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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

OT and NT God

"I like Jesus. I don't like God." You may or may not have heard such a statement, but you've likely encountered the concept, and it's also likely that you've thought it yourself. There are a couple of common ideas out there that feed this notion, and they're held by unbelievers and believers alike. The idea is this. "The God of the Old Testament is a mean God, a God of wrath, Someone to fear. The New Testament Jesus is a nice God, a 'turn the other cheek' God, a loving God who is concerned about our well-being rather than smiting all the time." May I suggest that this is a false impression?

There are two ideas here. One is that God the Father hates sin, so He is at odds with sinners. That means that God the Son came to die for us because He's not quite at odds with us as the Father is ... or something like it. Oh, no, I'm sure most of us have never actually thought it that far out, but that's where it comes up if we assume that God the Father hates sin, so He is at odds with sinners. The other idea is the one I've stated. The Old Testament God (you know ... the one who is at odds with sinners) is full of wrath, but the New Testament Christ is warm and friendly. These two ideas, then, are interlinked.

Examine, however, the truth (that is so often missed). Let's start at the beginning. God created the heavens and the earth. Why? Well, because of His divine wrath, right? Of course not! Well, He certainly didn't know that Adam would fall, right? Again, of course not! The truth is that God created the heavens and the earth out of love and grace, knowing that they would fall. Move ahead a couple of chapters. Adam and Eve fell. Ah, now we find the wrathful God, right? Not hardly. The warning was "In the day that you eat it you shall surely die." As it turned out, in the day that they ate they died spiritually ... but not physically. A God of Wrath would have smote them (because everyone knows that "smite" is much worse than "kill") on the spot and the story would have ended. No, God acted in grace, allowing them to live even though they deserved instant annihilation. In fact, it was God who planned for our salvation before Creation (Titus 1:2). The New Testament even talks of both Christ and God as our Savior. Paul refers to the Gospel as both the Gospel of God and the Gospel of Christ. The entire plan, from Creation to the Cross to completion, was the Father's plan. The entire plan was the Son's plan.

We tend to see a lot in the Old Testament that looks like wrath. The Red Sea wipes out the Pharaoh and his army. The ground opens up and consumes infidels. Israel is commanded to annihilate an entire people-group. God strikes and smites and bellows from on high. Whew! That's wrath! So we often miss entirely that the plan for salvation was His, laid out from the Fall, carried forward in Abraham, nurtured in Israel, and completed in Christ. On the other hand, it turns out that no one spoke of eternal judgment as often as Christ did. Hell is primarily mentioned in the Old Testament simply as the place of the dead, but Jesus is the one that fleshes it out as eternal damnation. Jesus talked of Hell more often than He spoke of Heaven. How is that for a warm, loving person? It was Jesus who pronounced curses upon the Pharisees and Jesus who drove the moneychangers from the Temple. It is Jesus, in Revelation, who comes back with a sword in His mouth. Are you sure, when you think of Jesus as warm and loving, that you're thinking about the biblical Jesus?

God the Father and God the Son are both God in essence. As such, they bear the same attributes. Jesus said that what He did on Earth was in imitation of what He saw His Father do, and He did whatever He saw His father do. If you find that the majority of what Jesus did appeared loving, kind, gracious, merciful, and all those sort of nice things, it would likely be that it's an accurate representation of the Father. On the other hand, when you think of God the Father as an angry God, I suspect that you're missing the better part of who He actually is. Jesus and God are the same terms. Beware when you think, "That Old Testament God was sure mean." He's the same God of the New Testament. You know ... that warm and loving one.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Twelve Steps to a Better Understanding of God

We generally tend to like things clear cut. We like things in categories. We like words to mean something and don't like them to be nuanced. We tend to see people in types and don't like to consider them in shades. We like "twelve step" programs and "how to love your wife in 5 easy steps" and that sort of thing. Of course, the biggest version of this concept is in how we view God. We like to see Him in clear cut terms and please don't give us shades of meaning.

Now, by His very nature (you know ... infinite, holy, omnipotent, omniscient, lots of things we aren't), God, in the final analysis, will still be mysterious to us. That is, by definition God will continue to be something other than clear cut to us. That's a given, and that's fine. But we like to think that in certain cases He should be quite clear to us. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this isn't the way it is.

Consider a couple of attributes that we know about God. We know, for instance, that God is love. I mean, that's as clear a statement in Scripture as you can get. So ... how do we understand that statement? Well, we know that love and hate are opposites, so when we say God is love, that means that He doesn't hate. Oh, wait, now we're in trouble. God Himself said, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." Hmmm, that's odd. But there is more. David writes of God, "You hate all evildoers" (Psa 5:5). I'm sure if we think about it only for a moment we'll find a whole bunch of Scriptures that depict God as hating sinners (or pouring out His wrath on them or ...). It appears, then, in the economy of God that He has the ability to both love and hate sinners simultaneously. Do you want to see a jarring image? Look at the Cross. At the Cross we find the clearest picture of both the love of God and the wrath of God in one image. Of course, it only takes a parent of a wayward child to see how this works. It is possible even in human terms to both love and hate a child, so why wouldn't it be so with God?

In English, the term "love" has a wide variety of meanings. We "love" our food and we "love" our pets and we "love" our kids and we "love" our spouses ... but (hopefully) none of those have exactly the same meaning. Similar, to be sure, but not identical. "Oh," we might reply with assurance, "the New Testament doesn't suffer from that. You see, they use philos and agape to differentiate different kinds of love so we don't get confused." You know, the classic "Look at the exchange between Peter and Jesus in John 21. You'll see it there." Well, okay ... but even Greek isn't so clear cut. For instance, we know that agape means "unconditional love", right? Does it? Jude references "love feasts" using agape. How does that quite fit? John writes, "This is love, that we walk according to his commandments". Is that "unconditional"? Maybe. What about when Jesus said, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love"? Is that "unconditional"? There appears, despite our best wishes, to be nuances and shades of meaning to the simple statement, "God is love."

In fact, you'll find that it's difficult to nail down most of the attributes of God to simple black and white. When we say, for instance, that He is holy, we don't mean the same thing as when we say that utensils in the tabernacle were "holy". And we are to be holy as He is holy, but we know that's not quite the same thing either. Or how about His omnipotence? We like to think, "That means God can do anything at all." No, that's not accurate. There are lots of things He cannot do. He cannot change. He cannot fail. He cannot sin. And He cannot make a round square, an unstoppable ball headed toward an immovable wall, or a rock He cannot pick up. So "omnipotent" has gradations, shades, a depth of meaning that isn't simple or clear cut. You'll find this to be the case with most of His attributes. His love doesn't negate His justice, wrath, or holiness. How do those work out? His wrath against sin doesn't negate His grace or mercy. He is immutable -- unchanging -- but does change direction. How does "eternal" (meaning always was and always will be) work out when God is outside of time? We know that God is good, but we also have Him claiming that He creates well-being and calamity. How does that figure in your understanding of "good"? And that's the point. It is highly likely that when you think you've figured out "love" or "good" or "omnipotent", you'll find there are some nuances you didn't consider.

All this is intended to serve as a caution. When you think, "I've pretty well figured out ____ about God", you'll probably find that you haven't. When you think that certain words describing God are obvious and narrowly defined, be careful. They probably aren't. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan represents Christ. C.S. Lewis says of Aslan that he isn't a tame lion. God is not a tame God. He isn't narrowly defined, clearly understood, clear cut. He has shades, senses, variations. No, He doesn't vary from Himself. These are simply gradations that occur in the finite understanding of the human being when contemplating the infinite God. And, oh, by the way, I have a serious suspicion that this whole concept of shades and gradations works itself out in most of life. I doubt you'll find a one-size-fits-all "12-step program" that teaches you to love your wife, an unchanging step-by-step process to become sanctified, or a clear and accurate "how to" book on being a godly mother or father to your children. Most of life, it turns out, is nuanced. So much for our preference for "simple and clear cut", eh?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

An Egocentric God

God desires, no, commands that His creation worships Him. In the Old Testament, when the children of Israel worshiped a golden calf or Baal, it went badly for them (How is that for understatement?) because God commands that His creation worships Him. In the New Testament, idolatry is something we are still to avoid because God commands that His creation worships Him.

The question might well be asked, "What's wrong with God?" In human terms, if someone constantly needs attention, affirmation, and applause, we consider them eccentric at best and egomaniacal at worst. Is that God? Is He so unsure of Himself that He needs constant praise? Does God suffer from poor self-esteem?

I suppose, in human terms, that might be the case ... but God isn't human. He is the Ultimate Being. While we arrogantly think that "the universe revolves around me", it turns out that He really is the center of all existence. Indeed, were He to recognize anyone else as of equal importance to Himself, He would be the idolater. Thus, He demands that His creation worships Him because it's right, it's true, it's real. He demands it because He alone deserves it.

