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Category Archives: Pastoral

Should Theology Shape our Bible Reading?

A friend and former student contacted me this week. He had listened to a lecture I delivered a few years ago at a conference in Rockford, Illinois. (Unrelated: the conference there is held annually, and if you can make it, it is well worth your time and money.)

After listening to what I said, he requested some clarification on this point: how much should we allow our theology to shape our reading of the Bible? Is there wisdom in coming to the text with no preconceptions, so that we can read it more accurately?

The text below is from that reply, reproduced here in the hopes that someone else might find it helpful.

In general, the tension that you’re feeling here is a tension that we should be feeling. What I mean is this: when you read a text that conflicts with what you believe that the Bible says, your first impulse should not be to simply chuck whatever you already believed.

I’m not sure what examples I used in the Rockford sermon, so I’ll use this one. The Bible tells me that our Lord shelters us under his wings. Upon reading that verse, I shouldn’t immediately discard my conviction that God is a spirit, and therefore that he has no wings.

But we also need to (always!) be willing to change our doctrinal convictions under the weight of biblical evidence. The reality is that there a numerous passages which refer to body parts of God. Maybe there is something to the idea that God has a body. And so we explore the idea, taking into account all that the Bible says. What we’ll find is that there are certain passages that are *foundational* to the question, and other passages that are less clear, so that they could be read either way.

In this case, for instance, I would consider the second commandment (the prohibition against making any images of God) as definitive. We cannot make images of God, because God is *incapable* of being portrayed as an image. He is *unseen*. (Check the context for the argument in the text.) For this reason, then, I have very good reason to believe that all of the verses that speak of God’s body parts are not to be taken literally, but as figures.

In this way, then, my theology is always shaping my reading of the text. Remember, by the grace of God, your theology isn’t something that is just made up out of nothing. Your theology comes from the knowledge of the Bible. Because God does not contradict himself, what you know about God (your theology) from one part of the Bible must shape your understanding of every other part of the Bible.

But it also remains true that my reading of the text is always to be shaping my theology as well. This process always goes both ways. We must always be willing to reexamine our understanding of Scripture by what the text in front of us actually says.

As to the idea that we can read “with no prior thoughts”: I think this notion is both impossible and ungodly. It is impossible because, as you read, you always are going to assume certain things are true. Should you pick up and read a passage, for instance, with no conviction one way or another as to how many gods exist? Or whether the Bible is in fact the Word of God? Honestly, we will always have certain convictions that must be in place for us to read the Bible faithfully. Indeed, the idea that “reading the Bible is better without any preconceived notions” is itself a preconceived notion that must be examined; I think it is one that will be found wanting, when compared to Scripture.

Not only is it impossible to be a blank slate, I’m convinced it is also ungodly. Over and again, we see in the NT that the teachers and pastors in the church are gifts to us from our risen Lord (Ephesians 4). The idea that we should completely disregard what we have been taught previous is never considered a virtue: rather, it is a mark of ingratitude, not only to our teachers, but to Jesus, who gave us the gift of pastors.

Now, I’ve spoken strongly here. There is, of course, a more minimal and limited sense of coming to the text with fresh eyes. This, in itself, isn’t a problem. But what we shouldn’t do is think that this kind of careful honesty about the text happens in a complete vacuum, as though we’ve really succeeded in cutting ourselves off from any previous commitments.

In summary, then, the key point is that Scripture shapes my theology. Inasmuch as my theology has been shaped by Scripture, that theology will help me read other Scriptures more accurately. When I’m reading, however, my theology is always becoming *more informed* by Scripture. So it is not that theology trumps Scripture, or that Scripture is best read without any consideration of theology, but that they form a spiral, each influencing the other, so that we come to a fuller understanding not only of each individual passage, but also of the bigger themes taught in Scripture.

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Posted by on March 8, 2017 in Pastoral, Theology

 

The Necessity of Church Membership

A sound church must be committed to meaningful church membership.

This is not a popular topic in our day, for at least a couple of (related) reasons. The first is the widespread individualism of our society. Many factors of life today have turned people inward: it is not unusual for people to barely know their neighbors. So much of life today is customizable: not only your burger, but also your news sources, your entertainment, and your shopping are designed to let you have everything your own way.

