Monday, July 30, 2012

Riches of God's Goodness

Nearly all reject the weak and poor as objects of disgust; an earthly king cannot bear the sight of them, rulers turn away from them, while the rich ignore them and pass them by when they meet them as though they did not exist; nobody thinks it desirable to associate with them.

But God, who is served by myriads of powers without number, who “upholds the universe by the word of His power,” * whose majesty is beyond anyone’s endurance, has not disdained to become the Father, the Friend, the Brother of those rejected ones.  He willed to become incarnate so that He might become “like unto us in all things except for sin” † and make us to share in His glory and His kingdom.

What stupendous riches of His great goodness!  What an ineffable condescension on the part of our master and our God.

Symeon the New Theologian, Discourse 2.4

* Hebrews 1:3
† Hebrews 4:15

Saturday, July 28, 2012

God Himself Is Our Inheritance

Paul McCain brings a Luther quote to light.  I was struck by the beginning.

This is the consolation we derive from yonder life, that God Himself will be ours and that He will be everything to us.  For picture to yourself all that you would like to have, and you will find nothing better and dearer and worth wishing for than to have God Himself, who is the life and an inexhaustible depth of everything good and of eternal joy.  There is nothing more precious on earth than life.  The whole world dreads nothing more than death and desires nothing more than life.  And this treasure we are to have in Him without measure and without end.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, 1 Co 15:28 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Godly Worship Begins with Biblical Thinking

When confronting aberrant worship patterns, the best tool at the believer's disposal is the Word of God, but when differences of application arise between assemblies, there may need to be argumentation from a comparison of correct worship to incorrect.  The contrast helps to illuminate the strengths of the former and weaknesses of the latter.  Arnobius of Sicca * takes this tack concerning pagan worship.
Come now: as the discussion has been prolonged and led to these points, let us summarize what each has to say and decide by a brief comparison whether your ideas of the gods above are better or our thoughts more preferable, honorable, and just so as to give and assign to the divine nature its own dignity.
From The Case against the Pagans, VII.35

The apologist argued using the common sense approach of using terms and concepts they understood in order to build his case moving point by point through summaries of what was already presented.

Topic Of Pagans Arnobius' Response
Origin You declare that the gods, whom you either think or believe to exist, of whom you have set up images and statues in all the temples, were born and produced from the germs of males and females, under the necessary condition of sexual embraces. We, on the contrary, if they are indeed true gods, and have the authority, power, dignity of this name, consider that they must either be unbegotten, for it is pious to believe this, or, if they have a beginning in birth, it belongs to the supreme God to know by what methods He made them, or how many ages there are since He granted to them to enter upon the eternal being of His own divine nature.
Gender You consider that the deities have sexes, and that some of them are male, others female. We utterly deny that the powers of heaven have been distinguished by sexes, since this distinction has been given to the creatures of earth which the Author of the universe willed should embrace and generate, to provide, by their carnal desires, one generation of offspring after another.
Form You think that they are like men, and have been fashioned with the countenances of mortals. We think that the images are far removed from them, as form belongs to a mortal body; and if they have any, we swear with the utmost earnestness and confidence that no man can comprehend it.
Work By you they are said to have each his trade, like artisans. We laugh when we hear you say such things, as we hold and think that professions are not necessary to gods, and it is certain and evident that these have been provided to assist poverty.
Character You say that some of them cause dissensions, that there are others who inflict pestilences, others who excite love and madness, others, even, who preside over wars, and are delighted by the shedding of blood. We, indeed, on the contrary, judge that these things are alien to the dispositions of the deities; or if there are any who inflict and bring these ills on miserable mortals, we maintain that they are far from the nature of the gods, and should not be spoken of under this name.
Emotion You judge that the deities are angry and perturbed, and given over and subject to the other mental affections We think that such emotions are alien from them, for these suit savage beings, and those running the course of mortality.
Sacrifices You think that they rejoice, are made glad, and are reconciled to men, their offended feelings being soothed by the blood of beasts and the slaughter of victims. We hold that there is in the heavenly realm no love of blood, and that they are not so stern as to lay aside their resentment only when glutted with the slaughter of animals.
Novelties You think that, by wine and incense, honor is given to the gods, and their dignity increased. We judge it marvelous and monstrous that any man thinks that the deity either becomes more venerable by reason of smoke, or thinks himself supplicated by men with sufficient awe and respect when they offer a few drops of wine.
Theatrics You are persuaded that, by the crash of cymbals and the sound of pipes, by horse races and theatrical plays, the gods are both delighted and affected, and that their resentful feelings conceived some time prior are mollified by the satisfaction which these things give. We hold it to be out of place, nay more, we judge it incredible, that those who have surpassed by a thousand degrees every kind of excellence in the height of their perfection, should be pleased and delighted with those things which a wise man laughs at, and which do not seem to have any charm except to little children, coarsely and vulgarly educated.
From The Case against the Pagans, VII.35-36

