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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Master Chess Player

I must tell you before even beginning this post that this is definitely a "thinking out loud" post. I'm not at all set on this issue, but decided to write about it in order to see what feedback my readers might want to share. I'm open to positive and negative responses to this, but please keep in mind that I'm not actively promoting this line of thinking. Just working through it. OK? Thanks! :)

Sometimes I get frustrated at the way we try to put God in a box. It's so easy to go down a path of reasoning and think that we have God all figured out. It's not hard to find people who will confidently tell you exactly how predestination and election work. They'll throw some Scripture verses at you, redefine a few words for you along the way, and then sit back, cross their arms and say, "See? Now you understand."

But if you say, "So you're telling me that nobody has any say in whether or not they are saved?" then the arms get uncrossed again, they'll lean forward, and with the intent of a boxer sending his opponent tumbling to the mat, they'll say, "Do you not believe God is sovereign? Do you really want to say that man is sovereign? That's blasphemy."

You see, for a lot of people, that's the "hinge" argument they use to defend their viewpoint. It's the classic "Here are your only two options" false dichotomy. Either God is completely sovereign and gets every ounce of glory, or man is completely sovereign and gets every ounce of glory. And in the latter, according to some, God is left whimpering in the corner because He reallllly wanted to see someone get saved, and they just wouldn't accept His gift of salvation. And we all know that we don't want a God Who is left whimpering in the corner, sad that His great plan fell through, do we?

Time and again, I have tried to figure out if those really are the only two options. And while I'm not very clear on how to articulate a third option, I think that there is one, and I'd like to try this metaphor on for size with my readership.

I stink at chess. I mean, I understand the procedures of the game, and I understand the objective of the game, but I stink at it. I can beat my 13-year-old son at it, but that's not something a dad should brag about! And truth be told, I can only beat him because he probably thinks one move ahead, while I think an amazing two moves ahead! But if I were to play someone who had any skill at the game at all, my lack of chess ability would very quickly show. Picture with me, if you will, three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: I'm seated across the table from the world champion of chess. The game begins. I make my first move and sit back to see what my opponent will do. The world champion chess player looks up at me with a warm smile and says, "Where would you like me to move?" I look at him with a puzzled look, "Huh?" He just smiles again. "You tell me where to move." This seems rather interesting, and so I reach over and move one of his pieces for him. He looks a little disappointed with the move I chose for him, but says nothing.

Once again, I take a turn, and wait for him to move. "That was an interesting move," he says. "Now what would you like me to move in response?" I'm liking this match quite a bit! And once again, I move one of his pieces for him. Before too long, I proudly announce, "Checkmate!" as my opponent's smile fades. A little whimper is heard as he begins to quietly gather up his belongings. The champion has been defeated!

Scenario 2: I'm seated across the table from the world champion of chess. The game begins, but before I have a chance to make my first move, my opponent reaches across the board and moves one of my pawns forward. "Hey, wait a minute!" I cry. "You can't move my pieces for me!" He smiles, "Listen, I'm the world champion chess player. I know a whole lot more about this game than you do. I'll move your pieces where I want them to go." And with that, he takes his turn.

Once again, before I even have a chance to think about my move, he reaches over and moves one of my pieces. Again, I am constrained from even having any input into the move. Eventually, he sees my frustration. "OK," he says with a seemingly sincere voice. "I'll let you move yourself, but you have to move that knight from there to here," as he points out a square on the board. "But I don't want to move that knight," I said. "You'll be able to capture it, if I do." His warm smile continues, "I know. That's my plan. Now take your turn." I reach for my bishop. "NO! You must move that knight," my opponent says forcefully. And with that, he grabs my hand, places it on the knight and moves it to the spot he had previously determined.

It doesn't take long for this game to end. And predictably, I have lost. Every move I made was determined by my opponent to bring about his desired outcome.

Scenario 3: I'm seated at a table across from the world champion of chess. Between us is a standard chess board and the game is about to begin. It all starts evenly enough. A pawn forward on my part. An answering pawn forward on his. But before very long at all, it is clear who is dominating this game. One by one, my pieces begin to leave the board. And very soon, my king is on the run. "Check", says my opponent confidently as he moves his rook parallel with my king. I quickly move my king out of danger. "Check", repeats my opponent as a bishop comes sliding in from nowhere. Where did that come from? With a little less energy, I move my king out of danger again.