And so, second, this individualism spills over into people’s view of religion, and churches have often encouraged people to think just this way about Christ. Many (a majority of?) folks today believe that their religious beliefs are simply between them and God. The common suggestion that Christianity is primarily, or even exclusively, about one’s “personal relationship with God” has fed this idea. Church, for most people, is considered to be an optional tool to aid a person’s spirituality—if that person thinks that it might be helpful. Membership in a church, on this view, is entirely irrelevant to true spirituality.

To begin, then, I need to make an argument for the biblical importance of church membership. I want to acknowledge, right up front, that there is no one clear and obvious text in Scripture that teaches church membership, but I do think that the idea is definitely found in the Bible.

Let’s begin with a couple of simple assertions. In the book of Acts, Luke observes that after Peter’s initial gospel message, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). On this point, see also Acts 2:47 and 4:4, which express the same kind of idea. This suggests (but obviously does not demand) that the early church was tracking, in some way, those who had become followers of Jesus.

Another indication of this is 1 Timothy 5:9. There, Paul gives instructions about the care of widows in the church, and says, “Let a widow be enrolled if” she meets certain qualifications. The idea here is that the church is to keep records of specific widows in the church who meet certain qualifications, so that they can be cared for. Thus, the notion of official lists of “who’s in” is not foreign to the Bible.

As I say, these passages do not prove church membership; they only suggest it. The stronger argument for the biblical importance of church membership works backwards, from the passages that speak of church discipline. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make my outline here very obvious, so that it can be easily followed.

The Biblical Case for Membership

1. There are some cases in which a church is biblically obligated to remove a person from the church.

Consider two key passages. The first, from Jesus’s own teaching, is in Matthew 18:15–18: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

The second passage, in 1 Corinthians 5, has to do with an issue of immorality in the Corinthian church. The situation concerned a man whose immoral relationship with his stepmother was known to the church. Paul, in no uncertain terms, tells them what they must do: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” These passages reward additional study, but their basic message is clear enough for our point here: there are occasions that call for certain people to be removed from the church.

2. It doesn’t seem that being removed from the church meant being barred from attendance.

But what does it mean to be removed from the church? Jesus’s teaching in the passage above is our clearest indication: the person removed from the church is to be considered “a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the Jewish context in which Jesus was teaching, this would mean that the person would be considered outside the people of God. In the broader New Testament, it is clear that these kinds of people are always welcome to attend to the church. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:23 gives specific instructions about unbelievers who come to the church. Thus, the kind of “removal” outlined above does not demand that a person be barred from attending the church.

3. If we can “remove” a person without barring him from attending, we must have some other way to say who is “in” and who is “out” of a church. That is church membership.

This should be mostly clear at this point. If we can say that someone has been put “out” of the church, it follows that we must know who is “in” the church. It can’t simply be attendance, because anyone can attend, even those put “out.” Therefore, because church discipline is clearly biblical, church membership is clearly implied by the Bible.

The Purpose for Membership

Let’s conclude, then, by discussing two reasons that membership is important.

Membership is important because church discipline is designed by God as a way for you to grow spiritually. As we have already seen, discipline only makes sense if membership exists. Your theology might be deeply opposed our church’s, and your decisions might violate our church covenant at every point, and yet I won’t be coming to your house to ask you about it—if you are not a member of our church. And while you might think that it would be better not to have that kind of accountability, the Bible says otherwise.

The Bible makes it clear that our pursuit of Christlikeness is not supposed to be an individual endeavor. That’s exactly why discipline passages like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 exist: they teach us how to help one another be faithful to Christ. That’s why we are told to “stir up one another to love and good works,” and that this is to occur as we meet together (Hebrews 10:24–25).

Membership creates accountability; to become a member of a church is to agree that allow the other believers in the church to hold you to your confession of faith. We often seek to avoid that kind of responsibility, but let’s be honest: our avoiding accountability simply shows us how much we need it.

Membership is important because it demonstrates that God’s plan in salvation is always bigger than individuals. This is the kind of truth that only becomes apparent when we spend time in the Bible, trying to see the big picture. The Bible as a whole tells a story; it is not simply a collection of random bits of inspiration or wisdom for living. The story of the Bible always involves God saving a people. I say it this way to make a distinction: God is not merely saving people, but he is saving a people.

In the Old Testament, for instance, it is obvious that the nation of Israel is God’s people. And a major point of the New Testament is the people of God has now expanded to include those of us who are not Jews. Paul spends a lot of time on exactly this point in Ephesians chapters 2–3. His point there is that one of the most important things that God is doing in this day is building a church that includes every kind of people. If we get his point here, it should become apparent that we can’t say that we’re Christians if we’re quite opposed to the very thing that God is doing in this world.

