Seven Theses on Practical Unity

30 July 2019

Since moving to Englewood, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.

As I observe discussions in the wider Christian world about unity across churches and denominations, I see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following seven theses on the practice of unity:

  1. The unity of all God’s people is internal to the gospel, not simply a natural downstream result of it.
  2. Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days. (John 17:20-26)
  3. Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith. (Galatians 2:11-21)
  4. Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but we can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
  5. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, or something else) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically closest. Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically closest. (Luke 10:25-37)
  6. Therefore, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are also your neighbors, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10)
  7. The task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–and all the problems that will attend it–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.

I can tell you from experience that when you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. Of course you will. We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing. I can also tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have–those are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) Bottom line: future problems–real or imaginary–should not stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can, right now.

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Grinding Down Mountains

16 July 2019

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on moral and ritual purity.  If only Israel would be pure enough, they believed, God would return to Jerusalem, and bless her as He had in the days of David and Solomon. They were so focused on purity that when God actually did return to Jerusalem, they missed it. Jesus wept over the city:

“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
(Lk. 19:43-44)

Where we focus is very important. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong true thing. The Law is holy and just and good, Paul says. But if you focus on the Law, you run headlong into the rocks of Romans 7. You can’t keep it, and the Law does not confer the power to keep it. Nothing does.

In my corner of the Evangelical world, we have mostly learned this lesson when it comes to moral purity. If we focus on moral and ritual purity, we will become Pharisees, and we know it. So we avoid that mistake…and focus on doctrinal purity instead.

Purity is a good thing. Doctrinal purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, we will develop the same trouble the Pharisees always had. It’s just a different version of the same basic mistake. Like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in a pursuit of ever-greater purity, and the price of our impatience will be disunity.

If we focus on love and unity–which is what Jesus told us to focus on, in the upper-room discourse–it’s been my experience that we will grow toward greater purity together. Slowly. The speeds can be glacial at times. But glacial speed has its advantages: even mountains cannot stand in our way.

 

 


Insight from Business?

9 July 2019

As an organization, 3DM largely packages its materials to appeal to large corporate churches, and those that aspire to their ranks. In contextualizing their materials to that environment–which is to say, to American corporate culture–3DM opens itself to a range of pernicious influences.

…but if you’re gonna…

Now, all truth belongs to Christ. We can profit from insights in psychology, group dynamics, neuroscience, physics, finance…you name it. We are free to read business books about organizational change just as we are free to read books on neuroscience. But just as we need to carefully filter out the evolutionary presuppositions of the neuroscience book, we need to filter out the various pagan presuppositions in the business book–and that’s going to be harder than we think. Christian thinkers have been waging war on evolution for generations. We haven’t been working nearly as hard to discern good from evil in business culture. And look at it — this is the culture that gave us record label accounting, Enron, the housing bubble of 2008, and so, so much more. It’s a disaster, and uncritically accepting insights and recommendations from that culture is not going to be good for us.

Before we try to metabolize any business advice, we need to go back to first principles, in Scripture. What is it that we’re actually supposed to be doing? Until we have an answer for that, we’ve no business trying to use business principles to “be more effective.” A lot of ugly presuppositions are being smuggled in through that word “effective.” Similar smuggling happens under the guise of “leadership.” Leadership is an important field of study; I’ve seen a lot of damage done by unskilled, untrained leaders. But the wrong training is sometimes worse than no training at all, and Jesus taught His people to lead differently than the world does.

It’s always working for somebody

In order to see the problem, we need to think about the way broken systems work. Russian communism was a horribly broken economic system, but members of the Politburo never lacked for food, medicine, or even entertainment. Washington Mutual was a total disaster, desperately broken, but Kerry Killinger, the CEO of that disaster, made millions–and when he was fired, walked away with a $15 million severance check. Washington, D.C. public schools are consistently failing (just look at the test scores), but D.C. school principals make 6 figures anyway.

The broken system is always working for somebody. Putting someone who benefits enormously from the status quo in charge of reform is just a recipe for failure; those are not the voices we should be elevating. In the church world, those voices are the successful church professionals, who are doubly acclimated to American business culture: first, because their churches run like businesses, and second, because the backbone of their donor base lives in business culture, and thinks of business culture simply as The Way Things Are Done.

So now what?

If we’re that deeply acclimated to business culture, then where will reformation come from? Here, history is our guide: real reformation does not come from a Staupitz, who functions smoothly within the system, nor even from an Erasmus, who lampoons its failings while remaining part of it. Real reformation must come from a Luther — someone for whom the system is not working. Let’s pay more attention to those people.

 

 

 

 


Neighborhood Sacramentology: When to Baptize?

28 June 2019

In the church we have the tendency to take certain truths about the sacraments and make applications in directions that we shouldn’t, but God has a much different view of the sacraments than we do. We’ve made the Lord’s Table something to be protected, lest some heathen get away with a wafer. No; it is the body of Jesus, and Jesus gave His body to and for the world. Of course it’s blasphemy, but it’s God’s blasphemy. Our job is to submit to what God is doing. 

Likewise, we recognize the importance of baptism, and therefore delay it in order to get all the logistical ducks in a row to make a big to-do. We want to do it in church on a Sunday morning. We want the person to invite all his unbelieving friends and relatives to the baptism so we don’t miss a recruiting opportunity. It somehow escapes our notice that there is no biblical example of delaying baptism for these reasons. A new convert is baptized in the first available body of water by whatever Christian is on hand to do it. 


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.


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?