Two Kinds of Hard Obedience

21 July 2020

We are Christians. We must seek to obey Scripture. We must particularly obey those passages which seem “hard” to us. There are two kinds of hard obedience, and two corresponding kinds of resistance.

The first kind of hard obedience is pretty well understood: we all know what to do and why to do it, but it’s just difficult. For example, a lot of Christians have a problem with drunkenness. Even when they decide to get sober, it is usually a significant struggle. In this kind of hard obedience, everybody understands very clearly why a good Christian needs to be sober. The hard part comes in the day-by-day slog of doing it.

The common resistance to this kind of hard obedience stems from laziness and/or despair. The drunk doesn’t believe he has the strength to really do it. Lacking hope, the whole thing seems impossibly hard. If he gets on the wagon anyway, he’ll start to build some hope…and that’s where the laziness often gets him. Staying sober is just so much work. So he slacks off, goes dry drunk, and then relapses.

But there’s a second kind of hard obedience that is not primarily about the difficulty of doing it. For example, we’re told three times in the New Testament to sing Psalms. Do we obey? Mostly, no. Why not?

Is it because it’s very hard to find tunes and singable settings and so forth? Not really. First of all, if you bother to really look, all that stuff is out there. Second, even if it weren’t, we have a multi-million dollar Christian music industry devoted to solving the logistical problems of generating and delivering Christian music to the end user. Hundreds of songs are written, recorded, and broadcast every year. Most of you reading this routinely learn new (or at least new to you) songs in church already, not to mention what you pick up off the radio. If our problems with Psalm-singing were merely logistical, we’d be well on our way to obedience in a couple months. (And don’t blame the music-industrial complex for our disobedience; they’re producing what we’re willing to buy. If we wanted albums full of Psalms, rest assured, they’d be delivering.)

It’s not hard for us because there’s anything especially difficult about doing it. In this case, the matter is hard for us because we don’t see why we should. We already have songs we like. The psalms are so long. They don’t fit our musical culture. They talk about things that you can’t sing about on Christian radio. And what about all that “slay my enemies” talk?

In other words, we are so far gone, we can’t even see the sense in obeying. We have been so disobedient for so long that the disobedience has become normal to us, and obedience has become impossibly weird. Why would anyone even want to do that? This is exactly what the author of Hebrews called “being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

And there’s only one thing to do at that point: a practice I call “mere obedience.” Just do the thing. Obey, however ineptly to start with. Settle in for the long haul. Get better at it as you go. Trust that in due time, your obedience will bear fruit, and the reasons for the command will become very clear. It has been my experience that this is the case.

I can tell you now a bunch of reasons why we should sing Psalms. But I didn’t know any of those reasons when I started singing Psalms. I just started singing because the New Testament said I should. It was awkward at first and I had no idea what I was doing. But God was kind, and I grew, and the blessings began to roll in. In hindsight it all seems so inevitable…but only in hindsight.

I began praying the Lord’s Prayer seriously out of mere obedience too (“When you pray, say…” from Luke 11:2). And literally speaking blessing to people I meet (Luke 10:5). And a host of other things that I didn’t know the benefits for until I had been doing them a while. They’ve all proven fruitful.

So what obedience is God setting before you?


Pevensie Epistemology

3 December 2019

At the beginning of the Narnia series, in the opening chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis uses the four Pevensie children to teach us an important lesson in how to behave in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. Lucy has gone into the wardrobe, experienced Narnia, and met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund has also gone into the wardrobe. Peter and Susan, the older siblings, have not yet experienced Narnia.

Lucy is maintaining that her experience is real. Edmund is saying it was just make-believe. Peter and Susan don’t know what to do. Lucy doesn’t lie, and yet her story can’t be true. They all know Edmund is a liar, and yet his story is entirely plausible.

Were the roles reversed–Edmund talking about Narnia and Lucy saying it was make-believe–they would blow it off without a second thought. In fact, without Edmund’s contribution to the situation, it would be easy: perhaps Lucy dreamt the whole thing. This would be a promising line of reasoning, except for the fact that Edmund gives an alternate account. If Edmund said he didn’t know what she was talking about, that would be one thing. But since Edmund says they were playing together and made the whole thing up…no. It wasn’t a dream. They were both involved together in something. But what? How do we know?

