Neighborhood Sacramentology: Fencing the Table?

25 June 2019

If it is the church’s responsibility to fence the Table, to keep people away from it who aren’t going to partake in a worthy manner, then  that implies a whole authority structure to make that happen. Only certain authorized people can serve communion, only at appointed places and times, and so on.  The Roman and Eastern churches certainly took that position, and speaking broadly, so did the fathers of the Reformation. The marks of a true church, our Reformed fathers said, were word, sacrament, and discipline, and part of the function of discipline was to fence the Table. It was therefore possible in a Reformation church for a member of the church to be encouraged to come to church, but suspended from the Table as a disciplinary measure. At a commonsense level, it’s not hard to see how they got there — it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of sending a child to bed without his supper.

The New Testament knows nothing of such a practice. There are no appointed places and times. When did the NT church gather that was *not* church? They didn’t have a church building; it was all houses. They didn’t have Sunday mornings off from work. They gathered where and when they could, and when they gathered, the church was gathering. There are no authorized servers, no one appointed to fence the table. Is it ok to serve the Lord’s Table in a private residence to a bunch of your close friends on a Thursday night? Well, WWJD? That’s how the first one happened…. The church’s role is to celebrate early and often, and invite the world to come.

There is, of course, a warning that the one who partakes in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. (In the immediate context, the unworthy partaking is a matter of the rich shaming the poor.) But there is no suggestion that the elders should stop someone from partaking because he might be doing it unworthily. The only examination Paul commands is self-examination. Nobody else is responsible to do it for you, and God has not delegated that authority to anyone. 

An egregiously sinning, unrepentant believer may be expelled from the community entirely until he repents, but there’s no concept of allowing him to remain in the community without coming to the Table. If he is spiritually weak, then he needs strength; why would you withhold spiritual food from him?

The Table is pure grace. You want Jesus? Then come to the Table. Is it blasphemy for some spiritual tourist to come and partake of the body and blood of Christ as an act of curiosity, with no regard for what he’s really doing? Yes, of course.

But it’s not my blasphemy; it’s God’s. Jesus incarnated in the world and gave His body to and for the world; He gave His body to be abused and crucified by sinners. Some heathen getting away with a wafer is the very least of the blasphemy going on here; why would that be where we draw the line? You don’t have the right to fence the Lord’s Table because it’s not your table; it’s His.

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Jesus Broke the Billy Graham Rule

18 June 2019

A lot of folks in ministry espouse the Billy Graham Rule: never meet with a woman alone. I was taught the rule as a teenager, along with various permutations and corollaries (leave the door open if you must have a conversation with a woman in your office, or have the secretary sit in, that sort of thing).

I went through Bible college and seminary thinking these were wise guidelines and expecting to live by them. I started my ministerial career living by them. I vividly remember the day I departed from them.

It’s a long story and the details aren’t important. Suffice it to say, I was faced with a simple choice: give my female counselee the dignity I’d expect in the same situation, or go through a bunch of gyrations to make sure I followed the Billy Graham Rule. I decided a choice between the man-made rule and the Golden Rule was no choice at all, and I followed Jesus.

That prompted me to re-examine things. Like Mark Twain liked to say, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you—it’s what you know that ain’t so. I “knew” that the Billy Graham Rule was the way you keep away from adultery. But upon consideration, it’s just not so.

I’ve known pastors who didn’t keep the Billy Graham rule, and ended up in adultery. It’s easy to say, “Well, if he’d just kept the Billy Graham Rule, it never woulda happened.” That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are we focusing on the man-made rule like that? Why don’t we say, “If he’d kept the 10 commandments, it never woulda happened”? That’s a lot more to the point.

But even God’s law doesn’t give us the power to resist sin. Why do we think that a man-made law will keep us from sin, when even God’s law cannot? Why do we trust schemes of our own devising more than we trust God? To ask the question is to answer it. We still pretend to godhood.

Stupid people let themselves think they can’t get entangled in adultery—because they’re strong, because they’re impotent anyhow, because they live by man-made rules that are supposed to guarantee it. All those reasons are idols, and all idols must fall.

Man-made guidelines, however wise they might be in a particular case, are not a substitute for the Spirit.

Nothing makes you impervious to sin except walking in the Spirit. Nothing.

