Archive for January, 2009

Conserving Biblical Worship -1

January 21, 2009

Conservative Christians conserve biblical worship. We find ourselves in the midst of ‘the worship wars’, an ongoing conflict between Christians about what constitutes biblical worship and what does not. You probably won’t hear as much jargon, clichéd statements and ill-informed musings on any other subject as you will on the topic of worship when modern Western Christians talk about it. Every man is right in his own eyes; every man feels his worship is fitting and is ready to defend his current practice.

What we are witnessing is the harvest of two centuries of abandoning the piety taught in Christian tradition and culture. As Richard Weaver put it, the true bond of community is sentiment. That is, we are held together in fellowship primarily because we love the same things, and we love them in the same way. With the abandoning of a common sentiment as to what it means to worship God, in favour of modernism’s entertainment worship or target market or consumerist approach to worship, we have cut loose from the moorings of centuries of Christian worship, and are now drifting the currents of our own whims, appetites, rationalisations and popular fads. As we are tossed to and fro, we put on brave faces and claim we are ‘balanced’, and ‘relevant’ or ‘traditional’ (!), but in fact, Christians of just two hundred years ago would be very estranged in our worship services.

To conserve the gospel and the whole counsel of God and abandon the battle for biblical worship is to struggle valiantly to win the road and then surrender or flee when it comes to the destination. After all, while the gospel is the boundary of the Christian life, and the whole counsel of God is the life within that boundary, they all aim at one thing: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. In other words, the gospel and the whole counsel of God are means towards the final end: worship. Why men will fight so hard for means, only to abandon ship when it comes to ends is an enigma. All that doctrine aims at one thing: loving God ordinately.

Worship, along with the affections, is one of the hardest battles to fight. When we contend for the gospel and the whole counsel of God, we find many allies amongst evangelicals and fundamentalists. But once we begin calling for biblical worship, the consensus breaks up, people begin mumbling under their breaths, and the crowd thins out. In the atmosphere of post-modernism, it is not surprising that Christians doubt that there is such a thing as biblical worship. The fact that it is unsurprising does not mean it is tolerable. Conservative Christians fight to conserve and restore biblical worship.

How do conservative Christians conserve biblical worship?
First, they do so by understanding and teaching that there is worship which pleases God and worship that does not. Worship that does not please God is ultimately an act of self-indulgence, and idolatry. In the same way, there is a vast difference between worship and entertainment, and conservative Christians can tell the difference.

Second, by understanding and teaching that the worship which pleases God has always been the worship that He prescribes. He does not call for innovation, improvisation, omission or otherwise tinkering with the form in which He calls to be worshipped. Conservatives understand the meaning and the application of the Regulative principle.

Third, by learning what are the prescribed elements of worship for New Testament Christians.

Fourth, by repudiating worship innovations, old and new, and re-introducing elements long neglected.

Fifth, by giving careful thought to the circumstances surrounding the prescribed elements- how they should be applied and fleshed out in private and corporate worship.

Conservative Christians fight to restore what is most precious to us: the true and fitting worship of our great God.

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Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 4

January 15, 2009

To conserve the whole counsel of God, conservative Christians must understand how fellowship with other Christians works. Christians will not find exact agreement on the whole counsel of God, therefore we must understand how we are to respond to our differences in doctrine. Because many Christians have not understood fellowship, and its corresponding doctrine, separation, they have often failed to conserve the whole counsel of God. This is because of the two extremes in approach towards Christian fellowship.
The one extreme, common to some fundamentalists, is to treat fellowship or separation as an all-or-nothing deal. In other words, someone like this might say “I am either in fellowship with you, or I am separated from you!” With this kind of thinking, separation becomes akin to finding leprosy in a person in Old Testament Israel. Once the separatist discovers some difference in doctrine or practice deemed important by him in another believer, he ‘separates’. This, to him, means that he no longer fellowships with the person he has separated from, on almost any level. To this thinking, the people you fellowship with you are not separated from, and the people you separate from you have no fellowship with.

The problem is, after some time the pool of people with whom you are actually still in fellowship with grows ever smaller, until it begins to produce a kind of incestuous fellowship with ‘our group’, ultimately breeding a schismatic, if not ultimately heretical, attitude towards Christianity. Eccentricities abound, religious pride seeps in, political in-fighting occurs, territorialism grows and it is safe to say that many such groups end up falling on their own swords while dying for some quirky doctrine far removed from the gospel.

