Monthly Archives: May 2015

Gospel Polemics

In Center Church Tim Keller argues that churches in cities should work with each other toward common goals, even across denominational boundaries.[1] “All Christian movements must be characterized by a willingness to unite around commonly held central truths and to accept differences on secondary matters that – in the view of the partners – do not negate our common belief in the biblical gospel.” For this to be healthy, though, Keller admits that the various parties will need to engage in discussion about perceived doctrinal errors. To that end, Keller suggests some ground rules to make these discussions constructive, rather than destructive.

These are great ground rules within the context from which Keller presents them, but I think they are applicable for almost any discussion where there are substantive disagreements between the parties. They are also sorely lacking in our culture.

  1. “Never attribute an opinion to your opponent they themselves do not own.” This is so tempting to violate, especially when it appears that belief A, which your opponent holds, leads to belief B, which they don’t. Don’t attribute belief B to your opponent if they don’t hold it, though it might be worthwhile to point out the inconsistency of their logic. This principle also applies if your opponent quotes an author you disagree with. Just because they agree with one of the authors statements, doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything that author says.
  2. “Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.” You can never say everything you want to say at a given time and neither can your opponent. They may something that appears imbalanced, but may have offered a balancing perspective elsewhere.
  3. “Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form. Keller offers a good test here. “Do the work necessary to articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’” As an aside, pretty much every social media meme that I have ever seen violates this rule.
  4. “Seek to persuade, not antagonize – but watch your motives!” Here Keller observes that we can try to be persuasive for purely selfish motives, to do so out of the pride of winning an argument or defending our turf, without actually honestly seeking the truth. Our motives shouldn’t be self-centered, says Keller, but God-centered.
  5. “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology – because only God sees the heart.” We have to be careful that our argument isn’t marked by scorn, mockery, and sarcasm. Our aim should not be to make our opponent look evil or ridiculous, but to honestly engage in their arguments. John Newton instructs us to “commend [your opponent] by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing,” a practice which will teach our hearts to love and to argue in such a way that we show “the compassion due to the souls of men.”

[1] List of ground rules and all quotations in this post are in Center Church by Tim Keller, pages 372-373.

Finding the right words as an introverted pastor

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In personality tests I’ve always landed on the introverted side of the spectrum. This can be kind of awkward given the fact that I’m a pastor, a profession that requires quite a bit of social interaction. Even in my “secular” work in engineering I’ve slowly shifted away from programming and into project management, again a fairly socially demanding position.
A friend recently shared an article which offers an explanation for why introverts often have trouble finding the right words to speak in social situations. I can relate a lot to the article. I hate, but often experience, that feeling of being caught flat footed in a conversation.
This struggle isn’t limited to social situations. It is often heightened in preaching. Early in my ministry preaching was especially stressful. What if I lose my train of thought and can’t find the right words? Over time I have developed some strategies for working through these challenges, especially as it relates to preaching. (Note, I think these are good strategies for any preacher, but might be especially helpful for introverted ones.)
1. I always rehearse my sermon in its entirety at least once. This way I am confident not only in the conceptual line of thought, but also in my ability to verbalize that line of thought.
2. I often write out particularly difficult parts of my sermon. The article referenced above notes that introverts often think more clearly in writing than in speech. This is absolutely true for me as well. If I’m having trouble thinking or speaking things clearly I will sit down at my computer and write it until it’s clear. Once the thoughts and words are written it’s a lot easier to put them into speech.
3. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The more I have internalized whatever I’m teaching on the better. The more familiar I am with the content the less nervous I am that I won’t be able to find the right words.
I probably don’t need to go into my strategies for dealing with run-of-the-mill social gatherings, but if you see me focusing my attention on my kids, or if I happen to pull out a board game, you’ll know that’s the introvert in me.

Antagonistic Psalms

There are many places to go in the Bible if you’re interested in evangelism but you see evangelism most clearly in action in the book of Acts. Peter and Paul and many others in the church were incredible evangelists who loved God and who loved those to whom they witnessed. They boldly held forth the offer of salvation to all who would believe.

In Acts 4 Peter courageously stands up to the authorities who tell him to stop proclaiming Jesus. Peter’s response is classic: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

After being released Peter and John returned to the rest of the disciples and together they immediately went before God in prayer. Their prayer is instructive. They praise God for his sovereignty in creation and in redemption and they ask him to give them boldness and to show his power. In the middle of the prayer are the words from Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.” The disciples were well versed in the psalms. This was their worship book. The psalms were foundational and motivational for their evangelism.

Since I’m preparing to preach on Acts 4 this Sunday I decided to take a cue from the disciples and dive into the psalms, asking God to allow the psalms to shape my prayer – specifically as I, with the disciples, prayed for courage in evangelism.