Though biblical texts are not explicitly stated, the responses reflect Christian themes concerning deity and where pagans err in their attempts to honor a divine being, especially the "supreme God" and "Author of the universe" as noted above.  Even today there are those rejecting anything Christian who fall into the same trap as the opponents faced 1700 years ago.  Though their spiritual condition is lamentable, we should not be surprised.  More lamentable is the trend by so many Christian groups, purporting to be conservative, Bible-believing, and evangelical, run headlong after the same error. †  The parallels are striking.

What can be learned from these things?  Arnobius' conclusion helps here.  He begins by addressing the core issue beginning with a question.
Since these things are so, and there is so great difference between our opinions and yours, where are we impious on the one hand and you pious, when the reason as to piety and impiety must be weighed on the beliefs of the two parties?  (VII.37)
How can one religious system make claims for true piety?  It cannot be measured by rationalized actions.  The underlying truth claims upon which the system is built must be examined.
For he who makes himself an image which he may worship for a god, or slaughters an innocent beast, and burns it on consecrated altars, must not be held to be devoted to divine things.  Religion is constituted by critical judgment and a right way of thinking about the gods, meaning that you do not think that they desire anything contrary to what accords with their own exaltation.  For since we see all the things which are offered to them consumed here under our eyes, what else can be said to reach them from us than beliefs worthy of the gods, and most appropriate to their name?  These are the surest gifts, these the true sacrifices.  (VII.37)
Sincerity is not questioned nor the desire to bring the intended deity due exaltation.  No amount of good intention can approach the the surpassing worth of believing on a divine person as has been revealed.  Actions will fall into line as the teaching permeates the worshiper who follows in obedience.  The application to Christians and non-Christians alike  is the same: hear and hold fast to the truth of God's word.  Solomon said it well:
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.  (Eccl 12:11-12)
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ have been and will be tempted by those promoting the new—new idea, new "revelation of God," new way of "doing church," ad nauseum—by well-intended people hoping to spur the church to new heights of spirituality and obedience, but the life of the disciple does not work that way.  After Jesus commended Peter for his great confession and followed with the authority to bind and loose, Peter immediately misunderstands by attempting to exercise authority over Jesus' plan to suffer and die (Matt 16:22).  He failed to understand that authority is best expressed in humility to God and his word, or as Solomon said it: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."  (Eccl 12:13)

If our obligation is to fear God and do what he says, we need to know some things: how do we fear God, and what commandments need to be kept?  We discover these things from the Bible through hearing and reading, and should see them manifest in the assembly overseers, Bible teachers, and those older in the faith, each as they were taught the sound doctrine.  This will establish right thinking leading to a right understanding of God's person and work.  In the context of our discussion, this also means we should expect God-fearing worship to be in place—worship that receives from the Lord what he gives, remembers him and rightly recounts his glorious person and mighty works, and moving us to praise.  We need worship that teaches as we participate.

Notice I did not say that we need teaching and worship to be perfect.  That is too much to hope for while sin is in the world.  What I am saying is that there should be no excuse for not examining scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to straighten what was crooked, tear down what is puffed up, and lift up Christ above all.

