Introducing Five New Fundamentals

15 February 2019

I’ve written recently about the continuous need for discussion about the fundamentals of the faith, for re-articulating the ways in which the Christian faith cuts against the temptations of our own time. It is not enough to rest on the victories of the past; we have to deal with the temptations of the present.

To that end, I present my own modest proposal: five fundamentals for the present day. I believe that these key doctrines must, first of all, be lived. We must joyfully and obediently push them into all the little nooks and crannies of our lives, and reject the temptations that they cut against. Only then can they be effectively proclaimed from our pulpits and across our supper tables, defended in private discussion and public discourse, and paraded before a shocked and disbelieving world.

So without further ado, five fundamentals for the present day:

  1. The Unity and Community of Christ’s Whole Body. Those who are united to Christ are united to each other, and therefore we must fellowship deeply across gender, family, class, ethnic, denominational, and national lines. Every form of individual pride or group-based sectarianism, chauvinism, prejudice, and vainglory is destined for the pit.
  2. Love of Generous Fruitfulness. “Be fruitful” is the first command to humanity; it extends into everything, and obedient, godly fruitfulness overflows in every direction. From reproduction to craftsmanship, every endeavor and way of being that is fruitless by nature falls short of our calling as human beings. Every attempt to simulate generosity through compulsion by guilt, fear, or force is doomed.
  3. The Equality and Difference of Man and Woman. “Male and female He created them.” The existence of culturally constructed differences does not invalidate the existence of biological differences: men and women are different down to the very last cell. Men and women have equal value and dignity and are designed by God to live symbiotically together. Every erasure of real differences — and the social policies based on such follies — can only come to grief. Every form of contempt for one sex, or vaunting one sex over the other, robs us of a chance to flourish.
  4. The Social Reality of the Fall. There is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good”–and Jesus is the only hope for human goodness. Nothing short of continuing repentance and life in the Holy Spirit will lead to a genuinely good human society. All utopian social designs are counterfeits of the New Jerusalem, and until the New Jerusalem comes, all social designs must plan for the human drive to exploit other humans for one’s own advantage.
  5. Functional Supernaturalism. The world was spoken into being, and is upheld by Jesus’ spoken word. It is supernatural down to the quarks, and God actively intervenes on behalf of His Kingdom. Materialism — including the methodological kind — is not correct “as far as it goes;” it is error all the way down, as wrong as Ptolemy’s spheres.

Every one of these five will be derided as ridiculous, judgy, dangerously retrograde. They will be outraged when we talk about them. (Spoiler alert: “they” will include an impressive number of Christians, not least the evangelical suits and haircuts from Impressive Universities and Respectable Publishers. But so what? When did those guys last show any sign of actual life?)

But they will be jealous when we live them. So let’s live all five, to the hilt. They will argue, but like Sophrony once said, “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue with life?” We can seek to speak well, but we don’t have to out-clever our cultured despisers. We just have to live. As we live these truths, and they do not, we will reap fruit and blessings and joy that — for all their cleverness — they cannot explain. We can hope that induces repentance, but honestly I think it will just make most of ’em even madder.

I can’t wait.

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Christian Yoga?

8 February 2019

Once upon a time, I was part of starting and hosting a Christian yoga practice group. Naturally this raised questions, which I answered thus: 

Let’s talk about what our yoga practice looks like, why we do it, and why we call it Christian yoga. We recognize that some Christians are nervous about yoga, so at the bottom of the page, we’ll also devote some attention to those concerns. We also commend to you our essay on the real history of modern yoga, which is a bit different than people think.

What do we do?
The word “yoga” tends to conjure up images of bendy young women in impossible poses. What we do is a little different from that. First of all, a number of us are men. We’ve done a lot of fun things that were bad for our bodies over the years, and this kind of exercise helps us recover. Second, while the young are certainly welcome, most of us are over 40. Third, most of us don’t do impossible poses. Some of us can’t even reach our toes. Other than that, it’s a lot like you might think: slow movements that focus on control, mobility, strength, balance, and coordinating movement and breath. Because we’re Christians, we practice like it, with a focus on Christ and what He is doing in us.

