Archive for September, 2010

On Principles and Applications

I am convinced that a very significant issue at stake in present discussions about ecclesiastical relationships and the practice of separation is recognizing the distinction between biblical principles and their application in specific contexts. I can’t recall if I’ve blogged on this before, but I know I’ve spoken on it tons of times over the past two and half decades. It probably warrants a string of posts to explain fully, but let me do the risky thing of boiling it down to an axiom—principles are absolute and timeless, applications are relative and timely.

If you’ve properly identified a biblical principle (through solid exegesis), then it stands as God’s Word regardless of time and place. But you still have to apply it to specific times and places, and because time and place introduce variables, the application needs to be fitted to each particular time and place. The biblical call for children to honor their parents is timeless and transcends all cultures, but what obedience to that looks like will vary from culture to culture (and sometimes even within the same culture). And it may even change within the same culture as time passes and the culture itself changes. The principle, being absolute, remains fully intact, but the application, being relative, adjusts so that the principle is truly honored.

This holds true to the application of the biblical principles regarding separation from false doctrine and compromise with it. Those principles never change, but the application of them must be done in real time. We generally concede this when we look back in time. For instance, we applaud the early, original fundamentalists for pursuing separation first by trying to remove the liberals from their ecclesiastical fellowships, but then, realizing that the leaven had spread too fully, deciding to pull out in order to have no fellowship with liberalism. They held to the same principles, but different circumstances demanded different applications.

It is the application side of the equation that introduces so much complexity to our discussions. I hope to address a few aspects of that complexity as time and interest allows, but there is one that I think is germane to a few recent posts (and the present ecclesiastical landscape). I would contend that we will actually compromise our commitment to biblical principle if we do not periodically review our applications to make certain that they still fit. This is where I see the connection to the issue of labels. If the labels are imprecise, then they don’t help the application process and may even hinder effective application. Part of the imprecision comes from the changes that take place over time—changes in the people or ministry with the label, but also changes in the landscape.

I’m going to risk an analogy from history, so please work with me here. Let’s assume, for discussion, that we embrace as a governing principle this idea, “We must not treat our enemies as if they are our allies.” In 1943, Japan was labeled an enemy while the Soviet Union was labeled an ally, but in 1963 it was clearly the opposite. Obviously, the alliance with the Soviet Union was pragmatic in that we had common enemies. Once those enemies were neutralized, the alliance was over. By 2003, there was no Soviet Union and our relationship to the countries that composed it varied—some favorable and positive, some not so much. Wouldn’t it be short-sighted and unproductive for the USA to look at the Ukraine as if it were still a Soviet satellite? My point is that the principle remains intact even though its application changed in significant ways over those six decades.

Let’s think about the situation with Japan a little too. Clearly there was enormous conflict between the USA and Japan and even though the United States emerged victorious, the tensions of that war were not immediately erased. Officially, and in reality, Japan moved from enemy to ally over the years following the end of WWII. The two nations generally stand together against the same enemies, share many of the same objectives, and view each other as partners in tackling problems in the world (except competition in the automobile industry!). Clearly the situation has changed so that our principle, while still true, would not apply with regard to Japan any longer.

Here’s part of the rub—we acknowledge that last sentence in our heads, but that’s easier than accepting it in our hearts. Years ago I was visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial and was very surprised to see so many Japanese people there—it just felt very odd. That’s all it felt for me, odd, but I’ve talked with some folks who were older than me, people who were children or young adults during WWII and it felt worse than odd to them. They were actually indignant about it. My guess is that my sons, being so far removed from the actual events, wouldn’t even think about it (9/11 is the new December 7th for them). I don’t think anybody in my story would deny that Japan is really no longer our enemy, but they would all feel differently about how we should relate to the Japanese people and government.

So, back to my point—to keep treating former Soviet bloc countries or Japan as enemies even though they no longer are is to actually invalidate the principle, not honor it. Failure to update the application results in disregard for the principle itself. Further, persisting in that application is more likely rooted in prejudice, not principle.

This is my concern about a lot of contemporary discussions regarding separation. Labels, because they are application-oriented, run the risk of serving prejudice more than principle. IOW, rather than really looking at what that man believes and practices, I judge him on the basis of a label. “He’s a fundamentalist” is used as the shorthand for he’s okay or he’s a kook (depending on who’s talking). “He’s an evangelical” is used for shorthand for he’s cool or he’s a compromiser (again, depending on who’s talking). I would argue that kooks and compromisers come with either label. That means neither label really helps me know who is okay. I can only make that call when I look at things in light of biblical principles. Bottom line: applications that turn into traditions can be a dangerous thing if they are allowed to rival or supplant the Scriptures.

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After Movements Die…

I want to address one aspect of Don Johnson’s post on movements separately from my larger answer posted last week. Part of my argument then was to suggest that Don did not give sufficient weight to Webster’s use of organized in its definition of movement. One way in which Don downplays the organized aspect is by appealing to the example mentioned by the dictionary:

However, in the sample phrase the dictionary gives (‘the civil rights movement’), tight organization is not much more evident than we have seen in fundamentalism or evangelicalism, so I suspect the emphasis of the definition should fall on ‘activities working toward an objective’ or ‘effort to promote or attain an end’ rather than on the word organized.

