Friday, September 30, 2011

Ask RC: Since God doesn’t change, why does His law change?

His law doesn’t change. The application of it does. Theologians wisely distinguish between natural law and positive law. This distinction, however, must be distinguished from natural law and revealed law. The latter distinction separates what we learn about God’s law from the created order, and what we learn from His Word. The former, however, distinguishes between the underlying, unchangeable principles, inherent in the nature of things, and the specific purposes of a particular law.

The most common example is the Old Testament requirement that one build a fence around one’s roof. Do we still have the requirement? Is the American church under a cloud of judgment for not obeying this law? By no means This is positive law. The natural law is broader- do not put your guests or visitors in danger. In Old Testament Israel the roofs of homes were places for social gatherings. In America that is generally not the case. The consistent law, the principle underlying the specific, the natural law may have as its application here, put a fence around your swimming pool so no one accidentally falls in a drowns. We still are required to pursue the safety of those on our property.

The ceremonial laws are much the same. God told the children of Israel to sacrifice lambs on Passover, so that they would remember God’s deliverance and look to the coming of the Lamb of God. When that Lamb came, the call to remember abides; the natural law does not change. The positive law now changes, such that we remember the once for all coming of the Lamb and His deliverance of us through the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Table.

Under the same heading, the kosher laws follow the same pattern. The positive law said, “Don’t eat the pork.” The natural law said, “Be a set apart and distinct people for Me.” In the new covenant the positive law finds its expression not in our diet, but in our love one for another. The borders of our commonwealth are determined by the faith once delivered, not a blood line that traces back to Abraham. We are still called to be a set apart people, but what sets us apart is what makes us a people, our dependence on the finished work of Christ.

The distinction between positive and natural law, of course, is not always easy to make. We are not free to simply dismiss the outward at will. Consider Nadad and Abihu who apparently thought positive law was this kind of fire and natural law was just fire. Things did not go well for them. One way we can know the difference, however, is when the Bible itself calls for the change. Jesus said the bread was His body broken, the wine the cup of the New Covenant. Jesus told Peter to eat the pork. This is the same Jesus who told us that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the law. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. His natural law reflects not only the nature of things, but His own unchanging nature. Circumstances may change. Our Lord does not. Neither then does our obligation to obey whatsoever He commands.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Fool Load

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine.

Tell you a little story and it won’t take long
About a lazy farmer who wouldn’t hoe his corn.
The reason why I never could tell
For that young man was always well.

He planted his corn in the month of June
By July it was up to his eyes
Come September came a big frost
All that young man’s corn was lost.

Everybody’s busy. Or so everybody would have us believe. We parade our crowded daytimers as evidence of our own significance. We not only schedule every moment of our day, but, in case someone interrupts our plans, we have phones that take more than one call at a time. Even when we relax we have picture-in-picture, so we can watch two shows at once. I don’t know whether it was Locke or Berkeley, but one of them suggested, esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. In our day we begin with esse est esse on TV, to be is to be on TV. But for those who can’t reach such Olympian heights, to be perceived as busy is to be perceived as being important.

Busy, like wealth, however, is a relative term. My old friend Eddy used to marvel that I took a full load at seminary, while working a full time job. What he didn’t realize was that I had studied rather much of what was covered in seminary when I wasn’t busy, before seminary, as a teenager. Nor did he understand that once I took, “Lounge around the pool reading People magazine” out of my schedule, I had plenty of time. We feel poor because we fail to be grateful for what we have. And we feel busy because we fail to be grateful for what we’re able to do. We lounge in our hot showers feeling cheated because we can’t eat at the nicer restaurants in town, and we lounge in that same hot shower thinking about how busy we are.

Our longing for wealth and busy-ness shares a common root. We long to feel important. As one wise man put it, we hunger for significance. The problem is, we measure such things with the wrong tools. If I spend the rest of my life writing best-selling books, and speaking to tens of thousands of people at conferences, such an impact, though perhaps real, will not equal the impact I have now in raising my children. The impact will not match the impact you have in raising your children. (And again, remember that such is true not because if you raise your children right then they will go forth and write best-sellers or pastor mega-churches, or take back the Ivy League schools. but because they in turn will raise godly seed.) The trouble is, while Americans have Oscar parties, while they gather together to watch the Super Bowl, while they chart the progress to the Final Four, no one pays much attention when we raise our children well. There are no award shows complete with red carpets for raising godly seed. Nope, all we get is a throne in heaven and gold paved streets.

We suffer from the folly of Lot. He had received God’s richest blessing, and then got confused over what that blessing was. By living in close proximity to Abraham, Lot drank deeply from the collateral benefits that came his way. His flocks prospered. He had an increasing number of servants to tend those flocks. But those servants found themselves at odds with Abram’s servants, and Lot chose the lot next to the heathen. He thought the wealth came from him. He thought the combination of his shrewd business sense, his eye for fine grazing land, and his hard work was the source of his prosperity. He, no doubt, mentally shook his head at his uncle’s failure to negotiate wisely when Abraham offered Lot the pick of the land. Proudly then he surveyed all that was before him, and chose the green place, conveniently overlooking the rainbow triangle flag flying over the adjacent town. He noticed, no doubt, the lovely window treatments on the homes, but apparently didn’t notice that Sodom’s birthrate was 0%.

