jasonbwatson

July 28, 2016

Battling Porn

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Pornography is not topic that many people are comfortable talking about in an honest and forthright manner. Many people do not like to talk about it at all–at least not many people outside of a locker room or frat house gathering. For many years the church was not willing to take about it at all in any constructive manner, by which I mean saying anything beyond “it’s bad, don’t do it” (or something even more directly threatening and minimally helpful). That has changed some in recent years with Stephen Arterburn’s The Every Man Series of books, Clay Crosse’s honesty in his 2005 book I Surrender All: Rebuilding a Marriage Broken by Pornography and others. In my November 6, 2015 post Not-So-Good News I explained that the announcement that Playboy would no longer publish nude images in its magazine was good news but actually indicative of the ease with which nudity and all manner of sexual activity is now available to just about anyone just about anywhere thanks to the internet. That post also addressed some of the high costs of pornography.

In April 2016 TIME ran a cover story on the subject entitled “PORN,” with the “o” depicted as a red circle with an X in the middle of it. Belinda Luscombe’s article was subtitled “Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The article consumed five-and-a-half pages of the magazine (not including a two-page photo and headline introducing the story) and included a graph showing that there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult internet sites in February 2006, which equated to 34.7% of all U.S. internet users. Broadband internet had just reached 50% of Americans that year. in January 2016 there were 107 million monthly visitors to adult internet sites, accounting for 41.3% of all U.S. internet users. The graph also showed that in 2009 there were 22.3 billion video views on the adult video-sharing site Pornhub. In 2015 that number was 87.8 billion. In 2016 Pornhub launched a virtual reality channel.

I already told you what TIME‘s cover said for the April 11 issue. The cover page of the article, though, reads this way:

Porn and the threat to virility.” The subtitle says, “The first generation of men who grew up with unlimited online porn sound the alarm.” The lead to the story introduces Noah Church, “a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore. When he was 9, he found naked pictures on the Internet. he learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day, doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

The article then informs the reader that it did not take too long before those videos no longer aroused Church as much as they used to, “so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes involving one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman.” Church stated that he could find anything he could imagine as well as plenty that he could not imagine. Eventually the appeal and arousal from those diminished as well, and “he moved on ot the next level, more intense, often more violent.”

This is a truth that has been too often ignored over the years–that pornography is like a drug. Plenty of studies show that it has a similar effect on the brain as drug use and that, over time, the effect is diminished, requiring the user to find something stronger and more arousing in order to get the same result achieved previously. In other words, porn works just like gateway drugs which progress to stronger and more dangerous ones. Can use of porn eventually result in death, like a drug overdose? No. It could, I imagine, result in the user killing someone else as a result of acting out what was seen in the pornography or seeking to achieve a thrill by making what was fantasy a reality. I think there are a number of such stories that could be found with little effort.

The TIME article goes on to explain that when Church finally had the opportunity to “have actual sex” during his twelfth-grade year, his body would not respond. “There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how by body reacted,” he said. That was the segue into the article’s discussion of PIED–porn-induced erectile dysfunction. I had never before heard of this term or condition but, unlike some new medical diagnoses that seem to be fancy made-up terms that serve as excuses for something that is simply a matter of a lack of discipline or some other easily-corrected behavioral issue, this seems to be legitimate. I can easily imagine how regular, increasingly-graphic and extreme exposure to pornography can have a very real impact on the brain and, thus, on the rest of the body.

Luscombe describes the PIED progression like this:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.

While there are more publications–Christian and secular–openly addressing the dangers of pornography now, there is still confusion and conflicting information. The increasing availability of studies and professionals willing to address the dangers of porn are countered by plenty of studies and professionals willing to state the opposite. Just last November, for example, Dr. Sandra LaMorgese posted a blog on The Huffington Post that included the following:

Studies have shown no increase in rape or other sexual deviance due to porn viewing. There is also no apparent connection between excessive porn viewing and sex addiction. In fact, it might be good for you if used properly: a 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender. One interesting find was that the more hardcore the videos were, the more positive the person’s view on sex tended to be.

