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The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

On a Disciples’ Ministers’ Facebook Group Page to which I belong, a young minister recently posted a question about what we thought the church needed to be giving her attention to most in the coming days. As you might expect from a Disciples’ clergy group, the answers he got were a recital of all of the worthy justice causes that demand our attention and deserve our action.

What I read there reminded me of David Williams’ observation that without a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will shatter a soul.”

screamIt will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue. It’s an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean’s roar of human suffering. No normal human can take that in. It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well-meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.

David Williams’ whole argument is that justice is “the fruit of grace, not the other way around” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-04/why-social-justice-not-christian). David believes that “justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught… It’s just that … well … social justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose. It is not my goal. It just isn’t.”


And so when an earnest young Disciple minister asks a Facebook Group of Disciple Ministers what we think the church should be attending to most these days, I want at least one of us to say “the Lord’s Supper”! I want one of us to say that the most urgent task of the hour is to get more of our people to the Lord’s Table more regularly so that the Christ who meets us there can get the chance to form us spiritually and morally by His indwelling presence and through the empowering work of His self-giving love.

Carl Trueman, the Reformed Church Historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, casts a powerful vision of the formative potential of the “ordinary means of grace” when he writes –

I believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference.

Professor Trueman calls this the “Calvary Option.” Looking around at all the crises and changes in the world today, and after considering all of the cries for justice that make their insistent demands on our attention and action, he argued that the most important thing that a church can do right now is to just be the church!

As long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/07/the-calvary-option)

This is not a pious escape from dealing with the world’s hopes and fears that he is calling for here, nor is it an argument for the evasion of our responsibility for serious moral witness and sustained moral action as Christians. Instead, it is a recognition, as Henri Nouwen put it, that “underneath all of the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world” that “there is a still point where my life in anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence” (The Genesee Diary [14] Image Books.1981).

In the “shattering” presence of all of the injustices that seem to dog our every step right now, what is the center out of which we are to operate as Christians in “hope and courage and confidence”? And I answer that I believe that it’s the Gospel of God’s saving presence and work in Jesus Christ that gets memorialized for us every time we come to the Lord ’s Table in remembrance and thanksgiving.

faithfulThis is why this year the Elders at the church I serve will be reading together and discussing together each month David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence (IVP – 2016). David, the R.B. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, is one of the most provocative and helpful thinkers about the life and ministry of the church here in the first few decades of the 21st century that I’ve come across. His blog @ www.missioalliance.org has been required and sustaining reading for me since first stumbling across it on my Sabbatical in the summer of 2014 when I was working on how established, aging and declining churches like ours can cultivate a “culture of evangelism” that leads to sustainable renewal. And it was one of his blogs at this site (www.missioalliance.org) that convinced me that our elders’ time and effort would be well spent this year carefully considering what David has to say about the “seven disciplines that shape the church for mission.” And the first discipline that David believes does this, that shapes Christians “to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world” is the Lord’s Supper.

Writing about this at “Missio Alliance” (“Discerning Christ’s Presence in the World: How We Learn This around the Table” – December 4, 2014) David says –

We need postures to discern Christ’s presence, and to then be able to participate in His work. I am convinced that this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Around the Lord’s Table we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ …which in turn makes us fully present with each other at the Lord’s Table… It’s at the Lord Table that we learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, to tend to what Christ is doing, and to cooperate.

In this article David describes five of these “postures” that he says open us to the experience Christ’s faithful presence at the Lord’s Table, and that then enable us to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world when we leave the Lord’s Table in mission.

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

cupThe Posture of Surrendering…
The Posture of Receiving…
The Posture of Ceasing to Strive…
The Posture of Socialness among us
that enables us to be for each other…
And t
he Posture of Forgiveness…

And these are exactly the same “postures” that we need to learn to be a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. This isn’t magic. We aren’t mystically imbued with these qualities simply by ingesting the communion elements week in and week out. A careless and thoughtless participation in the Lord’s Supper holds more spiritual peril than spiritual benefit for us as Paul warned in in I Corinthians 11:17-34. This, David freely admits.

I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist. But I contend, when done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world.

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.


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But it really is a “Sin Problem”; “Thinking Christianly” about Race


wareLawrence Ware describes himself as “a philosopher of race and ordained minister dedicated to social justice.” In a recent article (8/16/16) for VSB he said that “If Your Pastor Says ‘Racism Isn’t a Skin Problem, it’s a Sin Problem’  Then You Need To Find Another Church” (http://verysmartbrothas.com).

What Lawrence was addressing in this article are the simplistic slogans and surface solutions that Christians have a real propensity for offering in the face of the stubborn systemic racism that tears at the fabric of American society. The violent and painful episodes of problems in our race relations as a nation in recent days is not a new outbreak of a social ill that we had solved with the Civil Right Bill of 1964, affirmative action and the election of our first African American President. No, racism is a chronic issue that is part of the human condition. The idea that “me and mine” are intrinsically superior to “you and yours” persists precisely because racism is just so stubborn and systemic in us as human beings. And so what’s demanded, Lawrence correctly argued in his article, is a “fundamental change to the structure of this country.” What he wrestles with in this article is the question of just exactly how this kind of “fundamental change” is going to actually be effected.

Now, what prompted Lawrence to write was his attendance of a church service in which the high profile multicultural pastor invoked one of those slogans about racism being a “sin problem” rather than a “skin problem.” Lawrence regarded this statement as evidence that that church and its pastor really didn’t get it. Lawrence wrote –

…Saying racism is a sin problem that we can solve by being kinder to each other serves the purposes of White supremacy because it does not force White folks to come to terms with the way they may contribute to institutional racism in the decisions they make at work and the way they vote at the polls…

These were words that were the speed bump in this article for me. In fact I have continued to live with them in the week ever since I first read the article.  Something about them troubled me, and I finally came to the conclusion that where they rankle me so is at the point of the false dichotomy that they seem to create, the “either this or that” choice that they seem to force.  Lawrence suggests that while some would say that the “sin problem” of racism can be easily and quickly remedied by the simple decision just to start being nice to each other, that what it really requires are public acts of “social protest.

