Thursday, December 23, 2010

Both And, And/Or, Either Or

I have often heard people claim that doctrine is not important. The alternative then presented is relationship. I would like to suggest that this is a false and unnecessary dichotomy. It might be argued that relationship is more important than doctrine. I would yet insist that this is a false and unnecessary dichotomy. Before I proceed, I will offer a slight disclaimer. I understand the intention behind the words “doctrine is not important” (or words to this effect). However, I am stating that this is a poor and counterproductive way of communicating. We might say it is a carelessly stated doctrine. I will explain by making two points.

From a Christian perspective, the central relationship in question would be our relationship with Jesus. I completely affirm that no amount of good information (doctrine), void of this relationship with Christ produces the outcome toward which God is working. However, my first, caution regarding the dichotomy between doctrine and relationship is the close association between the person of Christ and truth. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, states the following concerning doctrine: “In a general sense, whatever is taught. Hence, a principle or position in any science; whatever is laid down as true by an instructor or master. The doctrines of the gospel are the principles or truths taught by Christ and his apostles. The doctrines of Plato are the principles which he taught. Hence, a doctrine may be true or false; it may be a mere tenet or opinion.” Admittedly, there is such a thing as bad doctrine. Does that make doctrine bad? My point, before I comment to the point I make, is that Jesus closely associates Himself with truth and truth is too closely associated with doctrine to wage war against or cast doubt upon the importance of doctrine and all of this is intimately connected to relationship. There is no need to create tension regarding this issue and doing so will likely have a negative impact upon the relationship that is so highly valued to those who promote the idea. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth (aletheia), and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6) We are told that, “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) There are, as well, such well known statements as “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32), “…everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock” (Matthew 7:24), “…the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Matthew 13:23) and “…make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Along with the above point is the emphasis Scripture places upon doctrine (teaching). We find that the armor Paul uses to illustrate the Christians equipment for battle begins and ends with truth (Ephesians 6:14, 17). Paul tells Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching (didaskalia – doctrine, instruction); persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." (1 Timothy 4:16) Paul speaks of those who perish because they did not receive a love of the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Finally, we read that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching (didaskalia – doctrine, instruction), for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Rather discarding or devaluating doctrine, a more constructive approach would be to emphasize the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood and the importance of good doctrine and effective study. When doctrine and relationship are viewed as antagonistic to one another, I fear that the resulting relationships will be shallow and the Christian in question will be unequipped to persuade others of the importance of the relationship. I have heard people say that when God decided to save man, He didn’t send a tract, He sent His Son. In fact, He sent both. We have the written and preserved Word, a revelation of truth and the incarnate Word. Concerning the issue of doctrine and relationship we are looking at a “both and”, not an “either or”. Let us not play into the hand of the postmodern relativists and deconstructionists among us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On the Kingdom of God

A number of years ago, as I was preparing a sermon, I was led to express the challenge we face as the human race with a statement that opened with the line; "Our task is to put things in their proper place". Recently I have been impressed with the importance of understanding the mission of the church in terms of furthering the kingdom of God in the nations. This task involves structuring our various social relationships according to the principles of God's design and purpose for such relationships. We engage in such an endeavor as an expression of love and trust in the wisdom and goodness of God. In the process, we will encounter a wide variety of ideologies that suggest an alternative arrangement for the aforementioned relationships. Such ideologies are the inventions of the mind of man whereas the kingdom of God is based upon the mind of God revealed to the mind of man. The kingdom of God, therefore, is not to be seen as an ideology.

One of the ideological challenges we currently face comes in the form of postmodernism. The difficulty encountered with a perspective like postmodernism is the radical relativism it encourages. Such relativism denies that there is any real, measurable value to anything by assigning an unqualified equality to all views. This eliminates the possibility of an absolute standard and denies that God's truth is above man's ideologies (at the very least it denies that we can know it with a satisfying degree of certainty). It discredits the endeavor to identify, understand and communicate the principles of the kingdom of God as revealed to the mind of man. In its reaction against and refutation of modernity, postmodernism commits the proverbial error of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Reacting to modernity's failure to arrive at utopia through man's reasoning powers has led proponents of postmodernism to become cynical and skeptical when it comes to truth claims and reason. The error of modernity is found in its radical independence from God and over enthusiastic trust in man.

God, in wisdom and love, has designed our social relationships to function fruitfully upon immutable principles. The principles will have varying applications but the principles remain constant. We have the option of violating or honoring such principles. Christianity, though some have waged war against the title, is to focus on redeeming and reconciling all things unto Christ. This involves identifying, applying and communicating the aforementioned principles.

Such principles begin with the relationship one has with "self". This is inherently tied into the relationship one has with God. If we fail to put "self" in its proper place, problems will arise. The most fundamental statement we can make about "self" is that it is not more important or valuable than God. Correcting any error that might exist on this level is associated with the doctrine of repentance. Once repentance is a reality, the individual will need to address a variety of other issues according to the principles that apply to having a right relationship with oneself and with God.

Without attempting to suggest a specific order in which such relational issues unfold and without intending to expound upon pertinent details in this posting, we have the task of dealing with principles that apply to social relationships known as friendships. This would pertain to those with whom we identify and pursue levels of intimacy. As an example, we can refer to Proverbs 18:24 and 2 Corinthians 6:14.

Continuing to make the basic point of this posting, we must deal with principles that apply to family relationships, business relationship, recreational relationships, educational relationships, governmental relationships, etc. Either each area of social relationship will either be informed by principles that agree with God's design and purpose for the relationship in question or it will be informed by a humanistic ideology.

This is a central dimension to the mission of the church and its task to disciple nations, preach the good news about the kingdom of God, promoting and encouraging it to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Path to Genuine Peace is Paved with Conflict.

Isaiah 9:1-7
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. Thou shalt multiply the nation, Thou shalt increase their gladness;
they will be glad in Thy presence as with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For Thou shalt break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

Here we have a text that describes a land (a designated group of people, a nation) that was facing serious conflict. The conflict was due, as it generally is, to bad civil government and irresponsible, self absorbed citizenry. Surely, this is not unlike today in many "lands" throughout the earth.

The reference to Zebulon, Naphtali and Galilee speaks of areas that had a bad reputation due to pagan influence. In every age, we must discern whether we, as a people, in our personal, individual lives and our corporate, institutional spheres are operating according to principles of God’s kingdom, as revealed in Scripture, or being influenced to think and act according to the deceptive philosophies, ideologies and principles of "the world". Many years after the text we are considering, a Messianic Jew living in the Roman Empire warned the people of his day by writing, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." (Colossians 2:8, NASB) The warning is not against philosophy itself, but against philosophy that promotes ideas that do not further the administration of God. He also wrote, "...do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2; NAS)

Isaiah speaks to the people of his day about a day of light and joy and deliverance that is to come. The joy he refers to is compared to the joy one experiences at the time of harvest and during te dividing of the spoils of war. The time of harvest refers to the end of a process after labors wisely designed and engaged in toward that specific end. Dividing spoils of war has the same implications within the context of the end of a victorious battle. It's important to recognize the prevalence of the theme of battle in text such as this as it sets a meaningful and pertinent stage for accomplishing the work of God and furthering His kingdom, increasing His government. I am not suggesting that we can advance the kingdom of God by way of military force as some religious groups assume and attempt. I am, however, declaring that advancing the kingdom of God by way of persuasion and influence will take place in an atmosphere of conflict. One might say that the path to genuine peace is paved with conflict. This involves spiritual warfare and ideological battles.

The reference made by Isaiah to the battle of Midian would turn our attention to the victory Gideon had with limited manpower. This is a form of encouragement to workers who are few. It often appears to our natural senses that the task is too great since the workers and resources are limited. Victory, however, is at hand when the faithful few, in the power of God, put their hands to the plow and move forward.

Albert Barnes states, “Most of the picture seems to have been that of battles, conflicts, sieges, dimness, and thick darkness. But in one portion of the passing scene there was light. It was the light that he saw rising in the distant and darkened Galilee. He saw the joy of the people; the armor of war laid aside; the image of peace succeeding; the light expanding and becoming more intense as the darkness retired, until he saw in this region the Prince of Peace - the Sun of Righteousness itself. The eye of the prophet gazed intently on that scene, and was fixed on that portion of the picture: he sees the Messiah in his office, and describes him as already come, and as born unto the nation.”

It is noteworthy that passages such as this are spoken in a present moment about the future in language that speaks of certainty. These things will happen. Isaiah speaks of something that is not yet a reality but will be. A word of caution is appropriate at this point. We should not allow this to encourage a passive attitude or approach on our part. This is often a tendency. What we must understand is that Scripture everywhere affirms that such things become a reality through an appropriate process. We must humbly realize that the process involves plans and provisions made by God along with a proper response on the part of God's people. Understanding and recognizing this is of great importance to the church and its mission in the world today! Our mission involves the proclamation and advancement of the kingdom of God. Isaiah says, "the government will rest on His shoulders". This speaks of the idea that Jesus will reign as king of a kingdom. The goal is that all earthly kingdoms will rightly be subordinate to His ultimate authority and leadership. A "yoke" that is easy. An authority (as bad as this word appears to some) that eventually produces genuine peace, as opposed to counterfeit, make-believe, pretend peace that comes by ignoring unrighteousness and moral evil. One of the parables presented by the Messiah spoken of by Isaiah was, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32, NASB) The rulers and kingdoms of the earth will someday find their proper "resting place", their Sabbath in Him. This will come about, not through the power of military force and takeover but through the power of persuasion in the midst and atmosphere of conflict.

Though there is much more that could be said, I will draw my conclusion by referring to one of the titles given in Isaiah's prophesy.

Prince of Peace

Consider these words spoken by the one referred to as the Prince of Peace. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it." (Matthew 10:34-39, NASB) And again, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53, NASB)

I would suggest that redemptive history unfolds in degrees, according to appropriate stages and processes. The path to genuine peace is paved with conflict. As in His days on planet earth, we do not currently see Jesus governing as the Prince of Peace. The conflict has not yet been properly addressed and resolved. There is more energy put into avoiding conflict than facing and resolving it. This conflict is essentially over ideas, philosophies and ideologies. We might say that they are the presuppositions upon which all of life, personal and corporate, is lived. All of the provisions for victory have been made but the church in this age, like the nation of Israel in the past age, has a role to play in the ultimate fulfillment of this victory.

A Child was born and a Son was given because God uses humans to reach humans. Do we really believe that God would have the government will rest on His shoulders? That He is a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace. Do we want to experience the reality that there will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace? Let us turn our attention away from speculations that do not further the administration of God. Let us free ourselves from the entanglements of everyday life, put our hands to the plow and fulfill the mission / task we've been given. Proper doctrine will encourage the body of Christ to see its "calling" in the right light and inspire us to accomplish our mission.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Furthering the Administration of God

The Apostle Paul urged his young disciple Timothy to remain in Ephesus in order to prevent certain men from disseminating ideas that merely produce speculation. If you were to remove this from a task given to a character in the Bible and imagine a spiritual leader giving this assignment to you, it is likely that it would be seen as a relatively unpleasant and challenging obligation. It is probable that our new, improved postmodern Christian would simply reject the assignment. That being said, I am struck by Paul's concern. In the NAS we read that certain ideas, "...give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God...". The phrase "administration of God" is of interest.
Without lengthy efforts to validate the following I would simply like to suggest that our ultimate mission as the body of Christ is to embrace and advance the government or kingdom of God on earth. This is not a kingdom that can be established by physical force but by truth and moral transfomation. It is a kingdom that consists of human beings humbly embracing and operating within the reality of God's design for every area of individual and corporate life. Indentifying and proclaiming the truth about God's design for every area of individual and corporate life is preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. While we live out God's design in our own individual and corporate areas of life we are to, as well, proclaim the good news of the kingdom. To do this as an expression of love for God and man is the ultimate mission of the church. This is discipling nations. This is speaking the truth in love. Let us not, however, be naive. There are forces that are in serious opposition to the fulfillment of this mission. As seen in Paul's statement to Timothy, there is a need to silence the misleading ideas that others will proclaim. In a letter to the Corinthians Paul states, "...the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every alofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete...".
My point is simple. The world is full of ideologies that are intended to prevent the kingdom of God from being advanced and established. Our tasks is to, both, dismantle such false philosophy and offer the world a radiant understanding of the glories of God and His kingdom in both word and deed. My question to you is, "Do you really beleive that God knows what is best for us and has our best interests at heart?"