Archive for the ‘Conservatism’ Category

Tozer on Worship Music: An Evaluation

September 28, 2012

We’ve gathered much of what Tozer wrote on music and hymnody. Having done so, some reflections on his writings might be helpful. I notice three outstanding features of Tozer’s approach to worship.

First, it’s clear that Tozer made an attempt to understand poetry and music. Tozer did not have to become a literary or musical critic in his office as pastor. He simply had to become competent enough to judge inferior from superior; ugly from beautiful, simple from trite. (No doubt, he read critics in this pursuit.) His criticisms seen in the quotations we’ve looked at demonstrate that Tozer did not simply tow a party-line, or reject songs for political reasons. He judged works for their meaning: for their beauty, truth and fitness for Christian devotion. His compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, is a collection of superior Christian verse. Tozer was not copy-catting another man’s taste when he put this collection together. It emerged from careful judgement of individual pieces. Remember, Tozer educated himself while cutting pieces of rubber in a factory in Akron. What’s our excuse?

Second, Tozer developed a healthy catholicity when evaluating the expressions of piety from the historic church. Tozer’s own theological leanings were baptistic, Arminian, Holiness, Keswick, with some dispensationalism thrown in. Had he wanted hymns to reflect only this slice of Christianity, his hymnbook would have been slim indeed – or made up entirely of A.B. Simpson hymns. Tozer was, thankfully, bigger than that. He understood the principle of catholic sentiment: when Christians of different ages testify similarly of their devotion. These testimonies are different, but equivalent. They represent a kind of consensus of what Christians have always felt towards God in worship. Whether it came from the Roman Catholics Bernard of Clairvaux and Frederick Faber, the pietist Tersteegen, the Lutheran Gerhardt, Anglicans Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or Presbyterian Anne Cousin, Tozer could find the catholic affections in their verse amidst the errors of their churches. And he smelt a rat when people tried to use hymnbooks as political tools to advance their own doctrinal agenda.

Third, Tozer’s writings in these matters were after one thing: fitting worship. He had no interest in aesthetic refinement divorced from worship. If Tozer could spot beauty, it was because he was after the beauty of holiness. If he called for true sentiments in the lyrics of hymnody, it was because he wanted to worship in Spirit and in truth. He raged against the trivialisation of worship not because it violated his own aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, his aesthetic sensibilities had been so trained in the service of worshipping God, and God’s name is profaned when worship is trivialised. He knew the dangers of churches that become proud of their beautiful worship and are crossless and Christless. For Tozer, truth, goodness, and beauty are not the Trinity. They are indispensable for the worship of the Trinity.

Tozer understood the dire need of the hour: restored worship. Our churches have lost worship, because they have lost judgement. Discernment has evaporated, and with it, the ability to judge what is fitting for worshipping God and what is not. In response to this worship crisis, it is important to notice what Tozer did not try to do. He did not try to restore worship by calling for resolutions at the Christian & Missionary Alliance annual meeting. He did not try to restore worship by writing a book and then touting it as the solution. He did not try to build a coalition with enough clout to enforce his views on worship. He did not set up The Christian Book of Mystical Verse as the canon for private or corporate worship. These are political solutions, solutions that are tempting only when we do not understand how sensibilities are formed or how taste develops.

Tozer got down to the hard work of discriminating between good and bad. He opened dusty books that were not popular, relevant, or endorsed by celebrities. He searched, he read, he prayed, he sang, he wrote sermons, hymns and prayers, and then he wrote down his informed judgements for others to see. In his writings, he tried to revive the conversation that true culture is, a conversation of what is fitting and right and true – with particular respect to Christian piety and worship. These approaches, to me, represent much of what we must do in this new Dark Age.


You Say Non-Essentials, I Say Truncated

March 15, 2011

Conservative Christianity is concerned with conserving all it means to be Christian. Broadly speaking, all Christians want to see Christianity conserved; our disagreement consists in what we think must be conserved to achieve that.

Generally, evangelicals and fundamentalists think that the preservation of Christianity consists in the conservation of the gospel itself, along with a strong commitment to biblical doctrine. If I read them right, methods which preserve and propagate the gospel and sound teaching are the means to conserve Christianity. Therefore, a large amount of hope is being placed in expository preaching, church membership, church discipline, biblical discipleship, spiritual leadership, theological literacy, clear evangelism and robust missions. Certainly, the revival of emphasis on these aspects of Christianity is to be applauded and welcomed.

While I agree with the commitment to the gospel and biblical doctrine, I don’t think these alone are enough to conserve and propagate biblical Christianity. I think several other things are essential to Christianity and need to be conserved. I believe Christianity is a life of love; therefore, Christians have to be very concerned with the matter of the affections: what we are to love, to what degree, and in what way. We further have to be concerned with what shapes those loves, what affects and moulds our imaginations. To navigate these issues, we have to be concerned with meaning, discovering what various objects, things, gestures, practices or other cultural artifacts mean, since we end up using them in life or worship. Therefore, I urge the study and understanding of such things, not because I want some complex form of Christianity, but because I think these things are essential to Christianity.

I think that Christianity lacking these distinctives is, in fact, a truncated Christianity. That is, instead of being a sleek, supple, essentials-only Christianity, I see it as ultimately incapable of sustaining the life of faith. I think that the removal of a right understanding of the affections, a neglect of what shapes the imagination, an incorrect understanding of how we know, and a failure to relate the centrality of the affections to the doctrine of sanctification will result in a severely under-developed spiritual life. The resulting Christianity walks into the gale-force winds of modern unbelief with something barely more than a mental and volitional commitment to certain biblical facts. In the face of such a storm, quite literally the majority of those who have grown up with such a minimalist Christianity are blown off into apostasy or a secularized form of religion. A small minority of people barely hang on to their creed by the tips of their fingernails. Sadly, this massive fall-off is considered normal, and is proof-texted with the parable of the soils.

In other words, my commitment to conservative Christianity is not due to cultural imperialism, or an obsession with particular applications of the Bible to behavioral standards. I embrace conservative Christianity because I think it is a full-orbed Christianity, and the only kind that will ultimately survive. I think that it is the kind of Christianity that had always existed in various shapes and forms before its secularization in the 19th century.

So here is the irony and the misunderstanding. As I look at Christianity, I think that the conservative take on it is not baroque and ornate; it is simply what is required to sustain healthy Christianity. I look at those who disagree with me and I see  a reduced, skeletal Christianity that can barely keep its own head above water, let alone seriously defend or propagate the faith in the challenging years ahead. I see the current state of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as emaciated and spiritually anaemic, scarcely holding on to life. Worse, it regards its weak pulse and laboured breathing as evidence of its healthy commitment to ‘core essentials’, and thanks God that it is not as other men are: legalists, cultural snobs, elitists, or even as this tax collector.

On the other hand, those I’m looking at see my take on Christianity as a massive confusion of non-essentials with essentials, of turning applications into doctrines, and of seeing inferences and non-biblical knowledge as authoritative. I’m the guy wearing four woolen jerseys on a summer’s day, unnecessarily laden-down with joy-killing extras. As far as they are concerned, they have streamlined, flexible, gospel-centred Christianity, free from cultural imperialism and fundamentalist taboos, brimming with nothing but Scripture and Scripture alone.  Conversely, I think this Christianity is not supple, slick and Scripture-centred; I think it is abbreviated, inconsistent and intentionally agnostic where it needn’t be.

I know God can do anything, and that God’s ultimate purposes will prevail. I know that God continues to use all kinds of means and imperfect men and methods. However, a steward does not have the right to be careless and sloppy because his Master is sovereign. I urge the ideas of conservative Christianity because I love Christ and His church, and want to see Him honoured and His church conserved and propagated.

In the Dark Age we’re in, we can’t afford to defend anything but the essentials. I’m convinced that’s what I and others who share these convictions are doing.

The Map

February 14, 2011

Once there was a Cartographer who was committed to mapping all the islands in the South Seas. He apprenticed many junior cartographers, and equipped them with his Master-Map, a map that contained the size, location and shape of every island in the South Sea. He sailed with his apprentices to those islands in the ship Geloof, taking many months to arrive. His ship would leave the junior cartographers on one of the islands for several months, and then return for them. Their task was to study the island’s features and return their work to the Master Cartographer.

His Master-Map was invaluable. In fact, were it not for the Master-Map, the junior cartographers would not have been able to orient themselves to the landscape they were looking at. They would have been simply overwhelmed by all the details of the land. With Master-Map in hand, they understood what side of the island they were on, recognized coast-lines, and gained a good sense of proportion and direction. Their work would have been impossible and meaningless without the Master-Map.

Once on the island, the cartographers set up camp and began their work of studying the features of the island. They measured inland lakes, noted topographical features, sketched the paths of streams, and returned each evening with their diagrams, measurements and calculations. Around a hearty supper and fire, the cartographers would compare notes, and imagine how the Master Cartographer would put it all together.

However, after several months, a change came over some of the men. They began becoming very restless with the whole exercise. They started withdrawing, refusing to go out in the morning with the others and instead sketching their own pictures and diagrams in their make-shift huts. The others continued to go out each day to do the hard, sweaty work of exploration and mapping.

