano, Justin and the downtown Dallas art district. The article featured Ed Young, but a number of other similar operations were profiled as well:

Lifechurch, led by the Rev. Craig Groeschel, started in Edmond, Okla. It now has four Oklahoma sites, one in Arizona, one in Tennessee, and one in Fort Worth.

NewSong Church, led by the Rev. Dave Gibbons, may set the record for distance, with four sites in Southern California and one in Bangkok, Thailand – and plans to build in India, London and Dallas

The writer, picking up on the typical multi-site church slogan, "One church, multiple locations," asks a critical question: "But what does it mean to be "one church," spread across hundreds or thousands of miles?" Good question.

This model of doing church calls into question all of our assumptions about pastoral ministry. It calls into question whether the relationship between pastor and congregation is at all essential. It begs the question of whether preaching really is central to our gatherings (at least live preaching from a flesh-and-blood preacher). And I'm curious about the approach to governance or polity used by such churches. How is a group in Bangkod involved in the decisions of groups in Southern California?

Rev. Geoff Surratt, co-author of The Multi-Site Church Revolution and a pastor at Seacoast Church, a church with six sites in Georgia and one in South Carolina, makes this case for multi-sites over and against traditional church planting: "Multisite locations grow faster, reach a place of health and are self-sustaining much faster than traditional church plants."

As far as I can tell, the jury is still out on that contention and there is nowhere near a significant enough number of such churches to actually assess the benefit or harm. Moreover, fast growth and self-sustaining wouldn't be at the top of my list for reasons to adopt this strategy. "Healthy congregation" might, but then the critical issue is what's meant by "healthy." Franchising a personality, selling his favorite oatmeal cookies along with his most recent book, and fostering absentee pastors doesn't readily strike me as healthy for the local church.

I guess central for me is this question: Why franchise an individual pastor in this way? I can understand how one might have satellite campuses in the same metropolitan city/area, and how a pastor and elders may be able to serve that church faithfully. I can't quite fathom why a local church pastor should be "godcast" each Sunday to a location 1,400 miles away.

Two things seem troublesome about that at its core. First, it would seem to promote a celebrity culture and idolization in the people of God as they gather to hear each Sunday--not a local pastor pouring out his life for a people that he lives with--but a "superstar preacher" being beamed in from some remote location. Second, it would suggest (and I want to be careful not to assign motive where I can't see a person's heart) that the person's approach to ministry makes spread of "our" message, appeal, method, and personality far too central to the work of the kingdom. It hints at the kind of pride that says "we're the ones who have it right and our guy is king, so let's export our guy to the ends of the world." It runs the risk of confusing the messenger with the message and building a business empire upon them both.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Getting Fit for Heaven

Once again, the Lord God has used the writing of John Piper to make pressingly clear to me some great spiritual truth. We resumed Wednesday night Bible study at FBC this past Wednesday. The meeting had become irregular since the church was without a main teaching/preaching pastor for the past three years.

We began the study by reading in the first 5-10 minutes a snippet from God is the Gospel. Most of the people, who are not familiar with Piper, were struck at his famous question: "If you could have heaven... could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?"

I appreciate the question. But as I continued to read, I was gripped again by this truth: I am employed in the great task of getting people fit for heaven. After asking the reader the above question, Piper addressed these questions to Christian leaders:
"Can we really say that our people are being prepared for heaven where Christ himself, not his gifts, will be the supreme pleasure? And if our people are unfit for that, will they even go there? Is not the faith that takes us to heaven the foretaste of the feast of Christ?"

Preaching and teaching God's Word is not a mere intellectual exercise. Neither is it merely a cathartic emotional display or merely a large group counseling session scheduled for every Sunday morning. Preaching and teaching God's Word is not theological debate. Nor is it simply some abstract exercise is discipleship or accountabilty.

We preach and teach God's Word to make His people fit for heaven. Our aim is to ready the people of God to delight in their God! And as Tripp puts it in War of Words, "Our words are the principal tool God uses in the work he does through us." When we preach and teach, God is using the instrument of His Word conveyed by human words to create a longing and a preparedness in the hearts of His people for Him.

What a high calling is preaching! What an awesome privilege! How amazing it is to give people "a foretaste of the feast of Christ" through preaching and teaching! What a noble task--to be used of God to fit people for heaven where they shall delight in God himself! Oh, I feel like preaching!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Birds of a Feather

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that popular New Age writer Ayanla Vanzant made an appearance at Christ Universal Temple, the confused and heretical headquarters of "Rev." Johnnie Coleman. Coleman has for five decades offered African Americans in the Chicago area her brand of "Christianity" replete with "higher consciousness" teachings and ideas. Vanzant, the author of 13 books for women and a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, is a Yoruba priestess and during her visit offered a "lesson" called "No Other Gods." Apparently she sprinkled her talk with a few Bible references and anecdotes, but the One True God was nowhere to be found.

Coleman, Winfrey and Vanzant have done more to introduce soul-destroying, anti-Christian ideas to the public than any three women I can think of. Winfrey and Vanzant command national television audiences with their respective shows. Vanzant and Coleman have appeared on Tavis Smiley's popular state of the Black union programs. Women from every background enjoy Oprah, and large crowds of African-American women have given Vanzant a cult-like following.

Man, do we ever need discernment! Tim Challies, hurry up and get that manuscript to Crossway!

Church Bizarre

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rolling over in his grave. Well... not really, but you understand the cliche.