For those unconvinced, I offer this challenge: read Paul’s letters, and see how often he talks about the church. What you’ll find is that, for him, being part of a church isn’t an optional part of being a Christian; it’s essential. Furthermore, nearly every letter Paul wrote is addressed to a particular local assembly. Despite the cliché, the Bible is not a love letter to individual believers.

In this matter, as in all things, Christians must follow the teaching of their professed Lord. To intentionally do otherwise is to draw into question the robustness of that very profession.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Pastoral

 

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Love: feeling or choice?

Against my better judgment and normal practice, I involved myself in a Facebook theology discussion last night. Because I maintain a view that, for those participating in that discussion thread, is more than a bit outside the norm, I felt it worthwhile to offer a clarification and expanded defense of my position.

The debate question was of the basic nature of love: is it a feeling or a choice? I offered a briefly sketched defense of the view that love is a feeling. As expected, my position was a distinct minority in that thread, but as my theological convictions aren’t formed by counting Facebook affirmations, I remain undaunted.

Let me begin here by commending what I take to be the core concern of those who define love as a choice. Characteristic of our time and place is a lack of loyalty to anything outside a decidedly rosy image of self. This is a narcissistic astigmatism, a self-love that sees no real faults in the hero of our autobiographical epic. People thus afflicted value other people only inasmuch as they reinforce their narcissism. Unsurprisingly, then, relationships ride surges of passions.

Those who insist that love is a choice rightly understand that love grounded in this way is no love at all. There is no constancy here; commitment exists only insofar as the one loved affirms the lover. That is to say, then, that commitment doesn’t exist at all. And if commitment doesn’t exist, biblical love doesn’t exist there, either.

This, I say, is an admirable critique of a certain kind of distorted feeling. However, the reduction of love to mere choice and pure volition is an unbiblical overreaction to a real problem. I say reduction here because there are many who will flatly say that love is a choice and not a feeling.

Let’s begin with a point of clarification: the word feeling, like the parallel term emotion, is far too broad to be useful here. Love, biblical love, is more properly an affection. The distinction is important, even in this discussion. First, let’s let Jonathan Edwards sketch the difference, and then we’ll apply it to our present topic:

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.

First, note that Edwards defines affections as “lively actings of the will.” Already, the distinction between love as a feeling and as a choice is blurred here, and rightly so. But even more that this, Edwards wishes to distinguish affections from passions; the latter are the kind of sudden and overwhelming feelings that overrun the mind. Because many people do not distinguish between affections and passions, lumping them together as emotions or feelings, and because living by passions is in fact decidedly unbiblical, the assumption is that feeling is itself suspect. This is a category mistake.

Why then did I take the side that love is a feeling? Because it was a discussion on Facebook, which as a medium is unserious and discourages nuance. Do you see how many paragraphs I’ve already written here? I skip Facebook comments that look like this, and so do you.

Let’s begin to cash this out. I was asked, “On that inevitable day when the feelings just ain’t a-coming with respect to your wife, will that mean you have stopped loving her?” We now have categories to clarify, first, what is meant by feelings in this question. If we’re talking about an absence of fluttery butterflies in the belly, something rightly identified as a passion, then I can certainly love my wife without those. In fact, mature love isn’t characterized by passions.

But if we frame this in terms of the affections, the question (I think) becomes more revealing: “So on the day in which you no longer cherish your wife, you do not value her, you do not wish her good, have you stopped loving her?” The only answer I can see to this question is “Yes, if that accurately describes my case, I could not be said to love her.” And what must I do if I were to reach such a deplorable situation? I must repent, because I have covenanted to have that affection for her; I have vowed to cherish her. The choice that I have made (and continue to make) isn’t the love, but it establishes the obligation to love. This is the point of Bonhoeffer’s aphorism, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

To illustrate this further, allow me to bring it into the realm of sanctification. The first and greatest commandment is love for God. Is love for God merely volitional? If I obey God by rote choice, have I loved him?