And then it happens. Down the board comes his queen to corner my king. I frantically scan my options. If I move this way, I'll escape the queen for another turn. But, oops. That puts me in danger of the rook again -- can't do it. How about...nope. That bishop is waiting on the diagonal I want to move to. I've already figured it out when my opponent calmly and quietly says, "Checkmate," and the game is over.

Scenario 1 obviously represents the caricature of Arminianism that is usually portrayed by those who seek to preach against Arminianism. In that scenario, the master chess player (representing God) is incapable of winning the game because he allows me to make all the moves for him.

Scenario 2 represents the Calvinist viewpoint. In this game, the master chess player is not only capable of making winning moves, but completely determines my own moves as well.

But Scenario 3 is what I want to explore with you a bit. In this scenario, the master chess player is clearly the winner. There is not really any question that his purposes will win out over mine. That's why he's the master, and I'm not! He is able to analyze all of my possible moves, and no matter where I move, he's already figured out how to respond to it to suit his purposes. Yet he does not determine every move for me. I am free to move any of my pieces anywhere I choose to move them.

My question for you readers is this: Is this at all a reasonable analogy of how God is able to remain sovereign even while granting human beings a free will? See, from the Calvinist's perspective, if man has free will, God is powerless. Man becomes fully in control. And so, in order to preserve the character of God in their system, they feel the need to remove any trace of actual free will. "Choice" becomes re-defined to mean that you are free to choose, but God determines what you will choose. Ummm, does anyone else see a contradiction there?

Let's make one thing very clear: I do not know of anyone who believes in free will who also believes that God is not sovereign. Let's kill that straw man once and for all, please! I am trying to demonstrate in a very feeble way here that free will and the sovereignty of God do not have to be mutually exclusive.

There is more I could say about this, but for now, I'll just throw the analogy out there and see what you all think of it. Am I missing something? Is there a fatal flaw in the metaphor of God as "master chess player"? Obviously, there are areas in which the metaphor does not hold up. For example, we are not playing a game "against" God, if we are His children. God is for us, not against us! But are there problems with the metaphor that I'm missing? I look forward to your thoughts.

Until next time,

steve :)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Danger of Arrogance

Am I arrogant? Now, before my friends jump in the comments section to assure me that I'm not arrogant, let me clarify that this is a question that I am asking myself personally, and not posing to you, my readers. But a couple of incidents recently have caused me to realize this is a question we must all be willing to ask ourselves from time to time.

Sometimes, we're confident in something. That may come across as arrogant to others. Sometimes we're passionate about something, and that can come across as arrogant to others. I realize that we can't always keep others from thinking that we are arrogant, but we can make sure that we examine ourselves to make sure we aren't truly arrogant. Hopefully you'll understand what I mean as you read this post.

Several weeks ago, I had lunch with someone that I don't know very well yet. We've had some brief conversations, and decided to do lunch together. This brother in the Lord has a very sincere heart, and a maturity beyond his years. As we talked and he began to share some of his thoughts, I was impressed with the depth of his thinking. This is a guy who takes his love for the Lord seriously, and has a passion for ministry.

As the conversation continued, I began to share some of my thoughts about simple church. I shared some of my experiences and thoughts, and even tested the water with a few of my more controversial ideas. Just thinking outside the box. My regular readers know what I mean! And without realizing it, the more I shared, the more animated and passionate I got.

There were a couple of times where I had a small thought in my head, "Maybe I'm going too far here", but in my enthusiasm to share with someone so passionate about the Lord, I ignored the thought and pressed forward.

Finally, I took a breath, and he was able to get a word in edgewise. He sat back, looking a bit like he had just been run over by a Mack truck, and said, "Man, I feel like you're trying to sell me on something."

My heart sank. My mature friend went on. "I feel like you have animosity toward the church, and you're reacting against it." No, I wanted to scream. It's not that! But words came slowly.

I regained my composure and quietly said, "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to sell you on anything. This is such a passion for me that I get carried away sometimes. I'm so sorry."

The lunch ended peacefully, and I hope I get the opportunity again in the future to chat with this friend without getting so worked up at my own thoughts and ideas. But I came away from that lunch realizing that I had crossed the line into arrogance.

