The Importance of a Genitive in Your Practical Theology of Church

thiseltonWhile it’s easy to gloss over the introductions to Paul’s letters in everyday reading, virtually every commentator would say that’s a disastrous approach to reading Paul. The Apostle is very careful in making every phrase count, setting the theological stage for his later corrections and encouragement to whatever church he happens to be addressing. The intros and thanksgivings are like theological overtures dropping hints at themes to be developed at length in the broader symphony of Paul’s argument.

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthian church in this way:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Though there are many riches to be gleaned from this particular intro, the phrase that caught my eye in my study this week was this little genitive ekklesia tou theou; the first thing Paul calls the Corinthian gathering of believers is “the church of God.” Anthony Thiselton notes in his massive commentary that this phrase is ‘possessive’. Paul will say many other things about the believers in Corinth, but the first thing he tells them is this: you are God’s. Thiselton continues:

The church, Paul insists, belongs not to the wealthy, or to the “patrons,” or to some self-styled inner circle of “spiritual people who manifest gifts,” but to God. –The First Epistle to the Corinthians (pg. 73)

It pays to reflect on that reality. At the risk of exaggeration, I’d say that most of the current pathologies plaguing our current church practices, or at least the worst ones–consumerism, over-authoritarianism, individualism, pragmatism, etc–have their root in the fact that we have forgotten to observe this little genitive: “of God.”

How often do think of the Church as something other than the body which God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28)? How often have we thought of our church primarily in terms of the fact that it’s the place we’ve grown up? Or the church ‘I’ve decided to attend’? Or, the ‘building I helped pay for’? Or in terms of its denominational affiliation? Or how many times have we asked “oh, whose church is that up the way” with its pastor in mind?

Or even more, pastors, how often have we let that attitude creep into our own thought? Have we slipped into the attitude of confusing our call to a congregation with our possession of a congregation? Do we tend forget that we are but ministers of the Gospel, not its authors? Are we constantly remembering that we are but construction managers under the great Architect and Lord of the house? That we are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd and owner of the flock?

Whatever else we might say of the Church universal, or the local body that instantiates is, Paul reminds us that first and foremost we must recognize it as God’s. Any other description insofar as it is uttered apart from this confession is thereby transformed into falsehood. We are his inheritance, accomplishment, and achievement. He has called us, redeemed us, and sanctified us for himself. The Church’s existence is to, by, and for Him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.

“Do I Have To Go To Church to Be a Christian?” A Few Rough Thoughts

church“Do I really have to go to church to be a Christian?”

I think just about every Christian has either asked or been asked that question at some point in their time in the faith. For reasons too numerous to list right now, we live in a non-committal age about these things. We’re busy with our work lives, schedules, amusements, children’s sports, video games, sleep, and so forth. What’s more, generally speaking, religion is generally a private matter for Americans, and so when we hear that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, we tell ourselves that means “private” and nobody else’s business, certainly not that bunch of strangers up the street at church.

On top of that, Evangelicals with a youth-group level understanding of justification by faith tend to think that to require something like church attendance is a denial of grace itself. The question of whether or not salvation is riding on church attendance turns into the idea that it’s sort of an optional add-on.

As the issue’s been on my mind a lot lately, yet without any real, over-arching thesis, I thought I’d simply offer up an assortment of rough-shot answers sort of cobbled together in order to deal with the initial question. So here goes.

Obedience 

The other day, someone asked Tim Keller in a Twitter Q&A, “Can a person be a Christian without being a member of a church?” to which he responded:

The text in question reads:

 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Heb. 13:17)

The point is very simple. In the Bible, Christians are commanded to submit and listen to the elders and deacons (pastors, etc) whose job it is to guide, guard, and love them. Well, if you’re not a member of a church that has those leaders, you can’t very well submit to them now can you? The implication is that everyone who has professed faith in Christ is also simultaneously a part of a local body of believers. (For 11 more reasons membership matters, see here.)

The same point could be made with respect to attendance in the local body:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)

The, seemingly, clear command of Scripture is that believers are supposed to be regularly gathering together for the express purpose of encouraging on another, stirring each other up to love and good works in the Lord. Sounds a lot like going to church, doesn’t it? If you read the rest of the New Testament, the assumption seems to be the same. There’s no contingencies imagined where a Christian would be profitably separated off from the body for a time. Indeed, simply asking the question, “What would Paul or John say about the necessity of gathering with believers in worship?” makes the whole thing rather obvious.

Still, yes, theoretically, I’d agree you can be a Christian, be regenerate, and so forth, and not currently be in regular attendance in church. But, and this is Keller’s point, there is no way you can claim to be a Christian who is actually trying to obey Jesus and grow in godliness without it. What’s more, you can’t say you’re striving to love Jesus either. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), which include those delivered by his apostles in the NT.