I think we all recognize that, in our progress in sanctification, we have truly advanced only to the degree that our values have been re-inclined. Suppose I decide that I have been slacking in daily Bible reading, and purpose to rise each morning a half-hour earlier than usual to read the Word. When the alarm sounds, I grumble, but drag myself out of bed and read the Word. And it is better to have chosen to do so, even absent any positive inclinations, than to be unfaithful in this matter. But suppose my reaction to my time in the Word remains similarly bitter and loathsome to me for decades. We might admire the persistence involved in such a life, but there is something deeply amiss here. Such a person could never rightly affirm Psalm 119, what Kevin DeYoung calls a “love letter to Scripture.” Do we not see that the Psalmist here not only chooses the Word, but delights in the Word?

One more Scriptural appeal:

Philippians 1:9–11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Here is a prayer of Paul for the Philippian church. The climax of the prayer suggests its importance: if his prayer is answered, the Philippians will be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” It’s hard not to read this as a summary of the entire goal of the Christian life.

What might accomplish this goal? Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians would abound in discerning love, so that they give their approval to truly excellent things. Does it not seem evident that Paul’s prayer is for a certain inclination of heart, and not merely a set of choices?

Once again, I understand the suspicion attached to love as feeling, especially if we make no effort to distinguish kinds of feelings. But to advocate a definition of love that is absent feeling is to run counter to what it is that we must pursue.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Pastoral, Theology

 

Some cautions on children’s ministry

This week, Calvary Baptist Church is hosting its annual Vacation Bible School, so I thought I’d  say a word or two about the privilege and challenges of ministering to children. The faith of a child is precious thing, and should be cultivated with the utmost care. It is my hope that my own children and those to whom I minister would be better Christians than I am, by God’s grace. This forces me to look at the long-term consequences of how we minister to children.

It is a standard characteristic of evangelicals to emphasize the importance of conversion, which means that “being a Christian” is not something that you’re born with. It isn’t genetic; it’s a decision. But if it’s a decision, it becomes deeply important for us to teach our children what it is that they’re supposed to be deciding about. There is a difference, we must admit, between teaching and manipulating. Frankly, it is relatively easy to get a child to “pray a prayer,” to ask Jesus into his heart, or something similar. No doubt, some who are reading this post right now can remember a time that they, as a small child, prayed such a prayer. Some of you look back at that decision as a key turning point in your life; you were truly converted and have followed Christ since. Other readers, in all forthrightness, would have to admit that such a childhood decision really hasn’t meant much for the direction of the rest of their life. This is a danger of children’s ministry: pressing for decisions from some who, in Jesus’s words, really aren’t in any position to “count the cost” of being his disciple (Luke 14:25–33, which is a weighty passage indeed).

This leads directly to one more caution in doing children’s ministry. The Bible teaches us that following Christ really is a life-and-death issue: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, one of many passages on the same theme). For that reason, we think it is extremely important that our children be attracted to Christianity, to genuinely like it, so that they want to continue to follow Christ as they mature. And this is as it should be.

That said, we need to be mindful of a real danger: that in our eagerness to have our children like the faith, we change the faith itself into something that they’ll like. This can be done in a variety of ways, but most of them have to do with pressure to make Christianity into something “fun.” Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not opposed to fun, not at all. But while Scripture repeatedly commands us to be joyful and rejoice in the Lord, it gives precious little suggestion that worship is to be fun. And when we rear our children with the expectation of fun in church, we oughtn’t be surprised when, upon reaching adulthood and the reality of mature Christian ministry, they drift from the faith altogether. We’ve given them the sweet tooth that the meat of the Word simply won’t satisfy.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

Discipling, part 2

If it is the case, as Ephesians 4:11 teaches, that the leadership of the church is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” what should that look like? In order to answer this question (“how do we prepare Christians to do ministry”), we need to first answer a more basic question: what is Christian ministry?

Ministry that is genuinely Christian must have the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. This means that basic humanitarian service, while always admirable and worth pursuing, does not by itself rise to the level of being Christian ministry. At the risk of being blunt, it should be obvious that the kinds of good works that an atheist, a Christian, and a Muslim could all work together to pursue cannot be thought of as in any way distinctively Christian. So, then, building hospitals and feeding the poor are good things, and we should do them. What we shouldn’t think, however, is that by doing these things that we have done Christian ministry in the fullest sense of the term.

Christian ministry must focus on the work of Christ on our behalf. Remember Paul’s description of the Christian message in 1 Corinthians 15: that Jesus died for our sins, and that he was raised. The work of the ministry must emphasize this point.

But this means that doing the work of ministry requires that we understand why Jesus died for our sins. And if we begin to answer that question, we are immediately doing theology.

