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.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gun Control is Not about Guns, but about Control (III)

“A gun in the hand is better than a cop on the phone”

Some Biblical Texts to Think About

In our last installment, I promised that we would take a look at some biblical texts that address the issue of citizens being armed. Of course, this will not be an exercise where we look in 2 Hesitations 5 under “Gun Control” and find a pat answer. My Presbyterian tradition does, however, offer this explanation of how we should view Scripture: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6. Emphasis added).

Are there, then, lessons we can learn from the Word of God that might help us to decide as Christians whether it is biblical to carry a weapon or to defend oneself and loved ones? In other words, must “Pacifism” be the default setting for everyone who is a Christian? There are those such as Herman Hoyt, Myron Augsburger, David Gushee, Glen Stassen, John Yoder, and Jim Wallis—just to mention a few—who believe that being a pacifist is what Christians must be. Others, including me, are not convinced that this is the case.

As I unfold why I hold to my position, I will have recourse to both the Old and New Testaments, based on what I cited from the Westminster Standards above. In addition, when the apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…,” he was, of course, referring to the Old Testament and the extant New Testament writings that were then available. Since approximately 10% of the New Testament is comprised of quotations from or allusions to the Old Testament, it should be patently clear that the Dispensationalists are simply dead wrong.

Naturally there are differences between the testaments, but that is not to say that the entire Old Testament has been abrogated. A detailed lesson in hermeneutics is for another time, but it is safe to say that some things in the Old Testament have been clearly abrogated (i.e., the dietary laws, animal sacrifices, etc.), some have been altered (Passover and the Lord’s Supper; circumcision and Baptism; no theocracy, the state wielding the sword and the Church exercising admonition and excommunication), and many texts left unaltered. With that as a brief background, let’s proceed.

We’ll begin by taking a look at two Old Testament texts. They will be treated separately, but we need to keep in mind that they belong together. The first is found in a portion of what is known as “The Book of the Covenant.” (Ex. 21-23.) In Exodus 22:2 we read, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” The clear indication is that the man of the house is expected to protect his family. He must provide spiritual guidance and leadership, love, and, when and if necessary, protection. In fact, this Old Testament text goes so far to say even if the thief broke in with no intention of murdering or raping (how can you possibly know the intentions of an intruder in the middle of the night?) if you kill him, it is not murder. He had no business in your home uninvited and God grants you the right to defend yourself and loved ones.

A negative twist on this concept is found in Jeremiah 2:34-35a. God is upbraiding his people for insensitivity to the “guiltless poor” and he tears a strip off of them by saying, “Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the guiltless poor; you did not find them breaking in. Yet in spite of all these things you say, ‘I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.’” Ostensibly, if the poor had broken into an Israelite home and attempted to burglarize it, the occupant would have been justified in killing him. As it stands, Israel was guilty of another kind of killing of the poor that was not lawful.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have always been fascinating to me. God continues his line of covenant faithfulness and trustworthiness for his people. They are allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and repair the city. They meet resistance and obstacle after obstacle. In Nehemiah 4:14, the nobles are addressed in this manner: “And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’” (Emphasis added.) Apart from the clear and obvious redemptive-historical work that God was doing with his people, there is the command not to be a pacifist. This is not a new development in Israel’s history, since they had been required to fight before. In fact, as we shall see later, it was not uncommon for the Israelites to have swords in their tents, but that’s for later.

Israel under Oppression

One of the most chilling verses in Scripture is found in Judges 2:10: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” You really do have to ask: How did that happen? When you reflect, however, it becomes clear that the spiritual ruin presaged political and cultural collapse as well. Abandoning God, the Israelites were oppressed horribly every time Israel forsook the ways of the Lord God Almighty. In Judges 5:8, we read the following: “When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel?”

The choice of new or strange gods ultimately meant a kind of war was raging, but it is also instructive that Israel had been disarmed. The mentioning of the paucity of weapons shows that Israel normally possessed them, but their occupiers confiscated Israel’s arms for all the obvious reasons. Another example of this is found in 1 Samuel 13:19-23.[1] In this text it is clear that not only did the Philistines confiscate Israel’s weapons to defend themselves, but certain trades were also forbidden as a result of the oppression. The Philistines took their weapons and then told them what they could and could not do. It was easy, of course, because the Israelites were disarmed. That was not normal for Israel.

