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May 17, 2006

On Monday, Joe Carter, he of Evangelical Outpost fame, posted on his web site discussing an article Andrew Sullivan had published in Time Magazine entitled “My Problem with Christianism.” There is one aspect of Carter’s article I would like to discuss today: the preamble. This is how Joe began: “While I believe that he can be as intolerant as Fred Phelps, I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ. Our differences of opinion—and they are profound—are trivial when compared to that relationship.” If you were so inclined, you could read the complete article and the subsequent commentary here.

I can’t imagine why Joe began this article with a comparison of the intolerance of Fred Phelps (the “God Hates Fags” preacher from Topeka, Kansas) and Andrew Sullivan. It was an odd way to begin an article, but I will pass that over to get to the statement that I wish to discuss: “I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ.” This statement caused an immediate reaction among Carter’s readers, the majority of whom are, I presume, Christians. Sullivan is, after all, proudly homosexual and an advocate of homosexual rights. Richard John Neuhaus has argued, correctly I believe, that homosexuality is the polestar of Sullivan’s journalism, so obsessed is he with this aspect of his identity. He is a vocal advocate of the rights of homosexuals to marry and has been a pioneer in issues such as gays in the military. Sullivan considers himself a Christian and is a practicing Roman Catholic, though he constantly criticizes the Church for its views on homosexuality.

Among the comments posted on Carter’s site is this one by “Eric and Lisa:” “I find it curious that you call Sullivan a brother-in-Christ. A man who unrepentantly engages in homosexual activity. So curious that I wonder if you would ever see fit to say that anyone who says they are your brother-in-Christ are not?” Glenn asked a similar question. “Just curious, by what criteria do you consider Sullivan a ‘brother in Christ?’ I know he waves his catholicism about pretty boldy, but his ‘Christianity’ could be entirely civil and not spiritual. I’m not trying to pass judgement here, but what fruit has his tree produced? What testimony do we have of his faith in the work of Christ? By what means do we consider him a brother and not reprobate?”

Joe responded that he bases his assumption that Sullivan is saved upon his earlier profession of faith, pointing to an interview with Sullivan in the Right Wing News. Sullivan said:

As to one’s own faith, I think it’s possible to maintain a prayer life, a relationship with the Jesus of the gospels, and an attempt to live out those ideals in one’s life while remaining a proud gay man. In some ways, I think the experience of marginalization that homosexuals have can deepen their spiritual life. Jesus’ message, after all, was that faith belongs to the excluded; and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The exclusion of gays from the Catholic church is an opportunity to grow closer to Christ, not further away. But it might mean that to reach Jesus, one has to bypass the hierarchy of the church.

Carter went on to say that he would “even go so far as to say that Sullivan appears to be a very immature believer. But I’m not sure that I can say that he is not my ‘brother.’” He said, correctly, of course, that “I’m not sure I have the authority, though, to say that he is ‘one who is predestined to damnation.’” For indeed humans are not able to make such judgments. In answering Eric and Lisa Joe says, “Unfortunately, I know plenty of believers who believe that certain activities (pride, gluttony, etc.) are not sin and are not completely repentant. But I’m not ready to write all of them off as apostates just yet.” He then provides a fairly lengthy explanation of what he meant by “brother in Christ.”

Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘brother in Christ’ by defining what I don’t mean when I use that term: I don’t mean that I know their salvation is assured (only God knows the answer to that one); I don’t mean that I have evidence of his regeneration (he appears to have a long way to go on the road to sanctification); and I don’t mean that he is not on the road to apostasy. All it means is that I take him at his word: that he confesses to being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Obviously I take issue with Sullivan’s unrepentant homosexual behavior. But while I truly believe his sin has ensnared him in a trap of self-deception, I think he has convinced himself that his behavior is not a sin. This doesn’t let him off the hook, but I do believe it is different from someone who does recognize that they are committing sin and they do it anyway.

What it ultimately comes down to is that I am not ready to excommunicate Sullivan from the fold – at least not yet. I may eventually get to the point where I no longer believe that he is really a ‘brother in Christ.’ But for now, I’ll still make room on the pew for Sullivan, Pat Robertson, and a few others whose ‘fruit’ I consider questionable.

I provide this as background information so you can understand what I will discuss next. I was intrigued by Carter’s affirmation of Sullivan’s faith and immediately dedicated some effort to attempting to decide what I believe on this issue, which really goes far deeper than just Sullivan. I will use this example of Andrew Sullivan to springboard a discussion on who we are to assume is a brother in Christ. This article represents my thoughts. As I understand it, there are two main issues here. The first concerns a profession of faith made by someone who is outside the authority of a “true” (a term I will define shortly) local church. The second concerns a profession of faith by someone who is involved in ongoing, unrepentant sin.

Not too long ago I posted an article (which you can read here) called “The Ultimate Human Judgment” in which I discussed when and how humans can judge the faith of other humans. Much of what I believe on this issue is summarized by Dave Swavely in his excellent book Who Are You To Judge?. Here is what Swavely writes in regards to the acceptance of a profession of faith:

“[R]egarding who are the wheat and who are the tares, they [the apostles] left that judgment to God - except in the case of those who were under church discipline. The biblical writers did not attempt to determine or distinguish true believers from false believers within the church. They accepted people’s profession of faith, as long as it was a credible or biblical profession; and they treated all members of the church as believers, unless the process of discipline proved otherwise. We should therefore do the same.”

How we define a credible profession of faith may vary slightly from church to church, but it should definitely contain an affirmation that the person is saved by grace through faith, should affirm many of the doctrines concerning the nature of God and the person should have been identified with the church through baptism or other forms of membership. If a person has professed faith, been baptized and been received into membership his claim to be a believer has a certain level of credibility. Conversely, if he has refused to be baptized and to be received into membership we would have a good reason to be concerned about his profession.

It seems clear from this explanation that, in order to assume that a profession of faith is genuine, the person must attach himself to a “true” church. How we define a true and false church has been the source of much dialogue and disagreement in the centuries since the Reformation, but I am inclined to agree with the three marks proposed during the Reformation and which are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says “The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”

When a person has made a profession of faith and is a member in good standing of a true church, as defined by these three marks: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline, I believe that we are under an obligation to assume that this person’s faith is genuine. I quote again from Swavely:

I would suggest that when someone has professed personal faith in Christ, been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identified with the church, we are then under obligation from Scripture to make no negative judgment about the validity of his faith. That obligation remains even when a professing believer seems to exhibit a lack of fruit, or even if he commits repeated and heinous sin, because in those cases the other members of the body of Christ are called to encourage, admonish, and if necessary discipline him according to the process Jesus outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. Each of those means of sanctification are based on the presupposition that in most cases the Holy Spirit is present and operative in the sinner’s life. Otherwise they could not be effective in helping that person to grow in grace and to put away the sin against which we all continue to struggle.

This is important, for we have affirmed that a person can be involved in ongoing and unrepentant sin and still be assumed to be a believer, provided that he is within the context of a local church and is receiving necessary discipline. For, as Swavely has pointed out, unrepentant sin leads to discipline, a process which still assumes the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Thus we can still assume of such a person that the Holy Spirit is operative in his life.

I think that most believers would agree with me to this point. But, of course, things are not always so simple. In the case we are examining today, Sullivan is not a member of a true church. This places him in the company of many today who consider themselves Christian but reject the local church as being fundamental to the nurture and development of their faith. Furthermore, his profession of faith is made within the context of Roman Catholicism. If he holds steadfastly to the doctrines of Catholicism, as he claims to, he cannot affirm such fundamental doctrines as justification by grace through faith alone, the very heart of the gospel. What are we to do, then, with a profession of faith made by a person who is outside the God-given oversight of a true church?

I would suggest that in a case like this, it would be helpful to consider what would be different if Sullivan were to be a member of a true church. Like everyone else in North America where churches abound, he has had every opportunity to place himself under the authority of a biblical church. And this is exactly what we would expect of a person who has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We would assume that such a person would be naturally drawn towards other believers. Yet Sullivan has decided not to place himself within such a church. He has even suggested that he must “bypass the hierarchy of the [Roman Catholic] church,” which marginalizes him based on his sexual preferences. He has removed himself from authority and accountability. It is clear that, if he were to attend a church that exercised biblical church discipline, Sullivan’s homosexuality would have placed him under the discipline of the church. This would have been done lovingly in an attempt to save him from his own sinful behavior. If he was not convicted of his sin and did not turn in repentance, it would be assumed that he was not saved and the church would bear the sad responsibility of excommunicating him in the hope that this drastic action would cause him to repent.

Now for the issue of Sullivan’s homosexuality. Were he a member of a true church, and even if he were under the process of church discipline, we would be obligated to assume that his faith was genuine, despite his homosexuality. As it stands, though, he is outside the realm of the church’s authority and thus I feel we have no obligation to make such an assumption. We do not need to understand his sin to be despite the Holy Spirit being operative in his life. It is just as likely that his unrepentant sin is evidence that the Spirit is not operative.

As I understand it, then, because of Sullivan’s unrepentant behavior, and because he has deliberately avoided placing himself within a true church, the proper context for all believers, I feel that we have no obligation to assume that he is a true believer. Of course this does not necessarily mean that he is unsaved. By God’s grace he may be. Neither you nor I can know for certain. But neither do we bear the obligation of assuming that he is a brother in Christ.

May 16, 2006

How many times have you heard a person claim that he has “accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior?” Have you ever asked him what it means that Jesus is his Lord? Have you ever asked him how Jesus is his Savior? What makes Him his Savior? And what does it mean that He is his personal Lord and Savior?

How many times have you heard a person open a prayer with the words “Dear God?” What do those words really mean? Are they addressing God or addressing a letter? Why do we begin our prayers with an address? Is this necessary or merely custom?

How many times have you heard a person thank God that Jesus is present, for “where two are more are gathered together, Jesus is there?” Have you ever asked him why Jesus is only there where two or more are gathered? Have you ever asked if He is present in a more special way when people are gathered versus when they are alone?

There are so many times we flippantly speak of God and His attributes without even caring to understand what we are saying. So we really understand what it means to address God and to bring ourselves into His presence? Do we understand what it means that “Jesus is there?” Do we even care to know what it means that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior?

The incredible thing is that we don’t need to understand these things to be God’s children. We do not need to devote ourselves to endless studies in theology and doctrine in order to be saved. God sees and knows and values the heart more than the mind. Yet if we want to grow deeper in our love for God, we need to begin to understand these things. We need to grow deeper in our knowledge of Him.

On that day that I got married, I loved my wife deeply. On our wedding day, as I looked at her walking down the aisle towards me, I never would have believed that I could love her more than I did at that very moment. I had known her for four years and had spent thousands of hours just being with her, listening to her talk and watching her interact with other people. And now she was walking towards me, looking absolutely radiant, and intending to pledge her life to me. I began to sob like a child and felt my heart would nearly burst with the love I felt for her. But you know what? Almost eight years into that marriage I can honestly say I love her more now than I did when we got married. Why is that? It is simply that I know her so much better now. The more I learn about her, the more I know her. The more I know her, the more I love her.

I use that illustration to show that you can really only love God inasmuch as you know Him. When you are an unbeliever and do not know God you cannot love Him at all. When some day you die and go to be with Him, you will know Him in a perfect way, and will accordingly love Him in a perfect way. The time between when you come to love Him and you are called to be with Him is your opportunity to experience that love and get just a foretaste of heaven here on earth.

I love God more now than I did when I first believed. As a child I loved God with a childlike love, but I barely knew Him. I can think back to distinct moments as I grew older when God taught me something new and amazing about Himself. I can remember moments where something hit me like a lightning bolt and I was awakened to a new reality about God that I had not known before. There were times when my whole body broke into chills as I grew in my knowledge of my Creator. There were other times when I broke into tears as I began to realize the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice for me or the vast depths of His love for me. As I learned about my God I learned to love Him more. As I learned about my God I had to love Him more!

You can be a believer and know almost nothing about God. The man who hung on the cross beside Christ new little more than that Christ was the Son of God and that God had forgiven his sins. And that was enough. But if you want to love God more you need to know Him more. I know that I’m a mere preschooler when it comes to knowing God. I look at others and see some who are in primary school, some who are in high school and some who must be about ready to finish up their post-graduate studies. And how I yearn to know Him that much, knowing that the love I feel for Him now, as great as it may be, is nothing more than a child’s love! I long to love Him, and therefore long to know Him. And I look forward to the day when I will know Him even as I am known by Him, that I may love Him with the perfect love with which He loves me.

May 15, 2006

Every now and then I take my van to WalMart for an oil change. I generally try to make these appointments for as early in the morning as possible, for early in the morning, I very nearly have the place to myself. A little while ago I brought the car in and then spent the next hour wandering from one end of the store to the other, just marvelling at the incredible variety of products on the shelves. There is part of me that despises WalMart, but another part that admires a store that can offer so much at consistently good prices. WalMart is one of the most clear statements you can find about North American consumerism and the insatiable desire to have more for less.

As I wandered I came across the electronics section where they sell (obviously) electronics but also video games, DVDs and so on. One DVD in particular caught my eye. I do not remember the title, but right below the title were the words “bringing the Bible to life.” I picked it up, took a quick look, and tossed it back on the shelf. I still don’t really know what it was. I suspect it was a DVD-based multimedia experience that was intended to help bring the Bible to life. It made me think of a ministry I saw not too long ago, and their description was almost exactly the same: “bringing the word of God to life.” And just this weekend I watched a DVD, and quite a good one at that, that claims it will “make the Bible come alive” as it leads the viewer through the ancient lands where the biblical drama unfolded.

I understand what is being suggested in these statements, but the fact is that the Bible doesn’t need us to bring it to life. If the Bible depended on us to bring it to life I would want no part of it for it would indicate that the Bible was all too human a book.

Do you remember that rather awful movie Titanic? What was it that made the movie so exceedingly popular? When the movie released I was working next door to a brand new, state-of-the-art theatre that showed Titanic all day and all night. I saw all sorts of people come into the store after seeing the movie. Many had red eyes and some even continued to sob as they walked around and tried to compose themselves. I was amazed at how that movie caused so many people to openly weep. But I digress. What made the movie so popular? What gave it the ability to make grown men cry? I think a large part was that it brought history to life. Everyone who remembers what happened on the Titanic is dead. In fact, just a few days ago the final survivor, who was only a small child at the time, died. The events of that day had long-since been relegated to the history books when James Cameron decided to make the film and bring that small piece of history to life. We all got to see what the Titanic looked like, got to meet some of the people who were on it and got a glimpse of life in that day. In that regard it was fascinating. In that regard the filmmaker made something that was dead to us come to life, even if the life was only three hours long. Once he brought history to life, it allowed us to become emotionally engaged with the characters so that their joy became our joy and their pain became our pain. We were drawn in by the realism of the history the film displayed—a history that had been dead to us.

History is like that, isn’t it? History is dead. History books are dead. They may be interesting and can provide all sorts of great information, but they’re dead. But not so the Bible.

The Bible says of itself “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) From that passage, do we see God telling us to bring life to His word? Is it our task to take the dead words of the Bible and make them alive, to make them more interesting or to make them more appealing? Clearly not! Jesus tells us that “the words I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63) How can we bring life to something that is already alive? And why would we want to replace Scripture’s immortal life with the mortal life we experience on earth. Imagine perverting God’s perfect word with our imperfection!

I understand the intent of the people who seek to make the Bible come alive. On the whole I believe that their intentions are pure but their wording is imprecise. In most cases I would suggest that these people are attempting to “bring the history of the Bible to life” or to “bring the setting of the Bible to life.” This is a far different task than bringing the actual Scripture to life. It is a far more noble task. The Bible is, after all, a historical document that was written within particular places and within particular cultural contexts. It may be helpful, at times, to bring to life some glimpses of the culture, customs and history of the Bible. This is what the Paul: Apostle of Grace DVD sought to do, even under the poor wording on the video’s cover. This is what many godly pastors do when they study the ancient people and describe them to their congregations.

I would urge people to guard their words when they speak about bringing the Bible to life. Imprecise wording can bring confusion and can cause people to believe that the Bible, like any other historical book, is mere dead wording that requires human effort to bring it to life. But this is not the case.

We can bring history to life. We can bring culture and ceremony and customs to life by illustrating them, filming them or re-enacting them. But not so the Bible. Will you try to bring life to God’s word? You will fail. You must fail, for the word is alive before you even begin to breathe your life into it. Do not try to bring life to the word. Bring the word. That is enough.

May 12, 2006

Immediately prior to the Together for the Gospel Conference, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel discussing issues pertaining to blogging. In the days following I mentioned on my blog that, due to the brevity of the occasion, I did not have the chance to address some of the “soapbox” issues pertaining to blogging in general and Christian blogging in particular. A couple of people have since asked me if I would consider writing about these issues and I thought I’d take the opportunity to address one of them today. This is an issue that actually extends far beyond blogging and the blogosphere and is one that has become increasingly important to me over the past few months. It has to do with anonymity.

