Month: August 2017

Church, parachurch, or why church at all?

Church, parachurch, or why church at all?
(whole essay at Church, parachurch, or why church at all)

Questions: What means did Christ establish

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  • for the proclamation and preservation of the gospel in biblical history?
  • for properly organized and structured worship, reception of the Word of God, and
  • the accountability of discipline and discipleship through offices of authority
    for properly administering to the needs of the fellowship of believers?

Answer: The visible church of those who profess faith in Christ and live in obedience to his commands. This was true for OT Israel living under a theocracy and monarchy, the same as it is for the NT visible church today. In the OT, the visible church was characterized by the Priests’ administration of the sanctuary worship and application of the Word of God, the Elders and Prophets’ ministry of proclaiming and teaching the Word of God revealed and written, and by the kings’ service of administrating justice by upholding the law of God and defending the nation. In the NT, the visible church is characterized by the (priestly) administration of the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the exposition of the Word (prophetic), and the upholding of the law and protecting the people of God through the administration of discipline properly applied to preserve, protect, and restore by the elders. Further protection and service is provided by the ministry of the Deacons. It is often said that the church is a “human institution,” but that is not what it is: it is God’s divinely appointed means to accomplish his work of redemption through Christ of his people and his world.

A serious question then is, why do so many people today abandon the visible church, and membership in the fellowship, for alternatives (such as “para-churches”)? Some will answer that they do not need the local church, since they are already members of the universal and invisible church. Perhaps they have been deeply scarred in a local church, or they had some very bad experiences there at some point, or they were in a church that was not orthodox, and they left never to return to a visible and established congregation. In all of these cases, it is easy to understand the rationale and justification for leaving a particularly bad situation.[1] The question is, nevertheless, whether it is wise to exclude oneself altogether from membership in the visible church (or to attach to alternative organizations). The local church is the place where our Lord’s Table is celebrated regularly, and where his death and resurrection are remembered and celebrated every Sunday, and where the Word of Scripture is taught consistently and fully, and where structures for training in righteousness (discipleship) are in place, and where the people of God are held accountable to Christ and to one another by one another, and where elders and deacons are called to serve these ends.

Do people often leave the visible church planning to find a better alternative, one of the many more glamorous alternatives (such as “para-churches”), because they sincerely believe the church failed them, and is failing in its mission, because it has so many problems, because there are so many sinners there not living in obedience? With such claims, the question is do they really believe it will be easier to do the work of the Kingdom outside of Christ’s ordained means and visible institution (to use imperfect sinners living under grace), while working with different sinners in different contexts and structures that do not align fully with a biblical model or precedent?

What does Christ command us to do in the visible church? To remember him. To celebrate his Table of remembrance, to establish proper structure of authority, to obey his commands with accountability, to have his word dwell in us richly, to pray together. How is this possible? The best way, perhaps the only way, to experience the blessings of membership in his universal, “invisible” church is to be a member of his visible church. Indeed, I think it would be difficult to rightly claim membership in the universal church unless we are committed to real people in a real locale in a real and visible church under the real authority of elders and deacons given by Christ to serve the mission of the advancement of the gospel and the Kingdom through the visible body of Christ. In this way, our presence and service in the visible church is evidence (yet, not proof of salvation or a proposal of works-righteousness here) of our membership in the universal church. In this way, our membership in a local body of believers is the acknowledgement that we cannot do this alone, nor would we ever want to. It is also an acknowledgment that we do not create organizations that would supplant or replace the mission given to the church.

Nevertheless, there are some who say that membership in a local visible church is unnecessary. Actually, I would suggest that the term “invisible” (or universal) church is meaningless without a visible representation on the earth. Otherwise, it is nothing but some abstraction, a concept. So, this is sometimes people’s logic, “Oh, I belong to the invisible church that is universal, and which is by the way unseen (since invisible), and so it is unnecessary that I join a local congregation.” If this be the case, then it must be presumed your church is inactive and non-existent to anyone’s observation from the outside. And, for those who do not abandon the local visible church with such reasoning, it can lead to the rationalization to create something “new,” an alternative to Christ’s institution, to make the Kingdom hope more appealing and exciting, or just more glamorous than our boring edifices and structures and services, or to provide a more biblical alternative to what was seen as mostly dead church traditions or outright unbelief within the majority of denominations.

