Category Archives: Unsolicited Advice

The Biblical, Beneficial, Beautiful Call to Church Membership

Note: I’ve had occasion to work on several essays recently for different things I’m doing. This is the first of them; I figured I’d post it here if anyone is interested.

The Church (both big and little ‘c’) is a big deal in God’s story. This shouldn’t surprise Christians, but often it is overlooked. Scripture resonates with concern for the community of Christians in the world. The Church, Paul writes to Timothy, is the “household of God”,  a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He elsewhere pictures it as Christ’s “body”, as if our Lord who is physically absent from the earth is at the same time really and physically present through His Church (1 Corinthians 12). While it sometimes makes evangelicals comfortable, the oldest creedal confession of Christianity includes belief in the “holy catholic church”, and this profession is echoed by church fathers, theologians, mystics, monastics, reformers and missionaries throughout the ages.

It is for this reason that we talk about the importance of “church membership” as something undertaken by the individual Christian. It is true, in one sense, that one becomes a part of the Church simply by believing in Christ. Some theologians have called this the “invisible church” – the communion of all saints through the ages – and it is an important doctrine. However, Christianity is a religion where invisible and internal truths are always meant to be joined with external realities. Faith in one’s heart must be joined by outward profession, belonging by baptism, new life by obedience, and so on. Our concern is not with whether we are invisibly and internally a part of the Church but what implications this has for our visible, external lives.

Church membership, while its specific forms vary, is the way we act out our invisible membership in Christ’s body in the visible world. We join ourselves to a local expression of the body of Christ in a public and binding way precisely because we are to act out with our lives what Christ makes true of our hearts. If we are part of the Church, we should also join in membership with a local church.

In what follows, I’d like us to spend a little time looking at the biblical commands, the practical needs, and the missional blessings of church membership, then end with a few practical recommendations for those seeking to obey Scripture in this area. Continue reading

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Lies, Damn Lies, and… Well, You Know

Evangelicals love statistics, especially negative ones. The way the church talks, one often thinks the sky is falling. According to “studies”, young people are leaving in droves, Christians are morally indistinguishable from non-Christians, and in all likelihood this will be the last Christian generation in America.

The problem with these oft-cited “studies” is that they simply aren’t true. It has often been remarked that we as evangelicals love poorly-conceived statistics – some articles here, here and here might be helpful places to start if you’ve never heard this critique. Recently, I spent some time fact-checking one of these claims – that “only four percent of the coming generation will be Christian.” While this immediately raised my eyebrows because I have some background in the area, a quick google search confirmed that this stat was everywhere. The problem is, it simply doesn’t reflect the facts. Coming out of this work, I thought I’d post an overview of some reputable statistics on where evangelicalism, and Christianity as a whole, actually stands on the American stage. Continue reading

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Material Possessions and Bad Dating Relationships

I recently watched a two-hour discussion between a couple of Christian preachers from a big conference. I’ll leave everyone nameless because I’m less interested in who they were than what they discussed. In particular, at one point they entered into a debate about the way we as Christians need to think about material things. The first pastor (we’ll call him John) argued that the central issue for Americans is that they need to give up their attachment to material things (houses, cars, food, money, etc.). The second pastor (who we’ll call Doug) said this might be true, but that we also had to teach them how to truly enjoy and think about the material things they have, since most of them aren’t called to simply get rid of them. John agreed in principle, but pointed out that this wasn’t nearly as common a problem as over-attachment. Doug argued it’s still an issue because otherwise people are just left feeling guilty about the things they have, after which the conversation moved on to other things.

I have to confess that my sympathies are actually with Doug, but if you’re on John’s side, hear me out. It’s the last comment, that of feeling guilty about what you have, that I think highlights the weaknesses of the simplistic self-denial approach. But first, an anecdote. Continue reading

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The Spiritual Discipline of Chilling the Hell Out

from xkcd.com

I have recently taken something of a  fast from the media frenzy. Now, that’s not nearly as drastic as it sounds. I’ve just noticed that, in my consumption of media (both 1.o and 2.o), I tend to feel like the little stick guy to the right. Honestly, I was just stressed and overwhelmed, so I decided on one simple policy: I would avoid blogs that ticked me off, would turn off the radio when I felt a story was getting me down, and would generally stay away from my usually frantic pace of media consumption.

So I spent some time away, and now that my life has calmed down, I’ve allowed myself to ease back into some of the things I’ve been avoiding. As I’ve done so, I’ve been struck by something that I’ve always known but never really confronted head on.

People are freaking out. About everything.

Politically, people are freaking out about the economy, about other governments (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Russia), about their own government (the Supreme Court, the other political party, their own political party, the President being too or not enough liberal), about diseases, potential conflicts, natural disasters, the environment, science, the constitution, education, and health care.

Culturally, people are freaking out about sexuality (either for or against a dozen different varieties), the young, the elderly, cultural changes, violence, business, and the media itself.

And the Christian world is no better. Everyone there seems to be freaking out too; about books being published, people of different theological backgrounds, people of the same background who aren’t similar enough, trends in church culture, trends in church polity, trends in how Christians relate to the church, trends in how non-Christians view the church, our declining cultural influence, our attempts to increase cultural influence, pastors, families, and the list goes on.

Those lists, I’m beginning to realize, have deeply warped my own heart. It’s easy for us to see demagoguery and fear-mongering in the other guy, but none of us have really escaped it. As I’ve dove back into the blogs and news sites, regardless of which ones they are, I feel my blood pressure rising and anxiety setting back in. Continue reading

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Against Prophetic Nonchalance

It’s a common stick used to beat those sheep who stray too close to the fence between the church and the world back into the safety of our little pasture.

It’s the I.D. badge of many Christians, an initiatory right you must go through, using the right words to prove your right standing with God.

It’s the explanation for some good, and the justification for even more bad.

It’s the call to “be prophetic.”

And I’m sick of it.

If you didn’t sign off already, let me explain. I have heard pastors make passing reference to issues like homosexuality and abortion in sermons, condemning then in a breath and then moving on, while hearts and backs are broken in the congregation because no thought was given to those struggling with same-sex attraction or regretting the hard choice they made as a teenager. I have had co-workers who have been wounded by the church who I try to explain that Jesus doesn’t hate them, that he’s not some closed-minded bigot, only to have a “brother” come in and in ten minutes undo months of bridge-building with a tract and an angry mini-sermon. I have read blogs where calling out sin and naming names costs the blogger nothing more than the effort of a few hundred keystrokes but costs the pastor his career and his job.

There are multiple issues in play with all of the above examples. However, the one that really strikes me is how carelessly all of the people I mentioned conduct themselves. It’s an aside, a blip on the radar of their day, something that takes minimal effort but can do massive damage. I’m calling this sort of conduct “prophetic nonchalance.” It justifies a behavior which is in truth probably better categorized as insensitivity or carelessness as “prophetic” just because some truth of God’s word is involved. It treats such truths as if they were easy things to proclaim.

The fact is that the prophets of Scripture never found it easy to speak the word of God. Isaiah can’t believe he’s worthy. Jeremiah argues with God’s decrees. So does Moses, for that matter, and near as we can tell, he wins. Jonah gets the call and runs in the other direction. These are certainly a mixed bag of examples, but they point us toward an important observation: being a prophet was never easy or self-affirming. It had a tendency to break people down right where they didn’t want to be.

What’s more, being a Biblical prophet was not comfortable. God might send you to the middle of the desert, or to your worst enemies. Israel’s own religious leaders would almost certainly try to kill you. And it’s not like God would necessarily make it easy for you: your prophetic ministry might very well consist of walking around town in your underwear for years or marrying a whore.

Of course these realities shouldn’t dissuade us from being prophetic in a proper biblical sense. However, they should warn us against a cavalier attitude toward this part of our calling. Take for example the preacher we mentioned earlier, the one who takes pot shots at abortion and gay rights. There is nothing wrong with addressing these issues in a sermon. They just can’t be addressed lightly. They are deeply entangled issues with who people are: their sexuality, their history, their future. We must correct gently, with grace in our hearts and tears in our eyes, but it is true that we must correct that which denies what God says. That said, the pastor’s careless aside is not correction. You cannot convince me that its aim in pointing out the error of such a sin is the aid of sinners. No, it is instead the self-congratulation of saints.

Here’s the ultimate problem: Christians tend to have a confusion about the connection between prophetic truth and love. Of course, even the most angry internet pseudo-prophet will pause from his demagoguery, wipe the spittle-spray off his monitor, and insist that he is being loving by prophetically screaming the truth. I get that; there is something loving about telling perishing people the error of their ways. (Of course, spanking your child can be loving too; making it your full-time occupation – or, worse, your hobby – is not.)

Yet declaring the truth is only one small part of what it means to love. At the very least, loving a lost person would also include going to and living among them, sacrificing for them, coming alongside them as they struggle with their sins, and joyfully accepting them into the church as our equals even though they have a lot of growing to do.

An over-emphasis on obeying God in His command to speak the truth can in fact be a clever ploy to cover up our disobedience in other areas. One of the inevitable effects of this sort of behavior is that the area in which we are obedient ends up looking distorted. The Pharisees tithed dill and cumin while ignoring the weightier things of the law, and as a result their tithe, which was meant to be an offering to God for the priests, the poor and the alien among Israel to be blessed, turned into something ugly and twisted. The same thing happens with prophetic nonchalance: we use something meant to heal in a way that instead wounds.