Here I was diagnosing all the ills of the institutional church, pronouncing the cure, and expecting everyone to just say, "Ohhh, but of course. You're right!" And meanwhile, I ignored the voice of the Spirit of God prompting me to back off and humble myself.

That's arrogance. Normally, I'm that way about it, as far as I can tell. But in that conversation, I was arrogant. And it grieved me to realize it.

You see, there's always a tendency, when we think we have the answers, to put confidence in our answers. I'm learning that there is a necessary humility, even when we are 100% certain our answer is right. (I'm not saying that I am 100% certain. I'm just saying that even with 100% certainty, humility is necessary.) It's not ever supposed to be about me. Truth comes from God, and I must recognize that every ounce of truth that I have comes from Him, and none of it is a product of a self-created ability to reason.

Another situation occurred just today that caused me to examine this issue again. This time, it wasn't me putting forth the arrogance, but it was what I perceived in others. And it reminded me that, once again, I need to watch out for the temptation to become arrogant myself.

The situation today was a post and resulting comments on another blog. Now, I realize that some who read this will know what I'm talking about, but I am not going to name names or link to the conversation directly. It was sparked by a March 5, Washington Post article about professor and author Bart Ehrman. If you haven't heard of Bart Ehrman, he is a theological professor who calls himself a "happy agnostic". He is the author of (at this time) 19 books, the best-selling of which is Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

Now, let me interject a very, very important disclaimer here: I do not endorse all of Bart Ehrman's views! I must be very clear about that, for those who stumble across this post and misunderstand. My comments here have very little to do with Bart Ehrman's views themselves, and more to do with how we respond to them. And let me also add that I have no problem whatsoever with someone disagreeing with Ehrman (or me, or anyone) and saying that he is wrong. Pointing out error is not, in and of itself, arrogance. And while I'm adding disclaimers, let me also point out that, even though Bart Ehrman is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I am on the faculty of another university in the UNC system, this has absolutely no bearing on my opinions here! ;)

The post that I read in response to the Washington Post article, however, used the term "stupidity". In what I perceived to be a sarcastic, mocking (I guess you could say it was satirical) tone, the author of the post expressed his dismay that Bart Ehrman's views would even be considered novel. The things that Bart Ehrman questions have been raised by many others before him. And, in the opinion of many Christians, they have already been successfully refuted by many. So, this particular blogger felt that it was just plain stupid for Bart Ehrman to even make a deal out of the issues presented in the Washington Post article. And he stated that it was even more stupid for people to be swayed by Ehrman's questions.

Enter the wonderful comment thread following the article. Some commenters were very fair, so I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush here. But there were several comments that caused me to feel like it went too far. Consider some of the following statements:

There are a few of us out there that actually LIKE Bible history and meaty teaching... but sadly, few.

Oh, [Ehrman is] a well educated college guy? Well, then he is a well educated, willfully ignorant unregenerate block head.

The intellectual arrogance of someone who assumes that "you'd see it my way, if you just thought about it" always baffles me.

I look at [the list of issues raised by Ehrman] and I think "Well duh. I've known this stuff, like, forever."
These kinds of attitudes (and again, not all of the commenters were presenting this attitude, but the statements above represent four different individual comments), in my opinion, cross the line into arrogance. "[W]illfully ignorant unregenerate block head"? And ironically, one even refers to Ehrman's views as "intellectual arrogance" while demonstrating the exact same attitude Ehrman is being accused of having! And boasting about how long we have known a particular truth? Folks, this is not a Christlike attitude!

Contrast these comments with the gracious words of Darrell Bock, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, as quoted in the Washington Post article:

I think Bart is writing about his personal journey, about legitimate things that bother him....I can appreciate people feel differently. But sometimes I wonder if we are not all guilty of asking the Bible to do too much.
That strikes me as someone who is able to point out the error in Ehrman's thinking (as Dr. Bock did in the part of the quote not included above), yet do so without resorting to schoolyard mockery.

This all reminds me very much of the story Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee, as you may recall, prayed with a loud voice saying, "I'm so glad I'm not like that man over there." According to Jesus, his prayer accomplished nothing in his standing before God. The NIV interestingly identifies the audience of this parable as "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (vs 9).