Apparently, there is some debate brewing in Germany about the decommission of a German church that dates back to the mid-1930s. The Washington Post featured an article regarding Berlin's Martin Luther Memorial Church,

Columnist Niels C. Sorrells describes the church this way:

From the outside, it's an ordinary church with a bell tower in need of renovation. The inside seems standard at first, until one takes a closer look at the elevated lectern. Carved into the wood is a sermonizing Jesus Christ; in the crowd gathered around him are a Nazi soldier and one of Adolph Hitler's infamous brown-shirted storm troopers.

Planned in the 1920s but completed in 1935, the church is a bizarre blend of the Protestant faith and National Socialist dogma. A carved soldier decorates the baptismal font. Tiles on the wall include Nazi symbols. The spot now occupied by a bust of Martin Luther once was filled by a bust of Hitler. Even the Christ figure on the altar's cross is strong, athletic and defiant, embodying the Nazi concept of the Ubermensch more than the traditional Jesus surrendering himself.

Some want to preserve the church as a historical marker or museum. But costs are prohibitive at this point.

The article makes reference to some of Luther's anti-Semitic opinions and the attemp of Nazis to blend Lutheran theology with Nazi ideology. The article makes the astounding claim that congregants of the church simply ignored the Nazi artwork carved into the pulpit and featured in tiles around the building. I'm not sure whether I find that claim incredible or frightening. How could you not notice artwork prominently featured in a place of worship and celebrating one of history's worst genocides? How could you turn your heart to God in prayer or song or preaching and not regard these clear indications of human depravity?

But then I remember some of the other tragedies perpetrated in the name of Christ... and it is clear that a claim to Christ and the name of Christ are two very different things. I hope folks find a way to save the church and to make that point painfully obvious to all.

Five Weeks, Four Sermons, Three Hospital Visits, and One Communion Later...

It's been five weeks since we've arrived here in Grand Cayman. I've had the joyous privilege of preaching four sermons. There have been three hospital visitations. And we've observed communion together once. And with everything that goes on in between... I'm thrilled to be a member and pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman!

What attracted me to this congregation several months ago was the genuine humility, kindness, generosity, and eagerness in the lives of its people. And I've discovered that what I saw then was but the tip of the iceberg... there is so much more underneath! This is a good church!

One of the things I've been surprised by is the intensity of protectiveness and what I trust is godly jealousy I feel for the sheep here. My "spidey sense" is going haywire! I don't know why I'm surprised by it. I think such feelings must be inherent in the shepherd imagery of the Scriptures. Perhaps it's the degree at which I feel this so early on.

I'm struck and drawn by this profound truth: These people are the Lord's sheep, which He purchased with His own blood, over whom I've been made an undershepherd, for whom I am particularly accountable before God, and with whom I hope to rejoice together at the Great Day of Judgment when all things are laid bare and we will, I pray, testify to our mutual faithfulness to the Lord and to each other.

Recognizing all of this, first of all, humbles me, frightens me a bit to be honest, and secondly, makes me all the more zealous for them.

I want them to feed in the best pastures. I want them healed and bandaged from the bruises and scars left by predators who would devour them. I want them groomed and cleansed. They are "my" sheep to care for, to nurse, to lead, and I pray, if necessary, to give my life for as a good shepherd following the model and teaching of THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

The challenge I've felt most comes from inside. I'm discovering that there is a distinction to be made between zealousness and impatience. I don't exactly know where the line is, but it's there somewhere. Instinctually, I'm ready to press forward quickly... to build fences around the sheep, to inspect the fleece and hooves, to guide them to what I hope is more fertile pasture. Yet, I'm a new shepherd with a new flock and a deeper trust must be cultivated. A deeper understanding of their lives, their history is needed. And they too need to see something more of my life and my thoughts. The hardest part is getting what is in my head and heart out and into their heads and heart. But I need to do that and do it slowly, thoroughly, and deeply so that the foundation on which we build is sure and level and deep.

This challenge aside--which isn't so much a challenge as it is the call of leadership--I am thrilled every day to wake up and call these people "my people," and to hear them call me "Pastor Thabiti." Or as some of the younger cooler ones have taken to calling me, "Pastor T." Only the names my wife calls me have a sweeter ring.

And speaking of my wife... what a rock! She and the girls have adjusted tremendously well and are in full swing. And she is an incredible wife. How much I have learned from her in these five weeks! How she has prayed and encouraged and listened and encouraged and suggested and encouraged and prayed! Her partnership in the gospel is part of how I know I am called to pastoral ministry and to FBC. How wise and good the Lord was in giving me Kristie as my helpmeet!

Five weeks later, we're thrilled to be right where the Lord has us!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Everybody Has An Opinion About Mark Driscoll

You can tell that from most every blog around. Yesterday I linked to the Salon article that offered a critical, socially left (or "progressive," if you like, though like G.K. Chesterton, I'm of the opinion that this generation has no right to use the label since it has no idea about what it is "progressing" toward) look at Driscoll and Mars Hill.

The panic throughout the socially liberal and Seattle area blogosphere was seismic. It was so hot in Washington state that the fog and rain actually lifted for a few hours. Long enough to see in the bright light of the face of Christ... that even when dressed in tattys and piercings, Christian discipleship is diametrically opposed to the ways of the world.