In fact, Larry Pratt has argued that the Israelite army was a militia army that came to battle with each man bearing his own weapon.[2] When armed men were needed, there was no scarcity in the Israelite camp (cf. Num. 31:3). When King David needed 400 armed men, we are told that they simply strapped on their swords and left 200 others to guard the baggage (cf. 1 Sam. 25:13). There is no hint of pacifism here nor is there any inclination that the government was in favor of more “sword control” laws. Realistically, sinners will always cause problems. In the account of Cain murdering Abel, we do not find God passing rock or club control, whatever Cain used to commit his crime. Rather, the Lord provided a means by which murderers were to be dealt with in a God-prescribed manner (cf. Gen. 9:5-6). This truth has evidently been lost on many in America today. They somehow foolishly believe that the more guns are controlled and the more difficult it is to own one, the safer we’ll all be.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! The unvarnished facts are that the more our illustrious elected officials want to restrict law-abiding citizens from owning guns, the more dangerous our neighborhoods and freeways become. A person who wants a “Saturday night special” will find one. Gangs seem to have an almost unlimited supply of weapons at cheap prices. Why should a citizen, who undergoes a FBI background check via computer at the gun shop not be able to walk out of the store with the gun if he or she passes the check? Why do I need Pelosi, Boxer, Biden, or Obama to tell me—a free man—if, when, and how I may defend myself? I am granted the right by the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms.

You see a major part of the problem in the United States is that we want to make it next to impossible for law-abiding citizens to arm themselves and we are soft on criminals. Today with the Supreme Court ruling about guns, the media will be up in arms. We’ll hear about Columbine, Virginia Tech, and how horrible it is for law-abiding citizens to have guns. The Second Amendment was granted by the Founding Fathers to protect the citizens. Many today still have not learned that lesson. The misinformation about guns is about as thorough as any other piece of propaganda I know. In the articles that follow, I’d like to try to rid the world of some of the false notions that are alive and kicking in the United States today and to attempt to bring some sanity and rationality to the discussion.

[1] Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.’ But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle, and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. So on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them. And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.

[2] Larry Pratt, “The Bible and Gun Control,” ( [2003]), p. 8.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Justice Mocked Again!

Killer "Accepts" Life Without Parole
The Orange County Register (Friday, June 20, 2008, Local, pg. 2) ran an article about Eloy Gonzalez, who is a former Santa Ana, CA gang member who cut a deal with authorities to avoid the death penalty? Since when are criminals granted the right to make a deal in order to avoid the death penalty? The article read, "Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Sillman, a retired judge from Monterrey Country who is sitting on assignment in Orange County, cautiously took Gonzalez's guilty plea." Huh? Cautiously? Why? Well, according to the very informative article, "Gonzalez...wants to see his two daughters, who are now 12 and 11, grow up, and felt he would have a better chance of having a relationship with the children if he was serving a life sentence as opposed to being on death row."

Daddy should have thought out that before he shot and killed Abel Charvira during a robbery. Chavira was committing the unconscionable crime of buying laundry detergent. Wrong place; wrong time. Oh, did I mention that Gonzalez murdered Chavira not merely because he disliked the brand of laundry detergent he was purchasing, but also "for the benefit of the Southside Street gang in Santa Ana." Oh, well, why didn't you say so in the first place? That is certainly a matter in extenuation and mitigation of the circumstances! For a moment, I thought Gonzalez murdered Chavira because he had a low view of Tide.

As disgusting as this is, there is more and it gets worse. Gonzalez was already serving a life term without the possibility of parole after he was convicted of the robbery-murder of Jesse Muro, a 17-year-old Century High School student. Is one of the qualifications for judge in CA today that you have to have and IQ in single digits and a commonsense quotient that is actually negative? Jude Sillman cautiously took Gonzalez's guilty plea? So now the U.S. taxpayer can foot the bill of yet another prisoner who should have been given the death penalty. Cautiously, after the man was convicted of two cold-blooded murders, Eloy Gonzalez will get to visit with his daughters.