* The quotes for this post have been modernized somewhat from the 19th-century translation at Christian Classics Ethereal Library I have been using in order to help follow the argumentation.
† See my previous posts commenting on and applying this ancient work.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Organizational Life Stages

Before taking off for a week of camping at Lake Red Rock, near Pella, Iowa, I was ruminating over a blog post by Chad Hall entitled Leadership Direction: Organizational Life Stage that relates life stages of typical organizations and how they might relate to a local assembly:
  1. Birth (Entrepreneurial).  In this stage, creativity and vision are high, creating a lot of energy and progress for the congregation.  What are less developed in this stage are relationships (still forming and not yet formalized), management structures (not yet needed or supplied from birthing congregation/denomination), and programs (not yet needed).  The great need in this stage is leadership.  Most churches inhabit this stage for six months to three years.
  2. Adolescence (Collectivity).  In this stage, vision is still the driving energy, but alongside come relationships and programs.  Relationships (including leadership structures) become intentional and planned.  Likewise, programs are developed to facilitate the achievement of mission and vision.  In this stage the great need is for delegation with control.  Depending on the rate of growth (size) and other contextual factors, a church can be in this stage for many years.  In fact, some church plants experience an arrested development by remaining here for too long owing to an unnecessary resistance to formal systems and structures.
  3. Adulthood (Formalization).  In this stage, vision is still in the driver’s seat, relationships and programs are matured, and systems of management and accountability add a stabilizing energy.  The greatest need for churches in this stage is to cut through red tape so that management systems are supportive rather than directive.
  4. Maturity (Elaboration).  Maturity looks a lot like Adulthood (all systems are operating well and “things have never been better”), but it’s in this stage that vision begins to wane.  Vision gets replaced with management, and the switch is hardly noticed because the relationships and programs are still operating a high level of effectiveness and the visionary/missional aims of the church are being realized.  In this stage, choices are made that determine the long-term health of the church.  The greatest need in this stage is to make a tough decision about which of three ways to deal with Maturity: 1) re-visioning (re-energizing the vision so that the church experiences almost a rebirth); 2) maintenance (keeping things going as long as possible through decline until death); 3) inheritance (intentionally donating the resources of the church to a new congregation that is flush with vision).  A sincere challenge is that most churches cannot tell the difference between Adulthood and Maturity until it’s too late.  The question to ask is “What sets the direction for our church?”  If it’s still vision, the church is in Adulthood.  But if management sets the direction and makes the decisions, then the church has moved into Maturity.  The sooner a church recognizes the moving into Maturity, the more leverage they have for re-visioning or leaving a sizable inheritance.
  5. Retirement (Decline).  In this stage, a congregation has moved vision and relationships to the backseat, programs are functioning but less effectively, and management is the only highly functioning element in the congregation’s life.  This reality actually creates a dysfunction wherein the church will soon find programs unsustainable and demise inevitable.  I’ve seen very few churches enter retirement and make the choice to re-develop or leave much of an inheritance.  The greatest need in this stage is dignity.
These represent what I have seen and experienced in any number of organizations.  As well, many local assemblies run through this cycle in their attempts to share the gospel, minister to those around them, and build up believers.  Plans are made and programs initiated with in an effort to shore up one or more areas where ministry is lacking.

But there is a serious flaw when applying these life stages to the church.  Do you see it?  Take a moment before continuing.

What is the flaw?  Those who agree with the author's thinking assume that the church is a man-made organization.  It is not.  The church is the body of Jesus Christ with him as the head (Eph 1:22-23) and therefore an organism.  Planning and coördinating happen at the head with the members reacting as the head determines to care for itself accordingly.  Any local assembly is a microcosm of the total body of believers so that:
  1. Creativity and vision are not so much a result of careful examining of demographics and planning, but making disciples.
  2. Believers mature, not relationships and programs, with the outgrowth being more deliberated relationships and continual commitment to building up one another.
  3. Overseers are leading and guiding the flock to full maturity in Christ with a view of helping them make disciples.
  4. Direction is not set by a new vision but by carefully examining if the assembly is remaining true to the faith and correcting course when necessary to remain faithful.
  5. If the ongoing existence of the group and its programs has become the focus over the gospel, we humble ourselves in repentance and return to our first love.
When the church is putting more energy into maintaining programs, casting vision, or looking for God's movement so we can join Him, we have already lost the mission that the Lord Jesus has already plainly given to the Twelve.  I have both seen and heard firsthand accounts of assemblies that disbanded.  Not one died from holding fast to God and his word.  They did so from losing sight of it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rich Mullins on Sensationalism in Worship

