Church Issues

 

Apr

02

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

The Fault Lines Before the Evangelical Earthquake

SAF-e1346289593322The recent controversy surrounding World Vision USA’s decision to open employment to same-sex couples and the organization’s subsequent reversal reveals the fault lines in evangelicalism today.

For the evangelicals distraught by World Vision’s initial decision, the controversy was never about the legitimacy or worthiness of people with differing views of marriage doing good work around the world. We should applaud good deeds of relief and compassion wherever we see them and wherever they come from. No, this particular controversy was about the meaning of evangelical.

Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical? Related to this discussion are questions about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, cultural engagement, and institutional power. All sides of the debate recognize that the definition of evangelical is at stake, which is why some are now publicly casting off the term altogether.

The World Vision decision was a tremor that warns us of a coming earthquake in which churches and leaders historically identified with evangelicalism will divide along all-too-familiar fault lines.

Here are the three camps I see right now:

Revisionists 

“The Church’s interpretation of Scripture and our consensus on Christian sexual ethics have been wrong and unjust. Just as we made adjustments in our treatment of women or in our position on slavery, Christians must be willing to revise our beliefs in light of ongoing Scriptural reflection and personal experience. Faithful Christians can and must celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships; otherwise, Christianity will lose its influence in the culture and bring disgrace to Jesus.”

Moderates 

“One’s position on homosexuality or gay marriage is not an essential point of theology. There are faithful Christians who disagree on these matters, just as faithful Christians disagree on baptism, the Holy Spirit, church structure, etc. The gospel is not at stake in whichever position you take. What is at stake is our unity before the world and how we love each other. We can agree to disagree on these issues and still partner in missions and relief work.”

Evangelicals

“The Bible is clear in its teaching that (1) homosexuals are created in the image of God and have innate worth and value and (2) homosexual practice is condemned as sin, one of many sins from which humanity needs deliverance. Marriage is between one man and one woman. Any other arrangement is not marriage at all, but a distortion of one of Scripture’s most beautiful pictures of the gospel. To abandon Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic is to bow before the prevailing idol of our time and dismiss the authority of Scripture.”

Other Issues 

Same-sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are a number of issues related to traditional Christian belief and practice. The same fault lines find people divided over issues such as the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, the reality of hell, and the nature of truth.

Sometimes I wonder if we are watching a replay of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that took place a century ago. Last time, the revisionists wanted to hold on to the essence of Christian morality while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s miracles. The moderates believed they could be personally conservative and yet forge a middle way and partner with people on both sides. The fundamentalists separated and withdrew from Protestant denominations, paving the way for neo-evangelicalism to rise in the middle of the 20th century. This century, the revisionists want to hold on to the essence of Christian miracles while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s morality.

What’s Next

Learning from history, what will be next for each of these groups?

The Revisionists will continue to shrink and lose influence over time. There are three reasons why.

1. The converts to revisionism are typically disaffected evangelical churchgoers who find cultural accommodation appealing, not lost people finding salvation through Christ. Because of this pattern, it will be challenging to sustain consistent growth over time.

2. Those who revise Christianity’s sexual ethics are often the same people who deny that Jesus is the only way to God, that there is a hell, that the Bible is fully inspired and trustworthy, etc. A liberal doctrine is never an only child.

3. Revisionists are culturally captive to the demands of a shrinking subset of affluent, Western churches. Though global evangelicalism is much more united on the authority of Scripture and the distinctiveness of Christianity’s sexual ethic, revisionists lecture global churches on why they should adopt the same beliefs and practices that emptied their own.

The Moderates hold to an unsustainable position. They uphold a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, and yet they downplay the significance of these issues by taking the “agree to disagree” posture or a quiet agnosticism (“since people disagree on this, who can really know?”). I sympathize with those who feel like the culture has thrust upon us an issue we didn’t ask for and those who are weary of the constant cultural clashes between evangelicals and revisionists. That said, this category will shrink the fastest. The revisionists will challenge moderates to stop linking arms with people who affirm traditional marriage because they are “hateful” and “bigoted.” The evangelicals will challenge moderates to recognize the underlying authority of Scripture issues that accompany this debate. Moderates today will be forced to choose sides tomorrow. Those who remain on the fence will see their children, or the next generation, move steadily into the revisionist camp in response to increasing cultural pressure. “If marriage isn’t a big deal, Mom, then why are we holding the line on this?”

Among Evangelicals we can see two subsets:

  • Combative
    Some evangelicals speak to the issue of homosexuality in ways that are needlessly inflammatory. They look primarily to political action as the strategy for bringing culture change in these areas and overlook the flesh-and-blood people in their congregations who are struggling with this sin. The combatives are the minority, but they routinely make headlines.
  • Conciliatory
    Other evangelicals speak to this issue more pastorally, not shying away from Christianity’s distinctiveness but utilizing a tone that takes into consideration the common sinfulness and brokenness of all humanity. They are often publicly silent on the issue because of their desire to not be lumped in with their combative counterparts.

It is possible that evangelicals could repeat the mistake of last century’s fundamentalists by choosing to withdraw from societal and cultural engagement in order to preserve purity of identity. The result would be the inevitable downplaying of the public implications of the gospel we preach. Our kids will then be the ones with the “uneasy conscience” of last century’s Carl Henry, urging us out of our ghettos and back into the public square.

Another possibility would be that this issue paralyzes the church, leaving people to fear cultural backlash to the point we are silent in our witness.

There is also a third way: as society’s marriage culture crumbles further, we witness to the world, not only in our stated positions but also in our families to the beauty of God’s original design.

Loving People, Not Positions

Twenty years ago, the pro-life movement was derided for caring only about babies and not about women in distress. Since the rise of crisis pregnancy centers, few say such things anymore, and when they do, the slander doesn’t stick. It’s clear that evangelical opposition to abortion is coupled with acts of love and compassion toward women facing an awful choice.

Today, evangelicals are derided for caring more about marriage laws than gay and lesbian people. There’s a kernel of truth in this assertion. Too often, we’ve turned people into positions that volley back and forth as a political football – even sometimes trying to protect our rights so much that we fail to call out true discrimination when we should. We can do better. Indeed, we must not only do better, but be better.

What can evangelicals do to show that our belief in the sanctity of true marriage is just as uncompromising and unwavering as our love for gay and lesbian people created in the image of God? How can we be simultaneously committed to upholding biblical marriage and loving our gay and lesbian neighbors? I don’t know all the answers to that question. Nor am I sure of the best way forward, but I do know that we stand in a long line of Christians who often stood against the world for the good of the world. May it be said of us that our opposition to certain cultural developments is always motivated for the good of the world we’ve been called to reach.

 
 

Apr

01

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

“God’s Like That” – What My Kids Got From Studying Hosea

mzl.nmwxxnviSome Bible stories seem ready-made for kids:

  • Jonah and the big fish.
  • Daniel in the lion’s den.
  • David and Goliath.

These stories are epic. They’re memorable. The truths translate well to kids.

But what about stories about Achan’s sin, or David’s fall, or strangely-named prophets like Hosea?

When The Gospel Project for Kids team decided to take kids on a chronological journey through the Bible, the team didn’t skip the Minor Prophets. This decision created some headaches for the team, mainly because other children’s Bibles or curriculum generally pass over these stories. There was little help in seeing how other people had handled some of the more obscure Old Testament prophets.

Then there’s the question of suitability. Hosea is a weird story, even for adults. God tells a prophet to marry a prostitute, give their children horrible names, and then go back and purchase his wife after she is unfaithful.

How in the world can we teach our kids the story of Hosea?

I was curious to see how the session would go in our own church. At lunch afterwards, I asked our nine-year-old son to tell us what The Gospel Project was about that morning. (See the video treatment of the story below.) Timothy recounted the story of Hosea marrying a woman who didn’t love him and kept running away. “But Hosea just kept going after her,” he said. “He even paid a price to get her back.” Then, he paused: “God’s like that.”

I could have leaped for joy.

That’s what I want my kids to hear in church. Not to focus only on the sensational miracles or the details of the Bible’s stranger stories, but to get the point and recognize what the Bible is telling us about God – who He is and what He is like.

My son wasn’t the only one who got the story. A pastor from Maryland posted this to my FaceBook page:

“There was a very cool moment when [one of our students] had an “aha” moment. He said something along the lines of – ‘Oh, I get it now, I finally get what my mom and dad mean when they say that Jesus paid the price for us on the cross. It’s like how Hosea paid to get Gomer back. And I think Jesus felt sad on the cross the way that Hosea felt about what Gomer was doing to him.’ His eyes lit up and he just kept saying how he got it now, he understands. “

Recently, I was working through Hosea again for a future Gospel Project session for Adults, and once again I discovered how this book wrecks my soul. The vision of God as the spurned Lover, the great and glorious Husband who pursues His bride and willingly pays the price to win her back… it is such a breathtaking picture of God’s great love.