This is one of those strange situations where I think Don’s example actually supplies more evidence for my point than for his because it shows the kind of presentism that misreads history by reading the way things are now back into the way they were. In its present state the civil rights movement is actually no longer a movment since it is not organized and lacks clear objectives, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in its heyday there was very clear and careful coordination of activity and effort aimed at advancing a definite agenda. Protests and marches were planned and executed. Legislation was introduced and achieved. Leaders were known and recognized as directing and speaking for the movement.

That does not mean that it was a single organization, but it would be fallacious to equate being organized with being an organization. In this regard, Don has set up his argument by using a qualifier—tight organization—that makes it hard to refute his point because there are varying definitions of tight.  But, the fact is that the reason the description “civil rights movement” could be applied to it was that there was a definite objective and the parties interested in that objective worked together toward it. Each may have had a particularly slant or sub-agenda (e.g., labor issues), but it was all part of the overarching objective. There is no doubt that the major portion of the movement was the objectives, but we cannot properly deny that there was organized effort to achieve these objectives.

When their goals were largely achieved and the collectiveness of their efforts began to break down, the movement stalled and died. That’s why most histories of it have a specific set of dates for the civil rights movement. They don’t all agree, as is common in these kinds of historical, sociological assessments, but they have an end date. This is why I think Don’s example, borrowed from Webster, actually reinforces my point, not his. The movement existed where there were clear objectives and organized effort to accomplish those. The same was true about the fundamentalist movement.

The dark side of drawing analogies between the civil rights movement and the fundamentalist movement is that it raises the question of whether some of what we see and detest about the vestiges of the civil rights movement actually has parallels in the vestiges of the fundamentalist movement. In its worst present day moments some heirs of the civil rights movement grandstand in order to build a following for themselves and feed on old grievances in order to advance current agendas (and sadly they usually have Rev. before their names!). Something tragic happens and they seize it to stir up trouble. Someone misspeaks or makes what looks like a bad decision and they pounce on it as an opportunity to score points. In the absence of real, significant objectives, the focus shifts toward keeping themselves relevant and recognized.

Frankly, it makes me very unhappy and uncomfortable completing the analogy. A movement has to be for something and it has to be working in coordination (even if loosely) to achieve it. When it loses its reason for existence and fragments into competing agendas, then it ceases to be the movement it once was. Subsets of the once strong movement begin to compete to be the true heirs of the movement, each adding some unique twist to identity markers and boundary questions. Rival voices try to prove their bona fides by taking on some opponent (real or imaginary). Loyalty is built by demonizing the others. Doubts about the need for and existence of the movement are met with them versus us talk rather than explanation of contrasting ideas and animating beliefs.

Thankfully, there are heirs of the fundamentalist movement who have retained their commitment to the ideas and animating beliefs, and that are motivated by a desire to guard the gospel and the purity of the church, not merely position themselves as the true defenders against all the pretenders. The fact, though, that there is very little unity and virtually no organized effort toward a common objective makes me firmly convinced that we cannot look to the movement to do what needs to be done. Really, we never should have made so much of the movement in the first place since the centerpiece of the battle is the church, not the movement.

Churches which agree regarding sound doctrine and separatist commitments should work together as they deem fitting to advance the mission of Jesus Christ. We don’t need anything bigger than that.

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Phantoms or Straw Men?

Don Johnson has written a post that provides a helpful contrast to what I have been writing here lately. I think this because he: (1) challenges my basic argument that there are no distinct and coherent movements at this stage of the game; (2) sets forth an argument that there are movements with differing objectives; and (3) raises questions about either the commitments or wisdom of those who gather together from what he considers to be the two movements. I think that’s a fair summary, but read it for yourself to check.

It seems to me that everything hangs on that second point, so let’s examine that. Ironically, both Don and I quote Webster dictionary as the basis for making our assessment. He does it in his post and I do it to make the opposite case in a post in October 2009. So, at least we can say that we agree that for a movement to exist there must be some unifying objective. Where we part, obviously, is that I don’t believe this to be the case anymore. He does. So what are the unifying objectives for evangelicalism and fundamentalism according to Don:

The evangelical objective is cooperation with as many as possible while maintaining in some fashion the integrity of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a group of churches, individuals, and Christian institutions that pursue separatism as an objective.

I have two main objections to Don’s view of things. First, the reasons why Don and I can both use Webster to argue opposite points is that Don drops part of Webster’s definition. Now, to be sure, he acknowledges this—“Based on this definition, one could dispute whether there has ever been much of a fundamentalist movement, especially if the word ‘organized’ is emphasized”—yet dismisses this as a non-problem. But it is a serious, thesis refuting problem! A thousand people at the shopping mall to buy clothes for school all have the same objective, but nobody would consider them a back-to-school clothes buying movement, would they? Without organization and coordination of effort, there is no movement. When you drop the word organized from the Webster definition you actually change the meaning.

Secondly, I think he has missed the mark on the statement of objectives too. Let me start with Don’s statement of evangelicalism’s objective. I think it unfortunate that Don inserts the words “in some fashion” as a means of calling into question their commitment to gospel integrity. Those words prejudice the sentence terribly and if they were dropped, one might legitimately wonder whether any early fundamentalists would actually have objected to it. Read the early history of the fundamentalist movement and you’ll quickly see that they were working hard to forge “cooperation with as many as possible” in order to counter the modernist threat.

