Monday, May 30, 2011

What is Theology?: Trinity

The doctrine of the trinity has an interesting mood surrounding it in the church today. It honestly has been a long time since I have heard a Christian call it into question. Fortunately it seems to be a doctrine that is left alone and simply believed these days without much doubt. Usually the doctrines that you will see attacked these days are perhaps the purpose of God in the death of Christ, or perhaps the need for the visible local church in the earth today, or perhaps the doctrine of a literal Hell.

Does this mean that we should leave the doctrine of the trinity alone while we are ahead? I certainly hope not. I find that if the devil is not attacking a central doctrine of the Christian faith, he is usually trying to bring its importance in our hearts to a place where he can allow us to ignore it when it really matters. We should never be afraid to talk about the difficult doctrines in scripture, even if we are not planning on losing them anytime soon.

To keep this brief, I would simply like to do my best to outline what the trinity is, and what it is not. I'll also do my best to say why it is important. Very often preachers like to use analogies to describe the trinity. Perhaps I will mention a few I have heard and mention what I like, but ultimately all analogies break down when it comes to the trinity.

Some that don't like to talk about the trinity like to mention the fact that the word trinity does not appear in the Bible. This is true. However, the church fathers had to come up with this term for a reason. There are pictures in the Bible of God revealing Himself this way as well as letters from the apostles describing Him this way that are undeniable. Probably my favorite example of this would be the baptism of Jesus. As he was baptized we saw him in human form as the Son of God. We then hear the voice of the Father come from Heaven. To top it all off, we see the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove. For those who are tempted to lean in a direction that overemphasizes the unity of God, the distinctness of the three persons of the Godhead could not be made more clear than this.

The most basic summary of what God as trinity means is that He is one being in three persons. We do not serve three Gods. At the same time, we must recognize that there is diversity within the unity of this one true God. I'm currently working my way through a book on basic Christian doctrine written by a group of Christian writers. The chapter that summarizes the trinity makes a few statements that I found very helpful. Here is one good summery:

"Sure enough, Scripture affirms that God is one God(Deut. 6:4). There are not three gods. It affirms that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father (e.g., Luke 22:42). And it affirms that all three are the one God (e.g., John 1:1). Each shares the essence and attributes of God and is God--Without being three gods! The one God subsists in three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Clear as mud right? Some may find summaries like this to be too "theological" or too wordy, but I must say, if you know of a better way to honor scripture and avoid heresy, I would love to hear it. Statements like this took our church fathers much of the beginning of our church history to clarify. We should not be so arrogant as to flick them aside in the name of simplicity. We should never make our understanding of God more complicated than it needs to be, but finding "the bottom line" of Christianity should never be our goal. God is far to rich and has made himself far to knowable for us to do that.

The first few hundred years of the early church were spent weeding out several heresies concerning the trinity, among many other things, and I certainly don't have the time or the knowledge to outline it exhaustively. However I would like to point out two extremes that we must avoid. To start, I will mention a few analogies that have often been used.

Some have referred to God as if he is much like water. Water can be either be liquid, solid , or gas. All of them are water, but we see them in these three different modes. Another analogy similar to this goes something like this: I am a human being. I can be a son, a father, and a husband. All of these are different roles, but they are all the same person. Some may find these analogies helpful, but as I said, all analogies break down. So, what is wrong with these?

The extreme that these two pictures could possibly force us into is the heresy of modalism. This heresy, purely taught, states that there is one God, and His name is Jesus Christ. He presents himself in different times and in different ways. In the Old Testament, He presented Himself as God the Father. In the New Testament, he "became" the Son. We experience him now as the Holy Spirit. It is hopefully clear to you however, that Scripture presents the three persons of the trinity as far more distinct than this. The example of Christ's baptism should be the most obvious example of this. Each person of the trinity has existed in eternity from before time began simultaneously with one another.

A few other analogies would be those such as, God is a bit like and egg. There is shell, yolk, and white. All are distinct, but there is one egg, or God is like a human who has body, soul, and spirit. All are distinct, but there is one person. These I like a bit better, but of course they break down as well. Ultimately these analogies seem to make God a bit too separate from Himself. Even though these examples have distinct parts, they are not nearly as unified as the Godhead. This thinking also runs the risk of making one of the members of the trinity unequal with another. The one that usually goes down first is Christ.

This is one of the main problems in the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses. If my understanding is correct, they believe in Christ as an incarnation of the archangel Michael. I don't fancy myself an expert on Mormanism, but if I have read correctly, the divinity of Christ is also misrepresented by The Church of Latter Day Saints as well. Christ is looked at as "a" Son of God, but he is not seen as equal with God. According to their teachings, we have the potential to reach Christ's status as well.

