Shooting the Bible in the foot

If the existence of disagreement over what the Bible teaches means we can’t be sure what the Bible teaches, then the Bible teaches nothing and commands nothing.

The Bible can’t teach us that there is one God, because some believe the OT teaches henotheism.

The Bible can’t teach us that the one God exists in three persons, because some people are modalists.

The Bible can’t teach us anything about sexual ethics, because people disagree on where the Bible draws the lines.

The Bible can’t teach us to serve the poor, because people disagree on who exactly “the poor” are and what our responsibilities to them are.

The Bible can’t teach us to love our enemies, because Jesus may or may not have existed, and may or may not have said that.

The Bible can’t teach us not to be hypocrites, because how do we know those passages weren’t added later as a dig at the Pharisees? (I just made that theory up, which is how we get a lot of smart-sounding ideas about the Bible.)

The Bible can’t teach us that the Gospel is for all sinners, including homosexuals, because there’s this one “church” in Kansas that believes they can’t be saved.

Of course, this is nonsense. Sure, there are lots of topics where there’s legitimate debate over what the Bible means. But there are also lots of topics where the Bible speaks very clearly, and there has been overwhelming consensus for centuries on what it means. When we shrug and say “who’s to say?” we’re not helping anyone. We’re just shooting the Bible in the foot.

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Actually, our church looks a lot like the book of Acts.

Donald Miller, whose writing I enjoy, had a  disappointing article a couple of weeks ago on why he doesn’t go to church very often. Plenty of people have offered critiques on the piece as a whole, so I won’t do that, except to observe that most members of my small, young church could give a better explanation of why church matters than this best-selling Christian author.

I do want to respond to one point in Miller’s followup post.

Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts, which, was not much of a prescription on how to do church anyway…

Unless you are Shane Claiborne, your church probably doesn’t look anything like the church in the book of Acts, so let’s not get self righteous.

Yes, the irony meter is spiking in that last sentence. And yes, a better conclusion than Miller’s would be “Well, I’ll saddle up with the imperfect church that God provides and try to help make it better.” But the more I thought about this critique, the less sense it made.

Certainly our churches are flawed. We have many blind spots. We can always do more to care for each other, to teach the Bible more powerfully, to serve the poor in our city, to share the Gospel more consistently. But actually, the church I serve looks a good bit like the church(es) in Acts. And I bet yours does too.

  • We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer, like in Acts 2:42.
  • We share with each other sacrificially when one is in need, like in Acts 2:45 and 4:34-35.
  • We gather on the Lord’s day to worship, like in Acts 20:7.
  • We receive the preached Word with joy, like in Acts 8:8 and 13:48.
  • We take up offerings to help the poor and do other good works, like in Acts 11:27-30.
  • We pray for boldness in sharing the Word, and for God to move in power, like in Acts 4:29-31.
  • We ask God to work miracles for the sick, like in Acts 3:1-7 and about a hundred other places.
  • We work to train and recognize godly leaders, like the deacons in Acts 6:1-6 and elders in Acts 14:23 (and elsewhere).
  • We bring these leaders together to make biblically-informed, Spirit-guided decisions on doctrinal and practical matters, like in Acts 15.

We need to grow in all of these. And I would love to see some things I don’t see. I would love to see God adding to our number daily those who are being saved, like in Acts 2:47. I would love to see undeniable miracles pointing to the power of God, like we see throughout the book. I would love for us to pray more faithfully and more boldly. In short, I would love to see revival in my city, as we see it in several cities in the book of Acts. But revival, miracles, conversions– these are God’s work. Faithfulness is our job; fruit is his.

Church-bashing is a popular sport right now, and you can always find the ammo. Many of the critiques are true. But there are many imperfect-but-healthy churches filled with many imperfect-but-growing Christians seeking to be faithful and obedient. Being part of one of these churches, appreciating the good and trying to help correct the flaws, is one of the best things you can do for your own spiritual growth. And we need all the help we can get.

The only thing there is

On Sunday, 9 June of this year I was rehearsing with the band at church when I got a text from Melissa: “Kels just called. They’re taking your mom to ICU.” Mom was in the hospital with pneumonia, but I had talked to her the day before and she sounded ok. Now her blood pressure was dangerously low. By that night they had her on a ventilator, and we decided I needed to fly to Georgia.