Inevitably, these differences came to a head, and arguments broke out. The Reclusives began accusing the other cartographers of denying the sufficiency of the Master-Map. They said that such men were inserting their own subjective views of the island as authoritative. They claimed that respectable cartographers would trace the Master-Map and do nothing else. Cartographers who honored the Master-Cartographer would re-draw the Master-Map in miniature, or in sections, or some other way. But only arrogance would cause a cartographer to draw his own map and dare fit it into the Master-Map.

To this the other cartographers responded with some puzzlement. After all, they replied, had not the Cartographer given them the assignment of understanding the islands he sent them to? Did he not want them to discover the details of the islands first-hand, and return with that knowledge?

One cartographer, Engel, tried to placate the fears of the Reclusives. “We are not trying to contradict the Master-Map, or even adjust it in any way. Indeed, its presence is what makes any other mapping possible. If we discovered something that contradicted the Map, we would doubt our own senses. But the Master-Map was never meant to function as an intricate guide to all the details of the islands. These we must discover by investigating the islands themselves.”

“Our point exactly!” said one in response. “If the Master-Map did not include those details, then they do not matter. The Cartographer himself would have included them had they mattered. If the details are not in the Master-Map, they must be features that are changeable, and not worth recording. ”

Engel tried to keep his tone even. “The Master-Map does not include those details because they are not the reason for the Master-Map. This does not make them insignificant. For example, just yesterday we discovered a ravine with a sheer drop of 150 feet. This is not on the Master-Map, but it does not contradict the Master-Map. It is important that we know this and return with such knowledge. It will perhaps spare many lives, if we do so.”

“Nonsense. The Master-Map provides all an explorer needs for life and healthiness.  For all your sophistry, you men are subtly denying the final and ultimate authority of the Map. The great battle-cry of modern exploration has always been de kaart alleen.”

With that, the Reclusives went back into their huts and rejoiced in their commitment to the Map alone, and congratulated themselves for the fact that they were not like their misguided fellows, who were so given to the debating of areas on which the Map was silent.

The others went on studying each day, trying to understand the island, by comparing what they discovered with the authoritative Master-Map.

And then the Cartographer returned.

Misunderstood Before the Conversation Begins

January 25, 2011

Several months ago, Kevin Bauder wrote, “how do you speak to people who are already convinced that they know what you think, and who have already rejected your conclusions because they do not accept arguments that you never intended to use anyway?”

This question articulates the experience of someone who has philosophies and practices that resemble those of others, but not for the same reasons. It is a case of being lumped together with people that you superficially resemble, while being poles apart in terms of the reasons behind your actions. Here and there, I will share some practice or attitude with a Fundamentalist Muslim. But our reasons behind such practices or attitudes will be completely different.

For a conservative Christian in our day, this is an unfortunate position to be in. I would like other Christians to consider some of our views for their validity. However, some of our practices are held by loonies, religious nuts and other kooks. I like to think that my reasons for those practices are not looney, nutty or kooky, but people typically judge on appearances, and not upon careful enquiry.

For example, in some respects, my church’s Sunday corporate worship resembles a mixture of various streams of very conservative Baptists. We don’t have a praise band, or a worship team. We don’t have lead and bass guitars and a drumset. We have a piano, and occasionally some violin and trumpet. Our hymns are very traditional anthems like “Holy, Holy, Holy”, with an occasional song or hymn written by a contemporary writer like Paul Jones or Stuart Townend.

It’s not hard to read our worship from appearances and gather the conclusion we have reached: we reject the use of praise bands and the music of most popular culture in our corporate worship.

We try to explain the reasons for this conclusion to those who want to hear. Unfortunately, many of those who encounter us reject that conclusion based on arguments they assume we hold, such as ‘drums are evil’, ‘contemporary music is worldly’, ‘syncopated rhythm is sensual’, ‘we don’t want a 2/4 beat in worship’, ‘hymns older than 100 years are safe and good’, ‘we don’t want to be associated with Hillsong churches’, ‘good Fundamental churches sing these hymns’. These are not the arguments we use, but they are the arguments those who reject our conclusions assume we make, so as to dismiss our position before they have heard it. And certainly, were those the arguments we make, I would not fault anyone for dismissing our conclusion.

But that’s just it: those are not the arguments we make, but who will take the time to ask? We’re nothing special, and there isn’t a reason for busy pastors to break into their days to interview us on our philosophy of worship. But failing that, they’ll just assume we hold one of the ridiculous views above.

The problem we face is just this: how do you defend and propagate a conservative approach to worship, ministry and Christian living, when that position has been vandalised and smeared by people who were protecting their ministry positions or upholding tribal loyalties? How do you explain that conservatives try to conserve, when the people mostly identified with that term simply guarded their group’s distinctives, rather than preserving what is true, and good and beautiful? How do you get people to listen to your defence of your position, when they have decided that such a position is indefensible?

