The Intolerant Tolerant

It was a fall afternoon in downtown Raleigh. I took several students and volunteers into the neighborhoods around our church to rake leaves and share Christ. We were on our last project of the day when the owner of the yard found out we wanted to discuss faith and she invited us to sit with her on her porch. As I shared about who God was and what He had done for us in Jesus Christ she was very engaged. It was when I mentioned she had to trust Jesus alone for life and salvation that we hit a brick wall. While she was glad I had found something that worked for me, she felt I was arrogant for insisting anyone else had to believe it. She was content to explore different faiths and was offended by anyone arguing their faith was the only way. While the conversation remained very friendly, it was clear she wouldn’t be trusting the Savior of these naïve and close-minded folks on her porch.

I’ve had many conversations like that over the years and you probably have too. We can expect to have more. Few ideas are as unthinkable in our culture as the idea one must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved. Or to put it more bluntly, the idea that Christians are right about God and everyone else is wrong. Even Christians seem embarrassed by this 2,000 year old belief. A recent survey (2008) by the Pew Forum in USA Today reported that 52-57% of Evangelical Christians and 83% of mainline Protestants believe eternal life is not exclusively for those who accept Christ as Savior.

So are Christians simply narrow-minded, arrogant, and intolerant to claim Jesus Christ is the only way to God? No more than those who claim there are many paths to God, all religions are right, or we can’t know for sure. Those making any of the above statements are claiming for themselves the very thing they are denying the Christian – absolute knowledge of the way things really are.

The pluralist who says there are many paths to God or all religions are right is also saying every religion is wrong in some way. Not wanting to admit this, they argue each faith has a piece of the whole truth; backing this up with an analogy like: three blind men come upon an elephant. One grabs the tail and says it’s a rope; one grabs a leg and says it’s a tree; one grabs the trunk and says it’s a snake. Each has a piece of the truth but not the whole – just like the religions of the world. The pluralist telling this ignores one important fact – he or she claims to see the elephant. They sit in a superior position to the blind men (religions of the world) and see reality for what it really is. Reality is everyone on a journey to the same place. If you see things differently, we’re right and you’re wrong.

Take the agnostic who claims it’s impossible to know what is true and what is not. Setting aside the fact that they believe that statement to be true, this is also a claim to superior knowledge about reality. They claim God has not revealed Himself or if He has, humanity lacks the capacity to understand it. They see reality for what it really is. Every religion claiming special knowledge of God is wrong and we’re right.

If you’re still trying to sort this out, here is an analogy. Let’s say I am in desperate need of fried chicken from Bojangles and being new in town, I don’t know where to find the only one. So I pull into a gas station and walk up to a Christian, Muslim, pluralist, and agnostic snacking on churros and say, “How can I get to Bojangles?”

The Christian replies, “All you need to do is take a right on this road, travel 3 miles and you’ll come right to it.”

The Muslim jumps in and says, “That’s not right. You need to take a left on this street, pass two stoplights and take a left at the third, merge onto the interstate, travel twenty miles, and take the 12th exit.”

The pluralist interjects and says, “Actually it doesn’t matter which way you go because all roads lead to Bojangles. Just drive and you’ll get there.”

The agnostic, quite irritated at this point, steps in and says, “These guys are all wrong. There is no way to know if there is a Bojangles and even if there is, you cannot know how to get there. So I would just get a churro from the gas station.”

In the quest to find fried chicken, only one of them can be right. Each one is making the claim that their directions to Bojangles correspond with actual reality better than the other three. They have a superior position from which they see Bojangles the way it really is and everyone who disagrees is wrong and has an inferior view that will leave me hungry.

Reality can only be one way. That’s why it’s called reality. If we abandon one concept of how the world really is for another to be accepted as more mainstream and tolerant, we may be abandoning the real world for one which is only a fantasy. Nothing less is at stake.

So the Christian claiming Jesus is the only way is no different from the pluralist claiming every way and the agnostic claiming we can’t know. These last two masquerade in our culture as humble and tolerant, but they are not. Each is making its own exclusive, narrow, dogmatic claim about the way the world actually is while calling everyone who disagrees wrong. The Christian is ridiculed for their narrow belief about reality by someone with their own narrow belief about reality. It’s amazing how intolerant the “tolerant” can be of those who see things differently.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4:12

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6

-Brian

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Big Church vs. Small Church

The annual Outreach 100 list of the largest churches in America was released this past week. There were no major surprises in the top five which were Lakewood Church in Houston (Joel Osteen) with 43,500, North Point Community Church in Alpharetta (Andy Stanley) with 24,325, Second Baptist Church in Houston (Ed Young, Sr.) with 24,041, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barington (Bill Hybels) with 24,000, and Southeast Christian Church in Louisville (Dave Stone) with 19,230. The top 100 churches have a combined attendance of 1,012,832 people and 384 worship sites. These lists stir up debate as some argue big churches cannot create the kind of ministry and community integral to a biblical church while others argue small churches are not effective at reaching the lost and meeting the needs of people. So which is better and which is more biblical; a big church or a small church?

First, let us define church. The word translated “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word “ekklesia” which means a gathering or assembly. Thus the church is not a building or program but the gathering of believers who have covenanted together to serve Christ and His kingdom under His leadership for the glory of God. Since the early days the four marks – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – have defined what a true church is. “One” means the church is unified. “Holy” means the church is set apart from the world. “Catholic” with a little “c” means the church is universal and not bound by time and space. “Apostolic” means the church is based upon the witness and teachings of the Apostles. The Reformation of the 16th century added two more marks of a true church; the gospel rightly preached and the sacraments rightly observed.

What defines a true church, therefore, has nothing to do with size – either biblically or traditionally. In the New Testament you find both large churches like the Jerusalem church with thousands and small churches like the church at Corinth with probably less than a hundred. With this in mind, let’s look at some of the critiques of both large and small churches.

Some argue small churches are better because large churches fail to create community, are consumer-driven, and have authoritarian leadership.  While many large churches are impersonal, many do small groups and ministries with excellence; plugging their members into accountable relationships. While people slip through the cracks of a large church, they can just as easily slip through the cracks in a small church where cliques, classes, and circles are well entrenched and it can take ten years before they stop referring to you as “the new guy.” More people can actually mean more relationships and it may be the love within the large church that has caused it to grow.

Some large churches are clearly consumer-driven; offering up ear-tickling pragmatic messages along with a latte in the foyer. But the small church that crafts its programs to the whims of its members instead of the Scriptures is equally consumer-driven, simply appealing to a smaller group of consumers. One need only look at the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham where Pastor David Platt has led the church to radical sacrifice to see a large church not driven by consumerism.

Finally, as a church grows it will necessarily have more centralized leadership. It is impractical to have a church of 2,000 vote on everything or allow everyone a chance to call the shots. Rather than limit the gifts of members; effective leadership can actually mobilize them to serve the kingdom through an increasing variety of ministries that utilize an increasing diversity of people. Many small congregations are so busy running the church they have no time left for the mission God has called them to.

On the other side, some argue large churches are better than small churches because they reach the lost, meet the needs of more people, and are clearly blessed by God. Some churches may be small due to a loss of evangelistic passion but some churches may be big due to crowd-pleasing programs. A small church may actually be much more effective than a large church at Christ’s primary calling – to make disciples of all nations.

No question large churches are able to appeal to more people with more resources. But is a church truly more effective for Christ because they have a rock wall in the youth room, a nationally-known speaker at every event, and a ministry for people with webbed feet who are recovering from an addiction to “Dancing with the Stars”? Sadly, many big churches put their confidence in these things instead of the simple power of the gospel shared through relationships. A small church through the Bible, the gospel, the Spirit, and the people willing to humbly follow Christ can meet the needs of anyone.

Finally, for some a church is large because of the blessing of God and you can’t argue with success. The problem is Jesus apparently wasn’t blessed by God since he had only 120 followers after his ascension. It was this same Jesus who declared in Matthew 7:13-14 that only a few find the narrow, hard way that leads to life while the crowds are on the wide, easy way bound for destruction. Is a church with 10,000 in attendance that preaches a God who is essentially a cosmic vending machine dispensing goodies to those who insert enough coins more faithful than a church with 80 clinging to the old rugged cross?

Those in big or small churches who criticize churches that minister faithfully but differently often do so out of insecurities about their own ministry. The small church hurls rocks at the big one because it’s easier than dealing with the pitiful lack of passion for the lost in their ministry. The big church lampoons the small church because it’s easier than dealing with the shallow converts they’ve created in their ministry. Let us instead strive to glorify God in whatever church He has placed us and realize that God uses both big and small churches to accomplish His glorious ends.