You have to wonder what it will take before Americans have had enough of the blatant silliness and bleeding heart liberalism and will start demanding that convicted murderers be put to death? We have tried secular humanism far too long and it has left us morally bankrupt. When will we wake up?


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gun Control is Not about Guns, but about Control

“Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed

If it is true that Americans cherish what the First Amendment says about the freedom of speech,[1] it remains a mystery why there is so much confusion and misinformation regarding the Second Amendment. Our Constitution begins with the words, “We the People of the United States.” “The people” are mentioned in amendments 1, 4, 9, 10, and, of course, 2. Elsewhere, “the people” are referred to as “persons” or “citizens.” Throughout the Constitution it is hammered home that “the people” have rights, but the government does not. It has power that is granted to it by the people, but its citizens have rights. You can check it out for yourself. For whatever reason, a number of social engineers want to limit the scope of “the people” in the Second Amendment, but are fine with it referring to individual rights in the rest of the Constitution.

Stephen P. Halbrook has written a fascinating new book entitled The Founders’ Second Amendment. Origins of the Right to Bear Arms,[2] in which he chronicles in well over 300 pages what the Second Amendment intends. In other words, he’s not telling us what he thinks off the top of his head, which is what happens in a number of cases today when the discussion centers on the possession of firearms and the right of citizens to have them and use them.

Historically, it is interesting that the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists about the Second Amendment found these two opposing factions sharing two assumptions: “first, that the proposed new constitution gave the federal government almost total legal authority over the army and the militia; and second, that the federal government should not have any authority at all to disarm the citizenry.”[3]

As I write this installment, there is currently a landmark case regarding Second Amendment rights before the Supreme Court (Washington, D.C. v. Heller) and a decision should be handed down sometime in July. The case concerns the right of the citizens of Washington, D.C. to possess a firearm for personal protection. In addition to affecting the D.C. populace, this decision will have far-reaching implications—whichever way it shakes out—for all of us for years and decades to come. Part of the debate deals with whether the Second Amendment provides an individual the right to bear (not bare!) arms, or whether the Amendment applies solely to the National Guard and other such organizations that would qualify as a “militia.” In other words, the Second Amendment is not an argument about short-sleeved shirts, even the Rick Warren aloha variety.

One might think that the argument over individual as opposed to collective rights should be a slam dunk, since it is clear, for example, that the First Amendment clearly applies to individual rights. In fact, those who are most vociferous about First Amendment rights are emphatic that these are individual rights—except for those, of course, who disagree with them. When these staunch defenders of the First Amendment shout down a visiting speaker with whom they, the enlightened bleeding heart liberals, disagree, they are merely saving the country from having to listen to a raving, rightwing nut case. You do see the difference, don’t you? It never ceases to amaze me that the liberals who hypocritically enjoin First Amendment rights are the first ones on college and university campuses (or campi) to shout down guest speakers and lecturers and refuse to allow them to speak. Of course, that is fair because the liberals are right and those who oppose their views are wrong and not worthy to be heard. But on the individual rights note, when was the last time you heard a discussion about whether the First Amendment applies just to the National Guard or to individuals as well? Or, when was the last time you heard someone questioning whether eminent domain only applied to a select few?

The propagandists have done their ideological, activist, and politically correct work well and have become the masters of misinformation dissemination. They have, in fact, done their work so well that every time a person who fully supports the Second Amendment speaks up on his or her own behalf, they will find themselves on the business end of a flurry of accusations that are almost 100% false, especially with regard to “gun control,” but which accusations form part and parcel of what is commonly called “conventional wisdom.” Few ever take the time to question if conventional wisdom is true. It is, after all, consensus wisdom. But is it really? That is to say, is the conventional wisdom regarding gun control based on irrefutable fact, or is it, like much in our modern society, an emotional, knee-jerk reaction?

