Category Archive: Theology – Ecclesiology

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May 30, 2007

The Real Body of Christ

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I don’t recall when I first read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  Perhaps my father read it to the family at some point, but that would have been years ago and I’ve forgotten almost all of it, all except the occasional snippet I’ve read elsewhere.  Now, for the past week or so, I’ve been slowly reading through it for the first time as an adult, savoring a couple letters a day, and it strikes me as arguably Lewis’s wisest book.  There’s wisdom packed into virtually every page of these letters from a senior devil to a junior tempter.

Take this, from an early letter, about the “patient” having entered the church:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.  Do not misunderstand me.  I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.  That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.

But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.  All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.  When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him a one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shappy little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.  You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours.  Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains.  You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side.  No matter.  Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool.  Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somewhat ridiculous (pp. 14-15, paragraph spacing added).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:32 pm | Discuss (3)
November 28, 2006

Warning: Hard Hat Required

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The latest issue of Outreach contains a helpful article about one of the dumb moves you can make as a Christian wanting to see your church grow.  It’s focusing on the church instead of on Jesus.

Now there’s a sense in which it’s right to talk about the church, of course, and I might have a higher view of the church than the author of this article does.  There are certainly things that Jesus does through the church, so that it would be wrong to distinguish Jesus and the church completely.

But that isn’t the point of the article.  Rather, the author warns against trying to attract people to your church by presenting infomercials for your church which emphasize the various programs the church offers and which make it seem as if these are the reasons for being there: “Our church is doing this and this!  I used to hate church, but since coming here, I love it!”  And so forth.

The danger, says the author, is that we present a false view of the church.  When people want to join the church, they need to hear the truth.  In particular, the author says, they need to hear two warnings.

First, “you will encounter some difficult and unpleasant people.”  There are people in church who are going to rub you the wrong way.  We welcome in people who aren’t always loving, who are sometimes abrasive, who are even just plain weird.

Second, “The church you join is not always going to be like it is today.”  You might join because you have a great time with the church’s baseball team.  But in a couple years, that team may be disbanded.  You might love the pastor’s preaching, but he may take a call to another church a year after you join the church and you might think every sermon the new guy preaches is a dud.

If our talk with people who are new to the church focuses on the church and what it’s doing and what it’s done for us and what it can do for them, we will not only open them up to disappointment when they discover the church isn’t what they thought it was; we may inadvertently encourage them to focus on the church without focusing on Christ.  We don’t want them to join because they think we’re the perfect people or because they think that our programs will meet their needs.  We want them to put their trust in Jesus, not just in us.

Again, we mustn’t fall into a false dichotomy here (“Jesus OR the church”), but there’s a lot of good, honest stuff here about the church and the dangers of marketing it.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:50 pm | Discuss (2)
May 26, 2006

Reform and Resurge 1

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A couple weeks ago, I attended the Reform and Resurge conference hosted by Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

The drive took about eight hours, during which time I learned that I can handle only about six to ten songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival in a row, whereas I can listen to Roy Orbison over and over again. I also heard the new CD by Dion (formerly of Dion and the Belmonts, back in the ’60s), entitled Bronx in Blue. World had reviewed it and one of the men in the church had picked it up, but what World didn’t mention was that the lyrics of several songs (and particularly one by Robert Johnson) were full of suggestive double entendres. Still, it was a fairly good collection, and a good historical overview of early blues.

I particularly enjoyed a CD of hymns by Martin Luther, borrowed from my in-laws. Their CD of the Psalms of Scotland by the Scottish Philharmonic Singers was okay, but I kept wishing that they would speed up. They sing all of the songs at about half the speed they ought to. No wonder so many people today have no taste for psalm singing!

I arrived in Seattle fairly late in the evening, where I met up with Mark Horne, who was staying at the same place I was. It was good to see Mark again, and also to spend some time with Dan and Sharon Dillard. Dan is the pastor of the OPC up the road from me in Bend, Oregon.

The conference started on Tuesday morning with a time of singing. Throughout the conference, the singing, led by Mars Hill’s worship pastor, was acoustic in the morning and electric at night. I particularly appreciated the cello. The songs were largely hymns and gospel songs, not the usual praise and worship stuff, but it did sound a bit like the kind of music you’d find on a worship album by Wilco.