That sentence not only prejudices the discussion, it also seems completely ineffective in summarizing the evangelical movement. It grants way too much for many professing evangelicals—maintaining gospel integrity doesn’t even seem to be on the radar for them. And it sells short some of the men that Don clearly thinks are evangelicals by ignoring their very strong defenses of the gospel.

More importantly, I believe he misses the mark on the objective of fundamentalism by making separatism the objective rather than the means to the objective. Fundamentalism formed for the defense of the faith, not for the purpose or objective of separation. Separation was seen as a necessary response to the denial of fundamental truths by the modernists (in the first round of fights) and to the embrace of ecumenicism by the new evangelicals (in the second round of fights). Never was the objective to separate. Laws said it was to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith. Pickering said it was to struggle for a pure church. Moritz called it contending for the faith. Beale said it was the pursuit of purity. Nobody that I know of said it was for separation’s sake. The difference between viewing separation as a characteristic versus an objective is huge.

Why is this important? If the point of fundamentalist separation was the purity of the church or the purity of the gospel (take your pick in my mind), then the place where one departs from the fundamentalist movement’s objective is when one abandons the purity of the church or the defense of the gospel, right? We must separate from those who deny the truths which are fundamental to the church’s faith, and we must separate from those who grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny those truths (in belief or practice).

Now, the main reason I think it is worth interacting with Don’s post is really more procedural in nature, i.e., how one goes about making separation/fellowship decisions. I will grant that Don represents one way of doing things and I am arguing for a different way of doing them. Don’s argument hinges on the existence of two movements, so he has to craft the case that they still exist. Once he has (or thinks he has) established that, then the case can be made that “people from each of the two movements” are joining together and that this might represent someone moving from one movement to another, or that some new objective is being pursued (which I take, given his definition, to be an implication of a new movement starting), or that confusion is being created. Everything hangs on his definition of movement and his supposition regarding objectives for the “two movements.” I would contend that he has built a straw man by redefining movement and prejudicing the discussion of objectives.

While I reject Don’s argument, I want to be clear that I do so for the sake of biblically defined and practiced separatism, not to reject it. What I have been trying to argue is that it is the movement mindset that obscures the issue, not clarifies it. Thinking in movement terms is what causes confusion, especially for those who trying to understand why we separate from some and not from others. 

Further, separation which is aimed at preserving a movement is fundamentally misguided and precisely why fundamentalism fragmented into its current state in the first place. Separation was never (or should never have been) about forming a movement. It was about the health of Christ’s church and the purity of the gospel. 

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On the Problems of Rejecting Labels While Retaining Separatist Commitments

Running short on time, but I do want to follow up on yesterday’s post, so I’ll do so in bullet style:

  • One of my greatest fears in openly challenging our over-dependence on labels is that some will fail to distinguish between the label and the content. When I say that I will not make separation and fellowship decisions merely on the basis of the label, it is precisely because I no longer have confidence that the label accurately represents the truths that matter to me in these areas. The truths believed and practiced are what matter.
  • Rather than de-emphasize separatism, my position actually seeks to maximize it by focusing attention specifically on that subject rather than assuming it. IOW, to say that the label Fundamentalist won’t be the basis for separation/fellowship decisions is not the same as saying commitment to orthodox doctrine and biblical separation won’t be.
  • One of the significant limitations in discussing this subject is that it is almost impossible to do without actually referring to the pre-existing labels. Even more significant is the fact that, in my experience, a lot of people think of it as erasing the lines between two groups of people. It has absolutely nothing to do with erasing any biblically drawn lines. My point is that wherever God has drawn the lines, those lines must be maintained and over-dependence on labels is actually obscuring the lines at some places and adding lines at other places.
  • Those first three points should make it clear that I am in no way trying to make a case for some kind of third party or middle movement between two movements. I don’t know how to be any clearer about the fact that I think that there are not two movements from which a third movement might emerge. It’s a combo of sloppy history and ecclesiastical mythology that shapes that paradigm.
  • It is vitally important for understanding my argument to distinguish between the movement concept and positions on separation. To say that there are not two movements is not the same as saying there are not two positions on separation. I reject the current binary labeling system because the labels have lost their value, but I actually embrace a binary taxonomy regarding separatism. IOW, there are separatists and non-separatists.

The bottom line is that our fellowship should be limited to those who are fundamental in doctrine and separatist in their commitments. Others, with more influence than me, have proposed alternative labels, but nothing has stuck. Even if something did, it would have a limited shelf-life and would face the same problem as the current labels. So, let’s look more deeply and carefully than the labels.

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On Movements, Labels, and Assumptions

I’ll not rehash my arguments here, but I’ve previously argued (repeatedly and rigorously) that there are no coherent and distinct movements that fit the Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism labels. I gladly concede that there are Fundamentalists, but there is no Fundamentalist movement. There are Evangelicals, but there is no Evangelical movement. As far back as the 70s people starting adding modifiers because of the breakdown of Fundamentalist unity, and the Evangelicals have experienced the same thing.