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, something that was quite rare in even just a few generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure.

In the past, anonymity was both rare and difficult for people tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action was seen. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime within a small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled. “For most people most of the time, their villages or towns were sufficiently cohesive and their relationships sufficiently close that behavior was held in check. In small towns neighborliness was often ‘nosiness’ just as in cities anonymity was often ‘liberation.’ But the point still stands—traditional morality was closely tied to accountability.”

Under-girding these statements is the fundamental belief that humans require accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all manner of evil. As Christians, those who seek to live by a higher standard, we know that we need other believers to watch over us and to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible reminds us that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and that we are to “provoke one another to love and good works…exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live it in solitude. We need community. We need accountability.

Our society values anonymity. There are many who feel that anonymity is a right and one that is to be closely guarded and protected. Those who use technology may have noticed the influx of tools designed to protect the anonymity of the Internet user. The latest versions of web browsers come with tools designed to erase all trace of what a person was doing while browsing the web. Other tools allow a person to be untraceable to others as he travels various web sites. While there may be legitimate applications to these tools they are, by and large, used by those who are up to no good. But anonymity extends far beyond technology. It extends to the workplace where many people travel extensively, spending weeks of every year in hotel rooms where what they do and what they watch is kept behind closed doors. We live in communities where we may not even know our next-door neighbors either by name or by face, for we arrive home from work, pull the car into the garage and close the door behind us. We live only yards away from people we may never meet. Churches grow larger and relationships grow weaker. We are anonymous, impersonal people in a largely anonymous, impersonal world. We live beyond Gibraltar. Guinness does not exaggerate when he writes “More of us today are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in human history.”

I have often seen the effect of this anonymity in my line of work and in my wife’s. Aileen sells products online. It is not unusual to have a person who is somehow dissatisfied with his transaction write her an email that is rude, abrasive and even filled with profanity. But invariably, if the person later phones her or if she decides to phone the disgruntled customer, the person is much more kind and even-tempered when the communication is less-anonymous. I would assume that if they were to meet face-to-face, these customers would likely be more civil still. Truly anonymity can have a strangely negative effect on people.

I don’t think that Christians are any more immune to the temptations of anonymity than are unbelievers. Guinness asks, “Why are there more temptations in a hotel room in a distant city than at home? Why do more people ‘flame’ on the Internet than would ever lose their cool in an office?” These questions are surely as applicable to those who seek to follow Christ as they are to those who do not. Christian-owned forums and blogs are all the proof we need that Christians require accountability as much as anyone. Perhaps more so.

Many bloggers and other Internet users value anonymity. A blog is understood by some to be a place of refuge and safety—a place where a person can post what is on his mind and on his heart while revealing little about who he truly is. It is a place to let loose with the anger and frustration. It is a place where a person can speak out to other people and about other people without ever having to look those people in the eye. If every sailor is a bachelor beyond Gibraltar, we could as easily say that every blogger is a pundit or a curmudgeon or an expert or a righteous man when in front of his keyboard.

Guinness says that, in former days, morality was accountability through visibility. Yet today many of us are able to remain invisible. Not too long ago I was an invisible blogger. In some ways I valued my anonymity, and yet I knew that it could be a danger. I wrote a lot and my site was read by many people, but all the while I was safely removed from the people I wrote for and wrote about. I began to see the effect of this in my writing. It became increasingly abrasive and showed a distinct lack of character. The past year or so has brought about something of a transformation in my life. By live-blogging conferences I have had to emerge from my home office and meet many of the people who read this site and whose sites I read. This has been, in every case, a tremendous blessing. At the same time I made changes to my life, even going so far as to begin attending a new church where I would come face-to-face each week with people who would encourage or exhort me as necessary. I deliberately sought people who could challenge me and keep an eye on whatever ministry opportunities arise from my writing.

I am not suggesting that I am a model to follow. But I think that God was gracious to me in revealing the necessity of avoiding complete anonymity. He helped me understand that accountability is closely tied to visibility. And so I have sought to make myself more visible that I may accept correction and reproof when it is necessary. At the same time I have renewed my commitment to the One who is always watching and who knows every word I write and every intent of my heart. And so this is my challenge to bloggers and to those who comment on blogs: make yourself accountable through visibility. Commit yourself to purity of heart and to only speaking or writing what is honoring to God. And then ensure that there are people who know you, who read your words, who will lovingly exhort and correct you when you do not keep this commitment. In this way we can honor God and maintain a focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

May 08, 2006

It seems that life is filled, at almost every turn, with trials and difficulties. Some of these times of trail are light while others are terribly weighty. Strangely, some of these trials are caused by times of great joy while others are caused by great pain. The birth of a child can prove to be almost as great a trial, despite being brought about by such joy, as the loss of a job or another occasion of pain. It is during times like this that I am particularly grateful to be a part of the church. Never is God’s wisdom in bringing His people into this type of community more profoundly felt and seen than during these difficult times.

I am one of those people that loves to help (most of the time, anyways). While I am a shamefully selfish person in many ways, I do derive some type of joy from helping others, even if that help is expressed in something as simple as lending my back to help a family move, lending my van for hauling a crowd of people from place to place, or lending my time to help out at some occasion or another. Whether I always do this from a pure heart, deriving my joy from obedience to God in helping these people, is debatable much of the time. It is a strange and unique fact of the Christian faith that, as far as God is concerned, motives matter more than actions. God values a pure heart and one that seeks His honor above all. Far too often I know that I do things from the desire to be seen, known and thanked. It’s pathetic really. Shameful. Yet it is all too human.