I said yesterday that I like Driscoll. I've not read any of his books, though I've enjoyed the squinting, sideways, squirming reaction they cause some of my hyper-pinstriped brothers. I've not heard him preach, though from the quotes and clips I've seen posted he does combine crudeness and creativity in a way that surely explodes any sense of Christian sensibility. He's also funny. Period.

I did hang out with him briefly at a seminary bookstore and later have the pleasure of having dinner with him once. That couple of hours is all the firsthand data I have on Mark Driscoll. All the critiques that people might offer aside, I like him. I just plain like him.

And the reason I like him most is that all I heard from him was passion for the Gospel, for the lost, for his family, for the Church, and for Christian living. Oozing it everywhere... yes with tattoos, piercings, and leather... but oozing Jesus. He called his family at least three times that I can recall... anxious to get home and be with his wife and children. He is as solidly reformed theologically as any pastor I've met in a long time, a voracious reader. He was discerning about many current threats to the local church today, and clear about what it takes to do the Acts 29 thang. For all the people who wave the complementarity banner, he is doing as much about in the life of Mars Hill as anyone else I know.

One person commenting over on Justin Taylor's link to the Salon article had this to say about Driscoll:

That I think sums up the Mark Driscoll experience. Complementarianism, rudeness and crudeness. Seriously, how this guy gets a free pass on stuff that would earn Bill Hybles a memorialized page on Slice of Laodicea escapes me.
It doesn't escape me. Two reasons.

1. Few of us understand him. Let's go ahead and admit that... he seems wonderfully contradictory, complex and strangely attractive. He loves Jesus and yet he dresses like folks we wouldn't want to meet in the proverbial dark alley. Scintillating juxtaposition of opposites.

2. He has bravely gone where no man has gone before. I like Driscoll because the Gospel, by God's gracious use of Mark, is going into the deep nether regions of a culture that 98% or more of the readers of this post have never really even considered going. I haven't. In the face of what seems an impenetrable cultural fortress, Driscoll has punk rockers living complementarian lives at home and in the church!! And he is doing it with reformed convictions!! Now who of us ever had a vision for that that didn't include the objects of our "loving efforts" becoming more like us, khakis, polos, cover those embarrassing tattoos, remove those piercings, and by all means get a haircut?! Assuming worldliness is always measured by wardrobe, most of us would want to see them "come out" of that culture by washing the outside of the cup.

I like Mark Driscoll. He's tougher than I am. He is bearing more fruit in a more difficult cultural setting than I am. I think more highly of him than I do myself... and for good reason. I'm praying for his sanctification, his growth in the knowledge of our Lord, good fruit from his ministry, and that the Lord would raise up others to continue the work--not weak carbon copies/imitators, but other men of conviction and complexity who with all their faults in tow preach the Gospel to the lost.

I like Mark Driscoll. In the big scheme of things, I don't suppose that carries any weight or influences anyone really. I don't really want it to. I'm glad to see people wrestling with what they see and learn from Mark. But since everybody has an opinion about Mark, I thought I'd share mine. I like Mark Driscoll.

In the immortal words of Snoop... Mark Drizzle is the schnizzle. That's my nizzle. Wes' side!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Driscoll in Salon

A good friend passed this link on to me (thanks John), and I thought I'd pass it on to you. It's pretty straight-forward Driscoll... like it or leave it. The Salon writer's slant suggests she'd like to leave it. For the most part, I like it personally.

But, there are the naysayers and they're having their say. Most of the early blog chatter is "weirded out" by the article. See the link at the bottom of the page to "what bloggers are saying about this article."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Peculiar Use of the Term "Gospel" Among African Americans

Yesterday's flurry of posts regarding the Time Magazine feature article, "Does God Want You Rich?" has me once again thinking about an issue that's troubled me for a while. It's the use of the term "Gospel." In particular, it's the use of the term "Gospel" among African Americans

My thoughts aren't complete... but there is something incredibly peculiar about this word in the African American experience. What I mean is... the word is used most often to designate a genre of cultural production as much or more often than it's used to refer to "the Good News," propositional, historical, and efficacious truth about Jesus Christ.

So... there is "gospel" music. Listened to any lately? Conspicuously absent in the vast majority of it is any actual meditation on the Good News. There is lots of celebration, remembrance, testimony, and exhortation... but very little "sacred head now wounded." Don't get me wrong... I crank gospel music semi-regularly. But I'm troubled by the moniker when attributed to the content of these songs. There is no Gospel in them.

Okay... then there are "gospel" plays. There is a whole "chitlin' circuit" of such productions, usually bouncing from local civic center to civic center, and sometimes featuring a former entertainment celebrity (singer) rumored to have turned Christian as a big attraction. The stories are generally the same... lazy, good-for-nuthin man causes grief to desperately hopeful and struggling "Christian" grandmother, mother or wife (more frequently girlfriend). Events move on... someone has a "breakthrough" and begins to "act right" to the pleasure of everyone. Lots of crude humor passed off as "keepin' it real," "you know that's how it really is" commentary. In all the commotion... cheap laughs, sappy emotionalism, and occasional moralism... no Good News.

Then there are "gospel" movies. Tyler Perry's wildly successful Madea plays turned big screen hits (Madea's Family Reunion) are packing folks in. Perry has gone from homelessness to a $5 million dollar mansion on the strength of his creations. Go 'head on, fella. Joining him in the effort are films like The Gospel, featuring "gospel" recording artist Donnie McClurkin. Donnie has had an interesting life as well... but in my mind he is rather notorious for wildly-popular Good News-denying lyrics like "a saint is just a sinner who fell down... but got up." What?! Is it any wonder that these so-called "gospel" films have virtually zero Gospel content? Plenty of moralism to go around... but no Good News.