But as I read through the psalms a thought dawned on me: Why did the psalms inform the disciples’ evangelism? Many, many, MANY of the psalms, and especially psalm 2, speak of God’s enemies. These are rather antagonistic psalms. Psalm 2 basically states “Get on God’s side… or else!” Wouldn’t the idea that God has enemies (and that, by extension, God’s people have enemies) squash evangelism? Wouldn’t being informed by these “antagonistic psalms” lead to an inward focused church, more concerned with holding to its own tribe than risking its neck by declaring Jesus as the Messiah and the only way of salvation?

For the early church, the answer is obviously no. Why?

The first answer is that when the disciples spoke of God’s enemies, they spoke of God’s enemies. In their prayer they didn’t say “everyone is against us” but “everyone is against your holy servant Jesus.” This seems to make the sting of opposition less personal and, in the case of the disciples anyway, more theologically accurate. They were being opposed because they were accurately representing Christ and their opponents were opposed to Christ. The enemies of God are by extension the enemies of God’s people in the sense that they oppose what God’s people are doing, but the relationship is not direct.

The second answer is that confessing that God has enemies does not preclude God’s people from loving those enemies or from seeking their good or praying for their salvation. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because they are not our enemies, but because God also sends the rain on the just and the unjust. Jesus himself died for us while we were his enemies. The fact that all of us, because of our sin, were once God’s opponents precludes us from an us-vs-them mentality even with a recognition that God does indeed still have enemies and that God’s people, in representing the gospel, have enemies as well.

In fact, this recognition can be a motivating force for evangelism, and that on multiple levels. First it’s a motivation for evangelism because we know it’s exceedingly dangerous to be God’s enemy. The warning against God’s wrath in Psalm 2:12 is severe (“your way will lead to destruction”) but the hope of salvation is just as sweet (“blessed are all who take refuge in him”). One of the roles of an evangelist is to warn, and in a way motivated and informed by love. The second motivation comes from the recognition that God is sovereign and that, as powerful as God’s enemies might be, all their plotting is ultimately in vain (Acts 4:25) and even the worst they could do, putting to death God’s son, actually played right into God’s hands (Acts 4:28) in his work of redemption. Acknowledging that God has enemies can be scary, but not when we realize that in terms of power, there is simply no comparison, and this realization is exactly what led to Peter and John’s courage in evangelism.

Are abortion and the Holocaust comparable?

I was given a copy of Ray Comfort’s 180 (link to YouTube). In the video Ray Comfort interviews people to ask them about Hitler, their views on abortion, and their views on God and the afterlife. The video also contains historical clips from the Holocaust, many of which are very graphic. The primary thesis of the video is that abortion is a modern day Holocaust, claiming countless human lives. It’s a powerful video.

I confess that after watching the video I went online and read the comments section on YouTube. The main critique of the video was that its comparison between abortion and the Holocaust was misleading. There were multiple critiques of this form but there were two serious ones that I want to look at.

Objection 1: The holocaust was government mandated, abortion is only permitted by the government.

This is an important distinction. Germany was a totalitarian regime and the killing of Jews and others was mandated by that regime. The US is a democracy which does not “force” anyone to have an abortion. It simply makes having an abortion legal.

While this really is a distinction, it doesn’t hold quite as much weight as some assume. Would we think it any less ghastly if the German government simply passed laws saying it wasn’t a crime to kill Jews? It may have resulted in a little less carnage but we would still call such a law unjust.

Objection 2: The Holocaust was the destruction of individuals who had memories, personality, and the ability to suffer.

How can we compare (so the argument goes) the killing of a man or woman who has a family, a personality, and who has the ability to experience excruciating suffering (like being gassed, or burned, or buried alive) to the destruction of a fetus which has such limited brain power. Surely, this is an important distinction, right?

Whether or not you find this distinction convincing will depend on your understanding of the human person. The ethical system of Utilitarianism aims at maximizing overall happiness and minimizing suffering. This system thinks of people as a sum of their ability to experience both. A baby in the womb has a limited capacity for such feelings whereas adults have a greater capacity. Most defenders of abortion do so because they have done a utilitarian calculation: The mother (adult) will suffer more by having this baby than the baby will suffer by being aborted or, even, the baby (possibly because of some genetic defect) will suffer less if it is killed right now than if it is born and lives with said defect. The utilitarian calculation, it is said, weighs in favor of abortion.

The problem with Utilitarianism is that it reduces people to their ability to experience pleasure and pain. It takes a single, albeit important aspect of what it means to be human, and it makes it the sum of our existence, at least for moral and ethical purposes. A more robust picture of humanity (like one where people are created in the image of God) rejects simple Utilitarianism and leads, I think, to a more robust ethical framework.

I admit that the two distinctions above are real and should give us some reason to pause and consider their merit. However I think the objections are less convincing than they may seem on first reading. Furthermore, I think there are two important similarities between the Holocaust and modern day abortion.

