Archive for October, 2010

Common ground?

Those who have followed my blog and/or have kept up to speed with some of the “controversies”  in our little neck of the ecclesiastical woods probably know that Lou Martuneac (a blogger who lives in what a friend called “the toxic climate of Illinois”) and I have had our differences on a wide range of issues. Let’s just say that Lou is not a big fan of mine. Although, by looking at the numbers next to his label categories, I (14) still trail Kevin Bauder (18) by four posts and probably can never catch John MacArthur (35). It is gratifying to know that I have the lead over Al Mohler (7) and Mike Harding (6). It’s not particularly a competition which I am trying to win, but, quite frankly, I pretty much enjoy beating Mike Harding in anything.

Well, anyway, I happened upon a quote from Lou yesterday and thought it might represent a point of agreement between us, some potential common ground to promote healing or whatever.  Here’s the quote:

It is rare to read of one coming out of Calvinism and giving sound biblical reasons for the departure.

I too have found it rare that Calvinism is rejected for sound biblical reasons. Of course, it’s possible that he might mean something different than I would by those words, but one can hope, can’t he?

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Something light for a Monday

We are hosting our conference this week and I’ve got lots to do in prep for that, so nothing serious for today. Here are a couple of things that I found amusing.

This political attack ad takes attacks ad to a whole new level! Hilarious.

The last political pitch was just flat out funny, but this one is funny in a painful kind of way. Alvin Greene clearly has been coached about sticking to a single talking point. First two thoughts when I initially saw this: (1) It is amazing and sad that this is actually a candidate for the United States Senate; and (2) his dogged and unthinking regurgitation of the same lines again and again reminded me of some bloggers.

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Stuff Fundies Should Hate

Psalm 119:30 says, ‘I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.’ That word laid is a sexual term which literally means the same thing as a man laying with a woman. God was saying that God’s laws should be as intimate as a marriage partner in a sexual liason.

In the next verse, David gets more graphic. ‘I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame.’ That word stuck means ‘the act of a man entering his wife’; it is sexual intercourse. God says that the Word of God should be the Christian’s lover, and nothing should be closer to him than the Bible. The Words of God are supposed to be the most intimate lover of his life.”

- Dr. Jack Schaap, Marriage: The Divine Intimacy, p. 50.

I was reminded again of this nonsense by a site that likes to skewer fundamentalism by pointing out its strangest birds and their bizarre views and practices. Where does one start when interacting with garbage like this? Let’s start with the bad exegesis and work out from there. First, I have no idea where Jack came up with these definitions (other than his twisted imagination). The words used here don’t mean anything close to what he says. The Hebrew word translated “laid” has absolutely nothing to do with sex. It looks like Schaap is importing English slang into his definition of a biblical term. Frankly, that he sees a reference to sex in the meaning of that word is disturbing.

The word translated “stuck” does not mean what he says either. It can be used to signify close relationships like husband and wife (Gen 2:27), but is also used in this way about Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and the men of Judah and David (2 Sam 20:2). The word has nothing to do with one thing entering another. It means for two things to be attached to one another. Six verses earlier the psalmist uses the same word when he writes, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust” (Ps 119:25).

Even if Schaap could make the case, which he can’t, that in some places the word has a sexual nuance, he is guilty of a basic exegetical fallacy to conclude that it has that nuance in this verse. Context is always king in determining the precise meaning of a term out of its possible meanings. To have a sexual connotation would demand that there be something about sex in the context, but there is nothing that would even remotely suggest that here. Schaap reads that into the text, not out of the text.

So, there is absolutely no justification lexically for his seeing sexual analogies in these words. It’s possible that, in a moment of charity, we might grant that, since the word translated “stuck” can be used of how closely attached to one another a husband and wife ought to be, it is possible to argue that the relationship between a person and God’s testimonies ought to be like the closeness of a marriage. To say that a husband and wife are inseparable, though, isn’t a reference to sex. To pick that part of the marital relationship and transfer it to a person’s relationship to God’s Word is just plain sick. It is patently unfaithful to the text of Scripture and creates a horribly distorted conception of how we relate to God’s Word.

