The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Church: 15. The Essence of Worship--Part IV

The Church: The Essence of Worship: Part IV


Two misguided human pursuits are the aspiration to self-rule apart from God and devotion to something other than God.  In the ink of these two alternatives, human history is written. Over against this story, however, is the story of God in human history, creating and providing an alternative that culminates in the work of Jesus Christ.

The experiment of the Western Enlightenment, leading from a deistic rationalism to an atheistic existentialism, is characterised by human aspirations to self-rule, life apart from God. Evangelism in the West has often involved responding to the claim that there is no God.  Whereas the practical implications of such a debate used to focus around such issues as praying in public schools or on the sports fields, increasingly the issues of an a-theistic culture have to do with moral freedom.

In non-Western cultures, the issue is not whether God exists but who or what demands our devotion.  This might come in the form of competing religions, or it might come in the form of social commitments, including devotion to the ancestors.

Two Human Aspirations in Scripture

In Scripture, we see these two misguided pursuits. The first, the human claim that there is no God, is equally an aspiration to autonomous existence, self-rule.  Thus, it is not simply disbelief in God’s existence; it is further a claim made by the wicked, who do not follow God’s Law.  The psalmist says, ‘In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, "God will not seek it out"; all their thoughts are, "There is no God”’ (Psalm 10.4).  Atheism does not just claim that God does not exist; it is also a prideful aspiration to self-rule that leads to a life lived apart from any relationship with God, any acknowledgement of His judgement, and any interest in obeying His righteous commandments.  The atheist sets himself or herself up in place of God, making claims to things that rightfully are God's alone.

The second misguided human pursuit is idolatry, devotion directed to some other deity or thing than the one true God.  Israel’s story is one of being chosen to worship God, as opposed to the idols of other nations.  Israel's story is also, sadly, one of failing to give God her sole devotion, ,becoming like the other nations in idolatry.  The prophet Isaiah’s vision for a final outcome to this story is when ‘every knee shall bow’ to the one and only God (Isaiah 45.23)—a vision that will be accomplished in the worlds devotion to Jesus Christ (Philippians 2.10-11).

Thus, there are two views that Scripture counters:

  1.  Humans themselves vying for divine status;
  2. Humans devoting themselves to something other than God, creating their own objects of worship—idols.

Autodeism: Humans Vying for Divine Status

Scripture, a collection of different types of writing in three different languages by different authors over hundreds and hundreds of years, begins and ends with the same human challenge to God.  The first eleven chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, focus on the human condition that results from humans vying for divine status, what we might call ‘autodeism,’ humans making divine claims for themselves.  Atheism is really a type of autodeism, focused more on the claim that there is no God than on the corollary explored in Scripture that humans set themselves up in place of God.  Yet the one implies the other: if God does not exist, then humans step into His role.

Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible, ends with the divine pretensions of a human ruler and empire.  In Genesis 1-11, three attempts to raise humans to divine status are made:

  1. The Fall and humanity’s aspirations to moral divinity: The human attempt to take on divine authority in moral judgement.  Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that they might become like God (Gen. 3).  The judgement of God includes their not being allowed to live forever.
  2. The Nephilim and humanity’s aspirations to heroic divinity: The human attempt to use god-like power on the earth.  The Nephilim were the children born from the ‘sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men’ (Gen. 6).  The judgement of God involves shortening their lifespan to 120 years and, ultimately, destroying  everyone other than Noah and his family.
  3. The Tower of Babel and humanity’s aspirations to divine achievement: The human attempt to develop to such an extent that they take on divine capabilities.  The judgement of God involves diversifying the people by making them speak in different languages (Gen. 11).
The book of Revelation depicts Rome and the Roman Empire as the epitome of human aspirations to divinity.  The emperor aspires to divinity (ch. 13) just as the empire aspires to military and economic greatness (chs. 17-18).

Idolatry: Human Devotion to Anything Other than God

In the rest of Scripture, however, misguided human aspirations are not so much the attempt to replace divinity with human beings but to replace God and the worship of God with something else.  This is either literally or figuratively idolatry.  The story of redemptive history is the story of God reclaiming the devotion of His creation, the restoration of His own glory.  Out of the chaos of the misguided, divine aspirations of humanity in Gen. 1-11, God called Abram (Gen. 12).  In His covenant with Abram (Gen. 12.1-3), God reversed the situation by granting what humanity strove to accomplish:

