Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Passion ... Again

I had a brief discussion with someone this evening about The Passion. This person, a Christian of some years, was advocating that loads of us from our church should go and see it. I asked him whether the second commandment was an issue for him. It wasn't. The prize, for him, is the evangelistic opportunity. I pressed home the point that the message that is conveyed cannot reflect the balance of Scripture, and more importantly fills the mind with man-made visual images of Christ's life and death. To his credit he did pause and think. I'm not sure he had met this kind of resistance before.

Due to other things we did not get much further.

I think what amazes me is that this evangelical, and, it seems to me, most others, do not even consider whether the 2nd commandment is being broken - it does not enter their thinking. I can have respect for someone who has considered the issue and has come to an alternative conclusion to mine. However, respecting evangelicals who do not know their bible well enough to know that there is an issue is a different proposition.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Spreading the Gospel

Roy Joslin in Urban Harvest (Evangelical Press: Welwyn, 1982) quotes Iain Murray (of Banner of Truth):
If it is true that vital evangelism is the consequence of vital Christianity then it follows that the progress of evangelism depends more upon the state of Christians as such than it does upon the work of those who occupy the ministerial office. The exercise of spiritual gifts by preaching elders in the meetings of the church is not the primary means by which the gospel spreads. That exercise is limited both by time and by place, but the witness of Christians in the midst of the world is not thus limited. (p.97-8)

Joslin goes on to say:
Our concern to preserve the right content and accurate transmission of the gospel may lead us to overrate the competence of preachers to do this, and so underrate the ability of ‘many witnesses’ to perform this task with adequate competence but on a much wider scale. (p.98)
Two conclusions I draw from this.

Firstly, a primary function of the preacher, through his ministry, is to equip the saints, not simply to 'perform' well in the pulpit. His ministry may appear less evangelistic than some, but it is necessary in the longer term.

Secondly any clamour from the congregation to reduce the teaching ministry (i.e. fewer services, shorter sermons) in order that the non-Christian may find services more accessible must be treated with suspicion. Over time church leaders may find that their people are no longer equipped and therefore are unable to witness in a way that draws people in. Then there will be no need for accessible services for then there will be no one to whom access is being offered!

Church Planting Book

Multiplying Churches:Reaching Today’s Communities Through Church Planting
ed. Stephen Timmis

This is a collection of chapters written by several writers who have experience of church planting. The book is valuable for two things. Firstly, there is a survey of approaches that have been tried in history in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and geograpically in a variety of cultures. Such anecdotal evidence in itself is useful simply because it reminds the reader of the value and power of the gospel, and of the courage others have shown in the process of spreading it. In our established churches we too easily settle back into our comfortable lives and lose the "all or nothing", "do or die" way of thinking about our Great Commission that our forefathers showed.

The second area of value is in examining the principles that must necessarily govern any church planting venture. There often seems to be two extremes: a rigid cloning of an existing large church into a new area, or a completely radical, almost unprincipled, "do anything to get them in" approach. Both of these are challenged. There must be some principles: clarity about the gospel, what the church is, the need for leadership that can teach. These are perhaps predictable. But other areas such as strategy, creativity, team work are included too. These are implicit in the work of the Apostles. Thinking these through may challenge the more rigid approaches.

Not everone will agree with everything in this book, I'm sure. (I didn't!) And clearly more things could be said on various topics that could not be handled in this small book. But what is offered is challenging, encouraging, an easy read, a good starter on the topic and very commendable.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Church in Conflict

As for most Christians in discussions with non-Christians, I get occasions to discuss the gospel with my unconvinced friends. Often I find them saying to me that, "Religion is the cause of all wars". This is normally a verbal palm-off to avoid Christianity. But look at a large number of conflicts and you will find that at the centre there are religious tensions. Their assertion seems justified.

I have found this puts me on the defensive. I usually attempt to show that in fact the common factor in confict is (wait for it) human beings. In fact it is the corrupt human heart that is at the centre of human conflict. This thesis also accounts for the political, ideological and tribal/ethnic conflict that also exists. This is all true. But I have also found that my friend is unconvinced. Perhaps my approach has been too simplistic.

Recently, it has occurred to me that I must not forget an essential fact of history: God is building his church. At the very centre of the story of man is the fact that the church is being prepared purified as the Bride of Christ. The preparation work is not done without opposition. In fact the church becomes the locus of conflict.

This is no abstract tidy thought. The conflict is not limited to the some abstract "spiritual realm" but intrudes on real life. Therefore is it any surprise that, wherever the church is, at times history erupts in tension and real physical conflict?

Perhaps with my friends, rather than seeking to play down the role of war in the church’s history as an embarrassing side effect, I must use it as evidence that the church is of vital significance in history.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Scripture's Place

Calvin's Institutes I.VIII.11-13
Calvin challenges the proud heart that mocks the simplicity of the new testament. There are heavenly mysteries to be found there from the pens of the educated and uneducated alike.

There are three reasons for the high status of scripture:

  • Their wide acceptance around the world.
  • The godliness of those who accept them.
  • The willingness of many to die holding to them.

Yet these are not enough to provide a firm faith. Calvin concludes:
Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. (I.VIII.13)

I think this is a valuable reminder. The work of apologetics is never able to stand on its own as powerful enough to win a soul to faith. Even with our best arguments, our greatest efforts, our mightiest preaching, we rely wholly on the work of the Spirit to convince and convict.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

What is a Call?

Pastors and Teachers
by Derek Prime
(Highland Books, 1989, ISBN 0946616523)

This book is required reading for some course work. The author was the pastor of Charlotte Baptist Church in Edinburgh for 18 years. I have found it very helpful so far. (I have read 35% of it.) Out of the depth of his experience he describes the necessary disciplines for the ministry. He also gives helpful practical tips that at least help the reader think how he would deal with the same situation.

The initial chapter on the ‘call’ to ministry was interesting, not least because I don’t think I have a fully worked out view of what a ‘call’ is! I have met a range of people with almost the as broad a range of opinions.

Prime marks out four elements of a genuine call:

  • A desire to teach and nurture the flock for their eternal well-being
  • A desire for preparation and training
  • Circumstances which occur to allow the practice of gifts e.g. preaching, pastoring
  • The recognition by the local church of which the man is a member that there is a call

It is important that the burden for discernment is shared between the man and his church. One can lead oneself to believe that the first two items are satisfied through subjective reflection. One can be deceived. The third and fourth are necessary objective (from the point of view of the subject of the possible call) tests as checks and balances on the first two.

Friday, March 05, 2004

The Business of Church: The Final Cut

The Prevailing Church
by Randy Pope
ISBN 0802427413

This book is a practical guide to organizing a church with a view to growth, both in maturity and numbers. The author, Randy Pope, is a church planter in the Presbyterian Church in America. He draws heavily from his own experiences. He has been able to start from a clean sheet in starting new churches

I have found this book tricky to deal with. I first blogged about it here, but it has taken me some time to commit to finally writing about it. To be honest, I’m not sure if I approve of it or not! The problem is that it is so unremittingly practical in its emphasis.

To deal with the topic I would expect the author to deal with three areas. Firstly, what does the bible say about the matter? How did the apostles approach the task of church planting? How did they describe what the church should look like?

Secondly, what were the theological principles that we should draw upon in church planting? In other words how do we draw together what we have gleaned from our biblical study to form principles by which we should act today?

Thirdly, what are the practical issues that have to be faced in a western culture as the principles are applied? How are real people handled? What are the planning and organizational issues? These three areas form a kind of building: at the top are the practical issues, which must be built upon theological principle. The theology in turn must be built upon a foundation of biblical study. With this picture in mind it is my observation that the building in this book is very top-heavy.

Pope’s biblical study is limited to a handful of occasions. The first comes in describing the Prevailing Church. The idea is a simple one, drawn from Jesus’ words in Matthew,
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome [or prevail against] it. (16:18, NIV)

Hades will not prevail therefore we conclude that the church must. What does ‘prevail’ mean? It means that the church is marked by a spirit of servanthood, and acts as a magnet for non-believers. To this end, then, Pope concerns himself with how to plan the work of such a church. How does it go about organizing itself such that it prevails in these terms?

Pope comes up with ten components of a plan for a prevailing church. The plan must contain:
1. A God-honouring purpose.
2. A faith-oriented commitment.
3. A God-given vision.
4. Well-prioritized values.
5. A well-defined mission.
6. Biblically based job descriptions.
7. A strategically defined infrastructure.
8. A culturally oriented strategy.
9. Well-documented goals.
10. A time-bound schedule.

There are some good theological points made in describing this list. For example, a ‘God-honouring’ purpose is well summed up in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is man’s primary purpose? Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Pope calls for the practice of the church to align with this purpose.

Further biblical study is enlisted to sort out ‘biblically based job descriptions’. On the whole this is kept fairly orthodox. The exception is his separation of the eldership from ‘staff’. This latter class seems to include Pope himself, since he is a paid pastor.

However, much of the remainder shifts away from the biblical and theological into the practical. There is much that would fit well into a business environment. Words like “vision”, “prioritization”, “mission”, “strategy”, “goals”, “schedule” are all found in any modern business. It is here I begin to get uncomfortable.

The peak of my discomfort comes when Pope likens the church to a business in order to clarify roles. The church, Pope says, has an owner (God), an employer (elders and staff), employees (members) and customers (members and the unchurched). I’m afraid I just find myself saying, “Why can’t we just learn what the bible means about roles in church life?” Instead, Pope has to introduce a new interpretative grid to explain things. This grid runs the risk of severely distorting biblical teaching and undermining the influence of Scripture in the lives of believers. One can only speculate about the effect this has on the members of his churches.

Having said this, I find myself thinking that there is some validity in simply outlining the practical steps that have been learned. It is clear that Paul had a purpose (to glorify God), a mission (to bring the gospel to the Gentiles), was culturally oriented (his starting point in preaching was different for Jews and Gentiles) etc. It is clear that he made plans, and thought deeply about how to go about his mission. Why shouldn’t we do that too? There is a place for practical wisdom in the task of church leadership.

However, the key issue, it seems to me, is where Paul and the Apostles obtained their wisdom from. They gave themselves to the ministry of the word and to prayer. It is this that enabled them to make decisions, set goals, devise plans to the glory of God. Their minds were being transformed and God gave them wisdom as they asked for it. It is this key element that has, at best, receded into the background in this book. The risk in a book like this is that the reader will bypass the wisdom brought by the Holy Spirit through his word. Instead, he will look here for a manual of steps to be followed unthinkingly. We are always looking for shortcuts as Christians, and this book may tempt some to find one within its covers.

Overall, this book provides much practical help in planning, but it must be handled with care. We must not forget that ultimately we submit to our Lord through submission to his word, and his word must not be replaced by mission statements or time-bound schedules.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Good Article on Marriage

There is a lot on Tim Gallant's website , some with which I agree and some I don't, but I think this article Marriage & the Physical: Your Responsibility to Your Spouse article is excellent. If you are a man, married or single, then read it!

Can Calvin Be Disappointing?

Calvin's Institutes I.VIII.5-10
Calvin attempts to argue that the miracles of the Pentateuch attest to the divine provenance of Moses’ writings. This is a section I find a little disappointing. I find the argument a little weak and unconvincing. He relies on the notion that the people of Israel were eyewitnesses to the miracles and therefore the survival of the accounts comes down to the absence of disagreement by other participants in the accounts. This rather depends on when Moses wrote the accounts. After the 40 years in the wilderness there would have remained a generation who would not have been eyewitnesses, but would have had the stories passed down to them.

Not that I disagree with his conclusion. Instead there must be better arguments that could be made. I just need to find them!

The account of the providential hand of God in preserving the Scriptures in the inter-testamental period is interesting.