Monday, June 24, 2013

The Method of Biblical Theology

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books are one grand story. The entire work, not including The Hobbit, contains three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) . Each volume really is comprised of two books. For instance, the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains 1) a prologue that introduces the entire series of books; 2) Book 1, called The Ring Sets Out (or The First Journey); and 3) Book 2, called The Ring Goes South (or The Journey of the Nine Companions). Each of these books is split into about 10-12 chapters with such names as “A Long-expected Party,” “The Shadow of the Past,” and “Three is Company.” Each of these chapters tell a main story that somehow fits into the entire storyline of The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, they contain sub-plots, background anecdotes, and digressions (seeming rabbit-trails), all for the purpose of making the grand story complete.

Now try to remember the first time you read the books (or, regrettably, only watched the movies). You didn’t know exactly how the story would progress. You didn’t know the ending because you hadn’t read it before. Incidentally, however, we all really did know how the story would end. From the very beginning, we knew that the impossible task that had to be done would be done. Can you imaging Frodo failing his quest? So in the minds of us readers, the most pressing issue was not what would happen but how it would happen. And the reason that Tolkien is so successful in making his readers continue reading is that fantastic events happen, tension builds, and everything happens so miraculously yet so plausibly.

But think again back to the first time you read the story. At each point in the story, you didn’t know exactly what would happen next. You were given hints and clues. Events were foreshadowed and prophesied. Yet you were left to your own perceptiveness in reading the details to anticipate future events. Both we readers and the characters in the story knew only what had been revealed up to that point in the history of Middle Earth and in their own part of it. None of us knew the future. To make things more difficult, the first time you read these books, undoubtedly you missed a lot of the details. Some of the themes, symbols, and patterns evaded your notice. You understanding was cloudy and incomplete.

But image something impossible for a moment. Imagine yourself rereading all preceding chapters one or twice or five times before you moved on to the next chapter. And before moving on to book two, you reread all the previous books 3-4 times.

Of course, you have better things to do with your time, but if you had done such a thing, you would have become an expert of each book, and the subsequent books would have made much more sense as their events unfolded. Indeed, you would eventually have large portions of it memorized. You would recognize how each smaller portion, every tiny detail fits into the entirety of the story. You would understand more about why Tolkien told the story exactly the way he did. You would learn to think like Tolkien, and you would understand the world he created in the way that he, as the creative author of Middle Earth and its history, wants you to understand it.

Biblical Theology is a method of interpreting the Bible. The type of reading I have just described largely describes the method of Biblical Theology. History is the story that God creates and tells. Thus, history has a purpose and is moving toward a specific goal. The Bible is the literary masterpiece that God wrote to tell that story. God is the author of this multi-volume epic, which tells one grand story with many sub-plots. Like The Lord of the Rings, the Bible also contains background anecdotes and seeming digressions. Throughout the work, the divine Author recounts fantastic events and builds tension in ways that are both miraculous and plausible. And so we should read it in a way similar to how we read The Lord of the Rings. Yet, as an author, God is even more successful than Tolkien. No time is wasted when we read each portion over and over in order to understand how they fit into the grand story, to come to know the mind of the divine Author, and to learn to think like Him. As we read, we told a certain amount about what history look like in the end, but the exciting project is discovering how God brings history to that end.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cultural Imperialism: A Mission of the Church

As I think of the possibility of missions work in my future, I have been considering my own understanding of Christian mission. I have begun reading The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright, which sets out to “demonstrate that a strong theology of the mission of God provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework within which to read the whole Bible” (26). The book comes highly recommended as a work of biblical theology, which purports to turn the hermeneutical key for “unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative,” i.e. the mission of God.

I’m a little surprised that the initial chapters of the book relate to a philosophy of missionary work. (I’m actually reading it because it is a standard work on biblical theology.) In one of these initial chapters, Wright grapples with the idea of contextualizing the gospel in the work of mission(s). This is the idea that while the gospel “has an unchanging core because of its historical rootedness in the Scriptures and the Christ event,” yet “it has been [and should be] received, understood, articulated, and lived out in myriad ways, both vertically through history and horizontally in all the cultures in which Christian faith has taken [or takes] root” (46).

In the context of this discussion comes the sticky issue of how Western missionaries have frequently imposed Western cultural expressions on cultures to which those expressions are completely foreign. The flaw to avoid is confusing the “unchanging core” of the gospel with unnecessary baggage of Western culture. Wright says that “the West” is “a particular context of human culture, not necessarily any better or any worse than any other context for reading the Bible and doing theology” (42). This statement implies that he views “the West” as simply the “culture” of northern Europeans (and Americans), especially of the post-Enlightenment manifestations of it. According to this line of thinking, a missionary needs to remove the gospel from his own cultural husk and not export those trappings as part of the message he delivers.