There is no real answer to these questions. It’s simply the situation we find ourselves in. Those who hold to conservative principles for reasons other than tribal loyalties had better be prepared to be associated with such tribes. The best we can do is try to patiently explain, and exhort all to answer a matter only once they have heard it (Prov 18:13).

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 4 Judging Culture

November 19, 2010

Christians often imbibe facile and unhelpful definitions of legalism. One of these is the idea that legalism is the act of judging the meaning cultural phenomena, or to put it another way, the act of judging the meaning of things in our world.

Christians live in the world, and therefore Christianity is to be lived out in the world. Christians live in a world that is full of meaning, because it was created by an intelligent Creator who invested it with His intended meanings, and because it has been fashioned and shaped by intelligent creatures who have fleshed out their understanding of its meaning.

Meaning is everywhere. Wedding ceremonies have meaning. Eating at a dinner table instead of eating a TV dinner in front of the box has meaning. Meaning exists in churches with high arches, as it does in churches with flat ceilings lit with fluorescent-lights. The colors worn to funerals have meaning. The music played at Arlington National Cemetery has meaning. A mini-skirt has meaning, as do ties, earrings, sunglasses, tatoos, and lip-stick. Having a cell-phone has meaning, as do the paintings on your wall. Your choice of words has meaning, as does sculpture and painting. Economics has meaning, as does your choice of car.  Everywhere they turn, human beings give the raw materials of creation meaning, or discover that they already possess meaning. We are intelligent beings created in the image of an intelligent God, and it is in our nature to shape or interpret the meaning of  our environment, whether or not we are always conscious of those meanings.

Sometimes these meanings exist purely because they have come through use. In South Africa, there is a mini-language used by commuters who catch mini-bus taxis. It consists of holding up a certain number of fingers held in a certain direction that indicates your desired destination. Taxi-drivers and taxi-riders know the meaning of this ‘language’, a system of meaning that arose purely through use.

Sometimes these meanings exist through association. The ‘rainbow-flag’ is now associated with homosexuality. The living-dead look is associated with Gothic music. Whether the meaning created the association, or whether the association created the meaning is debated. What is clear is the practical result: the shoe fits, and the current meaning-by-association exists.

Sometimes these meanings exist because there is something intrinsic in the thing which dictates what it can or cannot (or ought not) signify. Darkness comes with some meanings inherently opposite to those of light. Loud sounds inherently communicate differently to soft sounds.

Whether people correctly perceive these meanings does not make them non-existent. If I am in an elevator and three Bulgarian men are mocking my clothing in Bulgarian, my blissful non-comprehension does not mean their conversation lacked meaning. Perception of meaning does not affect its existence. It is post-modernity to suggest that meaning is in the mind of the interpreter alone.

In a world full of meaning, it is up to the church to understand the meanings of things around them. Scriptural principles must be applied to life in the world. The only way this can be done is if the truth of life in the world is connected to the truth of Scripture. In other words, we need to know both the meaning of Scriptureand the meaning of the world. If we know only the meaning of Scripture, we lock it within its own covers. If we know only the meaning of the world, we may know the problems well, but we’ll lack solutions. We must know both Scripture and the world around us.

Is a mini-skirt a violation of 1 Timothy 2:9? Does Proverbs 18:24 affect the use of Facebook? Does James 1:19 speak to blogging? Does a church that builds an ugly building disobey Philippians 1:9-10? Do Christians who use shoddy music in worship fail to practice Philippians 4:8? Does Romans 12:2 speak to how we use the mall? Does wearing beach-ware to church violate Hebrews 12:28? These questions can only be answered if we examine the meanings of mini-skirts, Facebook, blogging, architecture, music, the mall, beach-ware,  and so forth.

It has become a kind of reflex action to accuse Christians who examine the meaning of modern cultural phenomena of legalism. This is particularly true of matters like music, entertainment, technology, ministry methods, dress and the like.  However, Christians and particularly Christian pastors who cannot discern the meaning and implications of the environment in which they live will fail to bring Scripture to life, in both senses of the term. Pastors must lead the way in scrutinising life. The excuse that “we didn’t know it meant that” will not exonerate us at the Bema seat.

It is easy to lampoon the fundamentalist pastors who forbade wire-rimmed glasses, beards, and bell-bottoms in their time. One forgets that, in some cases,  such men were trying to deal with the meanings of those things at that time, in that culture. When meaning is purely associative or conventional, it may change with time, meaning it is no longer hostile to the Christian message at a later time. This makes men of earlier times seem alarmist, just as faithful pastors who warn their congregants against current threats to healthy Christianity may seem so to future generations.

