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Monday, 28 March 2011

Untangling Gospel and Tradition

Sometimes it just don't matter, but sometimes it's a matter of life and death
Occasionally the inability to distinguish one thing from another just don't matter: a colour-blind man is not overly harmed by putting on a red shirt in the morning rather than a green one. His dress may not be colour-coordinated, but that's no big shakes (unless he's a fashion junkie).

At other times learning to distinguish one thing from another is altogether more important. A warthog who mistakes a lion for a gazelle is making a fatal error of distinction. And so is a Christian or church that fails to distinguish between Gospel and Tradition.

Tradition good and evil
Tradition is the way we do things, the way we apply the fundamental principles and precepts of Scripture to our own culture and setting. So for example, we know we should celebrate communion but there are so many ways to do this. People can come to the front, people can be served, one cup can be used, songs can be sung during communion, Scriptures can be read, etc., etc. As another example, many Christians love to sing together, but there are a thousand ways to do this. Shall it all be psalms, all old hymns, all new choruses or a proper mixture of all (or none). And so on and so on.....

The helpful thing about tradition is that it facilitates some kind of social familiarity, commonality,  predictability and safety - which we all need. If every week we did everything differently, chaos would reign.

The bad thing about a tradition is that it can so easily raise its status from a tradition to The Tradition and then finally assume the standing of unchangeable Gospel.

Take singing hymns. Some think these are the best expressions of praise. So only hymns are used. Soon it is believed they are the only expression of praise. And soon they are regarded as fundamental as the Gospel. Take music. Some think the organ is the best way to accompany hymns. Soon they think it is the only way. And then, anyone who uses anything other than an organ is viewed as deserting the Gospel.

Where the problem lies
The problem here may be threefold. Sometimes it is this: people who confuse tradition and Gospel have  only worshipped in their own spiritual ghetto. If they got out there and visited churches in different cultures they would quickly see that what they think is absolutely essential, is nothing but a western tradition.

At other times the problem is more serious: people who confuse tradition and Gospel have drawn a circle around their own spritiual ghetto and really do think there are no Christians beyond that sphere. They think everyone outside their community is compromised, and only they do things right. What a shock awaits them in heaven.

The third problem is far more serious: thinking that others have lost the Gospel, they themselves have nigh on lost it themselves.

One of the most amazing features of the New Testament and of the Gospel is how the detail is left for us to work out. What exactly  you do and in what order you do it when Christians meet is nowhere spelt out in detail, for example. What time you meet is not spelt out. The reason lies in the genius of the Gospel. Since the Gospel is for the world, these details must of necessity be left to the culture in which the Gospel bears fruit. If the NT specified that Christians should meet on Sundays at 11.00am and sing only from one particular hymn book, many people would be left out in the cold: people who work in Sundays, people who can't understand dense language or ancient language, for example. By refusing to stipulate these details the Gospel is able to find a home in every community everywhere in the world.

So Christians in India can worship using their own bajas (instruments) with their own kind of music; so too Africans and Eskimos and Maltese. No fixed tradition is fixed upon them by the NT.

The idea that all Christians have to sing the same ancient hymns sung to an even more ancient instrument (organ) in one culture's musical taste is absurd, and smacks more of western imperialism, a subconscious relic of colonialism, than anything found in the Scriptures. People who think like that - and worse, people who impose such traditions on Christians of other cultures - are erecting great barriers to the Gospel among peoples in other cultures.

Beauty and the Beast
The worst example of this confusion was a film I saw some years ago: new Christians from the Auca tribe of Ecuador dressed in smart suits sporting Brylcreamed hair and singing western music (Christian) were paraded on a church platform as 'triumphs of grace'. Stripped of everything authentic and forced into a western mould these poor Christians were as much triumphs of American culture, as triumphs of grace.

This is not the vision of heaven presented to us in the Scriptures where we find the glory and honour of the nations brought into the Heavenly City (Revelation 21:26), the home of the endlessly creative God.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How shall we train the next generation of Gospel workers?

My text is:
"When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note..." (Acts 4:13) 

The common answer: just like the world trains its 'professionals'
Just like we train mathematicians, physicists and economists: stick them in a class room and pack their heads with knowledge. We call it a Bible College or Seminary. End of blog.

Every student's experience: the mind is a sieve
No-one who has subjected themselves to such training will forget the experience. You cram for an exam up to the day / hour / minute and hope for the best. You know full well that if you were to take the exam one week later your result would drop by some significant percentage as the knowledge drains away from the mind. Three weeks later you'd fail the exam. That's one problem with the class room approach - knowledge learnt in an academic environment simply don't stick.

So if you go to 'Bible College' and cram church history and exegesis, by the time an opportunity comes to use the stuff, it has long taken wings. OK, you have a piece of paper - and everyone will be so impressed with the scrawl after your name. And you are more likely to get a job if you can say "I've got a certificate".

The much bigger problem
But retaining knowledge is a much smaller problem than the really big problem: training for Gospel ministry has more to do with non-knowledge-based attributes such as character, love, humility, wisdom, faith, grace and courage. After three years of Bible College a man may be no more qualified to serve than the day he entered the place - that is unless God has done a marvelous work of humbling grace in his soul at college. Guess it could happen. He may have degrees, knowledge and what nots, but these are unimportant and frankly almost irrelevant in the work of the Gospel.

And here's the proof. First, from experience. It is common to hear of a young man with his  BA, MA - or these days, so that they can be proper respected, Dmin - cause trouble in his first church. These guys think they know, and they think that knowledge is what counts, but they ain't got an ounce of wisdom, tact, humility, expereince, even common sense.... (you sometimes watch them and think, "Just how many mistakes can someone make all in a row?")

Second, from experience. Contra wise, men who have life experience but no formal training come into the ministry and do well (the only problem here is that the foolish churches then encourage them to 'get proper qualifications' [it's a triffle embarrassing for some church members to inform their friends in another church that their pastor is not 'qualified'] and so these men feel under pressure to spend tons of time in books as well as in homes. For what? Falsely deserved respect).

Third, from experience again. The most used men of God are often men who never darkened the door of a seminary, and so were not formed into any particular mould. They were their own men. By which I mean they were in God's mould. Spurgeon, Tozer, Lloyd-Jones. You see, if you've half a brain (which you do need in Gospel work), you can go to a library and when a knowledge problem arises read up: you don't need to be an expert beforehand. Or you can go to a friend who knows.

I have yet to find any correlation between a man's formal theological education and his kingdom usefulness. (Don't push me, please don't push me, because if you do......)

Fourth, from Scripture. Not one Gospel worker in the Bible went to Bible College. The disciples were unschooled, but experts in the kingdom. They had been with Jesus, which is what matters most. If you are looking for a method of training, apprenticeship is the only Biblical way. Where one experienced man trains a novice over years. Moses trains Joshua on the job, likewise Elijah and Elisha, like Paul and Timothy - and pre-eminently, like Jesus and the Twelve.

The apprenticeship model recognises the fact that truth is burnt into the mind and heart and soul through experience, not exam pressure. Teach people all you like about forgiveness, they'll learn it proper when someone has offended them. Teach them all about servanthood, but they'll only learn it proper when no-one else will wash feet. Teach a man exegesis, but he will only learn it when he has to prepare a talk. Ad totalium.

The "demonisation" of Gospel ministry
Some time ago a man - a very brave man - said that encouraging Gospel workers to get higher degrees was nothing short of the D-Min-ization of Gospel ministry. You see Satan fell through pride. And knowledge puffeth up. So anything that encourages pride in Gospel workers was doing the Devil's work. He was right, wasnt' he?

The need of the hour
The need of the hour is not formal academic training, but men and women and churches who putting aside the foolish ways of the world (addiction to academia) will train the next generation Christ's way.

My text has been:  
"When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note..." (Acts 4:13)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Venturing into politics: Has the west any moral right to preach to the east?

Noam Chomsky, Donald Macleod et al
I remember reading my first book on the interesting philosopher Noam Chomsky (The Chomsky Reader) expecting lots of philosophy but instead discovering a ton of polemics. Called a "dissident intellectual" Chomsky exposed the hypocrisy of western politicians, especially American ones. Here was a philosopher venturing into politics....

About the same time I began reading The Monthly Record (sober magazine of the even more sober Free Church of Scotland) superbly edited by Professor Donald Macleod, and was surprised by the political slant of so many of his articles - a wee-free theologian wearing a politician's hat. (I ended my subscription when the editorship changed: Macleod was different). Here was a Theologian venturing into politics...

A pastor venturing into politics...
And now I find myself, a pastor, venturing into politics. Why? Because of the hypocrisy of the west.

As soon as some kind of political dissent spreads across an eastern country which has "no democracy" (the only legitimate way to run a country of course - didn't you know that?) we get on our high moral horse and condemn those "dictators". As soon as we see these dictators shedding innocent blood we get on our high moral horse, because we don't kill our citizens. Do we.  

The proper basis of moral judgement: the judge is better than the condemned
We all recognise the basic moral principle of legitimate judgement: the judge has to stand above the condemned, the judge has to be morally superior to those he is judging. A convicted criminal, we would say, has no right to cast judgement upon an ordinary citizen of the land, because he is "beneath" that citizen. We even have a phrase to describe the immoral act of condemning another while you yourself have blood on your own hands: "the pot calling the kettle black". (This discussion forces one to see the frailty of all human judgement, and the righteousness of divine judgement: for none but God is holy).

Pot calling the kettle Black
So on what ground does the west go galloping across the world in moral indignation at those ignorant unenlightened eastern peoples?

Do we seriously think that democracy is the only way to govern a country? Is a benevolent king an oxymoron? Does every democracy work smoothly? Do democracies actually work in feudal societies? Do they not often become corrupted at the ballot box, with rigging or billion-dollar campaigns? Do out-voted leaders leave their posts? Are Members of Parliamentary democracies squeaky clean about their expenses?  Do they put the needs of their own people before party and personal ambition? Parliamentary democracy, as one noble politician put it is the worst form of government ever invented. OK, he did add "except for all the others"! The point he was making, is that we westerners need a little more humility (not to mention reality) about our own systems of government.

Worse still is the indignation at these despots killing their own people. Did you know that since 1968, we have killed around 7 million people in our country? Yes, that's how many abortions have taken place since the abortion act. All the so-called dictators in our present world - and perhaps in the history of the world - put together haven't killed that many of their own people.

"Ah but abortion is not the same as shooting your own people in the streets."

4D Scan of 24 week old child
Dead right it's not. A man in the street can choose to be somewhere else, he can run, he can fight, he has friends to help him to hospital. A child in the womb has no choices, nowhere to hide and no friends to fight their corner.

Dead right it's not the same: the child in the womb is the most defenceless and vulnerable form of life in our country: unseen, unnamed - and completely unprotected. (Thanks to  David Steel).

It would be better for our politicians to stay at home, shut up, repent and weep. Gadaffi should listen to Cameron, Clegg and their shadows, only when they first end the massacre of the innocents in their own country. Then they'll be more fit to ascend the hill of judgement and condemn their eastern counterparts.


Thursday, 3 March 2011

What, and you still believe in evolution?

The little noble Michael Behe
Sometime ago I heard Michael Behe, the American Scientist who revealed to the public the complexity of the cell in his wonderful book Darwin's Black Box. Every cell in our body is a factory of unimaginable complexity, filled with biochemical machines. The short unassuming scientist ended the lecture by telling us that biology is revealing more and more layers of complexity in the cell - the problem of evolution is becoming more, not less problematic.

And now we hear from researchers at Stanford university the following about the brain:
"One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor - with both memory-storage and information-processing elements - than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth."
No routes to evolution
A system as complex as this requires a great deal more than chance and natural law. Law can produce small amounts of order (salt crystals, sand dunes, waves). Chance tends to work in the opposite direction destroying working systems. No one in their right mind believes that all the  switches in  all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth came about by chance. And in the same flush of reasoning, no-one should be fooled into thinking the same happened with the brain.

The only Scripture that comes to mind is this:  "Thinking themselves wise, they became fools..."