Tuesday, February 28, 2006
All of this being said, one of the immediate questions that might confront the reader of this book was this: why is a book dedicated to promoting “generous orthodoxy” so ungenerous about those who are orthodox? Perhaps McLaren or his editors noted the oddity, because he recognized that he was “far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else” (35). Perhaps this was simply the function of the kind of book he was writing; or perhaps he is defensive because he makes several unusual theological moves in several areas that appear to challenge the “traditional” faith of conservative Protestants.
One such move was his discussion of the intention of Jesus to save the “whole world” (100). McLaren suggested that “Jesus did not come to create another exclusive religion.” Rather, he believed that Jesus came to proclaim news that was good for adherents and non-adherents alike. Indeed, the gospel is “universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history” (108-114). Exactly what this means is unclear (does he mean to affirm universalism?); but it appeared that he suggested that exclusivist positions on the fate of the unevangelized should be significantly revised.
For McLaren, this connected to his thoughts on the biblical propriety of hell. He raised this very question on p. 112, but immediately dodged the issue; essentially, he believed that questions about whether people were going to heaven or hell were the wrong questions to ask. Still, I wondered whether he could have been more forthcoming on how his views on hell relate to the fate of those who never have heard the Gospel.
Also tied together with his commitment to Jesus’ cosmic and loving intentions toward the world are his beliefs about religious pluralism. While I could agree with him that Christ’s incarnation means that we were called to go out toward the world in Christ’s name in word and deed, McLaren was unclear when he claimed: “Ultimately, I hope that Jesus will save Buddhism, Islam, and every other religion, including the Christian religion, which often seems to need saving about as much as any other religion does” (264). What exactly does this mean? That Jesus will cause Buddhists or Muslims follow him (to save them) but remain Buddhists or Muslims and so “save” the world religions (as it appears on 264 and 282n141)? Does this veer close to syncretism? If not, how so? In addition, such language seemed to betray McLaren’s insights on the importance of community and common liturgy for the formation of Jesus’ followers. Do those in Muslim countries not need Christian community or Christian worship? All of these issues raised profound questions about the “orthodoxy” in A Generous Orthodoxy.
In addition, McLaren took a number of shots at Presbyterian theological shibboleths. For example, he expressed difficulty with issues related to divine sovereignty (81) and predestination (186-7). In particular, he provided some questionable historical observations on how (allegedly) Calvin’s thought merged with “mechanical determinism” and “rationalistic philosophy” to produce an intellectual commitment to an universe that is like “a movie that’s already ‘in the can,’ having been ‘produced and shot’ already in God’s mind, leaving us with the illusion that it’s all read and actually happening.” He then observed that “I find it hard to imagine worshiping or loving a deterministic, machine-operator God”; in this, most conservative Presbyterians would concur.
However, I had to wonder whether he actually has ever taken the time to read Reformed theology or history. Not only does he trot out the tired “Calvin versus the Calvinists” argument, but he repeated the old canard about “Calvin himself [overseeing] the execution of fellow Christians for disagreeing with his system, playing the same brutal power and coercion games that Protestants protested (and still protest) among Catholics” (194). He also chimed in with the shopworn shots at “Protestant scholasticism” (205) and the five solas of the Reformation (198). It caused me to wonder if he really was trying to be “generous” to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ.
He also provocatively questioned “the fall” and “original sin” (235) and characterized total depravity as a “depressing topic” with which conservative Protestants seem preoccupied (177). Not content to deal only with total depravity, McLaren also suggested a thorough revision of TULIP: his version was Triune love; Unselfish Election; Limitless Reconciliation; Inspiring Grace; Passionate, Persistent Saints (195-7).
In addition, many Presbyterians will wince as McLaren is repeatedly critical of “systematic theology,” which he characterizes as “conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument” (151). Particularly guilty here, of course, were conservative (“modernist”) Presbyterians who stubbornly hold on to their “post-medieval formulations” (read here, the Westminster Standards; 189). While unclear on how he would replace current forms of systematic theology—he promoted the work of John Franke and the late Stan Grenz as the best current possibilities—he suggested that emerging theology will be coherent, contextual, conversational, and comprehensive (152-53).