So, why is the doctrine of the trinity so important? One reason I heard explained very well by Ravi Zacharias goes like this: In God we see an example of how all of creation ought to exist. We see both unity, and diversity simultaneously. One question that Muslims, who believe in the unity of God perhaps more than any other faith cannot answer is, if God was eternally loving before the creation of the universe, who was he loving before that creation began? With a biblical understanding of the trinity, we see that the three persons of the Godhead were in relationship before time existed.

Also, without a proper understanding of unity in diversity, we see problems arise in the way we look at the world. A problem we face in culture when we emphasise unity is that we will force all to conform in spite of their differences. This tends to be the problem with Islam. On the other end of the spectrum, however, when we emphasise diversity too much, we strive for it to the point where we are willing to defy God's clear instruction, and even logic itself. This leads us to the universalism that we see in our culture every day. Never before has a culture so existed where you find people who aren't even willing to defend the law of non-contradiction.

So, is the doctrine of the trinity important? No doubt. It may not be up for debate as much as it was at the beginning of our church history, but we must still do our best to understand it biblically and continue to teach it clearly.

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What is Theology?: Creationism?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Gen. 1:1

I'm sure you've all heard this verse before. It's not only the start of the book we base our faith on, but it's the beginning of a chapter in the Bible that has been the center of over a century of debate. I'm sure not a single one of my Christian readers hasn't heard or participated in a discussion about the six days of creation.

I don't want to make this post longer than it has to be, however, it's looking like it will be longer than most, so I'm simply going to do my best to summarize the different positions concerning how Genesis 1 should be read. Then I'll give a basic summary on where I stand and what is truly important for the Christian to hold onto in this debate... as well as what is not. I'll do my best to do justice to the views I mention, however, in order to confirm all I am saying, I recommend you read some of the writings of those who hold to the various positions.

The first of these position and possibly the most well known among Christians is the literal six days of creation view. This can be summarized easily. Read Genesis 1 and listen to the words. Did you read it? Good, that's what happened. God spoke and things came into being. The days were actual 24 hour periods and this view usually also holds that the earth is between 6,000 and 15,000 years old, depending on how you interpret the genealogies throughout the Old Testament.

Next, there is what many call the old earth creationism theory. If memory serves me right, this is usually accompanied by the day/age argument. Basically this view states that the word "day" can be interpreted as a 24 hour day, or it can mean a period of time, perhaps thousands or even millions of years. This theory makes room for the claims of science that it took far longer than 15,000 years for things like the Grand Canyon to come about.

Next, there is what some call gap theory. Those who argue this position point out that there seems to be a pause between verse one and verse two. In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth... aaaaand verse 2. Therefore, perhaps God created everything, and then spent six days "ordering" creation. This allows for a literal six days, but allows the age of the earth to remain open for discussion.

Next, there is theistic evolution theory. In this view, it is believed that Genesis 1 ought to be read poetically. It is simply an ancient writing of the Hebrews that was never intended to be taken literally. In reality, we should trust what scientists are saying today and assume that God got the ball rolling and allowed evolution to bring the existence of life into being.

The final view I will mention is probably one that many of you have never heard of. Up until my time at Nyack, I had never heard of it, but then my New Testament Greek teacher had me read "The Lost World of Genesis 1" by John Walton. In this book, Walton points out problems with gap theory as well as day/age theory. He points out that in the grammar of the Hebrew, there is in fact no room for a chronological "gap" between verse 1 and verse 2. In fact, a better translation would perhaps be, "When God began to create the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was formless and void." Some would perhaps say, "wild and waist" rather than "formless and void."

Not only does this remove the possibility of a gap, but it raises another difficult question. How was the earth "wild and waist" as God began to create it? A non-existent earth has no characteristics. He also explains that he sees no way that the six days would be translated any other way than literally. Day may be able to mean age in some contexts, but the Hebrew does not allow for it in this case.

Therefore, instead of getting caught up in how long the days were, he calls another Hebrew word into question, and he makes some interesting discoveries. The word he researches is the Hebrew word that we translate as "create." What he asserts is that because the earth obviously existed before God "created" it, create may in fact have a more nuanced meaning. God most certainly brought the earth and everything else into "existence," but pehaps that's not the event that Genesis 1 is outlining for us. What he does then is research the other instances where this word appears in the Old Testament and he also looks at creation accounts from cultures that Israel may have been familiar with. Not that these other writings are inspired, but he shows how reading them may give us clarity as to the mindset God was speaking to when he revealed himself to Israel.

