Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I Am a Congregationalist, 2

After posting some comments on a church battle resulting in the resignation of its pastor, pointing out that as a congregationalist I believe the church has the right to call its pastors, a couple brothers asked me to defend myself. "How could I be a congregationalist?!" No, actually, they didn't say that. They were very kind and raised good questions. It's Friday and I'm a little punchy :-)

So, in my last post I gave this reason for being a congregationalist: Texts like Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; and 2 Corinthians 2:6 all teach or imply that the congregation acts decisively in the exercise of church discipline. So, in those matters, I am a congregationalist.

A second reason I am a congregationalist involves matters of doctrinal error in the teaching ministry of the church. In short, it seems to me that the pattern for corrective response in doctrinal error involves the congregation finally censoring or removing the erring teacher(s) and safeguarding the gospel.

I have in mind a couple of passages.

First, when Paul writes to the churches of Galatia, he does not address a monarchical bishop or a council of rulers/elders. He writes "to the churches in Galatia." We know the apostle was not shy about addressing leaders or individuals personally where he feels they have some obligation or responsibility (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus; and Philemon). So, his writing to the churches as a whole rather than individual leaders or groups of leaders is significant. And what he tells those congregations is that they are to judge what is taught against what they received, rejecting even angels and pronouncing anathema on gospel-distorting false teachers (Gal. 1:8-9). The congregation has a doctrinal and gospel trust it is to protect. We see a very similar responsibility in Ezekiel 34:17-23 where the Lord promises to judge the strong sheep for abusing the weak sheep when unfaithful shepherds were ruling (vv. 1-16). Congregational response and action are all the more important precisely when the elders or leadership of the church is in error. In other words, if there is no congregational backstop for erring leaders, then there is no safeguard for the truth. It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth--not the rulers alone or even primarily. May the Lord make us effective teachers so we have churches prepared to contend for the truth.

The second passage I have in mind is Titus 3:9-11. Here is a letter addressed personally to Titus, and his first order of business is to appoint elders as a previous comment noted. Titus is obviously in a church-planting or missionary situation where he is apparently the sole elder. Duly constituting elders is critical in his context. When Paul says in 3:9-11 that Titus should warn a divisive person up to two times then have nothing to do with him, do we think that only Titus is to avoid the divisive person? That's very improbable since the nature of the sin (schism or dividing the body) is undeniably corporate. For the discipline to work in the case of false teachers and the instruction to have any sense, it must be the congregation that is finally putting away these controversialists.

We see the same thing in Romans 16:17--"I urge you, brothers, watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them." The dividers of the body are able to work their splits "by smooth talk and flattery" that "deceive the minds of naive people" (v. 18). So the entire congregation must pull away from such people.

The church--the entire body of Christ--guards against false teaching, especially when the teaching comes from within or from one or more of her leaders. This isn't merely a pragmatic argument to limit elder rule. It's what the Scripture holds out as the weighted balance against abuses in leadership and false teaching.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Freshman Year Again

If I had the opportunity to do my freshman year in college again, I'd do it here.

Why I Am a Congregationalist, 1

A couple folks visiting to comment in my last post have asked on what biblical basis am I a congregationalist. That's what I get for throwing out terms like "congregationalist"!

No, actually, I welcome the questions and the comments from what looks like my elder rule and presbyterian friends. So, let me try to sketch out a few reasons why I am a congregationalist.

But first, a couple of caveats.

1. While I think the Scripture is sufficient and tells us everything we need to know about how to organize the local church and how to define relationships between local churches, I don't think what we're told about local church polity is anywhere near exhaustive or extensive or plentiful. The biblical date, imo, is sufficient but it's also slight.

2. I don't think polity is a matter that should create acrimony between Christians. Practically speaking, it is a matter that divides Christians because either you'll organize in some hierarchical, interlocking structure or you won't. You can't be both locally "autonomous" (not sure I like the word or the connotations) and episcopal. But this is not a gospel issue; it's not a fundamental.

3. By congregationalist, I don't mean American-styled democracy where it's one-man one-vote on every issue. So, when I use the term I'm not insisting that there is a vote on everything or that there is no appointed leadership and decision-making beyond or apart from the congregation. I certainly affirm the leadership and authority of a plurality of elders in a local church body. That's part of the apostolic practice, but that's not the whole of the apostolic practice.

So, a couple of reasons why I am a congregationalist.

First, because Jesus was a congregationalist. I guess I should elaborate on that point, huh?

In Matthew 18:15-17, the Lord gives an outline of "steps" to be followed in the case of private offenses. If one brother sins against another, there is a process for reconciliation and restoration to be followed, the end of which is the entire church hearing the matter, addressing the person, and treating the person as a tax collector should the person remain unrepentant. The last line of defense, if you will, is the congregation--not the elders or a synod or bishop located elsewhere. The local congregation adjudicates.

In the example of scandalous public sin in 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul writes to the congregation and exhorts the congregation--not the elders or a regional body--to "hand the man over to Satan" and "put the man out of the fellowship." It's the congregation that acts decisively in this matter of discipline. They take this action, at the apostle's instruction, "when [they] are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 4). It's the local assembly that takes this action. Second Corinthians 2:6-7 refers "to the punishment inflicted by the majority," indicating that the disciplinary action was taken by a majority of the congregation in Corinth. Whether 2 Corinthians refers to the same incident addressed in 1 Cor. 5 is immaterial. In fact, if 2 Corinthians addresses a different incident, it only strengthens the case for congregational responsibility in matters of discipline and membership.

So in these passages it's clear that the congregation takes the final and decisive action in membership and discipline, including a vote of some form in 2 Cor. 2. Both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul teach this. So, this is reason one for me: Jesus and the Apostle Paul instruct local congregations to handled matters of discipline and membership.

Tomorrow, D.V., another brief point.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Letter to the Church at Temple Hills: Congregationalism, Congregations, and Love

I'm a congregationalist. I believe the congregation has the final say-so in certain matters, including the calling and termination of its pastors.

