Monday, September 8, 2008

Apostasy, then and now

I recently had an email conversation with my good friend Chuck. We were discussing various issues surrounding the Church in the 21st Century, and I thought some of that might be worth sharing here.

 O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of face, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness; for we have rebelled against him; neither have we obeyed the voice of Jehovah our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.  (Daniel 9: 7--10, ASV)

I've repeatedly made the claim that the Church is apostate.  What I mean by that is, the Church as a whole has left what the Scripture teaches, and has gone off on her own. I am convinced the Scripture foretold this: Christ and the Apostles predicted general falling-away, "when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8, ASV)  I am further convinced that the Epistles build on this theme, so there is a general downward trend in them.
This is what "brethren" mean when they talk about the "ruin of the Church". You see, I am still dispensationalist.

But over the last couple years, I've begun to question the "brethren" response to the ruin they saw. I think it's fair to say they've generally responded to apostasy (real or perceived) by trying to separate from it in a corporate sense; and I am not at all sure (anymore) that is the Biblical course of action.

I start in Daniel 9, because Daniel 9 is to me the ultimate apostasy chapter. It's the prayer of Daniel when he looks into the prophets (specifically into Jeremiah), sees the Lord predicted a 70 year captivity, and realizes it's been 70 years since Jerusalem was taken. Daniel realizes the the Babylonian Captivity is coming to a close, and he responds by covering himself in sackcloth and ashes and praying what is probably the longest prayer of repentance in the Scripture.

Daniel 9 is well worth examining, but I want to point out what is to me the most outstanding feature: Daniel was personally guilty of none of the things he confessed. Daniel himself had not committed the idolatries and immoralities he confessed; he had been only a boy when taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and had an impeccable track record when in Babylon. Further, he was decidedly separated from the rest of Israel while in Babylon. But despite his personal blamelessness in the sins he confesses, he insists on saying "we".

I find this striking, because my experience in "brethren" has been precisely that they see themselves as somehow blameless in the current state of things, because they "walk in separation".  But Daniel---one of only a couple men of whom the Scripture records not one sin---falls to his knees and says "we".

This is the great failure of "brethren" in my mind: that having seen the deplorable state of the Church, they have refused to humble themselves and confess it as "we". They've been quick to separate from sin they see, even if it means separating from other Christians; one would think that might mean they understand the seriousness of sin. But they have refused to acknowledge that we are all One Body, what one member does, all feel. Their fine-tuned rules of fellowship and separation have sprung from an admirable sense of wanting to avoid evil: but they have failed to see the big picture; we are in this together.

There are practical concerns, of course---there is a difference between attending a church that has openly apostasized and attending one where the Word of God is still respected.  And on the other side of the coin, "brethren" are pretty much guilty of the same things they have "separated" over. I have personally heard reports from various "brethren" assemblies of all the evils we condemn in everyone else. There is, as I have said before, not a lot of point in "leaving the camp" just so we can set up an exact replica of it elsewhere.

But all that aside, I have come to question whether Scripture actually teaches that we can just wash our hands of the Church and the problems therein and set up our own new lump. It seems that we have spent a good deal of the last 200 years arguing that those sins aren't our problem, we've separated from them. But I look at Daniel, and I have to say that wasn't his reaction. Daniel got on his knees and confessed the sins he saw as if he himself had committed them

I notice also that Daniel makes no effort to distance himself from the group. He doesn't point to his (very real) separation from Israel and argue that he's left the camp. He doesn't decide he's going to henceforth be a new denomination of Israelite. No, he identifies completely with Israel, without any qualification or caveats

So I have to ask, when we look around and see apostasy, do we confess it as our sin? Or do we attempt to claim innocence on the grounds that we have left the camp? Worse, do we leave and set up our own group, only to do the very same things we claim to have eschewed?

"Brethren" history pretty much declares that is exactly what happened.

When I look in the last seven Epistles (Revelation 2 & 3) I see the same thing. I see that every church in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicea---every church---has an "overcomer". They are in Thyatira and Laodicea just as certainly as they are in Philadelphia. And interestingly, not one word is said to hint that the overcomer in Thyatira or Laodicea should leave and go over to Philadelphia. Not one word. The overcomer is a fixture in each church: the one overcoming in Thyatira keeps overcoming in Thyatira. The one overcoming in Philadelphia keeps overcoming in Philadelphia.

But when I think back over my 20 years with "brethren" I see a repeated message that overcoming means leaving them and coming to join us. This is not Scripture: it is merely arrogance.

I'm more and more becoming convinced that the real purpose of an assembly---any assembly---is a place to worship the Lord. It's where I go to worship and remember Him.  In principle, I'm not there because I agree with the doctrinal statement, nor because I like and get along with the people. I'm there because He is there.

And to quote "brethren", if two are three are there, gathered in His name, then He is there too (cf. Matthew 18:20).

So I've started to see that doctrine is not unimportant, but it is far from all-important. There is a very real sense where my personal walk with the Lord ought not to be completely tied into the gathering where I worship. He is there, so I go there to worship Him.