But while I love to help, sometimes from pure motives and sometimes from impure, I am not the type who likes to be helped. I assume that this is simply an outworking of pride in my life. I am convinced that it is also a product of my upbringing. Despite not having any recent Dutch heritage, I was, in large part, raised among second generation Dutch-Canadians. I went to Dutch schools and churches and no doubt absorbed much of their culture and many of their values. The Dutch are, in many ways, a noble group and, when saved, make some of the strongest, most committed Christians I’ve known. There are few groups I have seen that do a better job of taking care of and ministering to their own. While these Dutch people value hard work, they also take very good care of those who are unable to work because of age, infirmity or circumstance. These Dutch churches put to shame many churches I have come across since where those who fall upon hard times are considered burdensome and are shunned rather than honored, left to their own rather than ministered to.

Yet while the Dutch people I knew took very good care of those who were unable to care for themselves, they placed great value on self-sufficiency. Charity was something to be extended only to those who had a genuine need for it. While it was not generally considered shameful to need or accept charity, it was considered most shameful to request it when it was not absolutely necessary. Embedded deep in the Dutch culture is the value of a person pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, being strong, and showing no weakness. Those who were considered weak, especially when young, were often trampled underfoot. Dutch schools were full of weak, frightened people who pretended to be strong. The churches were probably not much different.

It is a strange dichotomy, I suppose, but this desire to be self-sufficient was as much part of the culture as was the desire to help those who had genuine needs. Charity was valued as highly as self-sufficiency. This was the culture I absorbed as a child and teenager. It was the culture that, in some ways, I carry with me today. I am usually glad to extend charity, but am rarely as eager to express need or to accept help from others. I hate to feel weak.

It is only over the past few months that I have come to see the value of expressing weakness when I am weak. I have seen the value in asking people to come in to my life and to minister to me when I have needs. I can think of at least three reasons that this is a necessity for believers.

First, expressing weakness is an expression of humility. Conversely, it is only pride that keeps me from making my needs known and asking others to minister to me. When I am filled with pride, a strong and ever-present foe, I would rather suffer silently than humble myself and allow others to extend help to me. Far too often I have feigned strength when I am filled only with weakness. Far too often I have allowed pride to overwhelm humility and have suffered in my sinful silence.

Second, expressing weakness allows others to plead for me before God. There are times when my prayers are weak and filled with doubt. There are times when I don’t even know what to pray or how to pray for myself. In these times it is comforting to know that others are praying for me and holding me up before the throne of grace. What a blessing it is to be part of a body where needs are expressed and are brought before God!

Finally, when I refuse to express my weakness I refuse to give other people the opportunity to minister to me. It is a strange fact that, while I am always eager and willing to help those who reach out to me, I am far less eager to reach out to others. I cannot count the number of times that I have been blessed by having the opportunity to help others. While I attempt not to see extending help and charity as a selfish act, an act primarily for my own benefit, it is sometimes difficult not to! I have had my faith challenged and strengthened and have been greatly blessed in helping others. When I have heard expressions of gratitude by those I’ve been able to help I have often had to say, with honesty and humility I think, that it was surely a greater blessing to be able to help than it was to received assistance! Why is it, then, that I am so hesitant to allow others the opportunity to be blessed by helping me? It seems to me that I am as sinful in refusing to help those in need as I am in refusing to allow them to bless and minister to me when I have need.

I guess this little meditation was brought about, in part at least, by the birth of my daughter. This is a time when, for just a few days, life becomes near-chaos. Schedules are disrupted, sleep is sporadic and tempers can quickly fray. Yet during this time we have already been blessed and ministered to in many ways. We have had people offer us their time and resources and we have several meals, all of which look delicious, waiting in our freezer. My first inclination, when offered a meal or other help is always to refuse. But I quickly realize that to refuse would be only an expression of pride. And worse, far be it from me to refuse someone else the opportunity to be strengthened in his faith by ministering to myself or my family!

During the past few days (and during the past few weeks when my wife was ordered to stay off her feet) it has been a blessing to allow others to minister to us. It is good to be members of the body of Christ. What wisdom God has shown us in giving us this body, this family!

May 07, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is Worship Matters, the blog of Bob Kauflin, who serves in Gaithersburg, Maryland as Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace. He is probably best known for his involvement in several Sovereign Grace Music projects, including Upward: The Bob Kauflin Hymns Project and Songs For The Cross Centered Life. Bob is a relative newcomer to the blogosphere, having begun “Worship Matters” in November of last year. But since then, he has often blessed and challenged me with his humble, Christ-centered reflections on faith and worship. While the blog is intended primarily for those who are involved in leading God’s people in corporate worship, I can attest that it will prove valuable for anyone who cares to make it a regular stop.

For the next few days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from Bob’s blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over to his site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

May 02, 2006

The recent edition of Time Magazine features “The People Who Shape Our World.” Time has created a list of 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example, they feel, is transforming our world. It is important to note, before we take a peek at this list, that it is not really the world which these people shape. Rather, it is people within the world that are shaped and transformed by these people. A person can only shape the world by shaping the people in the world. So bear that in mind as we move along here.

Having reviewed this list, the cynic in me does not hold out much hope for the world. Here are some of the men and women who are apparently shaping the world we live in. The first category is of artists and entertainers—“influential stars [who have] won fans and spawned imitators around the globe.”

  • J.J. Abrams
  • George Clooney
  • Dixie Chicks
  • Ellen DeGeneres
  • Wayne Gould
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Arianna Huffington
  • Ang Lee
  • Renzo Piano
  • Rain
  • Rachael Ray
  • Jeff Skoll
  • Kiki Smith
  • Will Smith
  • Zadie Smith
  • Howard Stern
  • Meryl Streep
  • Reese Witherspoon
  • Rob Pardo
  • Daddy Yankee
  • Tyra Banks
  • Dane Cook
  • Matt Drudge
  • Stephen Colbert

I only rarely watch movies and television and almost never listen to the radio so am not entirely up-to-date on Hollywood’s latest shining stars, but I had a great deal of trouble thinking that most of these people could possibly shape our world. And even more so, I had trouble understanding why anyone would want to emulate and idolize many of these people and allow themselves to be shaped by them. For again, a person can only shape the world by shaping the people in the world. To be influential a person must have influence over others.