Now, LaMorgese’s byline includes the, shall we say interesting, description that she is “Author, Podcast Host, Sexpert, Metaphysician, Keynote Speaker, Holistic Practitioner, Ordained Reverend” so maybe her thoughts on The Huffington Post are not the best source. Fair enough. How about this from TheHealthSite.com in February 2014:

In the last decade or so, it’s become quite fashionable for people to throw around big words like dopamine addiction and blame everything from the rise of sex crime to erectile dysfunction on porn. However, research suggests that sex addiction is not similar to cocaine or alcohol addiction, in fact there’s no proof that it reflects any unique brain-related issue at all. A study which looked to prove sex addiction was an illness, actually found the opposite. A new study claims that there really is no such thing as porn addiction and those who say it actually ignore the positive benefits of porn. The study has found very little scientific data to suggest that porn actually even causes any negative side-effects. ‘There was no sign that use of pornography is connected to erectile dysfunction or that it causes any changes to the brains of users,’ explained David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions – a large behavioural health programme.

In a 2010 post on the Psychology Today web site entitled “Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental?” the findings of a 2008 paper written by Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth are summarized like this:

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

And, in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times Candida Royalle began with the statement “Watching pornography is not inherently harmful to men or women.” She went on to provide some potential benefits derived from the use of pornography before also saying of sex or porn addiction, “I don’t believe in it.” In the same online debate in which Royalle offered her opinion, Ana Bridges, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas played Tevye by writing, “Can pornography harm users? Yes, in some cases it can, but in the vast majority of cases it does not. Can pornography be beneficial? Absolutely, but many times it is not.” In the same debate, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headlined her opinion piece “Pornography Can Be Empowering to Women Onscreen.”

I mention all of this to make sure that we understand that, despite the increasing prevalence of voices opposing porn and exposing its negative effects, there still are–and always will be–those who say that’s all a bunch of baloney and porn is harmless and worst and beneficial at best. We can never hope that the world is going to reach the conclusion that something that sin is sin. In my previous blog post linked above I stated that “only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn.” That remains true. There may be movements within the world that oppose porn and offer solutions for porn addictions, and those can be beneficial. Luscombe’s article provides a number of examples, describing “online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn” all of which are being created by men who have traditionally been “from the same demographic as [porn’s] most enthusiastic customers.” Noah Church, with whom Luscombe led her article, now “devoted about 20 hours a week to trying to help others eliminate porn from their lives.” Such efforts are admirable. Porn is not going to go away, and if you are a firm believer in free speech you may have a hard time even arguing that it should, but there are still reasonable means for limiting its availability. Luscombe describes one such effort coming from Utah state senator Todd Weiler, who said, “We’ve changed how we’ve approached tobacco, not by banning it but by putting reasonable restrictions in place.” There are reasonable ways to limit the access of pornography from public places and to minimize the exposure of children and teenagers to pornography.

Even then, though, there will be real work for the church to do. There will still be a need for candor and uncomfortable conversations. There will still be a need to find ways to help those struggling with porn be willing to acknowledge that and work through it. There will need to be a change from the judgment and condemnation that has traditionally been associated with any discussion of this topic.

The articles in the August 2016 issue of Tabletalk magazine are devoted to the topic of addiction. They are not dealing specifically with porn addiction, but the principles and recommendations in the articles are relevant. The first article is by Ed Welch and is titled “Addictions and Idolatry.” His article begins like this:

“I want”–addictions start here. Then, though small steps, want becomes need. There is no recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.

That explains why porn is so prevalent and is not going away. The word says that sexual pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction and porn is one way to achieve that “desired object or state of mind.” Welch later writes that “We are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable.” Heath Lambert, in another article in the Tabletalk issue, writes, “God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better master who brings freedom from slavery.” In yet another article, Michael Morales writes, “God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification.” He goes on to explain, “The ‘putting off’ aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice,” while “the ‘putting on’ aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.” My post Besetting Sins from earlier this month talks about these issues as well, and includes discussion about how to overcome sin.

May we who profess the name of Christ become bold in our willingness to acknowledge and confront issues like pornography and do it in a loving but uncompromising manner. May God grant us the willingness and surrenderedness to defeat sins like porn addiction and replace such “compulsive searches for a desired object or state” with “training in godliness” and “the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.”

July 24, 2015

Friendship

Last month Tabletalk magazine included a devotional entitled “True Friendship.” It was based on Proverbs 17:17, which reminds us that a friend loves at all times. The writer of the devotional, though, went deeper than that verse in examining what friendship really is. He started off reminding us of the tremendous irony of the day in which we live–the fact that “we live in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected than ever before. Smartphones, social media, e-mail and other technologies make it simple to stay in contact with friends and loved ones even when they live thousands of miles away. And yet, there is a dearth of true intimacy.” This is certainly true, and I have explored this phenomenon in this space before. Social media and other communications technology can be a two-edged sword, providing wonderful benefits but also tremendous problems. Some of those problems come from the comparisons that inevitably result from the almost constant viewing of Facebook status updates and tweets among our contacts. Some of the problems come from the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone instantly yet we seem to have deep, meaningful conversations less and less frequently.

Another of the problems is identified by the Tabletalk writer this way: “With the click of a mouse we can be listed as the friend of someone whom we have never met–and probably never will meet–in person.” I am sure I am not alone in restricting my social media “friends” to people I really do know, but there is a large contingent of folks who like to see how high they can get that friend number. (I also know I am not alone in having received numerous “friend requests” from people I have never heard of, perhaps only because we have one “mutual friend”). Are all of my Facebook friends intimate friends? Of course not. But at least I really do know them all. The writer also mentions the challenge these days of having a “close friend of the same gender without raising suspicions of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be tragic if the single-digit percentile of the American population that claims to be homosexual could have really warped our view of human interaction to the point that two men or two women cannot be close friends without being suspected of being sexually involved? Of course, the inverse has long been true, as well–there were suspicions of “something more” when a male and female were close friends. Indeed, I have heard some people suggest that a male and a female cannot be close friends without it leading to something more, whether that “more” be sexual behavior, inappropriate non-sexual intimacy or just confusion and hurt feelings.

The devotional writer states that Scripture “offers a key corrective” to the problems of human friendship by “offering us a high view of human friendship. [Proverbs 17:17] lauds the benefit of true friendship, a relationship in which we receive love from another at our best and at our worst.” I would suggest that precisely because of this, true friendships are quite finite in number. Some people have hundreds of acquaintances and scores of friends, yet when they hit a real crisis they do not know who to call because they have no true, real, lasting friends, friends who will stick with them through the hard times, come along side during adversity, believe the best and stay true through the worst. If you do have friends like that–and I hope you do–I suspect you could count them on one hand, or certainly on two. “Our friendships are harmed and often destroyed when our friends reveal their flaws,” the devotional writer states. “Sadly, this means that our friendships are often quite tenuous, prompting us to look for a friendship that is secure because it is not based on what the other person finds lovely in us. The only one who can provide this friendship is Jesus Christ.”

I would posit that the only one who can provide this friendship perfectly is Jesus Christ, but it is possible to have human friends that do not run away when we reveal flaws, when we fall flat on our faces (literally or figuratively), when we do mess up or behave like a jerk. Certainly we have all had friendships that ended suddenly when circumstances changed, whether they be grades in school, new friends coming on the scene, interests shifting, opinions conflicting or whatever. These were seldom deep, meaningful friendships in the first place. If, however, you have been blessed to have longtime friends who have remained your friends even through challenges, disagreements and screw ups then you are truly blessed, and you have experienced Proverbs 17:17 in a very personal way.

My recent hiatus from blogging was due to a family vacation. During that time I was able to visit two longtime friends, one whom I have known for probably twenty-two years now, I guess, and another whom I have known for seventeen. I do not see either of these individuals often. In fact, one I had not seen in three years and the other I had not seen in perhaps ten. One I stay in fairly regular contact with through e-mails, the other I seldom communicate with. Still, based on our longtime friendships and past experience in both instances, I believe I could confide in both of those friends and turn to each of them for help in a real crisis in my life–even if it was a crisis of my own making. I think I know both of them well enough to know that they would be honest with me if I messed up but they would also help me get out of the mess rather than walking away. Interestingly, going back to one of the points discussed above, one of these friends is male and the other is female. Both friendships have had bumps, including some caused by own stupidity at times. (It really is incredible how much harm our tongues can do, isn’t it?) Repentance and forgiveness are wonderful things though, and stupidity does not have to be a friendship-ender in true, meaningful friendships. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and untold acquaintances and contacts through personal and professional life, but I have a handful of real, deep, true friends. I am blessed and encouraged by them. Some are male, some are female. When we get out of the way of ourselves and put our own preferences and opinions aside long enough to realize that the world does not revolve around us, to recognize that the love Jesus has for us is based on absolutely nothing we could ever do to merit, deserve or sustain it, it is possible to have such friendships. It is not easy; like I said, you will probably not have many of them. Do not, though, let the fact that it is not easy deter you. Do not let possible questions of “something more” interfere with the development and maintenance of real friendships with others of the same or the opposite sex. Do not let Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting be your only connection with your “friends.” Do not run the other way when you find your friends are not perfect. After all, you are not, either. Neither am I.

June 22, 2015

One Unchanging Message

Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.

