Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Church in America has lost Billy Graham, but doesn't seem to have a replacement

The man who preached in person to 100 million people the straightforward message of the Gospel during his 99 years has passed on to his reward, Billy Graham is no longer here, and it seems like the Church has nobody to replace him.  The combination of bedrock Gospel presentation with an apolitical attitude has gone out of favor among most of the preachers that you've heard of today.  Some have abandoned the Gospel of the Apostles, favoring either a version that demotes Jesus from being the Son of God and thus robs the message of its transforming power, or a version that distracts from Jesus with a focus upon wealth and prosperity, once again robbing the message of its trans-formative power.  Other preachers have retained their preaching of the Gospel, but have wedded that presentation so closely with the culture wars and their own support for (even unabashed support for, and excusing of, non-repentant sinners as "Christian leaders") politicians and political causes that they're only preaching to the choir, no longer able to be heard by the half or more of America that disagrees with the political party they've anointed as God's own.  Sadly, even Billy Graham's own son, Franklin, has fallen victim to this trend, having become a political cheerleader whose presentation of the Gospel is now weighed alongside his political pronouncements by those who need to hear the undiluted message of the Cross.

Can you imagine a popular preacher today who has the courage to maintain and defend the Gospel AND the kindness of heart and humility to minister to both Republican and Democratic presidents, or even just Republican and Democratic members of a congregation?  It may be a while before we see another preacher like Billy Graham, but our nation sure could use that voice sooner rather than later.

The Slippery Slope argument is paralyzing our republic

** This is not a political comment, I purposefully avoid those, if you choose to take these thoughts that way that's up to you, but you'll be ignoring my intended purpose.**

In an era when a significant number (if not an outright majority) of politicians at both the state and federal level face more election drama at the primary than the general election level, it has become commonplace for politicians, pundits, and the general public to repeatedly apply the Slippery Slope argument to topic after topic.  To the Left and Planned Parenthood, any reasonable restrictions upon abortion are tantamount to outlawing the procedure, and thus must be met with the fiercest resistance with no compromise even remotely possible.  To the Right and the National Rifle Association, any reasonable restrictions upon guns of any type being owned by anyone are tantamount to the government, "coming for our guns", and thus must be met with the fiercest resistance with no compromise even remotely possible.  This same entrenchment is repeated issue after issue, year after year, resulting in near total paralysis where only a super-majority of one party can advance even basic measures, and sometimes not even that.  The end result is paralysis, an enshrinement of the status quo that can only be shaken, and even then only temporarily, by a disaster on the level of 9/11.

Prior to World War II, isolationists shouted their opposition to the Slippery Slope of F.D.R's willingness to help the British and the Soviets hold off the German onslaught.  F.D.R. demonstrated leadership in that he largely ignored the isolationist voices by pushing Lend-Lease among other efforts to slow down the Nazis, but America as a whole remained woefully unprepared for the war that came on December 7th, 1941.  Had the isolationists possessed the wisdom to accept reality and compromise, the United States military would have been better prepared for war, had F.D.R. given in to their doom and gloom and failed to support our future Allies, the war in Europe would have ended with the Nazis triumphant.

The Slippery Slope argument is of course used by those within the Church as well, particularly against those who are willing to work ecumenically with other Christians, or those willing to admit that our own understanding of theology cannot hope to be perfect.  In too many cases, much needed reform or potential cooperation for the Kingdom is squashed by shrill cries of disaster should the status quo be challenged.

Why is the Slippery Slope such a problem?  Perhaps you like the status quo, at least on a particular issue, and have no qualms with using whatever means are necessary to defend it.  The problem should be obvious, but our inability to recognize it is a symptom of our collective illness: The Slippery Slope is a FEAR based argumentation.  It does not require facts or evidence, it asks no proof, it need only posit a future disaster and simply assumes that one's political or theological enemies are nefarious, up to no good, and perhaps evil incarnate.  Their devious schemes, if successful, would destroy us all, and thus any hint of working with "the other side", any hint of compromise, is the work of the devil.  To govern a people, or run a church, by fear is to make a Faustian bargain; in the short-run there might be "victory" for your side, whatever that is, but in the end, we all lose.

With the advent of media tailored to both the Left and Right, and with social media providing an echo chamber to confirm what each side already believes and shout down any opposition, is there any hope for the future?  There's always hope, but if history is any guide, it will take a moment like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to spur real change, until then fear in daily unrelenting doses will continue to be served up to all those willing to be swayed by it. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon Video: Why do people get married? - 1 Corinthians 7:36-40

Why do people get married?  While the reasons abound, the Apostle Paul, in finishing the section of his letter to the Church in Corinth that focuses upon sex and marriage, touches upon four of the more common ones: honor, passion, compulsion, and happiness.  The text itself focuses upon issues relating to the decision to marry or not to marry from a 1st century cultural perspective, but the idea of why people choose to get married (and widows/widowers to remarry or not) is certainly relevant for any cultural setting.

In the end, the will of God allows freedom for Christians to decide if they want to be married, and when, within the framework of the Law of God as outlined in his Word.  Within that framework: one man, one wife, for life, it is not a moral issue for a disciple of Jesus Christ to marry or not.  Some will prefer to continue living in celibate singleness, some will decide that after losing one spouse to death that they do not want to remarry, but some will choose to enter into the holy bond of marriage, emphasizing some combination of honor, passion, or the pursuit of happiness in their minds (but hopefully not compulsion).  God wants his people to be happy, as our heavenly Father, God knows that true and lasting happiness is only found in union with him, not rebellion against him.  The Christian worldview thus emphasizes the primacy of obedience to the Law of God, placing issues of love, happiness, rights, or freedoms behind conformity to the dictates of God's righteousness, holiness, and justice (and not just relating to marriage, in all parts of our lives).  Within the framework of marriage (and sexual purity) ordained by God, there is room for us to consider what our honor, passion, and happiness is asking of us.  {FYI, the point in question: to marry or not, is illustrated in the sermon by my retelling of my own proposal of marriage to my beautiful wife Nicole, in October of the year 2000.}

To watch the video, click on the link below:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sermon Video: Marriage and Serving God - 1 Corinthians 7:25-35

To be a good husband, a good wife, a good parent, to truly honor those bonds in a way that please the Lord, takes time, it takes effort, and it takes resources.  This is not news, anyone who is married and/or has children knows this, which leads inevitably to the question: Can you be as effective a disciple of Christ in your service to the kingdom of God as married person and/or parent, as you can be when you are single?  Paul addresses this question while writing to the church of Corinth about their "present crisis".  Because of the difficulties they were facing, Paul encouraged them to remain single if they were, given that the "time is short" so that they might be "free from concern".

In the end, this is not a moral question of right and wrong, God has created some of us with a heart for singleness and some for whom marriage and children is a deep longing.  In order to be the servant for the kingdom of God that we have been called to be we ought to embrace that calling, if single utilizing that extra time and energy to serve others, if married working together with our family to remain united in service to God together.

To watch the video, click on the link below:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A review of: "Side by Side" - Being Christian in a Multifaith World by Dr. Richard Olson

On February 1st of this year, Judson Press published a book by Dr. Richard Olson, retired seminary professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas, entitled "Side by Side" - Being Christian in a Multifaith World.  The following is a review of that book that I'm writing as a Christian pastor who is intimately and regularly involved in the related, and often confused with inter-faith ecumenism, topic of intra-faith ecumenism.