I once knew a man who exemplified prophecy. He fearlessly spoke the truth, yes, to the religious and irreligious alike. But he did it at their table, after sharing a meal and healing their sick. He would not break a bruised reed, but rather was as harsh or gentle as the situation demanded. Let’s spend a little time looking at Christ, and Christ as a whole, for our model of prophetic ministry; then, after looking, let’s join him in loving the world with a love that looks like dying.

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Biblical Marriage is Like a Handgun

I couldn’t help looking at this letter on Russel Moore’s blog and then skimming the comments.  For those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it, the letter asks for advice from a Reformed Baptist man and a Pentecostal woman who are considering marriage. Moore says he’ll put up his thoughts later this week, but opened up the letter for commenters.

Now, before I critique the comments, I’ll give my initial thoughts. First, in the big idea realm, I see no reason why such a couple couldn’t marry. If marriage is an image of Christ and His church, then to claim that they couldn’t marry because of denominational differences is a betrayal of disbelief at the thought that Christ can love across such lines. However, this isn’t the sort of thing you should go into blindly. The temptation in such situations is to minimize the real differences the two of you have, and I promise that such a course will sow seeds of conflict whose harvest you will reap later.

That said, what I couldn’t help but notice was the commenters’ obsession with the complimentarian question. Almost all of them called attention to the fact that the wife (who was the Pentecostal) needed to submit to her husband (the Reformed Baptist), and should only marry him if she was comfortable with letting him choose the church. Now, there is an element of truth in this advice, but I want to push back a little.

The reigning error in complimentarian circles (and, should you be readying an assault, I am a complimentarian) is that the paradigm for discussion ends up being about power rather than about service. Scripture clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife, but this headship is meant to be one of self-sacrifice – of laying down his life and his desires in order to serve and protect her. He is to lead in service, both to God and to his spouse, exactly the way that Christ led in service to His church (including the beatings, the rejection, the loss of his independent ambitions and a blood-splattered cross.) When we take this fundamental truth out of the equation, we end up championing something other than the biblical teaching on marriage, instead defending what I in the past have referred to as “chauvimentarianism.”

In practice, this means that we might want to couple an admonition to the wife in Moore’s letter with one to the husband. He is responsible, in serving his wife, to promote sound teaching of God’s word, and this needs to factor into church choice. However, he is also responsible for finding a church where she can express and experience God in the ways that He has created her to, even if he as the husband doesn’t much like it. It might be worth telling the husband that he shouldn’t get married if he’s not willing to give up the churches he’s used to attending in order to serve his wife.

I don’t bring this up to be controversial, but rather honest. Complimentarianism is sort of like keeping a handgun under your bed. When used for its intended purpose, it can be a way for the husband to protect his wife and keep her safe. However, we know from statistics that too often its power ends up being wielded in domestic disputes, often with tragic results. I often feel the struggle of knowing that I have a certain measure of authority from God in my family and that this authority could easily be used to serve my own self-interest. But to do so would be (and is; it’s not like disobedience is just a theory for me) inexcusable. If a wife doesn’t submit to her husband, she’s just doing what the church does every day. If a husband uses his authority for something other than loving service to his wife, he is making a mockery of the work of Christ. And Jesus doesn’t take well to bullies who claim His authority for themselves.

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Reading Blogs: The Lout with Six Bottles of Champagne

For whatever reason, I sometimes have to visit with people about blogging. These usually end up being one of two conversations. In the first, I have to justify why I waste time on such an enterprise in the first place. Or, occasionally, explain what blogging is and then justify why I do it. (Incidentally, this is probably because my short definition of a blog is “A place online where anyone can spout off about their opinions as if they were important and then other people play along and argue with their opions like they were important too.”)

The other conversation is the opposite. It’s usually something like “Wow, that’s really impressive. Have you read blog X? I think it’s the best thing ever.” I proceed to visit blog X, only to discover that the newest post is either “Obama, Hitler and Soylent Green: The Truth About Health Care Reform” or “FOX News and Cheney Use Hypnotism, Mind Control to Further Right-Wing Agenda.” Or occasionally, in Christian circles, “Bob Read Bill’s Book, Bill Once Favorably Quoted Tim the Heretic: Burn Bob the Heretic!” I’ve been noticing lately that this latter conversation seems to be happening more and more. In particular, as people who aren’t young and jaded enough to have all their filters up read blogs, it becomes a real problem. So, as someone who is both young and (unfortunately) jaded, I thought I’d put up a blog post about reading blog posts. (Notice the enormous irony of this behavior: I’m using a blog post to tell you not to trust blog posts. You’ve taken your first step into this new, more cynical world.) Continue reading

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