Now, beyond the fact that these two things are not mutually exclusive options in mind, or even the only options that we have available to us when it comes to confronting the sin of racism in ourselves, each other and society at large, there is the even more fundamental theological problem for me of the understanding of sin that they reflect, a view of sin that sees it as something that we can “fix” by our own efforts.

Both “being kinder to each other” and “engaging in social protests” as responses to the “sin of racism” betray a view of sin that reduces it to bad behavior that can be modified by learning how to make better choices.  If people just knew better, or if we just had more effective laws to regulate our behavior, or if we were just better motivated as human beings, then all of our social problems like racism would slowly go away and we could live happily ever after.  Utopia is within our reach if only we would all just stretch a little bit!  But, is sin really just the result of people having bad information, or laws being poorly written and selectively enforced, or people not being motivated quite enough?  I think that the evidence, both Biblical and personal, points to the fact that sin is so much more insidious and intrinsic to us as human beings than this.

Lawrence warned his readers that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to (racial) unity but has not pushed the congregation to engage in (public acts) of social protest to address the systemic nature of racial justice,” then you might need to change churches. And I appreciate what he says. Swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” together, well-intentioned though it may be, is just not going to be enough to dismantle the stubborn and systemic racism that infects the human condition. My problem with what Lawrence wrote is that I don’t think that marching through the streets chanting slogans and hoisting placards is going to be enough to dismantle the sin of racism either.


Clearly prayer for racial unity and public acts of social protest against racial injustice are expressions of a very deep and commendable desire for social change, and as such, neither is devoid of value. I remember hearing a story about a company of Union troops marching past a Plantation field filled with slaves in the Deep South during the Civil War. Seeing the troops, one of those slaves ran just as fast as he could to get into line with the soldiers with his hoe slung over his shoulder like a rifle. His fellow slaves back in the field all laughed at the sight. They made fun of him. They asked if he thought that pretending to be a soldier for a while was going to make any difference in the struggle for their freedom. And he answered them, saying, “I don’t know if it helps or not, I just don’t want there to be any question about which side I am one.” Praying for racial unity, and engaging in acts of public protest can certainly make it clear about which side we are on, but I don’t believe that prayer or protest has the power to “fix” the sin of racism. No, to “fix” the sin of racism something more fundamental must occur within us as human beings.

To use the language of Paul in Romans 6, the old self with all of its passions and prejudices must be crucified with Christ and buried, and a new self must be raised with Christ to walk in newness of life.   To use the language of Peter in his first letter, we need to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). To use the language of Jesus Christ Himself in His Sermon on the Mount, we need to become good trees bearing good fruit rather than being bad trees bearing bad fruit (Matthew 7:16-18). Jesus, Peter and Paul were all talking about regeneration, about being “born again — born from above” (John 3:3).   As John Piper writes –

heartForgiveness and cleansing are not enough.  I need to be new.  I need to be transformed.  I need life.  I need a new way of seeing and thinking and valuing.  That’s why Ezekiel speaks of a new heart a new spirit:  “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.   And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26-27).

…I think Ezekiel means that in the new birth, God puts a living, supernatural, spiritual life in our heart, and that new life – that new spirit – is the working of the Holy Spirit himself giving shape and character to our new heart…. By being himself within us, our heart and mind take on his character – his spirit (Ephesians 4:23).

I completely agree with Lawrence when he says that what the sin of racism requires is a fundamental change in us and our world. But the only source for the kind of change that the sin of racism requires that I know anything about is the Gospel.  And so, taking Lawrence’s lead, I’d say that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to racial unity, and has pushed for social protest to address the systemic nature of racial injustice, but has not systematically addressed the Gospel foundations of the Creator’s original vision of Shalom, the tragic abnormality of fallen people living in a fallen world that the rebellion of our sin has created, and the personally and socially transformative power of the Gospel, then you might need to think about changing churches.

It was Carl F.H. Henry who wrote –

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian Movement. Man’s spiritual renewal vitalizes his awareness of God and neighbor, vivifies his senses of morality and duty, fuses the law of love to sanctified compassion, and so registers the ethical impact of biblical religion upon society…. Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening.

I believe that “fixing” the sin of racism requires nothing less than a change of heart, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power to change hearts that I have ever come across. And so to ignore this Gospel, to obscure this Gospel, to discount this Gospel, or even just to assume this Gospel in the urgent conversation about the kind of fundamental change that the whole wide world and every last one of us as individuals desperately needs, strikes me as the height of unfaithfulness on our part as Christians. If it’s Christ that has the power to make us new creations so that old things pass away and so that new things come, as the Gospel says He is, then to fail to mention Him “at such a time as this” can only be regarded as the worst possible kind of spiritual malpractice.  DBS +


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“The Presence that Pentecost Promises”


“Some churches still prefer churchmanship without any supernatural dimensions…
they have become hollow museums whose curators grow content to speak God’s name
without the slightest danger of experiencing His presence.”

                                                                                                                     ~ Calvin Miller                      

It hit me with the force of a 2×4 up the side of the head when I was maybe 15 years old. I was in church, the church of my childhood and youth. I was serving as an acolyte, an altar boy.  I was performing the intricate liturgical choreography exactly as it had been so carefully rehearsed the day before.  I was bending and bowing, pouring and wiping, ascending and descending the altar steps.  And right there in the middle of all that pomp and circumstance, a question popped into my head as if it had been asked of me out loud – “What are you doing?” – or, more accurately – “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Paul critiqued those who held to the form of religion in his day while denying its real power (2 Timothy 3:5), and standing there in church that day, I had the sense that he was talking about me… to me. You see, I was terribly concerned about getting the ceremony right, but I was completely oblivious to the real presence that made all of that activity meaningful and all of that effort purposeful. To use Sam Shoemaker’s wonderful metaphor, I was tending to a rather ornate fireplace that didn’t have a fire burning in it!  I had the form of religion, in fact, a very fine version of it, but I was missing its power.

