Pastors on Pedestals

The first danger I want to highlight is that of the celebrity pastor who is ultimately so big as to be practically beyond criticism.  Some pastors are just so successful as communicators that, frankly, they are placed on a pedestal and become, in both their precept and example, authoritative sources of wisdom to their followers.  In part this is because many rightly think that thankfulness, not criticism, should be the appropriate response to seeing the Lord bless a ministry. Who really wants to criticise a man who brings so many the good news? Yet in an age where sheer numerical success and the ability to pull in the punters and keep them enthralled is often assumed to be a clear sign of faithfulness, there are dangers of which we must be aware…

Praise God for preachers whose ministries are extraordinarily blessed; but let us hold them to the same exacting standards as Paul held the super-apostles in Corinth.   Celebrity ministers who act as influential lone rangers in constituencies where there is no accountability can prove remarkably dangerous.  And if they do not come up to snuff on standards of life and doctrine, let us not pretend otherwise, or trade off fidelity for eloquence or stage presence.  Make no mistake: tomorrow’s church will be the epitaph of today’s leaders.

Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary

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How Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Reveals Our Idolatry and Contempt for the Gospel

Few Christians would openly defend viewing a show like Rock of Love, but who doesn’t get teary-eyed watching the final moments of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Never mind that it’s a spinoff of a show about radical plastic surgery, EMHE pulls together a whole community to give a deserving family a new, grandiose home. Who could argue with that?

Which brings me to the three most disturbing words on television: “Move that bus.”

Again, there’s no arguing with the warmth and altruistic sentiments of the show. The families who have been profiled always seem to be wonderful people, I don’t impugn them or the show’s creators with secret evil intentions. But a disturbing thing happens in the final moments of the show. After profiling the family’s suffering, after talking about hardship and perseverance, after recruiting an army of volunteers, the family is brought in front of the new home, which is hidden from view by a large touring bus. They count down and call out those three words, and the reaction can only be described as worship. There are tears and shouting while people fall to their knees, hands raised in the air.

Here it is on bold display: the ultimate hope of most Americans. It’s as though a phantom voice is responding to their suffering with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant. Here is your reward: dreamy bedrooms, big-screen TVs, privacy fencing, and wireless internet. We watch. We weep. And we hope for ourselves. It’s yet another gospel alternative, this one packaged as a heart-warming vision of the way life is “supposed to be.”

Instead of just asking yourself about lust when you watch a film, ask yourself about hope. What’s the hope being proclaimed? What other desires are being stirred? Does it feed your sense of self-righteousness? Does it give you cause for contempt? Or does it give you a call to worship at the feet of the American dream?

Good art tells the truth, and sometimes the truth is ugly. Sometimes people who suffer don’t receive a reward. Sometimes the truth involves sinful people doing sinful things, and in telling a story (even a redemptive story) it’s necessary to talk about that darkness. Sometimes what appears to be good for the heart and the family is actually an idol in disguise.

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky

How Reality TV Reveals Our Self-Righteousness

To me, the problem with our television viewing, like our movie viewing, has less to do with content than it does with our hearts. In our tribe of evangelicals, the conversations tend to focus on lust and sexuality. But there’s far more than sex happening in our hearts when we watch TV and movies.

Let’s take a fairly friendly show like The Amazing Race. I’m not a huge fan but watched a few episodes several seasons back, and I catch glimpses of it now and then. I remember when it dawned on me that the casting directors on the show are the true geniuses. Like any good story, they give you sympathetic characters, underdogs, and villains. It’s with the villains that we need to examine our hearts. There’s almost always a verbally abusive alpha-male, dominating his poor wife or girlfriend throughout the show. It brings out the bile in us, and we hate him. In fact, this sort of slimy weasel character shows up on a lot of reality television.

Now why would casting directors consistently put people on TV for us to hate? You’d think our tendency would be to change the channel when they were on TV. On the contrary, we love the villains. We love to hate them. Having a villain, an enemy, a monster to watch puts us as the viewer on the judgment seat. We’re empowered to stare down our noses at these villains, and the contempt feels great.

The villain role was so successful in reality TV that it gave birth to this whole second-generation of shows like Rock of Love, I Love New York, and Jersey Shore—houses full of contemptible people doing dehumanizing things for a moment of fame. The phrase, “I’m not here to make friends” has become a mainstay of all reality TV shows, indicating the moment when the villain is revealed, the contempt pours out, and things get ugly.