And tonight... I spent about 30 minutes watching a video called The Gospel Comedy All-Stars. It's an obvious attempt to replicate the success of Def Comedy Jam for Christians... to deliver "clean" comedy to the saints. Saints should laugh. I laughed through a few really good parts. But I also had to overlook a number of plainly crude parts that were regular "comedy" without the expletives. My 8 year-old daughter ought to be able to watch and enjoy a genre called "gospel comedy." I found myself having to explain and refute too much. Turned it off. But not before it was painfully clear there would be no Good News-related content. Not even a quick "gospel presentation" at the end of the video. Just as well. There's no greater demonstation of the peculiar use of the term than the phrase "Gospel comedy." That's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one! There is no comedy in the Cross! Joy... yes. Laughing matter comedy... not an ounce! And then to include an idolatrous term like "All Stars" to boot... well it's obvious that the Lord of Glory isn't being considered with this use of the word "gospel."

The peculiar quality of all of this, for me, is only exceeded by its deep sadness. My people in the flesh are perishing by the millions for lack of knowledge. And I'm stressing African Americans here, because as my wife pointed out, we would call it "Christian" movies, plays or music if it were marketed to our brothers of lighter hue... again the peculiar association of the term's misuse with African Americans. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans venture into these movies and plays and buy millions of musc cds, and for their efforts they receive no accurate or meaningful information about the Son of God who shed His blood for the redemption of sinners! That's tragic. And I shudder to think of how many folks will on that day say, "Lord, Lord, we made movies and plays and music in your name, for your glory," only to hear the Son of Righteousness respond, "I never knew you. Depart from me."

Affirmations and Denials
I affirm that the Lord of creation endowed man with a capacity to produce culture and art, and that this gift is a good gift to be cultivated and used for His glory, to help man to worship God in the beauty of holiness.

I deny that the music, plays, film and other art forms commodified as a "gospel" genre has any legitimate association with or bears any resemblance to the biblical term, historicity, and content of the Good News of the electing Father sending His only Son to redeem through His blood and to unite with Himself a chosen people sealed and preserved by the Holy Spirit of God as His portion for His glory and pleasure and their everlasting joy!

Blogs for Preachers

I'm a preaching pastor. So, I really appreciate resource and persons who help me think about that calling and task with greater clarity and zeal. I've been reading a couple of blogs of late that have been a real encouragement to me. So, I'm adding them to my list of links and I hope you'll check them out if you haven't already.

Expository Thoughts is run by a group of pastors from Florida to Indiana, and they consistently have good things to say about preaching and preachers. Check them out.

The work that Phillip M. Way is doing over at Pastorway also deserves some notice. Phillip writes full devotions most days, but I've also appreciated his list of Puritan quotes on family worship and his meditation on ethnicity.

And then there is SoloFemininity. Okay... I know you're thinking, "What? SoloFemininity as a blog for preachers." Yep. Carolyn is a solid sister and I learn a lot about my sisters in the faith through her blog. And since I am a pastor to women, I need to learn from Carolyn and other sisters. And to boot, this corrects the obvious error of not having SoloFemininity in my original list of blogs.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Prosperity Preachers and African-American Baptists

By now, you've probably heard about or read the Time Magazine cover story which asks, "Does God Want You Rich?" (HT: Justin Taylor). I haven't read the article, but I know the answer to the question. I'm right there with Anthony Carter who points out that this particular menace, the so-called "prosperity gospel," is ravaging churches... and far too many predominantly African-American churches.

So, imagine my surprise when I came across this news release describing the recent National Baptist Convention's, the largest African-American Baptist denomination in the U.S., denouncement of prosperity preaching and preachers. Last week 35,000 delegates attended the annual convention in Dallas, TX.

WFAA TV ran this brief story on the convention. And while it wasn't much in terms of any official positions from the convention, I was pleased to see that local pastors were getting a voice in the coverage... and that what they chose to denounce wasn't this or that pet peeve, but the cross-denying, atonement-mocking, false "gospel" of the Creflo Dollars, Fred Prices, T.D. Jakes, Paul Mortons, Clarence McClendons, and Mr. "Money Cometh" Leroy Thompsons of the world. That's a start.

Now, if we can just get the folks who denounce the prosperity gospel to give up the social gospel and preach the biblical gospel of redemption from sin and joyous eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ... then we'll be getting somewhere!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Biggie-Sized Pastors in Small Town America

The Wall Street Journal Online featured an interesting article profiling a growing number of church splits over the "purpose-driven" model of doing church (HT: PulpitLive). The article is well worth the read.

Many folks have already offered critiques of pragmatic church-growth models like purpose-driven (see here, for example). I don't want to rehash those efforts in this post.

What I am interested in is how the article revealed a "Biggie-sized" ambition among a great number of small-town pastors. I was struck at how a number of the churches and consultant groups profiled in the article were located in the hamlets and villages of the U.S. These small town outfits were so concerned about numbers in the congregation and size of the budget that they invested $50,000 to $150,000 in sound and lights to attract seeker-sensitive musquitoes to their neon displays... before zapping them with... something... but not the gospel.

