Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pagan Christianity? A Book Review

by Pastor John Sleadd

I recently read Pagan Christianity?, by Frank Viola and George Barna, which explores the roots of our church practices. The authors claim that, according to credible historic research, the majority of what takes place in today’s institutional church can be linked to Roman and Greek pagan traditions. They assert the following, and more.

That Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity into a state religion and instituted sacred sites, sacred rituals and sacred officers to unify and control his empire.

That church buildings evolved from pagan religious shrines

That preachers evolved from Greek sophists, who were gifted, yet often unscrupulous, orators

That pulpits evolved from Greek stagecraft used for entertainment

That salaried pastors evolved from pensioned, Roman government officials

That church music practices evolved from Roman pagan customs of pomp and formality

I confess that I found Pagan Christianity? a fascinating read. In it Viola and Barna criticize the authoritarian, high church system of clergy, costumes, customs and cathedrals. They say this system puts a few men in charge of lifeless congregations. They are equally critical of the pop culture, consumer system, which keeps the religious customers entertained in auditoriums with celebrity speakers, professional praise bands, and youth ministers who widen the generation gap. A return to the old ways is needed, they say. Out with professionalism and institutionalism. In with relationships and organic community. Back to the habits of the early church at the ground level, where believers met in equality and simplicity.

Viola and Barna are sincerely concerned for the health of the Lord’s church. I found many, perhaps most of their arguments to be persuasive. Their historic evidence was compelling. I would therefore recommend this book to anyone who is interested in church history and practice. I would, however, offer a few words of caution.

Viola and Barna seem to disregard legitimate authority and hierarchy in the body of Christ. They advocate an “every-member functioning” model of church meeting, and they rightly condemn the practice of professional clergymen dominating over a passive laity. Yet, in their disdain for abusive authoritarianism in the church, I believe they have overreacted and thrown the baby out with the bath water. Allow me to explain.

I believe the authors have ignored the hierarchy that exists within the Trinity and in God’s ordained institutions of family, church and state. In the Trinity, the Holy Spirit plays a supporting role to the Son, and the Son plays a submissive role to the Father, yet they are one and they are equally God. In the family the husband is the head of the wife, and the wife is commanded to submit to her husband, yet they are part of a one-flesh union (Ephesians 5:22-23). Together, they have authority over their children, who are commanded to honor and obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1). In the church the Elders are given the authority and responsibility to rule (1 Timothy 5:17), and church members are commanded to obey and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17). Yet the Elders are told to govern with gentleness and humility, predominantly through the power of example (1 Peter 5:2-3). In the state, we see evidence of hierarchy as well. The ancient Hebrew republic had a hierarchy of military commanders and judges to lead the Jewish nation. Furthermore, a hierarchical chain of command is an essential part of our United States constitutional republic today. It can be said that hierarchical authority is both biblical and essential for right conduct in human interactions.

There are other troubling issues that bubble up from the pages of Pagan Christianity? The authors assume that all church members have equal privileges to share, to lead, and to teach, during each meeting, but this is in conflict with what the scriptures teach about the distribution of spiritual gifts and about church leadership. In their criticism of church liturgical practices, they imply that spontaneous sharing is more biblical than preplanned worship services that are directed by select individuals. This begs the question why the Holy Spirit cannot work through preplanning just as well as spontaneity, and through the specialization of gifts as well as through every member. Such things reveal a personal bias that taints an otherwise timely call to reformation of church practice.

I agree with Viola and Barna that every member of the Body of Christ should be fully functioning and contributing. But we must steer clear of the tendency to democratize the church into an egalitarian social construct. My prayer is that the Lord would continue to bless and refine His church, according to His perfect will and purpose. I recommend you read Pagan Christianity? for yourself and enjoy interacting with it as I did.

Friday, March 21, 2008

He Is Risen. He Saves.

Much hangs on the truth of Christ’s resurrection. No resurrection, no victory over sin and death. No resurrection, no certainty that God’s Word is true. No resurrection, no Lord Jesus mediating from the throne room of the Father on behalf of sinners. Like me.

The apostle Paul wrote that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. If we hope in Christ only in this life only, then we are to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

Fortunately, Christ has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is an historical fact. The empty tomb was solid evidence of His resurrection in the days and years following Christ’s public execution. Jesus’ appearance to a multitude of eyewitnesses in the weeks after his certified death are irrefutable. The conspiracy theories of body snatching, or mass hallucinations are flimsy concoctions of fiction, which have no credibility in light of the data.

Death could not keep Jesus in the grave. The Lord of creation, who has made all things and sustains all things, demonstrated His sovereignty over death itself. He was summoned to life. He lives. He reigns. And this is good news for us.

Jesus’ resurrection confirms His power to save us. He summons His elect into new life by the regenerative power of His Spirit. Thus, one can be born again.

The Bible says that all have sinned and offended God (Romans. 3:23). It says that we suppress the evidence of God and deny His authority over creation. It describes mankind as law breakers and rebels.

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God cannot tolerate sin and His holy character requires that sin be punished. He has created hell, a place of unquenchable fire, and eternal suffering reserved for those who hate Him and reject Jesus, His Son.

But here’s the good news: The Bible says that God shows His great love for us, in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

We are saved by God’s grace, not by our own works (Ephesians 2:8). We cannot say we have earned salvation. It is a gift.

We have a place in heaven. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

Jesus came to save His people. Are you one of them? Have you trusted Jesus?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Infamy of Rousseau's Selfish Socialism

I decided to write my third letter to the editor of our local newspaper. After the last letter, I received four public commendations and two criticisms. One writer said that I should go back to my pulpit and get a life.

I expect to be attacked in print. I write to inform and provoke. I also hope to stimulate Christians to rise up and challenge the culture. Here's my latest contribution to the cultural conversation.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was an eighteenth-century, French philosopher with a penchant for siring and abandoning children. Five of them. Rousseau was a dead-beat dad with a disdain for paternal duty. He championed the cause of self-love and personal entitlement.

Rousseau denounced civilization, social conventions, and traditional values. He believed the state was the perfect agent to liberate the individual from such oppressive relationships as marriage, family, church and work. He claimed that each citizen would then be completely independent of all his fellow men, and absolutely dependent on the state.

As an Enlightenment thinker, he postulated theories of socialism and nationalism, which inspired Robespierre in the French Revolution, as well as Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao and even Pol Pot. Curious, isn’t it, how the seeds of radical individualism and entitlement can produce a crop of totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s theories are alive and well in America today. Perhaps that’s why we have no-fault divorce, same-sex unions, and abortion on demand, all supported by our government. Maybe that’s why a U.S. court ruled that parents have no exclusive right to teach their children about sex education, but must permit the state to teach them the legitimacy of homosexuality. Maybe that’s why a California court recently declared that home education is illegal unless the parents have a state-issued teaching license.

Statesman Edmund Burke reportedly said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Men of conscience, I adjure you to take action. Pray, speak, write.

Pastor John Sleadd
Coram Deo Church

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Return to the City of My Second Birth

On Thursday, February 28, 2008 I drove up to Bellingham Washington for a quick, nostalgic visit. I was in the north part of Seattle with some extra time on my hands, when on a lark I decided to zip up to my college alma mater, Western Washington University, for a blast from the past.

A quarter century earlier I had been an art and music student there at the beautiful campus perched above Bellingham Bay. It was at WWU that I brushed wild colors across stretched canvases in the art studio to the smell of oil paints and mineral spirits. It was there that I spent endless hours shut up in windowless practice rooms as a music student fingering scales and jazz riffs on my guitar. It was in this town that I played and sang in smoky night clubs filled with the rank smell of cheap beer. It was there that I watched the movie Elephant Man and was embarrassed by the overwhelming sense of pity that made me sob in front of my friends as if I had just seen my own pathetic spiritual condition exposed in front of a shocked audience.

It was there, twenty-five years ago, that I first suspected a sovereign God existed behind the canopy of stars, who might call me to account for who I was and what I thought and what I did. I was a Kentucky boy, the casualty of a broken home, who had wound up in the Pacific Northwest to chase after his life's purpose at a university. It was in Bellingham that I was yanked out of my atheistic existentialism and summoned into the Kingdom of God like a hapless islander who gets swept out of his village by the surge of a tsunami, then deposited back into a pile of debris that was his former life. There wasn't much worth salvaging, so I began a new life, trusting in Christ.

I had lived in Bellingham for six years. I had rented various apartments, dated various girls, been indoctrinated by various professors, and partied with various acquaintances. The kingdom of God had sent most of my friends packing. At the name of Jesus, they had grown suspicious and distant, like I was the Elephant Man, the freak of faith. Eventually we parted company, which left me with time on my own to soak up the words of C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul and Josh MacDowell, to name a few, who wrote about a God who redeems sinners. Like me.

I read the Bible, too, starting the with John's gospel, which introduced me to Christ, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life.

Back in the present, I walked across campus observing students bustling from class to class. They seemed driven by academic purpose, yet adrift in the relativistic culture of higher education with no sense of God’s superintending presence.

I began to pray. I asked God to call His elect out of the darkness as He had called me back in 1983. I prayed for dozens, perhaps a hundred individuals, asking the Lord to pour out His Spirit on the students. I circled back across the campus and aimed at every soul that came in sight, praying that God would redeem sinners and transform them into future husbands and wives and parents of faith, who would bring Him glory.

I entered the music building, where I had sung in the university choir as a cynical atheist, and I sang a hymn aloud in the elevator. I went into the Viking Union student center and asked the Lord to give me the opportunity to witness to at least four people on campus before I left. In my folder I had four spiritual survey sheets that I had developed for sharing the gospel.

For the next two hours I sipped Starbuck’s coffee and interviewed four students. I asked a dozen different questions. I explained the problem of sin and the good news of salvation in Christ alone. I left each of them with this thought to ponder: “Is it possible that God is calling you to believe in Jesus to save you from punishment? “ Two answered “yes,” one answered “no,” and one answered “not sure.” One young man said he thought that if God was calling him, He would probably do it by sending him a dream, or a vision, or something unusual. I asked him if it were possible that God might send a stranger from out of town (me) as a divine appointment to talk to him about faith. He might still be thinking about that.

After I had interviewed the students, I asked them about their majors, their interests, their goals in life. They, in turn, asked me why I was out interviewing people. I got to share my testimony of how I had been a student at WWU twenty-five years ago when God called me out of darkness and into light. He had chosen me for His own, even though I had mocked believers and claimed Christianity was a crutch for the weak-minded. God had allowed me to marry a wonderful Christian woman and start a Christian family. Now, as a father of five children and the pastor of a great church, it was a privilege to return to WWU to speak with others about God's amazing grace. I gave each of them a business card with my email address, along with a reference to Ephesians 1:4.

Now that I’m back at home in Grants Pass, Oregon, my trip to Bellingham seems like a dream. It was a wonderful little side trip from my commitments in Seattle. Since I may not be back for another twenty-five years, I will relish the dose of nostalgia. And I will pray: Lord, send your tsunami again into the city of my second birth.

The Scriptures are Supernatural, Sure and Sufficient

Disciple Makers Basic Training: Week 5

Q: What Is In The Bible?

A: God has given His Scriptures as the highest standard of truth and authority for all of life. The Bible teaches what man is to believe about God and what God requires of man.

God and His Word are inseparable. He designed it that way for our benefit. To know God is to know His Word, and to love Him is to obey His commands. The Bible tells us to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16), yet many of us neither know, or obey it.

Imagine a young woman who doesn’t read her fiancĂ©e’s letters. We would question her love. Imagine a soldier who doesn’t obey his commander’s orders. We would question his loyalty. What, then, are we to make of those who claim to follow Christ, but who show no love for His Word, nor trouble themselves to obey it? Do they merely honor Him with their mouths while their hearts are far from Him? (Matthew 15:8).

The Power of the Scriptures
The Bible is powerful and effective, sure and sufficient, life-giving and eternal.
· Matthew 4:4 Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
· Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
· Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
· 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The Authority and Divine Nature of Scripture
Jesus regarded the Scriptures as authoritative.
The Bible is self-attesting. It declares itself to be the authoritative Word of God.
The Bible records hundreds of supernaturally fulfilled prophecies.
The Bible records supernatural events (mass feedings, healings and resurrections), which were observed by multiple eye witnesses.
The Bible accurately portrays man’s true spiritual condition. It is a book that reads the reader.
The Bible has transformed the lives of many who read it.
The Bible has survived attempts to destroy it throughout history.

The Bible evidences itself to be God's Word by the heavenliness of its doctrine, the unity of its parts, and its power to convert sinners and to edify saints. But only the Spirit of God can make us willing to agree and submit to the Bible as the Word of God. (answer to question #5 of the The Baptist Catechism, 1689)

(see 1 Corinthians 2:6-7,13-16; Psalm 19:7-9; 119:18,129; Acts 10:43; 26:22; 18:28; Hebrews 4:12; Romans 15:4; John 16:13,14; 1 John 2:20-27; 2 Corinthians 3:14-17; 4:4, 6.)

The Contents of the Scriptures
The Bible is comprised of the 39 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testaments Books. It can be divided into the following categories.

Old Testament
1. history of creation and God’s people
2. Laws of God
3. psalms and proverbs
4. prophecies of God

New Testament
5. gospels of Jesus
6. acts of the apostles
6. letters to churches
7. revelation

The Canon of Scripture
The historic Christian belief is that the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the books also controlled their selection. The final canon of Scripture is therefore the result of God’s sovereign intervening in the discernment of believers rather than by historical research .

· 1 Corinthains 2:13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
· 1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.

Four basic considerations have guided the church in recognizing the canon (measuring rod) of Scripture.
1. Apostolicity – Was the book written by an apostle?
2. Apostolic content – Was the content of the book consistent with the ministry and purpose of an apostle?
3. Claim of divine inspiration – Did the author claim that his words were from God?
4. Acceptance as divine – Did the early churches recognize the author and/or writings as from God?

The Doctrines of Scripture
The Bible is God’s special revelation of Himself and of His sovereign plan to save His elect through the atoning work of Christ Jesus. The Bible reveals the sequence of creation, fall, redemption and glorification for those whom God brings to saving faith in Christ. The major themes of the Bible can be categorized into the following doctrines.

1. The doctrine of the Word of God (inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient)
2. The doctrine of God (sovereign, self-existent, almighty, holy, Trinitarian)
3. The doctrine of man (God’s image bearer, yet spiritually dead & sinful by nature)
4. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit (personal, sanctifying)
5. The doctrine of redemption (election by grace, effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, preservation, glorification)
6. The doctrine of the church (unity and purity, purposes, ordinances, presence in the world)
7. The doctrine of the future (return of Christ, final judgment, new heaven and earth)

Abuse of the Scriptures
This might sound strange, but some people love the Bible too much. That is, they are drawn to its texts, but they are distant from the Author. The tendency to focus on the process of textual transmission and interpretation based on human reasoning can be a form of bibliolatry (book worship) if the texts are divorced from God’s character and will. The theological liberalism of higher textual criticism, which developed in Europe after the Enlightenment, pitted man’s interpretive powers of reason against God’s sovereign ability to transmit His Word through men. Clearly we are not to treat the holy Scriptures with academic detachment. Nor are we to twist the Word of God to make it conform to the plans of man.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, God and His Word are inseparable. And He has chosen to reveal Himself to us and minister to us through His holy Scriptures. Let us draw near to God by reading and meditating upon His Word. Let us love Him with all our heart, and soul, and mind and strength, as we walk in obedience to all that He has commanded, by the power of His Spirit for the glory of Christ.
Follow Up Assignment
Read Greg Koukl’s article, Never Read A Bible Verse http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5466