  1. Great Nation: Despite Adam and Eve’s failed attempt to achieve justice through their own knowledge and rule, God promises that He would make the children of Abram into a great nation.  Despite Adam and Eve being severed from the land of Eden, God gives to their offspring a new land of their own.
  2. Great Name: Despite the Nephilim heroes of old seeking to make a great name for themselves, God promises that He would make the name of Abram great.  He would be the hero, not because of His own greatness but because of God’s blessing.
  3. Great Achievement: Despite the efforts at divine achievement by humans building the Tower of Babel, God would make Adam (and his offspring) a blessing among the nations.
God’s Redemption of Humanity and His Reclamation of His Due Glory

As Christians, we worship the one, true God over all creation.  We give God the glory due to Him, neither setting ourselves up as alternative divinities nor devoting ourselves to alternatives to God.  Our understanding of God is Trinitarian: the one God’s eternal, personal relatedness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three Persons (not three Gods!).  Our devotion to Jesus and worship of Him makes the claim that He is God—all that God is, Jesus the Word of God is (John 1.1).  We believe that Jesus is the eternal ‘Son’ of God—not in the sense of a physical son, of course, but in the sense of the eternal relationship within the Godhead.  And we believe that Jesus became human to redeem humanity and reclaim His due glory.  In this, we believe that the misguided aspirations toward ‘Autodeism’ and Idolatry are reversed, and right devotion is reestablished through Jesus Christ.

  1. Christ Reverses Humanity’s Aspirations to Moral Divinity: Thus, God in human flesh accomplishes the misguided aspirations of Adam and Eve to make their own moral judgements and to rule creation apart from God.  Jesus Christ alone is righteous, tested as we are and yet without sin (Heb. 4.15).  The restoration of order involves a mission of teaching the nations the commandments of Jesus (Matthew 28.20).
  2.  Christ Reverses Humanity’s Heroic Divinity: We also worship Jesus as Lord (e.g., Romans 10.9).  He is not some god-man hero, whether as the Nephilim in pre-Noachic times or in the Greek and Roman myths.  He is God incarnate: not half god and half man but fully God and fully human.  And yet His rule is an aspect of His accomplishment of victory over sin and death (Eph. 1.17-23).  His victory over sin was accomplished in the flesh by sacrificially shedding His blood on the cross to redeem us from our sins and reconcile us to God.  His victory over death was accomplished by being raised bodily from the dead (1 Cor. 15.54-57).
  3. Christ Reverses Humanity’s Aspirations to Divine Achievement: We further believe that Jesus’ great achievement of conquering sin and death is the means by which God has reestablished His blessing of all nations, all humanity.  Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5.6), for us—sinners (Rom. 5.8; cf. 1 Cor. 15.3), for all (2 Cor. 5.14.  His gift of grace was abundant and free (Rom. 5.15).  In Christ, the divisions of humanity are overcome (Eph. 2.14).  Human aspirations are rightly ordered only as Christ is head, and it is in this way that the full stature of humanity is achieved (Eph. 4.13).
  4. Christ Redirects Humanity’s False Devotions to Things Other than God: Jesus Christ is presented, in the vision of John in the book of Revelation, as the sacrificial Lamb who receives divine worship (ch. 5).  He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and it is into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that Christians are baptized (Matthew 28.18-19).  To be a Christian is to forsake false devotions and be redirected to worship the One, true God by being reconciled to the Father through the work of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Because we are His children, ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 4.6).[1]

In all this, then, Jesus has overcome the misguided aspirations of humanity, with its self-devotion and misdirected devotions.  As we worship Him, we lay down our pretentions to determine our own morality apart from God and become our own judges of good and evil.  As we worship Him, we abandon our vain aspirations to heroic rule apart from His Lordship.  As we worship Him, we give up a misguided hope in human achievements and progress to acknowledge that the greatest gift is the grace of God through Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, bringing us redemption from sin and reconciliation to God and one another.  And, as we worship Him, we put away our idols, our alternative devotions that pull us away from God. 

[1] ‘Abba’ is the Aramaic word for ‘Father.’  If carries the dual meaning of one with parental authority and parental love.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Issues Facing Missions Today: 46. (Some) Values for American, Evangelical Voters

Issues Facing Missions Today: 46. (Some) Values for American, Evangelical Voters

Dear Evangelical Voters in Iowa:

You represent the rest of us Evangelicals in the news these days as the American nation watches how you will vote in the upcoming party elections for president of the United States.  We can appreciate your opposition to Democratic candidates, who advocate killing the unborn and oppose Biblical marriage in the name of freedom.  Yet support for one Republican candidate over another is also a difficult challenge for any Evangelical.  One leading candidate who claims to be a Christian seems rather obviously to be doing so only to win votes.  He certainly has little understanding of Christian values, even arguing the other night on the O’Reilly Factor that Christians teach ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  Some other candidates are more closely connected to the Church, and yet we should cringe when hearing some of their views.  Christians are not a voting block to be wooed and owned, but representatives of a different Kingdom altogether.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3.20).  Stand firm in your witness.