The first lecture was by Darrin Patrick, pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, Missouri, and was entitled “The Life and Death of a Missional Leader.” The greatest challenge church planters and pastors face, Patrick said, is themselves: “Ministry will kill you.” He presented a number of stats relating to pastoral burnout, which you can find in this blog entry by Mark Driscoll, which is worth reading itself for some helpful stuff on avoiding burnout.

It often appears as if a lot of men fall away from the Lord and from the ministry. The truth, however, is different: “No one falls away from God. They walk away, one step at a time.” They keep hitting unexpected bumps, which are intended to reveal things in their character that they need to work on — but they don’t. Instead of “counting it all joy” when they fall into trials because of what those trials will produce, they focus on the pain and get disillusioned with God and His church.

But trials, Patrick said, are God’s way of teaching us about our own hearts. What matters most to us: His glory or our low-maintenance, hassle-free, designer lives? Trials tip over our idols. They force us to move from “independence” to dependence. They make us weak so that God can reveal His power through us.

How can you tell if you’re responding rightly to those trials? If you’re responding wrongly, you’ll tend not to like people. You’ll withdraw from God and from your family and from the church members and from others. But if you’re responding rightly, you’ll have compassion for others in their trials and be able to comfort them with the comfort you’ve received (2 Cor. 1).

The lecture was a great start to the conference and a great encouragement to me.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:12 pm | Discuss (0)
February 8, 2006

Velvet Elvis

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Last week, I read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which is one of the fastest growing churches in North America (as the blurb on the back of the book tells me). Bell himself, however, cautions against regarding himself as a superpastor. Indeed, he used to be and it nearly did him in (see chapter four).

Several aspects of the book are helpful. Bell compares doctrines to the springs on the trampoline and insists that, while it’s not wrong to talk about the springs, the point of the springs is to enable us to jump. For those of us who tend to identify being well-versed theologically with being mature as a Christian, that image may be disturbing but it may also be a good corrective.

Early in my pastorate, I probably tended to think that a desire to do in-depth Bible study and to read books on theology was a mark of spiritual maturity, and I had to learn that there are people who are very mature as Christians, very committed to following Jesus, who just don’t know a lot of theology and aren’t gifted in that way, but who can put many theologians to shame in terms of showing Christ-like love. To use Bell’s metaphor, they didn’t know a lot about springs, but they knew how to jump and they jumped well and joyfully.

Furthermore, Bell asserts, “I can jump and still have questions and doubts.” You don’t have to have everything figured out in order to jump, in order to follow Christ. It’s possible for the church to make it seem as if questions are out of place, but questions generally flow out of humility:

A question by its very nature acknowledges that the person asking the question does not have all of the answers. And because the person does not have all of the answers, they are looking outside of themselves for guidance (p. 30). 

And when we read the Bible — the Psalms, in particular — we find people asking God all kinds of questions. On the cross, Jesus Himself asks God a question (“Why have you forsaken me?”), all the while trusting Him. As Bell says,

Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God. Not belligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions, arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God (p. 31). 

And so, in order to make room for people to ask questions, Bell’s church held a Doubt Night, in which people wrote down the questions or doubts they had about God and Jesus and the Bible and the church and so forth, and collected them in a large box, leaving Bell in the end with pages and pages of questions that the people who attended that event were troubled by. That may sound strange, but wouldn’t it also be helpful for pastors to know, not just that their members show up on Sunday morning looking nice, but that their members struggle — and what they struggle with?

Other helpful moments in this book include Bell’s comments on art and the liturgy:

Somebody asked me the other day why our church doesn’t support the arts because we don’t have dramas and short-act plays in the services. I realized the question, as with almost every question, goes back to creation. I don’t believe something has to be in a church service to be “for God.” As if the only acting that is “for God” is acting in a church service…. If you are an actor, the goal isn’t for you to do your work in a church building in a church service. Please go wherever it is the world that people act and do it well. Really well. Throw yourself into it and give it everything you have (pp. 85-86). 

