Wednesday, January 25, 2006
In place of Duty, this generation has set its affections upon a new virtue: Convenience. Whereas Duty formerly acted as a compelling force to do what one ought to do regardless of what one felt like doing, Convenience is a much easier virtue to cultivate. All it requires is that I decide what's most important for me to do based upon whatever standard I think best, and disregard any other task that might be done. In place of Duty's universal standard of what was important and what was not, Convenience sets the individual free to decide how he ought to invest his limited time and energy. Convenience is especially beloved in today's America. It is honored not only in every drive-through food pickup lane and ATM, but also in the way people choose to use their precious time. Duty is dead, long live Convenience!
Before its demise several generations ago, Duty enjoyed a long life. In addition to its sporadic enshrinement as a cultural virtue in various nations at various times, Duty played a prominent role in the Christian Scriptures. Long ago, especially in churches that purported to subscribe to the old doctrine of Sola Scriptura--Scripture alone--strange notions were taught in the name of Duty. For instance, believers were told that love was not primarily an emotion or a passion, but was instead a Duty that one owed to God and one's neighbor. Whereas a Convenience is left up to one's free choice, a Duty is invariably tied to some kind of commandment such as "love your neighbor as yourself" or "husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church and died for her."
This belief in Duty led to some rather strange situations. In many old Christian households, husbands sacrificed personal comfort--leisure, sleep, solitude, etc.--in order to act as the spiritual leader of their households. No matter how hard he worked during the day, he always took the time to patiently instruct his wife and children in the Word of God. Not only did he count it his obligation to be his family's breadwinner, he also counted it his Duty to act as the loving servant leader of his family. Mind you, he wasn't necessarily the world's greatest teacher, and his efforts invariably fell short of what they could have been, but because he believed that God had commanded him to be the spiritual leader of his household, our old-fashioned husband invested countless hours into doing things that seem peculiar and quaint today. Some wives also acted in a peculiar manner. Many, even though they may have been more richly endowed with gifts of teaching or intelligence than their husbands, graciously submitted to his leadership not because of his greater talent, but because they believed that it was their God-ordained duty to submit to his spiritual authority. Like our strange husbands, these strange wives did what they did on account of the Duty they felt to do what God had commanded regardless of their personal comfort or Convenience.
Things have changed a great deal since those days. Many Christians, excepting a tiny handful of renegades and rebels, have come to adopt the virtue of Convenience. Husbands still bring home the bacon, but many wives bring home their share as well. Their hard work as well as all the time and effort necessary to live a prosperous, comfortable life often makes it difficult to obey all of those old-fashioned commandments, so many have learned to disregard them as though they were relics from a bygone day. Thus, husbands often leave it to their wives to bear the primary load as spiritual leader in the household. In our fast-paced, hectic world, the old virtue of Duty seems to be woefully unrealistic, because circumstances have made it so clear that it's simply impossible to do all of those things that God commanded us to do. Thus, it's just as well that we no longer profess the sufficiency of Scripture for all matters of faith and practice, because we've learned to pick and choose the parts of Scripture we're going to use based upon our circumstances, preferences, and talents.
Convenience is indeed king. No wonder then that Duty lies a-moldering in its grave, forsaken and forgotten, along with so many of God's commandments that are difficult or just plain Inconvenient to obey.
Monday, January 23, 2006
American evangelicalism on the downgrade
However, with the birth of a new kind of political freedom in the nation of the United States of America came a new kind of thinking. With no king and no nobility, the USA saw itself as an egalitarian, classless society in which anyone with sufficient talent and ambition could lift himself up by his own bootstraps. Whereas past generations in the Old World had largely accepted the individual's lot in life as being ordained by God, the people of this new nation came to think of themselves as being free to choose their own destiny. They were free: free not only from the tyranny of the king, but free also from the tyrannies of class and birth.
Little wonder, then, that the 19th Century evangelicals saw an explosion in the popularity of the old doctrine of Arminianism. This doctrine had been around for centuries, first under the name of semi-Pelagianism, later under the name of its Dutch proponent Jacob Arminius, and saw growth in popularity through the influence of John Wesley and his Methodists, but it was in America that Arminianism rapidly overtook Calvinism as the "majority report" amongst evangelicals. In contrast to Calvinism's emphasis on the sovereignty of God over all aspects of man's salvation, Arminianism taught that Christ died to make salvation for all men possible, but left it up to man's free will to decide whether or not to appropriate His saving work for himself. Although God's grace was seen as essential, it was man's decision that determined whether or not he was to be saved or damned. All things considered, the teaching of Arminianism was admirably well-suited for the new American philosophy.
So, it is little wonder that Arminianism has maintained its near-total sway over American evangelicalism ever since. Whereas earlier Arminians such as John Wesley retained much of the God-centered emphasis of their Calvinist contemporaries, American Arminianism has steadily evolved into a form that places nearly total emphasis on man. In place of the Reformed and Lutheran preaching of both Law and Gospel, evangelicalism now tells the world that "God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life," placing little or no emphasis on the minor matter of sin. Although this watered-down gospel brings countless thousands into church every Sunday, it is also true that only a small fraction of the converts won by it stick around those churches very long. The percentage of "decisions for Christ" that persevere in the Christian faith is woefully small.
What with a doctrinal foundation that's an excellent match with the prevailing world philosophy, it ought not be surprising that much of the evangelical church bears a close resemblance to the world insofar as human roles and relationships are concerned. In such churches, fewer and fewer men outside the senior pastorate seem to be motivated to take on leadership positions. In order to fill the vacuum, women are taking on many ministry roles which historically had been held by men alone. Whereas Paul exhorted Timothy to not let a woman teach a man, and taught that an elder (aka pastor) ought to be the husband of one wife, today's church is filled with women teachers and pastors. Instead of waiting to discuss theological matters with her husband at home, today's evangelical woman is not only freely participating in such discussions with men, she is also often teaching the men. The great apostle would see little resemblance between the church order he taught and the order we see today.
Although much could be said to explain how this shift towards egalitarianism in the evangelical church took place, I'd simply like to make one simple point: the church is not to be led by the philosophy of the world. Instead, the church ought to order its affairs based on one source: the Scriptures. The plain fact is this: the Scriptures do speak regarding human roles and relationships. They are far from silent! In both testaments, God took pains to reveal to us His will for His church and the Christian family, but yet American evangelicalism has persistently refused to hear what He has to say. Instead of obedience to Scripture, it has repeatedly chosen to conform itself to the world, doing this or that not because God said to do it, but because it seems to work.
My friend, pragmatism rather than Scripture has been the rule of a growing portion of American evangelicalism for over two centuries, and has nearly taken over every church that claims to be evangelical. Little wonder that some are warning that we are presently in the midst of a spiritual downgrade far worse than that which Spurgeon so eloquently preached against a century ago. If you find yourself in a church that is more beholden to the felt needs of man than the Word of God, I urge you to search the Scriptures and seek out a sound Bible-preaching church that puts the focus on God where it belongs! Even if you have to drive an hour each way to attend services, your spiritual life may depend upon it. Put aside your drive for happiness and fulfillment, and make it a priority to seek to learn and do what is pleasing to God. The downgrade which we see is severe, but yet God continues to cultivate a remnant. Do not be mistaken by the apparent success of today's megachurches: true spiritual life continues to be found only where God is central and the Scriptures are diligently preached.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Regarding the discernment of sin, especially the sin that lurks within our own hearts, I think we're all pretty rotten fruit inspectors. Don't take my word for it: Jesus Himself said so. Whereas we love to compare our behavior with the grossest external wickedness--compared to which we are apparently white as snow--Jesus taught that sin constitutes not just obvious outward behavior, but inner heart motives as well. When I look at a woman with lust, I commit adultery, and when I'm angry with my brother, I commit murder. Like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, we judge ourselves by far too superficial a standard.
Lately, I've been mulling over the subject of male/female relationships. As I've done so, it's occurred to me that a lot of destructive relationships start out as outwardly innocent "platonic friendships." A man and woman start to hang out with each others, sometimes publically, sometimes in private. They enjoy talking with each other and doing things together, but they don't feel a strong physical attraction to each other, so they manage to avoid blatant fornication. Although there are many times that such a friendship evolves into a romantic relationship, there are other times that the relationship never crosses the line from friendship to romance. So long as this line isn't crossed, it's easy for the pair to think, "There's nothing wrong with what we're doing. We're just friends. Why, we've never even kissed!" In such cases, it is indeed a mercy of God that blatant fornication doesn't take place, but yet we ought to consider whether such a standard of judgment is sufficiently strict.
When I was a young adult, I had a number of platonic friendships with women. Not a single one led to any kind of obvious immorality. I came to fancy that I had a special gift of self control: that I could handle a considerable degree of emotional intimacy without letting things get out of hand. Moreover, I learned to conduct myself towards women, both unmarried and married, in such a way that they felt that they could trust me. When my friend was married, I always made it a point to get to know her husband and spend time with both of them. After all, I was just friends with his wife, and had no desire to disrupt their family life. In a very real sense, I was successful in this balancing act. I was, in a way, the best-case scenario for the participant in platonic friendships.