Larry Peters at Pastoral Meanderings had shared on music and worship, referencing Rich Mullins.  Here is a transcript of a recording of a Rich Mullins interview from February 1993.
A very interesting thing happened in Wichita, Kansas, where a bunch of people who had been going to my church. They were, like, in the 20-year-olds group—they had been going there for several years, and they went over to visit The Vineyard. And after they started visiting The Vineyard they decided to join The Vineyard. So they went forward, and the pastor said, "Why do you want to join our church?"

They said, "Well, because your worship is just so exciting to us."

And you know what the pastor of The Vineyard said? He said, "Go back to your old church. We don't particularly need you in this congregation because this is what will happen: You used to go to the church where you've been going for about three or four years because you got a buzz out of it. So suddenly you come to visit our church and we give you a better buzz so you decide that suddenly you no longer want to be faithful to the church where you're a member. Suddenly you're going to go to a church that gives you a better buzz. You know what's going to happen? You're gonna get used to the way that we do our worship service here and then you're not gonna get the buzz out of it and then you're going to go seek out another church. You'll end up being the member of about 50 dozen churches by the time you're 50 and you won't have helped anybody and you won't have grown because you will have gone from one goosebump feeling to another."

It worries me that in churches, the demand among people my age and younger, is that we make services more exciting to us. You don't go to church for excitement. That's why you go to movies. We go to church for fellowship. We go to church to be taught the Apostles' doctrine. And we go to church for the breaking of bread. We go to church for the sake of sharing all things. We don't go to church for thrills. And yet we find that part of our religious experience so boring that now suddenly you can't only have church with a piano and an organ. Suddenly you have to have an entire orchestra. All of the sudden, you have to have a rock combo. You have to have a backbeat in order to sing a hymn because we want a sensation.

And you know, what's very scary to me are people who come away from services where they've just been beat to death with a lot of sensationalism. And you know what? I enjoy those services, too. There's something really cool about being able to go to a church (I like to do it occasionally) where you get to clap your hands and you get to whirl around and you get to sing at the top of your lungs and you get to yell "amen" whenever you want and there's a rhythm in it. You know it's that whole, tribal kind of exciting thing.

But the danger is, we frequently mistake that sensationalistic wonderful experience for being a spiritual experience. It's not a spiritual experience. It's a fun experience and there's nothing wrong with it, but if we think that that's spirituality then we've missed the boat.

Please understand I'm not criticizing an exciting service. I'm merely saying that that is not the equivalent of a spiritual service. Does this make sense to everybody? We live in a world that says if it doesn't feel powerful, it's probably not real. Well, I have a feeling like it is real whether it feels real or not. I have a feeling that maybe sound doctrine is more important than goosebumps. I have a feeling that a real "holding all things in common" is more spiritual than a lot of dancing around and clapping your hands.

And if you want to dance around and clap your hands in the meantime, that's perfectly fine. I think that God gets a big kick out of it. I just don't (think) that's the heart of spirituality.
I disagree somewhat, but his main point is correct: upbeat music is not the heart of Christian spirituality.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Which God Are You Adoring?

Why do people chase after gods of their own design or alter worship of the true God to suit their own tastes?  Arnobius puts forth a reason worthy of investigation: God's transcendence.
From where, therefore, have these vicious opinions flowed, or from what causes have they sprung?  From this it is clear, in great measure, that men are unable to know what God is—his essence, nature, substance, quality—whether he has a form, or is limited by no bodily outline, does anything or not, is ever watchful, or is at times sunk in slumbers, runs, sits, walks, or is free from such motions and inactivity.
(The Case against the Pagans, VII.34)