The corollary to that is, that I don't prop up my faith on the group. I walk with Him, and then with them. Yes, there is mutual comfort, love, and encouragement with one another. But the primary relationship is vertical, not horizontal.

I'm starting to see that true Christianity is essentially apostasy-proof. That one who is justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) is irrevocably His. The eternal life that the Son shares with us is not some fragile thing that we need to jealously protect. It's bigger than that.  

Do we withdraw from iniquity? Of course we do! I am not suggesting we throw it all away in a glorious gesture of Antinomianism. But I am starting to think that the Scripture calls for us to walk with Him first where we are. Like Daniel, we're not free to just take our ball and go home: we need to take our place in His work down here. And that might well mean sitting in a place with a name over the door that makes us a little queasy.

In the 21st Century, we have a problem Timothy didn't have: he was in Ephesus and there was only one Church. I completely agree there were probably many gatherings in Ephesus, but they were all "in fellowship". There was only one church in Ephesus, though it may have met in many different places. But the point is, Timothy didn't have to choose a church.

Today, there is a multitude of places that claim to be a church in the city. Some of them are utterly blasphemous, some are relatively faithful. That means I'm perhaps over-simplifying a little. Since there is actually some choice, perhaps I ought to choose something better, right? 

And I think that is probably true. But once I was looking for the perfect assembly: now I am looking to see where the Lord wants me to worship. That's not at all the same thing, and I frankly have no idea what that will look like.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


It occurred to me the other day, I can sum up my entire life in two lessons:

  1. the first 2/3 of my life were spent learning I am not a good person

  2. the last 1/3 has been spent learning that God is

That's certainly a summing-up: some might even call it an oversimplification. But I think that's basically all I've managed to learn in 36 years: God is good, I am not.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Just for the record

A year ago, I wrote about being "Post Brethren" (I revised and reposted that entry: it was originally posted in March).  I talked about how I was in 95% agreement with "exclusive brethren" about things, but the system we had built up was getting in the way of living those things out. I listed some things I thought were significant that "brethren" and I agreed on. The list included:
  • the Lord Jesus is present wherever "two or three are gathered in [His] Name".
  • denominational titles are essentially wrong.
  • clergy/laity distinction is a denial of the Headship of Christ.
  • there is only one Body, and membership in anything other than the One Body is sectarianism.
  • the Lord's Supper ought to be observed weekly and unscripted.
  • the directives about women being silent in the meetings, headcoverings, etc. are for today, and are to be taken literally.

Then I wrote about the Gospel of God. I claimed the Gospel as taught in Scripture is clear: there is nothing to do, there is only something to believe. There is no need for baptism (it's important, but it doesn't justify us), there is no need to live a better life. We are justified in God's sight by simply believing Him. And once justified, there is no way to become unjustified.

And then, a little while later, I wrote about Dispensationalism. I claimed Christians are not bound to keep the Mosaic Law, not even the Ten Commandments. 

It's been a year... a long year, an eventful year. In that year, I actually walked away from the "exclusive" assembly where I had been in fellowship. I visited one or two assemblies/churches, and spent several months at an Anglican church, and I finally (reluctantly) concluded that wouldn't work. I've made some friends, and possibly lost others... some of that is my fault, some isn't.

It's been quite a year.

My involvement in the Anglican church was a significant part of my twisty path. I was never more than a visitor there, albeit a long-term visitor.  It was obviously running counter to many of the points I made above, many of the things I said I still believed. There was a certain lack of integrity on my part in claiming to believe one thing while doing another.  I had to re-examine those things. I had to see if I really had been right to make such dogmatic statements.

I started investigating by deciding my one authority had to be Scripture. Tradition ("brethren", Anglican, or otherwise) might be helpful, but it isn't authoritative, and it sure isn't sufficient

And after a few weeks of discussion (here and elsewhere) and checking Scripture, I've come to a conclusion: 

I was.

I'm still working out the implications of that.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I grew up with various men and women of God frequently hanging out with my parents. I've met, spoken with, and listened to preaching from some monumental folks. No one really famous, but people who obviously spent a lot of time with God.

My cynical side started questioning a few years ago, whether it wasn't so much that they were giants in the Scripture; as it was that I was young and impressionable. So when I found MP3 recordings online of some of the people I met in my living-room, I listened to several of them somewhat eagerly: I wanted to get a sense whether they were as insightful as I remembered.

They were.

