A Minimum Standard

27 September 2022

The purpose of this post is to recommend that you go read three other posts, with this one as a kind of introduction, so I’ll keep this brief. I’d like to commend the three posts below as examples of a kind of minimum acceptable standard for a Christian understanding of the nature of God’s creation. We are Christians; we have been taught by Scripture that the world is not at all what the materialists think it is. They are not right as far as it goes; they are wrong all the way down, and certain (to a modern mind) startling conclusions follow from that fact — conclusions which most faithful evangelicals have not really thought through. So I want to commend the discussion below, in which someone (and a committed cessationist, at that!) thinks it through:

Regarding the first installment, I should tell you that grasping the point he’s making does not require clicking through to the other articles he references, although if you’re curious, knock yourself out (the link to Toby Sumpter’s post is broken, but you can find it here). There’s a second and third follow-up post to that one. All of them are pretty brief.

I should add, as a kind of postscript to that third post, that Wilson does not grasp the important distinction between prophecy and inscripturation — the two certainly are not the same thing — but that’s a conversation for another day.


A Stupid Question

6 September 2022

Can a woman be a pastor? Back in the day when we were formulating a response to second-wave (and early third-wave) feminism, that question was the practical dividing line within the evangelical world.

It was a heady time: suburban megachurches were growing, and even though the far majority of churches were not remotely that big, most churches and pastors looked to the megachurches for leadership. We were paying a lot of attention to leadership, org charts, and such things in those days, so it was only natural to formulate the questions around the church org chart. Which genders can hold which positions? You define the duties for a particular box on the chart, define the skills and attributes that go with those duties, and then put out a call for resumes.  

So in that setting, the question everyone wanted an answer to was, “Can a woman serve as a pastor?” One group said no: men and women have complementary responsibilities in the church, and serving as the pastor is a man’s job. Another group said yes: men and women have equal responsibilities in the church. This is where our two terms (complementarianism and egalitarianism) came from – two different answers to a question about a church org chart. 

But it’s a stupid question. The office of pastor as generally practiced in the American church has no New Testament precedent whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. The right question is not “Can a woman have that job?” The right question is “Should anyone should have that job?


The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!


Crypto-Buddhist Christians

23 August 2022

I think of myself as having grown up on the slightly fundamentalist side of normie Evangelicalism, which is true as far as it goes, but I also grew up in a strongly renunciate household. My parents regularly told stories of praying fervently for some particular result, and continuing in prayer for weeks until they reached a point of surrender at which they said “Fine, Lord, I leave it in Your hands entirely. Whatever You choose to do is fine with me” — at which point, the prayers would finally be answered.

Now, those stories were true. This is a thing that God actually did. It was a running theme in both my parents’ lives, and there’s a good lesson to be had here. But the lesson I learned from those stories was seriously unbalanced.

The point — so I thought — was to extinguish my own desires as fast as possible, so that God could work in whatever way He chose. And you know what? Sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. It is entirely possible for me to want my own way so hard that I can’t (or won’t) see what God is really doing. But there’s more to it than that.

I was raised to see God as the boss, and His will as more important than my own — and that’s true, as far as it goes. I was missing the goodness of God, and the goodness of His creation. When I ask God to heal someone, I am asking for a good thing. I’m supposed to want that. When I ask God for the funds to pay a bill, or the wisdom to navigate a sticky relationship, or to save someone’s marriage, these are all good things. There may be a mismatch between God’s timing and mine, or what God wants to do may look different from the picture in my head, but that doesn’t change the goodness of the thing I’m asking for.

There’s a kind of crypto-Buddhist strain of thought that a really good Christian eradicates all desire. We’re typically very selective about where we apply this line of thinking, but in recent years it often rears its ugly head in the guise of accusations about “idolatry of marriage” and “idolatry of family.” These accusations generally come from barren couples, or single folk who object to the way the church centers and normalizes fruitful marriage and family as over against their (sometimes involuntary, but all too often chosen) lifestyle.

We wanted children and weren’t able, so I’m going to speak concretely in those terms. Anybody can turn anything into an idol, and that can be a real concern, but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. What we’re seeing here is a revolt against the way God made the world. Children are a good gift from a good God, and barrenness is an affliction. That is objectively true. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not a suggestion; it is a command, and even a cursory grasp of biology demonstrates that producing children is a major purpose — if not the purpose — of sex.

“But what if we don’t want children?” Doesn’t matter. If you cut off your own foot (rather than, say, losing your foot in an accident), you are just as lame, and lameness is still an affliction. Likewise, if the barrenness is self-inflicted, it is still an affliction. Legs are meant to have feet on them, and a penis and a vagina are meant to meet up and make babies, and designed to do so in a way that’s a lot of fun. These are objective realities that God made; they can’t be wished away by reframing them in the context of our own fallible desires.