Above all, McLaren believed that “a generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously” (155). Indeed, the central principle for theology is semper reformanda, always reforming (189-194). How this principle related to the ancient creeds and the “tradition” that he claimed to be eager to champion was unclear (32); if theology is always reforming, will the future creeds for the postmodern age look anything like ancient or premodern creeds? If they are substantially the same, then why write new creeds? If they are substantially different, then how can one be sure that she is orthodox? Who or what group/authority adjudicates the differences?
All of these things raised profound questions in my mind, at least, about the direction of McLaren’s project. This is not to paint the entire emergent church movement with a broad brush, save as A Generous Orthodoxy is held up as one of the key books for the movement. Still, there are real questions here that McLaren and other emergent leaders need to answer if they will truly unite Christians together in a generous, orthodox movement of God’s Spirit (18).
Monday, February 27, 2006
Observers of the American religion scene know that the hottest trend for the past five years has been the growing “emergent church” movement. Promoted through books, conferences, and especially websites, it has begun to draw the attention of mainstream theological educators as well as denominational officials in the Southern Baptist Convention. Younger pastors and leaders increasingly have identified themselves as “emergent,” by which they may refer to a number of intellectual and practical commitments: non-foundational epistemology; narrative theology; communion/communal ecclesiology; sacramentalism; and/or renewed respect for tradition. Even local media outlets have recognized this “new way of being Christian” and thought it newsworthy. And though there are several key pastors and intellectual leaders for this movement, probably none was as prolific or important as Brian McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, Maryland.
Raised Plymouth Brethren, McLaren wandered away from the faith during his teen years. He was eventually caught up by the fervor of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s and recommitted himself to Christ. From there, he made his way through college at the University of Maryland, equipping himself to teach English literature by studying Walker Percy. After teaching for several years at a University of Maryland branch campus, he felt called to plant a church, which after fits and a restart, eventually became Cedar Ridge in 1988. Since he published his first book in 1998, he has written ten books, several of which have drawn wide recognition. Recently, McLaren stepped down as senior pastor and assumed a place on the pastoral staff in order to focus more on writing and speaking at conferences around the country. In recognition of his importance, in 2005 Time magazine recognized him as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
The reactions from the Presbyterian and Reformed community to McLaren and the emergent movement have ranged from curt dismissal to intense concern. Mark Dever, member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals council, sounded alarmed when he observed that McLaren’s work is “less helpful than I would have hoped and more dangerous than I would have thought.” Others, such as Westminster Seminary California’s Michael Horton dismissed the emergent church’s postmodern paradigm as nothing more than “most-modernism,” the latest fad come down the pike for twenty-first century American consumers. However, concern or dismissal has not stopped a number of younger Presbyterian and Reformed ministers from identifying themselves with the style, ethos, and methods of the emergent movement.
Perhaps the closest thing that the emergent church movement has to a “confession of faith” is McLaren’s 2004 book, A Generous Orthodoxy. Part evangelistic tract and part identity statement, the book touched on most of the emergent movement’s concerns and answered a number of the criticisms that have been raised about McLaren’s own theological perspective as well as the intellectual, social, and cultural underpinnings of the movement itself. I would suggest that a careful examination of this book reveals a number of common places where Presbyterian pastors can rejoice in and be generous toward the ministry of the emergent church. At the same time, there are several questions that rightly can be raised about the theological commitments of emergent church leaders. Through a careful engagement of one of their key leaders, I believe that the emergent church movement offered several important answers to the problem of religious identity, ones that may not be the best that Presbyterian church leaders can find for the problems of religious pluralism and meaningful dialogue with others.
On the surface, there were a number of areas where I found profound agreement with McLaren.
First, I thought his emphasis upon the church as a community journeying into the joy of God was a helpful corrective to the individualism of American evangelicalism (208). Many of us have profited from thinking about the Anabaptist contribution to issues related to community, particularly as mediated by John Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Although I wondered about how this emphasis upon community related to the need for individual commitment to Jesus (204), and I have concerns that many of the emergent leaders fail to reckon thoroughly with the costs of community, still I applaud the emphasis.
Also, McLaren rightly stressed that “orthopraxy [is] the point of orthodoxy” (31). On the surface this was nothing more than James’ wise instruction not to be merely hearers of the Word, but doers of it as well (James 1:22-25). Far too many of our people fail to translate the theological truths taught Sunday by Sunday into action; his stress once again the importance of Christian living as the fruit of the Gospel cohered nicely biblical imperatives.
McLaren further was deeply concerned to point women and men toward a relationship with Jesus. Indeed, he claimed to “cherish an evangelical identity,” by which he means “an attitude—an attitude toward God and our neighbor and our mission that is passionate” (117-8). Particularly in the first section, in which he was writing directly to those who were seeking truth about Jesus, McLaren was genuinely winsome in his presentation of the Gospel. And though he raised a number of theological questions, his concern to point people to Jesus was admirable.
In addition, I could affirm McLaren’s desire to reclaim Scripture as narrative (166) and his desire to read Scripture redemptive-historically. Again, this related well to the recent emphasis in Presbyterian circles, taught by Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, and Edmund Clowney, on seeing Scripture as the “unfolding mystery,” presenting God’s ultimate revelation of God, Jesus, and his fulfillment of all God’s promises and purposes in his living, dying, and rising again.
While I would not want to affirm this in his context he suggested (namely, the positive contributions of Roman Catholicism), I do believe that his emphasis upon the sacramental nature of life was salutary (225-6). There has been a renewed focus in Presbyterian and Reformed circles particularly on the sacraments and their importance for the Christian life. Part of this appeared to be motivated by the mysterious nature of the sacraments’ efficacy, which was seen as a rebellion against the rationalized, over-determined nature of contemporary life; part of this the way the sacraments help to overcome the body-soul dualism to which human beings are prone. In the tangible and physical means of water, bread, and wine, Jesus promises to confirm and assure our faith in his Gospel promises of full and final redemption.
This emphasis upon human bodily existence—on our humanness—also came through in his stand for creation care. Sounding most like Wendell Berry, McLaren helpfully pointed his readers to recognize their place within God’s good creation and their responsibility to tend this cosmic garden for God’s glory (231-44). Certainly this is a wonderful reminder of the responsibilities Christians have to serve God by doing good work in a good world.
In all of these ways, I believe, Presbyterian and Reformed readers can be generous towards McLaren and the emergent church movement. We have a number of shared interests and hopes; and certainly, we can look at those participating in this movement, stressing these themes, and find in them sisters and brothers in Christ. We can also affirm their heart-felt commitment to Jesus, even when we may have to raise questions or even to dissent from their perspectives.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
When our host outlined the sequence at the events, though, he said that after the three speakers would be two respondants. I thought to myself, "Hmm, that's good. They lined up two respondants before the event." So, I contented myself with passing the time and listening to the speakers, two of whom were engaging and the other overbearing. But then, after the speakers spoke (for over an hour and half), the host said, "Let's take a break. After that, we will hear from our two respondants, Dr. X [I didn't catch his name] and Dr. Sean Lucas, from Covenant Seminary." Yikes! I had 10 minutes to prepare a 5-10 minute response in which I would sound reflective, knowledgeable, and winsome without saying anything which I would regret or which would be untrue!
Fortunately, the Lord had brought to mind a classic book in American religious history, R. Laurence Moore's Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. Moore considers various "outsiders" (Mormons, Fundamentalists, Catholics, Jews) and observers the dialectic tension that is created by "Americanization"--in the interplay between religion and America, how does the meaning of America shift? How does the faith system itself transform?
After outlining Moore's basic framework, and using it to summarize each of the presentations (on the pressures of America and particularity of faiths), I also admitted that these questions applied just as well to the conservative Protestantism that I represented at the gathering. How does the American situation cause conservative religionists to identify more with the nation-state instead of God's own City? What should the proper (i.e. Christian) response be?
My thoughts turned to Hebrews 11 and the image of Abraham wandering as a stranger and alien in the Promised Land. He lived in tents that had no foundations because he was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. And so must we. We are strangers and aliens in this place--and when conservative Protestants identify with America or a particular part of America (region, race, or political platform) instead of the City of God--our own faith is transformed in ways that are unrecognizable when compared to Holy Scripture. I asked in conclusion, what would this recognition that we are all strangers in America mean for our particular faiths? And what would this mean for America itself?
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
While evangelicals in the PC(USA) (and outside observers) want to pin this two-year loss solely on theological and social liberalism, and no doubt some of that is in play here, I can't help but wonder if there are other sociological phenomenon here as well. For example, from my own engagement with that church, it strikes me that the PC(USA) is a graying denomination--visiting their seminaries or Montreat, for example, reveals the fact that there are few 20- and 30-somethings. And so, I wonder if this is, in part, a generational phenomenon. Still, as their own scholars have argued, theological and social progressivism has also played an important part in the demise the oldline church (e.g. Dean Hoge's Vanishing Boundaries and Robert Wuthnow's The Restructuring of American Religion).
The temptation for conservative evangelicals is to gloat and point fingers--"see what happens when theological liberalism is tolerated in a denomination." But I can't help but think the entire situation is incredibly sad for this reason: this historic church with its wonderful resources and history is dying. It's like having a wealthy relative who has lived an amazing life, but at the end of his life somehow contracted a disease from his own actions (perhaps lung cancer?) and is now dying. It is simply sad and no amount of finger-pointing and chiding makes it better.
There is a scene from C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew in which Digory and Polly show up at Charn just as that world is dying. The darkness and death of that world coming to an end was incredibly melancholy. To view the PC(USA)'s death is equally sad. Now is not a time for gloating, but a time for tears.
HT: Al Mohler
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
In their final paragraph, Hart and Muether appear to set "word and deed ministry" and the "spirituality of the church" in opposition when they write, "The Presbyterian Journal evolved into World magazine, and 'word and deed ministry' has begun to eclipse the 'spirituality of the church' in the vocabulary of the PCA. These are signs that the denomination may be more eager to locate itself on the cutting edge of culture reformation than to foster a coherently Reformed and Presbyterian identity." The question I wanted to raise was this: does "word and deed ministry" necessarily violate the "spirituality of the church"?
I think the clear answer to this is "no"--having a strong interest as a local church, presbytery, or even a denomination in serving the poor, working for justice, developing communities does not necessarily violate the spiritual nature of the church. If so, then our churches as churches should not have sent teams of workers to assist with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina; people should have gone as private individuals to work in relief efforts run by the state. But this logic seems to be mistaken, if for no other reason than Matthew 25:40.
Further, southern Presbyterians such as John L. Girardeau--who held strongly to the spirituality of the church--developed thorough biblical rationales for diaconates whose task would be to care for the poor and suffering. In this, southern Presbyterians were simply following after Calvin, who observed that deacons' responsibilities were "to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor" (Institutes, 4.3.9). [For more on this, see Elsie McKee, Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today (Eerdmans, 1989).] If Girardeau (and Calvin for that matter) could urge a strong word and deed ministry through the structures and officers of the church, then it seems unlikely that such could be a violation of the spirituality of the church.
Finally, the question comes about what is "spiritual." Is caring for someone's body as well as their soul spiritual activity? I would suggest that, in fact, it is--when deed ministry facilitates the proclamation of Gospel word, then such is spiritual activity that is worthy of the church's notice and support. Such ministry furthers the spiritual mission of the church by bringing Gospel transformation to people who are struggling with real life problems that are spiritual at root.
Indeed, I would suggest that such a spiritual mission--this word and deed ministry--is part of the best of the Reformed tradition, all the way back to Calvin himself.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Thursday, February 16, 2006
...Is Dr. Kuyper correct in representing his theory as the proper Calvinistic view of infant baptism? Did the older theologians really mean that that baptism in each case presupposes regeneration as an accomplished fact? I have never been able to make up my mind on this point, and still feel the necessity of having a more or less decided opinion in my teaching. There are many among us who hold to a much laxer theory and make baptism little more than a symbolic offer of the covenant on God's side, a presentation of the gospel isntead of a seal of the gospel promise. It seems to me that Dr. Kuyper approaches more or less to the Lutheran view of baptismal grace, though of course with the necessary restrictions.
Answer: What did Sean just now carry back from the Covenant Seminary bookstore to his office?
[btw--one of the books contracted for the American Reformed Biographies series is a biography on Vos by George Harinck, a professor at the Free University, Amsterdam. Hopefully, we will see that some time in 2008.]
I like Mike Davis, the head coach for Indiana University's men's basketball team. He is a good Christian man who is honest and hardworking. I think he has done as well with a bad situation as can be expected (following Bob Knight as head coach). However, after his comments yesterday, I can't see how he will be back for next season. He has all but said that he should no longer be the coach.
It is intriguing that Davis observed that IU should hire "one of their own." That had to be a reference to Steve Alford, IU basketball legend and current head coach at Iowa (which currently is in first place in the Big Ten). What is especially interesting is to see the polarizing opinions on blogs that discuss IU basketball on whether Alford should or should not be the next head coach.
[In the interest of full disclosure, even before Knight left, I felt that Alford should be the next head coach. He was the reason I started following IU basketball in 1984 when, as a freshman, he led IU over the Michael Jordan-led UNC in the Sweet Sixteen.]
To take this a little further, and into a different realm, it is interesting to me the parallels here between following a long-time, successful (and polarizing) head coach and following a long-time, successful pastor. There is no question in my mind that Davis has been a "sacrifical lamb"--ever since he got the job, he has been compared, scruntized, criticized, denigrated, praised, or upheld compared to the ghost of Bob Knight. In how many of our churches does it happen the same way? A long-time pastor leaves and the new pastor is held to the standard, not of biblical faithfulness or pastoral care or passionate vision, but of the previous pastor and that man's quirks, abilities, or liabilities. The previous leader lingers like a ghost in every conversation and in every decision that a church makes.
While we can try to find reasons for this phenomenon (remaining corruption, law-based standards, unrealistic expectations), I think it is easier simply to observe this as part of the natural human reaction to transitions in leadership (whatever the area) and the instability and anxiety that accompanies it. While Davis (or a new pastor) can do certain things to minimize the anxiety within the "system" through calm and calculated leadership, people will still judge leaders by the ghosts who still remain in the community's memory.
Suffice it to say, that one of the great challenges of leadership is to follow "the leader."
Monday, February 13, 2006
It is also striking how the new media (i.e. the internet) has simply transformed the sort of thing "The Calvary Contender" used to do. While Mr. Huffman was limited by his finances and subscription list to get the word out about "compromising" ministries, now all one needs to do is to start a blog! Now, the kind of "truth-telling" that the "Contender" used to do can be done far more efficently. A number of theological firefights in various denominations are now conducted on the internet where they were once conducted through mimeographed scandal sheets.
But I wonder if we are better Christians with this model of ministry? Does the kind of "contending" helpfully model the virtues of Christ? Or to put it differently, does pugnaciousness, even if the name of "Truth," live out Paul's instructions in 2 Timothy 2:24-25: "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness"? This type of ministry may attract quite a bit of attention, land you on Larry King Live, and sell books--but I don't think it helps God's people live out the character of Christ well.
I think a better model is the loving and long-suffering pastoral approach offered by the Apostle Paul (even in a book like Galatians in which he pleads with his people in 4:12-20). As we earnestly contend for the faith, we need to make sure that our people know that we will love them anyways and always, that our care for them is rooted in a prior relationship, a common "union," rooted in our common union with Christ. We may tell them the truth and expose error, but it is always motivated by love for Christ, his church, and his people.
Otherwise, we will simply be clanging gongs, crashing symbols, making loud noises but accomplishing nothing, even as we contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. For without love, we are nothing and our ministries are nothing.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Friday, February 10, 2006
When [Heinrich] Bullinger died in 1575, he could look back on a long career, marked not so much by brilliant innovation as by prudent consolidation. He conserved the gains made by Zwingli and built on them...
Bullinger is less important for his originality than for his wisdom. He was the humane and compassionate pastor pastorum, whose learning and gifts were modestly put at the service of others. Precisely because he was less innovative than either Zwingli or Calvin, he was better able than either to state in a way that transcended factional differences the hard lines of the faith of the Reformed church. Without Zwingli there would have been no Reformation in Zurich; without Bullinger it would not have lasted.
The only real historical "mistake" was their linking Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship directly to foreign missions at its founding in 1964. The story is a little more complex: PEF was started by Bill Hill as a fellowship of Presbyterian evangelists who did itinerant ministry in the South; in 1971, the leadership decided to start the Executive Committee on Overseas Missions [ECOE], which would eventually morph into Mission to the World when the PCA started.
I think the article raises the important point--do church members in the PCA see themselves as Presbyterians? Or do they simply see themselves as evangelical Protestants who happen to go to a PCA church (but who could, just as easily, go to an Evangelical Free church)? These questions have a great deal to do with whether the PCA will represent a distinctively Presbyterian witness in the coming generation. And these questions motivated me to write my book, On Being Presbyterian, which will release (Lord willing) in April.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
"Now, from the definition that I have set forth we understand that a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it. By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness.
"Yet, properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God's truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way.
"Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these early elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings."
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Their two song set--"Vertigo" and, especially, "One," with Bono dueting with Mary J. Blige--was amazing. Chris Martin, on the other hand, was consistently off-key and looks completely uncomfortable on stage. I don't know if U2 will win album of the year or best rock album of the year, but that performance was one of the best I've seen in watching the Grammys.
[UPDATE: as you may know, U2 did win best rock album AND album of the year. I hope they put the performance out on iTunes...]
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
- May 2-3: I'll be giving a seminar on "Dealing with Yourself by Grace" at the Augusta Conference, hosted by First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia [they don't have information on their website yet; when they do, I'll make a link].
- June 20-23: I'll be giving a seminar on "Making Disciples: Thinking Through Presbyterian Identity in our Postmodern World" at the 2006 PCA General Assembly in Atlanta, Georgia.
- July 24-28: Donald Guthrie and I will be teaching at Ridge Haven in North Carolina for the Covenant Family Conference 2006.
Monday, February 06, 2006
The understanding and honoring of time is fundamental to the realization of who we are and how we live. Violations of sacred time become desecrations of our most intimate relations with God and one another. hours and days, weeks and months and years, are the very stuff of holiness.
Among the many desecrations visited upon the creation, the profanation of time ranks near the top, at least among North Americans. Time is the medium in which we do all our living. When time is desecrated, life is desecrated. The most conspicuous evidences of this desecration are hurry and procastination: hurry turns away from the gift of time in a compulsive grasping for abstractions that it can possess and control. Procrastination is distracted from the gift of time in a lazy inattenativeness to the life of obedience and adoration by which we enter the "fullness of time." Whether by a hurried grasping or by a procrastinating inattention, time is violated.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
Having served on presbytery candidate committees as well as interviewing faculty candidates for the seminary, one of the questions that inevitably gets asked is this: “Is there any matter that would concern us if we knew about it, even if we have failed to ask you about it specifically?”
One man answered this well—he said, “If you were to know all that is in my heart, and the numerous ways that I sin against the Lord, against my family, then perhaps you would be concerned. But God is greater than my heart.”