Perhaps some helpful clarification about values is given to us by Richard Bauckham’s recent book, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures.[1]  He examines two related sets of values in chapters 4 and 5: those of globalization and Western understandings of the value of freedom.  These only cover some of the issues, but they do engage key matters that arise in voting in a general election in a country such as America.  Values of globalization and Western freedom stand over against Christian values and yet, it seems, some of us Evangelicals are confused over what is really cultural and what is really Biblical.  Biblical, Christian teaching on God’s reign conflicts radically with understandings of global rule, and we should expect that elections regularly bring out these differences for us—voting for Christians should be difficult—very difficult—as we are entering a different context from that of the Church to cast that vote.  It is when there is no perceived conflict between Christian and cultural values, whether liberal or conservative, that interpreters of the faith go horribly astray.

While Bauckham does not enumerate the various values as here, the following points do cover the discussion in Bauckham’s two chapters.

The Values of Globalization versus Biblical Values

Bauckham notes that we are living in a day of globalization, but he explores what this entails not just in our day but also in earlier centuries as well.  One can appreciate certain similarities between empires of the past—from Nebuchadnezzar to the British Empire—and the various political and economic global powers in the present.  Whenever Americans vote, they not only have their local and national issues before them, but also the question of America’s global influence.  So, here are some ways to think Biblically about some of the values of globalization facing us today.  Values of globalism include the values of:

1.       A privileged nation.  If you find yourself thinking that you are part of a privileged nation, chosen by God more than some other nation, read: Genesis 1; Psalm 97.9; 47.8; 145.9; 96.13; and Psalm 98.4.
2.       A privileged race.  If you find yourself preferring one race over another, read the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and Paul's comment in Acts 17.26.
3.       A privileged culture.  If you find yourself favouring one culture over another, read the diversity passages of Genesis 10.5, 20, 31-32; Daniel 7.13-14; and Revelation 5.9; 7.9; 10.11; 11.9; 13.7; 14.6; 17.15; and Acts 2.6.  God doesn’t favour one group over another.  He doesn’t want a homogenous humanity.
4.       The sanctity of diversity.  If you find yourself imagining that diversity is a cardinal virtue, on the other hand, think again.  Every page of Scripture calls for worship of the one, true God, and Christians understand that ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.18).  Bauckham notes that unity under God is not a matter of doing away with diversity of peoples, but it is equally not about equalizing all values and practices.
5.       Power and domination.  If you find yourself wanting to vote for someone touting a message of American power and domination on the world scene, read Daniel 4.
6.       Economic dominance.  If you find yourself hoping for economic dominance, read Ezekiel 26-28 about Tyre’s and Revelation 17-18 about Rome’s economic dominance.  The love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6.10), I might add, and Bauckham further notes that the unrestricted pursuit of wealth is a form of idolatry: economic growth is not the supreme good and needs to be checked by other values--not least concern for the poor.
7.       Strong leadership.  If you think the country needs a strong leader after a shockingly weak leader, remember that Jesus contrasted the world’s tyrants to Christian servants (Mark 10.42-44; Luke 22.25-26; Matthew 23.11) and that Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, took the role of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet (Jn. 13).  This is not to say that we need a weak leader for the country either.  It is to remind us that there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, and that all earthly leaders fail to one degree or another.  Don't put too much faith in any leader; rather, pray for your leaders that they might do good, not evil.
8.       Enforced righteousness.  This is a tough one—every law should have a moral basis, otherwise it is not worth being law in the first place (quite the opposite sentiment from those who have misguidedly suggested that ‘You cannot legislate morality’!).  That’s my point.  Bauckham, for his part, reminds us that Christian’s do not ‘conquer’ but ‘witness.’  Reread the book of Revelation in this light.  Jesus, is the faithful and true witness (3.14; 1.5).  In another of his books, Bauckham notes that Jesus conquers by a sword from his mouth—that is, by his Word.[2]  The military imagery in Revelation 19 is standard apocalyptic fare, but the point of the chapter is that Jesus’ victory is by the witness of his Word.  His followers overcome the ‘beast’ even in martyrdom, which is their own witness (15.2)—note that the Greek word for ‘witness’ is martyrion.  Christians are a blessing to the world and bring the message of salvation to the world through a mission of noncoercive witness.  We don't 'carpet bomb' our enemies; we bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Western Understanding of Freedom versus Christian Understanding