So barrenness is like vertigo — if you have it, you ought to seek to rid yourself of it as quickly as possible, and by all lawful means. If it turns out that you can’t, you will have to find a way to live fruitfully despite the debility, but nobody needs to pretend that it’s somehow a good thing. You must submit yourself to God’s Providence, but eradicating your desires is a poor substitute for submission to your Father.

It is not only lawful, it is normal and healthy, to want the good things that God made. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of extinguishing our desires for good things. Buddhism is just wrong about this; desire is not the root of all suffering. Sin is the root of all suffering. The world is broken, and we sometimes have to make our peace with the way, in God’s Providence, that brokenness hurts us.

And so we trust God. We ask Him to end the affliction, and we keep asking, unless, as with Paul, God tells us to stop. And we don’t criticize the people who have — and love — the things that we lack. It is not idolatry to love God’s good gifts. It is idolatry to elevate our own perspective above the objective realities God made.


Not Automatic

2 August 2022

In conversation with a young female friend about how the church handles conversations on modesty, we stumbled on something interesting.

Men need female attention; women need male attention. “Need” is actually the right word here — God made us for relationship, and we actually do need each other. When a young woman’s father has not been doing his job well, and she then she hits puberty, that’s a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, she’s getting male attention she never got before. It feels like water in the desert, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out how to dress to get more of that sort of attention.

Now, normally in the church, we want to say something to her like “You don’t need to do that.” Here’s the thing: for a lot of these girls, that’s just not true.

If she’s been neglected by her father and the other men in her life, if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents and abilities, then her legitimate needs have gone unmet. She’s spent her whole life hungry for male attention. The only reason she’s getting it now is her body, and she knows it. Of course, in the abstract it’s certainly true that a young woman could get a better class of attention through musical talent, intellectual prowess, writing well, athletic achievement, and countless other ways. But the thing is, none of those things come automatically, and if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents, then not only does she lack those skills, she doesn’t know how to develop them. Meanwhile — pardon me putting it crudely — she got her hips and her boobs for free, and that’s getting her the attention she never got before.

In her experience, she does need to flaunt her body. As far as she knows, that’s all she’s got.

If we know better — and we do! — then the path forward is not to shame her for using what she’s got. Scolding that girl about her necklines is not going to get her where she needs to go. We know that she’s handcrafted in the image of God, shaped with God’s purposes in mind. Even if nobody knows what her talents are, we know they’re in there. What if we just decline to notice her neckline, look her in the eye, and focus our attention on her talents, her achievements, her growth as a human being? Maybe, if we can give her a better class of attention focused in the right direction, she’ll find she likes that attention better. We aren’t likely to succeed at getting her to give up the wrong kind of attention if we offer nothing in return.


Who’s in the Tent?

26 July 2022

In the story of Deborah, the job to be done is to defeat the Syrians. There’s a point in the story where we consider the question of who would be the best person for the job. Deborah (speaking for God) wants Barak to go out and do it; he’s the one. Barak says he’ll only go if she comes with him; she replies that she’ll do that if he wants, but the glory of the victory will not be his if he doesn’t rise to the challenge on his own. 

So Deborah goes, Israel wins the battle, and Sisera, the Syrian commander, flees the field looking for a place to hide. He comes upon the encampment of Heber the Kenite. At this point in the story, it no longer matters who the ideal person for the job would be. The only question that matters now is, “Who’s in the tent?”

There are church situations where you have the luxury of defining the attributes for the ideal candidate for whatever the job is, and then sifting through applications looking for the right mix of talents and experience for that particular slot on your org chart. That’s a thing that can happen. But far more often, we find ourselves at a decision point, and the only question that really matters is, “Who’s in the tent?”


Post-Industrial Revolution Ecclesiology

4 January 2022

One of the great tensions in the 21st-Century church is the place of business operations. The vast majority of churches – especially large churches – run as corporations. Many leaders have objected to the trend. John Piper published a book for pastors titled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Mike Breen regularly comments on how the saints of future centuries will look back in bemused wonder that anyone ever thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business. Darvin Wallis does a particularly good job of showcasing the flaws of taking our leadership lessons from the business world. But so what?

Nobody’s listening. While the occasional dissident complains, the juggernaut keeps moving. The pragmatists among us simply keep feeding the beast, tending to the needs of the business. There’s a budget, a mortgage, utilities to pay, payroll to meet every month, big events, and more. The show goes on. Nobody’s going to stop treating the church like a business without some sort of viable alternative.

There is one. A different model to steer by, and it’s been sitting in the pages of the Bible the whole time. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes the church as the household of God.

You’re probably thinking, “So what?”

The modern household has fallen so far from what it was in the first century that it barely even registers as a category. We think “household” is a synonym for “family.” It’s not.

