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