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Mildew in “The Shack”

If Christian subculture has proved anything, it’s that we are easily infatuated with movements: WWJD bracelets, “praise and worship” music and boycotting Disney, all while we kissed dating goodbye. More recently, Christians are enamored with figures – certain men or women who are in the driver’s seat of Christian culture because of their latest book, blog or podcast. In our lack of wisdom we jump on many trains and sometimes board really bad ones.  As one of my professors put it, we become “intellectual sluts,” sleeping with every idea that comes our way. Such carelessness is dangerous for Christians.

Few things have demonstrated this phenomenon as clearly as William P.Young and his book, The Shack. The author of a New York Times article published June 24, 2008 reported:

1“Just over a year after it was originally published as a paperback, “The Shack” had its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on June 8 and has stayed there ever since. It is No. 1 on Borders Group’s trade paperback fiction list, and at Barnes & Noble it has been No. 1 on the trade paperback list since the end of May, outselling even Mr. Tolle’s spiritual guide “A New Earth,” selected by Ms. Winfrey’s book club in January.”

Today The Shack is still on the top 15 paperback trade fiction list and has remained there for 114 weeks. The website entirely devoted to the book has these instructions:

2“If you are as taken with the message of this book as we are, you may already have some unique ideas as to how you can best let others know about it. Here are some ideas to help you about ways to let others know about this remarkable book:”

“If you know of people (authors, speakers, etc.) who have a voice to the wider culture, ask them if they would review a copy and make it some comment on it in their website, newsletters, etc.”

“Buy a set of books as gifts to battered women’s shelters, prisons, rehabilitation homes and the like where people might be really encouraged by the story and its message.”

Not many seem to notice that the Christian community has gained energy on the coattails of a theological narrative with unfounded and misleading ideas about God where sin is not a big deal, the trinity is open to interpretation and if you have experienced tragedy in your life, God will come down from heaven (apparently the incarnation of the Son of God wasn’t enough) and make everything okay. The Shack paints a false picture of God and His redemptive plan. And yet, I have watched many Christians swallow the story whole and then give it t to their lost friends as an evangelistic gesture.

This is not a blow by blow critique of the unbiblical viewpoint and poor theology expressed throughout the story; Dr. Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and others have done this effectively. This is a question for Christians: when did we allow a book to steal our affections for and confidence in the gospel of Christ? Paul said in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power unto salvation for all who believe.” Acts 4:12 says, “There is no other name under heaven or earth by which man can be saved (emphasis mine).” If Christians believe this is true, why would we point them to anything less than the gospel? Isn’t it captivating and sufficient enough for the ugliest of days and most cynical individuals?

The statements above from the book’s website prove that some no longer believe the gospel changes lives, but parts of the gospel plus something else (like their own ideas) might. The Shack cheerleaders believe its message is so hopeful and compelling that it should be taken to battered women’s shelters…nothing like junk theology couched in bad writing to help an abused woman. What happens when she’s done reading it? The book ends, it collects dust and she is no closer to understanding the truth of Jesus and His salvation than she was before. There is no anchor of hope, no promise of redemption and no one for her to follow.

The Shack is not the first train going nowhere. In the last ten years, many books have captivated multitudes, both Christians and non-Christians, overshadowing the heard-it-before story of Jesus and His cross. With creative titles, non-controversial statements and questionable theology, they distracted us from the piercing truth of the gospel: every human being is sinful and doomed to hell apart from Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Jesus commanded in Mark 12:30 to love Him with our entire mind which includes discerning what we read for both truth and error and wisely choosing how to respond. Indiscriminately consuming whatever comes along paves the way for unbiblical ideas to slip into our minds, vocabulary and eventually our practice, robbing God of worship and the world of its Savior.

Secondary to the Bible, reading gospel-centered material is healthy for believers. In my personal pursuit of this, I have occasionally allowed zeal about a particular book to steal my focus and blind me to fallacies it contained. It’s most problematic when the gospel takes a backseat and the lost around us hear the praises of works that do not alter their course to a Christ-less eternity. The true gospel is unpopular, offensive and costly…didn’t I hear that somewhere?

