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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Formal Church Membership, the Gospel and the Law

A long standing puzzle
For many years I have loathed formal church membership and have wondered why. As I preach through Galatians, I can see more clearly just why it is one of my pet hates.

Initially, the hatred was born of experience.  I remember church meetings at a Baptist Church which were no different from political hustings: members with the least knowledge, experience and godliness made the most noise. They were there to whinge and moan. My next experience of church membership was worse: church decisions were made around a patriarch's dining room table and then smuggled into the church meeting as 'the mind of Christ'. In between these two dreadful experiences was a pleasant church experience with no formal membership. If you were committed to the fellowship then you could come, pray, hear and contribute to the decision-making in the life of the church. My present experience of formal membership is positive.

Experience is a guide
Theologians will say "you can't shape your beliefs by experience". On the one hand, no, Scripture must shape our beliefs, but on the other hand bad experiences get you asking 'What is wrong?'

So what is wrong with formal church membership?

Some positives
There are some positives. If it is used as a means of communication and wider counsel this is good. If it is used to gain consensus over major decisions in the church this too is good and helpful: we find examples of the wider church being involved in decision making in both Acts 6 and Acts 15.

Many negatives flow from a wrong focus of unity and from law
There are however, many negatives to formal church membership, primarily flowing from two facts:

(a) formal church membership introduces a non-Gospel basis for unity. The moment you announce a meeting to which not every believer is invited, you introduce a focus of unity that is not found in the New Testament and consequently you divide the church. The only basis of our unity is faith in Christ, not formal membership. Everyone who has faith is in, full stop. 

(b) formal church membership introduces man-made law. Man-made rules surround membership expectations and more man-made rules control church meetings. It becomes then very easy for members to judge one another as to whether or not they are fulfilling those rules. "He isn't a very good member because he doesn't come to the prayer meetings", "She is a half-hearted member because she doesn't join in with the fellowship groups" and so on.

Add to this, the fact that formal membership is no sign of spiritual vitality. It is possible, therefore, to have the least spiritually minded people, the least prayerful, making the big decisions and the most spiritually minded on the sidelines. Add to this the feeling that if you have been a member longer than someone else you have more rights, power and influence! 

All of these are the natural consequences of the church introducing man-made ways of organisation into church life. 

Of course someone could argue that if church membership was better policed then it would be more effective. What, introduce another layer of heavy-handed law into the church!!!?

A better method
A better method than formal church membership is the Biblical way, where elders lead the church - with consultation from the flock. Rather than placing the burden of leadership on the flock, they take it on their own shoulders. How might this work? Suppose they wanted to recognise a new elder or deacon. They could hold a meeting of believers who are committed to the church and put forward the names they consider meet the New Testament requirements and ask for comments in public or in private over the next month. If no adverse comments return, the elders would then appoint the persons concerned.

Perhaps in a western culture so shaped by the idol of democracy (and false god if ever there was one, for it counts votes rather than weighing opinion: it is more concerned with the will of man than the will of Christ; democracy was why the children of Israel didn't enter the promised land - 10 unbelieving votes against 2 believing ones) such a better form of government may be impossible.

Perhaps a very loose form of formal church membership, to paraphrase Churchill when talking about parliamentary democracy, though the worst form of government, is better than all the others!!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Most Critical Doctrine of the Bible

What would you say?
What, I wonder would your assessment be? The most important/critical doctrine/teaching in the Bible? The letters of Paul to the Galatian and Roman Christians answer this question clearly: Justification by Faith in Christ Alone - or if you prefer, The Gospel.

Not just a "Reformation conviction"
This is not just a protestant answer flowing from our reformation heritage: it is the clear teaching Romans and Galatians, especially the latter. In the hot letter of Galatians, dispatched urgently to prevent churches in a whole region from deserting the Gospel, Paul shows the dramatic effects of the Gospel and the tragic effects of departure from it. Three of these effects, explained in chapters 3 and 4 are below...

1. The Gospel Unites the Church (any move from the Gospel divides it)
Since the only door into the Kingdom of God is faith in Christ, the Gospel has an amazing ability to unite people from every conceivable background. Jew, Gentile, men, women, upper class and lower class, or what other distinction you can come up with,  all have to walk through the same door: and that makes them one in Christ. This is wonderful and completely unique. The moment a church adds to the Gospel anything (gifts of the Spirit, heavy doctrine, whatever), the church is divided into haves and have nots.

2. The Gospel causes us to think of God as our Father (a move back to law makes us think of him as a master)
During the era Moses-Messiah, God's people, though sons were in effect slaves, for as young sons they were under the care of a disciplinarian (the law). A son who is under such a disciplinarian (a pedagogos) is no different from a slave in practice. When Jesus came God's people grew up and received the Spirit of sonship. We are absolutely secure in our relationship with our Father in heaven. We do not go to bed thinking "I've blow it today, God doesn't love me." A son doesn't think like that, though a slave does. Going back to the law means going back to the era of law and the era of slavery and the era of master.

3. The Gospel allows the fruit of the Spirit to grow (a move back to law returns us to the era without the Spirit)
The church that moves back to law, moves back to the era without the Spirit, and therefore without the fruit of the Spirit. Such a church quenches the Spirit and is filled with back-biting and joylessness: everything opposite to the fruit of the Spirit.

There is no other doctrine which shapes the life of the Christia and the church more than justification by faith. And therefore we need Luthers to run through the church with new fire, not once every 15 centuries, but every week, so that the precious fruit of the Gospel will be maintained among the churches.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Why we need the Holy Spirit

Excess: A clear Satanic Strategy
As I reflect back on my Christian journey I am nothing but amazed at how many stumbling blocks were placed in my path to confuse me over the work of the Holy Spirit. To be blunt, I could have been completely put off of the Holy Spirit by people in the church. Here are some of those stumbling blocks...
  • Excess - I was once a member of a church which went through a 'Holy Spirit' phase where every sermon every Sunday for six months was on the Holy Spirit: if that isn't excess, I am the Pope. I have attended "Toronto Blessing" meetings where people barked like dogs and giggled like idiots - I couldn't find dogs or idiots in Acts (fools for Christ, but not idiots). 
  • False Prophets - I  heard prophecies that were never fulfilled and manipulation dressed up as "words of knowledge." One prophet said in public that a particular church was soon to grow to 3000; that was thirty years ago, nothing has happened yet. 
  • Pseudo-healings - people claimed to be healers or claimed they were healed, but of little more than back-ache, head-ache and the sort of things that might  go away with nothing more than an aspirin, Ovaltine and a good night's sleep: not exactly Gospels and Acts types of radical healings.
  • UnChristlikeness - worst of all, the people who most spoke about the Holy Spirit seemed often to be the least filled with him! People who boogied on Sunday turned out to be unChristlike witnesses on Monday.
All of these experiences, had the effect on a whole generation of Christians, of frightening us away from any talk or the work of God's Spirit. We would label these people "charismatics" and run a mile from - and here is the Satanic tactic - not only everything excessive, but everything "Holy Spirit"......

A better look
.....but we must overcome this Satanic tactic. And for myself, I have become more and more aware, not only from the Scriptures, but from experience of the necessity and work of the Holy Spirit. 

He is absolutely necessary and precious to the church (We know that in our heads and theology, but need to believe it in our hearts and act upon it in our lives).

It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are converted (John 3:5-8), empowered for service (Judges 14:6), given courage (Acts 4:31), encouraged (Acts 9:31), comforted (2 Cor 1:3-4), directed (Acts 13:2), sanctified (2 Thess 2:13) and formed into the character of Jesus (Galatians 5:22-23).

I now seek to be led every day by the Spirit, I ask for his power in my life and ministry and pray that he would direct and lead the church. 

The author Jim Packer put it helpfully like this:  

“The Christian’s life in all its aspects—intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, upsurging in worship and outgoing in witness—is supernatural; only the Spirit can initiate and sustain it. So apart from him, not only will there be no lively believers and no lively congregations, there will be no believers and no congregations at all.”

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Evolutionary Theory II: How is it flawed?

Deep Problems
After exploring the popular appeal of evolutionary theory we consider its weaknesses.....

