Thursday, December 29, 2005

It's a Small World After All

World Magazine ran an interesting story recently:
    Between lacing children's films with sexual innuendo and offering support to a gay-rights agenda, the Walt Disney Company has hacked off more than a few Christians in recent decades. But the September resignation of CEO Michael Eisner, coupled with the company's impending feature-length foray into Narnia, has helped soften opposition—even convincing the American Family Association to call off its nine-year boycott.

    Now, Christians may find reason to move beyond neutrality to qualified support of the global leader in family entertainment: Al Weiss, a top-ranking Disney executive, is planting churches—doctrinally sound ones, and lots of them.

    As chairman of the board for newly formed Vision USA, Mr. Weiss aims to raise $300 million over the next 10 years for aggressive church planting in 50 of the country's most influential cities. The project is well underway in Orlando, where several million dollars of grant money will help open eight to 10 churches by the end of the year. Preliminary efforts have also begun in Seattle, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, New York, and Washington, D.C. ...

    ... Though affiliated with the Baptist General Conference (BGC), Vision USA has partnered with a range of denominations willing to affirm the Lausanne Covenant, male eldership, and Reformed theology—most recently aligning with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. ... (Full article)
In a time when most evangelical churches seem to be more seeker-friendly than gospel-friendly, it is encouraging to see more Reformed churches sprouting up.

Friday, December 23, 2005

In Defense of Christmas...Sort Of

'Tis the season to be melancholy. Haven't you heard? Christmas is under attack! Christians all across America are being persecuted! You thought Nero was bad? Our most sacred of days is being secularized and no one seems to be doing anything to stop it!

Is this a foreshadowing of the coming Great Tribulation? Are we about to see the fulfillment of Revelation 13:17? Will we wake up one morning and discover that we cannot buy Christmas presents for our loved ones unless our hands or foreheads bear the mark of the Beast? Surely we must be living in the End Times!

Okay, back to reality...

Yes, I believe there are assaults on the tradition of Christmas, just as surely as the world rails against anything associated with Christ and his church. But given the state of our secular, hedonistic culture, it really isn't all that surprising when some people are offended when you wish them a "Merry Christmas."

It goes both ways, however. Many Christians are just as offended when they are greeted with the words "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings." "How dare you take Christ out of Christmas!" they shout, as they claw, punch and bite their way through a gaggle of shoppers for the last Xbox 360 on the shelf so that they and their spoiled children can properly celebrate the Savior's birth.

Don't get me wrong. Despite the fact that, after all this time, I still have not received a Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, I love Christmas. It is a time set aside for fellowship with friends and family. It is also the time of year during which we focus on the birth of Jesus Christ. While that does make Christmas a significant holiday, there isn't anything especially holy about it.

Debate continues even within Christian circles about the origins of Christmas. "Its roots go back to the pagan rituals of ancient Rome," some will argue. "No," others reply. "Christmas is a distinctly Christian celebration and should be embraced." Whatever your particular view may be, the fact remains that Christmas is a man-made holiday.

Romans 14:5 says, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." That is not to say that traditions aren't important or that churches shouldn't have special days on their calendars. But considering that the only celebration in remembrance of Christ that is called for in scripture is the Lord's Supper, can we really justify getting worked up simply because we don't see the word "Christmas" in a store display?

My point is that many of us have a tendency to overreact when we see things we don't like. That is especially true at Christmastime. We're geared up for a fight, and when we hear the jingle bells ring we come out swinging.

Alistair Begg, pastor of Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, once noted in a sermon that the weapons of the believer are "prayer and the proclamation of the Word." Those are the weapons we should be using. "As soon as we lay down the two weapons given by our Commander," Begg continued, "we will be forced to take up the weapons that are present in our culture. And so we become just another marching special interest group…"

The result is a boycott here and a lawsuit there in the hope that an unbelieving world will relent and allow us to express our Christian beliefs. Of course, what usually happens is that we end up looking every bit as shallow and selfish as the very ones we believe are out to get us. We forget to exhibit Christ's love in a fallen world.

Is that how we want to be seen? Is that what we are called to do? Is our dedication to the defense of the gospel of Christ defined by how ferociously we defend a particular holiday? Will our petty complaints about society's disregard for the "true meaning" of Christmas help us reach lost souls?