Early in his article Furman writes,

The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.

I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.

I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?

Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).

Furman later writes, this:

There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?

One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?

Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:

Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.

May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.

February 10, 2015

Membership Matters

Filed under: Biblical Worldview — jbwatson @ 7:33 pm
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In an interview printed in the February issue of Tabletalk, Russell Moore said, “Our vote for president of the United States is critically important, but our vote to receive members into our local churches is more important.” At first glance, that may seem a bit extreme, but Moore is absolutely right and is making a crucial point. Yes, our vote for president is “critically important,” and each and every one of us should (1) care who the president is, and (2) be sure to exercise our right to vote when it comes time to select a president. Who we allow to become members of our churches, though, will potentially impact lives for eternity. Everyone who has accepted Christ as Savior is a member of the Church–the body of Christ. Membership in a local church, however, is what Moore has in mind, and is what I am going to discuss here.

Churches are made up of believers. Strong churches are built on the foundation of Scripture, but the functioning of the church, the teaching that takes place in the church, the church itself, depends on and is the people who are its members. As important as it is for a church to welcome anyone who walks through its doors–unless and until there is reason not to welcome someone–it is exponentially more important that the church not allow just anyone who walks through its doors to become a member.

“Membership has its privileges” is an old advertising slogan from a credit card, I believe, but it is an idea that holds true for the church, as well. In a healthy church, only members can hold leadership positions, vote, teach Sunday school or VBS, etc. Anyone is welcome to attend, but not just anyone is welcome to assume positions of leadership and influence. That is because these roles are so incredibly important that we must make sure that they are filled by individuals who are equipped and qualified to fill them. I am the administrator of a K-12 school. No matter how much I may sometime be tempted to do so, someone’s willingness to teach a class will never be enough in and of itself for me to hire that person to teach.Willingness and ability are not the same thing, and while someone may have an abundance of the former, the latter is also necessary.

I can give you, from personal experience, two examples of ineffective (and dangerous) church membership/leadership models. the first is something that happened to me in 2001. I had recently moved to a new area to assume a new position in a Christian ministry. The ministry was allowing a local church to use its property/facilities for a Sunday school picnic. I was in attendance, primarily as a way to meet people in my new community. I met the pastor of the church at that picnic. When he learned who I was and why I was there, he asked me if I would like to teach Sunday school at his church. I understand that he was desperate for good teachers. However, this question was a huge red flag in my mind. If he would ask me, within minutes of meeting me, to teach Sunday school, there were likely some other major issues at the church. (There were, too!).

A few years later I was still in the same ministry position and had joined another area church. My wife and I had attended for a while, I had read the church’s constitution and statement of faith and I had discussed a few things with the pastor. It was, we were sure, the most solid church in the area. Yet, its membership procedures were terrible–and dangerous. When someone wanted to join the church, the person would go forward during the invitation time at the end of the service and express to the pastor the desire to join. Following the singing of the closing hymn, the pastor would then present the individual to the church and ask the congregation to vote, on the spot, on that individual’s desire to join. To make matters worse, the pastor would ask for a vote of “aye” from those in favor and then from those opposed. He would say, “All opposed, same sign. And of course, there are none.” Really? I suppose there may well have been times in the early goings when there were no votes in opposition, but eventually this became a self-fulfilling prediction. After all, who is going to vote no when the pastor regularly says “of course there are none”? I often abstained from these membership votes because I often felt I did not know the individual well enough to know whether or not membership was a good idea. Sometimes I did not know the individual at all! I am pleased to say that I eventually became an elder in that church and while I was in that position was part of the church’s decision to change the membership process to include a membership class and a meeting with elders before going to the church for a vote.

I am not advocating careful procedures for church membership because someone might somehow be unworthy of joining the church. None of us are worthy, expect through the blood of Christ. I am not concerned that someone might not be “good enough” to join, either. I believe it was Adrian Rogers who said, “There is no such thing as a perfect church, and if there was none of us could join.” My concern–and Russell’s I believe–is that those who become members of a church are those who shape, influence and drive the future of the church. They vote on budgets, determine how leadership positions will be filled and by whom, have a say in curriculum and programming decisions, and more. Most importantly, those members decide whether or not the church will stay true to God’s Word. As we will see in the next post, that is the most important concern of all, and protecting the church’s adherence to Scripture is why membership votes are so critically important.