If you’ve followed the argument so far, you will now understand that if the pastor and leaders of the church are doing what they are supposed to be doing (equipping Christians to do ministry), a good church will be one in which the people become more and more knowledgeable about the Bible, increasingly able to take what God has said and apply it to the needs and hurts of people around them.

So the leaders of the church need to be patient teachers. Peter gives this instruction to pastors: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). A pastor who is territorial about ministry, who insists that only he or those who have similar stature can do ministry, has utterly missed the point of ministry in the church. The pastor is to be investing himself in doing ministry, yes, but even more so, he is to be investing himself in the people of his church, so that more and more they are ready to do genuinely Christian ministry. This is what a sound church looks like.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

Discipling into ministry

These last several weeks, we’ve been highlighting the priorities God expects a church to have. While all of these are crucial, the one we’re about to see is quite dear to me personally.

How should we measure the success of a church? Our society tends to place highest value on things that can be counted. Applied to church life, then, the health of a church tends to be evaluated by the number of people attending, the amount of the offerings, the variety of programs and ministries, and other such things. Paul offers us a different standard of measurement. Two passages are key for us here.

The first is 2 Timothy 2:1–2: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In this passage, we see four generations of leaders trained to serve the church: Paul, Timothy, the “faithful men,” and the “others also.” Paul’s point here is that the leaders of the church are to keep training new leaders.

The second key passage is from Ephesians 4. Having laid a theological foundation for the church in the first three chapters of this important book, Paul turns to explaining the practical application of these truths. He begins by listing the things that all believers have in common: there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. Having listed the things that unite Christians, Paul shifts his attention to the things that make us different from one another: various giftings for service in the church.

Believers have different gifts, and these gifts exist in order to serve the church. Paul highlights five kinds of gifted people in Ephesians 4:11: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” Now, for what purpose did Jesus give these gifted leaders to his church? Paul answers this directly: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

This is extremely important. The leaders of the church, given to her by her Lord, are not there to be the ones doing all the ministry. Rather, Paul tells us, the leaders of the church are to be equipping the people of the church to do the work of the ministry. That is to say, a church is not functioning properly if the clergy or the ordained leadership are looked upon as solely responsible for doing the work of the ministry, while the rest of the church is content to be ministered unto.

Thus, a chief measurement of the success of a church is this: are the people of the church becoming more and more prepared to do the work of the ministry? If so, that church is following Paul’s instruction.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

Conversion

To review: a sound church is one that is committed 1.) to obeying Scripture as its final authority, 2.) to a steady diet of expositional preaching that explains the meaning of the Bible, and 3.) to understanding Scripture within its proper context of systematic and biblical theology.

The next commitment of a sound church is exceedingly important, because it is the kind of thing that identifies what the church is. The church is made up of those who follow Jesus Christ. But following Jesus is an ambiguous expression. Are we following Jesus if, before making any decision, we ask what Jesus would do? (Side observation: I suspect he wouldn’t wear one of those bracelets, although I may be mistaken.) While the Bible does point to Jesus as an example for right living, the Christian message can never be reduced to exhortations to live like he did. To quote the great Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, genuine Christianity can be distinguished from spurious Christianity in this way: for some, Jesus is the example of faith, but for the true Christian, Jesus is the object of faith.

There is a world of difference between these two conceptions of Christianity. If Jesus is merely the example of faith, the Christian message is one of works: be saved by doing what Jesus did. The problem with this should be obvious: who among us would dare claim that we live up to this standard? To reduce salvation to following the example of Jesus is to lay a burden on people that no one can meet. A message of works can produce only two kinds of people: the insufferably arrogant who falsely believe they can meet the standard, and the despairing who know they can’t.

By contrast, to say that Jesus is the object of faith is to maintain that it is of high importance that all people affirm certain truths about Jesus. We’ve considered this already in Paul’s explanation of the gospel in the opening of 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel is, quite literally, good news. It is a message to be believed. The core of this belief is that Jesus died for our sins, which means that we need to believe (at least) that we are sinners and that there is something about Jesus that makes his death the means by which I can be delivered from sin.

To believe this gospel is to be converted; this is what it means to be saved. Any church that fails to make this message central to its entire operation has abandoned its real reason for existence. We should not be surprised, then, to find that this message, the necessity of saving faith in Jesus, characterized the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. In his very first message, Peter explained to his audience who Jesus is, and concluded by instructing them to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

To insist on the importance of conversion, then, is another mark of a church with its priorities in order.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology