Monday, December 15, 2014

Still Waiting for--and Pursuing--Peace on Earth

In a few days, I will take a couple of weeks to celebrate the Christmas and New Years' holidays with my family.

This time of year seems more peaceful to me than any other.  But as events in our world have reminded us this year, there is a marked difference between feeling peaceful, and actually having peace.  Both Testaments of our Bible employ a word for peace that transcends mere feeling or sentimentality, and their Holy Spirit-inspired authors bridge the linguistic differences between Hebrew and Greek to choose words that have a remarkably similar meaning.  Both the Old Testament and the New communicate a sense of completeness and wholeness.  Both imply a sense of total welfare, and both include an element of ultimate justice.  In other words, Biblical peace is more than a feeling.  Its a sense of balance and wholeness and covers all of humanity, and its something God promises to restore to the world.

We often get glimpses of what this looks like during the Christmas season--sometimes through experiences that make us feel as though we are living for a moment inside a Norman Rockwell painting.  We should enjoy such times, but we should never mistake them for the ultimate peace that Scripture promises us will someday come.  As recently as last evening, we were reminded of this as reports came in from Sydney Australia of what appears to be an ISIS-inspired hostage situation.  We are, perhaps, living in one of the most unpredictably violent periods of modern human history, even as we will quote the angelic announcement of "peace on earth" from now until the conclusion of the advent season.

Ask the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner if they think we have "peace."

Ask the families of the 47 police officers who will not be celebrating Christmas with them because they were killed in the line of duty in 2013 if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Israeli IDF soldier whose life is threatened daily by political forces beyond his control if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Palestinian family who lives in an open-air occupied prison under the threat of becoming "collateral damage" if they think we have "peace."

Ask the average American who has read the latest CIA report on torture if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Pakistani family whose child was blown to bits by a drone strike if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of military families who will sit at Christmas dinner this year without their loved-one who was killed in battle if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Ukrainian family now living under Russian occupation if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, and others from Iraq, Syria, and surrounding areas who have witnessed unspeakable horrors at the hands of ISIS if they think we have "peace."

Ask the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School who are about to spend their third Christmas without their kids if they think we have "peace."

In some cases, the people above are on polar opposite sides of the violence.  But there is one thing they all hold in common, and its their answer to this question.

So what are Christians to make of this?  How can we possibly speak of the sort of peace the Scriptures describe--and promise--in the midst of our current global context of violence?  Well, for starters, we can go back 2000 years and discover that the world into which our Savior was born was also experiencing this kind of violence.

When you and I read Paul's words in Galatians about Jesus' coming in "the fulness of time" (4:4) our temptation is to sanitize our description of that kairos (the greek term for the "right moment.")  We speak of the Roman road system that would make the rapid spread of the Christian Gospel possible, but we leave out the Roman practice of crucifixion--which makes water boarding look like a college frat initiation.  We speak of the pax Romana which ensured relative "peace" throughout the empire, but neglect the barbaric way in which the Roman occupiers often kept that peace.  We speak of the Jewish longing for Messiah that at this point in time had reached peak expectations, but forget the murderous rage of Herod the Great that resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem--a Jew killing fellow Jews in a raw grasp for political power.

And today, we also tend to ignore the darker side of our own surroundings.  Over the years, our family has taken several folks visiting our area to nearby Washington, D.C.  Inevitably, I will take guests to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and point them down the mall toward the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, explaining that the Egyptian and Greek architecture respectively--along with the Roman architecture we are standing on at the Capitol--was chosen by the designers of this city to illustrate that we were building on the great empires of the past in order to build the most exceptional and free society that has ever existed in the history of humanity.  But every time we witness violence in our own land--whether it be in person or through the media--we are reminded that we are but another imperfect empire in a long line of empires--none of which will ever be able to truly and finally bring "peace."

The world into which Jesus came and the world you and I inhabit are equally violent.  In many ways, that first Christmas looked far less like a Bing Crosby song, and more like an ISIS-controlled Syria.

Yet into that turbulent environment walks a Priest by the name of Simeon.  Luke tells us that he had waited for virtually his entire ministry for God's Messianic promise to be fulfilled.   The arrival of a lower middle-class family with their 8-day old baby boy finally fulfilled that promise.  In that moment, Simeon blocked out the surrounding violence, and only saw promise.

