Saturday, March 31, 2012

Because of... or In Spite of

When I hear that someone I know is involved with a church that has doctrinal issues or unbiblical elements in their worship it is a burden. I have various friends, family, and acquaintances who participate in fellowships that I think are involved in some serious errors. The burden isn’t because I think it is my business to impose my opinions on everyone around me. Not at all, I recognize that each of us is responsible to God alone for those choices. The burden is because I care for them and I do not want to see them hurt spiritually. When discussing these concerns people often share various social reasons why they choose to stay involved and try and assure me that they know the Gospel. Almost without fail the same question will be asked of me. Namely, “you don’t believe that someone attending a [fill in the blank] church can be saved? The implication is that I am being unfairly narrow.

This question, however, shifts the conversation away from the main issue. It is like asking if it is possible for people who smoke 3 packs a day to live to be 100, if people who eat a lot of fast food can be in good shape, or if people raised in abusive homes can be well adjusted. Of course it is possible, but that doesn’t mean that the situation is well suited for it. The concern isn’t usually that salvation is precluded but rather that the environment is not an optimal place for healthy Biblical growth.

Before we go any further I want to clarify two points. First, there are no perfect churches. All churches, no matter how pure, contain a mixture of error and truth. Second, I am not saying that a person cannot be saved attending any one of a wide range of churches where despite other serious errors they may hear about the reality of sin, the glory of God, and most importantly the deity of Christ, and his death burial and resurrection to save those who believe. The Catholic Church for example should be commended for its uncompromising stance on the Trinity, the full humanity, the divinity of Christ, and a host of moral issues. Many emergent and liberal churches have brought attention to certain practical elements of the Gospel that have been neglected in lots of conservative churches.

The Holy Spirit can reach people in all sorts of ways and places. There are a lot of churches where the teaching is weak or even contrary to sound doctrine but where the Bible is still read and certain theological truths are still communicated. I have no doubt that people can be saved in those situations because salvation is of the Lord not of men. The issue really isn’t whether it is possible for a person to be saved in a place that is teaching unbiblical doctrines or practices. The more important question is if a person will be saved and grow in faith as a result of the teaching of their church or in spite of it? Why would we give hearty approval to environments where true spiritual growth requires overcoming the teaching rather than being supported by it?

There are so many challenges that we must deal with (through the grace of God) in our spiritual journey that it is simply unwise to put oneself in a position where our own spiritual leaders are making it more difficult for us to hear and understand the Gospel. As I said, no church is perfect but that is because all people struggle with sin. This is what makes a Bible teaching, Gospel preaching church such a valuable place. The unchanging message first handed down to the Prophets and Apostles and recorded in the Holy Scripture is our only sure and reliable guide and we should enthusiastically support and encourage those ministries that focus their efforts and organization on it.

The church we choose to attend will make a difference in our growth. Although there are many issues that believers disagree about there are certain things that are so clearly taught in the scripture that to ignore them just doesn’t make sense. A friend of mine once explained it this way, “If someone brought you a perfectly cooked steak but sprinkled a little bit of rat poison on it. Would you eat it?” The answer is of course not, and I think the analogy is a good one. Even if you can get spiritual truth is it worth it if you have to also ingest spiritual poison? The answer is clear. There are plenty of places where we can be spiritually fed without the poison. The issue we all need to ask is if we are growing (as defined by the Bible) as a result of the ministry and teaching of our church or in spite of it.

I pray that if you are looking for a church or if you are currently in a church that isn’t Gospel focused that you will find a Bible based church where you can be fed properly and grow strong in faith with the help and support of those around you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Unhelpful Answers: Resurrected People Cannot Coexist With Others

I was surprised recently when a brother in Christ mentioned to me that he thought that premillennialism didn’t make sense. My surprise was not that he objected to the doctrine but rather the reason why. He insisted that the defining argument, in his mind, against premillennialism was that it was totally irrational for people with resurrected bodies to coexist with other people who were not in a final state. I objected, and tried to explain to my friend that even though I am a premillennialist I think there are much better arguments against it than this one. This is an unhelpful answer as to why someone should reject premillennialism. He was not persuaded, and surprisingly this remains a common objection even among more well known scholars. For example, Kim Riddlebarger makes the following statement in his book The Case for Amillennialism:

“According to premillenarians, the millennium is a period in which people who have been raised from the dead and who now live on the earth in resurrected bodies coexist with people who have not been raised from the dead and who remain in the flesh. How can this be? Where does Scripture teach about such a mixture of resurrected and un-resurrected individuals?”

Statements like this are unfortunately common among the opponents of premillennialism and I suppose that the “weirdness” factor of resurrected and un-ressurected people living together is assumed to be sufficient to prove that it cannot happen. There is of course nothing that would make this a logical impossibility. Since it isn’t something we normally experience and it isn’t something that appeals to our linear thought processes one might say it is at least improbable. The most important question, however, is the one that Riddlebarger asks but doesn’t answer. Namely, “where does Scripture teach about such a mixture of resurrected and un-resurrected individuals?”

The answer is that it does so many times. The easy answer to arguments of impossibility or improbability is simply to show that it has happened multiple times before. Once something has actually occurred it suddenly becomes much more probable. The best known example of a person in a resurrected body interacting with others still in regular bodies is, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. One only has to read John chapter 21 and Luke 24 to see that Christ had a number of interactions with other people while in His resurrected body. He interacted with the women at the tomb and with the disciples on multiple occasions even eating with them and walking with them on the road to Emmaus. Paul even tells us that He appeared to five hundred brothers, most of whom were still alive at the time he was writing. (1 Corinthians 15:6)

My friend then objected that Jesus was a unique case but that objection fails because the Bible records other examples as well. For example, we know that Lazarus lived for some time and was interacting with others after he was resurrected (John 12). Even more remarkably, however, are the events recorded in Matthew 27 after the death of Christ.

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53 ESV)

This amazing but rarely talked about event clearly demonstrates that there has already been a time in history when dead believers were raised up and walked among mortal men. Although the concept seems strange to us it has already happened multiple times. There is therefore no reason to rule it out as a future impossibility, especially if there is sound exegetical support for such an event being prophesied in the Bible.

The key issue is not the impossibility or improbability of such an event but rather the correct interpretation of a number of key passages in the Bible about the future. Strong arguments can be made both grammatically and contextually for a natural premillennial interpretation of a number of passages that teach two separate resurrections which is essential to the premillennial understanding. There are many such passages but especially clear (though hotly debated) are the following:

 “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
(John 5:28-29 ESV)  

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
(1 Corinthians 15:22-26 ESV)

“Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”
(Revelation 20:4-6 ESV)

One may take issue with the premillennial interpretation of these verses or with the many others that are used to support the doctrine but the question is one of exegesis. One cannot simply rule out the possibility of a premillennial understanding because the logic of the resurrections seems strange. As I told my friend, there are much better arguments against the position and this alone is certainly no reason to reject it. Whether you support or reject premillennial doctrine I pray that your conclusions would be the result of prayerful study of the Scripture, rigorous thought, and an honest and fair evaluation of the Biblical arguments for and against it.

God Bless

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: Mitch Horowitz- Occult America

This book is different from the kind of book I normally review on this site. I usually read two books at a time in addition to my normal Bible reading and study. Typically one is related to the Bible or Christianity that I hope will be useful for personal growth or for teaching and ministry. It is this group of books that I typically draw from when I post reviews on the site. If I find something helpful, interesting, or if it is a new book I try and share a few brief insights for those who may be interested. The other group of books is not explicitly Christian and tends to be books of history, literature, philosophy, or some other subject that happens to catch my attention. Occasionally I read a book from the second category that turns out to be interesting with regard to the first category. Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America is an example of that kind of book.

Horowitz is certainly not an Evangelical author. In fact, he is a publisher of esoteric and occult literature. It is evident throughout this book that Horowitz is writing with a sympathetic eye toward the arcane and occult personalities and doctrines that his book discusses. There is a soft apologetic undertone and appeal to respectability for occult doctrines woven throughout the narratives that Horowitz shares. Despite this, however, it is evident that he has spent a great deal of time in his research and he opens up to the reader an important and all too often ignored undercurrent to American spiritual life. Horowitz demonstrates in a very readable style the sometimes complex and multifaceted interplay between concepts from esoteric and occult spiritual traditions and mainstream “public religion” in the United States.

