Archive for July, 2011

Principled Leadership

I try not to get sucked into the political discussions of the day mainly because I find it incredibly frustrating on so many levels. The non-stop news cycle seems to have aggravated a sick situation, turning the governance of our nation into little more than a perpetual quest to stay in power. This is the issue that I suppose bothers me most—the entire political discourse seems controlled by getting or maintaining control rather than actually doing something once you have it. It is all about how the parties or the president look in the polls which are sure to follow whatever is said or done. How this most recent “crisis” surrounding the debt ceiling has been handled has done nothing to inspire confidence in this citizen that very many of our elected leaders really care about solving the problem as much as they do positioning themselves to look good after August 2nd comes and goes.

Watching this unfold reminded me of a very different kind of approach by President Reagan in his negotiations with Gorbachev about nuclear arms reductions. In October of 1986, the two world leaders met in Iceland for serious negotiations that had been significantly influenced by Reagan’s pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). I’ve read a few accounts of the negotiations, admittedly all from a pro-Reagan viewpoint, and they agree that Gorbachev made enormous concessions and offered Reagan just about everything that the US had been asking for previously. But Gorbachev made it all conditional on Reagan backing down on SDI (some say dropping it altogether while others say restricting it to lab only). Gorbachev dropped that condition in the 11th hour after so much had been gained that for Reagan to walk away from the table would bring enormous backlash—how could he turn down these real, substantive reductions over a research project that many thought was science fiction (hence the nickname Star Wars)?

Reagan did, though, walk away from the table. He did so, apparently, against the advice of his State Department. He did so in spite of warnings that he would be criticized across the globe and by his opponents in the States (political and media). Instead of a monumental victory that would have gained him enormous applause and accolades, he was leaving it on the table and headed into a firestorm of criticism. Why? I’ll let Dinesh D’Souza answer that question:

To Reagan, however, SDI was a point of principle. As he said in a televised speech the day after he returned from Iceland, ‘There is no way I could tell our people their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction. …I went to Reykjavik determined that everything was negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future.’ Reagan advanced a case for missile defense that was not tactical but moral (Ronald Reagan, p. 190).

I suppose it is those words—not tactical but moral—that I find so compelling and so disappointing in contrast to leadership we see these days. The political world seems full of tacticians angling to keep their piece of the pie and to get good PR for whatever they do. Instead of principled commitment, the pursuit and preservation of power controls every move. Even good people blithely opine about “looking at the big picture” and “accepting what you can instead of losing everything.” I imagine they would have been the same people who would have thought Reagan a fool to walk away from the table, but history shows that walking away from that table actually secured the long sought for victory in the Cold War.

I’ll be candid about something—this isn’t a problem reserved for D.C. politics. It affects ecclesiastical politics as well when alliances are formed for political expedience rather than on biblical principle. It is a tactical decision, not a moral one, when our “friends” get a pass for things that our “opponents” would get a beating. It is politics that produces people who govern by what’s best for their “party” (i.e., fellowship, institution, circle of friends) instead doing the principled thing even if it hurts their “party.”

Reagan at Reykjavik is an example of a principled politician, a statesman with a noble ambition. The lesson for today: doing the right thing regardless of political fallout is always the right thing to do.

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Unnecessary Limits on Freedom

I just finished preaching through 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 on Sunday mornings here at IC (the series begins here). Although I did not originally plan to do this many, it took me 20 messages to work through this section of Scripture. I am sure I could have done it in less, but there are a few spots that warranted, I believe, slowing down to deal carefully with contemporary application. The historical context differs significantly from most Western cultural contexts, but it is a section of Scripture that is important for life and ministry in our day. I don’t subscribe to the somewhat common view that these chapters are mainly about Christian liberty and/or debatable things. Paul’s position on food offered to idols is anything but neutral and he doesn’t come close to assigning it to a debatable category. Believers never have liberty to participate in idolatry. Ever.

