Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Evangelicals and the Kingdom of God

For some time now, accusations have been hurled against conservative evangelicals which contend that we are so concerned about the eternal that we neglect our stewardship over the temporal. Principally, these charges have come from within the Emergent Network, and admittedly, the reputation they tie to a few corners of the evangelical world is sometimes earned.

The mistake however, has been to contend that because certain evangelicals have neglected the more holistic parameters of their calling, this is neccesarily the fault of evangelical theology.

Nevertheless, Emergent leaders, most notably Brian McLaren, have asserted that our insistence on a "Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation" approach to Redemptive history and worldview is the cause for why some evangelicals have ignored, for example, social justice issues. McLaren's conclusion is that the "Gospel" of conservative Protestants, which centers around the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, isn't really what Jesus or Paul had in mind. Therefore, McLaren offers an alternative understanding of the Gospel that, in his view, removes the cross and resurrection from the center, and puts in its place the "Kingdom of God." Says McLaren: "The seeking of justice in history, doing what is fair or right in history is minimized because the important thing is what is BEYOND history. The question [for conservative Protestants] is “are we getting people to understand here so that they can get to heaven?”*** In short, McLaren contends that Protestants have often said "we will save your souls, and at the same time steal your natural resources," justifying how we took advantage of other peoples and nations by stating that we gave them the "Gospel" in return, and he is probably right! His mistake is blaming all of this on the Gospel of the cross and ressurection. Moreover, his oversimplification of substitutionary atonement contributes to what essentially becomes a "straw man" argument.

McLaren's mischaracterizations of the Protestant Gospel are answered in a new book written by Russ Moore, one of my former seminary colleagues, who now serves as Vice President and Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville Kentucky. Dr. Moore's latest work, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective essentially lays to rest contentions that sinful ommissions of our missional responsibilities in the past are related to a conservative Protestant presentation of the Gospel. In fact, Moore contends that it is the conservative/Protestant Gospel which, when rightly applied, will most effecively address the very issues that currently concern groups like Emergent. Below is a small sample of an interview Crossway Books conducted with Moore that illustrates this point.

CROSSWAY BOOKS: But what about the criticism that Christians are so focused on future renewal that they neglect
current problems?
RUSSELL MOORE: Seeking first the Kingdom should not dampen Christian concern for social and political justice, but
heighten it. After all, the priorities of the King—seen in his ultimate goal at the restoration of the creation—must
become the priorities of the Kingdom colony, the church. We see something of this principle in the New Testament
when James confronts the churches for their economic injustices. He does not simply appeal to timeless truths about
partiality, but instead indicts the church for a defective eschatology. In the same way, the priorities of the
eschatological Kingdom must transform the priorities of our churches—including the ways we think about culture and
politics. If the messianic kingdom is marked by "pity on the week and the needy" whose lives are threatened by
"oppression and violence" (Ps 72:12), then how can the church ignore the "unwanted children" languishing in Russian
orphanages or "invalids" wasting away in lonely nursing homes? If the coming Kingdom is marked by a King who
judges with fairness and equity (Isa 11:3-4), then how can the believing community be silent in the face of judicial
abuse of power? If the Kingdom is ruled by believers from every tribe and nation (Rev 5:9-10), then how can Christians
stand by while some of the cosmos's future rulers are denied justice because of the pigment of their skin? If the
Kingdom will mean the restoration of the material creation under the rule of human beings, then how can Christians
fall into the extremist positions of either side of the environmental movement—seeing the natural order as a resource
to be exploited carelessly or seeing humanity as a parasite on the earth? If the Kingdom—both in the creation and in
the new creation—shows that human purpose is found in creative labor, then how can evangelicals be surprised when
a welfare state leads to despair seen in crime, family breakdown, drugs, and alcohol abuse?
Perhaps most pertinent to the current era, evangelicals must understand what the biblical vision of the Kingdom
teaches us about the essential goodness of life itself. Abortion, euthanasia, and other assaults on innocent life are not
just liberal and they are not just mean. They are part of an ongoing guerilla insurgency against the image of the Creator
himself. When we plead in the public square for the sanctity of human life, we are saying something that we learn
from the Kingdom we will see in our own resurrections from the grave— that life is better than death because the gospel is more glorious than the curse."