On this list we have such notables as the Dixie Chicks. Their influence is felt in disrespecting and scorning their President, setting a terrible example to their fans of people who loudly and proudly disregard authority. We have Ellen DeGeneres and Ang Lee who are notable primarily for being advocates and champions of the homosexual agenda. There is Reese Witherspoon who really has not done much of anything beyond acting in quite a few movies. Howard Sterm has popularized all manner of perversity and profanity while Tyra Banks complains and has a lot of plastic surgery. Rachael Ray teaches people to cook (I know this because I saw an episode of her show once while flying from Los Angeles to Atlanta).

The article goes on to list Scientists & Thinkers, Leaders & Revolutionaries, Heroes & Pioneers and Builders & Titans. Some of the names are familiar to just about anyone. Others are not. Noticably absent from this list was a firm Christian presence (and yes, I do realize that “Christians” Bono and Pope Benedict were represented).

As I thought about this list I was reminded of something Os Guinness wrote in The Call. He discusses fame and heroism and the call of Christ. He provides three reasons that heroism has fallen on hard times. The first of these is the modern habit of bebunking. Modern people are (often necessarily) cynical and “look straightaway not for the golden aura but for the feet of clay, not for the stirring example but for the cynical motive, not for the ideal embodied by for the energetic press agent.” The third reason is the death of God in Western society, or as Guinness terms it, “the drowning out of the call of God in modern life.” Having lost a perspective of the transcendence of human life, we can no longer properly talk about an ideal human character. In previous generations, to be a great human being was to be a “knight of the faith.” This is, of course, no longer the case. Because there is no Caller and no higher calling, there is no knights of faith and no one who can dub them.

It is the second reason, though, that most gripped me. Guinness points to the press and media and their role in creating the modern celebrity. He did this long before “American Idol” and the rise of the “reality” show. These forces widen the gap between “fame and greatness, heroism and accomplishment.” It used to be that heroism was linked to the honor of accomplishment so that only those were regarded as heroes who had actually made some grand accomplishment, whether in “character, virtue, wisdom, the arts, sports or warfare.” Sadly, this is no longer the case. Today we find that the media offers a shortcut to fame—“instantly fabricated famousness with no need for the sweat, cost and dedication of true greatness. The result is not the hero but the celebrity, the person famously described as ‘well-known for being well-known.’ A big name rather than a big person, the celebrity is someone for whom character is nothing, coverage is all.”

Guinness often points to Winston Churchill as a true hero. Churchill was a flawed man, but one who rose to true fame, greatness and heroism through character, virtue, wisdom and warfare. Churchill was able to say once that “I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.” Yet through the trials he developed great character and has been memorialized as a true hero. Guinness points to Moses who was a man ablaze with a passion for God. Moses was transformed from being a man of action to a man of words and slowly became a leader, a prophet, a hero who was given the tribute “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”

The heroes and influencers of our culture are rarely heroic. We prefer fleeting fame to grand accomplishment, coverage to character. Sadly, it seems that this lack of discernment is seen within the church as much as without. Many of the men and women who have risen to the ranks of influencers and leaders within the church lack the godliness and character that ought to set apart those to whom we give special honor. How else to we explain T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar and so many other Christian “heroes?”

Great men and women will have great heroes. This was brought home to me last week when I had the privilege of touring through the offices and library of Dr. Albert Mohler. On the walls of the library and his offices were portraits of truly great men—Charles Spurgeon, John Knox, William Tyndale and other heroes of church history. There was even a portrait of Winston Churchill and several biographies of the man. Clearly Dr. Mohler is deliberately surrounding himself by the examples of men who are truly great—men whose example he can learn from and emulate.

Like Dr. Mohler, I aspire to be a great man. I don’t much care if you or anyone else remembers my name months or years from now, as long as God knows me as a man who knew and loved and honored Him. I wish to be great in His eyes. If I am to strive after godliness and to become a man who is great in God’s eyes, I must pay close attention to who influences me, to who shapes my world. I must know for certain that I will imitate those I allow to influence me. And thus I must be sure that those who influence me are not merely those who are well-known for being well-known, but those who are men and women of character, virtue and wisdom.

April 25, 2006

I promised yesterday that today I would have a big announcement. Well here it is.

I am announcing the launch of a new web site. Well, a new/old web site. You may remember a site called Discerning Reader. Once a very popular and well-regarded site, it ran into all sorts of trouble, the details of which I do not care to expound upon. Suffice it to say that the site shut down and the domain name was offered for sale. I purchased the name and have created a new site. There is no connection between the old owners and myself.

As you may know, one of my passions is reading. I absolutely love to read and to help others find books that are worth reading. With tens of thousands of Christians books hitting the shelves every year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sort the good from the bad and the better from the best. This is where Discerning Reader comes in. It is a site that features reviews written by discerning readers. There are currently several hundred reviews available with many others to be added in the near future. There are author biographies as well as a whole list of new (or upcoming features). Among the features are:

  • New York Times Bestsellers - We are reviewing many of the books that appear on the New York Times list of bestsellers. We hope to be able to expand this section to include all the books featured in the top position in nonfiction.
  • Expert Lists - We have asked some of the most discerning and widely-respected authors and teachers to send us lists of books they recommend for various purposes.
  • Where To Start Lists - Interested in beginning to read about a new topic? Let our experts guide you to books that will bless you as you read about spiritual disciplines, church history, systematic theology, family issues and more.
  • Church Bulletin Mini-Reviews - Discerning Reader now offers short, discerning reviews suitable for placement in church bulletins.
  • Bookworm Reviews - Discerning Reader has looked high and low to find other discerning book reviewers. Our “Bookworm” program features off-site reviews written by a wide variety of discerning reviewers. Check any of the titles in our database for these bookworm reviews.

Not all of these features are fully available yet, but they will be added in the near future. You may recognize the “bookworm review” program as the heart of what was once Diet of Bookworms.

I am quite excited about this site and am confident that it will prove to be of great benefit to the church. I invite you to visit the site, to take a look around, and to provide me with your feedback. Please spread the news as you see fit. Tell others about this resource!

Visit Discerning Reader

April 21, 2006

Christians are anticipating The Da Vinci Code movie with a mix of expectation and dread. The expectation is based on knowing that Jesus’ name will be, at least for a short time, on many tongues. This may create opportunities to discuss Him with friends, family neighbors and co-workers. The dread is based on the knowledge that Dan Brown, in his book, and thus in the film, took great liberties with history, presenting as factual a mix of fact, fiction and fantasy. He does not help the reader or watcher to know what is true and what is not, what is factual and what is only the product of his imagination. Brown is far from honest when he declares in the opening pages of his novel that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” It has been shown by men far more knowledgeable and capable than I am that this is, plain and simply, nonsense.

It was only two years ago that another film exploded into the box office, causing people to consider Jesus as perhaps they had not considered Him before. Christians heralded the arrival of this movie, defending the film and its creator from charges of being outrageously violent and being anti-semitic. They lauded the film—praised it—as being a beautiful, accurate, stunning portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life. Yet in many ways this film, The Passion of the Christ, took as many liberties with the truth as does The Da Vinci Code. Just as Dan Brown has an agenda that he seeks to further in the work of fiction he declares to be fact, so Mel Gibson, who wrote, produced and championed The Passion of the Christ wished to further an agenda in mixing truth with error, fact with fiction.

This time, though, Christians are not embracing the film. Nor should they. Yet there is no small amount of hypocrisy in overlooking the unbiblical agenda of one man, celebrating his film, while criticizing another and lamenting his film.

I posted an early review of The Passion of the Christ and followed this review with several articles dealing with topics ranging from the inaccuracies of the film to my reflections on how God might use it nevertheless. I received no small amount of grief for criticizing the film and questioning the discernment of those who gave it a blanket endorsement. My review was read by tens of thousands of people and I received countless comments and emails questioning my motives, exhorting me to repent for posting it and occasionally even encouraging me to persevere. I argued in the subsequent series of articles that The Passion of the Christ presented a distinctly Roman Catholic version of the events surrounding Jesus’ life. I showed that Mel Gibson, while faithful to the text of Scripture in some areas, was willing to part from historical fact when his Roman Catholic faith required that he do so. Gibson could have created a film that was simply accurate to the Scriptures. Had he done so, it would have been consistent with what Protestants believe about Jesus’ life and death. Alas, he did not. Rather, Gibson created a film that portrayed Jesus in a manner that is consistent with Roman Catholicism and thus is, in many important ways, inconsistent with Scripture.

It was disturbing to see how many prominent Christian leaders voiced their support for this film and what terms they used to do so. They described the movie as being “factually accurate,” “very accurate [in the details],” “realistic,” “biblical,” “an accurate account,” “a true representation of Jesus” and “close to the Scriptures.” In certain aspects of the film this was true. Yet in many cases it could not have been further from the truth.

Before I proceed, allow me to grant that there is a difference in scope and seriousness between the inaccuracies found in Gibson’s film and those found in The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown goes so far as to suggest that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child with her, and intended for her to be his successor as head of the church. When we compare what Gibson presented in The Passion of the Christ to these claims, Gibson’s errors may seem trifling. Yet the errors the The Da Vinci Code do not come with the endorsement, recommendation and praise of a multitude of prominent Christian teachers and leaders! Neither will pastors encourage Christians to attend this movie as an act of devotion.

Allow me to present just two of the more serious errors, or series of errors, that clearly show that Mel Gibson was attempting to portray Jesus in a way that was consistent not with Scripture, but with his own agenda of furthering his Catholic understanding of the Christian faith.

The first concerns Mary, whose role in Christianity is an obvious and well-documented point of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. Mary was presented in a light far different than what we find in Scripture. Gibson, consistent with Catholic theology, showed her taking a role as a suffering servant, suffering along with Jesus. This is necessary for her to assume her role as “co-Mediatrix.” She is presented as being Jesus’ support and strength during His trials; many times Jesus falls and is unable to get up, but after looking at His mother He finds the strength to carry on; the disciples all call Mary “mother”; Mary is shown submitting her will to God’s, saying “so be it” as if her consent was necessary for God’s plan to proceed (in the same way that Jesus’ consent was necessary). This is clearly not the Mary of the Bible, but the Mary of the Roman Catholic Church who reigns beside Jesus as Queen of Heaven.

The second error concerns the source for much of Gibson’s material. As I proved conclusively in an article entitled The Gospel According to Emmerich, Gibson drew heavily from Sister Anne Emmerich’s devotional book entitled The Dolorous Passion of Christ. Emmerich is known to some as being a mystic, stigmatist, visionary, and prophet who supposedly received visions from God in which He provided to her details about Jesus’ last days that are not contained in the Bible. This extra-Biblical account of Jesus’ suffering provided many of the intricate but important details in the movie. Among these are some fairly innocuous details such as Simon and Jesus linking arms as they held the cross and Pilate’s wife providing a cloth to Mary which she used to wipe Jesus’ blood from the floor. But it also provided inspiration for some of the more pivotal details. Gibson put Emmerich’s words in the mouth of Peter in an expression of unworthiness before Mary. “0, Mother,” Peter said, “speak not to me-thy Son is suffering more than words can express: speak not to me!” Most troubling, though, is that The Dolorous Passion of Christ provided many of the words Jesus spoke. A great number of Jesus’ words from the movie are drawn not from the Bible but from Emmerich. The movie makes no attempt to show what was drawn directly from the Bible and what was drawn from extra-Biblical writing.

Christians were willing and eager to tolerate the abuse of Scripture when it suited their purposes. Churches around the globe (though mostly around the North American continent) mobilized to take advantage of the opportunity to reach people through The Passion of the Christ. Marketing companies proclaimed it the greatest evangelistic opportunity since Pentecost. Thousands of churches encouraged their members to attend. Millions did. Many churches bought thousands of tickets and gave them to members of the local communities. Mel Gibson made hundreds of millions of dollars, largely through the efforts of Protestants (money he has since used, in part, to build a largely private Roman Catholic church where he can celebrate his Pre-Tridentine brand of Catholicism). Evangelicals were only too pleased to part with their money to support this film. It was disturbing, tragic even, to see Protestants commit themselves so fully to a film that was, in so many ways, inaccurate and unbiblical.

The Da Vinci Code, when examined objectively, may well be less harmful than The Passion of the Christ. Most Christians know that it contains error and takes great liberties with historical fact. The lines have been firmly drawn. But in The Passion of the Christ Christians were told they were watching fact when much of what they were watching was mere fiction, fiction that would seek to draw them not to the Christ of the Bible, but to the Christ of Rome and to His mother. They were told that Mel Gibson was a brother in Christ, when in fact his Pre-Tridentine Catholicism rejects the faith of Protestants. Just like Dan Brown, Mel Gibson brought his movie before the public as part of a wider agenda. And like Brown, this agenda was distinctly anti-biblical. Is it consistent then, or is it hypocritical that evangelicals were willing to embrace The Passion of the Christ but are so dead-set against The Da Vinci Code?

April 20, 2006

On the thirteenth of April, one week ago, John MacArthur was invited to be a guest on Larry King Live. I have lost track of the number of times that MacArthur has been asked to participate in King’s show, but it seems that when King needs a person to defend traditional, biblical Protestantism, he calls MacArthur. It is always a good choice.

When MacArthur appears on Larry King Live he usually appears as part of an interesting cast of characters. More often than not he is seated between Deepak Chopra on one side and Michael Manning on the other. Chopra is a New Age guru and founder of The Chopra Center for Well Being in California while Michael Manning is a Roman Catholic priest, pastor at St. Anthony’s Parish in San Bernardino, and host of The “Word in the World.” Last week, though, MacArthur found himself in different company. While he was still seated beside Michael Manning, every other one of the seven guests on the show, was Roman Catholic. The topic of discussion was a new, exploitive “reality” show entitled God or the Girl?. The show follows four young men as they wrestle with the decision of whether or not to train for the priesthood, knowing that this will require a life of celibacy.

For the first few minutes of the broadcast, King spoke with the four men who will be featured in God or the Girl?. He then asked questions of Anthony Podovano, a Roman Catholic theologian and author and Father John Bartunek, who is a Legionnaire of Christ (whatever that is) and rejected evangelicalism in favor of crossing the Tiber and becoming a Catholic priest.

He then turned to MacArthur. And this is what I love and admire about John MacArthur. MacArthur did not beat around the bush. He did not spend a few sentences seeking common ground and affirming his love and respect for Catholic tradition before addressing what he feels is error. No, he just waded in.

I think from a biblical standpoint we need to readdress this issue on a couple of fronts. Number one, according to the New Testament, you can’t be a pastor unless you are the husband of one wife and have proven that you’re able to manage your household well.

The apostle Paul also said that one of the false doctrines, he called doctrines of demons, 1 Timothy 4, is forbidding to marry. There is no biblical basis for this whatsoever. You can’t use Jesus as an example. He’s God in human flesh.

There is no biblical foundation. In fact, Paul said it’s better to marry than to burn. So, you put a priest in an impossible situation, then stick him in a confessional all day to listen to people reciting all their sexual sins and I think that’s just way over the top if you expect somebody to live a pure life with that kind of temptation thrown at them.

He then provided the historical basis for the Roman Catholic requirement of priestly celibacy. “I don’t think it’s a biblical idea at all and it came, as Father Manning noted, because priestly families were building fortunes and in 1079 when that became law at the Lateran (ph) Council, it was because Rome started seeing that money was being kept in these massive families. If you don’t have any children, you can’t pass on anything.”

A few minutes later he spoke of the tremendous blessing of marriage and family.

I took God and the girl. And my life — my ministry is aided by my wife and her faith and my children and my grandchildren, who undergird what I preach by the life they live.

They are the greatest support in my ministry. They give confidence to my — I’m not an island. They see me in a real world and they see my family surrounding me and they know what my life is like because it manifests itself in them.

A caller asked about homosexuality and King took the opportunity to press MacArthur, clearly hoping he would say something outrageous. MacArthur spoke of the sin of homosexuality and, when asked how Jesus would react to homosexuals, said: “I think he would endeavor to communicate the truth and the gospel. He would confront the sin and he would offer the salvation through repentance and faith in himself and his death and resurrection.” He quickly became involved in a back-and-forth with Manning who felt MacArthur had gone too far. As always, MacArthur slipped the gospel into his few minutes of camera time.

If you would like to read the transcript, you can do so here. I suppose the point in posting this is just to draw attention to MacArthur’s faithfulness. He stuck to the Scriptures and surely made an impact on Larry King’s audience. He did not back down and was not apologetic in defending the truth. And that, I think, is why King continues to invite him back.