History records a couple of mind-boggling decisions made by congregations in the termination of its pastors. The famed case of Jonathan Edwards comes to mind. There, the local church fired the greatest American theologian and one of the principal figures used of the Lord in the first Great Awakening, a revival that swept through New England. A couple pastoral mis-steps and a big fight over communion and membership and down came the axe on Edwards.

Then there is the case of Lemuel Haynes. For over 30 years the faithful pastor of a congregation in Rutland, Vermont, Haynes led the congregation as it grew significantly, championed the gospel against universalism, defended the cause of the oppressed, and wrote eloquently against slavery and for the ideals of the new republic at her birth. After 30 years, following a poorly-handled censure of a deacon, with racial prejudice growing in the body, Haynes was dismissed by the congregation into which he'd poured three decades of his life.

In both cases, the congregations had the right to make the decision. In both cases, the congregations were wrong, in my opinion. Congregationalism is not a fail safe for foolishness or rashness or partisan bickering or any other sins of the flesh. In some cases, congregationalism simply provides a larger canvas for the flesh to display itself. The rule of the majority isn't any more sanctified than the rule of a few bishops. Both have their weaknesses. Bishops may become tyrants; congregations may become mobs.

When a faithful pastor is removed from his people, it is akin to a marriage covenant being torn asunder. The tear is deep and often irreversible. The pains are real and lasting. Memory becomes a phantom that haunts and unsettles--for pastor and people.

There is something that congregationalism presupposes if it is to be healthy. It assumes the people comprising the congregation are actually acting as members of one body rather than individuals "casting their vote" in partisan affairs. It assumes that the allegiance to the whole is stronger than the allegiance to self or any parts or cliques. The party spirit crying "I am of Apollos" and "I am of Paul" destroys the "no division in the body... equal concern for each other" (1 Cor. 12:25) ethic vital to the well-being of the church.

Every member of the church has a responsibility to abandon self and party and fight for the preservation of the whole. "Make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:3-6). "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor. 1:13).

Recently, members of an increasingly prominent Baptist church voted to remove a faithful pastor from his post. The vote was split--roughly 115 folks for removal to about 105 folks against. The vote ended several months of painful dissension apparently led by two deacons who opposed the biblical direction of the church. And thus ended seven years of faithful, patient, gentle, wise and biblical leadership. As far as I am concerned, this brother was far more godly than I, far wiser, far more loving, far more patient, and so on. It's a termination that has the ring of Edwards and Haynes. That is to say, it was within the congregation's rights, but it was sad and misguided.

Now, however, there is a significant problem facing the church that goes well beyond simply finding another pastor. What do you do with a church so evenly split? How do you continue to be one church? How do you put Eph. 4 and 1 Corinthians and so many other passages into practice?

Already many have decided to leave the church. But here are my questions: Why leave the church to the control of a couple of people who do not understand biblical leadership? Why abandon brothers and sisters for whom there is to be equal concern and care? Why now act as though the church is no longer the unified body of our Lord in that local place? Why give the world another example of Christian disunity denying the reality that the Father sent His Son? (John 17:20-21) Why leave and thereby suggest that you were given to that party spirit which exalted men over Christ? Why let that local church descend into what might be generations of unfaithfulness and pain?

Here's one man's plea to almost 50% of the congregation: demonstrate that Christ and His bride are greater in your affections than even the very beloved pastor unjustly removed from leadership. Demonstrate your love for the pastor by remaining committed to the church he worked to build. Keep a view that looks beyond your pain and beyond this skirmish to the people who will come and the generations that will arise, and stay for them. Keep a gospel light on for those who will come. Fill up the sufferings of Christ in your body rather than give in to the tempting convenience of leaving, so that the cause of Christ and Christ himself will be seen as your treasure. Love one another deeply from the heart so that the world would see a compelling picture of forgiveness and grace and mercy and reconciliation and gritty commitment and hope and peace and longsuffering and forbearance and unity in Christ.
You've been dealt a blow, but it's a long battle. Take the pain, bear it and live on for Christ and the gospel and the kingdom. Satan has overplayed his hand. The victory of Christ will now be more apparent and sweeter if you love one another with a sincere love, stemming from a sincere faith, powered by the indwelling Spirit of God.

Of course, churches have reversed decisions before. I pray this one would do so in this case. Call in mediators like those at Peacemakers Ministries. Until there is reconciliation, remove from leadership those deacons causing the strife. As a congregational church, you not only call the pastors but all the leaders--including the deacons. Sit some men down until you're able to pray and work your way to the mind of Christ, then act on the biblical wisdom you've learned over these seven years. Do what you have to do to weaken the devil's work among you and plead for an enlargement of the Spirit's work in and through you. Forgive from the heart as God has forgiven you. Repair the harms done and so bring honor to our Lord.

Please pray for all the saints of God facing church splits, witnessing embattled pastors, and fighting through the challenges to biblical faithfulness. I've written about one such church here, but there are tons more in this fallen world.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Canadian English

My man Tim Challies says, "The badder the bad, the gooder the good." Who knew Canadians spoke Ebonics?!

Anyway, that sentence applies to the gospel in Tim's view. To find out how, read this excellent short meditation.

Religion News & Views

The King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, plans to participate in a UN-sponsored interfaith dialogue. Pray for the event and for the progress of religious freedom around the world.

After 2.5 years, there's a report that Robert H. Schuler (the elder) has removed Robert A. Schuler (the younger) from the pulpit and TV ministries of Crystal Cathedral, citing "lack of shared vision and the jeopardy in which this is placing this entire ministry." What? Was the younger Schuler beginning to preach the gospel?

In the "Can you really do that?" category: Islamic clerics ban tomboys.

Video of Joel Osteen on why he doesn't talk about sin and being afraid of God and speaking in tongues.

Apparently the 11 churches in Virginia that broke away from U.S. Anglicans are winning their courtroom battle to retain their property. At least that's the way it looks to one observer. While we're thinking of Episcopalian happenings, a couple interesting reports on some other local dioceses breaking away and a battle between Schori and Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh. See here and here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Gleanings

A couple of things of note from perusing the blogosphere this evening:

Andy Naselli lists three ways to spoil the gospel: addition, subtraction and disproportion.

Also found this gem at Andy's blog:
On November 20, 1998 in Orlando, Florida at the annual meeting and fiftieth anniversary of the Evangelical Theological Society, D. A. Carson and John Piper gave back-to-back hour-long plenary addresses to about 1,000 ETS members (mostly college and seminary professors):

D. A. Carson, “Training the Next Generation of Evangelical Scholars” (MP3)

John Piper, “Training the Next Generation of Evangelical Pastors and Missionaries” (MP3 l manuscript)

J.I. Packer reduces Calvistic soteriology to one point. HT: Buzzard.

Speaking of Justin Buzzard, Carolyn McCulley posts a bit of advice given to Justin by an older man in his church following the birth of the second Buzzard boy. It's advice I need to hear and take to heart!

History of the Altar Call

Christian History features a brief article by Doug Sweeney and Mark Rogers on the history of the altar call.

A brief excerpt:
This common evangelistic method, known as the altar call or the public invitation, has not always been around. Successful evangelists such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley never gave an altar call. In fact, they did not even know what it was. They invited their hearers passionately to come to Christ by faith and regularly counseled anxious sinners after their services. But they did not call sinners to make a public, physical response after evangelistic appeals. So where did the altar call come from? When did it begin?

HT: JT who also links to this post from Andy Naselli listing some resources on the altar call.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Counseling in the Church

The current 9Marks ejournal takes a look at counseling in the church, featuring excellent interviews with some of the CCEF team.

What Are You Looking for in Elders?

Greg Gilbert over at Church Matters has offered the first in a series of posts called "What We're Looking for in Elders." It's an outline of a talk he and some of the elders at Third Avenue Baptist in Louisville shared with the congregation a little while back. Promises to be a thoughtful collection of posts.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Presidential Election That Almost Was... Or Why It's Difficult for Me to Vote, 4

"It's the economy, stupid."

That sentence--despite the rather impolite use of the final word--won a presidential election a few years back. And it's resurfaced from time to time in this election as well.

In fact, the last few elections have seemingly focused on this issue. Politicians spin out their tax proposals, health insurance plans, and bicker about who best serves the ever-present "middle class."

But for all their talk about the economy, do you ever really feel as if they are talking about you?

I don't. And if there was ever any doubts, the "bailout" plan should dispel them. Count the last several financial and corporation catastrophes. How many of them featured a bailout for the consumer or the citizen? There's this year's plan. Score one for the banks and executives. There's the Enron fiasco and the tech bubble that burst. Going back a little ways there is S&L, and so on. It seems the dominant economic philosophy isn't quite Republican or Democrat; as a brother at the church put it to me yesterday: it's "privatized profits and socialized debt." Which is another way of saying "the American people" (another oft-heard phrase too general to communicate) who end up holding the bag for economic greed and scandal.

This year Sen. Obama actually offered something of a definition of "rich". Turns out that if you make over $250,000 per year, you're probably rich. No one has yet offered a satisfactory definition of "poor." Kinda gives us a clue as to who is really protected and cared for in the economy. There is a preferential option for the rich, whether that's defined vaguely as "middle class" or "earners above $250,000."

As far as I can tell, fewer and fewer institutions and political types give any attention to the poor among us. And by "institutions," I'm including churches.

Among conservative types, here's how I've heard the conversation (which, admittedly, is my hearing as much as other's speaking):

"It's not government's job to fix poverty. Government programs don't work. Government needs to be out of that business."

"It's not the church's job to fix poverty. We are to care for the poor members of the church, but we're not responsible for all the ills of society. We must keep the focus on the gospel, the main mission of the church."

Here's what's true about those statements. Many government programs don't "work," if by work you mean solve the problems forever. And, without question, we must insist on the church keeping mercenary focus on the proclamation of the gospel. That's her mission, and no other group exists for that purpose in God's economy.

Having said that, though, don't these two positions in effect mean that no one cares for the poor, no one has responsibility to address them and their needs?

Another institution we could include would be the family. The family has responsibility, certainly. But chances are if you're a poor individual you're living in a poor family. So, asserting that families are responsible is tantamount to blaming the victim.

But that's really the source of the disagreement, isn't it? Can we call the poor "victims"? Are they sufferers of any injustice? Do they deserve the care and protection of government or the church?

The other way of putting it is: Is poverty a social or theological evil that should be combated? Is it an evil effect of the Fall to be resisted or a social commonplace to be accepted? It seems to me failure to address this question is what keeps us bickering about this or that tax policy or this or that program's effectiveness. We keep having the pragmatic discussion while it seems there is no stated theological consensus about the nature of the problem. The pragmatic conversation is second-order, down stream.

We won't make progress until the first conversation is held more widely, at least among God's people. Until then too many missional types will sound the trumpet in the cause of serving the poor while maintaining a loose grip on the truths that save. And too many folks with a firm grip on gospel truth will turn blinded eye to the poverty and need right on their doorsteps. I count myself in the latter group.

People become poor for a lot of reasons. We tend to think some of those reasons are "understandable" and others "blameworthy." There's a working theory in most people's minds about poverty. Oversimplified it states: "Help those who can help themselves. Help those who are the 'deserving poor.' If it's their fault, let them endure the consequences. If it's not their fault, extend a helping hand."

There's a certain logic to this. But there is a problem: Are we really that skilled at determining who the 'deserving poor' are or who is or isn't at fault? And if poverty is an evil to be resisted and with God's help overcome, then there is blood on our hands if we remain silent or inactive. Or in more biblical imagery, the blood of people made in God's image cries out from the ground against us.

Personally, I'm tired of political promises to serve "the middle class." I don't know why they should be catered to or treated as if their interests are more significant than others. Just like you, I've heard all the rhetoric about "a strong middle class" being the engine of growth, etc. But one gets the sense that all of this talk is simply polite speak for worldliness and selfishness and comfort-seeking and big-house-buying, SUV-driving, flat-screen-TV-watching gratification of the flesh. Bound up in that phrase, "the middle class," is a certain view of the "good life" that exalts worldly and passing comforts over the truly good life of faith in Christ, advancement of the gospel, sacrifice for the kingdom, and serving those in need. And you get the sense that many Christians have bitten and swallowed that bait and are hooked by the world's lure.