Why do we do it?
Because there are significant health benefits to this kind of exercise, and we can all feel the difference. Because we believe that the gym belongs to Jesus as surely as every other area of life, and we prefer to exercise in an attitude of prayer rather than in the attitude of self-worship that’s so common in places where they hang mirrors on all the walls.

Why do we call it “Christian Yoga?”
We are aware, of course, that “yoga” is a Sanskrit word that means “yoking” or “union,” and that among people who use yoga posture practice as a Hindu spiritual discipline, it is intended to connote union with “the divine,” which we would understand as union with demonic spirits. (Sorry, guys, but it’s true.) Obviously, we don’t do that.

We are also aware that “yoga” has gone the way of kleenex, band-aid, and velcro. It may have been a narrowly construed religious brand back in the 60s and 70s, but in branding terms, that was a long time ago. The term “yoga” has long since entered the popular lexicon as the generic label for a particular kind of exercise: a complex, relaxing, posture practice, challenging to the point of being gymnastic at times, focused on flexibility, balance, and control.

Of course, when legally constrained to do so, people can avoid brand names and use circumlocutions like “facial tissue,” “adhesive bandage,” and “hook and loop fastener.” Some Christians have done exactly that with yoga (see the note on PraiseMoves, below). They are acting in the way most agreeable with their consciences. As Paul calls us to do in Romans 14, we bless their efforts. After all, who are we to judge God’s servants?

At the same time, we aren’t called to take that route ourselves. Everybody knows that when you say “hook and loop fastener,” you really mean velcro. Likewise, we could call what we do “Christian restorative gymnastics” or “stretching for Jesus” or something, but let’s face it: five minutes into the class, everyone will know it’s Christian yoga, so why not just say so to start with?

Today, the generic term “yoga” has a lot of latitude, and people attach different modifiers to connote different focuses of practice, hence “power yoga,” “restorative yoga,” “flow yoga,” and “prenatal yoga.” So, for example, prenatal yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of expectant mothers. It leaves out those things that would hurt mother or baby, and in their place it teaches things that will help them to grow healthily. Likewise, Christian yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of Christians. It leaves out those things that we as Christians find damaging or dehumanizing, and in their place it teaches things that will strengthen and deepen our relationship with Jesus.

Retaking the Territory
A lot of Christians are afraid of yoga, and depending on what we mean by “yoga,” the fears can be well-founded. But they can also be poppycock, and in any case, God has not given us a spirit of fear.

If you go into a studio and there’s a little brass Kali in the corner with a bowl of fruit in front of her, yeah — a Christian should be concerned that demonic entanglement is a real possibility in that yoga class. A Christian seeking exercise should walk right out of there and never go back.

On the other hand, it’s profoundly silly to suppose that a healthy exercise — any healthy exercise — can somehow become the exclusive property of a demon. Why would we ever believe that?

Suppose the U.S. Marine Corps were to claim rights to the pushup. Suppose they were to claim that the pushup was a Marine exercise, and unless you intend to be a Marine, you have no right to be doing pushups. Should anyone believe them? Of course not.

“There is not one square inch of the whole creation over which Christ does not call out, ‘Mine!’” Our bodies belong to Christ. Our health belongs to Christ. Every healthy exercise rightly belongs to Christ. The yogini who thinks her body and its movements belong to Shiva is sorely mistaken. The secularist in a step aerobics class at Bally’s who thinks there is no religious significance to her body and its movements is equally mistaken. (And you can see her true religion for yourself when she glances over her shoulder to admire her toned backside in the mirrors that liberally adorn the walls.) Over both of them, Christ calls out, “Mine!”

We all worship something; we can’t help it. As Christians, we believe that every movement we make, every day, all day, should glorify Christ. As we seek to enjoy the bodies God has given us, and to steward them well, we are in His service, and we should not be afraid to employ whatever belongs to Him.

Now there are exercises over which one lying demon or another has shouted “Mine!” and there are foolish people who have believed them — notable yogis and Dave Hunt among them. A good Christian should respond to that foolishness in the same way we would respond if the Marines were to try to claim the pushup: point and laugh. A claim has been made, to be sure, but that hardly makes it true. As the hands and feet of Christ in the world, it is our privilege to reclaim that territory for our King. Where healthy movement is being foolishly and unlawfully prostituted to the service of demons, it is our pleasure to return it to its right use in service of the King, and to demonstrate His supremacy over it.

This is not simply a matter of appropriating useful movement wherever we happen to find it. The spiritual battle is real. If the Marines were to claim exclusive rights to the pushup, we could expect them to press their claim vigorously and try to punish those who didn’t respect it. Likewise, where demons have claimed the territory, they will try to hold it. We cannot expect to retake the territory without a fight. But retake it we will, because we are the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against us.

Christian Yoga Resources
In our pursuit of yoga-style exercise, we have found a number of resources helpful for the physical exercise — most of them not authored by Christians. But there are some yoga resources created by and for Christians. We don’t vouch for everything they say about the theory and theology of Christian yoga, but when it comes to what’s on the mat, we have found them helpful, and we think you might, too.

  • Susan Bordenkircher has a book/DVD combination that is a pretty good place to start your Christian yoga practice. She also has a few other DVDS on her website. We began our group practice with nothing but her three DVDs.
  • Brooke Boone’s Holy Yoga has a number of DVDs, a couple books, downloadable resources, a subscription service, and teacher training.
  • Yahweh Yoga has DVDs, CDs, a book, online resources, and teacher training.
  • PraiseMoves has built their brand around being not-yoga, but rather a Christian alternative to it. They have a number of DVDs.

A Thumbnail Theology of Alcohol

1 February 2019

Introduction

Too often, the Christian take on alcoholic beverages is simply, “don’t.” The reasoning is usually presented thus: there’s no real upside to drinking, and there’s a huge downside. You might get drunk yourself, or cause someone else to stumble, and for what? Drinking is optional anyway, so why not just steer clear of the whole thing?

To hell with that cramped and lifeless pseudo-theology! Let it scurry back to the Pit whence it came. In its place, I offer you a look at the goodness and fruitfulness of God’s good alcoholic gifts, thus:

Part 1

Psalm 104 says that God gave wine to make man’s heart glad. Proverbs 31 endorses its use to help a grieving man forget his troubles. Jesus made wine — and He made the good stuff, too.

Thesis #1: If we write off alcohol as potentially harmful, with no upside — then our viewpoint is not biblical, however “wise” we think it. Alcoholic beverages are one of God’s good gifts.

Part 2

Ephesians 5 says not to get drunk. (For those who want a definition of drunk…really? But ok: If someone wants to praise or censure you for what you did last night, and the first thing that comes to mind is, “Well, I’d had a lot to drink…” — that. Don’t do that. Read Ephesians 5. If it was the liquor talking instead of the work of the Spirit, you’re doing it wrong.)

Thesis #2: If you get drunk, you’re in sin. 

Part 3

Romans 14 forbids causing our brother to stumble, and also forbids holding our brother in contempt.

Thesis #3: We may neither look down on someone for what they do (or don’t) drink, nor tempt someone down a path that leads to drunkenness.

Part 4

Colossians 2 says no one should judge you regarding what you drink (or don’t). There’s nothing wrong with taking good counsel, but ignore condemnations. If you don’t drink, there’s always someone who will tell you that you’re missing out. If you do, there’s always someone that will tell you it’s “just wiser not to.”

Thesis #4: Ignore other people’s condemnations about what you drink. Be fully convinced before God, and stick to your guns.


Fake Discernment and Real

25 January 2019

In the more supernaturally aware parts of the church, I’ve run into a particular kind of rot: a fake “discernment” that is anything but. These folks are actually a lot like the anti-supernatural Christians; they just have different expectations. These folks are often okay with prophecy and tongues; you might even get away with anointing with oil. There’s frequently a collection of weird shibboleths around the way those gifts are practiced. (My  personal favorite was “Don’t touch the person you’re ministering to.” Yeah…I’m a massage therapist. Not gonna happen.)

