Uncompromising Theology Outside the Ivory Tower

Posts from the “Church” Category

Our Political Supply-and-Demand Problem

Posted on February 5, 2013

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Barack Obama was re-elected. He’s basically a soft-core Marxist. His radical views didn’t sneak up on and outwit an unsuspecting populace; unlike in 2008, they knew what they were voting for. They knew he’d bulldozed his nationalized (= socialist) health care plan into law without a single Republican vote.  (So much for bipartisanship.) He didn’t win in a landslide, but he did garner a lion’s share of votes. Mitt Romney (despite his obvious weaknesses) didn’t run a bad campaign. A slight majority of voters simply prefer Obama.  This means, among other things, that we have a cultural problem, not so much a political problem. Obama is a political Santa Claus, and we now have an entire generation of chimney-riveted voters who blithely support social engineering by confiscatory wealth redistribution (i.e., stiff taxes), yearlong Christmas gifts from the wealthy few to the avaricious many.

There is no quick solution to this problem.

One reason for the depth of the problem is that ours is an obvious case of supply-and-demand politics: as long as there is a demand for political Santa Clauses, candidates like Barack Obama will be keep traveling down the national chimney. This is why excoriating — and replacing — Obama (understandable though this tack may be) is insufficient: there are plenty where he came from. Winning the war on socialism is analogous to winning the “war on drugs”: it’s a demand problem, not a supply problem.

Political change is one effect (not the only one) of cultural change. Somebody recently told me that presidential elections are quadrennial snapshots of the culture’s continuously rolling video film. Elections are quick cultural verdicts at a specific point in time.  It’s a great miscalculation to assume that elections produce long-term cultural changes; it’s cultures that produce long-term political changes.  Cultural change occurs when people’s lives and worldview are changed, and the institutions they populate — families, schools, jobs, voting booths — are gradually changed. Cultural change is much harder and takes much longer than political change — which is why most people opt for political change.  Fervent prayer is harder than precinct marching. Rearing children is harder than contributing to a political campaign.  Attending church is harder than voting. Reading and obeying the Bible is harder than reading and discussing National Review.

There’s the cultural way and there’s the political way.

The hard way is the right way.  And the ultimately most successful way.

Cultic Characteristics

Posted on July 3, 2012

These days, you may find yourself labeled a cultist simply because you believe the Bible or affirm historic Christianity, so far has modern Christendom come from its own history.   However, even within the broad bounds of orthodox Christianity, certain individuals, churches and ministries manifest cultic characteristics. I’ll mention several of those characteristics. 

Isolation

First, there is isolation. Because cultists believe that they alone possess the truth and that all others are wrong, they work hard to sequester their disciples from any outside “contaminating” influence. This is a fundamental distinction between the catholic (universal) church and all sectarians. This isolation can be accomplished in several ways. Often, it’s as simple as geographical isolation — going to a rural location so that folks are not likely to have contact with other (sub-standard, of course) Christians.   Or, it can be accomplished by what I term “incestuous self-propagation.”   The graduate faculty of some Christian colleges, universities and seminaries I know almost all hold advanced degrees from the institution in which they teach.   The various regional accrediting associations (which, to be sure, have their own massive problems) correctly frown on this practice.   As editor of various publications over the years, I have tried to publish writers from divergent ministries and not limit writers to those within my own ministry or located nearby geographically.   This latter sort of ministerial incestuousness does indeed become self-propagating.   These folks tend simply to rehash and develop the same ideas and insulate themselves from the correcting mechanism of diverse viewpoints from outside ministries.   Isolation is a cultic trait we cannot afford to tolerate. 