That brought up a question in my mind: if the memories of the teaching of the Word of God I have from my childhood and early adulthood are accurate (and apparently they are)... then why don't I see and hear that same sort of teaching and preaching now?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Expository Preaching

There's a new church gathering not five minutes from my apartment. I went to check out their website today, and it starts out:
Welcome to the website of Creekside Bible Church. As a new church plant in the Matthews area we are a community of believers in Christ Jesus who are passionate for the glory of God. We are committed to Expository preaching and exist to worship God, edify and equip the saints, and evangelize the lost.
Isn't that interesting? The first thing they want you to know about their gathering is, they are passionate about the Father and the Son. The second is, they believe in expository preaching. Obviously this is an important idea to them; and it seems they're not alone: more and more I hear Christians either extolling the virtues of expository preaching, or even laying that out as a main mark of a "good" church. In fact, I have a very dear, very close friend who really gets into the "expository preaching" thing. 
But with all respect to my close friend, I'm not a fellow enthusiast for expository preaching. And please don't think I'm writing this to beat on my buddy, I'm just using him as a foil to make my point. In fact, he might well agree with me on a lot of this...
In theory, expository preaching is a good thing, because it's all about treating the Scripture as a whole in context. The idea is, it allows Scripture to speak, rather than looking through Scripture for proof texts to prop up whatever point the preacher wants to make. There is a lot to be said for that.
But on the whole, I think expository preaching is over-rated. That's not to say I think it's bad, not by any stretch. In fact, I think it's a very good thing to work one's way through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. My disagreement comes in the focus, in the hype.

My problems with the hype on expository teaching (not necessarily expository preaching itself) can be summed up as follows:
First, there is no Biblical precedent for a focus on expository teaching. As James Martin has pointed out: "The fact that there is not one example of expository preaching in the New Testament and only one in the Old Testament would mean that, according to these people, Christ, the apostles and the prophets didn't know how to teach." (James Martin, "Biblical Teaching")  The vast majority of preaching and teaching we see in Scripture is topical: all the Epistles, all of Christ's sermons, all the apostolic teaching we have on record, it's all topical. Now please understand I'm not saying that expository preaching is wrong, I am saying it is by no means common in Scripture. In fact, it is almost unknown in Scripture.

Second, the whole idea of  a focus on expository preaching infers that the main reason for a gathering is teaching. I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but let me give the carcass a few more lashes: teaching-focused gathering leads to an intellectual Christianity. The intellect has a place in Christianity (there's a reason I have invested large sums of money in books and commentaries), but it is by no means the sum of the Christian life. Equating doctrinal teaching with Christianity  is like comparing a marriage to a one-night stand: no doubt marriage involves physical intimacy, but that is only a tiny part of the whole. Christianity that is reduced to an intellectual assent of certain doctrines, dogmas, or teachings is nothing more than resurrected Pharisaism. We ought to gather to worship and meet with God, not to get a mini-seminar. Teaching is part of what ought to be going on in the church, but it's only part. To characterize a church based on this one thing is silly and even dangerous.

Third, the focus on expository preaching implies a lack of individual study and discipline in the Scriptures. It implies a passive role on the part of the congregation in their own doctrinal feeding and growth. In the end, it's the responsibility of each Christian to dive into Scripture. We have an opportunity that was not even thought of for the vast majority of the history of the Church: individuals own copies of the Scripture. With this privilege comes the very real responsibility to make use of that. I own several Bibles, I need to ensure I do my best to wear them out.  But as I've listened to various advocates of expository preaching wax eloquent on its benefits, I've come to realize that there is an underlying assumption: if we don't give it to them here, they won't get it. If that is indeed the case, then it would be a much better use of time to explain to the congregation exactly what their responsibility in Scripture is.

Finally, the Scriptures themselves advocate searching the Scriptures. Again, this is primarily an individual thing; but if the constant emphasis and hype is about the value of expository preaching, do you really think the individuals will be convinced of the need to search the Scriptures?  

Now, let's remind ourselves that I'm not kicking against expository preaching: I'm kicking against the hype. I personally deeply value the times I sat in a Bible Reading, going through a book word-by-word with the assembly. There is significant value to that. Further, I am a huge advocate of through-the-Bible reading. I think one of  the most valuable things I have done is read my Bible from Genesis to Revelation, then start over. It gave me a much-needed wide-angle view of  Scripture I could not have gotten from reading any other way. I am currently off-schedule on my reading, and I frequently take a day or two to just read an Epistle or something; but I strongly encourage people to read their Bible cover-to-cover several times. It makes a difference.

In the end, no teaching---no matter how sound---is going to substitute for individual walk with the Lord. Piety is individual, we approach God as individuals, and are treated by Him as such. No church, no matter what format they use, or the style of preaching there, can replace an individual walk with the Lord.  
So let's consider some anti-hype. 
Is preaching part of what the Church should do? As I read Scripture, I see a good deal of preaching, but it's almost entirely to outsiders. I see teaching in the Church, preaching to the lost. Now, I see nothing in Scripture to say we ought not to preach in the gathering, but that's not the Biblical focus.  However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that preaching is valid in the gathering.  Does Scripture give us an idea what that should look like? The only example I see is 1 Corinthians 14. You know I love this passage, I refer to it constantly. 1 Corinthians 14 indicates a couple points about assembly teaching: first, there were many teachers, and apparently they were all frequently speaking. Second, they each came with something, and the decision of who was to speak appears to have been somewhat spontaneous. Third, they actually changed places part-way through the meetings.

This is not a format conducive to  expository preaching.

Is expository preaching or teaching bad? Of course not! but there are dangers in it that are frequently ignored. One danger is the "let's take it slow so we don't miss anything" problem. If you've ever been in a home Bible study, you might have seen this one. I once sat in a Bible Reading where the older guys argued for an entire hour how much time passed between Paul's arrival in Asia and his meeting Lydia. That was basically a waste of an hour. I've heard expository preachers try to give background to a book, wasting a lot of time on questions that are really only anciliary. Does it matter where Paul was when he wrote Ephesians, or how long after his visit there it was written? Maybe. Is it worth spending an hour on that, when the actual words of God are right there on the page, waiting to be read? Probably not.

There's a reason people write books on this stuff. A book is a much more appropriate format for arguing minutiae that Scripture doesn't really tell us. Time in the gathering is actually fairly rare: we need to treat it like it's valuable, and give people a list of "for further information" resources.

An opposite danger is the "let's just get through this" danger. That one's probably more rare, but it's just as bad. There is a lot to digest in any given passage. Spending too much time trying to get it all is a mistake, but spending too little time just trying to get through is no better. Teach what needs to be taught. If you see nothing of note in a geneology, acknowledge it and go on. But if you find tremendous meaning in a few sentences, don't be afraid to spend some time there digging it up.

But in the end, the real point is not so much that expository preaching is good or bad. The real point is, preaching or teaching is really a minor part of the gathering, or it ought to be. We are supposedly gathering in Christ's name, ostensibly to meet Him. Worship is really not about hearing a preacher's thoughts on a passage, it's about us presenting ourselves to God. It's about us feeding on Christ's flesh and blood, it's about our remembering Him. Preach how you want,  but don't expect that to make a huge impact on my decision to visit your church or whatever. I'm much more interested in watching how the people interact, in listening for signs that the people there are conscious of the Lord's presence.

I'll probably visit Creekside Bible Church out of curiosity: they're only a mile from my place. But the knowledge that they're into expository preaching is not a major draw. I'm more concerned with watching their expository living...
Now there's a concept: expository living. I'm going to spend some time thinking about that.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I started posting on this blog more than a year ago. I was then "in fellowship" with a group of "exclusive brethren" I had been with (more or less) for about ten years. Yeah, there was a division in there, and I was in fellowship first with one side, then the other. But I really consider that as one block of time. My frustration a year ago was, what we said and what we did weren't lining up.  We talked about not believing in denominational lines, but we had very clear denominational lines ourselves. We said we didn't believe in clergy, but there are any number of people we'd never contradict. We said we believed in the Holy Spirit leading the meetings, but He seemed to do things the same way, using the same people, all the time.

My concern a year ago was hypocrisy. 

Then I left, which I think was the right thing to do... but the next question is, "now what?"

So we spent a few months in a traditional Anglican church. There's a lot to be said for the traditional Anglicans, but there are some serious problems there as well. Those problems have been working their way into focus from the periphery, and we've finally concluded they're deal-breakers. We're not happy about that: we've really enjoyed a lot of things about the Anglican church. But what can we do?

So I know I've already made a couple lists of what I'm looking for, but I'm going to make another one. See, a lot of this blog is me articulating things in such a way that my poor mind can start to understand them. This blog is largely a story I tell myself to try and make sense of my walk down here until He comes to get me.

The first thing I'm looking for in a church/assembly/gathering is core doctrine. By "core" I mean things that are really very important. Ideally I would like a place where I am in 100% agreement with everything said and taught. That will probably never happen, so I'm going to have to make some judgment calls about what's "fundamental" and what's something I can allow some latitude on. I'm pre-trib, pre-mil dispensationalist. I'm willing to compromise on a lot of that: in fact, the characteristic Anglican ambiguity on a lot of this is all right with me. That's not to say I'm not sure I'm right, it's just that I see no reason I can't have genuine Christian fellowship with an amillenialist. But some things are non-negotiable. Jesus Christ is Man and God: He is the consubstantial Son, He is a real Man. This is non-negotiable. All men are born sinners, without Christ all perish eternally. This is also non-negotiable.

The second thing I'm looking for is worship-centered gathering. I know a couple pre-trib, pre-mil dispensationalist churches in this town, but the meetings are basically just lectures. I shall probably visit them at least once; but it's my honest conviction that gathering more or less just to hear teaching---no matter how good it is---fundamentally misses the point. Intellectual stimulation is not worship (although the intellect is inarguably mixed in with true worship). I have literally hundreds of books I can read, if sound teaching is what I'm after. The gathering ought to be much more than just getting "the truth".  It's telling that I hung out with Anglicans for a few months, despite doctrinal differences, because the liturgy is all about worship. I finally realized that some of those doctrinal differences were bigger than I had realized, but I'll tolerate a lot to be in a place where worship is the main event.

The third thing I want is a biblical foundation. It's taken some time to hammer this out very solidly: the one resource we have is the Word of God. I have said that many times over the last 20 years, but it's really been brought to mind very clearly over the last 12 months. One of my main gripes with Anglicanism is precisely that they pay much more attention to patristic commentary than the Word of God. There are all sorts of arguments on why that's valid, but as far as I can determine, they all fail. If we can't trust Scripture, we sure can't trust patristic commentary. If we can trust Scripture, we don't need patristic commentary. Again, commentary from godly men and women is helpful in its place. Its place is not unquestioned authority.

