“We begin each day with the deeply encouraging realization, I’m accepted by God, not on the basis of my personal performance, but on the basis of the infinitely perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.”-John Owen
I have been involved in leading churches for four decades, with an emphasis on church planting in the last few years. I’ve also visited and addressed hundreds of churches around the world and have had the privilege of meeting thousands of Christian leaders. Through this time, I’ve watched an unintentional doctrinal imprecision on the part of many pastors become intentional. In other words, I have witnessed a new “conventional wisdom” emerge. Simply stated, it is the “wisdom” of attempting to circle in more people for our churches by unashamedly minimizing, or perhaps nearly eradicating, the restricting influences of doctrine. What pastors used to do (because of being poorly taught perhaps), they now do by intent, all for church growth.
The problem is, it works.
For instance, I just visited with one friend concerning a large church in our area that has grown exceptionally well. The directional pastor of this church is a smart man who has some distinct beliefs he holds personally. I can talk with him about doctrine when alone. He reads and knows the Bible. But, in his leadership and preaching, he fully intends not to go beyond the most elementary issues, and appears to not be concerned that his people differ on major doctrines, some of which are most significant. Outside of an expression of the gospel and some “how to’s,” there isn’t much to get your teeth into in his preaching. He has created a birthing station, but not much else.
Doctrine does narrow things. And we don’t like that word “narrow.” Where you will find one person who is attracted to sound doctrine, you will find a hundred who want to allow all sorts of beliefs to be tolerated. I have been in such churches where great heresies were listened to as if it were perfectly permissible to hold such views as “your opinion.” And I’m not talking about the guest’s view, but the member’s view.
This happens on the mission field as well. Preparing for a mission to Mozambique soon, I’ve been reading the reports of a good missionary doctor who has attempted to plant churches. Because he cares about doctrine, there are some real pains in building a church. He knows that because of the communal nature of the people, an apparently large church could be built easily. Whereas he may find only a handful of believers in most churches in his area, there may well be ten times as many who just attend, believing themselves to be Christian only because it is their custom to be joiners. If he were to avoid doctrine in favor of shallow evangelism, he would build a large unregenerate church. Is that useful for the kingdom? He does not believe so. But he is the exception.
Few Think of This
In all of this acceptance of doctrinal sloppiness and miasma of beliefs, I find that many have totally disregarded a tenet that should be obvious to any Bible reader. I mean this: The apostles began churches with the intent to grow them as solidly as possible by means of a steady and meticulous interest in doctrine. The biblical data is overwhelmingly in line with this conclusion.
The apostles saw the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). And so, giving attention to doctrine was paramount to them. I am sure the entire future of the work was in mind as Paul and the other apostles emphasized a wide assortment of critical doctrines. Whereas we would say, “At least we have a witness in the city of some sort, preaching Christ,” the apostles would say, “Because this church is a witness in the city, and other churches will come from this one or emulate their beliefs and practices, we must be all the more precise.” There is a world of difference between the two schools of thought.
And these doctrines were to be “taught” and “preached.” In other words, it was not the prerogative of those elders that were appointed by the apostles to minimize the importance of doctrinal precision. Similarly, I don’t think we can be like Jesus or like the apostles in our leadership without emphasizing what they emphasized. It is, in fact, ludicrous to think otherwise. I don’t think Paul would listen very sympathetically to our explanation of why we have minimized doctrine for the sake of church growth.
All of us are aware of the need to avoid being doctrinaire, that is, of teaching doctrine in a sterile, pedantic manner, without application and devotional “heat.” Look to Jesus and Paul as perfect illustrations of how to do teach doctrine correctly. If we teach the Scriptures faithfully and exactly as stated, we will automatically teach good doctrine. We have to be very clever to avoid it. But many do miss it, either by selecting and addressing passages that are only behavioral, or by avoiding Scripture all together, or by being a diverter, like a pastor who preaches on time management based on Jesus’ cry, “It is finished.”
