The Methodist Bishop

Recently on a local television newscast I saw a story that featured an interview with the first openly homosexual bishop of the United Methodist Church.  She told the reporter that in her view the group’s pending split over LGBTQ+ acceptance in the church was the result of a principle listed in the foundation of the denomination’s values when it was formed in 1972, which stated that the church considers the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.  “At that point, we turned from a very grace-filled understanding of human sexuality to one of condemnation for a group of people,” she noted, and admitted that she was biased on the topic, as she has been married to her female partner for many years.  However, she said many pastors she works with throughout Colorado are traditional, and represent a significant portion of the denomination that believes homosexual marriage is prohibited in the faith and hold “very closely to a more literal reading of scripture, ”  while noting that she and other liberals “look at it through church tradition, reason and human experience.  And, our traditionalists look toward the Bible first and only.”  She said the split, if approved by vote later in 2020, was sad, but could also help Christians reach more people with the love of God.  “We can free one another to live in to the ministries we think God calls us to.  It is a huge moment in the life of our denomination.”  “What will emerge from this separation is a strengthening of a commitment to extend God’s love to all people, and that to me is where I find hope.”

I recall at the time briefly wondering just what I might say to her in a conversation on the topic.  She seemed like a pleasant person.  She is certainly better educated than I am, and likely my superior in intellect.  I soon forgot the news spot.

         

I recalled the report about the bishop when I was perusing a magazine recently.  In the publication “The Week” for January 17, 2020, in a short piece headlined “Irreconcilable:” was a report that

“The United Methodist Church announced plans last week to split into two branches, in a schism over same-sex marriage.  The country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, with roughly 9 million members, expects to let a “traditionalist” wing break off and take $25 million.  The remaining United Methodist Church would allow gay marriages and LGBTQ clergy for the first time, but any local church could vote to defect with the traditionalists (and take its buildings with it).  The announcement heads off contentious sanctions that were set to take effect against pastors who officiated at gay weddings: a one-year suspension without pay for a first offense and removal from the clergy for the second.  The Nashville-based church’s large following in Africa has fiercely opposed liberal reform.  Church leaders will vote on finalizing the split at their worldwide conference in May.”

I hope this denomination does indeed split.  But I think it needs to split over issues even more fundamental than the aforementioned.  Over what issues should this denomination split?  Issues such as the questions of –  Who is Jesus Christ?  Why did He come?  What is the Christian Gospel?  Do individuals need to be “saved,” and if so what does salvation entail, and how does one obtain it?  How has God spoken or revealed Himself to us; what is the Bible, and is it inspired, authoritative, primary, and sufficient?  It is in the answers to these questions that we find the basis of all true Christian unity, and that require division when there is disagreement.  It is only on the basis of the answers to these questions that the issue raised by this bishop can be addressed.

I am, frankly, highly unlikely to ever converse with this woman or any other Methodist bishop.  But, hypothetically, what would I say to her?  In all probability she is not a regenerate, born-again believer.  I would attempt to kindly share with her the Gospel, perhaps from Romans 3, perhaps from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, perhaps from John 3, though understanding that she probably does not recognize the authority of those passages.  I would share with her that Jesus Christ was the virgin born Son of God and God the Son who died on the cross to atone for human sin and rose triumphantly from the grave, that human sin and rebellion against God requires punishment and separation from God, and Christ has provided the only solution for that sin.  Turning from sin and turning to Christ as Savior and Lord in faith is the only hope any of us have.  I might further invite her to examine the teachings of early Methodist John Wesley, to consider the lyrics of some of the great hymns written by his brother Charles Wesley.

          

While I will never meet this bishop, I do meet people who are rebels against God and are part of the fallen human race.  People who are sometimes less than honest, sometimes less than truthful, thieves, materialists, proud, self-sufficient, individuals caught up in unwholesome compulsions or aberrant sexual behavior, but mostly people who are unbelieving or spiritually dull but really nice people.   And regardless of their particular situation in life, regardless of their religion or morality or individual failings or virtues, people who need to turn to Christ in faith and repentance as their only hope.  People who need to become convinced that the Gospel is true, and call out to God with utmost sincerity, repentance, and faith,

“Dear God, I know that I am a sinner.  I’m sorry for my sin.  I want to turn from my sin.  Please forgive me.  I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son, that He died on the cross for my sin, and You raised Him to life.  I trust Jesus as my Savior and Lord and want to follow Him from this day forward.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Lord’s Day

When we were boys, my mother took my brother and me to Sunday School and church every week. Dad never went to church, but he didn’t discourage us from going. Every Saturday night, I took a bath, filled out my Sunday School quarterly, and often polished my shoes to get ready for Sunday. We had a big Sunday lunch, usually something Mom had prepared and put in the oven or the electric skillet, and during the NFL season Dad was usually watching football when we got home. Sunday was a “different” day, and there never was a debate about going to church, it was just assumed that we would go.