I ask these questions because I am convinced that America is rapidly morphing from a nation of sheep into a nation of mind-numbed non-thinkers, and the transformation is, in many cases, almost complete. Mottos and mantras are the reaction d’jour. Guns kill! Why doesn’t someone cry out, “Pencils and pens misspell!”? Or, “Matches cause arson!” Why, for example, don’t we scream, “Water drowns!”? Why isn’t there a concerted effort to shut down privately-owned swimming pools or to banish swimming or surfing in the ocean? We know that cars in and of themselves don’t kill, but rather that people behind the wheel do. Over 6,000 teenagers go out for a drive yearly and never return home. Why are we far more concerned about that than we are guns? We should all take great comfort in the fact that almost every day of the year 66,999,987 firearms owners, give or take a few, kill no one.

Apart from illogical thinking, here is the chilling part: Our clueless, effeminate, politically correct society (and many of our politicians are worse!) has no historical understanding of gun control, even though they clamor for more of it constantly, as if more laws would be beneficial. There is already law upon law, in excessu, on the books already. We do not need more gun laws. In point of fact, we could and should make do with substantially fewer. Moreover, an inordinately high number of those laws are directly in contradiction to the Second Amendment and actually do “infringe” on our rights to own and carry a gun. The granting of the individual right does not mean that each and every citizen is obliged to own and carry a gun, but that if they choose to do so, they may. I would add that it seems clear that free men and women may choose to carry those weapons openly or concealed.

The propagandists have done their job, however, so that when I write words like I did above, some people go apoplectic. They envision people running around shooting any one and every one at the drop of a hat. Remember: Yesterday over 66 million gun owners killed no one. That also holds true for the day before yesterday and so on for a long, long time. You see, if you listen to the propagandists’ lies—and many have—then you will not understand that an armed society is, in fact, a very polite society. An armed man is a free citizen. An unarmed man is a subject. According to the Second Amendment, free men, who have never committed a felony, are granted the right of possessing and carrying a firearm. If, on the other hand, you don’t know your rights, you might as well not be granted any. The screeds and propaganda about guns and gun control are, de facto, the precise opposite of what the anti-gun lobby portrays the right granted by the Second Amendment to be. Allow me to give you an example of how happily inconsistent we are on this ethical issue.

The New Orleans case during hurricane Katrina is a recent example that demonstrates how thoroughly the anti-gun lobbyists have done their work. The leftists clamor vigorously and rigorously about the rights taken away from U.S. citizens by the Patriot Act. They are equally vociferous about not wiretapping phone calls from potential terrorists. That, to their way of thinking, is a violation of rights. Leftists are also ultimately concerned about the rights of terrorists at Club Gitmo in Cuba and how America is violating the Geneva Convention by keeping them there. Their protests are clear indications that they have never read or understood the Geneva Convention, but are merely mouthing the talking points and toeing the party line.

I preface my remarks about New Orleans and Katrina as I have done for a reason. No bleeding heart do-gooder raised any qualms when citizens of New Orleans had their guns confiscated during Katrina and the aftermath. When we take the time to lay the propaganda aside and begin to think and read for ourselves we come to understand that many despots employed the strategy of disarming the citizenry in order to defang them of any resistance. Names like Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Hussein, and Castro come to mind immediately. Our Founding Fathers understood this completely. Some of the citizens of New Orleans still have not had their legally possessed firearms given back to them. Some Americans are so foolish, so leftwing, and so inconsistent that they see no problem with the government acting in an unauthorized manner and seizing a freeman’s firearm and violating his Second Amendment right. For those who are gleeful about the confiscation of guns just remember this: If you grant the government the power to take your firearm, you are also giving them the implicit power to take whatever they want to take from you whenever they want to take it. Be careful what you wish for, because what might please you in the confiscation of guns one day might very well come around and bite you tomorrow. Many still fail to realize that less government involvement in life is far better than more involvement. Sadly, ironically there are those pitiful souls who still believe the lie: I’m from the government and I’m here to help you!

The “Wild West” Fallacy

But who wants to live in a society where citizens openly carry loaded weapons or carry them in a concealed fashion? That’s a good question and it needs to be answered realistically. Far too often, that question is answered emotionally, in terms of having listened to propaganda, or from a predisposed fear of guns. Rationally, this is a misplaced fear. Let me ask you this: Who do you think will intentionally harm you with a gun? Would it be a law-abiding citizen, who has gone through a FBI background check and had no criminal record and had never been committed to a hospital for mental problems or a criminal, who bought his or her gun illegally? The answer is simple for those still in possession of a modicum of commonsense.