This was the realization that pushed me out of my familiar ecclesial nest when I was a teenager and into the spiritual quest that has been the direction and destination of my life ever since. Just like Jacob wrestling the mysterious presence at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), I wanted God, the living, loving God, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less until I had tasted and seen the goodness of God for myself (Palm 34:8).

pietyA rather unsettling book that I’ve been reading lately is Ian Stackhouse’s Primitive Piety (Paternoster – 2012).  This is his invitation away from the safe and pleasant world of suburban piety with its stress on moderation and politeness, and into the extreme and paradoxical world of Biblical faith.  He begins it by quoting the Scottish Congregationalist theologian P.T, Forsyth (1848–1921) –

“We tend to a Christianity without force, passion, or effect; a suburban piety, homely and kind but unfit to cope with the actual moral case of the world, its giant souls and hearty sinners. …We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or its breathless gratitude.”

This was the kind of Christianity in which I was a participant and of which I was a steward when I was 15. Later I would sometimes hear it depreciatingly described as “churchianity,” and while there was certainly some truth in that, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that designation of it then, or now.

I don’t like the implication that Christ and Church are two separate things. I wholeheartedly agree with Irenaeus of Lyons (born c. 120/140 – died c. 200/203) who said that anyone who has God as his Father has the church as his mother, whether they like it or not, and even whether they know it or not. And I’m just not comfortable with the accusation that my personal spiritual emptiness was somehow the fault of some kind of failure on the part of that church of my childhood and youth.  I can now see quite clearly how Jesus Christ was named as Savior in word and sign every Sunday morning that I was there growing up. The problem wasn’t that the Gospel of God’s redeeming love for me, and for all in Jesus Christ, wasn’t being proclaimed in that place in those days, it was rather that, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t getting through to me.  But one day it did, and it happened while I was in a worship service at that church!  That’s where God found me.   And while my journey has since led me away from that place, and that way of being a Christian, I now understand that it was where my spiritual journey began, and I can appreciate the way that it set the table for my soul.

What I went looking for when I was 15 was the reality of Christianity, the God who was behind the creeds, beneath the rituals, and before all of the structures and systems. I wanted the fire and not just the fireplace, and where I found it was in the presence that Pentecost promises.

I am always a little troubled by the way that Christmas and Easter pack the church, but Pentecost passes with hardly a ripple. The Gospel event and experience that Pentecost marks is no less central to Biblical Christianity and no less critical to our salvation than are the events and experiences that Christmas and Easter annually commemorate.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him to be baptized, John said two things about what Jesus had come to do as the Messiah. “Behold that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was the first thing.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us from what’s in our pasts.  And, “this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33) was the second thing that John the Baptist announced that Jesus as the Christ had come to do.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us to a different kind of future.  The forgiveness of our sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit is what Jesus Christ came to accomplish, and they are what were in fact offered to people on Pentecost Sunday morning when Peter preached the Gospel in the power of the Spirit for the very first time (Acts 2:38).

Our failure to embrace Pentecost with the same interest and enthusiasm with which we embrace Christmas and Easter is a problem. In fact, I would argue that it is the reason why we have such a truncated Gospel in the church and a spiritual experience as Christians that is so far below what the New Testament describes and offers.  And the only remedy to this, as far as I can see, is for us to consciously and consistently embrace the presence that Pentecost promises.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to take the objective work of Jesus Christ as Savior and to subjectively apply it to our lives and to the world. The Holy Spirit comes to kindle the fire in the fireplace of the church, and in the fireplaces of our hearts.   But this doesn’t just happen.  The Holy Spirit can be quenched, grieved, resisted and even blasphemed by us, and so we’ve got to ask.  God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13).

If you, like me, are discontent with the “mechanical sacramentalism” and the “dead biblicism” of so much of the church, and if you, like me, ache for “the dynamic reality of God’s presence,” then “it is time that we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly receive a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost is this coming Sunday – May 15th. Come to church as if it were Christmas or Easter, and come expectantly.

DBS +            

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“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”

10 commandments

What was God doing on the Cross? (Part 4)

Well, the two things that I’ve come to expect every Easter made their appearance right on time again this year. The slew of articles and essays online that that leave the impression that anyone who “clings” to the church’s traditional teachings about Good Friday (that Christ dies for our sins) and Easter Sunday (that Christ was “bodily” raised from the dead on the third day) is intellectually suspect, and the Easter Eve broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments,” a programming choice that leaves many scratching their heads and wondering if a more “Christian” choice wouldn’t be timelier?  In my mind these two things are connected.

foodOn Maundy Thursday we gathered to remember and experience the Upper Room where Jesus kept some version of the Passover Meal with His disciples. The unleavened bread that He broke and gave to His disciples while explaining that it was His body given for them, and the cup of wine that He poured and shared with them while saying that it was the “new covenant in His blood” forever lashed the Christ event to Exodus.  Jesus used the Passover story and symbols to interpret the meaning of His death, and the early church “got” it.  When Paul told the Corinthians to “clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened… For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed… let us celebrate the festival…” (I Corinthians 5:7-8), he was clearly appealing to the Passover tradition that the Corinthians certainly understood. I can only conclude that in preaching and teaching “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) to them, that Paul used the Exodus narrative just as Christ Himself had to be the interpretive key to the meaning of Good Friday. And it’s not just Paul.

lambThe powerful “Lamb of God” allusions in the writings of John (John 1:29; Revelation 5) are also Exodus and Passover prompted. But when this strand of meaning is jettisoned this connection quickly gets lost and we are left wondering about things like what the movie “The Ten Commandments” has to do with Easter? It’s when the idea that the cross of Christ was not an unexpected outcome to the life of Christ, but was in fact the very purpose of His life (“You shall call His name ‘Jesus’ for He will save His people from their sins” – Matthew 1:21), and when what Christ was doing on the cross is understood as God’s own saving work of atonement rather than just the tragically noble death of an exemplary martyr suffering for his spiritual and moral ideals, that “The Ten Commandments” becomes the perfect Easter movie – theologically. Of course, this all assumes the legitimacy of the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as one of the strands of meaning that the New Testament attaches to the cross.

As I wrote about in my blog last week, my spiritual commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak” prevents me from making the theological traditionalists’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is all that the New Testament has to say about the meaning of the cross, and from the theological progressives’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is not one of the ways that the New Testament speaks about the meaning of the cross. In fact, by excluding it from the conversation, one of the ways that the Gospel solves a human problem is removed from the church’s pastoral repertoire.