I wonder to what extent our "political philosophy" regarding poverty, work and wealth is simply a mask for our worldliness? And to what extent is our pragmatic and philosophical approaches to caring (if it can be called "caring") for the poor simply the veil we lay over a cold, indifferent, and unloving heart?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Good Exhortation to Preachers from Pastor John

From the DG blog:

A word to preachers. Truth and falsehood is a good pair of categories to use when deciding what to preach. Speak truth not falsehood.

But there is another crucial pair of categories. God tells Jeremiah that he must use this pair if he would be faithful:

Therefore thus says the Lord: "...If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. (Jeremiah 15:19)

In deciding what to preach make these two judgments: Is it true and is it precious? Preach what is both. If it is true, preach it with authority. If it is precious, preach it with passion.

One great reason why some preaching leaves people unmoved is that preachers seem unmoved. Is this precious or isn't it? That is the question in the hearts of the people. If it is, why don't you sound like it?

The great battle of preaching is to see what's true and to savor what's precious. Weak seeing and weak savoring are a curse to God's people.

Brothers, plead for deliverance from this curse. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. They are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalms 19:9-10).

The Presidential Election That Almost Was... Or Why It's Difficult for Me to Vote, 3

For a while there it seemed as though the country was destined to have its first female presidential candidate.

Hillary Clinton sat poised atop the Clinton machine, a nearly unrivaled heir to the party her husband defined for nearly a decade. She was the quintessential party insider—all the right connections, big money donors, and despite “high negatives” among some, a legion of women voters eager to pull the lever for one of their own.

She was woman… but as the world waited to hear her roar… Iowa happened. The queen’s crown lost a bit of luster. She was vulnerable. Was it okay to be vulnerable as the first front-running woman presidential candidate? Can you cry in politics?

According to New Hampshire voters, yes. Hillary shed tears, disarming some and befuddling others. In rhetoric minted at the nearest feminist mill she proclaimed, “I found my voice.”

As a literary theme, “voice” ranks among the top in literature by or about women. As a social and political theme it’s no less salient. In claiming to find her voice, Clinton effectively claimed to speak for masses of women disenfranchised, muted by a male-dominated club of power brokers and world leaders.

But just how feminine a voice was Sen. Clinton’s? Listening to stump speeches and interviews it was hard to differentiate hers from the typical testosterone-pumped vocal disturbances of your average male presidential wannabe. She was hawkish on war, sharp and cutting against her opponents. A person could be forgiven for thinking that Mrs. Clinton wasn’t so much the first woman presidential candidate as a woman “trying to play with the big boys.” Perhaps that’s why the story lines were dominated by other historical firsts associated with the primary. It was nearly the end of the primary season before Clinton herself made any consistent noise about the historical nature of her bid as a woman candidate.

That was the trick-bag. How do you celebrate something uniquely feminine or womanly (if that’s a word) when a significant part of your life and philosophy is dedicated to eliminating the distinction between male and female, manhood and womanhood? When the premise is “I can do anything a man can do,” you sorta have to act like a man when you actually do it; otherwise, your philosophy is seen for the farce it actually is.

Sen. Clinton’s historical bid failed her 18 million supporters in one unmistakable way: it failed to call the question on what womanhood and femininity should entail. It failed to advance a compelling vision for what it means to be woman. In assuming that the pinnacle of female achievement is a kind of male parody, her candidacy and its underlying philosophy essentially nullified the glory of femininity and womanhood.

So, Sen. Clinton reluctantly passed the baton to Sens. Obama and Biden and made her exit stage left. Despite the rantings of a few hangers on, any conversation about women and the role of women appeared to vanish with the implosion of the Clinton campaign.

But right about then, the Republicans introduced the world to Gov. Sarah Palin. And it really was an introduction for this rather unknown governor. She proudly proclaimed that the 18 million cracks placed in the glass ceiling by Clinton supporters was only the beginning. She would finish the job as McCain's aid. Some in the Republican camp started calling her nomination a "game changer." But which game? The game of politics or our fundamental view and appreciation of women?

The media scurried to find out who this moose hunting, soccer mom, state executive was. Soon the rumor mill started churning: a pregnant teenage daughter. “Scandal” erupted when the public learned that Gov. Palin dared give birth to a child with developmental disabilities. If Obama was pro-abortion to the extreme, some were making Palin pro-life to the extreme.

But here was the supposed anti-Clinton. A small town girl—actually a beauty queen—turned politician. A political conservative reportedly happy in her role as mother as well.

Most of the world gave Clinton an unquestioned pass. No one raised questions about womanhood, motherhood, and the highest office in the land. Theological conservatives—died in the wool complementarians in particular—didn’t raise a word of protest or lodge a single question about the role of women when Clinton was in the spotlight. But with Palin, perhaps because of her claim to conservative Christian pedigree, something of a rumble rippled through corners of the Evangelical world.

But the conversation, as far as I could tell, didn’t really take off among Bible-believing Christians. On the complementarian side of the aisle, CBMW offered a four-part (one, two, three, four) look at the issue of womanhood and gender roles. Also, my man Lance offered some thoughts as well. But the highest profile comments came from Voddie Baucham during a CNN segment defending a complementarian view of women's roles.

Baucham also added some thoughts on his blog. Over at iMonk, some egalitarians began discussing the issue. What roles does the Bible advance for women?

We almost had a conversation. But then we didn’t. At least not quite nationally.

I’ve never seen an election like this one. We could do race, age, gender and a host of other really meaningful and interesting conversations. Yet, we’re content with the same old nonsense—childish name-calling and mud throwing.

The past two weeks have been a rather sobering time for many people in Grand Cayman. A brutal murder of a promising young woman has many in the country asking questions about safety for women and the role of women in society. The woman was a women’s advocate, a counselor helping women escape battering and abuse. Her murder has helped blow the lid off a silent epidemic.