My evaluation of Dr. Olson's book is of two kinds, while I find much to admire concerning inter-faith dialogue, peace, justice, and the plight of refugees, at the same time, the further step taken beyond these by Dr. Olson to embrace religious inclusivism is a bridge too far.  It is not an easy task to promote dialogue and peace between religions while at the same time holding firm to one's own belief that the Gospel is the Absolute Truth for all mankind.  It was just this sort of delicate balance that has sparked vicious unwarranted criticism by a few zealots of Christian apologist James White's willingness to debate Muslim apologists in a respectful way while both speakers maintained their claim to absolute truth.  It is an uncomfortable and difficult place to be, defending Truth while also promoting tolerance and peace, but it is the role given to us as disciples of Jesus Christ.  If we reject peace and embrace hate, we quench the fruit of the Spirit within us, if we reject Truth and embrace inclusivism, we set our understanding above that of Holy Scripture.  The goal of tolerance and peace is to be applauded and deserves our active participation, however the method to achieve it of saying, "We all worship the same God", must be rejected if the Gospel of the Apostles is to remain at all attached to its historical foundation.

Let me interact with quotations from Dr. Olson's book, highlighting both that which I agree with and those things regarding which I believe him to be in error.

In the introduction, Dr. Olson writes of an experience from his youth as the son of Baptist missionaries in South Dakota.  A friendship between his father and the local Roman Catholic priest, in a pre-Vatican II setting, and the improving relationships between Catholics and Protestants post-Vatican II, led to this conclusion, "If Catholics and Protestants can overcome ancient barriers, learning from one another and developing deeper bonds of fellowship, we may experience unimagined results in our interfaith relationships." (p. XIII)  The step being advocated by Dr. Olson, from intra-faith relationships/dialogues/worship to their inter-faith equivalent is in the end a comparison of apples to oranges.  Those who engage in intra-faith ecumenism, that is bridge building and cooperation including worship along fellow Christians be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, may also be willing to extend those same activities with non-Christians in inter-faith efforts or they may not, but the basis for that choice is not the same unless one is committed to the notion that all religions are participating in the same God and seeking the same Truth.  If religious exclusivism is maintained, there is indeed a basis for inter-faith dialogue, peace, and efforts concerning justice and poverty, but there is not a basis for inter-faith prayer or worship.  Confusion over what is being discussed, whether it be inter-faith or intra-faith, especially from critics not overly concerned with giving the benefit of the doubt, only makes it more difficult for sincere adherents of exclusive theology to reach out to those of other religions without being labeled an inclusivist/pluralist.  Dr. Olson also wrote, "The need for personal relationships with those of other faiths and a deeper understanding of one another's faith and heritage grows more urgent by the day." (p. XV)  In a world of rising violence and polarization, this is certainly true as hatred grows most readily in ignorance.

Regarding effective dialogue, Dr. Olson quoted the guidelines of the World Council of Churches, "Partners in dialogue should be free to 'define themselves'" and added to it, self-serving descriptions of other people's faith are one of the roots of prejudice, stereotyping, and condescension." (p. 7)  This is certainly true, not only is the cause of peace hampered when adherents of a religion are not allowed to define themselves (often instead being defined by their enemies) but so too is the cause of evangelism.  If a Christian believes a false stereotype of a Muslim to be true, and then actually meets a Muslim, how effective will the witness of that Christian be if he/she is acting upon false and likely derogatory impressions?  As Christians, we ought not be afraid of reality, facts, history, and truth.  We must interact with the world as it is, for that is the world we have been called to be salt and light to, not the world as we wish it to be.

In regards to the three faiths who claim Abraham as a forefather, it would be foolish of us to ignore or downplay what we have in common, and at the same time foolish of us to pretend we do not have fundamentally relevant differences.  Dr. Olson acknowledges both aspects of the issue saying, "We have a similar starting place, but we need to be sensitive about presumptions of sameness and instead ask many questions related to beliefs about God's nature and what we mean when we affirm God as one." (p. 32)  Indeed, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief that God is one, i.e monotheism, is a common bond, but what we mean by declaring that God is one is surprisingly different, perhaps a startling revelation those who simply assume that all three are worshiping the same God.  Dr. Olson quotes Stephen Prothero who, "contends that those who write about the oneness of all religions 'are not describing the world, but reimagining it.  They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood." (p. 32)  Our world could use an increase in brotherhood and sisterhood, assuming that leads to more peace and less violence, but not at the expense of lying to ourselves about reality.  Dr. Olson goes on to summarize Prothero's words in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter by saying, "what we share most fundamentally is the conviction that something is wrong with the world.  Life is out of balance; something has gone awry.  Religions differ, however, in diagnosing what has gone wrong, and, therefore, what the prescribed solution is." (p. 33)  Including Prothero's viewpoint acknowledges how this issue undermines the notion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims could be worshiping the same God and yet understand both humanity's problem and the necessary solution so differntely, nevertheless, Dr. Olson will later attempt to bridge that gap while leaving Prothero's objection unrefuted.

