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Category: Church

The Degradation of Secular and Church Culture

As a seminary student whose education is primarily provided through the generosity of my local church’s support (financial, time away, prayers, etc.), I believe it is incumbent upon me to share the riches of God’s truth that I am learning with the generous people of the church. One way that I do this is through my systematic theology series’ that I post here regularly. Another way I do it is by teaching the youth group at my church the same things in Sunday School and on Wednesday nights. A third way I can do this is by sharing thoughtful moments with you that I experience in class.

Being at seminary this week, there is opportunity for me to do this. I am currently taking Pastoral Theology from a retired pastor, Dr. Douglas McLachlan, who will turn 74 later this week. He has spent much of his life in pastoral ministry and his love for the word and the people of God is evident. This is the type of class I would not want to take from a 35-year old teaching theoretically from a textbook, so I am grateful for the vast experience that Dr. McLachlan possesses and is able to share with us in class.

Something he had us read is worth contemplating here. Below are two passages from an author by the name of David Wells, writing on contemporary secular and church culture, and one’s impact upon the other. I think Wells is accurate. May God purify and strengthen His church for His glory and our good.


What is striking about our culture today is that its corruption is not simply at the edges. It is not simply found among the cultured elite, the New Class that stands at the gates of our national institutions to bar entry to those whose views are judged to be intolerable. It is not simply found among postmodern academics who are bent upon overturning all meaning and moral principle, or among vicious street gangs, or among rappers who spew forth obscenities and violence, or among the venders of pornography, or in the bizarre and unashamed revelations of deeply private matters that are aired on television talk shows. What is striking is that this corruption is ubiquitous. It is not located in this or that pocket of depravity, but is spread like a dense fog throughout our society.  It is even spread by those who are safe, ordinary, dull, and dim-witted, and not merely by the incendiary and bellicose, the subversive and anti-social. “Wherever one looks,” writes Robert Bork, “the traditional virtues of this culture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded – in short, the culture itself is unraveling.” And the American public apparently agrees with this diagnosis. An overwhelming majority, 90 percent, believes that America is slipping ever deeper into a “moral decline.”  (“Our Dying Culture” in Here We Stand – edited by James Montgomery Boice and Benjamin E. Sasse, Baker Books, 1996, pp. 25-26)

In the Old and New Testaments, the moments of great impact in the world were never those in which the people of God became indistinguishable from those in their world. When this happened it was a moment of spiritual debauchery. In order to influence the world, the people of God have to be quite different from it cognitively and morally. The irony is that to be relevant, the church has to be otherworldly; and when this spiritual otherness is extinguished by the ache for this worldly acceptance, it loses the thing that it wants above all else – relevance. The church eventually discovers, to its great dismay, that it has lost its voice and no longer has anything left to say. That is the discovery that now seems to be looming ahead of the evangelical world. It is the iceberg that awaits the Titanic as those on-board persuade themselves of their invincibility and pass the days in partying. (“The Word in the World” in The Compromised Church – edited by John H. Armstrong, Crossway Books, 1998, pp. 32-33)

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Why I Cannot Call Myself a Fundamentalist

Understanding a good definition of the word fundamentalism as I am using it here will be crucial. I cannot take an iota of credit for this definition since I enlisted the help of a pastor and theologian, who I consider to be a good fundamentalist himself, to craft it. Fundamentalism is:

the belief that the gospel rests on a number of essential commitments, such that a denial of those commitments undermines the gospel itself, with the further conviction that Christian fellowship cannot be extended to those who undermine the gospel, and that extending such fellowship is an outrageous diminishing of the gospel’s value

In short, fundamentalists believe that Christians should refuse to extend Christian fellowship to apostates, and that Christians who do so are effectively forcing an unnecessary separation between themselves and faithful Christians. A faithful Christian cannot possibly have full, unfettered fellowship with a brother who is sinning by offering Christian fellowship to apostates. Some level of separation (or interruption) of fellowship is inherent with an unrepentant, wayward brother. While fundamentalists are called “separatists,” there is a sense in which the erring brother is the one forcing the issue of separation, although it is rarely viewed that way since it is always left up to the fundamentalist to both point out and live in light of the reality of the separation that exists there. Erring brothers do not police themselves.

