Friday, September 15, 2017

The Bully Pulpit and a Culture of Intimidation

On the one side, we have the Christian community, and on the other side, we have the pagan community. The Christian community is made up of those individuals whom God has personally brought into covenant relationship with himself. The pagan community, on the other hand is made up of everyone else. Essentially, this latter community is the world system, representing those human beings who have willingly and deliberately rejected the values and principles of divine law. These are those who knowingly, willingly, and deliberately withhold worship from God, deny God, refuse to acknowledge God, reject the truth of God, and refuse to submit to God. They are, quite frankly, pagans. I know, I know, that is such an offensive term. But so is the term sinner! Eventually, if we continue to allow the God-hater to frame up how we speak truth into their lives, there won’t be any truth left to speak into their lives. So, before we go any further, you should immediately discontinue your attempts to make the Christian message inoffensive. I know, I know, the gospel is good news and good news should not be offensive. In the case of the gospel, the good news is that God’s righteous wrath has been demonstrated in the death of Christ, you know, that wrath that God has assigned to those who have rebelled against his Word. The good news of the gospel is good because it flows from the bad news of divine judgment on those who deserve it, which, of course, is all of us. Now, time to get back on track. The Christian community is always surrounded by the larger community in which it finds itself, the pagan community. And the pagan community is incredibly influential. In fact, in modern American culture, the pagan community has rapidly deteriorated into a mindless, uncritical herd. And that herd engages in certain techniques and tactics to direct itself. That is to say, the herd is self-policing.

Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics. By advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at the other’s expense, such methods could be considered exploitative, abusive, devious, and deceptive. The pagan culture in which Christians find themselves here in the west has honed its psychological manipulation skills almost to perfection. The first step was to neglect or even undermine critical thinking. The way this works is that you identify a behavior or attitude that is clearly reprehensible to all, say, slavery or rape, or an historical event like the holocaust. Second, you work hard to stigmatize that event. Third, you identify a belief or attitude that you want to destroy, say, opposition to abortion or homosexuality. Fourth, you equate this attitude with an established one that is universally accepted within the culture. Being opposed to homosexuality is equivalent to racism because it is bigotry. Hence, opposing homosexuality is in the same category as approving slavery. The targets are polarized by such a description and the weak-minded quickly get back in line and march in-step with the rest of the platoon like the good soldiers they are. We have witnessed this in American culture over the last couple of decades and it has proven to be extremely effective. The problem is that this pattern of psychological manipulation is, unfortunately, not limited to the pagan community. It exists in the church.

This psychological intimidation shows up around most of the issues that American society deem important. Abortion, the murder of innocent children in their mother’s womb is recast as a woman’s health issue, and therefore, a woman’s rights issue. Anyone who opposes abortion is then characterized as one who belittles women’s rights, and therefore, one who belittles women, and therefore, as misogynist. Homosexual marriage is said to be about love between two consenting adults of the same sex who have not chosen to be gay. Homosexuality is said to be genetic just like race is genetic. Therefore, anyone who opposes gay marriage or the gay lifestyle is characterized as hateful and bigoted just like racists. By identifying certain categories this way and then polarizing those categories, the members of a society become desperate to avoid being viewed by society as fitting one of those categories (misogynist, racist, bigot). This forces weak-minded people to submit to the views of the herd or else be isolated and vilified by the herd.

Regrettably, we have witnessed this same psychological manipulation on display lately in how some Christian leaders are reacting to certain issues. Unless you get on board the apology and reparations train, you are not obeying the commands of Scripture that speak to justice and to loving your neighbor. The apology and reparations train is the view that all white people ought to apologize to all black people (primarily) for past slavery and racism. If you aren’t riding on the apology and reparations train, you are considered unloving, unjust, and part of the problem. In other words, unless you preach against racism and engage in certain activist causes when and where these people demand, then you are a racist. That is the hidden message, even if those words are not stated. The pressure is real. The same is true for those who are attempting to legislate the end of abortion. Unless you get behind their cause and do as they do, then you don’t love your neighbors. And if you don’t love your neighbors, you cannot love God. The real message is: you are a dirty rotten hypocrite unless get in line and oppose racism and abortion and sex trafficking, and “fill in the blank” or else! This is also true for smaller matters such as Christians who drink an adult beverage on occasion. It doesn’t matter that Jesus drank wine.

What people need to understand is that historically, the church has described this as the sin of binding the conscience and the reformers and puritans had something to say about it because God has something to say about it. It is deplorable for anyone to go beyond Scripture and attempt to bind the conscience of another. When this happens, the response ought to be a serious and sober rebuke accompanied by loving and immediate correction and instruction.

The 1689 LBCF, XXI.2 says, God alone is (m) Lord of the Conscience, and hath left it free from the Doctrines and Commandments of men, (n) which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or not contained in it. So that to Believe such Doctrines, or obey such Commands out of Conscience, (o) is to betray true liberty of Conscience; and the requiring of an (p) implicit Faith, and absolute and blind Obedience, is to destroy Liberty of Conscience, and Reason also.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans the following stern warning: Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4) To the church at Corinth the same apostle wrote, “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:29b) To the church at Collasae, Paul wrote the following: Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:18-23)

Jesus had something to say about those who took the Scriptures and then went beyond them and from there, attempted to bind the behavior and conscience of others with their own traditions: He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3) Mark records it this way, “And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9) What is the application of these passages to my point about the bully pulpit and the practice of manipulation by some Christian leaders in modern culture?

Let’s stick with racism and abortion as good examples of bullying and manipulation in the church. The Scripture commands that a brother in Christ is to correct sinful behavior and thinking in his brother when he sees it. You, as a brother in Christ are to correct me as your brother when you see me sinning. If I see a black Christian brother using language of hate or exhibiting an attitude of unforgiveness regarding racism, I am duty bound to go to him and show him his sin according to Jesus in Matt. 18. That is the commandment of God. I am bound by that commandment. Yet, in the current environment, I was informed by one SBC pastor that because I am white, it would be inappropriate for me to correct my black brother on such issues. I am not qualified because of my race. This is exactly what the Pharisees had done concerning their tradition. Some Christian leaders have decided that it is more important to please society at large, to please a certain race, than it is to please God. Essentially, the tradition or dogma of man has eclipsed the commandment of God. The same is true regarding abortion. The group known as Abolish Human Abortion insists that every adopt their methods in opposing abortion or else, you don’t oppose abortion the way God demands you oppose it. In both of these cases, Christians are made to feel like racists on the one hand and insensitive unloving hypocrites on the other. Why? Because we are not following a particular man’s prescription, or a group’s prescription for how we should behave and think. This same tactic is used for a number of social issues in the world. The idea that the church is supposed to work hard at making the world a better place is most often framed in social and political terms. The gospel ipso facto makes the world a better place. Disciple-making ipso facto makes the world a better place. Beyond that, there is no mandate for the Christian community to work hard politically or socially to improve the conditions in the world. We are not tasked with the goal of protecting human rights around the world. We are not tasked with the goal of ending abortion, racism, hunger, or abusive laws and governments in the world. Christianity is not that!

There is even a theological issue that falls into this category. It’s called Calvinism. There are many Arminians within churches like the SBC for instance who despise Calvinism. They paint it with a brush that is completely and totally inaccurate. They straw man Calvinism at just about every turn. They use the tactic of claiming that Calvinism makes God a moral monster. Who wants a God like that? Not me? So, if you are a Calvinist, your God is not loving, not kind, cold, heartless! This makes it nearly impossible to teach people accurately the truths of reformed theology because it poisons the well upfront. Such a tactic is either employed by those who are ignorant of reformed theology or those who have abandoned the principles and decency and Christian charity where this matter is concerned. So in many cases we can say that the anti-Calvinist movement employs psychological manipulation in order to protect itself against the teachings of Calvinism. It is both sad and shameful.

These tactics are tactics borrowed from the pagan community. This is how the world system behaves. This is how the Pharisees behaved. When we behave this way, we betray the Christian community because we invalidate the Word of God. John MacArthur has an excellent perspective: “During the past twenty-five years, well-meaning Christians have founded a number of evangelical activist organizations and sunk millions of dollars into them in an effort to use the apparatus of politics—lobbying, legislation, demonstration, and boycott—to counteract the moral decline of American culture. They pour their energy and other resources into efforts to drum up a "Christian" political movement that will fight back against the prevailing anti-Christian culture. But is that a proper perspective? I believe not. America's moral decline is a spiritual problem, not a political one, and its solution is the gospel, not partisan politics.” Concerning the social gospel that has served to eclipse the true gospel even among many conservative evangelicals, MacArthur rightly says, “Serving as salt and light is not about our social agenda—it’s about God’s spiritual agenda. Those vivid metaphors of salt and light apply to the work of the gospel alone—not the social justice issue du jour.”

It is important that we as Christians take care not to adopt the practices of the culture in which we find ourselves. Pagan communities will inevitably tend to employ tactics that are antithetical to godly principles and values more often than not. We should always search our heart motives where our attitudes and behaviors are concerned. What I see taking place within certain groups of the Christian community is in many ways, reprehensible and contrary to the gospel. We must be on guard against using our influence to bully others into submission to our agenda. To bind the conscience of another brother with your own personal convictions about an issue is a behavior that ought to be avoided at all cost.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Uncritical Mind – An Enemy of the Faith

Robert Ennis defines critical thinking as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.” What should I think about a certain claim or proposition? What should I do in a particular set of circumstances? Nancey Murphy writes, “If Christianity in the abstract is to be reasonable, then the concrete individuals who embody it must exercise the skills of reasoning in their writing, reading, and speaking.” (Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion) Harold Netland comments, “Whatever the case in the past, however, there is little question that the traditional links between Christianity and Western culture have been loosened considerably, through both the diminishing cultural significance of Christianity and the growing impact of non-Christian (especially Asian) religious traditions in the West.” (Encountering Religious Pluralism) The historical ties between the American west and Christianity have created an intellectual culture within the Christian community that has grown lazy. The cognitive respect that had previously defined the relationship between American culture and Christianity historically, has rapidly faded into the background. Some Christians are finally beginning to see that America never was a Christian nation as if anything like that could exist in this world. The rapid shift in the environment has left the Christian community with a considerable gap in her intellectual skills. Christians, many of them, most of them, have not had to use their intellects while living out their faith. Jesus loves you was understood by all or most and accepted by most without question. “The Bible is the good book” is a claim that millions received without any hint of push back. But times have changed and they have done so rapidly. The church is playing catch-up, or at least, she should be. What changes have we seen in the Christian churches as culture has shifted? I see few but I also think some pastors are becoming acutely away of the fact that their people are not prepared for the new post-Christian America.

The early Christians were faced with a Christianity that was so infinitesimally small that it wasn’t even large enough to qualify as a minority, so to speak. Luke describes Paul as engaging his culture this way: But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:22) And again: And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts. 17:2-3) And yet again, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:28)

Paul commanded his successors and appointed leaders to equip themselves to deal with opponents of the Christian faith in the same way he himself had done. He tells Titus as it relates to an elder: He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9) In our postmodern, politically correct culture, we do everything we can to promote an undisciplined and unbounded tolerance. As Christians, such behavior is not an option. While we must be respectful, gentle, kind, and patient, we do not have the option of being silent or of tolerating any teaching that contradicts sound doctrine. We are duty-bound to act. That action begins with thinking. Paul here is using a basic law of logic, the law of non-contradiction, to instruct elders how to deal with people who are opposing sound doctrine. Those who oppose sound doctrine are actually speaking against it. You can speak against sound doctrine directly by denying it or you can speak against it by speaking and teaching doctrines that contradict it. Even though the Greek word ἐλέγχω (elegcho) is translated rebuke, we must take care to understand the fuller sense of this word. The word is used 17x in the NT and only 4x is it rendered rebuke. The range of translations are as follows: convict or convince 5x; reprove 4x; 3x; tell 1x.

When we think of rebuke, we are thinking of a scenario that is much more stinging than is the case with this word. The ESV uses the word rebuke 32x in the NT. Only 4x is it translated from this word in Titus. We should note that the Greek word that is typically rendered rebuke is ἐπιτιμάω (epitimao). Of the 32x it appears in the ESV, rebuke is translated from this Greek word 25x. The word means to express a strong disapproval of someone, and even to punish. It is critically important that we see the differences in these Greek words and ensure that our actions toward others in this area are submitting to biblical principles.

The Christian loves the Lord with all his being, which includes his intellect. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5) God’s people love God with their entire being and they do so with all their energy. The Hebrew word for strength is mĕʾōd. It means very, very much, or greatly, and in some cases utterly or completely. Jesus himself also was clear that this is the greatest commandment of all: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The Greek word translated strength is ἰσχύς (ischus). It means one’s strength, power, might, the capability of functioning effectively. We are to put every effort into loving the Lord with all our being. This is the greatest commandment of all. Obviously, the intellect, our cognitive functions should be aimed at loving God entirely.

Modern, American pastors have dropped the ball. In their zeal to grow the number of professing Christians, they have created a hollowed-out version of Christianity, a Christianity that is intellectually bankrupt and empty of anything remotely resembling intellectual potency. Men like Andy Stanley have all but surrendered the intellectual high-ground that is Christian belief by employing a strategy that does not defend the faith but one that relinquishes core Christian truth all in the name of wanting to remain intellectually acceptable to unbelievers. If the virgin birth is offensive, we shouldn’t preach it. If the Bible is offensive, we should avoid quoting it. Worse, we can quote it so long as we don’t tell people that the quote is from the Bible. If we attributed the sayings of Jesus or Paul to Gandhi, I doubt people would be offended. The point is this: rather than train Christians to trust God and take him at his word, we are training them on how to compromise. The Church has a serious gap in training and teaching her people. It is a gap that Sunday morning sermons alone cannot close. It is a gap that Sunday school classes and small groups cannot close.

The church, the Western church in particular, must wake up from her slumber. Pastors have to recognize that times have changed and are changing rapidly. There has to be an emphasis on training, not just checking the box. The training has to increase, not only in its frequency, but in the kind of training that is made available. The staff has to make training a priority. There has to be a conscious effort to recognize the seriousness of the problem and then do something about it.

Training the church should begin with a plan. First, structure your staff, paid and voluntary around the goal of training. Place leaders in charge of training, not in title only, but in execution. Expect things to change. Talk about it, all the time. Second, create an annual learning plan along with the budget and other ministries. This is more than just purchasing a Sunday school curriculum. Most SS curricula are part of the problem, not the solution. They are shallow, misguided, and contribute to bad habits to include poor Bible study methods as well as poor thinking. If need be, build your own. But that is not enough. Look at your congregation and create a learning plan. Perhaps a high-level learning plan that extends 2-3 to even 5 years. Then narrow the focus to next year and be very deliberate in what you want to teach your people for the coming year.

Next, turn your attention to the Sunday school and small group leaders and teachers. Place a leader (elder or pastor) over your Sunday school program. If you don’t have the staff, place a qualified non-staff person in charge. Structure the teachers in a way that they realize that being a teacher under your leadership is a serious matter. They should feel the weight of that responsibility. The teachers should have someone they report to and they should meet on a regular basis. Teachers should be teamed up with each other as accountability partners. The group should be close. Relationships among the teaching team should be tight. There should be on-going training for teachers. They should be receiving instruction from their pastor and providing information to the pastor and leadership regarding the members in their class. Teachers should be expected to build relationships with their class members, calling them, meeting with them, getting to know them. They should have a hand in their discipleship.

What I am suggesting is that the current model in our churches in the west does not support the sort of equipping Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians and elsewhere in the NT. The environment of the NT churches was remarkably different from the last 400 years of Christianity in Western culture, especially the Americas. Because of the cognitive respect extended to Christian principles and values for so many years, the church slipped into a pitiable state. Our training became sloppy, lazy, shallow, taking far too much for granted. We stopped asking questions and diligently searching the text for answers. Secondly, the philosophies of the enlightenment started to take root and the 3% grade has turned rapidly becoming a10-20-30% grade. The point is that Christians in Western culture are encountering views, beliefs, and opinions that contradict Christian belief at a rate much higher than ever before. Moreover, not only are those views contrary to Christian belief, they are more than a little hostile to it. I cannot count the number of times that pastors have expressed concern that I ventured too far into a particular subject. My response is usually something like this: I have doctors, accountants, and lawyers in the audience. If they can do their job, they can spend some time and energy learning about the One Person who is supposed the most important Person in their lives: Jesus Christ.

Here is the picture. Christians should be the best thinkers in their culture. They should be the best thinkers because they are the only thinkers who actually possess true knowledge about reality.

·      Every church should have a 2-3-5-year high-level learning plan.
·      Every church should have a focused learning plan in place for the coming year.
·      Every church should structure their staff in such a way to support a learning structure.
·      Sunday school teachers should be required to complete an initial training program as well as on-going training.
·      Sunday school teachers should report to a leader responsible for providing oversight to the Sunday school program.
·      It wouldn’t hurt to reconsider changing the name from Sunday school to something else.
·      Every church should create and maintain a Sunday school teacher community.
·      The Sunday school teachers should be paired together with an accountability partner.
·      The Sunday school teacher should organize small groups within his Sunday school and appoint group leaders.
·      Sunday school teachers should be responsible for training small group leaders.
·      Sunday school teachers should also be expected to be in regular contact with their class members.
·      Sunday school class sizes must be capped in order to ensure they are manageable.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive or even prescriptive. It is intended to serve as a straw man so that others may review it, see where I am going with it, and then take it and bend it to fit their unique situation. The point is that we must turn up the intensity of our training in our churches. The truth is that it should have never been turned down!

The Bully Pulpit and a Culture of Intimidation

On the one side, we have the Christian community, and on the other side, we have the pagan community. The Christian community is made...