Monday, January 27, 2014

Useful Church History

Here are ten stories from Church History that I tend to use in my ministry as the pastor of a local church. They are not listed in any particular order:

  1. Monica of Hippo and Her Son Augustine: Augustine was a little hellion. He grew up to be a big hellion. His mother, the pious Monica, despaired of seeing his redemption from a life of squalor and dissipation. She was tempted to throw in the towel until her pastor told her, "Woman, the child of so many tears shall never perish." I don't know that this is always true, but it proved to be true in the life of Augustine, who was converted and became…well…Augustine!

    I use this story with mothers who are worried about their children. By telling it I try to encourage them to continue to pray for their children and never to abandon the hope that God might turn them around.

  2. William Carey's Call to Ministry and Early Work: William Carey wasn't exactly the hottest commodity among Baptist churches in the midland counties. It took a lot of convincing to get a small church to call him as their pastor. But his sheer indefatigability carried him a long way. Of course, the calling of God eventually sent him to India, where he labored seven years without a single convert in spite of severe emotional and physical loss. Unbeknownst to him or to those who supported his ministry, those seven years laid the foundation for one of the most successful missionary stories in the modern age.

    I use this story to encourage church members to stay the course in ministry situations that are difficult. I used it extensively as we were preparing to adopt a UUPG in Senegal, wanting our church to understand that we might not see immediate results, but that it is important to persevere even if we do not.

  3. Thomas Helwys's Decision to Return to England: The early English Baptists weren't in England at all. They had fled to the environs of Amsterdam to escape persecution in England. Thomas Helwys fell under the conviction that he had abandoned his preaching post—that he owed it to his homeland to declare the true gospel to his countrymen. He did not do so unobtrusively; he penned a missive to King James on the subject of religious liberty entitled "A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity." As thanks for his effort, James I cast Helwys into Newgate Prison, where he died after a few years of imprisonment.

    I use this story to inspire people regarding the debt we owe our neighbors to proclaim the gospel to them. Also, it works in any circumstance in which we need to instill courage in believers.

  4. Hugh & Anne Bromhead's Letter: In the earliest days of the English Baptist movement, a member of a local Baptist church wrote a letter to a concerned family member trying to explain this strange new sect to which they belonged. The letter contains a full description of a typical Lord's Day in the life of this congregation, including hours upon hours of preaching and Bible study.

    I find this letter to be useful whenever anyone says that my preaching is too long. :-)

    Also, whenever I have church members who have come to regard our Sunday schedule as an ancient sacrament, it is helpful to be able to show not only an older form of worship, but an older BAPTIST form of worship (arguments from the Gallican Mass aren't often persuasive in SBC circles, nor should they be).

  5. John Chrysostom's Conflict with Empress Eudoxia: The great golden-tongued preacher did not have a good relationship with the Byzantine Empress Eudoxia (perhaps because he had compared her to Herodias?). Although her rage against him was harsh and eventually forced him into exile, he never backed down.

    Again, like Thomas Helwys, John Chrysostom is an example of Christian courage. But his is courage of a different kind. Helwys's is the story of an outsider who courageously proclaimed the truth although it cost him his life. Chrysostom's is the story of an insider who refused to be seduced by wealth and power. That's a different kind of courage, but it is courage all the same. I use this story to encourage people to be courageous and to resist corruption when tempted by wealth, fame, or power.

  6. Lottie Moon: Lottie Moon didn't start out looking like a missionary in the making. Even when she first went to China, she appeared simply to be following her sister there. The sister didn't make it, but Lottie did. Opportunities for romance, for furlough, or for greater personal comfort did not finally succeed in diverting her attention from her efforts. She is the martyred saint of Southern Baptist missionary work.

    I use her story to promote an offering we collect every Christmas for our missionaries.

  7. Francis Asbury during the American Revolution: Early Methodism was, after all, a movement within Anglicanism, and Anglicanism, in turn, was the Church of where? England! When the Americans declared their independence against the British Crown, most Anglican clergy and nearly every Methodist preacher booked passage back to Mother England. Francis Asbury did not. He stayed on and consequently became the most influential man in American Methodist history.

    I use this story to illustrate how much ministry credibility can be won by a pastor's endurance through difficult times. Perseverance and shared suffering forge strong bonds that are useful in later ministry endeavors.

  8. Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes: Williams and his "Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience" made an important case in both the Americas and Great Britain for religious liberty. The story of Obadiah Holmes's savage treatment for conducting Baptist ministry in the Massachusetts Bay Colony became Exhibit A in the evidentiary argument against religious persecution.

    I use this story to help my church members to remember that religious liberty was not won for us by politicians in a constitutional convention. Also, I point them to Roger Williams's brilliant rationale for determining which laws are permissible to the state and which ones are violations of religious conscience.

  9. Manz, Grebel, and Blaurock, together with Various Anabaptist Martyrdom Stories: The treatment of Anabaptist reformers was horrific. That so much of it came at the hands not of Catholics but of other so-called "Reformers" made it only that much more perverse. Particularly the role of Zwingli is disturbing. He chased to their deaths his own students, and that for their doing what he had taught them to do—to study the Bible and obey it. The drownings and burnings were not, in the end, able to bring an utter end to the onward march of truth.

    I use these stories to help people to understand their relationships with me sometimes. They have the obligation to let me point them to God's Word. They have the obligation to leave me behind if God's Word leads them further than I am willing to go.

  10. The Early Beginnings of the Great Western Revival at the Gasper River Church: I love the way that revival came in the midst of a Lord's Supper service. And this wasn't just some touchy-feely wide-open Koolaid and Oatmeal Pies communion service like might be popular today. This was a communion service preceded by pastoral visitation and church discipline and good, sound ecclesiology. I love that attentiveness to the doctrine of the church was the precursor to spiritual awakening.

    I use this story sometimes to open someone's eyes to an understanding of the role of the pastor, the role of the ordinances, and the obligations of church membership that may be far different from any understanding of those things that they have ever considered before. To see how those basics—fulfilling the role of spiritual overseer over a flock, calling people to repentance and spiritual preparation for worship—might lead to revival is, I think, an important contribution that this story makes.

I do not allege that these are the best stories in Church History. I do not allege that they are the ten stories that I OUGHT to have used the most in ministry. But for the circumstances that have come my way in local church ministry and for the stories that have stuck sufficiently with me for me to be able to use them on a moment's notice, these are the top ten in terms of usefulness in ministry for me.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Helping Heretics Come Home

This year's SBTC Empower Evangelism Conference features at least three former heretics as a part of the official program. These are men whose previous spiritual affiliation was theologically deficient and—according to the teachings of scripture and the consensus of orthodox Christianity for two millennia—accomplished their damnation to eternal hell.

The three men in question are Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Fred Luter.

In fact, after looking a bit closer, every name on the program represents someone who was formerly a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel against the rightful rule of God, and a soul damned for all eternity without hope of reprieve. Without hope, that is, until Jesus Christ came to save them. And it is fitting that the program should consist of such people, since it is the design of an evangelism conference to feature the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save heretics, which all lost people are, including the very worst among them.

Oh, there have also been questions asked about three other participants in the conference: Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean, who together comprise the CCM group "Phillips, Craig, & Dean." Like every other participant in the program, these three have a history that includes a period of error and rebellion against God. Unlike the other participants (as far as I know the histories of the other participants), their pasts include affiliation with (so-called) churches that do not affirm the Trinity but are instead adherents of the ancient heresy called modalism. Indeed, members of this group have family members who remain among the proponents of modalism to this day.

I have looked through the data about Phillips, Craig, & Dean, at least as far as it is presented online, and the material that I have seen to date I would characterize in this manner: (a) the members of the group have never publicly claimed to be modalists or publicly espoused modalist teachings, (b) the churches of which they are members have not been found to claim to be modalistic or to teach a modalist interpretation of the godhead, but they have been found to have statements of faith that are not clearly written to exclude modalism. Mark Lamprecht, author of "Here I Blog" and one of the most careful and helpful contributors to the conversation about Phillips, Craig, & Dean, has written here that the status of these churches is "unclear and questionable." Because Mark is a careful and conscientious blogger, he has called not for Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean to repent of modalism but to obtain from them a "clear, explicit statement…of their position on the Trinity."

This is a reasonable request.

And so, before the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention ever booked PC&D to sing at this year's Empower Evangelism Conference, the convention required from them precisely that: a clear, explicit statement of their position on the Trinity. They provided it gladly. I have it in hand with all three of their signatures in place at the bottom. In the text of the statement they say, "Phillips, Craig, & Dean fully acknowledge their past denominational affiliations and are grateful for their heritage; however, they reject the teaching of modalism, a.k.a. Sabellianism." But they go further than that. They additionally say, "Although none of the members of PC&D are affiliated with any denomination, collectively, the ministry of Phillips, Craig, & Dean affirms the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention—"

Now, in light of this, I pose these questions to you:

  1. Does the statement by PC&D amount to a "clear, explicit statement…of their position on the Trinity"? The first quote that I gave above admittedly is not. That is, although it certainly is a clear, explicit statement of what the group's position on the Trinity IS NOT, it does not provide any clear, explicit statement of what the group's position on the Trinity IS. When you add the second statement, however, things change. At that point the answer to the question depends upon whether one considers the Baptist Faith & Message to amount to a "clear, explicit statement" regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Having read our statement of faith many times and having affirmed it myself, I do consider the Baptist Faith & Message to meet this standard of clarity and explicitness.

  2. How ought those of us who have been concerned in the past about whether PC&D are modalists to respond to this statement? Does this statement change things? I think we can choose one response among several possibilities:

    1. We can determine that they are lying. In which case, I submit that they are not modalists. They may not be Trinitarians if they are lying, but they certainly are not modalists.

      Look at it this way: you show me a politician who tells people in Massachusetts that he is pro-choice on the question of abortion and tells people in Texas that he is pro-life on the question of abortion. If he is doing both of those things at the same time, then perhaps you might ask me, "Bart, which do you think he is, pro-life or pro-choice?" My answer would be, "I don't think he's either one; I think he's pro-I-want-to-be-elected-and-will-say-whatever-it-takes-for-that-to-happen." In other words, it is clear that he holds no convictions on either side of the issue.

      Likewise, if you have someone who tells one group of people that he is a modalist and another group of people that he is a Trinitarian, what you have is neither a modalist nor a Trinitarian but a liar who doesn't think that theology is all that important and doesn't hold any real convictions on the question of God's nature. Such liars are sinners and such lying is wrong. We'd all have good reason to doubt the salvation of anyone who could not bring himself to make an honest confession about who God is.

      But I find it difficult to put these three men into this category by way of anything resembling evidence. I've never seen any evidence that any of the three of these men have ever taught, affirmed, encouraged, or supported modalism in what they have personally said or done. They admit that they grew up in the midst of modalism. I do not doubt that at some point along the way they subscribed to modalism. But any such subscription or affirmation happened before these men were in the public eye and no public record of it remains. So, on the side of evidence to suggest that they are presently teaching, affirming, encouraging, or supporting modalism, either publicly or privately, the basket it empty.

      On the other hand, we have before us their signed statements claiming that they are Trinitarians. Perhaps I would like to have seen it sooner (like, years ago). Perhaps I would like to see it stronger (like, video of the three of them burning some sort of modalist flag or something). But the fact remains that everything Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean have ever said publicly about the nature of the godhead has been Trinitarian in its nature.

      The only way I know to conclude that they are lying is to do so by intuition, unless there exists somewhere more evidence than I have seen.

    2. We can state that we do not have enough evidence to conclude one way or the other and can continue to hold these men at arm's length as potential heretics until they provide something more to our liking. And yet, would we be just in doing so? This ministry has affirmed the BF&M 2000. Have all of the speakers and singers at YOUR state evangelism conference done so? Dare I ask whether all of the full-time ministry employees of your state convention have done so?

      There's a fine line between discernment and skepticism. I have to watch out for that line myself. But when I step back and take a look at the situation with these three men, I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I have from most of the bloggers whom I admire and read. I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I heard from a number of my college and seminary professors. I've heard more Trinitarianism from them than I find in the content of a year's worth of sermons from a lot of our Southern Baptist churches. Unless I'm prepared to sally forth to war against all of those folks, I have to ask myself whether I'm right in asking these three men to affirm Trinitarianism yet again in a yet another way.

    3. We can celebrate their conversion to Trinitarian Christianity, which is the Christianity of Christ, the Christianity of the New Testament, and the only true Christianity that there is. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention takes doctrine seriously. The churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, if they did not find doctrine to be important, could have found plenty of a-theological Baptist associationalism…elsewhere. That's why weeks and weeks ago this question was settled before Phillips, Craig, & Dean ever earned a spot on the program. We are a biblically-based, confessional fellowship of Southern Baptist churches. That's who we are, and that's how we conduct our ministries.

      But we are also a fellowship of churches who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead people to all truth. We believe in the gospel. We believe in redemption. We believe in affirming people who confess the true faith and in receiving them as brothers. After all, apart from that kind of a reception, we know we would all still be on the outside.

      We're not afraid to ask anybody any question about the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We're also not unwilling to accept their good answers at face value apart from evidence to suggest that we should not do so. After all, if we would not do that, how on earth could we ever help heretics to come home? And wouldn't we rather win them to the truth than to defeat them?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Potency of Proclamations

According to this story, Mayor Tom Hayden of Flower Mound, TX, has proclaimed 2014 to be the Year of the Bible in Flower Mound (complete with website that is performing about as well as under the increased load that accompanies media attention). Hayden collaborated with area churches in making the proclamation, and he hopes that his community will "connect through the Bible" (those are the reporter's words, not necessarily Hayden's).

If you are a Bible-believing Christian, this kind of thing FEELS good. In an environment of heavy-handed government oppression of the consciences of people like the Green family, the world seems a little less worrisome when local government does something in affirmation of our beliefs. But these uncertain days are no time for us to be navigating church-state questions by the seat-of-our-pants navigation that our feelings provide for us. We need map-based navigation drawn from time-honored and thoughtful ideas about the proper respective roles of churches and government officials in a well-ordered society.

According to those principles, as I understand them, Mayor Hayden has made a mistake. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. He has overstepped his authority as mayor. In the Fox4 story Curt Orton complained, "He was elected mayor, not as the spiritual leader of Flower Mound." You might presume (as I'll admit I did at first) that Orton is a flaming liberal secularist. Actually, it appears that he is an active member of Lantana Community Fellowship Church of the Nazarene in Flower Mound and is, in fact, the president of the church's missions auxiliary (see this document that led me to conclude this). I've neither met nor spoken with Orton, but he looks and smells like an evangelical Christian.

    He's also 100% correct in his assessment of the situation and stands in line with the best of historical Christian thinking about church-state issues.

    Although I can see some questions that it does not fully anticipate or resolve, I've never seen a better theory of church-state relationships than Roger Williams's metaphor of the Two Tables of the Law. Williams's rationale safeguards religious liberty for all people without plunging society into erosive amorality. It provides a hermeneutical distinctive that makes sense of the entirety of the New Testament's treatment of the role of the state in the Christian worldview. It's a shame that so few of our fellow believers are acquainted with Williams's approach: We would more deftly handle situations like this one if we were well-versed in the writings of Roger Williams.

    Hayden is free to stand in the pulpit of his home congregation as a church member to proclaim 2014 to be the Year of the Bible as a church member. He is free to stand in a local meeting place as a Christian in Flower Mound and to proclaim with the local ministerial alliance that they consider 2014 to be the Year of the Bible. He is free to stand on his front porch as a citizen of Flower Mound and proclaim that 2014 is the Year of the Bible. But to issue an official proclamation in the council chambers in his role as mayor oversteps his authority.

    One last thing about this before I move on: I am well aware that this is not an official law. I am well aware that the city council did not vote on this question. I am well aware that the ceremonial and non-binding nature of this proclamation may well cause our court system not to regard this as any violation of the First Amendment. But when I say that the mayor has overstepped his authority, I'm not talking about the First Amendment. There wasn't a First Amendment when Roger Williams lived and wrote. I'm not talking about the authority that the Constitution gives to the Mayor Hayden; I'm talking about the authority that God has given to government as His agent. God has given someone the job of encouraging people to read the Bible, and He did not give that job to the government. I'm also completely cognizant of the fact that Ronald Reagan issued a similar proclamation in 1983. I, decrepit old man that I am, remember 1983. Reagan was wrong, too.

  2. He has denigrated and misrepresented the Bible. Please read carefully, because this is the way that evangelicals so frequently betray what they claim to believe without realizing that they are doing so.

    Hayden's proclamation, like Reagan's proclamation before it, explained the rationale behind the proclamation, grounding it in the unique role that the Bible has played in American history as a formative influence underlying our legal system and the design of our government. That the Bible has played this role is historical fact. That any evangelical Christian should expend any energy to communicate this as an important message about the Bible is a crying shame. These accidents of history are not on the Bible's résumé. The credibility and authority of the Bible rests upon these items of trivia not at all.

    Here's what's important about the Bible: You're going to Hell forever unless you heed the words God has spoken to us in the Bible and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reagan's proclamation said nothing about that. Although the story did not give the full text of Hayden's proclamation, and although I have not read it, I'm willing to proceed upon the assumption that Hayden's proclamation also said nothing remotely resembling these gospel truths. To do so would be to commit political suicide, to be sure, but to fail to do so is to dilute the Bible's message, transmogrifying its radical gospel message into a bland civil Christianity that encourages people to behave like good citizens while they await perdition.

    Yes, Hayden probably says more about the Bible in private, but the officially proclaimed position of the office of the Mayor of Flower Mound is now this gospel-less view of the Bible, since the proclamation says no more than it does. Yes, there's the possibility that someone will read the Bible because of this proclamation and will thereby encounter the gospel, but who here really believes that God cooked this up as a strategy for sharing the gospel?

    Look at it this way: Twentieth-century Christianity can claim that the Bible has had more influence upon worldwide jurisprudence and political thinking than any other one book (second place probably goes to the Qur'an). First-century Christianity could not claim that the Bible was any more than a collection of obscure writings produced by obscure followers of an obscure religious sect in an obscure backwater region forgotten by civilization. In which of these two epochs did Christians enjoy greater effectiveness in pointing people to the Bible's true message?

    The Bible ought to be revered as the words of eternal life. To be regarded as the cornerstone of American civilization would be a high honor for any other book, to be sure, but it is an insult to the Bible to treat it as merely that.

  3. It distracts government officials from their true God-given jobs as government officials. I think God would be more pleased if government officials would put an end to no-fault divorce and the epidemic of child poverty and child dysfunction the proliferation of divorce has created. Perhaps a mayor could drive payday lenders out of the city or end the way that city governments wink at illegal gambling operations like the "eight-liner" game rooms that are proliferating in North Texas.

    Don't misunderstand: I do not offer this critique out of any jaded cynicism that suspects that Mayor Hayden does not really care about these things. In fact, quite the opposite is true: I offer this suggestion precisely because I suspect that he does care about being the kind of mayor God approves. Because his energies, when directed towards his actual God-authorized job, are likely to be discharged in a good and godly way, I want him spending his time THERE, doing his job well rather than doing mine poorly.

    And although I'm in pretty much 100% in line with the planks of the old Moral Majority platform, at least this much critique of the old "culture war" campaign is healthy and necessary: It was always a lot more effective at producing good proclamations than good laws.

  4. It distracts Christians from their true God-given jobs as Christians. On this we do agree: Proclamations are indispensable to New Testament Christianity. It's just that Mayor Hayden and the good folks in Flower Mound have chosen the most impotent kind of proclamation over those that are actually effective. Proclaim the gospel from the pulpit. Proclaim the gospel in the marketplace over the water cooler. Proclaim the gospel in the neighborhood by witnessing to your neighbors. Proclaim the gospel at the family dinner table. Undergird your proclamation of the gospel by being careful in the way that you spend your money, your time, and your energy. Treat other people in your relationships in ways that are strategically supportive of gospel proclamation. Too many of those Christians who will celebrate "The Year of the Bible" will not share their faith with anyone in 2014 (or, dare I say, do the hard work required to deepen their own).

    The real-life proclamations about the Bible, in contrast to political resolutions, are potent. Two thousand years of Christian History vindicates that claim. State-sponsored Christianity is utterly impotent. Visit Germany and see what became of Martin Luther's Landeskirche. I think sometimes we forget that effective spiritual warfare consists of more game, less pep rally, and strategically speaking, mayoral proclamations about the Bible accomplish little more than the rustling of pom-pons. I like a good pep rally as much as the next guy; it's just that history teaches us that this pep rally takes place during the game, in an offsite venue, and with free food and drinks. I can't help but suspect that it is funded by the other team.