Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Church and Society

CULTURALLY RELEVANT: CHURCH MUSIC

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Dennis Bliss, in his recently published book Culturally Relevant, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of “Culturally Relevant Music,” and he tells us right at the outset that “without a doubt, this could be the most controversial, hotly debated, and least received chapter of this book, because it is already such a hot topic in the church today” (p. 119).  And so, with that warning in mind, I will cover my head, duck down low, and attempt to respond to his arguments.

Denny’s analysis in many ways reflects the dismay that many in an older generation have felt toward the changes that have taken place in the worship styles of many churches today.  Gone are the hymn books and the piano; they have been replaced by the “praise and worship team” with their loud guitars and drums.  At the end of the chapter Denny tells us, “all I can say is that I dearly long to stand with a hymn book in my hands, have all the words and music at my instant disposal, listen to the piano play a short, soft intro, and add my harmony to dear brothers and sisters in singing one of the great old hymns of the faith as it was written” (p. 135)..

As Denny tells it, the problem with Contemporary Christian Music is the beat.  The beat, he says, “competes with the melody and distracts from the words of the song.  It gets the body moving first, not the emotions, certainly not the spirit, but the body – the flesh.  And if it moves the flesh are we not going to want more and more of it?  Harder, faster, ever increasing in intensity!” (p. 132).  He supports this assertion with an appeal to the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who associated rhythm with the physical body, melody with man’s psychic being, and harmony with his spiritual existence.  Christians, Denny argues, should avoid what appeals to the flesh, and therefore music with strong beat has no place in the church.

Denny is certainly right in much of his analysis of Contemporary Christian Music.  The beat certainly is part of the problem.  But is a strong rhythm necessarily anti-Christian?  And what about the melody and harmony?  Are they intrinsically good, or at least neutral?

It has to be noted at the outset that the traditional worship was not without its problems either.  In at least some denominational traditions there was an excessive formality with the choir marching in at the beginning of the service, written prayers, and responsive scripture readings.  Many of the hymns of the Victorian era were marked by flowery poetry and little doctrinal content (“I came to the garden alone, / While the dew is still on the roses; / And the voice I hear, falling on my ear . . .”).  And then, as an unfortunate side effect of D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns, gospel songs, as opposed to hymns in the strict sense of the word, made their way into hymnals and worship services (“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, / Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave . . .”).  There was “special music.” And in it all the element of true worship was lost.  Congregations forgot what it means consciously to enter into the presence of God and offer up to Him a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  “Worship” became entertainment, and people would sit passively in the pews and wait for someone to make them feel good.

And so it must be said that Contemporary Christian Music has some positive things to offer.  The songs tend to be filled with praise directed toward God, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.

But, as Denny would be quick to point out, there are serious problems with the style of music.  It must be pointed out that the music, by itself, expresses something.  It can convey a wide range of feeling and emotion.  What makes a composer truly great is his ability to weave together melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo and dynamics into a tapestry of thoughts, feelings and emotions.

A classic example is George Frederick Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.”  The libretto is largely taken from Scripture (as Denny will be quick to point out, mostly from the King James Version, which does in fact lend itself very well for this type of artistic endeavor).  In each case Handel would take the text, usually consisting of a verse or two, and ask himself how he would express in music the thought of the passage.  The result is an amazing variety of musical expression, from the depths of sorrow (“He was despised, despised and rejected, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”), to the heights of exquisite joy (“Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”).  Now that is music!

Contemporary Christian Music, on the other hand, has the same problem that practically every form of popular music has – it is so heavily stylized that it has a limited range of artistic expression.  It is hard to make an electric guitar weep with sorrow the way a violin, let’s say, can.  And even some younger critics complain that CCM songs nearly all sound alike – there is little variation in tempo, dynamics or rhythm, with the result that the subject matter of the songs is usually limited as well – mainly God gaining the victory over something.

This, then, raises the question, what should Christian music express?  What should it sound like?  It has to be that down through the history of the Christian church a wide variety of musical styles has been employed – everything from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance motets to early American shaped note hymns (my personal favorite!) to Black Gospel (And black musicians are especially skilled at using different rhythms to convey different feelings.  They would also point out to us that there is a difference between Gospel Music and Rhythm and Blues).  And there have been more than one “worship wars” in the past.  In the 18th Century the battle was between “singing by rote” and “singing by note.”  But no matter what the style, the question must always come back to what exactly is being conveyed by the music.  On this point Denny is frankly right: it is nearly impossible to baptize rock music and make it holy.

I can remember some time ago hearing a very good sermon preached in Denny’s church on the text of Col. 3:12-17.  I was a part of a house church group at the time and spoke on the same text a couple of weeks later.  The text tells us to teach and admonish one another “in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v. 16; ESV).  The parallel passage in Ephesians says “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19).  True worship should come from the heart.  But what should be in our hearts, that we will then express in music?  The text in Colossians tells us: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” (Col. 3:12-15).  The question then, is, does our music truly express these qualities?  Does it reflect the fruit of the Spirit?  Will it be head-banging, in-your-face rock music?

Each Christian, of course, will have to answer that question himself.  But for me the great tragedy of the modern Praise and Worship movement is that it has consigned a vast treasury of historic Christian hymnody, spanning over centuries, to the rubbish heap.  A magnificent cultural heritage has been lost.  And, in a sense, this reflects what has happened to Western Civilization as a whole.  I honestly cannot understand why some churches today are so allergic to traditional hymns.  And why are we so afraid (and, it must be said, this is even true of churches with traditional worship) of tunes in minor keys?  Our worship should focus on Christ and the suffering He endured on the cross.  What better way to commemorate this than with a hymn like “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” or “Throned Upon the Awful Tree”?  And why are we not singing more of the psalms?  They are, after all, God’s inspired word, and as such have a power to comfort, edify and encourage that no human composition has.

We all need to pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves the basic question, what does God want?  What will genuinely glorify Him and reflect the values that we profess to hold dear?

 

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THE DISASTER OF ROE V. WADE

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Today makes the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.  It was a decision that profoundly changed America, that changed the values that guide us as a nation.  It short, it was nothing less than a cultural revolution.  In moral terms it was probably the most catastrophic decision since at least the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the Court held that African-Americans could not be citizens and had not rights which white men were bound to respect.

Roe v. Wade had far reaching social and cultural consequences.  The argument for legalized abortion is usually based on the idea of a “woman’s right to choose.”  Abortion, it is argued, involves a woman’s control over her own body, and that it should be a private decision between her and her physician.  But what about the fetus itself?  Is that just a part of the woman’s body, like her tonsils or her appendix?  Simple high school biology would tell us otherwise.  The reason abortion had been made illegal from conception was the realization that the fertilized egg has its own genetic makeup quite distinct from the mother’s.  The embryo undergoes a continuous process of development, and as it does so it acquires its own heartbeat and the ability to move on its own.  It is a distinct, living, human being.  How, then, can we justify taking its life?   Abortion amounts to infanticide in utero.

But this, in turn, raises a deeper moral question.  What makes killing wrong in the first place?  The Sixth Commandment reads, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17; NKJV), and the Judeo-Christian tradition has always held that human life is sacred.  Human beings are created in the image of God, and thus killing a human being is not the same as killing a deer or a bear.  Roe v. Wade represents a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.

But what then?  What makes anything right or wrong?  Feminists argue that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion.  But does she really?  Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say anything at all about abortion?  The Court tried to argue that it was implied in a generalized right to privacy which, in turn, was supposedly implied in several other provisions of the Constitution.  But this was quite a stretch.  The tendency in modern times has been for the Court to treat the Constitution as a “living document” to be construed in different ways as the needs of society change.  But the problem with this approach is that it amounts to judicial tyranny – the Supreme Court can create law at will.  But the Constitution represents a social contract among the people – “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ,” and only the people have the right to change it.  It is not for the Supreme Court to read into the document what it will.

But suppose that the Constitution actually did stipulate a right to have an abortion (as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently suggested New State should put in its Constitution).  Would that make it right?  The U.S. Constitution, as it was originally written, tacitly recognized the existence of slavery, and stipulated that runaway slaves had to be returned to their masters.  But did that make it right?  What about the Nazi Holocaust, which was also official government policy?

What the Feminist argument amounts to is a denial of the existence of any higher, universal moral law.  It assumes that moral norms are man-made, and that we are not accountable to any Supreme Being.  But human societies have repeatedly shown themselves to all kinds of cruelty and injustice.  Does might really make right?

What we have today in America is a culture that is increasingly secular and amoral.  We think of ourselves as autonomous individuals acting in our own self-interest, without any respect to any higher moral principles.  This, in turn, has led to an increasingly lawless society.  Life is a matter of what we can get away with.

This lack of universal ideals has also led to identity politics.  Instead of seeing ourselves as sharing a common humanity, and as united as members of a single country, committed to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” we see ourselves instead as part of this or that oppressed minority group, engaged in a perpetual struggle against some other group or groups.  It was only a matter of time when white, working class people would begin to see themselves as an oppressed group; hence we have the ruse of white nationalism and Donald Trump.

But democracy cannot long endure under such circumstances.  Politicians need to be able to find common ground and reach a compromise, which is increasingly difficult when society is deeply divided over core values.  And people need an incentive to obey the law voluntarily – they need to be motivated by a higher moral law – that one needs to obey the law even when the police are not looking.  When that is lacking, when people are guided solely by individual self-interest, only a dictator can maintain order in society.

America is a very different country today than it was 46 years ago.  Roe v. Wade was a decisive break with cultural traditions held by Western Civilization for thousands of years.  It remains to be seen what the future will hold.

 

THE RELIGION ABOUT JESUS

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Harry Emerson Fosdick

What is wrong with America today?  Those of us who are of an older generation can remember an America that was very different from what we see today.  Families were mostly intact, people were polite and courteous, and believed in honesty and hard work.  Then came the turmoil of the late 1960’s, the sexual revolution, the rise of radical feminism, and Supreme Court decisions removing prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and more recently same-sex marriage.  America is indeed very different than it was fifty years ago.

What is the solution?  Build a wall?  Elect conservative politicians.  Change the makeup of the Supreme Court?  But these are all symptoms of a deeper problem.  America has always been a melting pot of nationalities.  But what held us together was a cultural heritage, a set of ideals and values.  And it was a cultural heritage that was largely rooted in the Protestant Reformation.  Practically every town and village in America had a village church, sometimes several – Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist.  And up until the late 19th Century these mainline Protestant denominations largely biblically sound and orthodox.  From time to time powerful revivals would sweep the land, and who communities were transformed as a result.

But today things look very different.  What happened?  Long before the turmoil of the late 1960’s significant changes took place in the mainline Protestant churches.  The 1920’s saw the rise of theological liberalism, and the mainline churches cease to believe what they had always previously taught.  The abandoned the authority of Scripture and with it the major tenets of historic Christian theology.

This can be seen most revealingly in the work of one of the leading Modernist theologians of the era, Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Fosdick (1879 – 1969).was originally ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903 and became known as a popular preacher.  In 1915 he became professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  At one point he became a minister of a Presbyterian church in New York City, but was forced from that position in 1925 and became the pastor of what would later become known as the Riverside Church.  He eventually retired in 1946.

At the height of the Modernist / Fundamentalist controversy of the 1920’s Fosdick wrote a number of popular essays explaining the position of the liberals, and these were published collectively in 1926 in a volume entitled Adventurous Religion.

Fosdick lived at a time that was flush with the excitement of scientific discovery and industrial advance, and he took it for granted that evolution was a scientifically proven fact.  Evolution, he says, “is as much taken for granted among scientists as is the new astronomy or the law-abiding nature of the universe” (p. 108).  Likewise Fosdick accepted the conclusions of the modern “higher criticism” of the Bible.  “Modern scholarship has traced the progressive writing and assembling of our Scriptures with a massing of evidence which puts the general outline of the process beyond reasonable doubt” (pp. 93-94).  The Bible, Fosdick concludes, “came warmly up out of a human existence” (p. 94).

But where does that leave Christianity?  Fosdick writes “Always the outcome has been the same: the scientific view of the world has triumphed and the seers of the spirit have found the new truth vehicle than the old for the experiences of the soul” (pp. 103-104).

What this means, then, according to Fosdick, is that religion must constantly change with the times.  “The one utter heresy in Christianity is thus to believe that we have reached finality and can settle down with a completed system” (p. 5).

But what, the, about Jesus Himself?  What are we to make of Him?  “Chaos and turmoil . . .spring directly from the impossible endeavor of large sections of the church to continue the presentation of the Gospel in forms of thought that are no longer real and cogent to well-instructed minds” (p. 242).

To avoid the perceived problem Fosdick tried to make a distinction between the “religion of Jesus” and the “religion about Jesus.”  The religion of Jesus “is the religion which Jesus Christ himself possessed and by which he lived, his filial relationship with God, his purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice, his exaltation of spiritual values.”  The religion about Jesus, on the other hand, “consists of things said of and believed concerning Jesus, theories to account for him, accumulated explanations and interpretations of him” (p. 305).  The theological liberalism of Fosdick’s day “springs from the desire somehow to escape from the too-great dominance of an inherited religion about Jesus and to recover for our modern life the major meanings of the religion which he himself possessed” (p. 306).

But can we separate “the religion about Jesus” from “the religion of Jesus”?  The fact of the matter is that the historical Jesus of the First Century was put to death precisely because of the claims He had made about Himself.  The whole conflict revolved around His claim to be the Son of God who came into the world to save sinners.  If Jesus was simply a man who lived a life of “filial fellowship with God,” a life of “purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice,” a man who believed in “the exaltation of spiritual values,” there would have been little controversy; He would not have been put to death.

What Fosdick forgot is that no matter what the scientific and industrial progress, there are certain basic facts of life that never change.  God is eternal and unchanging. Jesus is who His is and His death and resurrection are facts of history.  Human nature remains unchanged, and we must all eventually face the fact of death.  And in the end our eternal salvation on who Jesus is and what He did.

For the early Christians the Gospel was “the faith which was once all delivered to the saints” for which we must “contend earnestly” (Jude 3; NKJV).  It is the “gospel of Christ . . . the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  It was not an ever-changing set of human opinions and speculative theories.  But tragically the mainline Protestant churches in America have abandoned that faith.

And the results have been catastrophic.  Having abandoned the authority of Scripture these churches can no longer state categorically what is true and what is not true.  They profess to believe in social justice but cannot give a rational basis for it.  In the end their members never hear the gospel which alone can transform lives and ensure eternal salvation.  And meanwhile the rest of society drifts into moral and social chaos.  Will God ever forgive the churches for their awful apostasy?

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER: 20TH CENTURY MARTYR

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

Review:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas

Thomas Nelson, 2010

542 pp., pb.

 

In this age of secularization the Christian is increasingly faced with the question of how to relate to the state, especially when the state espouses values that run counter to Christian moral standards.  The problem is not new, and was confronted in the last century by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who was put to death in a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War II.

The story is told for us, in considerable detail, by Eric Metaxas in his New York Times Bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is the story of a man who was both talented and devout and who was led to confront directly the evil of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer came from a very cultured and aristocratic family.  His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a prominent psychiatrist.  His mother was the granddaughter of an earlier prominent theologian, Karl August von Hase.  The immediate family, however, was not particularly religious.  For some unknown reason, however, young Dietrich decided to study theology.  He studied at Berlin under Adolf von Harnack, the renowned liberal theologian, earning a doctorate in 1927 at the age of only 21.  He did local church work and gave university lectures, and from 1930 to 1931 did some post-graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Even though Bonhoeffer came from a liberal theological background, the theologian whose writings influenced him the most was Karl Barth, the famous Swiss proponent of Neo-Orthodoxy, which stressed that God can only be known through revelation.  Bonhoeffer also became involved with the ecumenical movement.  But at some point along the way he discovered prayer and the Bible, and that deepened his faith in God and his commitment to serving Him.  Was this a conversion in the evangelical sense of the word?  Metaxas is not sure, but Bonhoeffer was definitely a changed man.

Shortly afterwards, however, things began to change in Germany as well.  Hitler came to power in 1933 and sought to remake Germany along Nazi lines.  This involved, among other things, changing the Lutheran state church, and the Nazis began promoting “German Christianity,” a version of Christianity reshaped along the lines of Aryan racial identity.  Bonhoeffer, along with others, realized that this was unacceptable, and during the 1930’s he and others organized the “Confessing Church” which would be true to its Christian heritage.  In 1934 it issued the “Barmen Declaration” urging the churches to remain faithful to their doctrinal standards.  It was during this period that Bonhoeffer wrote his famous book The Cost of Discipleship.

But things took a turn for the worse at the outbreak of World War II in 1939.  The racism of the Nazis manifested itself in outright genocide, with the German military slaughtering innocent civilians in Poland and elsewhere.  Bonhoeffer’s well-connected friends and relatives became convinced that for the good of Germany and the world at large it was necessary to remove Hitler from power.  A conspiracy was formed.

Bonhoeffer, however, was at risk of being drafted into the army.  His friends managed to arrange to have him come to the U.S. to teach at Union Seminary.  But no sooner did he arrive than he began to have doubts about the wisdom of the plan.  In a state of emotional turmoil he became convinced that he belonged back in Germany where the struggle was.  He returned to his home country after only one month in the U.S.

But what would he do in Germany?   His sister-in-law urged him to join the conspiracy.  “’You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done,’ she said, ‘but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it’” (p. 359).  A turning point came when France fell to the German armies in June, 1940.  Up until then the hope had been that Hitler would overreach and thereby destroy himself.  But with the unexpected victory in France Hitler was more popular in Germany than ever.  It was at about this time that Bonhoeffer made his decision.  He joined the resistance.

Bonhoeffer’s friends arranged to get him a position in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence.  His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was already on the staff of the head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris.  At one point Canaris had asked Dohynanyi to compile a file of Nazi atrocities that could be used to convince others to join the conspiracy.  The file became known as the “Chronicle of Shame.”  By joining the Abwehr himself Bonhoeffer could evade the Gestapo and avoid military service.

But it also involved a certain amount of dissimulation on Bonhoeffer’s part.  Outwardly he would appear to be working for the German government when in reality he was actually working against it.  This, of course, raised a disturbing ethical question.  Bonhoeffer was saying, in effect, that the end justifies the means.

The Gestapo, however, eventually caught up with him, and in April, 1943 he was arrested and taken to jail.  Bonhoeffer’s influential family connections helped ease his discomfort in prison, and he was able to smuggle out letters to his friends, some of which were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

However on July 20, 1944 there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler.  Anyone remotely connected to the conspiracy was rounded up and many were executed.  Dohnanyi was one of those arrested, and the Chronicle of Shame was discovered by the authorities.  Bonhoeffer was moved to a prison run directly by the Gestapo and eventually taken to various concentration camps.  He was finally hanged on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before that camp was liberated by the Allies.

There has been some confusion of Bonhoeffer’s theology in its later stages.  His Letters and Papers from Prison reveal and much more complex and conflicted figure, the radical theologian who seemingly embraced modern secularism, the advocate of “Religionless Christianity,” the inspiration for the “God is Dead” movement.  Metaxas feels that while Bonhoeffer was very much concerned with how Christianity relates to an increasingly secularized world, what he wrote in his letters was “simply an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicately Bible centered and Christ centered” (p. 467)  He also says that Bonhoeffer “might be the most misunderstood theologian that ever lived” (p. 365).

One thing that is certain is that Bonhoeffer’s theology did undertake a change of direction while he was in prison.  In some of his letters written from prison Bonhoeffer described the growing secularization of the Western world.  The church had responded to this trend by conceding the advances of modern science, but clung to the idea that God was still the answer to the ultimate questions of life.  But by the mid-Twentieth Century it had become evident that most Germans had grown quite comfortable without religion at all.  The world, in Bonhoeffer’s words, had “come of age.”  What should the church do now?

Bonhoeffer’s answer is not at all clear, partially because he was executed before he had the opportunity to put down his ideas in book form.  He does criticize the church for seeking conversions by making men feel guilty.  He says that the church should rather share the problems of ordinary human life, “not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, Macmillan, 1967, p. 204), and should teach positive human values by example.  In some ways his suggestions sound like what we know today as the Social Gospel and Incarnational theology.

What is especially disconcerting about Bonhoeffer is his apparent embrace of secularism.  He claimed that “we must live as men who manage our lives without [God]” (Ibid., p. 188).  He criticizes Christians who use God as a kind of “deus ex machina,” the Person to whom we go when we are in trouble.  He claims that “the Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help” (p. 188).  The church must become “this worldly.”  Dropping religious pretense it must reinterpret biblical concepts and revise the church’s creeds, apologetics and ministry.

There are serious problems with Bonhoeffer’s analysis.  First of all, God is not the weak and helpless figure Bonhoeffer portrays Him to be.  God is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who rules over all things through His providence.  Biblical piety requires us to put our trust in God for our daily needs.  Indeed, that is the very essence of prayer.  Without it religion simply does not exist.

Secondly, embracing secularism is simply not an option for the Christian.  It is expected that the world will reject Christ.  The Christian, however, is not supposed to conform to the world.  He has been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and is expected to live accordingly.  The world does not set the church’s agenda; Christ does.  Bonhoeffer should have recognized the world’s rejection of Christ for what it is: rebellion against God.

Bonhoeffer’s problem can probably be traced back to the weakness of the liberal apologetic.  By accepting the conclusions of modern science and abandoning the authority of Scripture, German Protestantism had placed itself in a position in which it could not state with certainty what was actual truth.  The result was that Bonhoeffer found himself drifting with the general culture; he could not simply go back to Scripture and say “Thus saith the Lord.”  He had no answer to the world’s presuppositions.  It was only a matter of time before he adopted the world’s conclusion: religion is irrelevant.

What it all comes down to is the authority of Scripture.  Is the Bible what it claims to be, the inspired Word of God, true and accurate in all that it affirms?  Or is it just a collection of ancient myths and legends, the product of a society with an outdated worldview?  If the former, then Scripture is our standard: we must heed and obey it.  If the latter, then we are adrift in a vast sea of human opinion.

Bonhoeffer’s Letters raise some intriguing questions about his spiritual and emotional state.  If two different images of Bonhoeffer have come down to us, it may be because he himself was not exactly sure of who he was.  While in prison he wrote a revealing piece of verse entitled “Who Am I?”  In it he tells of how impressed others were of him, but then he asks,

“Am I really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage . . .”

He then goes on to say,

“Who am I?  This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?”

(Letters, p. 188-189)

In his essay “After Ten Years,” also written while he was in prison, he makes this revealing comment: “We have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open . . . What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”  (Ibid., p. 17).

Bonhoeffer, as we have noted, came from a comfortable upper middle class family.  The picture that we glean from his letters of Bonhoeffer himself is that of a charming and cultured individual – well-educated, able to appreciate music, literature and art.  He was likeable, warmhearted and sincere in his beliefs.  He was also the product of a state church.  To be a good German was to be a good Lutheran.  Bonhoeffer was, in a sense, fulfilling a predetermined role as a member of his nation and class.