So, once again, I come back to asking myself the question: Am I arrogant? As I sit here and blog about the journey I've been on in the area of simple I blog about my views on various theological I share with people over my attitude one of humility and graciousness, or am I just so arrogant to think that anyone who doesn't see it my way is a "block head"? I pray that the answer will be that of humility in my life, to the glory of God.

Until next time,

steve :)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Myths About Simple Church

In the two years (or more) that my wife and I have been exploring simple church concepts, we have encountered several consistent objections and/or concerned questions about simple church. I'm not just talking about one or two times that these issues come up. I'm talking many times for some of these. Recently, a couple of them have started to surface in comments here, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to address some of the myths about simple church that I have seen.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it may even end up spanning more than one post. For the time being, though, I'm just going to address the few that are on my mind right now, and maybe address more as time goes on.

These are not directed at any one particular person, but are being put out for discussion by any and all who wish to comment. Not every thought that I express in response is necessarily original with me, but I don't necessarily have the ability (due to lack of memory!) to credit the original sources on all of these. They have, however, become my own thoughts as I've lived out some of the responses myself, and as I've wrestled with these myths in my own mind.

Myth No. 1: People who are involved in simple church have been hurt by the institutional church, and are reacting to that hurt by leaving church altogether.

While I will not deny that many of us who are in simple church have been hurt in situations in the past, I must say that my motive for pursuing simple church is not to run away from any particular situation. It may be true for many that a hurtful situation was what prompted the questions they asked themselves about church, but that is not necessarily true of everyone.

For me, the questions came separate from any hurtful situation. I had been hurt several times by abuse of authority in the institutional church, but those hurtful situations had been put to rest long before I considered anything outside the institution.

What led me to look outside the institution was much more related to a frustration with feeling like we were just going through the motions each week (I was in leadership at the time) without making any significant impact in people's lives.

Myth No. 2: Simple Churches are more susceptible to heresy

I will admit that I have no statistical evidence to support my conclusions here, but I have to say that I have yet to run across a simple church that is any more susceptible to heresy than an institutional church. There is a presupposition behind this myth that is very hard to dislodge sometimes. That presupposition is that heresy is hard to come by in a setting where you have an authoritative leader (such as in the institutional church). I don't think history would agree, however. Many times, when heresy is found, it is being taught from the pulpit or the seminary/university lectern. The reason that this is possible is because the model of leadership where one man is at the top is a situation where that one man is usually unable to be adequately questioned on his teaching.

I remember sitting in a church service where the preacher spoke something that was clearly and absolutely contrary to the Word of God. I sat there, stunned by what I had heard, and looking around to see if anyone else was uncomfortable. It seemed that no one else was. I had visions of standing up and yelling, "Heretic!" while ushers scrambled to drag me out. But, instead, I sat glued to my seat. The glue that held me down was fear. The forum offered no freedom to challenge what was being taught, and so the heresy went forth uncorrected.

Contrast that situation with times when things have been spoken in our simple church gatherings that seemed questionable or even contrary to the Word of God. In those situations, I have been able to graciously say, "But in such-and-such a passage, we read this. Wouldn't that be different than what you are saying?"

I frequently reference 1 Corinthians 14 in these discussions, because I believe that Paul has given very clear instructions on what types of activities should be happening when we gather together. And one of those principles spelled out by Paul is the "weighing" of prophecies. I interpret that to mean that when someone speaks, others have the right (the responsibility, even?) to challenge what is spoken if it appears to be in error. The flip side of challenging error is also affirming truth, and I believe this is just as necessary.

I believe that a forum such as that, where others are given the opportunity to speak actually helps prevent heresy, as opposed to promoting heresy. If all have the right to speak, and all have the right to ask questions about what is spoken, heresy can be weeded out very quickly without having any effect. Had I even been successful in speaking to that preacher in private, it would not have changed the fact that hundreds had heard the incorrect word spoken and taken it at face value. This blanket acceptance of what is spoken from the pulpit is, in my experience and opinion, much more common (and much more dangerous) than most would like to think.