This is the positive side of fundamentalism. The ideal. Fidelity to the doctrinal reality of biblical separation. But fundamentalists are notorious for some negative things. As the same pastor put it, the excesses of fundamentalism often include “Putting too much in the ‘essential commitments'” basket. In other words, they make mountains out of mole hills doctrinally. The most famous example of this is probably the embarrassing fundamentalist practice of making the Bible version you use a test of fellowship. Another negative trait would be “doctrinal reductionism.” This is the opposite error, in which historical creeds and confessions with strong doctrinal content are eschewed in favor of weaker modern statements that prove far less helpful in drawing any real lines of demarcation. This helps to explain why some self-proclaimed fundamentalist churches have surprisingly contemporary worship services. If the songs utilized meet some bare doctrinal minimum, there is no other basis on which to evaluate them. Finally, many fundamentalists have been poor exegetes who are marked by doctrinal ignorance, are suspicious of theological education, and are adept at abusing the Scriptures through allegory and proof-texting. But because of their skillful employment of the most egregious bombastry you can imagine, their influence over the kinds of people who delight in oral flatulence has been no small matter.

In principle, the idea of fundamentalism is a good one. The problem is that most who call themselves fundamentalists either have long forgotten the idea, or cannot bring themselves to execute it without adulterating it. But a good fundamentalist, one who understands the idea, commits to it, and does not abuse it for his own ends, is, in my view, at an advantage over those Christians who ignore it. If the idea is biblical (and I think it is), it can’t be any other way. Obedience is always better than disobedience. And for the rest of this article, when I use the term fundamentalist, I am referring to the good kind, unless otherwise noted.

Now that you have some very basic ideas of fundamentalism in place, let’s proceed.


 

I recently attended a gathering of conservative Christians in Rockford, IL, and was reminded why I cannot take the label “fundamentalist” for myself. Before I tell you why, let me back the train up and explain some of my backstory.

I have been exposed to several different strains of so-called “fundamentalism” in my brief existence on planet Earth. But somehow, it never dawned on me that there were different strains, so naturally I lumped everyone who used that label into the same category. Guys who know everything don’t care much for the effort required in nuance.

Like many young people of my generation (young thirty-somethings), I didn’t like many of the things I saw in the movement, and since I assumed that those things tainted all of this supposed single gelatinous mass called fundamentalism, I decided as a wise young teenager that I wanted no part of that label for my remaining days on said Planet.

These feelings towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists, persisted for more than ten years, but mostly in the background since the Lord moved my wife and I to an area that really didn’t have any fundamentalist influence or issues.

But two years ago I ran into a fundamentalist whom I hadn’t seen since I was 18. If you’re following my story, you’ll remember I didn’t care much for fundamentalists at 18, and this guy was no different. I had met him once and despised him. But being 30 when I ran into him again, I had learned at least enough to grudgingly consider the possibility that maybe the 18-year-old me wasn’t actually all-wise (and was certainly in sin), and perhaps I should try again with this guy. My wife and I went to coffee with him and ended up spending three hours together. I apologized for my foolishness as a teen and we moved on to talk about other serious matters.

I don’t remember many specifics of the conversation, but I was soon to become an associate pastor and I knew I needed mentors. After our meeting, I also knew that I wanted that group to include men like this. He didn’t live near me, but he was able to connect me with a pastor close to my area who was willing to take me on in what I am sure has turned out to be a more sizable project than he envisioned. Through this pastor I was connected with more men who share fundamentalist values, and eventually to a seminary which I now attend part-time.

To be clear, I have also been greatly impacted by men who would not consider themselves fundamentalists, and I love and admire these men. But this particular article focuses on fundamentalism because of my lifelong reticence to be identified with it, and therefore what I consider to be a seismic shift taking place in my attitude in this area. At the very least, it is surprising.

Over these past two years, the Lord has repeatedly convicted and rebuked me for my lifelong quickness to instantly judge a book by its cover and permanently write that person off. I have been helped spiritually and pastorally by men who I would have scorned just a few years ago. I have seen men who call themselves fundamentalists prove to be God-fearing men who seek not just to know him theologically and intellectually (which is important), but to love Him with their whole being, and to help others to do the same. When I see former college mates that I used to mock and tear down (behind their backs, of course), guys who I would have been embarrassed to be seen with at meal time in the dining hall, living out conservative, fundamental, loving values in their lives and ministries, I am rebuked again.

I do not measure up to these men.

But for all its good, fundamentalism is shrinking. Many guys my age have been hurt by the wrong kinds of fundamentalism and have looked elsewhere for a people and a place. This is unfortunate since fundamentalism’s big idea is biblically sound. The errors of the worst kinds of fundamentalists have driven away a large swath of the thirty-somethings. Some of these will realize later in life that their new peoples and places have ugly scars of their own. No place is perfect. For now, they will not call themselves fundamentalists.

And neither will I.

But our reasons will be different. For while they reject the label based on the wrong kinds of fundamentalism, I reject it based on the right. You see, I cannot take the label fundamentalist for myself – not because I do not want it – but because I have not earned it.

