Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween, Anfechtung, and the Protestant Reformation

"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scripture, or from plain and clear reason and arguments, I cannot and will not recant. To go against conscience is neither right, nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!" -Martin Luther

Tomorrow evening, Amy and I will join other parents who walk their children around a mall, or church parking lot, or to neighbors houses, in the effort to fill their Halloween bags with candy. Non-profit organizations all over the country will rake in the money by hosting haunted houses and scaring the living daylights out of people who, ironically enough, are paying big money to have the daylights scared out of them.

As is usually the case on October 31, churches are taking advantage of the season by sponsoring “trunk or treat” outreach projects, or taking their youth through a “judgment house.” I find it strange that at this time of year, the church pays so much attention to a holiday that has nothing to do with its history and heritage, and so little attention to the historical event that continues to define us to this day. 494 years ago today, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a 95-point statement of concern to the door of a church in Wittenburg Germany. This single gesture ignited a movement that resulted in the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, the empowerment of the laity, the uncovering of the true church, and probably most important, the escape from something more terrifying than anything our imaginations could invent on Halloween.

Luther had a word for this terror. He called it Anfechtung. Although there is no English word that corresponds exactly to the German phrase, we know that Luther was expressing the deepest kind of darkness that one experiences when his worst moments of terror, depression, doubt and despair combine. Born in 1483, young Luther aspired to practice law, but in 1505 after a near-death experience, he fled to a monastery, and would spend the next decade struggling with doubt about the condition of his own soul.

Living under the constant fear of God’s judgment caused Luther to confess with regularity the slightest offense to his spiritual guide, Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz, who served as the chaplain of the University of Wittenburg where Luther taught Theology, eventually grew tired of Luther’s perpetual appeals for forgiveness and said to him “God is not mad at you. You are mad at God.” Eventually, Luther would come to agree with Staupitz’ assessment. Indeed, Luther admitted later on that he in fact hated God, and came to realize shortly afterward that this hatred was but one part of a fallen will that sought to rebel against the Creator.

Ironically, it was through his assignment teaching Psalms and Galatians that Luther finally began to develop a different picture of God. He discovered that Jesus, in dying on the cross, took our iniquity on Himself, and subsequently, the penalty for such iniquity. In short, Christ took our anfechtung, that terror of God's wrath which the human soul rightly dreads. But it was a prior trip to Rome coupled with his studies in the Scriptures that brought Martin Luther to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was not interested in taking away anfechtung, but instead profiting from it!

Luther had traveled to Rome because he wanted to see Roman Catholicism at its best. What he found was a cultic center of medevial ecclesiastical power that disappointed him greatly. The selling of “indulgences,” or offerings by which one could supposedly free himself and others from purgatory, found its way to Wittenburg in 1517 by way of the charismatic Johann Tetzel. Commissioned by the Pope himself to finance the building of St. Peter’s Bascillica in Rome, Tetzel stood in the square of the city and with confidence offered his hearers the opportunity to free themselves and their relatives from purgatory, from damnation . . .from anfechtung. His words, while eloquent, stirred anger in Luther:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!

At the end of that same month, October 31, 1517, Luther responded to Tetzel’s message with his 95 theses, and the course was set for an ecclesiastical tidal wave that would eventually be called the Protestant Reformation. Lasting more than three generations, this ecclesiological shift has given us the Scriptures in the language of the people, a theologically informed laity, freedom of religion, and most importantly, the recovery of the Biblical Gospel. Though it was not his original intent to separate from Rome, Luther’s subsequent studies brought him to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism proclaimed a false Gospel.

Likewise, Protestants today rightly deny the existence of a priestly class. We rightfully challenge the legitimacy of a papal office, and contend that the existence of the papacy itself only illustrates the confusion that is propogated when church councils and tradition are seen to carry authority equal to the Scriptures themselves. We rightfully declare that salvation comes not by the imposed sacramental “works” of the church, but instead by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!

Modern Protestantism owes its affirmation of sola Scriptura, sola Christo, sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Deo Gloria to the legacy left us by Martin Luther. But such theological axioms by themselves aren’t much of a legacy, unless they demonstrate efficacy in removing the anfechtung from which Luther so desperately wanted deliverance.