In an increasingly complex world, Christian living (and shepherding Christians to live like Christians) is an increasingly complex task. The amount of devices, technologies, media, and social sub-cultures seems to grow exponentially every few years. These are not without meaning. Conservative Christians argue that timeless Scripture has something to say to them; therefore, conservative Christians regard it is an obligation to learn what these things mean. If we love Scripture and love obedience, we should love to learn how to apply Scripture in our world.

Regardless of whether meaning is conventional, associative or intrinsic, it is there. For Scripture to be faithfully applied, we need to know the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning of the world around us. This is not legalism; this is wisdom.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 3 Authority and Submission

November 13, 2010

Conservative Christians are often accused of legalism. To understand what legalism is, we must first understand what it is not. One common misconception is that legalism is teaching and requiring God’s people to submit to Him.

People take to authority today like they take to a cold slap in the face. Anti-authoritarianism is preached in the cartoons, the movies, the soapies, the talk shows, the magazines, the adverts and the comments on the blogs. One of the inalienable rights of 21st-century man is to do what I want without anyone judging me. Any talk of obedience and, gasp, submission to God-ordained human authorities, produces a stampede toward the fire exits, with screams of “Legalism!” heard as the building empties. Tell some people that there is an authority above them which requires their obedience and submission, and by the time it is goes from ear-drum to brain, it sounds something like, “You must sell your soul to me, so I can manipulate your puppet strings as I wish. (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here.)”

In spite of all this, teaching the commands and prohibitions of Scripture, and insisting that those who call themselves God’s people submit to Him is not, in itself, legalism. Indeed, you can hardly read ten verses of Psalm 119 without detecting the psalmist’s unbridled relish for obedience and discipline. The Sermon on the Mount is actually Law 2.0, the Son of God’s authoritative commentary and update on the Law. Paul, the apostle of grace, has no problem with imperatives either, often rapid-firing them off at his readers. Most tellingly, the apostle of love, John, is quite emphatic that love and submission to God’s authority are precisely the same thing (1 John 5:32 John 1:6). For that matter, the supervision of God’s people by elders, and their submission to them is taught in Hebrews 13:17. Church discipline itself implies that God wants accountability, mutual discipleship and a healthy provocation of one another towards obedience and away from disobedience.

Since the biblical case for submission to God and his ordained authorities seems incontrovertibly part of healthy Christianity, why is it so often called legalism?

Probably because the contemporary view of love is rather twisted. As Jonathan Leeman points out, the two great commandments of modern love are “Know that God loves you by not permanently binding you to anything (especially if you really don’t want to be)” and “Know that your neighbor loves you best by letting you express yourself entirely and without judgement”.[1] In a climate where love is setting me free to choose my own path and affirming me as I do so, authentic Christianity seems like a claustrophobic mind-control sect. The reasoning sounds like this: Love is being affirmed and set free to be myself. God loves me, and the church is supposed to represent God’s love. However, this church imposes limits and restrictions on me and actually insists I obey. This church doesn’t represent God’s love. They’re trying to bind me, and that’s – why that’s – legalism!

The problem is a faulty and, I think we can say, idolatrous view of love. For many, love is actually about enjoying my own expression of love, whoever or whatever the object of love may be. Love is without the limits, boundaries or structure of truth. If I am worshipping the idol of my own love, Jesus Himself will seem like a legalist.

To be sure, the commandments of Scripture can be taught legalistically. That is, they can be taught without reference to the gospel, or to the Spirit’s enablement. If biblical commandments or prohibitions are taught in a way that suggests we gain acceptance through the doing of them rather than through the merits of Christ, this leads people back into self-effort and the bondage of leaning on a code for righteousness. Here the problem is not the teaching of submission, but the failure to teach submission in light of God’s fuller revelation. Subtract the Father’s love as the believer’s motivation, the Son’s work as the believer’s position and the Spirit’s work as the believer’s enablement , and you have moralism, and eventually legalism.

The solution is not to withdraw from the preaching and teaching of commands, even on matters where the application is supplied from reason and experience. The solution is twofold: teach what Christian love really is, and emphasise the motive, means and methods of Christian obedience. This isn’t legalism; this is loving God.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up ? – 1

October 29, 2010

Conservative Christians are not strangers to the charge of legalism. Begin tinkering with the sacred cows of worship music and Christian culture, and you will attract the title legalist like running past a hive with honey on your head attracts a swarm. As a pastor, one of the most painful things that can be said of you is that you or your church is legalistic. After all, Christian pastors are ministers of the gospel of grace. To be a Christian pastor and be called a legalist is really like being called a traitor. Instead of ministering grace, you are said to be bringing people into bondage.

Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to hear people throw this charge around, particularly toward those who hold conservative principles. I sometimes half-wonder if any pastor who simply expounds the Scriptures has not been called a legalist by someone, somewhere. Nevertheless, there is a real perception that Christians who seek to conserve the best expressions of biblical Christianity are probably legalists. At least two factors make it likely that Joe Christian will associate conservative Christianity with his current perception of legalism.