Arrogance

Second, there is the trait of arrogance, which often runs in tandem with isolation.   I know of a rather large Christian college in northwest Florida (pointedly isolated, by the way) that would not dare allow outside criticism of its philosophy of education, well-founded and helpful though that criticism may be.   Cults — like totalitarian political regimes — survive partly on the arrogant ideology that there are no alternatives. One of the main objectives of the earlier “classical” liberal arts education was to liberate students from the arrogance of assuming that their way is the only way.   Of course, we know as Christians that the Christian way is the only way; but there is a catholicity in Biblical Christianity that somewhat cultic Christian churches and ministries simply cannot abide.   The Bible tells us that each part of Christ’s Body has a role to play (1 Cor. 12), and we surely can benefit from their constructive criticism. 

Hero-Worship

The third cultic trait is hero-worship. Paul had to deal with this vexing problem in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12,13). To be sure, we may not be egalitarians, either — God certainly gives talented teachers and other leaders to the Church (Eph. 4:11-14). But, after all, they must recognize that their talent is a gift from God (1 Cor. 4:7). I’ve had the misfortune of knowing some of these men who cultivate fulsome flattery and eventually deem themselves above criticism.   (This was a striking characteristic of Mao, the communist Chinese mass murderer.)   Cultists generally look to a single super-elevated figure that can do no wrong.   God has a way of knocking such folks from their high pedestal, in the process often demonstrating that their ministry is rather dispensable in His sovereign plan.   Of course, some of these leaders begin to believe their own press releases and get the impression that when they speak, they are speaking for the entire church.   I once had a dear minister tell me that one of his intelligent acquaintances (by whom he obviously was awed) would be “the greatest theologian of the 21st century.”   As someone who actually reads the greatest contemporary theologians (both the good ones and the bad ones), from Barth to Bultmann to Cullmann to Frame to Gilkey to Henry to McGrath to Moltmann to Oden to Pelikan to Van Til to Wright, I was rather embarrassed by his exuberance.   When we tend to live in small, somewhat cultic cocoons, however, the smart guy around the block is easily perceived as the greatest theologian of the century.

My advice to those afflicted by these cultic characteristics is, “Get out and see a little more of the world.” There are 7000 — no, 7,000,000 — who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kin. 19:18).   There are plenty of great Christians and great leaders who don’t agree with us, and God seems to bless them and honor them even though they find some of our views rather objectionable and in some cases even amusing. God can get along just fine without us and our churches and ministry.

And if we don’t abandon our cultic characteristics, He very well might.

Crusading Christianity

Posted on April 15, 2012

Passion for Catholicity

In recent years I’ve tried to make a chief feature of my ministry catholicity, specifically, orthodox Christians working together for wholesale reformation.  Culture-reclaiming Christians committed to Biblical authority, the apostolic Gospel, and historic orthodoxy should not allow their secondary differences to divide them.  The stakes are too high; our culture is too decadent for us Biblical Christians to wallow in nit-picking sectarianism and divert ourselves from the collective task to press the Lordship of Christ in all of life.  Catholicity for cultural change is a cornerstone of Biblical faith.

Tenacity for Truth

But culture-avoiding sectarianism is not the only danger confronting us.  We now encounter a massive defection — there is perhaps no better expression for it — from Biblical Faith in formerly orthodox, Bible-believing corners: among the evangelicals.  This is not a “crisis” that I have manufactured; it is evident to all who have open eyes and objective minds.  Nor should this defection surprise us.  A pervasive example of naiveté, as David Wells has noted, is the idea that great decadence can never emerge within the church.  This sunny notion is patently false, as the history of Christianity, certainly the Christianity of the 20th century, abundantly testifies.  Three quick examples of today’s defection will support my point:

Example # 1:  You may have heard about the group “Evangelicals for Obama” with which prominent “post-conservative” Christians are bandwagoning.  Franky Schaeffer, late Francis’ son, supports Obama because Franky is so pro-life.  But Obama, you may be thinking, is thoroughly and eagerly pro-abortion.  What, then, is Franky is trying to say?  In essence that Obama is a politician who is “full of life” [!]. But endorsing the legality of the murder of preborn children is no celebration of life, no matter who’s spinning the PR.  Tony Jones, at the vanguard of the Emergent (and Emerging?) Movement, has also endorsed Obama, as have a number of other younger evangelicals.