How could we not teach our kids Hosea?

You can preview a full month of The Gospel Project for kids, students, and adults by signing up here.

 
 

Mar

28

2014

Trevin Wax|12:15 am CT

T4G Panel Discussion on Group Ministry in the Local Church

tgp_gminlocalchurch_620x349

Groups are a big part of local church ministry. Whether they come in the form of discipleship groups, accountability groups, Sunday School, or home groups, it’s clear that evangelicals believe groups matter.

For this reason, I’m excited to host a free panel discussion at T4G this year. Daniel Montgomery (pastor of Sojourn in Louisville), Robby Gallaty (author of Growing Up) and Eric Geiger (author of Transformational Groups) will join me for a conversation about how to develop a wise discipleship plan for the local church. We’ll be tackling issues like:

  • How do you integrate a group philosophy into your church’s overall theological vision for ministry?
  • Should groups be on campus or off campus?
  • How do you raise and train new leaders for groups?
  • Should groups monologue or dialogue?
  • How do you connect the spiritual disciplines into the structure of your groups?
  • How do you multiply groups?
  • Should groups have an outward or inward focus?
  • How do you cast vision for groups from the pulpit?
  • Should groups primarily gather to study the Bible or focus on fellowship?
 
 

Mar

24

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Pastors, Preach the WHY Before the WHAT

whyvswhat“We can’t seem to recruit and hold on to the volunteers we need.”

“We keep trimming our budget, but our people give less and less.”

“We’ve launched some great programs, but no one seems passionate about them.”

Do comments like this sound familiar to you? Almost every pastor and church leader admits how difficult it can be to cast vision and create passion among the congregation.

What can be done? Pastors generally take one of two approaches.

Approach #1: Focus on the WHAT

The first pastor focuses on what the church is doing or should be doing. If there’s a need, you start a program. You find volunteers to run the program, and then you find more volunteers to replace the first ones.

We need nursery workers! Sign up in the lobby.

We need homes for students to stay in during the Disciple Now coming up. Call the student minister for more details. 

We are having Discipleship classes on Wednesday nights. Put your name on a form for us to know which one you’re going to.

This pastor focuses on what is going on. Information is what the people need. You assume that when church members hear about the needs or opportunities, they will sign up, volunteer, or attend.

When this doesn’t work, the pastor ramps up the energy, throwing in a few more tactics and a sense of urgency to sway people’s behavior.

We are in such dire need of nursery workers that we might have to turn people away! Sign up now. If you’ve got a kid in the nursery, your name should be on the list.

We are still in need of homes for people to stay during Disciple Now. It would be a shame to put these kids up in a hotel, wouldn’t it?

Attendance is down on Wednesday nights. We’ve got some more interesting studies than usual this time around, so hope to see you there!

These tactics work. That’s why we rely on them again and again. But, over time, we notice there seems to be a diminishing return.

Approach #2: Focus on the WHY

The second pastor focuses on why the church does what it does. The church leaders devote most of their time and energy to explaining the why, not the what. 

What does this look like in practice?

First of all, this church rarely gets involved in activities that don’t have a clear why. “We have a ladies’ luncheon once a month,” someone says. “Why?” asks the pastor. “Because we have a ladies’ luncheon once a month. We always have.” That’s not a compelling vision, and trying to get people to do things without a clear why is not compelling.

Why does your church meet every week for worship?

Why do you have a nursery?

Why is your church hosting a Disciple Now for students?

Why do you offer Discipleship classes in the middle of the week?

This pastor doesn’t want to see people manipulated, but inspired. According to this approach, the best way to get people to give of their time and energy to a cause is not by dangling carrots before their eyes or by guilting them into desired behavior. The best way is to spread a passion for the why until church members are spreading the same passion themselves.

Why pastors don’t want an army of volunteers who do church work out of obligation. They want passionate people who are involved because they want to be, not because they feel they have to be.

Preach the WHY Before the WHAT

Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, is geared to the business world, but his insights into this subject have ramifications for church life. He points out that the best companies (like Apple) don’t start with the product; they start with the why - a vision and purpose for existence.

Similarly, great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. don’t give speeches called “I Have a Plan.” No, they have a dream - a why that goes beyond the what. “Dr. King offered America a place to go, not a plan to follow,” Sinek says.

Plans are good. Programs are good. But the why behind the plan and the why behind the program is even better.

So let’s spend the bulk of our time explaining why our churches do what we do and where our churches are going. People will ask you about the what when they’re passionate about the why. 

 
 

Mar

13

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Evangelicals Embracing (and Rejecting) Lent

lent_imageLent seems to be increasingly popular among young evangelicals nowadays. This isn’t the first year I’ve seen attention given to Lent, but it is the first time that I’ve noticed multiple blogs and tweets pushing back against the practice of fasting in the weeks before Easter.

Some younger evangelicals appreciate Lent as an opportunity to implement a spiritual discipline that has a long history within the various wings of Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestants observe this time of reflection).

Other evangelicals believe Lent has the potential of leading us back into the bondage of perpetual penitence and rituals common to Catholicism, to which the Reformers rightly reacted.

Some say it’s a historical practice with spiritual benefits. Others say evangelicals have historically rejected it because of its potential excesses.

Looking at History

The truth is, history is on both sides and on neither side.

Yes, plenty of Christians through the years have engaged in some sort of Lenten fast, but the idea that we are “connecting with our roots” by practicing Lent voluntarily is only half the story. For many of our forefathers, Lent wasn’t optional; it was enforced. If you tell me I have to observe Lent by only eating certain foods, I’m going with Zwingli to eat a nice round of sausages on Friday, thank you much.

And yes, plenty of Christians through the years have rejected any kind of Lenten fast as “Romish popery,” but the idea that we’re standing in the shoes of our Protestant forefathers in rejecting Lent is only half the story. Plenty of Puritans banned Christmas, Easter, and any special Sunday, but I don’t see many people today taking a saw to the church’s Christmas tree.

In the past decade, I’ve engaged in “fasting” during Lent a few times. Right now, my focus is more on Eastertide – a season of Easter celebration that extends through the weeks after Resurrection Sunday.

I see Lent as an exercise that can be helpful or harmful – like many spiritual disciplines. So here are a few suggestions for those who practice and those who refrain.

If You Do Lent…

First, I would caution my friends who engage in Lenten practices to not give off the impression that their brothers and sisters who refrain are “missing out.” If a season of Lent were that important to spiritual growth, the apostles would have recommended it. It is not unreasonable to remember the track record of how Christians have sometimes allowed these seasons to get out of hand by making them into a new law – as Paul himself made clear (Colossians 2:16, where the apostle’s conversation isn’t about Lent, although the principle still applies).

Secondly, in an attempt to “reconnect with our roots,” there’s the possibility of offending a weaker brother who found their former Catholicism or Anglicanism or whatever high-church tradition they were a part of to be life-draining, rather than life-giving. My Baptist friends in Romania are not going to fast around Easter or Christmas precisely because it is associated with a cultural, lifeless Christianity they see in the state church. More power to them. No one should stumble over a fast.

If You Don’t Do Lent…

For my friends who have an aversion to anything like Lent, don’t impugn the motives of those who have found spiritual benefit in setting aside a time of the year for reflection on Christ’s passion. To imply that Lent is a “Catholic thing” misses the rich Protestant history of the practice, and rejecting it for this reason ironically puts Rome front and center, with all of us just positioning ourselves in reference to the Roman Catholic Church. To forbid the practice can be just as detrimental as demanding it.

Conclusion

I hardly think the church is suffering from too much fasting. But I do think the church is suffering from too much self-righteousness (and I include myself in this indictment). Lent – being either for or against – can become a way of climbing up on to the pedestal.

What is more important than the practices we take on is the heart attitude behind them. If there’s anything we should give up this time of year, it’s our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do.

The cross levels us all. And that’s true whether or not you practice Lent.

 
 

Mar

11

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

3 Reasons Why a Christian Worldview Still Matters

tgp_blogheader_oct13-Copy (1)

Capitalism. Socialism. Postmodernism. Consumerism. Relativism. Pluralism.

There are all sorts of -isms in our world, each representing a different outlook on humanity, each with different opinions about the way societies should function and people should behave.

Some Christians shrug off any effort to study philosophies and “isms.” They say things like, “I don’t worry myself with what other people think about the world. I just read my Bible and try to do what it says.”

This line of thinking sounds humble and restrained, but it is far from the mentality of a missionary. If we are to be biblical Christians, we must read the Bible in order to read the culture. As a “sent” people, it’s important to evaluate the -isms of this world in light of God’s unchanging revelation. In other words, we read the Bible first so we know how to read world news second.

We also read the Bible in order to know how to engage people around us with the gospel. To be a good missionary, we need to have our own minds formed by the Scriptures, and at the same time, we need to understand how people think—the people we’ve been called to reach. That’s why we need to be familiar with the big questions of life and the big debates in our world.

Here are three reasons a Christian worldview matters:

1. Because it sets us apart from the world.

Take a look at Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

In verse 1, Paul wrote that we must offer our bodies. In verse 2, he wrote that we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Mind and matter. Physical and immaterial. Thinking and behavior. Paul didn’t just say, “Think rightly.” Neither did he simply say, “Behave rightly.” Paul knew the gospel transforms both our thoughts and our actions.

If we are to keep from being conformed to this age, we’ve got to understand the connection between thoughts and deeds. Paul connected them, and so should we.

The Bible consistently presents a Christian view of the world. Along the way, the biblical authors interact with and contradict other worldviews. We ought to be skilled in doing the same. It’s part of how we keep from being conformed to this world.

There is a missional orientation to our nonconformity. Worldviews matter because people matter. Seeking to understand someone with whom we disagree is a way of loving our neighbor. It doesn’t mean we accept every point of view as valid, right, or helpful. Neither does it mean we paper over our differences. But it does mean that we will listen and learn like missionaries seeking to understand the culture we are trying to reach. If we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice,” we must live in light of the mercies of God, understand our role in the world as Christ’s ambassadors, and answer His call to bear witness to Him and His work.

2. Because it aids our spiritual transformation.

Romans 12:2 points us back to chapter 1 of Romans, where Paul laid out the dire situation of humanity before a holy God. There he wrote:

“For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…They exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:21-22, 25).

Romans 1 shows us what happens when we exchange the truth of God for lies. Our minds are darkened, and then we engage in sinful behavior, as is evidenced in Paul’s list of sinful attitudes and actions: greed, envy, murder, sexual immorality, etc. (vv. 29-31).

But in Romans 12, the situation is gloriously reversed! Because of Christ’s work, our minds are being renewed. No longer are we senseless sinners living in the dark. Instead, we are redeemed people living in the light of Christ’s resurrection. We also live in the light of His regenerating work in our hearts. Through the Spirit, God is at work changing us, conforming us—not to the world but into the image of His Son. By the mercies of God, we have been given a new identity.

It’s true that we don’t always think clearly. Our sanctification is indeed a process, and it is still incomplete. Yet God delights in seeing His children love Him with their minds. He loves to see us embrace the new identity He has given us.

The psalmist wrote, “The revelation of Your words brings light and gives understanding to the inexperienced” (Ps. 119:130). Ultimately, if we have understanding, it’s not just because we have attained a natural level of maturity but because we’ve benefited from God’s revelation.

Being transformed by the renewing of your mind won’t happen apart from God’s Spirit working through God’s Word. We need the Spirit to illuminate the meaning of the Bible so that we are able to find our place in God’s great story of redemption.

3. Because it helps us know how to live.

Do you see how the apostle Paul gave the renewing of our mind a specific purpose? It’s not so we can pride ourselves in thinking rightly. Romans 12:2 makes it plain what the purpose of our spiritual transformation is: so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

Sometimes Christians wish the Bible were simpler, a quick and easy guide that lays out every step of obedience. To be sure, the Bible has lots of do’s and don’ts. But God didn’t choose to lay out in detail specific commands for every possible situation we might find ourselves in.

What the Bible does give us is a grand narrative that focuses our attention on Jesus Christ and His gospel. In this story of redemption, we glean principles for living according to our new identity in Christ. Once we understand our general role in the plan and providence of God, we are called to exercise biblical wisdom in our everyday decisions.

God left us with something better than a simple list of commands. He gave us a renewed mind that—through the power of His Spirit—will be able to discern what actions we should take. He is seeking to transform us so that we can determine God’s will in particular situations where explicit instructions are not spelled out in Scripture.

~~~~~

This post is adapted from my introductory session of The Gospel Project – “A God-Centered Worldview.”

 
 

Mar

10

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

When Things Get Complicated, Remember the Basics

babelWe’re Christians on the track, running the race with a great cloud of witnesses in the stands, saints of old who are cheering us on. But there’s a fog hanging over the section of the track in front of us. We’ve not been here.

This is the situation we find ourselves in.

Technological advances and moral decay have accelerated, perhaps feeding off one another, with the ground shifting so rapidly under our feet that we’re not always sure what to do or where to go.

The ethical dilemmas we are facing would boggle the mind of my great grandparents.

  • A woman in your congregation considers it her full-time job to be a surrogate mother for women who cannot conceive. I don’t understand. Isn’t motherhood defined by carrying a child? How can one mother host another mother’s child?
  • A photographer feels uncomfortable participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony and is facing fines that lead to the dissolution of their business. I don’t understand. What is a same-sex marriage? Isn’t that like saying “square circle?”
  • A business owner feels like he would be complicit in evil if he is forced to pay for his employee’s “constitutional right” to a chemical abortion through the company’s insurance policy. I don’t understand. Where is the Constitutional right for a mother to take the life of her child?

It’s not going to get easier.

If in a mere decade, a society can overturn a pillar that has undergirded civilization for thousands of years, what kind of changes will come in the next decade or two? The unthinkable is now the possible.

The cultural pressure upon us will increase. We better be okay with standing out from the rest of the world, no matter how unpopular it makes us.

We also better get used to people saying we are filled with hate and vitriol toward neighbors we disagree with. And we should do our best to show the world so much love that those labels don’t stick.

Maybe the way God is teaching us to reach out to the maligned and marginalized is by letting us taste the same kind of social ostracism.

Maybe the less we seek the love of society, the more we’ll be free to love others in God’s image.

Maybe the cultural car is careening toward the cliff, and we’re supposed to be the people who are standing with our arms outstretched saying, “Stop! You know not what you do.”

I don’t have all the answers to the ethical issues we face today. Nor do I know what issues will soon appear on the horizon.

What I do know is this: when things get complicated, we should remember the basics.

  • This world God created is good. He has a plan for it. We’re going somewhere.
  • This world is broken. We’ve all rebelled against our good and loving Father. We’re lost.
  • God demonstrates His great love for us in that even in our sinfulness and rebellion, He sent Christ to die for us.
  • The world will be redeemed. The great story of our world will have chapters where all hope seems to be lost, but like all great stories, the happy ending is assured. And the sequel will never end.

Life is complicated. Our choices won’t be easy. If we are to live faithfully in this brave new world, we will need wisdom from above.

But some things just aren’t going to change:

  • God still loves His children. And He even loves the people who hate Him and His church. Jesus’ dying breaths exhaled forgiveness.
  • We’re called to love our neighbors. Sometimes, loving comes easily. Other times, it’s harder. And Christian love assumes the strange posture of sometimes standing against the world for the good of the world.
  • The world still needs Jesus. The gospel is still powerful. And the church is still on mission.
  • There’s a city whose foundations are unshakable. And there’s a city of man that builds its idol-tower of “progress” to the sky. Christians who are most comfortable in the city of man find it hard to represent the city of God.

Jesus saves. So love God. Love people. The basics never change.

 
 

Mar

05

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

5 Views on Church Government

Do ecclesiological differences matter? The editors of Perspectives on Church Government: 5 Views (Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman) believe they do.

These editors have assembled five essayists, each representing different forms of polity – Daniel Akin (single elder-led congregational model), James Leo Garrett Jr. (democratic congregational model), Robert L. Reymond (Presbyterian model), James R. White (plural elder-led congregational model), and Paul F. M. Zahl (Episcopal model).

Summary

Church GovernmentThe question at the heart of this book is this: “What is church polity, and how important is it?” Brand and Owen define polity as “governance and organization,” which is why the book’s essays focus primarily on how a church or group of churches “organize and administrate themselves.”

After the editors present an overview of the historical development of church polity, they introduce five writers who make a case for their particular forms of polity.

Single Elder-Led Church

Daniel Akin makes the case for a single elder-led church. First, he builds a foundation by laying out the biblical evidence for congregationalism. Then, he shows the Scriptural description of elders, who they are and what they are to do.

Akin makes the case for a “pastor teacher” who functions as “first among equals” if there is a plurality of elders or a single pastor who leads the congregation. The purpose of Akin’s essay is not to demand every church be led by a single elder, but instead to make the case that the New Testament allows for flexibility in the number of elders.

Presbyterian Church

Robert Reymond makes a case for Presbyterian church government, “that is, governance of the church by elders/overseers in graded courts, with these officers executing the responsibilities of their office in unison and on a parity with each other, and with the material care and service of the church being looked after by deacons (known corporately as the “diaconate”) under the supervision of the elders/overseers.”

Reymond believes “the church” at Antioch was a presbytery representing several congregations, and he dubs the conference with the elders in Jerusalem (the Jerusalem presbytery) a “general assembly.”

Congregation-Led Church

James Leo Garrett, Jr. makes a case for the congregation-led church. He defines congregational polity as “that form of church governance in which final human authority rests with the local or particular congregation when it gathers for decision-making.”

The vision of congregationalism is that “the congregation govern itself under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Christocracy) and with the leadership of the Holy Spirit (pneumatophoria) with no superior or governing ecclesial bodies (autonomy) and with every member having a voice in its affairs and its decisions (democracy).”

Episcopal Polity

Paul Zahl writes the oddest of the five essays because he is the only author to argue against the idea that one polity is the correct one. In fact, Zahl believes that “when polity and ecclesiology become absorbing questions for the church, you can bet we are in a time of comparative stasis.”

Because of this belief, he does not give space to biblical exegesis or analysis of relevant texts. Instead he gives a brief historical overview of Anglicanism, explains the episcopacy, and then highlights its strengths and weaknesses.

Plural-Elder Led Congregation

James R. White presents the plural-elder-led church, a polity distinct from the two other forms of congregationalism in that White believes a plurality of elders is essential. It appears also that, for White, these elders have more authority than in a strictly democratic variation of congregationalism.

In opposition to Zahl’s assertion that polity is unclear in the New Testament, White claims that “the structure of the church is so clearly seen, and its offices so plainly taught in the inspired Scriptures, that to go beyond their warrant is in essence to seek to improve upon the divine wisdom.”

Evaluation of this Book

Three out of the five essays in this volume are from a congregational perspective. Because of this, many of the same pieces of evidence are repeated throughout the book. Still, it is interesting to note the different ways the congregational writers go about making their case.

Personally, I find the strongest evidence for congregational government in the New Testament’s description of the church as the final court of appeal in the exercise of church discipline and the implying of a church vote.

In other cases, the biblical evidence for congregationalism is less convincing, especially in Acts. For example, I do not find it persuasive to take the description of Barnabas being sent by a church in Acts 11:22 or his giving a report to the congregation (14:27) as evidence for congregational church government (as Akin does).

This is a common theme throughout the book, not just in Akin’s essay: the authors turn to texts that may hint in one direction or another but are not in any way forceful or explicit on the subject of church polity.

Perhaps the greatest example of trying to discern a definitive statement on church polity in a passage that contains mere hints and clues is Robert Reymond’s essay, in which the elaborate system of presbyteries, sessions, and elders is grounded almost exclusively in Acts 15.

Reymond’s attempts to extrapolate a Presbyterian polity from this event are passionate, but they suffer from the same weakness as Akin’s marshaling of descriptive texts as evidence for congregationalism. To read Presbyterian polity back into a text like Acts 15 is anachronistic, something the other contributors are quick to point out.

Conclusion

Perspectives on Church Government gives a helpful overview to different forms of church polity. A reader who is looking for a succinct, biblically informed, historically mindful presentation of church government will find this book to be an important resource. The writers are charitable and gracious in their interactions, even when they disagree strongly regarding their differing views.

Readers may not walk away convinced of any one perspective, but they will likely grow in their appreciation for other points of view and the passion with which people advocate for them.

 
 

Mar

03

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Get Ready for the Most Super Ordinary Sunday Ever!

I love following pastors on Twitter and Facebook. In these years of temporarily being outside of pastoral ministry, it gives me great joy to pray for pastors who continue to preach, teach, lead, and serve week after week after very long week.

But Saturdays make me chuckle.

Beginning on Saturday afternoons, the tweets start rolling in. Tweets that sound a bit like a pep rally:

  • Stoked about worship this weekend! Don’t miss out! It’s going to be epic!
  • So pumped about what God is going to do tomorrow in worship!
  • Can’t wait to deliver the message that God gave me for our church tomorrow!
  • Get up, get to church, God is going to do great things tomorrow!
  • AMAZING testimony to start our service on Sunday! Trust me, you do NOT want to miss this!

Super Ordinary

A pastor friend and I were having lunch not long ago and he said, “Sometimes, I want to get on Twitter and say to all our church members: I’m super stoked about services this weekend! It’s going to be the most super ordinary Sunday ever!”

There’s something to be said for online enthusiasm for worship services. Would that we be more enthusiastic about gathering with God’s people and hearing from God’s Word! We go to worship with a sense of expectation and anticipation, yes. We attend church services expecting to hear from God, prayerfully open to whatever changes He might make in our lives.

But let’s face it. Not every message, every song, every service will be spectacular.

Brothers, we are not hype-machines.

That’s why all the Twitter buzz wore out my pastor friend with the pressure of making every weekend “an incredible worship service you will never forget.” That’s a treadmill that exhausts the faithful preacher. Where did we get the idea that every worship set has to be more powerful than the week before, that every sermon has to be a home run, that every experience has to be immediately life-changing?

Not only that, but when you really do have a big event going on, it’s hard to top your rhetoric from every other weekend. If all your Saturday tweets are ecstatic escapes into ALL CAPS territory, you’ll have a hard time expressing how super, really, amazingly, incredibly stoked you are that 15 people are getting baptized the next day. Adjectives run out at some point, as do Twitter characters.

God Meets Us in the Ordinary

So, my pastor friends, please be encouraged by a few simple truths.

First, let’s not overemphasize the dramatic results of one incredible worship service and underemphasize the long-term results of faithful, ordinary church-going. The week in, week out routine of gathering with God’s people and listening to God’s Word is not a waste, even if your people walk out the door on a given Sunday and can’t recall the second point in your sermon. It’s the cumulative effect of our practices that matters, not the spectacular experience of the moment. Sometimes, it’s not one sermon that changes a life, but 1000 sermons.

Secondly, be thankful for the days when God performs open-heart surgery on us through His Word. But remember that most Sundays, God is extending health to us through the faithful proclamation of His Word and the fellowship of believers who stir us up to love and good deeds.

Third, let’s not downplay the ordinary Sundays – the beauty of God’s service to His children on non-holiday weekends, the Sundays that don’t stand out on the calendar. After all, it’s the God who meets us in the ordinary means of grace that we can get super stoked about.

 
 

Feb

18

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

3 Things to Remember in Discussion with Doubters

Clear-Winter-Nights_1a-716x1024One of the most enjoyable teaching opportunities I had last year was walking through Clear Winter Nights with a group from my church. We met on Sunday nights and talked through the Conversation Guide at the end of the book. (You can access the PDF of the Guide here for free.)

Three aspects of the discussion stand out, and they are applicable to any group that wants to discuss the big issues related to our faith and practice.

1. Saying your church is a safe place for doubters doesn’t make it so.

During the first couple of weeks, our group focused primarily on our past experiences of faith and doubt. I wanted everyone in the group to put themselves in the shoes of Chris Walker, the college student who is dealing with disillusionment and asking big questions related to Christianity.

Almost everyone has entertained doubts of some sort, but our churches are not always a safe place for expressing them. Many Christians feel guilty for ever questioning the authority of their church’s teaching or the reliability of God’s Word or the cohesiveness of Christian theology. The list goes on.

We all say we want the church to be a safe place for people to be honest and open about their struggles, but too often, we paper over our problems and satisfy ourselves with individual Bible verses, while never dealing with substantive questions. This facade gets tiresome, of course, and it is the reason some people just drift away.

2. Doubting is never just intellectual.

The interesting aspect about discussing Clear Winter Nights (“theology in story”) was the focus on the characters’ stories, not just their intellectual hang-ups. We tend to treat people who doubt as if their issues are primarily intellectual. If we can just give the right answers, everything will be fine.

Now, to be clear, the conversations between Gil and Chris in Clear Winter Nights provide plenty of answers, and that’s a good thing. But doubts don’t start only in the mind, nor are they ever totally resolved only in the mind. We are embodied creatures. Our lives are individual stories, and there are all kinds of events and people who affect the way we view things.

We shouldn’t assume that people who express doubts about Christianity are coming simply from an intellectual standpoint. There are always more factors at play. A comprehensive approach will help identify some of those big-picture issues.

3. Strengthened faith should lead to the strengthening of other people.

God uses doubt. God uses doubters.

In the first instance, God uses doubt in a similar manner to the way a broken limb can actually wind up stronger and more fortified at the very place the break occurred. We don’t have to see broken limbs as a good thing to observe that good things can come from the healing process. Many times, our experience with doubt leaves us stronger in the end.

In the second instance, God uses former doubters as instruments in the lives of other people. It was fascinating to see how the early group sessions about Clear Winter Nights had us identifying with Chris and his doubts. By the end of the sessions, we had put ourselves in Gil’s shoes. We were asking questions like:

  • What did Gil do right?
  • What did Gil do wrong?
  • How can we be a mentor to other people?
  • How can God use us to bring peace and clarity to people who are disillusioned with family, friends, or church members?

Good conversations about “truth, doubt and what comes after” should move beyond our personal stories to how we can be useful to others. A strong faith shouldn’t be kept to itself.

Conclusion

My hope is that our churches will be places where we can have good, honest conversations about the questions that matter. Let’s learn how to talk about our faith in ways that strengthen those who are struggling.

~~~~~

Access the Clear Winter Nights Conversation Guide