If this bizarre window into the mind and ministry of Jack Schaap and FBC Hammond were an anomaly, it might be understandable to not make too much of it. It isn’t an anomaly though. God’s Word carries about as much authority there as a book of illustrations—both function as convenient sources from which texts and stories can be sprinkled throughout the pastor’s speeches. Whenever God’s Word is subjected to an egotistic agenda like the one that has ruled Hammond for decades, that same agenda will produce and protect the kind of moral perversions that have plagued that place.

Theological perversion and moral perversion tend to go hand in hand. When Schaap treats God’s Word like this, it is not difficult to see why the two grow side by side. Describing a believer’s commitment to God’s Word in sexual terms is sick and sickening. Only a warped mind would see sex in Psalm 119:30-31.

I am extremely grateful that I grew up and have served Christ in a completely different orbit than the one inhabited by men like Hyles and Schaap. I first heard of Hyles while I was a college student, but it didn’t take more than a few sermon tapes (back in the days of cassettes!) to conclude that I had heard enough. During my senior year (1982-83), when Hyles came to Greenville to preach, I volunteered to work in the dorm in place of the guys who wanted to go hear him. What stands out about that now is that he preached some weird sermon about “giving your all to Jesus” from Isaiah that included an edgy sexual slant to it (at least that was the report from one of the guys who went). And even back then there were moral issues being covered up. I raise this to simply point out that none of this is a new phenomenon. Hammond has been marked by biblical and moral unfaithfulness for decades.

Frankly, I would be very happy to live my life completely ignoring the weirdness found in Hammond and its orbit. It matters to me mainly as a window into the very strange ecclesiastical politics by which too many people operate. Men can go to Hammond or speak along side of Schaap and it doesn’t really seem to matter at all. Schaap trys to recoup some of his losses among his father-in-law’s old guard by cozying up to some new friends and we’re supposed to be hopeful that changes are being made. 

None of this is built on theological agreement. It’s all about pragmatic alliances. This will last about as long as when the Sword crowd and the FBF/World Congress of Fundamentalists forged a temporary alliance against Falwell in the mid 1980s. It will end in the same kind of ugly break up that did, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just like back then, talk about biblical separation will ring hollow because it is being applied so arbitrarily. Seriously, Schaap is okay, but Dever is not? Complain about both or neither, but don’t bother talking to me if you intend to justify or ignore Schaap while condemning Dever. If you are vocal about “platform fellowship” with others, but ignore it with Schaap, you have no credibility. (If you don’t have a problem with Schaap, you lack a lot more than credibility!)

If people are really concerned about the next generation, then they should get serious about applying the truth in this generation.

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Quick hits and misses

Nothing important here, but if you want a break, here goes…

Anybody who throws like this shouldn’t be elected to anything! Seriously, if the man doesn’t have better judgment than to keep himself out of situations that make him look like a dork, then there is no way he should be a senator.

A sad, but poignant illustration of the emptiness of a false gospel and fraudulent ministry.

This article about cell phones and being late is interesting to think about from a cultural frame of reference, i.e., how the norms by which a culture operate gradually change.

My excuse for not taking something when I start to feel sick is that it always makes me sicker. Here’s proof for my wife that I was right! :)

This is completely crazy! I have had crocodile and it doesn’t taste that good. I wonder what crocodiles think about humans?

Somehow, I imagine some evidentialist apologist thinks this just finally might be the discovery that propels evangelism forward, but just like every other extra-biblical evidence that caused such hope, it will disappoint.

All I can say about this is ouch and amazing.

Probably a parable about discernment in this somewhere.

Given my Diet Coke consumption, this was a little concerning. Anybody that can debunk it, please let me know!

This is probably the perfect storm for what’s going wrong in American culture and politics–that someone would offer a million bucks to become a naked human billboard in front of the president and that it would be accepted.

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Reading it In or Drawing it Out?

The last post focused on one way to handle the problems assumptions can cause in communication—we should ask questions to help surface and evaluate assumptions that have a significant impact on the discussion. I am not advocating questioning people and ideas as a method for nitpicking our way to winning a debate. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the guy who won’t answer questions because he is after his agenda, not the truth. Nitpickers are not after truth either. Let’s avoid both of those in pursuit of constructive, candid discussion about things that matter.

Another kind of unhelpful assumption is one that takes place when an interpreter reads his ideas into a comment or text instead of hearing what the speaker or writer is actually saying. My guess is that this happens most often due to carelessness, not maliciousness. When carelessness doesn’t have serious consequences, we can be content to write it off as a simple mistake. A friend of mine likes to joke that ours is the coldest church in America because we tend to keep the temperature in the auditorium pretty chilly. Suppose someone hears my friend say this and assumes that it is a description of our spiritual temperature—that would be a simple mistake that could affect the third person’s view of our congregation negatively, right? That wouldn’t be cool (pardon the pun), but it wouldn’t be a serious problem unless the third person began to spread that wrong conclusion to other people. “Inter-City is one of the coldest churches in America!” At that point it degenerates from a simple mistake to a culpable error. Bottom line: rather than assuming that you understand what a potentially negative statement means, verify it.

It is always, though, a serious problem when anybody makes careless assumptions about what the Bible means. My main concern here is not with the person who repeatedly and deliberately twists the Bible—that kind of person isn’t worth trying to engage in conversation with, just rebuke and withdraw from him. My concern is with the well-intentioned person who does this. Sadly, there is a long history of snatching texts out of their historical and biblical context to use in ways that “speak to us” personally in spite of the fact that they simply don’t mean what we are now saying they mean. Instead of these personalized little “blessings” we find this way, we should seek the meaning of the text that: (1) it had at the time it was written; (2) is found in the words chosen and arranged by the writer; and (3) is consistent with the overall message and doctrine of the Scriptures. The technical way of saying that is that we should use the historical, grammatical, theological method of interpreting Scripture.

I’d like to use an example again because it might be helpful, but let me repeat my concern about examples tending to draw us away from the idea which they serve. Let’s consider how someone might read their assumptions into a text like Romans 16:17, “Now I urge you brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” This is a very important text that should control our thinking about how we respond to false teaching, but even clear and important texts can be handled carelessly.

For instance, suppose someone takes the words “the teaching you learned” (or as the KJV puts it, “the doctrine which ye have learned”) as meaning “the things you were taught by your teachers,” would that be the correct way of understanding these words? To put it more clearly, is the Apostle Paul really saying that once you have been taught something, you are to reject anybody that teaches something different from what you were taught? Or is he saying that we must reject those who are teaching something different than the truth of God’s Word? Those are two very different conclusions.

The former really creates a cult-like adherence to the teachings of men, while the latter places all teachers under the authority of God’s Word. The former fails to read the text in terms of its historical and biblical context, resulting in the strange argument that to obey this text means that nobody would ever be able to shift their views from whatever they were taught. That would mean that if you were raised being taught that sprinkling water on infants was correct, then you should avoid those who teach things contrary to “the teaching you learned.” Some of us who have had mixed messages taught to us are in trouble! In college I was taught to be suspicious of dispensationalism, but in seminary I was taught that it was good. Should I have stayed suspicious or was I right to change my view?

Clearly, Paul was not teaching the infallibility of all teachers in all times. He was anchoring these Roman believers in the gospel and Apostolic doctrine which they had received and which he had just reinforced via this letter. The obligation of every believer is to test what he has been taught by human teachers against what has been taught in the Scriptures. No one who finds that he was taught wrongly can justify continuing in that error simply because it is what he was taught. Understood in its context, Paul is telling them not to turn away from God’s truth communicated in the Scriptures (cf. 1:1-2; 16:25-27). I’ve had the privilege of sitting under great teachers, but none of them would claim infallibility and none of them would believe that their teachings are the test of truth. They would say that their teachings must be tested by the Truth.

Arguments like this really are careless with God’s truth and make it the servant of a preconceived idea. Even if well-intentioned, that pre-conceived idea serves as an assumption read into the text, not drawn out from it—“such and such a group teaches something different than I was taught, so they must be marked and turned away from.” My point is that both “such and such a group” and you need to test what you believe by the Bible itself, not by what someone taught you about the Bible. The issue isn’t really whether they agree with you or your teachers; it is whether they agree with the Bible. (And if you assume that you are infallible in your understanding of the Bible, you need serious help!)

So, think about this the next time you hear someone shouting (or planning a conference under) the words “Remove not the ancient landmarks!” or “Touch not the unclean thing!” Ask yourself, was the writer of Scripture speaking about the same thing that they are speaking about? What were the ancient landmarks referred to in those passages? What is the unclean thing to which the text refers? It is quite possible that someone is assuming that the Bible is saying what he actually wants to say! If we intend to speak on behalf of God, then we can’t afford to be careless with His Word. We better say exactly what He said and that means replacing assumptions with careful exposition and application.

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Asking before Answering (and Arguing)

I’ve been trying to keep the discussion at the level of general ideas and only use specific examples where it seemed helpful to illuminate a point. I have no problem with giving specific examples, but it seems to me that when used too frequently they end up focusing attention on the example rather than the idea of which it is an illustration. I can imagine, based on past experiences, someone reading my reference to the choice of a mate in the last post and getting distracted into a mental debate about dating and courtship. If they did, they missed the point I was trying to make. Ditto regarding the stuff about dress standards. I think the aphorism we use to describe that is “missing the forest because of the trees.”

As I’ve said, my objective is to get us to think about principles before we move to application because that enables us to make sure we’re grounded in Scripture (vs. tradition) and equips us to engage in constructive, open debate with one another. The reason I think this is important is that I’ve seen too many discussions terribly hamstrung by the assumptions that people bring into the conversation.

None of us are free from assumptions—it’s a natural part of life that the pattern by and in which we live forms the starting point for how we view life. Even something as simple as seeing a piano in the church for all of our lives produces an assumption that this is and has always been the way churches have operated. Or, since we’ve always used a hymnbook, we assume that this has always been the practice of God’s people. I am not suggesting that assuming these things is sinful, but I am saying that given those assumptions, a discussion about whether pianos and hymnbooks should be used in church is going to be hampered. There is a lot that could be said about assumptions that hurt effective debate, but I’d like to highlight only two that seem more common and particularly unhelpful. One in this post, then another in a later post (DV).

The first is assuming something that really needs to be substantiated. I imagine nobody reading this doubts that the validity of an argument depends on the truth of its premises, but everybody reading this has probably also seen discussions that go nowhere because one or both parties falsely assumed that their premises were true. Sometimes this is rooted in simple misinformation, but it also can be the evidence of prejudice. Because misinformation can be corrected by the facts, we should be able to work through it. Assumptions rooted in prejudice, however, are much more stubborn. It is important, therefore, to determine if you’re engaged in a conversation with someone genuinely interested in the truth or simply committed to advancing their view on the matter. The best way to surface that, I think, is to ask questions that help you understand their thinking. If they can explain their view and have reasons for holding it, then you can discuss those. If they dismiss your questions, then it often (if not usually) means they have made up their minds and there really isn’t much point in going back and forth about it.

An example might be helpful. Recently I read a description of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as “the most liberal Southern Baptist Seminary (sic) in America.” Now, that’s a pretty strong accusation that needs to substantiated, not just assumed, if any meaningful discussion is going to take place. So, my first move would be to ask something like, “Help me understand why you think that is true?” Perhaps I’d also ask something like, “How are you using the word ‘liberal’ in that description—what do you mean by that?”  If the person who made the statement offers some evidence for his assertion, we can evaluate that and draw conclusions about its accuracy. If, on the other hand, he dismisses the questions, then there’s really not much point in trying to talk about it since either his assessment is rooted in prejudice or he is simply an arrogant man. Neither option suggests the likelihood of a helpful conversation.

Another example—the claim is often made that Calvinism kills missions. If someone makes that claim, you can dismiss them as a fool or you can ask them questions in order to understand why they think that. If the person offers evidence and explanation for his claim, then you can debate the merits of that evidence and, therefore, of the claim. If the person offers nothing, then you know you’re dealing with prejudice and you may want to consider moving on to another topic.

Just a reminder, I’m trying to make the case for more constructive decision-making and leadership in these posts. We live in challenging times that call for biblical discernment, and as leaders we need to think and communicate clearly. We also live in a day where the level of public discourse is dropping rapidly to shout at each other mode. Everybody wants to make their own points, not understand anybody else’s. The Word is clear that “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Ask some good questions before you answer so that you know you are talking about the same thing and talking with someone who is genuinely interested in the truth.

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The Quixotic Quest for Conformity

Over the past couple of posts I’ve tried to assert main two ideas: (1) we should recognize the difference between principles and their applications; and (2) we must treat disagreements over applications differently than we do disagreement over principles. I think these are helpful ideas, but even if we agree on them, we still have to put them into practice and inevitably differences will surface. My hope is not to end or avoid all differences, but to help us be able to interact about them more effectively so that we make biblically sound decisions and provide wise leadership for our churches.

In trying to show the difference between principles and applications, I mentioned the timeless, transcultural principle that children are to honor their parents, but I also pointed out that applying that principle takes different shapes in different cultures. And it was this difference that I tried to highlight in the second post with the shorthand of this and that. We might agree completely on the obligation that children have to honor their parents, but disagree just as completely about what that means when it comes down to the choice of a mate, for instance. Clearly, some have elevated their particular application to the point where it must be followed or else one’s commitment to the principle is called into question. In terms of my two main ideas, because they fail to distinguish between principle and application, they subsequently fail to treat the disagreement on this matter properly (i.e., as a matter of judgment, not as a matter of disobedience).

To move it closer to the issue which is central to this whole discussion, even if two people agree completely that, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 teaches a principle which calls for separation from persistently disobedient brothers, the task of making applications still has to be done. Using my this and that rubric, these two may agree fully about this (the biblical principle), yet not be completely in agreement on that (to whom it applies). My contention is simply that debates about applications should be handled differently than disagreements about principles.

Let me share an anecdote to illustrate my concern. Years ago, our pastoral staff attended a conference in which a number of hot topics were being addressed and position statements were being formed to rally the younger generation to stand for the truth (and at that time I was 28 years old and clearly part of that younger generation). One of the topics was dress standards. I’d already clashed with some folks at the conference on another issue, so I decided to stick to something where I could just sit quietly in (basic) agreement, but a couple of men from our staff decided to attend this session. The man leading the session did an excellent job, I was told, of navigating a pretty strenuous debate about how to word the position statement. The side that won the debate produced a statement that focused on the principles of modesty and gender distinction, whereas the side that lost wanted specific applications that detailed exactly what those principles looked like in the fall of 1989. One of our guys heard one of the men who had lost the debate complaining on his way out of the session, “We need to give our people absolutes and we just gave them relativism.” This guy had it completely backward!

He wanted to make his applications absolute and bind the consciences of God’s people with them. Allowing room for godly believers to wrestle with applications seemed to him to be a concession to compromise. There are probably a few reasons for this kind of thinking—faulty views of sanctification and pastoral leadership being two of them—but they’re not my concern right now. More significant to me is the danger that his thinking would do if it were included in the mechanism being used by the conference. The goal was to produce a statement that outlined commitments to remain faithful to God’s Word. Injecting his applications into it would have placed them on the same level as Scripture. That would have been both unfaithful to the Word and unfruitful for God’s people.

I am sure this brother was not self-consciously wanting to add to the Scriptures and, thereby, undercut their sufficiency. His dogmatism about his own particular applications, though, had the functional effect of doing just that. He had decided what modesty and gender distinction actually looked like, so everybody else needed to get in line with that. To doubt his applications was tantamount to rejecting the Bible’s authority (and clearly to show that you were not Spirit-filled!). I wish what was happening in this case was unusual, but the fact is that we’ve all seen plenty of similar kinds of man-made guidelines passed off as biblical requirements—no hand held microphones, no overhead projectors, no singing songs not in our hymnbooks, no facial hair, no small groups on Sunday evenings, no playing sports against public schools, etc.

I honestly have little problem with anybody who happens to think the things on that list are defensible applications of some principle, but none of those come close to being the principle itself. Getting to them always takes at least one step and thus they must be held more loosely than Scriptural mandates. The failure to recognize that step has lead to a lot of unnecessary fights among God’s people.

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Agreement on Principles, Disagreement on Applications

In the last post I argued that we must see the difference between principles and their applications. Principles are timeless and absolute, whereas applications necessarily are timely and relative to the context in which the application is being made. I would also contend that failure to recognize the distinction between the two inevitably leads to trouble. Debate about biblical principles should always be controlled by the text of Scripture—what does it say and how should it be properly understood? Applications, however, require us to look outside of the Bible and reflect on how the biblical truth relates to life. That means we have to understand aspects of the world around us so that we can discern what significance particular biblical truths have to any particular piece of life. A simplified (hopefully not simplistic) way of thinking about it might look like this: The Bible says this, how does it relate to that?

Sometimes the relationship between principle and application is very clear, a relationship we could describe as this is that. Most believers agree with each other in such cases. There are times, though, when the relationship isn’t as clear, perhaps it could be described as this is like that. While there might be mainly consensus, this is where believers begin to disagree with one another, simply because they don’t all agree as to how much this and that are alike. What I’d like us to remember is that they do not disagree on the principle (this), but regarding its application (that). Unless we have legitimate reason to question the sincerity and integrity of those who disagree at the application level, we should allow for differences of application.

Another kind of relationship between principle and application introduces even greater variety of viewpoint into the equation. Sometimes people develop a position that could be described as that leads to the violation of this. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and represents a wise perspective on the danger of sin and the potential for dangerous self-confidence. There is Scriptural warrant for being more careful than careless about the pursuit of holiness and obedience. Yet, we must recognize that two people may agree on the principle (this) and not agree with each other on what might lead to its violation (that). The very fact that we say it might lead to its violation is precisely where the rub is. Again, believers should discuss and even debate the wisdom of their applications, but they must not do so with the dogmatism that is only proper for a valid, exegetically-derived biblical principle itself.

When we attribute the same weight to our applications that we do to the Scriptures (unless this is actually that), we are guilty of what the religious leaders in the Lord’s day where doing (Matthew 15:1-9). They were concerned about violations of “the traditions of the elders” more than they were violations of “the commandment of God” (vv. 2-3, 6). While I would never advocate being anti-tradition, we must never become traditionalists. This is where we legitimately can use the term Biblicist, i.e., the Bible is the source of our authority, not tradition. We of all people should have such a thorough commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture that we refuse to allow man-made traditions to threaten the functional control of the Word over all of our lives, including our separation and fellowship decisions.

The application of biblical truth is a matter of wisdom and discernment. It often requires us to make a judgment call. It is quite clear to me that we’ll never have universal agreement on judgment calls in this life! It won’t happen, so I see no point in pursuing it as a goal. A better approach would be to pursue relationships that have a basis in shared principles—relationships that agree on what stands as written by God and is non-negotiable. It would seem that if we are sure that we agree on principle, then we can have open, constructive debate about our applications. If, however, we confuse the difference between the two, it usually leads to questioning the motives of those who apply the Word differently than we do. Because we think doing something different than what we would do is actually a violation of the principle, we tend to assume it must be rooted in sinful desires.

It might be, but it may simply reflect a lack of discernment (not a good thing, but certainly better than evil motives). It also may reflect other factors of which you are unaware. It might even mean that your application is not as clear as you think it is.

I am not asking for something strange or new, but perhaps something that we’ve taken for granted too long. The first step in talking through our differences is to turn to the Scriptures to talk through the biblical principles which we believe are at stake. It is that discussion which is most significant, for if we disagree there, then talking about applications becomes somewhat irrelevant. If we agree there, then we have an objective reference point from which to evaluate the differing applications. We may not get past our disagreement on some issue of application, but at least we will know why this brother has made the judgment call that he has. How much room we will allow for differing applications is then the judgment call that we’ll have to make.

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