In this point, he acknowledges that there is a divine being of some sort who is beyond comprehension, having evidential characteristics manifest in creation (Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:20).  Each person is born understanding this truth, and though some later reject it as folly, most make an attempt at trying to understand this God and what his intentions are.  But there is a problem, mankind is incapable of that understanding, as Solomon said:
He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  (Eccl 3:11)
This lack of ability does not excuse the prospective worshiper for skewed or failed attempts.  Arnobius continues by giving details of the inherent problem.
Being, as I have said, unable to know all these things, or to discern them by any power of reason, they fell into these fanciful beliefs, so that they fashioned gods after themselves, and gave to these such a nature as they have themselves, in actions, circumstances, and desires.  But if they were to perceive that they are creatures of no account, * and that there is no great difference between themselves and a little ant, they would cease, indeed, to think that they have anything in common with the gods of heaven, and would modestly humble themselves within proper limits.
The issue is sin, specifically pride.  Since Adam fell, the human race and all creation has been suffering under the effects.  We turn from the Lord's clear desire and command, sometimes with gusto, to undertake our own direction.  We believe we know better than God what pleases him and what we want and need.  God becomes the object of our affection by being our remaking him into what pleases me—the very effort the pagans undertook.
But now, because they see that they themselves have faces, eyes, heads, cheeks, ears, noses, and all the other parts of our limbs and muscles, they think that the gods also have been formed in the same way, that they contain their nature in a corporeal form.  And because they perceive that they themselves rejoice and are glad, and again are made sad by what is too disagreeable, they think that the deities also on joyous occasions are glad, and on less pleasant ones become dejected.  They see that they are affected by the games, and think that the minds of the heavenly beings are soothed by enjoying games; and because they have pleasure in refreshing themselves with warm baths, they think that the cleanness produced by bathing is pleasing to the gods above.  We men gather our vintages, and they think and believe that the gods gather and bring in their grapes.  We have birthdays, and they affirm that the powers of heaven have birthdays.  But if they could ascribe to the gods ill-health, sickness, and bodily disease, they would not hesitate to say that they were splenetic, blear-eyed, and ruptured, because they are themselves both splenetic, and often blear-eyed, and weighed down by huge hernias.
One could argue that these pagans acted in this manner because they did not know what the true God wanted.  They had not heard the message.  True, but is that a valid excuse?  As has already been mentioned above, sin is the underlying problem.  Even with an increased knowledge of righteousness required to please the Lord, we will fail.  A good example is from Jesus' own lips:
Woe to you, Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!  For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?  You will be brought down to Hades.  For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.  (Matt 11:21-24)
Those in Jesus' hearing and for whom he worked his miracles had far more understanding of sin, righteousness, and judgment than Tyre, Sidon, Sodom, and Gomorrah, yet those latter cities known for their wickedness will serve as a witness to those receiving greater divine revelation.  All the cities are and were guilty for rejecting the truth that had been freely given them.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

How does this now apply to Christ's church in the world?  We have God's full revelation of himself and what he did to procure our salvation.  This amazing work of redemption  has been declared through the prophets and apostles and handed to us with an assurance that the Lord has indeed spoken through these writers, as they express with one voice and mind what is so fearfully expected by law and wondrously given by grace.

Since we have all that the Lord intended to have at this time concerning himself, we are left in the same position as the pagans: ignorance is no excuse.  God tells us plainly what is expected for doctrine, practice, worship, discipleship, etc. while allowing variation.  Yet these allowable parameters are increasingly cast aside to allow what scripture condemns and promote what brings shame to the name of Christ.  Once again, sinful men (even believers) are trying to work a new thing centered around themselves.

The truth is actually better than what man devises.  Let's follow his plans instead.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
"For who has known the mind of the Lord,
        or who has been his counselor?"
"Or who has given a gift to him
        that he might be repaid?"
For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen.  (Rom 11:33-36)

* Lit., “an animal of no value.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

Church Theatrics

Church events are nothing new.  They are an integral part of every assembly's calendar, varying in purpose and regularity from commemorating an annual day in the church year to ad hoc gatherings designed to entertain and evangelize.  In more recent times, events have become the norm in mega-churches citing the purpose of bringing people in to hear the gospel.  Because these groups work with large sums of money, they are able to build large, even extravagant, presentations.