What leftists, ideologues, and other uninformed people fail to understand is that an armed society is a polite society. Unfortunately, many have fallen prey to what I’ll call the “Wild West” fallacy. That is to say, they have bought into the lie that everyone in the “Wild West” went around shooting each other for no reason. We need to realize that there was not a lot of “trail rage” back then because the trails weren’t all that crowded. In actuality, many of the shooting deaths resulted from outlaws getting drunk in saloons, cheating at cards in saloon poker games, or arguing over a prostitute and stepping out in the street to settle the argument with a gun. In other words, much of what passes for the “Wild West” mentality was outlaws and drunks killing other outlaws and other drunks. Moreover, more than once, honest, hard-working citizens protected themselves and their families against an outlaw because they too were armed. Today, the restrictions are ludicrous, favoring the criminal time after time. He can buy an illegal gun from the trunk of a car, but the law-abiding citizen in many states not only has to undergo a background check, but he or she must also wait a period of about ten days before he can actually pick that gun up.

A couple more silly examples will suffice. In some states, if a burglar breaks into your home you have to announce, “I have a gun!” This will, ostensibly, scare the intruder away. But what if it doesn’t? What if there is more than one burglar and they are both armed? By announcing that you have a gun, the criminals can follow the sound of your voice and they know exactly where you are. Why isn’t there a law that the burglar has to announce to you that he has a gun? The short answer is that since they are criminals they wouldn’t play by the “home invasion” rules. Precisely. And they don’t play by the rules when they get their guns either. If our politicians, social engineers, and anti-gun lobbyists spent more time and effort in ridding our communities of drug dealers, illegal immigrants, and thugs, they would be placing their efforts in the proper direction.

We have such a distorted view of what the “Wild West” really was like, but even so, why don’t we hear anything today about “Wild Memphis,” “Wild Washington, D.C.,” “Wild Detroit,” “Wild Miami,” or “Wild Los Angeles”? Criminals murder innocent citizens in those and other cities on a regular, daily basis. Why don’t we hear about “Wild Philadelphia,” which like LA, is losing police officers frequently because criminals are allowed back out on the streets by liberal judges before they serve their sentences and murder again? Why, pray tell, are thugs getting weapons, when many citizens (like Washington, D.C., which has one of the highest murder rates in the country) cannot have them or the process of getting a firearm is like trying to get into the gold vault at Ft. Knox?

These and other aspects of the Second AmenThese and otdment must be addressed. Before we spend time on that, however, I want to return to what Scripture says about possessing weapons. There is a great deal of imagery in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments about soldiering, warfare, and being trained for battle. While there is surely a spiritual dimension to this, did you ever stop to consider that men in Israel kept their sword in their tent? If there were a war or another need, the Israelite simply went home and got his sword and he was ready to do battle. It would seem, too, that he was somewhat trained to use it.

[1] Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition Government for a redress of grievances.

[2] Stephen P. Halbrook, The Founders’ Second Amendment. Origins of the Right to Bear Arms, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

[3] Edwin Meese III, David Forte, & Matthew Spalding (eds.), The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005), p. 320. Emphasis added.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is Christianity Mostly Pagan? (II)

Modern Fads and Trendy Churches

The modern Church is rife with fads and what is worse still the fads pass as genuine worship of the God of Scripture. From marketing the Church with the accompanying enormous down side, to the journey affectionately known as the “Emergent conversation,” there is a veritable “spiritual” smörgåsbord available to the modern consumer of things spiritual. Have you noticed that even some pagans have taken to calling themselves “spiritual,” but not religious?

In addition, there are those who call themselves Christians or evangelicals who feel no compunction to attend worship, but are satisfied to bear the name of Christian even though they do not hear the preaching of the Word of God, without partaking of the sacraments, without tithing, without praying, without singing praises to God, and without Christian fellowship. Yep. Sounds like genuine, “authentic” Christianity to me, doesn’t it to you? When you break it down like this, being “spiritual” is a minimalist concept. It’s like having the Supreme Being “out there somewhere;” the Man Upstairs, who could not give a fig about your life and never, never makes any moral obligations on you. That’s my definition on modern spirituality. You can be a metro-spiritual. Why not? If you can be a metro-sexual; you can be a metro-spiritual. By the way, a true metro-sexual will have seen the movie Sex and the City two or three times by now, but has no desire to see Indiana Jones.