And here’s the kicker, the point where my “yes, but you’re not obedient” turns into a “maybe not.” John tells us that those who are born of God don’t “make a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9), or disobeying God’s commands. In other words, while we may struggle with sin, believers will not set themselves in long-term hostility to God’s commands. Yet if we continue to look at God’s commands to gather with other believers and say, “You know, I see what it says, but I don’t agree, and I’m not going to obey because I don’t think it’s necessary”, there’s a real chance that disobedience is evidence of a lack of saving faith. If you’re a believer who is no longer hostile to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), the commands of God exert a force that, in the long-term. leads to greater obedience. In which case, one way or another, your butt’s gonna end up back in the pew.

4 More Reasons

The other day I wrote a piece on “dating advice” for Christians. Essentially I said that one of the key markers of a godly relationship was your commitment to the other person’s involvement in the local body. I then listed four reasons why you want your significant other seated in the pews weekly. It turns out they’re just good reasons to go to church in general, so here they are in an abridged form:

  1. Sit under Real Preaching. I don’t have the kind of space necessary to speak of the manifold benefits of sitting under regular preaching, but I’ll list a few.
    1. First, it convicts of sin and humbles us before Christ. A heart that doesn’t submit to listening to the law will be hardened against any call to repentance…
    2. Second, it reminds us of the gospel. Unless regularly reminded of the grace of Christ, the heart will begin to sink into sin, go into hiding, and find its deepest affirmation in things other than Christ…
    3. Third, the Word of God truly preached brings us by the power of the Spirit into the presence of Christ.
    4. Finally, we need to hear an outside word that we can’t quickly rationalize, twist, distort, or ignore.
  2. Meet with Other Believers…
  3. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Whether you’re a Baptist, Anglican, or Presbyterian, you want to be regularly reminded that Christ alone is the source of spiritual life—he died, rose again, and our union with him is the only true food for your soul. We need to feast on this truth regularly, or we will be tempted to draw strength from other, lesser sources… (Additional note: this one, more than any other, simply cannot take place outside the regular gathering. Scripture expects we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper with other believers in a community that knows your confession.)
  4. Worship God Alone. Our souls need worship. Yes, everything we do under the sun is worship. Work is worship. Play is worship. Sleep is worship. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the corporate gathering of the people of God, in receiving the supper and lifting our voices in song, prepares and shapes the desires of our hearts to focus on God throughout the whole week.

Can’t v. Won’t 

At this point an objection should be noted: “What if you can’t get to church? What if you live in a country that doesn’t have any churches?”

Well, then I’d say we’re dealing with a very special case. I think there is a very real difference between “can’t” and “won’t”, though. Sometimes we think we can’t, when the real issue is that we won’t. For many of us, we “can’t”, not because there are no churches around, but because there are no churches that we like around. We either don’t like the vibe (too big, too small, too old), or maybe something more valid such as issues with the theology (too Reformed, too Wesleyan, too Dispensationalist.) Still, going by the state of the churches Paul was writing to in the New Testament (debauchery, random heretics running around, etc.) the gathering of the body is so important that even some (very) serious flaws, let alone preference issues, shouldn’t be an obstacle to meeting together.

Now, if you’re actually in an area with literally no churches and no possibility of getting to one, then, that’s a different story. I also think there are some tragic situations, where after spiritual abuse, some time in therapy and a little space to heal, including a temporary break from more formal attendance, can be appropriate*. That said, according to the New Testament, this is far from ideal or normative. The person in the US looking for a reason to not have to go to Church can’t really build a theological argument based on that one guy on an island somewhere who doesn’t have an option. Really, the more that I think about it, unless you manage to move into an area with no churches as a missionary, it’s unlikely you’re going to come to faith without at least one or two other believers around that you can meet up with regularly.

On that point, my buddy Gavin Ortlund had a stunning point in his review of a book that’s actually entitled How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church:

The fact that cultural trends function with theological authority for Bean may explain why some of the reasons she provides for abstaining from church feel self-indulgent (not to mention rather Western and suburban). At one point she observes, “The effort it takes for over-committed, overextended people to get to a 90-minute service or give time to programs and church events can be too much. Sometimes staying home on a Sunday morning seems like the best way to remain sane” (57). In earlier times in Christian history, and in other places of the world today, believers risk their very blood in order to worship together. This is the mandate of Hebrews 10:25, where in a time of persecution “not neglecting to meet together” is part and parcel with holding fast to the faith.