The desire to draw crowds has increased exponentially.  What once was accomplished by active, willing volunteers on an annual, or less regular, basis has given way to professional design and programming—and that every Sunday morning.  Why has this shift in focus from the faithful attention to God's word to entertainment occurred?  Two possibilities present themselves.

God will be honored.  This has been used many times to justify an endeavor.  Reasoning takes the course of:
        1.  What is the most efficient way to share the gospel?
        2.  What can be done to draw a crowd to hear?
        3.  How many have attended the event and heard what we said?
        4.  How can we draw a larger crowd next time?
 And as long as the attendance figures increase and people are enjoying themselves while hearing something from the Bible, God must be pleased, however the truth may be just the opposite.

Crowds do not equate to divine sanction.  Arnobius understood this as he asked about the springtime festivals the pagans held called Floralia and Megalensia: *
But the games which you celebrate,… and all the rest which you wish to be sacred, and to be considered religious duties, what reason have they, what cause, that it was necessary that they should be instituted and founded and designated by the name of deities?  (The Case against the Pagans, VII.33)
The question on the table is: why did you start these celebrations?  To which the pagans responded:
The gods are honored by these,… and if they have any recollection of offenses committed by men, they lay it aside, get rid of it, and show themselves gracious to us again, their friendship being renewed.  (The Case against the Pagans, VII.33)
Notice the similar expectation of honor with expiation as a side benefit.  One must wonder if the modern church does not also have this as an unstated reason: surely God will overlook our sin and shortcoming if we do this to honor him.

Arnobius questions their reasoning by pointing to the activities commonly found: dancing, play-acting, pugilism, and various other lascivious acts. †  How could these possibly honor divine beings?  Yet some churches insist on following suit (with thanks to The Museum of Idolatry):

All things not forbidden are lawful.  This reason has some biblical basis.  Twice the apostle Paul mentions that though "all things are lawful for me," they may not be helpful (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23).  Those things which are used within the local assembly must be done so wisely and advisedly.  Tertullian warned how we can be allured by the opinions of unbelievers
who in this matter are wont to press us with arguments, such as these: (1) That the exquisite enjoyments of ear and eye we have in things external are not in the least opposed to religion in the mind and conscience; and (2) That surely no offense is offered to God, in any human enjoyment, by any of our pleasures, which it is not sinful to partake of in its own time and place, with all due honor and reverence secured to Him.  (The Shows, 1)
In others words the view will be promoted that if an activity can be done anywhere else, it can be done at a gathering of the church.  Cultural norms take the place of the godly and spiritual.  In a move of rationalization a church will begin to think as the world
that all things, as we teach, were created by God, and given to man for his use, and that they must be good, as coming all from so good a source; but that among them are found the various constituent elements of the public shows, such as the horse, the lion, bodily strength, and musical voice.  It cannot, then, be thought that what exists by God’s own creative will is either foreign or hostile to Him; and if it is not opposed to Him, it cannot be regarded as injurious to His worshipers, as certainly it is not foreign to them.  (The Shows, 2)
But is all this valid?  The apologist replies in the negative that "these things are not consistent with true religion and true obedience to the true God."  Though he was speaking of Christians attendance at the Roman games, his sentiment remains valid for those who bring the games into the church: "We ought to detest these heathen meetings and assemblies, if on no other account than that there God’s name is blasphemed."  (The Shows, 27)  If this conduct is not acceptable in the pagan arena, how can it be countenanced in gatherings meant for the lifting up the exalted Lord of glory?

What is the conclusion of the matter?  How are Christians to respond?  I will let Tertullian close.
Even as things are, if your thought is to spend this period of existence in enjoyments, how are you so ungrateful as to reckon insufficient, as not thankfully to recognize the many and exquisite pleasures God has bestowed upon you?  For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life?  What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death?  What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations—to exorcise evil spirits—to perform cures—to seek divine revealings—to live to God?  These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men—holy, everlasting, free.  Count of these as your circus games, fix your eyes on the courses of the world, the gliding seasons, reckon up the periods of time, long for the goal of the final consummation, defend the societies of the churches, be startled at God’s signal, be roused up at the angel’s trump, glory in the palms of martyrdom.  If the literature of the stage delight you, we have literature in abundance of our own—plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities.   Would you have also fighting and wrestling?  Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, [deception] slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty: these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns.  Would you have something of blood too?  You have Christ’s.

But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One!  What that exultation of the angelic hosts!  What the glory of the rising saints!  What the kingdom of the just thereafter!  What the city New Jerusalem!  Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame!  How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye!… “This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed!  This is He whom you purchased from Judas!  This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink!  This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!”… And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the pictures of imagination.  But what are the things which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and which have not so much as dimly dawned upon the human heart?  Whatever they are, they are nobler, I believe, than circus, and both theaters and every race-course.  (The Shows, 29-30)

* Honoring Flora and Cybele respectively.  The former was a well-known harlot mentioned briefly by Minucius Felix, while Lactantius gives more detail.

Ibid, Lactantius.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Your Music Occasional or Directional?

Previously, in my ongoing look at the application of Arnobius' arguments as applied to the modern-day Church, we looked at worship innovations and motives.  (See here for the last post.)  He next turns his attention to the music being offered during worship and asks:
Are the gods moved … by the jingling of brass also, and the shaking of cymbals, by timbrels also, and also by bagpipes? *  What effect has the clattering of castanets, that when the deities have heard them, they think that honor has been shown to them, and lay aside their fiery spirit of resentment in forgetfulness?  Or, as little boys are frightened into giving over their silly wailing by hearing the sound of rattles, are the almighty deities also soothed in the same way by the whistling of pipes?  And do they become mild, is their indignation softened, at the musical sound of cymbals?

What is the meaning of those calls † which you sing in the morning, joining your voices to the music of the pipe?  Do the gods of heaven fall asleep, so that they should return to their posts?  What is the meaning of those slumbers † to which you commend them with auspicious salutations that they may be in good health?  Are they awakened from sleep; and that they may be able to be overcome by it, must soothing lullabies be heard?
The Case against the Pagans, VII.32

He raises an excellent point of inquiry in this sarcastic diatribe against the pagans.  Why do they sing and play instruments?  What purpose do they serve?

Biblical accounts demonstrate that music has been a part of worship for centuries.  The song of victory at the Red Sea (Exod 15:1-18), though not in the context of formal worship, is an early example of attestation and exaltation for the Lord's person and work.  This same two-fold pattern is eminently brought forth in the Psalms.  Whether a lament, reflection, instruction, or jubilation, the psalms maintain their focus on who God is and what he has done or will do.

Most, if not all, 21st-century assemblies have one person or a small group that prepares the musical aspect of worship with a view to exalt Christ while undergirding and accentuating the instruction.  This is all well and good.  However, a problem arises when the music shifts focus from the triune god (or specific person of the godhead) to the person giving the song or the occasion itself.

The pagans of Arnobius' day used feast days to excuse and promote their music. Some mentioned are:
The purification of the mother of the gods is today.
The feast of Jupiter is tomorrow.
The vintage festival of Aesculapius is being celebrated.
The lectisternium of Ceres will be on the next Ides.
It is the birthday of Tellus.  (Pagans, VII.32)
Notice that these place the occasion above the deity to be honored.  Their emphasis was to honor the day so those in attendance could enjoy themselves.  We run the same direction today.  In an effort to promote the group, assemblies use any gathering as a way to stimulate the audience, by carefully selected music, for the purpose of a good experience, rather than allowing the truth of God's word and the glorious gospel to lift the weary heart.  That is where the true power lies.

Songs allow the worshiper to express himself in gratitude for what Christ accomplished in his death, burial, and resurrection.  He is the rightful focus.  Do not sing a song because it is Sunday; sing because it speaks of him.  When it does not, what is the point?

* Lit. symphoniis.  The singular symphoniae is used in Daniel 3:5, 10 of the Vulgate.