These pastors lived and worked in places like Waxhaw and Burlington, NC. I'm from NC... I know these places. Been in most of the nooks and crannies in the state... from Cherokee at the farthest end of the western mountains to the "finger counties" of the NE and the outer banks... that's 10 hours from tip to tip. And I can tell you... most of these places don't have enough people in the town to build a mega-church if every adult in the town began attending! And to be sure, most of these small-town, blue-collar saints can ill-afford to give to such projects and will gnash their teeth before the Maker when they give an account for such poor stewardship.

What causes a pastor laboring in the anonymity of small town America to want "bigness" so badly that he is willing to divide the people of God over it? What causes him to look past the obvious demographic facts in most cases (and that's a rich irony, that a purpose-driven or church-growth type doesn't do his demographic homework!) to push for a church growth strategy that can only succeed in larger settings?

Perhaps it's pride. Perhaps it's wrong assumptions about what constitutes success. Perhaps it's a professionalism that invades the ministry. Perhaps it's greed or jealousy or competition. Perhaps it's ambition or zeal without knowledge.

Seems it's probably all of these things. One thing it is not... is trust in the will and ways of God for His church. It's a failure to see that God has spoken to us about how to "do" church. He has laid down for us sufficient instructions on everything from how to organize to what elements should be in our public worship. There is in the Scriptures sufficient teaching to shape our membership practices and our individual discipleship. The Bible records enough apostolic preaching to prepare a man for a life of ministry.

But rather than pursue biblical faithfulness, these men appear (I don't want to speak too harshly here) to be interested mainly in drawing disciples after themselves. Here's how the article summarized the teachings of one official purpose-driven consultant:

During a session titled "Dealing with Opposition," Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don't stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

"There are moments when you've got to play hardball," said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions' president, in an interview. "You cannot transition a church...and placate every whiny Christian along the way."

I wish pastors would call other pastors over matter of official church discipline. I wish pastors would contact neighboring pastors when some members try to leave one local church to join another without ever speaking with the leaders of the congregation they are currently covenanted together with. And I shudder to think that -- while failing to perform these most basic of duties -- UNDERshepherds would dare play "hardball" with the sheep of God!

What's the consequence of all of this? Falling numbers of congregants. Severing the local body of Christ. One church from 600 to 275. Another from 700 to 550. The pastor of this last church commented, "I've often wondered, where's bottom?"

It's hard to know where "bottom" is when you're following the depraved "wisdom" of man. It seems clear that increasingly the prophets of purpose-driven approaches are "like jackals among ruins" (Ezek. 13:4). And yet, as this testimony points out, recovery is possible for those who choose faithfulness over success.

The Lord has placed the church at the center of His redemptive plan, and over His church He has exalted His Son for His own glory. To turn away from His instructions about how to care for His blood-bought sheep is sheer folly. Methods other than those the Lord established are bound to fail. Better that we leave our biggie-sized ambitions at the cross and get on with the business of being slaves of Christ!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Reading Ephesians... with Stott, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones & Calvin

Over the next several weeks, if the Lord wills, if He doesn't return, and if He gives me life... I have the privilege of preaching through that glorious letter to the Ephesians. Like many pastors, I consult good commentaries after I've prepared my manuscript or when I'm wrestling with a particularly knotty passage.

This week I'm preaching Eph. 1:1-14. What a glorious text filled with staggering promises and blessings of God in and through His Son!

Well, I'm not reading alone. I'm listening to some "friends" as well. Joining me are John Calvin, Charles Hodge, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. Here's a bit of what they've had to say....

Charles Hodge on v. 4 and the phrase "before the creation of the world":

There seems to be two things intended by this reference to the eternity of the divine purpose. One is to represent God as doing everything in time according to a preconceived plan, or as working all things according to his own will. From eternity, the whole scheme of redemption, with all its details and in all its results, lay matured in the divine mind. Hence everything is certain. there is no possibility either of failure or of any change of purpose. The eternity of God's purpose is, therefore, a strong ground of confidence and comfort. The grace was given to us before we existed, before the world began, and, of course, before we had done any good or evil. It was, therefore, not for works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. If the one aspect of the truth that God chose us before the foundation of the world helps produce confidence, the other aspect helps produce humility.

John Stott had a thought he wished to share regarding verses 5-8:

God destined us in love to be his sons. This expression seems to be the key to our understanding of the present consequences of our election. Election is with a view to adoption. Indeed, when people ask us the speculative question why God went ahead with the creation when he knew that it would be followed by the fall, one answer we can tentatively give is that he destined us for a higher dignity then even creation would bestow on us. He intended to 'adopt' us, to make us the sons and daughters of his family.

On verses 9-10, Stott offered this concluding reflection:

At this point it may be wise to pause a moment and consider how much all of us need to develop Paul's broad perspective. Let me remind you that he was a prisoner in Rome. Not indeed in a cell or dungeon, but still under house arrest and handcuffed to a Roman soldier. Yet, though his wrist was chained and his body was confined, his heart and mind inhabited eternity. He peered back 'before the foundation of the world' (verse 4) and on to 'the fullness of time' (verse 10), and grasped hold of what 'we have' now (verse 7) and ought to 'be' now (verse 4) in the light of those two eternities. As for us, how blinkeered is our vision in comparison with his, how small is our mind, how narrow are our horizons! Easily and naturally we slip into a preoccupation wiht our own petty little affairs. But we need to see time in the light of eternity, and our present privileges and obligations in the light ouf our p ast election and future perfection, Then, if we shared the apostle's perspective, we would also share his praise. For doctrine leads to doxology as well as to duty. Life would become worship, and we would bless God constantly for having blessed us so richly in Christ.