There's another aspect. Imagine, if you will, a skilled horse breeder. This guy breeds horses to win races. He spends years breeding the fastest horses in the world. Because it is his work, it is expected that he should be rewarded with the acclaim due a successful breeder as well as with horses that win races. All well and good. On the other hand, these horses, bred to run, would love to run. They would only be happiest when they were at full speed. Racing wouldn't be a chore; it would be a delight. Walking around just wouldn't cut it. No, their real joy would be in the fulfillment of their design.

Like all of creation, we are designed to glorify God. There is no doubt that He deserves it. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is the Sovereign of the Universe. He holds all things together, and all things are made for Him. And as part of that creation, we are designed to join in that process. The truth is that we are happiest when we are fully engaged in glorifying God. Or, to twist John Piper's famous phrase, we are most satisfied when we are giving God the most glory. So, while it is right for us to worship, it is also for our benefit that God commands it. It is a command from love.

What's wrong with God? Well, let's see. He commands worship because it is right -- in line with reality and He deserves it -- and because it is in the best interest of His creation that we worship Him. So ... there's nothing at all wrong with God as far as I can tell.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


We live in a noisy world. There are traffic noises and wind noises and airplane noises and the rushing sound of waves on the shore. There are tornadoes that sound like trains. (What did tornadoes sound like before there were trains?) There are natural noises and man-made noises. We live in a noisy world.

I suspect, if we were honest, most of us would have to admit that we like noise. I suspect this because when we have the option, we seem to choose noise. We can't do without the noise of the TV or the iPod or the radio or the stereo. We don't really seem to want silence. "Give me noise so I don't have to think."

Someone last week asked me a disturbing question: "What do you think about when you're not thinking about anything in particular?" The question was disturbing on two levels. On one level, it was disturbing to wonder whether or not my default thoughts were godly. On the other level, I had to admit that it seemed we go to great lengths not to not think about anything in particular. Instead, we prefer our flight from silence.

It would be nice of our "default" thoughts were about God or in prayer or something else of equal value. Perhaps, if we had to be thinking about ourselves, it could be judging ourselves rightly and seeking a renewed mind. But, I suspect that too often our thoughts when not intentionally aimed in the right direction drift definitely into the wrong direction. Oh well, I suppose it's just simpler to tune it all out. Let's see ... where are my headphones?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fun with Words

English is a tough language, even for English speakers. I was having some fun the other day with odd English constructions.
During the floods, the only way we rode anywhere was when we rowed down the road.

For me, going to two stores is two too many.

They're keeping their treasures in there.

She filed for divorce, but he tried to think that tying the knot had not come to naught.

Is that your ewer you're carrying around?

I'm sure there was a valid reason that the application for a handicap placard for my invalid friend came back "invalid".
I bet you can come up with some of your own. Of course, most of you are probably not so easily amused as I am, but, hey, maybe there are a few out there.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Innocence of Children

I wasn't raised to be a racist. No one ever taught me that skin color variations changed the value or humanity of the person. "Caucasian" wasn't better or worse than "Hispanic" or "black" or whatever. Or, to borrow a phrase, I was taught that you judge a person by their character rather than by the color of their skin.

As a result, I had a mixed bag of friends in school. The two guys I spent the most time with were Dan, a Hispanic guy from Columbia, and Clarence, a black guy from Altadena. (Okay, Altadena many not mean as much to you as it does to me, but I get the significance.) We would get together at lunch or get together on weekends to take out our female friends on group "dates". Those who knew us called us "the United Nations" (not always with affection). But we didn't care. We were friends apart from skin color. And it has ever been thus for me. I don't care what ethnicity you may be. You're a person.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I encountered a little 6-year-old boy sitting next to me on a recent flight. I treated him like a little 6-year-old who might sometimes need help, not as a black kid who was a different skin color than me. "Do you want me to help you open your bag of pretzels?" I asked. When he went to the lavatory, his headphones fell on the floor, so I picked them up for him. I negotiated his favorite soda with the flight attendant. So I was completely shocked when he loudly exclaimed to his grandmother in the row in front, "Gramma! Tell this stupid white boy to quit messing with me!"

I want to know. Who has been twisting this kid's brain? Who taught him so young to judge by skin color? And why are there general assumptions that 1) all white people hate black people and 2) only white people can be racist? Was Martin Luther King Jr. dreaming only of changes in whites? These things disturb me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Calvin Declined

I have, for many years, been convinced of a particular set of doctrines that differ slightly from a large segment of Christianity. These are known by some as "the Doctrines of Grace", by others as "Reformed Theology" (although that category includes other things of which I'm not necessarily convinced), by others as "TULIP", and by most as "Calvinism". Now, I've always fought off that last term. When I first came to the conclusion that these doctrines were true, I was convinced not by John Calvin, but by Scripture. It wasn't Calvin's Institutes that led me to these places, but the Word of God. Indeed, it wasn't until the last couple of months that I ever read anything (beyond a passing quote or two) from John Calvin. So, to me, I wasn't a "Calvinist" simply because I knew nearly nothing about Calvin or what he believed.

Last week I was at the Ligonier Conference in Orlando. Because 2009 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Calvin, it seemed that John Calvin was a constant theme in this particular conference. The pre-conference took an entire day to review the glories of Calvin. Nearly every speaker referenced him. It was a running joke that if you didn't quote him at some point in your talk you wouldn't be invited back to speak at a later conference. And I had to admit, the whole thing left me ... uncomfortable.

Now, to be clear, during one of the Question and Answer sessions the question was asked, "How do you come to Reformed Theology?" and the entire panel agreed, "By reading the Bible." Good. Thank you. That would be my answer. Still, only one of the speakers seemed to avoid using Calvin as something of a "proof text". The rest seemed to assume that if Calvin said it, it was true.

As for me, I believe the Bible. If Calvin (or R.C. Sproul or John MacArthur or C.S. Lewis or the Archbishop of Canterbury or ...) sees in Scripture what I see, I'm delighted. If historical, orthodox Christianity sees in the Bible what I see, I'm very happy. And certainly many of these men, both alive and in history, had insight from which I can learn. I tend to respect some more than others, so I might pay closer attention to what they say. Many of them say things well and are worth quoting. But I have yet to meet a single human being with whom I am in 100% agreement. If that human being is Jesus Christ, as I discover my differences I will attempt to realign my thinking. If that human being is another man (or woman) like me, I'll consider their views as compared with Scripture and come to the best conclusion I can. What I will not do is place John Calvin (or any of the rest) at a level on par with Scripture. In that, then, I am not a Calvinist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rethinking Election

I know people -- not a small number, in fact -- who do not believe in Election. They do not believe that God sovereignly chooses to save some. I begin to wonder if it's principles or semantics, so I want to examine the question in different terms.

1. Assuming we agree that some will be saved and some won't (if we don't agree on that, we have a much bigger problem), does God know who will be saved and who will not?

If you answer "No", we're talking about different Gods. Mine is omniscient. If "Yes", on to Question 2.

2. Is it possible for someone in the "God knows he'll be saved" group to not be saved (or vice versa -- someone in the "God knows she won't be saved" category ends up saved)?

If you answered "Yes", we are again talking about different Gods. Mine is omniscient and infallible. Yours either is misinformed or wrong. So, if "No", on to Question 3.

3. When Judgment Day comes will there be any in the "saved" group about whom God will say, "Hmph! I wouldn't have chosen that one" or any in the "unsaved" group about whom He would say, "Oh, my! It was My will to save that one. What went wrong?"?

If you answered "Yes", we are again talking about different Gods. The God I believe in is Sovereign and cannot fail to accomplish His will. If "No", on to the final question.

4. In heaven will there be those who can rightly say, "I was saved, at least in part, by my own contribution"? Conversely, in hell will there be any who could justly claim "I shouldn't be here; it's not what I deserve!"?

And now we're at the conclusion of the matter. If the "saved" and "unsaved" are known by God in such a way that these lists cannot change, if they are in those categories by the will of God, if God chose (willed) these groups to be what they are, and if saved people don't contribute to their salvation while the unsaved rightly earn their outcome, tell me again what the objection is to the doctrine of Election.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Marketing the Church

Back in the '70's folks like Peter Wagner and Donald McGavran started a movement that is called the "Church Growth" movement. From multiple sources we received eager recommendations that the church start marketing itself much like the business world does.

Folks like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren took it to heart. They surveyed their "potential customers" with classic marketing questions -- "What don't you like in a church?" "What would you like?" "What makes church relevant?" -- you know ... standard stuff. Then they built megachurches with the results.

It seemed like a great idea, especially since it appeared to succeed. And "succeed" remains the measure of "great idea", doesn't it? If you raised a flag -- "Excuse me ... is this right?" -- you were just being contrary. You were old and stodgy. You just weren't willing to adapt. Look ... meeting "felt needs", making short, topical sermons, picking new music with catchy tunes and light lyrics ... marketing the church works. How can you possibly complain? What could possibly be wrong?

Odd thing ... statistics started suggesting that the "success" wasn't what they thought it was. Overall church attendance hadn't changed. They just moved. And the marketing techniques didn't seem to work for most churches. In the end, giving people what they wanted may have caught their interest, but it seemed to make churches that were a mile wide and an inch deep.

What went wrong? Well, while at first look it seemed to be wise, there really are serious differences between business and the church. Business leaders are managers; pastors are ministers. The first rule of business is "The customer is always right"; the first message of the Gospel is "all have sinned". In business you tailor your product to meet the customers' needs; the "product" of the church is God. Or put it this way: Business never asks customers to submit to their product.

What seemed like a good idea may not have been. It just may be that, in our aim to "redeem the culture", we sold out the Gospel.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Does God love the world?

One of the most common views about God among believers and unbelievers alike is that "God loves everybody." Even if unbelievers don't believe, they see it as a given, a standard claim of the believer. And any attempt to question it is met with serious backlash. You don't want to argue that God doesn't love everybody. That will certainly put you outside the door.

On one hand it must be argued biblically that God indeed loves everyone. Jesus said, "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt 5:44-45). We are to be like our Father in heaven, you see. We are to love our enemies just as our Father in heaven gives good things to the just and the unjust. God loves everyone.

On the other hand, it is not right to argue that God loves everyone the same. Now, I know ... that claim might make you squirm a little. Here, look at it this way. The Church is described in Scripture as the Bride of Christ, and we know that Christ loves His Bride. In human terms, we are commanded to love our neighbor (including our enemies). At the same time, you know that the love you have for your neighbor doesn't compare to the love you have for your spouse. It's not the same. In fact, if it was the same, it would be evil. We are not to love our neighbors in the same way that we love our spouses. Neither does God love the unjust in the same way that He loves the just.

The best place to find this distinction is in what you would probably consider the least likely place. It is in the most popular argument for the universal love of God, John 3:16. Come on ... quote it with me. You all know it.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
"Come on!" you might be saying. "Can it be any clearer? Doesn't it say, 'God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son?'" No, I'm sorry to say, it does not. What it does say is this: "God loved the world in this manner ..." That "so" isn't quantity, but quality. We use "so" that way when we use a phrase like "You have to do the task just so." The word "so" can be a quantity, but the word here is not that term; it's a qualitative term. "God loved the world ... this way." What way? Well, He sent His Son. But don't stop there. There are limitations placed here. He displays a special love for a special group. What group? "Whosoever believes in Him." And what is that special love? They receive everlasting life. You see, it's "in this manner".

It is undeniable that God has a general love for the people of the world. That's why He sent His Son to die. However, God's love is not infinite. We must not forget that there is a particular love that God has for His own people -- those who believe in His Son -- and a particular love of Christ for His Bride -- those who are the Church. Don't be confused. God doesn't love everyone equally. Christ isn't an adulterer loving everyone in the world in the same way. For those of you who are believers, there is a special love. And that's a good thing. Cherish that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The question isn't just a Calvinist question. Secular philosophers debate it as well. Interestingly, as modern science becomes the "god of this world", modern philosophy, in order to remain consistent, must conclude that the answer is "no". What is the question? "Does Man have Free Will?"

The difficulty with the question is definition of terms. What, exactly, is intended by the term, "Free Will"? As it turns out, there is a whole gamut of meaning to the phrase. On one end of the spectrum is the idea that human beings have the capacity to choose apart from any influence whatsoever. At this end, "free" is defined as "apart from any influence" and "will" is defined as "the capacity to choose". This definition of the phrase, however, turns out to be completely nonsensical before it gets out of the gate. You see, in order to make a choice you must have inclinations, and inclinations are things that influence choices. An example I heard was the image of a person who comes to a fork in the road. Someone who has no inclinations, no predilection, no influence at all, will not be able to actually choose a direction. If they do choose a direction it will be a random choice -- a flip of the coin, so to speak. This kind of choice is not a choice. It is a random selection. And they will not be liable for such a choice because there was no real intent. So it isn't "will", but random action.

At the other end of the spectrum of definition is the notion of "determined free will". At this end, the idea is that humans can make choices ("will"), but that for it to be "free", all that has to happen is that it isn't decided for the human. They make the choice without external coercion. Of course, between the extremes there are multiple shades of meaning by multiple people.

The conflict for science occurs when they impose a naturalistic prerequisite on the world. Science, when it is consistent (consistent with the prevailing idea that all events are of naturalistic origins and Man is simply a biochemical computer), must conclude that humans do not have free will at all. They make choices that are coerced by their biochemistry. All choices are predetermined by their "programming". Humans think they're making uncoerced choices, but it's actually just an illusion, the product of their physical world.

The conflict for Christianity on the topic of "free will" occurs when we apply the premise of God's Sovereignty. Many Christians argue that God is sovereign but Man has "free will", and they use that term in a sense that God cannot and does not influence or interfere with human choices. In other words, whether or not the arguer intends or accepts it, God is not sovereign when it comes to Man's choices. Sorry, God. Maybe You're mostly sovereign or almost sovereign, but certainly not the only Sovereign that Paul recognizes in 1 Tim 6:15. What humans generally want from God (and my term "humans" includes many Christians) is autonomy. They want to believe that they are sovereign over themselves. Any infringement on that autonomy is, well, not right. God wouldn't do it. God shouldn't do it.

In general, we can conclude two things from the Bible. One is that Man makes choices and that he is held liable for those choices. The other is that God is Sovereign. If we start with those two premises, we have to come to a different view of "free will" than you might have expected. One is that Man certainly has "free will" in some sense because Man is liable for the choices he does or doesn't make. If all choices are coerced, we aren't liable for those choices. So we must make some choices without coercion. The other is that the notion of autonomy, completely free choices, does not exist. Humans make their choices based on their inclinations. A person who possesses only a sin nature is inclined to sin and will choose to do so, not because God coerces them to, but because their nature does. In Jesus's words, sinners are "slaves to sin" (John 8:34), and that's not "free". Forgiven people with imputed righteousness and the Spirit working in them have the capacity to make other choices, but that's because there is another influence at work in them.

The Bible holds both concepts -- Sovereign God and the limited free will of Man -- in suspension. They're both true, even if they appear to contradict. In Genesis 20 Abimilech is told not to touch Abraham's wife. When he tells God he didn't, God says, "I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against Me. Therefore I did not let you touch her" (Gen 20:6). Both God and Man made that choice. In Luke 22:22, Jesus says that Judas's betrayal was predetermined and Judas was liable for his own choice to betray Christ. In Philippians 2, Paul tells us to "work out your salvation" (our job) because it is God at work in us (His job) giving us the will and power to do so (Phil 2:12-13). We know that God works all things after the counsel of His will (Sovereignty), and we must make the proper choices ("will") in being transformed (Rom 12:2).

The human tendency is to argue for autonomy. The truth is that it's a myth. If we start with God and follow His character and Word, you can only conclude that humans have limited free will and that, in the final analysis, God is Sovereign. Anything else diminishes God and magnifies Man.

Friday, March 20, 2009


There is a constant undercurrent among a large number of American Christians that tastes very much like the world that we are commanded not to befriend (James 4:4). It is in the method by which we determine what is or isn't true.

The world today, especially here in America, likes to decide what is true by experiment. This is obviously the case in the world of science, but it's equally so in the world of everyday living. Oh, we don't call it "experiment" there; we call it "experience". That is, if we experience it, it's true. If we don't, it is questionable at best. You'll find this in phrases like I've heard from people when they say, "Yeah, I tried that 'born again' thing ... it didn't work." That, in face, is the most popular form of experimentation -- "success" -- "Does it work?" If a church, for instance, wanted to grow its numbers and started a program they believed would accomplish it, the program is successful if it increases their numbers and, therefore, true. (Thus we see churches trying to mimic well-known megachurches in an attempt to get the same results.)

In fact, in the end, for most people "does it work?" is the standard definition of "truth". If it "works", it's true. If it produces the results we were looking for it's true. If it doesn't "work", it's not true. Now, I don't think you would have much difficulty in seeing how this might just be problematic for Christians. You see, what humans define as "works" as opposed to what God defines as "true" don't always align. And I've just hit on the problem. When we start our definition of "true" with humans, we've missed the point.

Here, let's see if I can throw out a quote for you and see if you can catch it. "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Sound familiar? Now, put that together with perhaps a lesser known verse from Proverbs. "Every word of God proves true" (Prov 30:5). But ... we (Christians) know that, inside. We know that the Word of God is true. So ... why is it that we still have this tendency to define truth experientially?

There is in American Evangelicalism an inclination to discard certain things. Evangelicals prefer not to include Church History in their examination of the truth. There is a distrust of higher learning. There is deliberate skepticism toward intellectualism. Theologians often use two terms: orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The first is right thinking and the second is right practice. Which of the two is more important for most Evangelicals? What you believe isn't nearly as important as what you practice. In fact, many Evangelicals are proud to denounce creeds and confessions. "No creed but Christ" is their creed. Oh ... wait ...

