Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Arrogance of the Emergent Church Movement (I)

My Predictions Are Coming True
I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but the more I read books by Emergent/Emerging authors, the more I’m convinced that what I said a couple of years ago—at least—is becoming increasingly evident. When I finished reading McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy it was clear to me that this was going to be an aberrant, heterodox movement. McLaren’s new book Everything Must Change seems to be his (vain) attempt at ethics and deviates even further from true Christianity. I have read a large number of books on ethics and this one—along with Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics—qualifies as one of the worst. I hope to make this clear in the course of this series on his book and other Emergent nonsense.
Let me state at the outset that in his latest book McLaren comes out looking very much like a left-wing Democrat who despises George Bush, hates the war, and believes that we are all going to become crispy-critters due to global warming unless we heed Al Gore’s “facts,” which a number of scientists have debunked. In many ways, McLaren’s book parallels Wallis’ books and makes many of the same left-wing points that Wallis makes, only more poorly.
Another aspect of McLaren’s book that irked me as I read it was McLaren’s arrogance. Like N.T. Wrights What Saint Paul Really Said, McLaren gives us the impression that up until this point in theology and ethics we have been surrounded by incompetents and dolts, but now Bri is here to rescue us from our blatant ignorance. While the old dead guys were spewing out all that doctrine stuff and burning witches at the stake, Brian has bigger, better, kinder, and gentler fish to fry. Heck, he’s even willing to stop admiring his Birkenstocks long enough to help us discover the real Jesus. How kind.
But before we launch into McLaren’s ethical commentary, I want to say just a few words about one of his colleagues: Dan Kimball. This year Zondervan released Kimball’s work They Like Jesus but not the Church. On the back cover we read the following: “Ask someone today is he or she likes Jesus, and the answer is usually Yes. But ask if that person likes the Church, and chances are you will get a far less favorable response.” This is, quite possibly, an apt description of the emerging generation, who, we should remember, are the children of those who were entertained to death in the mega-church movement. Their parents had no spiritual legacy to pass on to their children and these children are merely the devastating spiritual result of parents who either could not or would not pass on scriptural truth to their children; who had little or no concept of what it means that God desires a godly seed (cf. Mal. 2:15).
As I unfold Kimball’s comments this will be one of my guiding theses: the “emerging generation” and what they think, feel, and sense—these are their operative words—is comparable to what the mega-church movement sought in unchurched-Harry and Harriett. It’s the same old pile; it’s just been re-stacked. For the life of me, I cannot understand why any real Christian would find anything attractive about the lack of exegesis, lack of use of Scripture, and constant use of vague platitudes in the Emerging chit-chat. It is, quite possibly, the most superficial theology to date. But what concerns me even more is that some in my own denomination have found Emergent books witty and amusing. To date, no one from our Mission to North America office in Atlanta has issued anything resembling a warning about a wide variety of heterodox statements coming from the Emergents (e.g., the penal substitutionary atonement of our Lord is tantamount to cosmic child abuse), and some cutting-edge pastors are even embracing some Emergent tenets.
For example, those in the PCA who do not have their heads in the sand know that we are heading—and have been for quite some time—to a showdown about women in leadership positions. Some churches already have women reading Scripture in worship, leading in prayer (shouldn’t the pastor and Elders, who really know what’s going on the congregation be doing this?), and serving as “unordained Deacons,” which is contrary to the PCA’s Book of Church Order. Without getting involved in a kind of Christian feminism (oxymoron), how do Emergent advocates think about the use of women in the church and, equally important, how to they come to their conclusions? This is where Kimball’s book is instructive. In his less than subtle title to the 7th chapter (“The Church is Dominated by Males and Oppresses Females”) Kimball gives us some insight into how he came to this conclusion.
He quotes “Alicia,” who by Kimball’s assessment has a limited knowledge of Scripture (p. 115). She says, “I feel the church is very sexist, yet I don’t believe that Jesus was sexist. From what I have observed, women in the church basically sit on the sidelines and are only able to work with children, answer the phones, be secretaries, and serve the men. They seem to be given no voice. The church seems pretty much like a boys’ club for adults.” (Ibid. Italics mine.) Be prepared and forewarned for many words like “feel,” “sense,” and other emotional words are used by both Kimball and McLaren. They are operative words in the Emergent group think. Kimball also informs us that “Alicia isn’t part of any church.” Yet, with her “limited exposure to churches,” this is what Alicia observed and felt about how the church views women. (Ibid.) Yet, Kimball is willing to concede that Alicia is correct in that “she senses that Jesus would want women to have more options than just becoming secretaries and children’s workers in the church.” (Ibid. Italics mine.) Well, of course, Jesus would! Women could become cooks too. Just kidding.
