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Category Archives: Conservatism

Christianity: The Mannequin

I have a weekly column in our local newspaper. What follows is this week’s essay.


In these last couple of months, our church has spent our afternoon services studying American church history. I find it hard to overestimate the importance of a study like this. Churches are what they are today because of decisions that have been made in the past. Ignorance of that past almost inevitably means that we view “the way we do church now” as “the way that it’s always been done.” Only when we see that many of our contemporary church practices are innovations are we in position to ask whether those practices are biblical.

I’ve jokingly subtitled our series “From Jonathan Edwards to Joel Osteen.” Jonathan Edwards is widely considered to be the most brilliant American theologian (though he lived before the Revolution). He is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and he represents the last flourish of Puritanism in America. Osteen, on the other hand, is a contemporary megachurch pastor, known for his bestselling work Your Best Life Now. He preaches a God who desires, above all things, that we be happy and have our ambitions fulfilled. The difference between these two men and their messages is gaping. The question is, how did Christianity in America transition from one to the other? Regardless of which vision of Christianity you prefer (and I definitely have a preference), the shift itself is intriguing.

One thing becomes readily apparent: whether consciously or not, ministries often view Christianity like a department store mannequin, capable of being outfitted in contemporary fashions as the seasons change. This tendency to re-form Christianity to meet the taste of culture has at least two consequences.

The first is that it cheapens Christianity. Think about it: nothing looks as silly as that which has just gone out of fashion. Try getting a thirty-something to show you her senior pictures, for an example. Churches doing ministry by chasing trends are at a distinct disadvantage, because they will almost always be a step behind the real culture-makers. The folks making the movies and music will always be edgier than the church, and therefore the cheap knock-offs the church offers will tend to look just like that: cheap knock-offs.

And Christianity, which is supposed to be timelessly true, ends up looking like the most dated thing going.

I think that this cheapening of Christianity is a serious issue, but the second consequence is of even greater importance. As Christians seek to re-dress the mannequin to meet the tastes of the culture, they almost inevitably change the message itself. Think back to Edwards and Osteen. For Edwards, our basic problem is sin against God, and our need is to be forgiven through Jesus Christ. For Osteen, our basic problem is a lack of self-worth and success, and our need is to believe that God wants to supply all these things. By any measure, these aren’t the same messages.

Let’s choose instead to follow Paul’s example. Disregarding the pressures of culture, he said, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).

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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article

 

Redeeming limericks

Thought experiment: if you’re familiar with the poetic form of limerick, you might also be aware that many, many examples of the genre are characterized by bawdy humor (the link is clean; just the top results from an Amazon search for limerick). Such off-color topics are obviously not essential to the form; there are numbers of very clever, entirely clean limericks. However, anyone who is familiar with the form would likely know about their most common use.

Might we suggest the need to redeem the limerick? It seems to me that if we took limericks and used them as a medium to present theological truth, we could demonstrate Christ’s Lordship over even this trivial poetic form. Why should the devil have all the best forms, after all?

You understand, I suspect, that I’m being facetious. But I want to make two quick points:

  • A limerick might be a suspect form for carrying biblical truth because of how it is commonly used. This is a weaker argument against theological limericks, but not entirely without weight.
  • A limerick is a suspect form for carrying biblical truth because the form itself inclines us to expect that the content is jovial and foolish. This may be conditioned (we’ve heard lots of limericks that are jokes) or something more basic (the meter and rhyme scheme combine, in some near magical way, to give a lightness of mood). I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

Thus, “redemption” of a limerick is a pointless category. Stop using bawdy limericks. Enjoy in a suitable manner a funny limerick. But, literally, for Christ’s sake, don’t write theological limericks.

[Anticipated objection: Rap is a more serious genre than a limerick. I completely agree. But what I’m suggesting is that, when we recognize that a limerick, as a genre, is capable of trivializing serious subjects, we have at least, in principle, opened the conversation as to whether other genres might also have problems carrying the gospel. This doesn’t prove anything about rap. But it does provide the categories that the conservatives are using to make their case.]

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Conservatism, Music

 

Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style

This is a little intro piece that I’ve written for some friends who have asked for a basic defense of musical conservatism. It hardly gets us to full-blown conservatism, but at least offers the structure of why I think the Bible, while not addressing musical style, still gives us a standard for musical style.

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Here’s the quick outline of my argument on music; it’ll be something to get the conversation started, as we can then have specific claims to discuss. I’ll also say this: I find that these conversations are much better in person than in pixels. There are reasons for that, but given the circumstances, I am happy to do whatever you think would be helpful.

1. In any given passage of Scripture, we can ask what the passage is saying. This is basic hermeneutics.

2. However, I would also contend that every passage of Scripture not only has a what it is saying, but a how it is saying it.

3. I would further claim, then, that faithfulness to the Word of God means that our re-presentation of the text (whether in sermon or song) must accord not only with the what of the passage, but also with its how.

A quick example that I used at our church: I read to them Revelation 21–22. Then I had them sing “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop.” My point is that, even if every phrase of that song were true, the focus of the song and the triviality of its poetry and tune are such that it is utterly incompatible with the content of John’s vision of the final making right of all things in Christ. The longing created by that song simply is not the longing created by the text of Scripture. It might say what John says, but it doesn’t come close to saying it how John says it.

Another example: a pastor could preach a message that faithfully states Paul’s teaching of justification in Romans. If he does so, however, in the manner of a stand-up comic, I would say that he has not been faithful to how Paul has told us about justification, and is therefore liable to criticism. An obvious modern example of this kind of preaching is Mark Driscoll. Another obvious example would be a great many fundamentalist evangelists, even on the occasions when they did get the doctrine right.

As I say, this is the core of my argument, and it does not give direct and precise applications. Music and poetry do things; that is not disputable. It is disputable what a particular piece of music or poetry is doing. That is to say: even if you agree with the idea that Scripture has a how it is saying, it doesn’t mean we’re going to agree that any given song matches the Bible’s how.

This, to me, does not undermine the basic argument, because of the parallel notion of the what and the how of a passage. Christians do not always agree what the text is saying. Consider the diversity of positions on the end times, etc.

The fact that Christians do not always agree about what the text is saying does not allow us to conclude, however, that there is no what it is saying. Furthermore, there are disagreements about what it is saying that are significant enough to break levels of fellowship. It may be that differing eschatological views are sufficient to hinder some cooperative ministry. However, if someone denied a literal return of Christ altogether, that person would be so far from the what Scripture says as to be outside the bounds of any real Christian fellowship.

I would say that the same thing is true about the how Scripture says. Christians disagree in their reading of how a thing is said in Scripture; this does not allow us to conclude that there is no correct understanding of the how. Further, it may be that two well-intentioned, Christ-loving Christians come to sustained differences in their understanding of the how of Scripture. This is no mere triviality: it has to do with their understandings of what God is like, in a manner beyond the propositions of systematic theology. And so it may be that these Christians find their ability to cooperate strained in some way. If the differences are great enough, they may come to the conclusion that, while their propositions are largely in agreement, their views of God and his revelation are so different as to cause them to suspect that the other person is not loving God rightly at all. The claim here is that there is, in addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, such a thing as orthopathy, and that the standard for all three is the Word of God, and that disputes about the contents of each are not sufficient to undermine their existence.

Again, I have not yet made the case that a trap-set is on the other side of a line for me. What I want to establish, before we might even begin to discuss application, is that these issues of right affections have an objective standard for evaluation in the Word of God.

The Bible doesn’t tell us about our style of worship. The Bible shows us its style of worship, and we must submit to that.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Conservatism, Music, Worship

 

A sound church, part 2: the regulative principle

Last week, I proposed that we would do well to consider what God looks for in a church, and our first characteristic of such a sound church is that it will be one that is committed to the authority of Scripture. The church, from its leadership through its membership, must insist that the church will do whatever the Bible directs it to do.

Let me add a qualifier to this standard: not only should a church do everything that the Bible does command it to do, it should refrain from doing anything that the Bible does not command it to do. In other words, the church is not free to institute practices and policies for which it does not have explicit biblical authorization.

One way to illustrate the importance of this principle is to consider what happens to a church that disregards it. The church as an institution holds a unique position in claiming to speak for God. When a church institutes policies and programs for which it lacks biblical warrant, it is in effect saying “thus says the Lord” when the Lord has not spoken. This is an abuse of the church’s authority, for the church may not bind the conscience of the believer based merely on its own preferences or opinions.

Allow me to suggest a provocative, real life example: I see no New Testament warrant for the church to incorporate dramatic productions into its worship service. If we are serious about being biblical, no appeal to pure pragmatism can trump the fact that Scripture simply doesn’t command the church to do such things.

The protection of conscience is biblical. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul has to caution the church at Rome about divisions in the church caused by differing views of holy days and permissible foods. Some in the church thought that specific holy days should be observed, while others viewed all days as equal. And some thought that certain foods were unclean, while others felt free to eat. In either case, both those taking the stricter and those taking the most permissive positions were looking down on the people in the church with whom they disagreed. And so Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

Paul’s instruction here would demand that not only should the people not judge one another, but surely also that the church can’t insist that the people eat (or refrain from eating) the disputed food. And similarly, the church should not, in other cases, insist on positions unless it can offer biblical justification for doing so.

 

The Right Side of History

This past weekend, I traveled to Minnesota to visit friends and take in a college football game. I saw no shortage of roadside election banners there, as the state is voting on a couple of deeply polarizing issues. On the ballot this week in Minnesota (and in several other states) is a proposal to amend the state constitution with a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. In all likelihood, by the time you are reading this essay, the votes will have been counted a decision announced. And unsurprisingly, the announcement of a winning side of the proposal will do almost nothing to keep the debate from continuing.

It is not my point in this short column to offer a full defense of the traditional family, although I believe that Scripture undergirds such a position unequivocally. Instead, I want to discuss the merits (in this case, the demerits) of one common argument for expanding the legal right of marriage to homosexual couples.

Not infrequently, I’ve seen those in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage appeal to being “on the right side of history.” One version of this argument juxtaposes pictures of segregationist demonstrators from the 1950s alongside pictures of opponents of same-sex marriage from today, with the caption, “Imagine how ridiculous you will look in fifty years.” The message is obvious: there is a certain sort of inevitability to the eventual legality of same-sex marriage, so it would be best to advocate it now.

What should we make of this appeal? Even on a simple logical level, it is an abject failure as an argument. It has no more validity than any other appeal to the crowd; “everybody else is doing it” might be emotionally compelling, but it hardly proves that the thing that everybody is doing is good.

Suppose, just for sake of argument, that global warming is an actual threat and that it is caused by human activity (industrialization and so forth). And further suppose that the doomsayers are accurate, and that our pollution results in the utter decimation of our planet and the extinction of the human race. If this is going to happen, who in their right mind would encourage us all to start polluting, so that we’ll be on the right side of history? But is this not the same kind of argument being offered by the proponents of same-sex marriage?

My hunch is that, in the near future, same-sex marriage will indeed become a commonly accepted practice in our nation. So is support for same-sex marriage a move to the right side of history? Maybe so, in the short term. But the Bible has much to say about the future, and because God ultimately wins, siding with His opinion is to be ultimately on the right side of history.

 
 

Is Christianity a Religion, part 2

In last week’s essay, I gave half of my answer to the question, “Is Christianity a religion?” If the word religion is understood to refer to rites and ceremonies that are supposed to earn us favor with God merely through our participation, I insist that Christianity is not a religion. Scripture is abundantly clear that none of our works, even those done in church, have any hope of bringing us into right standing with God.

That said, there is an error on the other side of the ditch that we must also avoid—and frankly, I’m not sure which ditch is more crowded. While some seek assurance in religion as a ritual, others find religious ceremony and such not only meaningless, but obviously meaningless. For these folks, authentic Christianity is solely a matter of the heart, and their creed is that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.

This position is well-intentioned, but I think it fails to take seriously what Jesus himself says about being one of his disciples.

The rites that some churches call sacraments, Baptists typically call ordinances. There are reasons that I prefer the latter designation, but the most relevant one to my point here is that these acts (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Table) are ordained specifically by Jesus. Jesus’s final instruction to his disciples before he ascended is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). Therefore, part of being an authentic follower of Jesus is submitting oneself to baptism. Jesus’s own instructions make this unmistakable.

We have similar instruction from Jesus about the Lord’s Table. Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus observed a Passover feast with his disciples. During the meal, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Paul highlights that last statement of Jesus as the basis for the church’s continuing observance of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

In light of these Scriptures, no one can rightly claim to follow Jesus while remaining separate from the church that he has established, for baptism and the Lord’s Table are functions of the church, the body of Christ.

I understand that many folks today are deeply suspicious of organized religion. Unfortunately, churches have given people sufficient reason for their distrust. And yet, if we take Jesus’s teachings seriously, claiming to follow Jesus while refusing to be baptized or participate at the Table is not authentic Christianity. We must rightly insist that Jesus of Nazareth established something that is more than a religion; but we must also insist that the teachings of Jesus are not less than a religion, as well.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

Is Christianity a Religion, part 1

Is Christianity a religion?

Not surprisingly, my answer here is going to depend almost entirely by what we mean by the term religion, for its dictionary definition and its meaning in popular usage are often at odds with one another. My trusty American Heritage dictionary offers the following relevant meanings: “1a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe…. 3. a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” I suspect that most of the controversy here centers on the word practices: in what sense are certain practices essential to being a Christian?

People have always looked to rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a way to gain favor with God, and not wholly without reason: the Bible itself gives us chapter after chapter (and even entire books, like Leviticus) that detail the proper procedures for sacrifices and feasts days and the like. It simply cannot be asserted, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously, that the Christian God is opposed in principle to rituals. God clearly institutes a religion, in every sense of the word, in the Old Testament.

And yet it is also the case that we, as people, have a tendency to misunderstand the proper use of religion in this sense. We are tempted to think that, if we do a ritual properly, we can somehow manipulate God into looking on us with favor. For this reason, we find God regularly rebuking his people, even in the Old Testament when such sacrifices were still demanded. For instance, God says this in Psalm 50:

I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.

God’s point is clear: none of our religious ceremonies are intrinsically valuable, because the God of the Bible has no needs. There is nothing that we can do that bring us the favor of God; this precisely Paul’s point when he insists that if God’s favor “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

This is still true in the New Testament age in which we live: the religious acts which Jesus ordained (baptism and the Table) don’t work magically, as though if by doing them correctly, we obtain right standing with God. Salvation is not by works, even religious works.

This is half of my answer. Next week, I intend to argue that spirituality apart from biblical religion is also inadequate.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology