Friday, December 29, 2006

Old Guy Former Wannabe Musician Hog Heaven

I found this in my stocking on Christmas morning, thank you S.C. and Mrs. D. It's the Eagles Live in Melbourne DVD. My son Chris brought his big screen video projector over to our house this week and connected up to the surround sound. So a couple of nights ago I collapse on the couch in the middle of everything, a front row seat and a "peaceful, easy feeling." I have the second half of the concert yet to look forward to.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Approaching Christmas

Christmas is half a week away and here in my office I've just lunched on the leftovers from a Lund's Christmas Breads platter. A salad would have been preferable. This morning we had our annual TDDesign Wednesday Morning Christmas Muffin open house for the people in our building. Lots of folks showed up and we had a great time.

This afternoon, I'm reflecting on several real-life stories from there and elsewhere that have converged in the last couple of days.

One of the guys down the hall, a doctor, held back tears as he told me about his approaching Christmas. Tomorrow he will bring his wife home for the first time since hospitalization and institutional care began last June. She's finally just able to try making it at home. I had picked up from casual "how's business?" conversations earlier that there were some unique stresses in his life, but I had no idea what he's been going through.

From another office party guest came the story of a recent trip to a Liberian orphanage. Letters now arrive from little survivors of that country's chaos. "Dear Daddy Tim, Please pray that somebody will adopt me...."

Yesterday an email entitled "Sad News" arrived from a client of ours in Louisiana. The funeral would be this morning for the 27 year old son of one of the people we work with regularly. Suicide. Can you imagine what Christmas will be like for them this year and in the years to come?

Gosh, my issues don't look like any big deal do they? Should I not approach Christmas with a lot more thankfulness and a lot more compassion than I usually do?

But if you really want to be touched and then be uplifted, read this blogger's December 18th post.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lewis on Chronological Snobbery...

The tendency to assume that an idea or practice represents progress just because it's more recent, and a reading person's remedy:
It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to
allow yourself another new one till you have read an
old one in between. If that is too much for you, you
should at least read one old one to three new ones....
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good
at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make
certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that
will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own
period.... None of us can fully escape this blindness,
but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our
guard against it, if we read only modern books....The
only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the
centuries blowing through our minds and this can
only be done by reading old books."

Check out the C.S. Lewis Institute, a new addition to Really Smart Guys, for lots of good stuff.

Friday, December 08, 2006

From the Sacred Sandwich

January 2006 --- Hot on the heels of leading a wildly successful, culturally relevant youth group at Keystone Community Church, Youth Pastor Tad Grunholtz has recently created a similar ministry for the elderly in hopes of luring disaffected old people back into church. He calls the group Xtreme Seniors. “A lot of churches today just focus on the younger generation and ignore the elder members of the church,” explained Grunholtz. “But at Keystone, we came to the sudden realization during our last building campaign that old people have all the money. Sure, the youth are the future of the church, but we need a new gymnasium now.”

Using his thriving youth program as a template, Grunholtz has done away with the boring “Golden-Agers” Bible study group that was such a turn-off to many seniors...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Thinking More About Church: Part III
You Are Brothers

This leads me naturally to the second text (see Part II) and metaphor that I am drawn to. Seldom quoted, at least in my hearing, a text that answers with real authority the most basic church question. If bridegroom and bride picture the great mystery of what our relationship to Christ is, what is to characterize our relationship to one another?

The New Paradigm
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” –Matthew 23:8-10 ESV
This is the Lord’s clear and utterly revolutionary statement. In context it represents a defining moment. The veil of the temple will remain intact for only a little while longer, and the priesthood of the old covenant will be no more. There will be one priest and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5). This is a shocking new thought for a sacerdotal, priesthood-based religion, and for those sitting “on Moses’s seat” (23:2).

The implications are clear for authority structures as well as for personal salvation. At the very moment when through Christ the relationship between God and man enters a new era, so also changes the role of man to man within the household of God. The change-over will begin at the cross, be completed at the resurrection and experienced fully at the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost.

Practically speaking, Jesus prescribes what it means for human interaction. He begins by showing what that human interaction is not to be like, and the scribes and Pharisees are his exhibit A. They put burdens on others, they do their good deeds to be seen by others, they love the place of honor, the insider greetings in the marketplace, and being called rabbi by others. They are preoccupied with position, with authority, and they lord it over their followers.

“But you are not to be called have one instructor, the Christ.” The Logos of God, expressed in the word of God, the Bible, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaks straight to the heart of the believer.

The Mis-Use of Authority

Many in the church down through the centuries never lost this precious truth. The story of the “Pilgrim Church” in E.H. Broadbent’s classic by that name is a wonderful chronicle of the genuine church’s quiet, humble and faithful history.

But in Europe things had sadly deteriorated by the close of the middle ages. So from this and other texts the Reformers thundered. They called the western church back from what Luther described as its “Babylonian Captivity,” it’s regression into Pharisaical usurpation of spiritual authority. The church, its pope, its bishops and its councils had arrogated to themselves the authority of Holy Spirit and scripture. Their abuses were evident. They had driven a wedge between Christ and his people and the harm to the people of God was serious.

But it’s important to remember what the pretext was for Rome’s exercise of that false authority. The pretext was “purity.” It was their task to protect the church and the gospel from the corruption and the twisting of the faith certain to result if the ignorant masses were permitted to read and interpret the scripture for themselves. In the process they came to see themselves as the exclusive master and teacher of the people and the institution as the "vicar of Christ."

The church’s pastors and leaders had become tyrannical masters, even of the dissemination and interpretation of God’s word. Loyalty to the church became synonymous with loyalty to God. In some of the darkest days in church history that followed, men and women paid with their own blood for suggesting that it should be otherwise.

The Protestant Reformation

A friend of mine said the other day, "We're Protestants? What was it we were protesting? Nothing less than abuse of authority...." I think he's right. Reformers protested vigorously and in the Westminster Confession we have a concise summary of the heart of their message, what came to be known as Sola Scriptura, the doctrine of the final authority of scripture in the life of the believer:

“The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” —Chapter 1, Article 10

Consistent with Jesus’ teaching, this approach to spiritual authority stands in bold contrast to any interpretation that brings a man or a group of men into the position of rabbi, master, master teacher or guru in a local or national or worldwide context.

So What Is the Role of Church Leadership?

Again as in the discussion of the church as bride, questions arise: What about texts that speak of offices of authority within the church? Teachers, shepherds, overseers? What about Paul’s references to being like a father and mother to the Thessalonians, and to Timothy his “son” in the faith? How do these square with Matthew 23? There are hermeneutical starting points that bring things into balance. One is included in the Westminster Confession (1.9) and reminds us to “interpret scripture with scripture.” Read each in the light of the others. Another principle is the interpretation of narrative (story, personal expression, account) in the light of the didactic (clear statement of truth, general instruction, command).

On that basis we might draw the following conclusions. Every relational role or gifted office must be measured by and in the light of Jesus’ clear command. Every administrative function also. Consider Jesus’ categories and the questions to ask of ourselves and our churches:

A gifted teacher is never a rabbi. The term rabbi, sometimes translated “my master,” is pretty close to our idea of “guru” or “spiritual guide” in new age parlance. Though he preaches the Word with “all authority,” his authority for directing the spiritual life of his students goes only as far as scripture speaks and no farther. In their celebrity status or claimed “anointing,” do our teachers assume the posture of something more than a conveyor of what God says in scripture?

Making disciples is a good thing and is our calling, but a discipler is never a master. If a relationship between disciple and mentor is more like servant to master, it is in violation of the New Testament relationship standard. Does the mentoring relationship I’m in require submission and conformity that goes beyond scripture into matters of personal preference and freedom? Even a little bit?

Leadership is necessary for order and ministry to continue, but leaders are not parents. Paul speaks affectionately of Timothy as his son in the faith, but measured against Mt. 23, the Bible never allows for a condescending, patronizing relationship between leaders and congregation, individually or collectively. Any church setting where leadership effectively gives its members a glass of water and sends them off to bed while they (the leaders) have the really important conversations and make the important decisions needs to be re-evaluated.

Of course leaders will meet together and work together uniquely to accomplish their tasks, but they do so with the authority of and in the service of the whole body. There are highly practical implications. Any scenario where the money and property of a church is managed exclusively by the leaders and those they deputize should be watched carefully. All of this flows from a Matthew 23-violating condescension, a parent/child, master/servant assumption unacceptable in the spirit of the new covenant. In my church is there a practice or any tone of parental condescension?

“You are brothers” is the key phrase. Matthew 23 does not deny leadership, eldership, order and discipline within the church. It does, however, establish inviolable boundaries and limits on human authority and reminds us that there are finally to be no real divisions in Christ. The newest believer and the oldest saint are brothers. That’s the starting point of biblical fellowship.

Why Belabor the Obvious?

I’d like to think most of this is pretty clearly understood around Protestantism, but I’m not sure. In the evangelical world we’re clear on the idea of singular papal authority (we don’t accept it), but we do seem inclined to enshrine a thousand little popes and councils and lords and feifdoms instead and allow them similar excesses–again driving an unnecessary wedge between Christ and his bride and between brothers.

No offense intended to faithful men and their ministries, but in some corners the children and step-children of the Pharisees are alive and well. The division between clergy and laity is sometimes too great. The power and anointing assumed borders on presumption. The structure is too Old Testament. Some in the name of reaching the world become cults of celebrity, some in the name of aggressive disciple making become controlling and even cultic. In the spirit of Ephesians 4 and Matthew 23, the church can and will do better. There are fresh and encouraging winds blowing that some have referred to as a “new reformation,” a new discovery of what God can do “through all” the church, the people of God.
“There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
–Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New from Another Old Book

Just got my used copy of "Christianity and Liberalism" by J. Gresham Machen (1923) in the mail today. This is a man who drew a line in the sand with his generation's version of Emergent doctrinal ambiquity and outright abandonment of the Gospel in the mainline churches. Have to work so can't read 'til later, but cheated and read the last paragraph first:

"Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus' name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world."

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Congratulations to New Life Church!

Leaving behind my grinchy curmudgeonliness (spell-check that) on the subject of evangelicalism in America, I genuinely applaud New Life Church in Colorado Springs for this new development.

Quoting from the pdf entitled Selection Committee Results under Latest Information on the Senior Pastoral Transition:

Dear New Life family and friends,
This Monday night, November 20, New Life Church held its first-ever membership meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to elect the senior pastoral selection committee...

First-ever membership! After the tragedy/embarrassment/misery associated with the Haggard scandal, it sounds like a fresh new breeze is blowing through their church and the body of Christ will begin to function in new freedom.

It seems to me this church and even the deposed pastor have been handling things pretty much the way they should. God bless them, better days are ahead.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thinking More About Church: Part II
The Great Marriage

Two biblical concepts and texts have lately been much on my mind. One is more common but perhaps under-appreciated for it’s stunning cosmic implications. The other is rarely quoted—at least in discussions of church formation—but strikes me as nothing short of revolutionary if it were to be truly embraced—but more about that on a later post.

The first, alluded to in Part I on this blog, is the familiar image of the church as the Bride of Christ: “And of course, finally she is Jesus' own bride. Our primary motive and holy fear should be to do no harm, to be terrified lest we insert ourselves between the Groom and his Bride. There is a wedding underway and this is a dance where no sane man dares ‘cut in.’"

The essential picture of God’s people as his bride appears throughout scripture but is probably the most focused and clear in Ephesians 5.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:25-32 ESV

This is a familiar text used in almost every wedding homily and applied to marriage, the parallels are usually rightly drawn. On further reflection this amazing passage deserves so much more attention as it applies to the church. It takes me to a place where almost immediately words begin to fail, to the utter uniqueness and sacredness of marriage and what marriage pictures. There is sobriety and humility called for when thinking about the church and particularly the leadership of it.There is serious danger in presuming too much while attempting to shape and manage what Jesus calls his own Bride, His own flesh. We had better walk carefully.

It is in that last phrase, “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” where the metaphor is most stunning. When we speak of the marriage of a man and a woman, we’re quite literally dealing with something of cosmic significance, a great mystery going to the very heart of God’s relationship with redeemed humanity. His quotation of Genesis and appeal to creation supports the implied claim of a universal truth.

Like so much of God’s word, Paul’s metaphor cuts with more than one edge. Marriage is significant and love is what it ought to be when modeled after Christ and his church. But well beyond this, marriage is significant because it is our most available picture of the Great Marriage, the coming together of the eternal Bridegroom and his chosen bride, the church. This elevates marriage to a place of so much greater importance than that of any natural or sociological explanation. Far beyond providing social stability, remedying loneliness and producing children, marriage is preaching the Gospel, for all time and for all to see.

This is why marital fidelity and sexual purity are treated with such careful and strict guidelines in scripture. Much is at stake here, even more than the possibility of harm to partners, children or society. To compromise or damage marriage is to cloud and distort an eternal picture, and so the word of God cuts to the heart of my marriage. I am to love my wife as Christ loves the church—for her sake and for the sake of God’s glory before a watching world .

The Bible cuts another direction with equal precision. If the relationship between a man and his wife is a picture of Christ and His church, and if the church is His bride, what does that tell us about the Church universal and about church local—the gathering of those who are individually members of Christ’s body, together someplace in his name?

The church is His bride, and no man should dare to tamper with that exclusivity: Not in the name of apostleship “I planted this church, she is mine,” or in the name of pastoring, teaching or leadership. The bride communes intimately with the groom and needs no human interloper, no go-between, no intercessor. “...there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” I Timothy 2:5 ESV This is indeed a dance where no wise man would want to cut in.

What then about human leadership? Order? Discipline? What about the authoritative and shepherding and teaching roles in the church described in Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and other places? They are vital and necessary to God’s plan for the growth and equipping of His church. But it is leadership walking very softly and humbly, using gifts for the benefit of others in ways always tempered and limited and sobered by the reminder of the bride’s identity. She belongs to Jesus.

So leading is by example. Not daring to call any of the bride’s attention to himself or direct any of her loyalty and love to himself or to his organization and away from Christ, the teacher employs great humility and care. The possibility of such an impertinence, however unintentional, strikes fear in him. Discipline, maintaining the purity of the church (who’s in and who’s not) is finally left in the hands of the whole church in Matthew 18, not invested in any individual, subgroup, leadership or otherwise. All this speaks of an understanding of the headship of Christ alone over his church, and her protection from presumptuous human authority.

John the Baptist, who Jesus called “a burning and shining lamp”(John 5:35) and a prophet like no other, understood his leadership role perfectly. “The one [Jesus] who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:29,30

So mature church leadership steps back, terrified lest it insert itself into the precious, intimate relationship between the bridegroom and his bride, recognizing that they themselves and every person in Christ are equally a part of that bride.

What does this mean for church leadership? It means that every ministry, every discipling and mentoring strategy, every counseling relationship, every leadership model, every governing system, every constitutional clause and bylaw must be measured in the light of this mystery, and therefore this question: Does anything we do interfere with, distract from, demean, diminish, or lessen the gathered members’ unique and elevated position in Christ? Have leaders presumed to speak for Christ? Has any condescension crept in? Any usurping of the role of the Holy Spirit who through the Word speaks directly to the believer? Even a little?

More about the authority of the Word later, but on that topic recently our pastor did an interesting thing. In the middle of an exposition of I Thessalonians 2. He paused, asked us to open our Bibles and raise them up in front of us, between our eyes and the platform, so that we could no longer see him. This, he said, was the goal and the point, the power and the role of the scripture. He was right.

In one sense, we should worry when the church demands too little of itself and of its audience—too little repentance, too little faith, too little faithfulness to the word of God. That may well be the larger problem in American Christianity. But we also should worry when the church demands too much—too much conformity, too much loyalty, too much attention for itself and its leaders, and too much authority for itself. That too is a kind of idolatry.

It could be added that in opposition to what some in their motivational zeal suggest, a Christian’s loyalty, love for and obedience and lifelong commitment to Christ cannot, indeed dare not, be measured by his loyalty, love for and obedience or lifetime commitment to any person or human organization.This is reserved for Christ alone, and historically, post-Reformation Christians have all understood this.

So when we think about marriage we should be thinking about how Christ relates to his church. And when we think about how Christ relates to the church, we ought to be thinking about a marriage. And we ought to esteem both highly.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why It’s Difficult to be an Orthodox/Biblical Christian and a Political Liberal

In and around the political seasons, this question comes up on blogs and elsewhere all the time, so I thought I would weigh in. Beginning as one must with certain caveats.

What Biblically conservative Christians should clarify:

1. Political conservatism and Biblical orthodoxy are not the same thing. That suggestion at the very least elevates politics too much in importance, and there’s plenty of evidence that parts of political conservatism are at odds with biblical teaching. Some conservatives are guilty of confusing the two.

2. Not everything in political liberalism is at odds with traditional Christianity. There are points where we agree.

3. It is quite possible for politically conservative religious groups to be in error in significant ways, particularly in doctrine or in legalistic, authoritarian practice. A general conservatism is no guarantee of ideological safety.

What Biblically conservative Christians must keep in mind when approaching politics and everything else:

1. That a biblically informed world view affects all of life, including politics. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Christian politician 100+ years ago said it this way:

“No political scheme has ever become dominant which was not founded in a specific religious or anti-religious conception.” Quoting in Tabletalk magazine 10/02, the writer added “Politics are not neutral but always wedded to ultimate issues. Thus, political ideas should be judged by their religious roots as well as their practical effects.”

2. The question for a Christian to ask of both (all) political camps is “what sort of view of the world does this approach flow from?” and not stop at the Christian-sounding use of rhetoric regarding compassion, grace, tolerance and other ostensible Christian virtues coming from politicians.

3. A world view is usually defined by at least these categories:

a) Epistemology--Is there such a thing as absolute truth or is all truth relative and sociologically defined with no fixed point of reference? Can what is true be understood rationally?

b) Theology--Is there a God? What sort of God is He? Does He intervene in the world of humans? How does He reveal Himself?

c) Anthropology--Who are we? Are we essentially good or bad? Are we “fallen?” What is our purpose and role in the world?

d) Morality/Ethics--What is the fundamental standard for human behavior? Where do we find a basis for what is good and what is evil? Are definitions of right and wrong behavior fixed or flexible and situational?

4. Which (if any) political camp tends to build it’s ideals and therefore it’s policies on the world view presented to me in scripture? None perfectly, but some are closer than others.

Modern American liberalism in my view flows from a) a relativistic, flexible view of truth, b) a minimizing of God in the public square, c) a counter-biblical overly optimistic view of human nature, and d) a weak, drifting, compromised ethical system where the only remaining standards are vague notions of “tolerance” and “diversity.” It’s ethic has permitted unthinkable contempt for human life. It’s only answer to the human dilemma and the reality of evil seems to be more government. I could go on and on.

On the surface, the goals of the left seem more biblical than mine: compassion, concern for the poor, peace, equality and so on. But embracing a political philosophy without examining it’s roots, and only it’s stated ends can put you in some dubious company. The end does not justify the means. In the last century it was God-less, human-centered, utopia-promising, morally ambiguous social experimentation that gave us the bloodiest, most brutal century in human history. Fascism and communism were built on a consciously anti-Judeo/Christian view of the world. The end result of these efforts was to produce the opposite of what was promised. This is always the case when God is subtracted from the justice equation.

The thoughtful Christian attracted to the humanitarian language of the left does not believe he’s aligning himself with all that. But if he examines both the roots and historical results of god-less political thought, the evangelical Christian will keep his distance from the Left even as he keeps a careful eye on the Right.

This is a rather broad-brushed summary that demands some chapter and verse debate, I realize, but it’s a start.

When elections come along, sometimes it’s far from a perfectly clear-cut choice. But based upon the above analysis, and sometimes holding my nose a little, I have to support the candidate whose root ideas are closest to, or least offensive to, my world view.

In any case, I do think Kuyper is right and that if we Christians with a high view of the Bible were to analyze our politics this way we would speak more clearly and prophetically to the politics of either party. We would be less intimidated by those who tell us to keep our religious views out of the public square.

Everybody’s religious views are in the public square whether they like it or not. While it’s true that religious conservatives sometimes put too much hope in politics, for many liberals politics has replaced religion, and that’s probably where I differ with them the most.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I've Always Suspected This

Here's a taste of a new book that will annoy my dear liberal friends...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Why Ramstad Will Not Get My Vote...Again

Because I am a single issue voter. Provided that single issue matters enough. Read this for a cogent, brief defense of single-issue voting.

I don't vote for Rammer's MN 3rd District opponents either. They're always worse.

If and when the Congressman can be shown to have mended his views, he will get my vote.

Friday, October 27, 2006

This Is Not My Next Post...

...the one with Part II of my last post. But take a look, if you haven't already, at The Sacred Sandwich and give me your reactions. I've explored only a little of it but it looks pretty interesting. I enjoyed the Twin Theologians.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Thinking More About Church: Part I
Micro and Macro, Over Space and Time

My family and I for the last couple of years have been necessarily somewhat preoccupied with questions regarding the church: how to understand it biblically, how to engage it locally, what constitutes proper human authority within it, what's healthy and unhealthy (as much as I despise therapeutic language) and so on. Why this has been so is well-documented here and on other related blogs. Fortunately, the study is challenging and enriching and a wealth of resources are available over space—via media and the internet, and time—via 2000 years of writing. I continue to discover good thinking and good writing that open the Bible in new ways on this topic.

Which leads me to my first thought: In all the analysis and questioning about church, I don't want to forget to first appreciate it.

Biblically, job one is to engage it and be part of it "...not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near." Hebrews 10:25 (ESV) The church is an amazing thing even in it's most basic and rudimentary micro form, gathered simply around the Word.

Luther said in that regard:

"The only mark of the Christian Church is following and obeying the Word. When that is gone, let men boast as much as they please: 'Church! Church!' There is nothing to their boasting anyway. Therefore you should say, "Do the people have the Word of God there? And do they accept it too?...wherever one hears the Word of God, there is the church of God, though it be in a cow stable, the place where Christ was born."
WHAT LUTHER SAYS: VOL I, Selection 780, Concordia

But over the last year the amazing treasure of the Church in the macro sense has come home to me in a new way too. We live in a privileged time when the insight and ministry of gifted teachers around the globe and back through the centuries all the way to New Testament times are at our fingertips. This is amazing when you think about it.

The writer of Hebrews calls those that went before him (listed in chapter 11) a "great cloud of witnesses" 12:1, and in a sense that cloud extends throughout the centuries A.D. I've just read a series of simple and moving prayers from The Didache, a collection of Christian teaching and liturgy dating back to the early 2nd century, and one from Clement of Alexandria around the same period. We would be at home with those forgotten saints. Their words could be ours, there is no disconnect between their Christianity and genuine faith in the 21st century. And of course from the apostolic fathers through the mystics to the reformers and beyond comes so much that most of us have never explored. I suppose we could think of it as the Church over time. Finding our place in the meta-story of the church is a humbling and correcting exercise. There is, by the way, an enormous amount of even the ancient stuff available to us amateurs. I just saw advertised at CBD a 38 volume hardcover set of the writings of The Early Church Fathers. I may wait for the CD!

The story of the church over time is not all rosey, to say the least. Yet from the reality of all the error, the incursions of human arrogance and apostasy repeated throughout the years, we learn what not to do, and how truth is strengthened when error is challenged. Or at least we should. Even with as little command of church history as I have, I'm struck by the repetitious nature of error—particularly with regard to the church. There is not much new out there in the field of heresy. But then there is not much interest in history either. As David Wells so masterfully points out in his Above All Earthly Pow'rs, our Emergent friends, for example, seem to have no idea that their "new discovery" of subjective, man-centric incarnational gospel is virtually identical to that which eviscerated mainline churches in the mid-1900s.

But they are not the only ones who put at risk this wonderful thing called the church. And here it is not even quite correct to say "put at risk" because what is truly amazing about the church after all is that "...the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Mt. 16:18 (ESV) Consequently she persists and endures and thrives and triumphs through good times, and most remarkably, even more so through bad times.
Jesus declared this so we know the story ends well. Still it is important to identify her enemies and the recurring mistakes from within that damage the church's unique position. And of course, finally she is Jesus' own bride. Our primary motive and holy fear should be to do no harm, to be terrified lest we insert ourselves between the Groom and his Bride. There is a wedding underway and this is a dance where no sane man dares "cut in."

Which brings me to my next set of musings based on Matthew 23:8, the relationship between believers, and I Timothy 2:5, the priesthood of the believer. The reformers and the post-reformers thundered on these points, I will squeak about them in my next post.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Help Me Out Here, George Barna

I just came across this, the You Say You Want a Revolution conference slated for next month in Seattle. Nothing too unfamiliar here, the usual Emergent topics and lingo, and some of the usual suspects at the front. But the presence of the renowned pollster surprises me. I know his book Revolution certainly shares some common ground with postmodern/emergent in it's prediction of new, alternative, non-institutional and usually smaller expressions of church in the coming years. I can imagine that Emergents would find his analysis and forecasts encouraging on that level, but would not care much for some of his "affirmations of a Revolutionary" pp. 128-130 Revolution:
Absolute moral and spiritual truth exists, is knowable, and is intended for my life; it is accessible through the Bible.
This sort of black and white statement is usually the answer to "the wrong question" in the world of McClaren and Co. and makes post-modern folks very uncomfortable. I wonder why Barna would be invited, and why he would accept. Any thoughts?

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Closet Arminian's Top 10 Observations at the 2006 Desiring God Conference.

1. These Reformed people are passionate.
In my Wesleyan, break-off charismatic Lutheran background, I was always given the impression that Calvinists were were pretty stiff and unemotional, all about correct doctrine and not much about Life and Spirit.

2. Ph.D. Divs can be incredibly passionate about the glory of God.
Education is not the enemy of a passion for the Gospel or commitment to the authority of Scripture. And you can learn a thing or two from these guys.

3. These people are stuck on the idea that it's all about the Supremacy of Christ and the glory of God.
They can't seem to talk about much else.

4. These people really like books.
By the end of day 2, the tables in the huge bookstore which had been piled high with theology, devotion and scripture (not much fluff here) looked like a plague of locusts had been through. I don't know when I'll read all this stuff.

5. There are no vending machines near the auditorium itself.
If you miss the concessions and don't have time to dash downtown, you will starve. Unless Aaron C. gives you a giant Pearson's Salted Nut Roll.

6. Mark Driscoll didn't worry me as much as I thought he might.
He made some excellent points.

7. I had never heard of Dr. Voddie Baucham, but I'm still looking for the socks I was wearing Saturday morning.
I want all my kids to see the video of his message "The Supremacy of Christ and Truth in a Post-Modern World."

8. We're all in this together.
Calvinists, Arminians and in-betweens, in confronting this assault on propositional truth and the heart of the Gospel lead by Emergent and others. (I would challenge people to download the 40 year old "Ten Shekels and a Shirt" by Paris Reidhead, a strong Wesleyan, and note the same theme of Christ-centered Gospel echoing across theological space and time.)

9. We're all in this together.
Imagine 3,149 Calvinists (and me) raising the auditorium roof with all 4 (or was it 5?) verses of Charles Wesley's "And Can It Be."

10. I think it's all about the supremacy of Christ and the glory of God.

All the messages will soon be available free at, linked at right. I will need to revisit several of them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mars Hill Audio
Another great resource for Inklings types is one I had sort of forgotten about in the digital age. In the early '90s I used to subscribe and had a cassette tape (remember those?) of NPR radio style interviews and analyses delivered every other month. In their own words:

MARS HILL AUDIO is committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.
The programs are now available on-line by subscription via mp3 for 30.00 a year. However, some selections are available here for no charge. I just listened to host Ken Myers interview Alan Jacobs of Wheaton on "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis" and I learned a couple of new things. Enjoy, and recommend anything else you find there.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Groothuis Says It Better Again

On a long-ago post, and again sandwiched between a couple of quotes from Dorothy Sayers on my 8/17/06 post, I was trying to express in many words what the Constructive Curmudgeon took care of in a few:

"American Christianity depresses him [Brother Yun]. There is so little seeking after God and so much self-congratulation and hype."

He is, in his 9/16/06 post, reviewing a couple of books dealing with the contemporary church. One of them, The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun sounds like a good read. The Church in China apparently continues to prosper and grow without the luxury of "self-congratulation and hype."

"He writes that the Chinese house-church Christians do not pray for lighter loads, but for stronger backs. His testimony convicts and inspires."

That's what I need to pray for these days...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An Under-Rated Coffee Beverage

The Cafe Americano, from Starbucks or anywhere else, is now my selection more often than not in the local shops. It's very simple. Just espresso with hot water, it features a rich, mellower than dark-roast flavor with a sort of thin foam on the top.

I've read that the name "Americano" may have been attached condescendingly by European barristas because we tourists couldn't take our coffee quite so strong, so they invented a watered down version just for us. Sounds plausible. But then we're used to the routine. In the peaceful periods between the great, tumultous conflagrations where Americans expend untold treasure and human life to save Europeans from their folly and are welcomed with flowers in the streets, we have come to expect to be despised. And so I lift my Americano to my lips with quiet resignation and a little pride.

Jeepers, you can turn anything into biting political commentary if you work at it.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Being a Lightning Rod

This is one of those posts that make no sense to those of you outside the "loop" of people familiar with GCM and Evergreen, so I apologize for its esoteric nature, and would recommend that you click on REALLY SMART GUYS for today's enlightenment and entertainment. Or go somewhere like and have some fun.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a pastor at Evergreen, has asked that I remove the portion of my series of posts on The Church that had to do specifically with our reasons for leaving that organization. The content he was already aware of. All of the facts of our journey out of the group and my analysis had been expressed to him before we left. He found it "divisive" and "damaging" I think, by the very fact of its existence in a public space such as a blog.

And so, I suppose I'm torn between two reactions.

On one hand, that post says exactly what I think, and what has needed to be said. I've had lots of corroborating, encouraging responses to it, mostly via email. Several people have thanked me for posting it, some with great passion. I am no longer a part of the group and obviously have no obligation to edit the content of my blog based on their leaders' wishes. I think they know that the message of it still needs to be engaged—hoping to silence the messenger will not be enough. I don't believe members need to be protected from difficult questions about their church. They ought to be free to read, question, debate and discuss ideas and teaching that come from within or without the local congregation—with the Word of God as their final authority. I would encourage Evergreen members to boldly question anything you need to. Hold the organization's feet to the fire on what they think about the nature of human authority in a church, the nature of the Body of Christ, their own history and practices as an organization. Don't settle for pat answers or question-avoidance techniques, or ad hominem dismissal of critics. That is not slander or divisiveness, that is the freedom and duty of the believer in action.

On the other hand, I'm sensitive to the need to "as much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" and I have no stomach for becoming either a prosecutor of that organization or a perpetual lightning rod for controversy regarding them. It could be argued that ECC leaders know—and most others who know me, probably now know what I think. (The post in question was made in mid-June '06.) And of course I have a number of Evergreen friends (including the afore-mentioned pastor) who feel, understandably I guess, implicated and embarrassed by what I had to say about the group to which they belong. Some of us still see each other and work together in non-church contexts, and those relationships are important.

So what to do? I'm asking God...I'm asking people I trust...I'm asking my readers...what do you think?

My temporary solution is this:

In the interest of peace, and in deference to my friend, I have taken down the ECC/GCM portion of my "Church" posts from this public space while I think, pray and consult more.

In the interest of truth and open debate, anybody who wants to hear or read my perspective can contact me directly.

And thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion thus far for supporting this blog. Some of you are amazingly unafraid of the lightning rod role.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The U. S. Is A Democracy

Technically it's a republic or a representative democracy, of course, but in support of those who help keep it that way, this blog recommends the political wit and wisdom—and candidate advocacy—of our next Really Smart Guys link Kennedy v. The Machine.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Now With Links to Really Smart Guys!

This blog will now be your entree into the world of people who think and speak more clearly than any of us. Please note the new category on the right.

I'm taking nominations for additions to this list. Who do you think should be there? I of course wield absolute Mosaic authority when it comes to what is finally included. The Blog is not a democracy you know...and remember, there is no Perfect Blog. But do please give me suggestions!

My first choice is Douglas Groothuis, a professor and author from Denver, who in this post regarding 911 and the war on terror demonstrates his qualifications for this important list.

Friday, August 18, 2006

If We Fail to Learn from History...

Here's a little piece of history, described by E.H. Broadbent in his book (oft-quoted on this blog) The Pilgrim Church, Marshall-Pickering 1931, related to the question of what might constitute excessive emphasis on human authority among believers.

"The quest of the Mystics [devout medieval Christians who sought to live personally in authentic New Testament faith, having given up, in a sense, on the Church being reformed—TD] for immediate communion with God, without priestly or other intervention, constantly brought them into conflict with the priests. Suspected of being of this mind, Loyola [Ignatius Loyola b. 1491] was more than once imprisoned by the Inquisition and by the Dominicans, but was always able to show them that he was not what they thought, and to obtain release.

Indeed, though at first so strongly affected by the writings of the Mystics, Loyola evolved a system which was the very contrary of their teaching. Instead of seeking experiences of direct communion with Christ, he placed each member of his Society under the guidance of a man, his confessor, to whom he was pledged to make known the most intimate secrets of his life and to yield implicit obedience. The plan was that of a soldier, each one was subject to the will of one above him, and even the highest was controlled by those appointed to observe evey act and judge every motive.

In the course of years of study and travel, of teaching and charitable activities, during which there were unavailing efforts to get to Jerusalem, and also interviews with the Pope, that company gradually gathered round Loyola, which was organised by him as the 'Company of Jesus' in Paris in 1534. He and six others, including Francis Xavier, took vows of poverty and chastity and of missionary activity, and in 1540 the Pope recognized the 'Society of Jesus', to which the name of 'Jesuit' was first given by Calvin and others, its opponents.

The careful choice and the long and special training of its members, during which they were taught entire submission of their own will to that of their superiors, made of them a weapon by which not only was the Reformation checked, but a 'Counter Reformation' was organized which regained for Rome much that she had lost."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Keen Observers Will Notice...

...that the descriptive header on this blog now includes the name Dorothy Sayers [1893-1957]. She was a British author and playwright known best for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories, and also was for a time a member of the Inklings with Lewis, Tolkien and others.

I've read very little of her work, but chanced upon a re-issue of her book of essays called Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine at the public library. I'm just into it, and I like her style and especially her economy of words. She is another voice from the past who can cut through the dense post-modern fog and especially Christian fog.

A couple of samples:

"Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is quite the opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama."—from Chapter 1

[I think she's right. But my sense is that a lot of people are tired of what has been offered in place of the "boring" stuff in church and ready for something different. What if you went to church and heard almost nothing about Our Story, Our Experiences, Our Distinctives, Our Building, Our Programs, Our Feelings, Our Journey, Our History, Our Movement, Our Leadership, Our Vision, Our Favorite Topics, Our Authority, and heard almost nothing but dogma—God Revealed in Scripture? Was it Tozer who said "It's very difficult to get people to come to a church where the only attraction is God," or something like that? I think some of us are willing to give it a try.]

"'Any stigma," said a witty tongue, "will do to beat a dogma.'"; and the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing floor of controversy that the true seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of the chaff. Christ, in His divine innocence, said to the woman of Samaria, 'ye worship ye know not what'—being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping. He thus showed himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: 'Away with the tedious complexities of dogma—let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!' The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular."—from Chapter 3

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Way Out West and Back
Here are some of my favorite pictures from the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills 7/8-20. First we had business in Denver (International Christian Retail Show) and then it was on to Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and finally to Custer, South Dakota, Rushmore, etc.
Bear Lake, Rocky Mtn. National Park

Emerald Lake, a mile or two hike further up and further in.

Cameras can't really capture the beauty of this place, but we all tried anyway.

A wild growing Columbine, the Colorado state flower.

On to South Dakota. If you want to go on the spelunking tour of Jewel Cave (we did not), you have to be comfortable squeezing through this sample cave passage (Beth was).

Part II with more pix of Colorado and S.D. (and my sons!) in a later post.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cool Things I'll Never Buy

Do you have a list (ever changing and evolving) of things you'd never waste money on but it would be fun to have? A visit to the Fender website yielded these excellent additions to mine.

Some nifty Fender leather low-tops for only about $55.00.

Then these loveable Tele die-cast miniatures for a little more, $75.00 or so.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Church

WHAT IS THE PATTERN TO FOLLOW? Learning from History
WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS? The World in the Church

(Notes as of 12/27/06)

The following post was originally offered in June of 2006 and caused something of a stir in our circle of acquaintance and beyond. In August it was taken down at the fairly impassioned request of an Evergreen pastor and his wife whom we considered to be our friends. The rationale for and explanation of that decision is covered in my 9/1/06 post.

Sadly, taking the post down accomplished little for the sake of “being at peace.” As a direct result of this post (up or down), two pastors’ families and one related family chose at the last minute to disassociate themselves with an organization we were all part of, and that my wife leads. Two of them held positions that had to be filled in an 11th hour scramble. To his credit, one of those pastors did show great consideration by paying his registration anyway so as to not leave the group in financial difficulty. Also, it should be added that three other GC pastors’ families chose to stay with us in the group. For that we were truly grateful.

In and around that whole process (again, more than a year after leaving their church), we received several communications in writing from Great Commission pastors describing us as “slanderous” and “divisive” among other things. In general these reactions, along with a couple of odd things that had happened earlier (around the time we resigned) were consistent with what many over the years have experienced with Great Commission and served to confirm our suspicions about the health of that organization and the wisdom of our decision.

After listening to the views of lot’s of people, I have decided at long last to put the original post back up where it was, content unedited, for what it’s worth, with the following notes:

1. It represents my best summary and analysis as of that date. I might write it a little differently now.

2. It was part 5 of a series of posts on The Church and some of the language is best understood as it follows up on those earlier installments

3. The most virulent reaction from GC pastors seems to have been to the use of the word “pride” in describing the GC approach to leadership. Draw whatever conclusions you may from that, but let me clarify:
a. Paragraph 4 was my attempt to anticipate that reaction and qualify the wording used.
b. Apparently I cannot overstate the idea that I was not identifying any person or the specific sin of pride in any person, but analyzing what I saw as a system and a sort of culture encouraging the undue elevation and isolation of leaders and a condescension toward the role of congregations. It was my assumption that GC pastors might well be gracious and humble individuals who have simply found themselves in a leadership system that by habit and tradition tended to communicate something else—a system sorely in need of reformation. I happen to personally know several GC pastors who are kind and good men and whose families I genuinely love and appreciate.
c. The 4th to the last paragraph is perhaps the most controversial example, so feel free to insert the adverb "corporately" in there, i.e. "corporately prideful, worldly..." etc.
d. GCM itself issued an apology statement in 1991 that clearly acknowledges corporate pride as a root of a number of practices that needed correction at that time. Current GC leaders who seem mystified by the distinction between the concepts of personal pride and corporate pride might want to re-read their own statement.
e. Before leaving Great Commission it had been our hope, right up to the last moment, that the good character of individual leaders would win out over the unfortunate teaching and practice that many of them were “born into,” and that they might embrace change rather than resist it.

4. Oddly enough, the post was written largely to finish something, not to start anything. It was in part an attempt, after more than 9 months of occasional reflection, to “put this experience away” and move on. I think I hoped, too, that it might serve as a gentle warning or an alert to others with similar observations and concerns. Way in the background was probably the faint idea that if I had been more clear at the time we were talking with GC leaders I might have accomplished more. Maybe somebody out there would yet be listening—that some good could come of it all within GC. My hope was that sooner than later I would have said what I had to say, and could just leave it there for whatever reaction it might get, and move on. In any case, I didn’t anticipate the need to write any more, but here we are. I'm done. I hope.



I’ve obviously been going somewhere with my recent posts. And where I’m headed here is to try to first summarize in my own mind and then explain to my Evergreen friends what lay behind our decision to leave the church last Summer. A handful of odd reactions and questions makes me think I needed to be more clear and forthright at the time.