What ends up happening, then, is that instead of relying on history, on the accumulated wisdom of the Church, on the basic premise that Christ has built His Church and the Holy Spirit has led His people into all truth, many Evangelicals defer to their own experience. Doctrine isn't important. Right thinking, right theology, a correct view of God and His Word, these aren't important. What is really important is that I feel close to God, that I experience Him. It places my deceitful heart as the final arbiter of truth.

Experience is good, but we must keep in mind that our experiences may deceive us and our conclusions from them may be faulty. On the other hand, "every word of God proves true". Wouldn't it be better if we derived our definition of "true" from the One who is Truth. You know, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life ..." I don't know that we fallen humans are nearly as well equipped to adequately determine "what works" as we think we are. And that might lead to experiences we may not enjoy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Transcendence and Immanence

The Bible speaks of God in two distinct aspects. In one aspect God is transcendent. His transcendence refers to the fact that He is prior to, over all, and sovereign over our world. It refers to His holiness, a separateness that exceeds our ability to comprehend. It is spoken of most vividly in Isaiah 6.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke (Isa 6:1-4).
His transcendence is there in the language -- "high and lifted up". It's there in the scene -- surrounded by seraphim. It's there in the words -- "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" (Note that the repetition of the term "holy" is simply a way to emphasize it, like "holy, holier, holiest" or like we would do if we capitalized it, bolded it, and italicized it in print.) It's there in the simple fact that sinless angels themselves could not bring themselves to look on Him. Transcendent -- above, over, HOLY. (Yeah, like that.)

There is also His immanence. This concept is simply that He is here, present, immediate. He spoke to Moses in the burning bush. He visited Abraham and ate a meal. He is always and immediately present. David captured this beautifully in Psalm 139.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Psa 139:7-12).
Heaven, hell, darkness or light, God was ever-present. Oh, yeah, that's the term we all know, isn't it? "Omnipresent."

Quite often we Christians seem to err on one side of these two characteristics or the other. We tend to emphasize one and miss the other. For instance, the very popular perspective today about God is "the God who is my buddy". You know the one. It feels so good. The hymn said, "He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own." It's a glorious sense to know that the One who loves you is there with you. And that's all good. The error occurs when we diminish Him to "my buddy". That god (the lowercase "g" isn't a typo) is like your human friends. He'll wink at your indiscretions and not bother you about your faults. He's your pal; He won't be unkind or cause any discomfort or call you to task for your sins. No, no, He's a friend!

The other side, of course, is the transcendent. That one is glorious to behold. He's the unseen Hand that formed the glorious landscapes we all enjoy. He's the Sovereign who controls all, who works all things after His counsel, who causes all things to work together for your good. Great stuff! The error on this side occurs when we forget that He's present. This god is, well, distant. He's some old guy with a beard managing the universe without actually paying attention to you. He doesn't see your indiscretions or bother you about your faults. He doesn't make demands on you to be holy yourself because, well, He's too far removed. Frankly, He's almost the definition of "out of sight, out of mind".

There are a few things we can see in these twin errors. First, we learn that humans are prone to errors, especially in their views of God. It's something we need to keep in mind constantly. You know, deceitful heart and all. Second, what we really want, as sinful humans, is to enjoy the love and power of the Lord without actually submitting to the Lord. We want someone who will give us what we want and let us do what we want. Unfortunately, that god doesn't exist. Then there is the other lesson. A right view of God brings about all the good that God intended as well as avoiding the errors He did not. A right view of God makes demands on us that the transcendent God has the right to make and the immanent God has the presence to enforce. A transcendent God is majestic; an immanent God is present. We need both. It would be wise of us to keep both ever pressing in our thoughts. A God who is one or the other loses necessary attributes that we desperately need. A God who is one or the other is not God. We need to keep the transcendent and the immanent aspects of God in balance and ever present.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rejecting Sinners

In a well-written article by Wesley Hill, he asks the question "Will the Church be the Church for Homosexual Christians?" Now before you get your knickers in a twist, the question is not likely what you are thinking. He's not urging the Church to be more accepting of homosexual behavior. Hill is sharing his own struggles with homosexual desires -- desires that he struggles against as a Christian -- and the loneliness that it brings.

In this day and age some Christians are having difficulty maintaining their position that things like homosexual behavior and adultery are sin. Still, according to John, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). Believers have the Spirit in them working to sanctify them and transforming them. Still, even Paul said, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own" (Phil 3:12). Even the great Apostle Paul struggled with sin. The problem, then, is not that we are troubled by sin. The problem is that we try to act like we're not.

In our attempts to take a firm stand against sin in the world, we tend to take an equally firm stand against recognizing sin among believers. No, that's not quite right. We tend to deny it. "If those others knew what I'm struggling with, they'd kick me out for sure." Even when we find a safe haven, somewhere we can share our struggles, the response seems tepid and dry. "Don't worry" we might hear, God will take you through it." All the while there is a sense of being a leper, at best among friends, but still "outside".

We tend, then, to not only reject sin, but to reject sinners. If we were consistent with that, we'd be in a world of hurt. All Christians sin. All believers struggle with sin. Sometimes it is even recurring sin. Sometimes it seems like we'll never beat this particulcar problem. And we do it alone because we know we're supposed to be sinless, right? After all, no one else seems to be struggling with this. I mean, do you actually suppose that the pastor or the elders have a problem with pornography, as an example? Of course not! We wouldn't let them be where they are if they did! And would we willingly embrace (literally and figuratively) a brother who admitted to homosexual desires? So why would they embrace me?

Christians find it difficult to maintain balance here. The Bible is clear that sin is sin and we ought to reject sin. On the other hand, the Bible is equally clear that believers are forgiven and the only righteousness we have is imputed, not acquired. So why is it that, when we find someone (like us) who is struggling with sin -- struggling against sin -- we still tend to push them away? It's that whole balance issue. We don't want to embrace sin, so we fear embracing sinners. On the other hand, what is it that people who are struggling with sin really need most? Well, it's that embrace of fellow believers, that support of fellow sinners, that encouragement and exhortation of others who struggle with sin.

One of the primary complaints about the Church is "It's full of hypocrites!" There is some truth to the claim. The Church is constructed of admitted sinners. To be a Christian you have to first admit that you're a fallen human being, a failure in the eyes of God, unable to redeem yourself. Somehow, too often, the next step after that admission and accepting Christ's sacrifice on our behalf is to deny that we are what we started out admitting we were. It's a trick of Satan, really. Deny struggling believers the support they need by making struggling believers think that they can't admit what they are -- people who have a common Savior and are in need of help.

Brethren, these things ought not be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Malls and Megachurches

Malls are everywhere in America. Enter your local mall and what will you likely find? Well, there are certainly variations, but there is also a lot of commonality. Malls are America's monuments to consumerism. They are the gathering places of individual taste and personal preference, of spending and using. Malls provide a whole variety of products from the obscure to the profane, from the delightful to the decadent. Most anything you want can be found at a mall ... and "what you want" is king.

Malls typically have similar features, even if the particulars vary. They generally have a food court of sorts, places where you can get the necessary designer coffee and other sustenance you need to keep going. There is usually a bookstore where you can buy trinkets and knickknacks ... and books, of course. Beyond that there is a host of choices. Truthfully, malls don't typically have what you need; they have what you want. For instance, you won't find a supermarket in most malls even though everyone needs to eat. In fact, most of what you need can be found outside the mall in smaller establishments at cheaper rates. Still, malls rule when it comes to consumers. You see, the notion of personal choice and the smorgasbord of "I want it my way" has its own allure.

It's an interesting thing with malls. They tend to be the gathering place of the community. Large numbers of people assemble there. On the other hand, there is very little in the way of communing that occurs there. Oh, you might go with your wife or husband or kids. Often small groups of youth will meet there and pal around. Still, there is not much in the way of interaction. You will come and go and no one will know that you were there. Despite the centrality of community, malls are not generally the place where you build relationships with your community. No, despite the large numbers of people, they are very individualistic.

Malls, then, are simply places where people gather without actually getting together to meet their own desires and satisfy their own felt needs. They like the variety offered and the convenience of one location. They like the appeal to their own wishes. They are willing to pay a higher price for what they want without indulging in interaction because malls are America's monuments to consumerism.

Megachurches are everywhere in America. Enter your local megachurch and what will you likely find? Oh, wait, this sounds familiar. I'll tell you what -- go back to what I just wrote in the previous paragraphs and substitute "church" for "mall" and you'll see a serious correlation. Oh, sure, there are some differences. Malls, for instance, cater to materialistic consumerism while megachurches cater to spiritual consumerism. Malls have a smorgasbord of goods while megachurches cater to a smorgasbord of therapeutic programs and individualistic services. Still, there is a lot of points of correspondence.

Is it just me, or does anyone else have a problem with this?

Monday, March 16, 2009


Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).
A "word of the day" entry: "anthropocentric". We can find a dictionary definition, but let's see if we can figure it out from its roots. "Anthropos" is the Greek word for "man" -- primarily "man" as a group, not a gender. You know ... humans. Then there is the "centric" part. I think most of us can figure that out. So, simply put, "anthropocentric" means "centered on humans".