As I lay down for a couple hours of fitful sleep, some words played on a loop in my head. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” I’m not sure I’d read those words on a page in 10 years or more.

When I was in college I spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. I did some in seminary and afterward too. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t do much memorization anymore, though I have a big stack of index cards on my desk. But that day, while on a long flight not knowing whether my mom would be alive when I got off the plane, lots and lots of Bible verses came to mind, many of which I had memorized a dozen years ago or more.

In those moments, there was no clever tweet, no episode of Arrested Development, not even a John Piper sermon that kept me sane. Only God’s word could do it.

Mom rallied. After two weeks I came home to Prague. I had a wedding to prepare for the week I arrived. Then I spent a week clearing off my desk, and planned to start all my regular meetings back the next week.

Except that at the end of desk-clearing week, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and our old life ended, and a new life started.

We have had 9 or 10 hospital stays of varying length. Our boys have been with lots of different people and watched more tv (and gotten more care packages) than usual. Most of our test results have been good, though the waiting never gets any easier. E has gone under general anesthesia six times. And we have stayed sane. I attribute this mostly to Scripture and prayer.

I certainly don’t mean we get up early every day for a long and substantial quiet time. It would be better if we did, but we don’t. I do mean we cry out frequently, and we remind ourselves of what we know to be true: not the vague assurance that everything will be ok (it might not, not the way we want it to be), but the actual promises God makes to us. I mean our friends copy and paste from their devotional reading and remind us. Like the IV that gives Eliza the fluids and nutrition she needs, God works by his Word and Spirit to keep us.

On Eliza’s first night in ICU after her surgery the wheels were coming off for me. There was a point where they wouldn’t let us in and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out not to be a problem, but it was the most scared I’ve ever been. Then her numbers just weren’t as stable as they had been through the afternoon, and the stress of staring at them was driving me up a wall. I went outside and paced back and forth in the cool night air, reciting Psalm 46 out loud over and over. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The Lord of armies is with us.

That was enough to calm me down enough for that hour. Nothing else was working. I memorized that psalm when I was in seminary, and however long it took has paid off richly in the last three months.

God is always so eager to speak to us, to reassure us, to give us a firm foundation to put our feet on. His Word is so rich, so deep, so powerful and effective. And we are– I am– so eager to run to cheap things like the iPad I’m writing this on for fun.

I am 20 years older than I was in June. I hope some of the changes last. I still like to zone out plenty, but I have less patience with trivial and more desire for real. I have less energy, so I think hard about what will sap it and what will increase it. I want to pick up that stack of index cards again.

Please run to God’s Word. Do it when it feels good and when it doesn’t. When the earth beneath your feet gives way, his truth is all you have to stand on. It’s the only thing there is. It is sweet, solid ground.

A case for weekly communion

At the church I serve, we take the Lord’s Supper every week. We don’t think this is the only way to go, or that it makes us more spiritual than churches that practice monthly or whatever-other-interval Communion. And yes, it’s more work for the preacher to also prepare a somewhat-different meditation on the Lord’s Supper each week. But here are some reasons I’m glad we do it the way we do.

the Gospel every week

We want to make the Gospel clear in every sermon. Since we generally preach through books of the Bible, and our emphasis in preaching will reflect the emphasis of that day’s passage, the core of the gospel will be more obviously presented some days than others. Weekly Communion gives us one more opportunity to preach the center of the Gospel every week.

The Lord’s Supper also demonstrates and explains the Gospel in a way that goes beyond verbal explanation. So people who struggle to pay attention to preaching are given an additional way to learn and appreciate its truth.

good for non-Christians

The fencing of the Table, where we announce that it is for believers and not for nonbelievers, means we can draw a clear line every week. It forces attenders to ask where they stand with Christ and is a reminder that the Gospel calls for a response. It is a relatively easy way to plead with people to come to faith.

good for believers, especially struggling believers

Weekly Communion means a weekly reminder that the promises of the Gospel are not just true, but true for me. It’s a reminder that God does not simply demand that I meet his standard, but that Christ was broken and poured out in order to meet God’s standard for me. It’s a reminder that he gave himself up for me, and that he continues to feed and strengthen me. Especially for our people who are struggling (to believe at all, with besetting sin, with besetting self-righteousness, with an especially difficult season of life), it’s an important reminder that we do not struggle alone.

practical considerations

With monthly communion, it’s easy for some people (mothers of young children, those who travel often) to go several months without taking the Lord’s Supper. Weekly Communion means that if you miss one week, you have another chance in seven days. It also gives our children more chances to see this demonstration of the Gospel, which is sure to lead to their asking questions that open the door to conversations about the Gospel with them.

as simple as all that

Again, taking the Lord’s Supper every week is not necessarily the mark of a more mature church, and it has its own challenges. But Communion is a gift God wants to give his people. He promises to strengthen us through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. So we feel like we might as well give him as many chances to do that as we can.

Why the cross is loving

In worship we sing a lot of songs about the cross. We call it “wondrous” and “mighty”. We sing about how it’s powerful, how it cleanses us, how it displays God’s amazing love.

This is all true. But it’s good to stop and think: Why?

The cross was an instrument of torture and death. When we sing about Jesus’ death, we’re celebrating the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Why?

We sing about how cross shows God’s love. Why?

We sing about how the cross means we’re healed and forgiven. Why?

Even some non-Christians are inspired by Jesus’ example of innocent suffering. But why? Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that’s what he was executed for. Was he really a blasphemer? Or is it particularly virtuous to let yourself be executed when you haven’t done anything wrong? Why?

Why was the cross loving? To adapt an illustration from (I think) D.A. Carson, if I ran onto the Charles Bridge and announced “I love you all! And I’m going to prove how much!”, then jumped into the Vltava, nobody would be amazed at my act of selfless love.

The words we use are so familiar that we need to remind ourselves what they mean. There’s a reason Jesus’ death is good, a reason it’s loving, a reason it’s beautiful. Isaiah tells us:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Jesu’ death was beautiful and loving and good because it was for us in a very specific way: He was found guilty of our sin, took the punishment we deserve. He bore our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities.

He did not lay down his life to make a general point about passive resistance, or to express the truism that love conquers evil. His love did conquer evil. It conquered evil in a specific way: by satisfying perfect justice. Blood was shed to atone for sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” The guilt is ours. And yet, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So when he died, our debt was paid. The breach between God and man was closed.

This “worked” because he had no transgressions of his own for which to be pierced, no iniquities of his own for which to be crushed. He was a substitute. He stood in our place, taking the punishment that by all rights was ours. He took the poison cup out of our hand and drained it to the dregs.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is how God showed his love for the world: by putting his Son to death. So that whoever comes to Christ in faith has death swallowed up in victory. This is why the cross is loving: because Jesus takes our punishment on himself. He opens the door for us.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” His chastisement has brought us peace. By his wounds we are healed.

Indulgences

The Protestant Reformation was kicked off on the issue of indulgences. This was a practice of the medieval Roman Catholic Church: to oversimplify, the pope could release your soul, or someone else’s, from time in purgatory as a reward for you doing a good deed. Like, mmm, I don’t know, giving money to the church. Just thinking out loud.

Pretty tidy arrangement. Do whatever bad deed you’re into, pony up a little cash and you’re good.

We still have these today, especially for the rich and famous. So Al Gore’s house can have a carbon footprint the size of Montana, but it’s OK, because he buys carbon offsets. (He owns stock in a company that sells the carbon offsets, but that’s neither here nor there.) Bono can spend over a grand to fly his hat first-class because he also spends a lot of time asking other people to give their money to the poor. Obama can run a drone war and get a pass, because he’s not George Bush he supports gay marriage (now).

But that’s just the low-hanging fruit. We do this too. I don’t want all the moral demands of worshiping the living God, but I do give money to charity, so I’m good. I dealt with Hard Person A earlier today, so I should be OK to ignore Hard Person B tonight. I’ve already moved 5000 miles for Jesus; do I really have to engage with the homeless guy I pass on the way to work?

Indulgences are just one more way we seek to justify ourselves. One more dead-end street. There is none righteous, no, not one. The less we try to explain that away, the better the Remedy will look to us.

Is ordination biblical?

Recently on Facebook (attention-getting opener NAILED IT) someone I like and respect said

The false distinction between “clergy” and “laity” is perhaps Satan’s most effective tool to both prevent the spiritual maturation of believers and to maintain division within the church.

There are a few ways you could interpret that, and below you’ll find me agreeing with one of them. But it seems to me like he’s saying that there should be no clergy or laity– no distinction at all. Certainly there are people who feel this way. When I was ordained we had some friends who wouldn’t come to the service because they believed ordination itself was an unbiblical concept. They said, “You know we don’t think he needs a special title to serve God!”

So it’s a fair question: Is ordination biblical? Short answer: Yes.

In the OT we see God calling specific people to specific tasks. Often there’s even a ceremony, we might say, in which that person is installed in their role. So God tells Moses (Ex 28-29) exactly how Aaron should be installed as high priest over Israel, and that same procedure is repeated for Aaron’s descendants. God also chooses kings for his people. Saul (1 Sam 10) and David (1 Sam 16) are both anointed by Samuel, God’s representative, just as Aaron was anointed by Moses.

Under the New Covenant, Jesus is our Prophet, Priest and King. There is no other mediator between God and his people. But Jesus rules his people, his church, through human beings. We see this as he sends out the apostles with this commission: “Whoever receives you receives me” (Matt 10:40).  So when we read the words of Paul, Peter or the other apostles, we’re reading Christ’s commandments to his church.

As it happens, both Peter and Paul speak of offices, or roles of leadership in the church to which some Christians are called and some are not. Addressing the church at large, Peter refers (1 Peter 5:1) to “the elders among you,” and to himself as a member of that group: “I exhort [the elders] as a fellow elder”. Paul speaks (e.g. 1 Tim 3, Titus 1) of both elders and deacons, and he gives instructions for how to select them: they must meet certain qualifications, they must be “tested,” then they may serve.

We also know from Acts that Paul’s normal church-planting procedure was to “set apart elders in every church” (Acts 14:23) and when that was done, he considered his pioneering work complete (Rom 15:23). He found this process so important that he left Timothy and Titus in Ephesus and Crete, respectively, to shepherd the churches there in large part by identifying and training leaders (Titus 1:5). Paul spends a good chunk of the pastoral epistles telling Timothy and Titus how to select and evaluate officers. And if it’s the “ceremony” that bothers you, notice that Paul specifies that the laying on of hands is a key element of setting apart elders, referring to Timothy’s receiving a spiritual gift “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:12) and warning him not to “be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22).

To say that some Christians are called to vocational ministry, and most are not, is not to set up a special class of extra-spiritual people. (I am a pastor with lots of pastor friends, and let me tell you, we ain’t extra-spiritual.) Elders and deacons don’t have a special hotline to God; he doesn’t love us more than he loves the teachers or the computer programmers or the stay-at-home moms among us. God calls all of us to serve him in different ways. One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation was that we serve him just as nobly in a secular calling as in an explicitly Christian one.

So if that’s what my friend is getting at, then yes. It is bad to say that the only way to really serve Jesus is by becoming a pastor (/missionary/nun/church secretary). But to say that there are some who have a particular calling to teach, lead, and shepherd God’s people is simply to affirm what all of Scripture teaches. Discerning who these people are, acknowledging their calling, training them to serve, and installing them in their office is a very natural and biblical way to go about things.

In fact, the Bible doesn’t just permit this, it commands it.

Love and the Law

Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 22:36-40)

Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Romans 13:8-10)

I have occasionally heard Christians say something like “Keeping the Law doesn’t matter; what matters is loving people.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus and Paul mean here. If they did, it’s unlikely Jesus would say this earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

Neither Jesus nor Paul thought the Law was overbearing or unnecessary. So when they say that loving God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the Law, I think they mean that “Love God and love your neighbor” is an accurate summary of the Law; it expresses the heart behind the Law.

Does this render the Old Testament law unnecessary? Not at all.

In a perfect world filled with perfect people, God could say “love me, and love one another,” and that would work. But we’re sinful people living in a broken world, so that isn’t enough. We need to know how to love God; we need to be told how to love one another. That’s what the Law does. It describes exactly what God expects from his people. And since his people are sinful, it graciously gives provisions for how we repent when we fail to keep his law.

Another dimension to the Law: One feature of our sinfulness is that we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. So rather than leave it at “love God and love one another,” knowing that we might well respond like the rich young ruler and say “All these I have kept from my youth,” God shows us how high the bar is. You say you love me? Have you ever taken my name in vain? Have you kept a weekly Sabbath of rest and worship for your entire life? You say you love others? Have you ever told a lie about someone else? Have you ever been jealous of someone else’s property?  The Law shows that we can’t keep the Law. It makes us want to look for a Savior. That’s by design.

Far from relaxing the Law to a broad we could claim to have kept, Jesus and Paul are showing us what the Law is about. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor. We can’t do either of those, which is why Jesus came. His life and death covers over our failures, and frees us to pursue obedience with a renewed mind and heart.

“Behold, the Lamb of God”

There are a lot of ways to look at the atonement and how it works. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis speaks of different “theories” of the atonement and sort of brushes the differences under the rug– the point, he says, is that we are saved by Jesus’ death, not how we are saved by his death.

Many of the ways people speak about the atonement are absolutely true. Jesus did die as an example of self-sacrificing love. His death did disarm the powers of darkness. His suffering does show that he can identify with all all those who suffer unjustly in this world. But at the heart of the atonement is the idea of substitution: Jesus stands in our place, receiving the punishment we deserve from God for our sin. (This is actually what makes all the other views make sense, but that’s for another day.)

As an illustration of this point, take John the Baptist’s first words when Jesus first appears on the scene:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29

The phrase “Lamb of God,” to all John’s Jewish hearers, would have brought to mind a very specific set of ideas: The lambs offered in the sacrificial system were a substitute offering. The priest would lay his hands on the animal, symbolically transferring guilt from God’s people to the lamb. Then the lamb was slaughtered, its blood poured out, to demonstrate God’s wrath against sin. The people were then counted innocent, because blood had been shed on their behalf. Substitution. Imputation of guilt, and therefore innocence. Propitiation (the removal of wrath). All these ideas are wrapped up in that little phrase.

Penal substitution is not the only thing there is to say about the atonement. But if it’s not central to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, then the title “Lamb of God” is meaningless.

On worship and critique

I am a PCA pastor: ordained in a conservative denomination, happily so, and actually toward the right end of things even in the PCA. I subscribe to and love the regulative principle of worship: that we’re to worship God only as the Bible tells us, not any way we please. At the church I serve, where I usually plan worship, we sing a lot of hymns, read a lot of confessions, take the Lord’s Supper every week, and have 35-45 minute sermons.

I am not a fan of God-is-my-girlfriend songs, or repeating some phrase like a mantra for 15 minutes as though it will ensure something spiritual happens, or smoke machines, or skits, or clown communion, or even movie clips. (Some of those are worse than others.)

Without budging on any of that…

We have to be grateful that God accepts all our worship– flawed as it is by human sinfulness and theological error and misplaced priorities and wrong motives– he accepts all of it only because of Jesus. He is our true worship leader, the one who leads us into the presence of God, and the only reason we’re accepted there.

When we disagree on the particulars of worship, which we will, and when we offer critique of others, which we should at times, we need to remember the above. It could help keep us from talking past each other.

Two anecdotes:

1. My campus ministry was influenced by another ministry that places a big emphasis on constant prayer and frequent fasting. Since my time there I’ve come to disagree with some of their central theological beliefs, and I think there are some dangers and excesses in their approach. At the same time, you have to be thankful for a ministry teaching thousands of young people to be passionate about Jesus and serious about prayer and fasting.

2. One of my colleagues was meeting with a missionary from another group. When my colleague mentioned being Presbyterian, the other missionary said “That’s interesting. You don’t pray like a Presbyterian; you pray like us, like you have the Holy Spirit!” OK, so Presbyterians aren’t known for our jump-up-and-shout-Amen-ness. But we don’t have the Holy Spirit? Come on.

All of us who think about such things will have our own convictions and preferences about how we should worship God. There are some forms of worship that are less biblical than others, and some practices that are just wrong. We won’t agree on all these, and shouldn’t be afraid to debate them. But we need to acknowledge, to appreciate, the hearts and motives of others. We need to remember that even if we’re right on the merits, it doesn’t make our worship pleasing to God. Only Jesus does that.