I continued to go to church every Sunday as I grew up. I met my wife at the church we both attended. After we married, we continued to go to church every Sunday morning, usually again on Sunday night. There was never a debate or discussion. We often had lunch with family, we usually took an afternoon nap, and Sunday remained a day different from the rest. It was a day for church, for rest, for family, for remembering the principle of Sabbath to some degree. It was the Lord’s Day. We took both of our children to church the next Sunday after their birth. They grew up attending Sunday School and church every week, just as my wife and I had done when we were growing up.

A number of years ago we visited with my uncle (brother to my mother) and aunt in the small Nebraska town that my mother’s family was from. My uncle and aunt were living in the town while on an extended furlough from Bolivia where they did missionary work. Conversing with them, they noted that they were involved with an effort to oppose the end of business closings on Sunday in the town. Sunday “blue laws” were still in place then. Years earlier, that might have been common in many American cities and towns. Today, that is no longer the case and hasn’t been for a number of years.

In the past, most people did not work on Sunday unless they were involved in agriculture or services like law enforcement or health care, but that is no longer the case. Now, Sunday is a big day for retail, restaurants, entertainment, and in many other fields businesses operate on Sunday as just another day. We live in a busy world, where we have boats to get in the water, home improvement projects to attend to, sporting events and recreational activities to pursue, kids’ ball games to attend, as well as simply leftover tasks we didn’t get to during a busy workweek. It’s been a long week, we’re tired. We simply can’t commit to go to church every week. And yet, a few generations ago, American Christians managed to make it to church. They considered it important to do so. They may have worked sixty hour weeks in a factory, they may have engaged in relentless agricultural tasks seven days a week, but they somehow managed to make it to church. More and more, this is no longer the case.

Recognizing this, many perceived evangelical churches have attempted to make church more attractive to people and help them to make it fit into their schedules. I drove by a church recently with a sign that said something to the effect of “Come on – Give God a Second Chance.” The idea of “stop in and give God a few minutes once a week” is perceived as a big draw. We’ll keep it informal, short, entertaining, and painless, we’ll offer a service on Saturday night so you can sleep in on Sunday morning if you want; just stop by on your way to or from the movies or the restaurant. We’ll have an early Sunday morning service so you can get it over with and have the rest of your day free if that works for you. Shorts and flip-flops are no problem. In many cases, maybe most cases, sound churches have discontinued their Sunday evening services, in part because they were poorly attended.

Worship should be an existential reality for believers. It should be a way of life, an hour-by-hour part of our life. It is not dependent on our physical location, our lot in life, or any external issue. Our personal relationship with God is a constant and ongoing part of life. Similarly, corporate worship is not limited to Sunday. The Lord of the Church resurrected on the first day of the week and so from its earliest days the church came to assemble and worship on Sunday, but believers can assemble and worship together on Saturday or for that matter on, say, Tuesday. Corporate worship can occur whenever the church meets and sinners are warned of judgement to come, Christ and the gospel is proclaimed, the Scripture is studied, believers pray together. In other countries and societies, a Sunday gathering might not even be an option. One wonders, however, when American churches seek to make their meetings completely convenient and informal and easy, if they haven’t lost something.

The New Testament presents to us the importance of being part of a church. We are supposed to gather together with other believers, for instruction and discipleship, for corporate worship, for encouragement and fellowship, for ministry. It isn’t optional, it isn’t something to do occasionally when it is convenient. We are supposed to be a part of each other as the body of Christ in the world. As Americans, we have great freedom to assemble in churches. If we are gathering together with other believers to worship together, to hear a clear exposition of Scripture, to sing songs of worship to God that joyfully and reverently proclaim doctrine and remind of what He has done for us in Christ, it should be a priority that exceeds our need for convenience and comfort. Our heritage as believers living in the United States is a heritage of observing the Lord’s Day, preparing our hearts, putting on some better clothes appropriate to assembling with the body of Christ, and attending church regularly, even if doing so might not always be convenient. This should happen not merely as a ritual or habit, but as a commitment from our heart.

There is no explicit New Testament statement mandating Sunday worship, certainly no limitation to corporate worship on that day, but there are several references indicating that the first day of the week was special for the earliest believers. Matthew 28:1-6 tells us of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day,

“Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”

Several other New Testament passages mention the first day. That tradition endured throughout history, and was an important part of American society for most of our history. That tradition and commitment has been slowly abandoned in recent decades. The reasons are many. Liberal churches hold to no message that is worth a zealous devotion to weekly church attendance. Prosperity takes our focus away from spiritual matters. We’re busy, have many activities and commitments. We can worship anywhere and anytime, we reason. Our favorite YouTube church is more entertaining and can be viewed anytime. Many professing Christians simply feel no need or desire to be involved with a local church.

