Monday, February 22, 2010

What is Biblical Preaching?

In conservative Christian circles it is typically popular and desirable to say, "My church really believes in biblical preaching/teaching" or, "my Pastor is really committed to biblical preaching". Like so many other fine sounding acclamations it depends on what is meant by "biblical preaching". And unfortunately, I am persuaded that many Christians don't know what true biblical preaching really is. Many THINK their churches or Pastors are pursuing biblical teaching and preaching when in fact they are not.

Often in the course of defining something it is helpful to first define what it is NOT. I think such is the case here. 1) Biblical teaching/preaching is not simply teaching or preaching about a topic that is also covered by the Bible. One can cover the topic of adultery for instance in a very UNbiblical fashion - both in message and method! 2) Biblical teaching/preaching is not simply teaching or preaching in which a biblical passage is referenced or read. It is quite common that someone references or reads a biblical passage and then proceeds to teach or preach something quite different than what the biblical passage communicated. This might happen for instance when someone reads Romans 1:18-32 and then departs on a message about the social evils of homosexuality. OR, some might preach about how that passage doesn't refer to homosexuality at all and thus homosexuality is OK! Neither message would be truly biblical as far as it relates to the main message of Romans 1:18-32. 3) Biblical teaching/preaching is not simply teaching or preaching a specific biblical text EVEN if that teaching or preaching explains that specific text properly. How can this be? Let's use 1 John 4:8 for example. Someone can preach that passage and explain the wonders of the truth that God is love...and that's what the passage says! But John wrote five complete chapters worth of doctrine in the letter we call 1 John. If we take 1 John 4:8 out of the context of the entire letter of 1 John and/or out of the larger context of the whole Bible, we will communicate an unbiblical message. Of course one could argue that in such a case 1 John 4:8 was not properly interpreted...and one would be right!

So if someone can teach or preach about biblical topics, teach or preach about Bible passages, even teach or preach so as to "correctly" explain a specific biblical passage but STILL not be teaching or preaching biblically...what does it mean to be truly biblical in regards to teaching and preaching? First, note how subtle this can be and difficult to discern. This absolutely calls for the discernment of the Spirit and for God's people to be diligent when reading/listening to teaching or preaching that purports to be biblical. Properly reading and listening to the word of God or to the teaching and preaching of the word is a worship and spiritual experience. We must pray for discernment and enlightenment so that we are edified and not deceived. As scripture itself teaches, " not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God..." (1 John 4:1). Secondly, biblical teaching and preaching must be FAITHFUL to the original meaning and intent of the specific biblical text. I will unpack this last sentence in two parts. 1) To be truly biblical, teaching and preaching must be faithful to the ORIGINAL meaning and intent. This is critical. Evangelical Christians believe scripture is the fully and verbally inspired, infallible word of God. If so, then the very words as they were originally communicated had an intended meaning at that time. It may be somewhat difficult for us today to get back to that original meaning but it is absolutely imperative that we do because that is when and how God spoke! God is NOT speaking in the same way now through other writers or preachers. He spoke finally and ultimately through His Son Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-2) and the New Testament scriptures, being the direct witness to the Son, are included in that final speaking. So we must honor God's speaking, His word, by being faithful to the original meaning and intent of His very words. 2) To be truly biblical, teaching and preaching must be the specific biblical text. Although true biblical teaching or preaching can be topical it must also be exegetical or expository. Both "exegetical" and "expository" basically mean that the teaching or preaching is explanatory in nature. The PURPOSE of true biblical teaching and preaching is to EXPLAIN the meaning of the biblical text. Therefore to qualify as truly biblical, teaching and preaching MUST explain the original meaning and intent of the biblical text.

An example may help to clarify the difference. I already stated that if one were to read or reference Romans 1:18-32 and then proceed to teach and preach about how homosexuality was harmful to society (or not) it would not be biblical. I said that because Romans 1:18-32 most certainly does condemn homosexuality but it does NOT speak to the social harm derived from homosexuality. Perhaps the reference to "received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion" is a reference to some consequence that is social in nature and certainly all the wicked behaviors have social consequences but the point of the passage is not the social consequences. The one preacher who embarks on a sermon condemning homosexuality and denouncing its ill effects on society is not explaining the text and not being faithful to its original meaning and intent. The other preacher who embarks on a sermon trying to explain how this passage really doesn't condemn homosexuality completely misses the original meaning and intent as well and thus is also not biblical. Is one preacher "better" than the other in this example? Yes! At least the one preacher gets it right that Romans 1:18-32 condemns homosexuality and there certainly are terrible social consequences from it. However, his sermon is not biblical in the truest sense because he is using a passage to support his sermon about the social ills of homosexuality and that is NOT what Romans 1:18-32 is really about.