Our modern households are pits of consumption and consumer debt that don’t really produce anything or have any particular purpose, other than as holding pens for human beings when we’re not doing something productive. Naturally, in seeking to run productive churches, we’ve looked elsewhere for a model, and – surprise, surprise – ended up looking to business, with all the problems that entails. 

The first-century household, by contrast, was a center of production. Take Peter’s household, for example. He ran a commercial fishing concern, and the whole family would be involved — from gardening to tending the little children to mending nets to preparing the fish for market, everyone would have work to do. The household produced food, raised and educated children, and interacted in the marketplace. This engine of production was what Paul had in mind when he described the church as the household of God, and we’re so far from it, we can barely even think about what that means.

So let’s quit trying to mend our ecclesiology by thought experiment, and mend it by real experiment. Let’s recover productive households, so we can learn what the church should look like. We can’t all move to the country and homestead, but we city-dwellers don’t have to live in a pit of consumption either.

A productive household has a mission. Chiefly, it gives the world functioning adults, which it brings into the world as babies and then raises and educates until they’re prepared to enter the adult world, but a productive household is also an economic entity that operates in the marketplace. A household maintains property and tends to its business interests, but a productive household has a mission beyond maximizing profits or shareholder value, a mission for which the business interests are necessary, but to which they are subordinated. It gives something to the world, and it raises children who are givers in their turn.

So let’s get about it. What does your household produce?


Can We Understand the World?

5 October 2021

Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?

See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?

But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.

Modern man has just forgotten how.

Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.

Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.

Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.

With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.

Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.

The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.

We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.

Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.


Sinning in All Directions

14 September 2021

In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”

For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?

What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.

In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.

That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.

And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.


But Is It Mine To Take?

7 September 2021

“In Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Let’s scrape off the Sunday School language for a minute and ask what that means in the real world.  A “treasure” is something well worth having.  Biblically speaking, “wisdom” is skill — it can be skill at a trade, skill at interpersonal relationships, skill at anything.  “Knowledge” is understanding of facts, but biblically it also includes understanding and intimacy with the facts — grasping how they relate to one another.  So “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” means all the skills worth having and all the things worth knowing — and all of them are hidden in Christ.  Every last one.

So what are we to do when we find a pagan claiming that these particular treasures of wisdom and knowledge right here belong to his idols?

Refuse to believe him, of course.  But does that mean that the pagan really doesn’t have treasures of wisdom and knowledge, even though he thinks he does?  That will be the case sometimes,  but often enough he’s got the real thing, courtesy of common grace, and the devil is lying to him about where it came from.  After all, the Canaanites were not living in make-believe houses and harvesting pretend grapes to make imagined wine.  They had the real thing — all gifts from the loving hand of a gracious God, which the devil was only too happy to claim for his own, with the Canaanites’ complicity.

Faced with that situation, the task of God’s people is obvious enough — take those good things back, and return them to their lawful role in service to the Creator.  The devil is not Abraham, and he may not claim territory everywhere he leaves his cloven hoofprints.  It all belongs to Yahweh, every last bit, and we will be taking it back in Yahweh’s name.  This is as true in the New Covenant as it was under the Old: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ….”  

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, and we look forward to a day when everybody knows it, and the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like water covers the sea.  This is God’s will, and while we wait to see it come to full fruition, we pray for little pieces of it to invade here and now — “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

That’s the long view, the answer in principle.  However, just because the whole thing belongs to God does not mean we are fit to take it all back right this minute.  Abraham’s family wasn’t ready to inhabit the land during Abraham’s lifetime — hence the centuries-long delay.  Even at Kadesh Barnea, Israel wasn’t ready.  Still filled with fear, they believed the ten spies instead of Joshua and Caleb.  God told them that He would respect their wishes and give the land to their children instead, and then, predictably, they decided they would try to take it after all.  God warned them that He would not go with them, not now, but they tried anyway, and a bunch of them died in the attempt. 

When they finally went in with Joshua, even then God told them that He would drive out the peoples of the land gradually before them, lest the land be overgrown and overrun with wild beasts.  The conquest has its cataclysmic moments like the destruction of Jericho, but it is a process, and the process was always meant to be directed by divine guidance.  It’s God’s territory, and we have to retake it on His timetable, in His way.  

The question is not simply, “Is this God’s?”  The question is, “Is God giving this to me?”  “Is it mine to take?”

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. We all encounter enemy strongholds — in our own lives, in our communities, in the world we live in.  Where are some of the enemy strongholds that you encounter?
  2. God gives us His armor because He means for us to be active in warfare.  Is there a stronghold that God wants you to assault?  
  3. If God gives you a target, don’t assume He wants you to go charging up that hill immediately.  Ask how God wants you to go about it.