But I’m convinced that Christians and the faithful church in America have lost something, something profound and vital, in losing our commitment to The Lord’s Day.

The Importance of History To A Nation And To The Christian

I recently read “The Pioneers,” a new book by noted American writer and historian David McCullough.  Subtitled “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” the book recounts the story of early settlers in Ohio following Britain’s ceding of the Northwest Territory lands and the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance by the American congress in 1787.  At the end of the book is a short section called “Why History,” an excerpt from the acceptance speech McCullough gave for an award in 1995.  He remarked,

“We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad.  And it is quite real, let there be no mistake.  It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at our national memory.  While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of sight and out of mind.  We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” . . .

“Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education.  Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.” . . .

“History shows us how to behave.  History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for.  History is–or should be–the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.”

To the extent that education occurs in the government school systems today, there is a critical failure to emphasize important academic subjects such as literature and language, civics, and history.  Professional and technical subjects are often the focus; we hear much of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math.  Other liberal arts subjects are often thought of as not interesting to today’s students, not relevant, not practical to their daily life.  The study of history has increasingly been replaced by all sorts of studies thought to appeal to aggrieved groups and that in reality are nothing more than the advancement of progressive agendas.

The loss of an understanding of and an appreciation for American history has brought us to a dangerous point.  American exceptionalism is denied and even ridiculed by many, if not most, in academia, the media, and in the political sphere.  The brilliance and heroism of the Founders is ignored and denied.  The founding documents of the nation are not appreciated for their unique value and the wisdom they contain.  Our national heroes are dismissed for their perceived imperfections.  Recent immigrants often seem to expect immediate equality of outcome, attributing failure to achieve overnight success as racism, rather than understanding that America has never guaranteed and cannot guarantee equal outcomes, only a degree of equivalence of opportunity.  My own ancestors, descended from legal immigrants from Europe in the early nineteenth century, benefited from the Homestead Act as they moved West, but otherwise knew nothing of guaranteed outcomes or public welfare.  They and their descendants endured failure and backbreaking labor for decades before achieving any degree of success.  But they enjoyed the benefits of freedom and opportunity.  The United States has many blots on its history, not to be ignored or minimized, but that does not change its exceptional role in the world.  One notes that immigrants continue to seek entry into the country, but few choose to leave.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Recently he wrote,

“In their radical progressive view—shared by billionaires from Silicon Valley, recent immigrants, and the new Democratic Party—America was flawed, perhaps fatally, at its origins.

Things have not gotten much better in the country’s subsequent 243 years, nor will they get any better—at least not until America as we know it is dismantled and replaced by a new nation predicated on race, class, and gender identity politics agendas.

In this view, an “OK” America is no better than other countries. As Barack Obama once bluntly put it, America is only exceptional in relative terms, given that citizens of Greece and the United Kingdom believe their own countries are just as exceptional. In other words, there is no absolute standard to judge a nation’s excellence.

About half the country disagrees. It insists that America’s sins, past and present, are those of mankind. But only in America were human failings constantly critiqued and addressed.

America does not have to be perfect to be good. As the world’s wealthiest democracy, it certainly has given people from all over the world greater security and affluence than any other nation in history—with the largest economy, largest military, greatest energy production, and most top-ranked universities in the world.

America alone kept the postwar peace and still preserves free and safe global communications, travel, and commerce.

The traditionalists see American history as a unique effort to overcome human weakness, bias, and sin. That effort is unmatched by other cultures and nations, and explains why millions of foreign nationals swarm into the United States, both legally and illegally.

These arguments over our past are really over the present—and especially the future.

If progressives and socialists can at last convince the American public that their country was always hopelessly flawed, they can gain power to remake it based on their own interests.”

Partly as a result of a lack of appreciation of our past, American society is in decline, dangerously so, and is deeply divided.  Professor and author Walter Williams noted in a recent article in “The Daily Signal” that

“A society’s first line of defense is not the law or the criminal justice system, but customs, traditions, and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly imparted by example, word-of-mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error.  Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct.  At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society.  Today’s true tragedy is that most people think what we see today has always been so.  As such, today’s Americans accept behavior that our parents and grandparents never would have accepted.”

                                                                                  

Remembering American history is critical to our nation.  Perhaps more importantly, we as Christians need to remember our history.