I also appreciated Bell’s insistence that we should not define ourselves as sinners when the Bible tells us that the old man has died and identifies us now as saints, sons of God, new creatures in Christ (pp. 138ff.). We need to let God define us and let what He “says about us shape what we believe about ourselves” (p. 142). I’m puzzled, though, as to why Bell would say, in the midst of this discussion, “This is why shame has no place whatsoever in the Christian experience” (p. 142). Why not? True, we who are in Christ and who confess our sins are forgiven. But when we fall into sin, shouldn’t we be ashamed of it and therefore repent of it, not least because our sin doesn’t accurately reflect who we are in Christ?

I am also appreciative of Bell’s openness to a Christological and typological reading of Scripture. For instance, he rightly sees the significance of Mary’s mistaking Jesus for “the gardener” in John 20: Jesus is a new Adam in the Garden, reversing the curse of death (pp. 156-157).

Mixed in with the good stuff, however, was a lot of stuff that wasn’t so good, stuff that struck me as strange or iffy or just plain wrong. I said above that there may be some value to Bell’s description of doctrine as the springs on the trampoline, not the point of the whole trampoline. But at times, I wasn’t clear which springs Bell thinks are non-negotiables (certainly not six-day creation and perhaps not the virgin birth either, p. 26).

Bell’s description of the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity (p. 22) is particularly weak (“God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit and then as Jesus”). In one passage, it sounds as if he’s saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection has accomplished forgiveness and reconciliation for everyone:

Heaven is full of forgiven people. 

Hell is full of forgiven people.

Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.

Ours or God’s (p. 146).

What does it mean to say that the people in hell are forgiven, especially given that forgiveness (as Bell has been insisting) implies reconciliation? Suppose my daughter sins and I tell her that I forgive her, but then I tell her she has to leave the house, can’t sit at my dinner table, won’t ever be hugged by me again, and so forth. Would you believe that I had really forgiven her? Would you still say that our relationship has been restored? Bell’s statements here are equally puzzling to me.

I also have lots of questions about Bell’s use of rabbinical and other extra-textual sources in interpreting the Bible. First, let me say that deciding to start your church plant with a series of sermons on Leviticus, as Bell did (p. 102), is a bold move, and one that I quite appreciate. And I do appreciate Bell’s desire to preach the Word. But several times, he makes questionable assertions about the meaning of passages of the Bible.

For instance, Bell asserts that “the end of the book of Mark is arranged according to the coronation ceremonies of the Roman emperor” (p. 64). Maybe that’s true, and it would be cool if it is, but Bell doesn’t cite any source for this assertion. Likewise, he asserts that

The first three miracles in the book of John are directly related to the three major gods of Asia Minor, the region John writes his gospel to. Dionysus was the god who turned water into wine, Asclepius was the god of healing, and Demeter was the goddess of bread. So how does John begin his story? With Jesus turning water into wine, healing, and then feeding thousands of people. John has an agenda. He wants these people in this place and this time to know that Jesus is better than their gods (p. 64). 

“Hmm….,” says I. “Maybe.” But Bell doesn’t provide any source for this assertion, including the claim that John is writing to Asia Minor.

On the same page and the next, Bell claims that “saved in childbirth” in Timothy relates to the goddess Artemis who had a temple in Ephesus, where Timothy was, and who kept women from dying in childbirth, though one out of two women in that city died in childbirth. (Here, at least, Bell does cite a source.) Then he claims that the “first chapters of the book of Revelation follow the sequence of events of the Domitian games, held in honor of the caesar who was in power at the time Revelation was written” (p. 65). I don’t, in fact, believe Revelation was written in the time of Domitian, and I wonder whether it’s really true that “Domitian would address the leaders of the various provinces, then his choir of twenty-four would sing worship songs to him, and then there would be a horse race” (p. 65). And I’m not sure what the horse race would correspond to in Revelation, anyway.

Later, Bell claims that when Jesus, at Caesarea Philippi, said that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church, he was referring to a feature of the geography of that region:

Caesarea Philippi was the world center of the goat god, Pan. People came from all over the world to worship this god. There is a cliff with a giant crack in it that the followers of Pan believed was the place where the spirits from hell would come and go from the earth. The crack was called the Gates of Hell. They built a temple for Pan there and then a court next to it where people would engage in sexual acts with goats during the Pan worship festivals (p. 132). 

It’s on this rock, Bell claims, following (I believe) Ray VanderLaan, that Christ would build his church and the people who are now serving the goat god won’t be able to stop the church but will actually join it. To which I say, “Oh, really?”

Now maybe that stuff is true and maybe knowing it can add something to our understanding of the significance of a passage of Scripture. But I question whether the main point of a passage of Scripture ever depends on extrascriptural information.

More than that, I do wonder whether some of these claims are true or whether they’re as spurious as the other allegedly historical claims that I’ve heard (e.g., that “the Eye of the Needle” was a gate in Jerusalem’s wall and that a camel could actually get through it if it didn’t have any baggage on it, and so a rich man can get into heaven if he gets rid of his baggage, which is all a pack of non-historical hogwash and not all the point that Jesus was making or that the disciples got from what Jesus said).

Similarly, I have concerns with Bell’s use of the rabbis. Perhaps it’s true that the rabbis spoke of their teachings as a “yoke” which their disciples took upon themselves (p. 47) or spoke of their interpretations of Scripture as “binding and loosing” (p. 49), but I’d have to see more evidence that this is really the source of Jesus’ call to take His yoke upon ourselves and His statements about binding and loosing, which (in context) appear to have more to do with community boundaries than with interpretations of Scripture. Similarly, I question whether the fact that Peter and his friends were fishermen means that they weren’t good enough students to become rabbis (p. 131).

I grant that there are things that Christians can learn from the rabbis and from Jewish scholars, but I’m afraid that Bell values these sources too highly. It isn’t clear, for instance, if the things in the Talmud are early enough that Jesus would have known about them (let alone the readers of the Gospels, some of whom need to have extrabiblical Jewish traditions explained to them [cf. Mark 7:4]) or if they are later inventions of the rabbis. Furthermore, we have to recognize that Jesus Himself thought that the oral law code was often in opposition to God’s Word (Mark 7:8ff.) and falls into the category of “evil thoughts” that proceed out of man’s heart (Mark 7:21). Did the rabbis correctly understand the Scriptures? Not according to Jesus! Can we learn from the rabbis? Sometimes, yes. Do we need them in order to understand Scripture? No.

On the whole, then, while I did learn some things from Bell and was sometimes challenged by what he said, his use of Scripture and the questionable things Bell said, sometimes in the midst of a good discussion, diminished my appreciation of this book. (I must also admit that Bell’s writing style drove me nuts. Full of sentence fragments. Like these.



Over paragraph breaks.

Very annoying.)

In the end, it wasn’t a particularly profitable read, I’m afraid.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:08 pm | Discuss (0)
December 21, 2005

The Radical Reformission 4

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Mark Driscoll closes The Radical Reformission with a series of paragraphs outlining what his vision of “kingdom culture” looks like for the city of Seattle and the church where he ministers. Much of what he writes is inspiring.

He talks about the role of men, given that young men in Seattle seldom go to church, get married, raise families, or act responsibly. At Driscoll’s church, however, young men are trained “on everything from how to study the Bible, get a job, invest money, buy a home, court a woman, brew beer, have good sex, and be a pastor-dad to their children” (p. 184).

Driscoll also outlines how the church creates a culture that embraces and imparts the Bible’s teaching on sex, children, and the home. For instance, members are encouraged to have homes large enough to allow them to host events, practice hospitality, and even take in other members who are trying to save enough to buy a home for themselves (p. 186).

He talks about the importance of beauty: “We paint the walls of our homes and church because we worship God and not an orthodontist who only believes in sterile white surroundings” (p. 186). Other things he touches on include joy and laughter, wisdom and practicality, the development of leaders and the planting of churches.

There’s a lot of great stuff here, stuff that Reformed churches could learn from. That’s why I said earlier that I plan to buy a copy of this book. Sure there are flaws and you have to overlook some things, but Driscoll’s book has done a lot to encourage me in my own pastoral work and to give me some ideas about how to reach out to the world around intelligently and effectively in order to see people drawn to Christ. More than that, his passion is also contagious. And for that, I’m thankful.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:40 am | Discuss (0)
December 17, 2005

The Radical Reformission 3

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Toward the end of The Radical Reformission, after a rather superficial (but sometimes insightful!) survey of western history up to the emergence of postmodernism, Mark Driscoll writes:

Perhaps modernity and its lonely individualism, arrogant rationalism, judgmental skepticism, and atheism was a demon that needed to be cast out. But as Jesus taught, unless that demon is replaced with the Holy Spirit, we are in deep dung, because seven new demons will take its place. After spending some years speaking with pastors from around the nation, including arguably most of the important leaders in what has been dubbed the emerging church, I have seen seven troubling demons that have entered the American church and brought fatal wounds to those ministering on the cutting edge (p. 165).

Here are the demons Driscoll identifies:

1. Jesus being transformed into “the Sky Fairy,” who never talks about and sin and doesn’t send anyone to hell (pp. 166-167).

2. Authenticity being promoted over holiness: “[B]ecause we are sinners, simply encouraging people to be who they are in the name of authenticity is dangerous because it can easily be taken as a license to sin without repentance…. As we work among cultures that value realness, we must not forget that the kingdom first values repentance” (p. 167).

3. A hermeneutic that reduces the bible to a story without authority and without one truthful interpretation (p. 168).

4. A kind of “deconstructionism” that simply attacks traditions, modernity, or other things in our society or in our past without anything positive (and I would add: biblical) to put in its place (pp. 168-169).

5. The tendency to have our churches pander to the wants of unbelievers in an effort to draw them (pp. 170-172).

6. Egalitarianism: “Theologically, a postmodern church addicted to egalitarianism is also marked by a confusion over gender issues, such as masculinity and femininity, and sexual issues, such as homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as by a peculiar commitment to making sure that everyone’s voice is equally heard and everyone’s input is equally considered, whether or not it is foolish, as if the church were one big internet chat room. Some churches have gone so far as to replace a preaching monologue from a recognized leader to a spiritual dialogue among a group of peers who refuse to acknowledge any leader over them. This makes about as much sense as shooting your doctor and gathering with the other patients in his lobby to speculate about what is wrong with one another and randomly write out prescriptions for one another in the name of equality” (p. 173). In this section, Driscoll also mentions open theism, which extends egalitarianism to God, reducing Him to our level (pp. 173-174).

7. The idea that one can be a “hyphenated Christian” (e.g., a Buddhist Christian, a New Age Christian) (pp. 174-176).

Good stuff, and perhaps a helpful response to some in the “emergent church” conversation.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:51 pm | Discuss (0)
December 15, 2005

Age and Height

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Mark Driscoll on categorizing people by their age into “baby boomers,” “busters/Generation X,” and “millennials/Generation Y”:

Evaluating people by their age group makes about as much sense as categorizing people by their height. Not all six-foot-tall old men are the same, and neither are all fifteen-year-old women…. Christians have fallen into the same trap, starting different services at their churches and hiring a pastor who is same age as the group the services are supposed to be reaching. We must dig deeper into our understanding of the people we are seeking to reach than simply noting their age. People are highly complex, and any attempt to divide them by something as arbitrary as age is naive, silly, and doomed to fail.

How smart would it be to have three church services targeting people according to their height? The first service would be for people under five feet tall, the second for people between five and six feet tall, and the third for people over six feet tall. And how wise would it be for each service to have a different pastor carefully selected by his height, and worship music that incorporated a lot of prooftext verses about height…? Reformission requires that God’s people pay more attention to the particular people in their culture than to the many books on generational theory written by self-appointed experts who, in the end, are speaking at best of only a narrow, white, suburban slice of the generational pie (The Radical Reformission, p. 128).

Posted by John Barach @ 3:35 pm | Discuss (0)
December 12, 2005

The Radical Reformission 2

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When people think about evangelism, they often think of certain techniques for evangelism: altar calls in churches, people going door to door, large crusades. Those techniques have undoubtedly been used by God to draw people to Himself. The congregation I pastor, for instance, has members who were drawn to Christ as a result of the pastor and a member of the congregation going door to door distributing fliers about the church.

Mark Driscoll, in The Radical Reformission, suggests that these practices may not be as effective today as they were in the past:

There was a time when door-to-door evangelism and door-to-door business sales made sense, because many wives were home all day and husbands came home at night for dinner. This routine is no longer as effective because there are fewer stay-at-home wives and mothers. In addition, people’s lives are so filled with entertainment, sales pitches, advertising, self-help seminars, and large emotionally moving events of various sorts that people are often unimpressed by large church events or slick Jesus sales pitches complete with canned leading questions (p. 67).

Driscoll points out that in the past evangelism has often followed a certain pattern: first comes information about the gospel along with a call to make a decision; then the person who responds positively is invited to come to church (and perhaps to become a member), and it’s at this point that friendship is extended to the person; later on, the person may also be trained to do some form of evangelism, though he’s already been cut off from his previous culture with its friendships, friendships which could have been used effectively to draw others to Christ.

In contrast, Driscoll proposes a model where people are not first won to Christ by information being presented about him and then are won to the church but rather where people first begin to be associated with the church and then are drawn to trust in Jesus:

In reformission evangelism, people are called to come and se the transformed lives of God’s people before they are called to repent of sin and trust in God (p. 68).

I don’t take Driscoll to be saying that unbelievers are invited to become members of the church (and I hope that’s not what he’s saying). Rather, I think he’s saying that his congregation encourages unbelievers to participate in various events, to begin to interact with the members of the church in various settings, to see how people talk and behave, to attend Bible studies, help the church serve the needy, and so forth. In that sense, they start to identify with the church:

As trust is earned over time, lost people will often speak with their Christian friends about “our church” before they speak about “our God.” Often they convert first to the church and friendships with its members, and second to God, whom they meet in their friendships and experiences in the church (p. 69).

What frequently also happens is that these people, even before they are converted and before they actually join the church, end up evangelizing their friends and family members (p. 70).

Now I’d want to be careful about what Driscoll proposes. I appreciate his blurring of the lines between evangelism and discipleship (p. 73). I’m not persuaded that such things are always clear cut: conversion at one particular moment and growth after that. I’m sure many converts couldn’t actually say when they first started believing; it was probably a gradual process for them. At the same time, Driscoll’s presentation could be helped by an emphasis on baptism as the definitive break with the old life and engrafting into the church and the new life.

I also want to be cautious about how these unbelievers are viewed in relation to the church. As I said above, I don’t take Driscoll to be saying that unbelievers should be welcomed into membership. But a person who has been attending for years and who is involved in church programs and Bible studies and yet has never been baptized or has never become a member of the church should still know that, in an important sense, he is still an outsider, still not part of God’s people, and that he needs to come inside. And some of the church’s activities need to be limited to those who are members of God’s household and who are therefore His representatives in ways that unbelievers cannot be.

Moreover, I’d also want to stress (and I’m not sure Driscoll would) that the liturgy is family time. Unbelievers may be present, I suppose, but the service is not for them. The service is not evangelistic, though it may be so indirectly. The liturgy is for the people of God. It’s the time when they enter God’s courts with singing, when they humble themselves and confess their sins and receive God’s forgiveness, when they ascend into God’s presence in Christ, when they are cut apart and refashioned by His Word, when they present their prayers and their offerings and themselves to God for His inspection and approval and blessing, and when they sit with Him and eat at His Table before He sends them out into the world. Unbelievers who are present are present as onlookers, spectators, not participants (contra Driscoll, p. 73 perhaps).

But Driscoll, I think, is on to something. Unbelievers ought to be welcomed into Christian gatherings, ought to receive hospitality in our homes, ought to be invited to Bible studies, ought to be able to live close to Christians so that they see and experience our transformed lives, the beauty of our community, the warmth of our love, and so forth, and in that way be drawn into the church and into communion with Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:09 pm | Discuss (0)
December 10, 2005

Priests and Pastors

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In the polemics between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, the former often insist that pastors are not priests. Priests, it is said, are mediators between God and man, and we now have only one such mediator, the man Jesus Christ. A pastor is a shepherd, not a mediator, and therefore he is not a priest.

It may be true that a pastor is not a priest in some specifically Roman Catholic sense. I haven’t studied the Roman Catholic teaching concerning the priesthood, and that isn’t my point here. What I’m interested in is whether the description in the first paragraph is accurate biblically.

The Bible does indeed say that we have “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). But does that mean that we no longer have priests? That doesn’t seem to be the case.

First, in 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul is not saying, “In the Old Covenant there were many mediators, many priests, but now we have only one.” Given the references to Moses as the Mediator of the Old Covenant and Jesus as the Mediator of the New (Gal. 3:19, 20 [2x]; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), it may be the case that Paul is contrasting Moses and Jesus: Moses is no longer the mediator we should be looking to; Jesus is the one mediator, and therefore we must not go back to the Torah as if we were still living under the Old Covenant. Maybe. But even if that is the case, priests aren’t the issue here.