The professor’s answer is simple: you know the people better than you know the world, so trust your knowledge of the people. The dishonest one is lying, and the honest one–however implausible her story–is somehow telling the truth.

Of course Peter and Susan are still unsure. Further events demonstrate the wisdom of the professor’s counsel, but I want to consider the question of everyone’s duty during that period of uncertainty. Obviously Edmund’s duty is to come clean. Obviously Lucy’s duty is to tell the truth, but we’ll come back to that.

What about Peter and Susan? They are wise enough to seek counsel, but that doesn’t really settle the matter in their minds. Their temptation would be to rush to judgment too soon, to make a premature decision about who is telling the truth and then declare the problem solved. Their job is to hang with the problem until there’s a real solution. They do–and the thing gets decisively settled. Eventually. In the meantime, everyone is profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort brings us back to Lucy’s duty. Doesn’t her continued insistence on her Narnian experience create tension and difficulty for everyone? Doesn’t Lucy also have a responsibility to family harmony? (Sure, so does Edmund, but everybody knows he doesn’t care, so the shortest road to family harmony is for Lucy–the dependable one, the one who cares about her duty–to change her story.)

In situations like this, there is a great temptation for the Peters and Susans of the world to put incredible pressure on Lucy to just cave. Change your story, admit that you mighta’ dreamt it, and everything can go back to normal. But let’s talk about this harmony that Lucy has a duty to help create: should that harmony be founded on truth, or on lies? On truth, of course–and so she has a duty to keep telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Suppose you were a servant at that wedding in Cana. You poured the water into the jars yourself, and then drew out the wine. You know what happened; you were there. What is your duty? Keep it to yourself? Or bear witness to what God has done?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course you are responsible to bear witness.

The harder problem is the one confronting Peter and Susan. What do you do if you weren’t there? You didn’t see it for yourself, and now you have to decide what really happened–tricky business, that.

At one level, it’s a very easy question. The story can’t be true, it just can’t. Wardrobes have backs, not whole worlds secretly hidden in them. Water does not spontaneously turn into wine in a stone water jar. It just doesn’t happen. Besides, we all heard about that wedding–good wine, and lots of it. So much that the servants got into it and got a little confused, apparently. A couple drunk guys misjudging reality. It happens every day. Simple as that.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to history. The real world is full of bizarre coincidences and baroque chains of causality, particularly where people are concerned. And especially where God is involved.

Seven True Things I Have Gotten In Trouble For Saying Out Loud

20 May 2012

In the ecclesiastical tribe that raised and trained me, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as absolute followers of Scripture.  If the Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old (which it does), then it is, and carbon dating be hanged.  Some other explanation for the C-14 ratios must be found.  If the Bible says that the whole world was covered by water in Noah’s flood, then it won’t do to postulate that someone’s bathtub overflowed in Mesopotamia somewhere, and that’s all it was really talking about. If the biblical account of the Exodus doesn’t fit with our timeline of Egyptology?  Crying shame those poor historians put in all that work without taking account of the most important primary source we have….  Better luck on the next attempt, guys.

We take it all, straight up the middle, no matter who says “You can’t say that!”  We’re famous for it.

Except, of course, that we don’t.  I have to admit, I had believed our propaganda, and it was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered that it just wasn’t true.  Not only that, but “I was quoting the Bible” turned out to be a highly inadequate defense for saying things that my community found uncomfortable.  With no further ado, I present to you seven such things.

  1. Baptism saves you.
  2. Belief takes place in the heart.
  3. The purpose of holiness is eternal life.
  4. In communion, we are sharing the body and blood of Christ.
  5. The things that happened to the Exodus generation are all types for our benefit.
  6. A cheerful Christian should be singing Psalms.
  7. God’s children don’t sin.


See 1 Peter 3:21, Romans 10:9-10, Romans 6:22, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 10:11, James 5:13, 1 John 5:18.


Feel free to question, challenge, or discuss.  The more the merrier.

Why the Missional Movement Will be Good for the Church…and ‘Fail’ Anyway

29 April 2012

If you’re not familiar with the missional movement, it’s probably best just to ignore this post.  You could google it and read a couple of things, but I’m speaking here to a problem within the movement, and if you’re still wondering what “missional” might mean, you’ll just be borrowing trouble.