There are, though, some important truths taught about our freedom. One section that addresses this issue very clearly comes near the end of chapter ten. There, Paul is dealing with circumstances which do not present immediate, direct connection with idolatry, and he informs the believers that they are free to treat buying and eating the food as acceptable. They are not obligated to search out any idolatrous connections to the meat sold in the market or put on the table at a believer’s dinner party. His response to both situations is to eat “without asking questions for conscience’ sake” (vv. 25, 27).

Granted, he has already established the principle that freedom is not ultimate and seeking the good of others trumps it (cf. 10:23-24). If your freedom intersects with idolatry, your freedom ends. Love for God and love for neighbor take priority over personal enjoyment. There simply is no room for self-centered freedom. I think Paul makes that very clear. It should not be missed, however, that Paul is clear that although freedom may not be ultimate, it is still to be enjoyed and should not be unnecessarily limited.

The food which is being sold in the market and offered as dinner by the unbeliever first belonged to the Lord, so it can be received with joyful gratitude to the Lord who owns the earth and all it contains (cf. 10:26, 30). That’s how you eat to the glory of God—you recognize that it all comes from Him and should be received with thankfulness. Paul’s theological framework is that it is God “who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17) and “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5).

By twice stating that they were not to ask questions about the meat, Paul also is making it clear that they should not unnecessarily encumber their freedom. Since this meat is not immediately, directly tied to idols, they don’t need to snoop around about its religious history or press the people selling or serving it regarding any idolatrous connections. The presumption is that eating it is permissible since the food first belonged to God.

Paul’s point here was challenging to think about because it touches a spot where I’ve felt some tension for a while. Perhaps I can describe the tension by laying Ephesians 5:10 (“trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord”) down along side of the two statements in 1 Corinthians 10 (“eat without asking questions for conscience’ sake”). There is no contradiction between these texts, but it is possible that one could so emphasize doing investigations (“trying to learn”) that you negatively impact people’s ability to eat and enjoy God’s good gifts. What applies in one context (avoiding the “the unfruitful deeds of darkness”) does not in a different one (giving thanks because “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains”).

I fear that sometimes we have so emphasized “testing things” that we have damaged our ability to enjoy. I am really not much for spontaneity, so don’t jump to that conclusion, but it does seem that something is lost when people cannot spontaneously enjoy good gifts because they are preoccupied with making sure that they are not doing something wrong. It seems, at times, that we’ve created an environment where “asking questions for conscience’ sake” has become the standard operating principle.

I think that what Paul teaches here suggests that if we are living within the boundaries of God’s revealed will, then we should not treat life like a walk though a field full of landmines. Yes, I know that this world is not a friend to grace, but food is a good gift from God that neither commends nor condemns us (cf. 1 Cor 8:8), so there is a presumption of permissibility. Believers don’t need to press the matter any farther—if someone else surfaces a problem then respond correctly, but they aren’t obligated to dig around.

Now, we need to be careful moving outward with applications, but I think it is fair to say that being obsessed with the possibility of doing something wrong is almost always counterproductive. Usually it leads to man-made guidelines for behavior (think kosher rules) which seem inevitably to produce conflict among God’s people over those “rules.” Before long, distinct groups form and fuss over who is most committed to avoiding doing anything wrong. In terms of the text, this approach ends up tossing out “eat without asking questions for conscience’ sake” in favor of “don’t eat meat at all because someone might think that you are being careless about idolatry.”

What Paul is telling them to do is not careless at all, though. He has been unmistakably clear about completely banning all idolatry, and will even place them under the obligation to push the plate away if someone even raises the issue of idolatry. He does not, however, argue for total and complete withdrawal from their culture (i.e., not shopping in their markets or eating at the dinner parties of unbelievers). The issue was the idolatry, not the food. The issue was participation in idolatry, not a potential perception of association with idolatry.