Myth No. 3: Simple Churches are dangerous because they are not accountable to anyone

In all actuality, I have rarely come across any institutional church that was truly accountable to anyone. This myth seems to be somewhat of a red herring. It is true that denominational churches are somewhat accountable to their denominational leaders, but I have not seen where that accountability really plays out unless there is some blatant, public, or grievous sin being committed by the pastor. So, even in the institution, churches operate pretty autonomously. This is even more true for non-denominational churches. (When pressed for accountability, leaders of these churches often refer to some organization or leader that is not even locally located. These are generally organizations or leaders who would merely side with the local church leadership in any potential dispute, anyway, so it offers no accountability from the standpoint of the congregation being able to express concerns.)

What is missed in this myth is the understanding that all of us, whether simple or institutional, are accountable to Jesus Christ. He is the true Head of the Church, not a board or pastor or denominational heirarchy. And we have the written Word of God to be a plumbline for accountability.

Myth No. 4: Simple churches do not have biblical leaders

I can't speak for every simple church here, obviously. But, again, in my experience, I have not found a simple church yet who didn't understand the concept of elders. The major difference is that most simple church people understand that the function of the whole body is rather organic, and the guidance of mature believers (elders) happens very naturally as the body grows and matures.

With regard to the position of "pastor", it is true that most simple churches do not hire a person to function as "pastor", but this does not in any way mean that pastors do not function. On the contrary, a lot of people exploring simple church seek to see all gifts (or at least most gifts, if they're cessationists!) function in the body, not just a handful of "elite" gifts.

In other words, simple church sees pastor as just one gift among many which needs to function. And a simple church may have more than one person functioning in a pastoral gifting.

For the simple church model, it's all about function, not an office. If you're shepherding people, you're functioning as a pastor. If you frequently share thoughts from the Word and apply it, you're functioning as a teacher. If you are mature in the faith, and are able to watch over the flock and lead by example, you're functioning as an elder. Etc., etc., etc. The simple church model sees no need to hire someone to do most of the work when the body is fully capable of organically working together to get it all done.

Myth No. 5: Simple church people are "forsaking the assembling"

This myth usually surfaces if a simple church meets sometime other than Sunday morning, or meets less than once a week. However, this is completely a straw man argument. The reality is that neither the frequency of meeting, nor the type of meeting, is specified in this command not to forsake the assembling. This myth assumes that "assembling" is a particular type of gathering, but the text does not support this conclusion. My experience with simple church is that people who truly are seeking this expression of the body of Christ love to gather together, and do so in multiple ways and various schedules. In Acts 2, we read that the believers met together daily. I'm not proposing a daily meeting routine, but I simply want to make the point that by that standard, even the institutional church "forsakes the assembling" for five or six days a week (depending on whether or not they have a midweek service)! Obviously, I'm saying that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think you can see my point.

Simple church adherents are not "lone ranger Christians", but neither do we operate by a "checklist" of certain schedules we must uphold in order not to be "forsaking the assembling". Again, the key word in my mind seems to be "organic". We meet in various ways, at various times, on various schedules -- sometimes quite frequently, sometimes not so frequently. I have been part of simple church gatherings that met weekly, and I have been part of simple church gatherings that met only once or twice a month. But even between those times of gathering, there were various "assemblings" taking place in various places.

These are just five of the myths that come to my mind right now, and I think this is a good place to stop. I hope that, for those of you who are not in a similar situation as mine, these paragraphs will have shed some more light on what is going on in the simple churches. And if you have found yourself believing or repeating any of these myths, I hope this will have shown you another perspective. Any follow-up questions, comments, criticisms, contradictions, etc.?

Until next time,

steve :)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Multiplication Ministry and Maturity

There has been some great discussion in the comments section of my recent post about preaching/teaching and the resultant maturity of believers. While commenting over there, I had some thoughts that got way too lengthy for a comment, and so I am going to turn it into a post here.

The idea of multiplication is not a new one to ministry. It was one of the buzz words of the whole "church growth" movement. But I never saw it actually play out in the megachurch concept. It seemed to be something that was merely a cool word to sound superior. However, I have done some thinking about it in the past, and came back to it today in talking about the difference between a model with one preacher and lots of long-term listeners and a model of teaching with the purpose of the learner becoming a teacher themselves.

Imagine this possible scenario: New believers are taught (maybe with some preaching, maybe interactive teaching, probably a combination of both) and discipled with the goal that they would soon be able to teach others. As they reach this point of maturity, they then move into a sense of partnership with their teacher in teaching others.

The reasons I think this model fits the biblical text in so many ways are many. I don't want to spell them all out here, but maybe as the conversation continues, I'll share some of those.

There are pragmatic reasons that I think this model is better, though. Let me share some of these:

  • The pressures that are put on a pastor today (as Gordon has identified very well in the comments of the previous post) are outrageous. When one cracks under the pressure, the fallout sometimes is horrible. The bigger the church (i.e., the more people following "the man"), the bigger the fall. "De-centralizing" the teaching reduces the pressure on any one person, and also reduces the number of people directly under his teaching.
  • In contrast to the seemingly foolish reduction of people under anyone's teaching that I mention in the above point is a rapid, multiplication model of ministry as the teacher replicates himself. Some fun math:
Model 1: One pastor starting with 50 people.

Let's say this guy is phenomenal in his ability to draw new people to the church, and the church doubles each year (very unreasonable, wouldn't you think?). In just 10 years full of exciting building programs, rocking good music, books being published, and maybe a TV broadcast, the church would have 25,600 people (50, 100, 200, 400,...,12,800, 25,600). Assuming in a perfect situation that no one ever left, etc., that's 25,601 (counting the celebrity pastor!) people in the Kingdom. But that's assuming that the rate of growth stays at the unbelievable rate that we proposed, etc.

Model 2: One teacher starting with 2 disciples

Now, let's say that, instead, that one single person teaches just two other people for one year. The following year, they have both grown enough to be teachers themselves. Now, let's be continue to be conservative and say that each one only teaches two other people. After a year, those people are mature enough to teach others, and they, in turn, take on two themselves. It would be a fairly unglamorous situation. In fact, it would take four full years to even match the original 50 of the other model. There's no fancy building, no flashy worship band, no TV deal. But, after the same 10 years as we looked at the other model, how many would disciples/teachers would there be?

OK, doesn't seem like much more of a success, does it? It's not shabby, but it doesn't seem huge in comparison to the megachurch. But now, here's where it starts to really take off. In just one more year, our original megachurch with the celebrity pastor has 51,200 people coming to hear him speak, while the "just teach two a year" model yields 118,098!!

Two years later, the simple model has over one million disciples maturing in their faith and teaching others, while the megachurch hasn't even reached a quarter million.

Now, it's not all about numbers in one sense, and yet no one today would think a megachurch of a quarter million was anything but a booming success. I'm just trying to put it in perspective of how we tend to think today. But the numbers don't tell the whole story.

Imagine for a moment that the celebrity pastor of our quarter-million-member megachurch burns out and falls into some awful sin. What happens? Devastation. Disillusionment. Public scandal. The name of Christ is slandered in the news and around the water cooler. Many are feeling lost and confused.

But if our original teacher in the simple model...well, first of all, he's not going to get burned out discipling two people a year! But even if he does fall into some grievous sin, what happens? There would probably be a few of his close friends gathering around him and supporting him through repentance and recovery. Because he's got solid relationships like that. And, at the most, the two people he's currently discipling, and maybe a handful of the ones from previous years, feel hurt and upset. But the effect is minimal.

And even more importantly, the maturity of those million-plus believers would be potentially far superior to the quarter million attending the celebrity megachurch. We would have over a million teachers vs. a quarter-million pew-sitters.

There's much more I would love to write about this, but I'll just put it out there for feedback.

Until next time,

steve :)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

More on Teaching and Preaching -- Hindrance to Growth?

As I continue to look at the role of teaching and preaching in the church, I continue to wrestle with some thoughts about the role that these two activities hold, if any, in our church experience. I have not definitely proven anything in my previous posts, but I have headed in the direction of seeing preaching as more geared toward evangelistic purposes, and teaching toward discipleship. It doesn't bother me to admit that my study is inconclusive, at least as far as absolute principles being derived. And I don't want my continued use of as-yet unproven theories to be a hindrance to my readership's appreciation of these posts. But please understand that, for the time being, that is still my basic premise.