And this is our only hope, our only place to stand as leaders in Christ’s church—that the God who knows me inside and out no longer sees me against a checklist of laws, a standard of perfection—he no longer condemns me. Rather, he sees me, the chief of sinners, saved by his overflowing grace, faith, and love in Jesus (cf. 1 Timothy 1:14).
The only way church leadership can be a noble task is when we see ourselves as God sees us: united to Christ, righteous in him, holy in his sight, an adopted son, and glorious. Otherwise, we will be undone.
But the other temptation is this: to demand far more of our leaders than they can ever deliver. We all are tempted to compare our leaders to some other standard of perfection, some other esteemed pastor or elder. What we have to remember is that there is only one Bryan Chapell, one George Robertson, one Skip Ryan, one Tim Keller, (thankfully) one Sean Lucas. God created each of his leaders—each elder, each pastor—with specific gifts and strengths: but we are all men, not Supermen.
A song which I’ve had on heavy replay on my iPod this week is one by Five for Fighting. The song is called “Superman,” and it is written from his own perspective:
I can’t stand to fly;
I’m not that naïve
I’m just out to find;
The better part of me
I’m more than a bird...i’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me
It may sound absurd...but don’t be naïve
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed...but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me
Up, up and away...away from me
It’s all right...you can all sleep sound tonight
I can’t stand to fly;
I’m not that naïve
Men weren’t meant to ride
With clouds between their knees
I’m only a man in a silly red sheet
Digging for kryptonite on this one way street
Only a man in a funny red sheet
Looking for special things inside of me
It is easy for us to look at our leaders and to think of them as “Supermen.” And it is easy for us to long for leaders who will be bullet-proof or omni-competent. But there are no Supermen, only men who can’t stand to fly, who bleed, who dream, and who feel awfully silly sometimes.
Rather, the leaders that God gives us, the leaders that God calls upon us to recognize, are men: men who are honest enough to make mistakes, to fail, to falter at times. Men who recognize themselves to be sinners, yea the chief of sinners. And yet these leaders are men in which Jesus Christ has displayed his perfect patience as a Gospel example to the whole world—that God can redeem sinners, can transform them inside out, can make them worthy of service, can make them “above reproach” and instruments “useful to the master of the house” (2 Timothy 2:21).
And the result is this: as God's leaders care and shepherd and teach and love God's people, we hear God’s Word, love God more deeply and thoroughly and passionately, and love each other with godly passion and intensity for God's glory and the world's good.
Friday, February 03, 2006
[For those who don't know what the third use of the law is--Reformation thinkers have claimed that the moral law has three uses--it reveals and condemns sin, points to Christ, and provides a guide or norm for the Christian life. This last use is the "third use of the law."]
In the Formula of Concord, article 6 (1577), Lutherans confess, "We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified by faith."
In that same article, they confess, "The fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works that the Spirit of God, who dwells in believers, effects through the reborn; they are done by believers (insofar as they are reborn) as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward. In this manner the children of God live in the law and walk according to the law."
This strikes me as exactly right and very much in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:6, 7. The law is "the unchangeable will of God"; and for believers, it represents a standard of perfection that they cannot meet because of remaining sin. And yet, God grants us his Spirit to enable them to walk in the law's way (indeed, to love God's law itself as a friend and not as a foe). This healthy emphasis upon the Spirit's enablement also represents Galatians 5:13-26 well, in which the works of love are motivated and enabled by the Holy Spirit.
It represents yet another area of common ground between Reformed and Lutherans, reminding us that historically speaking (i.e. in the 16th century) the dividing line was not election, predestination, bondage of the will, or the continuing use of the law (for this see Robert Kolb's brilliant Bound Choice, Election, and the Wittenberg Theological Method ).
Rather, the dividing line was (what Lutherans called) "the sacrament of the altar"--how is Christ's body and blood present in the Lord's Supper? And while that was and is an important issue, it doesn't strike me to be the same kind of barrier to fellowship and cooperation that it was in the 16th century. With such a large amount of common ground, I think conservative Lutherans and Reformed would do well to be in closer conversation and cooperation.