Similarity 1: Both the Holocaust and abortion rest on dehumanizing or “de-personizing” the victim.

Hitler rested his case on killing Jews and others on the premise that they were, to some degree, less than human or sub-human (much in the same way that the American slave trade dehumanized the slaves). If we view a person as less human it makes their subjugation or destruction palatable to our consciences. Abortion rests on a similar principle. While most pro-choice advocates acknowledge that a baby in a womb is “genetically” human, they would argue that that baby is not a person, or at a minimum they are a human of lower value. Personhood is equated with consciousness, the ability to suffer, brain functioning, the ability to reason, etc. So the baby (which sounds too much like person) is instead a fetus or a sack of cells. Whatever it is, it cannot be a person, for if it were a person then abortion would be objectionable. And so we see that abortion and the Holocaust both require de-humanizing or de-personizing the victim and on the same basic moral framework and definition of what is “life” and what constitutes “human life” and what constitutes a life worth saving.

Similarity 2: The loss of life is daunting.

11 million people were killed in the Holocaust, 6 million of them were Jews. Between 1973 and 2011, there were nearly 53 million abortions. In both cases, the loss of human life is daunting and, frankly, difficult to wrap your mind around. If you view abortion as the destruction of human life, of a person, then the comparison of abortion in the US to the Holocaust in Germany is not so far-fetched.

Is such a comparison helpful?

Is the comparison between the Holocaust and abortion a helpful comparison? On the one side it makes me a little nervous because it is such an emotionally charged argument. People who disagree are practically put on the same side as Nazi’s, which feels unnecessarily inflammatory, and frankly, a bit like trolling. But, I think to some degree the comparison is both fair and helpful. It’s helpful if it allows us to recognize the moral and theological underpinnings of abortion in the United States, many of which would be otherwise unaddressed. Abortion supporters need to answer some serious questions: Are people defined in utilitarian terms, by their ability to feel pain, to remember their past, to experience joy? If so, why don’t we take this belief to its logical conclusion, as Peter Singer does, and defend infanticide? Or the killing, voluntary or involuntary, of the some mentally handicapped? What is enough brain power to be a person? At what point are our lives protected? At what point are they expendable or even harmful to the human race? If babies in the womb are persons created in image of God in what way is abortion defensible? How is it different from killing Jews? These are important questions and I think they are questions that a serious comparison (not just trolling) between abortion and the Holocaust elicit.

But this wouldn’t be my first argument. I think it is better to get to the root questions, those mentioned above, and you can get to these questions of humanness, personhood, value, apart from the comparison. Ultimately I think it is better to state the argument more positively: All people are created in the image of God, are valuable because he made them, and are valuable apart from their particular brain capacity or ability to feel pain or pleasure. Therefore each life is worth protecting and preserving.

Lists

In our Sunday Night Bible study we are working through Galatians. It’s a small group so we’re very discussion oriented in our approach. This week we concluded Galatians 4. Galatians is a polemic against “another gospel” that added Jewish particulars to faith in Christ (circumcision, observation of certain holy days) as criteria for salvation. This undermined the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection since it based salvation on observing the law instead of on faith and the power of the Spirit.

At the end of the discussion our leader asked “How do we sometimes, as individuals or as a church, fall back into slavery, viewing the law in this distorted way?” One answer was this: “I grew up in a very good church, but we made lists.”

We Baptists are familiar with these [unwritten but well understood] lists. What might be on these lists? There was a list of “don’ts”: Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t dance. They also had plenty of cultural components – what hair length was appropriate, what clothing was appropriate, etc. I remember hearing a story from my Dad. He once went to a church where it was “ungodly” to have a beard. He left the church and visited a church where it was “ungodly” not to have a beard. By the time I was old enough to understand my church spoke against these lists (that’s not to say we didn’t still have an unwritten code of our own) and they were frequently labeled as “legalism.”

Here’s the interesting thing in Galatians. Paul takes pains to emphasize the freedom we have in Christ which is freedom from these lists (in his case circumcision, special observance of certain holy days) but in Galatians 5 we still see two lists. The first list is a “vice list” and the second list is a “virtue list.” The “virtue list” is, of course, the well-known fruit of the Spirit. The “vice list” is perhaps slightly less well known:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Virtue and vice lists are common for Paul. So, we might ask, why can Paul make lists and we can’t? Or, rather, what makes a list a form of legalism (in opposition to the gospel) and what makes it legitimate (springing from the gospel)?

Here are a few reflections:

Legalistic lists are criteria for salvation. When we add anything to the gospel we slip into legalism. So, if we say, you must believe in Jesus and do X, Y, Z we diminish the sufficiency of the cross for our salvation.

Gospel-oriented lists are the natural result of salvation. There’s a reason Paul uses the metaphor of the “fruit” to describe the virtue list. The Spirit produces virtues in us so that obedience to God, while not a criteria for salvation is a natural result of salvation. Faith without works is dead, but the works are still a result of that faith.