Still here?  Well, then here we go.  The ‘good for the church’ part is easy.  On the one hand, we have churches with varying degrees of good, solid teaching who really think that if they just keep doing that, people will come to them.  It’s not happening, and it’s not going to — at least not fast enough to replace the ones that are leaving, moving away, dying off.  A renewed missional emphasis will get the church out of its siege mentality and return it to being an army on the march.  You can’t prevail against the gates of Hades from inside a castle; you’ve got to get out there and swing the battering ram. The missional movement brings this emphasis in spades.  This is a Good Thing, a return to the concerns and character of Jesus Christ, and through it, the missional movement will be one of God’s instruments for returning His church to greater effectiveness in the world.

On the other hand, the missional movement insists on defining itself as over against ‘Christendom.’  Various caveats attach to the use of the word in an attempt to avoid getting skewered for being sloppy, but…the use of the term is sloppy, and worse.  It’s fundamentally wrongheaded, and the caveats are an attempt to patch a ship that ought to be scuttled and replaced.

The first century church was on mission, but as the Roman world became Christian, the church got a little complacent.  God moved in the unwashed Germanic hordes next door, which woke the Roman Christians to their responsibility, and started one of the largest and most successful missions efforts in Christian history.  At the end of that mission effort, Europe was Christian for 1000 years: the phenomenon we know of as Christendom.  Even by a fairly minimal definition — the Church in the central position of power and influence in society, say — THIS WAS A GREAT THING!!!!  When a missions effort is successful, you get Christendom, the church at the center of power and influence in society, because all the people of power and influence are Christians.  This is an anticipation and partial realization of the Kingdom, and again, we pray for His Kingdom to come, so there’s no reason to complain when God answers our prayers.  (Sure, the people in question are fallible and the realization of Kingdom is only partial — but so what?  Your personal realization of eschatological perfection is only partial, too, but you don’t on that account stop walking with God.  No, you celebrate the successes, repent of the failures, and move on as best you can.  As with individuals, so with societies.)

Moreover, Christendom became the launch pad for the great missions movements of more recent history, which carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost parts of the earth.  That was a triumph, and we have Christendom to thank for it.  The North American church in particular ought to be aware of this, because we live in the uttermost parts of the earth.

Using ‘Christendom’ as a word to describe what’s gone wrong with the church is just lunacy, and this is where the missional movement is dropping the bowling ball on its own toes.  A missionary opposing Christendom is a missionary opposing the success of his own mission.  Seriously, think about how you would respond if you heard a bunch of Buddhist missionaries going on and on about how the whole Buddhist thing went off the rails when entire societies converted to Buddhism.  Huh?

Jesus took Europe by storm, and here we have a part of His Bride that’s unhappy about it.  Come again?  At best this is just cluelessness; at worst, it’s sedition against the Kingdom, and the only good thing I have to say about it is that it’s well-intentioned and utterly unwitting.

But it’s still sin; specifically, it’s ingratitude.

Yahweh don’t dig ingratitude, and this is where my prediction for the future of the missional movement comes in.  It will die off, because, unable to celebrate the victories of the past, it will in the end be unable to celebrate its own success.  What does not get celebrated, as Reggie McNeal is fond of pointing out, does not get done — and so one way or another, real success will not be forthcoming, because it is not valued.

Not that this is a huge problem.  Like many other movements that have come and gone in the Body over the last couple of millennia, this one will leave its residue — good and bad — and pass.  The children or grandchildren of the missional folks will take commitment to mission as a matter of bedrock necessity, and also begin asking how they can seek the redemption of the power structures of human society, rather than just railing against Christians who are involved in them. If the Lord tarries, we will yet have more earthly and imperfect portraits of how good a Christian kingdom can be.  And in the end, no matter how much some of us oppose big government and Christian involvement in same, Christ’s kingdom will come, and of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  Maranatha!

Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women, Part 3: Does Gender Difference Make a Difference?

26 February 2012

The church at Corinth is justly famous for its problems, but it was also noteworthy for its gifts.  So richly gifted was the Corinthian church that Paul said they come short in no gift.  There’s all kinds of discussions we could have about the various differences between Corinth and the present milieu, but let’s start by trying to understand what was happening in the church then.  There’s a particularly rich vein of discussion centering around how the Corinthians were supposed to use the gift of prophecy, so we’ll focus our discussion there.  They had a number of prophets functioning in the Corinthian church — in fact, they were completely out of control, and part of Paul’s purpose in writing the epistle is to help restore a measure of order to their worship service.