This was Richard Mouw’s point in his June 4, 2012 Christianity Today essay Getting to the Crux of Calvary.” Eavesdropping on the conversation of two young clergypersons at a Conference about how they never preached or taught the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement anymore, Dr. Mouw wondered about the pastoral and spiritual limitation that this interpretive decision imposed upon them and their ministries. Later, he said-

nose…I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks. The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended. One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise. In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction. I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor’s church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered “the powers” of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don’t think that such a message would have affected the life-transforming change that took place.

The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement remains a club in my theological, spiritual and pastoral golf bag – to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful analogy – because it is one of the strands of meaning that I find that the Scriptures clearly attach to the cross, and those are the categories – the strands of meaning that the Scriptures attach to a revelatory or redemptive event – that I believe that I am obliged to use as a direct consequence of my commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak.” I am consciously tethered to the text as a pastor and a teacher.  This is not just a principled stand for me.  In my 40 years of ministry in local churches I have found that it has served me often and well.  It has helped me to make sense of those realities to which the Biblical text bears witness, and in turn, to offer spiritual guidance and pastoral support to real people living real lives.

Specifically, retaining the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as a viable theological resource for my own life and ministry has helped me by bringing some real clarity to three rather central spiritual issues –

  1. Sin – In 1988 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote his classic volume Whatever Became of Sin? Prophetically accurate and incisive, this book probed the causes and the consequences of the moral relativism that has become our cultural norm. If nothing is right or wrong then we have no need for a Savior. But if some things are right and other things are wrong, then what do we do about the wrong choices that we make and the real damage that they do? The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is predicated on the reality and the seriousness of sin. Biblically it is a primary way of explaining what it means when we say that we believe that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3), and existentially it deals with our human problems with shame and guilt — my human problem with shame and guilt. Because I find that sin is a real problem for me individually and for human being collectively, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is a meaningful way to think and talk about what God in Christ did for us on the cross.
  2. God – Paul told the Corinthians that he did not want to be guilty of “misrepresenting God” (I Corinthians 15:15). Jesus Himself warned that it would be better to have a millstone lashed around our necks and for us to be dropped into the depths of the sea than to lead one of God’s “little ones” astray (Matthew 18:6). Preachers and teachers are going to have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17) and will be subject to a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1). All of which is to say, that we who preach and teach must be careful about what we say, because beliefs have consequences, and what we say about God, as A.W. Tozer observed, is the most important thing about us. “God is love” (I John 4:8) is what most of us will say when we are asked about God, and I have no quarrel with it being the first thing that we say about God. That seems to me to be entirely consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is not consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in my judgment, is to make “God is love” the only thing that we say when we are asked about God. Why, even the textual source for our affirmation that “God is love” doesn’t say that love is all that there is to the Biblical God. I John 1:5 tells us that “God is light,” and then immediately frames that affirmation of God’s identity in terms of His aversion to human sin (I John 1:6-2:2). No single characteristic of God exhausts God’s reality as it is revealed in the salvation history that the Scriptures narrate, and keeping the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement in the conversation about why Christ came and why Christ died keeps me honest about the complexity of who God is.
  3. Christ – Finally, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement keeps me from prematurely releasing the tension of the paradoxical affirmation of historic Christianity that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully man.”   So much of the critique that I hear about the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement stems from the barbaric idea that the cross is something that God did to someone else, namely Jesus. If this is what the Biblical Theory of the Substitutionary Atonement affirmed, then I would side with its critics. But Biblically, I would argue that this critique of the traditional theory of Substitutionary Atonement is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding that goes all the way back to Athanasius in the fourth century and his struggle with the teaching of Arius. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate (What we sing and say at Christmas) then what happens on Good Friday cannot possibly be salvific. It can be noble. It can be heroic. It can be exemplary. But if the cross is not the work of God Himself, then it can’t be salvific. Tim Keller helpfully writes –

When I get to the cross, I’ve found there is this caricature of Jesus as the Son whom the Father crucifies – child abuse, etc.   Without the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is a helpless son and a vindictive father.   But with the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is God substituting Himself, and not just the Father substituting the Son.

Westminster Seminary professor Robert Strimple rocked my world with something he once said, with tears in his eyes, “Please don’t ever get out there and preach John 3:16 as if you have an angry abusive father who is taking his anger out on his son.   “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”

John Stott in The Cross of Christ forever shaped what I see when I look at a cross by what he wrote about the description of the heart of God found in Hosea 11.  What’s happening on the cross is a picture of the costliness of God’s love and the seriousness of God’s holiness struggling with each other at the center of God’s own being.  And this means that the cross is not about what God did to someone else, someone external to Himself.  No, I believe that the cross is the work of God Himself, what God Himself embraced with His decision to forgive. DBS+


“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.” (Jean Lacordaire)

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Millennial Anxiety

“The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now.”

– Russell Moore   


russellIn his new book Onward: Engaging Culture Without Losing the Gospel (B&H – 2015), Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tells a story about a conversation that he had while he was in seminary with Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, one of the theological giants of American Christianity in the last half of the 20th century.

Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, and about the downward slide of culture. …Henry seemed not the least bit unnerved by it all. Then he cleared his throat and offered up the rebuke I needed.  It was right after I had asked, rhetorically, whether there was any hope for the future of Christian witness in the public square.

“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of the church” …the old theologian said… “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current Christian subculture. They are probably still pagans.”  “Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles” he asked.  “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, once an agnostic professor, or a Charles Colson, once Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, to lead the twentieth century church?  They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors of the faith.”