My concern is that some people have confused careful with care-filled. The latter is the kind of anxious, isolated Christian who is obsessed with concern that he might do something wrong (or that others think is wrong). That poor brother or sister spends hours investigating each piece of meat on the market stand instead of just buying the one that looks like the best deal.

Somewhere between careless and care-filled we need to find the proper biblical balance.

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Fundamentalist Suspicion about Others

They say things come in threes—I’m not sure who the they is or sure that they have any idea what they are talking about—and the word “fundamentalist” has popped up in three recent blog posts that caught my attention. Two of them evidenced the kind of passing negative shot toward fundamentalism that seems very common, and one went so far as to identify me as a fundamentalist who, in spite of that fact, still says some good things.

The one that I’d like to bring to your attention is the passing shot that Carl Trueman fired. The shot was aimed at Franky Shaeffer and the bullet was to associate his disposition with fundamentalism. Here’s the comment:

Schaeffer may pride himself on having escaped from fundamentalism but it would appear that he has only escaped its doctrinal content; the form is still there: he still thinks those with whom he disagrees must be either wicked, weak-minded or in willful denial.

Now, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that comments like this bother me. The obvious reason is that they trade on a stereotype from which I would like to distance myself. Although Trueman would put me in the fundamentalist category (in contrast to those who would like to exclude me from it), I would like to think that I don’t think those with whom I disagree are necessarily “wicked, weak-minded or in willful denial.” Some of the people with whom I disagree are like this, but not all. Maybe that makes me a quasi-fundamentalist.

The less obvious reason that Trueman’s comment bugs me is that, like many stereotypes, has some elements of truth to it. I’ve seen and encountered this disposition that he harpoons. In fact, I’d probably add another nuance to his statement to make it “wicked, weak-minded, in willful denial or not walking in the Spirit.” For some, it’s not just a matter of defect in your opponent’s views, but of superior spiritual sensitivity in your own thinking. I remember reading one Caiaphas-like statement from one pastor blogger that captures the mindset: “Generally, those who are trying to walk with the Lord accept my thinking, and those who are not, don’t.”

Of course, the reality is that this is not really a fundamentalist mindset—it appears almost daily within political discourse and nonstop on talk radio. Human arrogance is the root of such unreasonableness. Recognizing that keeps us from abandoning the idea that there are fundamentals which cannot be allowed to die as if they are mere disagreements about interpretation. It also should drive us to make sure our dogmatism is based on the importance and clarity of those fundamentals rather than certainty about our own superiority.

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News from the other side of the globe

I’ve been teaching this week at Central Africa Baptist College in Kitwe, Zambia. The course is entitled “Philosophy and Methodology of Expositional Preaching” and it includes all of the regular students from the college, a significant number of men who are taking the block class in a certificate program, and also a large group that is simply auditing (i.e., treating it something like a conference). Most of the men are from Zambia, but there are also men from Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All totaled, I believe there are over 150 men taking the course in some form.

I came into the class with a fair amount of concern about how well what I teach on this subject would fit this particular context. I teach homiletics to seminary students in America, so they all have undergraduate degrees and most of them are Americans (although I’ve had men from Spain, Mexico, India, and Canada in my classes as well). The particular approach I teach is not the standard fare, so it is sometimes harder for men who have already been preaching to think differently, and this week about half of the students are senior pastors. The way I teach it is very interactive because I’m trying to teach a skill, not just theory, so having 150+ men in class was something I was very concerned about.

We’ve only got one full day left and I am very thankful that I can say that the class has been going amazingly well. The men seem very excited about what they are learning and my heart has been made full by the privilege of teaching them. I told them in class that I attribute the success so far of the class to the many people who are praying for us and to their hunger to learn God’s Word. These men really are serious about God’s Word and about learning how to communicate it accurately. I told Phil Hunt, the college president, that this has been as good a group of students as I’ve ever taught in one of these block settings. I am very encouraged about what God is doing here in Zambia.