But the core of this attitude is not its particular prohibitions or practices. The core of this attitude is its reliance on a set of man-made, visible standards, rather than on the hard work of real discernment. God is not permitted to do anything outside of our expectations…whatever they happen to be. If it’s outside the lines we drew, there must be something wrong with it?

That’s ridiculous. Jesus surprised everybody. You’ve got to expect God’s people to continue to be surprising today.

And Jesus was all the time getting in trouble with the “discernment ministries” of His day. Stands to reason that His followers would be getting into trouble with “discernment ministries” today–and sure enough, there’s plenty of that going around.

But Jesus gave us some simple, effective measures by which to discern.

  • If the fruit is good, then so is the tree. See what happens, and then judge. Do more than just check to see if the thing violates your expectations. Do the hard work of examining the results. If the results are good, then there you go.
  • If you can’t believe the words, believe the works. Pay attention to what God actually does in time and space. The concepts might be hard to grasp, or fly in the face of your theology, but if that is what God actually does, then you need to believe what God did and revisit your theology.

Jesus’ beloved disciple John also gave us a useful rubric for discerning spirits: “Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2-3). So now you know. Want to know if the spirit is from God? Ask: “Do you confess Jesus Christ come in the flesh?”

The practice of real discernment isn’t tremendously complex; it’s just hard work. It’s harder than having a predefined set of expectations and rejecting everything that’s outside them. But it’s worth it.


Armor Up!

18 January 2019

The Bible teaches psychic self-defense.

That statement makes non-Christians wary, because “psychic self-defense” sounds way too hip to be coming from the Bible. It makes Christians nervous for a complex stew of reasons, starting with the new-agey connotations of “psychic” and running to the suspicion some Christians have of anything that smacks of spiritual/mystical reality, anything that can’t be tracked and documented by an “objective” third party. (If you’re one of the latter, buckle up. This post is gonna be rough on you.)

The armor passage of Ephesians 6 teaches precisely this: how to defend your soul, your psyche, against the enemy’s attacks. The armor is exactly that. Armor. It protects us.

Shoes: readiness with the gospel of God’s peace. This is our protection from conflicts that arise — being ready to accept, proclaim, and embody the reality that all conflicts were resolved at the cross, and Christ is our peace; we are just looking for how that works out now, in this situation.

Belt: truth. Our protection against the lies of the enemy is the truth that God has given us, both in Scripture and in our experience. Continually calling those truths to mind is a powerful defense; our biggest problem is that we constantly forget.

Breastplate: God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 59:17). We have to talk about what “righteous” even means; nobody uses the word except surfers, and they don’t really mean the same thing by it. Righteousness is vindication — being found in the right. It’s the judge saying “not guilty;” it’s the principal saying “You can go back to class.” It’s God saying “You’re ok.” Think of it as the Breastplate of Okayness. The Breastplate of Okayness is your protection against accusations and condemnation. There are only two kinds of accusations you will ever face: true and false. The false ones don’t matter because they’re false. The true ones don’t matter because every sin, mistake, and shortcoming you ever had (or ever will) was nailed to the cross to die and buried in the heart of the earth, and when Jesus rose to a new life, He did not come out of the tomb dragging a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s done. He settled it. God says you’re ok — exactly as ok as Jesus, which is pretty ok.

Shield: faith. This is your protection against doubt. When the doubts arise, trust God. What does that look like? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). A substance is a hunk of matter right here — the chair you’re sitting on, the desk in front of you, like that. Something that’s here right now, a present, tangible reality. So faith is the present, tangible reality of what you hope for. In your case, you hope for a huddle full of people. So: if you were *sure* God was going to give you a huddle full of people, what would you be doing right now? The present, tangible reality might be something like searching for people of peace and asking God to show them to you. That’s what faith looks like — and coming full circle, faith is your protection against doubt. You can sit in a chair and tell yourself, “God’s got this” all day long; that’s just positive thinking. You can do that and still be worried. Faith is moving forward.