There is some real anxiety in the church these days about the missing generation – the Millennials.

millenialThe term Millennials is usually considered to apply to individuals who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century. The precise delineation varies from one source to another, however, Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, are often credited with coining the term. Howe and Strauss define the Millennial cohort as consisting of individuals born between 1982 and 2004. (http://whatis.techtarget.com)

Millennials are the “nones” and the “dones” that we hear so much these days.  The “nones” are those who have no connection to the church, and who aren’t looking for one, yet.  And the “dones” are those who used to have a connection to church, but don’t have one or want one, right now.  Everyone, it seems, has an idea about how the church has failed this generation.  Why, hardly a day goes by on Facebook that somebody isn’t posting about what the church must do and how the church must change if we are to have any chance of reaching them.  And because we’re all anxious and afraid for this aging, declining church that we love, we’ll jump on nearly any practice that some self-proclaimed expert promises will reverse the trend.   But there’s lots of problems with the advice that’s out there.  To start with, none of these “experts” seems to agree with what any other “expert” has to say.  So much of their advice is just flat out contradictory.  This is a problem, a real problem, but it’s only just the surface problem, if you ask me. The deeper problem has to do with thinking that if we are to have any chance of reaching the Millennial generation that we are then going to have to adjust the Gospel message to make it more palatable to their tastes.

The late Michael Spencer – the “internet monk” as he was known – had the best blog on the internet in his day, and some of us would argue, the best blog on the internet of any day.  I am so grateful that it is archived and still available to readers now that Michael is gone.  If you don’t know of him, I would encourage you to immediately start getting acquainted with him @ http://www.internetmonk.com/archive. Michael had one of the most spiritually insightful and incisive voices in all the noise that is on the internet, and one of my favorite postings was called “A Contrarian Manifesto for the Church Growth Debate.” He was writing about his generation, my generation, the baby boomer generation, but what he had to say has relevance to any proposal to reach any generation by trying to adjust what he called “classic Christianity” to their changing appetites and “felt needs.”

…My generation is, without a doubt, the generation most likely to repackage God, the Bible, Jesus, the church and the Gospel to suit themselves. My generation must be catered to and told they are special or they won’t show up. My generation must shred what came before them as an act of self-affirmation. My generation must have their own slogans, names and bribes or they won’t come.  My generation must be told they are key to everything…

[But] most of the changes demanded by boomers in order to “connect” and “be real” and “meet people where they are” will be in concrete in no time, and when the twenty-somethings or their successors [the Millennials] ask the aging baby boomers to change and incorporate their ideas about worship, watch the wars begin. Giving the boomers their stylistic preferences in reshaping the church is going to prove to be the worst mistake that the American church ever made. The “boomer megachurches” aren’t presiding over a rediscovery of Biblical Christianity. They are leading a revolution where culture, generational niche groups and consumeristic agendas subvert the Gospel.

[And so] I love my people enough to be faithful to the Word of God in both its method and its message. I am not ashamed to have said “no” to the pressure of baby boomer consumerists and “yes” to the instructions for preaching in the [New Testament’s] pastoral letters [I Timothy, II Timothy & Titus]. …Charles Haddon Spurgeon voiced his concerns for his age, and they echo my concern with our own:

beard“Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ How can he be healed who is not sick? Or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised, and consequently a religion is run up before the foundations are dug out. Everything in this age is shallow. Deep-sea fishing is almost an extinct business so far as men’s souls are concerned. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they come to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.

And this brings me back around to Dr. Henry’s non-anxious observation to Dr. Moore that I quoted at the beginning of this posting. Christianity isn’t broken, and every time in church history when people were worried to death that it was, Christianity has broken free from the church’s torpor to experience completely unexpected and thoroughly remarkable advances. This is true today, for you see, even as the North Atlantic Christianity of America and Europe struggles, the Christianity of the Southern Hemisphere – African, Latin American, and Asian Christianity – is exploding, once again proving the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s famous observation  – “At least five times …the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died. How complete was the collapse and how strange the reversal.”   But in this observation there is also a warning – the temptation to make adjustments to “the Faith” – “to repackage God, the Bible, Jesus, the church and the Gospel to suit” the changing preferences of this or any generation is a recipe for disaster.  As William Ralph Inge (1860 – 1954), the famously dour Anglican Theologian, put it – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

Back in December of 2011, Anthony D. Baker, a professor down at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, wrote an article for Christianity Today called “Learning to Read the Gospel Again: How to address our anxiety about losing the Next Generation.” It is the wisest response to Millennial Anxiety that I have come across to date, and so in closing I offer you the gist of his argument –

stanA few months ago, a graduate student in practical theology asked Stanley Hauerwas for his perspective on new church movements, especially emergent church movements. Disarming and epigrammatic as ever, the man whom Time once called “America’s Best Theologian” replied, “The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” 

…[But] isn’t “doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday” the trouble? Can we afford to engage in business as usual if business as usual is sinking the church? It all depends, of course, on what “same thing” we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if “the same thing week after week” means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.

Of course, just like missionaries entering a foreign field of service, we’ve got to learn the language and understand the culture of the people we are trying to reach. Generationally, people speak different languages and inhabit different cultures, and so “my” church – the baby boomer church… or is it the generational church of the builders – we have some real work to do to reach the next generation of the Millennials.  But what we are trying to reach them with is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so learn their language in order to be able to communicate with them effectively and probe their culture in order to be able to make the critical connections with them, but in this process don’t lose the Gospel, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

When he was a youth minister, the great 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the anxious church of his day about what it would take to reach the next generation.  He named as his very first principle a principle that we would do well to claim as our own today in our anxiety about the Millennials –

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God. (Andrew Root – “Why Your Millennial Outreach Needs a Bit of Bonhoeffer” – January 27, 2015 – http://www.christianitytoday.com)



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Faith and Politics, Part 3 – “Can My Vote be Christian?”



The world in which the New Testament was written was ruled by Rome, and the Roman State was not elected by popular vote every couple of years. Christians weren’t determining who was in political power and the Church wasn’t involved in making policy decisions for the Empire.  Unless a government official converted to Christ, in the days of the New Testament, Christians were largely on the outside of the government looking in.  Recognizing this fact, R. Scott Clark, the Church Historian at Westminster Seminary California, asks –

Where did the apostles commission the visible, institutional church to lobby any government for or about anything?

Where in the New Testament did any of the apostles institute a lobbying arm in Rome or in any regional governmental center (e.g., Ephesus)?

Where in the New Testament does one find a single unequivocal (or even good and necessary inference) of the visible, institutional church speaking to any one of the social ills that plagued the Greco-Roman world?