I’ve known pastors who made it their lifestyle to live by the Billy Graham Rule, and ended up in adultery anyhow. Having your secretary sit in your counseling sessions doesn’t stop you from meeting the church pianist at a cheap motel on Highway 19, as it turns out. The external, man-made standard is not the difference that makes a difference, and no one but a Pharisee thinks it is. (And what sort of Jesus-follower thinks man-made rules are a means of holy living, anyhow?)

All those external regulations are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Righteousness doesn’t come by the law, because there is no law that gives life; you gotta get that from the Spirit—as a smart guy once told us. That smart guy was much maligned by the religious establishment for his teaching and display of liberty, if you can imagine!

When a pastor ends up in adultery, it is not because he met with a woman alone. James tells us how this happens; it’s not some big mystery. He had a desire—for sex, for emotional intimacy, to feel like a man again, whatever. What he should have done is bring that desire home to his wife; instead, he allowed it to focus on his counselee. Then, instead of responding to that warning sign by asking the Body for help, he hid it, kept it to himself, nurtured it. Desire conceived and gave birth to sin; sin, when it matured, brought forth death. Do not be deceived, like the man said.

Anybody who has thought through what his or her particular marriage needs, and can articulate a strategy for protecting the marriage, deserves our support. Whether it’s the Billy Graham Rule or a different strategy, as long as it’s not forbidden by Scripture, we should applaud and support one another’s efforts to protect our marriages. And we have the right to decide for ourselves what that requires—for freedom Christ has set us free. And for exactly that reason, if that same guy ascends a soapbox and begins telling everyone else that his answer is best for their marriage, the very mildest response we should have is to point and laugh. No one gets to make such pronouncements—for freedom Christ has set us free.

The guy on the soapbox will always say that he’s just explaining what’s “appropriate” and “wise.” Me, I think Jesus was wise, and that it’s wise to imitate Him. (So did Paul: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”) Once upon a time, Jesus and his twelve accountability partners were walking up on a Samaritan village. He sent all twelve of His accountability partners into the town to buy food, while He sat by the well and started a conversation with a woman alone. A woman who turned out to be exactly the kind of girl no Christian man “should” meet alone.

When our rules contradict what Jesus actually did, that should give us pause. I’m not saying that you can’t have the Billy Graham rule. If you think that’s wisest for you, who am I to argue? Go for it. I am saying that someday, the Spirit might put you in a situation where you need to leave that rule behind. If He does, do what Jesus did.

Don’t worry; nobody ever followed the Spirit into adultery. That’s not where He leads.


Can You Spell “Church” without C-E-O?

7 May 2019

Leadership is an important field of study; I’ve seen a lot of damage done by unskilled, untrained leaders. Church leaders often try to borrow the “best thinking” on leadership from the business world. But it’s a mistake to assume that the business way of approaching things maps well onto the church. The wrong leadership training is sometimes worse than no training at all.

I’ll never forget attending a Christian leadership conference (nothing related to 3DM) in which the two main speakers–both CEO-style leaders of Big Important Churches that will remain nameless here–kicked off the first session by mocking the concept of shepherding, and distinguishing their kind of leadership as something else entirely. (My wife got up and left the conference early in that talk, correctly discerning that the conference would have little relevance for her.) The rest of the day was devoted to discussing their version of organizational leadership.

Now perhaps one can run a business empire without being a shepherd; I wouldn’t know. But biblically obedient churches are led by (a team of) elders, and every elder’s first job is “shepherd the flock of God.” These two church leaders spent a day teaching a type of leadership that has no place in a church, and a thousand or so overawed church leaders sat there and lapped it up.

What a tragedy for their churches.

Leadership works differently for Jesus followers; Jesus pointedly said so.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Perhaps we should take Jesus seriously. A guy might know how to defend his budget against other executives’ resource grabs, how to take credit for success and make sure someone else gets stuck with the consequences of failure, how to fire half the production department to save the stock price–what makes us think he knows anything about how to lead a church?


Jesus Is Not A Multilevel Marketing Scheme

30 April 2019

Some people think of disciple-making as the ultimate MLM scheme. You find a good mentor, build a downline…but no. That’s not how it works. Jesus is not running a multi-level marketing company.