So here we have a biblically uneducated woman feeling and sensing what Jesus would want. This is a phenomenon that McLaren employs often. For example, on pp. 177-178 of Everything Must Change McLaren makes this creative statement: “If Jesus were in a conversation with Chris Hedges and others like you and me who are concerned about the pervasive human pull towards war, I think he might say something like this:” McLaren then proceeds to have Jesus say nothing of sin and salvation, but puts all kinds of pronouncements in his mouth about war and global warming. In short, McLaren has created a Democrat Jesus in Birkenstocks drinking a Starbucks $5.75 (plus tax) cinnamon-gingerbread-persimmon latte with coxcomb sprinkles. This is the “real Jesus of the Bible” that the rest of us knotheads have missed, but if we had only looked closely enough we would have discovered that he really looked just like Brian McLaren all along.
So the Emergent church is paranoid about what outsiders (unbelievers) might think of the Christian Church. “This conclusion keeps many people away who might otherwise trust the church enough to enter into community with us.” (Kimball, 115). I don’t know who did the survey among the neo-pagans and I’ll leave the comment about trusting the church or trusting the Jesus of the Church until later. But Kimball is sad, he tells us, because there have been heated arguments in the church concerning the role of women. By the way, Dan, there have also been some pretty heated arguments in the church about the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, miracles, justification by faith, and a host of other biblical truths. I’m not necessarily “sad” that we had those debates. In fact, I’m quite happy we did. Dan’s hope, however, is “that the mission Jesus has sent us on to emerging generations will override divisive and critical attitudes towards those who hold different viewpoints.” (p. 116.) The caveat is that Dan hasn’t told us what that mission is. Moreover, divisive and critical attitudes towards those who hold different viewpoints (feminists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Satanists, etc.) isn’t always a bad thing. Some might even term it “discerning.”
Now we need to keep in mind that both Bri and Dan have had disturbed childhoods and the Church is partly to blame for their excruciating pain. We can include Jim Wallis in this list of people as well. They just have not been able to get over the fact that when they were teenagers and a little older that people in their local congregations got tired of their liberal rantings and said, Enough is enough. They’re still cheesed off. In Dan’s case, however, his experience of church folk was that they were Gestapo-like, especially the ushers. (They’ve always been a troublesome group in the church, just one step away from starting a revolution.) Here is what poor Dan experienced: “Quite honestly, the all-male ushers in this one church looked and acted like intense Secret Service or CIA agents.” (p. 117.) See, I told you that they were a disruptive, seditious lot. What made matters worse, “They wore dark suits and ties and were even signaling each other across the room with hand signals.” (Ibid.) That’s phunny even if you’re Emergent! No doubt these charter members of the adult boys’ club were signaling how they might more intensely persecute the female members of the congregation and show them who had the dominant power—or, how to find some empty seats for those who arrived late or how to adjust the thermostat in the sanctuary. I sense that the hand signals that ushers use are sometimes notoriously hard to decipher and that if the real Jesus were here today he would come down pretty hard on usher hand signals and global warming. Oh, and he’d also make certain that George Bush was the only one in hell, but other than that he’d be for world peace.
But the worst is yet to come. Dan looked at the bulletin and—you guessed it—it “listed only men as pastors and elders.” (Ibid.) This was really a moot point, because by his own admission he “didn’t even know what an elder was…” (Ibid.) Possibly, conceivably he still doesn’t. He attends a church, has no clue what an elder is, and yet knows intuitively that it was wrong that no women were listed. He’s about as informed as Alicia. It’s a good thing “elder” doesn’t mean “one with excessive facial hair.” The really sad part about this description from Kimball is that he didn’t stay in that congregation but moved on. I’m certain something could have been worked out to give some horse tranquilizers to the ushers.
His point to his readers is this: “Remember, at this time I was not a churchgoer, and I noticed these things on the very first visit. People in emerging generations also notice whether we have women in leadership roles.” (p. 118.) A case in point is Erika. She is one of those emerging folks that has “given up on the church, but she has not given up on Jesus.” (p. 119.) She’s a metro-spiritual. Let me see if I have this straight. Erika has some kind of vague relationship with Jesus wherein she has not given up on him—whatever that means—but she has given up on the Church that he spoke about in Matthew 16:18ff. Erika waved farewell in her teens—one can only wonder where her parents were—to the church because she felt it focused too much on negative things. (Ibid.) Let’s parse that genial statement for a moment. A teenage “hormonal” feels a certain way and beats feet out of the local congregation—with or without daddy’s and mommy’s approval who were morphing from unchurched into churched-but-not-knowing-squat Christians—because there was a focus on negative things. Again, one can only speculate what those negative things might have been. Could it have been that her church was speaking against shacking up? Using controlled substances? No sex prior to marriage? Or, it could have just been the ushers.
