Archive for September, 2014

Finding Our Place: Navigating Unionism and Sectarianism

Marburg ColloquyLast week, I was answering some questions for a friend who is studying to become a pastor. His professor had given him two questions for me to answer as part of assignment. One of the questions really struck me: Where do you think Lutheranism fits within the wider Christian community?

This is an important question. After all, for some, it is not evident that Lutheranism does fit within the wider Christian community – at least in a way that encourages engagement with and learning from that community. Last week, I watched with an aching heart as some of my Lutheran brothers in ministry harshly and sometimes sarcastically criticized some of my other Lutheran brothers for engaging with and learning from people outside of my Lutheran community. These criticisms reminded me of how important questions about where Lutherans fit in the Church with a capital “C” really are.

In order to explore these questions, I think it’s important to note the Lutheran identity at its best is a confessional Lutheran identity. The word “confessional” is rooted in the Greek word homologeo, which means, “to say the same thing.” To be a confessional Lutheran, then, means to say the same thing as Jesus and His Word. It means to be devoted to a clear and accurate declaration and explanation of the gospel and sacred Scripture, which, I should point out, can be found in our community’s confessional documents.

When engaging the Christian community at large, this devotion to the gospel and Scripture means two things. First, it means that Lutherans eschew unionism. Unionists are those who conceal differences between Christian communities and pretend that all – or most all – Christians say the same thing about Jesus and His Word. At the same time confessional Lutheranism guards against unionism, however, it also stands against sectarianism. In other words, though Lutherans do not paper over differences between their confession of faith the confessions of other Christian communities, they also celebrate and affirm areas of agreement. Thus, Lutherans are very much a part of the wider Christian community, for they share many of the same theological commitments.

The most famous historical test case for the kind of confessional Lutheranism that abjures both unionism and sectarianism came in 1529 when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli met at Marburg to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement between their two reforming movements. At Marburg, they discovered they agreed on fourteen articles of faith spanning from the nature of the Trinity to justification by faith to the role of governing authorities. But they could not agree on one point: the character of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The dispute was formally summarized like this:

We all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.[1]

This is a masterful statement. Luther and Zwingli carefully avoid unionism by clearly, winsomely, concernedly, and lovingly explaining where they disagree, but are also in no way sectarian, for they commit themselves to “show Christian love” and “diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding.” In other words, they unreservedly confess their positions while humbly asking the Lord to show them if and where they could be out of step with His Word. Here is confessional Lutheranism at its finest.

In a culture where truth is often either relegated to relativity or regarded as unimportant, confessional Lutheranism has not only much to say, but a time-tested strategy to offer. The ability to stand up for truth against error while also standing with the truth wherever it can be found is sorely needed not only in the Church, but in our world. So, as a confessional Lutheran, I will continue to be honest about areas of disagreement. But I will also never forget to look for areas of agreement. Finally, I will pray that those areas of agreement would continue to increase among others and myself until we all agree with Jesus. For agreeing with Him is what matters most.

__________________________________

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 38, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 88–89.

September 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

It’s Time For A Change

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Periodically, I receive email solicitations encouraging me to “take a stand.” I need to “take a stand” against abortion. I need to “take a stand” against sexual immorality. I need to “take a stand” against poverty. There is a whole myriad of things against which I need to “take a stand.”

Now, on the one hand, it is important to stand for truth in a world full of lies. The apostle Paul makes this clear enough when he writes of the armor of God: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). Indeed, I have written about the importance taking a stand elsewhere. On the other hand, if all we’re doing is standing against sin in our world, we are falling woefully short of our calling as Christians.

When Martin Luther sparked a reformation of the Church by posting 95 theses for discussion to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, his first thesis described the heart and soul of what it means to be – and for that matter, to become – a Christian: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[1] The Christian life, Luther asserted, is grounded in repentance.

In Greek, the word “repentance” is metanoia, which is made up of two parts. The prefix meta means “to change” and the noun nous refers to the mind. To repent, then, means “to change your mind.” For instance, if a husband wants to divorce his wife because he is no longer happy in his marriage, for him to repent would mean that he stop thinking his marriage is all about his happiness and instead see it as a reflection of the commitment that Christ has to His bride, the Church. Repentance requires a shift in one’s worldview. It asks a person to stop thinking the way he used to think.

When Christ launched His ministry, He launched it with a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Christ’s desire was not just to take a stand against sin, but to change people’s minds about sin. He wanted people who looked at infants as disposable entities who could be left outside to die – which many in the ancient world did – to change their minds and believe that every life is precious to God. He wanted people who believed it was fine to sleep around – as many in Jesus’ day did – to change their minds and instead be faithful and tender to their spouses. He wanted people who looked past the impoverished – as the rich man in Jesus’ story about the beggar Lazarus did – to change their minds and offer what they could in Jesus’ name.

I have heard many a discussion about the sins that beset our culture and how the Church should respond to these sins. Sadly, more often than not, people want the Church only to “take a stand” while ignoring the fact that, first and foremost, the Church is to help “make a change.” The Church is to call people to repentance.

How can the Church do this? By making two shifts.

First, we must stop looking at people who are far from God as merely evil and start looking at them as lost. Looking at people who are far from God as merely “evil” incites our indignation. Seeing them as “lost” arouses our compassion.

I heard a story last week at a conference I was attending about a man who was at the deathbed of his brother. His brother was a recalcitrant non-believer. He refused to trust in Jesus, even as he was drawing his final gasping breaths. As this man stood by his brother’s bedside, trying to comfort him, the thought passed through his mind: “This is the last time my brother will ever experience any comfort. After this, it will only be eternal separation from Christ.” If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

There are millions of people headed for the same destiny as this man’s brother. How can we only get angry at them as evil without caring for them as lost?

Second, we must stop playing only defense when it comes to evil and start playing offense. I get the impression that some people think if we could just outlaw certain evils, our problems would be solved. But legislation against evil only defensively curbs it. It doesn’t offensively change people’s mind about the fundamental nature of right and wrong. This is why legislation passed in one Congress is so easily reversed by the next Congress. As Christians, our legislative efforts need to take a backseat to our desire to understand and empathize with how our culture thinks so we can winsomely respond to what our culture thinks. If you need a good place to start learning how to do this, I would recommend reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. I would also add that changing people’s minds takes time. Sometimes, it takes lots of time. So be patient! A mind changed is worth the wait.

“Taking a stand” may reveal the sin in our world. However, “making a change” – repentance – conquers the sin in our world because it leads people to Christ. And I’d much rather win against sin instead of just complaining about sin.

____________________________

[1] Martin Luther, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” (October 31, 1517).

September 22, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Act Like Men: Sobering Lessons From Ray Rice and Janay Palmer

Ray Rice, Janay PalmerWe’ve known about it since last February. But last Monday, when TMZ released video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice hitting his then fiancée and now wife Janay Palmer in an elevator, knocking her unconscious, the flames of public outrage instantly erupted. The video was so shocking and the violence so brutal that, hours after the video was released, the Ravens terminated Rice and the NFL banned him indefinitely.

Much of the discussion surrounding the assault and the release of this video has centered on the NFL’s inept handling of this terrible tragedy. People want to know: Why was the NFL’s initial reaction to this domestic violence story so weak? Originally, Rice received only a paltry two-game suspension. Why did the NFL change its response once the video was released, considering the video gave us no new information? It just confirms what we already knew.  New information indicates that the NFL did, in fact, have a copy of this video in their possession as early as last April.  Why didn’t the NFL take swift and decisive action against Rice then?

These are important questions. But for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on Rice himself. His brutal actions serve as clear cautions and teach us important lessons. Here are three of those lessons.

Lesson 1: Humans deserve dignity.

Time and time again, Scripture upholds the dignity every human being. The Psalmist writes:

What is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of Your hands; You put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:4-8)

The Psalmist extols man as the crown of God’s creation. Though on earth, he is just a little lower than heavenly beings and is called to steward and rule God’s creation. Man has preeminent dignity in God’s created order.

Part of the reason what Ray Rice did to Janay Palmer is so appalling is because it robbed her of this dignity. To knock out your soon-to-be spouse and then to drag her out of an elevator is to treat her with contempt rather than, as Solomon says, a “crown” (Proverbs 12:4). Rice treated Palmer as someone less than human. And this is unacceptable.

Lesson 2: Humans need patience.

Though we do not know the specific circumstances that led to this incident, it is not a stretch to surmise that Rice punched Palmer because he was angry with her. Something had been said or done that sent him reeling.

What Rice needed was patience.

The apostle Paul famously extols patience as part of the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The Greek word Paul uses for “patience” is makrothymia. This word is made up of two parts. Makros means “long” and thymos means “hot.” To be patient, then, means to take a long time to get hot. It means to keep your cool when everyone else is losing theirs.

Everyone gets frustrated. Everyone has disagreements. Everyone endures a pricked pride from time to time. What makes the difference in how these troubles turn out is how we react. Do we react in anger? Or do we take a long time to get hot?

Patience can protect your job and sustain your reputation. But most importantly, it can save your relationships. This is why, when Paul discusses how to love another person well, the very first thing he says is “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4).

Lesson 3: Humans value trust.

I have counseled with far too many battered women. Some have been hit many times. Others have been hit only once. Regardless of the number of times these women have been abused, one refrain remains consistent: “I don’t know if I can trust him anymore. I’m afraid he’ll do it again.”

Violence breaks trust. It breaks trusting communication because you never know if something you say will set the other off. It breaks trusting intimacy because the same hands that reach out to hold you once hit you. Violence cannot be quarantined and contained as merely “one problem” in an otherwise healthy relationship because it breaks trust in every area of a relationship. So men, let me say this as clearly as I can: Raising your hand at a lady, even just one time, is one time too many. Don’t even think about it. Go for a walk to cool off. Call a trusted friend or your pastor for counsel. Pray for strength to keep your cool. But do not raise your hand. Ever. No exceptions. No excuses.

Is there forgiveness from God for men who break this rule? Of course there is. Can breaking this rule end a man’s marriage and irreparably harm a precious daughter of God? You bet it can. So just don’t do it.

Coming to Dallas this November, and then to Chicago next May, is a Christian conference called “Act Like Men.” It’s based on Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). A man who hits a woman rejects Paul’s admonition. He does not act like a man. He acts like a brute.

So what does it mean to act like a man? It means simply this: to act like Christ. So whether you’re a famed NFL running back, an affluent businessman, or an unknown factory worker, it’s time to put down your hand and take up your cross.

September 15, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Peace and Justice in the Face of ISIS

Credit: NBC News

Credit: NBC News

First it was James Foley. Days later, it was Steven Sotloff. The beheading of two journalists by ISIS has certainly thrust the travesties of this terrorist organization to the forefront of our minds and our news cycle. But these are just ISIS’s latest crimes. At the beginning of August, some 50,000 Yazidis were forced to flee into the mountains of Iraq or face death at the hands of ISIS militants. ISIS also kidnapped hundreds Yazidi women, selling them as sex slaves for as little as $25. Last week, The New York Times profiled the gut-wrenching story of Iraqi soldier Ali Hussein Kadhim who was captured along with hundreds of other soldiers by ISIS militants.  Christians too have been in ISIS’s crosshairs, being threatened with death if they do not convert to radical Islam or pay a tax.

Back home, President Obama is grappling with how to deal with a terrorist threat and crimes against humanity that are half a world away. And he’s been getting pressure from all sides. On one side, a coalition of religious conservatives has signed a petition calling for decisive military action:

It is imperative that the United States and the international community act immediately and decisively to stop the ISIS … genocide and prevent the further victimization of religious minorities. This goal cannot be achieved apart from the use of military force to degrade and disable ISIS … forces.[1]

On the other side, a group of Catholic and Protestant leaders has written a letter to President, urging caution and restraint:

While the dire plight of Iraqi civilians should compel the international community to respond in some way, U.S. military action is not the answer. Lethal weapons and airstrikes will not remove the threat to a just peace in Iraq. As difficult as it might be, in the face of this great challenge, we believe that the way to address the crisis is through long-term investments in supporting inclusive governance and diplomacy, nonviolent resistance, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation processes.[2]

This is a crisis no president wants to face. This crisis also presents an ethical dilemma no Christian finds easy to confront. On the one hand, my preference and prayer would be that ISIS repent of their crimes and peace be restored to Iraq. On the other hand, I am sober-minded enough to know that ISIS shows no signs of softening. When even the Taliban is concerned about ISIS’s extremism, things are not on the right track.

So how do we understand this problem theologically?

A curious feature of biblical theology is what scholars refer to as “proleptic eschatology.” In short, proleptic eschatology asserts that bits and pieces of what will happen on the Last Day show up in our days. For example, the apostle Paul claims that Christ’s resurrection is only “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). In other words, the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day has shown up in the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Likewise, Jesus describes His return on the Last Day to judge the earth thusly: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). But before a cosmic judgment on the Last Day, Jesus describes a smaller judgment in the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in His day: “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Jesus’ words come to pass when the Roman general Titus decimates Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The judgment of the Last Day shows up in the destruction of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

It is this theology of proleptic eschatology that Paul has in mind when he exhorts his readers: Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Paul promises that even if we see miscarriages of justice in our day, God will avenge evil on the Last Day.

But that’s not the only day God will avenge evil.

Paul knows the evil of our day, if left unchecked until the Last Day, would yield unspeakable horrors. This is why Paul continues by explaining that bits and pieces of God’s judgment on the Last Day show up in our day through the actions of world governments: “[The governing authority] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The judgment of God against sin on the Last Day shows up through world governments in our day.

This, then, brings us to the Christian’s ethical dilemma. Because, on the one hand, we are called to wait patiently until the Last Day for God’s perfect judgment and justice to be revealed. On the other hand, governing authorities – including our own governing authority – can be used by God as His agents to bring temporal justice to the criminal problems of our day. This is why two sets of Christians can write two very different letters to President Obama.

I, for one, am praying that perhaps ISIS will have a Jonah moment – that they, like when Jonah preached to Nineveh, will hear the warning of God’s judgment, repent, and be spared of His wrath. But I am also very aware that after the preaching of Jonah to Nineveh came the preaching of Nahum to Nineveh – and with the preaching of Nahum to Nineveh came God’s wrath against Nineveh.

The clock is ticking on ISIS. I pray for peace and reconciliation. But I also pray that justice against these terrorists will not tarry long. The spilled blood of thousands is crying out.

__________________________

[1]A Plea on Behalf of Victims of ISIS/ISIL Barbarism in Iraq,” iraqrescue.org.

[2]53 national religious groups, academics, ministers urge alternatives to U.S. military action in Iraq,” Mary Knoll Office for Global Concerns (8.27.2014).

September 8, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Mark Driscoll’s Fruit Punch

Credit: Mars Hill Church

Credit: Mars Hill Church

Jesus once explained how the world could recognize His disciples: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20). “Fruit,” of course, is what the apostle Paul describes as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Thus, if others want to know whether or not a person follows Jesus, they need only to look at how he acts.

Of course, there is a little more to it than just this. Because even people who follow Jesus do not always bear the kind of fruit Paul enumerates. Indeed, even Paul himself admits, “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Paul’s spiritual fruit is more like a fruit punch – a mix of good fruit and bad fruit, righteous fruit and sinful fruit.

This past week has been a tough one for Mars Hill Church of Seattle. Last Sunday, its pastor, Mark Driscoll, announced to the congregation that he will be taking at least six weeks away from the pulpit, explaining:

Storm clouds seem to be whirling around me more than ever in recent months and I have given much thought and sought much counsel as to why that is and what to do about it …

Some have challenged various aspects of my personality and leadership style, and while some of these challenges seem unfair, I have no problem admitting I am deserving of some of these criticisms based on my own past actions that I am sorry for …

I have requested a break for processing, healing, and growth for a minimum of six weeks while the leadership assigned by our bylaws conduct a thorough examination of accusations against me.[1]

Usually, when a pastor steps away from his pulpit because of some controversy or scandal, it makes no news. But Mars Hill Church is one of America’s most famous congregations. Thus, the controversy surrounding Driscoll has been very public – front page of The New York Times public, in fact. Two days before Driscoll announced his leave of absence, the Times published an exposé:

Mark Driscoll has long been an evangelical bad boy, a gifted orator and charismatic leader who built one of the nation’s most influential megachurches despite, or perhaps fueled by, a foul mouth, a sharp temper and frank talk about sex …

But now Mr. Driscoll’s empire appears to be imploding. He has been accused of creating a culture of fear at the church, of plagiarizing, of inappropriately using church funds and of consolidating power to such a degree that it has become difficult for anyone to challenge or even question him. A flood of former Mars Hill staff members and congregants have come forward, primarily on the Internet but also at a protest in front of the church, to share stories of what they describe as bullying or “spiritual abuse,” and 21 former pastors have filed a formal complaint in which they call for Mr. Driscoll’s removal as the church’s leader.