-emily

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Timothy 4:3)

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/books/bestseller/bestpapertradefiction.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=The%20Shack%20Young&st=cse

2. http://theshackbook.com/missy-project.html

Read Dr. Al Mohler’s critique of The Shack

Watch and listen to Mark Driscoll’s critique of The Shack

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You’re Not the Boss of Me: The Audacity of Biblical Authority

Homosexuality is a dominant issue on the landscape of America Christianity tearing apart denominations and churches. Since 2003, when Episcopalian priest Gene Robinson left his family to join his gay partner and was promoted by the church to bishop, a struggle has existed between those who see homosexuality as sin and those who argue for love and acceptance. Just last year the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America followed their example by blessing same-sex unions and homosexual ministers. Meanwhile, United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church, USA have proponents fighting for the same measures in their respective denominations.

But is this issue really about who is allowed to have sex with whom? Hardly. This issue is about biblical authority. It is obvious from a basic reading that homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament (see Rom. 1:21-27, 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10) and I don’t even need to run to the Old Testament. Jesus’ own teachings limit marriage to one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). The real question is: is the Bible the Word of God to be taken literally by those who follow Christ or is it, in the words of Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”?

The Washington Times published a story in 2007 declaring that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the Bible is God’s Word. But what does that really mean? Do we mean God has spoken truth to us in the form of Scripture? Or do we mean the Bible is an inspired book (like an ‘inspired’ painting or ‘inspired’ lyrics) that has some good things to say, some of which may or may not be true and might be from God? Sadly, many Christians opt for the second. This can work itself out in two ways:

First, some openly declare that parts of the Bible are wrong, culturally backward, or in error. This diminishes biblical authority and makes human reason the ultimate authority. While the Bible contains truth, we are free to pick and choose what is truth and what can be discarded. We approach the Bible like the buffet at Golden Corral; opting for the fried shrimp of God’s love but passing over the spinach of His wrath. We are free to craft a god of our own liking who would never disagree with us, challenge us, or demand anything of us. Existing only as a human invention lacking authority to command his followers, this god is ultimately not worthy of worship as evidenced by the mass exodus from mainline churches which have abandoned biblical authority. Mainline denominations (like those above) fell from 31 million members in 1960 to 21 million in 2005.

Second, some maintain the Bible to be accurate and free of error while stretching the text so far it cannot retain its shape. With the skill of Nicholas Cage hunting national treasure, they dig out obscure translations of Greek words and original interpretations, drawing from several passages that leave the careful listener as lost as Chuck Norris in a romantic comedy. Neil Elliot in his book, The Arrogance of Nations , argues that in Romans 1, Paul isn’t talking about homosexual relationships at all but rather violent people who emulate the depravity of the Roman emperors Nero and Caligula. With a little historical creativity he sets aside 2,000 years of understanding on this passage, dismisses its most straightforward meaning, and makes it palatable to his American audience. This approach to the Bible diminishes biblical authority by demanding it conform to the authority of our personal experience. “The text can’t contradict me, so it must mean something else.” The problem is if the Bible can mean anything and everything, it ultimately means nothing.

An authoritative Bible that is free of error, containing straightforward truth that can be taken literally wields life changing power. First, it makes obedience and discipleship possible. The Bible is able to command us to change our lives and follow Christ in obedience because it is wholly true. Since I cannot dismiss what it says, I am forced to be changed by it.

Second, it offers timeless truth in the midst of a shifting culture. Because it comes from God and because cultures come from man, every culture the Bible encounters will have disagreements with it. In the west we find the Bible’s teaching on sexuality too repressive while in the east it is considered too liberal. The very fact that it conflicts with our culture is evidence of its truthfulness.

Finally, an authoritative Bible makes possible a personal relationship with God. Tim Keller says it best in his book The Reason for God:

“In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you… Remember the movies The Stepford Wives? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would ever describe such a marriage as intimate or personal. Now what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle will you know you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.”

For those desiring to follow Christ, hold to truth, and know God, an authoritative Bible is a must. Anything less and we are left with a man-made god, not worthy of worship, who, if he manages to hold the attention of churchgoers in this generation, will surely lose it in the next. So whether the issue is homosexuality, marriage, finance, eternity, or the character of God, are we ready to turn to an authoritative Bible or will we treat it like a buffet and create a meal of our own design?

-Brian

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