This created a dilemma, however.  Was he a Christian because he was a German, or was he a Christian because of a personal relationship with Christ?  And if for the former reason, was he really any different from those who did not go to church at all?  The inner conflict may account for the ambiguity of his theology.

Bonhoeffer’s predicament, in a way, illustrates the problem facing believers in many Western countries today.  These countries have a Christian heritage.  Christianity was honored and respected; and it was easy, under such circumstances, to think of “God and country.”  The professing Christian could expect to live a nice, safe, comfortable middle class life.  But as these countries become increasingly secularized the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to genuine Christianity.  More and more we are faced with the stark reality of God or country.

America today is not Germany in the 1930’s, of course; and it is impossible to say what challenges lie ahead.  But like Bonhoeffer we too may have to learn what is the true cost of discipleship, to learn what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).

 

CHRISTIAN CIVILIZATION?

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Abraham Kuyper

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Betsy DeVos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review:

Lectures on Calvinism

Abraham Kuyper

Eardmans, 1931

199 pp., pb.

 

One of President Trump’s more controversial cabinet appointments is the Education Secretary, Mrs. Betsy DeVos.  Mrs. DeVos is a strong proponent of school choice and voucher programs, and her appointment was strenuously opposed by the public school establishment.  Mrs. DeVos is a committed evangelical Christian, and the wife of the heir to the Amway fortune.

As it turns out, Mrs. DeVos has quite an interesting cultural background.  She was raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and is a graduate of Calvin College.  Both of these, in turn, are the spiritual heirs of a most remarkable figure in church history, Abraham Kuyper, the renowned Dutch theologian, educator, journalist and statesman.  Born in 1837, he studied at the University of Leyden and became a pastor in the state supported Dutch Reformed Church.  But he also became active in politics; and in both religion and politics he became a leading conservative intellectual, fighting against the liberal and secularizing trends of the day.  He was elected to parliament, founded the Free University of Amsterdam, and eventually led a group of conservative dissidents out of the state church.  In 1901 he became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, serving until 1905.  He died in 1920.  The Encyclopedia Britannica described him as “a remarkable man . . .a powerful writer and a speaker with a gift of arresting statement” (1959 ed., Vol. 11, p. 654).

In 1898 Princeton University invited Kuyper to come to America to receive an honorary degree, and while he was in Princeton he delivered the L.P. Stone Lectures in the nearby Seminary.  The lectures provide us with an insight into the thinking of this remarkable figure.

It should be noted at the outset that when Kuyper spoke of “Calvinism” he was not referring specifically to what we think of today as the “Five Points of Calvinism.”  Rather, he was defining Calvinism broadly as a comprehensive worldview centered on the sovereignty of God.  The Calvinist worldview, he says, consists of three basic ideas: 1) as human beings we can have a direct relationship with God; 2) There is a fundamental equality of all human beings before God; and 3) the world should be honored as God’s creation.

Kuyper spent most of his lectures describing the influence that Calvinism has had on the course of Western history, advancing “Christian civilization.”  This, in turn, leads to what has sometimes been deemed “the cultural mandate.”  “Everything that has been created was, in its creation, furnished by God with an unchangeable law of its existence.  And because God has fully ordained such laws and ordinances for all life, the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service, in strict obedience” (p. 53).  What Kuyper was arguing for, in effect, was the lordship of Christ in every area of life.

In a Christian (Calvinist) state, Kuyper argues, the state would recognize God as the Supreme Ruler, maintain the Sabbath, proclaim days of fasting and prayer, and invoke God’s blessing.  But the state would also respect the rights of individual conscience and not interfere in the life of the church.

What prevents Western Civilization from reaching its full potential, according to Kuyper, is the liberal, secularist philosophy that sprang from the French Revolution.  Secular thinking is based on the assumption that the world as we see it is normal.  Genuine Christianity, however, is based on the exact opposite assumption, that the world is not normal.  It has been corrupted by sin and needs to be saved by divine grace.  The two viewpoints are diametrically opposed to each other and cannot be reconciled.  What the church must do is to challenge the assumptions of secular thought and put in their place a thoroughly developed Christian worldview.  This approach leads to what is known today as “presuppositional apologetics.”

Much of Kuyper’s thinking was undoubtedly shaped and influenced by events in his own time.  One of the burning political issues of the day had to do with the state supported educational system.  The Netherlands, like the U.S. today, had a publicly supported elementary school system.  But many Christian parents, like their American counterparts today, chose to send their children to private Christian schools instead.  The question then arose as to whether they should have to pay for both the public and private schools at the same time.  The proposal was made to have the government provide financial aid to the private schools as well as the public ones, and this was resisted by the liberals in the Netherlands.  On this question the orthodox Calvinists found themselves on common ground with the Catholics.  A political alliance was formed, which resulted in Kuyper becoming Prime Minister in 1901.

The question raised the deeper issue about the relationship between church, state and the educational system.  Starting with the premise that as human beings we are each directly accountable to God, Kuyper argued that the family, church, state and workplace each operate more or less independently of each other, with each following its own God-ordained method of operation.  This is what eventually came to known in Reformed circles as “sphere sovereignty.”

Kuyper was conscious of being a part of a “Christian civilization” that could trace its roots back 2,000 years and had been at least nominally Christian since the days of Constantine.  Kuyper also say that civilization being threatened by the forces of modern secularism.  The question is, what can the Christian do about it?

Kuyper recognized, quite correctly, that Christ should Lord of every area of life.  He also recognized that modern secularism operates on a set of assumptions diametrically opposed to those of biblical Christianity.  But the question then becomes, what can be done about human society in its present condition?  Kuyper relies very heavily on the role of  “common grace,” which he describes this way: it is that “by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests the process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator” (p. 30).  But this may be ascribing too much to human civilization.  While it is certainly true that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45; NKJV), and that “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” (II Thess. 2:7), that is a long way from “allowing the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.”  The world is still the world, a human society in rebellion against its Creator.  What it achieves it mostly accomplishes in defiance of God.

Significantly Kuyper quoted little Scripture in his lectures, but relied heavily instead on historical analysis.  He could look back over the course of Western Civilization and note the role that Calvinism had played in advancing it.  But when we turn to Scripture a different story emerges.  Instead of “Christian Civilization” we see the kingdom of God; and in order to enter that kingdom one must repent and be born again.  The root cause of man’s problem is sin, and the central task of the church is to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ.  The moral tone of human society generally improves only as a result of religious revival.

What, then, is to be gained by Abraham Kuyper serving as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, or Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education?  Each of us has an individual calling in life, and we should let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).  “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10); be we must be careful to “abstain from every form of evil” (I Thess. 5:22) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27).  Politics, in particular, can be a morally hazardous undertaking!

Kuyper acknowledged that nothing can be accomplished unless God sends for His Spirit.  But he compares Calvinism to an Aeolian Harp – “absolutely powerless, as it is, without the quickening Spirit of God.”  But he says “. . .still we feel it our God-given duty to keep our harp, its strings tuned aright, ready in the window of God’s Holy Zion, awaiting the breath of the Spirit” (p. 199).  To which we can only say “Amen!”

CIVILIZATION REVIVED?

 

Review:

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Jordan B. Peterson

Random House

Random House Canada, 2018

409 pp., h.c.

 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is being hailed in some quarters as an influential conservative thinker who is values-centered and an advocate for freedom of thought and speech.  He is a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Toronto.  In his best-selling book 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, he lays out some basic principles on how to achieve happiness and fulfillment in life.  In so doing he often calls us back the traditional cultural values of Western Civilization.

In the book Dr. Peterson challenges many of the assumptions of the contemporary intellectual world.  He argues that in order for society to function there has to be a shared cultural system and a hierarchy of values.  Our values, in turn, are often rooted in religious tradition.  But to avoid the dilemma of slavish adherence to the group on the one hand, and outright nihilism on the other, it is necessary for the individual to take responsibility for his own actions.  “We must each accept as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.  We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disorder and break down and recreate what is old and outdated.  It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world” (p. xxxiii).

What follows are the “12 rules for life” that he proposes.  Much of it is good, common-sense advice such as “Make friends with people who want the best for you” (Rule 3), “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them” (Rule 5), and “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” (Rule 7).

Much of what Peterson has to say is based on common sense and everyday experience.  For him much of it simply means coming to terms with reality.  This would include, among other things, gender roles, which are rooted in psychological differences between the sexes.  He argues that to some degree, at least, these gender differences are desirable.  “It is to women’s clear advantage that men do not happily put up with dependency among themselves . . . a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child” (pp. 329-330).  “Men have to toughen up.  Men demand it, and women want it . . .” (p. 331).

While Peterson comes across as an outspoken defender of traditional Western culture, his approach, however, is not really Christian.  He accepts the idea that human beings are the products of evolution.  He also accepts modern critical theories about the Bible, and says at one point that “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which itself is a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time” (p. 104).

This, in turn, raises a serious question about the nature of morality itself.  While Peterson has a great deal to say about human experience, he has practically nothing to say about God himself.  The result is a more or less relativistic view of morality.  “You can use your own standard of judgment.  You can rely on yourself for guidance.  You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behaviour . . .” (p. 158); although he then adds parenthetically, “although you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture.  Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own.  The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you.”

Peterson will sometimes quote Scripture to support his conclusions, but he will often twist the meaning of the text to fit his own humanistic philosophy.  A good example is his handling of the Sermon on the Mount.  Under Rule 4 he has been discussing the importance of setting realistic goals for oneself.  He states that the proper aim of mankind is to “concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is in front of you . . .” (pp. 109-110).  He then quotes Matthew 6:19-34 and then concludes by saying, “You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do.  You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely” (p. 110).  But it was hardly Jesus’ intention to have people “concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present.”  Rather, what He told His listeners was, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth . . .” (Matt. 6:19), and He went on to say “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink . . .” (v. 25).  And whereas Peterson wants to let the individual decide for himself what is in his own best interests, Jesus says “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness . . .” (v. 33).  God is the kind and He is the One who decides what righteousness is.

In short, for Peterson morality is all about achieving happiness and success in this life.  What is missing is any sense of accountability to God as Creator and Lord.  In that sense Peterson is typical of the great philosophers of the past.  He tries to probe the meaning of existence, but he tries to do it without reference to God.

For the Christian therein lies the whole problem with human civilization.  As human beings we can see the advantages of sharing a settled existence together.  We create governments, we pass laws, and we build infrastructure.  But we do it all out of a sense of self-interest.  What is missing is any due regard for God or for the well-being of our fellow humans.  No sooner do we create the government and laws (ostensibly to promote justice), than we look for ways to circumvent the system we just created.  Our sense of right and wrong is little more than what we can get away with.  Peterson is seeking to revive the cultural values of Western civilization, but he comes short of what our Creator expects from us in the way of moral and ethical behavior.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness . . . because, although they know God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools . . .” (Rom. 1:18,21,22; NKJV).

Our values must be grounded in reality.  But the ultimate reality is God himself, our Creator and Lord; and in the end we will all have to stand before Him and give an account.  It is God, then, who determines what is right and what is wrong, and our lives must conform to His will.  Only then will we find the peace and happiness we all long to enjoy.

ROE v. WADE

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This past week the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.  As was expected the subject of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on abortion, came up for discussion, and as expected, the nominee was non-committal.  At one point in the discussion Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Judge Kavanaugh, “What would you say your position today is on a woman’s right to choose?,” to which he replied, “As a judge, it is an important precedent of the Supreme Court.”

Judge Kavanaugh was right to be non-committal on the subject.  Strictly speaking the proper role of a judge is not to make law based on his own personal preferences, but to decide cases based on existing law.  But it is for precisely that reason that Roe v. Wade was extremely problematical.  It was marked by a strained, if not to say bizarre exegesis of the Constitution, and it led to a morally outrageous conclusion.

In Roe the Court took up the question of the constitutionality of state anti-abortion laws.  The case basically involved two separate questions: 1) Is the life of an unborn child protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?   And 2) Does a woman have a right to privacy which includes the right to have an abortion?  What makes the decision so bizarre is that the justices took two completely different approaches to answer the two questions.  On the first question they took a very narrow, legalistic interpretation, while on the second question they let their imaginations have free rein.  One cannot help but wonder if the outcome was dogmatically contrived.

On the first question, Mr. Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority, argued that the word “person,” as used in the Constitution, does not include an unborn child, and therefore the unborn child’s life is not covered by the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  On the second question, however, Mr. Justice Blackmun professed to see a generalized right of privacy, something which he himself admitted was not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the document, but thought might be implied in any one of a number of different provisions.  But whatever it was and wherever it was, Justice Blackmun was sure that it must include the right to have an abortion.

In a sense, we do hope that the Constitution does at least imply a right to privacy.  But the right to privacy does not include the right to commit a crime.  You do not have the right to murder your mother-in-law in the privacy of your own home.  The right of privacy, rather, protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures.

What is morally outrageous about the decision is the implication that there is no longer a sanctity of human life.  Mr. Justice Blackmun asserted that “we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins,” and then went on to argue that Texas may not, “by adopting one theory of life,” override the rights of a pregnant woman.  Thus he tacitly admitted the possibility that life might begin at conception, but argued that it does not matter if it does.  The unborn child still does not have a right to life.

What the Bible says about the ancient Canaanites is highly instructive in this regard.  One of the evils that was endemic in Canaanite society was the worship of a pagan deity named Molech.  Molech was an ancient Canaanite god whose worship involved human sacrifice, specifically the sacrifice of children who were made to pass through a fire.  What God told Israel about the practice was instructive.

First of all, the practice had the effect of polluting or defiling the land.  When Cain slew Abel God said to him: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.  So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen. 4:10,11; NKJV).  And so it was with regard to the Canaanites.  “For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25).

Secondly, this and other like practices are called “abominations” (vv. 26,27,29,30).  An “abomination” is something that God considers loathsome or detestable.  Nowadays we might say that it “grosses you out.”  It is an offense that is particularly serious.

Child sacrifice is a barbaric and inhumane practice, something that runs counter to the natural sympathy that should exist between a parent and a child.  God made it clear that Israel was to live a different standard.  Leviticus 19, which falls right in the middle of God’s indictment of the Canaanites, contains exhortations to regard the poor, the deaf, the blind, the elderly and the foreigner.  In a word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

The fate of the Canaanites raises some disturbing questions about the possible fate of America.  If God regards abortion as a moral outrage, and if our destiny is ultimately in His hands, then the future looks ominous indeed.  All around one sees signs of impending doom: mired in foreign wars, sinking beneath a mountain of debt, the crumbling family structure, even the erratic weather and invasive species, the divisive politics of the day, we give every appearance of being a civilization in decline.  Could it be that God is telling us something?  Could it be that God’s judgment is not far away?

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893

 

 

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.  While most political conventions are fairly routine and eminently forgettable, this one marked a turning point in American culture.  The country was roiled over the Viet Nam War.  The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection.  There were huge ant-war demonstrations in the city which turned into riots.  Hubert Humphrey won the nomination and Richard Nixon won the election.  In the process a whole generation became disillusioned.

Some of us have vivid memories of the dramatic changes that have taken place in American society since.  We remember the relative tranquility of the 1950’s, and then the turbulence of “the Movement,” the counter-culture of the ‘60’s and the Sexual Revolution.  And since then we have witnessed the rise of radical feminism, the legalization of abortion, and skyrocketing divorce rates.  The country we see today is hardly the country we knew back in the ‘50’s.

The fact of the matter is that the changes that we have witnessed in the last fifty years have their roots much further back in time.  And to understand why it is necessary to understand something about the nature of civilization itself.  Civilizations are formed when relatively large groups of people decide to share a settled existence together.  They form governments, establish cities and build infrastructure.  The engage in commerce, pass laws and prepare for their common defense.  They go on to create works of art, music and literature.  And in so doing they create for themselves a standard of living that far surpasses anything they had previously known as primitive tribal peoples with a hunter / gatherer economy.

There is a problem here, however.  Mankind, as a whole, is in a state of rebellion against God.  The motive in creating these civilizations is self-interest.  And while at first a civilization may be built around some sort of civil religion in order to encourage personal sacrifice for the common good, in the end the very success of a civilization is its undoing.  As it becomes rich and prosperous, its citizens become self-indulgent and generally lose interest in religion and patriotism.  “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for the Fatherland”) becomes “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Underlying all of this, however, is a deep philosophical problem.  As fallen, sinful human beings we do not want to acknowledge God as Creator and Lord, Someone whom we must obey.  And so we will create philosophical systems to provide alternative explanations of reality.  But we must still live in a world that was created by the one true and living God.  This creates a tension between fact and theory, between what we would like to think is true and reality as we actually experience it.

In modern Western thought the problem arose through the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance and beyond, culminating in the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687.  This, coupled with the reaction against the religious wars of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, led to the development of a purely secular philosophy, one based on pure reason rather than on divine revelation.  Two of the philosophers who led the way in this were Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

What followed was “The Age of Reason” or the “French Enlightenment.”  The world would make rational sense because it was founded on certain immutable laws of nature.  God was the divine watchmaker who created it all, but does not interfere with it after it was created.  The miraculous and supernatural simply do not occur.  And it is possible to make sense of all of this through the use of pure reason alone.  Any kind of divine revelation is unnecessary.

But where does this leave man himself?  If the entire universe functions according to immutable laws of nature, if everything is based on reason and logic, where does that leave the individual human being?  He becomes nothing more than a cog in the vast machine of the universe.  But we are conscious of having feelings and emotions, hopes and desires, and an inner sense of right and wrong.  Thus it would only be a matter of time before there would be a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and that took the form of an essay written in 1754 by Jean Jacques Rousseau entitled “Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men,” in which he argued that human beings are good by nature and are corrupted by civilization.  This, along with his subsequent writings, helped inspire the Romantic Movement of the early 19th Century with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  The legacy of the Romantic Movement lived on in the form of Existentialism and Post-Modernism, in the bohemian lifestyle and the beat generation.  Thus the central tension in modern Western thought is between nature and freedom, between rationality and irrationality.

What brought the crisis to a head in the late 1960’s were the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War.  As more and more young people became disillusioned with the U.S. Government and the “Establishment” they came to embrace a variety of alternative lifestyles and Counter-culture philosophies, some of them rooted in Neo-Marxism and Existentialism.  Much of the protests died away in the 1970’s, but the Existentialist viewpoint lived on in the writing of Simone de Beauvoir whose famous book The Second Sex became virtually the bible of the Feminist Movement.  The basic premise of the book was Sartre’s – that existence precedes essence, that we exist as autonomous individuals and should be free to define our own essences.  The practical implication (for women) was that gender roles were artificial and confining, and should be done away with.  Later the LGBT movement would take up the battle cry and argue that gay and transgender people should be allowed to define themselves as well.  The result of all of these changes was a loss of faith in universal truths and moral absolutes.  And this, in turn, resulted in social decay.

But all of this began with the Age of Reason and the secularization of Western culture.  If we try to rely on human reason alone, we have to assume that there is a rational order to the universe. But, as we have seen, this reduces man to the role of a cog in the machine.  But if we assume that a human being exists as a free and autonomous individual, then it becomes impossible to establish a rational order to the universe.

The problem with a purely secular worldview is that if we make something other than God as the ultimate reality, we cannot do justice to reality.  We leave something unexplained.  And to complicate matters, man’s reason is finite – we cannot see the whole picture.  How did we get here?  What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of life? What happens to us when we die?  Philosophers have struggled to answer these questions, but have never been able to come up with a convincing answer – just ask another philosopher.  Secular philosophy leads to a dead end.

The only solution is to be found in God – the true and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth.  And we are dependent upon the revelation which He has given us in the Bible to give us the answers to life’s great existential questions.  Only then can we achieve our full potential as human being created in His image.

WHY CHURCH?

dscn0949

 

Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

THE GAY WEDDING CAKE CASE

robert_walter_weir_-_embarkation_of_the_pilgrims_-_google_art_project

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims

 

This past Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.  The baker, Jack Phillips, was accused of violating Colorado’s public accommodations law and was sanctioned by the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the State of Colorado had violated her client’s First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion.  Much of the discussion in court, then, centered on whether baking a cake is a form of speech, and whether other forms of artistic expression, such as photography and floral arranging would also qualify as speech.  The state contends that Phillips was engaged in discrimination, pure and simple.

We think that several important distinctions must be made.  First of all, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is not the same thing as discriminating on the basis of race.  Race is an inherited and immutable biological trait; homosexuality is a behavior pattern which involves conscious decisions and moral choice.  There is no solid evidence that it is hereditary or biologically determined.  By adding sexual orientation to its list of protected classes, the State of Colorado is treating a behavior pattern as though it were the same as  a biological characteristic, and is then penalizing anyone who objects to that behavior on moral grounds.

Secondly, Mr. Phillips can claim that he is not discriminating against homosexuals simply because they are homosexuals.  If they want to come into his shop to buy coffee and donuts he would be more than happy to serve them.  What he is refusing to do is to provide material support for a specific activity that he deems morally objectionable.

Moreover it is one thing to grant homosexuals the freedom to marry each other; it is another thing to force someone else to act against his own conscience to support the wedding.  The first is consistent with the principle of individual freedom; the second is not.

The state, of course, can and should regulate the behavior of individuals with each other. But it should be very careful about infringing on the deeply held religious beliefs of its citizens.  Religion deals with transcendent truths and provides the foundation for public morality.  To force its citizens to choose between God and the state is to invite civil disobedience on the one hand and to erode public morality on the other.

In the case at hand the legalization of same sex marriage represents a radical departure from 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on the subject of human sexuality.  And freedom of religion is one of the bedrock principles of American democracy.  Many of the immigrants to these shores came precisely to escape from religious persecution at home.  The colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were early experiments in religious freedom.  And freedom of religion was enshrined in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

The Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) declared that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience . . .”  To which James Madison added, “The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate” (“A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 1785).

The implications of a ruling against the baker in this case are staggering.  By allowing the state to dictate morality to the church it would open the door to religious persecution.  But the implications are even more far reaching than even that.  The state, by placing itself above God, comes amoral and tyrannical, not bound by any higher moral authority.  The Twentieth Century witnessed the horrors of the godless state at work.  And ultimately society itself becomes lawless and unruly as it loses all moral restraint.

George Washington summed it up well in the Farewell Address of 1796:

“Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity,

religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would

that man claim the tribute of patriotism who would labor to subvert

these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of

the duty of man and citizens.  The mere politician, equally with

the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume

could not  trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

A ruling in the Phillips case (Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltc. V. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) is not expected until June, 2018.  It remains to be seen what the court will do in this.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, who could very well cast the deciding vote, seemed skeptical of the state’s position, stating at one point that “Tolerance is essential in a free society.  And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.  It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”  It remains to be seen how the court will rule on this.  But if the state can force a Christian to support the LGBT agenda it can force anyone to support any philosophy or ideology, and then we will have ceased to be a free nation.