Theology Thursday: Reformed Rap and Being All Things To All Men

Theology Thursday

Update:

The video has been pulled down and an apology issued by the NCFIC.

***

So this video came out the other day touching on an issue I thought was now dead in the water…but will probably kick back into life.

The Worship of God Q&A: Holy Hip-Hop from NCFIC on Vimeo.

The panellists are (in speaking order) Dan Horn, Scott Aniol, Geoff Botkin, Joel Beeke, Jasan Dohm, and Joe Morecraft.

The comments on the original post by the National Center for Family-Intergrated Churches have been fairly unianimous in expressing disappointment with how the panellists have interacted with the reformed-rap/holy hip hop movement.

And now that John Piper has tweeted to this link he has probably (and I think rightly) helped serve up the criticism:

 

Let me summarise what I understand are the main arguments from the panel.

First, there is a concern that the genre of rap and hip hop is primarily about drawing attention to the rapper. Therefore reformed rap is necessarily self-focused rather than God-focused.

Second, rap music comes out of a culture which is antithetical to scripture. While reformed rappers are attempting to ‘redeem’ the art form, the panel does not believe it has been redeemed enough – or question if it’s possible to even redeem this form of music from its cultural context.

Third, while there are some Christians who relate to this sub-culture it is ultimately a sub-culture they need to leave in order to grow in their faith and towards mature manhood.

Fourth, reformed rappers are conforming themselves to the ways of this world in direct disobedience to scripture (cf Romans 12:1-2) and are essentially ‘disobedient cowards…who are caving into the world… [and are] not willing to engage in the fight that needs to be fought’.

 

Let me spell out why I think these guys are flat out wrong in their assessment of reformed rap.

First – all music, no matter the genre, runs the danger of drawing attention to the performer. The music industry generally is self-focused so to single out reformed rappers as attention seeking is to be glaringly inconsistent when it comes to Christian pop groups, Christian country singers, Christian jazz artists, and Christian music composers.

Second – it’s true to say that rap music generally comes from a sub-culture antithetical to scripture, but the test for whether an art form, or whatever, has been redeemed enough from its subculture is not to look at it from the outside, but to look at it from the inside. In this case, is it clear enough in the rap/hip hop industry that these reformed rappers are uniquely different in their tone, message, and lifestyle as to mark themselves out as Christ followers? A couple of the panellists admitted that the rap culture was not one they were familiar with. Well, as one who has personally been familiar with this subculture I can say with great certainty that what these reformed rappers are doing is thoroughly unique and marking themselves out clearly as Christ followers.

Third – the argument that Christians who are familiar with this culture ultimately need to leave it assumes that the subculture is beyond redemption. This argument demonstrates the failure of the panel the properly understand what they are criticising. Rap culture is mired by sin – that’s pretty clear. But so are all cultures and subcultures.

In his letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul makes clear his approach to this sort of issue:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV)

His argument lays down important and fundamental principles when it comes to engaging and redeeming culture for Christ, so it’s worth teasing out a little more.

First he says that to whichever culture he is in, he will blend in. To the Jew he becomes like a Jew, the one outside the law he becomes like one outside the law. To the rap culture he will assume the clothing and language, and I’d go so far as to say he might even get the tattoos.

Now, before people react there are two caveats to blending in. First – Paul does all of this to win whoever he is blending in with to Christ. He’s not in it for the lifestyle or the perks, it’s all about winning people to Jesus – and part of that is to not put any stumbling blocks to the message in front of them (such as dress, language, and culture). The second caveat is that he is ‘under the law of Christ’ (that bit in parenthesis which really shouldn’t be in parenthesis because it’s important to his argument!). So while I argue Paul might go so far as to get tattoos if he desired to reach out to heavily tattooed men/women, I’d also argue that what he got tattooed would be different and still honouring to Christ. Whatever he did – the clothes, the shoes, the language, the lifestyle – he would adopt it to blend in (and not place a stumbling block to his message before the people), and he would do so in a way which would still honour Christ and earn no rebuke from Him.

Coming back to reformed rappers, and while I admit I haven’t heard everything from every artist claiming to be a reformed rapper, I will say that my listening has been wide and all that I have heard so far, and all that I know of the artists I have heard, I see much Pauline interaction going on and much redeeming happening.

The panellists seem to have their understanding of biblical culture wrongheaded. I can’t help but draw the conclusion that there is among them an assumed belief that there is such a thing as a ‘Christian culture’. It seems to me that Paul teaches, and lives out, that there is no such thing as a ‘Christian culture’ but only ‘Christians living and redeeming the cultures they are in’.

Fourth, to call reformed rappers ‘disobedient cowards’ is one of the worst ad hominem attacks I’ve heard so far from a Christian commenting on reformed rap. It’s a massive failure on the part of Geoff Botkin, who said it, to actually engage with what he is criticising. Nothing he says actually engages. He just states that rap culture is not Christian culture and therefore Christians shouldn’t be conforming themselves to it.

In summary, and for our edification also, here is where I think this panel fails in its engagement with the question and how we can better engage with any issue before us: the panel put forward their opinions rather than tried to apply scripture. When the panel did apply scripture it was misapplied for the fact that it’s clear the panel didn’t understand what they were critiquing.

There are always going to be debates and issues – latest trends to critique, latest evangelistic methods to analyse, latest church models to assess. But always we need to first understand what scripture might say on the issue rather than just share our personal dislike. That takes hard work – and sometimes our initial dislike will itself need to be conformed to what scripture says on the issue.

So here’s Russell Moore’s article in Christianity Today from earlier this year which demonstrates a much more biblical model of interaction, analysis and critique.

