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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Reasons to Rejoice

23 July 2019

Had occasion to share a word with Faith Community Church in Littleton a couple weeks ago, on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3.


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.

 

 

 

 


Past its Shelf Life

2 July 2019

The other day I encountered a gent who claimed, baldly and without qualification, that his preferred theological system is true. My initial response was that he might as well claim his theological system is purple. In other word, it’s a category error; theological systems can’t be true, any more than Calvinism can be mauve.

Upon reflection, that’s not quite fair; it is possible in principle for a comprehensive theological system to contain only true propositions, rightly arranged with respect to one another. But if such a system exists, it exists only in the mind of God Himself; certainly it was never inscripturated, and what human being could claim to have discovered it for himself?

So as a practical matter, no theological system is true. All of them are wrong in various places, and so all of them are at best approximations of the truth. In the same way that all the analogies for the Trinity turn into heresy, if pressed far enough, all theological systems eventually diverge from spiritual reality. As the system develops, various speculations and distortions creep in, and those inevitable distortions take on a life of their own.

I suggest that throughout Church history, the actual function of a theological system is to be a delivery vehicle for a few key truths. That’s the actual, lasting impact. Of necessity, the system will do a lot of speculating beyond that basic payload. If the people teaching the system are actually living the truths they preach, the thing will take longer to go to seed, but at some point, the system will outlive its usefulness. At that point, it’s time to collect the basic payload of the system–the core truths that the rest of the system was really just a delivery vehicle for–and run.

So it is that there are a lot of folks who believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but aren’t Reformed; who believe in the possibility of real relationship with God, but aren’t Palamite; who believe in the value of an all-embracing Christian worldview, but aren’t Reconstructionist. This dynamic isn’t actually all that uncommon.

And so I want to make a proposal about dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism was an important development in the history of doctrine that reminded the Church of some crucial things it had forgotten (e.g. the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of prophecy, the distinction between Israel and the Church). That said, like all theological systems, it has a shelf life. Outside the Bible Church/DTS tradition, it’s already dead; within that tradition, the term is so broad that it’s virtually meaningless without attaching additional adjectives (progressive, classical, Pauline, etc.) That is a sign that we’ve entered the post-paradigm period for sure.

So it’s time to disentangle the payload from the delivery vehicle. Not everyone who believes in the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of biblical prophecy, or a distinction between Israel and the Church is a dispensationalist.

They don’t have to be.


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.