These Christians and those like them tend to decry the captivity of evangelicals by the Christian Right and the Republican Party, their new whipping boys.  Well, I agree with that caveat.  Christians must ever and always be captive to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word, not to political parties or ideologies.  But to say that Christians should not be captive to a political ideology is not to say (a) that free markets are no less Biblically justifiable than socialism, (b) that the burden of the American “Black experience” is a valid explanation for the inane and hysterical rants of Barak Obama’s long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright, and (c) that supporting an aggressive pro-abortion candidate (like Obama) is ethically preferable to supporting a pro-life foreign-policy-hawk candidate (whoever he may be).  But this is just what a growing number of evangelicals are saying or implying.

Example # 2:  Fuller Seminary New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson writes in the Winter 2008 issue of the Seminary’s house organ Theology, News & Notes: “[T]he inerrancy of Scripture . . .  has at times been taken by some [sic!] to be essential to an ‘evangelical’ doctrine of Scripture, but . . . others, including Fuller Seminary, have not deemed [inerrancy] to be helpful in coming to terms with the phenomena of Scripture or its authoritative function for faith and practice” (p. 12).  While no thoughtful Christian should bow to a form of Biblical inerrancy that subordinates it to categories of thought alien to the Bible itself, it is remarkable how easily more and more evangelicals are surrendering the classical confidence in the full trustworthiness of the Bible under the pressures of modernity and postmodernity.  Should we be surprised if in 50 years their institutional heirs have given up on the authority of the Bible altogether (just as happened in nearly all the major Protestant denominations)?  Must not the Bible be truthful to be divinely authoritative?

Example # 3:  In the long-awaited symposium from the Emergent Movement, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books, 2007), edited by Tony Jones and by Doug Pagitt, contributor Samir Selmanovic writes that for too long Christianity has been influential in the West.  It now needs to fail.  (Read that line again.)  For too long Christianity has insisted that one must trust in Jesus Christ to obtain eternal life; this dogmatic insistence just plain turns people off, and we must get rid of it.  We follow Jesus best (so goes the logic) by not insisting that people trust in Jesus Christ.   Selmanovic argues that Christians must “reinterpret the Bible, reconstruct the theology, and reimagine the church to match the character of God that we as followers of Christ [presumably, people who agree with him] have come to know” (p. 191).  In other words, human experience must be the new criterion for Christian belief and practice.  No theological liberal ever said it better.

In the same volume, gadfly Brian McLaren savages Western Christianity for its “colonialism” and reprimands the United States for its material wealth, suggesting that “[w]e are rich in resources gained at the expense of the colonized” (p. 150).  The fact that he has not learned even the most basic economic fact that free trade is never a zero-sum game but that it enriches all parties involved never seems to have stopped McLaren from his demonstrably spurious utterances.  They do, however, find enthusiastic reception among young, white, guilt-ridden evangelicals who never studied basic economics — and seemingly do not know what the Bible teaches on these topics.

Evangelicalism has gone soft at its core, and it’s in danger of rotting away.

Liberalism on the Cheap

These examples highlight today’s poorly concealed revival of the old Protestant liberalism among the evangelicals without, as John Frame has noted, the intellectual firepower of the older liberalism.   Much of today’s evangelicalism is liberalism on the cheap.

The problem isn’t that these Christians aren’t culturally relevant; they’re increasingly relevant.  The problem is that they’re culturally relevant in injurious ways.  Transformed Christians must be transformed from their accommodation to the world spirit (Francis — not Franky — Schaffer warned of this danger 20 years ago) and to the mind of the Spirit disclosed in God’s infallible Word (Rom. 12:1-2).

The present evangelical crop has things just backwards: they live in conceptual and ethical accommodation to the world.  The next generation is in danger today of losing the Faith.

What Zealous Christians Do About the Defection

I am haunted by words I once read from an old, stodgy — but faithful — preacher I knew:  “You cannot preserve a position without crusading for it.”  I thought at the time, “This sounds unnecessarily combative and just isn’t true.  After all, you don’t need to crusade for the Trinity to preserve it, do you?”

But, no longer a young man, I have now lived long enough to observe the trends of conservative Christianity and learned (painfully) the element of the truth in this old preacher’s words.   One generation obtains through great combat and suffering the spiritual capital that the next generation squanders in its diffident accommodation to the world spirit.

The heart of the problem is a heart problem: drifting away from unalloyed devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Pleasing the world and man rather than pleasing God.  Lusting for success rather than living in faithfulness.  Increasingly accommodating to forms of the world spirit.

Amid this accommodation, I refuse to go down without a fight.  I intend to intensify my prophetic trumpet blast to greater Biblical fidelity and devotion to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word without which godly cultural reclamation is a mirage.

The Empirical Heretics

Posted on April 14, 2012

G. C. Berkouwer has riveted attention on the dangers of the empirical heretic, by which he denotes that false teacher who, while in conformity to the creeds of the church, propagates doctrine (or advocates actions) that diminish the proclamation of the Gospel (The Church, in Studies in Dogmatics [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 381). Operating safely within the confines of the creeds and confessions (he’s no Arian, by Jove!), the empirical heretic undermines the church and, if unchecked, vanquishes its mission. Examples in the contemporary church abound.  To wit:

The health and wealth Gospel, according to which Jesus saves us to make us rich, fat, happy and sassy.  If we’re not exhibiting exuberant health and material abundance, our faith is lacking. The fact that few godly people in the Bible could make this claim (Jesus least of all) seems never to stop the health and wealthers.

Then there’s its opposite (or is it?).  The evangelical socialism such as we see over at Sojourners: the true disciples vest the omni-competent and coercive state with the power to rectify all social injustices — defined, of course, by the political elite.  The state nearly applies for a vacancy in the Trinity.

In Protestant liberalism there’s soteric moralism: I am better than thou and, pitying the drunk, the pedophile and the capitalist, utters, “There but for the grace of my own morality go I.”  We might term it, as one wag put it, dragging yourself down to Hell by your own bootstraps.  Trampling Jesus’ blood underfoot has rarely been more graphically instanced.

And then the conservative counterpart: The Grace Revival, meaning: for too long Christians have required people to submit the Jesus Lordship on pain of judgment. Man’s real enemy is righteousness, not lawlessness; so let’s banish God’s law to the church bus’s back and sin that grace may abound.

Again, over on the Left (and, increasingly, the center-Left) — feminism.  Jesus liberates women, and this means, in our Madly Oppressive church culture, a mad rush to get women on the elder roll and in the pulpits thundering forth (or at least cooing sympathetically).  And how can we expect the Gospel to be potent as long as we haven’t liberated the lades?  It’s sexual liberation that Jesus is all about!

And over on the Right — patriarchy.  Culture’s headed to Hell not because it lacks the Gospel but because it lacks ironly Daddies and submissive Mommies and boys who grow up to dictate like Daddy and girls who grow up to mumble like Mommy — and, above all, not to attend college.  Daddy’s girls, you know.  (Not Jesus’ girls.)

And the loveless churches.  Bursting with pride of appearance and truth and zeal, there’s no place for garden-variety sinners (only sinners who deftly conceal their sin, selective sinners).  There’s no kindness and forgiveness and care and tenderness — only austerity under the guise of truth-iness. Yet this is no truth, but a loveless lie.

And then the love-ful churches, where love is tantamount to condoning sin.  Better: where confronting sin is the only sin. “Our great virtue is non-judgmentalism.  Come as you are.  Stay as you are.  Live as you are.  Die as you are.  We but love, love, love.”  A love that excludes all that would decimate love (immorality, betrayal, drug addictions, narcissism) is never loved.  Only the non-judgmental love, that is, the satanically counterfeited love, is on display.