First, authentic Christianity calls man to submit to God in every area of his life. Our era is one that is deeply suspicious of authority, and hates dogmatism. If a church begins applying Scripture to real-life situations, resisting certain cultural trends, and calling for obedience to the Scriptures, it is not unlikely that people used to autonomy and independence will feel constricted and begin to struggle. Many call this sense of constriction legalism. For such people, a church is “grace-filled” as long as it keeps its messages broad and generalised, as long as it does not try to bridge the cultural and time gap from Scripture to today’s living, as long as it accommodates current popular culture, as long as it does not mention the duties and obligations of a Christian too much, and as long as the leaders of a church do not act as if they have any real spiritual authority. We should expect that conservative Christianity is going to collide head-on with this kind of thinking, and we should not be surprised when the occupants of the crashed car get out and start blurting out, “legalism!”

Second, on the other side of the coin, we know that real legalism has often found a favorable host in churches ostensibly regarded as conservative. I would argue that such churches are conservative in name only; however, the generalization has some truth to it. Pastors are sinners too, and not every pastor or Christian leader properly understands or always properly communicates what it is to be under grace. Horror stories of spiritual abuse are a dime-a-dozen. Some churches in the evangelical and fundamentalist tradition have been guilty of binding the consciences of God’s people to matters without Scriptural warrant. They have been guilty of creating the perception in God’s people that certain acts, or a certain level of conformity would commend them to God or grant them meritorious status before Him. They have been guilty of ruling God’s people with force and cruelty. While self-identified progressive churches can be just as guilty of legalism, it is often those churches that are nominally conservative that are guilty of these things.

In other words, while many are confused as to what legalism is, real legalism is a serious problem. Legalism is an attack on the gospel and on biblical sanctification, and every Christian should be very aware of what it is, and how to avoid it.

But that’s just the problem: little consensus exists on what legalism really is. Legalism has become a kind of pliable word that is used by disgruntled Christians to express distaste or disapproval of a church or ministry, or by theological opponents who wish to tar their enemies. All too often, it becomes a kind of smear-word to dismiss the arguments of conservatism before they have even been heard. The word seems to have been vacuumed of clear meaning, and is now used in all sorts of ways. And if a word can mean anything, then a word actually means nothing.

Conservative Christians believe they are conserving authentic Christianity. Since all would agree that authentic Christianity is not legalistic in nature, conservative Christians ought not to be guilty of legalism. We may be falsely labelled as such; we should never be so in practice. If we are to avoid true legalism, we must strip away false connotations of the term. Once we have done that, we can see what Scripture insists we do and do not do as true ministers of grace.

The Bowl

October 11, 2010

High upon a volcanic plateau was a village, about an hour’s walk from the Everlasting Spring. Once a week, on the Day of Worship, the Healer would arise long before dawn and begin his trek to the Spring, carrying the Bowl. Hollowed out from a large stone, the Bowl had been passed down from one Healer to another for more generations than could now be remembered. Once at the Spring, the Healer would carefully fill the heavy Bowl up to its brim, and then begin the journey back, being at pains not to spill the precious water. 

Once the Healer arrived, the village people gathered. With great gratitude, they received the bowl, each one drinking his share before passing it on to his neighbour. Fathers helped their children with the weight of the Bowl, so that they too could enjoy the life-giving water. People always thanked the Healer, for they knew the hike to the Spring and back while carrying a stone bowl was indeed an arduous effort.

However, the mood was changing in the village. News of changes in other villages had spread, and discontent began to set in. Murmurings reached the ears of the Healer. Chief of these was the complaint that the Bowl was simply too heavy. People could no longer hold such a heavy Bowl, and they were being denied access to the water by the sheer bulk and weight of the Bowl.

And indeed, the people’s arms had grown weak. The Healer had been observing the strongest of the men in the village losing strength and muscle for several years. And there was no doubt that the Bowl was heavy, particularly when full of the Spring’s water, and especially for weak arms.

Word had arrived of what other villages were doing. They had rejected the traditional Stone Bowls, and had begun using something new – the Plastic Platter. The Plastic Platter was a thin, disc-shaped plate, slightly turned up at the edges. They were usually decorated with bright and colourful designs, and the people marvelled at them. (They were imported from the West, and the village people thought this added to their value.) Some Plastic Platters had been brought to the village, and those most vociferous for change brought them to the Healer.

The Healer took some time to examine them. He could immediately see why people liked them. They were very light – the smallest child could hold them. (For a moment, he was tempted by the thought of how much easier they would make his task.) They were attractive and drew attention to themselves, whereas the Bowl simply focused one on the water. Moreover, they were so cheap that each villager could have his own Platter, making the Day of Worship a very personal experience.

However, the Healer was deeply troubled by the greatest flaw in the Platters: they could hold almost no water. Little more than a sip of water could be held by their shallow forms. The Healer knew that the villagers would begin to thirst and eventually die if the water came to them on these Platters.

He called a meeting and began to explain his concerns. A restlessness pervaded the meeting. Voices began lodging objections. “It’s the same water, isn’t it? Why do we have to do as our forefathers did? These Platters are easier to use. You do want people to have access to the water, don’t you? Or are you trying to keep it all to yourself?”

The Healer spoke slowly. “I very much want us all to drink of the Spring. Yet I think our forefathers knew well why the Stone Bowl would serve us best. It holds much water, enough for us all. It requires we all share one Bowl, unifying us. It is heavy, reminding us of ithe Spring’s importance. It sometimes requires that we serve each other, by helping the weak, the sick, the frail and the young.

“I am afraid the Platters will not hold much water. Their colour will distract us from how little water we have actually tasted. Their lightness will remove all sense of what we owe the Spring. And they will divide us from each other, instead of uniting us.”

The meeting broke up. Several disgruntled people left the village with their families, and those villages using the Platters grew. The Healer determined he had only two choices: begin using the Platters, or help each of his people hold the Bowl, till each one’s arms were strong enough to hold it himself.

What ought he to do, if he be worthy of the title Healer?

Why Conservatism is Hard to Swallow (But Still True)

July 8, 2010

Those of us who have embraced what we understand to be some of the tenets of conservative Christianity remember well our initial objections and discomfort with its analysis of modern Christianity, and its suggested course of action. Loving others as ourselves would mean reminding ourselves of the painfully slow way in which we came to these convictions. I suggest there are several difficulties that the average Christian experiences in coming to conservative convictions. (Not that these are not blameworthy, or matters to repent of, but I call them difficulties to highlight their obstructiveness.)

First,  many Christians are bigoted towards individual autonomy. To a person raised in a democratic country, saturated with pop culture and existing with a general dislike of anything requiring cultivation (because it is inaccessible to him, and he has been taught to believe he has the right to and can immediately reach all things he really needs), some of the ideas of conservatism seem unpalatable. For such a person, the concept of one’s affections being partly dependent on moral imagination, which is in turn dependent on how you have been cultivated – by your family, your church and your culture at large- this idea seems impossible to him. It conflicts with his view of God as democratic. He has no category in his mind for children bearing the consequences of previous generations’ abandonments of piety. His notions of democracy simply rule out God limiting our understanding of Him based on our, and our father’s, stewardship of knowledge, history and worship. His view of God has Him giving everyone of all times an exactly equal chance, with exactly equal opportunities, and what has gone before or will come after is irrelevant. No loss is suffered by the present generation for the failures of the past ones. All we need is nominalistic doctrine.

Second, we have come to expect pragmatic and cure-all solutions and fixes. Conservative Christianity asserts that the problem of a bankrupt ambient culture and the church’s disconnection from historical Christian culture is not something that can be fixed with a few programs.

Most will admit that Western Christianity is in a bad way. However, most everyone defines the problem differently. Every outwardly successful ministry touts its particular emphasis as the solution for the universal Body of Christ, and defines Christianity’s problem as being a weakness when it comes to their strength (e.g. expository preaching, better church order, a focus on doctrine, doctrinal deconstructionism, people-centred ministry, thorough-going Calvinism, church marketing techniques etc.). Yet, for all that, the problems of obsession and fragmentation persist.

While all will admit to some flaws, most will defend some kind of status quo. Specifically, the status quo in their denomination, movement, or church. For it is just like 21st century Christianity to say the problem with Christianity is that more people aren’t in my movement. Thus, when conservatism’s critique asserts that peculiarities of various movements are not the solution, this offends those who are certain their take on Christianity is key to it all. Moreover, how could all those sincere people be wrong? Numbers and sincerity – the two interchangeable proofs of orthodoxy. The notion that we are in need of another Reformation seems wildly exaggerated to most.

Connected with this matter of the absence of quick-fix solutions is the apparent pessimism of the critique. Since the unreflective spirit of our age will equate pessimism with hopelessness, many believe these conclusions are a form of unbelief. Pessimism, as if we needed to explain it, is not hopelessness. There is always hope, since our God is Sovereign, and has already proclaimed and claimed His victory. Pessimism is the realistic outlook on a ruined culture, greatly incapacitated (through its own choices) when it comes to true piety. God will triumph. Our pessimism is as to whether or not we will worship while mortal as some of our fathers did. The rugged optimism of the American mindset balks at the idea that forces beyond your control, before your birth, have shaped a religious environment which you can do very little to improve, at least beyond your narrow sphere of influence.