November 17, 2014

The value of creeds

Earlier this year Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research joined together to complete a survey of 3,000 Americans for the purpose of evaluating the state of theology in the United States. One of the questions statements participants were asked to respond to was this: “There is little value in studying and/or reciting creeds or catechisms.” Twenty-seven percent of respondents agreed with this statement, with another 16% responding that they were not sure—meaning that two in five people do not see any merit in the study or recitation of creeds or are not sure there is merit.

Another statement in the survey was this: I recite or use historical Christian creeds in personal discipleship. Seventy percent of respondents said no.

This prompted a question in my own mind—what is the purpose of creeds? While I was certainly familiar with the Apostle’s Creed before I began filling the pulpit of a Presbyterian church regularly over the past year, I had never been a member of a church that recites the creed regularly. While I could recite the Lord’s Prayer, I have never been a member of a church that recites it regularly. While I am familiar with the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms, I have not studied them in depth and cannot recite any portion of them other than the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

I grew up in independent Baptist churches, where the ideas of tradition that are prominent in the Catholic church as well as a number of Protestant denominations were generally frowned upon. “We have no creed but Christ” is a common mantra among those in independent churches. But are the creeds and catechisms of the church merely tradition?

Certainly the creeds and catechisms are not infallible; that is a distinction of the Bible alone. Confessions, catechisms and creeds, however, are summaries of the teachings of Scripture, a means through which we can learn and even memorize some of the most important elements of biblical theology. Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said of the Apostle’s Creed, “It signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects.” It is important for any Christian to know what they believe. The catechisms, creeds and confessions provide a starting point and a means of consistent reminder. Regular recitation and repetition of the creeds and catechisms can serve to reinforce the crucial elements of our faith.

Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church, writing in Tabletalk magazine, said, “[I]f you are to set out those things that differentiate Christianity from all other religions, including monotheistic ones (for example, Judaism and Islam), the Apostles’ Creed would provide an excellent summary of those doctrines unique to Christianity. … Ursinus chose the Apostles’ Creed as the skeletal structure for the section of his catechism dealing with God’s grace because the creed so effectively summarizes the basics of the Christian faith that no non-Christian could possibly recite it. In this sense, the creed defines what is Christianity and what is not.”

Robert Rayburn, in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, writes, “Creeds serve a variety of purposes in the life of the church. They are a testimony of the church’s belief to the world; they offer a summation of Christian doctrine for the instruction of the faithful; and they form a bulwark against the incursion of error by providing a standard of orthodoxy and a test for office-bearers. In these ways creeds also serve to protect and to foster the bond of Christian fellowship as a unity of faith and doctrine, of mind and conviction, and not merely of organization or sentiment.”

So what is the Apostles’ Creed? It is not in the Bible. We could not turn in our Bibles and find the Apostles’ Creed contained there. Neither was it written or developed by the apostles. In fact, it was written at least 150 years after the apostles had all died. What it is, then, is a record and summary of what the apostles taught.

There are two elements of the Apostles’ Creed that are often confused or debated. The first is the reference to the holy catholic church. You will notice that the word “catholic” is not capitalized in the creed, and it does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” means universal, and in the Apostles’ Creed it is referencing all those throughout time and around the world who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for Salvation.

The other element of the creed that is debated is the statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” There are, including John Calvin most prominently, who hold that Jesus literally went into hell on Saturday between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday. There are others who hold that this is not the case, and is not what the Bible teaches. I am of the opinion that there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, and I am not going to examine or elaborate on them here. Frankly, I am not sure I have come to a decision myself as to what I believe on that question.

There is reason to believe that there were creed-like statements utilized in the first-century church, during the time of the apostles’ ministry. Philippians 2:5-11 may have been a confessional hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter, and Galatians 4:4-6 provides a succinct presentation of the roles of the Father and the Son in redemption as well as the existence and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Whether creeds and catechisms are weekly parts of the worship service in our churches or they are utilized regularly in our personal devotions, they do have purpose, merit and value.

February 13, 2014

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. Dictionary.com defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

February 12, 2014

Beware Appearances (Part 1)

The 2014 issue of Tabletalk from Ligonier Ministries contains an article by John MacArthur entitled “Appearance Is Everything?” MacArthur begins the article recounting a letter received by his ministry from an advertising agency that contained this message: “Let’s face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image.” Initially MacArthur thought that the agency must not have realized it was writing to a Christian ministry. After further reflection, though, MacArthur came to this conclusion: “that is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything.Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.”

That is a sobering thought. When I read it reminded me of something else I read a couple of months ago, so I dug it out. The December 14, 2013 issue of WORLD contains an article by Sophia Lee on the television show The Preachers of L.A. I have never seen the show, but Lee describes it as a reality show on the Oxygen network starring six mega-pastors. According to Lee’s review, “They claim to live for God, His people, and His kingdom. But halfway into an episode, it becomes clear that they are the gods–though they sure do love the people for their adoration, and they’ve built a nice earthly kingdom for themselves.”

MacArthur’s article is not about super-rich pastors of mega churches and I do not intend to turn this post into that, either. Indeed, MacArthur’s focus is more on the appearances Christians tend to present individually in their day-to-day activities. Lee’s article is about the appearance presented by individual mega church pastors but also about the appearance presented by mega churches and parachurch ministries. I would like to address Lee’s point first and MacArthur’s second.

Later in her article Lee mentions three former pastors who now “own a consulting company, called Church Hoppers, which helps struggling churches balance three components: business, marketing and systems.” Interesting, is is not, that the three-fold purpose of this church consulting group includes nothing about biblical principles, sound doctrine or theology. In fact, Lee proceeded to ask one of the partners of Church Hoppers about what they do if the church they are consulting with has a problem that is theological. “We’re not going to go in and try to change their theology,” Lee quoted Jerry Bentley saying. “I think churches are there in the community to meet the community’s needs.” Lee elaborated by explaining that Church Hoppers exists to “help churches give ‘customers’ what they want.”

First of all, there is a real problem when “customers” is the word used to refer to or think of individuals attending church or considering attending a church. This mentality is what led to much of the error of the seeker-friendly movement. This mentality is what leads many churches to put food courts and bookstores and other “amenities” within the confines of the church. Food courts and bookstores and playgrounds and coffee shops are not wrong in and of themselves, I might add, but the motivation for including them must be questioned. Churches need to plan and design their ministries first and foremost based on what people need, not what they want. After all, what people need and what people want are polar opposites if you believe in the total depravity of man. In their sin nature no one wants to hear sermons about sin or hell or the need for a Savior. That is exactly what sinners need, though.

I feel quite certain that the Apostle Paul would have run the other way had anyone suggested to him that he should consider improving his image, that he should carefully consider what the “customers” were looking for. Paul, after all, received the message loud and clear, on numerous occasions, that what he was offering was not what very many people wanted. He never wavered in his mission, though, because he was all about pleasing God not pleasing people. He was so committed to that mission that after being stoned and left for dead he got up and walked back into the town! I rather doubt market analysts would recommend that response.

Church Hoppers focuses on “business, marketing and systems.” I would suggest that churches focus instead on the Basic Message of Salvation. When churches remain faithful to the Word of God they will have effective ministries and their church will grow. The church may not grow in attendance, in offering, in building size or in publicity, but those are not the measures of an effective church. Therein, of course, lies no small part of the image problem–image isn’t really worth much. After all, some of the largest, richest, flashiest and most well-known “Christian” ministries are teaching things and promoting things that are contrary to the Word of God (and not teaching things that are in the Word of God, I might add).

I should state that I am not anti-image. In fact, appearance does matter, I think. I believe that churches and Christian ministries should be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted them with, and that includes presenting and maintaining a clean, well-cared for and pleasing physical plant, regardless of whether it is new or old, big or small, expensive or cheap. So do not read this to indicate that I oppose nice buildings, comfortable seats, attractive decor or well-manicured lawns. I do not…not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, in fact, I think that Christian ministries should present very impressive appearances if by “impressive” you mean worthy of respect. But the impressive appearance should come as a result of doing all things to the glory of God, not as a result of bringing glory to ones self or ones ministry. When that becomes the motivation the impressive appearance becomes an idol.

Let us remember the old adage that appearances may be deceiving, and appearances must not be where our focus lies.

Next time I will address the appearances MacArthur writes about, the appearances on the individual level….

October 4, 2013

True Education

My plan is to spend the next several entries addressing education. For starters I would like to reflect on an article R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote for the May 2013 issue of Tabletalk entitled “The School of Christ.”

Sproul correctly points out that “it is not hard to complain about the government’s schools,” and that just about everyone seems to have something to complain about–atheists complain about prayers, Christians complain about sex education and everyone complains about graduation rates and standardized test scores. From there, though, Sproul makes an assertion that many will undoubtedly find startling: he says that American schools “are not actually designed to train up scholars…their goal is neither intellectual nor moral giants. Rather, they function to prepare men and women to work.” He continues, “The entire system looks at children as if they were widgets, entering the education factory as toddlers and coming out the other side when they are grown.”

Sproul takes issue with this approach and, whether or not you agree that schools operate this way, I suspect you would, too. “This is not how God designed the rearing of children,” Sproul writes. “To be sure, our children must learn things, but they are not so much widgets in a factory as they are plants around our tables (Psalm 128). They are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.”

One obvious problem with the widget approach is that widgets are produced best and most efficiently when there is a system that treats every widget exactly the same, replicating the same process hundreds or thousands of times a day, day after day, month after month. Once in a while an improvement or adjustment comes along, and the improvement or adjustment is input into the system, calibrations are altered, and every widget thereafter has the exact same improvement or adjustment. The workers have no personal relationship with or attachment to the individual widgets; their sole concern is that the machinery works properly, the procedures are followed precisely, and the product output is maintained if not increased. Children cannot be treated this way. Well, they can be, actually, but treating children this way will have the exact opposite effect as treating widgets this way. Rather than increasing productivity, efficiency and consistency this approach will hinder learning, frustrate children and result in little if any learning.

Another problem with this approach though, and the one that Sproul dwells on, is that the Bible addresses the responsibility of raising and teaching children by using “natural and organic terms, rather than mechanical or industrial terms.” In other words, education, properly done, cannot be confined to the hours between the first and last bell of the school day like manufacturing can be restricted to the time between the first and last bell of the work day. Referencing Moses and Old Testament instruction for teaching children Sproul writes that parents are to provide their children with “an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.”

The greatest (read biggest) part of that responsibility for parents to recognize and accept that the education of their children is their responsibility. The education of children is not the job of the state, is not the job of the pastor, youth pastor or Sunday school teacher, and is not even the job of the tutor or teacher. Minus the state, each of those individuals can have a role and an influence on the education of children, but the responsibility is ultimately and preeminently on parents. As an educator I am obviously not opposed to schools or advocating that every parent homeschool their children (though homeschooling is a terrific option for many families). What I am advocating is the point that Sproul is making–that parents must see the school and the church the same way they see the doctor and the coach. The school and the church are important pieces of the education of children and they each play specific and necessary roles. So too does the doctor and the coach. These individuals have expertise (or, in the case of the coach, a willingness even if the expertise is lacking) that can benefit children when they are sick or are engaging in athletic activity. But those roles are finite and restricted. Parents, on the other hand, have a never-ending role.

Regarding the command in the Shema to talk to their children about the things of God all the time, Sproul writes, “in order to do this, of course, we who are parents first must be thinking about the things of God all the time. Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are particularly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while he is beside the point the rest of our days.”

This is true education. Dictionary.com defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” As significant a chunk of the early lives of children as the 15,000 hours they will spend in school may be, it is not sufficient by itself to accomplish that task, regardless of how terrific the school may be. Many of the next few entries will address the formal education that takes place in institutions of learning, but I felt it important to state that education is, first and foremost, the responsibility of parents. It is an incredible responsibility but it is also a tremendous privilege. Think about it…God Himself knits together little lives and then hands them to human beings and entrusts them with the power of molding and shaping that life, of educating that human being. Between you and me, if I were God I think I would deliver the little ones pre-programmed. But I am not God (for which we can all be grateful!), and He has chosen to give the task of educating children to the parents. Do not take that role lightly, do not abandon it to others. Seize it!

May 28, 2013

Jesus Matters All the Time

In a recent article in Tabletalk, a monthly periodical with articles and Bible studies from Ligonier Ministries, R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote an article entitled “In the School of Christ.” The article begins with this paragraph:

It is not hard to complain about the government’s schools. The government, at least during every election cycle, seems less than satisfied with its own product, ever promising us that it will improve. Atheists complain about prayers before football games. Christians complain about the teaching of sexual (im)morality. Everyone complains about graduation rates and test scores.

When it comes to government schools, Mr. Sproul is right; there is plenty to complain about, and the complaints come from all sides. And any efforts at improvement are met with new obstacles. Michelle Rhee faced overwhelming opposition when she tried to clean up the mess that was Washington, D.C. public schools. No Child Left Behind, a joint effort of the unlikely-combo of Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush did seemingly little to accomplish the goals it established for improving the education (read, test scores) of American school children, and the newest version, Race to the Top, is not any better. Now Common Core State Standards have been almost unanimously adopted in the U.S. to establish clearer expectations of what students in schools should be learning, and when, and these are encountering opposition and obstacles of their own–some perhaps legitimate, others seemingly concocted from thin air by Glenn Beck and others.