Mr. Driscoll is rapidly becoming a pariah in the world that once cheered him.[2]

When The New York Times says your empire is “imploding” and calls you a “pariah,” that’s not good. But this is what Mark Driscoll is now facing.

As I’ve been reading people’s comments on Driscoll’s absence from Mars Hill’s pulpit, it’s been fascinating to read both the comments of his fervent supporters as well as those of his vociferous detractors. On Mark Driscoll’s Facebook page, people came out with glowing messages of support and prayer:

BEST BIBLE TEACHER EVER! Love you pastor Mark, thanks for teaching me how to man up and love Jesus and my family! Your sermons helped me through one of the most difficult moments in my life. I thank God for your faithfulness in teaching his word and I can’t wait to see you come back and do more amazing things!

And this:

Pastor Mark, I got baptized a few years back with Mars Hill on Easter and my now husband got baptized this past Easter. What makes it even more amazing is that after he got baptized he turned and baptized his 9 year old son … You have changed us and my marriage is truly saved by the grace of God but we wouldn’t have gotten here if it wasn’t for your teachings.[3]

On a blog critical of Mark Driscoll, readers can be treated to comments like this:

Driscoll needs to step down for good, not for 6 weeks. The man is dangerous. He has fired high ranking members of his staff on the spot, and created a culture of spiritual abuse disguised as “church discipline.” He is mean, he has publicly insulted “effeminate worship leaders” and implied Ted Haggard’s homosexuality
was the result of “wives who let themselves go,” to name but a few of many highlights.

And this:

[Mark] has repeatedly found himself embroiled in accusations of abuse, stealing others intellectual property, fleecing his church to pay for his best seller status, fleecing his church with his fake global fund … He has lived more as a son of the devil than the son of GOD.[4]

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground when it comes to opinions about Mark Driscoll. Even his apology has gotten mixed reviews. Some people believe Driscoll has sincerely repented of his sin and is the best man to lead Mars Hill Church while others doubt Mark’s sincerity. One person commented, “I listened to Mark’s ‘apology’ and I didn’t see any repentance.”[5]

So what are we to make of all this?

In a sentence, I would say: Mark Driscoll has made fruit punch. Like the apostle Paul, Mark has born both good fruit and bad fruit, righteous fruit and sinful fruit. And whether or not you applaud or denounce him has to do with what fruit of his you are looking at. To only applaud his good fruit while ignoring his bad is to make an idol out of him. Only Jesus bears only good fruit. But to only denounce his bad fruit while overlooking his good is to stand in self-righteous condemnation of him. We must never forget that it’s not only Mark Driscoll who makes fruit punch. We do too.

So from one fruit-punch-making pastor to another I say, “Mark, I’m praying for you. And, I’m praying that the team of overseers who are reviewing the charges against you make a decision that is best for you, for Mars Hill, and for the glory of God’s Kingdom.” Then, for all Christians who make fruit punch – and we all do – I am also praying. I am praying that we would continue to be “transformed into [the Lord’s] likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18) until our fruit punch becomes the Spirit’s pure fruit in heaven.

_______________________________________

[1] Mark Driscoll, “An Update From Pastor Mark,” marshill.com (8.24.2014).

[2] Michael Paulson, “A Brash Style That Filled Pews, Until Followers Had Their Fill,” The New York Times (8.22.2014).

[3] facebook.com/pastormark

[4] Warren Throckmorton, “Announcement: Mark Driscoll Will Take At Least Six Weeks Off,” patheos.com (8.24.2014).

[5] Celeste Gracey, “Forgiving My Pastor, Mark Driscoll,” Christianity Today (August 2014).

September 1, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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