In this post, I want to examine a little more deeply the relationship of preaching (and certain types of teaching) in the church to the potential maturity of the listeners. A couple of days ago one of my dear friends, Raborn Johnson, wrote a post entitled "Who's the Priest?". In it, Raborn talks about the "clergy/laity" distinction, and the problems associated with such a distinction. A particular comment he made caught my eye. He wrote:

It seems to me that the role of a professional minister impedes the growth of the rest of the Body and contributes to many believers remaining in an infantile state of Christianity. Instead of letting God flow through me to others (and vice-versa), I pay someone to "do the work of the ministry" in my place.
It is this hindrance to maturity that I believe expresses my biggest concern about the structure we often utilize in our institutional approach to church. And, like Raborn, it was this observation that led me to first question what we are attempting to accomplish in church. Let's unpack this whole thing a bit, and see what we can find.

For the purposes of this post, I am sort of muddying the waters between "preaching" and "teaching" because this is the current state of the institutional church. Much as I have tried to separate the two (and several commenters on my previous posts have agreed that there should be a distinction), the reality is that for the most part, they are used interchangeably in the context of the institutional church. And so, in the typical "Sunday morning sermon", the congregation believes that they are being "taught", and that this teaching is crucial to their sense of maturity in Christ. And, to be fair, many preachers do more "teaching" than "preaching" in their sermons.

However, what does the Scripture say about the role of teaching in the ongoing life of the believer? Let's look at two Scripture verses that mention this.

First up is Hebrews 5:12. In the context of verses 11-14, we read (with verse 12 in bold):

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
There are a couple of things I want to point out about this analogy. First of all, the author of Hebrews seems to believe that maturity in Christ means that one is able to be a teacher of others. This is something that I rarely see emphasized in our churches today. We are told that we must evangelize others, but usually the emphasis is on getting them to come to church with us. In that sense, we fail to become teachers ourselves, but rather rely on the preacher teaching the newcomers or new converts.

Another thing to notice in this Hebrews passage is the progression from milk to solid food. I don't want to stretch the analogy too far here (or at least not further than is warranted by the text), but I do think that perhaps we can learn something from the analogy being used. When a baby is born, he is incapable of eating/digesting solid food. That baby requires milk. Everyone understands this part. As the child begins to grow, eventually his mother is able to feed him solid food, and the young child is capable of digesting it. Everyone understands this part, too. And I'm sure all of us agree on the need for Christians to move past being fed milk to being fed solid food.

However, this is where I want to point out something in the analogy. As a child continues to grow, he becomes (or should become) capable of feeding himself. Is that too much of a stretch for this analogy? Why else would the writer say that by this time his readers should be teachers?

Let's look at another verse that says something similar, but gives us even more insight. Here is 1 John 2:27:

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.
Again, we see the idea that we "do not need anyone to teach" us. John says that the anointing that we have received from Jesus will teach us all things. This sounds a lot like what John wrote in his gospel (John 16:13) when he wrote, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." So, it seems to me that there should be a maturing process whereby the believer learns to receive teaching from the Holy Spirit and does not have to rely on teaching from a man in order to live life in Christ.

Teachers are originally taught by others, but there is a real point where a teacher needs to "own" the information himself before he is capable of effectively transmitting that information to others. Both of the passages being referenced here indicate a point of maturity where the one being taught begins to "own" the information, and is then able to teach others.

How would we view the maturity of someone who never completed their high school diploma, yet day after day attended high school classes and sat through the material being taught? Would we think of them as mature, simply because they were in their 20th year of going through the 12th grade? Hardly! Yet, we view Christians that way. They can sit in a pew for all their life, listening to the same sermons from the same preacher, over and over, and yet we will call them mature, just because they've been doing it a long time! They may be fully incapable of teaching others, though.

It is this true maturity (the ability to teach others and not require constant teaching themselves) that I believe is hindered when we operate within a system that emphasizes the word of one man (human preacher) and gives it center stage and full spotlight on a very regular basis. And it is the stunting of the growth of the individual believers that should cause us to question whether or not we should be highlighting such a practice as monologue-style preaching week in and week out.

Now, several of my regular commenters (and Gordon and Ray, you know I have a great deal of respect for both of you, and love you as my brothers) have said in past comments that they believe there is a place for this kind of preaching in the church. So let me open it up to you guys and anyone else who wants to answer. What is the place of preaching in the church, and how can we free people up to grow in maturity beyond the point of regularly sitting under someone's teaching? Or, for that matter, do you think I'm way off base in even implying that we should not be spending many years of our lives listening to another human teacher? Lengthy comments are not a problem, but if any of you would prefer to post a reply on your own blog, that's fine, too. Just post a link to your reply in one of the comments here so we all know to come read it!