Dan assures us that Erika is not a feminist, but then regales us with this quote from the one who had her self-esteem destroyed by the ushers: “America was birthed primarily from a male-dominated European society. So the church naturally is rooted from there. However, in our society today, there are great steps being made of seeing females as more equal in the job market and other places. So I certainly would think that the church would be doing the same, but it doesn’t seem to be. I have only seen and heard about churches shooting down women who both aspire in their faith and then desire to be in church leadership.” (Ibid.)
If there is anything worse than the ushers, it’s the Europeans that founded this country on the principle of squashing women. Erika—wrongly—concludes that the church is rooted in Europe. Sorry, Erika, but your geography is just a little off. How about the Church being rooted in God in the Old Testament and gathered, protected, and defended by Jesus Christ, the Head of his Church in the New? Erika is also convinced that as matters go in society, so they must also go in the Church. Based on her observation about society she opines that the Church should be doing the same. Solid, solid reasoning.
To her credit, she must have had my church in mind when she wrote about the church shooting down women. Now listen. I can explain that. We did receive a petition from a group of women who, according to their words, were aspiring in their faith and who wanted to be church leaders. We weren’t exactly sure what “aspiring in their faith” meant, but we were convinced that it probably wasn’t a good thing. To that point our ushers didn’t even have a hand signal for “aspiring in their faith,” so we knew we had to move swiftly. We got them to believe that if they helped us change out the light bulbs in the sanctuary we’d consider their requests. Once they were up on the scaffolding, we shot them down, one by aspiring one, but we only used paintball guns so they were only slightly bruised.The other day, I asked a neo-pagan named Seasons how she thought Jesus came to earth. She assured me that an alien impregnated her grandmother, who eventually gave birth to him from her left big toe. She might be our first female usher except she’s Emergent. I asked her how she knew what she said was true. She smiled affably, shook her long blonde hair and said, “Math is hard!” Then she informed me that she really didn’t know and that it really didn’t matter. She just felt and sensed that what she said was true and it was true for her. Her experience growing up in a church impacted her so much that she has not felt the need to return. But not to worry: She may have given up on the church, but she has not given up on Jesus. Where does it all stop? I cannot answer that question, but I can assure you that Kimball’s stuff gets worse and worse and McLaren is off the charts. If you want to know what is wrong with the modern Church, then stay tuned and buckle up because it’s going to be a rough ride and eternal destinies are at stake.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Church of Christ (X)

The Marks or Notes of the Christian (III)
In this installment we’ll finish what the Belgic Confession teaches us about the marks of the true and false churches. It has been instructive to listen to this confessional statement from the Reformation, although at times it might have sounded strange to our ears. Next time, Lord willing, we’re going to begin on an analysis of Brian McLaren’s new book Everything Must Change. With a title like that, you just have to know that this is going to be a real “toe-tapper.” This is McLaren’s (vain and lame) attempt at some form of ethics. It is quite expansive in its reach: Everything and, given the fact that the Emergent chit-chat doesn’t care for authority, the word Must seems like a bit of a fremdkörper in the Emergent church vocabulary. Anyway, if you like really left-wing Socialism in Birkenstocks, then McLaren is the kinder, gentler guy to read.
For today, however, we want to continue listening to what the B.C. teaches about the lives/marks of true believers. By way of quick review, here is what has been said concerning them up to this point: “With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians; namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with its works.”
To the modern church-goer this description not only sounds quite strange, but probably overly pious as well. Modern Christians are not adept at avoiding sin because their pastors will not talk to them about sin and are afraid if they do their “audience” will “beat feet” out of the building. All the talk about walking the straight and narrow path and not turning to the right or left is about as appealing, hip, and upbeat as crucifying the flesh with its works.