How Important Is Doctrine? – Part 4

In our fourth and final post in this series (which started here), we are exploring the severe consequences of ditching doctrine and then building our own models of living and loving. We will discuss two biblical examples of this error.

 

The Carnal Corinthians and the Doctrine of the Physical Resurrection: 1 Cor. 15

As Paul has been doing all throughout 1 Corinthians, he is correcting error in doctrine and practice (read the whole book to see how doctrine and practice are both important). One notable thing about this passage is that Paul is correcting a doctrinal error that many Christians would look to as “secondary” at best: the doctrine of the resurrection. No, I’m not talking about Christ’s Resurrection. I’m talking about the resurrection of our physical bodies. Many Christians today wouldn’t be disturbed by a professing believer denying this doctrine. What’s the big deal?

Apparently it was a pretty big deal to Paul. And for good reason. Paul logically argues that if you don’t have the resurrection of physical bodies in general, then you can’t have the specific Resurrection of Christ’s body. And if that’s the case, we are all hopeless. Our faith depends on His Resurrection, and His Resurrection depends on the reality of bodily physical resurrection (vv. 12-19). In other words, by denying a “minor” doctrine, the Corinthians were implicitly denying the Gospel itself, which is based entirely on the death and resurrection of Christ (vv. 1-4). The Corinthians, in their lack of knowledge, wisdom, and discernment (remember Php. 1:9-11), were eviscerating the Gospel itself due to their own foolishness. Christians are still doing this today. If you are not able to identify them, more than likely you will eventually identify with them.

 

The Curse of Encouraging False Teachers: 2 John

In this passage the Apostle John is addressing false doctrine, just as he did in his first epistle. This time he does it in just one short chapter. For some reason he was unable to write a longer discourse to them at this time (v. 12), which implies that the little bit he did write was the most important thing he could have told them. It was the most urgent, therefore he wrote it right away until he could come to them and tell them the rest in person. What did he have to say that was so important? Take in verses 7-11:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; 11 for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.

He tells them this: there are a bunch of false teachers out there. They are deceivers and antichrists. What are they to do about it? Watch themselves. What do you suppose he meant? He is imploring them to watch their doctrine and take great care to keep it pure. What will happen if they don’t? They will lose eternal rewards (v. 8). They will receive less than they would have received if they had obeyed him. If that idea doesn’t motivate us, there are deeper problems that need to be addressed.

In verse 9 he goes on to tell us that these Christ-denying heretics are not in the faith. They are not Christians. They are apostates.

Now, do you suppose the apostates were running around saying, “Hey guys, check me out, I’m a Christ-denier! I don’t love the truth! Follow me!” Probably not. Nor will that ever be the case. The deceivers are just that. Deceitful. They are going to say many of the right things. They are going to sound beautifully orthodox to the undiscerning, and even the less-discerning, ear. They are going to deceive those who disdain doctrine, and those who smirk at sound teaching. The spiritually gullible will feed on what the false teachers are selling.

In addition to the harm that this will do to them and those in their sphere of influence, the consequences actually prove far worse than we might expect. How so? In verse 10 John explicitly commands us not even to offer a civil greeting to a false teacher coming to you to hawk his goods. As I understand it, that’s what the word often translated “greeting” means here. Not even a ‘hi.’ Not even a ‘good day.’ Nothing that would encourage him in his work. Here’s the kicker: John says if you even give him the encouragement of a civil greeting, you’re now a shareholder in his wickedness. You now partake in the tragedy of those that are poisoned as a result of your encouragement of this false teacher. If the civility you showed him gave him just enough strength to poison one more person, you own a part of that enterprise. Is that motivation enough to love sound doctrine? Does that make doctrine important enough to take vigorously pursue?

 

What should we do?

Go to the Word. Grow in the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment that only its doctrines can offer (Php. 1:9-11). Mature past the milk and on to the meat of the Word by exercising (Hebrews 5:14)! This is exactly how Paul diagnosed his beloved, foolish Corinthians. After rebuking their milk dependency in Chapter 3,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?

he closes the book with this positive admonition in Chapter 16, which is the antidote to their problem:

13 Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.

Additionally, pray! As you pursue God in His Word, pray for His help. Ask Him for true biblical love that is bounded by wisdom, and knowledge, and discernment. This is exactly what James tells a group of suffering saints to do in 1:5 of his epistle (ironically, some scholars even think that their sufferings were related to their lack of wisdom).

Finally, as John said above, watch yourselves! Abide in the teaching of God’s Word (doctrine). You cannot divide doctrine and practice and maintain a grip on the Christian faith. You cannot divide doctrine and love and be faithful to Scripture. It cannot be done for Scripture does not do it, and therefore, we are not allowed to do it either.

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