Well, so much for the contention that the Reformation Gospel doesn't address holistic issues or social justice! ON the contrary, it is the only message that will better humanity in this life, and save humanity for fellowship with God in the next!

***McLaren quotes taken from a conference in which I was allowed to hear his views on various atonement theories.

****To read the entire interview with Russell Moore, click here:


Friday, July 22, 2005

Emerging Evangelical: What's in a Name?

"Labeling" has become an artform in western life, to the extent that most in our culture, including many within the church, care more about certain words than we care about how those words are defined. "Liberal" "Conservative" "Calvinist" "Dispensationalist" "Charismatic" and other terms such as these are used with regularity, often without regard for their etymological or historical origins, or for that matter, their correct definitions.

One such compound term seems to be getting quite a bit of mileage these days: "Emerging Evangelical." And the problem is the same: most have no idea what either of these words mean.

I must admit two things of myself at the outset. First of all, I consider myself, although not an authority on the subject, to be a “fellow-journeyman” with others among the movement otherwise known as the “emerging church.” I believe this movement is helping all of Christendom to make an appropriate course-correction between the wrongly-separated categories of right doctrine and right practice--the whole proclamation of Scripture and the holistic incarnation of the Gospel through the promotion of social justice. I believe that many, under the guise of “conservative” theology, have circumvented the Scriptural call to mission in lieu of a right-wing agenda they intend to implement in a Zealotistic crusade for power, which they wrongly identify as the accomplishment of the Great Commission. And I believe that the central values of the emerging church counter this hunger for power with the call to follow a missional path of suffering and service that Jesus commands His followers to walk. Consequently, I am optimistic about much that I see and hear in this movement.

Conversely, I am also humbly, but unapologetically, Evangelical I believe that 2 Timothy 3:15-16 assumes the inerrancy of the autographic text of Scripture, and that this inerrancy by default commends acceptance of the veracity of the creation account, the miracles of both the Old and New Testaments, and subsequently, the authority of the Bible over every area of our lives, including both our thoughts, and our actions. I believe these authoritative Scriptures further declare the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only path to fellowship with God, abundant life, and a secure eternity. I believe in a literal hell that is both horrifying and eternal, and that those who reject the message of the Gospel will be its occupants in a glorious-yet-sorrowful display of God’s infinite justice. I believe Scriptural teaching on the imago dei declares abortion to be the unequivocal murder of one created in God’s image. I believe these random statements (among many others) are absolute because Scripture is absolute, and Scripture is absolute because the God who inspired Scripture is absolute. And I believe all of these conclusions come by allowing Scripture to speak for itself, via the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation.

This is my understanding of what it means to be an "Emerging Evangelical," yet after reading these words, I am sure there are many who identify themselves as evangelical, as well as many who associate with the emerging church, who would claim that I am neither. In short, while the church uses a common vocabulary, there are many dictionaries!

This issue has been most recently brought to the forefront, probably unintentionally so, by Don Carson, in his latest book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. On the one hand, Carson's assessment of the emerging "conversation" is an accurate one. Though I have read many strong critiques of his work, I maintain that in the end, many associated with the emerging church hold to an ultimately incoherent theology that is sloppy at best, and heretical at worst. They are angry at Carson because he has called them on this point. Nevertheless, while Carson is accurate in his descriptions of these inaccuracies, he wrongly paints with a very broad brush, failing for example, to deal with much of anything in this movement outside of Emergent.

In response to Carson's work, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch of the Forge Mission Training Network have written an articulate position paper that outlines the different approaches taken by Emergent and Forge respectively. In addressing this concern, Frost and Hirsch correctly state that Carson has inadvertently lumped everyone together. "While we accept that Carson's assessment of McLaren and Chalke has some validity, we believe that there are multiple 'emerging' approaches to mission-in-the-west that have unfortunantely been unfairly tarred by the same brush that Don Carson applies to Emergent." These Austrailian missiologists are careful to state that while this was not Carson's intent, it was nonetheless the result. The reason? Frost and Hirsch contend that "many people who have read his book seem to be ignorant of the various permutations of the so-called emerging or missional church. This has become obvious as several articles now quote Becoming Conversant when attacking all new missional expressions of church."