There isn't much in "Side by Side" regarding intra-Christian ecumenism, but one comment is worth noting, "We Christians are a varied lot today.  Within Christianity we find those who are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox...and a wide variety of Protestants...as well as less orthodox traditions such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah's Witnesses." (p. 42)  White there are some within the Church who struggle to see Orthdoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism as all being "within" Christianity, wrongly in my understanding but I understand the objections, it is a whole different set of issues to assert that the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are "within" Christianity and simply "less orthodox".  Less orthodox?  Both are non-trinitarian, both have an extra-biblical authority, both see themselves as the only true remnant of the Church.  Less orthodox is far too generous a term, non-orthodox would have been more accurate, for how can something which defies the Nicene Creed be "within" the Church?

One observation from Dr. Olson should hit many Christians squarely and accurately with an uncomfortable truth, "It is easy to see (or imagine) what's wrong with another's religion...And it is even easier to take the inherent goodness of one's own religion for granted...this practice of religious self-justification and criticizing the other is resurfacing with urgency in our interreligious world." (p. 59)  We ought not be shocked to learn that this is true, after all Jesus spoke about planks in our own eyes and specks in the eyes of our brother, how much easier to ignore our own faults and focus upon those of people we consider strange, different, even a threat.  Once again, Christians must be grounded in truth and reality, for example: Are there aspects of Islam today that are steeped in violence?  Absolutely, are there aspects of Islam today that have rejected violence in favor of tolerance?  Yes.  Those unwilling to acknowledge that not all Muslims are cheering on the Jihad against the West, are also likely to ignore or gloss over the horrendous history that Christianity has not too recently emerged from of violence, persecution, slavery, and antisemitism.   We cannot have a productive discussion about Islam and terrorism if we fail to disavow the stereotype that all Muslims think alike and refuse to acknowledge that our own family tree has some real ugliness, some of it not that far from where we sit, just visit a Holocaust museum if you need a reminder.

In a precursor to the eventual rejection of the New Testament passages expressing the exclusive claims of Jesus, Dr. Olson correctly writes that, "Those using absolute truth claims may choose particular texts from their Scriptures, read them selectively (and probably out of context), and them apply them absolutely." (p. 64)  While agreeing that such things happen, far too often and with often disastrous results by all manner of people, not just those seeking absolute truth claims, it is not apparent, nor does Dr. Olson make a concerted effort to demonstrate, that such out-of-context interpretation has been done by the majority of the Church historically which has understood the New Testament to proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  In that same section where Dr. Olson is explaining how a religion can have evil followers, he also rightly points out the dangers of blind obedience, focusing upon a soon to come utopia, believing that the ends justify the means, and ultimately choosing to engage in a holy war.  Extremism that embraces such practices is a threat to any religion.