The dread Luther felt prior to his conversion was legitimate, warranted, and deserved. Human beings are born separated from God, become actual transgressors from the moment we are volitionally able to choose, and are as a result the enemies of our Creator. Being the enemy of the One who just gave you the last breath you took is certainly a position in which one should rightfully feel dread. But as Luther discovered, through the substitutionary death of Christ, God has become “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21)

While the masses may spend October 31 taking in the “Saw” trilogy, or watching old “Nightmare on Elm Street” flicks on DVD, followers of Christ should recognize that for the church, October 31 represents much more than fear. To the contrary, this day represents the beginning of a young Monk’s discovery that God, by himself, without human effort, takes away sin, and the appropriate fear of God’s judgment that accompanies such sin.

Halloween is known by our culture as a time to be filled with fear, with dread . . .with anfechtung. But the legacy left us by men like Luther and those who followed serve to remind us every October 31 that God has not given us a spirit of fear! Let's spend this October 31 thanking God for the recovery of the Gospel that made our conversion, and the removal of our fears, possible.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Five-Fold Strategy Guaranteed to Kill Your Church

The following is based in experiences I've had with churches I've consulted with over my nearly 20 years of service in ministry. Over that time, I have become convinced that we have perfected the pathology by which we can accelerate the decline and eventual demise of a local church. I've seen the following happen in different orders, with different emphases, and I can guarantee that if you implement these five things, you will be pushing the nuclear button on your congregation. I've seen it happen enough times, and western evangelicalism has developed habits that have perfected this approach.

1. Perpetually send an unclear sound. Make sure that key leaders remain clueless, and divided, when it comes to the identity, purpose, vision, and direction of the church. Speak in spiritual euphemisms that seem holy, like "we just want to love Jesus and each other," or "we just want to follow the Bible." These sorts of nebulous statements, absent of any contextual application, are a way to sound thoroughly Biblical without actually being Biblical. Furthermore, they are the perfect way to stay adrift in a sea of irrelevance, and never identify who God created your local church to be, and what He wants her to do. The result, of course, is that the church will do nothing.

2. Invest More Time in Needy People than in Leaders. You know the old saying; "The squeaky wheel gets the most grease." In many local churches, those who "squeak" the loudest seem to get all the grease! And the grand mistake of church leaders is to give inordinate attention to the loudest and most needy people in the congregation, rather than invest in those God has gifted to lead the church. This sets up an environment in which people learn that the most attention will always be paid to the loudest complainers. And this is precisely the kind of environment that will suck the life out of any real leader--or inadvertently push leaders right out the door.

3. Try to Please Everybody. Almost without exception, in every church I've ever consulted with that is in decline, decisions are never executed without the final question of "who will be upset by this?" Inevitably, good decisions are always sabotaged by someone suggesting that "doing this might really upset . . .[fill in the name of your preferred group.]" In fact, the one way to ensure that #1 above takes place, is to assume this posture, because you can't make a clear decision about anything if the number one concern is always about someone not being pleased. Guess what? THERE IS NO SIGNIFICANT DECISION THAT WILL EVER BE MADE IN A CHURCH THAT MAKES EVERYBODY HAPPY! This means of course, that if you are trying to please everybody with decision and direction, you will never make a substantive decision, and you will never have clear direction. Atrophy is the inevitable result, because in the attempt to please everybody, you have displeased God.

4. Refuse to Confront Troublemakers. Principled dissent is one thing. Saboteurs are an entirely different matter and in too many churches, they are allowed to run free and do what they please, no matter the negative impact they have on the rest of the body. They may come in the form of the lady who "holds back" her tithe because she doesn't like a decision that was reached. They may come in the form of the guy who presumes the right to "pull the e-brake" on anything church leaders have decided on that he doesn't agree with. It may come in the form of those who use the phone or internet as a corridor for gossip to undermine the forward progress of the church.

Strong leadership is needed in these situations. The gossip has to be called out and confronted. The self-proclaimed "devil's advocate" with his hand on the e-brake needs to be told that the church isn't interested in Satan's opinion. And the lady who steals from God needs to be reminded that she isn't just "punishing the leadership," she is breaking her covenant promise to those in her church family, and to her God. Without strong leaders to confront such nonsense, troublemakers will be free to throw additional anchors over the side of their drifting ship to ensure that it goes precisely nowhere.

5. Seek to Live in the Past. Churches actually do this in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is to be highly suspicious of any sort of change. Music styles, architecture, structural paradigms, and cultural engagement in general are all evolving concepts, and if the church does not reflect the culture in which it finds itself in all these areas, the result is far worse than simply an unclear Gospel. In the end, the church may lose the Gospel altogether, because they have identified its delivery with certain cultural accutrements rather than a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

But there is more than one way to live in the past. As with any social system, churches over time develop corporate patterns of behavior, and some of these patterns are not healthy. If they are not repented of and clearly dealt with, they become the growing snowball that leads the church in one direction; downhill!

One thing is for sure though. If you want to ensure that you don't exist in the future, then just refuse to think about it.

Roughly 3500 churches in North America close their doors for good each and every year. The vast majority of those I've seen close with my own eyes did so by following the strategy I've outlined above. Many of them were not even aware of what they were doing, and when their subconsiceous path was pointed out, they simply chose to deny it . . .and keep dying!

So if you are following the principles above, and refuse to repent, I can guarantee that your church will eventually be included in that number, and you should be!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Doesn't Matter . . .and Why it Does.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past five years and aren't already aware of it, one of the Republican candidates for President is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yep, Mitt Romney is Mormon, and that fact has quite a few in the evangelical community really upset. Romney's Mormonism has also brought out others on the Republican side who simply don't understand why anyone should be so upset, because they see little if any difference between Mormonism and Christianity.

Both groups have it wrong.

Of course, Romney's religious views became an issue in the last election cycle as well, and many pundits believe it could have played a role in his primary defeat at the hands of Arizona Senator John McCain. ( I wrote about this issue here.)But this time around, the issue rose again after Texas Governor Rick Perry was criticized for his association with Pastor Robert Jeffress, who unequivocally refered to Mormonism as a "cult." To be sure, many evangelical Christians agree with Pastor Jeffress that Romney should not be a candidate for President because he is Mormon. I just don't happen to be one of them.

For one thing, Article VI of the US Constitution clearly says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Needless to say, I think the office of President fits this description.

Additionally, one need not be an evangelical Christian in order to be an effective leader. Conversely, just because someone claims to be evangelical does not mean they are capable of leading a nation. Martin Luther expressed this sentiment best almost 400 years ago when he claimed "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."

With all this in view, I'm disturbed to find many of my fellow evangelicals repulsed at a Presidential canddiate merely because of the religion with which he is associated. Mitt Romney's close association with the LDS church has little relevance to how well equipped he may be to defend our country against foreign and domestic enemies, or write and pass a cogent and effective energy policy, or get our struggling economy back on track. So I am disturbed that so many would forget the lessons we learned from John F. Kennedy's presidency almost a half century ago, and allow a man's religion to be the single issue that turns them against him.

Still, as disturbed as I am by this angst against a Mormon candidate, the response by Romney supporters who claim to be evangelical Christians disturbs me more.

A Baltimore Sun article on Sunday stated that Perry's campaign, in response to Pastor Jeffrees' statements "distanced itself from [his] remarks." And how did the Texas governor, who is himself a vocal evangelical Christian, "distance" himself? By explicitly stating that "Mormonism is not a cult."

Salt Lake City, we have a problem!

That problem, of course, is that Mormonism has about as much in common with historic, orthodox Christianity as does Hinduism. In one sense, evangelicals might actually have more in common with Hindus, since Hindus don't worship as many gods as the Mormons do. If that sounds like an over-the-top statement, consider briefly the origins and theology of "Latter Day Saint Christianity."

Founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormonism is based on three extra-Biblical sources, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, all of which were authored by Smith. In particular, the Book of Mormon is based on a series of "visions" given a 14-year-old Smith by an angel named Moroni. Although there is precisely zero archeological or historical evidence for this claim, Mormons cling tightly to the belief that in the book of Mormon, Smith answered two questions that were at the forefront of 19th century American life: Which of all the Christian denominations is correct, and what is the origin of the Native Americans?

During his encounter with Moroni at his family farm in Palmyra, New York, Smith answered the first question by saying of the various denominational expressions of the Christian church that "they are all wrong, and their creeds are an abomination in God's sight." As a result of this experience, Smith saw himself as one called to restore "true Christianity" to the earth. But the "Christianity" he subsequently spread was very odd, to say the least.

Where God is concerned, Smith taught that our Creator was no more than a highly exalted man. "As man is," Smith claimed, "God once was; as God is, man may become." In essence, Smith taught that God was not God from eternity past, but instead had advanced himself to the state of deity, and created human beings to follow after this pattern. In the face of texts like John 4:24, Mormonism teaches that God has flesh and bones, just like His creation, and that human beings, through "eternal marriage," can live forever in dominion over their own world, as gods over their own planets. Though they deny it today, it was Brigham Young himself who advocated the worship of and prayer to Adam as a god.

The tricky part of all this, of course, is that Mormons utilize much of the same Biblical language that their evangelical counterparts are familiar with. They speak freely of Jesus, salvation, and even atonement. But while their vocabulary sounds identical to ours, their dictionary gives very different definitions of those terms.

To have salvation, for example, one must not only believe in Jesus (who is not God, but instead the first "spirit baby" of God the Father and Mary), but must also submit to Mormon baptism, receive the ordinances of the temple, and perform good works. Faithfulness to these teachings of course, results in "becoming as God is."

Much more could be said here, but suffice it to say that when one looks at the totality of Mormon beliefs, it is clear that they do not embrace a Biblical view of any major Christian doctrine and therefore, they cannot be counted as "Christian."

Such a statement is a hard pill to swallow when one looks at the way 21st century Mormonism has reinvented itself in the eyes of the public. They are experts in public relations, and have successfully presented themselves as mainstream. Popular business leaders like Steven Covey and Bill Marriott, and powerful politicians like Orrin Hatch are openly Mormon, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has become an American institution, having been invited to perform at Presidential inaugurations. Brigham Young University is today the largest private institution of higher education in America, with a student body of more than 30,000. Moreover, the church has grown to over 10 million faithful followers in more than 150 countries. They certainly don't look like a cult.

Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. The former Massachussets Governor is seeking the Republican nomination for President, and in the process, is trying to assure the American people that his membership in the Mormon church will not negatively affect his performance as President. I believe him. But such is not the same as saying that I believe in Mormonism, and the call for "tolerance" that minimizes these differences and as a result compromises the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ must be answered loudly and clearly.

A Politico article released just today quotes Romney, alongside popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, calling on Governor Perry to "repudiate" the remarks of Pastor Jeffrees and deny that Mormonism is, in fact, a cult. In other words, if Governor Perry desires to be "tolerant," he must turn his back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This isn't tolerance. It is pure insanity!

Once upon a time, "tolerance" was what helped adherents of various faiths to coexist with each other. It was rooted in mutual respect, and grounded in the firm belief that "forced conversion" is in fact, no conversion at all. Such is exactly the kind of tolerance that forms the root of Article VI of our Constitution. It is why a person's religious beliefs should not be a litmus test for the office of President, or for any other office at the federal level.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of "tolerance" that is being promoted by Governors Romney and Christie. The "tolerance" they speak of is one in which major differences about God, Jesus, Salvation, heaven, hell, and all other things of eternal importance should be minimized, or altogether erased. Yet, no honest person who examines the clear teachings of Mormonism can come to the conclusion that it is compatible in any way with the teachings of Jesus. Romney has the Constitution, Article VI, to protect him from religious discrimination. Allowing him to hijack Christianity in the process is not only unneccesary but dangerous.

Luther was right. A wise Turk makes a better leader than a foolish Christian. What the Romney campaign is ignoring however, is that a Turk is still a Turk. The fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon does not, in itself, disqualify him from holding the office of President. It does, however, mean that he cannot accurately be called "Christian." If these distinctions cannot be adequately maintained, then ardent evangelicals may deny what our Constitution clearly states. But if the "tolerance" we must have is defined in the way Christie and Romney define it, we may lose Biblical Christianity altogether.