We forget that the difficult doctrines that we talk about are found in the Letters to the Churches. These were epistles that contained the very truths we are refusing to talk about in our churches. Do you see the incongruity? Is it really right to think that we should not talk about those doctrines that were the staple of the earliest churches? I know I’m being overly obvious, but haven’t we overlooked this fact? And many of those difficult passages that we are absolutely afraid to teach were written to nascent churches. Paul thought it critical to present the whole truth to these people (Acts 20:27). He did not “shrink” from doing this. But we do.
What I am saying is that we do not have the luxury of avoiding these things because we want to grow a larger church. What is the effect of a new church start in New Guinea if it is grown by doctrinal imprecision? You can certainly imagine that generations of churches following that one will share similar vagueness about beliefs and practices and will leave perhaps thousands (and maybe millions, i.e. some errant denominations exemplify this) teaching error, or at least open to divergent beliefs that will be harmful to the believers and the success of the movement. It is not just wrong doctrine that will do this, but the vacuous absence of doctrine as well. Surely it can be seen that error in Christian movements is a thing that is taught and propagated one church at a time, one leader at a time, yet has a long-term permeating effect. This is so not only in a virgin church planting situation, but also where there are numerous churches. We are irresponsible to leave doctrinal precision out of the equation in our church starting and church growing. It is negligence (often planned negligence) that is destructive.
Dereliction of Duty
It is assumed that elders, of all people, are to care about doctrine. In our day this is an assumption that is not finding much support, but it must be so. If this is not so, then a whole new team of elders must be chosen. It is part of the job description. Paul says that an elder is to be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
When elders come together, it is part of their responsibility to work on what they believe. For instance, what is the view of the elders on divorce and remarriage? What is their view on the Law. Or election? Or the nature of man? What is their belief on Creation? Or on plurality of eldership? Or concerning spiritual gifts? Or on the nature of the atonement? Or on the role of women? If elders do not know what they believe, how can they possible fulfill the requirement of Titus 1:9 mentioned above?
Since elders (also called overseers and pastors) are to care about doctrine, it should be in their interest to make their elder’s meetings more than just business meetings about the more mundane things or merely vision meetings about new ideas. I know we must do some of that. Visionless churches are dying churches, of course. But pastors should work hard to perfect what they believe. They should put the months of study and discussion into various doctrinal positions so that they become familiar with them and are ready to teach them. After coming to one mind on a doctrine, they should meet with the men, and then the whole church, to transmit and teach what they have learned.
Once painstakingly arriving at what they believe about cardinal doctrines, they will be willing to pay a price for them. After all, it is God speaking these doctrines to them.
As the people learn that an elder actually has some clearheaded views about things, he will be respected as a person who can help bring understanding and direction to families and veteran disciples, as well as to children and new believers.
Act Biblically Now
Paul makes my premise lucid when he says that we must “strive together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). He trains leaders with the words, “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). He worries, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3).
Jude showed us doctrine’s import when he said that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Peter thought it necessary to stir us up “by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:1-2). He warns us to “be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men . . . . but grow in grace and knowledge . . .” (2 Pet. 3:17-18).
John rejoices to find “some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father,” but warns, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God . . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him . . . . for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 4:9-11).
For us to even attempt to build churches by minimizing doctrine is a philosophy so far removed from the original purpose of Christ and His apostles that one would wonder if we were in the same movement. How close is this to the prediction of Paul when he said that “they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). It is too close for me.
Therefore I urge you to reconsider how you use your leadership. There is much to do. We must be loving and comforting, praying and available, transparent and visionary, but as leaders we cannot dismiss what God insists on. If it were not so unambiguous, we might have room to debate the wisdom of this. Since this truth is repeated ad infinitum in the Word, what can anyone say against it?
Therefore, give yourself to sound doctrine and make much of it from now on. If you cannot do this, resign.
And, if you are not a pastor but a listener, go to those responsible for dispensing the truth with a sincere appeal for them to teach you doctrine without compromise. Tell them you cannot grow without it.
God and The Christian Mind: The Biblical way to think, discern and walk in this present world
II 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[a] may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Location: Lifespring Church, 30 Hallett Ave, Crosby, MN (www.visitlifespring.com)
Date: Saturday, April 21, 2018 (1:00-9:00 p.m.)
Who: Parent, Students, adults and young people of all ages
Cost: It’s Free! (Free-will donation basket will be available to onset the cost of the meal)
Do I need to register, therefore? Yes. Please, please register at wwww.eventbrite.com (search: God and the Christian mind)
Why this Conference? How do we walk the wise path of life living in our increasingly secular and pagan culture; with all kinds of subtle, siren voices leading us down the path of destruction. God has give us his revealed Word, which is sufficient to make us wise for salvation and all of life (Proverbs 3:16-17, II Timothy 3:15) What must we believe, and how does Scripture lead and guide us to think, live and discern?
Speakers: Paul Helseth and Ardel Caneday are seasoned professors and churchmen who are also long-time friends and colleagues in Bible and theology Department at Northwestern University–Roseville. Both have taught a generation of college students in the Sufficiency of Scripture to address all the needs and dilemmas of the current culture. Many former students will testify to How God used their classes and their counsel to help set them on a God-ward trajectory for life.
Dr. Paul K Helseth is professor of Christian thought at Northwestern and a member of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA)
Dr Ardel B. Caneday is professor of New Testament and Greek at Northwestern and a member of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
We believe that all, young and old, will benefit from both the teaching, worship and good fellowship among God’s people.
*We would encourage you to view this as an opportunity to intentionally invite young students
1:30—Welcome and singing
1:45—Session 1: The Doctrine of Creation and the Christian Mind
3:00—Session 2: The Myth of Neutrality and a Sacramental View of the Universe
4:00–Session 3 : Scripture: How God Makes Himself Known
(with Q/A following)
7:00—Application: How to Rightly Discern: Human Sexuality in an Age of Calculated Confusion
8:00—Application: How to Rightly Discern the New Social Justice Movement
(with Q/A following)
Proverbs 2:1-12a My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil.
Maybe it began earlier than the 1950s and ‘60s, but those decades seem to mark the rise of the fascination with youth in American culture. The famous line that celebrates all things young, often wrongly attributed to James Dean, declares, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse behind.”
Popular music, that telling barometer of popular culture, has kept pace with this trend. Nearly every heavy-metal band of the 1980s and ‘90s had a stock ballad about young heroes going down in a “blaze of glory.” Other popmusic references stress the invincible power of youth. Rod Stewart sings of being “Forever Young.” In their hit single “We Are Young,” the contemporary super group Fun declares that these same youth will “set the world on fire.” Bruce Springsteen’s barstool-seated narrator in “Glory Days” drowns the disappointments of his middle-aged life by retelling stories of high school exploits and triumphs. None of us may want to relive our awkward junior high moments, but who among us doesn’t harbor secret desires to be young again and seemingly able to conquer the world?
The subtle and not-so-subtle pulls of the idolization of youth manifest themselves in three areas. The first is an elevation of youth over the aged. This reverses the biblical paradigm. The second is a view of being human that values prettiness (not to be confused with beauty and aesthetics), strength, and human achievement. Think of the captain of the cheerleading squad and the star quarterback. The third is the dominance of the market by the youth demographic. That is to say, in order to be relevant and successful, one must appeal to the youth or to youthful tastes. These manifestations of our youth-driven culture deserve a closer look.
The trend of exalting youth and sidelining the elderly stems from a deeper problem summed up in the expression, “Newer is better.” We celebrate the new and innovative while looking down on the past and tradition. There is a compelling vitality to youth and to new ideas, but that does not mean there is no wisdom to be found in the past. It is a sign of hubris to think one can face life without the wisdom of those who have gone before. There is something about being young that makes the young think they are immune to the mistakes or missteps of those who have gone before. We all think too highly of ourselves and our capacities. Simply put, we need the wisdom of the past and of the elderly.
WE NEED THE WISDOM OF THE PAST AND OF THE ELDERLY.
The idolization of youth even seeps into the church. One of the ways in which we see this is in the stress on church youth groups. Curiously, Jonathan Edwards, in his letter to Deborah Hathaway, referred to as “Letter to a Young Convert,” encouraged her to join with the other youth in the church to pray together and to discuss their progress in sanctification as an encouragement to one another. In short, he was calling for her to start a youth group. Youth groups can serve a significant purpose and can be meaningful ministries. However, they can separate the youth from the other age groups in the church. The church needs to worship, learn, and pray together, old and young side by side. The culture tries to push the aged away. The church cannot afford to do that.