Another expression of very caution was recently recommended to me in a blog post by R. C. Sproul Jr. called “Contextualizing Missions.” In that article Sproul Jr. uses the example of missionaries who into “untamed interiors” haul musical organs along with the gospel. But it isn’t always a musical instrument that we export. Missionaries are also guilty of imposing “our own traditions [and] our own way of doing things.” In contrast, the task of missionaries is to “grow and encourage the church of Jesus Christ,” to “grow and encourage the local believers,” and to “encourage them to follow Jesus, not us.” We are not to go “with programs, but with the gospel.” The missionary’s goal ought to be to “win the lost,” not “to remake ... churches or cultures in [his own] image.” Sproul Jr. is witty and uses rhetorical flourishes to make a point, but his thesis is clear: a missionary needs to know “the difference between a cross and an organ.”

The point of view of Wright and Sproul Jr. has some merit. It is important not to give unnecessary offense for the sake of our favorite method or style. It is important that we know exactly what the gospel is. We need to know the difference between the gospel and implications of the gospel. We need to discern between what a newly-planted church is ready for and what is necessary for planting a church. We need to be open to the fact that we cannot always offer the “complete package” to the first generation.

Yet, implicit in these view are at least four undesirable implications about culture and the gospel. First, all cultures are viewed as possessing neutral trappings that eventually create an external husk for the gospel. Styles are seen as realities predetermined by the target cultures, and missionaries should not impose the unfamiliar styles of their own culture upon people from another. Yet, cultural expressions are not neutral and may be evaluated by biblical norms. Putting the gospel into an unholy husk is a compromise that should be avoided. We should be very careful about assuming that people will be able to disassociate their cultural expressions from their former paganism. Missionaries and evangelists offer an alternative. Why should we expect the gospel and its implications to be familiar to a pagan? This critique of not recognizing the paganness of cultures untouched by the gospel goes hand in hand with my previous critique of not recognizing the churchness of Western culture.

A second implication, which I highly doubt anyone actually believes but which should still be addressed, is the idea that cultures and their expressions and styles cannot be reformed or formed by the gospel. Rather, cultures are treated as givens, which must not be tampered with. Indeed, tampering with them is a form of cultural imperialism, a missionary flaw to be scrupulously avoided. Yet, of course, this is not true. And missionaries, domestic or foreign, should be careful not to pull a classic “bait and switch” in their presentation of the gospel: get them in with familiar, though pagan, cultural expressions, then work on changing them.

Third, these exhortations for contextualization imply that the church itself does not contain a culture, that the cultural expressions that developed in “the West” did so less because of the church and more because of the geography or whatever else might have changed the barbarians of western Europe into a civilized society. In contrast, I affirm that the church itself has a culture. The church has not always been reactionary, borrowing raw material from surrounding culture. There was a time when the church created culture, governed by the desire to make sanctuary worship beautiful and glorious. And so godly, artistic, creative men and women invented and created. And so also architectures, musical genres, and thought and behavior patterns were born. And these inventions, originally made for the purpose of beautifying and glorifying sanctuary worship, spilled over into the larger society.

Thus, I think that the term “Western” as a characterization of a culture can be unhelpful. The church largely created what we think of as “Western culture.” So why should we see those cultural expressions, which the church developed over the course of over 1,000 years out of an impetus to make worship beautiful, as irrelevant and undesirable for missionary work? Do we really expect foreign converts to start that 1,000-year clock over and in the meantime to borrow their cultural expressions from the surrounding pagan culture? Should missionaries promote this out of a fear of being accused of being cultural imperialists?

Or perhaps the church did it wrong in the West. Let’s go back to example of musical organs. We don’t really think that the missionaries to the barbarians of northern Europe discovered the organ from the barbarians, do we? Surely, we don’t regret the invention (or progressive improvement) of the organ in both the church service and the concert hall, do we? (Obviously, some churches throughout history have abuse their use of the organ. But cannot any good thing be abused?) The fact that the organ is now associated with the West and not just the church is very telling about how the church forms culture. The very example used for imperialism of Western culture is not inherent to “the West” at all, but rather the church!

(I know the original organ was most likely not invented by the church, but it was improved by it. What we now think of as an organ is largely a product of the church and is a far cry from its Greek prototype. But this particular instrument was chosen and developed because 1) it makes a beautiful sound, 2) it can function like a complete orchestra though played by one person, and 3) not having a decaying tone, it is ideal for accompanying and beautifying singing in worship.)