† At daybreak on opening, and at night on closing the temple, the priests of Isis sang hymns in praise of the goddess.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

This morning I became aware of an article in First Things that is apropos for Independence Day.  James Rogers helps us to understand how the “pursuit of happiness” as understood in 2012 is different than the the intended meaning of 1776.  He opens this way:
The right to “the pursuit of happiness” affirmed in the Declaration of Independence is taken these days to affirm a right to chase after whatever makes one subjectively happy.  Further, the Declaration doesn’t guarantee the right to happiness, the thought usually goes, but only the right to pursue what makes you happy.  But this reading of the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness” is wrong on both scores.

“Happiness” in the public discourse of the time often did not simply refer to a subjective emotional state.  It meant prosperity or, perhaps better, well-being in the broader sense.  It included the right to meet physical needs, but it also included a significant moral and religious dimension.
As we celebrate another year of political freedom, let us remember that the happiness we enjoy is to be self-governed by a responsibility for our neighbor's good.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Test of Relevantism

Mark Kalthoff has written an article defending the importance of liberal arts in a well-rounded education.  He makes the following observation concerning American academic culture.
We live in a culture of "relevantism."  Nearly every student, it seems, arrives on campus primed to ask, "How is this course, this assignment, this lecture relevant?  What can I do with it?  Tell me its immediate practical use."  Such questions arise because too many Americans know nothing of the old distinction between true education and mere training. *
The mentality of "relevantism" is not unique to academia but flourishes in the Church.  Pastors have recognized this shift and are increasingly shifting content from pulpit and classroom to deliver practical application useful for life in the church body or conducting oneself in the world.  In order to facilitate this change, doctrine is not given a priority except as it might bolster an application being presented.  Exegetical content give way to the thematic.  Categories of doctrine and theology become at best useful descriptions of what a local assembly or denomination holds as corporately true, though relegated to a status of sentimentality for individuals to pull out when opining about better past times but not able to immediately address pressing issues of the day.  The fruit of this culture is a group mentality that theology is boring and doctrine divides.  The overseers in a local body have a vested interest in resisting this wave of pragmatism and instead teaching the scriptures as they present themselves.  Doctrine and theology are not the bane of Christian life but vital instruments the Holy Spirit uses in us to effect godliness and repel false teaching.

Kalthoff warns against the attitude of immediate usefulness by reminding the reader that this is not the best gauge:
In view of this distinction between mere training and true education, I propose that submitting everything to a crass "relevantism test," the test that first asks, "What can I do with it?" is to ask the wrong question.  It is like asking about the uses for a newborn baby.  When immediate usefulness becomes the measure of value, we risk discarding things whose worth may be inestimable.  Further, it happens to be the case that things pursued for their own sake without regard to their practical utility quite often have the happy consequence of being useful in ways not originally perceived. †
Practical application has its place in Christian education, but we err when practicality is the totality of  education without establishing a foundation and building the superstructure within which the application is founded.  The usefulness or appropriateness of the basic instruction is often not immediately discernible.  Many years may go by before usefulness is realized. ‡  Both the instructor and student (or in Christian terms: disciple-maker and disciple) need to have the long view in mind.  As the information is assimilated, logical conclusions can be formed and used in appropriate times and seasons.

How does this instruction work itself out in the regular meetings of believers?  Ready-Fire-Aim tactics will not work.  Instruction needs to be consistent and committed, teaching the whole counsel of God and the plan of redemption.  Bible books should be covered as well as major theological sections (i.e., Christology, Hamartiology, Soteriology, et al) using a multi-year plan.  Will people balk at this approach and call out for something more "tangible" for today?  Yes, they will, but like any educator knows, the uneducated do not know what is essential, so understanding of the need must be integrated into the curriculum.

Someone once asked me if I want a church to be a mini-seminary.  No, I want believers in my assembly without correct doctrinal knowledge to properly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) and be firmly grounded, even if we have to teach "boring" things to get there.

* Mark A. Kalthoff, "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge: Defending Classical Liberal Education from Melanchthon to Newman," Logia, Vol 21, No. 2, p. 51.
‡ For instance, I now wish that more American citizens had paid attention to their instruction in American Government—or were even taught it.