What he shows is that in Israel's culture and understanding, they had no interest in the material origins of creation, but rather in its functional origin. What on earth does that mean? Well, Walton shows that in all of the clear instances that the Hebrew word for "create" is used, it is not in fact used to show when something came into existence. In actuality, it is usually used to show when something is given a function. For example, when someone is made into a king, he is changing from one role to another. It is like the difference between building a building, and making that building into a factory. It was in existence before it became a factory, but it did not "exist" as such.

Walton basically shows that in the ancient world that Israel would have known, creation accounts were mainly concerned with their god or gods inaugurating a cosmic temple, which is why this is often called "temple inauguration" theory. Therefore when you read these other accounts, Israel's account has similarities, but makes vastly different claims. Their God is shown to be almighty above all other gods. There are none who compete with him. The universe was not ordered out of conflict between gods but out of the almighty God's divine creative will.

So, where does this theory leave us in terms of evolution? What Walton points out is that in the end, if Genesis was in fact intended to be read as he believes it was, then it doesn't say much about evolution at all. What was going on before or during God's inauguration of the universe can only be theorized about. But wait! Many of you might ask, what about Genesis 2 and the literal creation of Adam? if Adam wasn't literally created as the first man who fell, then why would we need Jesus? I'll get to this in a moment.

So where do I stand with all this? Let me say right off the bat that I don't believe in evolution. As far as I can tell, it looks like the theory was brought about in order to disprove the need for a God. I want to make that clear because some of the other things I'm about to say may sound like I feel differently.

For the most part, I would have to say that John Walton's research seems to show the most respect for and research into the Hebrew culture and language for which Genesis 1 was written. But again, what does he think about the creation of Adam? He does mention this in the book, and as far as I can tell he believes in Adam as a historical person. I have no doubt that he is sound in his theology of the fall and our need for a savior. How does he reconcile leaving evolution open as a possibilty and having Adam actually exist?

There are two ways that this can work. Some theorize that God allowed humans to evolve and eventually declared Adam to be the one who would bear his image. It was after this that Adam fell. Believe it or not, C.S. Lewis was a theistic evolutionist and this was the view that he took. If you'd like to read it in his words, you should pick up a copy of "The Problem of Pain" and give it a look. It's a pretty good read. The other possibility and the one I would side with is that God, if the animals were created by evolution, created Adam separate from other creatures. In my view, this makes sense. It seems more faithful to scripture that evolution or no evolution, we look at the Genesis 2 account of God literally creating Adam from the dust of the earth as being true.

So what do I think you should take from this? In the end I think that the most important things we hold onto doctrinally are that God is both creator and sustainer of the universe. Secondly I believe that no matter what, we must maintain that Adam was a historical figure and that we are still in need of a savior because of his sin. However, I think that it is important to realize that evolution, if the theory was in fact created to combat Genesis 1, was invented to combat a "literal six days of material creation" understanding, which I believe has been shown to neglect the original Hebrew mindset. Because of this, I don't think we should feel the least bit threatened by evolution theory when scientists who hold to it claim they have found new evidence. In the end I think evolution is false and many of its researchers are in fact hostile towards Christianity, but I would have to say now that my objections are scientific and not biblical.

In the end, I think it is important that we keep the fight where it should be. For a long time we have combated evolution in the school system. This may have merit if in fact evolution is based on faulty science. However, perhaps the more important battle is the one we ought to have against the "materialistic" mindset that is alsmost always coupled with evolution theory. The philosophy that says that this universe and the matter within it is all there is. There is no supernatural. There is nothing beyond. There is no creator. There is no sustainer. Our objections shouldn't solely be based on the "method" in which the universe came into being. Far more important is that we defend the fact that the universe has purpose behind it.

No matter how far out we look into space, we will not see heaven. No matter how deep we look into the microscope, we will not see little signitures on atoms that say, "property of the creative Word of God." For too long we've been accused of making God a filler for natural occurances we don't understand, and often this accusation is true. We should realize that science will never see God if they are not open to the possibility of his excistence from the start. The question is never "what" or "who" did it? Science can't answer that. They can only describe what is. Our job as Christians is to recognize the beauty and complexity of creation as science discovers it, and choose to be the ones who believe it has purpose. Science is in charge of the what, we are the proclaimers of the why.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What is Theology? Part #1

The Church is in an interesting place today. She's been around for about two thousand years and she's been through a lot. She's had her theological struggles, she's had her heretics, she's had big successes, she's made her big mistakes. What is it that has kept her defined as "the church" all this time? How do we know that she didn't actually collapse years ago and that we're not something completely different today? I think that many have a pretty good idea of how we know, but we often struggle in how to put it into words.

In this post I'd like to take a whack at the basics. The foundations of what we believe can be found in the Bible first and foremost. Secondly, built upon the Bible, we have creeds and catechisms. Built on these we have Christians in the church today who preach, teach and write their understanding of the Word of God. The closer these teachers are to scripture and historic Christianity, the more "Orthodox" they are. Orthodoxy simply means "right belief." If they stray too far from these beliefs, they are called "Unorthodox" or "Heretical."

There, that wasn't too painful was it? Much of this may be common knowledge to most of my readers, but I wanted to lay this out briefly so that these definitions will be solidified in your minds as we discuss a few problems we might find in the church today. Yeah, I know, all I talk about are problems. Oh well, where would we have gotten most of the New Testament if Paul wasn't addressing church problems all the time?

I also write this assuming that most of my readers are presupposing the inerrancy and ultimate authority of scripture. If you disagree or don't know what this means, then let me know and maybe I'll direct you to some sources explaining or defending the position. This can be a theological topic all in itself, so I'd rather leave it be for now. Personally, I don't see how one can have a worthwhile "theological" discussion without a solid foundation you can go back to and agree on.

All this brings me to my main question, what is "theology"? For that matter, what is a "theologian"? I'm not sure why, but a lot of people seem intimidated by the word "theology." Perhaps it sounds really academic, and I suppose it can be, seeing as entire graduate and Ph.D programs are dedicated to it, but honestly it's not a very complicated word. At least for me, all it really means is, "what you think and say about God and the Bible." Any questions? I hope not. I really don't see how you could complicate that.

That being said, I want to point out a few trends I see in the church today and why I think it is important that we notice them, and if need be, correct them. There are a few sayings, or cliches if you will, floating around the church that I don't find very helpful when it comes to the discipline of theology. I've heard many well respected pastors say things like, "Well, I'll leave that one to the theologians, but this is what I think." Or, "I just want to say, I am by no means a theologian." I guess I get what they mean. We haven't all been to seminary, but think about the meaning of they're saying. If the way I defined theology is true, which I think it is, then we are all theologians. So technically what they are saying is, "on this point I don't quite know enough to be fully biblical, so I'll just tell you what I think." The question should never be whether we are theologians, but will always be, are we good or bad theologians? Even an atheist is a theologian... a really bad one, considering their opinion about God, but a theologian nonetheless.

The only question that remains isn't "am I a theologian?" but rather, "How deep do I want to go?" Don't misunderstand me, I would never recommend that we all become seminary students. We all have different callings. However, I find that being called "theological" has become more of an accusation than a simple observation these days. There has been a growing lack of respect for teachers and preachers who have done the hard work and actually know what they're talking about to the point where they can rebuke and correct as the Bible teaches our leadership to do. We have often settled for poorly trained teachers because they have the guts to be cute and brag about how "unorthodox" they are. Rather than challenging our authority by saying their teaching is unorthodox, we make their orthodoxy look old and boring while reveling in what we ourselves are technically claiming is "wrong belief." I'm sorry, but has unorthodox come to mean anything other than "wrong belief"? There has even been a book written called "A Heretic's Guide to Eternity." I'll leave it for another day to talk about whether the ideas in the book are actually biblical.

All this to say, it is my wish to start a series where I simply outline the basics of Christian doctrine. This will by no means be exhaustive. Rather, in each post I will do my best to summarize one of the basic branches of theology and then give a few basic views on what the Bible says concerning it. I myself am not yet formally educated on all the different denominations' disagreements and agreements, so I will keep my observations rather subjective and based on my own church experience and private reading. I will then give a basic summery of where I stand on these issues. It's my hope that this will strengthen at least a few and that it will weed out at least a few of the misconceptions of how complicated theology supposedly is. In most areas I'll summarize and recommend different books and resources where my knowledge is lacking or for anyone who wants to take their focus on a particular area further.

Much of the time I will probably give quotes from authors I have benefited from and will site doctrinal statements from the creeds and catechisms of the church fathers. I will probably focus on the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds as well as the Heidelberg Catechism. To finish I just want to give a quick list of the topics I hope to cover:

1. God/Trinity/Creation
What does the scripture say about the person of God himself as a trinitarion being. What are some views on the Genesis 1 account of creation

2. Christology
The study of the person of Christ.

3. Pneumatology
The study of the Holy Spirit

4. Soteriology
The study of God's plan of salvation

5. Ecclesiology
The study of the Christian church

6. Eschotology
The study of end times

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lovin' Justice

Throughout my time at Nyack, probably the biggest doctrine to be set in stone for me by the end of it was the doctrine of justification. This was the doctrine called into question first as I got closer to the more liberal of the teachers there, and it was the one that I embraced the strongest as I backed away from them.

What do I mean by justification? For me this is the very heart of the Gospel. It is the means by which God decided to save sinners. It is what we stand on in order to be secure in our salvation. But how does it work? What was the mechanism that brought this means to salvation to us?

Most of my readers probably have the answer down pat. Most of you are probably familiar enough with the Romans road and the sinners prayer and know what the basic path to "receiving Christ" is. Therefore, I won't start by outlining how God decided to do it. Instead, I'll begin with a misconception about God's means of saving us that has arisen in recent years and then I will go back to the biblical truth and show how important it is that we remember it. The "new" view of justification sounds very loving and poetic, but I've found that it is a way of thinking that actually weakens our confidence that we are justified.

In several recent books, the cross has taken on a new definition for many who claim to follow Christ. The first time I heard it was in my "Introduction to Philosophy" class. The teacher began to talk about the love of Christ. His summery of what Christ did went something like this, "When we want to have a loving family relationship with someone, we no longer look at justice the same way. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the ultimate of all unjust acts. It was there that the law was nailed to the cross with him, and love overcame justice."

I don't want to assume anything, but there is a chance that many of you reading this may be nodding your heads at this summery and wondering why I disagree with it. You may have read the books that put it this way, but I want to submit to you that the Bible was not one of these books. I challenge you to find anything in the Bible that would suggest that the Lord's justice would ever be referred to as something that needed to be overcome.

I only want to point out one major flaw in this way of thinking, and it relates to my former post, "Holy Wins." When we look at the Lords justification of sinners this way, it puts God in a very interesting situation. It seems that a God who allows love to overcome justice in this way, is a God who allows himself to be overcome by love. Justice, like love, flows out of God's very character. God is love, but love is not God. God is not overcome by anything. God is a God who overcomes.

The reason I wish to point this out is because when we see God in a way that allows him to be overcome by love, what's to stop us from seeing him as one who could be overcome by wrath tomorrow? Seeing our salvation as "justice overcome by love" is often preached and written about in order to make us feel secure in our salvation, yet I see the logic of it having the potential to do the opposite as well. God is so clearly submitted to his emotions when we look at him this way that he obviously can't be counted on to be consistent.

Now, what does the Bible state? Often we are tempted to constantly point out the fact that we don't deserve mercy or forgiveness, and this is certainly true. Yet when this is all we say, we often forget the fact that the Bible also says that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)

Do you see that word? God is JUST in his forgiveness of our sins. Yet, when we speak of God's mercy, we often speak of it as an unjust "overlooking" of our sins by God, as if he may not do it again tomorrow. How is it that God has made it a JUST act to have mercy on us?

You all know the answer. He saw to it that His Son bore His wrath for our sins, "Since, therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God." (Rom. 5:9) This is perhaps the most clear and important doctrine in Christianity, yet among these many new "Christian" thinkers there are those who are even willing to look at it as "cosmic child abuse." Yes, that is an actual quote.

Perhaps their intention is to paint God in a more palatable way, yet as I hope I've made clear, in the end they are doing the opposite. The cross was a perfect expression of God's love and justice working in perfect harmony. When one trumps the other, THAT is when God unpalatable. If he is unjust enough to forgive us for nothing, he is unjust enough to change his mind. However, when we see that he has is fact saved us OUT OF his just character, there is nothing that can take away our confidence.

We are secure. We are loved. We are JUSTIFIED!

Friday, May 13, 2011

John and Me

Rewind:

"John (name changed), could you come up and pray for the service tonight before we get started?" John stood up and walked reverently up to the stage... He took the microphone and bowed his head. Thus began a prayer of great emotion and beautiful platitudes. "Lord Jesus you hung on that cross for hours and hours! For us! We love you Lord!" Girls watched and blushed. People whispered.

As Many of you may know, my dad was a youth pastor for six years. John would attend often. The leadership was in awe of him. I remember at one youth rally a youth pastor from another church said on stage, "Do you guys know John? If only I could go back and be where he is spiritually at that age." I think John was in the room at the time but I can't remember for sure.

John's prayer ended, "In your name, Amen!" He handed off the mic and left the stage. Just in front of me were two girls... very popular in the youth group. John began his approach to returned to his seat next to them. As he came close, they giggled... he gave a coy smile and took his seat... was that a wink? Did no one see that?

I wonder. Did the leadership know about these little quirks that John had? It just so happened in those years that I was a big Supertones fan. John thought they were sellouts... he would let me know it too. I'm hard pressed to ever remember him having a good thing to say about the music I liked. He fancied himself an expert in this area. I remember when he stayed at my house once... we played cards. I remember feeling like a loser by the end of the night because of his comments... interesting.

Fast forward a few years. I've been overseas and back... John has gone to Bible school. The very Bible school I would go to a few years after him. Why wouldn't he? He was obviously called to spiritual leadership. He'd been groomed for it since the beginning... I see him after he has graduated... fiance under his arm. I walk up to him and say, "Hey man, long time no see!" He looks at me with an odd expression. "I can't remember..." I say, "Did you go here for one year?"
"No, I came here for three." He says with a tone that seems to say, "Duh, everyone knows that... except you obviously"

Fast forward again. I am now in Bible school. Leadership class has begun and it is my turn to give a presentation. I've prepared for long hours. Just what might be on my mind after three years of Bible school? Could it be the wonders of the glory of God? Could it be to forget myself and help my classmates get to know our Lord better? Nah, try impressing those girls scattered throughout the room. Try making a good impression on the teachers.

A girl walks up to me after class, "Wow Eric! You're getting so good at this!" What does my mind do? Does it stop and reflect on how thankful I should be that God would bother to use me? Nah, try getting a little prideful. Try looking forward to some pats on the back in the cafeteria. Try waiting for the teacher to give me a good grade and a good reference.

Gotta love the way pride works. Hate it in others and you can be sure that you have it. Get hurt by it and you'll hurt people with it. How on earth are we supposed to be a people who serve God with everything before men and then not hope to get noticed? How can one wish to submit to authority without groping for their constant approval?

God help us...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Religion

“Traitor is such a strong word!”

“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

~G.K. Chesterton

When I was young, I'm not sure exactly what age; I remember the pastor of my church preached a sermon. “I hate religion” he said. “Religion is just rules and regulations.” since then I've heard this so many times. I saw a guy with a shirt that said “I'm not religious, I just love God.” To this day I see the same concept in all sorts of books and sermons. The leaders and pastors of probably every church I've ever been in have said things like this. It seems that everywhere you look these days the churches of America have pretty much disowned the word religion.

“Christianity is all about relationship” is the expression you are most prone to hear when you have a discussion about religion with a Christian these days. I have one question for the many Christians who enjoy ranting against religion so much. Why is it that we are so eager to stop using a Biblical word? The word appears a few times in the New Testament and is mentioned in a positive context in the book of James.

I've brought this question up with a few fellow Christians in the past few weeks and they usually go on to explain how the word doesn't carry the meaning that it used to. That's fair enough, but what is it that has caused the meaning of religion to change so drastically? In the book of James, the word for religion comes from the same word as worship, and it basically means to follow a ritual or tradition. Today, on the other hand, if you mention religion to the vast majority of Christians who know their basic church lingo, they will go on to talk about how destructive legalism is.

Again I ask, what's the deal? Why has religion changed from its biblical meaning? When I started thinking about this, one of my first ideas was that the world had redefined it, but after I thought about it, I realized that a lot of friends of mine that aren't Christians have asked me if I'm religious. The thing about it, however, was that there was nothing in the way they said it that asked; “hey, are you a legalistic jerk?” All they were really asking was “Hey, do you believe in God and go to church.” Because of this, my usual response tended to be: “Yes, I am religious.”

I know, I'm a horrible rotten sinner because of this. I've shamed the church by promoting legalism. I'm such a heretic. Let ask you something though, if the world changed the meaning of religion, which it seems that they didn't, then why should that matter to us? If they didn't change the meaning, and they simply look at religion as a set of beliefs, then who changed the definition?

I believe that we changed it, and I'll tell you why. What was it that James was talking about when he mentioned religion? In James 1:26-27, James says this: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

What do we see in this verse? We see that religion definitely has something to do with works. We also know, if we have much training in the idea of grace, that our works are the outworking of grace. So the biblical definition of religion, at least according to this verse, is the outworking of God's grace in our lives. What I believe happened to us in today's church is that we have, at many points, stopped living by the grace of God. Perhaps this is what has given our “religion” a bad name. Because of our pride and dependence on human strength, we have turned our religion into legalism.

This problem may seem obvious to many people reading, but the area I want to call into question is our response to it. Our response, as I mentioned, is to make the word “religion” into a taboo. We've come up with catchy phrases like; Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship.” or: “I'm not religious, I just love God!” Some people reading this may think I'm getting overly caught up in a simple issue of semantics, but I beg to differ.

This kind of thing has happened in other ways. We have often times defined the word “worship” to simply mean “music” when we know it means far more. We have often defined the word “missions” to simply mean “overseas work” when we know that every single Christian is called to be a missionary in some way. How have we responded in these situations? Usually we do our best to get people thinking in the terms of the proper definition through a sermon or a book or whatever. Why is it that we haven't done this with religion? As I mentioned before, I believe that it's because of our constant tendency to revert back to self reliance rather than God reliance.

We are so reluctant to put our trust in the grace of God that legalism is an outcome that has become inevitable. I believe that this will be an issue we will always have to deal with and it is something God must work out in the life of every Christian, but I also believe that it's time we stopped playing word games as a result. It seems to me that when we ditch the word “religion,” that it is, quite frankly, a cop-out. We are unable or unwilling to live out the true meaning of the words that the Bible puts forward.

The problem isn't with the word “religion,” the problem is with us. If we decide to discard a word in the Bible because we can't live by its proper definition then what's to stop us from doing it in other areas of the Bible? Things like “I don't worship, I just like to live a life that is pleasing to God” or: “I don't pray, I just like to have conversations with God.” Okay, maybe that’s a long way off, but I don't see any difference in the concept of what we've been doing. We say we're not religious and that we just love God, but what's to stop us from calling into question what it means to “just love God.”? This cycle could go on forever without ever simply letting God's word do a work in our hearts without complicating the obvious meanings of those words.

We fail to let religion simply be what the Bible says it is, and we throw away the word “religion” and talk about our faith in what we think is the proper way. We hope that it will change our behavior, but what we need to realize is that we need to start getting it right the first time so that the word games don't become a vicious circle. We can either let our sinful hearts continue to force us to change words, or we can let God's Word finally change our hearts.

When I put myself in the shoes of someone outside of the church, I can only imagine that our word games are flat out confusing. When I hear a pastor or even myself say “Hey it's not religion, it's relationship” I can't help but cringe at the fact that it sounds like a cheap sales pitch.

Perhaps I have misread the heart of the world when I started thinking of this. Perhaps the word “religion” is beyond repair. It's hard for me to say, but I think it's time we held ourselves to the true definitions of what the Bible says so that God's word can continue to be what it was intended to be: “Sufficient.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ache

Just an ache. Was it that movie I watched? I shouldn't feel this way right now. It can wait. But it still aches. Was it that song I heard? Probably. I'll feel better tomorrow... still aches. Kind of like a grudge. I'd probably be better without it... but it still feels good to hold onto.

I'll feel better tomorrow. But do I want to? I was made for this to be fulfilled someday. But not today. She's everywhere and nowhere. I thought I met her yesterday. I probably will tomorrow too... still aches. I'll feel better tomorrow.

It'll be a good few days. Maybe a week or so. Then we'll meet again. Sometimes one... sometimes another. I know what I want. No I don't. Does she know what she wants? Sure she does. No she doesn't. Should I say something? No, not yet. I don't really know her. Stop making excuses, you've gotta try. No I don't. Not yet. It would be too soon. No It wouldn't. Yes it would... still aches... I'll feel better tomorrow.

C'mon, you did it once, you can do it again. That was before... it didn't work. What about that one time? No, that might as well have never happened. Don't shrink back. It'll have to happen sometime. grab the bull by the horns. yes... no... not this time... still aches... I'll feel better tomorrow.

I've got things to do. They're important. But isn't this?... not yet... not today... it's getting late... maybe tomorrow. No, not tomorrow, I'll feel better then. Not that I want to... I just will...

Any thoughts Lord? I'd love to hear it. No I wouldn't. Yes I would. Go for it? Hold steady? Focus? Chill out? Don't worry? I've heard them all. From all different people. Which one was you? None of them would make me feel all that great... still aches... I'll feel better tomorrow.

Good night... good morning... hello Bible... Hello shower... hello factory... goodbye factory... hello house. Go for a walk? Maybe I'll run into... no... cut it out... take a rest, your tired. Maybe read a book. Maybe watch a movie... hello movie... goodbye movie. Hello book... goodbye book.

Hello ache... your back early. You could have waited a day or two. Was it the movie? I don't know. I don't care... I kind of like the company... still ache... that's okay... I'll feel better tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Own It

In my last post I dug a little deeper into Rob Bell's newest book, "Love Wins." In it, I did my best to get to his main thesis in order to see where he may have gone wrong. I have to admit, I have big problems with the Emergent Church and the subculture it has created among us. I talk about it a lot. What I want to talk a little bit about in this post is what I find to be at least a part of the root of the negatives in this movement rather than the movement itself. The movement did not "emerge" in a vacuum but was birthed in the churches we all live in.

It's not new for those in the church to often find faults in the four walls of their local bodies. While many of the complaints have merit, there is a difference between constructive criticism and a culture of complaint. In a sense, I think this is the kind of atmosphere that this movement has created. While there have often been complaints, it seems that the Emergent Church has created an entire "denomination" of sorts that gives permission to it's members to let these discomforts run rampant.

So, what do you think of "the church?"

It seems very common today for this generation to have the habit of referring the "the church" in a very broad sense. "The church" has done this and that right. "The church" has done this or that wrong. It's strange, but it often seems to be done in an "us" vs. "them" kind of way. I'm not talking about non-Christians either. I'm talking about people who have been saved for years. It sounds like they're talking about "themselves" over here and then "the church" over there. This especially seems to be true when they are speaking about the church negatively. I remember a conversation I had with a Christian friend of mine recently where he unashamedly said "I hate the church."

I read a book not too long ago called "Why We Love the Church" and it said something very convicting right off the bat. You never walk up to a friend of yours and say, I like you but I can't stand your wife! So what do you think the church is? That's right. It's the bride of Christ. It doesn't matter if she is a low down rotten excuse for a bride, we are made to defend her honor. Remember that before you decide to criticize next time.

So how should we respond next time we see "the church" do something wrong? I have a few thoughts. Some are mine, some I've read, some I've heard.

Number one, check the motive of your heart. The first thing we need to remember before we criticize "the church" is that we are a part of it. We are a part of the church we are criticizing and therefore in a very real sense, the sin we are mentioning connects with us because we are part of the family. It seems that many don't seem to think of this. If they did, I think there would be a much more pained tone in their voice as they speak.

Think about it. Think of the subtle underlying joy that seems to live under the surface of the one who so often criticizes. It's as if they're saying, "if every Christian thought like I did, there would be no more hypocrisy, no more bigotry, and everyone would want to join up with us. The church would be the place to be!"

Number two, while we should recognize that we are connected to the church in the broad sense, we should recognize our sin as an individual first before we focus on the more widespread sins of the church or the sins of church history. Examine yourself for a moment. Have YOU personally ever slapped a homosexual in the face? I'm talking to you the individual and not the church overall. Have YOU personally ever bombed an abortion clinic? Were YOU personally a part of the crusades? Have YOU personally ever become a famous televangelist and then fallen from grace or conned thousands of people out of their money?

While we should be pained when our broader church family fails, I find that there are too many Christians who use the many obvious sins of the church as a whole in order to avoid personal change. It's easy to point out that there has been a lot of unnecessary hatred towards homosexuals through the church, while ignoring the fact that we haven't shared our faith in years. It's easy to point out that we have no right to bomb an abortion clinic, while ignoring the fact that we haven't shown love to our neighbor in the most simple ways. Why are we always trying to get those outside the church to realize we're not "one of those Christians" but "one of the cool ones"? Does our desire to be "with it" ever cause us to ignore the more pressing issues in our own lives?

Third, we need to discern between whether the problems we see in the church are indeed problems, or if they are in fact a necessary sanctification from the world. It's easy to criticize the church for being bigoted, intolerant, judgemental, or neglectful to the poor. Yet how does helping the poor or being tolerant make us different from the world? Obviously Jesus wanted these things, but how does stating the obvious make us distinct? There is no risk of being unpopular or disliked by the world when all we talk about is our agreements. Our goal should never be to become unpopular, but I think that when it comes to extremes, there is no way the church of today is on this end of the spectrum.

One preacher I heard recently said it best. If anything, "the church of Jesus Christ in America today is in a crisis of conscience." While there will always be extremes in bigotry here and there, It is definitely not what I find to be the most rampant problem in the church. Our problem is silence and fear.

Fourth and finally, know the word of God. I think that many of these problems could be avoided if more regular, ordinary, lay Christians would simply build a more biblical theology of their own. Okay, maybe that's not so simple, but it is necessary. I find that what seems to be a common root of both the most intolerant Christians and the most undiscerning is a failure to truly know the God of the Bible. We either fail to know the true nature of his love, or we fail to know the true nature of his holiness.

Knowing the word of God will show us where we should stand. At the beginning of Brian McLaren's book "A New Kind of Christianity" he said something that sounded deep, but in the real world it makes no sense. Basically what he said was that we don't need a new place to say "this is where I stand" but what we need is a new direction to go together as Christians. Think about that for a moment. How in the world can we have direction if we have no stance? If we have no stance on what is sin and what is not, whether it be bigotry, hypocrisy, homosexuality, or neglect of the poor, how in the world can we know when we are approaching this "place" we want to be? Our "stance" determines our "direction."

For those of you who are confused or angry with the church, realize that you ARE the church. Own it. Know what you should believe and embrace it. Love it. The sooner you do this, the sooner you can help make the church a better place.