Dr. Olson attempts to paint a positive view of Jesus in the Qur'an, and while it is appropriate to acknowledge that the Qur'an portrays Jesus as an important figure and a prophet, even as "Messiah", the Jesus of the Qur'an is not in any real way the same as that of the New Testament.  The Qur'an specifically denies the Incarnation (Surah 112), the Trinity (Surah 5:116) and the Crucifixion (Surah 4:157)  Dr. Olson concludes with a quote from Tarif Khalidi (from The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature) that Jesus, "ceases to be an argument and becomes a living and vital moral voice, demanding to be heard by all who seek a unity of profession and witness." (p. 99)  Yet as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, Jesus must be either God, a fraud, or a madman, for he is clearly portrayed as divine in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament (Muslims claim these are all corruptions of the original Biblical text).  How is it that Jesus can be a "moral figure" to unite Christians and Muslims when such a role would have been antithetical to everything we know about Jesus from the Scriptures?  The only way for such a middle-ground with Muslims concerning Jesus would be to concede that critics like Bart Ehrman are right and everything about Jesus' divinity was added later by a corrupt Church intent upon securing its own power over the people.  Unfortunately for Ehrman, and Muslim apologists who have latched onto his arguments, the crushing weight of historical evidence regarding N.T manuscript production and distribution, prior to the Council of Nicea, denies such a conspiracy theory.

The ultimate question from Dr. Olson, beyond less controversial matters of inter-faith dialogue and efforts at peace and justice is simple, "Do I believe that persons devoted to these religions can be in a right relationship with God, both here on earth and hereafter in eternity?  In other words, is salvation possible within these three religions?  These aren't simple yes-or-no questions." (p. 113)  Before answering the question, Dr. Olson briefly interacts with the N.T's many exclusive claims as typified by John 14:6 and Acts 4:11-12 where he says regarding John 14:6, "I do not believe that Jesus intended the rest of the verse ('no one comes to the Father but by me') to be an absolute statement of exclusion for all people for all time...I also believe that the unconditional love of God, mediated by Jesus to us, has led some closer to God, even though they may not name Jesus as their Savior." (p. 119)  The basis for saying, "Jesus didn't mean what you think he meant", {I can almost hear Vizzini from The Princess Bride saying "inconceivable" and Fezzik replying, "I don't think that word means what you think it means."} is to say that John's Gospel "offers a mystical reflection on the meaning of Jesus for the world." (p. 119)  In other words, John's words don't really mean what those words normally mean.  Also, how does the notion of "the unconditional love of God" fit with Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world?  How can God's love be so unconditional if he cares about sin and holiness, and why would Jesus die for anything less than absolute necessity?  If salvation is to be found elsewhere, through other means, why would Jesus die?  Lastly, what does "led some closer to God" mean?  Is closer to God enough?  How is God's love through Jesus leading people closer to God who have no idea who Jesus is or who reject Jesus explicitly?  In relation to Acts 4:12, Dr. Olson rejects the universality of Peter's words as hyperbole intended to sway his Jewish audience, nothing more, "Is it intended as an  inclusion-exclusion statement for all believers of the various religions for all time?  Each reader will have to decide.  In light of the context of this statement, I personally don't think so." (p. 119)  Thus the nature of John's Gospel and the audience for Peter's words negate the plain meaning of the text within their own given context in both instances.  While I recognize that this is necessary to move to an inclusivist viewpoint without claiming that the Scriptures are tainted, it is an example of eisegesis not exegesis, putting into the text a meaning one hopes to derive from it rather than letting the Word of God speak for itself.  The rest of the N.T.'s exclusive texts are mentioned later (on p. 146) but no effort is made to interact with any of them (1 Corinthians 3:11, 1 Timothy 2:5, 1 John 5:12, Romans 1:21, 3:9, and John 3:36 just to list the ones Dr. Olson acknowledges).