Among the followers of Jesus, disciple-making influence is more of a “one another” kind of thing. We love one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Encourage one another. Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds. When God gives me a newbie to disciple, part of my job is to grow him from dependent to peer, and quick. The harvest is plentiful, and I need help!

Through Paul, God gave us a genius mechanism for doing that job: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” You can’t just teach people. You have to invite them into your life.

See, just teaching allows you to hold people at a comfortable distance. You can be the leader, the professional, the guru, and they are the follower, the client, the acolyte. But we’re Christians. That’s not what we do.

Paul’s example shows us another way. I call it the “open a vein” school of discipleship. We invite them into our lives, not just as learners but as coworkers, as friends, as family. Make no mistake, this calls for deep integrity. If I don’t practice what I preach, the closer they get to me, the more repelled they’ll be. Being a person who can imitate Paul’s example by calling someone to imitate me is a very high calling.

And you know what? No matter how deep my integrity goes, I guarantee you that when I invite someone into my life like this, he’s going to see my sin, my weaknesses, my failures. I’m not perfect, and my disciples aren’t stupid. The sin is there, and they’re gonna catch me out. Of course they will.

Here’s the thing: that is not a bug; it’s a design feature. The instruction and accountability do not just flow one way; we do these things for one another. God speaks to and through my disciples, and they’re worth hearing. I grow in response to their correction the same way they grow in response to mine–and *that* is a critical part of the example they’re following.

Many years ago and far from here, I once asked a roomful of older pastors, “Haven’t you had the experience of a baby Christian asking why you did something or calling you out–and them being totally right, and you being totally wrong?” They all looked at me blankly…and I permanently crossed every last one of those men off my list of advisors.

I had occasion to work closely with a few of those folks over the years, and they proved to be everything I suspected on the basis of that single interaction: professionalized, dictatorial, unhearing, unteachable. And man, were they hypocritical! The more so because no one could tell them. They wouldn’t hear anything you said if they “outranked” you.

There was no “one another” with those guys, and they were the poorer for it. Go thou, and do un-likewise.


Providence, Vindication, Vengeance

26 April 2019

I take an occasional interest in a doctrinal fight that I really don’t have a stake in, some bit of inside baseball in a tribe that’s not my own. It’s a tedious exercise, since it requires me to get up to speed on issues I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to, but the work pays off. When you’re not on one side or the other, you can see a bunch of other things more clearly: how they treat one another, how they treat the Spirit-created unity they all have despite their differences, how the fight is perceived by the outside world, that sort of thing. In this way, I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons that I apply to the fights I do have a stake in. Here follows one of those lessons.

Many years ago, some folks in the PCA went after Peter Leithart, accusing him of heresy. At the time, I didn’t know Leithart from St. Moses the Black, but the accusations were related to one of those controversies I was studying. The matter went to trial before the presbytery; I remember listening to the recordings. The lead prosecutor in that trial, one Jason Stellman, argued (among other things) that Leithart was sliding slowly toward Rome, and had departed from the doctrine of the PCA.

As it happens, Leithart was (rightly) acquitted, amid much howling by the heresy-hunters, but that’s not really the point here. The point is what happened next. Fast forward a couple years, and lo and behold, this same Jason Stellman resigns his ordination in the PCA…and joins the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Leithart remains (as ever) a Presbyterian.

***

In Philippians 3, Paul urges his readers to have no confidence in the flesh, and recounts his own fleshly pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

Because we’re conditioned by our heritage of revivalism, the meaning we see right away is the individual salvation from hell: Paul has forsaken his reliance on fleshly credentials for the sake of justification by faith. He now trusts in God alone. But there’s more here: a social layer of meaning as well as a theological one.

Remember that Paul had been excommunicated from synagogues multiple times for teaching that Jesus is the Messiah–which He is! They should have welcomed Paul with open arms for teaching the true meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and instead they threw him out.

Now imagine what would have happened if he’d gotten hung up on that. If he’d spent his whole life in a vain search for a retrial, for a fleshly vindication that he’d been right all along. Hold on to that idea, and read what he says next.

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Again, the individual, theological meaning is there, but so is the social meaning. Paul is not seeking a vindication before the Law. A human court has nothing to offer him. He’s leaving all that behind to pursue Christ. If he suffers, if he’s wrongly convicted–that’s just another way to be more like Christ, isn’t it?