These and other empirical heretics can fly 24/7 under the heresy-sniffers’ radar.

In this way, some of the churches that most pride themselves on their orthodoxy display the most injurious heresy.

Hatred for History

Posted on March 28, 2012

For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear, some new thing (Acts 17:21)

. . . they soon forgot . . . (Psalm 106:13)

Richard Weaver said in Ideas Have Consequences: “It has been well said that the chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. Most modern people appear to resent the past and seek to deny its substance for either of two reasons: (1) it confuses them, or (2) it inhibits them. If it confuses them, they have not thought enough about it; if it inhibits them, we should look with a curious eye upon whatever schemes they have afoot.”

Our generation is abominably, embarrassingly, hatefully anti-historical. Much of this hatred of history is the result of political liberalism, with its love affair with the present and the future, the belief that the latest generation in time is necessarily the most advanced generation of all time. The politically correct crowd love to hate the past, because it represents to them all they oppose — sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious orthodoxy. The farther we can get from that past, they think, the greater chance we have of escaping from these evils. Two factors, if they would only think a bit, may give them pause: first, they have no guarantee that the future cannot “revert to the past.” Some of the leading views of history are cyclical —the idea that history just repeats itself. This view is in error, but they have no means to disprove it. Second, the enemies of the past forget that it was often the very ideas of the past that destroyed the supposed evils they so loudly oppose. For example, they hate slavery in any form, but do not recognize it was the ideas of Jefferson (a man who owned slaves) that later in this country helped to abolish racial slavery.

The church is sometimes no better in its attitude toward history than is the wider society. This was highlighted for me at a ministerial association meeting in Cleveland I attended many years ago. The slick leaders were hyped up over the “relational” work of the Holy Spirit in “unbinding” Cleveland (apparently, the city was constipated). I soon discovered few there knew even a modicum about the heritage of the church — and most of those who did carelessly cast that history aside in favor of “the new wave of the Spirit” in this hour. Orthodox Christianity was for them passe. They wanted the spanking new, shiny, glitzy, updated version. They are this susceptible to every little fad (“move of the Spirit”) that comes along, led around by the nose by quick-speaking quacks. And they never know the difference.

When this happens, the members of church lose the gains of the past. The first gain they lose is orthodoxy. Because they hate the past, they are forced to reinvent the wheel. And they never do as good a job as their forebears did — and often they do much worse . . . heretically worse. They damn (or neglect) the creeds of catholic orthodoxy and the confessions of Reformation orthodoxy in favor of “restorationism”: the idea that without recourse to history they can restore primitive, Biblical Christianity. They do not believe the Bible when it says that God will preserve the Faith intact in history. Therefore they end up espousing some of the very heresies the fathers so capably refuted — subordinationism, modalism, docetism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, etc. They repeat too the errors refuted at the Reformation.

The second gain they lose is knowledge of the lessons of the past — for example, that unity without doctrine is an impossibility, that the inability to distinguish primary from secondary doctrine is unnecessarily divisive, that doctrine without practice is deadly, that the church must not (under ordinary conditions) assume the sword, that a low view of the visible church is destructive, that evangelism must be comprehensive, etc. The moderns do not know that there are no new problems — only old problems in new clothes. They do not have the benefit of the past because they hate the past.

Perhaps worst of all, they develop an anti-historical and anti-intellectual arrogance, according to which they consider themselves and their own little group true Christianity. They are so ignorant that they assume they could come up with Trinitarian Christianity with no recourse to church history. They turn their backs on the Faith preserved in the martyrs’ blood. They turn up their noses at the creeds and confessions that give them any semblance of orthodoxy they may retain. They bite the hand that feeds them.

They may appear oozily and humbly spiritual, but they are peacock-proud, vacuum-headed moderns, no better in the religious realm than liberals in the political realm.

And they are an affront and embarrassment to historic orthodox Biblical Christianity.

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