It’s worth quoting at length. Here Moore raises similar issues of the NCFIC panel by Ken Myers and begins to show why reformed rap is actually much more different than expected:

Myers’ critique of Christian hip-hop wasn’t a fundamentalist scold, wary of the Devil’s music. Instead, he was concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an art form—as well as for the integrity of the Bible and the Christian tradition. For him, Christian hip-hop seems to be the latest incarnation in the evangelical project to “engage culture” by separating form from message, and to bridge the divide between pop culture and the old, old story.

And he’s right. So often our attempts to be relevant are just ham-handed attempts to market the gospel with popular cultural tropes. And no one can seriously argue that musical forms don’t change “the message.” Moreover, I agree with Myers that hip-hop generally taps into a certain set of human emotions and situations, and not others.

But that’s where our agreement ends. I think Christian hip-hop is more than just the latest attempt to slap a Jesus fish on the bumper of a pop-culture fad. Hip-hop is reminding the church about the reality of sin and grace—and returning the hip-hop community to its prophetic roots.

Moore noting that reformed rap is deeply theologically rooted:

Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you’ll note just how theological it is. The first time I heard a song by artist Flame was also the first time I heard the heresy “modalistic monarchianism” denounced by name in any song. “That’s not the Scriptures that’s confusion, / and it takes stabs at the hypostatic union,” raps the Louisville, Kentucky–based artist, before explaining the hypostatic union (the union of Jesus’ divinity and humanity). Rap group 116 Clique, named after Romans 1:16, defends biblical inerrancy by using the term theopneustos(God-breathed)—also not the most common of lyrics, rap or otherwise.

The new hip-hop artists aren’t simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics. Instead, they are modeling a broadly Reformed system of Christian doctrine, which is characterized by an emphasis on humanity’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and divine election. Many of the leading rappers are associated with prominent Reformed pastors: Shai Linne and Trip Lee have both interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., led by popular pastor Mark Dever, and Lecrae and Tedashii regularly quote John Piper. Just as rapper will.i.am wove lines from President Barack Obama’s speeches into his songs during the 2008 presidential campaign, the preaching of well-known Reformed speakers—many of them Southern and white—is interspersed through the new Christian hip-hop music.

Moore on how hip hops growth from the ‘underclass’ of American culture and life allows it to be much more realistic about sin as well as much more profound in its application of the Cross to redeem sinners:

Rather than deny the violent realities of humanity, they use Reformed categories of penal substitutionary atonement to make sense of it all. Christian hip-hop is Cross-centered in a way that previous Christian attempts to mimic pop culture weren’t—and perhaps couldn’t be. To be sure, the Cross and the blood of Christ are everywhere in CCM and Southern gospel. But in both genres, the cross and the blood seem merely symbolic. The cross is there, but its meaning is often left undefined, as the real goal of “looking for a city” and “moving up to Gloryland” stands in the foreground. Hip-hop puts the spotlight on sin and justice and reckoning, on the sinner who, hidden in Christ, has already borne the wrath of God and walked out into the newness of resurrection life.

There’s more to be said but the rest of the article is worth reading.

Next week, examples of reformed rap that you can sink your teeth into!

Theology Thursday: Biblical Theology

Theology Thursday

 

Bible reading can be difficult at times. And it’s even more difficult when reading through the obscure and seemingly irrelevant Old Testament.

So I stumbled on this video recently posted from a friend on Facebook. It’s one of those clips which tries to summarise what the subject of each book of the Bible is about.

I appreciate that it can be hard to wrap up an entire book’s message into a short phrase, so I don’t want to say what is suggested is wrong but I guess you can’t cover all the nuances and details of a book like Genesis which has many themes running through it. And I’m not sure he’s landed Song of Solomon right…

But what the video helpfully highlights for this post is the constant looking forward in the Old Testament to Jesus.

Yes. The whole Bible is about Jesus.

And unless you understand this you’ll never fully understand the Old Testament.

Here is where a short plug for the Ignite Training Conference is apt. The conference is designed to equip Christians in learning how to read and teach the bible to others. You don’t have to be a super mature Christian to go – the only requirement is that you’re a Christian ready and willing to learn. Strand 1 (for first timers) focuses on the basics of exegesis – how to draw meaning from the text before you rather than bring meaning into the text (ie eisegesis). Strand 2 builds on that foundation and applies it to the overarching narrative of scripture, what is known as Biblical Theology. Strand 3 then builds upon this and then seeks to teach people how to draw what scripture says about larger topics (such as Resurrection, or God, or Salvation).

What follows is an expansion on what would be learnt in Strand 2. Point one is what Strand 2 spends most of the week exploring. The following points are adapted from a lecture given by Gary Millar in 2010 on a visit to QTC while I was a student.

So the question each point is answering is: how do I move from the Old Testament to Jesus in a way which is faithful to the text before me?

 

1.  Follow the plan

Follow the plan is the bread and butter of biblical theology. The plan centres around the theme of the Kingdom of God: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of God pattern forms, as I like to think, the skeletal structure to the body of scripture. It unites scripture from beginning to end and also helps the reader plug into the ‘big picture’ (the metanarrative) of the bible.

Justin Taylor has a helpful summary from the author (Graeme Goldsworthy) who really started a lot of people thinking through scripture this way.

The basic idea of following the plan is that wherever you are in Genesis to Malachi you should be able to determine the three elements of God’s Kingdom by asking who are God’s people in this text before me, where is God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people, and how is God expressing his rule and blessing to his people.

Starting here is fundamental in not misapplying the Old Testament.

A commonly used example of how following the plan helps the reader avoid misapplication is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The classic interpretation and application of the passage runs something like this: Goliath was a seemingly undefeatable enemy of David. David was only a boy, but by faith in God he was able to overcome Goliath. Therefore we, like David, should have great faith in God and we too will overcome the ‘Goliaths of hardship’ in our lives.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in believing that faith equals victory over hardship. It’s certainly a theme echoed in the New Testament (with true fulfilment, overcoming and victory experienced in the second coming of Christ). But this is a classic misapplication of 1 Samuel 17 for the following reasons:

  1. David was the anointed King of Israel, he was Israel’s ‘messiah’ – we are not.
  2. David was an Israelite living centuries before Christ – the modern reader is certainly none of these.
  3. David lived under the Law of Moses – the modern reader will be under the Law of Christ.

Applying the basic principles of God’s Kingdom to 1 Samuel 17 we get this: God’s people are Israel with David as their representative, God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people is the land of Israel which is currently being attacked by the seemingly undefeatable Philistines and their hero Goliath, God expresses his rule and blessing to his people through the Law of Moses and his Tabernacle presence. What we see in the story, then, is how God raises up an unexpected saviour for his people in order to re-establish his people, his place and his rule. Following this plan through we can see how God is always raising up leaders and saviours for his people in order to re-establish his people, place and rule – until we finally see this happy fully and perfectly in his Son Jesus.

That’s pretty brief. For a greater look into the Kingdom of God I’d strongly recommend reading Vaughan Roberts’ ‘God’s Big Picture’ and Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’ or ‘According to Plan’.

Now, doing this every day or week to week can be pretty boring, and eventually reading the Old Testament simply becomes a chore in getting to Jesus through the plan. So the following brief points are other ways in which we can enhance our application of the Old Testament to our daily lives.

 

2.  Expose the problem

Ask yourself, ‘Is there is a weakness or pitfall in the passage?’ What causes the problem or what is the underlying issue? Exposing the problem helps us look forward to the answer in Christ. Showing the weakness of the character or story helps raise an expectation for something better.

An example of this came for me recently as we preached through 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 23-26 we see David acting very honourably in the face of persecution from Saul. Everything in chapters 23, 24, and 26 demonstrate the outstanding character of David. But in 1 Samuel 25 we’re presented with an almost exact opposite picture: David seeks revenge of a seemingly insignificant insult and only via the mediation of someone else does he calm down. In 1 Samuel 25 we see David, God’s anointed King, acting in very human ways (and possibly here sowing the seeds for his family’s downfall later). What 1 Samuel ends on is a tarnished picture of God’s chosen King – forcing the reader to expect a better ‘David’ to come.

 

3.  Explain the category

Here is where we consider what categories are before us. For instance, ‘The Law’ in scripture is a fairly wide term and could refer to specific laws within Exodus or Leviticus, but it could also refer to the first five books of the bible together (yes, even the narrative).

Within the Law there are many subcategories also – and while I caution people to not too quickly draw hard and fast distinctions within the Law (eg the moral, civil and ceremonial distinctions) these are sub-categories that can help orient the reader.

But the question to ask in this section is really how are these categories fulfilled, or made better, in Jesus? For instance, when you’re reading through Leviticus and notice that lengthy instructions for the priesthood it should help us appreciate the priesthood of Jesus all the better.

 

4.  Highlight the attribute

A common misconception about the bible is that its primary purpose is to tell us how to live. No doubt there are many instructions and imperatives for the believer – but scripture’s primary purpose is to show us the character and nature of God.

For instance, a classic case of how this is often missed is in Jonah’s story in children’s bibles. Quite often children’s bibles will avoid the difficulties of chapter 4 by simply dropping it from their versions. So the story ends up becoming one about God’s forgiveness. But chapter 4, difficult as it is, is there to demonstrate not only the reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go but also how his reason is tied to the very nature of God as revealed in the book: his compassion and mercy for evil and wicked sinners outside of his own people.

Another example of this is found in the Laws of Moses which consistently highlight the holiness of God. Each part of the Law serves to highlight this in various ways. The trick to reading it will be to figure out how that part of the Law highlights God’s holiness.

 

5.  Trace the fulfilment

Where ‘follow the plan’ traces the overall big picture, or metanarrative, trace the fulfilment is more specific.

For instance, the Sabbath has lots of regulations stemming from Israel’s exodus from slavery as well as the creation mandate. The question for the reader will be how Jesus fulfils, changes and transforms our understanding of the Sabbath.

Another clear example from Genesis 3 is the warning given to the serpent of a future head crusher. In what way is this fulfilled in Israel and ultimately through Jesus? Or what of God’s promise to Ezekiel (chapter 36) to put a new heart into God’s people and God’s own spirit as well.

Each of those examples are fairly specific and that’s the point of trying to trace the fulfilment.

 

6.  Focus on the clear action

The emphasis here is to focus on what is clear in the action of the passage before us. A classic example is in 1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath. This is a fairly well known, but generally poorly understood part of the Old Testament – and you can see how poorly understood it is every time the news uses the narrative as analogous to its reported story.

Often the focus in this chapter is on David’s physical battle with Goliath. But when you read through the chapter you’ll notice that this actually only takes up 30 words. Rather what takes up more space – a whopping 75 words – is David’s speech that God will take on His enemies. Focusing on what is clearly given the bulk of the airtime is what is needed.

So the question is where does the passage spend most of its time and is it clear?

Asking the clarity question also helps us get through things like Daniel 7. Daniel 7 has a lengthy focus upon four beasts and even the interpretation from the angel is a little unclear. But what is clear in that passage is that God, the ‘one like a son of man’, and his people reign supreme.

So always ask where the passage spends most of its time and what is most clear.

 

7.  Point out the consequences

Finally some passages are there to clearly spell out the consequences of our good or bad actions. This is partly how to read Wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Wisdom literature is there to help us understand how to live rightly in a fallen world. It also needs to be taken as a whole since Proverbs by itself can lead to what is known as ‘retribution theology’ – basically A + B will always equal C. Much of Proverbs is a little like that, whereas Job and Ecclesiastes balance this view and suggest that it’s not always clear cut how we should live because this world is indeed fallen. But that’s the nature of Wisdom – it’s not about formulas for living, but growing in godly discernment so we have the tools to make decisions.

