Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On the Brink of Eternity

It was hot in North Texas yesterday. This morning the weatherman reported that we've exceeded 100° for eleven out of the past twelve days. Yesterday was among the hotter of those days. I think they were forecasting an afternoon high of 104° F.

I was walking toward my car in the church parking lot, on my way to Rotary Club when my wife Tracy rang my cell phone. "Are you in Rotary Club yet?"

"Not yet, but I'm headed that way. What's up?"

"I'm out here East of town on 380, and there are two elderly couples riding together in a car. They've had a flat tire, and it is way too hot for them to be changing a flat tire. Can you round up somebody to help?"

I replied, "I don't need anybody to help with just a flat tire. I'll be out there in a minute."

So I rolled through the Shell station here in town and picked up five bottles of Dasani (I figure I'll be overheated, too, in a few minutes). I made quick work of the three miles or so to the spot on U.S. 380 where the immaculate Cadillac had been sidelined by a blowout.

By that time another young man had pulled over. He had a truck with a toolbox and a "real" jack. Between the two of us, we quickly had the donut spare on the car. I instructed the family to follow me to a tire shop in Farmersville.

A brief conversation revealed that all four were Christians and were active members of their Baptist church back in Longview, Texas. The owner of the Caddy was, in fact, a Cadillac dealer there—thus the new and pristine car they were driving. The foursome declined to share lunch with me at a local establishment (lunch at Rotary club was no longer a possibility for me), anxious to make their way onward toward McKinney and then Plano for a shopping outing. We made our farewells and I went on to clean up and eat.

A few minutes later, a concrete truck struck them in Princeton (the next town up the road). The owner of the car was killed. One of the ladies wound up in a McKinney hospital with a fractured pelvis. A member of our church—a nurse—prayed with them and was encouraging them and ministering to them when they learned that she is a member here. They asked her to call me and let me know.

I preach it, so I ought to know and remember that any person we meet any day might be standing on the brink of eternity. But I forget, too—not intellectually, but in my heart. Occasions like this one shock me back into the harsh reality that surrounds us. Let us be faithful to be a witness for Christ whenever and wherever we can.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On the Proper Reading of Matthew 5:22

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court (Matthew 5:22a, NASB)

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Matthew 5:22a, NKJV, emphasis mine)

Matthew 5:22 is a disputed text. At issue is whether the word εἰκῇ ("in vain, for nothing, thoughtlessly") should or should not appear in the sentence. The UBS Greek New Testament apparatus lists this as a B-class variant. It does not show the εἰκῇ in the text, even in brackets. Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, had this to say about why the critical text stands as it does:

Although the reading with εἰκῇ is widespread from the second century onwards, it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigor of the precept, than omitted as unnecessary.

The external evidence does not exclude εἰκῇ. As to the question of date, both readings were in evidence before the third century (as Metzger acknowledged above), since Origen refers to both readings (personally favoring the omission). As to geographical distribution, the inclusion of εἰκῇ is diffuse. Irenaeus, Eusebius, Chysostom, Hilary, and Cyprian all included εἰκῇ. Augustine quoted the verse in both styles, although he seemed to favor the omission. The Vulgate omitted εἰκῇ, but an impressive array of relatively early texts from the various textual families support the inclusion of the word. The "rock star" for omission of εἰκῇ is P64+67. The external evidence is a mixed bag. Whatever happened to this verse, it happened very early.

The case against εἰκῇ seems to depend (as Metzger's commentary suggested) preponderantly upon speculative internal evidence. Metzger's theory was that a copyist was pulling a "What Jesus really meant to say was…" by adding the word εἰκῇ to "soften the rigor" of Matthew 5:22. But is that a safe assumption? I think I know as many people who delight in construing a passage in its MOST rigorous interpretation as I know people who engage in "softening." Are we concluding that the first and second centuries knew nobody in the church who enjoyed the proclamation of "hard sayings"? Might not such a person just as easily have omitted εἰκῇ as a "softener" would have added it?

Besides that, we've all (of those who've been to seminary) studied about how easy it was to skip a word inadvertently while copying a manuscript. For every good explanation of how the word might have been added, I can think of an equally plausible explanation for how the word might have been dropped. And with the variation taking place so early, how remarkable is it, really, that P64 came out one way or the other?

So now we come to my point. Is the case here so incredibly clear-cut that εἰκῇ/"without cause" does not even merit inclusion in brackets or mention in a footnote (in English translations like the NASB)? I think not. I think some preconceptions about the person and message of Jesus are on display here, not in the willingness to question εἰκῇ, but in the willingness to pretend that those questions are a lot more lopsided in favor of the shorter text than they really are.

Now, do you think that I ought to be angry about that? And if I were, would it be "without cause"?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Fate of the American University

My alma mater has today forcibly terminated its second consecutive president in three years. I will not grieve excessively for John Lilley, for I never believed that a Presbyterian elder ought to be at the helm of an erstwhile Baptist university. Nevertheless, I think it is worthwhile for us to consider where University life in America has come.

Because of the tenure system, faculty positions are essentially secure. Exceptions that allow for the termination of a tenured faculty member are quite difficult to execute. The de facto situation in American universities is that the president and his administration cannot terminate faculty members.

On the other hand, faculties seem to be gaining more and more political influence over the job security of administrators. Both Sloan's and Lilley's departures are basically the result of faculty lobbying efforts (although in Sloan's case the influence of a former president contributed). But this is not a phenomenon unique to Baylor. Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers succumbed to faculty pressure at the unfriendly conclusion of his tenure at the nation's most prestigious university. Faculties are learning that it is well within their power to obtain the chief executive's head on a silver charger.

The net effect? The institutional situation at our universities is coming to be convoluted beyond belief: The supervisory executive branch cannot terminate the employees, but the employees can terminate their supervisors. Does anyone really believe that this is healthy? If so, would you care to explain why?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Bumper-Sticker Poll

Collin County, Texas, is consistently among the most Republican places on the planet. John McCain will win Collin County in November. I'll be voting for John McCain in November (and doing so with warm nostalgia for that day in 1996 when I pulled the lever for Bob Dole). If there is such a thing in America, this place where I live is McCain country.

Yet even living here, I have no idea what a John McCain bumper sticker looks like.

On the other hand, even here in Collin County, I see "Proud Collin County Democrat" bumper stickers tooling along U.S. 380, accompanied by "Obama" in various styles and colors. They may be outnumbered, but Collin County Democrats are enthusiastic. They think that they're going to be serving crow to their neighbors in November.

Bumper stickers are not televised debates or press releases or policy statements. They give no opportunity to communicate fact or to make a persuasive case. Bumper stickers are entirely emotive. To choose to display a bumper sticker is generally an emotional choice, and bumper stickers evoke emotion in the readers. That's why they are so important. People vote with their hearts, not with their heads. Head and heart may be in the same place—often are. But when head and heart collide, Americans vote with their hearts. A good bumper sticker builds emotional momentum by demonstrating to undecideds that the roadways are full of people who feel prideful and good about themselves in their choice of candidate. The invitation is there to join the group and be proud, confident, and enthusiastic with them. Bumper stickers evoke emotion in order to sell a candidate to the heart.

The Obama stickers certainly evoke an emotion in me—envy. I want to be enthusiastic about a presidential candidate. I want to check my touchscreen box on Election Day with pride, not with fatalistic resignation. My empty rear windshield tells the tale of a bewildered conservative Christian voter, flabbergasted that in a nation of three hundred million people we can't seem to locate a single engaging conservative leader qualified and willing to run for President of the United States.

I'm willing to predict it right now: Any GOP candidate who can't win the Collin County bumper sticker poll doesn't stand a dog's chance at the ballot box in November.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Byron McWilliams: Not Ashamed of the Gospel

A lot of people talk about young leaders in the SBC today (usually connected to the assertion that they are all abandoning the horrible SBC for something other). Well, let me introduce you to one of the young leaders in today's SBC. Let me introduce you to a man who is committed to the gospel, a man who is unflinching for biblical truth, a man with a fervent passion for the winning of souls.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Odessa, Texas, pastor Byron McWilliams

Click here.

Learn the name. Learn the face. You'll be seeing him again, I predict.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Differing Importance of Biblical Commands and Teachings

My last post sparked what I thought was good, respectable, healthy discussion in most cases about "tertiary" doctrines. The classification of doctrines into categories is, of course, a post-biblical development largely reflective of the sin of our denominational division in the Body of Christ today. Should errant denominations abandon divisive sin and come into Christian unity, we would have no more need of such classifications than did the New Testament church. But, we live in the world that we live in.

To say that the Bible does not categorize its teachings is not to say that the Bible advances all biblical commands as being of identical importance. It does not. And there is value in knowing something about which biblical commands and teachings are the most important.

Jesus was more than willing to converse regarding the identification of the greatest commandment (e.g., Mark 12:28-34). He didn't respond to the question by saying, "What a moronic question! They're all equally great, of course!" Not at all. Jesus directly and specifically identified two ultimately important Old Testament commandments.

Likewise, Paul was willing to identify the most important teachings of the Bible: our affirmation of the death, burial, resurrection, and appearance of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). And this comes a scant two chapters (really, a chapter and a couple of verses) after Paul identified the three most important attributes/actions of a Christian, and then the most important of those three (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Contrary to what you may have been taught, the Bible isn't shy at all about specifying variations of intensity among both virtues and vices—there is a best of the best and there is a worst of the worst.

The difficulty of that Praisegod Polling question that I offered comes in the fact that, although we find in the Bible the occasional exposition of the greatest commandments or teachings, we find very little information in the Bible about the least of the commandments. But there are Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20, NASB, emphasis mine)

There's so much we could say about this little snippet of scripture. I'm blogging, not preaching, so I'm not going to make any effort to plumb the depths of this passage. But I would like to offer a few observations about the whole idea of how we ought to respond to the differing importance of biblical commands and teachings:

  1. It is entirely valid for us to have conversation about the relative importance of various biblical ideas. The Bible gives us a concept of lesser and greater commandments without spelling out all of the details as to what fits where. I think it can be a healthy thing for us to go through the exercise of theological prioritization.

  2. There is, clearly articulated in the New Testament, the idea that the requirements of the Old Testament Law are fulfilled in Christ once and for all who believe (to coin a phrase). Likewise, there is a pretty strong implication that this fulfillment of the Old Testament Law has left some aspects of the Old Testament (animal sacrifices, for example) fulfilled in such a manner that further practice of those commandments no longer pleases God in the slightest. On the other hand, there are aspects of Old Testament practice that clearly continue to embody God's will for the lifestyle of the Christian believer (the honoring of parents, for example), for God reiterates them in a hortatory manner toward Christians (Ephesians 6:1-3).

    The difference between the two categories seems not to be the relative IMPORTANCE of the commandment (animal sacrifice was pretty doggone important, wasn't it?), but rather the specific relationship that the commandment had with the work of Christ. Some commandments in the Old Testament seem to have been entirely placeholders for some aspect of the person and work of Christ, while others define for us the righteousness that no man can achieve apart from Christ but that every man achieves in Christ.

  3. Whatever the least important commandment or teaching of the Bible might be, Christ's will for us all is that we keep it AND that we teach other people to keep it. The Sermon on the Mount advances no threshold below which we ought to keep a biblical command to ourselves and make no effort to convince others.

  4. Any unity based upon a willful annulment of even the least biblical commandment is a unity in error. Of course, error can be a very successful unifier, because it is one of the few things that every human being shares in common. But unity in error is not the unity for which Christ prayed and it is not a unity that pleases God. Biblical unity is compatible with keeping and teaching even the least of the commandments.

  5. Nevertheless, knowing which are the greatest commandments is quite helpful to us in knowing which areas of my disobedience deserve my earliest and most devoted attention. Indeed, Jesus suggested that the most important commandments, when matured in the believer, are of great assistance to the maturity of the other attributes that depend upon them (Matthew 22:40).

  6. Rather than priding ourselves in what we are willing to set aside to cooperate and find unity, we ought to be ashamed at having become "least" in the kingdom when we start to set aside what the Bible teaches.

  7. Certainly there are vast areas of church practice and common theology that are areas not directly addressed at all in the Bible. These are the items about which the New Testament warns us not to get bogged down in quibbling over minutiae. But many of the topics at play in our modern world (Homosexuality, Women Pastors, Divorce, Baptism, the Exclusivity of Christ, Refraining from the Murder of Anyone..Born or Not, etc.) are matters directly and forcefully addressed in the Bible. Yet many within the churches are hard at work to try to empty these passages of their force and to annul them. Such actions stand in direct opposition to the Spirit of Christ.

  8. Nitpickiness over keeping the tiniest, least important commandment or doctrine in the Bible is, according to Jesus, a sign of spiritual greatness. Furthermore, Jesus' critique of the scribes and Pharisees was, every time, a critique of the commandments that they annulled, not a critique of the commandments that they kept.

  9. To sum up, in determining whether to obey and teach others to obey a commandment or point of doctrine, THE ONLY QUESTION is whether it is taught in the Bible, not "how important" we might adjudge it to be in the Bible. How important is that commandment or teaching? Important enough that God put it in the Bible and that Christ commanded us to keep it. That's important enough for me, even if someone considers the commandment to be "tertiary."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Question from Praisegod Polling

We've heard a great deal over the past couple of years about "secondary" this and "tertiary" that. It is a topic that engages a lot of discussion usually. So maybe this question will have some traction:

Which do you think is the most tertiary, least important commandment in all of the Bible?

I Will Make of You a Great Church

"It is easier to deliver a baby than to raise the dead."

And with those words a couple of decades ago, an acquaintance described to me his rationale for determining to be a church planter rather than to be open to serving as the pastor of an existing church. After all, who can argue with the logic? If you go to an existing church, you're going to have to work within existing structures of other people who are trusted by the congregation as much or more than you are, and consequently who have a lot of independent influence among the people. You'll encounter traditions that may be different from your own (and brother, believe me, you've got your own). And the people in the church can be stubborn and cause you lots of problems. They grumble sometimes. They aren't always very appreciative of your efforts. If you start your own church, then nobody has been a member any longer than you have, and nobody ever joined without knowing on the way in about your expectations and visions of ministry. But at an existing church, you're the newcomer for a long time in some people's eyes, and their perspective will influence their decision whether to follow your leadership.

Church planting is hard work, but I don't doubt that in some ways it is a lot easier than pastoring in an existing congregation.

Nevertheless (you knew there was a "nevertheless" coming, didn't you?), I think we pastors can all learn something from the heart of Moses. In Numbers 32:9-10, while Aaron et al were down frolicking with the golden calf, God made this offer to Moses:

I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.

Imagine for a moment that you as a pastor have just sunk into your office chair after a particularly brutal meeting. God shows up and says, "These people at this church are all wrong and you are all right. I'm mad at them with you. Let's leave this church behind, and you let me send them off into oblivion. Let's go deliver a baby instead of trying to raise these dead. I will make of you a great church!"

How do you reply to God's offer?

Here's what Moses did: He loved His people, even in spite of the fact that they were all wrong and he was entirely right and they were constantly, stubbornly giving him terrible trouble. Moses took it upon himself to talk God out of it. Moses harbored no ambitions of personal greatness; he wanted to serve God and love God's people in spite of themselves. He had to be really patient. He had to endure a lot of sidetracks. But in the end, God accomplished all that He had promised.

So, do you love the church and her people that passionately? Do I? And don't we serve a God whose calling card is the fact that He can, has, and does indeed raise the dead?

Somehow in my cutting and pasting, this original ending didn't make it into the post until now. Sorry:

Of course, Paul did have that desire not to build on another man's foundation, and church planting is a critical part of what we need to do to reach the world with the gospel. But the search for what is "easier" doesn't lead people to plant churches in the difficult pioneer and missions area that need our attention so acutely. I wouldn't begrudge anyone for faithfulness to follow the calling of God. We just need to make sure that we serve where we serve because of His calling, and not because of our quest for whatever is easiest or whatever is most likely to contribute to our own personal greatness.