Third, some see conservatism as an attack on Sola Scriptura. Our epistemology has led us to believe in the myth of the ‘ brute fact’, and our theologians have bought into it as well. We are certain that Christianity has brute facts contained in discursive doctrine, which, once discovered and taught will lead to salvation and sanctification if believed. To hear that ordinate affections are necessary to know and judge rightly seems to some to suggest we are questioning the authority of Scripture itself. In fact, careful readers will realise it is the very authority of Scripture which is being fought for here.

A final reason why conservatism’s ideas are difficult to take is that the very things we discuss as desirable are in a sense required to read and understand these concepts in the first place. Some form of cultivation is required to read on the essential nature of cultivation to faith.  Some measure of ordinate affection leads to a desire for ordinate affections. It seems that, “To him that hath, more shall be given, To him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.” 

For all that, the fact that we now hold these convictions is proof that the argument is worth making, and worth repeating.

A Prelude to Conservatism

June 18, 2010

There are many things to beat up about Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism today is like the goofy, unemployed and overweight 47 year-old who used to be the captain of the rugby/football team in his high school days. When he was popular and powerful, he had his way, and no one dared cross him. Now that his powers are fading and looking pathetic, just about everyone walks by and gives him a slap on the back of his bald head.

I could add my fair share of slaps, and probably have, more than I’m happy to admit. Some of the silliness, goofiness and outrageous behaviour is almost irresistible to lampoon (and I confess, I haven’t resisted that well). I could probably write pages about how so much in Fundamentalism taught me how not to do ministry, or treat people, or worship, and so on.

Nevertheless, I’m going to buck the trend here, and suggest some of the things about Fundamentalism which actually served to prepare me to embrace some of the ideals of conservatism. I’m not seeking to read back into my past what I know now, or romanticise a movement with its fair share of dirty laundry. I just want to be honest, and thankful, about some things which Fundamentalism supplied, which I’m not sure Evangelicalism would have done, at least in terms of the manifestations of these movements in South Africa. So here goes.

Fundamentalism taught me caution toward culture. Yes, there were silly taboos, and irrational bans, and the like. But from my earliest days, I understood that Christians are not to approach the cultural phenomena of this world uncritically. Music, television, dress, and other cultural matters were not meaning-neutral. Many of the evangelical Christians I meet in S.A. have almost no category for parsing culture for meaning, or being guarded about what they expose their imaginations to. Certainly, it created some philistinism in me as well. Granted, I had to go elsewhere to learn a love for culture. I needed to go elsewhere to read sensible arguments around music and modesty and the like. But I’m not sure if the Examined Life would have even made sense to me from within the milieu of Evangelicalism in S.A. Maybe I haven’t met enough people to be representative, but most folks who grew up in South African Evangelicalism are frankly aghast if you even bring up the questions. (“Haven’t you read Romans 14, brother?!”)

Fundamentalism introduced me to the case for separatism. Once again, it was often a movement-based, politically-motivated, personality-dominated separation, but it at least showed me that separation is a biblical command, and that its application includes professing brethren. South African Evangelicalism is some of the blandest Billy Grahamish stuff you can find, and the separatist mindset is hardly known, except in fringe groups and cults. I’d need to go beyond Fundamentalism as I found it here to understand the basis for and proper application of the doctrine, but no one I met outside of Baptist Fundamentalism here was even making a case for it.

Fundamentalism gave me a theological dogmatism. Now, there were enough Fundamentalists I met whose dogmatism was wrong-headed, immature, and sometimes, thuggish. However, when I first emerged from my Fundamentalist cloister and began speaking to the broader evangelicalism in S.A., my dogmatism was frankly shocking to many. I don’t think it was because my approach was belligerent or pugnacious, but rather because South African Evangelicalism has a hegemony of soft-pedalling the truth, and avoiding clear definition. My dogmatism had to be re-shaped and hammered into submission to sound exegesis and extended argumentation. I had to learn to hold truths with the certainty they merited. However, Fundamentalism at least taught me that an inerrant, infallible Scripture calls for definitive proclamations of truth.

There were probably other things as well. There were certainly loads of negative lessons. I bring these up because some of the things that make up a real conservative Christianity, like defending the gospel, believing and teaching the whole counsel of God, and parsing all things for meaning were at least given to me in seed-form in Fundamentalism, and I’m not sure I would have received them elsewhere. Perhaps folks in conservative churches that were not self-consciously Fundamentalist learnt the same things. I can only relate my own experience. Perhaps I might say that in my case, Fundamentalism wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary. I accept the providence of God in using Fundamentalism positively and negatively to prepare me for a conservative Christianity that retains certain fundamentalist ideals, while trying to jettison the baggage of the Movement.