This election could have helped to blow the lid off the very same kinds of issues in the U.S. Alongside the positive advancement of a biblical vision for womanhood, there could also have been strong repudiation of any attitudes, comments, and actions that denigrate women. We need to champion our sisters on both fronts--positive encouragements to godly femininity and big-chested defense of their dignity and worth.

Christians could have advanced a public apologetic for the high calling of wives and mothers. And inside the Christian fold, there could have been a robust discussion about gender distinctions and roles in the family and church, about the abuses and misuses of pseudo-complementarian ideas, and about the wide opportunities for women to be genuinely submitted to male leadership in the home and church and still significantly engaged in the work of the kingdom (see Duncan and Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church). Where was the Christian conversation about marriage as a form of protection for women, about accountability for husbands who fail to lead and nourish, about discipline for abandonment and abuse, about discipling young girls and women, young boys and men for the callings of singleness, marriage, and parenthood?

And where was the concern for domestic violence? Equal opportunity and pay for women? Child support enforcement as an aide to abandoned women?

Our girls and boys, men and women, and our churches need help on this issue—desperate help. The misinformation is plentiful. And the loudest “positive” voices—those like Clinton and to a lesser extent Palin—happen to suggest a certain feminist orientation.

The single best predictor for well-being of children and adults is stable, healthy marriage. Pick your indicator and the social science data is clear—build a strong marriage and educational, income, asset ownership go up and teen pregnancy, delinquency, stress and a host of other negatives go down.

The prospect of a woman president or vice-president could have put these things on the public radar in a new and fresh way. But we’ve missed the opportunity. Clinton is a non-factor; Palin is all but ridiculed by the left and an embarrassment to many on the right. And we all lose—at least for a time.

I’m really quite hopeful that something like the True Woman conference will bear lasting fruit. The True Woman Manifesto advances some much needed food for thought and use among those who want to see growth and fruit in this area.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Phillip Jensen on the Word of God and Preaching

Some helpful bits and pieces from Phillip Jensen on the word of God and preaching:

The gospel proclamation falls into the category of true or false, not opinion and interpretation. Our preaching of it is faithful and accurate or faithless and inaccurate. Effectiveness is not the only criterion of judgment--false prophets can be effective. Truthfulness is more important than effectiveness.

Unlike reading a fellow human's writings, we are reading the writings of our Creator, Ruler, Judge, and God. The right framework for Bible reading is obedience. The right posture for Bible reading is on one's knees. The right context for Bible reading is amongst the family of those who live according to its message.

The preacher must learn to trust the interpretive power of the Bible. We do not need to be clever or scholarly but faithful to what the Bible is saying. God can be trusted to make himself clear to the hearers. His Word will deal more wisely with them than any cleverness we may devise.

Phillip Jensen, "Preaching the Word Today," in Ryken and Wilson (eds.), Preach the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), pp. 168, 169

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pray for Persecuted Christians in Orissa and Iraq

JT posted this over at Between Two Worlds. Let's indeed join together in prayer for the saints. May Samuel's perspective be our own: "As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you" (1 Sam. 12:23).

A convicting plea from Eric Ortlund:

Dear Friends -I find I far too often tell people I'll pray for them and then forget about it. I'm asking you not to be like me after reading this post. I'm sure some of you have heard about the persecution in India, in the northern province of Orissa - about 50,000 Christians have had to flee their homes under persecution by extreme Hindus. Churches have been burned and Christians have been tortured and martyred for their faith in Jesus. I'm asking everyone who reads this to pray frequently for these Christians, with whom we'll be spending the rest of eternity - and to pray for their persecutors, that, like Paul, they'd see the light.

No corner of the Internet is really private, and one has to be careful about what one says; but the situation in India is no secret, so I think it's OK to talk about it here. The sitaution in Mosul, a city in Northern Iraq across the Euphrates from Ninevah, is no secret either - 1300 Christians have been forced to flee, often entire families, under persecution. Christians have been martyred here as well. See this article:

I got an email through the grapevine from an Iraqi pastor who talked about how families were sleeping in their cars, who had had relatives kidnapped and executed. I don't want to be ashamed before him in Heaven by having to admit that I never prayed for him. Let's not fail to pray for peace in this area, and even more deeply for Jesus to shine his light through his people.

The BBC files a video report about the persecution in India, and offers further information here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Pressure on a Sermon Is Always Downward

And UA has quotes from a Spurgeon biography to prove it. See here.

It really doesn't matter how long a pastor preaches, there will be some element in the listening audience that wants it shorter. Preach an hour... how about 40 minutes? Preach 40 minutes... how about 30? Preach 30... can't we do with 15? It's one measure of our depravity and dullness to want to leave off attention to the word of God. Now, I don't mean that every preacher should preach an hour, or that I like the fact that I'm more often than I like preaching longer than I'd like. Just observing something that I think is true; most people don't want to give extended attention to the word of God.

And yet in Nehemiah 8, the word was read, explained, and applied from sun-up until noon! Seems that biblically every time revival breaks out among God's people it follows rediscovery and recommitment to hearing the word of God. If we want revival among God's people, we must take seriously reading, preaching, and hearing the word of God. And, guess what? It takes time to do that well.

The Presidential Election That Almost Was... Or Why It's Difficult for Me to Vote, 2

True to form, many of the respondents to these posts will immediately launch into either their support or disavowal of the candidate in question. There will be right and loud concern about abortion; and the point of the post will be missed. There will be right and loud concern about the economy or the war; and the point of the post will be missed.

Let me put it this way: I think advancement on the abortion front and on the war front and on the economic front and every other front depends on Americans embracing a biblical view of humanity and human life.

Now before you say, "Right!" let me hasten to add that we can think of that statement in a purely tactical way (elect more pro-this or pro-that politicians), and/or we can think about that premise in its relation to the deep structure of culture, the strata of thinking and being from which tactical decisions sprout. We'll certainly do the tactical; but doing the tactical doesn't accomplish the latter. The latter requires we think differently about the nature of life in the abstract and about the nature of our lives and identities in particular. Such a re-thinking holds promise for all the tactical concerns--not only abortion but also for social justice writ large, just war theory in a paramilitary and terrorist era, and economic security. Who we are--or who we think we are--determines our position on all of these issues. If we achieve tactical victories without winning this deeper ground, our tactical victories will always be tentative. They will be victories, but they will always be threatened because of the more fundamental problem of unregenerate humanity and the unexamined self.

