Bible

The Problem with Red Letter Bibles

Posted by M.Ferris on

All God’s Words are Important

If you are a Bible reader, chances are at some point in your life, you’ve owned a red letter Bible. A red letter Bible is one where the words of Christ are in red font, to highlight their importance. I was reminded of this by an NPR story about a new edition of the gospels that contains no chapters or verses, but the text only. Other editions have done this previously, so it’s not brand new. If it lowers the barrier of entry for new readers of Scripture, so much the better, but I think the implications of this are beyond what most people consider. There are three things that one should consider when it comes to red letter Bibles.

1) It is an editorial decision about where to begin and where to end the red letters.

In many cases, this is obvious. Matt. 17:20, for example. He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” It’s clear where the evangelist’s introduction stops, and the quotation of Jesus’ words begins. But other passages are more difficult. John 3:16 is the most famous verse in Scripture. It occurs after (seemingly) a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, but where exactly do Jesus’ words end, and John the evangelist’s narrative pick up again? It is entirely possible that Jesus words end at verse 15, and the entire paragraph beginning with verse 16 is comprised of John’s words. Where to start and stop the red is thus an editorial decision, but one that subtlely directs the reader to think, “these words are the really important ones.” If John’s narrative does pick up at verse 16, however, it makes no difference whatsoever in their importance for Christians. Red letter markings undermine this fact by drawing an artificial distinction.

2) It represents a canon within a canon.

The idea of a “canon within a canon” is a term used to explain when people, groups, or traditions favor one part of Scripture over others. The effect of this is a demotion of some books of Scripture, some parts of God’s word, as lesser. (One must distinguish this from the idea that some books teach certain doctrines more explicitly or systematically than others. Were one to look for the clearest explanation of justification by faith, one would look to Romans rather than Revelation.) But just as the editorializing I detailed above involves the imposition of relative importance to some parts of Scripture, so too does the “canon within a canon.”

Michael J. Kruger describes this in explaining how New Testament scholar Kurt Aland approached the problem of knowing which books are canonical. Quoting Aland, he notes “Thus, the only way forward is to discover the “canon within the canon” by reducing the New Testament to its core truths and selecting the parts that will bring “unity to the faith.”[1]

What Aland says accords with what the Red Letter Christians states as one of their core values. “By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said.” First and foremost are Jesus’ words, that is, they are to be favored over the God-breathed writings of the Apostles. Elsewhere on the site, we read, “Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible.” This is a reversal of fact, however. We know about Jesus from the Bible. As John says, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.” The other writings of the New Testament are not a barrier or hindrance to our deeper knowledge of Christ, they are God’s own method of it! The idea of Jesus first (apart from Scripture?) in order to understand Scripture is an impossibility. We know about Jesus only through the writings of the New Testament–all of them.

It is a false dichotomy to suggest Jesus’ words must be favored over the rest of the New Testament. It is not either/or, but both. If Christians are not living according to the teachings of Jesus, the solution is not to strip away what the Apostles wrote, but “these things ought you to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” It was Paul who wrote, “Be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.”  Red letter Bibles perpetuate the erroneous view that we must prefer and obey one part of the New Testament over others.

3) Red letter Bibles represent a view of inspiration that is problematic.

Christians have always believed that all of Scripture is God-breathed, in every part; the epistles no less than that gospels. Setting some words off in red as an indication they are more important than the other words cannot but make one think they are more inspired than others. Should Christians pay less attention what Paul wrote, because his words are not in red? We believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the writers to record what they wrote, whether it is the words of Jesus in the gospels or the words of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament. Therefore, it does not add anything to the authority of God’s word (and in fact may confuse the issue) to have some highlighted above others. There isn’t a two-tiered inspiration of God’s word.

The Manuscripts project has a noble goal in making the Bible more approachable for new readers. I applaud this. My advice would be to complete the task they have started in removing chapter and verse divisions by also removing the editorial imposition of red letters. God’s word can and will speak to hears in a monochromatic font.