So let’s take a little time to look what the practice of that particular gift was supposed to look like in the church.  The first stop is 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  Again, lots of ink spilled on whether we need to do this head covering thing today, and for the moment, let’s bypass all that and focus on what Paul wanted the Corinthians to do.  It’s pretty simple, actually: men, when praying or prophesying, should uncover their heads; women, doing the same, should cover their heads.  Why?  As a sign of submission.

Let’s just sit with that for a moment.  Here we have a man and a woman.  Both are believers; both have the gift of prophecy; both have a word from the Lord to speak.  No problem with any of that; they can both speak, but Paul insists that the man uncover his head to do it.  Paul also insists that that the woman cover her head to exercise her gift.  This from the same guy that wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to the Galatian churches earlier in his career.  Has he changed his mind?

Of course not.  Jesus is one with the Father; Jesus is not the Father.  The Father sent; the Son obeyed to the point of death; the Father raised and exalted Him.  Christian unity is trinitarian unity: real equality in value and glory, but not sameness in either identity or function.  The application here to men and women fits well with the internal logic of Pauline iconography; a husband represents Christ and a wife represents His Bride, the Church.

If we stop right there, we have something valuable already: Paul plainly teaches them that both men and women can (and should) pray and prophesy, but not in exactly the same way.  Which is to say, gender difference makes a difference in how the gift should be exercised in the Corinthian church.  It could also make a difference today, could it not?

But let’s keep walking with the Corinthian church a while, because there’s more to say.  A woman in the church of Corinth is certainly supposed to use her gift of prophecy for the benefit of the Body.  Does that mean she may prophesy in the church meeting?  There are two options here, and they have to do with how you understand 1 Cor. 11 and 14:31 as over against 1 Cor. 14:34-35.  The latter passage says,

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.

Let us begin, first of all, by discarding the notion that we cannot just stomp a foot, say “That’s not fair!” and disregard this portion of Scripture.  It’s there; God said it, and if you’ll pardon a note of philistine biblicism here, we’re just going to have to live with it.  God loves us, and He knows what He’s doing.  It will turn out, if we obey wisely, that this is a good thing, a glorious thing, and not some scourge to be borne until the Lord returns.

But how to obey? Of course, we have to consider how to map the Corinthian situation onto our own situation (and that’s coming, Gentle Reader, but first things first), but before we can do that, we still need to settle out what Paul was asking the Corinthians to do.

The problem is that we have a seeming contradiction.  Paul has already said, back in 1 Cor. 11, that women are to pray and prophesy with their heads covered, which means that he believes women should pray and prophesy.  He has also said, just a few verses earlier, that all can prophesy one by one, so that each one may learn and be encouraged.  So how are we to take it when, just a few verses later, he then says women are not to speak?  There are two basic positions that seem viable.

Option A is that women are supposed to exercise their gifts of prophecy within the church, but not within the church meeting proper.  This understanding has the virtue of a commendable simplicity, but it seems to leave a number of unanswered questions in the context.  Option B is that women are to prophesy in the church meeting just as men are, but they are not to take part in the judging of the prophecy that follows a prophet speaking.  This latter understanding seems to answer more questions in the context and follow the argument more closely, but at the same time feels a bit like a cop-out given the absolute-sounding statement in v.34.

Up to this point, I have felt that either understanding made equally good sense, and neither answered all my questions.  I have not been able to rule out one or the other.  If you’ll bear with me in an experiment, Gentle Reader, I want to undertake the project of exploring these two positions over the next few weeks and seeing if I can rule one or both of them out.  If we can do that, then we can consider how this might map onto the present day.

Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women, Part 2: What About Preachers?

19 February 2012

So for those of you who are just joining us, the title says most of what you need to know.  In the first installment, we discussed the biblical case for deaconesses and prophetesses — which we will revisit shortly in order to discuss the differences in the ways men and women minister.  But the pressing question, for most of the conservatives, is whether we’re going to have women preachers.  If I wait six installments before I address that question, that’s going to annoy some of the neighbors I’m supposed to love — so let’s go ahead and start that ball rolling this week.