Americans breathe freedom like the air, as do other Western nations.  It is a cardinal virtue of the West.  It is also a Biblical virtue (although it has been grossly misunderstood in Liberation Theology).  When Americans vote, they consider matters to do with freedom, and it is therefore critical to realize that our culture’s understanding of freedom is quite different from a Biblical understanding of freedom.  In Chapter 5, ‘Freedom and Belonging,’ Bauckham contrasts Western notions of freedom with Christian values.  The Enlightenment value of freedom has come to understand freedom as:

1.       Freedom from all limits: libertinism is increasingly appealing to people as freedom is understood as a freedom from all limits--why should anyone restrain 'my freedom' as long as I am not hurting anyone?
2.       Maximal independence from others--and yet people continue to have deeply felt needs of belonging—hence a culture that won’t marry but has couples living together,, e.g.;
3.       Consumer choice: not only material pursuits are undertaken without restraint but also, shockingly, people increasingly pursue their own wanton choices in moral matters without restraint;
4.       Domination: the way to be free is thought to require us to dominate others, lest we lose our freedom.

In all four of these views of freedom Scripture offers a different perspective.  Biblical freedom, argues Bauckham (without enumerating these points),

1.       Does not exclude communal obligations;
2.       Encourages dependence;
3.       Encourages faithfulness;
4.       Encourages commitment to others;
5.       Meets the needs we have for belonging;
6.       Is a value, yes, but is only one among other values and is a value that can only be understood within a larger context of beliefs and values;
7.       Involves service (Bauckham doesn’t use this word here, but he does speak of Christian freedom being opposed to dominance);
8.       Enables others’ freedom;
9.       Is relational in that it is a freedom for, not a freedom from.

Admittedly, all this needs to be spelled out further, and Bauckham does help us to begin such a conversation among ourselves.  (And some of his other chapters in this book help us to discuss some other values as well.)


So, brothers and sisters in the faith, please represent us well, not only on obvious matters about abortion and sexuality, but also about global matters and concerns over freedom.  You have a great challenge to know how to vote for a particular person in a country that is not Christian.  But don’t let uninformed reporters confuse our Christian values with those of the culture—we have clear differences.  As a professor of mine used to say, ‘The first social task of the Church is to help the world know that it is not the Church.’  Stand tall.

All the best.

[1] Richard Bauckham’s recent book, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2015).
[2] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Church: 14. Paedobaptism or Adult Baptism?

The Church: 14. Paedobaptism or Believers' Baptism?


So, bottom line, should we baptize babies of a believing parent or only baptize believing adults?  How do we use the Bible appropriately to answer this question?  Frankly, does the Bible answer this question?

This post is at the request of a friend, and he has caught me at a busy time right at the beginning of the semester.  So, without the care I’d like to give the subject, here are a few thoughts on a very, very old debate.  Nobody should be under the impression that this is an exhaustive or detailed discussion! 

Why place this on a 'Bible and Mission' blog site?  The issue arises acutely in a post-Christian context for Western nations.  Baptism is a Christian practice that speaks to the mission concerns of the relationship between Church and society, evangelism and initiation into the Church, and the witness of believers.

This essay is meant as an Evangelical discussion, and certain assumptions are made from the start.  Baptism does not save us.  Scripture is God’s Word and authoritative in our lives.  It does speak to the issue to some degree.  Good Christians hold to different practices—differences of perspective should not divide the Evangelical movement.

Some Exegetical Issues

First, the New Testament links baptism to participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is our faith in the person and work of Christ that saves us.  Two key passages are from Paul:

Romans 6:3-5   Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Colossians 2:11-12   In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;  12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Second, baptism is an ‘entry-point’ into the faith.  For the author of Hebrews, it is beginning stuff for young believers:

Hebrews 6:1-2 Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God,  2 instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Paul says,

Galatians 3:27  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Third, according to Paul, it is a practice that everyone undergoes so that it is a symbol of unity.

1 Corinthians 12:13  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Ephesians 4:4-6  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

This is why, in 1 Corinthians 1.13-17, Paul emphasizes that he did not baptism many of the Corinthians—lest they use this as a way to divide among themselves.  If baptism is a symbol of unity, far be it for Paul to let believers take pride over others because they were baptized by the apostle.

Fourth, baptism is linked symbolically, like Jewish ritual baths[1] and John the Baptist’s baptism, to moral purity.  This is already clear from the passages already cited in Romans 6 and Colossians 2. (Note that the correspondence in Col. 2 is between circumcision of the heart and baptism, not between circumcision and baptism, as has far too often been stated.  The activity is also not, as with circumcision, the human act as a sign of covenant commitment but Christ's act of dying and our participation in His death.) We might add what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:

1 Peter 3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for[2] a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….