Legalistic lists are more likely to create cultural barriers. In the case of the Galatians the whole company of believers, including even Peter, were under the sway of Paul’s opponents. Peter and the others with him were therefore divided from their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ and refused to eat with them. This is part of the reason why Paul had to emphasize the unity of the Church in Christ in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The old “Baptist lists” referred to earlier necessarily had a cultural component (i.e., beard length) and sometimes, to our shame, often even an underlying racial component.

Gospel-oriented lists are more likely to be trans-cultural, or at least lacking in many cultural particularities. Everything in both of Paul’s lists apply across all cultures and show no favoritism to gender or class.

Legalistic lists often result in division. Paul finds it necessary to warn the Galatians, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Gospel-oriented lists speak against division and promote unity. Specifically Paul warns against “hatred, discord, jealousy,” etc. On the other side of the coin, each “fruit” of the Spirit has a definite community-oriented component. If we really were a church marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” think of the unity and peace that would mark our community life!

Legalist lists lead to pride. The Pharisees (and probably Paul’s opponents) took great pride in their ability to follow all the rules and that pride no doubt caused them to look down on others who weren’t as good at keeping the list.

Gospel-oriented lists promote humility. Paul specifically calls the Galatians to use their freedom to “serve one another humbly in love.” If we see virtue and freedom from the slavery of sin as a gift from God and we realize that we can boast in nothing but Christ and him crucified, all our pride is eliminated.

Legalist lists can be done (and often are done) without love. It’s possible, and often easy, to follow a bunch of rules, check the right boxes, and avoid all the wrong “sins” all with the complete absence of love for neighbor.

Gospel-oriented lists are based in love. Paul states it this way: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,” and again, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

So let’s avoid making legalistic lists, but let’s make sure we don’t do away with passionately pursuing holiness in the process.

These are, I’m sure, just a few of the many differences between our “legalistic lists” and Paul’s gospel-oriented lists. What other distinctions have you observed?

Is there a moral distinction between human and animal life?

In my previous post, a summary of Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man, I observed that pantheism (either in its Eastern “spiritual” form or in its Western “materialist” form) ends up lowering man to mere beast.

Recently a colleague lent me the book Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkin’s Case Against God, a book written by a couple of Catholic writers (Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker) in response to The God Delusion. I haven’t read The God Delusion so I’m not entirely sure how good of a response book that it is but the authors definitely make some great points. They were particular strong, I felt, when discussing the moral implications of atheism.

One section in Answering the new Atheism reminded me of Schaeffer’s claim that pantheism lowers man. Wiker and Hahn observe that Dawkin’s praises Peter Singer “as the most eloquent advocate against the speciesist notion that human beings are somehow morally superior.” In other words, according to Dawkins and Singer we should give no preference to human life over animal life. Like their Utilitarian ancestor John Stuart Mill what matters is maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering but, whereas Mill may have been thinking of human happiness and suffering, Singer makes no distinction. This leads Singer to embrace things like abortion, euthanasia, bestiality (so long as it doesn’t cause suffering to the animal) and even infanticide. According to Wiker and Hahn, “Singer would allow the retarded, the feeble-minded, the handicapped, in short, all the unfit, to be exterminated without a twinge of conscience. That is how we treat animals with disabilities and deformities” (emphasis mine).

There are two major problems with eliminating the distinction between human and animal life that Hahn and Wiker emphasize. The first is an indefinite extension of the principle. “Don’t kill human beings and chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, or antelopes, aardvarks, ants… and zebras.” Any attempt to draw a moral line would be arbitrary. Dawkins attempts to draw a line at those animals that have “brain power” or can “appreciate suffering” but that begs the question of what constitutes sufficient “brain power” to be protected.

The second and perhaps more significant is the problem of an indefinite retraction of the principle. Wiker and Hahn state the problem this way:

“When ‘Don’t Kill’ applied to only human beings, the inference was that killing (and eating) non-human sentient creatures was perfectly moral, But as soon as the moral status of human beings is removed, there is no reason to continue the prohibition. Nor should we irrationally prohibit any use of the human animal that we had previously allowed for other animals. Any use, from medicinal to culinary” (141).

I much prefer the ethics of Schaeffer, Hahn, Wiker, and Scripture. There really is a moral distinction between human life and animal life. People are made in the image of God. The value of our life is more than just our “brain power” or ability to “appreciate suffering.” This doesn’t mean we devalue animal life. We value it because God made it. We value the chimpanzee as a chimpanzee, the zebra as a zebra, and the fish as a fish. In this ethic, not only is human life lifted to its appropriate standing, but animal life is lifted as well. We acknowledge not only a moral preference for human life, but also a moral obligation toward nature.