The first thing we need to think about here is what we typically mean by “ordaining a preacher.”  Within my tribe and the model I grew up with, we ordain a “minister of the gospel” to go out and take that lead pastor position.  We know, of course, that not everyone we ordain will, in fact, be a lead pastor one day, but the lead pastor position is seen as the paradigm case, the example par excellence of what we’re ordaining the man (and in this tribe, it is always a man) for.  The job description includes deciding on the vision and direction for the church, leading that church, counseling the congregation, overseeing the services of the church, preaching every Sunday, representing the church to the community and so on.  There’s effectively only one office we do a full-blown ordination exam for, and this is it.

So here’s how the “we can only ordain men” thing works: That job description above is what we’re ordaining people for.  Add in a dash of 1 Timothy 2:12, notice that the job description calls for exercising authority over the whole church, men most definitely included, and there you are.  Can’t ordain women; the Bible says so.

But what’s biblically necessary about that job description?  Is that job description what ‘pastor’ means in the New Testament, or have we just taken the biblical word and superimposed our own definition on it?

Yes, indeed we have.  So is it okay for us to put a woman in that position?  Of course not.  But I’ve got a better question: Is it okay for us to put anybody in that position?

Let’s back up.  How do we know there’s even such a thing as a “pastor?”  Because it’s right there in Ephesians 4:11, right?  Let’s look at that.  Paul says in chapter 3 that the grace given to him is to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles, but then adds in 4:7 that grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the gift Christ gave.  What’s that?  Christ rose up from His throne in heaven, descended to earth, won the victory, and ascended again, taking the spoils of His victory (i.e., the people He redeemed) with Him.  He then gave these people as gifts to the Church: some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers (hereinafter APEPTs, just to save me some typing).  The purpose of giving APEPTs is in order that they in turn equip the saints, so that the saints can do the work of the ministry, through which work Christ builds His whole body up into adulthood.  So just as proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles is the grace given to Paul, we all have some function in the Body that is the unique grace given to each of us.  Christ has given gifted people to His Body, and in turn the Spirit has given those gifted people their capacities to serve within that Body.

The ‘fivefold ministry’ school of thought would say that everybody’s gifting fits into the APEPT schema somehow, but that’s a discussion we can bypass for now.  The gender question is what concerns us at the moment, so let’s look at the APEPT classifications with that in mind.  Apostleship is not limited to the Twelve, nor even the Twelve plus Paul (see Acts 14:14), so there’s certainly a possibility that it’s a more expansive category, but I’m not aware off the cuff of any attested female apostles in the New Testament.  However, there were certainly prophetesses, as we’ve already established.  Nobody thinks gifted evangelists are exclusively male, nor does anyone think the gift of teaching is reserved for men alone.  So why would the shepherding gift be reserved only for men?

“Because,” sputters my complementarian friend, “a woman can’t teach or have authority over a man.  So how’s she supposed to be a gifted shepherd without doing those things?”

Gee, I dunno.  How’s a gifted female teacher — and we all acknowledge they exist — do her thing without violating the same scripture?  Not being a female teacher, I couldn’t say for sure, but I suspect she does it by not accepting teaching authority over men.  Not exactly rocket surgery, is it?

So what if — and I’m just throwing out a wild idea here — we step up to the challenge of acknowledging women’s shepherding ministries as fully worthy of the dignity, celebration and recognition that attends men’s shepherding ministries?  In other words, what if we male shepherds get up off our blessed assurance and treat female shepherds as “fellow heirs of the grace of life”?  What might that look like?

Different than what we’re doing, to be sure.  We’ll pick up the discussion of some of the differences next week.

Why Complementarians MUST Ordain Women

12 February 2012

Because men and women are different, and that difference is expressed in they way we minister.

Got it?


Lemme unpack that a bit.  Two things we need to think about here: How do men and women minister, and what does ordination mean?

Let’s not mince words on this: there are some roles that a woman ought not to play, just as there are some roles a man ought not to play.  Scripture describes some of these.

The description “husband of one wife” in the qualifications of elders (Titus 1:6) and overseers (1 Timothy 3:2) would seem to require that a male fill those positions.  People try to finesse this by arguing that filling these positions with a man was an accommodation to the culture of the time, but since the apostles and prophets do not seem to have ever been interested in catering to the culture of the time in essential matters of church order (note what Paul did to their dining customs in 1 Corinthians 11), I see no reason to believe that they caved in at this one point.  No, they had only men in the position of elder/overseer because that’s what God wants His church to look like.