In the end, Dr. Olson openly and honestly admits, "I am an inclusivist...I also believe that the prophets of these other religions received authentic revelation from God and that persons can be in a right relationship with God within those religions." (p. 122)  Leaving out the more complicated questions of "authentic revelation" between Judaism and Christianity {For example: Yes, Isaiah's revelation was certainly authentic, but we differ greatly on what it means}, how is that possible with Islam?  The diagnosed problem with humanity and mandated solution in Islam is diametrically opposed to that of Christianity.  Islam offers a list of things to do, Christianity requires a cessation of self-righteous effort in order to accept by faith what has already been done on our behalf.  If God spoke to both Jesus and Muhammad, how did the message become so garbled?  Either humanity is fallen or it is not, either works are the answer or faith is, this is a fence that cannot be straddled unless we jettison any effort at logic and consistency.  Dr. Olson goes on to say, "One other factor contributes to my conclusion - probably the most powerful and important one: my experience with persons of these other religions...As I sense the goodness of these persons...and as I worship as a guest in their places of worship, I have a clear sense that I am in the presence of God and of God's saints, whatever their religion."  (p. 122)  In the end, this is a choice to embrace experience over revealed truth, a feeling of having found "good people" over the Church's two thousand years of preaching the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  And while I don't doubt that Dr. Olson knows "good people who follow other religions, it is odd to hear a Baptist say that the most important factor in making a monumental theological change is belief that he experienced the presence of God in a mosque and a synagogue, there is no sense here of an allegiance to Sola Scriptura, let alone Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, or Solus Christus, which leaves one to wonder, how can this then be Soli Deo Gloria?  Inclusivism is by necessity a clean-break from the Reformation along with an abandonment of the Early Church as typified in the ecumenical creeds.

The section relating to the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR's) as well as the "nones" does not offer anything beyond what is already known, that the Church is struggling to connect with Millennials, but it does offer a sense that those who like Dr. Olson have drifted toward or to inclusivism, if not outright pluralism, are doing so in part because they feel it is a necessary tactic for the Church to woo back this "lost" generation.  If that is the case, Churches which abandon their Gospel heritage to embrace the minority within a generation who seem content to leave "organized religion" behind will likely only succeed in driving away the roughly 2/3 of Millennials who remain committed to their faith.

"Side by Side" ends with a story of a pastor whose church went where most will be unwilling to go: they allowed neighboring Muslims who were building a mosque to use their church for prayer during Ramadan.   (p. 151-52) This episode is presented as an example of "love they neighbor" but one does not need to reject the sacred nature of our places of worship in order to love our neighbors.  On the other hand, Dr. Olson offers four challenges for followers of Jesus Christ that we should all be able to embrace, "- To become more deeply involved in friendship, conversation, and dialogue with persons of other faiths where we live and work. - To be aware, supportive, and proactive when negativity, threats and attacks happen to persons and places of worship of other faiths. - To be compassionate and active in responding to the worldwide refugee crisis, including at the local level. - To offer understanding, care, and support to the vastly growing number of interfaith marriages and families."  (p. 153)  These four goals are noble and worthy of followers of Jesus (with only one caveat, that the Church should not encourage new interfaith marriages {which are not the same as intra-faith marriages like my own where we share a devotion to Christ} while it supports those who already are a part of an inter-faith marriage in accordance with Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 712-16).

There is much to appreciate in Dr. Olson's personal experience with, and sharing of, other examples of inter-faith dialogue, friendships, and cooperation regarding peace and justice.  We certainly need more of this attitude in the Church today and less confrontation and hatred.  This goal can, and should, be accomplished, however, without abandoning the exclusive claims of the Gospel. I as a Christian ought to be fully capable of calling a Hindu, Muslim, or Atheist my neighbor, and yes friend, without at the same time letting go of my concern for the salvation of his/her soul.  The focus of Dr. Olson's book was primarily the Abrahamic faiths, but inclusivism within them naturally leads to pluralism as well.  If there is no Truth, then there isn't any truth either.  Mankind is lost, fallen and depraved, with this diagnosis only a fool or one ignorant of the world today and man's history would disagree.  The most important question for humanity thus remains: how can what is wrong with us be fixed?  Only Jesus offers a solution that is within our power: salvation by grace through faith in him.  Thus while I appreciate the openness with which Dr. Olson address the topic of inter-faith relations, and laud his goals of peaceful coexistence, I cannot cross the bridge that he would construct to inclusivism, for the Church and the Gospel are on this side of the river.

Judson Press link to "Side by Side"