In the first century a Christian’s relationship with the State consisted of the New Testament’s three-fold instruction to “pray, pay and obey.” Recognizing that the State existed by Divine design (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; John 18:33-38 19:8-11; Acts 25:10-11; Romans 13:1-7) the writers of the New Testament told Christians to pray for those who were in authority over them (I Timothy 2:1-4), to pay their taxes (Matthew 17:24-27), and insofar as it did not violate their obedience to Christ (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29) to submit to the government’s authority (I Peter 2:13-17).  The Book of Revelation is an important New Testament exploration of what happens when the State becomes demonic.  It has much to say about Christian resistance to the principalities and powers when they have gone astray and it holds out the foundational promise that God in Christ will finally right all wrongs and fully establish His Kingdom.  But you would be hard pressed to find anything in the New Testament about how Christians are supposed to vote because voting wasn’t even an option for Christians when the New Testament was being written. Politics as we understand the term and experience the reality today was simply not part of the frame of reference for those first Christians.  But this is not to say that early Christianity was not political at all.

The values and beliefs of the first Christians had profound social, economic and political implications. The astonishing claim of the Gospel is that God the Son reveals and redeems. Jesus Christ by His life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again both reconciles us to God and makes God known.  As an expression of this truth, more than once, the New Testament announces that we have “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5; Romans 12:12; Colossians 3:1-4; John 1:18).  In other words, as Christians we actually know something about who God is and what it is that God wants for us and for the whole world.  Life, both abundant and eternal, is God’s plan for us.

In Creation, God put our well-being as human beings, in a web of interconnected relationships with everything and everyone else – “Shalom” – at the very center of His purpose.  In Redemption God did the heavy lifting in Jesus Christ to repair the damage that the rebellion of sin had done to that Divine intention.  And the promise of the Consummation says that the day is coming when God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is right now in heaven.  The Kingdom will come. God’s Shalom will be restored – God’s will done on earth as it is right now in heaven.

The critical question for us to consider in all of this is how will we operate as Christians between this redemption that was inaugurated with the Incarnation and that redemption that will finally and fully accomplished with the Consummation? Knowing, as we do, something of God’s intentions for all of creation, how then shall we live? I really like the way that John Killinger, for so many years the professor of preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School, put it in his book Bread for the Wilderness; Wine for the Journey (Word).  He said that as a Christian –

You find yourself wanting to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want hungry people to be fed and the infirm to walk.   You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.  You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.

Alan Kreider in his truly insightful work on “Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom” described how Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century described the church of his day as an “enclosed garden” (Solomon 4:12) in which Christian virtues and graces were being cultivated.  Thus formed by this “Jesus-shaped distinctiveness,” those Christians then functioned in the world where they lived and worked “as instruments that God was using to construct a new world.” People learned about that new world not because those Christians were angry combatants in a culture war who went about scolding and condemning those whose beliefs and behaviors ran contrary to their own, but rather because those Christians quietly embodied the Gospel values of compassion and sacrifice in their everyday lives, and the people who saw them do this wanted to know why they were like that?

Bill Baird, one of my New Testament professors in seminary, used to criticize the way that he said he often heard his students use Biblical texts as “springboards to Washington D.C.” as if they were detailed public policy prescriptions intended for immediate political implementation.   Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, in his really insightful book on how church and culture will need to relate in this “post-Christendom” era, fleshed out what I suspect drove Dr. Baird’s complaint –

What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to … to tax the capitalists in their own flocks and redistribute the money to the poor… when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do this things on the basis of the Bible? …No wonder politicians often have so little respect for religious lobbyists.

When the New Testament speaks – especially in the Epistles – it speaks to the believing community, to people who have already surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. The social ethics of the New Testament are the ethics of the church, the ethics of people who are personally committed to the person of Christ and who are being actively shaped by the values of Christ.  And this means that the world is not going to be changed by the church making public pronouncements and issuing resolutions. The world is going to be changed by Christians who are being transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they know the will of God (Romans 12:1) and who are then keeping faith with what they know to be good, and right, and true in their everyday lives and relationships.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this “the principle of cellular infiltration.”

Just a little salt can affect the great mass. Because of its essential quality it permeates everything… One truly saintly person radiates influence; that person will permeate any group in which he or she happens to be… Though the church makes her great pronouncements on the great social questions of the day, the average unchurched outsider is completely unaffected.  But if the person working beside that unchurched outsider is a true Christian whose life has been saved by Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit, then everyone around will be directly affected.

From this perspective, the critical assignment given to the church is the cultivation of the Christian conscience – teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20).  At the church I serve we talk about this as our congregational value of having an “Open Bible” – “Exploring Scripture to be formed, informed and transformed.” Just like light in the darkness, salt in the soup and leaven in the loaf, Christians who are being actively formed by the mind of Christ penetrate the social, economic and political systems in which they live so that those social, economic and political systems will begin to better reflect what they know as Christians to be God’s final intention in Christ for justice, righteousness and peace for all of creation.  And in our political system this means voting.

Recently a group of Northway members were in Honduras on a mission trip. This is the 22nd time in the last 18 years that a mission team has travelled from Northway to Central America to work side by side with the people there in a model villages program.  We do this because we have the mind of Christ, and there are few texts in the Scriptures that have had a greater impact on our consciousness and conscience as Christians than has Matthew 25 where Jesus said –

And the righteous will say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Reflecting on these Gospel verses led Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930), one of the most important German theologians and church historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to conclude that they “have shone so brilliantly for so many generations in Christ’s church and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may describe all Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity.”  His development of this idea bears repeating –

Among the extant words and parables of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous, and with them we must rank many a story of his life. Yet, apart altogether from the number of such sayings, it is plain that whenever he had in view the relations of mankind, the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities. …[And] while Jesus himself was exhibiting this kind of love, and making it a life and a power, his disciples were learning the highest and holiest thing that can be learned in all religion, namely, to believe in the love of God. To them the Being who had made heaven and earth was “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” … But this was more than just words, it was a thing of power and action. The Christians really considered themselves [to be] brothers and sisters, and their actions corresponded to this belief. … The gospel thus became a social message. The preaching which laid hold of the outer man, detaching him from the world, and uniting him to his God, was also a preaching of solidarity and brotherliness. …[And] thus had this saying became a fact: “Hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

This is what compelled the Northway members to go to Honduras, and now that they are back home, this is what will inform what they do next. You see, in just a matter of weeks now there will be a Presidential primary in Texas, and all of those people from Northway who went to Honduras because of the mind of Christ will be asked to make a political choice between candidates who are talking an awful lot about refugees and immigration, and the mind of Christ will inform the choice that they will make then as well.  Those Northway members are going to connect the dots between their faith commitments and values, their relationships with the very people who so often find it necessary to flee the violence and poverty of their homeland to find safety and opportunity in another, and what the politicians are saying.

This is how Christian service that the New Testament explicitly commands of Christians and the church becomes a movement of justice in society at large. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action described this dynamic memorably in his “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”

A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act. They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead.

Those Northway members went to Honduras to be “ambulance drivers.” They did this because they are Christians whose Lord and Savior told us that His disciples are people who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry as an expression of their obedience and devotion to Him (Matthew 25:13-18).  And ambulance drivers who bind up the wounds of humanity from the wreckage of life look for the tunnel builders who are committed to refashioning the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. Ambulance drivers partnering with tunnel builders, that’s how a vote becomes Christian.  DBS+




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Thinking “Christianly” about Guns and Church


At a previous church I served there was a member who was an officer in the Sheriff’s Department. He was on duty most Sunday mornings, but he nevertheless made a real effort to stop by the church to take communion each week with his family.  Sitting on the chancel, I would see him arrive through the sanctuary doors during the singing of the communion hymn. His timing was impeccable.  Standing at the threshold he would respectfully remove his department issued cowboy hat, scan the congregation looking for his wife and kids, and then quietly move to their pew where he would sit down to share the bread and cup with them before getting up and heading back out.  He was always armed.  His gun in its holster was clearly visible, and that bothered some church members. It bothered them very much.

They thought it a violation of our sacred space and that scared hour to have someone present with a deadly weapon, even if he was an officer of the law on duty. They wanted him to leave his gun in his patrol car when he showed up at church for communion, and they wanted me to tell him so for them.  Others completely disagreed.  They appreciated his effort to be with his family – both spiritual and biological – in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day for the Lord’s Supper each week, and they honored his office as part of the authority established by God to maintain order in a fallen world, including that part about  him “not bearing the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).  They had no qualms whatsoever about him being armed in church. As with so many things, that church was simply not of one mind of this matter, and so we lived with that diversity.

Now, this disagreement in that church never rose to the level of a public debate. It was not officially discussed at a board meeting.  It was never an item of business for the elders to consider at one of their monthly meetings.  But I sensed the tension every Sunday morning when the sanctuary doors opened during the communion hymn and he walked in with his gun strapped to his hip.  I felt both support for him and concern about his gun ripple through the congregation every time he was there. I knew who it bothered, and who it didn’t, and why.  You see, both advocates and opponents had made their positions known to me in private conversation at one time or another, and like almost everything in the faith and practice of a church’s life, I found that there were two sides to the question, and merits to both sets of arguments, and so we simply lived with the unresolved tension of different convictions.  It was complicated.

In his “Peace Proposal” for the divided church of his day (The “Irenicum”), the Puritan Preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) offered a vivid picture of what this kind of unity in diversity looks like –

lakeI have read of two rivers in the east, Sava and Danube, that run along in one channel threescore miles together without any noise, and yet they keep themselves distinct; the color of the waters remain distinct all along. Why should we not think it possible for us to go along close together in love and peace, though in some things our judgments and practices are apparently different from one another?  (368)

And without a doubt this is my preferred mode of operation for the church. Maybe this is why I am a “Disciple,” or maybe it’s what being a “Disciple” has done to me, but I just don’t expect us as Christians to agree on very much apart from Christ.  If you can make the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and your Lord and Savior, then I feel some compulsion to stay in familial relationship with you even though I may disagree with you – and strenuously – on any number of the doctrinal, moral and social positions that you have taken.  I’m a strong advocate of the right of private interpretation and for the freedom of individual conscience and conviction.  I want church members to live together in love and peace even though in some things our judgments and practices differ.  As Jeremiah Burroughs counseled Christian believers some 350 years ago, when we have “labored to get our opinions into one, but they will not come together,” we need to back up and start all over again at the other end. “Labor to join your hearts to engage your affections to one another,” he argued.  He believed that a “variety of opinions” and the “unity of those who hold them standing together” could be a real possibility for Christians in the church.  And we are a church as “Disciples” that has specifically and emphatically named this as our “raison d’etre.”

cupWe are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

Nevertheless, sometimes actions taken by the larger culture force a church like ours to make policy decisions on matters where freedom of conscience and diversity of practice is consciously preferred and had previously prevailed. The United States Supreme Court ruling last summer on the legality of same sex marriage as a matter of equal protection under the law and the new open carry handgun legislation that became Texas State law on January 1, 2016 (see the Texas Impact “Overview” of the impact of this law on houses of worship like Northway at the end of this blog) are two examples of how churches like ours suddenly find themselves having to set official policy on matters where people of “good faith” can and do conscientiously disagree, and where previously they had been perfectly content to live in the difficulty unity of people who choose to remain in fellowship with Christ and one another despite their diverse convictions and  practices.  The necessity of suddenly having to take official procedural positions on matters of conscience where freedom had previously prevailed in the life of a community of faith like ours pushes us in ways that are neither familiar nor particularly comfortable.

In the coming days Northway’s Board will be called upon to sort out the question of how we as a church will operate in light of these developments in the surrounding culture. But unlike the way that decisions are made in the larger society through political debate and vote, we as a church have to make our operational policy and procedure decisions not on the basis of just what we think alone, but rather on the basis of what we think God thinks, as far as what God thinks has been made known to us and has been correctly understood by us.

Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind (Servant Books – 1978) proposed this little exercise to illustrate just how hard this assignment is for us in the church today –

Take some topic of current political importance. Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relationship to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form you conclusions by thinking Christianly [Defined by Blamires as not “the opinionated self as the only judge of truth,” but rather the acceptance of “the given revelation — discovered by careful inquiry — as the final touchstone of truth” (107)]. Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation.  The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend on you.  It is not that people disagree with you — some do and some don’t.  In a sense that does not matter.  But they will not think Christianly.  They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly.   In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average Churchman to the Conservative Party or the Labour Party (Blamires was British, so translate his remarks to the Republican Party or the Democrat Party) is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the Church (with its commitment to the Christ and the apostolic teachings). (14)

headlessIn a democracy the majority rules, but in a “Christocracy” (Jürgen Moltmann) Christ rules — and insofar as Christ is the head of His body the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; Colossians 1:18), the church is a Christocracy.  And an important aspect of the way that Jesus Christ exercises this headship over His body, the church, is by His revealed will that has been preserved for us in the pages of Scripture.  If we don’t know what the Bible, properly interpreted, says about something, then we simply don’t have the “mind of Christ” on the matter.

Henry Blackaby in a book written with his son Richard Blackaby – Spiritual Leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001) – said –

The problem for so many church leaders is that they are unfamiliar with the Bible. They don’t really know what it says, so it doesn’t guide them.  They don’t read it regularly, so it really doesn’t influence their thinking.  When a crucial decision is required, leaders have no alternative but to do what makes sense to them and hope it does not violate the teachings of Scripture.  True spiritual leaders recognize their utter dependence on God.  So they regularly fill their heart and mind with His Word.  When leaders’ minds are filled with Scripture, they find themselves thinking according to biblical principles.  When a difficult situation arises, The Holy Spirit will being appropriate Scriptures to mind.  When they prepare to make a decision, The Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance. (182)

Right before Christmas John Piper, the Minister Emeritus of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis responded to the widely publicized and highly criticized remarks of Jerry Falwell, Jr., to the students of Liberty University about guns on campus. Dr. Falwell’s call for the students of his University to arm themselves legally and then to go to class prepared to use their weapons should the circumstances ever dictate was condemned by most of the people I know, especially the church people.  They expressed outrage at what he said.  They expressed disgust at what he said. They ridiculed what he said.  They called what he said “unchristian.”   There was sound and there was fury, but there was very little “thinking Christianly” in the reactions that I heard and read.  The whole episode, at least in mind, only confirmed Blamires’ observations about “the full loneliness of the thinking Christian.” And then John Piper wrote-

Now, you need to know that there is much about John Piper that concerns me. Even though we play the same position (we are both “Evangelical” Christians), and we learned the game from many of the same coaches (both of us spent time studying at Fuller Theological Seminary), we don’t play the game of Christianity in exactly the same way – in fact, I’m pretty sure that if he had his way I would be benched, and maybe even traded to another team.  But still I respect him, and I read him because John Piper makes me think.  Jesus told His disciples not just to invite your friends over when you are having a party, those who will return the favor, but instead to invite those who are different from you and who would probably never think of having you over to their place (Luke 14:12).  Based on that counsel I read with real benefit people who think about Christ and Christianity differently than I do, people to my theological left and people to my theological right. Enter John Piper from my theological right.

You can find John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks at http://www.desiringgod.org under the title “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” It is an important read.  As Harry Blamires explained, you may agree with what Dr. Piper writes, or you may disagree, “in a sense that does not matter.” What matters is how Dr. Piper makes his argument.  If you ask me, what Dr. Piper gives us in this essay is a textbook example of what it means to “think Christianly.” Because culture is always going to be asking questions that the church will have to answer, and taking positions to which the church will have to respond, it is important that the church finds her distinctive voice that speaks from a mind that has been formed and informed by “thinking Christianly.” And I deeply appreciate John Piper for showing us what that looks and sounds like on the question of guns and self-defense.  There is much to learn here for the conversations that we are going to have to have in the coming weeks among ourselves, and with the world.  DBS+


Brief Overview of Current Law concerning Handguns in Texas Houses of Worship

Beginning January 1, 2016, concealed handgun license holders will be allowed to openly carry handguns into houses of worship. Although “concealed carry” has been Texas law for 20 years, visible handguns may alarm parishioners and prompt conversation. Under Texas law, congregations wishing to prevent concealed or openly carried weapons must ensure an individual has “received notice” that entry with a handgun is forbidden.

According to the law, “notice” must be provided orally, on a written card, or by means of a posted sign. Provision of oral notice or a written card requires confrontation, and for this reason is not recommended.  Posting of appropriate signage minimizes risks to staff and greeters, and enables immediate enforcement of the law by police.  If a person disregards properly posted signage, it is appropriate to call the police immediately.

  • To be legally enforceable, signage must adhere exactly to specifications prescribed by the Texas Penal Code:
  • If a congregation wishes to prohibit “open carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.07 of the Penal Code.
  • If a congregation wishes to prohibit “concealed carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.06 of the Penal Code.
  • Congregations wishing to prohibit both open and concealed handguns must post both signs.
  • According to legal experts, it is not sufficient to post one sign making reference to both sections of the law—the two sections must be posted separately.
  • Legally enforceable signage reviewed by prosecutors is available for purchase atwww.texasimpact.org/gunsigns.

To ensure that notice is “received,” legal experts recommend that signage be posted at every entrance to the building that is open to the public. Congregations are encouraged to use this opportunity to examine their security practices and to identify which of their doors should be public entrances and which doors should remain locked from the outside.  Often local law enforcement will help congregations to conduct safety assessments and develop preparedness plans.

Questions often arise as to whether posting notice creates a “gun-free zone.” The trespass by license holder laws apply only to the general public who are license holders.  Therefore, posting notice does not apply to trained professionals such as peace officers (on or off-duty) or contracted private security.

Under current law, houses of worship cannot prevent open or concealed carry on portions of their properties that are not buildings—such as parking lots, playgrounds, or sidewalks. However, congregations may still have individuals removed from any private property under the general trespass statute found in Section 30.05 of the Penal Code for a reason unrelated to the handgun license.  In such an instance, work closely with your local law enforcement.

Invariably, congregations will discover unique circumstances in their properties or operations about which they require specific guidance. Local law enforcement agencies are the entities best positioned to offer situation-specific counsel about safety and security for congregational property.



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