Another highlight of this trip was sitting down for dinner with two faculty members who are graduates of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and, more importantly, members of our church who are serving as short-termers here. Jeremy (and Jenny) Pittsley and Kevin (and Sarah) Sherman have jumped right into the work and it was incredibly encouraging to see these families diving into the work of training men for Gospel ministry. Jeremy already has a semester under his belt and is having a great ministry. Kevin got here just a few days before me, but already is eagerly embracing the task.

Frankly, I am sick of flying and really don’t enjoy traveling overseas, but when I hit the ground, see what God is doing, and have the privilege of equipping men who love God and hunger for His Word, it is hard to explain what a blessing that is. I’ve taught for 8 hours under a tent six time zones away from my home and family, but at the end of the day I’m still so pumped up I’m having a hard time getting to sleep. Our God is doing awesome things all over the globe for His glory! Seeing them firsthand is an amazing gift of His grace.

Well, it’s late over here and I’ve got 8 more hours to go tomorrow, so I’m going to go to bed praising God. If you’d pray for class tomorrow and Friday, I’d really appreciate that.

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Hurry up and read this book!

I’d like to recommend a new book to you: Trust, Hope, Pray by Luke and Trisha Priebe. The Priebes are members of our church and graciously asked me to write the forward to the book. The book actually deals with the reality that life includes a lot of waiting, even for things that we desperately would like to see happen very soon. It takes the form of daily meditations on God’s Word and will be a source of great spiritual refreshment for you. Here’s part of what I wrote in the foreward:

In reality, the very reasons we don’t like waiting are exactly why waiting is good for us! Having to wait reminds us that we are not in charge, God is, and it forces us to see that we need Him. When God puts us in a holding pattern, it is for our good.

Luke and Trisha Priebe have done us a great service by meditating on the challenge that waiting poses for us. By taking us to the Scriptures, they guide us to God’s wisdom and direct us to God’s help. What they really do is point us to God Himself and we need Him more than for whatever else it is that we are waiting. 

Books that point you to God are rare gifts. Consider adding this one to your collection!

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Dangerous Assumptions

This CT article on a new document regarding evangelism produced jointly by the World Evangelical Fellowship, World Council of Churches, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is both fascinating and frustrating. It is fascinating in the way it speaks so easily of evangelicals beginning to view themselves as fitting into the “classic” Christianity represented by the mainline and Catholicism. Maybe I am just exposing myself as living deeply inside the separatist ghetto, but the tone of the article is so nonchalant that it fascinates me. It almost seems to be a given that this is a good thing with a few kinks that need to be worked out.

My list of frustrations with the article is longer than fit a blog post, but at the top of the list is the incredible danger of faulty assumptions. The largest and most dangerous assumption is that all three of these groups represent genuine Christianity simply because they bear that religious designation, i.e., they are Christian in contrast to Muslim. The assumption shines brightly in the words of a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals which are quoted in the article, “we’re seeing each other for who we are rather than who we’re against.” Granting that assumption inevitably leads to others which undermine the very fabric of biblical Christianity. It is at least a little encouraging to see that some evangelicals interviewed for the article see some of these weaknesses.

To me, the wrongness of this project is magnified by its uselessness. “What’s valuable about the document is that Christians are letting the world know that they are intending to be respectful, loving, and transparent in their approach to missions and that they do not intend to be seen as violent or coercive,” claims Craig Ott from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Seriously? Publishing this document will do that? Is “the world” really reading documents put out by groups like this? Why do evangelicals keep chasing after the elusive dream of getting the world to think differently about them? Why do they keep chasing that elusive dream with ecclesiastical tokens like documents and statements?

The view from the separatist ghetto looks like this: professing evangelicals keep getting hoodwinked into publishing documents that never accomplish their purpose, but do in fact erode the boundaries of the faith. The world will not even notice this document, but the World Evangelical Fellowship and the World Council of Churches will feel better for playing nicely with each other, and Rome is happy that they are doing on their way back home.

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