This roused Lloyd-Jones, who opined on v. 3:

Here, clearly, we are face to face with a very important New Testament principle. Let me state it quite categorically; the Christian faith is frankly and openly other-worldly. I state the matter boldly because I know that this principle is not popular today when the emphasis is on the 'here and now.' This accounts for the present apostasy in teh Church as well as for the so-called social gospel that was preached so much in the early part of this centery (20th) and toward the end of the last century (19th). The teaching was the Christianity is something that puts social conditions right, and deals with political problems in the 'here and now.' The modern man, we were told, is not interested in an other-worldly view. But whether we like it or not, the fact is that the blessings we enjoy in Christ are 'in heavenly places.'

The Swiss theologian, John Calvin couldn't help but join the discussion on vv. 7-10: often as the gospel is preached, so often is God's grace poured out upon us. If we acknowledge his goodness and generosity which he causes us to discern by his watering of the eath that it should yield us fruits for the nourishment of our bodies, much more may we understand that when God sends us the word of salvation, he not only waters us for the health of our souls, but also causes us to drink so deeply that we can be completely satisfied. For St. Paul does not think it enough to say that, being unfruitful, we have some refreshment by the gospel but he says that it is as if God should pour down abundance of water upon us, and that we might be so watered and refreshed with it that we might thereby gather sustenance and vigour to endure to the end. And so you see how much we ought to value God's goodness when he vouchsafes to draw us to himself by means of his gospel, and that also by this means we should entere into possession of the benefits purchased for us by our Lord Jesus Chrsit, as he offers them to us by his Word and will have us also receive them by faith.

Now, for a larger exposition of the matter, he immediately adds that God's so doing is 'because he has manifested the secret of his will to us, even according to his good pleasure which he purposed before in himself.' Here is another thing which ought to amplify the worth of the gospel even more, namely, that in it we have the secrets that were hidden previously in God. And it is not here only that St. Paul speaks after this manner, but we shall see an even fuller treatment of it in the second chapter. And not only in this Epistle, but also everywhere else, he shows how we ought to be, as it were, ravished when the gospel is preached, because God there opens the things that were incomprehensible to all men before, and which no man would ever have believed or conceived. For he seemed to have chosen only the line of Abraham in such a way as if he had rejected all the rest of the world. Therefore it was a wonderful thing when he poured out his grace upon all men in common. Yet we know tha twhen Jesus Christ came into the world these very same people were wholly degenerate, and God's doctrine was so corrupted that there was nothing but superstition among the Jews. It seemed then that all was past hope of recovery when suddenly, beyond the expectation of all men, salvation was offered to all nations. Behold, Christ who had before been hidden in deep obscurity, and even in such deep obscurity that there was no hope that he should ever come out of it, rose up as the sun of righteousness to give light to the world [Mal. 4:2].

Amen, amen, and amen!

Friday, September 08, 2006

A Couple of Recent Articles

In recent weeks, two groups have kindly published a couple of articles that I had the privilege to write. Yesterday, Boundless Webzine included an article that describes some of what it was like growing up without my dad. And, no, that's not me in the picture :-)

Last week, Reformation 21 included an article on Lemuel Haynes and his work. Okay... that is me in the picture. I know... a face for radio ;-)

I pray these are of some interest and benefit.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Resolutions... Edwardsean & Thabitian (5)

The problem with blogging on these resolutions is that you need time to process the implications of what Edwards proposes and to evaluate your own life in light of scripture and with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Blogging seems to participate in that peculiar rush to judgment/print that so afflicts most news media. But I'm finding in Edwards' resolutions a good periodic reminder to slow down... to meditate... to examine... to repent... and by God's grace, to change.

Well, Edwards' 10th resolution is one that has this slowing effect. It grips you and causes you to think. Here it is:

10. Resolved, When I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom and of hell.
Whoa. You see, when I feel pain I'm tempted toward bemoaning my lot... sinning by murmuring and complaining really. You know the tune... "Nobody knows...." I've been fighting actively against this sin for some time, and I've discovered that the fight is most intense when I'm tired and not taking good care of myself physically. That's when I'm most tempted to complain of pains and discomforts. But, by God's grace, I've been experiencing some victory in this campaign.

Enter Edwards' resolution.... Edwards pushes me beyond a mere fight against murmuring and complaining. That's merely the negative side of the battle, the prevention. He pushes me toward a positive strategy, to do something affirmatively.

He calls us to turn our momentary and light afflictions into an occasion for considering pains of a far greater sort!

On the one hand, there is martyrdom. How many of us have read about the martyrdoms of the Polycarps, the Jan Husses, the Apostles of our Lord, the meanest Christian slaves of Christian history. And how often we have silently wished that either (a) we would not know such pain or (b) if found in the situation, that we would be every bit as faithful as these saints.

Surely, one means for preparing for persecution has to be to reflect on the pains of martyrdom as though they were our own. I'm not sure we can realistically expect to stand for the faith if we don't prepare our hearts and minds to make such a stance before the time comes. As one friend put it, "It's hard to develop character in a pinch." Edwards' resolution is an invitation to develop the kind of character that stands--whether flinchingly or like granite--in the face of demonic opposition against the people of God and the Lord himself.