 

 

[1] Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 1856-1860). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

Theology

You are a Dispensationalist: You just might not know it.

Posted by M.Ferris on

“Dispensationalism” should not be a trigger word.

Over the past several decades, the rise of the “New Calvinism” has greatly influenced evangelicalism. As part of that, many have taken a different attitude toward dispensationalism, and its relevance for theology. For those who may be unfamiliar, dispensationalism refers to a way of viewing the Scriptures that sees God acting in different ways at different times throughout history. To be clear, it does not state that God changes, nor that the way of salvation has ever been anything other than by grace through faith. It sees God administering the world in different ways, putting mankind under different tests and conditions. Many have found it helpful, others dismiss it as dangerous. There’s been an undeniable shift in how people think of dispensationalism. Among many, it’s the theological grid of a bygone era, the way our parents and grandparents viewed the Scriptures, frequently with the aid of the Scofield Reference Bible. But we now have a better grasp of the storyline of the Bible and have thus outgrown dispensationalism as a useful way of understanding God’s Word.

I suggest it’s not as simple as this, and that there are a few ways people should think of this concept – even if they are uncomfortable with the word “dispensationalism” itself.

1. Everyone recognizes different eras in God’s dealing with humanity.
You need not be a purist when it comes to a way of understanding God’s Book to see this truth. Everyone recognizes at least 3 eras in God’s plan: The Past, Present, and Future. That is, God dealt with mankind in the past in way that differs from now. We usually refer to this as the old covenant, and that this covenant is no longer in effect. We are instead in the new covenant, (the present.) God has set forth different terms as part of the new covenant. It’s undeniable that the old and new are fundamentally different from one another.
Similarly, there is a future state. God has promised that he will judge the world visibly and that his saints will rule with the Lord Jesus. This, too, means that things will be very different than what now prevails in this age of grace. It should be uncontroversial that there are at least 3 eras. Call them dispensations, administrations, or ages of salvation history, but the concept is the same. They differ from one another. Recognizing this is just putting our Bibles together in sensible fashion.

2. This is much more of a package deal than people acknowledge.
It’s often the case that people think of various eras as only having to do with eschatology, of coming up with a chronology for the end times. Whether one asserts a pretributional return of Jesus, or whether it’s post-tribulational, or that there will be a literal 1000 year kingdom on the earth–these are the usual items we lump together under the heading of “dispensationalism.” But there are two other important things that enter into this. The first is the church. Are the physical descendants of Jacob-Isreal-included in the body of Christ? Note, the question is not are believing Israelites among the redeemed, but are they included in the church, the bride of Christ? To be a part of the body of Christ means not only being forgiven of the guilt of sin, but being raised with Jesus, and seated with him in the heavenly places, as Paul delineates in Colossians 3. Further, believers now have the Holy Spirit as the seal of our inheritance, living within us. That arrived at a point in salvation history. Jacob’s descendants did not have this.
Secondly, how we understand the relationship between law and grace is also part of the package. The law belongs to a previous era, as Paul notes in 2 Cor 3. He says we have died to the law, and now serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. Here, too, are differences between then and now. If we don’t clearly distinguish between past and present, we mix into the present what belongs to the past, indeed, what God has told us is inappropriate to the present.

Our understanding of God’s ordering of salvation history need not be called “dispensational” to comprehend and appreciate the differences that he has put in place. Everyone recognizes the past, present, and future of God’s dealings with mankind. Acknowledging that is a help in understanding what he is doing now.

The Church

Is Your Church Fun?

Posted by M.Ferris on
A mailer arrived at our house the other day asking this question in so many words: “What if church was fun and relevant?” As I looked more closely at the material and went to the website of this new church, what struck me was the completely different view of the church and its purpose. At the outset let me say that I don’t doubt the sincere desire of the folks behind this effort to reach the lost. Nor do I disagree that for many centuries, the purpose of the church has been misunderstood in different ways. Sacramentalism, which makes a market out of grace, is itself a skewed view of the body of Christ.
 