It had nothing to do with megachurchiness, as tired as I am of that trend and as much as I smart off about it. It had nothing to do with governance per se, one precise set of bylaws over another. It had nothing to do with youth ministry changes or building programs. We did not find a new church that we liked better, we weren’t church shopping. We weren’t in conflict with anybody. It has been interesting to notice how many people have assumed that we were “hurt” in some way by the church. It’s as if personal conflict, not substance and content, is the only reason people might come to a parting of the ways. We were not hurt, but the decision was painful. We did not want to part in any way with friends. Moving our younger kids one notch away from their friends and familiar church surroundings was heartbreaking. So why did we do it?

It was a sharp disagreement over underlying principles, with what we now see as pretty significant flaws in what Evergreen pastors and GCAC/GCM believe about the nature of the Church and the leadership of it.

We came to believe that in Great Commission Association of Churches (Evergreen’s association) there was and still is something besides the gospel going on, a thread running through the DNA of the organization, so not right, that when we recognized it we could no longer be comfortable there. What is it? My blunt answer is a culture of pride. Sounds a little harsh, I know. I don’t know how else to describe it. A more complete explanation will take some digression and a few more paragraphs.

But before I go any further, let me qualify the bluntness and offer a disclaimer. I am not saying that Evergreen pastors are all proud men. I still count some of them as my friends (at least until this post) and would not want to be so strident and insulting as that. The same holds true for members. It has been observed that organizations in their corporate existence develop personalities of their own—characteristics and a culture that aren’t necessarily represented perfectly by any one individual. I operate on that assumption here as I attempt an analysis of Evergreen and Great Commission. I suppose you could say I’m challenging entrenched theology, philosophy, policy and assumptions, not people.

It seems to me that what has developed in Great Commission Churches, and the pitfall the GCM and GCC movement has been unable to climb out of, is essentially a kind of pride. Specifically, a misunderstanding of the nature of biblical leadership and of the church as the Body of Christ. It has resulted in an unduly elevated position of elders and in some cases heavy handed and controlling leadership. It has by its official structure excluded the congregation from it’s biblical role, and has produced a competitive system of leadership ambition inconsistent with true humility and grace. And then, from this leadership ethos flows a kind of exclusivism, elitism and exaggerated expectation of organization loyalty that seems to us unhealthy. So while the Gospel is preached, and much good comes from it, something is seriously missing—as a church.

That’s a mouthful. How did we come to this viewpoint? I’ll try to recap briefly.

There were some early red flags, isolated incidents and vague impressions. I remember being at the first couple of all-church gatherings, at the State Theatre maybe(?) in the mid-90s. I remember thinking “What is this?” The music was about the Gospel, the talks were sort of, but there wasn't much prayer, and the mood felt to me more like a multi-level sales conference, an Amway convention. It also seemed like this organization saw themselves as pretty much the only game in town. It troubled me some, but I was attracted by all the energy and strategizing too, and it was a lot of people, a growing concern. Looking back now, I think I was sensing exactly what later made me uneasy about the leadership culture in Great Commission.

I can remember in weekend services and Wednesday nights, frankly, a note of self-importance and even cockiness coming from the front, somewhat contemptuous of other churches and telling us that “everything you need is right here in this church.” We were frequently reminded of the uniqueness and particular biblical fidelity of this church and warned about reading too many books from “Northwestern Book Store” when we should be availing ourselves of the “gifted teaching here.” But, on the other hand the church participated with Billy Graham’s crusade and with Promise Keepers, so we gave it the benefit of the doubt.

There was some questionable biblical interpretation that concerned us, scripture twisting—bending a text out of shape to support a practice. One talk that really bothered us was a particularly unsound exposition of Proverbs in support of the Evergreen seeker strategy of “making Christ attractive.” Proverbs’ “Wisdom sending out her maidens” was offered as the basis for using attractive girls on the stage in the worship team. We heard it on a Friday, couldn’t believe our ears, came back Sunday and it was not repeated. We assumed it was a fluke, or at least had been corrected. I have heard I Timothy 3:1 “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer...” used to recommend a kind of “lust” for position that goes well beyond the intent of the passage, this in support of the Great Commission pastor development system.

We overlooked a lot of things because there were so many things we were impressed by. Who could not like the music, the energy, the growing crowds of young families and singles, the emphasis on evangelism? And to be fair, we met some very nice people whom we still count as friends. Not the least, we ended up “acquiring” a wonderful son-in-law!

We also knew something about the GC style of governance early on. I wondered about it a little, but decided maybe it didn’t matter. The proof would be in the pudding. The practice of bringing up pastors from within seemed like a good idea, and with qualifications, still does. We joined a small group, began teaching Sunday School, I began playing in the band, my wife served in the money counting ministry, and our kids got involved in the youth program. We helped start the Lakeville location and after a few years came back to Bloomington. We asked a few questions over those years, but procrastinated most.

Then came kind of a wake-up call. Big changes were suddenly afoot. Youth Ministry was to be dismantled and re-configured in an unwise way. The church schedule was suddenly changed to accommodate a major building campaign. All of this came down from the pastors. There was no congregational involvement in the decision making process. Ministry and small group leaders were hit with a preemptive strike at the next monthly meeting: God speaks His plans through the pastors. People need to follow. If you disagree with the plans, you’re out of step with God, not hearing from God, and may well be an obstacle and a tool of the devil. Whew! Then a weekend sermon during the ramp-up to fundraising. We need unity. The enemy of unity is complaining. Remember Korah’s rebellion? And so on.

We decided we needed to talk to some people and look into this organization a little deeper. We talked to four of the pastors over the next few weeks to follow up on some of our impressions. They were kind and generally reassured us that they believed in listening to the congregation, that the above ideas didn’t represent all the pastors’ actual thinking, and that we had been hit with “friendly fire.”

Somewhere in the middle of this process came another all-location gathering, Fanning the Flame. There we were told that we were the speaker’s “bride”, that we were meeting in the house of “another man’s bride” (Hosanna Church) and that as in a marriage, we ought to make a life-time commitment to our church, that leaving a church is tantamount to divorce.

We then met immediately with two pastors who acknowledged that while there were some points overstated in that message, overall it was effective. The CD of the message continued to be promoted and distributed in the following weeks. In the conversation on leadership that followed, one of them likened the authority/submission relationship between pastors and people to that of husband and wife, deliberating together, with the husband (pastors) having final authority. It occurred to me later that the blindingly obvious problem there is that the Bible does use the husband/wife picture...for Christ and His Church! Not the pastor and his church. I think that was a significant slip, and explains a lot about the foundations of GC polity. (And even using his premise, the leaders and the congregation had done very little deliberating together.)

Up to this point we had almost no information about the founding and history of Great Commission and the only negative was a reference somewhere to an apology issued by them in the early nineties. There had been some heavy handed practices in some of their early campus churches. We asked about that and one the pastors said he was aware of it and would try to dig one up for us, though he thought it wasn’t exactly an apology statement. For whatever reason, he did not get that document to us. He may have simply forgotten about it.

We began to do some research. We wanted to know where these ideas had come from. What are the roots and origins that might explain what we’ve been hearing. We knew a group had come up here from Ames, Iowa in the mid-80s and we had asked a few questions about that over the years. Maybe I’m lapsing into “black helicopter” conspiracy theory here, but looking back it seems on that topic people were ominously quiet and short on specifics. It made me wonder if there had been something embarrassing or difficult about the Ames group in those days. And yet the Ames alumni were undoubtedly on the inside track of the church, and clearly had a special bond with each other and their common heritage. I would hear quotes from “my pastor in Ames” without a name indicated. I later found out in one oft-quoted case it was Jim McCotter, the founder who had left the movement in the late 80’s. The question was this: Do the practices and ideas about leadership and church that worry us now have roots in the organization’ history, and is there information out there that does not come from the organization itself?

Googling "Great Commission International, Jim McCotter and cults" (and at this point we were beginning to worry about that) put us in touch with more information, most of it critical. We got information from Wellspring Retreat Center in Ohio, founded in the mid-80s by Dr. Paul Martin, a former Great Commission elder. Begun while helping others get over their experience in the Great Commission movement, it currently maintains a large research library and treats people from all sorts of cults and abusive groups. His book, Cultproofing Your Kids Zondervan 1993, includes his own experience with Great Commission. I bought the book. His colleague, Larry Pile, also a former GC member and leader in the early days, talked with me at length about the history and development of GC. He sent me a 200-plus page research paper devoted to this movement. His opinion was unequivocal.

The beginning of Great Commission (The Blitz) was marked by aggressive, successful outreach on a number of college campuses across the country. Founder Jim McCotter was a charismatic and influential evangelist who along with a handful of co-workers recruited a sizeable following in a few short years. The blessing of God was on these young people as they witnessed boldly for the Lord in the early 70s.

According to Pile, it was a little later when “assemblies” began to organize that some dark clouds began to form around the ideas of leadership, authority, and the Body of Christ. His account of what followed includes story after story of excesses, excommunications (in one case, from the worldwide Body of Christ!), and errant teaching around the theme of Our Strategy, Authority, Our Cause and so on. The founder seems to have exercised a controlling style and formed a sort of theology of it culminating in his book co-authored with Dennis Clark, Leadership: Apostles and Elders 1984 GCI. I have the book. It’s not very well written, more like a stream-of-consciousness rant (like this blog?), but includes some highly questionable stuff—very authoritarian, exclusivistic. Even while dismissive of other Christian groups and most of Christian history, at one point it shouts, “There must be unity at all cost [sic.]. When believers divide over so-called doctrine, they are always trampling under foot the cardinal doctrine—UNITY.” (Emphasis theirs) I suppose truth had to take a back seat.

One of the most interesting analyses of the development of thinking in GCI is a series of questions and statements regarding this shift addressed to Blitz leaders in 1977 by a group of men in Albuquerque. One incisive excerpt included in Pile’s book:

“Such practices and attitudes [regarding elders] we feel amount to spiritual bigotry and pride, based upon an improper concept of authority and leadership, and an underdeveloped concept of the body of Christ.”(italics mine)

If that 30-year-old assessment were not so eerily similar to what we thought we were picking up, we wouldn’t have noticed.

So what does all this have to do with today? Do these things persist in any widespread way? Is there any consistency with what we thought we were seeing here in our church?

There was indeed a statement of apology in 1991 (I now have a copy) including many of the afore-mentioned issues—prideful attitude, elitism, harsh discipline, misapplication of scripture, misuse of authority. It was done in consultation with men from Wellspring. It was genuinely intended, I’m sure, to clear up the damaged reputation of the movement. It was a step in the right direction. But questions remained. How universally was it endorsed by GC leaders? How widely was it disseminated? Were all the errors truly abandoned? Would these changes of heart find their way into actual teaching and organizational structure?

We began to listen to everything we could find on relevant topics—the history of GC, leadership, church, authority etc. available from Great Commission. We listened to pastors’ conference tapes, Faithwalkers conference messages, leadership retreats and more. There is evidence that past errors have not all been abandoned. In 2005 one of the messages to pastors at the pastors’ conference describes that 1991 apology as maybe “too self-deprecating.” And then on the subject of Unity and Loyalty his published notes suggest “Could it have been an honor to be accused of being a cult, those many years ago? Did we have something then, that may have been lost over the years?.” That sort of thing combined with what we had been hearing locally, drove us to this conclusion, summarized in an excerpt from our letter to the Bloomington pastors in August of 2005:

"That was a long time ago. A big part of the question for us has been whether or not Evergreen and the association have truly moved beyond those ideas and toward a healthier, more biblical approach to church. In some ways they have, but frankly, in some important ways, they have not; and that what we regard as an authoritarian government style, and an unscriptural approach to member loyalty, are still not only acceptable, but part of the core values of this movement, even enjoying a kind of resurgence."

Our conclusion was this: The fruit here was mixed. There were some good things happening in ministry, there was real skill and resourcefulness in speaking to the unchurched, but the unhealthy church legacy continued.

What is the Great Commission church leadership legacy? There are impressions and there are facts. People can debate whether they feel “controlled” or not, whether they sense an attitude of pride and whether the heavy-handedness of the early years is still around. Many would say none of those things are, others will tell you they have left the group for those very reasons.

What are not debatable are the quantitative facts about governance. Remember, every decision, including strategy decisions, staffing decisions, and the way in which every penny of church money is spent, is left finally in the hands of the pastors. There is a trustee board overseeing money—a fact which is offered as assurance that there is safety and objective oversight. But remember that this board consists of pastors, office staff and pastor-chosen members. As dull and seemingly unimportant a subject as it is, church government matters. If for no other reason than that it reveals the actual view of the body of Christ that the organization holds. It’s sort of a barometer.

Here the congregation has no authority in the selection process of elders and trustees. Final authority rests in the board of elders, which is the pastors. These men have been chosen (with the exception of the first two who were appointed by somebody in Ames) by one another. Yes, the congregation is invited to offer input prior to installation, but the decision is made by the existing pastors (and, of course, the decision whether to even open a position and hire somebody).

This is an unusual arrangement which apparently is the practice in all Great Commission churches. I occasionally read the blog of a very bright young guy at the Evergreen Rock location in Minneapolis. I happened to notice that in his bio he mentions his church, and that it is a GCM church “much like an Evangelical Free Church or General Conference Baptist church.” Not at all! Whether you like it or don’t, it’s drastically different. The statement of faith might be nearly identical, but nothing about structure, leadership or governance is even close. I wonder if this misunderstanding is common among members.

The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit leads and speaks to the Church through a variety of gifts distributed broadly through the ranks. Whatever operational bylaws are adopted, this principle must be honored. Historically, most solid post-Reformation church thinking has been based on these ideas. When leaders arrogate final authority to themselves, and tacitly assume that all necessary gifts are to be found among themselves, and leave the congregation “out in the hall” while they make decisions in executive session, something critical is lost, for the leaders and for the congregation.

In short, as all this came into focus, we knew we needed to again address our pastors and make a final decision. We were hopeful that change was possible. We were not interested in holding anybody hostage to the past. After 10 years we were committed to sticking it out and helping in any way we could if there was willingness on the part of leaders even to consider a shift toward what we thought would be a healthier model of church.

After yet another encounter with doubtful teaching, this time at our daughter’s summer youth trip (HSLT in Colorado 2005) on the subject of commitment to your local church “for the rest of your life,” we sat down with the Evergreen founding pastor who spoke at that event. That had been a common theme in 2005. While backing down from and apologizing for some of the specifics in that teaching, he listened to our larger concerns and gave us the response that I guess we needed. He was kind, soft-spoken but unequivocal. There would be no possibility of change within Evergreen or Great Commission with regard to its leadership philosophy, and it would be better for us to leave rather than stay and try to change things. So we did.

This is extreme, but this is what I think. In Great Commission, what is going on besides the Gospel, what taints, twists and colors all that is done, is a prideful, worldly, hierarchical view of leadership and an underdeveloped concept of the body of Christ. While all the good work and service and proclamation of the Gospel goes on, it persists in the culture of the organization and tangibly in its structure and governance.

Evergreeners are not bad people, or even bad Christians. Some are our dearest friends. In fact, there are many intelligent, wonderful people there, and if ever the error could have been rooted out and the leadership culture changed, we thought it could have become a wonderful expression of the local church, and a long-term home for us. It would have required one last top-down decision—radical, wrenching and complicated to be sure—with leadership divesting itself of it’s current authority and reconfiguring in submission to the Holy Spirit through the congregation, still leading and equipping, but now functioning in proper order, as one with the whole body.

Pulling the thread of teaching on leadership and the body would have unraveled much. It would have required enormous humility, the rethinking of 30 year old premises, a lot of work, and very possibly a break with the national organization. We sincerely believed that if it could be done, enormous freedom, growth and blessing would be the result. It was not to be.

There are my thoughts. To my ECC friends who might read this and think I've "lost it" or take any offense at these words, feel free to respond in any way you wish and please accept my apology. I've been procrastinating this post for a while but thought I needed to offer it, whatever it's worth.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Church continued...

A Definition of Idolatry

“Do not love the world or anything in the world....For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” I John 2:15

I'm sure it's been well articulated by many, but I think I first heard the following parallel between OT idolatry and the I John passage in a talk by Paris Reidhead. (

The idea is that each of the three things "in the world" that we are not to love corresponds to a particular idol that the Israelites were so tempted to worship, and that ultimately contributed to their downfall.
  • Ashtoreth The Sidonian goddess of sensuality and pleasure "the cravings of sinful man"
  • Baal The god of material prosperity "the lust of his eyes"
  • Molech The Ammonite god of power and influence "boasting of what he has and does"
Not much has changed over the centuries/millennia. Understanding this helps me understand the OT Israelites a little better, and empathize more with their struggle. They must have felt the pull of this obvious and visible idolatry the same as we feel the more subtle pull of it today, as individuals and as the people of God.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Church, continued...

WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS? The World in the Church

What are the greatest dangers to the institution of the church? Aren’t they the same dangers as threaten the individual believer? I believe they are. If they are, can they be better summarized than this?

I John 2:15-17(NIV)
“Do not love the world or anything in the world....For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Here I venture into a severe comparison, so if I’ve gone too far, pull me back. I realize there is some pretty broad generalization in what follows, though the analogy is common in the writing of men like A.W. Tozer.

We know the story of Israel’s repeated struggles in the Old Testament. It is the story of the “world” finding its way into the sanctuary of God. The idols of Ashteroth, Baal and Moloch ultimately replacing the worship of God at the center of Israelite life. The transition didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual, incremental shift, undoubtedly rationalized in a variety of ways. Aaron gave the people what they asked for. Jereboam needed to secure his position and the unity of his people. In each case a golden calf was the answer.

Within the history of the Church can we see a similar pattern? This much is obvious. As the world found its way in, the Church drifted, lost its purity, influence and power. As the Church resisted the world, it revived, reformed and regained it’s effectiveness, and the Kingdom of God advanced. The pattern is visible not only in the corrupted medieval church, which in retrospect everybody loves to hate, but even within the Reformation church and it’s many evangelical offshoots. Tozer once observed that in his day even church architecture had been redesigned to "house the golden calf." It can be clearly seen today in the Emergents' embrace of post-modern trends and its drift away from biblical authority, but also in corners where other temptations prevail.

How does the world get into the church? John’s diagnosis fits. Isn’t it some combination of “1) the cravings of sinful man, 2) the lust of his eyes, and 3) the boasting of what he has and does” that gets the Christian and the Church in trouble every time? The first two are the most obvious and officially least tolerated by evangelicals. Sexual immorality in leadership and financial scandal are legendary for bringing down great men and ministries and are usually dealt with severely.

But what about the third? Older translations render it “the pride of life.” It has been defined as the desire to be recognized, the drive to gain ascendancy over one’s fellow man, selfish ambition. This may be the ministry temptation most overlooked, and most excused—often in the name of "leadership."

Historically, the trouble seems to have begun with the church's acceptance and growing legitimacy within the Roman empire. Blame Constantine. Borrowing heavily from worldly government with which it had become entwined, the early institutional church was marked by the development of a powerful hierarchy, accountable only to itself, exercising imperious authority over members. It soon became possible for men to achieve—within the church—the wealth and status of princes and kings. In what was intended to be a priesthood of all believers, a priesthood of clergy appeared, and the Roman church was born with all its attendant complications and aberrations. Centuries later when the Reformation shook Europe, ecclesiastical pride and corruption were exposed, the great truths of justification and the priesthood of the believer were again recognized, and the worst excesses began to be remedied.

And here is where the contemporary application maybe gets too severe. It’s foolish to paint with too broad a brush because the vast majority of pastors and leaders in churches today don’t think this way. But if they do, they introduce a true "pride of life" idolatry. Whenever those purporting to lead the evangelical church begin to think of themselves as above the Body, create protective rings of insiders around themselves, wield all authority and are motivated by ambition to within the body of Christ achieve a kind of ascendancy over their fellow believers, haven’t they fallen into this third trap? In a real sense brought "the world" into the Sanctuary? Whether in the name of strong leadership, or discipleship, or for the goal of reaching the world for Christ, they have compromised a fundamental New Testament principle, and the end never justifies the means. "Not so with you..." Jesus said. Mt. 20:26

But motives are difficult to discern, so Protestant congregations historically have established checks and balances within their governance to protect themselves from these excesses, and in a sense, from their leaders! Any structure that minimizes critical truths about the Body of Christ—beginning with the precious truth of the priesthood of all believers, that excludes the congregation from it's proper function, demeans and harms the church, the Bride of Christ.

So my question is this: Could it be possible while destroying the high places of Astheroth and tearing down the altars of Baal to be found, perhaps unwittingly, embracing “the pride of life” in the theory and practice of modern spiritual leadership? I Peter 5:3 has to be speaking to such a possibility.

In the words of C.S. Lewis [The Four Loves, 1960 Harcourt Brace] have we "...shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch?"

To be continued...

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Church continued...

WHAT IS THE PATTERN TO FOLLOW? Learning from History

The study of the history of the Christian Church is an amazing journey. I've taken only a few baby steps. The New Testament itself is obviously our primary guide, but a look at the subsequent experience of the Church through the centuries is worth the effort. An old book, The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent, Marshall-Pickering UK, first published in 1931, provides a fascinating overview of the rest of the story. It’s hard to find, but I recommend it.

The pilgrim church, that authentic communion of believers faithful to the Gospel and Spirit of the New Testament has a rich and well-documented history. In some periods, it has survived and blossomed virtually under the radar of the dominating empires and visible church hierarchies. In other cases, it was a movement of reform publicly engaging the institutional authority of the church.

Whenever it was vital and growing, it was marked by certain characteristic assumptions: 1) The headship and sufficiency of Christ, 2) The authority of Scripture, 3) The priesthood of every believer, 4) The call to personal Godliness, 5) The guidance of the Holy Spirit through gifts distributed broadly among the believers, 6) The lack of division between clergy and laity, 6) Great joy, even in suffering, and 7) Humble service to each other and outreach to the lost.

Such assemblies and movements grew like wildfire across the continents in the early centuries. The Walldenses in Southern Europe, the Bogomils of Bosnia, The Paulicians in Byzantine-ruled Turkey and Syria are examples. Later, in the wake of the Reformation, Anabaptists and Moravians and Mennonites in Europe, and countless other groups carried the torch. Marginalized by official church historians, these amazing believers are a testimony to the grace and power of God through His Body, and are truly the forebears of the Bible believing Church today.

Interestingly, reform movements only faltered when they themselves turned back to patterns and practices vigorously resisted earlier. The Mennonite mission to Russia in the 1800s is a great example. Beginning as a grassroots revival and missions outreach, in Russia over time it became institutional, rigid and hierarchical—and worldly. It had to be corrected and rejuvenated by a new gathering of Russian believers, faithful to New Testament teaching and eagerly embracing the above assumptions.

Whenever the headship of Christ became the headship of men, the priesthood of the believer was compromised by elevation of the clergy, the leadership of the church taken from the Holy Spirit through His gifts to the body and given to pastors and councils and inner rings of human authority, and whenever the Scriptures became a tool in the hands of ambitious shepherds for the control of the sheep, the results were predictable: 1) Godliness declined, 2) Spiritual fervor diminished, 3) Evangelism slowed, 4) False piety and form replaced real experience of God, and always, without fail, 5) A new “pilgrim church,” more faithful to the original model sprang up like a fresh green shoot in a spiritual desert.

“I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” That’s the amazing resilience and durability of the Church. It just keeps coming back.

This is not to say that God was unable to accomplish anything among the authoritarians, that there was not spiritual fruit within the established Church, even in some of its darkest years. Missionaries continued to go out, Christ was preached, and the great mystics Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich and others from those years have left us spiritual treasures in their writings. God had His true invisible Church even in the midst of a compromised visible one.

Later, men like the Wesleys saw great revival in England while themselves in some ways mimicking the hierarchical system of the Anglican church in their structure. The question finally is not what is God able to do in spite of us (obviously much), but what does the Bible teach foundationally on the nature of the Church, and how can we live it out? Can’t we admire John Wesley’s command of the Gospel, stand in awe of the move of God through his preaching, and still concede that maybe he was weaker when it came to the subject of the nature of the Church? Even when motives of preachers were highly questionable, Paul in Philippians rejoiced when the Gospel was preached. We can do the same.

Greg Ogden’s book The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God, Zondervan, 1990, put many of these ideas in a more modern ecclesiological context and foresaw the rumblings of change some feel today. While not a theological work, George Barna’s Revolution, Tyndale, 2005, is in a way a prescription for a similar reformation in the way we engage the local church in America.

To be continued...