It has been suggested that the evangelical church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament.  We need more of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, nothing of the Ten Commandments, it is argued.  Increasingly, evangelical churches feature TED talks and motivational speeches referencing a Bible story or verse in place of preaching and teaching from Scripture.  Many churches no longer talk of doctrine and eternal truth, emphasizing topics like relationship advice, achieving prosperity, success, love, acceptance, and affirmation.  Church services feature contemporary entertainment in place of distinctively Christian congregational singing of music that centers on doctrine, sin and salvation, Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ.  Children are entertained and taught benevolence and environmentalism, not the Bible.  After all, the church needs to be “relevant.”  We must give people what they want and think they need if we are to attract them and help them to have a better life.

But for the church to truly be the church, to do what we have been commissioned to do, to present the gospel and disciple people, to teach them how they should live in light of the gospel, we must systematically preach, teach, and adhere to the Bible.  All of it.  And that of necessity is a study of history.

The Bible, though recorded over several centuries by a number of human authors, is a unified story of the Divine plan for humankind from creation to the end of time.  The Bible tells us where we came from; it teaches us about creation and our origin; it answers the questions as to the meaning and purpose of life.  It teaches why God created us and it shows us Who He is to the extent that we can understand Him.  The Scriptures tell us of the origin of sin, God’s offense and righteous anger at our sin and rebellion, and help us to understand why things are the way they are in a world after the Fall.  The Scriptures explain the necessity of salvation and tell us the story of our redemption, the unfolding of the divine plan for human salvation from the Fall through the centuries culminating in the Cross.  And it tells us how we can each individually enter into eternal life through the atonement Christ has made for our sins.  He did not live merely give us a lot of really good philosophy and advice.  In space and time, in history, God in Christ entered into the world and endured torture and death on a real Roman cross and bodily rose from a real grave as the One perfect and acceptable sacrifice for human sin.

The events recorded in both Old and New Testaments are real, historic events.  They happened in space and time, and it is important to remember this and consider the context that this gives to all that Scripture teaches.  The Bible is not merely a book of musings, a collection of inspirational writings.  We are not asked to empty our minds in esoteric contemplation or meditation; we are asked to fill our minds with Scripture, thoughts and words rooted in history.  The Old Testament gives us an important context for understanding the life of Jesus and his teachings.  When we understand the Judaism of Jesus’ time and the history of the Jewish people, we can better understand the New Testament.  When we remember these things and understand something of the Roman empire and the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived, we can better understand the books of the New Testament.  The New Testament and the Old Testament are writings inspired by God, and they are also rooted in history and record events that really occurred.

The pastor of the church I attend preaches Scripture, systematically, in context.  He does not deliver motivational speeches propped up with out-of-context passages from the Bible, designed to appeal to a particular demographic, designed to attract people looking for something inspirational and relevant to their perceived needs.  Currently, he is preaching an extended series on Sunday mornings, preaching the book of Isaiah.  But while he is preaching the book, he is not merely teaching a course in history.  He is teaching vital truth, relevant to the timeless needs we all have.

The ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote some eight centuries before Christ.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the apostate northern Jewish kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria was conquered and destroyed.  Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, was repeatedly threatened, and knew periods of decline as well as periods of revival and faithfulness to God.  In the background was the ancient superpower of Assyria, who conquered Israel as well as other kingdoms in the region and repeatedly threatened Judah.  If one is a typical prosperous American looking perhaps for a little religious inspiration, entertainment, or life coaching, the response might be, “So What?  Who Cares?”

But the book of Isaiah contains much that is completely relevant to the real, timeless needs that we all have.  The divinely inspired prophet Isaiah spoke many prophecies that were fulfilled in his lifetime, prophecies that were fulfilled in the following decades, and prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled centuries later in Christ.  We learn that we can trust Scripture when we observe these fulfilled prophecies, and we understand that just as these events happened exactly as Isaiah predicted, so will events still future be fulfilled just as Isaiah foretold.  We learn that God is sovereign, ultimately in control in the affairs of man, and we thus learn that we can trust Him in our life.  Isaiah warned the kings and people of his day against sin, exhorted faithfulness to God, and reminded them of the results that would follow; and just as he foretold, repentance brought deliverance, sin brought judgement.  We would be wise to learn and heed this principle.  Isaiah warned Judah against alliance with surrounding kingdoms in a bid to stand against Assyria, and records both the pronouncement of doom and the fall of those kingdoms.  Even powerful Egypt suffered defeat at the hands of Assyria, confirming the words delivered by the inspired prophet.  We would do well to remember that our hope is not with the petty solutions and worldly wisdom that might appeal to us, but when an overwhelming circumstance threatens us, our help comes from the Lord.  Old Testament history records an amazing deliverance by God when an Assyrian army threatened Jerusalem.  Tens of thousands of the invaders died in their sleep; the surviving army was forced to return to their homeland.  The Assyrian empire ultimately fell just as Isaiah prophesied, replaced by Babylon just as Isaiah prophesied.  Judah ultimately was unfaithful to God and fell to Babylon, just as Isaiah prophesied, Babylon rose and fell just as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem, just as Isaiah prophesied.  God preserved the Jewish nation through whom Messiah would come; God was faithful to His ancient promises.  Secular history confirms and aligns with these events recorded in Scripture.  The accounts and sermons of the Old Testament prophets are powerful, timeless, and supremely relevant.  Keep the motivational speeches and inspirational talks and entertainment; I prefer to listen to the timeless lessons of Scripture that are firmly rooted in verifiable history.

When Jesus bodily rose from the grave, he taught his followers for some forty days before ascending into heaven and declaring that one day he would return.  His disciples began to declare the gospel to their world; the story of Christ and the gospel began to spread and was widely believed.  Luke, Paul, John, and others under inspiration penned the New Testament books, which record verifiable history that helps give context to the theology, doctrine, and teachings conveyed in those writings.  For some two thousand years, the gospel has been declared, shared, believed, studied, and loved by millions.  The world has been completely affected by Christianity and by Christians who have been transformed by the gospel.  History confirms this.  The sacrifice of martyrs–from the Twelve and other early disciples to those in our day who still give their lives–to those who have lived under persecution or who still live under persecution, are the historic heritage of the faith.  Some heroic, most anonymous and ordinary, history tells us of countless individual Christians who have lived their faith and left us stories of great inspiration and example.  We do well when we study the history of the church.  It is our heritage, and we profit from knowing it as surely as Americans profit from knowing, appreciating, studying, and learning from our national history.

Development of a Christian worldview is supremely important, and we do that through knowing and understanding the Scriptures.  They are our foundational documents.  The Scriptures record for us the truths, doctrines, philosophy, and the timeless information God has given us for life.  In churches and individually, we must be committed to the Bible.  It is “malpractice” and worse when a church does not teach Scripture.  It is sin when believers do not read, study, believe, and practice the teachings of the Bible.  Through the Bible, we are inspired, comforted, challenged, instructed.  The Scriptures are “the words of life,” giving us the gospel and giving us the plan and purpose of God for our lives.  We cannot fully understand the Scriptures until we understand that they are true in total, recording real events, and we are prepared to learn from that history.  We must constantly remember them as our founding documents, and remember above all our allegiance to Christ the Founder of the historic orthodox Christian faith.

 

 

Abortion, Conscience, and the Church

I recently read an editorial page piece in my local newspaper, reprinted from The Washington Post.  Titled “When I Needed It, Abortions Weren’t Illegal,” the author shares, “I had an abortion in Alabama when I was 14.  If the state’s laws had been the same then as they are now, my whole life would be different.”  The article was written in response to recent pro-life legislation in that state and at least two others.  The author relates her story of that abortion experience, aided by her mother and an aunt who “wanted to inform and empower me,” although it was opposed by her father.  Of the abortion experience, she notes, “The doctor was kind. While taking the ultrasound, he said that I could look at the screen if I wanted to – that, in fact, it might make me feel better. I’d had little in the way of sex education and could barely conceptualize what was happening in my own body. Was there really a baby inside me?  What I saw was gray and cloudy, a barely perceptible swirl of cells. That simple encouragement has stayed with me to this day. The doctor knew that an abortion was a routine medical procedure — he wanted to reassure me, to give me a sense of normalcy, to inform me about what was happening in my own body.”

What really caught my attention were two statements later in the article.  She goes on to note, “Today, I live in Texas with my three children, where in my spare time, I volunteer to drive people seeking an abortion to and from their appointments,” and later, “From my own experience, having two more abortions after I became a mother, and from my volunteering, I know the reality of the procedure.”  Although I know that this attitude is commonplace, I was stunned at the almost celebratory and militant attitude toward the subject.  The article, obviously, remained in my mind, enough so that I was moved to pray for this woman, and her living children, when I prayed the next few mornings, rather than being merely angered.

Later, I happened across a piece entitled “The Epidemic of a Seared Conscience” on the internet site News With Views, authored by Dr. Mark Spaulding, a Calvary Chapel pastor, a portion of which reads,

“What has happened to a great number of men and women in America is that their conscience has become seared. Their mind is in a state of depreciating ability to grasp morality personally and interpersonally. They have become incapable of moral reasoning and logical analysis that lead to guilt or shame related to their thinking and behavior. They are being turned over to the darkness they crave and prostitute themselves to and on behalf of.

Depending on the severity of the behavior, psychologists call this psychopathic or sociopathic behavior. The difference between the two is that a psychopath has no conscience remaining. The psychopath’s conscience is completely seared and devoid of any emotion of shame or guilt associated with their behavior. Ironically, Hollywood glamorizes this behavior, giving tacit approval to the violent and murderous results of psychopathic people.

The sociopath has a small amount of conscience remaining. This person might still feel a twinge of guilt but not enough to stop their evil behavior. Both the psychopath and sociopath are dangerous to others with which they interact and especially those with whom they disagree.  Courtrooms across this nation are filled with cases involving the egregious behavior of people with little to no functioning conscience.

All of the examples above demonstrate varying states of the inability to reason morally. America is well down the path of being wrested from its moral foundations by psychopaths and sociopaths whose faculties have been impaired by evil. What can be done to correct this development? We must first understand what we are dealing with.

The late J.I. Packer said concerning conscience that:

“An educated, sensitive conscience is God’s monitor.  It alerts us to the moral quality of what we do or plan to do, forbids lawlessness and irresponsibility, and makes us feel guilt, shame, and fear of the future retribution that it tells us we deserve, when we have allowed ourselves to deny its restraints…Satan’s strategy is to corrupt, desensitize, and if possible kill our consciences.  The relativism, materialism, narcissism, secularism, and hedonism of today’s Western world help him mightily toward his goal.  His task is made yet simpler by the way in which the world’s moral weaknesses have been taken into the contemporary church.”  (J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness)

Packer identified the real crux of the issue. Conscience is a God-given warning system that has been deliberately turned off today in a large number of Americans. An alarm cannot warn of danger if it is not connected to a power source.

Slowly and over time the innate ability of Americans to determine right from wrong has been strategically and with malice corrupted. The constant drive to remove and even erase Christianity from the public mind and memory has borne the rottenest of fruit culturally speaking.

How can a culture sustain moral uprightness from generation to generation when even the Church, that instrument of God meant to inform and when necessary, correct culture, begins to emulate the culture? When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.

The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”

The woman in the editorial is a demonstration of the observation that “When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.”  Again, I was moved to pray for her after reading her story.  She needs to believe the Gospel and come to Christ by faith and repentance, just as all humans do.  She needs to realize her true guilt, as we all do as part of the human race in rebellion against God, and find freedom from that guilt and sin at the Cross where Jesus died as the One Perfect Sacrifice in atonement for the sin of all who would believe.

There is no moral social consensus currently concerning abortion.  Some states have recently passed legislation to make abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy, even suggesting that if a late-term abortion results in a live birth, it is permissible to let the child die without medical attempt to save the child.  The Empire State Building was lit up in celebration of the passage of New York’s extreme abortion bill.  Statistics tell us that repeat abortions, abortions after a mother has already had an abortion, are common.  It is regarded merely as a form of birth control, a minor medical procedure, almost akin to having a tooth pulled.  The New York legislature is, meanwhile, considering legislation to stop the declawing of cats.  The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness: Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

I am ardently pro-life, and perhaps only somewhat comprehend the complexity of the issue.  We have two adopted children whose birth mothers could have, I suppose, chosen to abort them.  We were recently blessed by the birth of a granddaughter, who we saw for the first time via ultrasound before her birth.  I understand that situations are different, and many women with unplanned pregnancies agonize over their situation.  An unplanned and unwanted pregnancy can be devastating.  Recent legislation in at least three states is solidly pro-life; I have no doubt that the progressive left judiciary will not allow these laws to stand.  Without a societal consensus, legal restrictions on abortion will have only minimal effect.

The American religious community in many ways fails to effectively address this issue.  Some pro-lifers do not realize that threats of violence and hateful rhetoric do not aid their cause.   Liberal progressive denominations not only do not oppose abortion but in many cases support it.  The Evangelical community broadly is ineffective in addressing moral issues as well, sometimes through silence, but perhaps more importantly by diverting away from emphasizing the need for believers to grow in their faith and develop a truly Christian perspective so they can effectively live out the Gospel.

Evangelical churches in twenty-first century America often seem to be caught up in post-modernism and focus on attracting adherents through motivational speeches and pop psychology and prosperity theology and trendy contemporary entertainment and love and acceptance without mentioning sin and forgiveness.  But when the Church fails to rigidly adhere to Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Gospel and its ramifications for all of life, it will not have an impact.  Churches must be committed to the job of “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12)” so those mature believers can effectively minister to people and have an impact on their communities.  Again quoting Dr. Spaulding, “The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”

 

Church as a Corporate Event

An internet Christian-themed video streaming provider recently sent out an invitation for a series from a well-known megachurch pastor.  I decided to watch at least the first session.

The series was recorded as the sermons at the Sunday service at the speaker’s megachurch, reportedly one of the largest evangelical churches in America.  In his introduction to the week one lecture that introduced his theme, the pastor invited hearers to put aside any skepticism about the Bible, and spoke of the conversion of Saul and his transformation to the Apostle Paul in Acts.  The speaker noted, “You don’t have to accept any of this,” “This has nothing to do with believing the Bible,” and “Take this question seriously, even if you are not a Christian.”  He displayed Ephesians 5:15-17, noting that Ephesians was a letter written telling Christians how to live, and introduced his theme for the series, “What’s the Wise Thing to Do?”  Using words from the Ephesians passage as a sort of springboard, he exhorted hearers not to be “unwise,” or careless, but to be “wise,” or careful, and that “the days are evil”, so “don’t let the flow of culture take you where you don’t want to be.”

He then introduced three questions as a formula for making wise decisions.  With the first, “In light of my past experience, what’s the wise thing to do?”, he emphasized that what is ok for one person may not be ok for another because of differing past experiences.  The second question was, “In light of my current circumstances, what’s the wise thing to do?”, and the third, “In light of my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?”, noting that personal vision is often a catalyst for wise decisions.  At the end of the talk, he assigned homework – “Ask it,” noting that in so doing one might learn something about oneself, and that perhaps people don’t always have their own best interests in mind, but maybe God does.

What hit me as I listened was not anything negative about this megachurch pastor’s formula.  He could make a mint as a corporate motivational speaker.  What really hit me was the thought that many hundreds of people had come to this church and its various satellite locations that week, and heard nothing of the gospel, had heard nothing of grace, nothing of faith and repentance, had heard the word “Jesus” mentioned in passing once or twice, had heard nothing from the Bible.  The attenders likely heard a rousing contemporary music concert before this lecture, but at the end of the day they had not in any way worshipped God and had heard nothing from scripture that would impact their lives.  Perhaps subsequent lectures in this series might have clearly included something like scriptural principles for decision-making or the Christian life or even included a clear explanation the gospel, but not this lecture.  I listened to most of the second and last sermons in the series, but never heard anything of sin, salvation, grace, faith, or doctrine, and barely a mention Jesus.

Several weeks earlier, the same megachurch pastor was featured on a nationally syndicated Christian radio broadcast that I passively listen to on occasion.  The two-part broadcast that aired around July 4 featured a sermon delivered at the megachurch, likely delivered the previous year in conjunction with July 4.  He delivered a good lecture concerning American history, the founders, and patriotic themes.  I recall agreeing with what he said almost in total.  But at the time I remember thinking how tragic it was that a few thousand people had attended this man’s megachurch services that week and heard nothing of the gospel, nothing of Christ, nothing really from the Bible.  They went to an event at what was billed as church, but it was devoid of worship and anything distinctly Christian.  It was essentially a corporate event.

We are told that this is the way to “do church” today.  It is surely a road to destruction.  The New Testament book of Jude, verse 4 reminds us,  “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Verses 12-13 remind, “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.”  Impressive clouds, but empty.

 

The Need For A Countercultural Church

Evangelical churches in the twenty-first century seem to be enamored with fitting easily into secular society.  Current social and cultural trends are invited into many churches with numeric growth seen as the primary goal and perceived as being dependent on attracting unchurched people in a manner that will make them feel as comfortable as possible.  Long observed characteristics of church have been completely left behind and, in many instances, what happens in a church today is almost unrecognizable from a traditional perspective.  To some degree this must be expected, as the church will of course reflect the social and economic setting in which it exists.  Times change, society changes, and this will of necessity be reflected in churches.  It is not to be expected that a twenty-first century church in the inner city will have the same look and feel as a church in an American rural area a century earlier.

Unfortunately, this has brought about a tendency for many evangelical churches to become completely focused on being culturally acceptable.  Relevance has been emphasized and misunderstood to mean that the church must be contemporary and completely affirming and accepting toward anyone in its target audience.  Entertainment, consistent with current secular entertainment, has taken center stage as the preferred method to reach unchurched people.  When the Bible is referenced in a sermon, it will likely be used as a backdrop for some sort of affirming motivational talk that the speaker presents rather than as an authoritative basis for the sermon.  In a blog on the “Grace to You” website dated August 22, 2018, pastor and author John MacArthur wrote, “For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads. To that end, the church surrendered its historic forms of worship. In many cases, everything that once constituted a traditional worship service disappeared altogether, giving way to rock-concert formats and everything else the church could borrow from the entertainment industry. Craving acceptance in the broader culture, the church carelessly copied the world’s style preferences and fleeting fads.

One wonders, however, if churches wouldn’t be better served by the idea that they should be counter-cultural.  Historically, the church has been counter-cultural in most societies.  In the early centuries of Christianity, the church existed and enjoyed rapid growth completely outside of social acceptance and often under intense persecution.  A countercultural church will have characteristics that will make it unpopular from a postmodern twenty-first century perspective just as was the case with the early church.