The other extreme, common to ecumenists, is to treat unity as an end in itself, and to regard all instances of separation as disobedient acts of schismatic believers sniping at each other. For the ecumenists, the reason for unity is not defined, except for the unquestioned premise that Christian unity is always more desirable than Christians separating. “If unity is possible on any level, it must be experienced on every level”, they reason. Ecumenists are definitely minimalists when it comes to deciding on what (if anything) Christians must agree on to be in unity, and usually work to artificially create or foster outward forms of unity between Christians of all stripes. The problem with the ecumenist is that because his guiding principle is inclusiveness of fellowship, his restrictions on fellowship grow ever smaller. At some point, he meets people who are outside the boundary line of the gospel itself, while professing to believe some of the things inside the boundary line. Usually, his response is to extend Christian fellowship to them as well. This goes back to the problem of indifferentism. The gospel is demeaned, the Christian faith re-interpreted, and the whole counsel of God loses some of its integrity in the eyes of observers.

Conservative Christians must know that neither of these approaches will succeed in conserving the whole counsel of God. They must instead remember that fellowship and separation are not either-or propositions, and that unity, while crucial, is not to be attained at the expense of the gospel.

Fellowship and separation are best understood like two points of the compass. The closer I am to west, the further I am from east. The more fellowship I have with certain Christians, the less separation I have from them. The more I separate from them, the less fellowship I have with them.
And here is the point: as a Christian, you never experience complete fellowship or complete separation from another believer. Here is why.
Fellowship is what we hold in common. By definition, two believers, at absolute minimum, have the gospel they believed in common. Even if they agree on nothing else, they have fellowship in the gospel. Extending inwards from the boundary of the Christian faith is the whole counsel of God, with its various doctrines, of varying importance. At the beating heart of Christianity is our loves – loving God supremely, loving what He loves, to the degree He loves them, in the ways He loves them.
Maximum fellowship includes the whole counsel of God and extends right into the centre of our affections. The more of the whole counsel of God that I hold in common with another believer, the more fellowship I have with him or her.
This is where the taxonomy of doctrine detailed in the last post becomes so important. If you cannot work out the relative importance of doctrines, or see the relative weight of errors in doctrine, you will not be able to know if you hold in common is more or less important.

Following on from this definition of fellows ship and separation we see that depending on how much fellowship actually exists determines how it will be worked out in real life. On the lowest level, I might have minimal fellowship with a believer who has a completely skewed system of theology. But, we can have a cup of coffee together and rejoice in Christ’s grace in the gospel. You could say I am separated from him as far as ministry partnerships, church membership, and other such things go. I did not have to engineer such separation: the fellowship simply didn’t exist in enough areas to merit those endeavours.
I might meet a charismatic believer who becomes my friend. Our differences are very wide, but it is possible, because of his openness, for us to begin a type of discipleship relationship. He is not yet close to being able to teach in my church, evangelise with me, break bread with me or lead – but where fellowship exists, we take it and grow it.
On a higher level, I might have friend who is a Presbyterian elder. We have fellowship on a number of doctrines, but not on the matter of baptism, nor on certain issues of church polity. We could enjoy each other’s company, we will discuss baptism privately, and I might have him preach in my pulpit – but not on the topic of baptism or church polity. We couldn’t plant a church together, nor could he be a member of my church (or I of his), nor could he be an elder in my church or vice-versa. On those levels, we practice separation, because of the areas in which fellowship does not exist.
On a higher level, I might have a friend who is a dispensationalist Baptist pastor. We have more areas of fellowship between us, and we be able to do all the things mentioned in the previous levels, and furthermore undertake a joint evangelistic outreach. We have enough fellowship to make such targeted collaboration possible, and fruitful. However, he does not hold certain views on the Regulative principle of worship, and is more pragmatic in some of his ministry philosophies. He probably wouldn’t be comfortable in my church, and couldn’t be a member, nor be a leader. Our fellowship is quite thorough, but where it does not exist, by implication, we are separated.
On an even higher level is church membership, for to covenant together in church is to agree on fairly specific doctrine, agree with the church’s philosophy of ministry, and find great like-mindedness.
On the highest level would be church leadership – the level of agreement needed here is as high as it gets.