I’m not denying, especially in this issue on laziness and diligence, that God works through means. Rather I want to affirm that while God was the source of Lot’s prosperity, the means He worked through wasn’t Lot’s hard work. Instead it was the character of his uncle. But more important still, it was the very wisdom of his uncle that was the wealth. What made Lot a rich man wasn’t flocks and herds, nor South Beach property, but that his uncle was a man of wisdom and character. What made Lot a poor fool wasn’t that he failed to tend his flocks, but that he failed to tend his soul.

Here too we have to see the connection between first and second causes, between means and ends. What we call laziness, and aversion to working, a reluctance to hoe corn, is not the root of the problem but the fruit of the problem. It’s a noxious weed that grows in the garden of those who will not cultivate the fruit of the spirit. In short, let me say it in both gnostic and agrarian terms- the measure of the man is found not in the size of his silos, but in the yield of his heart. And the fruit of that fruit isn’t barns filled to overflowing, but barns filled to overflowing. That is, a godly man manifests his godliness in raising godly seed.

Here is a great paradox- Jesus taught in paradox, He twisted words that we might see reality, not because we are twisted, but because reality is. Lose your life to gain, be last to be first, die that you might live isn’t a literary technique, but the substance of reality. Which is why we here argue that we conquer by retreat, that we save the watching world by turning our attention, paradoxically, on ourselves.

C.S. Lewis got at this point (actually, I think, in one place or another, he alluded to virtually every point there is to make) in The Screwtape Letters. There Screwtape encouraged Wormwood to encourage his charge to think in grand categories, and to fail to think in the small. A man who can taste the heady draught of a “love for humanity” but can’t force himself to love his neighbor in the pew has already lost the battle. Cultivating a love for humanity, however, is like growing plastic fruit. One need not worry about root rot or bugs, and one can display the “fruit” of one’s labors, but the real deal isn’t there. But Lewis missed an even bigger point. It isn’t enough for the wise man to move his gaze from the amorphous humanity to the neighbor in the pew. If he would do better still, he must turn his gaze inward. What he should be looking to, if he would love both his pew neighbor, and the body of Christ around the globe, is his own soul. The only way to be outward looking, in other words, is to look inward.

Of course there is a deadly and deadening navel gazing. Analysis paralysis is not what I’m calling for. It wouldn’t have done the lazy farmer any good had he, instead of frequenting the parties in the surrounding culture, instead stood in the midst of his growing corn just to look at it. No, we look to ourselves that we might be at work in ourselves. We look inward because what the world needs now isn’t simply one less sinner, but one less sin. The kingdom grows not through, but as we put to death the old man, as we put on Christ.

But there is still another layer of paradox, because, paradoxically, not only does Jesus work through paradox, but so must the devil. We lose our lives when we seek to save them; we become last when we seek to be first. In like manner, the devil is about the business of lulling us to sleep, or encouraging our spiritual sloth. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands, and we are as unconscious as the foolish virgins. The rest he seduces us with, however, is nothing but slave labor. When we are not diligent about the business of bearing much fruit, we are instead busy either making excuses, or pushing rocks up Sisyphusian hills. Changing the world is chasing after the wind. Changing ourselves, in and through the means of grace appointed, is running the race. The devil, who is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field, seduces us into waiting for that beast in the jungle, that one glorious moment of opportunity, where we will usher in the kingdom with our devastating argument, our best-selling book, our cinematic triumph, our Christian president. Meanwhile, the beast is at work in our hearts, where the real battle is, where he turns our gardens into jungles.

You see it in the earnest youth who asks, “What is God’s will for my life?” I’ve been asked this question as if I’m the recruiter down at the Lord’s army. My questioner wants to know will he have the Ranger style glamour of overseas missions in a hostile land? Will he be drafted to be a culture maker, through music, or through growing a para-church ministry for deep pocketed businessmen, I mean, people of influence? Will he be called to be a prestigious professor at the war college, training up future pastors? The answer is surprisingly simple. What is God’s will for your life? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. You don’t have to go to seminary to do that. You don’t have, strangely enough, get to wail on a guitar in front of thousands of adoring fans. You don’t have to wear a power tie and listen to increasing your vocabulary tapes to reach the powerful. All you have to do is…work.

The battle for the kingdom is not some grand version of capture the flag. Jesus doesn’t call us to some colossal game of king of the hill wherein we join the hordes out there trying to climb the mountain to wield the levers of culture. What separates us from the world isn’t simply that we are better at operating the levers, but that we understand that the only way to get the levers is to stop clamoring for them, that the only way to change the world is to change ourselves. That culture making power comes through private prayer, and the foolishness of preaching. We are separate in that the weapons of our warfare aren’t rocket launchers and WMD’s, but one simple stumbling block, the cross of Jesus Christ. What will tear down the gates of hell will not be a frontal assault with a battering ram, but the slow and steady work of fruit producing branches from the one true vine. We don’t, after all, separate because we don’t care about the world, but because we do.

Here is something simple, something separate that we can all do- let us be deliberate in seeking the fruit of the Spirit. Should we not, each morning when we wake, recognize that our calling for that day is to grow in grace, to, to use an inorganic idiom, become more sanctified? There is no program. There is no study guide. There is none of these things, on purpose, deliberately. All there is is “Abide in Me.” Before we dicker over what this means for the objectivity of the covenant, before we wrestle with or against the angels over perseverance of the saints, let’s remember what we know- we are to bear fruit. The answer to “Abide” is found in “Me.”

For therein is His glory. A certain farmer when out to sow. But this farmer scattered no seed on the rocky ground. This farmer, the one whom Mary “mistook” for the gardener, has promised that having begun a good work in us, He will complete it until the end. The great thing about the call to cultivate fruit is that we are the fruit that He is cultivating. The great thing about the call to working out our own salvation in fear and in trembling is that it is He that is working in us both to will and to do His good pleasure. As we work in all diligence, we rest in the arms of Jesus. And one day, all His bundles will bow, in joy, before Him.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Compromising Positions

It is surely possible for different people to share the same goals, but to employ different strategies. What I am increasingly seeing, however, is how easy it is for strategies and goals to meld together. We all want, I trust, to grow in grace and wisdom, to bear the fruit of the Spirit. We can all agree also, I trust, that careful study of theology can be used as a means to that end, a strategy if you will. What if, however, the strategy and the goal get so entwined that we end up measuring our spiritual maturity not by the standard of godliness, but by the standard of our libraries?

I first noticed this shift in the pro-life movement. Everyone, presumably, wants the babies to be protected. Along the way some have adopted what might be called an incrementalist strategy- we work on stopping the most heinous abortions, and eventually move on to the “exceptions.” For a time that meant pro-lifers were encouraged to support both legislation and candidates that allowed for these exceptions. What totally flummoxed me, however, was in 2000, when the National Right to Life Committee not only encouraged us to vote for George W. Bush, but bestowed on him the title “Pro-Life.” This for a man who expressly, straightforwardly affirmed his conviction that the federal government ought to protect the “right” of doctors and mothers to murder babies conceived in the process of rape or incest. This is the “pro-life” candidate that evangelicals and pro-lifers voted for in droves.

More recently we have seen whole swaths of the “pro-life” movement embracing and laboring for informed consent laws, waiting periods, and clinic regulations- all bits of legislation that conclude, after every hurdle has been jumped- “and then you can kill the baby.” After nearly forty years of this “strategy” we have sunk to crafting, lobbying for and electing officials in support of legislation on how, when and where babies can be murdered. We have confused our strategy and our goal.

All of which tells us how important goals are, and how dangerous strategies can be. My goal with respect to me is that I would become a more godly man, that I would more faithfully obey the law and more joyfully embrace the grace of God. On the life issue the goal isn’t to limit the availability of abortions, nor reduce the number of circumstances in which they might take place. The goal isn’t even that the sanctity of life would be more widely recognized, nor that more babies would be saved. The goal is that God would be honored, in the faithfulness of His people, and in the protecting of His image bearers. Life is not sacred. God is sacred.

There are, happily, a growing number of pro-lifers who understand this principle. My friend Daniel Becker, of the Georgia State Right-To-Life ( gets it. The American Right to Life group in Colorado,, understands it. And God is blessing their faithful efforts. They have learned what Joshua learned outside the walls of Jericho- we don’t seek to enlist God on our side. Instead we seek to serve Him, the Captain of the Lord’s Hosts. Our calling is to fidelity. He will bring the victory. May we go forth into this battle, as with every battle, not following our strategies, but following the Ark of the Covenant- His law, His grace, His presence. And the walls will come tumbling down.

Friday, September 23, 2011

“There’s Someone Wrong on the Internet”

There have always been men who thought Jesus was coming back on a particular day. There have always been men who believed it quite okay to divorce a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s. There have always been pastors who believe that abortion is an option for moms of conjoined twins. There have always been men who believe hell is virtually empty. There have always been men who believe that women should only teach other women about how to love their husbands to be keepers at home. The difference now is that these wrong ideas at least have the potential to reach a world-wide audience. The difference is that the world can then mull over, chew on, and write about the bad ideas others have brought to the watching world.

Like everyone else when Pat Robertson’s abysmal and unbiblical counsel to a husband whose wife suffered from Alzheimer’s hit the news I felt the temptation to jump in. There was blood in the water, and I was just fool enough to confuse my shark instincts with a passion to defend the holiness of marriage. I managed to just take a nibble, confining my comments to a single tweet. I managed to steer clear of Chuck Smith’s abysmal and unbiblical counsel to the young mom carrying conjoined twins. Harold Camping faced my pen, though in a more meta way as I sought to make a subtle point about the difference between false prophecy and bad exegesis. Rob Bell likewise provoked my pen.

That guy who once wrote that women shouldn’t be teaching each other theology, well, that was me. Happily I did respond to that abysmal and unbiblical advice that I gave, confessing (eventually) that I had been wrong. My confession of my error, however, had about one tenth the reach of my mistake. “I was wrong” pieces just don’t have all the appeal of actually being train-wreck wrong.

I suspect that we respond to these blunders less because we are so passionate about defending the future return of Christ, the sanctity of marriage, the sacredness of life, the reality of hell, the liberty of ladies to encourage one another with the whole of the Bible, and more because it is an occasion to make ourselves look better. “Look at what that idiot said. I’m so much smarter, bolder, more faithful, more humble than him.” When the world wide web was first invented it wasn’t called the web, nor the internet, Rather the demons in research and development below labeled it “The Narcissism Machine.” If we are going to succeed in redeeming it, in plundering the Egyptians, we need to understand its nature. It wasn’t invented to propagate the errors of Robertson, Smith, Camping, Bell and Sproul Jr. It was invented to tickle and titillate the egos of everyone logging on. Pornography exists to tell us how desirable we are, beautiful women just throwing themselves at us. Facebook and Twitter exist to tell us how much we are “liked.” And blogs, complete with sundry analytics, tell us how smart and influential we are.

Blistering posts about the other guy will not win this war. Sound theology and its defense will not win this war. It will take stronger stuff… like humility.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ethics on the Dais

The Conference circuit is a rather odd duck. It includes events sponsored by para-church organizations, and events sponsored by churches. It includes speakers who work for para-church organizations, and speakers who serve as pastors. And speakers who are both. The talks that are given typically have some connection to the Bible, but typically are not sermons.

The circuit, perhaps because it is an odd duck, is also fraught with danger. We communicate something before we even open our mouths, just by being there. And when we are in the audience we tend to hear things before anything is even said. John Piper, for instance, is widely respected in the evangelical conference world. Those who are less enamored of him, at least of late, are likely to be most unhappy because of some of his recent choices in whom he invites to his conferences. After inviting Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren one almost gets the sense that there is at Desiring God an Endowed Chair of Lightning Rod Invitees.

Should we conclude that Piper, if not agreeing with everything ever spoken by these three men at least isn’t terribly concerned about it? Whatever we conclude, would we conclude something different about the other men who were invited to Desiring God, and accepted? Is Sinclair Ferguson somehow guilty of Mark Driscoll? And if so, what are we to conclude about those who weren’t even there, but invite Piper to their own conference, or invite Sinclair Ferguson?

The truth of the matter is that inviting someone to speak, is at least some measure of an endorsement., but how much so? Accepting an invitation to speak is a smaller measure, but how much so? Sharing a platform may be no endorsement at all. We get into trouble when we try to create canon law, to act like the church in exercising the keys, complete with fitting punishments, out of such a stew. We try to impose the para-church equivalent of excommunication, and then impose smaller sanctions on those unwilling to honor our judgment.

It only gets worse when you begin to recognize the existence of teams out there. One could argue that the whole of the Reformed world not only parallels college football, but parallels the whole conference/bowl game issues that are so much in the news. Is The Gospel Coalition the SEC, and Reformation 21 the PAC12? Is T4G the Big 12 and just how long are those sanctions going to last anyway? And what do we do with these upstarts that, like Boise State and Utah want to come play with the big boys? Do we lower our standards to get this young recruit in, who is sure to draw a whole better demographic? We have seats to fill after all, and donor/boosters to keep happy.

Conferences make for lousy politics, though they can work quite well as conferences. That is, much of the confusion dissipates when we remember and act on the simple things- why not try to serve your constituency by bringing them teachers who might help them grow in grace? And why not choose the conference you’ll attend not by the fame of the speakers, not by how many fan-boys they might have, but by who might help you grow in grace and wisdom? And why not let go of the incessant need to judge this one because he invited that one who in the past shared a dais with that other one? The simplest solution is this, having our Bible conferences be about the Bible. It, I’ve been told, is quite powerful.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Feedback Machine

Within the next month my hope and prayer is to finish my new book, The Call to Wonder. When I have finished it will go through an editorial process such that six or more months later people will actually be able to buy the book. There may be at that time some reviews. I may receive some emails from readers. The whole process, from when work began on the book to getting a response will be more than a year.

Within the next week my hope and my prayer is to write my monthly column for Tabletalk magazine. It too will go through an editorial process, and this time, within a few months it will be in readers’ hands. Then too I might receive some emails from readers. The whole process from when the work began to getting a response will be a few months.

Within the next hour my hope and my prayer is to write another Kingdom Note, to be sent out via the internet to supporters of Highlands Ministries and other interested parties. It will go through an editorial process, and within hours will be in readers’ hands. Then I might receive some comments, and perhaps a few “likes.” The whole process from when the work began to getting a response will be a few hours.

All of which ought to tell us something. I suspect there might be a sliding scale, an inverse ration between how quickly we get to press, how quickly we get response, and the amount of impact we have. Blogs or Facebook posts change our moments, while books can change our lives. I suspect magazine articles are somewhere in between.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all our energy ought to be devoted to writing, and reading books. It might mean, however, that our priorities are slightly askew. It might mean that the surreal world of the internet has at the same time distorted our vision and exaggerated its power. It may mean that our big reach means we are having small talk. I read recently (at blogger, author and pastor Tim Challie’s widely read blog) that the typical post on the internet has a shelf life of 2.8 hours before it is likely to be drowned out by all the internet noise (that is, when everyone else’s 2.8 hours begin). A monthly magazine, at least one with daily Bible studies, has a shelf life of roughly a month. A book has a shelf life measured in years.