I suspect that if I thought more often on martyrdom I'd be more willing to risk for the kingdom. After all... what is the pain of martyrdom but a foretaste of glory with our Lord? What loss does the Christian suffer in martyrdom? None. Absolutely none! We only gain if we die in the Lord, and we gain immeasurable if we die for His name's sake. Did our King not say: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." My problem is that I too often think of the pains of martyrdom as if the pains were the most enduring aspect of dying for the Lord. It's not! The most enduring aspect of dying for the Lord is the blessedness we delight in when in the kingdom of heaven face-to-face with our King!

And then there are the pains of hell. How would meditating on the pains of hell help me?

I would be more careful with my own soul knowing the agony of that place. I would be more urgent about the souls of others, persuading them to repent and believe, knowing the terror of the Lord. If I thought more about the pains of hell, I would long more for heaven and an unending life with the Savior. If I thought more about the pains of hell, which corrupt so much of this life, I would hate this passing world with a godly hatred. I would oppose sin--my own and others as best I could depending on God's omnipotent aid. If I thought more about the pain of hell, I would weep at the sin-blinded foolishness of those who reject the free offer of salvation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If I understood more the pains of hell, I would be zealous for the glory of God in missions. I would give more to the work of missions. I would find more ways from the text of scripture to impress upon the minds of men the unending scorching and sting of hell's torments. I would work harder to prepare young people in the church to invest their lives in heaven and to not waste them on vain, fleeting, flesh-gratifying, soul-destroying trinkets and pastimes.

If I thought more of the pains of hell when I felt some physical pain, I would rejoice more fervently in the blood of Jesus Christ who saves me so completely from the pangs of hell by making me one with himself! I would look beyond the physical pain, beyond the taunts of hell, to the Savior who promises a new body, a new home, in New Jerusalem where all things are made new and where there shall no longer be any pain, death, sorrow, or crying (Rev. 21).

This pain in my knee should make me more heavenly-minded. It hasn't yet. But Edwards gives me a resolution and a way of reflecting on the aches of this life that transports me to heaven with my Jesus, despising the pain as He did, and pressing on for the joy that is set before me!!

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds: Preaching and Preachers

Here's an excellent post called "Avoiding the 'Homiletical Hermeneutics'" over at Expository Thoughts. A good reminder to us preachers--and to the listener--to be careful that we hear the voice and intent of God in the text.

Theocentric Preaching writes a brief post to help identify when a sermon goes anthropocentric.

Tom Ascol at Founders has posted some excellent questions from Isaac Watts for young ministers (and old). Check out part 1 and part 2 and be stirred toward greater holiness whether you are a minister or not.

Fide-O is asking a good question: "Is Singing More Important Than Preaching?" Just yesterday, a good brother came to my office and repeated the oft-heard one-liner, "You can make up for bad preaching with good singing, but nothing can make up for bad singing." What's your opinion? Okay... this one isn't about preaching per se, but "it'll preach!"

Russell Moore is asking, "Is Stepin Fetchit Back?" over at the Henry Institute. This is a great commentary on DeWayne Wickham's column on the digital depravity that defines much of the entertainment culture's view of African-American men.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Comments on Communion from J.L. Dagg

In the past week, I've had a pretty good email exchange with a new pastor friend from NC concerning the Lord's Table and who may participate. Most of you are probably aware of the differing opinions on this issue. This post isn't an evaluation or critique of those positions per se. I just want to share a couple of quotes re: the Lord's Supper that have been helpful to me, and I hope my friend in NC, as I've consulted what some other saints have said....

J.L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order, in commenting on the design of the Lord's supper, writes of the contrast between what men love to honor and what the supper points us to:
The rite is commemorative. The passover served for a memorial of deliverance from Egypt; and, year after year, as the pious Israelites partook of it, they were reminded of that marvellous deliverance, and were required to tell of it to their children. The passover was instituted on the night of that deliverance. The Lord's supper was instituted on the night when jesus was betrayed to be crucified; and serves for a memorial of his sufferings and death. When we remember him, we are to remember his agonies, his body broken, and his blood shed. In preaching the gospel, Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. So, in the eucharist, Christ is presented to view; not as transfigured on Mount Tabor, or as glorified at his Father's right hand, but as suffering and dying. We delight to keep in memory the honors which they whom we live have received; but Jesus calls us to remember the humiliation which he endured. To the lowest point of his humiliation, the supper directs our thoughts. (pp. 209-210)
On the local church's custodial role regarding the ordinances, Dagg continues:
When a church receives an unbaptized person, something more is done than merely to tolerate his error. There are two parties concerned. The acts of entering the church and partaking of its communion are his, and for them he is responsible. the church also acts when it admits him to membership, and authorizes his participation of the communion. the church, as an organized body, with power to receive and exclude members according to rules with Christ has laid down, is responsible for the exercise of his power. (p. 221)

Responding to arguments for toleration at the Lord's Table, Dagg writes in part:
The argument for toleration is founded on the words, "Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye.**** For God hath received him." It is a full reply to this argument, that God's receiving of the weak in faith furnishes the rule, as well as the reason, for our receiving of them. That God receives a man in one sense, can be no reason that we should receive him in a sense widely different. God receives an unbaptized weak believer as a member of his spiritual church, and we ought to receive him in like manner. We ought to regard him as a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir of the same inheritance. His interests should be near to our hearts, and we should welcome him to all that spiritual communion which belongs to the members of Christ's body. So, when God has received a baptized weak believer to local church-membership, we are bound to receive him in like manner, and allow him to sit with us at the table of the Lord; a privilege which, through the imperfection of church discipline, the vilest hypocrite may obtain. Unless we keep in view this important distinction, in applying this rule for toleration, it will indeed admit the unbaptized weak believer to ceremonial communion, but it will, with equal certainty, admit the hypocrite to that communion which is spiritual. (p. 223)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Patience... An Update on a Resolution

Some lessons the Lord is faithful to keep teaching you. You think you've made some progress on the issue... whatever it is... only to look up one day and find yourself wrestling with a different aspect of it or fighting against it in a different context. Pride is that way. Lust is that way. I could name many.