I think there are clear, distinctive markers by which one may identify both Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but hardly anybody agrees about exactly what those are and some of that disagreement produces the modifiers and qualifiers. I spent a significant amount of time earlier trying to unpack the idea that we should, therefore, stop using those labels as the means by which we make separation decisions. One man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Conservative Evangelical. And one man’s Conservative Evangelical is another man’s Fundamentalist. Also, one man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Heretic (actually this one often is applied mutually).

My point has been to argue that the real issue is biblically defined separation since the biblical call to separation existed long before Fundamentalism. If I lived in 1915, my responsibility would be to understand and apply the biblical principles to the challenges of that day. Nobody made their fellowship decisions on the basis of whether someone self-identified by the label Fundamentalist or not. Since the Bible is the normative standard for our practices we must base our decisions on what it states, not traditions (as in traditionally held applications).

Let me sharpen my point a little. When I read or hear someone call for separation from another person or ministry on the basis that they are not Fundamentalist or that they are Evangelical, my first question is something like, “On what basis is that assessment being made?” Perhaps I’m a little gun shy since I’ve had people say that I am not a Fundamentalist because I preach from the NASB (or for any number of items from a list that ranges from what our girls wear to my soteriology). But it’s worse than being gun shy, it’s rooted in the horrible decisions of self-professing separatists to ignore serious theological error merely because someone wears the right label or has historically run in the right crowd. That someone like Jack Schaap calls himself a Fundamentalist means absolutely nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not. That someone who grew up outside of the Fundamentalist orbit and never identified himself by that label doesn’t do so means almost nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not.

If a man believes (and practices that belief) that there is no Christian fellowship outside of agreement on the fundamentals of the faith, and that man believes (and practices that belief) that it is wrong to grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential Christian doctrines, then I really don’t care what he calls himself. If he chooses to call himself a Fundamentalist, so be it. If he chooses not to call himself that, so what. The issue is separation vs. non-separation, not wearing the right label.

This is where the assumption part comes into the discussion. It seems to me that one ramification of the over-dependence on the labels is that it makes assumptions about what really needs to be proven. Of course, that is actually part of how labels develop and function—we put tags on things in order to cut down on the time it takes to sort everything out. I pastor a Baptist church and that label—Baptist—is shorthand for some specific beliefs and practices. I love that label and think it still serves its purpose very well, but I don’t think the Fundamentalist label does that anymore. Think about it, if you kept visiting Baptist churches that didn’t believe in the immersion of believers, wouldn’t begin to think that the label Baptist was becoming less effective? You would no longer be able to assume what you used to assume.

My contention is that there are Fundamentalists about whom it would be dangerous to assume that by wearing that label they hold to historic Fundamentalist beliefs and practices. Likewise, there are Evangelicals about whom it would be dangerous to assume that they hold to historic Evangelical beliefs and practices. Not all who claim to be Fundamental are. Not all who claim to be Evangelical are. Here’s the tricky one—some who don’t claim to be Fundamentalists actually are. The bottom line is that to base one’s fellowship decisions on the labels would be a serious mistake.

A few years ago one of our seminary grads was preparing to plant a church in another state and wanted support from our church. We had a pretty straightforward conversation over lunch one day about the church he intended to plant as to whether or not it was going to be a Baptist church. The cause of the discussion was the fact that the word Baptist was not going to be used in its name. That didn’t really matter to me. I wanted to know what the doctrine and practices of the church would be. The funny part of the conversation, at least to me, was when he kept saying it wouldn’t be a Baptist church (because it wasn’t named that) but couldn’t tell me one thing that a Baptist church believed and practiced that this new church wouldn’t believe and practice. Because I was convinced that it was in fact a Baptist church, I lead our church to help significantly in the church plant. Now, I readily acknowledge that some of my Baptist brethren would not do so. That’s fine. Each assembly needs to do what it thinks best on these matters. For me, though, the label wasn’t the issue. The content was.

The same thing holds true regarding ecclesiastical separation. What does a man believe? Does he implement those beliefs clearly and with some consistency? I may be out on an island by myself, but I’ve put the label thing behind me–unless I can get everybody to embrace a new one that I get define! :)

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Because Philly is lovely in February…

Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary has announced the new format and the speakers for their February conference. The announcement has already generated some discussion and met with some complaints. That’s probably a good thing. Although I intend to ignore the lunatic fringe, I do think that there is some profit in examining some of the issues a conference like this might raise. First up, for me, is the question of how I made the decision to participate in it. There are probably several facets to my answer, but let me start with a somewhat mechanical one. Back in 2001 I did a workshop for the Mid-America Conference on Preaching entitled “Where the Rubber Meets the Road: The Application of Ecclesiastical Separation” (UPDATE: I remembered that I also did this for an AACCS meeting in 2005 and they posted in online, so here it is if you want to see the outline) and in that session I laid out a series of questions that govern my decisions. Here they are:

  1. At what level is this relationship? (e.g., personal, educational, ecclesiastical)
  2. What variables are involved?
  • Are they fundamental in doctrine? If no, then it is a dead issue. If yes, then…
  • Are they separatist in commitment and practice (i.e., they call themselves that and actually implement it)? If no, then the relationship is stalled. If yes, then…
  • Are they compatible with our theological distinctives?
  • Are they consistent with our philosophical direction?
  • Is this a matter of immediate significance to our church?

So, let me apply to this to the conference in Lansdale:

  1. At what level is this relationship? Since this is a conference connected to Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, I take it to be mainly an educational/academic setting, but that is a point open to debate since it is closely connected to Calvary Baptist Church.
  2. What are the variables involved?
  • Are they fundamental in doctrine? Yes, CBTS and all speakers involved are.
  • Are they separatist in commitment and practice? Yes, CBTS and all speakers involved openly state their belief in separatist principles and have implemented them. Granted, there is not complete agreement among the speakers with regard to some applications, but none disagree with what I consider to be the sine qua non of separatist commitments. Positive answers to these two questions means that some level of cooperation is permissible.
  • Are they compatible with our theological distinctives? There is enough compatibility for a conference context. IOW, the differences between DBTS and Calvary are not such that would compromise our distinctives. The differences between the other speakers and DBTS or myself are not the kind that would compromise our distinctives, particularly since we are in very close agreement regarding the specific conference theme.
  • Are they compatible with our philosophical direction? In terms of the conference theme, I believe the answer is yes. In terms of ministry philosophy, Mark Dever and I are very compatible on this point.
  • Is this a matter of immediate significance to our church? Nope. It’s a conference in Philly that most of the folks in our church will be unaware of unless I happen to mention it in a request for prayer support. It does not commit our church to anything or involve it in any ecclesiastical relationship.

I would imagine that some take exception with my answer to the separatist question, especially as it relates to Mark Dever. On that point I would simply say: (1) Mark has personally affirmed to me his agreement with what I believe to be the three essential points regarding biblical separatism; (2) Mark and Capitol Hill have actually applied these principles in real life; and (3) Mark and CHBC do some things and have some relationships that I wouldn’t feel at liberty to do and have, but then again so do a whole lot of other people along side of whom I’ve spoken in conferences.

There are other factors that go into most decisions, but what I’ve tried to outline here is what I consider some non-negotiable (fundamental doctrine, separatist convictions and practice) as well as practical matters (consistency regarding important beliefs and practices). Other prudential and personal matters have their proper place, but this is the basic grid from which I operate. 


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Odds & A Loose End

Others have referenced it, but in case you haven’t seen it, I think it is worth noting two posts related to the Beck-oning happening on the cultural-political-religious landscape. I note the first post (a World mag article which counts Beck among the converted on the basis, it seems, of sentiment alone) with bewilderment and the second (an excellent counterword by Justin Taylor) with thankfulness. If you only have time to read one, please read Justin’s.

I’d like to invite you to the Mid-America Conference on Preaching on October 21-22, 2010. Our theme is Church, Kingdom, Mission: Understanding and Assessing the Missional Church Movement. More info can be found here. The more I read, watch, and listen, the more I think this is a timely and needed subject to spend time thinking and talking about. I doubt we’ll all be in agreement on all points, but I think all will be encouraged and equipped by the time in the Word together.

Just to wrap this one up and put it away…as I figured, no one took me up on the challenge I extended two posts ago. That being the case, I stand by my assessment that some who “rejoiced” at the end of the merger talks were insincerely expressing concern about Faith while actually attempting to discredit a good man and good seminary. Most of the time I just ignore this kind of junk, but two factors weighed into my decision this time: (1) it is always difficult for the the people being unjustly attacked to respond; and (2) there seems to be a rise in the use of blog articles as a form of guerilla warfare–one person writes something, then others email it along or repost it in order to chum the waters. Regarding that second point, it is frightening that Christians sometimes adopt the mindless stance of our culture wherein anything that is published online is presumed to have some legitimacy. The web seems to be the new water cooler. Christians should never have gathered there to hear and pass along the latest rumor, gossip, and innuendo, and the same holds true for the web.

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The City of Brotherly Shove

Steve Davis, a church planter in Philly, has posted an article on church planting over at SI that is another in a series he should have titled “Provocations.” I suppose it is a good thing to provoke discussion, but I’ll confess to finding the “I’m not saying I believe that, I’m just asking questions” approach a little irritating at times. Steve accomplishes his goal of generating discussion, so he’s an effective writer in that sense. Since Steve’s a good man and a friend, I am sure he won’t mind me interacting a little with his questions. Here’s the list:

  • Do you have one pastor carrying the leadership and preaching burden alone or a leadership team where the lead pastor is “one among equals in decision-making; first among equals in vision and leadership?”
  • Do you organize traditional Sunday School, Sunday AM, PM and Wednesday prayer meeting services or develop gatherings according to patterns more appropriate to cultural patterns where the church is situated?
  • Do you create and multiply programs for different age or affinity groups to attract people to the church or does the church seek bridges of contact in the community for incarnational ministry?
  • Do you insist on the exclusive use of more formal, traditional hymns and outdated gospel choruses or do you seek a balance with music that is theologically sound, spiritually uplifting, and comprehensible and which includes contemporary forms?
  • Do you employ a church name that creates unnecessary barriers or choose a name which reflects an aspect of your ministry without denominational code words?
  • Do you utilize a website designed to attract Christians who move into your area while confusing unbelievers with Christian-speak language like “separatistic,” and “militant” and listing everything you believe about everything, or do you simplify your public presentation in order to catch and hold the attention of the unchurched as well?
  • Do you place the American flag and the Christian flag behind the podium and give the appearance of supporting a conservative political agenda (usually Republican) or do you urge your people to be good citizens regardless of their political views and affiliations and refuse to allow politics to highjack the cause of the gospel?
  • Do you give public invitations after each service singing “Just As I Am” or “I Surrender All” with a decisional emphasis or do you emphasize progressive and radical transformation through biblical discipleship and in relational community?


A few thoughts:

  1. This list contains an odd mixture of biblical and traditional issues. For example, are the matters of pastoral office and leadership on the same plane as the number and timing of services?
  2. Likewise, I found it strange that one question would imply that being attractional is old-school, but then another would address the issue of church name as a matter that might create a barrier. IOW, it seems like you’re left with this advice, “Drop Baptist (or whatever else you might be) because it stands in the way of attracting folks, but remember the church is not about attracting people.” For the record, I’ve looked for actually statistical evidence that using Baptist hinders a church plant and have not been able to find it. Personally, I think this is way overplayed.
  3. On the whole question of church planting pastor(s), I think there is real wisdom in a team-based church planting, but this really is a question that needs to be looked at biblically rather than as an issue of old school versus new school. I have yet to see any biblical basis for claiming that a church planting team necessarily functions like a team of pastors. Certainly Paul and his associates did not seem to function in the way Steve describes. Setting the apostle aside, it seems that one man, Epaphras was the evangelist who took the gospel to Colossae and planted that church. We see no record of a team involved there. Again, I like the team concept, but that is different than saying it is biblically mandated. And I think it is a biblical and methodological mistake to transpose how an established church functions over to the church planting task. In fact, I’d suggest it may evidence too much influence being exerted by fairly modern traditions rather than NT practices.
  4. I’d like to sound a note of concern on this whole attractional versus incarnational stuff. There is no doubt that we must constantly examine ourselves to make certain that we are being controlled by the Scriptures, but fads and buzzwords usually prove to be of very little long-term profit. I know that sounds harsh, but if anyone spends some time reading those who are articulating these concepts they will quickly see that these words are being used very poorly and often confusingly. Ironically, what they share in common is a view of the church that is controlled by those outside of the church—either attracting them or serving them in order to make contact with them. I don’t have time to develop it now, but I think this is a colossal mistake. And I’ve said pretty clearly what I think about the incarnational ministry concept here.
  5. I agree completely with the flag comment, but it and the questions about websites and invitations suggest that Steve is concerned about a group of people with which I don’t have much contact. Seriously, are there folks still singing “Just As I Am” and “I Surrender All” at the end of every service?
  6. In my mind, we can’t emphasize the need to plant churches too much, so I am glad that Steve has raised this subject. And the need in urban areas is great, so I am grateful for that part of it as well. I don’t think we do much good if we pit urban against suburban, and highlighting the needs in urban areas doesn’t inherently do that. It should be both/and, not either/or. Strategically, though, I think it is fair to say that the tendency has been to focus on new growth areas more than urban areas. Steve is right to sound the note about that need and some of the challenges involved in addressing it. We definitely need to think carefully about the task, but it is even more important, I think, that we get more aggressive in doing it. So, let me extend an invitation to those who have a burden for the cities to come to Detroit. We’re already working on it and would love the help and to help you!

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Remembering 9/11/01

Today marks the 9th anniversary of 9/11. I imagine you, like me, were stunned by the events of that day. In the days shortly after it, I wrote an article for our congregation aimed at helping us think biblically about what had happened. I am posting it today as a reminder as we remember those horrific events.

Seizing the Opportunity and Speaking with Grace (Colossians 4:5-6)

            September 11, 2001 will be a date not easily forgotten. You probably, like I, watched the events in a state of disbelief. This is an almost unfathomable act of evil. Obviously, reaction to this horror has run the gamut from shock to rage. As believers, we should take great care that our response to this tragedy is God-honoring. In the words of Colossians 4:5-6, we need to make the most of this opportunity while speaking with grace in a way that honors God.

Reactions Unworthy of Those Who Know God

            The potential for sinful responses is not limited to unbelievers—too often God’s people also react in a fleshly way. Therefore, we must guard ourselves against unholy impulses and actions. Please allow me to challenge about some of these.

We should not react with sinful attitudes and words that are based on and promote ethnic caricatures and stereotypes.

            It has already become clear that many are too ready to lump all people of Arab descent into the category of terrorist or as an enemy of America. This is wrong. The kind of people who committed these atrocities are, in fact, a very small minority in the Arab world. Although seldom recognized, there are Christian (read non-Muslim) communities among the Arabs even in Palestine. These communities would have nothing to do with these terrorist activities. In addition to these, not all Muslims are committed to the radical stance of those who consider themselves on jihad, or holy war against infidels.

            As Bible-believing Christians who wear the label, fundamentalists, we should be aware of how unfair and inaccurate it is to transpose the actions of a small circle of radicals to an entire group. For example, we have all tried desperately to put distance between biblical Christianity and groups like the Branch Davidians, or, before that, the followers of Jim Jones. In spite of our efforts to make a legitimate distinction between biblical fundamentalism and radical extremists, many people wrongly continue to lump all fundamentalists into one stereotyped group.

            The same wrong mindset can happen here. The Arab people, as a whole, have not committed these barbaric acts. A sub-group of Arab people, committed to a radical vision of Islamic domination, have done this. The bottom line is that Arab people are also made in the image of God, so we must be very careful not to violate God’s Word with our speech and attitudes. James 3:8-11 urges us,

8But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?

Whether we like it or not, we cannot honor God by slurring those who bear His image. Certainly, we can condemn terrorism and terrorists, but that is not accomplished by ethnic slurs and stereotypes. God has established a permanent moral guideline to deal with the evil act committed by these cowards. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). The sanctity of human life which rules out ethnic slurs also established the basis of capital punishment. If these terrorists were backed by an organized effort to commit mass murder, and that seems clearly to be the case, then the righteous response is to prosecute this by judicial or military means. 

We should not react with sinful self-righteousness and judgmentalism that assumes that we sit in God’s place.

            There is another dangerous reaction that must be avoided by Bible-believing Christians, and that is the tendency to claim on God’s behalf that this horrible crime is an act of His judgment. Of course, on the most basic and generic level, since it was a sinful act of sinful people, it is an outworking of God’s judgment. Man’s original and on-going rebellion against God has led to a downward spiral of degeneration, a part of which is presented in Scripture as God giving mankind “over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Murder is among the list of things “which are not proper” included in v. 29. Mankind left to itself morally disintegrates as a result of God’s judgment on sin.

            But to go beyond that and argue that this particular, horrible incident is a direct act of God’s judgment against the sins of America, of New York City, or against some specific kind of sin within that city or our country is to go beyond what can be said without specific revelation from God. We know that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God’s judgment because the Bible tells us so. We know that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians as God’s judgment against it because the pages of Scripture provide us with God’s own interpretation of that event. The thing we lack with regard to this terrorist attack is God’s authoritative Word that it was an act of His direct judgment. It may or may not have been; we cannot speak for God if He has not spoken.

            I am reminded of a resolution submitted to a resolution committee that I served on. Following an earthquake in California, it made the incredible claim that since the epicenter of the earthquake was in Hollywood, it was an evident sign of God’s judgment on the moral decadence of that community and of the entertainment industry. To the surprise of some others, I objected to the resolution because I found it impossible to prove that God had intended an earthquake for this purpose. The objections to my objection stopped when I asked the simple question, “So next time an earthquake destroys a fundamental, Baptist church, are we to conclude that it was God’s judgment on that church?” The plain fact of life in a sin-cursed world is that catastrophes happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous. The same must be said about terrorist activities.

            If we are not careful, we can embrace the wrong attitude that Jesus Christ confronted during His earthly ministry. At one point, His disciples saw a blind man and supposed that this blindness must be due to someone’s sin, either his or his parents (John 9:2). To this “Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (v. 3). In other words, God’s providence was not so easily pigeon-holed as to tie every “bad” thing in life to a specific matter of sin. God permits some things so that His own power and glory may be displayed. The tendency to assume God’s direct judgment as the basis for every tragedy is as old as Job’s friends, and, just like then, it is wrong.

            Please do not mistake my point, I am not denying that America is sick with its own sinfulness or that New York City is not representative of the moral decline in our country. I am simply arguing that we cannot make dogmatic assertions on behalf of God—we are not His press agents. If God has told us that He did something in order to send judgment in response to the specific sinfulness of people, then we must speak. But He has not done so in this case, so we should not speak on His behalf. 

How Then Should We Respond?

            It is not enough to rule out certain reactions, we also need to focus our attention on proper biblical responses to tragedies and terrors like these. I would like to suggest three important responses that should characterize Bible believers in the face of such horrific evil and enormous tragedy.

We must recognize God’s sovereign right to rule, even when He permits men to act in barbaric ways that contradict His both His character and Word (Ps 115:3; Lam 3:32-33; cf. Hab 1:2-12; Ps 76:10).

            There are only two options in assessing this kind of situation: either God could have or could not have stopped it from occurring. I hope that you do not believe that God was unable to stop it. To think that would be to deny what the Bible clearly teaches about His omnipotence and sovereignty. So, how do we defend the Bible’s teaching about God’s right to rule and His righteousness when things like this happen? Put bluntly, if you God was able to stop these barbaric attacks and did not, how can we claim that He is a righteous God?

            To this we must first reply that God is never the source of evil and God never entices men to commit evil acts (James 1:14-15). Such barbaric behavior finds its source in the depraved heart and mind of man, not God. Additionally, we can clearly affirm that murderers evidence their true father is the devil (John 8:44). These terrorists were doing the work of the devil, not God. Their religious fanaticism is filled with hatred and murder because it is a religion of satanic inspiration.