All of us want to make a difference for the kingdom. And all of us, not just pastors of churches, are tempted to measure that difference by counting noses. The ease of such accounting is likewise in inverse proportion to its usefulness. We should not be counting noses, but courting hearts. We should be hoping and praying that God would use us to change fewer lives more, rather than more lives hardly at all. That, it seems to me, comes not with blogs, not even with books, but with shepherding the flock, whether in the church, or in the home.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine.
Roll, Lazy River
by RC Sproul Jr.

The experts tell us it’s all about the parking lot, whether for parking cars or keisters. Once it’s not easy to find a spot for the old clunker, people will pass on by to a more spatially congenial place to worship. And we wouldn’t that to happen. So begins the building program, or should I say, so begins VISION 2020!!!! Or should I say, so begins the vicious cycle. You need to build to get more people, and you need more people to afford the new building. You figure you can serve both, that you will untie the Gordian knot with programs. If you build them, they will come.

The drive to add more programs, however, is birthed by the same spirit that births the new parking lot, and the new sanctuary. Both feed the insatiable appetites, both bow before the great god Pander. Trying to lighten the load of the cross, trying to broaden the way simply invites more fellow travelers who are on the road to destruction. Like too many of the companions of Pilgrim, these only distract and mislead. And as with Pilgrim, they drag the rest of us down with them.

Sloth is what drives us, or, perhaps we should say, doesn’t drive us. Though we were made for dominion, since the fall we have been a lazy bundle of inertia and entropy. That is, our default position is to be still, because we don’t care that He is God. We who have been born of water behave like water, always seeking the path of least resistance. And the tide of the church growth movement just keeps pushing us along.

Our laziness begins with our imaginations, as we simply assume, because it’s easiest, that things are as they always have been. The program laden template has already been provided for us, not by the church fathers (we don’t know what they thought because the blamed fools wrote in big words) but by the generation before us. Our parents gave us Sunday School, and so we obviously must give it to our children. But we haven’t even enough curiosity to ask why. The story is told of the young husband who delights as he watches his new bride prepare the Christmas ham for the first time. Just before she puts the porcine appendage in the oven, she cuts a three inch thick slice off one end. “Why do you do that?” he gallantly asks his beloved. She sports a puzzled look, and, confident in her husband’s love, admits she doesn’t know. “I’ll call my mother and ask. She does it every time too.” Alas, her mother is as puzzled by the family habit as she is, and so the bride calls her maternal grandmother. “Grandma, momma says she always cuts a big hunk off the ham before cooking it because she always saw you do it. But she doesn’t know why. Why did you?” “Oh, honey, that’s easy. I had to cut off that slice every time because the hams were always too big for our little oven.”

There was a reasonably commendable explanation for Sunday Schools, the grandmother of all church programs, when they first started. They were designed not to teach the faith to the children of the covenant, but as an outreach to the lost and undereducated. Sunday Schools began as combination of mercy ministry and evangelism. It wasn’t intended for us. These well-meaning folks didn’t listen to the regulative police, and now we have youth leaders with purple hair eating worms for the kingdom. Worse, our fathers have become as weak and shiftless as the fathers of those little urchins of a century ago. It is a hard thing to watch as fathers fail their children. But it is a hard lesson to learn that when we do their job for them, they will only fail all the more.

Of course there are degrees here. There is a laziness that just lets people, including our children, to flounder for themselves. Some presume upon the covenant grace of God, and hand their children to the devil, to lighten their load while they pursue personal peace and affluence. That many churches are dissatisfied with this is to be commended. But again the lazy imagination takes over. No one stops to think how it might work if we, instead of rescuing the children with another program, we would rescue the fathers with church discipline. And so we resave each family, one generation at a time.

It’s hard work teaching grown ups. They argue, and you can’t cancel their television privileges if they don’t do their homework. It’s hard work being a student, as a grownup. After all, you’re so busy driving the kids to youth group. Recently a pastor asked if I had any suggestions for teaching children the basics of the faith. “Yes,” I suggested, “have you considered the parents?” “Oh,’ my embarrassed pastor friend explained, “but they don’t really know anything either.” “That then,” I suggested, “is something we shall have to remedy.”

The problem is even broader than our children. Men who are too morally lazy to be open with their wives, are given instead accountability groups, something they can put down in their Daytimers. Women likewise who aren’t being taught by their husbands, get together with their peers and pool their ignorance. In the meantime, the pastor’s role is to manage all this activity, to direct the sheep to the right room in the education wing, rather than to actually shepherd them. I don’t doubt that some of them, if they don’t know better, are at least uneasy with this status quo. But it’s hard work to swim against the stream, and not good for the bottom line.