So what is Romans 1:18-32 about? I do not wish to take the enormous time and space to fully explain Romans 1:18-32 and support my interpretation. So I will give a brief summation and defense. In a nutshell Romans 1:18-32 explains how all of mankind is guilty of robbing God of His glory and is therefore rightfully under His wrath. The passage functions for Paul as a foundation or defense for his assertions in Romans 1:16-17. Therefore it plays a HUGE role in properly understanding the gospel and God's purposes in devising a plan of salvation in the manner that He did. It really isn't about homosexuality or any other specific sin. Sin and individual sins are expressions of human beings refusing to acknowledge God and give Him glory. God's glory is the truth they suppress (Rom 1:18b) because the truth is plain (1:19) being clearly seen through creation (1:20) so they have no excuse (1:20b) for not glorifying Him and thanking Him (1:21).  Homosexuality and all sin has tremendous and terrible consequences for society for sure.  It would not be inappropriate to point this out in a biblical sermon as long as it is done in the setting of and consistent with the actual meaning of the biblical text.

Properly interpreting and preaching Romans 1:18-32 makes a HUGE difference in how we understand and see things. Primarily it helps us to see that it really is all about Him! Living for God's glory is the goal. When we don't, we are sinning and rightfully under His wrath. It also enables us to understand the correct meaning of Romans 3:23. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" doesn't primarily mean we fail to stack up to God's perfect moral standard - although that is certainly true. In the context of Paul's thought in Romans (as first explained in 1:18-32) it means that we do not and cannot live in such a way as to properly glorify God. We don't give Him the credit or thanks due Him. Instead, we suppress the truth of His glory through our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We try to rob God of His glory and THAT is a vile and wicked rebellion that deserves His holy wrath.

So, if one is going to teach and preach biblically it must be faithful and true to the original meaning and intent that God communicated through the writer. And here is the wonderful, mysterious, and beautiful thing: Preachers need not worry about contemporary relevance, seeker sensitivities, techniques such as humor and multi-media, IF they trust God's word in Romans 1:16. For God's word, and the Gospel in particular, truly is the power of God unto salvation. Preachers, programs, and techniques have no power to save. Preach the season and out!  Trust God for the results...and He will be glorified!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Worship Under the Word

Not many people will take the time nor have the inclination to read the excellent book "Worship by the Book", D.A. Carson editor. So to share just one of the many blessings from this work, I thought I would duplicate a passage from the chapter "Worship Under the Word" by D.A. Carson himself. Carson is articulating some conclusions from his rather technical chapter in which he attempts to construct a brief theology of worship. In the chapter he demonstrates the true nature of worship in the New Testament, one aspect of which is that true New Testament worship is the life of faith. Worship is the Christian's expression of the greatest commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Clearly this is far beyond what many think of as worship. Many restrict their view of worship to the weekly, corporate gathering of the Church in which congregational praise is offered to God. In fact, New Testament worship is the entire focus of the Christian's thoughts, heart, and actions. But, it certainly does include corporate, congregational worship! Read these strong words from Carson about the authenticity of true worship in the corporate, congregational context...ponder them and apply them:

"Hindrances to excellent corporate worship are of various sorts. For convenience, they may be broken into two kinds. On the one hand, corporate worship may be stultified by church members who never pray at home, who come to church waiting to be entertained, who are inwardly marking a scorecard instead of participating in worship, who love mere tradition (or mere innovation!) more than truth, who are so busy their minds are cluttered with the press of the urgent, who are nurturing secret bitterness and resentments in the dark recesses of their minds.

On the other hand, corporate worship may be poor primarily because of those who are leading...Some who publicly lead the corporate meetings of the people of God merely perform; others are engrossed in the worship of God. Some merely sing; some put on a great show of being involved; but others transparently worship God...their conduct is "transparent". The way they lead must in the first instance be marked by faithfulness to the Word of God: that is certainly observable, in particular to those who know their Bibles well. But the way they lead can be measured not only in terms of formal content but also in terms of heart attitudes that inevitably manifest themselves in talk, body language, focus, and style. Some pray with strings of evangelical clich├ęs; some show off with orotund phrasings; others pray to God out of profound personal knowledge and bring the congregation along with them. Some preach without punch; others speak as if delivering the oracles of God.

What is at stake is authenticity...sooner or later Christians tire of public meetings that are profoundly inauthentic, regardless of how well (or poorly) arranged, directed, performed. We long to meet, corporately, with the living and majestic God and to offer Him the praise that is His due". (58-59 - bold and italics mine)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Is Socialism More Christian?

More thoughtful Christians often ask, "what political or economic system is more Christian"? Less thoughtful Christians (in the West at least) often assume that democracy and/or capitalism is inherently more Christian. Too often this is simply an assumption, meaning it is an idea they hold without having critically analyzed it or feel analysis is not needed because they think it is obviously true. But as Christians we must be supremely concerned with truth because we worship and follow the One who claims to be THE Truth (Jn 14:6).

This topic is exceedingly relevant today in 2017 because the political scene in the United States is one of upheaval and tension largely between two schools of political and economic thought. One school of thought is capitalism coupled with the belief that a smaller, less involved central government is most desirable. The other school of thought is socialism coupled with a belief that a larger, more involved central government is most desirable. The differences couldn't be more plain and profound between these schools of thought. While it is absolutely true that a Christian's (and therefore the Church's) primary concern should be the glory of God as seen in the face of Christ (2Cor 4:5-6) AND it is absolutely true that much damage has been done to the cause of Christ in America because too many Christians have forgotten this core concern and become much too focused on politics, it is also true that Christians must take their citizenship seriously (Rom 13:1-7). One way we glorify God is through our humble obedience to His word and His word clearly calls us to a stewardship of His earthly creation. One element of that creation is "the governing authorities". So we must take politics and questions such as capitalism vs socialism seriously but always remember it is never primary.

That said, what is the right answer? Is capitalism and democracy (vis a vi the United States) "more Christian" than socialism expressed through a large, controlling central government? Before we can answer that we need to establish some definitions - what is "capitalism" and what is "socialism"? While we could get very nuanced and embark on many pages simply to articulate a definition for each it will be more productive to give a commonly accepted, concise definition for each. The American Heritage dictionary does a good, fairly even handed job in providing such definitions. Here are the definitions as contained in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online version:

Capitalism: "An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market".

Socialism: 1. Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

2. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.

Since the definition for socialism references communism it is helpful to include that definition as well:

Communism: 1. A theoretical economic system characterized by the collective ownership of property and by the organization of labor for the common advantage of all members.

2. A system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single, often authoritarian party holds power, claiming to make progress toward a higher social order in which all goods are equally shared by the people.

3. The Marxist-Leninist version of Communist doctrine that advocates the overthrow of capitalism by the revolution of the proletariat.

Again, we could go on and on giving more detailed and refined definitions especially in regard to how these theories have been expressed in particular historical contexts. But these are reasonably accurate and helpful definitions of the various terms. So which system is more Christian? Let's examine the definitions and then establish a biblical principle to guide us to our conclusion.
First, notice the key elements of each definition. For Capitalism we notice the term "privately" which could be also stated "individually" as in individual person (citizen). The definition mentions, "or corporately" in regards to ownership but private individuals or group of individuals comprise the corporation. The point here is one of private ownership NOT government or collective ownership. Thus the rewards of economic production are returned to the individuals proportionate to their level of investment of time, energy, money etc. The economic rewards (wealth or profit) is not returned to a central government representing the entire collective of people to then be distributed back on an "equal" basis. The theory states that if "Bob Smith" works harder, invests more time, energy, money and more risk, he will get more reward than John Doe who chose not to work as hard or risk as much. In capitalism the emphasis is clearly on private ownership therefore on the individual. The individual or private citizen is primary over the state or collective (central government) in a fundamental way. This is why capitalism is typically coupled with a political system such as democracy or a representative republic as in the United States because such political systems also emphasize individual rights and liberties over and above the state or central government.