            But, we must also defend God’s rights and righteousness by reminding ourselves that it is only His preserving grace that restrains such barbaric behavior from being the common place experience of human existence. If left to himself, man is not progressively moving toward higher forms of enlightened behavior and moral development. The sad reality is that violent crime is a rampant problem in our country. And, the even sadder reality is that millions of unborn babies are murdered every year in our nation. The barbaric nature of these terrorist acts is diminished by these realities, but it should vividly remind us that our civilized world is not a righteous world. It is only God’s restraining, or common, grace that has preserved our nation from experiencing these atrocities previously. We have not been protected from them by any inherent righteousness.

We must recognize that, historically, such tragedies have been used by God to awaken people to their impotence and mortality.

            Times of national tragedy, whether military, natural disaster, or economic collapse often serve as a shocking reminder of our inability to control life and guarantee our future. Those reminders can serve as a good context for the truth of God to be proclaimed and call people to trust in Him. God warned the people of Israel about the dangerous of complacency and a false sense of self-sufficiency:

10Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, 12then watch yourself, that you do not forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut 6:10-12).

I cannot think of any more powerful exhibition of our inability to control life than the powerless feeling we all experienced watching those planes crash into the World Trade Center towers, and that was only multiplied when those twin towers crumbled to the ground. In spite of all the talk of overcoming these attacks, it is abundantly clear that we cannot guarantee safety and we cannot control the future.

            One of the most amazing moments for me in watching the coverage came during a press conference by New York mayor, Rudy Guiliani. When asked what made the difference between the condition of those who still were alive under the rubble and those who had been immediately crushed, a clearly wearied Guiliani responded simply, “The will of God.” I am not suggesting that this any more theological significance to his words than the simple confession that it was out of human control. But that is exactly my point—when people begin to recognize this simple fact it may be signaling an open door for God’s people to point people to God.

We must clearly articulate that such barbaric acts of cruelty are not the inherent by-product of religious faith, that genuine Christianity considers such destruction and murder as sin that will incur the wrath of God (Gen 9:6; Rev 21:8).

            We should not hesitate to condemn murder at every turn, even if it comes under cloak of religious belief. Murder is not right and those who practice it will face God’s wrath for it. There is no basis in biblical faith for the imposition of faith upon people against their wills or at the threat of their lives. Dogmatic commitment to the supremacy of Jesus Christ and the exclusivity of salvation in Him need to be defended while at the same time condemning the kind of radical fanaticism that motivated these murderous acts.

            Proper biblical faith in the true God does recognize that He will bring about final judgment in a way that will be thoroughly righteous. The apostle Paul sets forth the case in Romans 2:5-11,

5But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 9There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11For there is no partiality with God.

Pertinent to our point here are the truths: (1) that there will certainly be a day of judgment upon for all people (vv. 9-10), (2) that the judgment will be done by God Himself at His appointed time (“the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God”), and (3) that this judgment will be thorough and impartial (vv. 9-11). Believers are content to wait for the revelation of God’s wrath and not take things into their own hands.

            Also, New Testament Christianity is not to be spread through means of military might. Contrary to the mindset of Islamic fundamentalists, Bible believing Christians recognize that faith in Jesus Christ is a result of spiritual rebirth, not coercion.

We must remember that, as believers, it is right to do good to all men and that we ought to feel and show compassion for those who have and are suffering horribly as a result of these crimes (Gal 6:10; Rom 12:15).

            If any people should be moved with compassion about this kind of situation, it should be those who understand the eternal ramifications of the actions taken by these terrorists. The loss of life has been horrendous, and the spiritual ramifications of this should break our hearts. And, it is only from broken hearts that we can express the solemn truth about the eternal consequences of not knowing Jesus Christ. But we also should have compassion on a creaturely, temporal level. Just as we should rejoice with those who rejoice, we need to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). A Christ like response to tragedies like this is to exhibit genuine sympathy with those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured themselves or will care for those who have been injured.

            I honestly don’t know all the implications of these biblical principles, nor can I say how each believer should respond precisely. What I do know is that any attitudes, actions, or words that reveal callousness toward genuine human needs, whether spiritual or physical, is wrong. Remember, the second chief commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Rom 5:14), and genuine love is always demonstrated (1 John 3:18).

We must commit ourselves to pray that the Word would spread rapidly so that it will be glorified and we must commit ourselves to the task of proclaiming God’s Word as the source of hope in this life and for all eternity (2 Ths 3:1; Col 4:2-6; Ps 73:25-26).

            Since everything that God does is intended to promote His own glory, we should assume that at least one clear purpose of His permission in this case is so that His glory can be made known. Given what I have said above about the opportunity provided by calamities and catastrophes, we should realize the means by which God will reveal His glory is the saving power of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we need to really seek the Lord for open doors for the Word and the boldness to go through them (Col 4:3-5; Eph 6:18-20). It may be that God will graciously send a time of revival among His people and awakening in our country.

 At a time like this the truth of Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 stands out in sharp relief:

2It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. 3Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. 4The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. 5It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools.

The events of September 11, 2001 vividly demonstrate that life is fragile, and the evident fear that it is has produced can serve the purposes of the gospel. Believers should carefully, compassionately, yet clearly seize this moment to communicate the need to turn to Christ in faith now. Perhaps there will be multitudes of men, women, and children who will cry out like the Philippian jailer did when his world was rocked by an earthquake. May we be committed to be ready with the same answer Paul offered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). 

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