The so-called “para-church” organizations that proliferated during the later sixties and seventies, and continue today, often were seen as ways to address the perceived failures, lacks, and omissions of the visible church. Indeed, in many cases they were a response to the failed project of the Liberal and mainline churches that for a generation had largely abandoned the gospel. Succumbing to the unbelief of a purely socially oriented gospel, rejecting much of historic Christian doctrine, they bore the fruits of such theology in catastrophic spiritual (and physical) death around the world. In this context it not surprising that “para” organizations developed to seek to redress this state of affairs, but they typically went outside the organized and visible church and became “alongside,” an alternative. Offering what appeared to be exciting new opportunities to serve the Kingdom and the gospel of Jesus, they created focused ministries to the many and various needs of the world, such as evangelism, discipleship, worship, and serving the poor and oppressed. These para-church organizations have done a tremendous amount of good in the world, but too often the cost to our ecclesiology, and the strength of the believing visible church, has not been acknowledged. Since these organizations are not churches, having no official establishment of biblical structures and patterns and protections of the church, they have been subject to the many cultural and social forces prevailing in the broader culture. They have also been subject to all the same trials every organization of humans struggles with, yet doing so without biblical restraints (and training) on doctrine, authority, and morality. They so often supplant the Christ-given visible church’s responsibilities, and forsake proper structures for those of the business model or non-profit models, and in many cases a very-much-for-profit model.  Because they usually lack proper biblical officers, authorial checks and balances, such organizations are governed by strong personalities who can generate tremendous capital and interest around the causes of the organization, sometimes, and much too often, creating a sub-culture prone to the cult-of-the-personality, or sectarian style structures and strategies, and in some cases cultic, or cult-styled, local and national leadership teams. I claim no expertise on these organizations, but my observation over the years is that the most of them focus on the youth and young adults, and often at the local level they are led by the theologically untrained and immature. This being the case, the larger they become, the more insidiously authoritarian they become in order to control the inevitable chaos. To varying degrees they must compete with one another, in strictly business fashion, vying to appeal to the diverse interests of the young in the hopes of gaining new members by offering a product more satisfying than the other alternatives to the youthful yearnings and aspirations of those they recruit. In sum, I hope that this brief reflection on church and para-church organizations stimulates some reflection on the question of what is the church and how we understand those organizations that are not churches and yet which often supplant the church, Christ’s established and authorial means to fulfill his work. The visible church is Christ’s institution called to the Great Commission, to convey the gospel of the Scripture to the world, to train in righteousness, to disciple the nations, to properly celebrate the Lord’s Table, to baptize, and to guard all these things through biblical discipline.

Now, we must also consider that it is possible for the visible building (belonging to a “visible” church) on the street corner can be just as invisible to the neighbors as the so-called invisible church without a building, but that is another matter regarding the (oxymoronic) “dead church.” In this latter case, it is oxymoronic to think that a true church living in obedience to Christ could possibly be dead since they are energized by the Living Christ and his word of the Gospel and the hope of the gospel. If they are truly alive in Christ, and living in love and grace together, the neighbors will know. A visible church that is invisible to all around it has a spiritual problem, even if it is still present as a visible church. We would not say it is not part of the visible church,  only that it is seriously failing in its calling and mission.

In this sense, the visible church and each member is Christ’s “letter to the world” (2 Cor 3:2). As Francis Schaeffer was known to say, in regards to Jesus’ words on love, that the world will know that the Father has sent the Son on the basis of the love they have for one another. This we know will never be perfect, but that is no excuse for our sin, nor our attempts to replace Christ’s institution with something else; it is a recognition that we must live under grace and discipline together as apprentices of the Servant of servants who is teaching us to love God with a perfect love, as we learn to forgive one another with our presently imperfect love. As his disciples we seek to do his will, but we are still in training with much to learn. As someone else put it, we are learning the impossible task (impossible to us on our own) of loving as God loves and to love what God loves. I conclude that the best place, and most difficult, to do this is in the place Christ Jesus himself instituted, and that is his visible church. In this way, the church is to be as a light set on a hill, the salt of the earth.

“We cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church.” J.K.A.Smith, You Are What You Love¸p. 178

“There is one body and one Spirit . . .” Ephesians 4:6

The visible church of Christ, is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things of necessity are requisite the same.

Article XIX, The Thirty Nine Articles

The church “hath always three notes or marks whereby it is known:  pure and sound doctrine, the sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.”  E.S.C. Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, p. 495.

“The congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.” Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, pp. 222-223.

[1] There are some difficult cases, nevertheless, as in the underground church in Communist China, and Muslim countries, where open church membership with your name on an official roster, can be a dangerous and unwise practice. This is not what I am addressing, since typically these believers associate closely with a local body of believers, though in secret.

On the many who claim to be prophets today, and dreamers of dreams

Jeremiah in Sistene ChapelFor one who teaches biblical hermeneutics, I am cautious to pull a text like this into our contemporary context, since it is from the end of the pre-exilic context of ancient Judah when Jeremiah wrote dire warnings against them for their idolatries and against the scores of people who then claimed to be prophets sent from God. Nevertheless, can we not ask if there is any similarity with our own generation in regards to the countless claims from people of God revealing, speaking, giving further revelation, visions, and prophecies, so many of which have been widely shown as both false and often misleading? (An example that “there is nothing new under the sun.”)

(left)Jeremiah by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel) 

Does not the principle stand that for anyone to claim a revelation or prophecy from God, and who did not actually receive such (but only imagined or hoped to have received such), they would most certainly be considered a false prophet. In biblical terms, that is. Even if they prophesied something concrete, in a predictive fashion, that happens to occur, and it did not come directly from God, it still makes them a false prophet. Yet, consider the many thousands of people today claiming prophecies, dreams, visions, etc., who have made themselves a laughing-stock with their oftentimes outrageous and patently false claims. At best they are mostly ignored, but at worst they frequently manage to point people away from the actual canon of revelation in the Old and New Testaments to themselves and their seemingly benign imaginings. Many people have even started movements and organizations on the basis of such spurious revelations, but even if they have many followers it does not make them a prophet from God.

In sum, take heed from Jeremiah to all who claim, “The Lord said to me” or “The Lord gave me this dream  . . . or vision.” And, to all who listen to these many self-proclaimed prophets of our times, take heed lest you too are taken captive by all sorts of vanity and delusions that may appear marvelous, but are nothing more than “the visions of their[the prophets’] own minds.”

Jeremiah 23

16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

   25 “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26 “How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27 who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal? 28“The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain?” declares the LORD. 29“Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock? 30“Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who steal My words from each other. 31“Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32“Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the LORD, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the LORD.

The Logic of Modern Medical Ethics, or the Morality of Killing Children and Their Grandparents

The Logic of Modern Medical Ethics, or the Morality of Killing Children and Their Grandparents

Forgive me for this brief hiatus from posting pictures of our cute kittens, but in case you had not noticed, this is our world:

  • 431 people were killed by being euthanized against their will in 2015 in the Netherlands.
  • 59,115,9995 people were killed by abortion against their will before their birth since 1973 in the United States. Yes, that is millions.
  • So why are we surprised when articles in The Journal of Medical Ethics[1] propose “after-birth abortions” to “terminate” one’s children with birth defects, or that pose the evil threat of becoming an “undue burden”? The authors claim that it is morally permissible “to kill newborns in all circumstances where abortion would be.” (I wonder what they would say about teenagers who are an undue burden on our food budget?)
  • The authors did get one thing correct: there is no moral difference between an unborn child and a born child. Thus, they are forced to conclude that neither are yet “persons,” properly speaking. As they say, “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” Even though they are both fully “human beings” they are not yet “persons,” therefore only we have the right to determine whether they will become “persons.” That’s logic, says Alice.
  • Mao-Zedong, Pol-Pol, Stalin, Hitler, and friends would be proud.

[1] Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, Journal of Medical Ethics, May 2013, 39 (5) 261-263; DOI: 10.1136.

And the Desert Will Be Glad

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If mountains worship God by being mountains and stars worship God by being stars, how do humans worship God? By being human, in the full glory of what that means.”
R. Middleton

And the Desert Will Be Glad

Awash with the sweetest
scent of magnolia
magnificent aroma
as the blueberry and strawberry crepes
sizzle on the griddle,
that antique iron one
your grandmother left to me
to remember the many times
of chess and Life
and checkers before the fire-place,
the one which set ablaze the chimney
a number of Christmas mornings
to which the firemen said
we must get a sweep.
The cat and dog sit to wonder why
but why is not their question.

We tried every summer
to strain the soil to grow our salad,
soil that had been used to cover the town dump,
shoes and bottles every season sprouting
with the lettuce and potatoes.

The sons of Zebedee
wanted their glory early,
before the cross, but learned
his cup was their cup also.
The earth hums.

All day long it was
one of those days
of expecting someone,
but none came,
expectant and hoping
content to wait, anticipating.

This week the pastor’s sermon
touched my son’s heart,
on having the ambition of the kingdom,
not to power and prestige.
These words
are hard ones
rock-like
break-your-teeth-on-them
kind of words.

Peeling the potatoes
the texture and sound
of scraping its rough dirt-like skin
to the pulp, moist with white starch,
as the cool-sharp-blade
slices the core and bangs
against the cutting- board
with a thud.

It is a sweaty-hot day
of heavy, slow clouds
hazy-large on our horizon,
barely a bird is singing
and the day is long
but it is so sweet
with the ordinary,
in which God delights the most,
and when the rocks of the hills
and the rivers
break into singing,
and the grasses with their
fragrance of creation
clap their hands
for his good pleasure.


For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. Col 1.19-20

The wilderness and the desert will be glad,
and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom;
Like the rose.
Isaiah 35:1
יְשֻׂשׂ֥וּם מִדְבָּ֖ר וְצִיָּ֑ה וְתָגֵ֧ל עֲרָבָ֛ה וְתִפְרַ֖ח כַּחֲבַצָּֽלֶת׃