This Christmas, may we be less offended by the "secularization" of a man-made holiday and be more focused on living as examples of the One whose birth we're celebrating. The world doesn't need Christmas; what it does need is Christ.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Your Best Flight Now

No real comment. I just found this story interesting:
    A dispute involving the wife of Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen delayed holiday travel plans for a planeload of passengers, but few details were released Tuesday.

    At least some people aboard the Continental Airlines flight were less than pleased after waiting about two hours at Bush Intercontinental Airport while the Osteens left the plane and their luggage was removed, said a woman who witnessed the incident.

    "She was just abusive," said Sheila Steele, who said she was sitting behind Victoria Osteen. "She was just like one of those divas." ...

    ... Steele said Victoria Osteen was upset about liquid on her pull-down tray and asked a flight attendant to have it cleaned. When the attendant, who was carrying paperwork to the cockpit, told her she couldn't do it immediately, Osteen replied, "Fine, get me a stewardess who can," Steele said.

    She said Victoria Osteen pushed a flight attendant and tried to get into the cockpit. ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Christian Response to Adversity

If we listen to most evangelical "conservative" Christians, it seems we are supposed to believe that militant Islam is the greatest threat facing America and the church today. Some, like President George W. Bush and Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, see our "war on terror" as a holy crusade against evil. As Boykin put it, "The enemy is a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan."

Now, I don't want to get into a detailed analysis of our conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reason I raise this issue is because I have heard some Christians talk about military action as if it were a legitimate means of advancing the gospel of Christ.

John Piper has some sobering words:
    The cross is our life and our joy and our only hope of fellowship with God. Therefore it is a great sadness when militant Islam calls all Muslims everywhere to fight the cross. But it is not new. Acts 9:1 said that Paul was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," and Jesus said that "the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God" (John 16:2). It is breathtaking to read the transcripts of Al-Qaida tapes giving thanks to God for the successes of their killing.

    My greatest longing in response to this enmity is that Christians walk in the way of the cross. Yes, militant Islam is big and threatening. It may even be the true Quranic Islam. There are alarmists whose whole tone seems to awaken political and even militant responses from Christians. My concern is that as the church we distance ourselves from this kind of response and focus on the truth that we will never spread the Christian faith by the sword. Some Muslims may kill to spread their faith. Some Christians have. But it is not the way of Christ. It is not the way of the cross.

    Let us heed what Peter said, "But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:20-21). Militant Islam may call the Muslim world to arms against the cross. But the followers of the cross will never take up arms to proclaim or defend Christ. We will die to make him known. But we will not kill to make him known. And even if there be but a remnant of Christ-followers left, the Lamb himself will stand forth at the end and win.
Read the full article here.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

How Do I Know If I Am Elect?

Stephen Doe tries to answer this question as succinctly as possible—and I think he does a pretty good job:
    When people first begin to learn about the biblical doctrine of election, one question that often occurs to them is, "Am I elect?" And the more they think about whether or not they are elect, the more uncertain they become. So, if you believe in the doctrine of election, how do you know if you are elect?

    The answer is really quite simple: You continue believing in Christ.
For a more detailed explanation, read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Emergent Church

I readily admit that I know next to nothing about the "Emergent Chruch." All I really know for certain is that these people are trying to change the focus of the church so that it fits in with our post-modern culture.

Thankfully, Chip Bayer sheds some light on the confusion surrounding this new phenomenon. (SPOILER ALERT: The phenomenon really isn't all that new.)

Take time to read his essays on the subject:If we are going to be effective in our ministry, we need to learn to separate the good from the bad.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lessons in Faith

When Dawn and I decided to adopt a little girl from China, it was a very easy decision to make. But it wasn't one that was entered into lightly; it was a decision based on faith.

We have faith in God's Word. We believe that "children are a heritage from the Lord" (Psalm 127:3). We believe that Christians are to reach out to orphans (James 1:27). We believe that all Christians are adopted (Romans 8:15). And, as we enter into parenthood, we believe that God will meet our needs (Matthew 6:25-34).

In my opinion, it is very easy to "have faith" in something. It is quite another thing entirely to put that faith into action, and I am continually amazed at the faith exemplified in the lives of strong believers.

One such person is my friend Dr. Dave Black. Dave is a teacher in every sense of the word. Whether he realizes it or not, he continues to be a source of inspiration for me and countless others who have gotten to know him through his online writings. One of the things I have learned from him is the importance of living a life of faith.

He and his wife, Becky, have been ministering in Ethiopia and are headed back there again. Here is an excerpt from the December 8 entry on his blog:
In 6 days we leave for Ethiopia, even as a border war with Eritrea looks more and more likely. Understandably, our friends are concerned about our safety. One of the most important things happening in our life as a married couple is learning to be completely dependent upon God and to face whatever comes our way—good or bad—as from His loving hand. As Hebrews 11 says, whether people are delivered or not delivered, in every situation they stand in a position of faith toward the outcome. Sometimes Christians are delivered, and sometimes they are not. Still they tell the king, as did Daniel, "We're not going to bow." The man of faith does not bow. He does not bow to the world, he does not bow to the government when it usurps the role of God, and he does not even bow to the church (or to its traditions) when it is on the opposite side of the Bible.

Our day is no different from Daniel's. We too are confronted by our own fiery furnaces, and we face one of two outcomes. We can say, "Our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." Via email I hear from people the world over that they are being convicted by the Lord Jesus more and more not to bow the knee.

I don't have sophisticated tracking services like some websites do, but I do know that our reading audience includes people from Africa, Europe, and Asia. More and more of them are telling Becky and me how God has been leading them to move forward in their lives toward a simpler, more biblical, and more obedient way of living. Sometimes that has brought misunderstanding and opposition, even from those who are closest to them.

Which comes first, material things or spiritual things? This question is, perhaps, the one most frequently asked. The gross materialism that characterizes our modern culture—even our church culture—is becoming more and more repugnant to these pilgrims. Do not misunderstand me. I do not deny the necessity of material things. The problem is when the "natural" things of life (or whatever terminology you prefer) become first place. I have to smile when I read of those Christians who, in the face of the evidence contrariwise, want to continue participating in the gross materialism of "the holidays" because they cannot give up their attachment to the "innocent" things of the season.

All of us should always have a burning heart for the spiritual over the material, for truth over tradition. We all need the Lord's forgiveness for this—I more than anyone. So, what does God require of Becky and me? Is it enough to say certain words? Is it enough to affiliate with a certain group? No. God wants us to affirm the exclusiveness He has revealed.

And He has revealed these things to us in a way we can comprehend and implement among the children of men. To say "Christ" does not help anyone. Jesus taught that many "christs" would come. The word must contain the content of who God is, what He has done in Christ, and therefore what the Gospel is. Nothing short of this is enough. While a student in Basel I heard the term christophoros. It means "one who bears Christ." It was used by the church fathers in distinction to another term, christologos—"one who speaks about Christ." The true Christian is one who does not merely talk about Christ. He is one who bears Christ far and wide. Cross-bearing and Christ-bearing. That is our task as we leave for the great unknown.
It is my prayer that Dawn and I can set that kind of Godly example for Olivia, whenever she comes home. I pray that we will strive toward a simpler, more biblical, and more obedient way of living. May we learn to forsake the false comforts and securities of this temporal world and rest in the eternal promises of our Heavenly Father.

* Itinerary and Prayer Guide for the Blacks' Trip to Ethiopia

Friday, December 02, 2005

Hearing the Pitter-Patter of Little Feet...Not!

If you haven't read Wednesday's post and the article that precipitated it, you may want to start there before reading on. The culture of death and its effects are felt outside the walls of the local abortuarium.

Sunday's Chicago Tribune ran a fascinating article by Vincent J. Schodolski taking a look at the rise of childlessness among married couples. According to the article, a whopping 18 percent of women age 40 to 44 do not have a child. Schodolski quotes Emily Connolly, a 24-year-old Chicago retail saleswoman, who says, "Babies have just never interested me. My husband and I didn't get married to have children. We got married for us." As an aside, one hopes that Connolly's parents married for her.

Echoing Connolly, novelist Carole Matthews says that in the Western world, having children has become a mere lifestyle choice.

Such sentiments are increasingly widespread, and the cribs of the West are increasingly empty as a result. A look at fertility rates in Europe shows that only Islamic nations like Albania, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan are producing enough children to replace the existing population (note: the so-called "replacement rate" is 2.1 children per woman).

Even these numbers are deceptive. For in nations like Sweden and France, the birthrates of the foreign born far outpace those of native populations. In short, the people of the West are being displaced. Having swallowed the presuppositions of the contraceptive mentality and the culture of death, White Christians are in the midst of committing suicide as a people.

Establishing a Christian culture will first require Christians to reestablish the centrality of the family, and the primacy of family life. The family is the only institution of Paradise, and it is the preeminent institution in God’s economy. Indeed, we cannot understand God’s plan for us until we understand His plan for the family.

Consider, for example, the Ten Commandments. There is nothing pertaining directly to church or state therein, but several explicitly address family life. The imperative to honor our parents, and the prohibition of adultery and covetousness are intended to preserve the integrity of the family.

Moreover, the Bible often uses family terminology to describe the mysteries of the faith. For example, salvation is described as God’s adoption of His people. We see that Christ’s relationship to the Church is described as a marriage. The Trinity contains in part a relationship between a father and son. The Bible compares relationships in the church to relations between brothers and sisters. Idolatry is frequently associated with adultery, and the idolater is synonymous with the harlot. Such examples could be multiplied.

The point is that the family is important. And the primary function and duty of the family is to produce children. As Albert Mohler says in Schodolski's article, "God's purpose in creation is being trumped by modern practices. I would argue that it [not having children] ought to be falling short of the glory of God. Deliberate childlessness defies God's will."

Mohler is right, but such thinking is alien to American culture, including "Christian culture."

A few statistics will demonstrate that the family is under withering attack.

In the contemporary United States, children frequently aren’t even born into intact families—34% all births are to unwed mothers. 68% of black, 59% of Puerto Rican, 40% of Mexican, 50% of Hawaiian, 60% of American Indian, and 28% of white children are born to unwed mothers. (In 1950, 4% of births were illegitimate).

If kids are born into an intact family, there is a good chance things won’t stay that way. Fully 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years and ultimately nearly ½ of marriages fail.

Of course, many babies don’t make it out of the womb at all.

There are about 1.3 million abortions per year, down from 1.6 million in 1990. There are 674 abortions for every 1000 live births. Somewhere between1/2 and 1/3 of women alive today have had at least one abortion.

Why are there so many abortions? I think James provides some insight: "You lust and do not have; so you commit murder" (James 4:2).

We want more. More money, more security, more education, more job opportunities, more sex without consequences. We crave absolute autonomy. Such godless views of man now even shape our laws.

Read just a portion of Justice O’Connor's opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

"The Roe rule's limitation of state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State."

We have made a god out of self-enhancement, out of autonomy, out of our rights. The Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, provided a list of reasons that women provide for having abortion:

25.5% Wants to postpone childbearing
7.9% Wants no more children
21. Cannot afford a baby
10.8% Child would disrupt education or job
14.1% Relationship problem or partner does not want baby
12.2% Too young to have baby
2.8% Risk to maternal health
3.3% Risk to fetal health
2.1% Other reasons

But the problem, as I've said, isn't confined to the abortion mill. The nation as a whole has a weak commitment to childbearing. Just 10% of American families have 3 or more children—making matters worse is that a quarter of those families are single-parent families. In the 1980’s a milestone was passed—more than 1/2 of American families (52%) have no children under the age of 18.

One of the reasons we are having fewer children is that we are marrying later. In 1970, just 36% of women ages twenty to twenty-four were unmarried. By 1995, 68% were in the "never married" category. Women are not just waiting longer to have children, but are conceiving fewer of them as well. 44% of all women of childbearing age (15-44) are childless.

Feminism has liberated women from the "narrow" and "constricting" roles of wife and mother. Meanwhile, the siren song of the marketplace drowns out God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. In 1950, 88% of women with children under six stayed in the home. Today, 64% of American women with children under six are in the labor force.

With their new status in the work world, fewer women marry. In 1970, just 36% of women ages twenty to twenty-four were unmarried. By 1995, 68% were in the "never married" category. So women are not simply waiting longer to have children, they are conceiving fewer of them as well.