I would say those are the three big things I'm looking for.  But there are some smaller things too.

One point I've been willing to compromise on has been the idea of priesthood.  I completely (100%) buy into the "brethren" idea that all believers are priests, and we ought not to have clergy. I've been willing to compromise on it for a couple reasons, maybe not all of them are good. First, I've been willing to compromise because I've very rarely seen it work out in real life. Second, I've been willing to compromise because I've been learning the somewhat painful lesson of being quiet. I need to learn to shut up: I have a big mouth, and when I get it going, I can run on forever. The worst is, I can sound really wise and godly when I do it. But it's still me being the center of attention. I've been willing to become "laity" (even though I think that's an unscriptural idea), because I personally need to learn to sit down and shut up. There are probably more reasons, those two came to mind pretty quickly.

If I have a choice, I would really like to be in a situation where there is no clergy/laity division; but that's frankly not as important to me as it once was.

I'd love to find a gathering where there are only one or two meetings a week, but people actually see each other outside of Sunday morning. Real friendship is so much more than sharing a pew... and it seems so hard to cultivate with other Christians. Is it just me? Am I just a terrible friend? Maybe it's my fault, but I have so much trouble getting meaningful relationships going with other Christians. This ought not to be, but it's been my experience. Maybe I just have a serious social disability. 

I am really looking for interactive worship. While the Anglican liturgy is very much "run" by the celebrant, there is also a strong sense that the congregation is worshipping, rather than watching someone else do it. I miss that about "brethren" too. I'm not willing to try a Charismatic gathering, but I think they get this part right: they're involved in the meetings, not jsut spectators.

I suppose the question is, why don't you just eat some crow and go back to "brethren?"  That's actually a good question.  I won't answer it very well in public, because some of my concerns with "brethren" center on some things that I really don't want to publicly discuss. Despite my generally negative tone, I've been holding things back (really!), and I am not interested in being the accuser of "brethren" in a public forum. But in general terms, it was the upside-down priorities that drove me away. It was the consistent attitude that the worst sin someone could commit was going to another church... the casual, instinctive enforcing of sectarian lines and differences.

Are all "brethren" like that? Of course not! Probably the vast majority aren't. But I began to realize that we'd built up a system that allowed that sort of thing to ferment and grow, and eventually dominate.

Will I ever consider gathering with "brethren" again? Of course! I might well end up breaking bread in an "assembly" again. I am not at all disallowing it. But I'm trying to follow the Lord and Scripture right now, not my comfort level. 

So I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to actually invite comment. If you have advice for me, or even some sort of answer... or even if you feel like telling me "Ox, you're a waste of human skin," I am asking you to tell me. Comment on the blog, or comment via email (my email address is at the bottom of the page).

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Nearness and Confidence

Fred said it best:
Many of us would like to find some unvarying rule by which, in the midst of church difficulties, to steer our way; while, as to circumstances, we should be well pleased to see, as another has said, a full supply for every need within our reach. Neither the one nor the other is at all likely to be the experience of saints if going on with God, since there would in either case be but little call for the exercise of faith, or of moral perception. The question then arises, Are we to be dismayed by the anticipation of troubles in the assembly, or of pressure in our individual path? What is the antidote? The answer is confidence -- and confidence is the effect of nearness, having its source in the knowledge of God: "I know whom I have believed". Nearness may be spoken of as the peculiar characteristic blessing of Christianity. Now that redemption has been accomplished, and Christ is exalted as Man to God's right hand, God has begun to effectuate the purposes of His will, and in this the heavenly takes precedence of the earthly.
"Nearness and Confidence", Ministry by F. E. Raven, Vol. 7

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Because I didn't get enough controversy on my last article, I thought I'd weigh in on apostasy.

26 "Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
27 "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
28 "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
29 "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
31 "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
32 "And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
--Acts 20:26--32 (NASB)

When Paul was leaving Miletus, he spoke to the overseers (bishops) of the assembly in Ephesus. Part of his parting speech with the Ephesian overseers was the warning that apostasy was coming "after my departure," that it would come from among the leaders in the assembly, and it would be driven (at least in part) by a desire to build a following.

At the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy, who was in Ephesus. He gave Timothy this warning:

1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.
2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy,
3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,
4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.
-- 2 Timothy 3:1--5 (NASB)

But when we get to the later epistles, we have warnings like the ones in Jude:

4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
-- Jude 4 (NASB)

And in 3 John:

9 I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.
--3 John (NASB)

1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation 2&3 all contemplate apostasy as something that was already underway and widespread. Jude and Peter tell us false teachers already had a foothold in the church, Revelation 2&3 talk about churches already caught up in idolatry (Thyatira), empty formalism (Sardis), and indifference to the Lord (Laodicea). 1 John claims there were many antichrists already, and 2 John warns against becoming entangled with those who denied the Christ.

I mention these to indicate that apostasy is not contemplated in Scripture as something that was going to happen, but as something that had already started. 2 Timothy 3 warns about the "last days," but 1 John tells us "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18, NASB). Hebrews starts "in these last days" and 2 Thessalonians 2:7 says "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work."