We'll miss this opportunity if we don't reflect more widely and deeply on the potentially seismic shifts before us. And the point of these posts (be it a weak or strong point; I'm not sure) is that these shifts are worth thinking about beyond the tactical.

The candidacy of John McCain presents one such opportunity for re-evaluation. Almost from the time he announced his primary bid, and certainly by the time he was emerging as the frontrunner, questions about his age abounded. Is he too old? Can he withstand the demands of the campaign trail and the office? What if he dies in office?

But these questions beg other questions. What do we really think about the potential and place of octogenarians (or almost octogenarians in McCain's case)? As a society, do we think older persons have any significant role to play? Or, do we imagine that age (at least past a certain artificial point, say 65) is a debilitating condition that gives more trouble than help? Have we forgotten that it really requires strength to make it to and to live in old age?

I think the McCain candidacy has potential for sparking conversation about these matters. And if I were an elder in the country, I'd be particularly interested to make sure that conversation was held, that seniors were seen as more than a tribal voting block necessary to please because of their voting record. Isn't there a loftier vision for elders? Do we not imagine a life and society that gives greater prominence to and gratitude for our elders than that?

Many people disdain or romanticize "tribal" cultures and traditions. But one thing seems patently clear to me: the "developed" world does not love its elders as well as the "developing" world.

I know. That's a sweeping statement. But it's not without merit.

It used to be that elder members of the family remained in the family home until the Lord called them home. Now they're stored in "retirement communities" where sometimes they're abused and often abandoned. A vision for intergenerational family has shrunk to parents and kids, the so-called "nuclear family." And that vision has in fact become nuclear for many older persons. They're exploded right out of the family, increasingly out of the community, and often out of our affections. Are we living up to our responsibility to care for our elders? Or is it really survival of the fittest--those Nike-clad, spandex-wearing young flocking to the nearest Bally's to "do battle" with the treadmill?

We should keep in mind that while abortion is on the front-burner of this election, not very long ago we were as a culture watching in stunned silence as Dr. Death promoted "physician assisted suicide" as an acceptable alternative to growing old and dying slowly. Our tendency to play God happens at both ends of the age spectrum. It's a bi-polar culture of death.

And even in the middle, age is largely viewed as an enemy. We want to delay it, slow it down, reverse it if possible. In the culture, women are no longer beautiful or sexy after about 30-something. They're no longer "leading ladies" or the subjects of romantic affection. Men last a little longer, but probably only because we write the Hollywood scripts and imagine that even as middle-aged, bald, fat guys "the chics still dig us." But the growth of the male beauty industry is an indication that men are afraid of age as well. In subtle and signficant ways, we despise old age.

Back to the election. Here comes a man in his 70s who is running with the young boys. He's full of fire and passion. Now too many people write that off as the 'cranky granddad' syndrome. But might it not deserve a second look? Not so much at McCain, but at ourselves. How do we value our elders? What do we think about growing old? What place do our elders have in our society? Are they relics? Or are they leaders? And by leaders I don't mean "advisors," but leaders.

Democrats have given us the first African-American presidential nominee. That's historic. Republicans have offered us the oldest presidential nominee. That's no less historic. Both candidacies prompt serious questions about who we are and the meaning of life. Dare we think about these things?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Presidential Election That Almost Was... Or Why It's Difficult for Me to Vote, 1

A couple weeks back, a dear brother in the Lord asked what I thought about the general election and who I'd be voting for. I answered him honestly when I said, "I don't know." He pressed a bit. "You're an intelligent guy; I know you have made up your mind already." I assured him I hadn't, and that frankly I was a bit disgusted with the entire thing. If he wanted to know "what I thought about the election," the honest answer was disgust and regret.

In the next few posts, I hope to explain why. There are at least four reasons, all of which have to do with the disappointment that comes from sensing potentially seismic historical and cultural shifts for the positive evaporating in the ugliness of this election as soon as the presumptive nominees were clear. The sense of hope and interest that once filled this race for me has gone up in smoke with the politics-as-usual campaigning of both parties.

Today we begin with loss #1 (not in importance, just in order of the posts): the forfeited opportunity to think careful and prayerfully about personal and group identity.

The prospect of a "racially ambiguous" president offered (offers??) the country the opportunity to think afresh about what it means to be an American, what relevance ethnicity or "race" have, and the broadening horizon available to all groups. A potential "President Obama" calls into question the extent of any continuing legacy of centuries of race-based social and political attitude and action. The viability of an Obama campaign could have put front and center the question, "What does it mean now to be an African American?" In what ways has our (i.e., American) understanding of racial identification, racial prejudice, group opportunity, and equality changed?

I'm not saying that all those things would have in fact changed with the election of a President Obama. I'm saying that the viable candidacy of an African American could have productively put those questions on the table were it not for the usual political hullabaloo that now occupies the airwaves. As it is, the cloud of negative politics overshadows anything resembling a healthy national reflection on these things.

In my opinion, the Iowa primaries were significant in signaling the possibility of an ethnic candidate not being "the ethnic candidate" but an American candidate. The moment Obama won Iowa, the country took serious notice of the candidate, but could also have taken serious notice of itself. What happened in Iowa? Potentially the first penetrating crack in a racial phalanx that has stood guard over the "highest office in the land" since the country's founding. And the fact that the Obama primary campaign successfully wooed Iowa caucus goers to support him was a testament to Iowans as much as it was to a brilliant primary strategy. The Obama campaign's focus on the caucus (a delicious word irony that I'll pass on now) states would have been a futile strategy were it not for white Iowans and others who discarded conventional wisdom and grabbed hold to hope for a different a different kind of candidate signifying by appearance if not by words a racially healthy future.

South Carolina got ugly with the former "champions" of African American causes.

Then came Philadelphia. Forced now to address "race" by an embarrassing pastor and a rival campaign that interjected "race" wherever it could, Barack Obama delivered to the country not just an excellent speech on "race" but, more importantly, an opportunity to discuss it as Americans looking forward, not backward. Some reviled the speech as the "throw grandma under the bus" speech. Some proclaimed it as an American speech as significant as Gettysburg or I Have A Dream. In potential, the latter group was correct. In my opinion, the only significant failing in an otherwise brilliant and brave speech was Mr. Obama did not flatly say that "race" does not exist. Had he done that.... Well, who knows what would have happened had he done that!

But it wasn't Obama's job to carry the mail on this issue. It was our job to do so. We haven't.

Political pundits scurried to obscure the opportunity. Too many of us joyfully pranced off after them. Perhaps we were aided in our side-taking by Obama's serious blunders days later. But having received the opportunity, we squandered it.

From Philadelphia to "hot mic" comments from Jesse Jackson to the present CNN obsession with "race" and the election (an obsession that seems to only have grown more rabid since S.C.), the steady drip of conjecture has turned an opportunity into an obstacle. Now, it seems to me, the table has been re-set and the conversation returned to the old, tired, myopic, and ultimately unhelpful speculations about racism. Like cozy slippers and a favorite robe on a cool winter morning, we've slipped right back into the tattered familiar.

And in this case, ignored the obvious. It's silly to ask "Will white people vote for Obama once they enter the booth?" Yes. Millions of them will. Millions of them have. And the overwhelming majority of them have not done it because of the color of his skin. Whether you like his politics or not, there are an awful lot of folks who do, and they're casting their lots with him in this general election as well. That's still the main story if we want to take a racial angle. There are still millions and millions of Americans of every hue prepared to happily say, "Congratulation, President Obama." That's never happened in the history of the country. And focusing on the relative few who would not vote for him because of their racial bias is a great adventure in missing the point. Something new and significant is upon us. Not the election of the first African American president, but the commencement of the first significant redefinition of American identity to include all the huddled masses--black ones as well.

We like "race" because we know this devil so well. We're unprepared to pay the social and psychological costs of re-evaluating this basic and erroneous assumption about life. And so we'd rather keep hurting one another than forge new identities and allegiances.

At least that's my opinion. And that's what saddens me. That's the election discussion that almost was, and one reason why it's difficult for me to be excited about this historic campaign. Tomorrow, Lord willing, the missed opportunity to think about the role of older persons in society and culture.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Feeding My Soul This Morning...

I listened to John Folmar, pastor of UCCD, on Ephesians 1.

And I watched this YouTube video of a recent baptismal testimony here at FBC.

What a joy to recall the sovereign work of God's grace among us! This is partly why baptism services are my favorite services.

Friday, October 10, 2008

More from Packer and Simeon on Expository Preaching

Many of you will be familiar with the Simeon Trust, which offers workshops in exposition. Here's a bit from Charles Simeon himself on sermon prep, with a few words from Packer as our guide.
Sermon texts should be chosen with care, for the sermon should come out of the text whole and rounded, "like the kernel out of a hazel-nut; and not piecemeal... like the kernel out of a walnut." Therefore, do not take a text that is too long to manage properly, and, on the other hand, "never choose such texts as have not a complete sense: for only impertinent and foolish people will attempt to preach from one or two words, which signify nothing." the text chosen should so shape the sermon "that no other text in the Bible will suit the discourse," and nothing foreign to the text must be allowed to intrude. For the prime secret of freedom and authority in preaching, as Simeon was well aware, is the knowledge that what you are saying is exactly what your text says, so that your words have a proper claim to be received as the Word of God. In a journal article in 1821, Simeon boiled down sermon preparation to the following: "Reduce your text to a simple proposition, and lay that down as the warp; and then make use of the text itself as the wood; illustrating the main idea by the various terms in which it is contained. Screw the word into the minds of your hearers. A screw is the strongest of all mechanical powers... when it has been turned a few times scarcely any power can pull it out."

From Preach the Word, p. 148.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Why Are Pastors So Interested in Expositional Preaching?

Here's the answer J.I. Packer gives:
What troubles us, I think, is a sense that the old evangelical tradition of powerful preaching--the tradition, in England, of Whitefield and Wesley and Berridge and Simeon and Haslam and Ryle--has petered out, and we do not know how to revive it. We feel that, for all our efforts, we as preachers are failing to speak adequately to men's souls. In other words, what lies behind our modern interest in expository preaching is a deep dissatisfaction with our own ministry.

There is a delightful seventeenth-century tract by John Owen entitled The Character of an Old English Puritane (1646), in which we learn that such a man "esteemed that preaching best wherein was most of God, least of man." Our own constant suspicion, I think, is that our own preaching contains too much of man and not enough of God. We have an uneasy feeling that the hungry sheep who look up are not really being fed. It is not that we are not trying to break the bread of life to them; it is just that, despite ourselves, our sermons turn out dull and flat and trite and tedious and, in the event, not very nourishing. We are tempted (naturally) to soothe ourselves with the thought that the day of preaching is past, or that zealous counseling or organizing or management or fundraising makes sufficient amends for ineffectiveness in the pulpit; but then we reread 1 Corinthians 2: (NKJV)--"my speech and my preaching were... in demonstration of the Spirit and of power"--and we are made uneasy again, and the conclusion is forced upon us once more that something is missing in our ministry. This, surely, is the real reason why we evangelicals today are so fascinated by the subject of expository preaching: because we want to know how we can regain the lost authority and unction that made evangelical preaching mighty in days past to humble sinners and build up the church.

In Ryken and Wilson, Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), p. 142.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Wings of Reformation

In the Lord's providence and sovereign control of all things, He has often worked wider reformation of His church alongside technological and cultural advancements. The printing press comes to mind, along with the mighty hymns of the reformation.

I'm of the opinion that significant theological reformation in the African-American context is being carried on the wings of "holy hip hop." What these brothers are able to distill, teach, and distribute via urban hymns is incredible. I pray for the widespread popularity and faithfulness of the brothers putting out theologically robust, evangelistic, and culturally-engaging rhymes for the glory of God.

Yesterday I recommended Stephen Nichols' book as a way to enter into a corner of the vineyard often neglected... Delta blues. Today, a couple of CDs are in my iPod that I want to plug for those who can swing with Christ-exalting hip hop.