For Christians, children are not to be merely an accessory, a "lifestyle choice." The Bible describes conception as an act of God (Ps. 127:3, Ruth 4:13, I Sam. 1:19-20, Gen. 16:2, Gen. 17:16, Ps. 22:9, Jer. 1:5, Gal. 1:15). Moreover, life begins in the womb (Is. 49:1-2, 5; Job 10:8-12; Ps. 139:13-16) and that child is created in the very image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). God commands us to be fruitful and multiply, for the purpose extending His dominion (Gen. 9:7) and producing Godly offspring (Mal. 2:15). Children are to be received as a gift from God:

Ps. 127:3-5
3 Sons are a heritage from the LORD ,
children a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are sons born in one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their enemies in the gate

Do you wish to receive a heritage from God? Do you wish to receive a reward from God? That includes having children.

Does the correlation between happiness and children seem strange to modern ears? Moreover, consider the analogy of children to arrows. How many arrows do you want going into battle?

That children are given to parents also implies a range of familial duties. Through parental neglect, children can become a curse rather than a blessing (Prov. 29:15, Prov. 17:25), and it is the duty of parents to rear their offspring in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Deut. 6:1-9, Eph. 6:4).

There is also an implied obligation for churches. A few years back, the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life reported that 88% of the children of parents in SBC congregations leave the church at 18, never to return.

In most evangelical churches, parents and children are rigidly segregated by Sunday School, youth groups, and a panoply of other programs designed to replace dad as the center of Christian education.

Where in the Scripture do we see the kids being shuckled off away from their parents? Why do we think that is normal? Aren’t we denying our children the bread of life? Worship in Scripture appears to generally include children (Deut. 31:12-13, Ezra 10:1, Joel 2:15-16, Joshua 8:35, Matt 19:13-14, Eph. 6:1).

Commenting on similar trends in his own day, Charles Spurgeon said:

"I begin to feel more and more that it is a mistake to divide the children from the congregation…. If our preaching does not teach children, it lacks some element it ought to possess. I like to see the congregation made up not all of the young, nor all of the old, but some of all sorts gathered together."

What I have written may shock and even appall your average Christian. In Schodolski's article, we're introduced to Amy Showalter, 44, and her husband, Randy Boyer, 45, who decided not to have children and consider themselves devout and conservative Christians. They attend weekly services at the Crossroads Community Church in Cincinnati, billed as "a real place for real people." "Nobody has ever told us this is a sin," Amy says. "It just does not come up." Showalter says that after 11 years of marriage she and her husband have concluded that they would be bad parents. "We didn't feel we would be qualified," she said. "It was not that we wanted to be rich or anything like that."

I'm not surprised that such things "just don't come up." We wouldn't want to cause any discomfort. Instead we're fed pabulum by the likes of Rick Warren, who can write about the "Five Purposes of Marriage" and never mention children. Instead we are peppered with silly cliches such as, "God's plan for your marriage is wider and deeper than anything in your wildest, craziest dreams," "You and your spouse were both planned for God's pleasure," and "Life is about relationships, not achievements."

Ms. Showalter can keep Warren. I think I prefer Luther:

The purpose of marriage is not to have pleasure and to be idle but to procreate and bring up children, to support a household. Those who have no love for children are swine, stocks, and logs unworthy of being called men or women; for they despise the blessings of God, the Creator and Author of marriage.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Five Solas Still Unpopular with Catholics

You'd think that Protestants and Catholics would agree on soli Deo gloria. Well, perhaps they do in theory, but the papacy has a tendency to elevate men above their fallen, mortal status.

Then there's sola scriptura. The Catholic Church continues to believe that the Bible can only be correctly interpreted through Holy Apostolic Tradition by the Magisterium. It also teaches that church tradition is on par with what is revealed in God's Word.

Sola fide? Instead of Faith = Justification + Good Works, the Catholic formula remains Faith + Good Works = Justification.

Sola Gratia conflicts with the Catholic teaching of merit, so there probably won't be a consensus on that anytime soon.

But can't we even agree on solo Christo? Not quite. Pope Benedict XVI invited people to pray to God "that he will awaken in all of us this desire, this openness to God, and that those who do not know God may also be touched by his love, so that all of us journey together toward the definitive City and that the light of this City might also shine in our time and in our world."

If that's all that's needed for salvation, what was the purpose of Christ's sacrifice?
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