Second, we often speak about “the priesthood of all believers.” As Peter Leithart has shown in The Priesthood of the Plebs, in Hebrews 10 baptism is presented as priestly ordination. If a priest is by definition a mediator between God and man and all of us who have been baptized into Christ are priests, then all of us are mediators between God and man and (in that sense) rivals to Jesus Christ the one mediator. But that isn’t the case, and therefore we cannot define “priest” in such a way as to make the presence of priests today conflict with Christ’s sole mediatorship.

Third, what were the duties of priests in the Old Covenant? They don’t exactly appear to be mediators. As Leithart has shown, priests were primarily housekeepers. They cooked God’s food, guarded access to God’s house, made sure the house was lit, smelled nice, had bread on the table, was kept clean, and worked to see that God’s people (who are also God’s house, represented by the tabernacle and temple) were taught, kept clean, and so forth. Priests are God’s chefs, guards, housekeepers: servants in His royal retinue.

But if that’s the case, then, as James Jordan says in From Bread to Wine, “the Biblical office of priest is virtually identical to that of pastor or minister in the New Covenant church: He teaches God’s Word, supervises religious meals, and organizes/disciplines the people for worship” (p. 11). Perhaps that’s why Paul draws parallels between pastors who labour in the gospel and priests in the Old Covenant (1 Cor. 9:13 in context).

Now that doesn’t address all the issues between Protestants and Roman Catholics over the matter of priesthood, but understanding the biblical role of priests may help us not attack straw men. The whole congregation is made up of priests who draw near with boldness to stand before God and serve Him (Heb. 10), but God also appoints men to serve the congregation as special priests, that is, special servants, who teach His Word, supervise His Supper, and organize the people to serve Him.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:36 pm | Discuss (0)
December 7, 2005

The Radical Reformission 1

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Link :: Print

Over the past couple of months, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve been reading some stuff relating to what is often called “the emerging church conversation.” I still can’t say that I know exactly what the “emerging church” is all about (though this quiz will let you know if you’re “emergent” or not), largely because I don’t know who really belongs to the “conversation.”

For instance, I often see Anne Lamott’s name mentioned in this connection, but I have no real idea why. That is, why is she identified with the “emerging church” and, say, Lauren Winner isn’t? It’s all very puzzling to me.

Some things are clear. Brian McLaren is “emerging church,” and much of the “conversation” is with or about him and his writings. But it also doesn’t appear to me that everyone in the “conversation” is necessarily in agreement with McLaren.

Given all of that, I have a hard time knowing where to place Mark Driscoll. He’s the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, one of the fastest growing and largest churches in that city, and has founded the Acts 29 Network, which has planted piles of churches in eight countries. My friend Chip had dinner with him after a concert once, and recommended that I check out Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out.

I did. I checked it out from the library and will probably end up buying a copy. That’s not because it’s flawless. Driscoll’s tone I frequently find annoying, as if he’s trying to be a stand-up comedian or as if, to borrow a phrase from Andy Crouch, he’s trying to put the hip in discipleship.

At times, too, Driscoll’s discussion is superficial. While it’s somewhat fun to read, his quick treatment of Western cultural history (pp. 161ff.) is really quite shallow. As for the Constantine-bashing in it, I can only repeat what I said the other day: A lot of these guys need to read Against Christianity. I’m more bothered, though, when it appears as if Driscoll is giving a superficial (let alone a cutesy) summary of the Scriptures (as on pp. 28ff., where it becomes evident that Driscoll should work through Jordan’s Primeval Saints).

Still, there’s a lot of very helpful stuff here. For instance, Driscoll points out that the church is now required to answer questions that it has never before been asked, questions such as “If a married couple videotapes their lovemaking solely for their own viewing pleasure, is this a sin?” or “Is it okay to improve my appearance with plastic surgery?” He provides a list of questions that he gets asked quite often by new Christians (pp. 48-49), and says, “Reformission is about the old gospel answering without blushing the new questions that emerge from new cultures.”

Whether he’s “emerging church” or not (and I don’t really care), his book is certainly more practical and helpful than anything in The Church in Emerging Culture!

More later.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:40 am | Discuss (0)
December 6, 2005

“Our New Task”

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Link :: Print

Here is an excellent and thought-provoking blog post by Rich Bledsoe.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:15 pm | Discuss (0)
December 4, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 5

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The final essay in The Church in Emerging Culture is by Erwin Rafael McManus, who is the contributor about whom I know the least. One thing I do know about him, and it’s plain from the very beginning of his chapter, is that he loves the city of Los Angeles where he pastors and that love is inspiring. How many of us as pastors could look out at the cities in which we live and say that we love them and in that love desire them to glorify God? As I read McManus’s chapter I was struck that he has a passion for the place where he lives that has often been lacking in my ministry.

I also very much appreciated his insistence that the church doesn’t just reflect the culture in which it exists, a culture created by the world, nor is the church simply to try to relate to the culture or be relevant to the culture (“When a church starts working toward relevance, it admits that somehow it was left behind”: p. 239), but rather that the church (also) creates culture and is a culture:

For the last several years I have been asked, “What do you think is coming after the postmodern era?” For the longest time my answer was simply, “I have no idea.” But if September 11th has reminded me of anything, it is that the future is shaped by the decisions of men under the sovereignty of God. My answer today is quite different. Now I answer, “Whatever we choose.” 

I think this answer is important when we consider the theological passivity of contemporary Christianity. Without realizing it we have slipped into the view that the world creates culture and that the church reacts to it. In our most innovative moments we analyze culture trends and project historical movements. Then like a twig determined to stop a tsunami, we brace ourselves for the future. But is it possible that the church was intended to be the cultural epicenter from which a new community emerges, astonishing and transforming cultures through the power of forgiveness, freedom, and creativity? (pp. 245-246).

Incidentally, several times during the reading of these essays and of McLaren’s books, I keep thinking, “Someone ought to send these guys a copy of Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity.”

With Michael Horton, I also appreciate McManus’s emphasis on God’s speaking:

The act of God speaking is the basis of faith. If God does not speak, then we believe in vain. True religion is not our desperate search to make God intelligible. It is a response to what God has spoken. And the words of God are far more than divine information — they are life to the listener (p. 250). 

Still, there also parts of McManus’s essay that are troubling. At times, as Horton points out, McManus presents false dichotomies (e.g., “The power of the gospel is the result of a person — Jesus Christ — not a message. The gospel is an event to be proclaimed, not a doctrine to be preserved”: p. 248).

Rather strangely, McManus contrasts what he calls “a European church and its sacramental essence” with what he would like to see: “a primal church with an elemental essence” (p. 245). I don’t have a clue what he means by “primal” (though with Frederica Mathewes-Green, I’d want to point out that the “primal church,” that is, the early church, was sacramental).

I also don’t know what he means by speaking of an “elemental essence,” though I note that a bit earlier in the essay he talks about “such expressions of faith as using five elemental metaphors — wind, water, earth, fire, and wood — to express our critical environments for discipleship” (pp. 244-245).

In that same paragraph, he uses the word “primal” again: “We use art, sculpture, and dance not as entertainment but as primal expressions of our faith” (p. 245). Here “primal” doesn’t seem to refer to something in the early church (where no such practices occurred in the liturgy) but to … well, I’m not sure. Could he be saying that these practices are like the practices of “primal” societies as opposed to societies that are more rational, ordered, structured, civilized, and so forth?

Now I have no idea what McManus’s church’s liturgy looks like. But what Scriptural warrant is there for using art, sculpture, and dance in the liturgy? More than that, what Scriptural warrant is there for whatever it is that his church does with wind, water, earth, fire, and wood? Not to be offensive, but these things sound like something that McManus and his congregation dreamed up themselves, something less like biblically informed liturgy than like paganism.

McManus is right: The church needs to be its own culture and thereby to shape and create culture rather than simply to react to or seek to be “relevant” to the cultures around it. And the church needs to listen to God’s Word in order to carry out this calling. But, as with the other essays in this book, McManus doesn’t present much of a positive program and what he does present is sometimes marred by false dilemmas or worse by a departure from what God’s Word says.

If we love our cities, as McManus does, and we want the gospel to transform them, we need to give them more than McManus does. But, to be fair, we also need to give them more than the rest of this books offers. There are some good and inspiring moments in this book, but on the whole it’s disappointing.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:43 pm | Discuss (0)

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