Weakness #1: No rivals are allowed or seriously explored
Every scientist and every member of the public ought to be alarmed that no other integrating theory is allowed debate and discussion. When evolutionary scientists discuss for example Intelligent Design they do so without the kind of seriousness they would give to any other theory. They simply write off any explanation that may require an Intelligence and give it no further serious thought. Even those scientists who display a surface sympathy with Intelligent Design, such as Stuart Kauffman refuse to engage with it deeply. The approach is: "this idea is by definition wrong, by starting point; but I guess we'd better look as though we are taking it seriously".
Weakness #2: There is no evolutionary solution to complex systems
The Intelligent Design community have legitimately pointed out the complex systems demand intelligence. The classic problem of the flagellar motor is a case in point.....

....the flagellar motor is a tiny motor which powers a whip-like structure which in turn powers bacteria through liquid. So integrated and tuned are the various components of this motor that it is impossible to imagine it being assembled over time: every part is finely-tuned and necessary for the motor to work (and therefore to be selected). Like a watch, each cog is the right size with the right number of teeth and so on.

Evolutionists explain this away by saying that the various parts can be found elsewhere in nature and all that happens is that those components are being used together in a new way. It takes very little mental effort to find holes in this idea, but this mental effort is simply not expended by evolutionists who wave off the flagellar motor with talk of Darwinian pre-adaption.

Here is the problem and it is simply insurmountable: suppose you decide to make a new machine - a TV for example - out of pre-existing machine parts from say a radio, a microwave and an oscilloscope. First of all you will need to adjust the properties of each component so that they can work together: you can't throw pre-existing parts together and expect it to work. Secondly, it takes intelligence to re-configure and assemble these components to fit the new purpose. No tornadoes in a junkyard of old electronic equipment will ever give rise to a a new machine: intelligence is required. And this is exactly the problem, so deeply is design and intelligence ingrained in our thinking, it is possible to overlook its role and blithely suggest it could all come together by itself. 

Weakness #3: Evolution cannot ever explain the origin of the incredibly complex factory we call a cell
It is evolution-speak to call single-celled creatures 'primitive' or 'simple'. Darwin could be excused, but not we. Each cell is a complex factory, and one that builds itself to double the wonder. There is no non-intelligent explanation for the origin of a Samsung, Toyota or Cell factory which self-builds.

Weakness #4: Nature is limited in its ability to generate complexity
Law plus chance can give rise to a certain amount of complexity, but no more. Sand dunes and salt crystals all exhibit a certain amount of spontaneous complexity. But there is a clear limit to the complexity that naturally arises in nature. On a scale of 1 to a million, the complexity of a cell is at the top, the complexity nature spontaneously builds is say 1.

Weakness #5: Riding against the second law of thermodynamics is possible, but it requires a (designed) machine
Someone may protest, "Isn't it possible to ride against nature's natural tendency to disorder in a thermodynamically open system?" The second law of thermodynamics teaches that all systems tend to disorder (your car and your house fall apart as time advances). The answer is yes you can buck that trend, but only by courtesy of a machine (a designed machine). Take the heat pump, which many Americans use to heat their homes with. Normally heat travels from hot to cold, but actually you can make heat travel from a freezing Minnesota winter into a warmer house. To do this you need a machine. And guess what? Machines need intelligence.

Weakness #6: Common Descent and Common Designer integrate the same data with equivalent power
The theory of evolution derives its explanatory power from its observation that similar structures seem to point to common origin. This works not only at the level of similar limb-structures but at the level of the regulatory genes which build eyes and limbs. It turns out that the same toolbox of genes are used to build different limbs and different eyes: evidence of common Something, but what? Common descendant or common designer? Both are equal explanations. In the case of common Designer, it points to economy of design: why re-invent a limb when tweaking a regulatory  gene in another direction will do the trick? Clever stuff.

This explanatory rug is therefore pulled from under the feet.