Of course, for the same reason, they had deaconesses and prophetesses.  Now, I’m aware of a couple of lame arguments against deaconesses, but let’s be realistic.  If Romans 16:1 contained a man’s name instead of a woman’s, there would be no discussion at all: the verse would be taken as proof positive that he was a deacon in the church at Cenchrea.  The reason we doubt that Phoebe was a deaconess is only because of an underlying prior theological commitment.  Those who share that commitment will regard the translation “deaconess” as a priori unlikely, and will insist that the burden of proof is on their opponents.  I say that anyone who presumes to interpret the Word of God had better have a good reason for their understanding, and “burden of proof” arguments are about evading the necessity to do some actual work.  I don’t think that theological construct can hold up, but I welcome any theological dance partner with a work ethic who wants to take up the project.  Let’s discuss it.

More of that anon — for the moment, let’s move on to prophetesses.  The existence of prophetesses, Old and New Testament, is well attested.  Miriam was a prophetess, as were Deborah, Huldah, and the wife of Isaiah.  In the time of Jesus, Anna (Luke 2:36); in the time of Paul, Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:8) and the women of Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:5, who needed only cover their heads).  In the time to come, both sons and daughters shall prophesy (Joel 2//Acts 2:17).

Now, what is the normal biblical pattern for a prophet’s ministry?  Elijah was commanded to anoint Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:7).  It appears that the anointing can be literal, with oil, or metaphorical, through some other type of consecration ritual.  For the latter, consider Psalm 105:15, in which the entire nation of Israel is considered as God’s anointed prophets.

Now, if one ought to anoint a prophet, who could complain if we anointed a prophetess?  Shouldn’t we?

If we would lay our hands on a deacon to consecrate him (Acts 6:6), then what would stop us from laying our hands on a deaconess to consecrate her for the ministry to which God has called her?

Prejudice, that’s what.  Prettied up in theological language, to be sure, but simple prejudice nonetheless.  What we’re dealing with here is an institutionalized conviction that the ministries of women need not be treated with the same dignity, nor attended by the same celebration, as the ministries of men.  That’s an offense to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it needs to be denounced high, wide, and publicly.

My stance here will be denounced as “blurring gender distinctions.”  It isn’t.  It’s a search for good answers to hard questions — and the people who accuse me of blurring the lines are just mad because they haven’t got any.

Want me to prove it?  In a number of churches in my tribe, we’ll cheerfully lay hands on a missionary couple (husband and wife) and commission them to their ministry; we’ll even do that for a single woman — if she’s going to cross an ocean to teach little brown children.  If she’s staying here to be a Sunday School teacher to little white children, not so much.  Hm.  Does it take a greater anointing to minister to brown children, or is it just that Jesus loves them more?

What about other public ministries besides teaching Sunday School?  Youth leader?  Young Life worker?  Counselor?  Intercessor?  House mother in an orphanage?  R.A. in a dorm?  How do we recognize these ministries?  How should we?

But someone will say, “That’s not ordination.  Ordination is for preachers.”

Ah yes.  Preachers.  We’ll be talking about that next week…

Maginot Lines

2 October 2011

At the close of The Great War, the French were determined never again to suffer an invasion from Germany.  To that end, they constructed a massive line of fortifications, naming it after then-minister of war, Andre Maginot.  It’s not necessarily a bad strategy.  Worked pretty well for China, once upon a time.  It was state-of-the-art all the way — cafeterias for the troops, air conditioning, underground railways to connect different fortifications, and a vast number of blockhouses, turrets, shelters and observation posts bristling with the latest in machine guns, grenade launchers, and artillery.  The Maginot Line would, in fact, have been very difficult to breach…

…so the Germans invaded the Low Countries instead, and then came down into France from the north, sweeping the entire country in days and completely avoiding the irrelevant fortresses of the Maginot Line.


We are God’s people in exile.  “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”  Despite the plain biblical revelation on this point, we persist in investing ourselves in the permanence of our Christian institutions–governments, cathedrals, seminaries, churches, mission agencies, charities and so on.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t build these things.  When the governors are Christians, they certainly ought to build a Christian government.  When the populace will furnish and fill a cathedral, they should build one.  When the church needs trained men and is incapable of training them as it ought to do, someone certainly ought to start a seminary.  When single churches can’t undertake the expense of funding a pioneering missionary on the other side of the world, a mission agency is a good idea.