On one hand, it is fundamental to humans to be anthropocentric. After all, everything we know, everything we experience, is human-centered because we're humans. Fine. No problem. The problem occurs when thinking humans cast that experiential knowledge further and decide that "human-centered" is all there is. This second aspect is the natural result -- in fact, the fundamental position -- of fallen human nature. "I will be like the Most High." It seems generally to be the default position for humans. "The universe revolves around me."

Anthropocentrism has its fingers everywhere. Our culture, for instance, determines today what is "good" and "bad" based on whether or not it "benefits humans". Television entertains us, so it's good. We like whatever the popular music is today, so it's good. Killing large numbers of Americans (terrorism) is not pleasant, so it's bad. Preaching the Gospel to people who don't want to hear it or have a different perspective interferes with their personal freedom, so it's bad. The ultimate "bad"? God. You see, God does things that are definitely unpleasant to humans (like allowing babies to die or allowing tragedies to occur everywhere), so He is definitely bad.

It's not just secular culture that embraces anthropocentrism, though. Check out your local church. Most churches have decided to shift to an anthropocentric perspective. The position is not "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." The position is, "We need to make the truth 'relevant'. We need to make it marketable. We need to conform our message to a culture that opposes it so they can hear it better." So we find "seeker-sensitive" approaches and marketing approaches to church. We even find -- as stunning as this is -- anthropocentric worship. Think about this. On what basis do most churches determine the sound and style of their worship service? Is it designed to do what pleases God, or is it designed to cater to what people want to hear? Is the primary concern "What would Jesus like?" or is it "What would best stir the emotions of the congregation?"

As it turns out, anthropocentrism is the fundamental problem. Human beings, Christian and non-Christian alike, tend to derive their worldview, their opinions, their evaluations from a human perspective. That is, meaning and value is determined primarily by how it affects humans. The counter-approach is theocentrism. In a theocentric perspective, all meaning and value is determined by God's view. All good and bad is determined by God. Theocentrism starts with God and works its way down to humans.

I wouldn't expect non-believers to have a theocentric view. They are, by nature, hostile to God. They are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph 2:3). I get that. What is terribly sad, however, is the overwhelming numbers of believers who blithely evaluate everything from an anthropocentric perspective. They run into problems, for instance, when the Bible portrays God as commanding "Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (1 Sam 15:3). "Wait! God doesn't do that! People are important! I mean, think about the innocent children!" And this is an understandable response ... from an anthropocentric perspective. Key questions like justification by faith apart from works and the Sovereignty of God hinge on a theocentric view and come into question with an anthropocentric approach. Why do Christians, for instance, balk at the idea that God causes all things to occur as He wills? "Well, what about the human will? Isn't that important?" It is ... from an anthropocentric approach. It is far less important when you start with a Sovereign God. Other key matters fall apart as well when you start with a Man-center. Values change, morality shifts ... your treasure moves as does your heart. When you start with Man, you even lose your capacity to determine sinfulness. On the other hand, most of the more sticky questions simply vanish when you start with God and allow Him to define value and meaning. "Good" takes on a different sense. "Sovereignty" assumes a wholeness of meaning that it lacked with anthropocentrism. "Sin" becomes real ... very real. Standards change. It all falls into place.

Here's the real problem, and I indicated it at the beginning. The Number One problem for humans is idolatry. We like to think of idolatry as worshiping some sort of wooden figure or some such, but idolatry is much more generic. It is accomplished any time you substitute anything for God. That would include a faulty notion of God. That would include an anthropocentric notion of God. That would certainly include an anthropocentric Gospel and anthropocentric worship. All of reality starts with God. When we substitute anything for that starting place, whether it is science or nature or human beings, it is idolatry. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slide to Oblivion

Michael Spencer (iMonk) has written a provocative article first on his blog and then in the Christian Science Monitor that warns that Evangelicalism is doomed. Truth be told, I think I agreed with most of what he wrote. And he's not the first. George Barna ran around in the 90's taking polls and warning that if the Church didn't change its approach, it would disappear. Funny thing ... the church listened ... and it's declining more.

As I said, I agree with most of what Spencer wrote. Evangelicalism is in trouble. And I agree with most of his solutions -- reform is needed. But one thing that Spencer and Barna seem to miss -- I suspect largely because a good part of the church in America today seems to miss it -- is that Evangelicalism in part and the Church as a whole are not ours. Well, okay, perhaps Evangelicalism is. I'll grant you that. But not the Church.

It wasn't Barna or Spencer or any other fine modern mind that offered this quote: "I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18). I'm sure you recognize the speaker. It was none other than Christ Himself. The sentence is full of meaning. First, whose church is it? Jesus claimed it for Himself. Second, who is building it? Jesus is building it Himself. Third, what is the outcome? "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." That's a pretty certain outcome, Barna not withstanding. Something that is often missed is the phrase "the gates of hell". Please note that "gates" are not an offensive weapon; they are defensive. Just taking "hell" as a reference to death, Jesus says that death itself cannot shut Christ out. He will build His church.

Acts 2:42-47 describes the first church. The description ends with a telling statement: "And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." It wasn't the fiery preaching of Peter. It wasn't the devotion to the apostles' teaching. It wasn't the fellowship, prayer, sharing all things in common, or gathering to worship. It wasn't their shared love or glad hearts. These were all means, to be sure. But there is no doubt as to who was building the Church. "The Lord added to their number ..."

I believe that we are headed for dire times. I believe there will likely be a large falling away of those who "believed" without actually having a change of heart. I believe that the Church itself will likely fall into larger disfavor. I'm pretty sure that the numbers will decline. I don't doubt that genuine persecution is around the corner. But if you think that our grand marketing schemes or faulty Evangelicalism (you know, the current view that Christianity is experiential and doctrine isn't nearly so important) is going to shore up the leaking dikes, you're likely mistaken. It isn't now nor was it ever an issue of a church that was ours. It has always been a church built by Christ snatched out of the mouth of death itself. In the final analysis, neither the world nor Satan himself can do a think to shake that. So I see a reason to be wonderfully optimistic! I've read the final chapter. Jesus wins!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

SIL International

I had a pleasant visit recently with my uncle and aunt. They work with SIL International (originally "Summer Institute of Linguistics"). They live most of the time in Mexico with a people known as the Me'tpha (pronounced metpa). And their task, since they were a young couple until today, in their '60's, has been to translate the Bible into the local language. Now, I've heard about this, of course, but getting it from them first hand is really amazing. You don't really think about it until someone spells it out for you. What goes into this process?

The first step, of course, is to learn the language. So you go to where they speak it and you immerse yourself in their lives. Aunt Esther was a nurse, so they did that first by going there to provide medical care for a backward people with no such care available. Having learned the language, the next step is to write and read the language. In this case, no one could write and read the language because there was no written form. So this step requires 1) a clear understanding of the nuances of the language and 2) the ability to create an alphabet that fits the nuances. Me'tpha, for instance, is a tonal language. That means that it has a whole set of distinct sounds that the standard alphabet cannot accomodate. So they have to create new letters that stand for those sounds. Of course, you have to minimize that so that others might be able to follow somewhat, so it's a daunting task in itself. And, of course, in this day of computers, which could really ease this job, creating a new set of letters is a whole special job on its own.

Having established a written form of the language, your next task is to teach the people that written form. In other words, having learned the language yourself from scratch and then teaching yourself to write it, your next job is to teach others who have never read or written their language to do just that. Now, keep in mind that there is not, at this point, any books available with which to teach them to read. So, while the governments are happy to have you teach their people to read and write, you're going to have to create the books for them to read. What do to, what to do? Hey, I know! Let's translate the Bible into their language and then you can teach them to read it! So, under the politically acceptable phrase, "literature of high moral content", they start the long process of translation. Translating from English to Me'tpha is not the right approach. No. They have to translate from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic) to give them the most accurate Bible they can. So, one book at a time, step by step, they begin translating the New Testament.

Now, their fundamental purpose, of course, is to share the Gospel ... to make disciples. So, throughout the process thus far they have been sharing the Gospel, training converts, and building a church in this people group. As they do the translation work, then, they are teaching the church to read and sharing Scripture with them. This gives them the Word (of paramount importance), but also involves them in the translation. However, this translation process itself is tedious. It's not straightforward. First, you translate, say, John 1. Then you give it to someone who can read the language and communicate with you in another language -- say, Spanish. So you have them read the passage in your Me'tpha translation and then write down what they understood it to mean in Spanish. Then you give the Spanish version to someone else who reads Spanish and have them compare it with the Spanish translation of John 1. If it's a match, you have a good translation. On to John 2.

Uncle Mark and Aunt Esther have been at this for nearly 40 years. They've translated much of the New Testament. Their goal, before they retire ("retire" means "too old to do it anymore") is to finish the New Testament, Genesis, and some of the Psalms. As they've progressed, they've found new challenges. They set out, for instance, to translate the Bible into the language of the particular region. As it turned out, there are seven dialects in that region, and attempting to merge them is insulting to the rest. So they've had to work on more translations. One of the biggest challenges is to work themselves out of a job. To accomplish this, they need to 1) bring locals to Christ, 2) bring those believers to a level of maturity that enables them to minister, and 3) involve them in the work to the point that they can continue all facets on their own. They've had to learn a variety of languages, including Spanish, Me'tpha, some Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. They've recruited help that has also learned Spanish, English, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. They've trained pastors, taught people to read and write, and taught those who help with the work to not only use computers, but to use the specially modified computers with the new set of letters. They've involved non-Christians in the work by getting them to read the Me'tpha translations and translate them into Spanish. (If you want to be most accurate, you want someone who is completely unfamiliar with the text to read the translation and then translate it because they won't be influenced by what they think it's supposed to say.) And, along the way, they've raised a family of kids who, with the exception of one, are all in the mission field themselves. (That exception teaches at Biola University.)

Well, it's truly a daunting task, bringing the Scripture to a language that never had it. SIL is so adept at this task that Microsoft has gone to them to get their letter sets to add to their fonts. And day by day God is adding to their numbers in Mexico. They've been through cultural and political revolutions. They've been chased out and invited back. Most impressive to me is their positive perspective. "We know Who is in charge," they said, "so there's nothing to really worry about, is there?" I found their story fascinating. I was encouraged by their attitudes, their progress, and their love for the Lord and their neighbors in Mexico. I have new things to pray for now.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What's in a Trillion?

Others have done this kind of stuff. I tried doing some figuring on my own. How do you break down a trillion dollars? How much is a trillion ... anything?

One trillion seconds ago would have been about 32,000 years ago (read "prehistoric"). One trillion hours ago would have been more than 19,000 centuries past.

If you started a company in the year 0 AD (as if you could) and that company earned a net $1 million a day, your company would only have made $734 billion by the year 2009. It would take until 2734 (or so) to make a trillion dollars.

If the government was just to distribute the money to the American people, everyone would receive roughly $3300. (What do you suppose a family of 4 could do with a combined $13,000?) If they decided instead to distribute it to households, each household would get about $9000. If they decided to distribute it to people paying mortgages, each mortgagee would get over $13,000.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Australia's gross domestic product (GDP) is slightly more than a trillion dollars. It's more than the combined GDP of Norway and Sweden and slightly less than the combined GDP of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and the United Arab Emirates (you know ... the big oil countries).

But let's say we just got frivolous and strung together one trillion $1 bills. The string would go about 95 million miles. That's the distance to the Sun.

No, frivolous is stupid. (Spending a trillion dollars is not, right?) Let's say that we wanted to do nice things with it. The government could pay off every student loan and only have spend half the trillion. To feed the world's estimated 840 million chronically malnourished people would cost another $24 billion. Not even close to consuming that money.

Or how about this? There are approximately 922 million people in Africa. Family sizes average about 6. It costs an average of $32 a month to feed a family in Africa. A trillion dollars, then, could feed the entire continent of Africa for 17 years.

According to the USDA, last year it cost an average of $270 per month to feed the average male a normal amount of food (not too much, not too little). Without adjusting for gender or age (it costs less to feed women and children), a trillion dollars would feed every man, woman, and child in America for an entire year ... with money left over to pay off those same pesky student loans and feed those same malnourished people.

I'm sorry. After awhile that "trillion" number just gets too big to think about.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Adapting to Culture

For at least the last half-century, the American church has been attempting to adapt itself to the culture in which if finds itself. Now, to be fair, there are certainly good reasons to do so. As an obvious example, if I were to hand my neighbor a Greek New Testament and tell him, "Read this book; it's the most important book you'll ever read", I would have wasted my time. If we want people to read the Bible, it must be offered in their language. On the other hand, it should be equally obvious that there are adaptations we can't use. As a crude example, the Christian that regularly hires prostitutes so that, while he is meeting their needs by paying them for their services, he can share the Gospel with them has clearly "jumped the tracks" on adapting to culture. So while some adaptation is necessary, it is apparent that not all adaptation is good adaptation.

There is a fundamental problem, however. What is the culture to which we are trying to adapt? Let's take a look at American culture for a moment. These days, American culture is largely defined by its entertainment. If that's true, we find that our culture is largely obsessed with youth and appearance. The most popular shows are about who can sing best and who can survive on remote islands under obscure and strangely controlled circumstances. You can find thousands of ads about how to improve your appearance, your sex appeal, your skin, your hair, but you won't find a single ad about how to be a better person. Our entertainment centers largely around sex and excitement but certainly not about character. Our current society, in fact, has moved away from character as an issue. We prefer to judge a person by his or her appearance rather than character. Values are devalued and morals intentionally sidelined. In terms of morality, our culture is specifically and purposely amoral. You're free, of course, to have whatever moral viewpoint you wish, as long as you don't try to force it on anyone else. Oh, by the way, if you try to espouse things like "abstinence is good", we'll ridicule you 'til the cows come home. In fact, if you use quaint phrases like "'til the cows come home", we'll ridicule you just as much. No, no, American culture is not about values or morals or character. Our societal mores include the disdain for the old, the ugly, and the boring. It is more about meaninglessness and lack of content.

Back to the question, then. When the church seeks adapt itself to the culture, to make itself relevant to the society in which it finds itself, how would it go about doing that? Most people, Christians included, like to think that culture is morally neutral. It is what it is. The truth today is that our culture has made itself anti-moral. Enter the church. If we are to adapt to the culture in which we find ourselves, how do we become anti-moral, keeping character as irrelevant in our approach and spread the Gospel? It seems that, in today's world, our culture has become the enemy of the church. Is the church, then, supposed to adapt to the enemy, or is the right thing to stand against it?

The Gospel is fairly simple. Human beings have defied God and earned themselves His judgment. To remedy that problem, God sent His Son to live a perfect life, die a sinner's death, and take our place in God's judgment. To appropriate this remedy, all we need to do is recognize that we have defied God and earned ourselves His judgment ("God is right and I am wrong.") and accept Christ's payment on our behalf. And, oh, by the way, there is no other remedy. Reject that one and you're left with God's judgment rather than His mercy. That's about it. Of course, the underlying mechanics may be more complex and the results are certainly more extensive ("Changed hearts make changed lives."), but that's the basic Gospel. Now, how does the church take that basic Gospel and adapt it to our culture? The most common way to do it is to simply drop components. Let's not talk about sin (the first component). Let's not emphasize judgment (the second component). In fact, this whole "get right with God" thing is a bit much. Let's just emphasize feeling good, being happy, that kind of thing. In other words, when the church today tries to adapt to today's culture, the only way to do it is to drop that singular distinctive that makes the church the church. In his book, God in the Wasteland, David F. Wells says that the church "has bought cultural acceptability by emptying itself of serious thought, serious theology, serious worship, and serious practice in the larger culture." That, I contend, is a step too far.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mainline Decline

There was an interesting study in 1993 that asked the question, "Why are mainline churches declining in numbers?" The answer was quite surprising (to me).

Looking primarily at Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, statistics tell us that between 1960 and 1990 these churches lost between 1/5th and 1/3rd of their membership. One reason put forward is simply the secularization of our society. This is problematic because, while secularization is a given, not all churches are declining. It would seem, then, that there was something in these churches peculiar to these churches that caused this decline. What was it?

The first step in finding the answer was to identify the apparent cause. The apparent cause was that young people brought up in these denominations tended to leave. Without a "next generation", it is obvious that the numbers would drop. So the next question was "Why are young people leaving?"

More theories abounded on this question. Was it that young people felt their churches were indifferent to society's suffering? In other words, was the church no longer "relevant"? Another was that young people were getting a higher education which would tend to distance them from religious belief. Perhaps they no longer agreed with the stance of the church on issues like abortion. All of these proved problematic because conservative churches were growing. So the quest for answers continued.

What the study finally concluded was this:
Orthodox Christian belief of one variety or other, which the fundamentalists and other conservatives in our sample espouse, seems to impel people to commit their time and other resources to a distinctively Christian regimen of witness and obedience in the company of other believers. Lay liberalism, on the other hand, is not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters.
In other words, churches that embraced orthodoxy tended to grow while churches that espoused relativism were on the decline. The problem for mainline churches is "the weakening of the spiritual conviction". In other words, the churches that are growing answer the question, "What's so special about Christianity?" and the churches that are declining don't. Churches that teach, for example, that Jesus is the only way are growing and churches that preach "many ways to God" have nothing to offer.

To put it another way, it appears that preaching the truth despite its unpopularity tends to empower rather than disable people, and orthodoxy, rather than repelling, becomes attractive. So, tell me again ... why are so many tending to mitigate truth and appeal to "Can't we all just get along?"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Church Discipline

I'm going to throw a term out there and see if any of you know what it means: "capillary electrophoresis". Yeah, probably not too many out there who know that one (Science PhD Mom excluded). But that was just for fun. Let's try the next one: "church discipline". Not ringing any bells? I'm not surprised. It just doesn't happen that much anymore. The notion that a group of believers that gather together over shared belief in Christ and a particular set of doctrinal beliefs should have the right or responsibility to "discipline" members of that group is, well, archaic, even barbaric. We all know that we are to be tolerant and non-judgmental.