Finally, and closely related to everything else I have said about the missionary endeavor, I would ask, what is the gospel? I question the understanding of the gospel and the project of spreading it as simply getting individuals saved by getting them to ascribe to certain propositions. Rather, spreading the gospel should be viewed more as the building of a kingdom. I agree with Sproul Jr. that missionaries should encourage people to “follow Jesus,” but I want to think of Jesus as the totus Christus, the “whole Christ,” Head and body. If our understanding of salvation and the gospel is tied up with our doctrine of the church (and it should be), then indeed we are offering people more than individual salvation. We are offering them life as citizens in the kingdom of light, a complete package of Jesus-church culture, practices, music, history, story, and affections. And in this sense, we need to own up to reality by pleading guilty to being cultural imperialists, not of Western culture per se but of the culture Jesus has been nurturing and developing through His Spirit for almost 2,000 years.

Even with the above four caveats, I still submit to the warnings by older and wiser men concerning contextualization. Obviously, a missionary must fit the gospel message into a specific linguistic context. One of the first tasks of a new missionary needs to be to learn the language. (He might then begin laboring to mould even the language by the Bible, as was done in the West.) Missionaries must also understand the historical milieu of his target country in order to understand how the culture has grown into its current state. Also, geography and accessibility can severely limit what a missionary can do. Bamboo musical instruments are usually not practical in regions where it does not grow. (Thus, I am not arguing that missionaries ought to take organs into the untamed interiors.) Finally, missionaries should apply with discernment the ancient practice of plundering the Egyptians, that is, using materials from the surrounding society for the purposes of building up and beautifying worship. Israel used the plunder from Egypt to build and decorate the tabernacle. Medieval churchmen snatched and then improved upon an instrument like an organ in order to make the singing in congregational worship more glorious. We are welcome to knock on the gates of hell, pilfer the clever devices of the pagans, and transform them for worship, and therefore culturally formative, purposes. In these ways can missionaries continue the church’s work of being culturally creative rather then reactive and perpetually dependent.

One final point. All these observations can apply to a church-planting pastor in his own country. Using styles that are familiar to the surrounding pagan and rebellious culture for the sake of converts may produce some numbers. They might even fill church buildings with Christians, but ones who remain in a perpetual state of immaturity. Always keeping their eye on the surrounding culture for their cues, purportedly in order to be relevant to the world, these contextualizing church-planters undermine the work that is the most relevant for the creating and transformation of culture, which is sanctuary worship of Almighty God, a strange and dangerous task. It’s time for the church to recover her project of creativity and invention for the sake of glorious sanctuary worship and thereby ultimately for the life of the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Culprits for Biblical Ignorance

Today I want to talk about something that should be obvious to everyone in the conversation of Christian education but, sadly, is too often neglected at worst and merely assumed at best. What I am talking about is the practice of studying the Bible in order to gain a thorough knowledge of it. I’m going to leave off for now discussing the extent of and approach to the Biblical knowledge necessary for all God’s children. Here, I will examine the chief reasons for the dearth of Bible knowledge among God’s people, even among those raised in Christian homes and taught in Christian schools.

1. Worldview thinking

God has placed me among His people who love and promote “classical education.” One of the purported benefits of this method of education is its intellectual rigor. This rigor, coupled with a desire to be epistemologically self-conscious in a distinctively Christian way, is supposed to produce Christians who are able to “give an answer” to all forms of unbelief. This goal, while worthy in many respects, has been misapplied by its emphasis on “worldview thinking.” Of course, I recognize that the Christian faith is capable of providing a thoroughly extensive and intensive account of reality. But that desire to pass on such knowledge has minimized those disciplines (intellectual and otherwise) that are most valuable for Christians.

This fact came to my attention a couple years ago when I was at a teachers’ training provided by a leading school in the Christian classical school movement. I was surprised by the fact that at this intellectually demanding classical Christian school, Bible class met only three days per week. So I asked a board member about it, and he told me that they do so for two related reasons. First, they want to be careful that they don’t tacitly teach their students an improper compartmentalization of Bible from the rest of life. This avoidance is accomplished apparently, at least in part, by deemphasizing the formal teaching of the Bible proper. The second reason is that the Christian worldview is integrated into all school subjects. Thus, students will learn the Bible from their literature, math, science, and history teachers. The theory is that the Bible will so saturate the other classroom subjects that the students will complete their education with an adequate knowledge of it.

Worldview thinking has largely become a trendy buzzword for relevant engagement with the surrounding culture. Even at its best, it treats Christianity as a disembodied system of thought to be argued persuasively. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is its deemphasis on the data of Scripture in order to engage in the realm of ideas. Christianity is “assumed.” It is a lens through which one interprets reality. But when treated merely in this way, my observation has been a neglect of actual Scripture and a very shallow understanding of its facts.

I would add as a parenthesis that Bible classes themselves also frequently tend not to deal with the Bible as much as theology or apologetics. There is a tacit fear of making Bible class too much like a moralizing Sunday School class, almost as if the Bible itself cannot be taught in an intellectually rigorous way.

2. Catechism

Catechism can be thought of as both method and content. I am not against the method of question and answer. Indeed, I regard it as a very effective pedagogical technique, especially in the early years. Rather, I am observing the drawbacks of the catechisms taught in the primary school years. When I began moving in the Reformed direction, I soon discovered that a distinctive of Reformed child rearing is the practice of catechizing. Debates ensue about the best catechism for children. Parents take as a mark of parental success the difficulty level or antiquated sound of their child’s questions and answers. A child who is equipped with a pea-shooter will learn only a purportedly watered-down “Catechism for Young Children.” Better, a child with a pocket pistol with have at his ever-ready disposal the answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But parents who want to go all out and equip their children with a bazooka that is sure to knock out all enemies of the gospel will teach their children the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Of course, I am speaking facetiously, but I am truly concerned that we are putting the cart before the horse. I heard of a dear friend of mine recently expressing concern about his four-year old’s inability to articulate the truth of the Trinity. My friend, of course, was not overly concerned, but I do think his prioritizing of the study of doctrine even at this early age illustrates my point. Catechisms are essentially systematic theology. And systematic theology should rely on a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Regrettably, my observation has been that a heavy emphasis on catechism frequently goes hand in hand with a shallow knowledge of the stories, types, symbols, terminology, and facts of Scripture.

Again, by way of parenthesis, I am not opposed to teaching children the language of doctrine. My concern is with how prioritizing it easily results in a deficient knowledge of the Bible itself. Additionally, teaching doctrine is important especially in later years after a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge has been laid. Pedagogically speaking, Bible content is an enormous amount of “grammar level” material. I regard theology and apologetics as essentially “dialectic” material.

3. Partisan spirit

Frequently coupled with catechizing is a partisan spirit that is more concerned about losing children to other theological traditions than producing people who know their Bibles thoroughly. I have heard parents, whose children, though remaining faithfully passionate about serving Jesus, now identify with a different type of church, lament their failure to catechize their children better. I have heard teachers object to my cautions concerning catechizing by saying that our children may not turn out Reformed if we teach them only the Bible. Oh, the irony! These concerns may be legitimate to a point, but they also reflect a divisiveness that has plagued Protestantism for years. It is as though our desire to keep our own types of churches full justifies circumventing a rigorous Bible education.

This partisan spirit also implies a lamentable misunderstanding of how to replicate our own. As parents and as educators, we must recognize that watertight theological arguments and meticulously qualified catechism responses are not sufficient to pass on our heritage. Our heritage is more than a list of theological distinctives. And Christ’s body is much, much bigger than our own particular convictions. And I speak as one who feels very, very strongly about my own!

4. The spheres

The final culprit for our general Bible ignorance that I will mention is, once again, sphere sovereignty. I have talked about the inadequacies of the spheres before, and so I will only touch on them briefly here. Many churches operate under the assumption that the intellectual development of Bible knowledge is the responsibility of the “family sphere” while the responsibility of the ecclesiastical sphere extends to the spiritual development of its members. Thus, pastors labor to persuade parents, especially fathers, of their responsibility to teach their children the Bible, and, once the job of persuasion is done, they try to equip them in their pursuit. Thus, they have book table, and they recommend Christian schools, which operate in the sphere of the family. But in an effort to maintain supposedly proper distinctions of roles, churches demure from offering a thorough and rigorous Bible curriculum.

Once again, I regard this neat, watertight theological construction as providing churches with a respectable excuse for not making the long-term, expensive, and inconvenient commitment to teach the data of the Bible in a systematic way (apart from the pulpit).

Of course, these criticisms do not apply equally to everyone, and there are churches out there who do a very good job in offering such vital programs. The bottom line of my concern is that believers of all theological backgrounds do not know their Bible. Teaching the Bible is a lot of work and takes years of diligent labor. But if we are to have a generation of men and women who can make a difference in the surrounding culture, then they must be saturated with Biblical knowledge. And that knowledge is possible only if we make the commitment to teach it thoroughly and rigorously.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pathway to Freedom: Christianity Replaced by the Church

In his article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic,” Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative highlights a phenomenon that has been recently brought to my attention, an understanding of which, I believe, is necessary for lasting systemic change in the American system. Some of the most basic values that Americans hold dear are the very ones that will continue our demise of any claim to moral superiority.

McCarthy calls our system, borrowing from Grant Havers, “federal majoritarianism,” which values self-government, while maintaining a sort of aristocracy rooted not in heredity but in education, connections, and, more recently, charisma. This premium placed on self-government comes clearly from the Colonists’ being predominantly Protestant, that is, within ecclesiastical traditions “in which congregations had great say over church governance.” Thus, McCarthy states,

It’s easy to see how men who were accustomed to managing their spiritual affairs might think that they could manage their worldly affairs without king or Parliament. The tradition — the practice — of self-government held more authority for Americans than such institutions as crown, Parliament, or Anglican hierarchy. When the two types of authority came into conflict, it was clear where the colonists’ strongest loyalties would lie.

Americans love their independence, their liberty for every individual person as an individual and not as a member of a group or family or race. This nation began as a Protestant nation that was always trepidatious about either Church or civil leaders who claim any sort of authority. For instance, McCarthy recounts that in the 19th century the Roman Catholic church, a thoroughly authoritarian tradition, was confronted with suspicion in the United States. He reasons, “because the Catholic faith subordinates the laity to a hierarchy, wouldn’t Catholics in politics subordinate citizens to the pope or a dictator?” I also presume that this suspicion has factored in to keeping the Catholic Church from exceeding 25% of the populace to this day. In ecclesiastical matters, like civil, Americans prefer their leadership to earn their rights by education, connections, or charisma.

The question posed by the (presumedly Catholic) author is this: “As Protestantism has mutated into less structured congregations… and as religious practice in general apparently declines, have Americans also lost the experience that made political self-governance possible?” American is sliding from a loosely structured “federal majoritarianism” to a “new plebiscitary majoritarianism, which is impatient with constitutional filters [and the limitations it places on the leadership] and demands a direct expression of the people’s will through the power of the president of the United States.” With this slide in view, are Americans willing to continue perpetuating their system while recognizing the possibilities inherent in a system of liberty of the individual accompanied by an almost irrational trust in charisma and celebrity?

One could hope for a “Catholic moment” in which authority and hierarchy play a greater role, despite their risk of abuse. But such hopes must be tempered by the reality that America’s “political structure at its core is Protestant.” Not only would such a move be resisted by the populace, the Catholic mindset rightly hopes too much:

Catholic political theory has a hard time dealing with the American political system — despite a great many modern modifications, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of how politics works was shaped by the practices of Christendom, by the existence of stable authorities who formally acknowledged the moral authority of the Church and who at least pretended to heed the Church’s teachings. The American public, by contrast, is not a stable authority... and neither the public nor the Constitution acknowledges the authority of the Church in anything except the fuzziest or most utilitarian terms.

This, I believe is the heart of the matter. America was founded upon “a Constitution that rested exclusively on popular rule.” And this rule by the populace, rather than establishing religion, guarantees the equal legitimacy of all religions, though under certain transcendent limitations. Thus, as time has passed and the people have become less Christian in their individual thinking, “we have something closer to a mass democracy than a federal republic.” And “the influence of a landed well-read aristocracy has given way to what Aristotle would have recognized as a money-minded oligarchy.” McCarthy makes the scathing but true indictment that “commercial wealth speaks more loudly than the Framers had expected, and the 18th-century notions of character and reputation have fallen before modern concepts of charisma and celebrity.”

Daniel McCarthy has made an accurate assessment of where we are and how we got here. It is most certainly true that when men like Thomas Jefferson guaranteed the equal standing of all churches, he radically relocated the role and the realm of rule of religious institutions. By moving the work of the Church to primarily, almost exclusively, the inner, spiritual man, a movement with with the church itself was complicit, the American system established a baseline authority to which even the Church must submit. The Founders redefined the authority the Church could wield and established rules that must not be broken. Equal legitimacy of all religions is possible as long as each one abides by these higher and prior laws that transcend all others. John Locke knew that the biggest threat to liberal democracy was the Church and that the Church needed to be replaced with a internalized Christianity. But when the Church acts as an institutional body meeting the needs of the whole man, she is forced to break some of these transcendent rules, at times encroaching even upon the purported functions of the civil state.

In America religious freedom has come at the cost of internalization. Thereby the church has been provided with an excuse for abdication, and she has taken full advantage. Now, in this age of tolerance, it has been too easy to minister merely to men’s souls but not to the whole man. And being complicit in this internalization, the church has become largely irrelevant as an authority over and definer of culture. The civil community with its practices now transcends the ecclesial community and its practices. Thus, in the words of Rich Lusk, the cross has been replaced by the flagpole. We teach our children the pledge of allegiance but not the Nicene Creed. The practices of the church have been internalized and individualized. Baptism is for those who can comprehend the gospel. The Lord’s Supper is a time of quiet introspection and not a joyous, sensuous feast. It is no surprise that the largest denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention.

My burden is not primarily for the nation of the United States but for the Church. It is only as she recovers her understanding of her authority over the affairs of this world will the culture change. This understanding was more obvious in her early centuries when she was more clearly an alternative and counter culture. She now needs to awaken to the fact that she is in a situation very similar to those early days. She must recognize that rather than being her ally, tolerance of internalized, individualized religion is a grave enemy. She must reassert her transcendence above the limitations placed upon her by the mass, tolerant democracy in order to act as the Church.

Daniel McCarthy asks, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic?” We can. But only when Christianity has been replaced by the Church.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I Observe Lent (and other seasons)

With the coming and going of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, we are currently in the midst of the season of Lent. Lent consists of the 40 days (not including Lord’s Days) leading up to Easter. It is traditionally a time of some sort of a fast or a foreswearing of something in which one would normally take pleasure. For example, devout Catholics typically do not eat meat during this time, with the exception of fish. (I have been fascinated by grocery stores’ awareness of this season by discounting seafood, at least in Seattle.)

During the Middle Ages, when Christendom reigned, the observance of Lent was essentially mandatory. Then again, when virtually everyone in your town or village practiced it, you would have been subversive to the life of the community to express your individuality by refusing to observe these practices. The practices were part of the community’s identity.

With the Reformation, fortunately, godly men searched out the Biblical justification of all the practices of the Christian community. They rightly observed that whereas in the older covenants, feasts and festival seasons were mandated, in the New, resurrected Covenant the specificity of obligation was different. Previously angels tutored men to act in specific ways. Heavenly bodies ruled over time. Leviticus 23 and other passages in the law outline very precisely the feasts that were to be observed.

But now, we are no longer under those elementary principles. We have grown past our childhood, and men, humans, are now entrusted with the decisions about times and seasons. Angels no longer rule us. We rule angels. The Holy Spirit resides in the Church to guide her in establishing practices that mark out the community of believers. The practices that are Scripturally mandated for the entire community include Lord’s day gathered worship, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. But as we observe the history of the Church, we can see the Holy Spirit work to create healthy, though not strictly obligatory, traditions that identify believers with Christ and with His body.

So why add more practices than those explicitly required by Scripture? (After, if it’s not commanded, it’s forbidden, right? or at least dangerous?) Is it not legalistic to do more than God Himself requires? Concerning Lent, is not the denial of the flesh gnostic or ascetic? If everyone else around me is fasting, and I know it, is that not contradictory to the requirement that fasts be secret (Matt. 6:16-18)? Recently, I have read online people caricature and criticize the observance of Lent for these reasons.

The discussion of the observance of Lent needs to begin with considering of the nature of observing any practice or ritual in the New Covenant situation. Too often the question of the relationship between the older covenants and the New resorts to battles of continuity versus discontinuity. And whereas those discussions are important, they often don’t tell the entire story. To fill out the narrative, we need to recognize that the relationship among the covenants is one of progression and growth. Over the course of her history, the people of God have matured, as was intended from the very beginning.

Under the older covenants, God’s community was in her infancy and childhood. She was treated like a child and was expected to mature to greater and greater glory. We clearly see this progression as we trace the history presented in Scripture from the priestly period of law to the kingly period of wisdom to the prophetic period of divine counsel. Now, in Christ, this body has grown into adulthood and is expected to act like adults.

Yet adults do not forsake the impulse to practice (good) patterns and habits, an impulse nurtured during their childhood. Practices, more than beliefs, are means of making adults into who they are, that is, of forming their identity.

Applied to the Church in the resurrected covenant situation, it would be foolish to throw off the establishment of regular rituals and seasons. For it is by those rituals that her affections are nurtured. It is by the liturgical practices of the Church that her doctrine is established and her desires are oriented toward Jesus. It is by practices that the community is defined. And it is in those liturgies that she lives within and lives out the life of Jesus her husband. If we are to love our husband as we ought, we need to establish grace-saturated rituals all throughout our life: daily, weekly, and yearly ones.

In other words, mature life, Church life is not dictated simply by the dos and don’ts of Scripture. We have grown beyond the mere avoidance of evil in order to be free from feelings of guilt. We also pursue our Lover. We seek to display that love not simply by doing “normal life” with the right heart attitude (as important as that is) but by increasingly incorporating grace-filled, joy-producing, love-evincing practices that deepen our wild and reckless love for our husband.

During Lent, by living in Jesus’ Passion, we exhibit our passion for Him.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Prayers for Friday, February 17, 2012

Matins: We give thanks to You, O Father, with all our hearts. We sing praises to you before the gods and judges of the land. We will bow our knees before Your throne and give thanks to You name because of Your steadfast love and Your trustworthiness. You have magnified Your word together with Your name. You have answered us on the day that we call. You have made us bold with strength in our souls. We yearn for the day when all the kings of the earth give thanks to You, O Yahweh, that is, when they hear and obey the words of Your mouth. Hasten the day in which they will sing of Your ways, O Yahweh, for great is Your glory (Ps. 138:1-5).

We praise You that Your kingdom is bigger than any earthly kingdom, that it spans boarders and cultures. Therefore, we pray for the other branches of Your church, who are gifted in different ways than we are. Fulfill the purposes you have for the other members of You body, that You kingdom would continue to spread and that the knowledge of Jesus would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). (Chose one other denomination besides your own and pray for its specific needs and ministries.)

Midday: Our Father, examine us, and try us. Test us thoroughly, O Yahweh, for Your covenant loyalty is before our eyes, and we have walked in Your trustworthiness. We do not sit with men of falsehood, but we love Your truth. We do not go about with hypocrites, but we love the genuine brother (Ps. 26:2-4). We love the habitation of Your house and the place where Your glory dwells (Ps. 26:8). Help us to walk in integrity. Redeem us, and be gracious to us. We bless You in the congregation of Your people (Ps. 26:11-12).

We lift before You today ministries of education. We pray today especially for Your people who have chosen to homeschool their children. Guard them against a tendency to elevate their earthly family above the family of Jesus. May parents treat their children as their younger brothers and sisters in Christ. May they provide for their needs as well as with opportunities to develop as complete servants of Yours. May their homes be filled with laughter and the cacophony that comes from many musical instruments being practiced at once. (Pray for specific homeschooling families.)

Vesper: We ascribe, O Father, the glory that is due Your name. We worship You, O Yahweh, in the majesty of holiness. Your voice is upon the waters. It is powerful and majestic. It breaks strong cedars, even the cedars of Lebanon. Your voice causes lightenings. It shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. In Your house, therefore, we will lift up our voice and say, “Glory!” You, O Jesus, sit enthroned as King forever. You will give strength to Your people. Bless us, O Yahweh, with peace (from Ps. 29).

Let us Your people, live peaceful lives in this land. (Pray for the top news items that burden you.)

Antigua and BarbudaCompline: We praise You, O Yahweh, and give thanks to You because You are good. Your steadfast love endures forever. Though we are inadequate and incapable, we will speak of Your mighty deeds and show forth Your praise. Enable us to practice righteousness at all times, and bless us. Remember us, O Yahweh, in Your favor toward Your people. Visit us with Your salvation so that we may see the prosperity of Your chosen ones, so that we may rejoice in the gladness of Your holy nation, the Church, and so that we may glory with Your inheritance, even us, Your people (Ps. 106:1-5).

We lift before You tonight the tiny island of Anguilla. Though this people is largely Christian, we “pray that religious traditions might be infused with real spiritual life.” We ask that Your Spirit of unity would bind these people tightly together in the gospel.

We also lift before You the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, two small islands in the Caribbean. For this nation also, we “pray for a revival” among the many nominal and complacent Christians “that galvanizes Christians to prayer.” May Your church truly be a unified and focused light that makes a difference in their society. We also pray that you would break down the sophisticated structures of sin. Give “wisdom and discernment [to] the government in handling these difficult issues.” Also, bless the work of two Christian radio stations that serve many islands of the Caribbean: Abundant Life Radio and Caribbean Radio Lighthouse. Spread Your kingdom through these effective means.

Anguilla facts:
A British overseas territory.
Capital: The Valley
Governor: William Alistair Harrison
90% Christian (45% Protestant, 30% Anglican)

Antigua and Barbados facts:
Capital: Saint John’s
Prime Minister: Baldwin Spencer
92.5% Christian (34% Protestant, 34% Anglican)
(Quotations, statistics and picture are from Operation World and

News about Antigua and Barbados:
Caribbean's high crime rate is hindering development, report says

About Abundant Life Radio: “Abundant Life Radio is committed to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world through the preaching of the Word and the very best in gospel music.” (From their website)

About Caribbean Radio Lighthouse: “As a missionary radio station, the Caribbean Radio Lighthouse broadcasts the good news of God's word to the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Located on the tropical island of Antigua, and operated by Baptist International Missions, Inc., the station has been used by the Lord to strengthen local churches by teaching and encouraging individual Christians through sound, Bible-based programming. Reaching from Eastern Puerto Rico south to the northern Windward Islands, our AM station covers over twenty islands with a population exceeding one million, and FM reaches a growing Spanish-speaking audience in Antigua and nearby islands. The Lighthouse brings Biblical teaching to islands not reached by any other Evangelical radio station which conforms to the fundamental doctrines of God's word.” (From their website)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Prayers for Thursday, February 16, 2012

Matins: O Father, our refuge and strength, You are abundantly available for help in times of trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though everything around us is changing and though Your enemies rage against us. We are glad by the river that flows in Your church out from the throne of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1; Ezek 47:1). From that river You cleanse and nourish Your people. You feed us in Your sanctuary and enable us to bring healing to the nations (Ezek. 47:12; Rev. 22:2). You are in the midst of Your people, and so Your church will not be moved. You, O Yahweh of Armies, are with us. You are with us, O God of Jacob (Ps. 46:1-7).

Today we bring before you the other churches of our presbytery (named). We pray for the teaching ministries of these churches, that they would effectively communicate the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Enable Your people to worship You richly and skillfully through a knowledge of You. Protect their ministers. Purify their worship. Guide their decisions. (Pray specifically for the needs of your presbytery, especially their teaching ministry.)

Midday: The whole earth is Yours, O Father, and all its fullness. The world is Yours, O King Jesus, and all those who dwell in it. You founded the land on the seas and established it upon the rivers. Who may ascend from the seas unto the highest part of the land, even the holy hill of Yahweh? How can we dare to stand in Your holy place? Clean up our works, O Father. Purify our hears, O Jesus. Fill us with a loyalty to Your truth. Give us Your blessing, O Yahweh, even vindication, O God of Our salvation. We seek Your face (Ps. 24:1-6).

Give our co-workers today the fullest gift of Your Spirit. Where there is death, bring life. Where there is sorrow, bring joy. Where there is impurity, bring cleansing. Cause us, Your people, to bring life, peace, joy, and hospitality to all those around us. (Pray specifically for the needs of co-workers.)

Vesper: Our Father, the Creator, we bless You. You are very great. You are clothed in splendor and majesty, covering Yourself with light as with a cloak and stretching out heaven like a curtain. You lay the beams of Your upper chambers in the waters. You make the clouds Your chariot. You walk upon the wings of the wind. Angels are Your flaming messengers and ministers (Ps. 104:1-4). Let Your glory, O Yahweh, endure forever. May You be glad in all Your works. Look upon the earth, and make it tremble. Touch the mountains, and make them smoke. We will sing to You, O Yahweh, as long as we live. Let our meditation be pleasing to You. Let unrepentant sinners be consumed from the land, and let the hardened wicked men be no more. We bless You, O Yahweh! Hallelu-Yah! (Ps. 104:31-35)

We lift our prayers to You now on behalf of the federal government. We ask that You would guide the hearts of the legislature, as You guide the rivers of water. May they make righteous laws and enforce them. May they promote life, honesty, and peace. May they not be influenced by greed or bribes, but may they rule in integrity and faithfulness. (Pray for the federal legislators from your state.)

Compline: We give thanks to You, O Father, and call upon Your name. May Your great deeds be known among the peoples. We sing praises to You, and we talk of all Your wonders. We glory in Your holy name, and our hearts are glad because we seek You and Your face continually. We call to remembrance the wonders which You have done and the marvels and judgments of Your mouth. You are Yahweh our God. Your judgments are in all the earth (Ps. 105:1-7).

Tonight we continue to pray for the uttermost part of the earth, the country of Angola in Africa. We pray for the young people and children of this country. Solve, we pray, the problem of a high mortality rate for children under five (26%) and of chronic malnutrition (45% for the same group). May schools be rebuilt and staffed. Bless ministries that target students, like the Scripture Union.

Also, we thank you that through the years of suffering and war, foreign missionaries remained as a powerful testimony of Your love and grace. Bless humanitarian ministries, like Samaritan’s Purse, as they “focus on primary health care, education, vocational training and disease prevention.” Give other missions wisdom and resources as they “work holistically, ministering to both physical and spiritual needs of Angolans.” Additionally, please provide more workers in this field that they may share the love of Jesus to this needy nation. (Quotations are from Operation World.)

About Scripture Union: “Today, Scripture Union is in over 130 countries around the world and is still working to introduce children and young people to Jesus. Although the gospel never changes, each culture expresses it in a particular way and so the work is carried out through local people in ways which are appropriate to the country, culture and situation in which a movement is based. This includes running camps, school seminars and student groups or producing resources for Bible reading, family counselling, AIDS education, urban children and youth ministry and ministry to the handicapped.” (From their website)

About Samaritan’s Purse: “Samaritan's Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, Samaritan's Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God's love through His Son, Jesus Christ. The organization serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (From their website)