As for Socialism (and we will consider Communism together with Socialism) notice the terms, "collectively" and "centralized government". These terms indicate the emphasis of socialism and communism. The essence of socialism is the collective ownership of all means for producing and distributing goods. The idea is that it is best for everyone if private or individual ownership is given up in favor of a collective or communal ownership. Of course there must be some mechanism for overseeing the collective ownership, production and distribution back out to the people so a strong central government must be in place. In a socialistic and communistic environment a strong centralized government owns everything and allocates back to the citizenry the goods and services deemed appropriate. This is why socialism is typically coupled with dictatorships or very strong, authoritarian central governments often referred to as "the state". In this system "the state" takes precedence over the individual and all things belong to the state and not to the individual. The state is the highest virtue and claims ownership of all goods and services to the point that children are even considered owned by the state as a "resource" for the common good of the state.

Now to answer our original question, what system is more Christian - socialism and its attending political manifestations or capitalism and its attending manifestations? I believe the biblical answer is that capitalism and its attending political manifestations are inherently more Christian...if by that we mean that it inherently creates an environment in which Christianity is more appreciated and supported and its character is more consistent with Christian principles but we do NOT mean that it is specially ordained of God. But such a conclusion must be defended and substantiated by scripture.
The primary biblical defense for the above conclusion (that capitalism and its attending political systems is inherently more Christian) derives from the fundamental creation theology that humans are created in the image of God and are commissioned by God to be His stewards of the earth (Gen 1:26-30). This in fact is the foundational principle that we see worked out in the founding documents of the United States of America. The assertion that all men (people) are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights derives from the fundamental truth that God creates each human in His image. Therefore, the individual person is precious and immensely valuable. He or she is immensely valuable NOT because of personal economic or social standing, NOT because of potential for productivity, NOT because the state deems him or her so, but strictly BECAUSE he or she reflects the glory of God. God is the greatest treasure and mankind is the greatest element of creation reflecting the glory of that treasure. Therefore, the individual must be esteemed, respected, protected and supported - thus the inalienable rights flow from the fact that we are His image bearers therefore flowing from God Himself. These rights are NOT given by the state therefore cannot be taken away by the state.

The implications of this truth are profound and provide the defense for the assertion that capitalism and its attending political systems is more Christian. The generalization can be stated like this: any economic and political system that esteems, protects, and supports the individual and his/her free pursuit of fulfilling God's stewardship mandate (Gen 1:28-30) is to be preferred. The Founding Fathers of the United States referred to it as a "more perfect union". It was their desire and endeavor to strive for that more perfect union based on the foundational truth that we are all created by God in His image and therefore have rights that cannot be denied by the state to pursue our "happiness" (18th century language indicating our meaningful stewardship of life). Economic freedom is critical to that pursuit and essential to the realization of a more perfect union. Political freedom is also essential. The two work hand in hand and that's why capitalism is typically attended by a form of political government that encourages freedom for the individual. Inherently (and this is validated by history) socialism leads to the suppression and repression of the individual and his/her rights to the free pursuit of earthly stewardship.

America chose capitalism and a constitutional form of a representative republic in order to secure the "more perfect union" as the environment in and through which our God-given call to glorify Him could be expressed. I believe, based on the reasons above, this American system is a "more perfect" union to that end and therefore "more Christian". No, it is not perfect. No, our form of government is not specially anointed by God. And no, the Church should NOT throw its focus and resources at political solutions to our national and social ills. BUT, we should recognize the truth. There is a difference between capitalism and socialism, between a constitutional republic and communism with its attending authoritative central government. From a Christian perspective one is certainly better than the other. Capitalism and our representative government is to be preferred over socialism so we can more freely and completely reflect the glory of our Lord. If we lose our economic system and our representative government we will have lost something valuable. However, (and this is MASSIVELY important) we will NEVER lose the power and ability to glorify our great God and savior Jesus Christ. The Church is built on the rock of that confession and the gates of hell cannot prevail or stand against it (Mat 16:18). No matter the form of government or economic system the Church has one primary mission and the infinite power to complete it - Glorify Him! (Eph 1:5-6)

Nevertheless, be informed, pursue the truth, speak and vote in support of what is inherently more Christian.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Least of these...

This is such a powerful truth that I wanted to share it. By God's transforming and redeeming grace we find what Dr. Koop has also found...

"It has been my constant experience that disability and unhappiness do not go hand in hand. The most unhappy children I have known have been completely normal. On the other hand, there is remarkable joy and happiness in the lives of most handicapped children; yet some have borne burdens which I would have found difficult to face indeed."

C. Everett Koop, M.D., Sc.D.former Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service
Twenty-fifth Anniversary Foundation Day LectureOur Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Dublin, Ireland