A key issue will be authority.  American pastor and theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote in his “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” published in 1984, Notice though what the primary problem was, and is: infiltration by a form of the world view which surrounds us, rather than the Bible being an unmovable base for judging the ever-shifting fallen culture.  As evangelicals, we need to stand at the point of the call not to be infiltrated by this ever-shifting fallen culture which surrounds us, but rather judging that culture upon the basis of the Bible.”  Postmodern thought rejects the very idea of authority.  Right and wrong, the binary/non-binary concept, has been replaced with personal choice and relativism.  A church with a focus on incorporating current societal ideas will do little to challenge this perception of personal autonomy, focusing on how to affirm, aid, and motivate the hearers.   The church operating from the more traditional and biblical perspective, on the other hand, will boldly challenge personal autonomy and declare the absolute authority of God and of the Bible.   People will be reminded that they were made by God for His pleasure and will flourish under His authority.  Authority in a countercultural church will clearly and obviously be presented as coming from scripture.  “The Bible Says” as a concept will be embraced, and the Bible will be affirmed as the Word of God.  Right and wrong, thesis/antithesis, will be presented, affirmed, and taught by a countercultural Christianity.

A countercultural church will challenge current social thinking concerning gender, sexual ethics and morality, and egalitarianism.  To reach people with the message of Christ, there must be a proper emphasis on loving sinners as Jesus did, and churches must present a winsome attitude toward anyone who will come.  Believers must live out the gospel and express love toward all.  The difficult life circumstances of people that may have taken them into sinful behavior, addictions, or relationships will be recognized and confronted in a loving manner.  But there can be no attempt to hide or soften the teaching of scripture.  Biblical marriage must be upheld and cannot be defined as anything other than one man and one woman for life.  Christian homes and marriages that demonstrate submission to the authority of scripture should be the norm among believers, and churches must be dedicated to teaching scripture so that people are instructed and enabled to live out their faith.  The countercultural church will proclaim the teaching of both the Old and New Testament that sexual sin is wrong and will clearly define what constitutes sexual sin according to scripture.  Further, biblical roles for men and women in the home and in the church will be clearly taught and demonstrated.  Male leadership in the home and in the church will be upheld according to biblical teaching.  Relativism in these areas will be challenged, with an appeal to the standards of right and wrong from Scripture.

Social justice issues are ever a focus of media but cannot become confused with the mission of the church.  Speaking out on issues of race and perceived economic issues might be popular, and scripture does give instruction on these issues.  Materialism should be condemned.  It is right and necessary that the church should teach honesty, charity, and benevolence, both corporately and individually.  A church cannot display racism and should teach from scripture that racism is wrong.  But social justice is not the primary mission of the church, and scripture nowhere teaches socialism or wealth redistribution.  The mission of a countercultural church will be tightly defined and tied to the declaration and communication of the gospel.  Further, the nature of the gospel will be clearly defined according to the teaching of scripture.

It is not enough, however, just to make statements.  Churches must reflect and demonstrate biblical authority and teaching.  The weekly gathering of the church that centers on contemporary entertainment and low-content sermons does not accomplish this.  Nor do small groups that focus on social interaction to the exclusion of serious consideration of scripture and Christian teaching.  The weekly gathering of a countercultural church will include a sermon from scripture that is true, substantial, and, well, scriptural.  Music will focus on more than just entertainment or “Jesus as my good luck charm.”  Music in church gatherings will sing back to God His attributes and nature, His grace and the great acts of the atonement in Christ, as an act of corporate worship.  Sermons, lessons, and small groups will proclaim the gospel from scripture and all of its ramifications for life.  Believers will be equipped to live in this world, even as they continually focus on the next world.  Salvation through repentant faith with an eternal focus will be taught, to the exclusion of merely an emphasis on popular themes like prosperity, success, and self-affirmation.  A countercultural church will thus tend to be reflective of a more traditional model than of more contemporary ideas of church.

Francis Schaeffer wrote in “The Great Evangelical Disaster” that If the truth of the Christian faith is in fact truth, then it stands in antithesis to the ideas and immorality of our age, and it must be practiced both in teaching and practical action.  Truth demands confrontation.  It must be loving confrontation, but there must be confrontation nonetheless.”  That confrontation will often be uncomfortable.  The countercultural church, indeed the countercultural Christian, is likely to experience a degree of rejection, ridicule, and even persecution.      

In his 1970 work “The Mark of the Christian,“ Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian really has a double task.  He has to practice both God’s holiness and God’s love.  The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God’s character of holiness and love.  Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness.  Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise.  Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to the watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists but a caricature of the God who exists.”  Sadly, the contemporary church, and the contemporary Christian, too often are thoroughly wed to current culture and thus demonstrate a bad caricature of God.  The church will not be effective in communicating the gospel if it is not to a great degree countercultural.