If God wants to vindicate him, then God can do it. Paul isn’t going to waste energy chasing that vindication. As it happens, God did vindicate him, although Paul didn’t live to see it. In A.D. 70, God delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Titus the Roman, and expressed His opinion of the Temple that rejected His only Son. Not one stone was left on another.

***

If we wait, if we just keep pursuing God, we often find that God will vindicate us. He vindicated Paul in the destruction of Jerusalem. Anybody with eyes in their head could see what was happening there (although many are blind).

The same thing happened with Leithart’s heresy trial, not through the acquittal, but in the subsequent events. If you have eyes to see, Providence has painted a little picture in the form of Jason Stellman–the federal head of the heresy-hunters–swimming the Tiber. We are being invited to consider the Romishness of their position, and it’s right there in the trial transcripts, if you missed it the first time through. God has decisively vindicated Leithart in this matter.

I’ve been on the receiving end of similar attacks myself–two stand out as particularly memorable. In one case, I don’t think it was all that hard for bystanders to see what was happening at the time. In the other, it was very hard to see. “The sins of some follow after them,” like Paul said. But in both cases, as time has passed, Providence has done its vindicating work. The people that matter, know. They may be fuzzy on some of the details, but they know enough.

Things become clearer over time.

  • One person holds to the doctrine he was accused of abandoning, while his accuser—that guardian of orthodoxy–abandons it.
  • One person remains faithful to the people he was accused of failing to serve, while his accuser skips town, leaving a trail of wrecked relationships in his wake.
  • One person continues in unity with the believers around him, while the one who excluded him in the name of “preserving unity” excludes more and more people until there’s only a few he’s not at war with.

Over time, it becomes easy to ask a few clarifying questions. Where are the two parties today? Look at one. Look at the other. What do you see?

***

“He who covers his sin will not prosper,” the proverb says, and the sin of slander is certainly included. God has the habit of causing the truth to come to light in time, and this is one of the practical reasons for leaving vengeance to God.

God does not say “Vengeance is bad;” He says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” As we are tempted to push for vindication, we are also tempted to seek vengeance. Don’t. God’s got it…and He’s better at it than you are.

Count it all loss for the sake of Christ. Pursue knowing Him. Let God take care of the rest.


Marketing the Reformation to the Pope

23 April 2019

“Future generations will be amazed that at one time, we actually thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business.”
“Now that you’ve finished your SWOT analysis, here are some key ideas from the classic business book Good to Great that will help you shift the culture of your church.”
-same people

One of the biggest things screwing up our public rethink of church is the need to market the book/article/consulting service to the sorts of people who can afford pricey resources: successful church professionals.

These people are never going to reform church away from the corporate model, for the simple reason that they can’t. Externally, their organizations and donor base won’t let them, and internally, they have a cultivated blindness to the flaws of the status quo. It’s like trying to market the Reformation to Lorenzo de Medici.

Corporate church culture is certainly doing something, but let us not confuse organizational “success” with serving Christ. By every biblical metric, corporate church culture ties up huge amounts of resources for a very small return–when there’s any return at all. It makes dependent members rather than disciples of Jesus, it barely remembers the poor, and it generally pretends like other churches don’t exist. These are not simply shortcomings that can be readily fixed; they are natural results of the design. Every organizational structure inherently incentivizes certain behaviors and discourages others. The structure we’re talking about is a small number of paid, expert professionals providing religious services for masses of consumers. That structure needs loyal consumers and the amenities that reinforce that loyalty. Those loyal consumers donate, and the structure needs to keep the money in-house, where it can fund competitive salaries for its small stable of experts (and more amenities for donating members). Being a church, of course, it also needs a certain amount of visible outreach and charitable ministry. (Locally, that usually also serves as marketing to bring in more members.) But routinely, the total resources expended on mission are dwarfed by building fund or whatever.

There’s no reason why that model should control what we think of as possible, plausible, or legitimate. And so it seems foolish, if not outright self-sabotage, to choose the scions of that model as our primary discussion partners as we seek to reform the church.

3DM has done exactly that (as have most of the other folks in the discussion). I think it may be their biggest weakness.

 


What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.