Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual. Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today. Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)
I am having an argument with a Christian friend. He asserts that I am a Presbyterian. I assert that I am not. He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree). His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian. My argument is somewhat more complex. (more…)
(I haven’t written for a few weeks, partly because of starting my new job, and partly because the situation in northern Iraq was driving me to write in other venues…)
I did not grow up in a church, and so I am always a little curious what going to church is like for children. I particularly appreciate this gem, from a puppet re-telling of the Christmas story in Luke 2:
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: Fear not!
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: What part of “fear not” didn’t you understand?
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: Never mind. I bring you good news…
It always strikes me how fearful many Christians remain, even though Christ has already given us all that we need for godly lives. To hear some Christians talk (or blog), they are afraid of Islam, atheism, homosexuality, church shrinkage, cultural de-Christianization, loss of constitutional rights, President Obama, censorship, contraception, courts, and the news media. This is clearly a very heterogeneous bucket o’ fear. (more…)
If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?
Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question. I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?” No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face. The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”
It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct. It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)
As I have argued that ecclesiology matters, we might then ask what we ought to believe about the Church. So I thought I might lay out a few basic ecclesiological ideas in a series of short(er) posts. Of course, our ideas about the Church tend first to be informed by our experience of actual churches, and what we like or dislike about them, and only secondarily (or tertiarily) consult the Bible or any reputable theological source. But God’s revelation is always there to challenge us, just as Apollos was challenged by Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, to think better about the subject.
The first point is that there are multiple churches, and yet there is one Church. The Church is simultaneously singular and plural. (more…)
I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day. We all have. Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born. The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old. The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point. Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations. All of these divisions occurred before we were born. So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.
There are many ways one might answer that question. Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it. Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it. Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer to pretend there are no divisions among the groups. Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them. None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)
This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?” Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven. So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.
Clarifying the Problem
What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”? In what ways is Truth not preserved? Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies. Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted. Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people. A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs. Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief. And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger. But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths. And thus true beliefs need to be preserved. The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth. The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption. In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)
My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful. This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.
Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is. We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit. Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people? Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners? Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee? Or none of the above? There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.
Do these ideas matter? In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief. Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.” Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.” The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection. Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.
But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”
Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics. And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.
But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”
Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity. Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad. In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations. A number of examples will clarify the case.
John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century. At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity. According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy. By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone. (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.) His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation. But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing. What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.
In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass. The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage. A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers. Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted. His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead. Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics? Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed. Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”? Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points. (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)
A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches. These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves. He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals. These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics. If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation. (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.) But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.
Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations. Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world. (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.) Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition. Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments. In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute. May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.
Some Christians are optimists, and they think everything is going great and getting better all the time. Other Christians are pessimists and think that the world is falling apart around us and just going from bad to worse. Is there a right of it?
I try to be a realist, but I know that most people would say the same thing of themselves. I see there are many things that are bad, and some are increasingly bad. But I also see that there are many things that are good, and some are surprisingly good. But most importantly, I think Christianity gives solid ground for hope. Not optimism, but hope.
On the bad side of the ledger, there are many things that Christian pessimists complain about, ranging from cultural alienation from Christianity in the West to resurgence of militant Islam to growing inequities worldwide. Here are a few big ones from my perspective:
- In Europe and North America, most people know basically nothing about Christianity, yet they still presume that they know what Christianity is, and they reject it on the basis of their misconceptions without really understanding the Christianity which I have found.
- Most churches, it seems, are doing a poor job even in educating their children about the truth of Christianity, and many people who have grown up in the churches are leaving them, not out of any principled or considered rejection, but simply because they don’t see the point.
- It is increasingly common for public discourse in Europe and North America to claim that traditional Christian views on a range of subjects are offensive, and that expressing them constitutes harming others.
- Many church leaders in basically all denominations are primarily concerned with maintaining or, if possible, increasing their power through manipulative techniques; many others seek to make Christianity indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, claiming that what matters is the church structure. Godly leadership is hard to find, and not widely celebrated.
- The US government is increasingly willing to maintain American prosperity through killing non-Americans over whom it has no jurisdiction. Drones are a new technology, but essentially they fire missiles or drop bombs, and at no prior period were so many foreigners being killed by US missiles and bombs outside of a state of war as at the present.
- Christian communities in the Middle East (between Egypt and Pakistan) are experiencing very difficult times, as certain Muslim extremists hold them accountable for American imperialism, and their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.
- Public discourse, at least in the US and perhaps in other places, has been neutered by polarizing talking heads who misrepresent every other viewpoint. Opt-in discussion groups and news media mean that most people in developed countries have very little experience working through any substantive disagreement, or seeing anyone work through any substantive disagreement.
- New technologies are widening the gulf between those who have and those who have not, while at the same time online discussion groups (as wonderful as they can be in many ways!) cannot fully replace flesh and blood communities, leading to increasing social fragmentation and isolation. I think people are less happy now as a result of television, the internet, cell phones, and smart phones, as useful as those devices are for certain tasks.
- Destructive behaviors such as alcoholism and rape are endemic on American university campuses, and even in many high schools, while teachers and administrators are busily saying that such actions are none of their business. Indeed, if people in authority address such topics, they are likely to find themselves disciplined for trespassing on their students’ rights.
There are other things that bother me and seem to be making things worse, but those bullet points are what come to mind.
With that list of things to worry about, is there anything good to be said about the situation today? Or are Christian pessimists simply right, and Christian optimists living in fantasy-land?
There are good things happening in the world as well, some of which are trumpeted by the optimists, while others seem to be largely overlooked. Here are a few that strike me:
- The “good old days” were not, as far as I can tell, all that great. When I read or hear stories from before the 1960s, I am often shocked by the frankly hateful racism and sexism which is tolerated (if not advocated) by them. While Western societies today have certainly not achieved justice, I think that racism and sexism have decreased in many ways. Some of that apparent decrease, of course, is just political correctness, but I think some of it is genuine as well. In some areas of society, indeed, sexual violence may be decreasing rather than increasing, to judge from the degree to which date rape and domestic abuse were taken for granted in certain demographics in a previous generation.
- It seems to me that, despite all its vaunted rejection of Christianity, modern American society is surprisingly taking a more traditionally Christian line on at least one aspect of sexual ethics: the prohibition of adultery. Only fifty years ago, the sexual double-standard led many people to turn a blind eye toward married men keeping mistresses, and concubinage was apparently acceptable. While today a small but loud minority is calling for “open marriages” and “polyamory,” and many people think that anything goes (as long as it’s consensual) before marriage, “cheating on” one’s spouse is more widely despised and censured among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings than, I think, previously.
- If Christian church attendance is decreasing in Europe and North America, it is increasing in other areas of the world. In particular, Christianity has been growing very quickly in China for a number of years now, and since China is the world’s most populous country and quite possibly its next dominant superpower, having a substantial Christian presence there will preserve the gospel for generations to come.
- Christianity is also very strong in South Korea, which is sending more missionaries worldwide than any country except the US. (Indeed, South Korea is sending more Christian missionaries per capita than the US because the American population is six times that of South Korea!) Korean missionaries are working widely through the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and have an easier time in areas where American Christians cannot get visas to preach the gospel. Some of those Korean missionaries are even coming to the US, breaking stereotypes about how Christianity is a religion for dead white males.
- Increasing numbers of people are realizing the emptiness of secularism. They may not know what to replace it with, and there are many ideas on the table, but for some, Christianity is once again considered a live option.
- Most encouraging is the evidence in continued changed lives. Non-Christians continue to find the grace, forgiveness, and joy that God offers in Jesus Christ and are converting to Christianity, while some nominal Christians discover the wealth of the heritage they didn’t know they had.
So there are good things going on as well as bad. Readers inclined to quantification may notice that I listed more bad points than good, but these points are not all equal and cannot simply be tallied up. The fact is that the world’s a mess, but it’s not a straightforward mess. This is what Christian doctrine should lead us to expect. The world was created good, so some good things should be expected to remain visible in it. Humanity fell and made a mess of everything, so we should expect a lot of harm and a lot of damage, and this is what we see in every age of history. Theologians often emphasize that every aspect of creation has been damaged in the process, and thus even good things like relationships and technology can be turned to bad. But that’s not the end of the story, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, through his Holy Spirit, is redeeming the world. So we should expect him to have had some success, and for some things to be getting better!
And this is why Christianity is neither a religion of pessimism nor a religion of optimism, but is instead a religion of hope. The world is a horrible mess, but there is a Savior. His work is not simply past (although he has been working), nor simply future (although he will finish the task), but is past, present, and future. He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). He promised that Hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18). He didn’t promise us a rose-garden; instead, he foretold that in this world we would have trouble, but even so he told us to be encouraged, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We do not see these realities fully (although we often see far too much of our present troubles, if you ask me!), but as Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees?” (Romans 8:24). Even without fully seeing the display of God’s sovereignty in our present world, we can trust his character, for he who died on the cross out of love for the world is now he who superintends the world’s redemption. We hope in him, we wait for him, we pray to him, we worship him, and we will one day see him face to face. He will come again and will bring redemption to its completion.