Did you see the latest episode of Desperate Housewives? No, I was busy crucifying my flesh and its works. In short, to date, with all the talk about engaging the culture, most Christians don’t have a clue what that means (neither do their pastors, by the way) and have settled in on getting engaged by the culture rather than engaging it. Granted engaging the culture is a complex issue, but it would seem with all the intense admonitions for modern Christians to get out and engage the culture it might be helpful for someone to give a few helpful specific references to precisely which culture (high, medium, low, pop, hip-hop) we’re supposed to engage and how we are to engage it. Otherwise engaging the culture becomes an abstraction that is discussed while drinking beer and shooting pool at the local pub or eating suicide chicken wings at Hooters.
What strikes me about this description of the true marks of Christians is the pastoral approach that de Brès employs. He’s not dealing with abstractions or “pie-in-the-sky” descriptions. Here is a man who is both a good theologian and a pastor. That breed is rapidly dying out and is all but extinct in the modern Church. If the breed is not yet dead in mega-church and Emergent church circles it is on the endangered species list.
In this confessional statement we’re not fed the myth of the “model” or “perfect” or “victorious” Christian, but rather the Christian who struggles against sin daily. The caveat is, however, that they do struggle against it. Here is the qualifier de Brès uses, which is the pastoral and realistic approach: But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities.
The true believer has not and will not reach perfection in this life. They know—from Scripture and experience—that they still have to struggle against great spiritual infirmities all their lives. How do they cope with all that doctrinal expository preaching that tells them about sin? They listen carefully and also hear about grace; God’s wondrous grace of forgiveness because of Jesus Christ.
Many today believe that the gospel can no longer be preached as it was before. I totally disagree because the Savior is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). I also wonder how sin has changed significantly since Adam and Eve fell. Anyway, the answer that de Brès gives is that Christians will struggle against sin until they draw their last breath. The rest of his explanation goes like this: But they fight against them (the infirmities) through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.
The Holy Spirit working in and through the Word of God strengthens them in and for this spiritual battle. The Spirit also teaches them about prayer, the use of the sacraments, and Christian fellowship as God’s ordained means of grace in addition to the preaching of the Word. And when they sin—not if they sin—they take refuge in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. De Brès uses words like “blood,” “death,” and “passion” to describe the Savior. Oh yeah, he also uses one more, but that word—according to the Federal Visionists—shouldn’t be there. Surely, truly, de Brès must be mistaken when he refers to the obedience of Christ. Why, whatever might that mean? Are we to assume that a good Reformed man like Guido de Brès entertained a notion of the active obedience of Christ somehow being applied to the life of the believer?
According to some, the gospel must be “repackaged,” but what Luther referred to in Wider Hans Worst as the “old faith” seems to make good sense. Believers fight, struggle against sin through the Holy Spirit all their lives; they continually—because of indwelling sin—take their refuge to the total Christ exclusively; believe that he fulfilled all righteousness—including keeping the Law of God according to its letter and spirit—for them; and that through his Person and Work alone they have remission of sins. How? By faith, which contains a sure knowledge and firm confidence (head and heart), they are assured that Christ loves them and gave himself for them (cf. Gal. 2:20). I think I’d rather know that than shoot pool or eat chicken wings at Hooters.
But what is the “false” church all about? Few pause to ask or ponder that question anymore. Church choices are made on substantially more pragmatic motives. Even with the mega-church movement waning, that does not mean that we should expect a return by them and their staffs to a more regulative form of worshiping God. What do you do if your mega-church is in trouble? The answer is easy: You hire some public relations experts to tell you which way the wind is blowing and you conform to the theology du jour. So if Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek is losing interest and by their own admission have not fulfilled what they initially set out to do, Bill simply makes a “Dr. Spock-esque” confession and looks forward to bringing in the Emergent chit-chat for a Spring conference.
I’m going to allow de Brès’ remarks concerning the false church simply to pass in review and will have ample opportunity to comment on them when we examine McLaren’s new book. What, then, are the marks or notes of the false church? As for the false church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes from them, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men that upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.
Clearly, the historical context of these words points us to the Roman Catholic Church, but mutatis mutandis the words can also apply to the modern Church at the front end of the 21st century as well. Two examples will suffice. Perhaps it’s just me, but I have viewed the title of N.T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said as just a tad on the arrogant side. For approximately 2,000 years the Church has stumbled in blindness regarding one of the key, essential doctrines of salvation and the Church: justification by faith. Thankfully, Bishop Tom has come along to enlighten the Church. The same type of gross and blatant arrogance is evident in McLaren’s books, but his latest really is off the charts when it comes to the arrogance factor. Time after time, McLaren will take a text and attempt to convince the reader that it really means just the opposite of what it says. He also adeptly dismisses the history of the Church as an exercise in ignorance. Thankfully, the Church has now been blessed with Tom and Bri!