 

So there are seven ways to help improve your Old Testament bible reading. Have you heard of any other ways to link the Old and New Testaments together? Put them in the comments below.

Theology Thursday: What is Expository Preaching?

Theology Thursday

When you hear the phrase exegetical or expository preaching there can be a little bit of confusion about what this means. For some the idea is simply the teaching of God’s word verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.

John Woodhouse helpfully orients our definition of expository preaching when he writes:

The richness of the Bible’s message is heard when attention is given to the particular details of the text under consideration. Certainly the major theme of a passage must be recognised – the ‘big idea’ – but the insight of just this passage is only appreciated by taking seriously the unique way in which this text is expressed.

The keys to this are:

  • Focus on a particular text
  • Attention to its particular details
  • The unique insights this particular text expresses
  • How these insights shape and inform the major theme of the passage

So does teaching verse by verse mean you are an expository preacher? Not necessarily. How can this be?

Answer: when you end up importing topical preaching into a verse by verse format.

Let me illustrate this with Romans 5:9-11

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The preacher who may be committed to preaching verse by verse but who ends up importing topical preaching into the text (and therefore not preaching an expository sermon) might, as an example, do the following:

In verse 9 we are told that we are ‘justified by his blood’. What does it mean to be ‘justified by his blood’? (5 minute explanation on justification). Verse 9 also says we are saved from ‘the wrath of God’. What is God’s wrath? Isn’t God meant to be all loving? (5 minutes explanation on what God’s wrath is and how good it is to be saved from it).

Verse 10 tells us we were enemies now we are reconciled (2 minute illustration on reconciliation). Verse 10 reminds us that we are reconciled by Jesus’ life.

Verse 11 is our application from being justified (in verse 9), saved from His wrath (also verse 9), and reconciled (verse 10). What does it mean to rejoice? (5 minute explanation and illustration of rejoicing). We rejoice because we have received reconciliation – isn’t this good news!

Now, when you look at the above there is nothing inherently wrong with this form of teaching. The congregation is being fed God’s Word and what has been said is true (and not heretical).

The problem, though, is that you’ve walked away with an understanding of these topics but not how the passage uses them and what unique insight on these topics is given by Romans 5:9-11. The richness of the Bible’s message has been missed, clouded by misunderstanding, or lost altogether.

What does an appropriate exposition of this text look like? Here’s my short example:

Romans 5:9-11 carries on from Paul’s building argument all the way back in chapter 1. The wrath of God, his judgement upon sin, has been revealed in chapters 2-3 in particular, and the good news of justification and reconciliation by faith has been explained in chapters 3-5. The key to these verses now is the contrastive phrases in verses9 and 10:

Since we have been justified, much more shall we be saved from his wrath. If we were reconciled by Jesus’ death, much more shall we be saved by him.

The particular insights of this particular text are: 1) to encourage us that what happened in the past (our justification by Jesus) saves us in the future (when God’s wrath is revealed) – this is the doctrine of assurance; 2) remind us that salvation is both ‘now received’ (we are saved) and ‘not yet consummated’ (we will be saved); and 3) give us the grounds of our rejoicing in God (verse 11).

Can you see the difference? In the previous example topical preaching was brought into each detail of the text. In the latter the details are explained in order to show how the text is using this information.

Now, one might pause here and wonder if this is all just kicking up a fuss when there’s no need to. But I’d like to suggest that we should have a strong definition and desire for expository preaching because it is the way in which the message of scripture speaks to us.

Gary Millar has written a fantastic chapter in this new book from Matthias Media – Saving Eutychus. In it he argues for expository preaching that preaches to the heart of people and he concludes with 8 advantages of heart-changing expository preaching (which I quote at length here and add my explanations):

Conclusion: The advantages of heart-changing, expository preaching

What are the advantages of teaching the Bible in this way?

Expository preaching:

1. Does justice to the biblical material which makes it clear that God works through his word to change people’s lives—as it ‘uncages the lion’ and allows God’s word to speak.

Expository preaching isn’t just one of many ways of preaching – it should be the main form of preaching since it is also the manner in which scripture itself teaches us (for more info see chapter 2 in the book in which Millar shows us how Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Isaiah 55:10-13, 2 Timothy 3:13-17, and Hebrews 4:9-13 all exposit scripture for the reader). Doing ‘justice to the biblical material’ is essentially to be faithful – faithful in communicating its intended message

2. Acknowledges that it is God alone, through the Spirit, who works in people’s lives, and that it is not our job to change people through clever or inspiring communication.

The best examples of expository preaching leave us in awe of the text in front of us and with a willingness and encouragement to change in response. A clearly explained passage trumps the need for clever of inspiring communication which is dependent on the communicator rather than the Spirit of God

3. Minimizes the danger of manipulating people, because the text itself controls what we say and how we say it. The Bible leaves little room for us to return repeatedly to our current bugbears and hobbyhorses.

4. Minimizes the danger of abusing power, because a sermon driven by the text creates an instant safeguard against using the Bible to bludgeon (or caress) people into doing or thinking what we want them to do or think.

How often have I heard lately of preachers using the sermon to affirm their own positions and thinking, use the sermon to angrily defend against criticism, or use the sermon to unhelpfully criticise members of the congregation. It’s plain abuse of authority.

So too is the opposite: to neglect the weightier matters of scripture and to only woo people into liking the preacher…

5. Removes the need to rely on our personality. While we all feel the weight, at times, of having little ‘inspiration’, energy or creativity, if our focus is on allowing the immense richness of Scripture to speak in all its colour and variety, the pressure is well and truly off.

6. Encourages humility in those teaching. While it can be a temptation to think that we are somehow special because we are standing at the front doing most of the talking (and, on a good day, receiving the encouragement), getting it straight that the key to preaching to the heart is simply uncovering the power and freshness of God’s words helps to keep us in our place.

7. Helps us to avoid simple pragmatism. If our focus is on working consistently to enable people to encounter the God who speaks through the text, we will not feel under pressure to address every single issue and topic as it comes up in the life of the church. Conversely, working through the Bible week by week will force us to cover subjects that we wouldn’t choose to address in a million years. In other words, expository preaching is the simplest, longest-lasting antidote we have to pragmatism.

A topical sermon on the need for evangelism might be helpful. But it seems to me that the weight of scripture is devoted to getting Christians to understand what the Gospel is and how it impacts our daily living. Expositional preaching which is committed to preaching verse by verse, chapter by chapter and book by book is necessarily going to spending more time explaining to Christians how they should view and live in the world – and this not because expositional preaching is necessarily insular/inward looking but because the weight of scripture is about how we are to be transformed in mind and spirit.

That said…

8. Drives us to preaching the gospel. As we’ll see in more detail in chapter 5, expository preaching is also uniquely valuable in that it persistently drives us to the Lord Jesus Christ (wherever we are in the Bible) and so ‘forces’ us to preach the gospel—that is, to spell out what God has already done for us in the death and resurrection of his Son, and then to move from that grace to what God asks and enables us to do. When we preach the gospel we are not simply telling people how to be good or leaving them to wallow in the overwhelming sense that they are irredeemably bad.

What is it that will transform mind and spirit? It’s the gospel. Any preaching which does not point to the grace of the gospel in Jesus Christ is essentially moralism or legalism.

True expository preaching expresses the heart and intention of scripture at in its clearest and safest form for the preacher. It’s also really hard work and one that the preacher needs to be always crafting and encouraged to grow.

Theology Thursday: Calling

Theology Thursday

It’s Friday in Brisbane, Australia. But in the US it’s still Thursday night. So without further ado, here’s Theology Thursday (one day late!)

I’m pretty aware that language changes and evolves with time. I found out recently that the word ‘sinister’ (which we usually take to mean something suggesting or threatening evil) has its simple roots in the Latin word to mean ‘left-handed’ (to be ‘left-handed’ was to be cursed by the gods). This does, however, explain some of my left-handed friends…

So I’m aware that language changes and we should keep an eye on how it does it so we can best communicate the truths of the gospel. For instance, I think the word ‘faith’ has evolved in our society and English so that its current meaning has only loose ties with the biblical use of the word – I think ‘trust’ better encapsulates the meaning of the original word. But I’m also an advocate for Christians maintaining biblical definitions for biblical words and to use them biblically. For example the word ‘worship’ and how it can often be practically limited to a synonym for ‘singing’.

But there’s another biblical word that hasn’t been battled over as much, but probably should be. That’s the word ‘call’.

For our purposes the word ‘call’ relates to that impression, feeling, or emotion on the Christian towards a particular vocation, area, or general issue needing guidance. Examples:

“I feel called to youth work.”

“I’m sensing a call to leave this church and help another one.”

“God is calling me to ministry.”

Get the drift?

It’s a word sometimes used to justify strange decisions, and even to cover up ungodly or unwise decisions.

It’s also a word I’ve personally felt uncomfortable trying to explain whenever someone asks me, ‘How do you know you’ve been ‘called’ into ministry?’ Often when I confess I didn’t receive any particular ‘calling’ as such, and explain the path towards ministry that I took, I’ve received the reply, ‘Well, maybe that is how God has called you.’ That’s a rather ambiguous, vague and postmodern way of defining the matter isn’t it?

Calling Books

So helpfully Michael Bennett has expanded his original booklet and had it published by Matthias Media. ‘Do You Feel Called By God? Rethinking The Call To Ministry’ is a helpful biblical theology on the word ‘call’ and a helpful corrective to the way the word is often used.

Good friend Andrew Hong (check out his blog for always thoughtful stuff) has reviewed it also so I quote at length:

Matthias Media have recently put out a book by Michael Bennett on this specific topic of calling and guidance, titled Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry. It basically takes a biblical studies approach to the topic of calling and guidance – and it does much to reveal how the common way of talking about guidance is not actually biblical.

Bennett’s argument goes along these lines: when prophets were called, it was always distinctive and external to themselves (ie. not merely a feeling). And when the Bible talks about calling in the life of the Christian, it always means (a) the call of the gospel to repentance and faith, and (b) the call to godly living. And when the Bible talks about qualifications for elders, it never makes use of the language of calling.

Bennett therefore argues that when we use the language of calling to refer to feelings that we have, this may sound very spiritual – and everyone else around us may be using this kind of language – but Bennett has done a great job in showing very clearly that there is no biblical support to claim  this kind of language.

Bennett’s book deserves to be carefully read and its implications for the way we talk about ministry pondered.

That’s a neat summary of the book itself and I concur. But, Andrew also notes a fundamental weakness with the book as he goes on to say:

However I’m aware that Bennett’s book won’t help everyone. And that’s because this is an essentially inductive approach. It basically says: nowhere in Scripture is ‘calling’ used like this, and so we should not use ‘calling’ in this way.

When presented with how ‘calling’ is actually used in the New Testament, someone who still wants to cling to the language of calling might say, “Maybe calling is used differently in the New Testament – but I know that I have been called, and it’s important to me.” This is the weakness of the inductive approach: it can show that calling is not used in these cases – but it can’t show that it is illegitimate to use it in every case.

Here is an example of inductive thinking: “is not snowing in Sydney because there is no snow in Parramatta, there is no snow in Chatswood, and there is now snow in Mascot” (different suburbs of Sydney).

However a stubborn person might still say, “But what about Hurstville? what you say about Parramatta, Chatswood and Mascot might be true – but there is still the small possibility of it snowing in Hurstville. And so it might still be snowing.” The inductive approach is a bottom-upapproach to thinking, and this is the general weakness of the inductive method.

The deductive method takes a different approach: it says that “snow only falls in certain conditions – yet none of these conditions have been present across the Sydney region. Therefore it cannot have snowed.” The deductive approach is a top-down approach to thinking.

I once knew someone who would defend things by saying, “yes I know it’s not biblical – but that doesn’t mean it’s unbiblical.” And unfortunately, that is the problem of the inductive approach. You may be able to say that calling isn’t used in these places – but you can’t say that calling isn’t to be used everywhere. There is always the possibility – however slender – that it could be acceptable. Which therefore gives people an ‘out’ to keep on using the language of calling.

Andrew goes on to show how an understanding of the doctrine of providence can helpfully correct deductive thinking on this issue. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Back to Bennett’s book itself, while I agree with Andrew’s assessment I also think there is another area for improvement. While the book does well to teach how the Bible uses the word ‘call’ it’s very short on what to do if you are thinking about ministry generally. And given that it probably doesn’t help the person with stronger deductive reasoning what is there to do?

Enter Dave Harvey and his book ‘Am I Called? The Summons to Pastoral Ministry’. Where Bennett is strong in his exegesis on the word ‘call’ Harvey pretty much doesn’t hit the issue at all and his use of the word would have Bennett up in arms.

That said, it’s incredibly strong in asking heaps and heaps of questions to the person thinking through a ‘calling’ to pastoral ministry. Where Bennett doesn’t give much, Harvey is replete with questions in, what he calls, diagnosing the call:

  • Are you godly?
  • How’s your home?
  • Can you preach?
  • Can you shepherd?
  • Do you love the lost?
  • Who agrees?

Get over the use of the ‘calling’ language and Harvey’s book is incredibly helpful.

So would I recommend the book to read? Yes, with caveats. I’m likely, at this stage, to suggest reading both books – Bennett’s first and then Harvey’s – until a better book comes along.

Any other suggestions on books which deal with wanting to head into pastoral ministry? Put them in the comments below…

Theology Thursday: does God make mistakes?

Theology Thursday

During my studies at theological college one of my lecturers taught me an invaluable lesson: treat scripture as a friend. He didn’t mean that we treat our physical books as buddies, but that scripture invites us into a relationship with the God of the universe and therefore we should work hard at understanding it rather than brushing it off when it appears to say something strange.

A few weeks ago in the middle of our 1 Samuel series there was a verse that appeared to say something strange. Unfortunately for time’s sake our pastor was unable to tease out the implications of the verse in question, but that’s the beauty of blogs like this!

Here’s the verse in question:

[10] The word of the LORD came to Samuel: [11] “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night. (1 Samuel 15:10-11 ESV)

The context of this passage is fascinating reading in the book itself. Saul has been anointed as the first official king of Israel, much to Samuel’s disappointment and Israel’s poor reasoning (they wanted a King over them to be like the other nations – effectively rejecting God’s kingship over them). After an initially OK start Saul starts to very much look the part of a good King. But in 1 Samuel 15 we see bubbling to the surface what has been an undercurrent in Saul’s life – his own personal rejection of God.

There are many faults in the life of Saul for sure, but here in 1 Samuel 15 is the nail in the coffin: Saul disobeys a direct instruction from God. Then in verse 11 we’re told that Yahweh regrets having made Saul king.

It’s this ‘regret’ which has caused a few people to scratch their heads and ask questions.

‘What does it mean for God to regret something?’

‘Does God make mistakes?’

It certainly looks that way on first reading.

These are good questions so what are we to make of the answers?

Well first we need to take a step back and consider the boundaries we have in place for reading and interpreting scripture. Our boundary markers are essentially our systematic theology.

Have you ever heard the saying that we are all theologians? To an extent it’s true. If you have an answer for the question, ‘Who is God?’ then you’re a theologian. The next question is what sort of theologian are you.

The same is true for our interpretation of scripture. If you have an answer for the question, ‘What does this passage mean?’ then you have some sort of systematic theology. Systematics are essentially the way in which we understand what scripture says about particular topics and issues, and (for good or bad) they also inform our understanding and interpretation of scripture.

The systematic boundaries involved in understanding 1 Samuel 15:11 are those related to God and his character. If one of the implications of this passage is that God makes a mistake then our systematic understanding of God’s character should come in to prevent this reading.

So what do we know about God from other parts of scripture? We know that he is sovereign, all powerful, and all knowing. To say that he makes a mistake is to raise serious questions about his power and sovereignty. It also raises questions about his trustworthiness – for if God makes an error, for instance here in something as relatively small as choosing a king, how can we ultimately trust him in the really important things of salvation and judgement? To say God changes his mind is to make him at best less than reliable and at worst unpredictably pernicious.

Can we be satisfied with any of these implications?

This is how your systematic theology of God’s character acts as a boundary for interpretation. We should therefore rule out the idea that God makes mistakes or changes his mind.

So then, stepping back closer to the text, what are we to make of this strange phrase?

Regret may not be the most exact choice for translation. The NIV renders נִחַם (nicham) as ‘grieved’, which is probably a little closer to home. From this I quote from John Woodhouse* who gives the implications of this verse in much greater clarity than I could:

The astonishing thing is that God so enters into his involvement with his creation, in particular with humanity, and even more particularly with his people, that their failures affect him.

The depth of this tragedy is highlighted for us in the fact that the only other occasion where this verb is used to describe God’s feelings is in Genesis 6:5-6 [where the Lord was sorry, regretted, grieved, that he had made man on the earth for man’s wickedness was so great.]

This day when God’s appointed king did not listen to the sound of the voice of the Lord was like those far-off days when human wickedness came close to destroying all that God had made.

Saul’s rebellion affects God. This is what is meant when God says, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king.’

And this is truly astonishing: that the God who created this whole universe is deeply moved and affected by our rebellion and sinful nature. Your actions matter to God.

 

*Woodhouse, John. 1 Samuel. Looking for a Leader. Preaching the Word (2008) Crossway Books, USA. p264

Theology Thursday: Judging, False Teachers, and Calling ‘Them’ Out (part 2)

Theology Thursday

 

A few weeks ago we started in our first of our ‘Theology Thursday’ series. We kicked off with the topic of judging and discernment. In part one I spelled out how a contextual understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 should lead us to the proper conclusion that Jesus does not mean for his people to ‘not judge’ but rather ‘be discerning in their judgements’. Recently Sam Storms blogged on the same issue over at the Resurgence Blog. It’s worth reading as well.

In part two we’ll address the issue of False Teachers – who they are and whether or not Christians should call them out.

The New Testament is littered with passages concerning false teachers:

[2:1] But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. [2] And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. [3] And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV)

[3] If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, [4] he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, [5] and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5 ESV)

[4] For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4 ESV)

[15] “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. [16] You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? [17] So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. [18] A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. [19] Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [20] Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV)

There’s just a few of the passages.

Now when we consider the nature and power of the gospel, then it makes sense that there are constant warnings against false teachers. If you can’t destroy the people and message, which Jesus himself promises would never happen (Matt 16:18), then the next best thing is to muddy the message and try to bring down as many on the inside as possible.

But the tricky thing about false teachers is that they can be hard to spot. From the above passages though there are some defining features:

  1.  They will teach different doctrine and destructive heresies. Today it’s a heresy to say something is heresy – but that’s the nature of the false teacher. What they teach will lead people away from Christ-centred, cross exalting, God glorifying holiness and godliness. And that is what makes their teaching destructive.
  2. False Teachers will be popular. The may even have the largest churches. Why is this? The New Testament says that they will gather to themselves people with ‘itching ears’ – following after these teachers because they will be presenting what they want to hear. The fact that they will say something right every now and again is more a testament to the fact that Satan comes as an angel of light. They have a way of creeping onto the scene unnoticed.
  3. False Teachers will tend to be wealthy. Wealth is not an all-encompassing hallmark of a false teacher, but it strikes me as not coincidental that the false prosperity gospel is driven by people who are clearly wealthier than their congregants and present themselves as models of their teaching.
  4. Because of their followers, Jesus (the way of truth) will be blasphemed. People will question what sort of religion Christianity is when they see and listen to the followers of false teachers, as well as seeing the teachers themselves. They will question God’s character and goodness.
  5. You will recognise them by their fruits. By their life, by their teaching, and by their followers. Like an off apple, they might look good on the outside but inwardly they are rotten. At some point it will eventually make its way to the surface for some or all to see.

The false teacher is a dangerous person for not only do they condemn themselves by their teaching, but they will drag people down with them. False teaching is a matter of eternal life and death.

And because of how serious false teaching is, Paul is willing to name and shame some in his time.

By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, [20] among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:19-20 ESV)

To name and shame is a pretty serious act. My conclusions about this particular instance are that 1) Paul intends to shock his audience, listening to Timothy read out this letter, into action; 2) that the act of ‘handing them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme’ is in some ways a temporary judgement with hope of repentance and restoration; and 3) that the church is so fragile at this stage in redemptive history that Paul will defend her in ways the 21st century established church is unfamiliar/uncomfortable with.

Let me address now two final points.

Should we call out false teachers in our day and age?

My answer is a cautious yes. To call someone out is, in some ways, to bring judgement upon their teaching and lives. So caution must be exercised. This is not to say then that caution will be an eternal straight jacket on the discernment of God’s people, but it does mean we should be very careful in labelling someone a false teacher. We should not throw the label around simply because we disagree with an interpretation of a minor/secondary-to-the-gospel issue, or personally dislike the person. Jesus says we will recognise false teachers by the fruits plural – not a single fruit. So a teacher might say something about a minor issue you disagree with, but that doesn’t make everything they say wrong.

The final point flows from this.

How should we call out false teachers?

Here’s where the answer is tricky. Pastorally if there is a false teacher (a person with or claiming authority) in the congregation they need to be approached personally, then with some other witnesses, then they need to be called out in front of the congregation. This is pretty harsh, but we don’t want to dance around the issue when we’re concerned about the eternal destiny of impressionable sheep.

In light of this humility needs to be carefully exercised as well. To call someone out as false teacher is a fairly decisive judgement – a judgement that Jesus isn’t necessarily against in Matthew 7 but one which requires humble, take-the-log-out-of-your-eye discernment.

I’ve known very few cases of a false teacher being present among a congregation. What is much more common is the false teacher with their own congregation who fellow Christians listen to or read via books/radio/television. Here’s where I’d suggest the act of naming and shaming does not necessarily require direct pastoral confrontation of the false teacher.

Public figures who publish material for public consumption should expect public interaction, criticism or rebuke. I’ve seen modelled in godly ways some Christians who have sent private messages of concern/rebuke directly to authors before publically publishing their criticisms. I think this is a humble way of pointing out the sin/error of your brother while also giving them opportunity to respond.

But I’d suggest that for the known false teacher who has been around for a while and who continues to proclaim a false gospel, well I’d be spending my energy on warning friends against listening to their teaching than on trying to convince the false teacher of their error. This even more so depending on how much distance (physically and relationally) is between myself and the teacher. For ongoing unrepentance ongoing public criticism and critical interaction is needed.

At the end of the day we don’t want to end up in a slanging match, nor do we want to pour all our energy simply to calling out the many and various false teachers. There is so much more gospel work to be done. But we have to be realistic that in doing this work false teachers will be there to steal sheep away. I hope what’s been shared here will be a start for how we can grapple with this issue.

 

Following the last post I was asked a few questions. Here are my responses:

Is it sinful to plead ignorance and not confront the issues of possible false teachings?

Not in the first instance. It matters more what you do afterwards. For instance, you may be invited to hear some guest speaker from out of town and there may be little to no information about them readily available to you. You go because large swathes of your church, or youth group, are attending. While listening to the teacher you recognise faulty, unbiblical, unthoughtful or plain false teaching and now you have to confront it – either directly or with your group members afterwards.

Humility, again, is necessary in any confrontation. But the key is that either before or after the fact, false teaching cannot be allowed to remain unaddressed by God’s shepherds – lest one of God’s sheep be led astray and you be complicit with your silence.

If our judgement is tainted with some pride (and it’s easy to take a position of superiority) is it better not to judge?

This is a clear example of the ‘log in the eye’ issue. If you have a log in your eye this does not mean you should remain silent. Jesus says to take it out first, then take out the speck from your brother’s eye.

Biblical Discernment will help you figure out if what you’re seeing is merely a speck or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And we shouldn’t confuse the two.

Humility in this situation means taking the log out – admitting and confessing your pride – then airing your concerns.

 

 

Theology Thursday: Judging, False Teachers, and Calling ‘Them’ Out (part 1)

Theology Thursday

 

It’s Thursday, we’re past ‘hump-day’, and the weekend is in sight! So I’m going to try, each Thursday (or at least on a Thursday) to write a little column to briefly explain some theology. The range will probably vary quite a bit but it will always attempt to explain something biblical.

Today we’re going to start with the topic of judging. I’ll split this into two parts. Part one will deal with ‘Judging’ and part two will deal with ‘False Teachers and Calling Them Out’.

I recently got accused of being judgemental when I warned that a particular person, on good evidence, was most likely a false teacher. A few parts of scripture were thrown at me, in particular Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not, that you not be judged.’

When I read that passage thrown at me I honestly shook my head. There’s a saying that a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text. And here was a perfect example. Here’s how the argument runs:

  1. Jesus said ‘Do not judge.’ (ie Matthew 7:1)
  2. What you said amounts to judging another person, which Jesus is clearly against (point 1).
  3. Therefore you’re being uncharitable/un-Christian in your judgement.

Well, Matthew 7:1 certainly sounds like it’s saying the above when it’s removed from its context. So let’s consider its context to see if it’s being used appropriately. Here’s the relevant wider context:

Matthew 7:1-6 ESV

[7:1] “Judge not, that you be not judged. [2] For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. [3] Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? [4] Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? [5] You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.[6] “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

Let’s exegete this properly.

Verse 1 does state the well-known maxim ‘Do not judge’. The explanation is in the second half of the verse – that you be not judged. That is to say, that the manner in which you judge won’t fall upon you as well.

Verse 2 goes on to affirm the second half of verse 1. There is a give and take when it comes to pronouncing judgement: how you judge will be how others judge you. I think implied in this is also the warning that how you judge others will be the basis for how God judges you as well.

Verses 3-4 illustrate how hypocritical it is to be judgemental. It’s like noticing a speck of dust in the eye of your friend, calling them out for it, but failing to notice the huge log in your own eye. It’s ridiculous. And that’s what being judgemental to another person is like.

Now, stop here and Jesus is clearly teaching that we shouldn’t be making judgements (and perhaps implied that God is the sole one who can judge someone). However the passage doesn’t end here. Instead Jesus goes on to make two additional statements which modify the warning not to judge.

The first is this in the second half of verse 5: first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

There are two implications from this:

  1. There is a great need for humility – taking the log out of your own eye is a recognition that you are not perfect or righteous on your own accord, but are also a sinful person. Taking the log out recognises humbly that your sin may be greater in contrast to the fault of your brother (ie the comparison between your log and their speck)
  2. You can, and should, after being humble enough to admit your own sin, point out the speck in your brother’s eye. There may be a log in your own eye, but there is also the speck in your brother’s eye to deal with.

It is therefore right for us to notice the speck in our brother’s eye. It is right for us to make some form of judgement, provided we humbly acknowledge our own faults and sins.

To add to this Jesus gives a seemingly obscure illustration of not giving to dogs what is holy or throwing pearls before pigs. Many commentators have taken this to be Jesus’ teaching about discerning who to share the gospel with (especially belligerent non-Christians). However I think in context it’s more a call to discerning judgement. So while Jesus affirms humble judgements to be made, in contrast to judgementalism, he also exhorts us to be discerning about making these judgements. Discern whether your holy judgements are going to be placed before dogs, whether your pearls of wisdom/discernment are going to be trampled underfoot by pigs. The encouragement is to be discerning: to make wise judgements. The warning is that if you’re not discerning about who you lay these judgements before they will turn and attack you.

But this isn’t new. What Jesus says here isn’t actually earth shattering. He’s, in some ways, affirming what Proverbs has already laid out for us:

Proverbs 10:17 – Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.

Proverbs 12:1 – Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.

Proverbs 13:1 – A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

Proverbs 15:5 – A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.

Proverbs 15:31 – The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.

See that there? To use the language already spoken of, the fool hates discerning judgement and leads others astray in their lack of discernment. But the wise person listens to discerning judgement as life-giving.

So coming back to Matthew 7:1 – is Jesus against making judgements? No. What he is against is a judgemental attitude. What he is for is discerning judgement.

May we grow in our discernment, with all wisdom and knowledge.