Now, it is certainly true that we expect things to get worse: evil always develops (consider Romans 1), and 2 Timothy assures us that things will get "worse and worse." Apostasy is not simply a state: it develops and grows.

It's also true that there have been revivals, renewals, and repentance in the last 2000 years. The state of apostasy is not absolute in the sense that there is no longer a remnant on the earth: God is still saving sinners. And not every Christian has apostasized. Revelation 2&3 contain a message for the "overcomer" in every church, even Thyatira and Laodicea.

But there can be no dispute that apostasy has been generally the state of things for the last 2000 years, since the Apostles died. Scripture explicitly claims that to be the case, our knowledge of church history concurs, and our personal experience agrees. Apostasy characterizes the Church.

There are a couple interesting points in all the warnings of apostasy:
First, Scripture almost always talks about apostasy as a top-down process. It's not that the people apostasize and that corrupts their leaders: rather, the leaders apostasize and carry the people into corruption. Paul said the "ravenous wolves" would arise from among the Ephesian overseers. John said Diotrophes loved to have the "chief place". Revelation tells us "the woman Jezebel" was teaching. This parallels the Old Testament, where apostasy characterized the kings and priests. Even in the wilderness under Moses, it was the chiefs of the tribes who led the people into rebellion. There are certainly exceptions, but apostasy in Scripture characteristically develops in a top-down direction.

Second, it looks suspiciously like Ephesus would be at least a center of apostasy. There are four epistles written to Ephesus in the New Testament: Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Revelation 2:1--7. Additionally, we have detailed accounts of Paul's work there, including his speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Apostasy is a central theme among the Scriptures specifically to Ephesus. That's not to say Ephesus is the core of apostasy, nor that it was the only place apostasy occurred. But it seems particularly linked to apostasy in Scripture.

Third, Paul gave the Ephesian elders two resources: he commended them "to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified". This is of enormous importance.

I know I'm going to step on some toes here, but I really feel this needs to be said. The remedy for apostasy is the Word of God. It is "able to build [us] up and to give [us] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." We tend to try and remedy apostasy with statements of faith, creeds, confessions, church councils, canon law, or fiery preaching. But the Apostle offers the Word of God as the remedy.

That's not to say all those other things are wrong per se, but that they are insufficient. The Word of God was given explicitly to correct, reprove, exhort, and train us. It is the only infallible and authoritative resource we have. To the extent that a statement of faith reflects the Word of God, it is good: but it has no authority in itself, its authority is strictly identical to the extent it is Scriptural.

It has taken me a long time to come to that conclusion.

And to be sure, the Word of God is sufficient, authoritative, infallible, and inerrant; but that's not to say every question of faith and doctrine is simple, obvious, and without sincere disagreement. But in the end, if we allow anything to occlude the authority of the Word of God over us, we are in the process of personally apostasizing: we are leaving the one thing we can count on.

As I'm living down here in a world that's basically on hold until the Lord Jesus comes to establish His kingdom and throne, I've gotten very caught up in all sorts of things. And sadly, a lot of my dabbling in some church or another has really been me looking for the Right Place. It's been my looking for a group I can count on, or an history I can put faith in, or a tradition that is correct. But at the end of the day, I've been having to learn that the Word of God is what God has seen fit to give me. That's the resource He considers sufficient for His people living down here.

Now, apostasy has been used as an excuse for all kinds of things. And while I want to clarify that we ought not to look for an excuse for what's not biblical, it is very true that apostasy changes things. Heh. Ideas have consequences. So I guess we need to look at some of those consequences, but I think this is long enough already for now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Brick wall

I remember watching Bandits, a movie with Bruce Willis and Billy-Bob Thornton. I wouldn't recommend it for moral reasons, although it was entertaining and terribly funny. At any rate, at some point Thornton says, "The problem with being smart is, I have a pretty good idea how things are going to turn out."

We didn't need to be terribly smart to foresee some problems with our attending an Anglican church--- we expected this---, but I'm not happy that we've hit some of the issues we anticipated.

It looks like our brief time with the Anglicans is coming to a close, but it was a much-needed haven for a time.

I suppose there's a lot more to say, but I'll end with: we're really in need of your prayers right now.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hitting the books

As I've been trying to walk it out down here until the Lord Jesus comes back, I've had to do some mulling over the role of Scripture in the Christian life. This is not supposed to be a great thesis on the subject: this is just my personal position. Take it as my personal confession on the subject. 

First, I accept the Bible (66 books) as the inerrant, authoritative Word of God. I think the Nicene Council was essentially correct about what constitutes Scripture, but I absolutely affirm that the Scripture was the Scripture before the Nicene Council. The Nicene Council did not make those books Scripture, it simply recognized what was already true.

Second, it is impossible to prove that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Either you accept that or you don't. I can show you any number of evidences that it's true, but I can't actually prove it. But then, I'm not going to answer to you for my life down here, when all's said and done. 

Third, if the Bible really is what God has said, then it trumps everything else. It doesn't really matter what anyone thinks on a subject: the question is what God has said about it. It is the final test. 