It is shockingly amazing and amazingly shocking that McLaren can correct two thousand years of muddleheaded theology, but still doesn’t seem to know what Scripture teaches about the atonement or homosexuality. He will, no doubt, clear those matters up as well in subsequent treatises. Unbelievable!
Here’s de Brès’ parting shot: These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other. Have you done the requisite investigation? Are you certain that where you are attending now or where you are a member now is a true Church? If you haven’t ever thought about this, today might be a good day to start.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Church of Christ (IX)

The Marks or Notes of the Christian (II)
We’re still dealing with Article 29 of the Belgic Confession regarding the marks of the true church and where she differs from the false church. By way of quick review, Article 27 dealt with the concept of the catholic/universal Church of Jesus Christ and Article 28 reminded us that every Christian is duty bound to seek out, find, and then attach him- or herself to the most biblical local congregation they can find.
Church choice is not rocket science, but it is more important than rocket science. Unfortunately, few today take the requisite time to find a true congregation of the Lord. The false assumption is that all that bear the name “Church” are truly churches. Moreover, this sounds like a rather time-consuming process and the modern church-going consumer has a rather sparse list of what he or she is looking for anyway. Some semblance of entertainment is usually rather high on the list; biblical substance doesn’t rank too high, although modern church-goers want to believe that they are in a “Bible believing church” that will suit/meet their needs and will be attuned to what’s going down in pop culture.
In our last installment (Sorry that I missed a week, but I was away speaking at a conference and am on my way tomorrow to lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary—Memphis), we were discussing what the B.C. also has to say in Article 29 about the “marks of Christians.” The Church and the people of God/body of Christ truly do belong together. The Dutch New Testament scholar, Herman Ridderbos, correctly states, “The church belongs to the central content of Paul’s preaching…. Consequently all that has been said in the foregoing about the salvation given in Christ has special reference to the church and to the individual believer because he belongs to the church…. [T]he church is the continuation and fulfillment of the historical people of God that in Abraham God chose to himself from all peoples and to which he bound himself by making the covenant and the promises.”[1]
What seems to escape some modern Christians is the relationship between salvation and the Church as well as the centrality of preaching regarding both. In essence, Paul was not writing anything new and different that Jesus had not already said. He did expand upon it, however, and place everything in a post-resurrection and post-ascension context, where the Holy Spirit both informed and formed the Church. Conformity to the image of Christ does follow a biblical pattern.
After having said that true Christians may be known by the content of true, saving faith, de Brès proceeds and states further, “…and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof.”[2]
The only time I caught a glimpse of Joel Osteen (I was channel surfing for a baseball game), I heard him promise his—whatever they are that attend his whatever it is—that they would never hear the word “sin” from his lips. They were pleased; he was very pleased; I was displeased. Of course, I understand that many in the modern Church in the 21st century don’t know Scripture, don’t know doctrine, and haven’t read a substantial Church Father.
In “our time,”—to borrow a phrase from David Wells—Christians gorge themselves on steady diets of Osteen, Hybels, Schuler, Campolo, Stormy Omartian, and McLaren—if they read at all—and neglect Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Owen, Edwards, and Bavinck. How could anyone neglect Bavinck?
Describing the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, the psalmist writes this in Ps. 106:13-15, “But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel. But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them” (ESV). The Authorized Version (1901) gives us a “word picture” rendering: “And he gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.”
A steady diet of 21st century theology is tantamount to being on a theological starvation diet. If Mr. Osteen will not speak of sin, then the question is begged: How will those in attendance know about grace? Many today do not connect the dots on this one. They are oblivious to the fact that if a person does not come to a knowledge of the depth of his or her sins and miseries, they will have a truncated, cut-off-at-the-knees view of God’s grace and Christ’s atonement. Sadly, few seem to mind or care if this transpires. Such is the nature of the consumer, entertain-me-to-death mentality in the mega-church and Emergent church movements.
How can the Church be striving for holiness—especially the holiness apart from which no one will see God (cf. Heb. 12:14)—and not know the magnitude of its sin? And it is evident, is it not, that the modern Church is on par with its secular counterparts vis-à-vis morality?If Christians are not reading their Bibles on a regular, systematic basis—and most who call themselves Christians are not—and not hearing about the horrific reality of sin in a person’s life, how are they to avoid sin and follow after righteousness? If they are unaware of their sins, how will they love the true God and their neighbor?

[1] Herman Ridderbos, Paul, An Outline of His Theology, (John R. de Witt [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 327.
[2] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confession Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 193.