The material that arrived also makes the statement that “At X church we believe in having a good time.” The website didn’t elaborate all that much on this. No doctrinal statement, or any explanation of what the leadership believes about Jesus, the Bible, salvation. These are important things, and they are relevant. Indeed, it’s a false conclusion to say that if we aren’t appealing to what unbelievers feel is relevant to them, or what they perceive their needs to be, we aren’t serving them well. Few unbelievers have any sense of what is truly relevant, and this is why they need to be instructed from the Scriptures. What is transitory and belongs to our life on earth is not what is eternally relevant. What is transcendent and belongs to God is.
 
At this point you may think this is an ecclesiastical “You kids get off my lawn!” screed, but I ask you to think about how the New Testament presents the church and its purposes. Among them are:
  • “Declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
  • Attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
  • “Grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
 
These are Christ-centered things, with a two-fold purpose of glorifying him, and edifying us. Fun isn’t high on that list. Now, if we expand that slightly to say that it is enjoyable to gather with other Christians and hear the faithful preaching of God’s word, I agree, this is very enjoyable. But here, too, new believers don’t know this is what they need, they have to be taught it.
Growing in the knowledge of salvation and of the Lord Jesus Christ brings joy and enjoyment. Fun, as most folks describe it, doesn’t rise to this at all. Many, many people have left the Catholic Church and joined evangelical congregations, precisely because they didn’t find the church relevant. But the message most relevant to everyone is the gospel of grace, new life in Christ, and growth into his likeness. My concern is that if evangelicals market our congregations as fun, people can see through this, recognize it as a trivializing of Christianity, and move on. Evangelicalism is facing many challenges at present. Attacks from without are only part of this. Internal, self-imposed injuries are avoidable. Prioritizing fun and relevance, if it comes at the expense of the foundational gospel truths, is a meager substitute for Christian maturity.
 
 
Worship/Christology

God Manifested in the Flesh

Posted by M.Ferris on

Among the New Testament mysteries is the peculiar description Paul gives to his precis of the life of Jesus.

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

At this time of the year, we focus on that first phrase, “He was manifested in the flesh.” There is little doubt that though unnamed in this passage, he who came in the flesh is the eternal Son of God.
This is more than saying “Jesus was born.” Birth is not unusual nor a mystery. It is common as can be. The mystery is because it is the second person of the Trinity putting on flesh. How can God become man?
While not answering the question of how, Paul has earlier in the epistle answered the why of the incarnation.

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Tim. 2:5)

In the course of church history, two mirror heresies emerged to attack the truth of the incarnation, and Paul has answered both here. Arianism is the teaching that Jesus was less than God. In saying “He was manifested in the flesh” the apostle is affirming something about the identity of the one born in Bethlehem. “He was born” would have sufficed to refer to Jesus’ birth, but to say he was manifested in the flesh speaks to his pre-existence, his eternal identity as God the Son. That is the mystery we do not fully comprehend, but we surely apprehend in worship.

In the latter passage, Paul refers to the man Christ Jesus, and in so saying he expands upon the other truth of “in the flesh.” Jesus had come to earth, humbled himself to take on human flesh. As the writer to the Hebrews says,

“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17)

The body God prepared for the Lord Jesus was that which suffered on the cross, bled and died. God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, Paul writes to the Galatians. He is truly man, not only seeming to be a man. Apollinarism is the heresy that Jesus could not have really been a man like us because that would introduce change to deity, which is not possible. But that is like saying miracles are not possible because they contradict the laws of nature. That is why we call them supernatural, they cannot be explained by nature. Scripture speaks of Jesus as both God and man, but this truth (like any other in the Bible) does not stand or fall on our reception if it, and this is why Paul terms this a mystery. It is central to the gospel, to salvation – and indeed to right worship.

Bible

The Truth of Apostolic Succession

Posted by M.Ferris on

Does the Bible have anything to say about apostolic succession?

It does, in fact, but in a different way than what some teach or believe regarding the term. In what is likely his last epistle, Paul writes to Timothy “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) There is succession, but of the gospel itself and of the body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The power and authority of this message do not come from ordination or office, but that the message is the gospel of God. Mark Dever writes, “The church is apostolic, and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. From the apostles until the present day, the gospel that they preached has been handed down. There has been a succession of apostolic teaching based on the Word of God.”[1]

In every age, the gospel comes under siege from various fronts. In the post-apostolic era, some attacked the identity of the Lord Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus descends from David, according to the flesh, but also that he is Immanuel – God with us. This mystery of godliness – God manifest in the flesh, is a necessary part of the good deposit to pass on to the next generation.

Later, the idea that salvation is found in the Church rather than in the person of Christ undermined the truth of the gospel. In this same epistle, Paul has written that he knows whom he has believed, not what. Salvation is vested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not in the Bride of Christ. These are but a couple of examples of how the gospel comes under siege, and often by those who claim to adhere to it.

In other words, threats to the gospel very often come from those who ought to know better. The gospel, if personified, could well say, “I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

It is imperative, then, that those who know the gospel and love the gospel, be about transmitting the gospel to those who will handle it with the care and reverence it requires. Paul counsels Timothy to pass on the good deposit he received. He should carefully and faithfully teach and instruct those of the next generation. Why is this essential? The current dangers to the gospel are two-fold. The first is a focus on the relevance of the gospel itself. Several years ago, I heard a youth pastor say that the number one thing he is pressured to be is relevant. This thinking assumes that the gospel needs some modification or some adjustment before it becomes relevant. But the message of mankind’s ruin and alienation from God, and the gospel as the power of God could scarcely be more relevant. We are the ones who need change, not the gospel. Teaching doctrine clearly will demonstrate how utterly relevant the gospel is for every age.

The second danger so prevalent now is the politicization of the gospel. The gospel becomes subservient to a program of social action, and in its crassest form, of achieving legislative goals. These things may or may accord with the New Testament, but they are temporal goals, rather than eternal. The goal of conformity to Christ may well be undermined by such concerns. To transliterate the word gospel from the original gives “evangel.” Evangelicals, then, are those who hold to the gospel. When evangelical comes instead to mean a voting block, it represents a failure to transmit the message, a failure to guard the good deposit. If we make the gospel about power and authority in this world, we have failed to adhere to the apostolic message.

Those who are in a position to teach, to pass on (and there are few who aren’t in some way able to teach others), bear a responsibility to teach sound doctrine, which is all the relevance anyone needs. This is the real succession that is apostolic: the faithful proclamation of God’s truth.

 

[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2012), p. 18-19.

Catholicism/Reformation

Is Doctrine a Matter of the “Wisdom of the Crowd?”

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent quincentennial of the Reformation brought a passel of celebration within Protestantism. For the most part, this has been a reaffirmation that whatever else he failed to reform, Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone a thing to be cherished.  Even Pope Francis, speaking of Luther’s view of justification by faith alone said, “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”[1]

But as the Twitterati were rejoicing over these Reformation truths, not all agreed. Some still view the Reformation not only as a mistake but as innovation, the introduction of new doctrine previously unknown and not held by any believers. In the midst of such a conversation, someone made this statement on social media:

“Please point me to one Christian community in the first millennium that has salient Protestant beliefs (none exist).”

There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement, and they are worth examining. These are as follows:

  1. No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
  2. For a belief to be valid, one must demonstrate that some early community of believers held the belief.

I’ll take these in reverse order.

A demonstrable community holding to a truth is a kind of “Wisdom of the Crowd” for what constitutes the body of doctrines Christians should believe. While it’s not called this in Roman Catholic teaching, the elements of it are there in the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. When the whole body of the faithful adheres to a teaching, this gives it validity. But this is manifestly false on a number of counts. It is an inversion of authority. It represents the people themselves dictating what is right and true, rather than the Scriptures being the source of truth.  The Catechism may claim “The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it to daily life”[2], but the many instances where the people were wrong show the fallacy of this. There was a time, as Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[3] Arianism held sway, and had many adherents. One could point to communities that believed in Arianism, but it is heretical doctrine – despite how many may have held to it. Some may answer that there was a course correction. Arianism was vanquished and the orthodox doctrine of Christ prevailed. I would argue the same thing about justification by faith. The Reformation represented a course correction, and the orthodox doctrine of justification prevailed. The Pope himself admitted as much.

Moreover, the “sense of the faithful” does not prevail today either.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found only 41.9% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Vatican are very important. Some 42% disagreed that Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions. When asked who should have the final say as to a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment, 41.8% replied that this should be up to the individual, rather than church leaders. And 22.5% said that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

In February 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a survey of US Catholics to ask them about all aspects of their faith. About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.[5]  Both of these surveys demonstrate that the faithful are not unfailingly holding to what the hierarchy says they must.

The other assumption behind my interlocutor’s statement is that for a belief to be right it must be ancient, that is, it must be traceable to the first millennium. As it’s been put in the vernacular, “What’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” I concur with that, but with some distinctions. I would say the first millennium is far too late. The body of apostolic doctrine was finished with the apostles. Sub-apostolic writings have no Scriptural authority. They may be interesting history, but they carry no authority. When that standard is applied to many later doctrines, they fail the test. Things such as the Treasury of Merit, Papal Infallibility, the assumption of Mary were all unknown in the first millennium of Christian history. On the latter, Father Joseph Mitros says, “Thus the definition of the Assumption of Mary has created particular difficulties (to take only one example), since neither scientific exegesis nor a history of the first centuries of the Church has been able to discover even traces of this doctrine.”[6]

This is where the argument about the origin of doctrine cuts both ways. The Church often says that later doctrines were there in nascent form very early on. But even were we to say that were true, it surely does not constitute these things being held as salient beliefs by a Christian community. In fact, as Father Mitros points out, it isn’t the case that this doctrine was found at all in the earliest centuries of Church history.

When it comes to something such as justification by faith, would early examples of the teaching be enough to establish it? Nathan Busenitz’s recent book, Long Before Luther, contains a plethora of such examples.

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-202) “The Lord, therefore was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.”[7]
  • Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”[8]
  • Hilary of Potiers (ca. 300-368) “Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.”[9]
  • Ambrosiaster (4th Century) “They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.”[10]
  • Jerome () “We are saved by grace, rather than by works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us.”[11]

These are a handful of the many, but it demonstrates justification by faith was no novelty of the Reformation. That the theological barnacles needed to be scrubbed away from the ship of faith is without question, but that is a different thing than saying a teaching is brand new.

What then, is the difference between this “Wisdom of the Crowd” stance, and how Protestants understand doctrinal development? All Christians have the right (and privilege) of searching the Scriptures to find the truth. Some like to chide Protestants for reading the Bible with an individualism that results in all kinds of division. But that is a caricature of how Protestants read Scripture. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[12]  Protestantism doesn’t ignore history, but Protestants recognize that the Scriptures are sufficient in themselves to guide us into all the truth.

Most certainly, there is within Protestantism and evangelicalism plenty of doctrinal malfeasance; Christians believing what they should not, simply because it is popular or comfortable. What I describe is how Protestantism has historically understood Scriptural authority. Do many facets of evangelicalism need to repent of carelessness when it comes to the truth? Absolutely, But the solution that is not to substitute biblical authority for an ersatz, man-made authority.

The historical Protestant understanding is very different from the Roman Catholic model. Doctrine does not need to be tied to Scripture, nor be provable from it. The shifting sense of the magisterium from century to century means that what’s new can be declared true. For example, in 2008, five cardinals sent a petition to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to proclaim Mary as “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.”[13]  If this catches on with enough people, does it then dictate by the “sense of the faithful”, it is now dogma? Nothing would prevent this in Roman Catholic teaching.

The question, then, of whether “salient Protestant doctrines” were held in the first millennium is a misleading one. To make the church or a Christian community’s reception of truth, the measure of what is true is to turn authority upside down. Roland Hanson and Reginald Fuller aptly summarize the fallacy this encompasses: “It is not Scripture, it is not even tradition in the strict sense that is the test of belief, but ‘the sense or sentiment of the faithful’, ‘the instinct’, the ‘present thought of the Church’, ‘the intention of the heart’, ‘the feeling’ of the faithful. Within certain very broad limits and under given conditions, in matters doctrinal, whatever is, is right – because it is.”[14]

 

 

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-pope-francis-inflight-press-conference-from-armenia-45222

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.

[3] Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.iv.html

[4] http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.

[7] Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.

[8] Ibid, p. 171.

[9] Ibid, p. 172.

[10] Ibid, p. 173.

[11] Ibid, p. 178.

[12] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[13] “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/z5mardogm.htm

[14] Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.

Culture

Should Christians Vote?

Posted by M.Ferris on
 Many have written about the word “evangelical” being emptied of meaning. Questions about what it means to be an evangelical are not new, but the issue has taken on new urgency when it comes to our political engagement.  For much of Christian history, this was not really a factor, because representative government did not exist.  While the question of political involvement is not unique to the United States, the current atmosphere has believers rethinking what it means to be a politically involved follower of Christ.  One question it has raised (again) for me, should Christians vote?
Many will dismiss this out of hand. Of course believers should vote, and be engaged in civic life. We have a duty to God to be good stewards of what he has given to us. Part of that is citizenship in a representative democracy. Exercising that stewardship is not only a privilege but a responsibility. That is one stance, and I don’t dismiss it as unreasonable or even unbiblical. It may be difficult to find specific Scripture that points to this, but the application of biblical principles is legitimate.
The other side of the argument is, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await a savior.” (3:20.)
The word translated citizenship is πολίτευμα (politeuma) from which we derive “politics.” Similarly, he wrote to Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) Both of these passages point to the truth that although we live in this world, we are not of it, and our citizenship is elsewhere. Peter, also refers to the time of our sojourning, which is elsewhere translated alien, foreigner, strangerThe Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions have taken this as a clear indication to maintain a separation from the world and its systems. To abstain from voting is a manifestation of that.
 
The argument for voting usually rests on political engagement as a means to an end. That end is to engage the culture for God, to influence public policy to protect the vulnerable and to ensure liberty. Much of this ethos hearkens back to the 1980s, and the Moral Majority. Similar organizations grew up to join this fight, but  what have we gained by this? Has there been a reversal of the trend toward greater secularism? What has public policy been enacted that Christians can really get behind and say, at last, we have stemmed the tide of departure from God? The “culture wars” have not been kind to Christians, despite any “get out the vote” effort.
 
On the contrary, we have recently witnessed a casting aside of the distinctive testimony of the gospel purely in the interest of retaining power. Evangelicals have supported candidates who, were they members of our churches, would come in for discipline by that local church. The justification is, we need that vote. We need to ensure we get the right justices on the court, and no matter how personally distasteful a candidate may be, how poor an example he may be, we must still vote for him.
 
It is an open question whether using public policy to achieve such ends is even desirable. The gospel does not need government to accomplish its ends. The transformation that the gospel brings is entirely inward, and it then shows itself outwardly. But public policy effects no inward change whatsoever and runs the risk of deluding us into thinking we have achieved something for God. He has not called us to establish a theocracy, nor to Christianize society. Rather, we preach the gospel, and men and women are saved out of this world.
I know the argument that as long as we are in the world, we are called to faithfully influence our culture for the gospel and for God’s kingdom. But there is a difference between engagement and entanglement.
 
When we set aside faithfulness to the truth, and fidelity to all that the gospel encompasses for the expediency of power, is this not idolatry? What have we sacrificed in the testimony of the gospel when prominent Christians put political power above the witness of the gospel. This is not theory, but it’s happening before our eyes.
I am not saying that anyone who is a Christian should not vote. But I am saying that the argument for Christian influence in politics is weak, and getting weaker all the time. I am also saying that the more I consider it, the more I see the logic and consistency of the non-voting position from Scripture itself
 
 
Uncategorized

Encourage Those Whom You Think Don’t Need It

Posted by M.Ferris on
The character of the first churches in the New Testament varies widely. Most were founded in trial and affliction, and often there were issues that needed to be addressed. In Phillippi, a couple of women had some disagreement Paul needed to straighten out. The Galatians were in grave danger of accepting another gospel, and the Corinthians had a load of problems. Paul’s counsel and at times, rebuke, of them spans two letters. It is almost with overflowing relief that Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonian church. The believers in that city were doing much to commend. Faith, hope, and love characterized their discipleship, and Paul expresses his affection several times. “For this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.”(3:7.)
One may think that things are going so well in Thessalonica that Paul has little need to tell them what to do. But he does tell them and does so with the embrace of both praise and challenge. “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” (4:1)
Paul acknowledges how they are following the Lord Jesus just as he instructed them, and his delight in them throughout the letter is evident. What a comfort and joy their faith is to him! But he also urges them on to do so even more. There is always room for conformity to the Lord Jesus. You are doing well – keep doing it!
Many times elders and pastors spend time helping the struggling and the hurting, as they should. Those who don’t hold a New Testament office can and should do this also. The body builds itself up. But there are those faithfully going on with and for the Lord, month after month, year after year, who aren’t struggling. They aim to please God quietly, and like the Thessalonians, pursue the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3)
We should encourage such believers in the two-fold way that Paul does. Thank them for their steadfast example, and urge them to continue, striving to be imitators of the Lord with even greater closeness. You know some of these believers; they are part of your local church. They don’t seek recognition, but they are the bone and sinew of the body of Christ. Thank God for such Christians, and perhaps without fanfare, encourage them to persevere in their faithful testimony.
The Church/Reformation

Nominal Christianity and the Reformation Legacy

Posted by M.Ferris on
Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place.

On this 500th Reformation Day, and leading up to it, there has been a plethora of commentary on the divisions that remain in the Church
. These have typically focused on the Rome-Protestant divide, but there is another divide, just as tragic, perhaps even more so. That is those churches and believers who trace their heritage to the Reformation, but who have abandoned that lineage of truth.
They have not done so because they want to pursue greater unity with Rome, but rather because they have diluted the truth of Scripture.
This includes various mainline denominations who have steadily moved away from doctrinal imperatives. Attractional Christianity is not what I have in mind here, but nominalism. There are churches that maintain a veneer of truth, but whose raison d’etre represents social action, or relational support. The gospel absolutely impacts our relationships, and it calls us to action, but if we have redefined it to be primarily about the horizontal relationships rather than the vertical, we have left apostolic ground.
The gospel impacts our relationships with people because it redefines our relationship with God. No longer at enmity with him, we are at peace with him when we are in Christ. Without that peace, we are still under his wrath. But peace with God requires the sacrifice of Christ and the blood he shed that purchased our salvation. Without the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his death, and resurrection, we have nothing. We are of all men most pitiable. And the pity is, that many nominal Christians have either forgotten or have never known that a gospel without these truths is no gospel at all. The Reformation heritage is that these are vital truths.
 
One of the more common convictions to be jettisoned in nominalism is that our sin separates us from God. By emphasizing that we need to love and accept ourselves as God has created us, we dismiss his assessment that although we are created in his image, we are separated from him by our sin. Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place. that our sin has separated us from a holy God. He does not wink at sin nor write it off. He has paid for our sin in the death of His Son, and when we acknowledge this, and that my sin put Jesus on the cross, we uphold the gospel. The sacrifice of Christ and sin go together. If sin is not odious, an offense to God’s holiness, but instead just something of a human limitation, we dismiss the necessity of the cross.
There are many more areas where the mainline denominations have departed from biblical foundations, but sin is a big one.
 
These groups haven’t abandoned the Reformation heritage for a stricter authority, or a church hierarchy. They haven’t rallied around a magisterium, but they have just as surely left biblical authority behind. We should pray for their restoration (or in many cases, conversion) as much as we pray for the healing of other breaches.
 
Bible/Reformation

Priesthood: The Other Recovered Reformation Truth

Posted by M.Ferris on

When people think of the Reformation and its heritage, the most common thing is the recovery of justification by faith alone.  But one of the other things that Martin Luther proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers.  Luther didn’t practice this to the degree that the Reformation step-children (the Anabaptists) did, but still, this was a truth he did revive. With all of the talk about Protestants and Rome being not that far apart, we should recall that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, the gap may be even wider than it is with justification.

Rome (and other sacramental/liturgical churches) still maintain a hierarchical structure, very much like the corporate world. You have a CEO (the Pope) and a board of directors (the College of Cardinals.) You have district managers (bishops) and regional managers (archbishops.) As some have noted, (see Stuart K. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 90) this structure was imported wholly from the governmental organization of the empire that early church fathers were familiar with.

But when we come to the New Testament, no such things exist. No pope, no archbishop, no cardinal. Bishops we have, but they are not regional officers, overseeing all the churches of a certain area. They are elders (always plural) over one local congregation. They are synonymous with Presbyters (from which Rome and Orthodoxy have drawn priests), and their work is to shepherd a local flock. They are not rulers, but guides.

Deacons we find as well. Their qualifications are very much the same as those of elders – always focusing on the character of the man primarily, and secondarily on the work they do.  The only priests known in the New Testament are every single believer in Jesus Christ. This is where the priesthood of all believers comes from. Not only is there no hierarchy found in the New Testament, but every believer is fit to worship, and to be part of building up of the body, in love.

No hint of clericalism is found in the New Testament, nor a separate class of clergy/laity. We are all the called of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6.) When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, nothing prevents a group of believers from partaking in this. No bishop or church leader is needed to officially preside or bless the elements.  Similarly, when it comes to baptism, any Christian could perform a baptism. This is some of what it means to exercise the priesthood of all believers. In pointing these things out, I do not imply that those who have devoted themselves to the work of the gospel full time are not to be honored. Indeed, as Paul says, we should esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. (1 Thess. 5:13.) We need their shepherding and care.  But I’m likewise sure that no one engaged in the work of the gospel would turn down the help of other believers.

Exercising our priesthood may show itself most clearly in our study of and handling the Word of God. Every Christian has the duty, the privilege, of reading the Scriptures for himself or herself and to apply it to their lives. We do so without requiring the intervention of any “clergyman.”  We do so dependant on the Holy Spirit, whom, it was promised by the Lord Jesus, would guide us into the truth. We do so relying on the power of the Word of God as living and active. We wield the sword of the Spirit because God Himself has put it into our hands, equipped us for battle, and said that we have a heavenly captain.

Rome still wants to maintain control of the Scriptures, and reserve for itself the “true meaning.” But at this 500th Reformation anniversary, recall (and rejoice) that the Scriptures in the hands of God’s people is a heritage to celebrate. We do so by exercising our priesthood – all of us – as equipped for our ministry by God alone.