Fourth, the Bible might well be silent on a subject. Get over it. We need to stop trying to read something into Scripture about whatever-it-is-we're-interested-in-at-the-moment. If Scripture is silent on something, then we need to acknowledge that.

Fifth, the Bible was written to be understood. This has been the hardest point to really finalize in my mind. It seems the vast majority of Christianity sees Scripture as something that can only be understood through layers of commentary.  But (and I realize this could reduce to a circular argument) the narratives of Christ commenting on Scripture to the people of His day generally reduce to Him telling them they missed the "plain reading"---the "obvious point"---of a passage. He never took them to task for missing some mystical meaning, nor for using the wrong commentaries: He took them to task for not simply obeying the plain and simple sense of the passage. 

Sixth, the hardest part of obeying the Scripture is to trust that it's sufficient. It's one thing to acknowledge it's inerrant or authoritative; it's quite another to acknowledge its sufficiency. I think it strange how frequently we trust in creeds, dogmas, catechisms, theologies, doctrines, and commentaries when we have the Bible. I admit it's not the easiest book to understand, and it can take some time to compare Scripture with Scripture to figure out how a passage applies, or what it means. But really, if God has spoken, it's worth the time and effort to listen.

I think a lot of this blog really reduces to the question of whether what "we" (for a non-constant value of "we") are doing lines up with Scripture.  

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Everyone else is doing it...

I got this comment on an older post this week:
If we get our eyes of [sic] our own needs and what we expect from others and go to the meeting for the LORD and Him alone then God will bless. We gather together for His glory don't we?. Our motives for going to the meeting shouldn't be the people or the speaker. Is not the Lord's presence good enough for us?

The comment was with respect to some comments I had made on a meeting I attended last summer. It was posted anonymously: I have no idea who wrote it, and I'm fine with that. But I wanted to make some points about it. I have no idea where or with whom the commenter meets to worship, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to pretend it was written by someone in an assembly much like the one I left. So you see, I'm not really replying to Anonymous, I'm using this comment as a basis for a discussion. Let me re-iterate that: I've no idea what Anonymous had in mind when s/he wrote that comment; but it resonates very well with many comments I heard in my time among "brethren," and I want to comment on some of those things.

Ten years ago, I might have written the exact same paragraph. But ten years have passed, and I've thought a lot about this stuff in those ten years. And in that time, some things have changed. With that in mind, let's look at this in some depth.

The first thing I notice is the phrase "If we... then God will bless." This indicates that God's blessing is something we earn. Someone else has already said, "God blesses because He is good, not because we are." The Scripture is full of example after example where God blesses those who are not obedient: isn't that the essence of the Gospel? "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

We can't manipulate God. I'm not saying that God's sovereignty infers our actions don't matter: I'm saying that we can't bribe God with our good behaviour. God blesses those He loves, regardless of their deserving to be blessed. God blesses out of grace, not obligation.

My dad used to always tell me, "Clumsy, don't forget that Moses was wrong to strike the rock, but water still came out." There is nothing more common in Scripture than God blessing people who don't deserve it. There's nothing more common than God blessing in spite of the ones receiving the blessing. Ecclesiastes says the race is not to the swift, the battle is not to the strong (Ecclesiastes 10:11). Blessing doesn't come to those who deserve it any more than brimstone rains down on sinners. God blesses out of His overflowing heart.

The day will come when God will judge---brimstone really will fall down on sinners eventually---, but that day is not yet. The goodness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), it doesn't flow from it.

The second thing I notice is the implicit assumption that the Lord is present: "Is not the Lord's presence good enough for us?" This is one of the very points that eventually drove me from the "brethren". The verse that underlies the "brethren" movement is Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (KJV). The "brethren" are confident that the Lord is present in their meetings, because He is wherever "two or three are gathered unto His name."

I've spent some time discussing this elsewhere, but the whole "the Lord is present" thing becomes a rabbit-hole very quickly. The question that really needs to be asked is, how do we know whether there are two or three gathered in the Lord's name? This becomes the crux of the question. If gathering in the Lord's name is a moral thing, then it may be difficult or impossible to determine whether that's really going on. And if it's individual, then it becomes that much harder.

"Brethren" more or less evade the question by reducing it to one of format: gathering "unto His name" essentially reduces to gathering "in the same format as us." If you ask "brethren" what it looks like, they inevitably bring up whether a group has a pastor/priest/clergyman and wether they have a denominational title. In either of those cases, the gathering is "to a man's name" rather than "to the Lord's name." Now, the significance of this is overwhelming. What it essentially infers is, regardless of moral failings or even outright sin in the group, the only real test is format. As long as the meetings are conducted a certain way, then the Lord is present... regardless of how much sin or impurity is tolerated in the group.

Please understand I'm not accusing anyone of immorality here: it's not my contention that "brethren" tolerate evil. It is my contention that their test of the Lord's presence in the group is merely one of format.

But I realized in the last few years that the whole issue of whether the Lord is present really gets turned upside-down when we consider the "gathered in my name" as a moral test. If it really means "because I said so and that's enough for you" (and I believe it does), then there are any number of true believers in any number of places that are gathering "in His name." And as surely as I find a church---any church---where there are two or three such people, then I have found a place where the Lord is present. But by the same token, as surely as I find a place where the format is correct but the moral test fails, then I can no longer rest on this verse as proof of His presence.

Notice I haven't even touched on the issue of whether the verse was ever intended to be the test of where to fellowship. I'm not at all convinced this is true... although it might be.

The third thing I notice is built on the second: the idea that the Lord's presence is "good enough," that I ought to be content to go to the meetings and just be faithful there.

The problem is this: the idea that I can just go to meeting to meet the Lord, regardless of the others there sounds good; but it breaks down under any scrutiny at all. Let's start with the obvious: suppose I just go to the Kingdom Hall to meet the Lord, and because I've gotten "[my] eyes off [my] own needs and what [I] expect from others," is that valid? Can I be sure the Lord is pleased with that?

See, the problem with the line of thinking that says "I don't need to be critical, I just need to go with a right heart myself" is, the logical conclusion must be that any church will do. If what I need to do is "be faithful where I am," then I might as well just go where I like the music or the youth program and be faithful there. It doesn't matter whether it's a Roman Catholic or Lutheran church, whether it's "an assembly" or a cult---so long as I am personally faithful, everything's all right. There is no other conclusion that can logically be drawn from that line of thinking.

In fact---and this applies specifically to "brethren"---"brethren" left the Church of England because they had serious problems with what was happening there. But if the right thing to do is to get my eyes off the other people and be content to meet the Lord, then the "brethren" were wrong to leave. And if I view that through my "exclusive" glasses, then the only right thing for "brethren" to do is to return to the point of departure: they all need to confess their schismatic actions and come back into the Anglican fold.

See, "brethrenism" breaks down as soon as the same tests are applied to it as to everyone else. The double standard is glaring.

Now, the comment Anonymous left wasn't necessarily wrong. In fact, there's a lot of truth there... but there is a certain level of over-simplification. At some point, it matters very much indeed what the others in a meeting are doing. This is not the Old Testament: we don't have a physical place where we've been called to gather three times a year. In those days, this comment would have been right-on. Hannah's faithfulness in praying at Shiloh was not affected by Phineas' and Hophni's immorality. But in the New Testament, the tests we use are moral. We aren't called to gather to a place, but to a Person: that's a moral action. And under those conditions, the moral state of the group matters very much.

One thing we have to deal with these days is, we have multiple options in terms of where we gather. The Old Testament saints had no such options: they were to gather where the altar was. The New Testament saints didn't have this problem either, there was "the church in Ephesus," not "the churches in Ephesus." The Scripture only ever uses "churches" when it discusses a wide geographical area: there is no concept in Scripture that there would be more than a single church in a city or town. But apostasy has set in, the church is in ruin. We now have to discern where we are to gather.

The idea that we gather to meet the Lord, and can just sort of ignore the problems there doesn't hold water any more. It ignores the apostasy and the days we live in. It ignores the moral condition of the church. It ignores everything that's happened since the Apostles. It ignores the fact that there is a corporate identity in the Church: we're not just individuals. And it undercuts the very existence of the assemblies where these statements have been made. If individual faithfulness is really what counts, then there ought not to be any "assemblies" at all: they ought to have been content to be faithful in the Anglican church, rather than starting something new.

Now here's the kicker: I made the vast majority of my comments on "brethren" as an insider. It was not actually my intention to leave, but that's what eventually happened. And now that I've left, I am not in any way saying I won't go back. Yeah, going back would be painful: this blog has already been quoted to me, it would certainly cause me some trouble. There would be a lot of comments made to me, a lot of people would want some sort of public confession and retraction.

I left because I was looking for what guys like JND and JBS were looking for, and I eventually realized "brethrenism" has grown into something else entirely. The vast majority of people there are genuinely looking for the Lord... but I have concluded that we've built up a system that gets in the way of that.

More recently, I've been learning to worship the Lord---to gather in the Lord's name---in an Anglican church. Now that's a move that has prompted a few to question my sanity. And there's been the predictable responses: "Clumsy's got to find himself," "Clumsy's on a spiritual journey"---that sort of thing. And those statements might actually be true. But they fail to acknowledge the larger picture: I started this spiritual journey 20 years ago. I invested a lot of time into "brethrenism," I thought I had found what I was looking for there. But more and more, it became obvious that I hadn't. I've learned a lot of stuff along the way, and there's a lot more to learn. I'm not even close to the end of this one.

One thing I have realized is, what I'm looking for is not to be found in a system: it's to be found in a Person. It's not something I can find in Anglicanism or Brethrenism or Lutheranism. I can't put my trust in a church---any church. I need to put my faith and trust in the Son of God.

The Son of God has come here to die for me. And He's coming back to get me and take me to be with Him: that changes everything.

So I appreciate people who care enough to look in on me and pray for me from time to time. And I really appreciate people who have emailed, called, or discussed this over coffee with me. And Anonymous, I appreciate your commenting.