Why do we watch them? Why do we have “big appetites” for contempt? Because it fans the flames of our self-righteousness. The fall has left our souls without gravity, adrift, looking for any indication they can find of their security. Reality TV’s villains present us with the minimal assurance that, no matter how bad things may be, at least we aren’t eating animal entrails for a chance to date a washed-up rock star.

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky

Why Lausanne III, and All Ecumenical Assemblies for That Matter, Are a Waste of Time

As always, Carl Trueman is spot-on in this critique of ecumenical declarations. Here are excerpts of his essay:

Thomas Jefferson was no orthodox Christian but I have a deep suspicion that he should take significant responsibility for one of the greatest myths that currently dogs the church in the modern world.   In drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he helped to create the impression that declarations and petitions can actually achieve something…

The problem [with the Declaration of Independence] is that it has left a residual belief in the wider world that petitions can actually achieve something. This belief seems to exert a peculiar hold over the minds of many Christians, despite, I should add, all of the evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, the last few years have seen a number of petitions and declarations which have all, by and large, achieved nothing…

The Manhattan Declaration is another example… For all of the excitement surrounding its launch, however, and the high hopes that it would have some kind of significant impact, it seems to have achieved almost nothing in the time since it was published and, perhaps most ironically, served in certain evangelical quarters as a source only of discord.  Evangelicals typically make the fatal mistake of assuming that the wider world actually cares about what they think. It does not: it increasingly regards us as fringe lunatics, rather as it did in the first century…

What puzzles me is the idiom by which these things are expressed. Do we really need a ‘declaration’ on these things, and what good is this actually going to do?  First, I might remark that, frankly, such sentiments as ‘We love God’ and ‘Jesus is unique’ are in a similar league of obviousness to the phrases ‘We oppose wife beating,’ ‘We consider clean water to be a good thing,’ and even ‘Disco music was a very bad idea (not to mention the white suits and chest wigs).’  To read some of the blogs and reports on the conference, you would think that something new and radical was being proposed.  Nothing I have seen could not have been found better expressed elsewhere by somebody else at some point in the past…

The question then becomes: did we need a gathering of thousands of church leaders (though no leader from my own church, local or otherwise, seems to have been present), at huge expense, to tell us these things?  Do most of us not belong to churches where such things have been part of the very reason for our existence from the very start? The conference presumably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize (if not more), before one even includes the hours spent by said church leaders away from the local postings to which they have been called. Is this a legitimate use of money at a point in time when many churches and Christian organizations are struggling to make their budgets?…

Now, I know that we want to find ways and means of expressing our unity in Christ; but to do this via a non-ecclesiastical root is not consonant with scripture and also leaves the gathering vulnerable to the accusation that it is self-appointed and unrepresentative. This latter criticism is particularly ironic, given the laudable desire of the organizers to be inclusive and, to quote the webpage, to be  ‘perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church.’ To play the postmodern card: one wonders who decided which people were ‘representative’ and thus received an invitation, and which were not and were left by the wayside

Maybe Lausanne III will be significant. I wish I could believe that. More likely, I suspect, it will go the way of Lausanne I and II: it will produce some inspiring documents, an interesting book or two, and perhaps give those fortunate enough to have been present a vision of the kingdom which may last for a few months or maybe a year. It certainly will not have any impact at local level: it does not have the mechanisms attached to it to do so.  Thus, for most of us, life will go on as normal, in all of its boring, mundane routine: we will ensure that the gospel is faithfully preached week by week from our pulpits, we will attempt to apply God’s word to the routine pastoral problems of our congregations, we will seek to reach out to the community where God has placed us, and we will, in these straitened times, strive to meet our modest budgets. In this context, a context very familiar to most Christians, some of us will wonder if the money and time spent in Cape Town might not have given a better return if invested elsewhere.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/i-blame-jefferson.php

Why Postmodernism Is a Dead-End Road

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the poster child for postmodernism, probably thought he was clever when he refused to call himself a postmodernist. He preferred to call himself a man of  the Enlightenment, albeit a new Enlightenment, one that was enlightened about the Enlightenment and resisted letting the spirit of the Enlightenment freeze over Dogma (Caputo and Scanlon, God, the Gift and Postmodernism, p. 2).

Apparently Derrida didn’t think through that statement very thoroughly, because he didn’t consider that his “new Enlightenment” could be trumped by a “newer Enlightenment.” So before anyone else does it, I declare myself a man of the Enlightenment, albeit one who is enlightened about Derrida’s enlightenment about the Enlightenment, and who resists letting the spirit of Derrida’s enlightenment about the Enlightenment freeze over dogma.

A Most Eloquent Exposition of the Glory of the Cross

The Glory of the Cross is understood when we see that the impaled and immolated Christ is not simply a helpless victim, rather that the Cross was the instrument by which our Lord wielded his Almightiness, through the Eternal Spirit, as the weapon of his warfare so that it became the means of his victory over sin, Satan and death. Christ was not simply suffering the will of God, he was doing it.

The cross was not the stake of a martyr: it was a theatre of war, the scene of a mighty conflict. Incalculable spiritual power was being wielded. Sin was being rendered impotent; death was being destroyed; the rulers of the darkness of this world were being routed. At no point of our Lord’s death was there loss of consciousness or exhaustion or strength. His spirit is not simply to depart, or to expire. It is rather dismissed, on the authority of the Saviour, as a magnificent shout of triumph reverberates through heaven, earth and hell – ‘It is finished!’ So forgiveness in the Bible is grounded firmly in the rectitude of God, not his indulgence. It is a righteous act, and a judicial action sanctioned by the Moral law. The sacrifice of the Lord of glory, the blood of God the Son, justify justification. In the flesh of the Son of God the sins of the church of God have been condemned.

Therefore in the logic of redemption there is now no condemnation. In Christ, they are all that the righteousness of God requires the Holy One to require, and for that reason not only may  God forgive them, but God may not forgive them. It is to the divine fidelity that the eloquence of the Cross is ultimately addressed. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ Jesus that died. That is the Glory of the Cross.
Geoff Thomas, Minister, Alfred Place Baptist Church,
Aberystwyth, Wales, UK

The Difficult Challenge of Teaching the Bible in an Academic Setting

Teaching in a theological climate is a very lonely and sometimes daunting enterprise. Even with the most absorbed and friendly class, you are all alone there in front. What you say will inevitably be passed on—sometimes garbled and distorted. When you read the exams and one student after another gets it all wrong, there is really only one conclusion available: you, with all your preparation and good intentions, have deceived a whole class, and they will go on to deceive the waiting world. It is hard to be fearless and open to learning and willing to teach something new and important. It is easy to be safe and lazy.

Clair Davis, Chaplain and Professor of Church History, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas TX

How Good Science is Often Misused, Misreported and Misinterpreted

Every few months a major news story breaks about a new scientific discovery that will either change life as we know it, or that disproves once again something Christianity teaches. So, Christians live with the ever frustrating task of explaining once again how they are not against real science, but against “what is falsely called knowledge” (or science)-1 Tim. 6:20.

Truly, science is not the problem, but rather the interpretation and reporting of scientific data. As a Christian I believe that every fact in the universe reveals the glory of God and is to be interpreted in that light. So I recognize that any scientific “fact” that is reported must necessarily be interpreted, and I can only accept interpretations that square with biblical revelation.

Not only is scientific data quite often misinterpreted, but in getting the data to the public, media outlets often misreport, distort, spin, and strip it of its context. Here’s an illustration of how this happens:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/10/30/2838/

Why Pastors, and Not Professors, Are the Answer to Biblically Illiterate Congregations

Those of us who teach Bible and theology in Christian colleges and seminaries learn quickly to live with chastened hopes of making a significant impact on the church in America today. I am well aware that any influence I might ever have on believers outside my local church is indirect. That is, in shaping future pastors, church planters, missionaries, teachers, and counselors, I do have the joy of influencing believers all over the world through the graduates of our seminary. But my teaching and writing, especially the academic side, while necessary, is not what will transform churches.

Yale University theologian, Miroslav Volf notes that in his context of mainline liberal churches, theologians are completely irrelevant to the average churchgoer. He observes that while scholars address other scholars and students, the church is listening to other voices:

Theologians are on the sidelines. Like the streetcorner preachers of yesterday, they find themselves talking to a crowd too hurried to honor them with more than a fleeting glance.

“Theology, Meaning and Power,” in The Nature of Confession, ed. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm (IVP, 1996), 45.

Now, I don’t think the situation is as dire in conservative, Bible-believing churches, but the principle still applies to some extent. It’s not the college and seminary professors that will change the church. Pastors who faithfully preach and teach the Word to their congregations in the power of the Holy Spirit are the ones who will be the most instrumental in significant change. They are the ones who must keep their fingers on the pulse of the people in the pew and counter the various influences of error today. While professors can fulfill their role in training ministers, no one should live with the illusion that they are more important to the average Christian than they really are.