Programs are the death of the local church, for they all are gimmicks to make the work of the ministry easier. Why actually talk to your neighbors, when you can get them in the church with a living nativity, or a mailing/phone/billboard campaign that lets everyone in town know they’re welcome to come in their flip flops. Or better yet, maybe moving pictures of Jesus picking up His cross will mean we won’t have to pick up ours. May God grant us the grace to do the work HE has given us to do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ask RC: Is it wrong to live as comfortably as we do?

"Is it wrong to live as comfortably as we do, while people are starving in other parts of the world?"

It is most certainly wrong to not at least ask the question. It should at least jar us a bit. We ought at least to check our hearts when we see starving children in Africa on our 60 inch televisions. Then, however, we need to set aside the emotional response, and see what the Bible has to say.

First, the Bible says quite a bit about our obligation to, at least among the brethren, feed and serve those in need. Matthew 25 reminds us that our failure to feed the hungry and clothe the naked is a failure to serve our Lord. Calloused hearts have no place in the Christian life. Neither, however, does guilt manipulation. Neither does adding to God’s law. God has given us instruction in the formation of the nation of Israel as to how the poor and needy need to be helped. Poor tithes are established. Gleaning laws are established. Jubilee is established. What is not established, however, is either the wrongheaded notion that the poverty of one person is the result of the prosperity of another, or the backwards idea that to live beyond some arbitrary level of comfort is a sin against God and man.

When God established His design for caring for the poor of Israel note first that He did not establish a progressive tithing system. While certainly the more prosperous were to give more than the less the prosperous, they were not called to give a higher percentage of the wealth God had entrusted to their care. They were called instead to enjoy the blessing of God with clean consciences.

This does not mean, of course, that one might not, whatever one’s level of prosperity, give more than God requires. What it does mean, however, is that no man, through guilt, and no state, through force, is free to require a man to give more than God requires. One famous evangelical asked years ago if Jesus were on earth today would He drive a BMW. He thought not, and I tend to agree. He thought such would be too ostentatious for Jesus. I think He might prefer a Mercedes.

One need not feel guilty for what God has given you, save for two reasons. First, if your gain is ill-gotten, by all means feel guilty. If your prosperity is the fruit of stealing from others, lying to others, repent. Second, if your prosperity was earned through serving others in the marketplace there yet remains one thing- you need to give thanks to the Master who owns all things. Our prosperity isn’t our due, but God’s good grace. He is not pleased if we take it for granted, nor if we look down our noses at it.

Do not judge your brother if he obeys God’s law, no matter how God has chosen to bless him. Do not be ashamed, if you are obeying God’s law and God is blessing you. Do not close your heart against those in need. Instead give freely, and be certain to give thanks.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

La-La-La I Can’t Hear You

My friend, Doug Phillips, has written a brief, careful and respectful blog post on a rather emotional issue, government education. You can read it here: My goal here is neither to repeat his wisdom, nor to defend it, but rather to consider my own sins. This issue is, of course, a rather emotional one. It involves any number of significant life decisions, touching on family income, wives working, family size, home location, etc. This is not a decision that can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of our lives. Most important of all it touches on the immortal souls of those whom we love most dearly, our children.

I, in seeking to persuade others on this issue, often feel as though I am talking to a brick wall. I feel like, no matter how gentle I might be, no matter how logical my arguments might be, I just can’t be heard. No matter how tactfully I might approach the subject, some parents simply hear judgment, and turn off their ears.

Which today has me wondering, on what issues am I like this? Over what issues are others warned, “You can’t talk to him about that, he won’t hear you.”? Or what ideological peer group am I a part of where our whole group is guilty- “You can’t talk to those people about that.”? I’m certain there are many things I am wrong about. The Bible makes that abundantly clear. But one hopes that the Holy Spirit is sufficiently at work on many of my errors that the path is paved for correction to come along. Where, though, have I set up blustery, emotional roadblocks?

And what can I do about it? I’m sure this brief piece will elicit a few suggestions from friends who have tried to get through to me in the past. But I don’t need to hear the same arguments I have refused to hear before again. What I need is a way to learn my deaf-spots. Only when my hearing is cured, or rather, only when I take my fingers out of my ears, is it time for the actual arguments.

I suspect there is likely only one cure--faithful friends. I remember a disagreement I had with my friend Doug Phillips. We were both invited in to deal with a tangled pastoral mess. I gave my counsel to those most intimately involved. Two days later Doug called me. He spent twenty minutes needlessly reminding me of our friendship, needless because if ever there was a man who is for me, it is Doug Phillips. Then he spent twenty minutes explaining how I had been wrong in my counsel. The last eighteen minutes were overkill. Because my ears were opened, it became rather easy to see my error.

My counsel today then is both to be a friend, and to heed the wisdom of your friends. Before you do, however, be careful to understand what a friend is. A friend, remember, is someone who loves you enough not only to tell you you are wrong, but loves you enough so that you can hear it.

Ladies In Waiting?

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine
by Denise Sproul

Mothers and daughters today are under assault. They are told by the world that their future lies in getting a job and “making a difference.” There are battles out there, social ills that need to be remedied, and we all need to do our part. They are often told a similar tale in the church and given a similar charge: the exercise of dominion, the building of the kingdom is found in getting power jobs (well, they don’t often use the phrase ‘building the kingdom’ when giving this advice). It doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference if you’re a man or a woman – the advice is the same. It is a good and proper thing that we should defend and delight in the calling to be a wife and mother. This is fighting wisely, and it is most definitely Scriptural. But there is a danger in this approach as well.