But for me, at least recently, it's been patience. One of the things modeled so well for me at CHBC was patience. I learned a lot about the necessity of patience and saw a lot of fruit produced because of the wise restraint the elders and congregation often showed, when the impulse might have been to plow ahead.

I think most people who know me would say I'm patient... or at least they think of me as patient. But I've been meditating on Edwards' fourth resolution, never to do, be, or allow anything but what tends to the glory of God. And as I have considered the things I wish to be, and not just the things I wish were thought about me, the Lord has faithfully shown me my impatient heart.

My wife has diagnosed part of the problem really well. She observes that I have things in my head, that I see quite clearly and quickly, but that I wrongly (read impatiently) assume others will see and understand as easily or clearly. She knows that tendency quite well... going back as far as my attempts to tutor her in freshman calculus at NCSU.

One challenge for me as a new pastor will be to develop the habit of mind and heart that leads with teaching, that endeavors to get an idea out of my head and into others'. Cultivating patience will mean cultivating vision, knowledge, attitudes and habits in others in quite a number of instances. That's slow work... but it's good, deep root-building work. I fully recognize that to try and lead without teaching would be disastrous. I (in the personally selfish sense of the pronoun) could arrive at some goal but the bodies of my people could very well be strewn all over the island. Better to learn patience, to be filled with the Spirit, and to grow healthily with others around me.

Resovled, to be patient and to take every prayerful opportunity to cultivate others as an expression of that patience.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Still Not Sure the Reformation Is Over...

Many folks wrote to express opinions regarding the recent post Is the Reformation Over? about Georgetown University's decision to remove evangelical Protestant student groups. For those who are interested in hearing more, Al Mohler hosted Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things and graduate of GU, to discuss the issue. A good interview worth listening to.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Resolutions... Edwardsean & Thabitian (4)

8. Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.

Here is an excellent resolution for all--especially me. I'm humbled by the humility of this resolution and the recognition that I possess so little of the humility that prompts such a statement.

I've been in Grand Cayman a month now. And as the new pastor, the month has been filled with updates, reports, planning, and observations... all of which place me in numerous instances of forming and making judgments. How rarely has those judgments been flavored by this kind of "thinking more highly of others than myself."

I'm a vile sinner and by God's grace I know it. Part of my vileness, though, is I'm as proud as the Pharisee who prays "Lord, thank God I'm not as bad as this sinner." My pride makes me happy I'm not as bad as some--which is a lie, of course. This is far from letting the knowledge of their sins promote shame in me for my own sins. What a great discipline and attitude of heart! What a great way to learn to number our days and to consider our frames of dust before God!

I need to embrace this resolution in order not to be a hyper-critical, self-important, my-sin-ignoring, others'-sin-remembering, cross-forgetting, sacrifice-requiring ignoramus of a pastor. I need to embrace this resolution in order to extend the grace, correction, and comfort I've received by God's grace. I need to embrace this resolution so that my love and empathy for others doesn't grow cold as so often happens with my dull heart. And I need to embrace this resolution so that the little pink flesh in my mouth isn't set ablaze by hell and isn't destructive to the Lord's people.

Case in point: a couple of old and new friends challenged my recent post on the situation involving evangelical campus ministries and the chaplaincy at Georgetown University. I'm thankful for their comments. A lawyer friend helped me with the legal issues involved. A Christian brother posed a hypothetical counterfactual to consider. And a once-evangelical, turning-Catholic responder suggested I had unfairly spoken of "Rome," knowing that I would support evangelical institutions doing the same thing.

Honestly, my first reactions were to offer defenses. "I used the reference to 'Rome' tongue-in-cheek, not because I actually thought the Vatican ruled GU." And, quite honestly, I really would not have difficulty with Catholic organizations setting up shop at Bob Jones or Southern. I quite honestly think that religious freedom is so basic a freedom, that freedom to convert is so eternally critical, that a person should be able to follow the dictates of her or his conscience no matter their educational affiliation or country of origin. I favor this freedom for GU and Southern as much as I favor it in Saudi Arabia, for example. I am thrilled that my "once-evangelical" friend who is converting to RC is free to do so, though I'm grieved at the choice.

But, today, I'm reminded by Edwards that my excuses and reasons used as rebuttals are beside the point. I spoke too loosely, and considered the decisions of others more heinous than my own. I did not act as though I had committed the sin. I did not let the knowledge of their actions promote shame in me over my own. And I did not use the opportunity to confess my own sins before God. I need Resolution 8 more than I need this hole in my head called a mouth!

And I need faithful people in my life (and even the blogosphere!) to comment when they think I'm in error. What a gift to a pastor!

This resolution is one I plan on adopting. I think I will be better for it. It will help me to examine my life more frequently and thoroughly than perhaps I am accustomed. And I pray it will work to the benefit of the church and the blog. Won't you pray that with me?