Until next time,

steve :)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Rights and Privileges of Sonship

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. -- Romans 8:15-16 (NIV)

These verses took on a whole new meaning for me this past week. On Wednesday, May 4, I received a notice from the Clerk of the Superior Court of Watauga County informing me that my stepson is now legally my son. As of May 1 (which also happened to be my birthday -- what a great birthday present!), the adoption process that we had begun last August was completed, and the notice I received on Wednesday was a copy of the court order.

Apart from the excitement that I felt from knowing it was finally complete, and the joy that came from knowing that this adoption was something my son had requested, there was a new awareness of a spiritual truth that swept over me.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, chose the metaphor of adoption to describe the relationship that we have to our heavenly Father. Now, that is nothing new to those of us who have grown up in Christian environments. I've known for years that I was "adopted" by God. But I have to admit that I never really thought about all that was meant by that.

I've known people who were adopted. I have a niece and a nephew who both are adopted. And while I've understood it as something special, I didn't fully realize the ramifications. I saw it as parents loving a child enough to take care of them and provide for them, but didn't look at it from the child's perspective. Until now...

Allow me to quote a portion of this Decree of Adoption that I received in the mail:

NOW THEREFORE, it is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed by the Court:

(1) That from the date of the entry of this Decree herein, the said minor is declared adopted for life by the petitioner(s) ... and the State Registrar of Vital Records shall make a new birth certificate for said child...;

(2) That the Decree of Adoption effects a complete substitution of families for all legal purposes and establishes the relationship of parent and child, together with all the rights, responsibilities, and duties, between each petitioner and the individual being adopted;

(3) That from the date of this Decree of Adoption, the adoptee is entitled to inherit real and personal property by, through, and from the adoptive parents in accordance with the statues on intestate succession and has the same legal status, including all legal rights and obligations of any kind whatsoever, as a child born the legitimate child of the adoptive parents;

(4) That the Decree of Adoption severs the relationship of parent and child between the individual adopted and that individual's [father]....
Now, in the midst of all that legal language are some really awesome things that I want to point out here and draw some spiritual parallels.

Note that my son will actually receive a new birth certificate that reflects his new name. This is the part that excited me so much in thinking of my relationship to God. Think about it. My son is 13 years old. I have only been in his life since he was 10. He has been my stepson for a little less than two years, and as of the writing of this post, my son for only six days. Yet his birth record will now show my last name! It's as if we are able to go back in time and I actually am his father at his birth. A verse that we recently looked at on this blog seems very fitting here: 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV) says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" When we place our trust in Christ, God issues us a new birth certificate (in fact, Jesus referred to this in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that we must be "born again").

Secondly, note the establishment of the relationship between me and my son, and the final separation of the relationship between him and his biological father. (The rights of his biological father were terminated over a year ago, but this decree affirms that to an even deeper level.) Specifically, there is a "complete substitution" of my son's position from his former father's family to my family. Before we came to Christ, who was our father? John 8:44 tells us that it was the devil. But once we have been "born again" and adopted into God's family, John 1:12 tells us that we are now children of God. There has been a "complete substitution of families"! Praise God!!

The final element I want to note is that my son now is "entitled to inherit" from me. Now, this is rather comical at this present point in time, because I have very little for him to physically inherit! ;) But the spiritual truth of it is profound. In Christ, we are heirs with Christ to all that the Father has to give.

I'm so grateful for the privilege of adopting my son. But I am even more grateful for the privilege I have of being adopted by God. What an awesome privilege that is!

Until next time,

steve :)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Welcome to a New Blogger

One of my dear friends "in real life", Raborn Johnson, has recently taken the plunge into simple church. I'm excited for him! And I'm even more excited (if that's possible) to welcome him to the world of blogging.

Take a moment to visit Ray's X-Change, if for no other reason than to see a crazy picture of him on Monday Night Football! But seriously, add him to your Favorites or Bloglines, or whatever, so you can read his thoughts in the days/weeks/months to come.

Raborn, welcome, bro. I hope you'll start commenting here, too, in addition to your own writing.

Until next time,

steve :)