I feel grieved and embarrassed wondering how Christians outside the contemporary West—Christians who walk a dozen miles to meet with their church, or who meet underground for a 10-hour service—would feel about the idea that sitting in an air-conditioned sanctuary for 90 minutes is just too difficult.

Gavin’s right on the money. There are believers around the world who risk their lives to meet in secret with 4 or 5 other believers in an apartment to read the Scriptures and sing to Jesus no louder than a whisper, while we complain that Sunday morning is “the only day I get to sleep in, you know?” This is hardly “take up your Cross and follow me” stuff we’re talking about.

Inertia and Magic Neutral Time

Make no mistake, this is an urgent matter. This is not the kind of thing where you can say, “You know, I know it’s important, but I just can’t get to it right now. When things calm down, then I’ll make time to gather.” When you do this, you’re operating on the “magic neutral time” principle:

…that faith is unchanging, timeless, and perennial. Your walk with Jesus is something you can leave alone for a while and, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, pick up again. “Neutral time” is like calling timeout so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game; when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left off last.

I call this explanation “magic” because basically nothing else in life works this way. If I decided, “You know, for the next few months, I’m not going to watch my diet or work out or take vitamins or anything. Then I’ll just pick it up again and be right back where I am now.” If I think that’s how it will work, I’d be sorely deluded.

See, when it comes to the spiritual life, inertia is a real thing. It’s kind of like the gym. One week off here and there is fine. It happens. But when one week off becomes two, two becomes a month, a month becomes a year, and so on. The less you go, the more you become accustomed to the time, or fill it in with other things, or things like guilt and shame start weighing in and make thing the thought of going even more oppressive. This is not an exaggeration; I’ve seen this many, many times, and it has long-term, wide-spread effects throughout your life, beginning with your relationship with Jesus.

Conclusion

I suppose this post has served more of a negative purpose. Not in the sense that my tone was super negative, but that I didn’t spend quite as much time making a positive case for the beauty, goodness, and blessings of membership and regular worship, so much as ruling out a number of unhelpful ways of thinking about the issue. Ah well. While the positive case should be given priority (and, indeed, forms most of the bulk of the New Testament’s witness about the necessity of the Church), planting the seed, so to speak, sometimes you need to clear the brush too.

While we could go on for a few more pages here, you get the point. “Can you be a Christian and not go to church?” I suppose the better question is, “What kind of Christian are you trying to be?”

Soli Deo Gloria

*To those who have been harmed in church, I know your pain is real. My sister is an MFT who loves to give care to those who have been wounded in the church. Let me put it this way, though, if you’ve ever been harmed by medical malpractice, eventually you have to go back to the doctor to have him fix what the first one damaged, right? There are healthy churches out there, ones that can deal compassionately and graciously with the wounded and bring the healing words of Jesus to bear on your life.

Dating Advice You Actually Need (TGC)

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man’s of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)

At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there’s really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there’s no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.

Still, over the years I’ve come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other’s involvement in the local church.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

After the Disco (Or, Some Augustinian Reflections on a Trip to Vegas)

vegas anniversaryThis last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.

Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.

Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.

after the disco 2After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”

I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.

  • Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
  • Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
  • Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
  • Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.

I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.

It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.

StAugustineUse and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:

Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.

–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).

As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.

The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.

This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.

Three shorter observations.

Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.

People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.

Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.

So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

Experts: “Wanna read faster? Read more.”

booksEvery once in a while a student of mine will ask me how I’ve gotten to read the books I do at the rate I do. While I don’t think I’m an extraordinarly fast reader, I will say that I’ve gotten faster over time. A book that would have taken me a month back when I was starting my theological studies now might take me a week or two.

Why is that?

I assure you, I haven’t taken any speed-reading classes, or begun using any specialized apps (although I am quite excited about the possibilities for Spritz). Apparently, it’s simply because I’ve been reading for a while. In other words, it’s called expertise:

In their forthcoming bookMake It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

You can read more about it here.

I’ll say, as I read this description for myself, I can recognize the claims Roediger and McDaniels are claiming in my own reading habits. This chunking and deep knowledge is what allows you to read the 10th book on a given subject, even if it’s much harder than the first you read, at a much quicker speed. So, for me, when reading about the atonement, I already know what’s going on in the debates about propitiation and ‘expiation’, in which case I can anticipate a number of the points being made. And yet, in a book on the finer points of ecclesiastical polity, I probably have to go slower since I’ve spent far less time parsing those issues. In other words, if I’m not constantly going to the dictionary to look up words, or re-read my highlights, I can go quicker.

All that to say, if you want to get faster at reading on a given subject at a higher comprehension rate, the best thing you can do is just keep reading about it. Go figure.

Maybe start with the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria