An old version, that is…
It’s quite a long and boring story, but if you have an old version of Adobe Photoshop hanging around your bookshelves I’d be quite interested in purchasing it from you. Contact me if you’re interested…
Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
An old version, that is…
It’s quite a long and boring story, but if you have an old version of Adobe Photoshop hanging around your bookshelves I’d be quite interested in purchasing it from you. Contact me if you’re interested…
This is the third article in a series that examines various doctrinal and societal challenges the Evangelical church must face early in the 21st Century. Previously we examined Relativism and the dangerous doctrine of Open Theism. Today we will examine pragmatism, which has become a dominant force in both the world and the church. I want to take a brief look at the history of pragmatism and then show how it has influenced the church.
Pragmatism is a school of philosophy that arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States. It is rooted in the teachings of men like John Stuart Mill who had a great formative influence in philosophers such as John Dewey who applied pragmatism to education and William James who applied it to religion. These men taught that the way to determine truth was to examine practical results. Having been founded by philosophers, pragmatism was cemented into the Western mindset by the Industrial Revolution. Pragmatism in industry has changed the way we live. James Boice says “The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done. Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing…and abundant food.” (Whatever Happened To The Gospel of Grace p.50) This mass production has been achieved, of course, at the cost of quality and craftsmanship.
Wikipedia says the following of pragmatism (emphasis added):
Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy…Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices—i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them—and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.
Few of us would object to the many benefits pragamtism has brought us. When we visit the local big box store to purchase second-rate furniture and cheap electronic goods for only a fraction of what it would cost to hire an expert to build them for us, we are experiencing the benefits of industrial pragmatism. The philosophy of pragmatism is deeply-rooted in our Western mindset.
Pragmatism is defined by Webster’s as “the doctrine that practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value.” In short, truth is determined by consequences. Whether something is right or wrong, good or bad is primarily dependent on results.
Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have affirmed the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which teaches that the Bible alone is to be our standard of morality and truth. This standard is rooted in the early church and, of course, in the Bible. It has always been a fundamental teaching of Protestantism. Sola Scriptura was the foundational doctrine of the Reformation - the doctrine upon which every other doctrine was built.
Pragmatism and Sola Scriptura must stand in opposition as each claims to be the key to determining truth. As Christians we need to decide if we are going to depend upon Scripture as the absolute standard of truth or if we will determine truth by consequences. Though we would be hard pressed to find a Christian who says â€œI believe in pragmatismâ€ the philosophy manifests itself in the Christian world in many different ways. Though people affirm Sola Scriptura with their mouths (or doctrinal statements) they often deny it with their actions.
A Case Study
In order to understand how pragmatism can affect a church, let’s look at a fictional case study which compares two churches.
Oakville Community Church
A church of 250 people has been offered the opportunity to have a popular female minister preach in their church in a few weeks. Though the church believes that having a woman preach is unscriptural, they see the benefit of allowing her to preach just this one Sunday (no matter your feelings on women preachers, for the sake of this fictional story you’ll have to at least pretend you do not approve of women in teaching ministry). They share the news with the congregation and the people are electrified. They hold meetings to determine how they can best leverage this amazing opportunity. Eventually they decide they will spend a good portion of their advertising budget for that year on advertising this event. Each person is given cards to hand out to their friends and posters to hang in the work places. Prayer teams form to pray about this event and teams are trained to help respond to those who may wish to make commitments to Christ through the event.
As the big day approaches the excitement mounts. The morning of the service the members of the church arrive early, anticipating a great day in the history of their church. They are thrilled to see many of their friends and co-workers arrive. They are even more thrilled to see many strangers. By the time the service gets underway the church is packed. Literally hundreds of guests fill the seats that morning.
The service goes off without a hitch. The worship band plays songs that honor God and lead people to worship Him. The guest minister preaches an evangelistic sermon that shares the gospel message. By the end of the service many people are in tears and the prayer room at the back of the church is filled with people praying and making commitments to Christ. The congregation is overjoyed to see twenty five people come to the Lord.
In the aftermath of this service the twenty five people who made commitments to Christ all join the church and become active members. They grow in the Lord, becoming strong, committed Christians and even leading others to Christ. The church experiences a time of growth.
Second Baptist Church of Oakville
A church of 250 people has been offered the opportunity to have a popular female minister preach in their church in a few weeks. The leaders gather the congregation together to speak about the opportunity and after prayer and discussion they decide to affirm their belief that the Bible does not allow for female preachers. Though they acknowledge that his opportunity could help their church grow and lead people to the Lord they politely decline the invitation.
Several weeks later on the day the guest minister would have been there, the church has 250 people in attendance. There are two or three guests, conspicuous by their hand-written name tags. The pastor continues in his message series which is a 10-part exposition of Ephesians. He preaches a good sermon. At the end of the service no one goes to the prayer room and no one sheds a tear.
In the aftermath of this service the church continues its slow growth.
Which Is Right?
Now please, do not be distracted by the issue of women preachers, or you will be missing the point of the case study. Feel free to replace that example with any contentious issue. What we need to determine is which of these two churches was most faithful.
From our human perspective we would see no reason to doubt that the first church was faithful in using an open door provided by God. They took a step of faith and God blessed them richly. He also furthered His kingdom as twenty five people became believers that day. We have to acknowledge, though, that our human perspective means little if it does not agree with God’s perspective.
What would God say? God, above anything else, desires obedience. More than sacrifice, more than excellence, more than results, God wants obedience. By studying Scripture we can learn that in eternity when all is made clear, God will tell the second church that they were the ones that did His will. Results simply cannot excuse disobedience. God may choose to use our disobedience to further his purposes, but this does not give us license to ignore the clear teaching of the Word.
Evidently the first church was the pragmatic one. They foresaw wonderful results but ignored the Bible. The second church was the obedient one, also foreseeing the potential for wonderful results, but choosing to heed the Bible. The point is clear: either the Bible or the results need to be our standard. And as believers we must hold to the primacy of Scripture. The results, no matter how wild, cannot make up for disobedience.
Where You Might Find It
Pragmatism has reared its ugly head throughout the Christian world. It is found in statements about evangelistic techniques such as “if it only reaches one person it is worth it.” It is found especially in the Church Growth Movement. In Rick Warrenâ€™s book The Purpose Driven Church, a textbook for church growth, he writes “Never criticize any method that God is blessing.” He also says “We must be willing to adjust our worship practices when unbelievers are present. God tells us to be sensitive to the hang-ups of unbelievers in our services.” These ideas are not Biblical; they are rooted in the perceived consequences. We saw pragmatism at work before and after the release of The Passion of the Christ when far more emphasis was placed on the potential results of the movie than whether it was doctrinally-sound. Pragmatism is found wherever Christians run to join programs and hurry to change their worship services because of what they expect to see happen because of the changes they make. In short, it is found anywhere the emphasis is removed from what Scripture says and where the emphasis is placed on the expected results. Sadly, this means that it is found throughout the Evangelical world.
We are far too human. We are limited in our perception and understanding. We are prone to believe that good results are necessarily indicative of faithfulness to Scripture. But this is simply not true. God sometimes chooses to use us despite our disobedience.
Similarly, God does not always provide the results we would like to see. There are missionaries that have spent many years laboring in the mission field and have seen very few hearts and lives changed. Does this necessarily mean that their technique is flawed? Does it necessarily mean that they are not doing God’s will? By no means! God sometimes chooses to provide results and other times He does not. Even Jesus experienced varied results when He ministered. In some towns the people listened and trusted in Him while other towns rejected Him. This does not mean that Jesus’â€™ technique was flawed or that He was being disobedient.
The obvious danger of pragmatism in the church is that we lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His Word. When we lose that focus the church is on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard Godâ€™s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God.
More than anything else God desires and expects obedience of His children. Pragmatism has no answer to the question of how we determine obedience, for obedience can only be determined through Scripture. Therefore pragmatism cannot be reconciled with Scripture and must be set aside in favor of faithfulness to God’s Word.
Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur
I’m doing it now.
So if you get errors, just hang tight.
Today we will look at Canadian use of the English language. We have already looked extensively at that little word “eh?” so today we will turn to other words.
Canadians employ an eclectic mixture of British and American spellings. Consider the term “Tire Centre” - a place you might visit to buy new tires for a car. Consistency would dictate that we should refer to it as a Tyre Centre (using British spelling) or “Tire Center” (using American). Instead we strike the happy median, taking one word from each.
Take a look at the following quote, which I have once more taken from How To Be A Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson, paying attention to the use of words. “Canadians write cheques for their colour TVs. They turn off the tap, eat porridge, put jam on their toast and gas in their trucks, and munch potato chips as they relax on their chesterfields.”
British English: cheque, colour, tap, porridge and jam (in the US it would be check, color, faucet, oatmeal and jelly).
American English: TV, gas, truck and potato chips (in Britain it would be telly, petrol, lorry and crisps).
Some difficulty arises with words that employ the letters “ou,” such as “colour” or “neighbour.” In formal writing, such as essays in high school or university, Canadians are instructed to maintain the British spelling rather than casting aside the “u” as do our American neighbours (or are they neighbors?). Similarly, Canadians are expected to employ the spelling “re” rather than “er” in words such as “centre.” In informal writing, Canadians tend to adopt an either/or approach. I generally use the American spelling of “ou” words simply to avoid spellchecker annoyances.
The Fergusons provide the following paragraph as a test for Canadian citizenship. Only a Canadian would be able to decipher most of the following:
Last night, I cashed my pogey and went to buy a mickey of C.C. at the beer parlour, but my skidoo got stuck in the muskeg on my way back to the duplex. I was trying to deke out a deer, you see. Stupid chinook, melted everything. And then a Mountie snuck up behind me in a ghost car and gave me an impaired. I was sitting there dressed only in my Stanfields and a toque at the time. And the Mountie, he’s all chippy and everything.
Here are definitions of the terms from the preceding paragraph as well as others you are likely to encounter in Canada:
2-4 (two four): a case of 24 beers.
bachelor apartment: a one room apartment with a small kitchen and a bathroom. Mostly just referred to as “a bachelor.”
back bacon: elsewhere called “Canadian bacon.”
Blochead: a member of the Bloc Quebecois.
brown bread: whole wheat bread.
butter tart: a single serving, sweet pie, often with raisins.
chesterfield: a sofa, couch, or loveseat.
chinook: an unseasonably warm wind that melts snow on the prairies.
chippy: aggressive or angry.
college: refers to either a post-secondary technical or vocational institutions, or to the colleges that exist as individual institutions within some Canadian universities. Most often, “college” is a community college, not a university.
deke: to fool. It is used especially in hockey to refer to a player who dodges around another.
donut: a cake snack with a hole in centre (ie doughnut). Also refers to spinning a car in circles as a recreational activity.
double-double: A cup of coffee with two creams and two sugars.
draught: beer that comes out of a tap instead of a bottle or can.
duplex: a building with two apartments.
garburator: a garbage disposal unit located beneath the drain of a kitchen sink.
ghost car: an unmarked police car.
Grit: a member or supporter of one of the federal or provincial Liberal parties (but not the Quï¿½bec Liberal Party).
homo milk: whole (homogenized) milk.
impaired: an infraction for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Joe job: a low-status, low-skill task.
keener: an enthusiastic student, not necessarily a positive term.
Kraft dinner: Often shortened to “KD”, known elsewhere as “Kraft macaroni and cheese.”
loonie and toonie: Canadian one- and two-dollar coins.
may two four: the Victoria Day weekend which is celebrated the Monday of or following May 24th.
Mountie: a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (who are only very rarely mounted these days).
mickey: a small bottle of alcohol.
muskeg: a bog characterized by scattered and stunted evergreens.
Nanaimo bar: a confection named for the town of Nanaimo, British Columbia.
parkade: parking garage.
pencil crayon: elsewhere called a “coloured (or colored) pencil.”
pogey: unemployment insurance (the government recently changed this to “employment insurance.”).
Robertson: a Canadian square-headed screw or screwdriver. It is used in other countries, but is much more common in Canada.
skidoo: a brand name now used generically to refer to any snowmobile. Can also be used as a verb.
snowbird: a Canadian, probably retired, who spends the winter in the States (usually Florida).
Stanfields: men’s underwear. Used only rarely these days (the word, that is. Most Canadians still wear underwear, especially in the winter).
Timbits: a brand name of doughnut holes made by Tim Hortons that has become a generic term.
toque: a knit hat.
trousseau tea: a reception held by the mother of a bride, for neighbours not invited to the wedding.
washroom : bathroom, restroom. Bathroom is used only occasionally and refers to a facility that has a bathtub or shower.
whitener: powdered non-dairy additive for coffee or tea.
yogourt: a unique spelling of yoghurt which is used in both English- and French-Canada.
zed: the final letter of the alphabet.
There are a few distinctively Canadian swear words, as well, which I will mostly spare you. I did not realize that most of these words were used only (or primarily) by Canadians until I began to research this topic. The one that was often used to refer to myself and my friends as children was “s—t disturber.” Obviously this refers back to the days when people used outhouses. Mischevious children would sometimes “stir the pot” which would create a nearly-unbearable stench. They would often do this at outhouses outside of schools or churches. Today this terms retains some of its original meaning, referring to mischevious people (and children, in particular).
One difference between Canada and the US that is often noted in television programs concerns education. Americans tend to refer to “10th grade” whereas Canadians speak of “grade 10.” The terms freshman, sophmore, junior and senior are used only very rarely in both high school and university. A third year university student is more likely to say, “I’m in third year” than “I’m a junior.” Canadians rarely speak of “middle school” and are more likely to speak of “junior high” which includes grades 7 and 8. And Canadians do not care about cheerleaders or captains of the football team. High schools and universities are not likely to celebrate homecoming or prom. Instead, there are dances, formals and semi-formals. In general, Americans are far more serious about education than Canadians.
That is a brief introduction to some of the language you may hear when you visit Canada. Canadians employ a strange mixture of American, British words, along with a selection of words that are distinctively Canadian. Put it all together, and Canadians have a language all their own. It’s a fact, eh?
This is the third article in a series about Mark Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission. You can find the first article here and the second here. Today we are looking at the fourth chapter which is entitled, “Elvis in Eden” and deals with culture. Do note that because of his use of proper nouns Driscoll was forced to properly capitalize this chapter heading. That must have been very disappointing.
“People live in culture as naturally as fish live in water and tornados hit trailer parks. But most people are as unaware of their cultural assumptions as they are of their bad breath, because it is so familiar to them” (page 93). What this means for the Christian on reformission is that he must be particularly aware of the culture he lives in and other cultures he encounters. He cannot presuppose that every culture is like his or that what is effective in his culture will be effective in others.
To help the reader better understand this, Driscoll provides four different ways to evaluate a culture.
Thoughts, values and experiences. In short, this involves studying the people in a culture to see what they do. We can examine how people think and arrive at their beliefs, the values that are so widely assumed they are usually unspoken, and the experiences that have shaped them (both experiences they have chosen and those that have been forced upon them). “To be faithful in reformission we must embed ourselves in a culture and develop friendships with lost people so that we can be informed and avoid making erroneous judgments. Non-Christian friends actually help to disciple us in culture as we evangelize them in Christ” (page 97). When we evanglize, we need to be aware of these thoughts, values and experiences of a culture because these provide both opportunities and obstacles for the gospel. The more we know about the culture the more we will be able to avoid the pitfalls while reaching out in ways that are effective.
High, folk and pop. Another way to evaluate culture is through the forms of high, folk and pop. High culture is connected to the past and requires great training, reflection and tradition. Examples are ballet and opera. Folk culture emerges from a community as their own creation and is highly valued by these people because it becomes part of who they are. This can include certain black spiritual songs, as well as folk music and some punk rock. Pop culture is unsophisticated and intended for a mass market. While it is very accessible, it is also shallow, faddish and trite. “While each of these cultural forms can mediate the gospel … this fact is often overlooked because people tend to attach a moral value to the cultural form they prefer” (page 99). This is evident in the “worship wars” that continue to rage in many churches in which members of a culture believe strongly that their form is superior to all others. Driscoll goes on to ask, “Do you spot the cultural issue for reformission churches? Our challenge is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community…Reformission Christians and churches exist to perpetuate the gospel and should be swift to change their cultural forms if they are not the most beneficial for achieving that goal…Reformission churches have to continually examine and adjust their musical styles, websites, aesthetics, acoustics, programming, and just about everything but their Bible in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many people as possible in the cultures around them” (page 100).
Waves. The third way of examining culture is through understanding waves of change. Western culture has gone from the agricultural age to the industrial age and we have now arrived in the technological age. Many Christian institutions and denominations have failed to make the transition, and Driscoll notes that organizations that began in earlier ages are finding it increasingly difficult to survive because of their refusal to change.
Sins and sin. The fourth way to examine culture is by examining the universal and particular sins common in that culture. Universal sins are the sins that the Bible forbids for all people of all time. Particular sins are offenses that are sinful for some people some of the time under some circumstances. “Christians are also commanded by God to avoid sins that are particular to them, without unfairly condemning or restricting the freedoms of fellow Christians who involve themselves differently in controversial cultural matters” (page 102). We need to resist our freedoms in some areas because of our weaknesses, but can use Christian liberty in areas in which we are strong. “Reformission recognizes that Christians will have differing personal convictions in matters of culture and welcomes those differences that are not sinful, because what pleases God is unity, not uniformity” (page 103). It may be helpful to list a few of the activities Driscoll feels are not forbidden. They include: listening to certain musical styles, getting tattoos, watching movies, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol and body piercing. Driscoll goes on to list a few pointers for cultural decision-making.
After providing the example of Jonah and speculating on whether Jonah eventually came to love the people of Nineveh, Driscoll begins to discuss how we, as reformissional Christians, can change a culture. “Our faith rests in Jesus alone, who redeems people and their cultures…our ultimate hope rests in God, not in human goverments, programs, or institutions” (page 108). The first step to changing a culture is to change the people within a culture. Our sin comes from deep within. To change people we musn’t focus on the symptoms of their sin, but on the root cause. Second, we must define what a “good person” is. If we hold up Jesus as our example, we must encourage people to continually compare themselves to Him in order to see their sin.
Driscoll’s main purpose in this chapter is to make the reader aware of the different cultures without our society (or subcultures within our culture). The key to changing culture is not to launch an all-out offensive on the culture itself, but to bring the gospel to the people within that culture and allow it to be changed from the inside out. I agree entirely that we need to focus on individuals and not entire cultures. Our hope is not in the government or in programs, but in the power of God working in and through individuals. Early in the chapter Driscoll talks about a leader in their church who dresses in gothic fashion (face painted white, hair dyed black, dark clothing). But she dressed that way not because she was a depressed, ungodly woman, but because it was her personal sense of style and presumably because she was beginning to redeem a particular (gothic) culture.
Here are a few points I would like to make about this chapter:
Legalism and license” - We are all prone to love legalism. I would probably find it helpful if Driscoll drew up a list of “50 things you cannot do.” I realize, though, that this would be a poor and ineffective tactic. However, I feel that Driscoll may not have given enough attention to how we define what is Christian freedom and what is mere license. As humans we are prone to stretch our boundaries in any way we can. Some teaching on this would have been welcome. Perhaps it will follow in a later chapter.
Elements and circumstances - Driscoll says, “Our challenge [as local churches] is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community.” I am not sure that I agree with the easy, clean line Driscoll has drawn between form and function. He neatly seperates the cultural form from the element of worship, whether that be music, preaching or other aspects of the worship service. But he provides little compelling evidence for this. In a previous chapter he wrote about having artists expressing themselves in worship through painting during the service. Driscoll would consider this cultural form, but Reformed believers, especially those who hold strongest to the Regulative Principle, would consider it a forbidden element of worship. This principle distinguishes between elements and circumstances. The elements permitted in a worship service are only those expressly permitted in Scripture. The circumstances are the “how” of worship surrounding those elements. Because of this conflict I do not feel that Driscoll’s teaching on the worship service is wholly compatible with traditionally Reformed worship. (For more, read this and this.)
Consistent with Calvinism? - I’d like to turn again to the same quote. “Our challenge [as local churches] is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community.” Driscoll seems to deny elements of the Calvinist understanding of evangelism and the sovereignty of God and in this way seems little different from the Church Growth crowd. I am not convinced that he shows a sound understanding of the Spirit’s ability to work in the ways God has decreed. There are times when Christianity must be countercultural in order to be faithful to Scripture. I often refer to a church I sometimes visit in Ottawa that eschews most of these cultural forms but has still made a great impact on the city. They sing only Psalms and do so with no instrumentation whatsoever. Their programming is traditional (they have “Sabbath school” before church, for example), their website is awful. But their church attracts homosexuals, transvestites, yuppies and country bumpkins. In short, the church is filled with all manner of sinners who are attracted not to cultural form, but to the message.
In, but not of - I am not entirely convinced that Driscoll’s reformission will produce Christians who are in, but not of the world. His gothic church leader is an example. There are some cultures which are incompatible with a Spirit-filled person. While I know little about it, it seems that the death-obsessed gothic culture may be one of these.
In conclusion, I have to say that while this chapter began with promise, I found it quite disappointing. I do believe in the importance of understanding culture and understanding just how much we, as Christians, live in our own little culture. Yet I do not feel that culture is as neutral as Driscoll would have us believe.
We will move on to the next chapter in the coming days.
Seeing John MacArthur on Larry King Live tonight reminded me that the very first book review I ever wrote for this site (and to post at Amazon) was for his book Battle for the Beginning. I still count it as one of my favorite MacArthur books. It was a formative influence in my belief in young earth Creationism. What follows is my review, posted a little over two years ago.
John MacArthur wrote Battle For The Beginning primarily to address the world’s origins from a Biblical viewpoint. The book is aimed at a Christian audience and is not so much a defense of creationism as it is a defense of a literal six-day creation. This is not a book that primarily focuses on convincing unbelieving evolutionists of creationism, but rather it focuses on convincing Christians who believe that in some form of evolution (such as old-earth creationism or the Gap Theory) that the only valid reading of Genesis one and two is a literal reading. MacArthur bases much of the book on the view that Evolution is itself a religion that is completely opposed to Christianity. Creationism and Evolution, therefore, can never be mixed. We must believe in either one or the other.
After giving many reasons why Evolutionism is antithetical to God and His design, the book spends a chapter on each of the days of creation. In each chapter the author shows why anything other than a literal six-day creation is impossible. In so doing he gives many wonderful examples of the wonders and marvels of creation. Much of the book is focused on refuting the arguments of Hugh Ross, the most prominent of the theistic evolutionists.
I would highly recommend this book to any believer that is struggling with the conflict between creationism and evolutionism. MacArthur’s ability to accurately draw teaching from scripture and using God’s word as the ultimate teaching tool makes this one of the best books I have read on the subject.
This is the second article in a series that examines various doctrinal and societal challenges the evangelical church must face early in the 21st Century. Previously we examined the dangerous doctrine of Open Theism. Today we will examine relativism. Future articles will examine the Emerging Church, ecumenism, postmodernism, and a variety of other topics.
Relativism is a challenge every Christian must face, for it forms the very foundation for the morality (or lack thereof) of our culture. We live in a pluralist society in which many religions and worldviews co-exist. Society dictates that the way for these divergent views to happily co-exist is to encourage tolerance and relativism, where we do not seek after the blacks and whites or wrongs and rights, but instead allow truth to be whatever the individual chooses for it to be. As people of the Book, we are beholden to a system of absolutes; a system of objective, God-given truth. This truth underlies everything we believe in. Thus we must stand strong against the relativism that is in our schools, our worldplaces and perhaps even our churches.
Relativism is the view that truth is relative to a particular context and is not absolute. Truth varies from people to people, time to time, culture to culture and there are no absolutes. Truth is determined or created rather than discovered or determined.
“Baseball is a fun sport.” If I say those words am I making a statement about baseball or about myself? While it may seem that I am stating an objective truth about baseball, the fact is that I am really making a statement about myself. The meaning behind my words is “I believe baseball is a fun sport.” This is how we determine whether a statement is objective or subjective: does it state a fact about the subject or the speaker? Does it state a fact about baseball or about me? A subjective statement is an opinion, attitude or belief. “Baseball is a fun sport” is a true statement, but it a subjectively true statement - it is true to me, but may not be true to another person.
My wife does not like baseball. When she says, “Baseball is a boring sport” that statement is also true, even though it is in direct contradiction to what I said. It is true because it is also a subjective statement. The meaning apparent behind her words is “I do not enjoy baseball.” This is an opinion. Thus she and I can state contradictory truths, but they can both be right because of their subjective nature.
“The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.” When we look at this statement we will see that it is not a statement of opinion, attitude or belief, but a statement of fact. It is an objective truth. The statement says nothing about me, but tells something about baseball. The truth of this statement does not depend on my beliefs. The truth of this statement is there to be recognized or discovered rather than determined or created by myself. If my wife were to say, “the Blue Jays did not win the World Series in 1993” we would have a contradiction in apparently objective facts. Only one of these statements can be true. It is impossible for two opposing objective facts to be true. In this case, only a small amount of research would be necessary to prove which of these two statements is correct. We would also learn why Mitch Williams can never again show his face in Philadelphia and why Joe Carter never has to buy a beer in Toronto, but that is a whole different story.
Problems often arise when a person treats a subjective statement as if it were objective (or an objective statement as if it were subjective). We know this as the “subjectivist fallacy” or the “relativist fallacy.” The European Society for General Semantics defines this as follows: “The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for him/her.” It takes the following form:
We might see this fallacy in action if I were to say to Aileen, “baseball is a fun sport and you are stupid if you don’t enjoy it.” I have taken a subjective belief or opinion and attempted to make it objective or normative. Most people will immediately recognize this problem and see if for what it is, even if they don’t know of a fancy term to describe it.
It should be noted that the distinction between subjective and objective is not always perfectly clear. For example, consider beauty. Are there objective standards of beauty or is it truly “in the eye of the beholder?” This does not prove that objective and subjective standards do not exist, but only that there are sometimes difficulties in distinguishing which is which.
So where does morality fit in? Is morality objective or is it subjective? Is it a fact or an opinion? This is where Christianity differs from culture. Our society teaches that morality is subjective - what is good or bad for you may differ from what is good or bad for me. The Bible, on the other hand, indicates that there are standards of morality that are given for all people at all times. Moral relativism asserts that there are no objective standards of morality that apply to all people at all times. Instead, all morality is consigned to the sphere of the subjective. Morality is not a collection of truths to be recognized or discovered, but to be determined or created by the individual.
It is possible for a Christian and a relativist to have the same belief, but they will be built on different foundations. When I say “abortion is wrong” I am in fact saying “abortion is always wrong because it violates an objective standard of morality.” A moral relativist who believes abortion if wrong is actually saying, “I do not like abortion because I feel it is wrong.”
The crux of the matter is that for a moral relativist, conflicting moral judgments, such as “abortion is wrong” and “a woman has the right to choose” can both be true in the same way that opinions about baseball can both be true.
Consider the following statements made by the umpires at a baseball game:
Umpire 1: I call ‘em as I see ‘em.
Umpire 2: I call ‘em as they are.
Umpire 3: They ain’t nothing ‘till I call ‘em.
We will conveniently set aside the first umpire and look at the second and third. Umpire number two has an objective view. He understands his job as determining whether a pitch fits the criteria of ball or strike. He makes his judgment accordingly and calls them as they already are. The third umpire is a relativist who believes that in an objective sense a pitch is neither a strike or a ball. His opinion is the determining factor. He calls them as he creates them. Now let me ask: if you were a baseball player would you prefer the second or the third umpire? Clearly, if all umpires were like this one, the game would be impossible to play. Neither the batter nor the pitcher would have any sense of what made a ball or a strike. We can now see that this metaphor can be extended to moral relativists. Like this umpire, a relativist does not believe any action as being objectively good or bad.
The Downfall of Relativism
The great irony and the great failure of relativism is that almost no relativist is completely or even predominantly consistent in his worldview. Need proof? Break into his house and steal his television. When you do that he will be more than willing to call the police and inform them that you have committed an action which is intolerable. You may plead that in your view of morality theft is not wrong, but he will still demand that you are arrested and that his television is returned. The justice system will agree with him.
Our society is adamant that particular actions are wrong. At the top of the list is intolerance. Intolerance is regarded as the greatest of evils. Interestingly and ironically, the basis for tolerance, which is disagreement (after all, tolerance presupposes a respect for other beliefs despite objective disagreement) is undercut in our society. Further evils are slavery, rape, molestation and any other actions that infringe on the rights of the individual. But logically, relativists cannot condemn these actions simply because they cannot do so without expressing some level of objective morality.
Another confusion arises when relativists not only condemn actions of which they disapprove, but when they commend actions of which they approve. To be consistent with their beliefs they have no right to impose their beliefs on others. Relativists are only too happy to accept humanitarian awards, but with no objective standard of right or wrong, moral commendation has no place. It is illogical and even wrong.
Dealing With Relativism
In their book Relativism, Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith provide several helpful pointers for dealing with relavists. First, they suggest showing the contradictions inherent in relativism, for in practice, this position is self-refuting. One effective tactic, then, is to show people that many of their positions depend on some type of absolute stance. They suggest the best way of dealing with the charge of “don’t force your morality on me,” is to simply ask “why not?” What gives him the right to impose his morality on you when you are not able to do the same to him? Second, they suggest pressing the person’s hot button. Find that person’s pet issue and relativize it to undermine his position. Third, force the tolerance issue. Force the person to examine why he cannot tolerate what he perceives as your intolerance. And fourth, have a ready defense. Know the issues and know the best ways to defend your position while casting doubts on the relativist’s position.
Relativism is an irrational, inconsistent view which many tacitly accept, but which few adhere to with any consistency. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for a person to be a consistent relativist. Interestingly, those who hold strongest to this view are condemned by society as sociopaths - people who care only for themselves. Yet when we look at people who believe in absolutes, we see that the one who held strongest to objective truth was Jesus Christ. One system leads to the worst of human depravity, the other to the pinnacle of godliness.
Relativism by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith.
Relativism by Paul Chamberlain.
Much of this article was drawn from “Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly” by Paul Chamberlain and “Relativism” by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith. You can generally assume that whatever is good and worthwhile in this article is drawn from the books, whereas I take full responsibility for whatever is illogical and obnoxious.
One of the books I have most been looking forward to this year is The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander. Dever is author of the excellent 9 Marks of a Healthy Church and is known for his godly, biblical perspectives on church health and growth. I have been given the opportunity to read The Deliberate Church several weeks before it is widely available and thought I would provide a preview of what you can expect from this book.
I take extensive notes when I read books and will share with you just a few of the notes I’ve written about this title. You will have to excuse their randomness as I’ve attempted to provide a sampling taken from different areas of the book.
“This book does not seek to debunk Church Growth Methods or any other methodology. There is very little focus on the negative. Instead, the book is primarily positive and instructive, doing little more than providing biblical teaching on various aspects of the church’s mission and function.”
“The authors reveal that this book came around as the result of questions Mark Dever has answered. “Paul took things that I’ve taught and written, things he’s heard me say many times and questions he’s heard me answer from visiting pastors, and he added his gifts of time, organization, clear writing and thinking ability - along with some of his own ministry experience - and he produced the first draft of this book.” That flavor is evident throughout the book. Most of the chapters are quite short - often only a few pages. A pastor with questions about various aspects of ministry will be able to refer to this book to find short, helpful, biblical answers.”
“Dever’s sensitivity to difficult areas is especially evident in the section dealing with music. While he prefers a simple worship experience, opting to have only a single guitar and piano accompanying singing, he will not say that a large, loud band is wrong. Instead he argues that instrumental sparseness is a way of keeping methods basic so that the gospel remains clearly at the center of every part of the worship service.”
“This is not a book about method. There is no “ABC-123” system for churches to follow. Dever simply explains what has been effective in his ministry and provides a biblical basis as proof.”
What Others Are Saying
Don’t feel you need to take my word for it. Here is what has been said by men who are far more discerning than I am. These are among the endorsements that will appear in the book.
“Here is one of the most faithful and insightful pastors of our time, addressing the most crucial issues of church life. Mark Dever refuses to separate theology and congregational life, combining pastoral insight with clear biblical teaching. This book is a powerful antidote to the merely pragmatic approaches of our day—and a refutation to those who argue that theology just isn’t practical.”
—R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“This book is the perfect example of what a truly practical book on church health and growth should be—it gives concrete guidance for and examples of biblical principles being put into practice in the life and ministry of the local congregation.”
—J. Ligon Duncan III, Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi
“Rare indeed are books on the church that begin with the Gospel. Rarer still are books that derive methodology for building the church from the Gospel. This excellent book does both.”
—C. J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries
“The Deliberate Church shares many of the ministry lessons that Dr. Dever and his colleagues have learned from Scripture and sought to implement in the life of their church community. This book is for anyone who wants to get serious about following the biblical pattern for the church and is looking for down-to-earth practical help.”
—Philip Graham Ryken, Senior Minister, Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia
“Here is a novel idea: use the Bible as a handbook to gather and guide the church! And The Deliberate Church is a novel volume indeed, standing amid the spate of ‘church-as-corporation, pastor-as-CEO’ manuals that glut church life. Here is a book that wafts a radical, refreshing breeze from the pages of Scripture that will breathe life into the church. A crucial read.”
—R. Kent Hughes, Senior Pastor, College Church in Wheaton (Illinois)
You can read the introductions and various other parts of the book at Crossway’s site.
The book is structured very simply. The first two sections deal with the church: first the gathering of the church and then what to do when the body gathers. The final two sections deal with leadership: gathering a group of elders and then what to do when that body gathers together.
Section 1. Gathering the Church
1. The Four P’s
2. Beginning the Work
3. Doing Responsible Evangelism
4. Taking In New Members
5. Doing Church Discipline
Section 2. When the Church Gathers
6. Understanding the Regulative Principle
7. Applying the Regulative Principle
8. The Role of the Pastor
9. The Roles of the Different Gatherings
10. The Role of the Ordinances
11. Loving Each Other
Section 3. Gathering Elders
13. The Importance of Elders
14. Looking for a Few Good Men
16. Why Character Is Crucial
17. Getting Started
Section 4. When the Elders Gather
19. The Word and Prayer
20. The Agenda: What to Talk About
21. Decision Making: How to Talk About It
A Godward-looking Church
An Outward-looking Church
The Deliberate Church is a book I have thoroughly enjoyed and will be recommending. While it is not exactly what I thought it would be, it nevertheless lives up to my high expectations! I will post a full review on or around the day it is available from the publisher.
The book is currently available for preorder at Amazon. It will ship on or around the 28th of September.
Al Mohler’s Review
Be sure to check out Al Mohler’s review of Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, a new book by Pamela Paul. This looks like one I may have to purchase.