But we can’t fool ourselves that we’re building something permanent with these structures.  The God-fearing governments of Christendom have given way to pagan states that acknowledge no god but themselves.  The great cathedrals, more often than not, stand empty, as do many of our large church buildings.  Most seminaries have managed to lose their effectiveness, often with in matter of a few generations.  Spirit-led mission efforts ossify and become self-serving bureaucracies that Spirit-led missionaries have to work around in order to fulfill the Great Commission.

All is mist, as the wise Preacher once said.

Having forgotten what it’s like to do without these things, we build new Christian political movements, new church buildings, new seminaries, new mission agencies.  Well-meaning Christian people scrimp and save and sacrifice to pour massive amounts of resources into these new institutions, constructed on the same principles as the old ones, and vulnerable to the same failings in the end.  History has not been kind to this strategy, but we have forgotten our earlier history, and don’t know what else to do.  Which is to say that when the enemy outflanks one Maginot Line, we build another.  And another.  And another.  The really awful part?  We have no continuing city to defend with all these fixed fortifications.

To everything there is a season, and this is not the season for building fortifications.  Defending Jerusalem is a nice thought, but unless the Lord guards the city, the watchmen watch in vain, and if you’re at Jeremiah’s point in the story rather than Hezekiah’s, the Lord isn’t interested in guard duty.  Christendom 1.0 was glorious, but in God’s providence it’s crumbling, and while Christendom 2.0 is rising, it will be a long time before we see more than foundations — far, far longer than I’ll live.  It’s Jeremiah time, and those who can’t see this harsh providence for what it is will die defending walls that can no longer even support their own weight, let alone protect anyone.

So where does that leave us?  It’s an interesting question.  We may have to find out as we go.

“Descriptive, not Prescriptive” part 5: Beware the “Transitional Period”

17 April 2011

I am about to tell a true story, and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to pick on the speaker in the story.  He clearly has the problem I’m seeking to point out, but he is very far from being alone in this.  The vast majority of conservative evangelicals in the circles I run in have the exact same problem, and they’ve got it just as bad.  A few years ago, this same story could have happened to me, too.  This poor fellow just happened to be the guy with the microphone when someone asked an awkward question…

So I was at a conference, listening to a lecture on decision-making in Acts — essentially a brief and competent sketch of Friesen’s approach from Decision-Making and the Will of God, as worked out in Acts in particular.  The speaker, following the typical conservative anti-charismatic line, said that you can’t really develop doctrine for today from Acts, because it’s a transitional period.  To his (partial) credit, he immediately backed off that and qualified it a little by adding that he supposed you could develop doctrine from Acts, but you wouldn’t want Acts to be your main support; you’d want to corroborate anything you got from Acts in the Epistles, because, again, Acts is transitional.

Now this is the old descriptive vs. prescriptive canard I’ve already discussed here, but another angle on it came up during the Q&A time that I’m embarrassed to say I’d never considered.  Someone asked, “If Acts is transitional and therefore at best a secondary support for doctrine today, then how can we rely on epistles written during that same transitional period?”

The speaker didn’t really know what to say (and here I might add, nobody else was jumping in to help him, either).  After hemming and hawing a bit, he fell back on stating that the book of Acts is a historical narrative — which was apparently supposed to answer the question.


It doesn’t, though, does it?  If Acts is a transitional period and what they said and did during that time in Acts can’t be trusted for application today, then the letters written during that time are as suspect as the words spoken and deeds done.  That dumps most of the church epistles at the very least — if not the whole New Testament.  I mean, wasn’t the whole first century something of a transitional era?

Now, certain people will immediately notice an upside:

With the NT as a mere description of what was done in the first century, we are free to decide that things have changed.  Perhaps we need no longer pay any attention to the biblical patterns of observing baptism, or the Lord’s Table.  Perhaps we can reinvent church without regard to what our first-century fathers did.  Perhaps ordaining women and homosexuals isn’t so bad; a lot of time has passed, and those old Jewish prejudices just don’t really have a place in the contemporary world any more.  And what’s this obsession with a single sexual partner, anyhow?  Doesn’t the Bible teach us to love everybody?  Sounds like a contradiction to me…

Which is to say, once you get started, how do you stop that thing?  In our zeal to prevent abuse of the biblical narrative, my fellow conservatives have gotten on the sailboat of undermining biblical authority, and now the wind is blowing so loudly that I can barely hear them assuring me that they know where to find the brake pedal.

Hard to believe, for some reason.

Learn how to read a story or die, guys.  Your personal prejudices will stop you from going all the way, but do you think for a moment that your grandchildren won’t notice that for what it is?  Your (lack of) narrative hermeneutics will devour your grandchildren, just as the Reformers’ theology devoured their grandchildren, in their turn.  Fix it; the discomfort is momentary, and the benefits will last generations.

Some people will feel that I’m just griping about a problem without offering any solutions, and be justly annoyed by that. But although I haven’t made this post any longer, I’ve been hard at work on the solution to this one for some time: some of it I’ve discussed in my past Descriptive/Prescriptive posts.  Other bits I intend to discuss in future posts.  And there’s always my course in hermeneutics.

“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” part 4: Options and Patterns

7 November 2010

Before I begin this entry, I need to make something clear to you, dear reader.  Some of the examples I use here are indeed topics of discussion and continuing growth in my church, and I am using them because they are very much on my heart of late.  But I am not picking on my church.  As my church has been prodded toward obedience on these things, it has responded very well.  So as I talk about evangelical resistance to growth in certain areas, that is not a passive-aggressive way of calling out recalcitrant people in my own circle.  There aren’t any.  I mean just what I say — I see this resistance in the broader evangelical church, and I am seeking to address it as best I can.

Options and Obedience

Many believers will simply fail to notice a biblical requirement — say, the one to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  They may have read those passages many times, but it simply doesn’t occur to them that they should do something in response.  The first time this dawns on them, it is because someone is pushing for a particular type of obedience — say, “We need to sing the Sons of Korah version of Psalm 148 in the service this Sunday.”   Upon being challenged as to why this is necessary, the speaker will respond with Ephesians 5:19.

The response at this point is pretty predictable.  “There’s nothing there that says we have to sing that particular song this particular morning.”

This is of course true.  The church could be in complete obedience to the biblical requirement and never sing any song by that particular band, ever. Unfortunately, too often what happens next is…nothing.

Because we need not sing that particular arrangement of that particular psalm this week, we don’t.  Also we don’t sing any other arrangement of that psalm.  Or any other psalm.  And in this way the fact that God gives us freedom in how we obey becomes the occasion for not obeying at all.


This is where biblical patterns of obedience are so helpful to us.  The Bible not only gives us requirements to obey, it gives us patterns of obedience to emulate.  A particular example may not be the only way of obeying, but it is a way of obeying.  We don’t have to start from scratch.

The first problem evangelicals have with these patterns is failing to even notice them.  We notice that the early church successfully resolved an important theological disagreement in Acts 15, for example — but we pay no mind at all to how they did it.  We recognize the commands to be of one mind, to submit to one another, to contend earnestly for the faith, and so on.  And Acts 15 becomes a sermon illustration: “See, they stood up for the truth.  We should too.”

Yes, but how?  Are we acting in continuity with the way they did it?  We don’t know.  We never even checked to see how they did it.  We just take the goal that the requirement gives us, and improvise something that we think will get us there.

At some point, some observant soul may point out how they did it, back in the day.  “Look at what they did.  They appealed to another church with more theological ‘horsepower,’ they appointed a day to gather, they pursued the dispute until everyone had fallen silent, and then they responded, unanimously, to the issue.”

Most evangelicals respond to that observation in the same way that they do to the suggestion that we must sing this arrangement of this psalm this week.  That is, they say “Sure, that was a good way to do it.  But it’s descriptive, not prescriptive.  We don’t have to do it that way, just because they did.”

True, up to a point.  Every situation is somewhat different, and it is the province of God-given wisdom to appraise those differences and tweak our response accordingly.  This is to say that we will not respond in unison with our fathers at every point; sometimes we will be in harmony with them.

But what madness makes us suppose that we may simply invent an approach without regard for the examples that God gives us in inspired Scripture?  What makes us think that we may act out of harmony with the way in which our fathers obeyed?