To date, we have run the gamut of the technological church to the ultra-simple church. The former is characterized by a marketing/CEO/CFO approach, while the latter is more at home with a folksy, laid back emphasis on community. (I’ll leave Jeremiah Wright and Father Pfleger out of the discussion, but I must admit that I don’t quite understand how so many can scream about the separation of Church and State and allow Wright, Pfleger, Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Hillary to “speak” in churches. What they’re holding is nothing less than a political rally. But our elected officials warn other churches not to promote or descry candidates, even if the candidate in question is in favor of partial-birth abortion. Can you say “double standard”?)

Both the “techie” and “folksy” forms share the following notions: doctrine really isn’t that important and the “consumer” is king. Both modernism and postmodernism are fluid categories, with a lot of overlap; both are profoundly impacted by relativism and pragmatism.

I mentioned in the first installment in this series that Frank Viola and George Barna have re-released a 2002 work entitled Pagan Christianity?[1] This book questions the origin of virtually every aspect of what has come to be called the traditional Christian Church. One of the main theses of the authors is that almost from the outset Christianity adopted elements from paganism and incorporated them into what has come to be called “worship” in our time. The net result is that components of paganism formed what the authors believe is pagan Christianity.

In the place of this rat infested, bastardized worship, Viola offers a fully functioning body of believers, in which all participate and play an active role rather than sit on the sidelines watching. Few could or should argue with this aspiration. After all, far too few in the modern Church are vibrant, robust participants/members in Christ’s Church. But Viola’s call is really nothing new. During the period of the Reformation, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught that true believers are and forever should remain living members of Christ’s Church (Cf. Lord’s Day 21, Q/A 54). They further taught that each believer is duty bound “to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well being of the other members” (Ibid., Q/A 55).

As often as not, the modern Church can be characterized by a football analogy. In a game, there are twenty-two men on the field in need of rest and thousands sitting in the stands in need of exercise. Typically, there seems to be a “core of the faithful” in every congregation that get 90% of what needs to get done accomplished, while the overwhelming majority is blissfully willing to stand by and watch it all happen. They are also usually the first to have criticism when they don’t like what others have done. I call these folks the “takers.” They will show up for worship, just don’t ask them to help in any way. This being the case, Viola’s encouragement for more member participation is, within reason, a welcome, biblical suggestion.

There are times, however, when the prescription for cure is worse than the disease or when it’s simply the incorrect prescription. In my estimation, Viola’s book is such a book. Along similar lines to Harold Kamping, Viola is advocating a kind of dismantling of the modern Church, opting rather for house churches where literally everyone has the opportunity fully to participate in each home “worship service.” It is an undeniable, indisputable truth that at the outset the Christian Church met in the homes of the members, although the church in Jerusalem appears to have been sufficiently large to have met in a separate building (Comp. Acts 6:7 with 8:1). We disagree with Viola that house churches were the only places where Christians met. House churches were clearly in use at the outset, but they were not the only mode of meeting and worshiping. It is clear from the New Testament letters and writings that there were organized churches, with specific leadership qualifications as well as restrictions for who could not be a leader, teacher, preacher, Elder, or Deacon.

In the opening chapter of his book (“Have We Really Been Doing It by the Book?”), Viola questions whether we are truly worshiping the Lord “by the book,” which is an entirely legitimate and very important question. Quite frankly, I’m very pleased that he asks the question, but I disagree with his conclusions of why the modern Church is not worshiping by the book. Viola constructs a scenario where a fictitious pastor tells his congregation that in their congregation, things are done “by the book,” i.e., by the Bible. An equally fictitious congregant silently begins to question getting “dressed up” for church, how hypocritical it is to have just had an argument with his wife and kids on the way to church, the notion of sitting in pews to listen to a sermon, why half of the congregation is barely awake, why his kids hate Sunday school, and why he participates in the same, yawn-inspiring ritual every Sunday when all going to church does is bore him to tears and does nothing for him spiritually.