Horowitz weaves his historical narrative by using a series of short biographical sketches of people who have been influential in advancing occult ideologies in American culture. As he tells the story he demonstrates how the foundational ideas of Americanism along with its unique social, economic, and political landscape facilitated a type of melting pot of ideas where concepts that had their origins in occult circles entered into the public consciousness. As a result various institutions as divergent as white supremacy groups, mental health practitioners, and Christian churches were influenced by ideas that were originally taught in esoteric literature and traditions.

The book is well researched but is also easy to read. Horowitz tells the story in a way that is interesting and keeps the reader’s mind active. Although he is a capable and well researched writer a couple of weaknesses were notable. First, although the book contains a lot of notes the documentation system was frustrating. Perhaps Horowitz wanted to avoid the look and feel of a heavily footnoted academic work. Whatever the reason for the choice, I would have preferred a traditional system of notation. Second, the book leads the reader to assume a type of simple continuity that the author controls through the selection of individuals and events to focus on. As a result some of the historical conclusions are a bit strained. For example, Horowitz assumes that a development such as local churches counseling people on finances, addictions, etc. is necessarily linked to similar commitments within occult groups simply because they were advocated earlier. This leads to an oversimplified conclusion about the relationship between historical events thus underemphasizing the impetus (and precedent) for such developments within Christian history and theology and overemphasizing the contribution of those ideas from occult sources. There are often various historical threads and trajectories that combine to lead to certain social, economic, and political changes in any community. Horowitz rightly points out that occult ideology has been one of them but by isolating that particular thread in his narrative the historical causality becomes a bit oversimplified.

Despite this, Horowitz does a good job of tracing a number of important and influential developments that anyone who has a concern with the spiritual culture of our country and our communities should be aware of. Too often Christians make the same kind of mistake in oversimplifying their own tradition’s contributions to historical and cultural developments and tend to think of U.S. history as basically Christian history with a few other ideas thrown in. The truth, as Horowitz shows, is far more complex. Public culture and even religious culture in the United States has been shaped by a number of ideas that many people are not aware of. Although the author is writing from a perspective sympathetic to unbiblical views he is touching on an important historical truth that Christians should be aware of.

It is of vital importance that as Christians we understand the ideas of those around us. We need to be conscious of their influence in our own thinking and in our churches. We are commanded in the Bible to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” but we cannot do this if we are not evaluating every thought by Christ’s standard. There are many ideas even being taught in our Churches that do not originate in the Scriptures but are instead a synthesis of Biblical ideas with other philosophies. One does not have to listen for very long to the “Word of Faith” teachers so prominently displayed on cable T.V. before recognizing a direct line between their doctrines and those of the mystical mind-power teachers that Horowitz discusses in his book. There is a direct and recognizable trajectory between the teachings of the new thought movement and its antecedents not only in secular motivational literature such as Dale Carnegie but also, largely through the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, in many Christian Churches.

Horowitz points out that many occult and mystical ideas have weaved their way into our social consciousness so that they do not appear to us to be esoteric at all. In fact, as I am typing this article in the background there is a well known medical doctor who has a mystical teacher as a guest on his T.V. show teaching transcendental meditation as a way to relieve stress. I wonder how many Christians will recognize that these techniques have a theological basis in a worldview that is fundamentally different from the one taught in the Bible. It is an excellent example of what Horowitz (from the other side of the issue) is pointing out about our culture.

As Christians we must understand the influence of all sorts of ideas that are shaping our culture and pressuring our Churches so that we might adequately present the Gospel and make clear the differences between the doctrines of God and those of men. Doing so begins with a commitment to know the Scriptures so that we can make discerning comparisons between the Truth found there and all other ideas. Although Horowitz is writing from a perspective sympathetic to the occult he does the Church a service in making us aware of the varied influences that other mystical traditions have had on the culture around us and even in our own Churches. I recommend the book be read with discernment by anyone interested in the influence of religion on our culture.