Sword of the Spirit: the word (rhema) of God. There’s more than one Greek word for “word,” and the one used here, rhema, refers to a spoken word, as opposed to the written word. Your offensive weapon for hacking holes in the kingdom of darkness is the spoken word of God. Whatever God gives you to say, say it out loud. Say it out loud even if you’re talking to yourself. (By the way, this doesn’t mean the Bible, the written word, is unimportant. It does mean that if you’re using the Bible as a weapon in the way this passage is talking about, you need to say it out loud, not just think it in your head.

Helmet: deliverance. This is your protection against fear. God will deliver you from or through everything you fear. He is the good shepherd; He won’t take you through the valley of the shadow of death for funsies; He only does that when there’s green pasture and still waters on the other side. Know that even in the presence of your enemies, God delivers you.

Putting On The Armor. So that’s your defensive armor against conflicts, lies, accusations, doubts, and fears, and an offensive weapon for banishing the darkness. But we still need to talk about what it means to put it on. Real quick, let’s try an experiment. Go stand naked in front of your closet and say, “I put on underwear, the brown slacks, that blue polo shirt there, and that sweater.” Then go outside….

A little reluctant? Why?

Well, ‘cuz you’re still naked! You can’t just say you’re putting something on, you have to actually put it on.

Right, so the same with the armor. When the enemy begins to torment you with an accusation, you don’t say, “I put on the breastplate of righteousness.” You say, “God says I’m ok” — which is actually putting on the breastplate of righteousness.

Putting it all together in prayer. None of this is meant to be applied in isolation. You use it in a context of constant prayer, speaking to and hearing from God. And you use the pieces together. So when the enemy torments you with an accusation, you say, “God says I’m ok” (breastplate). But you say it out loud (sword). Maybe you follow it up with reading Romans 8:31-39 (belt). You ask yourself, “If I was really, solidly convinced that God has made me ok with regard to this accusation, what would I do?” — and then you do it (shield). If you’re afraid the accusation taints you forever, you confess your fear to God: “God, I know you said you forgive all my sins, but I’m afraid this one is different somehow. I know that sounds dumb, but that’s where I’m at right now.” And then you ask Him to deliver you from your fear (helmet). All this, obviously, in constant prayer. And that’s what putting on the armor of God looks like.


Eating the Garden Wall

11 January 2019

Heresy is bad for your soul. Christianity, rightly practiced, is a vital relationship with God, and like any vital relationship, it relies heavily on grasping the truth about the person you’re in relationship with. Of course you don’t have to perfectly know all the truth right away — you learn over the course of the relationship, and there’s always more to know — but there are certain core lies that can badly impede the relationship.

It’s not really that strange a concept. The plot of nearly every romantic comedy hinges on the resolution of relationship-threatening lies. If you believe God is not faithful, that’s going to create problems, same as if you wrongly believe your fiancee is not faithful (the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, among many others). Ditto if you believe He’s not really God, not really competent, and so on.

So we work hard to keep heresy out of the church, because those lies wreck our relationship with God.

However — to return to the romantic comedies for a moment — consider where the chief benefits of the relationship lie. Once the lies are dispelled and the happy couple realize the truth about each other, the music swells, they come into each other’s arms, and wedding bells begin to ring. No one with any sense supposes this is the high point of their life together; the point is that this is the beginning. The real benefits of the relationship are not in that one happy moment, but in the many years to come. And so it is with God.

Clearing out the lies opens a channel for the benefits of the relationship to flow. It enables us “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the Westminster divines put it. But the chief end of man is not to be able to enjoy God, but to actually enjoy God.

This is to say that our creeds and confessions and various arguments against heresy are important, but they are the garden wall, not the garden. If you spend all your time reinforcing the garden wall, foolishly thinking that the garden will somehow take care of itself…well, it’s gonna be a long winter. The garden wall is vital for keeping out pests, but you can’t eat it.