Evangel has dropped a new cd, "Expository Journey." An exposition of culture, scripture, and more. Check the YouTube promo here:

Also, the 116 Clique has pumped out an album called, "13 Letters"--18 tracks covering the letters of Paul. Excellent stuff for the soul. Here's a video:

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What to Say When They Say, "I Tried That."

This is a helpful meditation from John Piper. I've often counseled with people and heard those session-stopping words: "I've tried that. It didn't work." Has that ever happened with you?

Piper offers three words of encouragement. Read the whole thing here.

Stepen J. Nichols Is Getting the Blues

I've been reading Stephen Nichols wonderful little book, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation (Brazos, 2008).

As an African-American reader, I found this an encouragingly bold book. Nichols is fast becoming one of my favorite writers for that reason. Let me explain.

I think I can count on one hand the number of evangelical authors who happily deal with expressions of Christianity outside of "white Christianity." Frankly, that's a little like eating fruit from one small corner of a vast vineyard, neglecting the fruit in other plots of the same vineyard because they don't grow nearest to you. A few historians and theologians show courage by wandering into the wider vineyard of God and sampling choice fruit from those branches. Nichols is one.

In Getting the Blues he ventures into the world of African Americans. And not just any African Americans, but the hard scrabble, scabbed knuckle world of 1920-1940s Mississippi Delta blues-singing African Americans. Go 'head Stephen!

In Getting the Blues, Nichols starts with a helpful admission, one not frequently made by writers. He admits there is a world he doesn't understand and enter into frequently enough, a world with experiences that enrich his own. Nichols asks, "Why read stories and listen to songs of tragedy and loss, despair and alienation?" His answer which he "is only beginning to appreciate" is "I read and listen to stories of these less-than-pleasant elements of life in order to understand, so that I can hear and see that which I don't always hear and see."

Nichols continues: "By just about any standard, my upbringing and current status, hovering around middle-class American culture, has made my life far simpler than the lives of hosts of my fellow human beings throughout our common history. This is not to minimize the challenges and trials, ordeals and sufferings of those in my family or circle of friends, or those of us who are (mostly white) suburban Americans. Still, we enjoy many blessings not experienced by previous generations or by all peoples. I'm not lamenting these blessings--simply recognizing that sometimes they come at a price. They can cause us to miss some vital elements of life.

"We American evangelicals are as likely as anybody else to be missing something when it comes to a fuller view of life and humanity. In addition, we just might be overlooking something in the pages of scripture" (pp. 13-14).

This is refreshing honesty and humility, a self-awareness that's both helpful to the person who makes such an admission and to those of us being studied. Nichols enters the world of the blues--not as some distant, "objective" student of native curiosities but as a sympathizer, one who enters the experience of others as his own. This makes the reading very smooth and peculiarly human.

Others have taken a look at the blues as a source for theological reflection. James Cone published his The Spiritual and the Blues in 1992. In 1955, Howard Thurman reflected on the spirituals with some thoughts about the blues as well in Deep River. But, to my knowledge, this is the first time a white evangelical has ventured into this ground to make theological reflection as well. And he interacts with awareness and respect with a wide range of writers who've thought about the blues. The writer and the book then demonstrate an awareness of others consistent with his hope of learning from others, but delivered in a smooth style that avoids burdening the reader.

Getting the Blues provides a very friendly introduction to the music of the Delta and the many people who popularized it. The reader will meet with fun-hearted and sometimes serious biographies of blues greats from the Delta area as well as a good survey of many songs themselves. The book is organized into six main chapters:

1. What Hath Mississippi to Do with Jerusalem? A Theologian Explores the World of the Blues
2. I Be's Troubled: Blues, the Bible, and the Human Condition
3. Man of Sorrows: David's Blues
4. Woman of Sorrows: Naomi's Blues
5. Precious Lord: Harmonizing the Curse and the Cross
6. Come Sunday: Living in This World, Longing for the Next

Nichols maintains that the blues and the people who gave us the Delta blues is a music "haunted by Christ." In the genre of the blues, Nichols traces the biblical theological themes of creation, fall, and redemption. It's a Christ-centered treatment done in the minor key. The blues has long been thought of as "the devil's music," but Nichols shows that all things exist under the reign of Christ and the careful observer will catch glimpses of Him even in the juke joints and chitlin' circuit of the Delta.

If you struggle to understand the minor key of life--Christian and non-Christian--this book may help. If you're interested to see the echoes of Christ in cultural achievement, this book will help. If you're in need of entering experiences not your own so that you might understand life more fully, this book will help and be a joy.

Read Nichols and be introduced to a new world. But when you've finished reading Nichols, go read those who actually lived in that world or a world like it. Nichols is a sure guide. But there is something about "the horse's mouth" that I think Nichols would encourage.

Thanks Stephen for serving us so well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Odd Bits and Pieces

I've been off the blogging horse for a while. It's been a good break, though I'm not sure I'm done with it. But this morning, I thought I'd put up a few odd bits and pieces. Perhaps there is something edifying or useful in some way.

1. I want to be a hypergelast. I'll let you look it up. I only know the word because that's the word for today from

2. Here's a helpful resource for anyone thinking about the inerrancy of the Bible.

3. Hey, have you prayed for or encouraged your pastor today? At the risk of sounding self-serving, could I suggest that every Christian church member consider one of their main ministries the ministry of encouragement for their pastors and elders. I received an email from one brother stating that he knew of over 20 pastors leaving the pastorate in one region of the U.S. I've had opportunity to interact with at least three pastors experiencing deep struggle. That doesn't include the normal battles for encouragement, joy, and perseverance that are just normal to pastoral ministry. So, have you prayed for your pastor(s) today?

4. Ta-Nehisi Coates sits down and vidblogs with John McWhorter. It's a wide-ranging conversation about hip-hop, racism, and other things. HT: JT.

5. Some helpful bits for preachers and teachers:

Don Caron "Preaching and Biblical Theology" (HT: UA)
Ray Ortlund, Jr., "Power in Preaching" (HT: JT)