"for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.  a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

Yet here we are, 2000 years later, and the world still doesn't know the "peace" of which our Scriptures speak.  Why is this?  Because Jesus' advent was merely the announcement--His life a precursor, His death full payment, and His resurrection the guarantee of peace for all who will turn from their sins and put their trust in Him.  Ultimate and final peace--the sort that is more than merely the absence of conflict, but also includes the presence of justice, wholeness, and balance--isn't here.  At least, not yet.

Which means when followers of Jesus speak of their hope for peace at Christmastime, we aren't doing so under the delusion that we will usher that peace in without the return of Jesus.  But when we cross political aisles, railroad tracks, and neighborhoods to understand and stand in solidarity with another, we are providing a foretaste of what this world will be when the One who came in humility  the first time comes the second time as conqueror of the world He created.  One of our popular carols at this time of year expresses this hope perfectly:

No more let sins, and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow,
far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found!

No wonder Jesus said those who make peace will be called "children of God" (Matthew 5:9).  When we pursue peace, we demonstrate that we are like our heavenly Father.  As we celebrate this Christmas, let's let that celebration be signified by our own efforts at peace-making.  Like our Savior, let's live as a sent people, and while we wait for ultimate peace on earth, let's not merely be satisfied with the peace we "feel."  Let's cross lines.  Let's run toward trouble while the rest of the world runs away from it, and let's demonstrate the ultimate end to our message by bringing the love and presence of Jesus wherever it is needed.....

....far as the curse is found!

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Danger of "Living in the Present."

Imagine a married couple are expecting a child.  Now imagine that during that 9-month period they do absolutely nothing to get ready for that child.  They do nothing to provide a nursery, a bed, or a place to change diapers.  They don't think through how their work schedules are going to change in order to care for this child, or how they will afford childcare outside the home should the wife decide to go back to work.  They don't add the child to their will.  They don't provide life insurance for the child.  Worst of all, they don't secure medical coverage for the child once he or she is born.  Now imagine asking this couple halfway through the pregnancy how they could have possibly been so short-sighted.  And imagine them responding by saying "we are doing just fine right now. We don't have a baby yet, and there is no need to do any of that until we have one."

You have just observed a couple who live consistently in the present, and think nothing of the future.  How many churches do you know like this?

Churches are often accused of "living in the past," but if the truth were told, too many churches are simply "living in the present," and simultaneously wondering why there is no growth, no excitement, and no vision.

Not long ago I was consulting with one of our congregations, and made some recommendations on steps forward they needed to take.  My work with Baptist churches means that I don't have any final authority over the churches I serve, but I also figure they wouldn't be paying me if they didn't want my input from time to time. However, one particularly strong objection to my recommended changes was punctuated by the phrase, "besides, we are doing just fine as we are."

"That may be true," I replied, "but you are not doing just fine as you will be."

A church with 100 active members will always--ALWAYS be at around 100 members unless it begins living in the future, and as such, behaving as if it were at 200 or 300.  But that sort of behavior demands change that can be uncomfortable.

1. Governance.   Smaller churches can have monthly business meetings and discuss everything....and I do mean EVERYTHING.  I once sat through a meeting in which the church body had a 45 minute discussion about how to spend $100.  To their credit, they were also very kind and civil to one another while having this conversation, so I couldn't accuse them of being ungodly.  But I did come very close to offering to write a check if they would simply stop talking!

But once a church begins to grow, monthly gatherings where every member of the body has the opportunity to offer input become increasingly impractical.  In Baptist churches, this means that our congregationalism becomes less "democratic" and more representative.  And this may be the hardest thing to change because everyone wants to be heard!  Problem is, once a church gets to the 250 mark, its not possible for everyone to be heard any longer, and if you want to get there, you have to start behaving like you are already there!

2. Staffing.  Conventional wisdom where church staff are concerned is "we will hire them when we can afford them."  To be sure, I have sometimes consulted with churches that are "over-staffed" and did so with the false notion that simply filling a position would somehow create excitement and subsequent growth.  But hiring the right people will create growth.  Generally speaking, you shouldn't wait until you can afford them.  Instead, you should hire who you can't afford to lose, and then watch them earn their keep!

3. Budget.  The ministry budget of a church is the real statement of a church's core values, and without faith-filled and calculated risk playing a role in the budget process, churches will inevitably budget "in the present."  Instead of starting with "what we took in last year," churches should instead start with the financial necessities involved in meeting the needs of its community and the world.  Too many resources that could otherwise be invested in Kingdom advance stay in the hip pockets and purses of God's people simply because we fear dreaming big, and being straight with the church about what it will take financially to live that  dream!  We aren't "all about the money," but we are all about Jesus and His Kingdom, and church members should be challenged to give sacrificially based on a future vision.

Churches that grow and impact their communities and the world are churches that live in the future!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immigration and the Great Commission

"100 years ago we sent missionaries to the nations to look for cities.  Today you go to the cities and you find the nations."  -Ray Bakke

Today, President Obama is expected to reveal his plans for reforming our current immigration system--plans that most expect will be controversial.  If you want to stoke emotions and heat up a conversation,  you need only mention the subject of illegal immigration and step back.  The sparks are certain to fly!

In the wake of this latest round of tense discussion over this issue, the folks at Lifeway released a survey that shows pastors significantly support some form of immigration reform.  For many pastors, this is now no longer an impersonal issue, because many are starting to see the way it personally affects people they now know.  I've discussed at length before why I believe our current system demands significant reform, but regardless of your position on this issue, followers of Jesus should be responding to immigration first on the basis of our Kingdom calling.

The nations are quite literally next door.  In the last decade, the foreign-born population of the United States has grown by almost 9 million.  One of four children in our country has at least one parent who was not born here, and there are over 800,000 international students currently attending Universities and graduate schools in the United States.  Today, chances are when the subject of immigration is raised, most pastors now have at least one face and one name attached to the issue.  Wherever you are politically on this subject, if you are a follower of Jesus, you believe these people to be image-bearers of God that Jesus died to save.  We also believe that in the providence of God, these individuals have come to our shores and that like anyone else in our proximity, it is our responsibility to see that they hear of Jesus.

A friend shared recently of a young Pakistani man who came to the United States a few years back to study at a University in the upper midwest.  He came over with two suitcases full of hospitality gifts, as it is a custom in his country to present a gift of appreciation for anyone who invites you to their home.  Four years later, he completed his degree and returned to Pakistan--with both of those suitcases still full.

In four years, this young man had never been invited into an American home!

How many have come to our nation, and gone back to their own, without ever once hearing the Gospel?  For how many is this the reason because Christians were more concerned about their legal status than their eternal destiny?  Let's let the President, Congress, and INS answer for whether or not they are doing their job.  Followers of Jesus have a different one.

By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The nation’s Protestant senior pastors want the U.S. government to mix justice with mercy when it comes to immigration reform.
Most say it's the government’s job to stop people from entering the country illegally.
They also support reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
And they believe Christians should help immigrants, no matter what their legal status.
Those are among the findings of a new survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The survey was conducted prior to the mid-term elections.
Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said pastors don’t approve of illegal immigration. But they want to help illegal immigrants make things right.
“This is one of many cases in which Christians can look at those around them and say, ‘I don’t agree with what got you to this place in life, but I will love you while you are here,’” says McConnell.
Nearly 6 in 10 of Protestant senior pastors (58 percent) agree with the statement: “I am in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country illegally.” About a third (34 percent) disagree. Seven percent are not sure.
Most African-American pastors (80 percent) agree, as do a majority of white pastors (59 percent). Two-thirds (68 percent) of mainline pastors and more than half (54 percent) of evangelical pastors also favor a path to citizenship.
Pastors of mid-sized churches are more likely to agree than those from small churches. Two-thirds (66 percent) of pastors of churches with between 100 and 249 attenders agree. About half (54 percent) of pastors with less than 50 people in their congregation agree.  
Two-thirds (63 percent) of pastors under age 45 favor a pathway, as do a little over half (55 percent) of those ages 45-54.
Churches want to lend a hand
LifeWay Research also found pastors want to help their immigrant neighbors, no matter what their legal status.
Caring for immigrants can be “an opportunity to show people who Jesus is,” said McConnell.
About half (47 percent) of Protestant senior pastors say their church currently helps immigrants.
And most (79 percent) agree with the statement: “Christians have a responsibility to assist immigrants, even if they are in the country illegally.” One in 6 (17 percent) disagree.
More than three quarters of evangelical pastors (77 percent) and most mainline pastors (86 percent) agree. Most pastors under 45 (83 percent) and those in churches with 100 or more attenders (82 percent) agree.
The new study parallels the findings of a 2013 LifeWay Research survey. 
In that poll, 58 percent of pastors supported immigration reform. And about half (51 percent) said reform would help their church or denomination reach Hispanic Americans.
Other recent polling found that people in the pews have similar views to their pastors on the issue of immigration reform.
A 2014 Pew Research poll found that about two-third of Protestants (69 percent) support reform that would allow undocumented immigrant to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions. Three-quarters of Catholics (77 percent) also support reform.
Pew also found that less than half of Protestants (46 percent) say it is important that reform happens this year.
Pastors want the government to do its job
Protestant pastors of all kinds want the government to do a better job preventing people from entering the country illegally.
Almost 9 in 10 (87 percent) agree with the statement: “The U.S. government has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration.”
Most evangelical (91 percent) and mainline pastors (82 percent) agree. Pastors in the Midwest (38 percent) are less likely to agree than pastors in the South (89 percent) and West (90 percent). Pastors under age 45 are less likely to agree (82 percent).
“Justice, love, and mercy are all intrinsic to the Christian faith,” said McConnell. “It appears pastors see the need to end illegal immigration as an issue of justice. They also want to show love and mercy while the legal problem is addressed.”
# # # 
The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 11-18, 2014. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Public Square in a Multi-Faith World

On November 16 from 2 PM until 9 PM, I will be taking part in the Mid-Atlantic Summit on Faith and Culture in Glenwood, Maryland.  While this meeting doesn't technically "belong" to any particular group, various faith communities have come together to "co-host" an event that both reflects the multi-faith nature of the world we live in, and provides a public square platform on which each group can understand, and be understood.

The event will be hosted by Gethsemane Baptist Church, which is a part of the 560-plus member Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network of churches I'm honored to help lead.  Two other Baptist churches are also taking part, as well as the Oseh Shalom Synagogue, and two Turkish Muslim organizations.  The goal is to have honest discussion about the various world views that are currently shaping the globe.

So why would any follower of Jesus take part in something like this?  Aren't we "sending mixed messages" to the world?  Would Jesus and His disciples have even attended such a meeting, let alone helped put such a meeting together?

These are all good questions, and I completely understand why some of my fellow evangelicals would be suspicious of something like this.  We believe in one true God, who reveals Himself ultimately and finally in His one true Son, who is Himself revealed in one true authority source--the Bible.  We consequently believe that there is one path to that one true God.  So why would we take part in something that allows those who believe differently to sit on the platform with us?

Over the past few weeks I've fielded lots of questions from folks about why I"m part of something like this, and a few have been critical of what we are doing.  Those who have given me that heat have, for the most part, been respectful, concerned for me, and have assumed the best about my intentions, and I'm grateful for that. In fact, I welcome it, as the last thing I want to do is dishonor Jesus.  So I'm always seeking the Godly counsel of those I respect.   But a few have been quite caustic--suggesting that there is absolutely no place for a follower of Jesus in an environment like this.

Man, how I wish those people had actually read the book of Acts.

The early church won people to faith in Christ and planted churches rapidly--to the point that by the end of the first century, their faith had grown from a small band of around 120 people to have a significant presence across the known world.  And if we look closely enough at how this happened, we discover that each Gospel presence began in a "public square."  In the ancient world, the public square was a place where ideas were presented and considered--where the sort of interaction took place that resulted in clarity and understanding.  Os Guiness notes that "comparison and contrast are the mother of clarity."  That was true 2000 years ago, and its still true today.

Today, what is often described as the "public square" is nothing like that which existed in the first century.  I've often seen seminars, breakout sessions, and other gatherings that discussed "Christianity in the Public Square," and nearly every one of them described how our faith should intersect with the political powers that be in order to "win the culture war."  In many ways, this short-sighted approach has resulted in resorting to the same default tactics that are employed by those political powers, and in recent years, that has included a kind of polarization that never, ever leads to understanding, debate and genuine dialogue.  The result is that we talk "about" people in a way that demonstrates our ignorance in a quite embarrassing way.  You've heard the rumors, right?  Muslims are all terrorists.  Jews are secretly plotting to take over the world.  And of course, evangelical Christians are all bigoted homophobes who hate women, Mickey Mouse, and birth control pills.

An environment that produces this kind of fear and suspicion can never rightly be known as a "public square" equivalent to those which existed in the first century.  To be sure, there are significant differences between those of us who follow Jesus, and our Jewish and Muslim friends.  Basic logic should inform us all that we can't all be right, and that there are eternal consequences to what we believe.  This means that if I really love someone, I will be anxious to talk about those differences.  I believe that through Jesus' death and resurrection He has paid the price for our sins so that all who believe and bow before Him as God will have eternal life.  If you believe that too, how badly do you have to hate someone to isolate yourself from them and never enter an environment where you may get to share this message?

Truthfully, a genuine 21st century public square looks an awful lot like the kind of summit that is taking place on November 16.  Yet, it is precisely that environment that for many decades has been completely abandoned by evangelical Christians. I get that our message isn't popular and I believe Jesus when He said we would be hated for what we believe.  But as I survey the current landscape in the west, it appears to me that our disconnection from culture is less because we are hated, and more because we are disobedient.  Jesus told His disciples "As the Father has sent me, so also am I sending you." (John 20:21)  In other words we aren't just a sent people.  We are a people sent in precisely the same way our Savior was sent--in an incarnational way!

Understanding this will affect your view of the world He died to save in profound ways, and that in turn will affect the missiology of the western church in a way that will make us far more effective.  This Summit is certainly not the only way we engage our non-Christian friends, but if you are a follower of Jesus--especially one who lives in the Mid-Atlantic region and are wondering why you should come, here are just a few reasons:

1. We Don't Just Share Our Faith.  We Share Life.  Be they Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Jew, Hindu, or anything else, at the end of the day, people are people.  We all get up and look at the same sun in the morning.  We all deal with troubles, heartache, disappointment and loss, and we all have things we are passionate about and love.  We need to take an interest in each other that encompasses more than just what we believe.  My friends in other faiths understand that I want them to know Jesus as I know Him.  They know I believe that there is only one way to God, and many who have become dear friends also know why I believe that.  But they also know my wife and kids.  Our kids have played together.  We have shared meals together.  And we have talked about important life issues that connect inextricably to faith.

On occasion, those discussions have led to taking action together.  Baltimore is one of the top cities in the U.S. for human trafficking, so our respective organizations teamed up to lobby the judiciary committee of our state legislature to push an important anti-trafficking bill to the floor--and on to the Governor's desk for it to become law.  People's lives were made better because people of faith who have strong disagreement with each other about the next world worked together to make this one better.

One of these men is the Vice-President of a cultural exchange organization in Washington who has become a dear friend--to the extent that his family and mine will be spending part of the Thanksgiving holiday together.  If all I saw when I looked at him was the word "Muslim" he would have never become my friend.  He'd be my "project," and that's no way to treat another human being created in God's image.  Jesus was clear about the coming Kingdom, and His Kingship over it, but that message was presented while He simultaneously enveloped Himself in the lives of others.  We must do no less.

2. Encountering Adherents to Other Faiths Helps Us More Effectively Communicate Our Own. I studied Philosophy of Religion in seminary, but my faith in the existence of a personal God has been strengthened over the years less by books, and more by interaction with my atheist and agnostic friends.  My Muslim friends likewise, have made me a more convinced Trinitarian.  I'm quite sure that wasn't their objective, but when you encounter a world that doesn't share your faith, and you do so on a very personal level, it forces you to think beyond our basic "because the Bible says so" thinking to actually know why you believe as you do.  To be sure, my childlike faith in the Scriptures is still there.  You can blame those Baptists in that small South Carolina church I attended as a child for that!  God's Word is sufficient, and what it says, I believe.  But I must also obey its commands, which include being ready to offer a defense for the hope I have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  Nothing has helped me do this more effectively like my relationships with those in other faiths.

3. Our Call is Greater than to simply "bring the Gospel."  We must also bring the Kingdom.  Jesus put it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let your light so shine before men that they see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."  The goal here is clear: give people a tangible picture of what God is like so they will pursue Him personally, and through Christ bring Him the glory He deserves.  And that comes about by good works that people can "see."  That word in this context refers to more than just one's physical eyes.  It communicates a type of comprehension--a new view of God they never had before that comes as a result of watching followers of Jesus bring glimpses of His Kingdom.

I grew up hearing that the Kingdom of God was all future.  I was taught we didn't need to worry about the Kingdom.  We just needed to get as many people saved as possible before the end came, and God would bring that future Kingdom in His own way.  In 22 years of ministry I've seen that theological approach produce some very harmful consequences to our clear mission.  Personally, I'm still premilennial.  But as I read the New Testament, it becomes clear that the Kingdom of God isn't merely future.  It's also right here, right now.  It is among us.  It is within us.  And though I don't believe its final consummation will be realized until we literally see Jesus, He is still Lord over the whole earth and every part of it.  Right here, right now!

As followers of Jesus, we give people a view of that Kingdom when we build relationships with those very different from us, and share the Gospel within the context of those unconditional friendships.  People see the Kingdom of God when Christians relieve poverty, contend for justice, adopt orphans, set captives free, build schools and hospitals (and not just the kind where only our own tribe is welcome!), and even take out our neighbors trash!  All of this starts with the building of relationships.  And meetings like this one are a great place to get that started.

4. Understanding is essential for effective proclamation.   Why would we want to hear from Muslims?  We can know what they believe by simply reading the Koran, right?  Wrong!  Personally, I've never found lecturing someone about what they "really" believe to be helpful to a conversation.  I may think they are wrong.  I may see inconsistencies between what someone tells me they believe compared to what I have read in their authority source.  But if I want to interact with others, I have to deal with them as they come to me, and learn directly from them why they believe what they believe. Jesus didn't say "If you tear down and trash other religions, I will draw all people to myself!"  What John 12:32 actually says is "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself!"  At the end of the day, only one question matters, and only one question has eternal consequences:  Who is Jesus?  Getting to that question, and earning an audience that allows me to answer it in confident humility requires listening and understanding.  I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has no equal.  So why on earth would I be afraid of bringing it with me to a platform that involves the exchange of ideas?  Best I can tell, that's exactly what was going on in Acts 17.

This Sunday, the world comes together at a small Baptist church in Glenwood Maryland.  There will be food, childcare, and the opportunity to interact with people created in the image of God--people we believe Jesus died to save.  I hope you will join us!  And currently, there is still more room, so register here:

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

On Pastors, Politicians, and Political Endorsements: An Election Day Reminder

Dave Miller is a fellow-pastor, Administrator of, and over the years has become a friend.  Below is a post from him about why he refuses to endorse candidates for political office.  I don't always agree with Dave, and we often will even have differences of opinion where political solutions are concerned, but I share his sentiment below that, while the government has no place telling pastors what they can and cannot say, the better part of wisdom would suggest that we not use a pulpit meant to proclaim the Word of God to endorse the plans of men.  The following post is placed here with his permission.  Enjoy!  Oh, and if you have informed yourself on the candidates and issues, be sure to vote today.  If you are a follower of Jesus, this isn't your "right."  It's your solemn duty.

Why I Don’t Endorse Candidates from the Pulpit 

There is a movement out there calling on pastors to endorse candidates for political office from the pulpit. I sympathize with the aims of this group. They are trying to make a statement to the government and to the IRS that the pulpit should remain free from government intrusion. The IRS, after getting spanked a few times recently for politically-motivated actions against conservatives, is refusing to take the bait. They have not stepped up enforcement against any of those pastors who have made this act of protest.
It makes no difference to me. I have never endorsed a candidate for public office from the pulpit and do not intend to do so in the future. It is not the threat of government penalty that motivates me. Honestly, how slow would things have to be in the USA for the government to care about what happens in small to medium sized church in Sioux City, IA? I'm guessing they've got bigger fish to fry. Megachurch pastors like Bart Barber and Alan Cross may have something to worry about, but not me and my church.
But I'm still not planning to endorse a candidate. There are two primary reasons for that.
1) I've been too often disappointed by candidates for office. I remember hearing the personal testimony of a candidate for office and thinking, "Wow, this guy is amazing." I voted for him. Suffice it to say that I was not as impressed with his performance in office as I was in his candidacy for that office. How many times have "family values" candidates (successful or not) been caught living private lives that didn't match their public stands - engaging in affairs, hiring prostitutes, misappropriating money, or simply engaging in stupidity.
I've been more tempted toward negative endorsements - haven't done it, but I've been tempted. There are certain candidates whose views on issues related to life (abortion, etc) and morality place them outside the boundaries of Christian support, in my opinion. But a negative endorsement of one candidate is essentially an endorsement of another. With every fiber of my being, I wanted President Obama to be defeated for a second term. But to give him a negative endorsement (disdorsement?) would have been to endorse Mitt Romney, something I would never do behind the pulpit of my church. I (held my nose and) voted Romney, and I think he'd have done a better job than Mr. Obama, but that is not something I'm going to say in the pulpit.
2) I am in the pulpit to endorse one office holder - the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus died and rose again that he might be Lord of all (Romans 14:9). It is the pastor's duty to endorse Christ (the one who will never disappoint!) and to make his name known. I will preach the gospel. I will speak to moral issues.
But I just don't see how endorsing a candidate for office is part of my job as a pastor. I am a loyal, patriotic American - a yankee-doodle dandy. But when I stand in the pulpit, I'm an ambassador of Christ's kingdom.
Part of me would enjoy tweaking the IRS and joining this movement. And, I have strong political opinions that I will exercise tomorrow. But when I stand in the pulpit, I need to remember  where my most important citizenship is.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Legacy of Truth: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

I walk past this Bible every day that I go to my office, as
it is housed at the Baptist Mission Resource Center in
Columbia, Maryland.  Its a 17th century copy of Luther's
translation of the Bible into the German language
Tonight, I will gather my kids--who will be dressed as Dr. Who, a "Minecraft" character, and a ballet dancer respectively--and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides.  But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 497 years ago on this very day.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medeival Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be considered historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Schaefer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly and oppressive actions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actions flow from our true beliefs.  Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Theology Thursday: A Little Heresy Goes a Long way

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  -Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV

As King Solomon wisely stated, some things never change, and according to a new survey conducted by Ligonier Ministries, old heresies may be the greatest proof that old habits--and old ideas--die hard.

Conducted recently by Ligonier, and reported on two days ago by Bob Smietana of Lifeway Research, the study reveals "the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation," says Stephen Nichols, Chief Academic Officer at Ligonier.

You can find the full article below, and the accompanying piece from Christianity Today can be accessed here.

Here is my big idea on this Theology Thursday:  Biblical Doctrine, like set of dominoes, operates in a system of interdependence.  When you push one to the side, it affects all the others.  Casual observation of what people in American evangelical churches are saying about the trinity, the person of Jesus, and the exclusivity of salvation explain the cultural "ripple effect"that has resulted in more "ground level" heresy that we witness on a more day to day basis.

We may sometimes wonder how, for example, more progressive evangelicals could possibly arrive at certain conclusions about morality, sexuality, and evangelism, or have such anemic, short-sighted views of issues like social justice.  At least part of the answer must lie in the statistics we see in these two articles--which also polled more conservative evangelical churches.  Even in conservative churches, heresy is present, even if more silent.  Though the discussions we are having in our current cultural environment seem new, they are motivated by heretical ideas that are, in fact, as old as Christendom itself.

When you get the doctrine of God wrong, everything else just goes down hill from there!

Studies like these are a clarion call for pastors to emphasize the importance of sound doctrine in their churches, and to do so in a way that clearly demonstrates the practical applications and consequences of theology.  The trinity is far from an abstract issue that doesn't affect me personally.  Without it, there is no Gospel!

I have often used this venue to advocate for stronger emphasis in expository preaching, and connecting practical "felt needs" to something deeper and more eternally profound than the needs themselves.  In short, evangelical pulpits need to anchor this world with the next one, and demonstrate in practical ways the central role of sound doctrine in making that connection.

But based on the results of this survey, we have a tall order ahead of us!

By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn. Most Americans believe in heaven, hell, and a few old-fashioned heresies.  
Americans disagree about mixing religion and politics and about the Bible. And few pay much heed to their pastor’s sermons or see themselves as sinners.

Those are among the findings of a new study of American views about Christian theology from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The online survey of 3,000 Americans was commissioned by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries. Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, says the study was intended to “take the temperature of America’s theological health.”

Ligonier founder and chairman, R.C. Sproul, says, “What comes screaming through this survey is the pervasive influence of humanism.” Researchers asked 43 questions about faith, covering topics from sin and salvation to the Bible and the afterlife. They wanted to know how people in the pews—and people on the street—understand theology.

Many Americans get the basics right, but they’re often fuzzy on the details, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “People like to believe in a generic Christian-ish god with cafeteria doctrines,” says Stetzer. “However, when we asked about harder beliefs—things that the church has and still considers orthodoxy—the numbers shift.”

Among the study’s findings:

Americans say heaven is a real place. But they disagree about who gets in.
Two thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe heaven is a real place. That includes, following standard demographic categories, 9 in 10 Black Protestants (88 percent) and evangelicals (90 percent), three quarters of Catholics (75 percent) as well as a third of non-Christians (37 percent).

Just under half of Americans (45 percent) say there are many ways to heaven—which conflicts with traditional views about salvation being linked to faith in Jesus.

Catholics (67 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are most likely to say heaven’s gates are wide open with many ways in. Evangelicals (19 percent) and Black Protestants (33 percent) are more skeptical.
About half of Americans (53 percent) say salvation is in Christ alone. Four in 10 (41 percent) say people who have never heard of Jesus can still get into heaven. And 3 in 10 (30 percent) say people will have a chance to follow God after they die.

Hell is a real place, too. But you have to be really bad to go there.
About 6 in 10 Americans (61 percent) say hell is a real place. Black Protestants (86 percent) and Evangelicals (87 percent) are most likely to say hell is real. Catholics (66 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are less convinced.

Overall, Americans don't seem too worried about sin or being sent to hell. Two-thirds (67 percent) say most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little bit—an optimistic view of human nature at odds with traditional teaching about human sin.

Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (18 percent) say even small sins should lead to damnation, while about half (55 percent) say God has a wrathful side.

When it comes to faith, Americans like a do-it-yourself approach.

Most Americans (71 percent), and in particular Black Protestants (82 percent) and Catholics (87 percent), say people must contribute some effort toward their own salvation. Two thirds (64 percent) say in order to find peace with God, people have to take the first step, and then God responds to them with grace. 

That sounds right to many people, says Stetzer, especially in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture. But it doesn’t reflect the Christian idea that faith is a response to God’s grace.  

Many Americans also don't mind being disconnected from a local church. About half (52 percent) say worshiping alone or with family is as good as going to church.

Almost all (82 percent) say their local church has no authority to “declare that I am not a Christian.” More than half (56 percent) believe their pastor’s sermons have no authority in their life, while slightly less than half (45 percent) say the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose.

Americans believe in the Trinity. But the details don’t reflect traditional views of orthodoxy.

About 7 in 10 (71 percent) Americans believe in the Trinity. That’s the idea that one God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But few—even those in evangelical denominations—seem to grasp the details of how Christians have historically taught the Trinity. More than half of evangelicals (59 percent), for example, say the Holy Spirit is a force – not a personal being. Ten percent are not sure, while 31 percent agree the Spirit is a person. Overall, two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say the Holy Spirit is a force.

More than 1 in 7 Americans (15 percent) say the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. A third (33 percent) believe God the Father is more divine than Jesus. One in 5 (19 percent) say Jesus was the first creature made by God. All of those run counter to Christian doctrine as found in historic creeds of the Church.

Some Americans like the Bible. Others are skeptical.

About half of Americans (48 percent) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Four in 10 (43 percent) say the Bible is 100 percent accurate, while a similar share of Americans (41 percent) say it’s helpful but not literally true.  
Evangelicals (76 percent) and Black Protestants (67 percent) are most likely to say the Bible is accurate. Mainline Protestants (50 percent) and Catholics (49 percent) lean toward the Bible being helpful but not literally true.
The Bible is not the only religious text Americans disagree on. About half (54 percent) disagree when asked if the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God. About 10 percent say the Book of Mormon was revealed by God, while another 36 percent say they are not sure.

Americans disagree about sex, God and politics.

About 4 in 10 (42 percent) Americans—and more than half (55 percent) of non-Christians—say churches should remain silent about politics.

Among Christian groups, Catholics (47 percent) and Mainline Protestants (44 percent) want less politics in church. Black Protestants (31 percent) and Evangelicals (26 percent) are less likely to want their church to skip politics.

Less than half (48 percent) of Americans say sex outside of marriage is a sin. Christian groups are split on the topic. Mainline Protestants (44 percent) and Catholics (40 percent) don’t see sex outside of marriage as sinful. Three quarters of Black Protestants (74 percent) and evangelicals (76 percent) believe it is.

The study’s overall results, Nichols says, show churches have a lot of work to do. “This study demonstrates the stunning gap in theological awareness throughout our nation, in our neighborhoods, and even in the seat next to us at church,” Nichols says.

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.

A demographically balanced online panel was used for interviewing American adults. Three thousand surveys were completed February 25 – March 5, 2014. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the online panel does not exceed +1.8%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Slight weights were used to balance religion and gender and remove constant raters.