Pilgrims in Babylon

In the very helpful book, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing, authors Philip Kenneson and James Street remind us, "If the Church's mission is to announce the erupting reign of God, and to do so by being sign, foretaste, and herald of that kingdom, then it will not be able to do that if it expunges all its oddness in the name of building bridges to unbelievers" (145).  The overwhelming biblical witness is that we are pilgrims in Babylon (John 18:36; 1 Peter 2:9-11).  That is, we belong ultimately to another king, another kingdom, another city, another home.  Therefore, if nothing is odd or foreign or strange or new or counter-cultural within our lives or our churches, then how can we possibly point lost souls to God's kingdom (which is truly odd, foreign, strange, new, and counter-cultural when compared to the world's kingdoms)?  As Jesus reminds us, we are not of this world (John 17:14-16), we therefore don't look like the world when we gather for worship and when we live our lives as pilgrims.

In the midst of all of our striving to be relevant, perhaps we need to learn anew a lesson from some of the earliest Christians.  According to one account from the late second century, the early Christian's relevance, apologetic, and cultural influence was grounded primarily in his odd, foreign, strange, new, and counter-cultural way of life.  After calling Christians a "new race of men," the ancient text of The Epistle to Diognetus highlights the "remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship."

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom.  For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style.  This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do.  But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.  They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland  is foreign.  They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring.  They share their food but not their wives.  They are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh."  They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.  They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.  They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.  They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life.  They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything.  They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated.  They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect.  When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.  By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility (quoted from The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd edition, p. 299).

Of the many things that stand out in this early defense of Christianity, perhaps the most significant is the apparent comfort these first Christians had at being foreigners and aliens, even in their own countries.  They knew they were pilgrims in Babylon.  Their lives showed it.  Their witness was strengthened by it.  They were not hip and relevant, they did not have a seat at the cultural table of their day, nor were they fashionable and respected.  But they were faithful.  They loved their God and their neighbor.  And as strange as this new race of men was to the world, they continued to grow and thrive under the blessings of God.

Youth Group Madness

Next month our small groups will begin studying "Christianity in an Age of Terrorism," by Gene Edward Veith.  I'm looking forward to the study and to Veith's keen insights to the issues at hand.  Hope you can make it. Here is a smaller dose of Veith from his blog.  His post, "Youth Group Madness" is worth the read (if you can stomach it - it describes some pretty gross youth activities).  If you can't stomach it, his closing words are right on target:

Teenagers get enough entertainment, psychology, and hedonism from their culture. They don’t need it from their church. What they need—and often yearn for—is God’s Word, catechesis, and spiritual formation.

The Church, the State, and Proposition 8

One of the great questions for the Church in our day is how we are to handle questions of Christianity and politics.  Last Sunday morning we sought to apply God's wisdom to the political discussion surrounding Proposition 8 and the debate over same-sex marriage.  We saw, of course, that God's wisdom stands opposed to the world's wisdom, and we recognized that even our own wisdom on this issue can stand against God's wisdom if we are not seeking to thoroughly submit our minds to God's Word.  Thus, we must have a prophetic voice in our culture, speaking God's Word boldly and openly, but we must be humble prophets, careful to reject all hints of our own wisdom that stand in contrast to God's Word.  So, in the case of Proposition 8, we acknowledge the sinful nature of same-sex marriage (per 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10), but we also acknowledge God's hand in giving men and women over to their sin.  As Paul writes,  "Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done" (Rom. 1:28).  Perhaps here it is best for our own "prophetic" voice to stand in silent awe of God's unsearchable wisdom as he removes barriers and gives sinners over to their sin. Of course, the greater political question remains, how does Christ's Church relate to the everyday political activities of our world?  What does it look like for the Church generally to live by God's wisdom, and reject the world's wisdom, when it comes to the political sphere?  On these questions we benefit greatly from Edmund Clowney's powerful exposition on the nature and role of the church in this world.  Applying God's wisdom from biblical passages such as Mark 12:13-17; Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1-6, Clowney writes:

Since democracy gives its citizens a voice in government, Christians have the responsibility of their privilege to participate.  There is every reason for the general office of the church ('laity') to consult together on political issues.  So, too, the special officers of the church must provide biblical guidance and wisdom to assist in Christian analysis of political questions.  The church has a prophetic role to perceive and expose ethical questions that underlie political issues.  Where God has spoken in condemning sin... the church cannot be silent....
Yet Christian involvement in political life does not cancel out the spiritual form of Christ's kingdom.  Calling the state to righteousness does not mean calling it to promote the gospel with political power or to usher in the last judgment with the sword.  Christians are not free to form an exclusively Christian political party that seeks to exercise power in the name of Christ.  That would identify Christ's cause with one of the kingdoms of this world.  Political action on the part of Christians must always be undertaken in concert with others who seek the same immediate objectives.  Such objectives, promoting life, liberty and the restraint of violence, are the proper goals of civil government.  They are not the goals of faith and holiness that Christ appointed for his kingdom....

The patriotism is misguided that sees the United States or the United Kingdom as a Christian nation composed of God's elect and entitled to his favor and blessing.  Such a claim is patently false, and illegitimate even as an ideal.  Christ's kingdom is not typical and preparatory, like the kingdom of Israel; it is realized and ultimate.  All that is less than loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and one's neighbor as one's self, is totally excluded by the new law of love.  That is why the ultimate enforcement of Christ's law must be brought about, not by political power, but by his own judgment at his appearing, and by the total transformation that will make his bride spotless for the wedding feast of glory....

We not only may, but must co-operate with other citizens when we seek to use the levers of political power.  We do so, not as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, but of an earthly nation.  Christians may not band together in the name of Christ to use the political weapons of the world to fight the spiritual battle of the kingdom.  There is a love of divine benevolence that sends rain on the just and unjust, and there is a duty for Christians citizens to show that love to others.  Yet the line must be drawn between the ministry of mercy that is part of the mission of the church, and the reach for political power that would destroy the church by politicizing it (selected passages from  The Church, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995, pp. 192-197).

If there are blessings to be had through the judicial ruling on Proposition 8, it may be that the chief blessing for Christ's Church is the profound reminder that Christ's kingdom is most definitely not "of this world" (John 18:36).  Through this ruling a more clear line between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world has been drawn, and although we lament any judicial ruling or political action in support of same-sex marriage, we do not despair.  We belong ultimately to a greater kingdom, a kingdom that will one day triumph over all others.  If today we feel a little less at home in this world we should at least thank God for the reminder that this world is not our home.

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:18-21).

Waiting with you for Jesus,

Pastor Aaron

Preaching As Though We Had Enemies

Here are some excerpts by an article by Stanley Hauerwas on "Preaching As Though We Had Enemies":

  • Christianity, as the illumination of the human condition, is not a Christianity at war with the world....  Psalms such as Psalm 109, which ask God to destroy our enemies and their children, can appear only as embarrassing holdovers of "primitive" religious beliefs.  Equally problematic are apocalyptic texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle.... Most of us do not go to church because we are seeking a safe haven from our enemies; we go to church to be assured we have no enemies.  Accordingly, we expect our ministers to exemplify the same kind of bureaucratic mentality so characteristic of modern organizational behavior and politics....  The ministry seems captured in our time by people who are desperately afraid they might actually be caught with a conviction at some point in their ministry that might curtail future ambition.  They therefore seek to "manage" their congregations by specializing in the politics of agreement by always being agreeable.  The preaching such a ministry produces is designed to reinforce our presumed agreements, since a "good church" is one without conflict.
  • I am suggesting that our preaching should presume that we are preaching to a Church in the midst of a war.
  • Humility derives not from the presumption that no one knows the truth, but rather is a virtue dependent on our confidence that God's word is truthful and good.  Ironically, in the world in which we live if you preach with such humility you will more than likely be accused of being arrogant and authoritarian.  To be so accused is a sign that the enemy has been engaged.  After all, the enemy (who is often ourselves) does not like to be reminded that the narratives that constitute our lives are false.  Moreover, you had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties.  God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom.  That seems to me to be great good news in a world that is literally dying of boredom.
  • Theories about meaning are what you get when you forget that the Church and Christians are embattled by subtle enemies who win easily by denying that any war exists.  God knows what He is doing in this strange time between "worlds," but hopefully He is inviting us again to engage the enemy through the godly weapons of preaching and sacrament....  May we preach so truthfully that people will call us terrorists.  If you preach that way you will never again have to worry about whether a sermon is "meaningful."

Read the entire essay to absorb its weight and significance for the Church.

HT: John Piper - "one of the best essays on preaching I ever read."

Co-Belligerence and the Manhattan Declaration

On November 20, 2009, the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience was released.  The Declaration addresses several key moral issues and it was signed by numerous leaders within the Christian tradition, from men in the PCA (our own denomination) to Roman Catholic Archbishops.  A summary statement from the document highlights their key concerns:

Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

While the declaration affirms many important truths, and while it properly highlights the dangers of neglecting our moral duties as Christians and human beings, it also seems to make some errant assumptions about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We can see this in the following statement:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

First, the declaration appears to assume unity around this gospel, and this of course begs the questions, "Are Protestant Christians really speaking of the same 'Gospel' as Catholic Christians?"  Second, the declaration also appears to suggest that to proclaim the message of the gospel is to speak and act out against these moral issues.  Again, this raises a question about the very nature of the biblical gospel.  Is the gospel a message and declaration about what God has done on behalf of man in history, or is the gospel about what man does?

For answers to these questions (and for reasons why they didn't sign the declaration) consider the thoughts of the following men:

Michael Horton

R.C. Sproul

John MacArthur

Alistair Begg

We can be thankful for the healthy debate that has arisen over the nature of the gospel and the proper way to understand co-belligerence.  We should pray, work, and fight toward the end of the evils and moral depravities that the Manhattan Declaration addresses, but we should never think of the gospel as a message about what man does, nor should we assume unity around it in the midst of significant historical and theological differences.  R.C. Sproul summarizes his position well, "While I would march with the bishop of Rome and an Orthodox prelate to resist the slaughter of innocents in the womb, I could never ground that cobelligerency on the assumption that we share a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel."

From Around the Web...

Some interesting, fun, informative, challenging, and edifying links for a Tuesday:

  • Listen to Alistair Begg's powerful pleading to adopt a "two-kingdom" theology for the practical benefit of Christ's church (don't let the music fool you - this is excellent).[audio:http://www.relevantrevolution.com/mp3/begg-kingdom.mp3]
  • Ask yourself if your spouse and family are idols - and consider how the church sometimes promotes a "picket fence" idolatry.
  • Listen to Derek Webb repent of just this sort of idolatry.
  • Consider with T. David Gordon why the decline of cultural Christianity in the West may be good... really good.
  • Take a seminary course from Covenant Theological Seminary's Worldwide Classroom.
  • Pray for the people of Thailand.
  • Watch, as John Lennox talks about the Christian use of the mind and the problems of anti-intellectualism.
  • Listen to recent episodes of The White Horse Inn, such as their excellent discussion on "Boredom and Entertainment."
  • Attend the Reformation Society of Pittsburgh conference, Mystery of the Kingdom.
  • Read a very thoughtful review of the new American Patriot's Bible.
  • Read John and Noel Piper talk about why they keep their children in worship and offer helpful practical suggests on how to make it work.