We have often been, I’m afraid , teaching our daughters that life begins when they marry. Too often, for instance, our attempt at avoiding the emotional train wreck of dating leads to the emotional train wreck of courtship. That is, we allow or even encourage our daughters to get all giddy-eyed and light-headed because they’re in the safety of courtship and aren’t spending time alone with a young man out on dates. And they get to jump from having no ties to being engaged, and isn’t that exciting and romantic? This, by the way, is not meant to be a denunciation of the whole idea of courtship. There is a proper and healthy way to do it. It does mean, however, that we need to understand that life doesn’t begin for us or our daughters when they marry. Our daughters are not made to be Ladies in Waiting, but Ladies at Work.

Our daughters need to be taught now that they are now working to make manifest the reign of Christ, that they are now exercising dominion; that they are now under authority. This is the same for all believers, no matter what our ages, social standing, marital status or gifts. And what a blessing God has given in that there is a confluence of their work now and their work then. That is, they are actually at work as they are training to be wives and mothers. And they also learn the virtue of hard work. If they are being trained properly and are doing their work with all diligence, they know that it’s rigorous work now and then. It won’t come as a surprise to them later that they need to be prayerful, diligent, good planners, able to multi-task, and keep the best interests of their loved ones at the forefront of their minds.

But their comfort should not be that they are in training (which will make them all the more impatient for ‘someday’ – sigh) but that they are building the kingdom. They are not just storing up recipes in their recipe boxes to someday prepare for their princes, they are helping their own mother with the meal planning and cooking and are bringing a meal to a sick family at church. That’s building the kingdom now and not succumbing to the sin of thinking, “Someday when I have someone special to call my own, then my life will begin.”

Let me say that marrying my prince at 26, a month shy of 27, I can understand that temptation to despair and think one is just waiting for the day the God will answer her prayers and bring her a man. I know it is not easy to wait when you have not yet been given the desire of your heart. Nonetheless, that does not mean we are free to give in to that despondency and think there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s lots we can do: pray, read what God’s Word says about what we should all be doing now –and then set about doing it.

Practically speaking, as our daughters get older, they should take on more and more responsibility and be more and more productive. As mothers, we should, under our husbands’ guidance and authority, be purposefully planning and training for this increasing responsibility and productivity. Your eleven year old is not just going to wake up one morning knowing how to change the baby and feed him his breakfast. Your fourteen year old is not going to plan a week’s worth of suppers and figure out the groceries needed without you putting some effort into teaching her how to do that. And your sixteen year old is not going to diligently seek to be aware of prayer requests of those in the church and other loved ones and be faithfully praying for them if you haven’t modeled and taught her how to do that. We all have areas where we need to be more diligent with our children. The challenge is not getting slack and just coasting, but prayerfully considering what God would have you working on with each child.

Even now we have several young ladies in our own community who have been an enormous help to families such as ours. They are regularly involved in helping numerous families with various things, from cooking and cleaning to math tutoring and knitting instruction. They are busy now with their own families and others’, lending a hand and making manifest God’s kingdom now by making ten peanut butter sandwiches at a time on homemade bread or by taking a special needs child for a walk and showing her the beauty of God’s creation right outside her door. They are helping with newly adopted triplets’ nighttime feedings and are cooking supper and doing play-doh with a three-year old so that a new mother can take a much-needed rest. That is being about the business of kingdom building now and it is also preparing them for what their own future will hopefully hold. We pray that these godly, young, kingdom-building ladies will be blessed with godly husbands. But we pray that they will see their labors now as bearing great fruit. We pray in thanksgiving that our own daughters are seeing their godly examples. And we pray that our daughters will do the same as they grow older. We want them to be eager to marry, but to rejoice in their current calling. And to labor at it with all diligence.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ask RC: Regarding leadership, sin, repentance and restoration.

"If a man in leadership falls into sin, admits it, repents and turns from it, should he ever lead again in the same role?"

All men, save Jesus, are sinners. All men, save Jesus, are called to repent and turn from their sins. And only men are called to lead in the church. As such, if we are going to have leaders, that is, elders, and deacons in the church, we had better leave room for repentant elders and deacons. The only thing worse and the only other thing possible is unrepentant elders and deacons.

That said, I suspect the question, while vague, is aiming at something a bit more particular. What do we do with a pastor who has committed adultery? What do we do with a deacon who has embezzled the church’s funds? If they repent, it would seem we are called to forgive. And doesn’t forgiveness mean we act as though it never happened?

Yes, of course we are to forgive the repentant. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are to act as though it never happened. When we forgive we do not forget as if we had amnesia, or as if there is nothing to be concerned about. Instead we forget in the sense that we no longer hold the sin against the sinner. We do not hold a grudge against them. We love the repentant. We embrace the repentant, and we seek to help not just the repentant, but those whom they have wronged. We do not require the embezzler to wear a scarlet E for the rest of his life. But we do not either leave him alone to count the offering. We would be poor stewards of his soul and the kingdom’s funds were we to leave him to his temptation.

Consider how God’s law deals with adultery and divorce. Were I unfaithful to my wife, and were I to repent for such a sin, she would have an obligation to forgive me. She would not, however, have an obligation to stay married to me. Adultery is biblical grounds for a divorce precisely because it is such a betrayal of a trust that future trust is hard to come by. The victim is to forgive. The adulterer is forgiven, But the divorce can still happen, and is still laid at the feet of the adulterer. He is the one who broke the covenant. The victim is free to acknowledge that reality by seeking the legal divorce.

One could argue, and indeed some have, that a pastor who is guilty of infidelity is to be forgiven, but as with marriage itself, has so betrayed the trust inherent in his office that it would preclude his future service as a minister of the gospel. Others, perhaps pointing to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, and Jesus’ admonition after his repentance that he strengthen the brethren, that a pastor in such a circumstance is oddly even more empowered to serve as a minister of the gospel, having experienced its power so immediately. The danger is, in both positions, papering over our emotional response with pious words. That is, too often the pastor is put out not because it is the right thing, but because of anger, because we haven’t honestly forgiven. Even more common we are fearful of how the church would fare without our pastor, and so keep him on, even cover up for him, and excuse our fear by baptizing it in “forgiveness” and “grace.” Because we are all sinners our temptation is always to do what we want to do. Because we profess Christ, we then cover our desires with rationalizations.

God is good. God can and does not only forgive us, but can and does cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9). That said, a man who has proven his willingness to betray his family is more likely than one who has remained faithful to walk into adultery again. A man who has betrayed his office sexually, is likewise more likely to do so again. My counsel would be to remove the man from office. But it is just that, counsel. I cannot claim that the Bible commands it, nor that if forbids leaving such a man in office should he repent.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ask RC: Are Multi-Site Churches a Good Idea?

Technology has an uncanny ability not only to solve sundry problems, but to raise meta-level questions about how we do things. Thirty years ago it would have been prohibitively expensive to channel video of a man preaching from one place to another, and so was on no one’s radar. A church could only accommodate growth by building bigger, and/or multiplying services. Today, however, we can grow in a more modular fashion. With relatively inexpensive video equipment we can squeeze in 200 more in the fellowship hall, and later on, another 500 on the other side of town.

Some churches have nuanced the strategy still further by creating different experiences at different sites, with a shared sermon among them. In one site the music and mood is blue like jazz. Everyone drinks fancy coffee while an earnest fellow in skinny jeans leads the service. At another site they offer Mountain Dew and Krispy Kremes, complete with southern gospel singing. When the pastor arrives, however, everyone receives the same sermon.

This is not only not a good idea, it is a profoundly bad idea. It is a mound of bad ideas built on a foundation of bad presuppositions. You can tell, because it is a profoundly American idea. Here’s a brief and partial list of the ways this is bad:

1. It cultivates and encourages the cult of personality. Any preacher who thinks the kingdom is dependent on as many people as possible hearing HIM preach is likely not a good pastor. Any Christian who thinks his spiritual growth is dependent upon hearing HIM preach has not been blessed with good preaching.
2. It cultivates and encourages a form of preaching that is anything but pastoral. The preacher is, in this context, on stage. The recipients of the preaching can’t even have eye contact with the preacher. Instead they receive the entertainment of the sermon like watching a movie, or receive the content of the sermon like a lecture. What they don’t receive is shepherding.
3. It cultivates and encourages a broader failure to watch out for the souls entrusted to the shepherds (Hebrews 13:17). The one preaching cannot pastor thousands of souls scattered all over town, or worse, all over the country. Preaching then is further separated from the shepherding of the sheep.
4. It cultivates and encourages a consumerist mentality among the sheep. A day may be coming where the local multiplex will offer us a choice of listening to this blockbuster big name preach, or down the hall that indie up and comer, or even, further down the hall, that classic dead guy digitally remastered. Already in many towns you can choose to listen to this guy from that multi-site church or some other guy from another one. And just like at the movies, when the preaching ends we file out, having merely shared space, but no love, with others in the room.
5. It cultivates and encourages a lack of dependence on the gospel itself. The power is in the Word, not the one delivering it. Our strategies are foolishly built around the messenger rather than the message.

What then is a church to do when it grows? While I have never, not surprisingly, had this problem when I served as a senior pastor, we did have this problem in the church I planted, after we called another to serve as senior pastor. Our solution to our growth was simple- we created new parishes, complete with parish pastors. We hived off geographically, so that we would worship with our neighbors.

That church now has three parishes, and three pastors. It has three rented buildings. It has three congregations. But it is also one congregation. It has one liturgy, one confession, one session of elders, and one checkbook. Our conviction has been from the start that when you don’t know the person in the pew next to you, it is difficult to live out the “one anothers,” that a shared taste in preachers, or in musical style is not what binds us together, but rather the body of Christ broken is what holds the body together. Our conviction has been from the start that while technology may have its uses, our service should likely look much like it has always looked through the ages. Our conviction has been from the start that preachers are easy enough to find. Pastors, now that’s a challenge.