As we need the wisdom of the elderly in the body of Christ, we also need the wisdom of the past. Newer isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s worse; sometimes it’s wrong. As the church, we are a people with a past. The Holy Spirit is not a gift unique to the church in the twenty-first century. We ignore or disdain the past to our detriment.
The way out of enslavement to this undue celebration of youth is to foster a genuinely diverse community in our homes and in our churches. Generation gaps can be awkward and barriers to both sides having genuine and authentic fellowship. But God has designed His church in such a way that we need each other. Paul specifically commands Timothy to have the older teach the younger (Titus 2:1–4). We miss out when we think we have nothing to learn from others at different stages of life. The church of today also misses out when it thinks it has nothing to learn from the church of yesterday.
CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN NEED TO HEAR THE STORIES OF THEIR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS.
The older may feel intimidation in trying to reach out to the younger, but the older should take the initiative. Young people can take the buds out of their ears and look up from their iPods. Children and grandchildren need to hear the stories of their parents and grandparents.
The second manifestation of our youth-driven culture is a warped view of humanity. Our culture determines a human being’s value based on how he or she looks. Parents, teachers, youth pastors, and pastors know how body image can be absolutely devastating to today’s youth. We also know theologically that human dignity, and hence human value, stems from our creation in the image of God. Our youth-obsessed culture uses a flawed metric for determining human worth.
Conversely, we also lose sight of human frailty and depravity. We are not strong. Isaiah reminds us, “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa. 40:30–31a). The theme of God’s strength manifested in our weakness reverberates through Paul’s writings. We will not hear it, however, if we are fixated on images of youthful strength and invincibility.
We need to help youth see that their value derives from being made in the image of the Creator and of the Redeemer. In today’s culture, adolescence is increasingly difficult to navigate well. Our youth are surrounded by images of the pretty and the skinny, the young and the beautiful. Images of perfection bombard them. My friend Walt Mueller, author and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, has been studying the advertising industry for years. His conclusion? Overt and subtle images pass before a typical teen’s eyes potentially hundreds of times a week. Add to that the body-image message coming through much of pop music and movies, and you see the challenge. Youth culture needs the church’s help to think biblically about a healthy, God-honoring view of self and others.
The third manifestation of the youth culture has to do with the way the youth demographic drives the market. The economic engine driving much of popular culture, in terms of movies and music at least, is that group with discretionary funds—teens and twenty-somethings. Youth groups and even churches, desiring to be successful, hurry to catch up.
WE ALL NEED A CHURCH OF YOUNG AND OLD—AND IN BETWEEN—THAT PROCLAIMS AND LIVES THE GOSPEL.
The ever-insightful Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once weighed in on a debate over the use of a controversial novel in a public school classroom. Rather than debate the particular merits or demerits of the book, O’Connor raised a deeper question. She observed that advocates for the book made their case by claiming it was trendy and hip, for which reason the young people of the day were into it. Why not meet them where they were?, went the argument. O’Connor instead made a case for reliance on the literary canon, not popular fiction. Then she went on the attack in her closing lines: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed” (“Fiction Is a Subject with a History—It Should Be Taught that Way”).
Some may dismiss O’Connor’s argument, seeing it as an elitist appeal. But she raises a fair point. There are felt needs and there are true needs. Sometimes it takes quite a few decades to see the difference.
Sociologist Christian Smith coined the phrase moralistic therapeutic deism to describe the prominent religious view of American youth. His description sticks, but how should we respond? To simply cater to such tastes is to pander. In doing so, the gospel and the demands of the Christian life are lost.
One of those rock ballads I alluded to earlier echoes again and again a haunting line: “Give me something to believe in.” It tells a story of seeking, but finding only disappointment and disillusionment. Yet the desire to believe in something persists. Sociologists tell us that contemporary youth culture values authenticity. We reach out to youth culture best by not pandering and by not pretending to be hip—it’s too hard to pull it off anyway. One person’s respect for another grows immensely when one simply speaks and lives the truth in love.
Youth culture today faces a great deal of anxiety. On nearly every level, an uncertain future waits on the horizon. But these anxieties are only the symptoms of the real problem, shadows of the anxiety humanity faces because of alienation. Our sin separates us from God. And we need someone to believe in. None of us, young or old, needs a therapeutic religion. We all need the gospel. And we all need a church of young and old—and in between—that proclaims and lives the gospel.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
What is Advent? The great proclamation “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) assures us that God has entered into human history through the incarnation of the Son. The season of Advent, a season of waiting, is designed to cultivate our awareness of God’s actions—past, present, and future. In Advent we hear the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming as addressed to us—people who wait for the second coming. In Advent we heighten our anticipation for the ultimate fulfillment of all Old Testament promises, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. In this way Advent highlights for us the larger story of God’s redemptive plan. A deliberate tension must be built into our practice of the Advent season. Christ has come, and yet not all things have reached completion. While we remember Israel’s waiting and hoping and we give thanks for Christ’s birth, we also anticipate his second coming at the end of time. For this reason Advent began as a penitential season, a time for discipline and intentional repentance in the confident expectation and hope of Christ’s coming again. (The Worship Sourcebook, p 421)
Thanksgiving at Job’s House, by Joe Reed
Thanksgiving, that most excellent of perhaps all uniquely American traditions, stands in the doorway where we bid farewell to warmer weather and all its labors and rewards, and turn to meet the cold embrace of winter. It’s a moment to reflect on God’s generosity to us, His faithful provision for us, and to remember that our lives very much hang upon His grace to give us the strength to rise up and labor, the sun and rain to make our labors fruitful, and the friends and families around us to make them enjoyable. God owes us none of these, nor can we force His hand to provide them for us. So, we give thanks.
Sometimes a person gives thanks this way: “I didn’t have the best year. My life involved much hardship. I suffered pain, and I suffered loss. But then I realized that there are other people who have it much worse than I do, so I shouldn’t complain. Instead, I’m thankful. It could be worse!”
I understand the sentiment. But I wonder sometimes, what does that other person have to be thankful for? Life is rarely as good as it could be, but sometimes it’s about as bad as it could be.
I often think about Job at Thanksgiving. Job lived as the richest man in his corner of the earth, proud father of 10 close-knit children, an upright man who worshiped God with all his heart, a man blessed almost immeasurably in every aspect of life.
And then, in a moment, without warning, he found himself the most miserable man in the world. His livestock was all carried off, his servants destroyed, his children killed in an instant, his health was completely broken. The only thing remaining to Job were the messengers who bore him the ill tidings, an inconsolable and angry wife, a pile of ashes to sit in, a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape his oozing boils, and three friends determined to convince him what a terrible person he was.
Job also had his life – you recall that God demanded his life be spared. And yet Job wasn’t thankful for that either: “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (3:11) For Job, life really was as bad as it could get.
Imagine visiting Job’s ash heap on Thanksgiving. “Job, what are you thankful for? You’ve got nothing left, except your life, which you don’t want.” For what can Job be thankful?
The answer Job would give is this:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God. (Job 19:25-26)
For Job, probably writing some 1500 years before the first Christmas, Thanksgiving was summed up in these few words: Jesus is coming. And when He comes, all this mess is going to go away.
Heaven is described as a place where God Himself wipes away every tear. Jesus gets us there, meets us there, and keeps us there. We may have many wonderful blessings for which to give thanks this year, or we may, like Job, have essentially nothing that gives us any sense of joy. But we have this: “Our Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” Nothing changes that truth. Nothing threatens Jesus’ arrival, or His ability to set all things right. And for that, we may indeed be truly thankful.
(from Pastor Joe Reed)
We are delighted to be able to share the audio from our Conference “Small Church, Big Problems.” Our speakers and their sessions were, in my incredibly humble and slightly biased opinion, second to none. LifeSpring Church in Crosby extended the greatest hospitality to us, and we are so thankful. I’d hold up our conference attended by 50 dear folks to any I’ve ever been to attended by thousands. It really was that good.
Thanks to all who joined us!
Check out the Conference Audio page to hear or download the sessions and see a brief intro to our speakers, or take a shortcut here