This sounds very much like an unspiritual congregation and congregant. Viola carefully avoids giving you sufficient information to draw any conclusions. For example, is the congregant making active use of the means of grace that God has supplied? That is, is he reading his Bible and praying daily? Is he leading his wife spiritually? Is he the spiritual leader in his home or is he derelict in those duties? How serious is the congregation about the Word of God? How much do they prepare themselves for worship? How serious had they been about taking the requisite time to insure that this church was a true church according to biblical principles?

Viola, however, is well acquainted with pop-psychology as he sidesteps such questions and plants the seed of doubt in his fictitious character as well as every reader who is as unspiritual as the character. It’s all so subjective. Here’s what Viola writes: “Winchester felt unclean and sacrilegious to ask such things. Yet something was happening inside of him that compelled him to doubt his entire experience. These thoughts had been lying dormant in Winchester’s subconscious for years. Today, they surfaced.”[2] No doubt, a number of mega-church and Emergent church movement folks can identify with such generalities, but I contend that a spiritually mature, discerning, and discriminating Christian will find this all a ploy.

One of Viola’s theses throughout the book is that the New Testament Church had no honorific titles and that they were not organized hierarchically. He offers Matthew 23:8-12; 20:25-28; and Luke 22:25-26 as “proofs.” You see, even non-leader leaders use biblical texts from time to time. They just don’t like it when others use them. For them, it’s okay; if others use them they are fundamentalist proof-texters. In our next issue, I will offer some “proofs” to show that Viola is simply dead wrong here.

[1] George Barna & Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 20082).

[2] Ibid., 3. Emphasis added.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Is Christianity Mostly Pagan?

A New Release of an Older Book

In 2002, George Barna and Frank Viola released a book entitled Pagan Christianity? One of the main theses is that what passes for a “liturgy” today—do modern Christians even know what liturgy means anymore?—is little more than the incorporation of several pagan elements. It is not as if, however, Barna and Viola only desire to point us to what they believe are serious problems in the modern Church, but they also offer an alternative: a return to house churches as we find in the New Testament. But there is more. Viola aims at a house church where anyone of any gender or age can do anything at anytime. Of course, this destroys his thesis because women were prohibited from certain duties and ministries in the New Testament Church, which seems to escape Viola. Nonetheless, at this point I’m only reporting to you what Barna and Viola claim.

In the Preface, Viola itemizes a number of errors in the modern Church. First, he tells us, “contemporary Christianity is guilty of the error of the Pharisees.”[1] More specifically, the modern Church has introduced “traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functional headship of Jesus Christ in His church.”[2]

As if being Pharisaical weren’t enough, the modern Church is also accused of being Sadducee-like as well. From Viola’s perspective, “the great bulk of first-century practices have been removed from the Christian landscape.”[3] How will Christianity ever recover from such a blow? Well, according to Viola, thankfully there are still a few daring souls in the faith “who have taken the terrifying step of leaving the safe camp of institutional Christianity.”[4] In reality, Viola is suggesting little more than an extension of the Emergent church movement.

Viola asserts that God has not been silent when it comes to the principles that govern the practice of his Church.[5] God was, however, silent for a long time if Viola is correct—and I don’t think he is—because the Almighty allowed paganism or pagan elements to dominate his Church and her liturgy for almost two thousand years without intervening. This is slightly akin to N.T. Wright’s belief that no one got justification by faith right until he appeared on the scene. With the necessary changes being made, the Church has been a hodge-podge of raw paganism until Viola and Barna appeared to rescue the day.

A series of questions are posed that I believe are very good ones, but our conclusions are light years apart. Here are Viola’s questions: “Where do we find our practices for the Christian life? Where is our model for understanding what a Christian is in the first place? Is it not found in the life of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the New Testament? Or do we borrow it from somewhere else? Perhaps a pagan philosopher?”[6]

Here are my answers: We find our practices for the Christian life in the Bible—all of it. Our model for understanding what a Christian is in the first place is Christ as he is revealed in all of Scripture (Cf. Luke 24:27, 44). Our model is found in Jesus, but in terms of the biblical doctrines, we are to be acquainted with the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and to realize that Jesus, Paul, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Peter, Jude, John, and the other biblical human authors do not contradict each other. Do we borrow our model for understanding what a Christian is from other sources? Not if we are mature students of the Word; certainly not from a pagan philosopher.