And therein lies one of the critical errors of “discernment ministries.” Heresy-hunting is no kind of occupation for a Jesus-follower; “accuser of the brethren” is a title that’s supposed to belong to the other guys, not us. Too many of these guys are in love with the wall, and neglecting the crops. We have a duty to the truth, and part of that duty is to maintain a sense of proportion and keep our focus where it belongs. So while we necessarily reinforce the wall at the points where it is being attacked, the point of reinforcing the garden wall is to be able to reap the benefits of the garden.

As I develop this series on fundamentals for today, I’ll take note of the errors and heresies that we’re necessarily at war with. But the point of walling them out is not to focus on what we’re at war with outside the wall. The point is what those well-placed walls will enable us to grow inside the wall. Because that’s where the real sustenance is, and that’s why we build the walls to start with.


We Always Need “New” Fundamentals

4 January 2019

Back in the early 20th century, in response to a ruinous drift away from the historic Christian faith, there was a widespread movement in American Christianity to return to a serious and careful exposition of what they termed the “Five Fundamentals” of the Christian faith:

  1. The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  3. Substitutionary atonement through Christ’s death on the cross
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. The historicity of Jesus’ miracles

Of course these are not the Five Most Important Truths of Christianity for all time, as though we had a prioritized list that fell from heaven or something. These five truths were foundational elements of Christianity that were under attack at that historical moment. At other times, such a list might have included the deity of Christ (in A.D. 325), or the full deity and humanity of Christ (451), or justification by faith (1517), or the necessity for individual new birth (1741), or the reality of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry (1906).

The point is, the fundamental elements of the Faith remain perennially the same, but the battleground shifts. The same old temptations come back, all tarted up in the latest fashions. The new attacks, having been developed downstream from past battles for orthodoxy, are necessarily framed in a way that–at least at first glance–passes all the older litmus tests.

Take, for example, the battle about biblical inerrancy. As major institutions (and their collections of big donors) took up positions on the right side of the fight over biblical inspiration, they found no shortage of folks willing to agree. However, a bunch of these professor types–having signed a doctrinal statement that clearly stated the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit– went on to say (where the donors couldn’t hear them, but the students could) that of course inspiration didn’t mean the Bible had no errors in it. In practice, that meant you could ignore the bits you didn’t like, which was the same temptation all over again. So when we started insisting on inerrancy as well as inspiration, we were providing a clarification rendered necessary by the ingenuity of heretics. The basic error (“Yeah, hath God said…?”) was a few minutes older than the Fall; it was just dressed up in new words. The word-jugglers, of course, affected a wounded stance and asked us why we would needlessly divide the Body of Christ by adding some new doctrinal shibboleth that was unprecedented in the history of the Church. The proper response to their pearl-clutching, or course, is a hearty horselaugh and a boot to the backside.

The enemy is crafty. When he has exhausted one attack on the vital core of the Christian faith, he tries another. And another. And another. There are always seemingly well-taught people who reject all the old heresies and compromises but swallow the new ones whole. These are the same folks Jesus derided for laying wreaths on the tombs of the dead prophets while persecuting the living ones. They have failed to learn the lessons of the past because they understand the old heresies as bad ideas, and not as temptations.

The liquor ad always has a picture of the girl dancing at a party on Friday night, never a picture of the same girl passed out in a gutter on Saturday morning. Temptations always look good at the time, and bad in hindsight. The old heresies were tempting at the time–and we need to learn to see how the temptation worked at the time–but usually don’t look all that appealing today. The new attacks look very tempting now, because they are temptations geared to this historical moment.

And so one of the pastor’s tasks is to continually articulate the unchanging fundamentals of the Christian faith in a way that cuts against the current set of temptations. There is an ever-present danger of being ready to win the battles of the past, but woefully unprepared for the temptations of the present. So while I happily affirm and defend the Creed of Nicea, the Definition of Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, the five fundamentals of the early 20th century, and so on–if I stop there, I am not doing my job.

The need of the hour is to articulate the unchanging Christian faith in a way that cuts against today’s temptations. In this series, I will lay out a modest proposal: five fundamentals to do just that.