The bottom line so far: It seems that while everyone uses the term "emerging," few seem to agree on what it means!

But the term "evangelical" has also had an elusive definition throughout its history. First used in the early 20th century as a way of distancing the "Carl F.H. Henry" Fundamentalists from more radical proponents of Fundamentalism, the term was basically used of believers who wanted to unite around five "fundamentals" they considered essential and foundational for the preaching of an authentic Christian Gospel: The inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, the bodily ressurection of Jesus, and the literal second coming of Jesus. Within a few short decades however, the definition of this term had become so nebulous that entire collegiate lecture series' and symposiums were dedicated to the discussion of its true meaning. Vernon Grounds, in a 1956 article written for Eternity magazine, strongly asserted the fundamentals as essential in the makeup of anyone identifying as a part of Evangelicalism. "This then, is the nature of Protestant orthodoxy, a twentieth century continuation of the historic faith which springs from a bloody cross and an empty tomb, a Protestant against religious deviants from the Gospel of redemption, a witness to the truth and grace of God in Jesus Christ." And in 1971, Martyn Lloyd-Jones delivered a series of three addresses that were eventually published in book form with the title What is an Evangelical? The struggle for a uniform definition of this term continues today, as inclusivists like Clark Pinnock and open-theists like Gregory Boyd now seek to use it in describing their own theological and missiological vantagepoint.

In an effort to speak with more clarity, some organizations, including the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association in which I am employed, have chosen to use the term "Missional." At present, this term carries much less ecclesiastical "baggage," and is probably a more useful and accurate way of describing the central tenents of what many in emerging church circles are advocating. But I suspect that like other labels, this one is also eventually bound for the terminology "trash-heap" of terms that have come to mean so many things, that they now ultimately mean nothing.

So what is needed to overcome the mis-information that often clouds the vision and judgement of Christ's church? If the confusion is facillitated by the overuse of labels, then maybe a few of these labels should go the way of the dinosaur! But what will take their place?

How about "communication?" How about "dialogue?" Acquisition works such as The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives provide a wonderful example of how discussion can take place between those of different perspectives without oversimplifying the issues at hand, or sounding like the US Congress. And online communities, such as that provided by my old seminary colleague Steve McCoy (www.stevekmccoy.com) are a conduit of information exchange that enriches the learning experience of which we all should avail ourselves.

My contention that labels can sometimes be confusing does not mean that they shouldn't be used. On the contrary, when rightly understood, labels help us to see where we are positionally, and define the contours of how we think, what we believe, and how we will behave as a result. What I'm suggesting here is that if "emerging church" proponents looked a little closer at their "evangelical" brethren, they might discover that not everyone in that movement is an intellectual slave to modernity. Conversely, evangelicals who take a long enough look at the wider emerging church movement will discover many who share their strong convictions, and want to see the unconverted come to share these same convictions within a relationship to Jesus Christ.

Not every emerging leader believes Brian McLaren is postmodernism's "Billy Graham," and not every evangelical believes that the "modern" expression of church is the zenith of its existence in the west. These two groups need to get together! The result, with a few exceptions, might well-resemble what is already happening in Australia. Frost and Hirsch correctly state: "To nurture a vigorous, truly transformational, missionary vision of the world based squarely on the Gospel, will require surer foundations than that which the culturally bound, always insecure, always uncertain, postmodern form of theologising can provide." Similarly: "A transformative missionary movement in the West will need an equally strong transformative vision of the world if we are going to be able to reclaim the ground lost by a disentigrating Christendom in the last few centuries."

In short, a radically agressive missiology, informed by a sound, Biblical theology, and carried by an equally Biblical ecclesiology, would make for a deadlly weapon against the powers of darkness. If emerging leaders who are evangelical, and evangelicals who are sympathetic to the causes of the emerging church could get together somehow, the result might be a God-glorifying synergy that could transform our world as we know it. But for this to take place, we have to check our labels at the conference room door!

The following resources may be helpful:

Carson, D.A. 2005. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Frost, Michael and Alan Hirsch. 2003. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers

Sweet, Leonard, ed. 2003. The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Includes contributions from Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Fredreca Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin McManus)

Minetrea, Milfred. 2004. Shaped by God's Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

**There will most likely be no online commentary for next week, as I will be in Atlanta attending the summer meetings at the North American Mission Board. God willing, postings will resume the week of July 31.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Making Love to the Glory of God

Following Jesus and having great sex are two concepts that, unfortunately, are rarely viewed as belonging together. The hijacking of human sexuality by a sinful culture has certainly caused a raw perversion of one of God's good gifts to us. But while the world is largely responsible for contaminating sex, the church, with its ample prudishness, is equally responsible for perverting what God has to say about this powerful subject.

But John Piper and Justin Taylor have just edited a superb new book that introduces us afresh to what God has to say on this matter.

The book, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, has an obviously "Piperian" bent, as is indicated by the title. Among the assumptions laid out in the first part of the text is that the act of sex, like any other human act, has as it's ultimate purpose to glorify God. Piper, along with Ben Patterson of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, do a masterful job in Part One at communicating the close relationship between the goodness of sexuality and the glory of God in Jesus Christ. For those who have read Piper's other works, the central theme of the chapters he writes are no different from all the other books he has written. But two reciprocal points presented by Piper undergird the rest of the book. First, Piper contends that "sexuality is designed by God as a way to know God more fully," and second, "knowing God is designed by God as a way of guarding and guiding our sexuality." In short, this intense physical experience was created by God to point to an even more intense spiritual reality.

Echoing Piper in the conclusion of Part One is Ben Patterson, who asserts with Biblical authority an axiom that will be novel to many Christians: "Pleasure is God's idea, and God is the devil's enemy. The devil actually hates pleasure, because he hates the God of pleasure." As a result, all sexual perversion, from pornography to fornication and adultery, to homosexuality, should simply be seen as a cheap Satanic replication of God's intended design. Says Patterson: "The devil's grand strategy against pleasure is to twist it, to get us to misuse it." Patterson presents a very candid conversation in which he is transparent enough to describe his own struggles with sexual temptation, and how God has helped him to overcome them.

So what happens when God's sexual gift is misused? Moreover, what can be done to heal the deep hurt caused by its misuse? Al Mohler of Southern Seminary and David Powlison of Westminster Seminary address these questions in Part Two. Powlison provides what in my estimation is the most insightful chapter of the entire book, which deals with how sexual brokennes may be healed. Powlison's wisdom points the reader to the fact that most sexual sins have something other than sex as their root. Using examples from his own experience as a Christian counselor, Powlison unveils the multiple avenues through which Satan leads both men and women into sexual sin.

Al Mohler's chapter on the Christian response to homosexual marriage is both timely and straightforward. On the one hand, Mohler strongly contends that homosexual marriage "is a tragic oxymoron," and states that even the discussion of its possibility in the legislature "demonstrates that we are a civilization in crisis, because a great many barriers must be breached in order to put this question on the cultural agenda." But Mohler doesn't limit his challenge to those favoring homosexual marriage. He also takes dead aim at the overly simplistic rationale that is often used by evangelicals in their opposition to homosexuality (just one example of this contention: "We, as Christians, must be the people who cannot start a conversation about homosexual marriage by talking about homosexual marriage."), their lack of compassion and willingness to walk with homosexuals through the long and messy healing process, and their objection to the lifestyle based solely on the "yuck factor." The end result is a comprehensive and well-thought-out polemic for us to "speak the truth in love."

In Part Three, readers are introduced to the Biblical way that men are to view sex. Mark Dever, Michael Lawrence and Matt Schumucker each contribute to the chapter on sex and the single man. The reader will not be surprised at their basic view that "the first thing to say about sex and the single man is, there should be none!" However, the authors go further in describing how the church has often presented a truncated message on sex and singleness that has left single men physically pure, but emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. Without resorting to a new form of legalism, the authors encourage single men not only to save their bodies, but also their hearts, for their future spouses. (Wow, if I had only read this when I was 16 years old!)

C.J. Mahanney, President of Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, MD, concludes Part Three with an authentic and transparent look at a man's view of sex within marriage. Using the Song of Solomon as his primary teaching tool, Pastor Mahanney combines his scholarly mind and pastoral heart with his experience as a husband of more than two decades, and the result is a godly wisdom from which every husband will benefit. Principally, he speaks of the sex act as one of service to one's wife. Mahanney reveals the "elephant in the room" by addressing the "extremely common tendency for husbands to find satisfaction in lovemaking sooner than their wives." From 1 Corinthians Mahanney asserts that if a husband is having sex in a way that is honoring to God and his wife "I will take my thoughts captive during lovemaking, disciplining my body in order to focus primarily on giving to my wife sexually, rather than only receiving from her." Mahanney also speaks of the dichotomy between the sexual fantasy world hopelessly aspired to, and the reality of God's gift, and courageously calls Christian husbands back to reality in some quite humorous ways. Mahanney also speaks candidly (although not graphically) about his own experiences with his wife, and with the wisdom of a father speaking to sons, shares with younger Christian men how they can be servants to their one flesh in the bedroom.

In Part Four, Carolyn McCulley, media specialist for Sovereign Grace Ministries and a single woman, speaks in a straightforward way to other single women. Acknowledging the role of radical feminism in how single women now approach the subject of sexuality (and admitting that she herself was at one time an avowed feminist), McCulley laments the result: "When I read articles about the spreadsheets college women keep about their sexual activities, or when I watch how the Christian men I know struggle to avoid the parade of barely dressed women before them at a mall or restaurant, or when I have to turn over all ten womens' magazines at the grocery checkout because my nieces can now read the soft-porn headlines, I find I am more than shocked; I am deeply grieved. This is what feminism has done to improve the standing of women? It's a very poor trade-off, indeed." The alternative McCulley presents is a countercultural revolution of female sexuality. The rest of the chapter addresses practical ways that this can be accomplished, including relishing in the gift of singleness, and dodging sexual snares at the office. Along with the other contributors, McCulley offers her own personal experiences along with Biblical counsel to single women who desire to honor God and their future husbands with their bodies, and who want their bodies honored by others.

Carolyn Mahanney, the wife of C.J. Mahanney, concludes Part Four by speaking to married women on how to glorify God in the sex act with their husbands. She offers practical, Biblical principles of "Grade A passion" that, like her husband's teaching, commends an attitude of servanthood in the bedroom. Chief among these principles is that of training the female mind to anticipate sex, based on Song of Songs 5:10-16. For those who have lost their sexual passion and desire for their husbands, Mahhanney gives encouragement, stating that "God is able to renew your sexual desire, empower you to change, and revive you with hope."

The final part of this work contains information regarding how sexuality has been viewed in two different epochs of church history. Justin Taylor, Executive Editor of Desiring God Ministries, speaks in detail of Martin Luther's reform of marriage, and Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Wahington D.C., sheds new light on the popular perception of how the Puritans viewed the act of sex.

In a sexually broken world informed more by radical sex education and Cialis commercials than the Word of God, the church has often been guilty of giving simplistic and anemic answers to the question of human sexuality. The authors of this book present a view of sex with the comprehensiveness and authority of the Scriptures themselves, and the result is a fully-orbed presentation of God's view of sex. And who better to speak to this powerful topic than the One who invented it? Maybe you have a perception of Christianity as overly-pruddish and ascetic, or maybe you are a victim of the combination of Satan's sexual snares and your own bad choices. Let me beg you to do an Amazon search of the reference below, because this book will point you to the right answers, and more importantly to Christ, who is the end-all, be-all answer to all things!

Piper, John, and Justin Taylor, eds. 2005. Sex and the Supremacy of Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.