Viola gives us an insight into his understanding of Scripture when he writes, “in the New Testament we have the genesis of the church.”[7] Really? He sounds very much like a dispensationalist. Others have taught that God’s Church existed from the beginning and that Adam and Eve were its first members. Keep this type of thinking from Viola in mind as we proceed.

In distinction from the modern Church, Viola opts for the first century model of the Church as an “organic entity.”[8] What is that precisely? “Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership.”[9] I want you to keep this thesis in mind as well. How do we know conclusively that our worship is “Spirit-led”? Does the New Testament recommend “open participatory meetings” when certain participants are told to remain silent? (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12.) Moreover, the phrase “nonhierarchical leadership” is a contradiction in terms. In real life, the buck has to stop somewhere with someone. Viola, who ends up being the primary author, wants us to believe his words, even though he does not substantiate them biblically. In this sense, he is just like McLaren and the Emergent church tribe.

Finally, we are given this thesis in the Preface: “that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.”[10] As I mentioned earlier, there is a very real sense in which I agree with Viola, at least about the contemporary aspect. There is nothing biblically incorrect about the Church as an institute, with the exception of the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church has defined it.

As far as the contemporary manifestation of what is supposed to pass for “church,” David Wells has provided us with an excellent guide regarding what is dreadfully wrong in his latest book, The Courage to Be Protestant.[11] From the marketers of the mega-church movment to the Emergent conversation, we are dealing with a contemporary form of worship and “doing church” that has neither a biblical nor historical right to function as it does. I would also add to this list the form of “church” that Viola and Barna advocate in this book.

In all three—the mega-church, the Emergent church, and Viola’s “house church,” there is a great deal that is patently unbiblical. As far as reference to a historical form, the mega-church exchanged that decades ago when it became “seeker sensitive” and “user friendly.” What mattered most was not the historical root of the Christian faith, but entertaining the troops and keeping them blissfully happy—and ignorant.

Old Bri has repeatedly stated that he is not fond of how the creeds of the Church have expressed the faith once contended for (Jude 3), but for some reason likes the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The longer the “conversation” drags on, however, the more untenable even these generic creeds become for McLaren as he moves farther and farther from the orthodox Christian faith and increasingly embraces theological liberalism via the Social Gospel. The closer he comes to other world religions the farther he moves from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

Viola contends that the Christian Church in its current form is an amalgamation of various pagan components. In essence, therefore, he is denying 4,000 years of Church History that has specified that worship services are not to be “open-participatory meetings” in the sense that he employs the phrase. The assertions that Viola (and Barna) make in this book require a veritable mountain of biblical, scriptural proof, which they do not supply. His caveat is a weak excuse: “This is not a work for scholars, so it is by no means exhaustive.”[12] That’s fine. It is not a prerequisite that the book be either scholarly or exhaustive. It does seem fair, however, since Viola is disputing thousands of years of ecclesiastical practice that he provides rather substantial evidence to make his case. That is not asking too much. Moreover, he can be thorough without being exhaustive, especially since he is advocating dismantling the contemporary form of Church and substitute another form in its place.

As we progress, I trust it will become increasingly evident that in chapter after chapter Viola barely produces substantive reasons for why he objects to certain practices, that he is a full-orbed Arminian, who is peddling his particular brand of theology, that he holds the Reformation and Puritan eras in disdain, and that his references are few. But after the mega-church and Emergent church movements, why should modern Christians be chagrined about the further devolvement into the abyss that Viola and Barna espouse? Bill Hybels’ actions said it best when he recently fully admitted that his mega-church, seeker-sensitive, marketing model had failed and failed miserably. For a moment I thought the man might have come to his senses, but no. Instead of returning to biblical orthodoxy, he invited the non-leader leaders of the Emergent conversation to his church for the spring meeting. This is all based on the adage: if two wrongs don’t make a right, why not try a third?

[1] George Barna & Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 20082), p. xvii.

[2] Ibid., xviii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., xix.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., xx.

[11] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[12] Ibid.