During that season of my life, I was a professing Christian, but like so many in the modern charismatic and evangelical church, I was ill-taught in the Scriptures. In due time, God had mercy on me and brought me to a solid Bible-preaching Reformed Baptist church. Through my own Scripture reading and the preaching I enjoy in church, I've become better acquainted with God's standard of righteousness and the various roles and relationships He has ordained for His creatures. As I've grown in knowledge and wisdom, I've come to realize that there was in fact much evil in my former friendships, and if the outward damage from them was limited, it was on account of God's amazing mercy rather than any righteousness of mine. I broke off my last platonic friendship shortly after coming to my church six years ago. Since then, I've concentrated on building friendships with other men, and have pursued close relationships with women only so long as both of us were open to the possibility of marriage, breaking off each such relationship once we came to realize that we were not well-suited for each other.
Although I discontinued platonic friendships years ago, it is relatively recently that I've come to realize just how dishonoring to God those friendships had been. In the cases where my friend was unmarried, our relationship served as an excuse to avoid the long-term commitment that ought to be found only in marriage. When my friend was married, my friendship with her was never helpful to the health of her covenant relationship with her husband. Although I always broke off such friendships when I saw that things were not going well with my friend's marriage, I now realize that the very fact of my friendship with the wife would have had a tendency to weaken the special intimacy that she ought to have had only with her husband.
Thus, much like the skin of a banana doesn't necessarily prove that it's fresh, I have learned that the lack of outward sexual immorality in a "friendship" in no way proves that it is honoring to God. It is not enough to avoid the commission of the most blatant sin. In our relationships, we must consider not only the sanctity of the flesh, but also the sanctity of the marriage covenant. If I pal around with a married woman, I can only weaken her marriage, whereas if I pal around with an unmarried woman without any consideration for possibly marrying her, I am trifling with her affections. Although it can be good and right for men and women to be friends to a certain degree, a husband's closest friend ought to be his wife, with his other close friends being other men. The lack of fornication in no way sanctifies the type of intimate friendship that weakens or demeans the marriage covenant. Thus, I must join my voice to the chorus who warns men and women against entering into so-called platonic friendships.
Related article: Companionship without committment
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
The fingerprints of the Designer
However, there are many in our generation who frequently, and willfully, disregard the obvious fingerprint of the Great Designer, Almighty God. Wherever we focus a telescope or a microscope on a galaxy or a microbe, the awesome complexity and order ought to shout out, "This is the work of a great designer, not the result of random chance." Yet, we are led to believe by many so-called experts that all of this complexity is the result of random, natural processes. On one hand, we freely acknowledge the countless man-hours that were put into the creation of the fastest computers, yet we attribute the creation of the human brain--a computing engine far more powerful than the fastest supercomputer--to random chance. What an affront to the Great Designer that we refuse to honor Him for His wonderful and awesome work, and how amazing that we can be so selectively ignorant of the handiwork of the greatest Designer of all. No matter how far away we peer into space or how closely we zoom in to a single cell, the evidence for design is everywhere, but yet man in his depravity and foolishness refuses to see it.
My friend, the myriad structures of this earth and universe are far, far greater in complexity than anything that any man or woman has ever created. Are you so blind as to not see this? Have you put your faith in naturalism--the presupposition that nature is all that there is or ever will be--even in the face of such overpowering evidence? Mind you, the object of the Christian's faith, Almighty God, is an invisible God, so He must be trusted in faith, but how much greater faith is necessary to believe that the world around us is the product of random chance and natural processes! Yes, yours is the greater faith, for you believe in billions upon billions of small events that happened at just the right time and place over eons of time worked together to create the universe we see today, whereas I must merely believe that our Creator spoke the universe into existence.
The Bible speaks truly when it says that the heavens proclaim the Glory of the Lord. His fingerprints are all over Creation. How long will you deny Him the Glory that is due Him for His awesome work of creation? Although experts may scoff against this truth and courts may decree that it not be taught in classrooms, the evidence for design in the tiniest cell or the greatest star is hidden only to the basest fool: the man who refuses to believe what he sees with his own eyes. Such men will be found without excuse on the great Day of Judgement, for the revelation of Nature itself will be enough to demonstrate beyond doubt that the existence of God was abundantly clear to all!