The point of all of this is to say that conserving the whole counsel of God includes how you relate to other professing believers who do not believe the whole counsel of God as you do. We do not have to submerge our differences beneath a façade of Christian unity, hypocritically pretending to have fellowship on all levels, when we don’t. We don’t need to turn our backs on every believer who differs from us, however slightly. You do not have to drop the doctrine to gain an artificial unity. You do not have to drop your brother to conserve the doctrine.
Our taxonomy of doctrine and militancy towards error informs our taxonomy of fellowship and on what level it can be realised. Our understanding of how much agreement is needed for what kind of collaboration further informs it.
We experience fellowship where it exists, and by implication, we experience separation where the fellowship does not exist. We design our interactions to include as much fellowship as can be experienced, given what we actually hold in common.

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 3

January 11, 2009

For conservative Christians to conserve the whole counsel of God, it is necessary that they know the relative importance of the various Christian doctrines to each other. This is because not all doctrines are equally important.

We know this because Jesus told us the greatest commandment of all is to love God with the whole heart. This means that it is the most important commandment, stemming from the the most important doctrine: Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone. If this is the greatest commandment, then there are others not as great, others of lesser importance. Certainly every doctrine found in the Word is important. But when weighed against each other, some are more important than others.

Therefore, believers committed to the whole counsel of God must be able to categorise doctrine as fundamental, secondary and peripheral. They must have a taxonomy of doctrine, and be able to order, arrange and classify teachings according to their importance.

Why is this important? For at least three reasons.

1) It balances our study and teaching.  To effectively teach the whole counsel of God and pass it on to others, we must understand how the doctrines of the Word relate to each other, how they fit into the entire system, how each doctrine functions. A teacher who does not have a concept of the relative weight of doctrines will become like a DIY mechanic – pulling bits and pieces out of an engine, tinkering and fiddling, giving the appearance of competence, but ultimately doing more harm than good.

If we do not know the grand design of God’s Word, we will never be able to relate the parts to the whole. They will either become an impossibly tangled up mess of facts, or they will become little ends in themselves. Not knowing the relative importance of doctrines to each other leads to two opposite and equally harmful errors.

One is the error of minimalism, mentioned in an earlier post. The Christian here decides that the whole counsel of God seems like too much trouble to know, classify or work out, so he will relegate most of it to the place of ‘non-issues’ and focus only on the gospel and its fundamental doctrines.

The other is the error of specialism, where the person becomes so fond of (or consumed with) a particular doctrine that he weights it far heavier than it deserves, artificially trying to make it more important than it is, magnifying certain teachings out of all proportion, and minimising others. Certainly the Pharisees had become specialists in a certain sense.

Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

We all know specialists who have magnified apologetics, or eschatology, or spiritual warfare, or spiritual gifts, or evangelism, or Calvinism, or Bible versions, out of all proportion. We have a limited amount of time on this earth to study and to teach. We must determine how much attention we are going to give each doctrine, leaning more heavily on what is most important, ‘without leaving the others undone’.

2) It helps us pick our battles. Conservatives battle against false doctrine because it undermines the whole counsel of God. However, because we do not weight all doctrines equally, we do not fight for them equally either. A taxonomy of doctrine leads to the understanding of what to battle, when, and how vigorously. A conservative Christian must be able to see if a false teaching is catastrophic, urgent, isolated, or tolerable. In other words, arising out of a taxonomy of doctrine is a corresponding taxonomy of militancy toward error.

An error can threaten the gospel itself, making it catastrophic to believe it. An error might not threaten the gospel, but so skew the entire system of doctrine as to be a very serious error. An error might not skew the whole system, but be significant enough to present real differences in doctrine and practice. An error might be over a peripheral teaching (say the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6), one that should not seriously affect fellowship – a ‘tolerable’ error. For each type of error there is a type of response, ranging from the censuring of apostates commanded in  2 John to the friendly parrying of ideas about Genesis 6 between two believers.

A conservative Christian can see what an error does to the whole system, where it is heading, and where it may lead. The irony of the minimalists who want to conserve only the fundamentals is that, lacking a holistic view of doctrine, they become unaware of how, very often, errors in secondary doctrines by implication deny the fundamental doctrines.

Further, to grow in this mindset is to be able to distinguish between one articulation of a doctrine and another. One man might word his understanding of Calvinism or Arminianism so as to constitute an isolated error. Another articulation could constitute an urgent error. The way a teacher relates the doctrine to the gospel and to the whole system of faith can determine how one must respond to it.

Once again, we have limited time on this earth. We must pick our battles and the ‘hills we will die on’. Conservatives do not fight for a finger if the beating heart is under threat.

3) Finally, this weighting of doctrine informs how we fellowship with other Christians, the subject of the next post.

How do we come to understand the importance of doctrines relative to each other? Once again, it requires training. It is helpful to study systematic theology, Old & New Testament theology, historical theology, biblical theology, along with studies and surveys of books of the Bible. How long does this take? At least a few years to build a solid foundation. Not everyone needs to be a theologian, but every Christian should understand some basic theology. Not everyone needs to be an expert (though we do need some experts), but everyone should at least aim for competence. It is the role of the Christian family, the local church, and on certain levels, educational institutions to build this understanding into Christians.

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 2

January 5, 2009

The first way that we conserve the whole counsel of God is by learning it ourselves. That requires a particular approach to the study and teaching of the Bible. We might say the conservative approach is exegesis and exposition, the opposite of which is eisegesis and imposition.
Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξηγεῖσθαι ‘to lead out’) is the analysis and explanation of a text, in our case, biblical texts. Exegesis is an approach which believes that God has invested biblical texts with meaning. The meaning was there when the human authors put it down. The meaning was there when the first audience read or heard it. That meaning is unchanged and has applications for listeners and readers today.
Therefore, the task of the exegete is to use various tools to bring out of the text its true and original meaning. He does this by understanding the original biblical languages, the historical context of a passage and its immediate context within the book and within the rest of Scripture. Once he knows what it meant, he knows what it still means, for it can never mean what it has never meant.
Certainly, he comes to a text with certain pre-understandings: he has a particular systematic theology to which he relates the parts he finds, and he has a particular system of interpretation (hermeneutics) that guides him as he practises exegesis. But hopefully, honest exegesis feeds back into his theology and hermeneutics, reshaping, re-ordering and revising as necessary – cleaning and sharpening the lenses of his interpretive spectacles, if you will.
The result of the process of exegesis is a growing understanding of biblical and systematic doctrine. The person or church interested in exegesis is interested in what the Bible says. All of it. The whole counsel of God, nothing less.

Exegesis is a rigorous task. It requires years of training to do well. It requires more skill to turn this exegesis into an interesting, digestible and memorable sermon. Exegesis should not be boring, because the Word of God is not boring. It requires even more skill to deliver such a sermon in a rhetorically adept fashion.
Even once trained in these skills, it requires a significant investment of time to execute adequately. For that reason, a church interested in exegesis should do its best to free its pastor(s) up to give themselves to this task.

Eisegesis is the opposite of all this. Eisegesis is the inserting of one’s own ideas, beliefs or hobby-horses into the text of Scripture, and disguising such an approach as the preaching of Scripture. It shows no humility before the text of Scripture, but is willing to impose its own ideas upon the text, and ‘make it say what it never said’. A pastor given to eisegesis is not interested in biblical doctrine. He may have certain noble goals for his congregation, he may even sincerely want to see practical holiness in the life of his people. But because he is not practising exegesis, he is not grounding their practice in theology, which means it will certainly dissolve once the agitations of his messages are forgotten. He wants the sheep to follow, but he is not committed to following himself, because he does not submit to the authority of the Bible by preaching its meaning. He does not trust the text of Scripture itself to be able to deliver what God’s people need to love Him properly, and substitutes it for unbalanced topical messages, five point ‘how-to’ messages, cleverly alliterated outlines forced into a text, allegorical ‘new interpretations’, and so on.

Interestingly enough, eisegetical sermons are often very interesting, very moving, and quite memorable. This is usually because the eisegete has no limits on his creativity and imagination (least of all the text of Scripture), and he conjures it all up into a hour’s worth of jokes that amuse, pithy sayings that cause a smile at some home-made wisdom, moving stories that stir people up to pity, maudlin tears or false optimism, or passionate cries that provoke extreme emotion. Moreover, the crowds will come for their hour of titillation.
Many an exegete looks at his small church, compares it to the mega-church built on eisegesis and wonders if he isn’t beating a dead horse.

Conservative Christians must resist the temptation to turn to such techniques, even at the risk of being ‘small’ or characterised as ‘boring’. Exegesis is hard to do. It is even harder to do well. But it is the only hope of the church knowing and preserving the whole counsel of God, which is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.