Weakness #7: Evolutionary theories work in the same way that conspiracy theories do: they construct meaning out of an infinite sea of facts
Conspiracy theories arise for two reasons: (a) an event (e.g. murder of JFK or 9/11) generates an enormous body of data, (b) the investigator (who has an axe to grind - every investigator has an axe to grind) in making sense of infinite data has no option but to pick and choose. What is picked and what is left behind depends on the investigator. In exactly the same way the number of facts in the universe are nigh on infinite (at least to us puny humans). Somehow we have to arrange them into some order, and the method we choose will depend on the philosophy we start out with.

The evolutionist assumes that the present great diversity of species can be arranged from simple to complex and that this arrangement can then be transposed back in time to indicate how living things arose: from uncomplicated to complex. So they discover eyes, from simple light sensitive to complex eagle eyes and with the evolutionary paradigm firmly fixed in the mind, naturally suggest "this is primitive" "that is late". There is of course a wholly alternative explanation for the diversity of species and eyes: the amazing creativity of a Designer who delights in creating not one way of seeing but ten.

Imagine an alien inspecting all "wheeled vehicles" in England, from simple to complex. He puts them in an evolutionary sequence: wheelie bins and bicycles are primitive he says, since they are simple, while cars and trucks are late since they are highly developed. Actually, Mr Alien, your theory is upside down. Wheelie bins came after cars. The point is that simplicity/complexity is no necessary sign of age/history, it may be nothing more than a sign of appropriateness: why give a flatworm an eagle's eye when all it needs is a light sensitive cell?

Weakness #9: Darwin's fatal step: micro to macro
I will never forget the first time I read Darwin's Origins. Darwin begins with the incredible way human breeders can produce certain features in animals by selective breeding. Anyone who has seen the amazing variety pigeon fanciers can produce will know exactly what I am talking about. It is helpful to call this micro-evolution rather than macro-evolution (though evolutionists like to blur the distinction) because it never produces new species or novel features, but merely works on what is already there: put all those pigeons back together without the creative hand of the selector and these novel features would disappear. Darwin then makes the fatal step in his book of arguing from these wonderful small changes to massive man-mouse changes. But there is a world of difference between the two. The former are merely yet another instance of the remarkable way the Creator has built into his creatures a certain amount of flexibility so that foxes can survive in both hot climes and the Arctic; so that finches can survive a drought when there is nothing but hard nuts to crack. Darwin, without faith in a gracious and kind God, interpreted these small changes wrongly.

Weakness #10: We now know the edge of evolution
Michael Behe in his marvelous book The Edge of Evolution, shows that we now have knowledge from both mathematics and experiments with microbes (where reproduction rates are so fast that the effect of mutations over millions of generations can be explored) which show that there is a clear limit to what evolution can do: "Despite huge population numbers and intense selective pressure, microbes... yield minor evolutionary responses.." (p.140)

Weakness #11: Many great scientists refuse to buy into it
There are a great number of scientists from many different disciplines who simply will not buy into evolutionary theory. These are not dimwits, but men and women at the top of their game, who totally refuse to accept the theory. There must be a reason for their refusal....

Weakness #12:  Evolutionary theory can explain away anything
No matter what the problem, evolutionary theory can come up with a hypothetical solution. The trouble is that since it is a historical science, it doesn't have to, it can't, prove the hypothetical suggestion that happened way back when....

Weakness #13: Evolutionary Paradigms hold back science
In his wonderful book "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" Sean Carroll again and again says - clearly unwittingly - that certain findings were totally unexpected by the biological community. When for example it was discovered that the same gene toolbox is used to build many different kinds of eye, researchers were surprised, because they had assumed that eyes had been invented from scratch (his word, invented - implying a designer) 40 different times (p.66). In other words, their evolutionary paradigm prevented them from seeing connections between eyes. A creationist scientist in the same lab would have made far faster progress, because he or she would have been looking out for likenesses across the species, knowing that the same Designer built them all. Discoveries may have been made years or even decades earlier were it not fro Darwinian dogma. This is the problem when we are blinkered by a paradigm.

For all of these reasons and more, no-one should feel bullied into accepting the theory of evolution.

Christians, who take the Bible seriously, have additional reasons for questioning the theory. The doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall cannot be squared with evolutionary theory. But we are not ostriches who put our heads in the sand, ignoring the data around us, for we can't see evolution in science, and nor can we see it in theology.