Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2014

DOCTRINE THAT DIVIDES; DOCTRINE THAT UNITES

Jesus’ prayer for the church was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21: NASV), and “that they may be perfected in unity” (v. 23). Yet that goal has proven almost impossible to attain. The church today is as hopelessly divided as ever. The question is, why?

    Given the fact that much of what separates denominations from each other are doctrinal issues, one might suppose that it is doctrine that causes divisions. The Bible makes it clear, however, that doctrine is meant to unite, not divide. Sound doctrine is necessary for spiritual growth. Christ has given the church a variety of leadership gifts in order to build up the body “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13). To that end Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:14-17). Heresy, on the other hand, is, by its very nature, divisive.

    How, then, do we tell the difference between good doctrine and bad? To begin with, good doctrine is doctrine that conforms to the teachings of the apostles (Acts 2:42; Rom. 16:17; II Tim. 1:13,14; 3:10). Since we do not have an unbroken tradition that extends all the way back to the apostles, practically speaking, the only way we can know what they taught is through their own writings, and those of their close associates; in other words, the books of the New Testament. Hence the Bible is our only rule of faith; and our theology, if it is to be sound, must be derived from Scripture.

\    But secondly, sound doctrine is meant to be edifying – its aim is to build up the saints in the faith. Paul instructs Timothy not to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, and then says, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim. 1:5). It is “the doctrine conforming to godliness” (“piety toward God” – Amp.) (I Tim. 6:3). It deepens our faith in God and increases our love for others, and this is what promotes unity.

    Bad theology, on the other hand, often involves “wrangling about words” (II Tim. 2:14-18)) and “foolish and ignorant speculations” (“controversies over ignorant questionings” — Amp.) which “produce quarrels” (v. 23). Significantly, false doctrine is often marked by strained exegesis: “. . . the untaught and unstable distort [the teachings of Paul] as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16).

    But nearly every evangelical theologian, however, will insist that his theology is biblical. Why then are there so many divisions among us? Obviously they cannot possibly all be right – at least someone is misinterpreting Scripture.

    It is a striking fact that many of the most useful and effective spiritual leaders of the 20th Century had little or no formal theological training. The number includes such luminaries as A.W. Pink, C.S. Lewis, Harry Ironside, A.W. Tozer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Billy Graham, Jerry Bridges, and Jim Cymbala. This is not to say that there are not good men who have had a seminary education, but it does point to the fact that many of those whose ministries have been most greatly blessed were not trained that way – they came from outside of the system. Might this not point to a problem in our method of preparing men for the ministry?

    Most seminaries and Bible colleges are connected with specific denominations or are committed to promoting a particular point of view. They are Reformed or Wesleyan, Dispensational or Pentecostal. As a result they often display a sectarian spirit, and find themselves emphasizing their own denominational distinctives at the expense of what they have in common with other denominations. Their systematic theology is polemical in nature, defining issues, stating positions, and marshalling proof texts.

    Then there is the tendency to engage in hero worship. Luther, Calvin, Wesley and Edwards have all won loyal followings (too loyal, in our opinion), as have also D.L. Moody and Billy Graham. While they were all great men of God, they were not infallible. The tendency, however, is to defend their errors as well as their genuine insights.

    In the heat of controversy exegesis is often strained in the effort to prove a point. The result is a tenaciously held dogma with almost non-existent scriptural support. Theologians have contrived ingenious arguments to “prove” infant baptism, the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, and the idea that tongues is the necessary evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Scripture is practically silent on all of these issues).

    On the other hand, when we look at the men who were not trained in seminaries, we see a different way of approaching Scripture. They were more inclined to start with the concrete problem of their relationship with God. Who is He? What is He like? What is sin? Who is Christ? What has He done for me? How can I be made right with God? What happens to me in the New Birth? How can I grow spiritually? What will happen to me after I die? They then went to the Bible for the answers. They read other material too, of course. Many of them were remarkably well self-educated. But in another sense they were men “of one book” – they immersed themselves in the Word of God, and they never lost their focus on what the Bible says about the central issues of life. As a result they tended to develop a more balanced perspective. They also had a theology that could be directly used in the practical work of ministry.

    Our concern here is to draw attention to our theological method, the way we arrive at our doctrine. To state the matter bluntly, our divisions are caused and perpetuated largely by our academic theologians, and, as it turns out, they have not always proven to be our safest guides in theology. If real unity is to be achieved, we must be prepared to look past our theological nostrums and take a fresh look at Scripture itself. We must begin by recognizing each other as brothers and sisters, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and examine Scripture as faithfully and honestly as we can, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and taking each passage in its natural sense wherever possible. Let us especially beware of idiosyncratic doctrines held by only one particular group.

    We are looking at potentially perilous times ahead. Let us hope that when the time of persecution finally comes that the faithful brethren who take their stand for Christ will find a way to reach a consensus on the issues that have so long divided us. For in that hour of trial the fellowship of the saints and the love of the brethren will become more precious than ever.

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FEMINISM V. CHRISTIANITY

There is no doubt that Feminism has been one of the most influential forces shaping contemporary culture. It has altered the relationship between the sexes and with it the structure of the family. What is more, it has provided inspiration for the gay rights movement. “Equality” has become the byword of our generation.

The emphasis on equality is very much in keeping with the spirit of American democracy, which probably explains why the logic of women’s and gay rights seems so irresistible. Don’t we all believe in fair play? Why should anyone be discriminated against? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of others?

The relationship between Feminism and Christianity, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Throughout the Bible women play a subordinate role to men, and wives in particular are exhorted to be subject to their husbands. Feminist theologians have resorted to exegetical gymnastics to explain away these passages, but their explanations look forced and contrived. Most mainline Protestant denominations now ordain women and in some cases even practicing homosexuals. In the final analysis these churches has sold out to secular thinking.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

It was the great feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir who put her finger on the real issue. In the introduction to her classic work The Second Sex, de Beauvoir describes the predicament in which women typically find themselves. As human beings they have a natural desire to be free and independent. But as she exists in human society she is most often consigned to a subordinate role. The question then becomes, how can she achieve genuine self-fulfillment.

All of which raises a profound question about the nature of reality itself. De Beauvoir asserted that “The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics . . . Science regards any characteristic as a reaction dependent in part upon a situation.” Here she undoubtedly has in mind the Theory of Evolution. Nature, presumably, is in a constant state of flux. That being the case, there is nothing in the ultimate nature of things requiring a woman to be “feminine.” That is just an artificial role forced upon her by society. De Beauvoir then notes: “Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?” Her answer, of course, is “no.”

But de Beauvoir assumes that a woman is “a free and autonomous being like all human creatures.” But is she, or all other human beings for that matter, “free and autonomous” in reality? What if we were actually created by a Supreme Being? What if there really is such a thing as Intelligent Design? Would we still be “free and autonomous”?

The biblical answer is an emphatic “no,” and herein lies the major difference between biblical Christianity and contemporary secular thought. We are here on this planet by design and purpose. It is our Creator who determines the conditions of our existence, and that includes, among other things, gender roles. None of us are free to live unto ourselves, but each of us, as human beings, male and female alike, are required to live our lives for the glory of God and the greater good of humankind. Marriage is an institution ordained by God, and it entails a lifelong commitment with definite responsibilities for both husband and wife.

Are gender roles artificial and man-made? Then so are women’s rights. Both presuppose a fixed moral order to the universe, derived ultimately from a Supreme Lawgiver. Take away the Lawgiver, and nothing is left but the law of the jungle. No one would be in a position to question the way things actually exist now. Who says women have “rights”? The U.S. Supreme Court? The King of Saudi Arabia? On the secular view of things, what you see is what you get.

Ultimately both our rights and responsibilities derive from God. Our proper goal in life is to be the human beings, the men and women, that God intended us to be.

We did not bring ourselves into existence.

TREMBLING AT THE WORD OF GOD

Thus says the Lord:

“Heaven is My throne,

And earth is My footstool.

Where is the house that you will build Me?

And where is the place of My rest?

For all those things My hand has made,

And all those things exist,”

Says the Lord,

“But on this one will I look:

On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,

And who trembles at My word.”

            Isaiah 66:1,2 (NKJV).

As evangelical Christians we profess to believe in the Bible as God’s Word. Yet even though we may hold to the inspiration of Scripture in theory, too often we take it lightly in practice. In some cases pastors and theologians will advance questionable interpretations of Scripture, but more often common, ordinary Christians will simply ignore biblical teaching when it comes to making ethical decisions. “I know that’s what the Bible says, but . . . ,” and with the word “but” the authority of Scripture come tumbling to the ground.

This is pure folly on our part. What exactly do we expect to say when we finally meet our Maker? “I know that’s what Your Word says, but . . . “? To ignore God’s Word is to invite calamity.

The issue is spelled out clearly in the passage before us. The Lord has pronounced judgment on an apostate nation of Israel. In Isaiah 63:1-6 we are presented with a vivid picture of the Messiah returning from the conquest of His enemies. The scene of vengeance and destruction prompts Isaiah to plea for mercy for the nation. The Lord’s reply is found in chapters 65 and 66. What He says in essence is that He will save a remnant while punishing the rest. But whom will He spare? The answer is given in our text:

    “But on this one will I look

     On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,

     And who trembles at My word.”

The ones on whom God will “look” are those who, having heard of the coming judgment, are humbled and sobered by what they heard. They take God’s Word seriously – and act accordingly. They realize that what had been spoken came from God Himself. It was not mere human opinion, the speculation of philosophers, economists or political scientists. This was a message form none other than Almighty God Himself.

    Part of our problem is that we have too small thoughts of God. Isaiah, however, was given a different view of things. God confronted him with this pointed question:

        “Heaven is My throne,

          And earth is My footstool.

         Where is the house that you will build Me?

         And where is the place of My rest?

         For all those things My hands have made,

         And all those things exist . . .”

God utterly transcends human experience. Nothing else can ever begin to be compared with Him, for He alone is infinite, eternal, and omnipotent. It is with God Himself we have to do, the true and living God. What He says must be taken with dead seriousness.

    But how do we know what He said? How is His Word communicated to us? Isaiah himself tells us: “‘As for Me,’ says the Lord, ‘this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time and forevermore'” (Isa. 59:21). Here we have a description of the process of divine inspiration. The Holy Spirit descends upon a prophet, and the prophet speaks under the influence of the Spirit. God, in effect, “put His Word in the prophet’s mouth.” “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).

    What should our attitude be, then, toward Scripture? The Bible is nothing less than the Word of God, and we should receive it with humility and meekness of spirit. This is not to say that we should be terrified at its contents. For those who are being saved it is the message of salvation to be received with joy (I Thess. 1:6). But coming, as it does, from God Himself, it should be received with a profound sense of reverence. The Bible is a book unlike any other book. It is to be read, to be meditated on, to be loved, and to be applied to life. The famous motto of J.A. Bengel, the 18th Century German biblical scholar, should be the motto of every Christian today: “Te totum applica ad Textum; Rem totam applica ad te´ — Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the subject matter wholly to yourself.

MAKING AND BREAKING A COUNTRY

Early settler's home, Steuben County, NY

Early settler’s home, Steuben County, NY

    I live in a rural area in northern Pennsylvania not far from the New York State line. This area was first settled at the beginning of the 19th Century, and when you drive around it today you can still see many reminders of the past.

    The local histories tell us something of what life was like for the early settlers. They came from New England, eastern New York State, and from New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. When they first arrived here they were greeted by a vast unbroken forest of pine and hemlock. There were few roads to speak of. With axe in hand they cleared the land one tree at a time. They built primitive log cabins, and shot wild game for food. In spring they broke the ground with horse-drawn plows, removing the numerous rocks and stones by hand. It was backbreaking work, but eventually a harvest was the result. . “The wilderness was reclaimed, hamlets, villages and towns came into being and comfortable farm houses had taken the place of log huts. Broad fields of grain and pasture land and granaries rich in stores of golden corn were the result of a few years’ toil and perseverance” (History of Tioga County, p. 32).

    The story was repeated all across America as the frontier moved steadily westward. Road and canals were built, railroads were laid across the continent, and vast swaths of land were brought under cultivation. Factories were built, and American became one of the leading industrial nations of the world, enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

    This prosperity was made possible partially because the country was rich in natural resources. But it was also possible because of the hard work and enterprising spirit of the hardy pioneers and settlers who did the actual work of clearing the forests, breaking the ground, and building infrastructure. It should be noted, however, that this labor and toil was directed toward a single overriding goal: the creation of wealth. The farmers, miners, lumbermen, construction workers and manufacturers took raw materials and made them into finished products which had real market value. Their combined efforts increased the wealth of the country.

    How different it is today. What took our ancestors a century and a half or more to build up, we have torn down in a matter of a few decades. Our factories have gone overseas, and the bulk of our workforce is employed in the service industry, working for low wages in low skilled jobs. The middle class is disappearing, and a growing class of the “working poor” is struggling to survive.

    The recent Great Recession has taken its toll. But it is becoming increasingly evident that many of the jobs that were lost are not coming back. There are disturbing signs that we are looking at the “new normal.”

    The American Dream has largely disappeared. And it has disappeared because we did not have the sense to realize what makes for real prosperity. Instead of producing tangible wealth on Main Street, we have settled for producing paper profits on Wall Street. And in an economy in which the masses of people are deprived of disposable income business ultimately succumbs. A business needs customers to survive and prosper.

    We are currently living off the wealth created by our ancestors. It will not last forever.

AN INDICTMENT OF THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH

Review:

    The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary

    Alexander Rattray Hay

    New Testament Missionary Union, 1947 (1st Ed.)

    531 pp; pb.

    That the modern church is in spiritual trouble is hard to deny. Aging congregations, dwindling attendance and shrinking budgets are just some of the problems plaguing the more traditional churches. When we look deeper we see problems even more alarming. Many church services are marked by lethargic singing and dull, lifeless sermons. Attendance at Sunday evening and midweek services is pitifully low. And just about the only churches experiencing numerical growth are doing so at the expense of other churches. We see few genuine new conversions. What has gone wrong?

  

Alexander Rattray Hay

Alexander Rattray Hay

  From an obscure early 20th Century author comes a startling answer. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way the modern church is organized, argues Alexander Rattray Hay, who was for many years a missionary to South America. According to him, we have concentrated the work of ministry in the hands of paid professionals, and thereby have stifled most of the spiritual gifts in the church. The New Testament, however, knows nothing of a clergy / laity distinction. Ministry was supposed to be everyone’s responsibility.

    It is hard to argue with Hay’s central thesis. Success in the ministry depends upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s activity is manifested through spiritual gifts distributed throughout the entire body. Moreover, the leaders of the local church should be chosen from within the congregation based on the demonstrated spiritual maturity and gifts. But when we bring in from the outside an academically trained paid professional, the rest of the congregation naturally defers to him. This stifles the spiritual gifts in the rest of the body. What is even worse, sometime the professional clergyman himself is ill-equipped to exercise spiritual leadership in the church. The church will rarely advance beyond the level of the spiritual maturity of its pastor. What we have done, in effect, is to replace the work of the Holy Spirit with human organization, and we are suffering the consequences.

    Hay argues repeatedly that the church, and the individual Christians who make it up, should be actively seeking the will of God in all things. This, he says, is done through prayer. The church should keep praying about a matter until the Holy Spirit reveals the mind of God concerning it. This will be known when the congregation reaches a near unanimous consensus in the matter, for the Spirit will not lead different individuals in different directions at the same time.

    Hay also makes some trenchant criticisms of seminaries and Bible schools. He notes that it is not enough to have a merely theoretical knowledge of the truth. It must be experienced as a living reality as well. Those who teach must do so by example, and the student has not really mastered the lesson until he can put it into practice himself. Jesus did not train His disciples in an academic institution; neither should we.

    Hay’s book is not entirely without its flaws. Hay was essentially a restorationist, making a passionate appeal to return to the New Testament pattern of church life. But sometimes it is difficult to know what parts of the New Testament are prescriptive and which parts are merely descriptive. How far are we actually required to go to conform to the New Testament model? Howe much freedom do we have to adapt to individual circumstances?

    At some points Hay appears to be reading a little more into the New Testament than is actually there. For example he interprets the gift of evangelist mentioned in Eph. 4:11 to refer to those who are engaged in itinerant church planting ministries, i.e., missionaries; and then goes on to argue that under certain circumstances they have the authority to return to churches they have planted to set things straight when they have gone awry.

    And then there is the problem that has plagued restorationist movements in the past: how to promote the unity of the church when you are arguing that nearly everyone else is doing things all wrong. Hay appears to be saying that if everyone were doing things the right way they would be united. But different denominations exist precisely because they think they are doing things the right way. And the more they contend for a pure church order the less likely they are to unite with others. But on the other hand should unity be purchased at the price of indifference to biblical precept?

    In spite of these relatively minor flaws, we feel that Hay was a veritable prophet ahead of his time. As traditional churches continue to fail and the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to orthodox Christian belief, the time will come, perhaps in the not too distant future, when Christians will be forced to decide where their true loyalties lie. And increasingly those who wish to remain faithful to Christ will turn to small, informal house churches, which (wonder of wonders!) will begin to function the same way the persecuted church of the First Century did. In so doing they will have to rethink what Christ really expects from a church. And Hay has already done much of the homework for us!