Private schools tend to fare better than public ones in the test scores and graduation rate areas. The school where I serve, for example, had a 100% graduation rate this year, and last year, and our high school students’ mean scale scores exceeded the national norm group in every subject area in our standardized testing this year.

However, that does not automatically mean that our school is successful. It does in a graduation rate and standardized test conversation, but that is not the sole reason why our school exists. Our school exists to invest in the entire student, body, mind and soul–spiritual, physical, intellectual, communal and emotional (SPICE). Sproul writes later in his article that children “are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.” Referencing the Shema, Sproul says, “Moses is talking about an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.” Sproul is specifically challenging parents to be instructing their children about God all the time. And that is what sets our school apart from government schools. The students at our school–and at many Christian schools–are receiving excellent academic instruction, but are also receiving intentional and intensive spiritual instruction, being taught about God in Bible class, yes, but also in science and history, in physical education and music, at the lunch table and after school. Effective Christian education destroys any boundaries that exist between the five SPICE areas outlined above.

Sproul continues,

Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are peculiarly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while He is beside the point the rest of our days.

That is exactly right, and that is exactly what sets truly Christian education–whether it takes place in a Christian school or in a homeschool–apart from education at government schools or even most private schools: Christian education does not believe that Jesus matters only during specific times set aside for Bible study and worship, but that Jesus matters all the time.

April 19, 2013

On the side of life

In light of the trial of Kermit Gosnell going on now it is quite fitting that the theme of the April issue of Tabletalk magazine/devotional from Ligonier Ministries is “Defining Personhood.” The issue includes an article from Randy Alcorn, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries and author of the excellent book Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments.

In the article Alcorn writes, “Each person, regardless of his parentage or handicap, has not been manufactured on a cosmic assembly line, but personally formed by God.” This is the foundational truth for anyone with a biblical worldview on defining personhood–the fact that God Himself has knit together each human being according to His will and His plan, and that life begins at conception.

Alcorn quotes Meredith Kline’s observation: “The most significant thing about abortion legislation in Biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.” Alcorn elaborates, writing that every Israelite “knew that the preborn child was a child” and therefore God’s command “You shall not murder” was all that needed to be said on the matter.

Alcorn challenges the assertion made by those on the “pro-choice” side that a fetus or an embryo is not a human being. “Like toddler and adolescent, the terms embryo and fetus do not refer to nonhumans but to humans at various stages of development. It is scientifically inaccurate to say a human embryo or a fetus is not a human being simply because he is at an earlier stage than an infant. This is like saying that a toddler is not a human being because he is not yet an adolescent. Does someone become more human as he gets bigger? if so, than adults are more human than children, and football players are more human than jockeys. Something nonhuman does not become human or more human by getting older or bigger; whatever is human is human from the beginning, or it can never be human at all.”

The article is full of other brilliant counters to the many arguments so often trotted out by those on the side of death…the side commonly referred to as “choice.” Alcorn mentions the response of Alan Keyes to a thirteen-year-old girl in Detroit who asked whether he would support an exception for rape. Keyes, who, in my opinion, is one of the most effective defenders of the right to life today, responded to her question with a question of his own: “If your dad goes out and rapes somebody, and we convict him of that rape, do you think it would be right for us to then say, ‘okay, because your dad is guilty of rape, we’re going to kill you’?” The class, of course, answered no, as would any rational person.

Alcorn expands on Keyes’ response, writing that “Imposing capital punishment on the innocent child of a sex offender does nothing bad to the rapist and nothing good to the woman. Creating a second victim never undoes the damage to the first. Abortion does not bring healing to a rape victim.”

I have quoted more extensively here than I usually do, because quite frankly I think Alcorn and Keyes communicate the pro-life position more clearly, more powerfully and more effectively than just about anyone else, certainly than me. But it is important to remind ourselves of the arguments in favor of life, since the culture and the media so regularly and so loudly communicate the arguments in favor of death. Kermit Gosnell is a monster; there is no other apt description for someone who willingly does the things he did–and does it for profit, at that. I hope that receives the penalty for his crimes that he deserves. But incarcerating Gosnell–while a definite step in the right direction–will not solve the problem; it will not change the fact that millions of babies are killed in the United States every year. We need to pray, but we also need to act. We need to communicate with legislators, we need to actively support the pro-life position and those who are on the front lines defending life. And, unpopular as it may at times be, we need to directly and firmly challenge those who disagree that it is simply not possible to adhere to the Bible and support abortion. The two are simply not compatible; indeed, they are unalterably opposed.

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