Well, that's all well and good ... but the source book from which the Church comes happens to disagree. Jesus Himself gave specific instructions on how to conduct church discipline. The sad fact that almost no one does it anymore is not a reason to conclude that Jesus changed His mind. It reflects, instead, the sorry condition of the followers of Christ.

What is the purpose of church discipline? Why should we do it? Well, the second question is easy: Because He said so. But there are other answers. Paul wrote "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness" (Gal 6:1). Even when he wasn't being gentle, he said, "You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor 5:5). The most obvious purpose for self-discipline is to cause the sinning brother to repent. It is to restore, to save him or her. Now, when you think of it that way, the whole "be tolerant and non-judgmental" thing looks really stupid because being tolerant and non-judgmental ignores the need of the sinner -- restoration. In other words, in trying to be kind, we're not doing them any favors.

There are other reasons for churches to practice biblical discipline. One is to spare the rest of the congregation from exposure. Sin has a way of spreading, especially if it goes unchecked. If someone sins and no one really reacts, others think, "Hey, I guess it's okay" and you have a cancer. This, again, is not doing anyone any favors. But the ultimate reason to practice discipline is to protect the name of Christ. Already it is well known out in the world how "wacky" Christians are. Most detractors can quote off-the-cuff statistics about how church people are no better morally than non-church people. Sociologists are reporting that things like divorce rates and unmarried pregnancies among believers are the same as among non-believers. Unfortunately, it's not only the Church that gets the black eye; it is Christ Himself. And that, brethren, must not be.

What, then, is the biblical method of church discipline? I'm pretty sure that most of you know this. I'm also pretty sure that very few of us actually practice it, for a variety of reasons. Still, let's review.
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt 18:15-17).
First, it's a quote from Jesus, so if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, perhaps we ought to consider this important. Second, it's one of the very few things in Scripture (or even life) that offers a process, a step-by-step procedure. That makes it fairly simple to follow. So, it is important and simple. What could be easier?

Here, then, is the process:

Step 1: If your brother sins against you, go tell him. The hope here is that he listens, repents, and everything is well. If so, problem solved. It's over. (Remember, the most obvious goal is restoration. Therefore, mission accomplished.)

Step 2: If he doesn't, "take one or two others along with you". There are multiple reasons for this. First, you need to explain the grievance to these one or two others to confirm you were actually sinned against. You may be in need of correction. Second, the accusation carries more weight if two or three confirm it. Third, the weight of numbers along with the agreement of numbers might be effective in bringing about the repentance your brother needs.

Step 3: If he doesn't listen, "tell it to the church." It now becomes the responsibility of the church itself to address the sin and urge repentance. At this point it is out of your hands.

Step 4: If he doesn't listen to the church, the final step is separation. It is the same thing commanded by Paul in 1 Cor 5:11. "Do not even eat with such a one." Again, remember, the goal is to restore the sinner, provide protection to the rest of the church, and defend the name of Christ. It is not to be angry, uncivil, unkind. It isn't retribution. But it is commanded.

Of course, this whole thing, as important and as easy as it is, is really problematic these days to churches. Most Christians seem to forget that the commanded process begins with individuals. And as humans we have difficulty keeping in view the notion that "my good name must be defended" is not at stake here. The goal is restoration of a sinner, protection of the flock, and defense of the name of Christ. Funny ... if I'm the one who was sinned against, I don't seem to appear anywhere in that list. As individuals we don't want to confront. Why? Frankly, because we don't love enough. Generally we prefer to skip Step 1 and jump right to Step 2 ... you know, to engage in gossip and gather support for our own perspective. Even more rare is giving the reins to the church. How many of us, when we've been sinned against, are happy handing that off to the church and abiding by their decision? Frankly, that final step is also not very popular. We don't want to seem intolerant or judgmental. We don't want to exclude people. Christianity is inclusive, right? I mean, if we put them out from us, how are we going to positively affect them?

Still, despite all the difficulties, ramifications, and objections, there is no doubt that it is commanded and, therefore, important, and it is one of the most clearly laid-out processes in Scripture and, therefore, fairly simple. So, despite all our shortcomings, objections, and concerns, why are we not doing it?

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Tyranny of Technology

Technology is here; no doubt about it. If you track the progress of technology over the last century, the graph would look like a hockey stick. At the far end it rises slowly and steadily, but in the last few decades it climbs exponentially. Technology has had lots of interesting effects on our society. The Industrial Age pushed lots of us into cities where it used to be that far more were scattered out in farmland and small communities. Technology has brought us easier cooking, new ways to keep in touch, easier data accumulation and storage, new ways to travel, and much more. It has, in many ways, made life easier, leaving us more time for leisure. Why, then, are we not more rested?

What is fascinating to me is to track the effect of "want" versus "need" -- especially in such a short time frame. In less than a single lifetime, things that were desires have transformed into absolute necessities. Consider, for instance, life in the '50's. What did a couple, first starting out their marriage, require to survive? Well, they needed a home -- shelter -- some place to cook and store food, a place to sleep, and likely something on which to sit when they weren't sleeping. Necessities were pretty simple. Televisions were brand new on the market and a bit too expensive for your average home, so that luxury was not a necessity. Even telephones were spotty. Some people used a common phone. Some shared a common line (called a "party line"). Some drove into town to use a phone. In the '50's, in fact, there were still houses without running water, electricity, or bathroom plumbing. These were not necessities. Entertainment might be a Saturday night in town at the movie house, reading books, or listening to The Shadow and Inner Sanctum on the radio. Neighborhoods were made up neighbors -- families with children, wives that made houses into homes, husbands that provided for their family during the week and mowed lawns with those push mowers -- you get the idea.

Go forward a single decade and things shift. Televisions are becoming more prevalent. As early as the late '60's, if you didn't have a TV, you weren't up to date. More people needed cars; not just wanted, needed. Electricity and running water were needed. By 1975 the sale of microwave ovens (quaintly called "radar ranges") exceeded regular stoves. Oh, and there was a telephone in every house. In 1973 Motorola came out with a cell phone prototype. You know the ones. They were bigger than your average shoe. Most "mobile phones" were permanently installed in cars and were not for the average person. In 1978 Bell Labs launched the first cellular network called "Amps" -- and, no, this was not for everyone. Apple came out with "home computers" in the mid-'70's, but they weren't for home, really. They were primarily used by businesses. But the really lucky kids had an Atari for entertainment purposes.

Jump forward to the 80's. Computers are coming into their own, but the common man still doesn't have one at home. What does he have? Well, every home needs two cars and at least one television on top of the needs of the '50's couple. The family needs a microwave oven and a toaster and air conditioning if the climate is warm. They may not have a cell phone, but someone probably has a pager by the late '80's. The wives have long since stopped making homes and gone to work, either to "fulfill themselves" or to meet the needs of the rising cost of supporting a family. Of course, birth rates start to drop some. I mean, who can work full time and have children? We need to have more stuff ... but children aren't a necessity.

Another decade and things change again. In the 90's and into the 21st century, needs have shifted. We cannot survive without computers, cell phones, televisions, multiple automobiles, and more. Little children going to school must have cell phones. A couple of years ago an elementary school made the news by trying to ban them. It wasn't just the children who protested; it was the parents, too. Their kids needed those phones, and they needed them to be on all the time. And what kind of cruel parent would deny their poor child the absolutely necessary iPod or equivalent? Kids can't get by without their audio lifeline plugged into their ears. It's simple need. They must be able to text their friends. It's a matter of survival. They have to have their computer, connected to the Internet, along with some sort of game system for entertainment. As for families, the need for children is largely gone. Who needs progeny? In fact, that whole "'til death do us part" thing is no longer necessary, is it? Marriage is optional. Values aren't really necessary. Technology, on the other hand, is vital.

Now, I know it's not solely the product of technology. It's more the product of human beings. It is the result of human greed and pride and envy. It is that childish "Mine!" thing that sees what another has and must have it or die. But we adults seem to lose sight of the simplicity of life. What is really needful? And what, of all the "new necessities", is worth the cost? Much of our technology has served to separate rather than join people. Even so-called "social networking", while appearing to bring people together, fails to make genuine, in-person contact, and despite what you might think, any social interaction that is not face-to-face is not the same, as any parent whose child has ever ended up in conversations with a "12-year-old girl" who turns out to be a 40-year-old child molester can tell you. Childhood obesity has replaced "playing outdoors". Doctors are now treating new syndromes brought on by too much videogaming or too much texting. It seems, thanks to our human nature, that, instead of controlling our technology, we've succumbed to it. At what point do we give in completely? And at what cost have we come this far? I'm sure I'm not the only one asking these questions.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Lord's Supper

I grew up in the church. I knew about Communion when I was very young. I heard the passages over and over and understood it. Or did I?
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way also He took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:23-27).
Pretty simple, isn't it? The Lord's Supper simply represents the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. It is to serve as a perpetual reminder. Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. It gets pretty lame after awhile, hearing the same thing over and over again, even if there is truth. So imagine my surprise when I started to discover new things there.

The Lord's Supper is what is referred to by the Church as a "sacrament". Now, before you Protestants get your knickers in a twist, a sacrament is simply defined as "a rite in which God is uniquely active." Augustine defined it as "a visible sign of an invisible reality". A sacrament basically serves as an outward sign of an inward reality. An example of this is Jewish circumcision. Paul says of Abraham, "He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Rom 4:11). Circumcision, then, was an outward seal of an inward reality, righteousness -- a circumcised heart.

Now, on one hand, a sign or seal seems to serve little purpose. It isn't the content. It isn't "proof". It isn't anything substantial. On the other hand ... well, let me illustrate from life. When I joined the military, I was required to show a birth certificate. I had a photocopy and showed them. They didn't accept it. Why? They required a birth certificate with the State Seal on it. You see, official birth certificates come with a seal embossed on it. So, while the information they needed -- name, nationality, etc. -- was contained on both the copy and the one with the seal, it was the seal that demonstrated the reality.

So carry that over to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The reality is not in the event or the process, but it serves as an outward sign of an inward reality. It was instituted by Christ as a constant reminder. It confirms the underlying truth.

What, then, are we to remember? Well, we are obviously asked to remember Christ. "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." And, more specifically, it is designed to "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes". We all understand that. But there is more. In the event, Christ gave His disciple bread and wine, representatives of His body and blood. He said earlier, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). Isn't it interesting that He declared Himself "the bread of life" and yet told them they they would "never thirst"? You see, another aspect of this sacrament is that Jesus is the one who provides our sustenance. He is our food and drink. He nourishes us. He gives us strength. He causes us to live and grow in Him. He satisfies. "Take, eat." That's what He told His disciples. "This is my body." Not only does He provide for our needs and sustains us, the life that He gives us is eternal. He provides that eternal life. He took on our frail existence and, in return, gave us His eternal one. He took on our sin and in return gave us His righteousness. He took on our humanity and, in return, made us sons of God.

All of this is contained -- signed -- in the Lord's Supper. His death, His blood shed for us, the very Gospel, His providing for us, His sustenance, eternal life, His presence with us, all of this and more is part of the sacrament that we call "Communion" -- the Lord's Supper.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


An anti-theist ("anti-theist" differs from "atheist" in that one is on a campaign to rid us of God while the other is simply personally convinced there is no God) offered this common objection to the existence of God. "I can imagine a world where humans have free will but always choose good, where nothing bad happens. If I can imagine a perfect world, why couldn't your so-called 'omniscient God' imagine it and make it happen?" Well ... he got us there. He knows perfect. God doesn't. What a shame! Of course, as in everything, when you examine the underlying premises, the entire thing becomes much clearer. And the underlying premises are problematic.

The first premise is this: "I will be like the Most High." That is, "If I can imagine ... why can't God?" Or, to put it another way, "I can think more clearly than God can." How do we know this? Well, my idea of perfection is right and God's isn't -- plain and simple. This premise has its own underlying premise, and this one is the real problem. Of Number One importance is ... me. Well, we can be more generous. The most important being in the universe is the human being. This idea spawns the rest of the ideas. If humans are the most important beings, then it follows that humans should always have what they want. It's good to be #1, right? We assume, from this, that evil is bad and discomfort is bad and it's all because humans are #1. Therefore, if a being we call "God" is to be valid at all, He must cater to our sense of what we think is right and must do His utmost to make us happy and comfortable. Since we are not all happy and comfortable, there is no such being. Poof! God vanishes in a puff of logic.

Now, the problem is easy from my perspective. I admit readily that it's not so easy from their perspective, but from mine it's a piece of cake. While they start from "I'm the most important being", I start from God. Given a God who is omniscient and omnipotent, loving and good, and, by virtue that He is God, the singularly most important being in the universe (because, after all, He made and owns it all), the entire question goes away because the line of reasoning fails. God is not obligated to humans. He isn't required to make His creation happy and/or comfortable. This is not to suggest that God is not obligated. He's just not obligated to His creation. No, God is obligated ... to Himself. The "perfect world", then, would necessarily reflect Him in the best possible light.

"Oh, see?" they object again."He would be best reflected if we were most comfortable." No, that's not true. In Romans 9, Paul says this:
What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Rom 9:22-23)?
Here we see a peak at God's intentions. It is God's desire to "show His wrath and make known His power". That is one intent. He also intends to "make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy". God, in order to best display His character, intended to show both wrath and mercy. Indeed, there is a whole gamut of character traits that we would never see if there was no sin, no pain, no evil. We wouldn't see God's judgment or wrath, His mercy or grace. We wouldn't know what "imputed righteousness" was. We wouldn't understand what it means to rely solely on our Maker "in whom we live and move and have our being." There would be no need for repentance and no death to self. In fact, there would be no need for Christ or the Holy Spirit. Much of the God that we know now would not be visible at all.

Imagine with me, if you will, the anti-theist's "perfect world". No one ever sins. No one ever chooses evil. Nothing bad ever happens. Try, if you can, to imagine in this "perfect world" on what basis God would show His wrath for sin or His mercy toward sinners. Since neither sin nor sinners exist in this world ... it cannot be done. No justice, no mercy, no love (because many things are only seen in contrast with their opposites) would be actually known. There would be no Jesus, no Savior, no intimacy with the Holy Spirit, all aspects of God. And if God cannot best display Himself -- His priority -- then it cannot be a "perfect world".

Yes, evil is evil. Yes, unpleasant events are unpleasant. But it is only when we start with humans as ultimate that this becomes a problem. If we start with God as ultimate, the whole thing changes. Evil is evil, but God can use evil for good. Unpleasant things are unpleasant, but God can work them for good. In fact, if we start with the premise of God as ultimate, life becomes amazing! Amidst all the sin and pain around us we can see a continuous miracle of God at work making good out of bad and blessing out of discomfort. That is a far more "perfect world" than the plain, bland, "everyone is comfortable all the time" offering that the opponents of the Master might offer. So the question becomes not "What's wrong with God?", but "Whose side are you on -- God's or Man's?" If you side with God, the wonderful thing is Man is benefited. Win-win!

Friday, March 06, 2009


I am not a runner. All of my life I have not found running to be something I enjoyed. I know ... there are lots of you who say, "Oh, running is just so great! You really feel good afterward!" Not me. I never got it. To me it was all pain, no gain. Running is not part of my nature. I can swim just fine, play racquetball well, and do all sorts of other exercise, but running is not on my list. It's not in my nature.

In the early '80's I joined the Air Force. Imagine my chagrin when I found out that one of the requirements to pass basic training was to run a mile and a half in a limited time. I figured I was in trouble. Now, lots of things in military life can be faked. You can salute an officer and fake respect or you can salute an officer out of respect. The salute doesn't look any different. But running a mile and a half in a limited time cannot be faked. In addition, in basic training we weren't allowed to run by ourselves. We were required to run in formation. And the structure of the formation put me near the front of an entire flight of guys, most of whom had no problem running a mile and a half. I figured I was in real trouble.

Things didn't turn out like I expected. There were a variety of factors. I had committed myself to the Air Force, so I committed to passing this test. I had the "written word" -- "You have to run a mile and a half to pass basic training." And I had a whole group of people running with (and behind) me. So instead of dying after 14 steps, I found that I was keeping up with the rest. I didn't want to get trampled. I didn't want to endanger the guys behind me by falling out. I didn't want to fail the test. So, despite the fact that running was not in my nature, I found myself, on the required day, running with everyone else a mile and a half to pass the test without any problem.

American independence has encouraged a mindset in American Christians that says that church is, well, acceptable but not really necessary. We have a term for it -- "Lone Ranger Christians". A lot of people actually admire them. They're not saddled with the teachings of men, the errors that every church has, or any such thing. They're just concerned about their relationship with Christ and nothing more. It is a relationship, after all, and not a religion. And isn't "church" religion?

Well, no. The Scripture paints the "church" as God's idea. He put it in place "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph 4:12-14). He designed it to help us "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering", to "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" (Heb 10:23-25). Too many Christians think that the church is Man's idea, a method of obtaining power or money or both. It's not. The purpose of the church is to make disciples and teach them to observe everything Christ taught (Matt 28:19-20).

I am not a runner by nature. Then I found myself in a situation I hadn't anticipated. I had my commitment, the written word, and a group of people running with me and there I was, running farther and faster than I ever thought I could. I could fake a lot of things in the military, but this wasn't one of them. And, in the same way, we are not, by nature, good Christians. You may think you have what it takes, but we need these things to be what followers of Christ ought to be. We need personal commitment and the Word. We need a group of people around us to push us beyond our own natures and stir us to love and good works. We dare not ignore God's design and neglect being part of a church. We need that structure to make us a unity. We need that device designed by God to make us what He intended to be.