Thursday, December 24, 2009

Quinn Hooks, Legalism, and Alcohol

South Carolina pastor and blogger Quinn Hooks has written an informative post spelling out the tragedy inflicted upon so many lives by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS afflicts thousands of babies born in the United States each year. A survey by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services found that over half of all American women aged 15-44 admitted to having drunk alcohol during a pregnancy.

Regarding FAS, the Centers for Disease Control reports: “[FAS is] 100% preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy. There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink and no safe kind of alcohol.” (see here) In spite of this fact, in one survey 41% of (uninformed?) physicians noted that they advised pregnant women merely to reduce alcohol consumption to no more than three drinks per day.

Nevertheless, no matter what deleterious effects the consumption of alcohol may have on their bodies and their babies, it is important for Christian women to understand and to celebrate their freedom in Christ to drink alcohol, even during pregnancies. The Bible says nothing about abstention from alcohol during pregnancy. Indeed, we know from the Bible that people drank wine at weddings (John 2:1-11), we know that such a wedding was a tradition in which Mary participated (since she appears prominently in the John 2 passage), and we know that Mary herself was pregnant with Jesus at the time of her own wedding feast (Matthew 1:18-25).

Q.E.D. the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is a biblical and righteous practice, and is even a subtle portion of the Christmas narrative. Mothers who have abstained from alcohol during pregnancy probably need to repent of that abstention. I plan to confront my mother with this sin while home for Christmas. To all of you pregnant Christians out there, bottoms up!

Anybody who says otherwise is just a Fundamentalist legalist, and probably a Landmarker, too!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Happy MatchMaker

I delight in reading Malcolm Yarnell's latest blog post. In it, Malcolm describes his incipient friendship and partnership with Barry King, a church planter in the London, England, area. I introduced the two of them, and I take special joy in their colaboring for Christ.

The whole thing began while I myself was in London, whence I published my post "London: Post-Christian or Pre-Revival?" Barry entered the comment thread on that post, and we wound up arranging to meet while I was there. Barry and his family are engaged in aggressive church planting of good, sound, evangelistic, conservative, Baptist churches in London. I had a thrilling morning visiting with Barry and his son Reagan, as we eventually unearthed the personal connections that bound us even before we met for the first time.

I then connected Malcolm and Barry, and having planted that bit of seed, the blossom is all the sweeter to me. I've decided to re-post Malcolm's article in its entirety.

Rejoicing in the Ministry of a Church-Planting Church

A few months ago, I was introduced to a pastor in London, England, Barry King, through the kind words of another pastor in Farmersville, Texas, Bart Barber. Dr. Barber knew of my long experience with the British churches and of my own desire to see a revival occur in Great Britain. Christianity has fallen on hard times all over Western Europe; for instance, in England, church attendance is limited to less than 5% of the population, and the fastest growing religion is not even Christianity but Islam. I have been sharing the faith with unbelievers in Great Britain for some 15 years during my frequent visits there including a three-year residency at Oxford University. It has always been difficult for me to recommend that a new Christian attend a church there, knowing that many of the most vibrant evangelical churches are unfortunately disorderly in their doctrine of the church. And, as for those churches who possess a more New Testament polity, they are typically consumed with unbiblical oddities such as theological liberalism, the modern charismatic movement, or hyper-Calvinism.

However, now I am elated to report that there is a church—indeed, a growing family of churches—that possesses three important characteristics of a proper church: a missionary mindset, a healthy view of scriptural proclamation, and a Christ-exalting New Testament ecclesiology. It is in these three areas, among many others, that Grace Baptist Church, whose home congregation is located in north London, excels. Six years ago, Brother King resigned another church in London because he could not affirm certain aspects of their philosophy of ministry. Having sought to maintain peace with that church even as he departed her service, he was subsequently approached by two men whom he had recently begun to disciple. They encouraged him to consider establishing a new work, one that would emphasize biblical teaching and missionary outreach.

Barry prayed about the matter with them and his family and they began meeting together weekly for worship and fellowship. A year and a half later Barry was approached by the remnants of a small evangelical Baptist church who possessed a building but were soon to be without a pastor. After further prayer, the group meeting with Barry and this small group of believers entered into a new covenant as a new congregation with an old building. The result was Grace Baptist Church, Wood Green, Haringey. Because of their missionary mindset, they chose to start new congregations in other parts of London whenever possible. Indeed, every time the church has grown to a certain size, they have sent several families off to start a new congregation elsewhere in London. To date, they have begun five new congregations with work set to begin in two additional areas early in the New Year, who remain in affiliation with Grace Baptist Church and whose ministers Brother King is mentoring in the Word of God. (They currently have opportunity to begin some 20 other congregations and desire to see a church-planting church in each of the 41 boroughs of London with work in each of the 635 neighborhoods in London.)

Recently, sitting in a coffee shop early one Sunday morning in Wood Green, I had the pleasure of questioning Barry as to how he began and was continuing the work. We noted that his congregations were primarily composed of new believers. Then, I queried him, “And how were these new believers won to Christ?” At first, Barry looked at me quizzically, but recognizing that I was being intentional in my questions, he responded, “Well, I meet somebody, say, in a coffee shop, and then I talk to them about what the Bible says about their need for reconciliation with God and how Jesus Christ is the only answer.” He then explained that he believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection as the means of the salvation of all sinners, who must be born again with faith and repentance. He also explained that he believes biblical proclamation is the divinely ordained method of delivering that good news to lost people. I learned that he relied neither upon some humanly contrived church planting principle nor upon some emerging social ministry as his method for reaching the lost. Rather, he relied upon the Bible’s own method, which is to speak the Word directly in the hearing of as many lost people as will listen, encouraging them to believe (cf. Romans 10).

After this refreshing conversation about missional truth, we then proceeded to his church building, which like many in the British dissenting tradition was located off the main thoroughfare in a residential area. There, I was privileged to preach on the doctrine of believers-only baptism by immersion out of Romans 6 to his congregation. And during the service, I witnessed a wonderful man leading an expectant people to worship God with all their hearts and to hear God’s Word as the sole authority for their lives. We also heard reports from the ministers who are leading the church plants. These reports were, to say the least, personally inspiring and highly informative. Door-to-door evangelism, personal evangelism, street witnessing—Grace Baptist Church and its associated congregations were reaching the people of secularized multi-ethnic London, a society too many have deemed impenetrable, through a means that has been written off as old and unworkable, direct biblical proclamation.

Moreover, to my great delight, I was informed beyond a shadow of doubt that these churches followed the New Testament model in structuring and conducting their own lives as congregations. They begin with a covenant; they teach the entire counsel of God from the Bible regularly; they engage regenerate church membership by accepting only believers who have witnessed to their conversion through biblical baptism; they maintain authentic church membership through the regular meaningful observance of the Lord’s Supper; and, when necessary, practice redemptive church discipline. I was shocked. Here, in modern London, is a group of churches who recognize and honor the same truth as the first Baptist churches of seventeenth century England, who in turn emulated the New Testament church as established by Jesus Christ.

Well, there is so much more to report—the unremarked yet wonderful composition of the churches across ethnic, racial, and national boundaries; the intentional outreach to those who evangelical ecumenists may unwittingly and hastily mistake for true Christians (because, unlike Grace Baptist Church, they neglect to exercise spiritual discernment); the placement of the need for new congregations as primary and their own church building as important yet secondary; the centrality of the Bible in worship and the prominence of the gospel in every verbal action. Let me summarize what God is doing in north London through the ministry of Barry King and Grace Baptist Church by saying that I find great joy in this man’s ministry. He is leading people to follow Jesus exactly as the Lord has revealed His will in Scripture, not from legalistic motives but with thanksgiving in response to God’s saving grace. Moreover, as a non-Calvinist, I am overjoyed to report that Barry and his congregation were more concerned about what Scripture had to say than about whether or not I was personally holding to their own quite orthodox and evangelistic Calvinist convictions. May God glorify Himself far into the future through the joyful ministry of this church-planting church extraordinaire.

OK. Malcolm's words end above the line. Bart typing here again.

In addition to celebrating this friendship, I'm also happy to celebrate with Malcolm the work of Barry's church in this little blog post. I realize that you're unlikely ever to hear about men like Barry King, for even though he is successfully planting churches and spreading the gospel in a very difficult place, because he doesn't cuss from the pulpit, get a little tipsy while consuming his fish and chips, peddle soft-porn from his church web-site and billboards, or dub an Internet chat room a "church," he's not very newsworthy these days. That's one of the things that keep me blogging—this blog can be a place to celebrate people like Barry who, although very effective for the Master, aren't "cool" enough to be celebrated elsewhere.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Gray Morning

Who's bound for rest from labor and evil?
Who's bound for the plain of Lethe?

-"Frogs," Aristophanes, lines 185-86a

Cold, gray clouds blanket North Texas this morning. I sit here remembering that awful day one year ago (see here). The ancient Greeks believed in a river of forgetfulness (Lethe) that flowed through a plain in Hades. There, according to their mythology, the dead drank and forgot all that had transpired in their lives. Different Greeks regarded Lethe's waters differently. A few inscriptions present Lethe as a hazard to be avoided, urging instead that the deceased should drink from rival stream Mnemosyne (remembrance) to achieve omniscience.

But here Aristophanes reveals to us the train of thought by which some Greeks WELCOMED a draught of utter forgetfulness. Certainly in the face of trauma and its aftermath, forgetfulness is a tempting offer. To draw from a cultural expression of more recent vintage:

I've just been down the gullet of an interstellar cockroach. That's one of a hundred memories I don't want

-K, in "Men in Black," requesting to have his memory erased

Part of me would love to forget. Part of me feels an obligation to remember—to honor Nick Scroggs's life by remembering. We Americans have an entire holiday devoted to remembering, and Memorial Day is particularly directed toward what must be the survivors' traumatic recollections of the often gruesome deaths of young people at war. You live through a moment like that, and you think, "This cannot be forgotten. Someone must remember this. I must remember this."

Charon's (the character speaking in Aristophanes's quote above) sentiment is fatalistic and negative. It arises from a thoroughly negative appraisal of human life on earth and an utterly hopeless appraisal of the afterlife's ability to make life to have been worthwhile. Lethe is the ultimate surrender to pain and evil, relinquishing life to them forever.

The Christian concept is a thoroughgoing contrast: "Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17). God's promise is not just to bring "extra innings" to extend life beyond here (perhaps to try to turn things around in the end in an Ebenezer Scrooge sort of way), nor is it a suggestion that you might be able to forget the "labor and evil" of this life and wind up with a clean slate. Rather, the Christian hope is that God ultimately makes all of this makes sense somehow and amount to an overarching good. How does that work? Well, if I knew that, then God would have already made sense of it here! But I cling to the promise of God that affliction is indeed productive, and that eternal good wins so decisively as to put an end to "all comparison" even between the two.

It's not that hard to believe, for I've seen good come out of difficult circumstances with my own eyes. It is almost a universal truth that the best person you know is not the person who has enjoyed the easiest life. If it happens partially and disproportionately here, what might be done with it in eternity?

And therefore, I have placed my hope not in some promise that time will enable me to forget—I do not have much confidence in that ever happening. Instead, I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ that this whole ordeal, although not ever possibly a good thing in and of itself, will result in good things in this world: In teenagers a little more careful with their lives because of it, in a deeper compassion and empathy in my own life, in a pointing of people to the finitude of life and the inevitability of eternity. May the God of Redemption redeem it.

Gray clouds and rainy skies, after all, water the earth and bring forth all of its verdant fecundity. Winter gives us the glories of Spring. Death gave way to resurrection. There is hope, and in hope there is comfort.

But on a gray morning, even though we have hope for the sunlight at last, would you join me and take a moment to pray for a family in Texas somehow marking on this day the end of a first year without their son?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thoughts About Marriage Law

Trivia Question: What do Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Werner von Braun, H. G. Wells, Martin Van Buren, Abraham Maslow, and Edvard Grieg all have in common? In addition to being famed luminaries who forever changed their respective fields of labor in the sciences, the arts, and politics, they also each of them married a first cousin. John F. Kennedy, one of the more influential American presidents of the 20th century, was the grandson of married first cousins.

Cousin marriage is illegal in the majority of U. S. States (including, thank you very much, Arkansas). Texas's ban on cousin marriage was only recently passed (2005). No state has adopted a more lenient law on cousin marriage in the past century. Marriage between close kin—even closer than cousins—takes place prominently in the Bible. The United States is the only nation in the Western world in which cousin marriage is not universally illegal.

Why? Why do we make it against the law for cousins to marry?

The Genetic Argument: The most common argument against cousin marriage is the suggestion that cousin marriage is not well suited to reproduction. Yet this argument may not be as strong as you may think. Reproduction between people with significant consanguinity does indeed increase the change of recessive genetic traits being passed through to their offspring. However, not all recessive traits can be considered undesirable or classified as a disorder, and not all genetic disorders or undesirable outcomes can be linked to the transmission of recessive genes. Down's Syndrome, for example, is an example of a genetic disorder that is not an expression of a recessive gene, but is instead a transcription error.

The upshot of all of this? Procreation of people over the age of 40 is just as genetically risky as is the procreation of first cousins. The genetic argument really provides little rationale for making cousin marriages illegal.

The Moral Argument: People argue that cousin marriage is incestuous and immoral. Indeed, in many U. S. states, sexual intercourse among cousins legally constitutes incest. The patchwork status of U. S. law on this front means that some marriages, although perfectly legal in Mississippi, are felonious in Texas.

Nevertheless, although sexual relationships among siblings or lineal descendants is forbidden in the Bible, one would utterly fail to demonstrate any biblical prohibition against cousin marriage. Rather, the marriage of Isaac to his first-cousin-once-removed Rebekkah is presented as a good and holy thing and even a part of the lineage of Christ. Abraham himself was married to his half-sister, and levirate marriage laws meant that a man might plausibly be commanded to marry his cousin.

It is difficult to find a good moral argument against cousin marriage.

And yet, while a tidal wave has swept this nation against cousin marriage in the last century and continuing through today, an incipient wave of the legalization of same sex marriage is beginning to move in the United States. Let's consider a comparison of the two:

 Homosexual MarriageCousin Marriage
BiologicalA biological nightmare. Homosexual intercourse has given to the world a fertile locus for the breeding and transmission of disease and is responsible for the gruesome deaths of many of the people who have participated in it. Homosexual intercourse is also entirely incapable of the primary biological purpose for sexual activity—the reproduction of the species.Leads to a 2–3% increase in the occurrence of those genetic maladies associated with the transmission of those recessive genes that may be injurious to a child. This increased risk is similar to the risk of childbearing at ages over 40. Otherwise, entirely biologically healthy and functional.
HistoricalHomosexuality itself is historically ancient, yet with a longstanding status of taboo across diverse cultures and epochs of history.Accepted by most of the world's population today. Historically widespread. Homosexual marriage is entirely unattested in history.
MoralCondemned by the scriptures or traditions of every major faith group (noteworthy exception: the one branch of Hinduism that includes the Kama Sutra has the sole positive mention of homosexuality in major faith texts). Religious leaders from the Dalai Lama to the great Christian leaders of history have been unanimous in their condemnation of homosexuality as sexual misconduct.Tolerated by every major faith tradition, and even commanded in some.

So, what's my point? Am I arguing in favor of cousin marriage, suggesting that the denial of cousin marriage is a terrible human rights problem in our nation? No. I believe that laws against cousin marriage serve a generally benign and largely beneficial function in our society. They enshrine an American cultural expectation that people will look outside their own families for a spouse. In so doing, they increase genetic diversity in our nation, leading to marginally increased public health. Banning the marriage of people over 40 would have terrible cultural effects in our country, since many of those married-over-40 folks are the parents of children conceived earlier. So, although cousin reproduction and over-40 reproduction are genetically comparable, the banning of marriage beyond 40 would have far greater ill effects in society than does the banning of cousin marriage. Banning cousin marriage, I believe, results in a positive impact upon our society. I am not opposed to laws against cousin marriage. If they did not exist, I wouldn't be on a campaign to enact them, but their existence does not bother me.

My point is simply to highlight the absurdity of homosexual marriage. Every argument against cousin marriage applies in spades to homosexual marriage. Yet our nation outlaws the more benign of the two while activists for the worse one can almost taste eventual victory in the courts and then in the polls. In Iowa right at this moment, it is a felony for two consenting adults to engage in a marital relationship (cousin marriage) that is historically, biologically, and morally acceptable by every reasonable standard (if a bit odd), but it is (according to an activist court) a fundamental and constitutional human right for two consenting adults to engage in a marital relationship that is historically, biologically, and morally bankrupt (homosexual marriage).

Friday, December 4, 2009

No Longer Seeing Red

I have written a computer application (using C#, Silverlight, and the .NET platform, for those interested in such things) to aid me in planning my sermon calendar. The application indicates to me an "unassigned" appointment (a "preaching event" for which I have not yet planned what the content will be) by displaying a "red light" on the event label.

After a week of hard work, I am thrilled to report that no more red lights appear anywhere in 2010 on my calendar. As always, my thanks go out to the wonderful staff and people of FBC Farmersville who (in self-defense!) are always faithful to pray diligently for me when I seek the Lord's plan for my preaching.

Indeed, the plan goes well into 2011, although I haven't bothered to work out the specific details and key in the data. Wednesday Night Bible Study will launch in January 2010 a weekly study in Genesis that (if we are able to keep up with the plan) will make it partially into the story of Abraham when the next new year falls. A Sunday morning series through 1 Thessalonians starts late enough in 2010 that it will carry over into 2011 (although we will set 1 Thessalonians aside temporarily between Thanksgiving and the New Year to turn our attention to passages related to the season).

The one drawback of doing this kind of planning: I'm excited RIGHT NOW about preaching all of it, but I'll have to wait MORE THAN A YEAR before I can preach the latter portions of it. Patience is a virtue, or so I hear.

Some Things Never Change, Whether the Climate Does or Not

In my time I've seen a lot of Baptists throw stones at Baptist journalists, often alleging either implicitly or explicitly that journalists within our denomination aren't real journalists like the folks without who work for major wires or other news organizations.

I think that these allegations are largely unfounded. Over the past few years I've interacted with people from Baptist Press, Associated Baptist Press, and a number of state Baptist news organizations. That list represents a wide spectrum of viewpoints, to be sure, but I've encountered among our Baptist journalists a determination to get the facts of the stories straight. Some people may wish that they would report different stories than the ones that they report, but the accuracy rating on the facts for our denominational news entities seems to me to be much higher than either mine or Dan Rather's (you really have to watch out for the story that you badly want to be true).

Anyway, one difference that I've noted in dealing with secular journalists is that, when one of them approaches you for an interview, it seems to me that they often already have their story basically in mind. They're going to take all of your interview, sift through it, pick out what fits their thesis, and go with that. If nothing that you give them matches their pre-existing thesis, then you probably won't be appearing in the article.

Journalists aren't alone in this phenomenon. I think you see it in a lot of academic research also, as well as in a great deal of what passes for statistical analysis. I don't think it represents any sort of a deliberate skewing of the news in an attempt to mislead the public. I think that human beings just tend to behave in this manner sometimes, and that some of the pressures inherent to the journalistic profession (e.g., if an editor has already shown interest in the concept of a story that goes a certain way) perhaps make this natural human tendency appear a bit more frequently when one is writing newscopy.

Of course, this is not a dispassionate treatise on the concept of journalism in general. Earlier this week I was interviewed by a very congenial Ed Stoddard of Reuters. Ed called me because he was curious to speak with an evangelical from the "American heartland" (i.e., a non-urban, middle America sort of place). Farmersville fits that bill, and someone thought I might turn out to be quotable, and so Ed picked up the phone. He's a really nice guy. I enjoyed speaking with him.

Thanks to a Google Update, I learned this morning that the article has now hit the ether, if not the newsstands, complete with a quote from me. In a section trying to explain why mainstream Americans might be skeptical about global warming, this paragraph appears:

One in four U.S. adults is also an evangelical Christian and, while secular Europeans may find this odd, many really do believe that biblical prophecy foretells the planet's end.

"If you are an evangelical Christian in the American vein then you believe it is our responsibility to look after the planet but it will be ultimately destroyed no matter what we do," said Bart Barber, a Southern Baptist Convention preacher in the small north Texas town of Farmersville.

No, I was not misquoted. I really did say that, word-for-word. However, I also stated explicitly that I did not regard that as a reason why Americans were skeptical about global warming. My conversation with Ed went pretty much along these lines.

Ed asked why I thought people in a place like Farmersville might be skeptical about global warming. Omitting the back and forth with Ed, here are the basic elements of what I told him:

  1. Knowing it was Reuters, I opened up by saying that I was skeptical about global warming because I read the BBC and have come to see that, over the course of my lifetime, scientific predictions about the climate have been consistently inconsistent. Self-contradiction tends to bring out the skeptic in me.

  2. I mentioned that earlier on the very day of the interview I had heard on the radio the report on the ending of the 2009 hurricane season. Expert scientists had predicted a season of above-average hurricane intensity in 2009. Instead, we had one of the weakest hurricane seasons in memory, with zero hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. and only three tropical storms making their way on shore. In fact, only four named storms made landfall anywhere on the planet in this hurricane season. And let's not forget that, just four years ago, we were all told that, because of global warming, the average hurricane season would be growing worse and worse (see also this story in which scientists posit different theories in addition to global warming, but all concur that we were in for a decade of bad hurricanes). The data over the past four years simply have not turned out at all the way that the experts predicted.

  3. I told him that middle-America has an historic skepticism toward ivory-tower academia. People in the "American heartland" tend to see "common sense" as a thing not always opposed to, yet not always aligned with, "book learning." Everyone in middle-America wants their children to go to a university, but not everyone in middle-American wants their children to swallow everything they hear at a university.

  4. I told him that I would not use the word "hoax" to describe the global warming discussion, so much as I would use another word beginning with 'H': hubris. Earning a Ph.D., I said, comes with a terrible temptation to forget how to utter the words, "I don't know." Our hard weather data goes back really not very far at all into history. The science of climatology is in its relative infancy.

  5. When he asked whether I saw anything particular to evangelical theology that would lead someone to doubt global warming, I specifically and emphatically answered in the negative. "There's human-induced climatological cataclysm right there in the first few chapters of the Bible," I said. "Nothing in the Bible nor in evangelical theology contributes to skepticism about global warming," I said.

    I also told him that biblical theology compels us to good stewardship of the earth. I told him that I, because I am an evangelical believer, would consider it immoral for me to throw a wrapper out the window of my car and leave it for someone else to pick up. Evangelical theology, I told him, supports good stewardship and conservation of the earth (although I told him that I am a conservationist and not an environmentalist).

    But I want to reiterate, I specifically told him that there was nothing in evangelical theology that would make any evangelical believer any more likely to be skeptical as to whether the earth is warming due to human activity.

  6. But, I told him, evangelical eschatology could cause evangelical believers perhaps to be much less ALARMED about climate change, even if they believed it to be true. Evangelical Christians, after all, tend to believe that the timing and manner of the end of the world is a matter fixed by God and not susceptible to human modification. It was in this part of the discussion that I uttered the one quote that appeared in the article.

Many Americans come down differently than most Europeans on the question of global warming. Many Americans come down differently than most Europeans on the question of the gospel of Jesus Christ. People want to connect the dots, whether they ought to be connected or not. I refused to connect the dots, and this story connected them for me nonetheless (not explicitly, but by implication). What remains constant is that those who view American Evangelicalism from the outside fare poorly in understanding us, and I don't think that's substantially the fault of Evangelicals.