One can see the connection between a ritual activity involving water and the theological truth of spiritual cleansing through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in a passage that does not even mention the word ‘baptism’:

1 Corinthians 6:11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified[3] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

John the Baptist’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (e.g., Mk. 1.4).  As such, it was a practice of a people already related to God in the covenant who were preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom.  It was a ritual cleansing symbolizing repentance before God, the Judge of the whole universe, comes.  The Christian theology of baptism drew this practice around Christ, as we have already seen.  The cleansing, Christians believed, was only something that Christ could accomplish, and he did so on the cross.  As John says, ‘the blood of Jesus his [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1.7).  The focus on the work of Christ on the cross for us introduces the element of faith into our understanding of baptism: baptism is an outward expression of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, the one who cleanses us from all our sin.

Fifth, baptism has the danger of being treated as more than a symbol.  It functions to symbolize the washing and purity of the transformed life and salvation in Christ.  The passage just cited from 1 Peter 3.21 makes this distinction.  Similarly, the passage already cited from Colossians 2 is careful to interpret baptism with reference to spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision.  Physical circumcision, Paul emphasizes throughout his ministry, accomplishes nothing toward salvation (e.g., Ephesians 2.11, and this is a major thesis in Galatians).  Similarly, baptism could be mistaken as another outward act that accomplishes something spiritual rather than being an outward symbol of a work that Christ accomplishes.  The author of Hebrews even uses the word ‘baptisms’ for Jewish practices associated with an outward religion of sacrifices, food regulations, and certain practices to do with the body (Hebrews 9.10).

This error—associating the outward symbol too closely with the actual work of salvation that Christ accomplishes through his shed blood—is one of the reasons for the Reformation.  Whether it was an offering to get a friend or relative sprung from Purgatory, a ritualistic approach to the faith in church attendance and confession of sins, or baptism, the Church by the 16th century had come to confuse the work of Christ too much with the outward works of human beings. 

Sixth, the New Testament gives us no example of the practice of baptism apart from believers.  Some persons in the history of the Church have attempted to find the practice of infant baptism in Scripture.  Paul’s jailer in Philippi came to faith, and ‘he and his entire family were baptized without delay’ (Acts 16.33).  The assumption some make is that the family had an infant or two that was baptized as well.  Note that the next verse also has an ‘entire household’ statement.  The NRSV simply mistranslates the end of the verse: ‘and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God’ (v. 34; similarly the ESV).  The NIV captures the meaning better on this occasion: ‘he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God-- he and his whole family.’  The point is that baptism is associated with newly found faith in God.  If we want to argue that there were babies being baptized, we might as well argue that the babies also came to faith.  Seriously, however, Luke has earlier used the language of a household, its faith in a message about Jesus, and salvation.  Peter is sent by God to Joppa to speak to the Gentile centurion and his household about Jesus: the text says that he ‘will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved’ (Acts. 11.14).  Moreover, we read, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11.18).  For John the Baptist, baptism symbolizes the repentance that leads to eternal life, and the early Church added that this salvation from sin and judgement comes through belief 'in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 17).  Later in Acts, Crispus, the synagogue leader in Corinth, ‘became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household’ (Acts 18.8).  Households in these passages are believing households.

Summary of Findings Thus Far

From these six points, we might gather the following points.  Christian baptism, whatever its form or practice,

1. points to the work of Jesus Christ that saves us.
2. is an initiation, an entry-point into the faith.
3. symbolizes Christian unity in Christ and the Holy Spirit.
4. symbolizes repentance, cleansing, and moral purity accomplished by Christ and the
5. only symbolizes and does not itself accomplish what Christ accomplishes.
6. is never associated with children, only believers, in the New Testament.

A Caution

Perhaps one is thinking at this point that we should all support believers baptism and nothing else.  We need to realize, first, that this is in part an argument from silence.  We really do not know what people did with children when a household came to faith.  Concern for children must have been higher than what we have experienced since the early twentieth century, especially in the West.  Since that time, households have become smaller and infant or child mortality has greatly subsided, thanks to modern medicine.  Prior to that time, however, child death was all too common.  The Bible gives us no word about children who die before they are old enough to come to faith.  We are, quite simply, left in the dark—but not without the firm conviction that ‘the Judge of all the earth’ will do what is just by not putting the righteous to death along with the wicked (Gen. 18.25).  That is, despite our view of original sin, there is such a thing as innocence, and who better than children would qualify?

Moreover, in a logic that is already found in Genesis 18, Paul allows that a household is made holy when there is only one believing spouse.  This includes the children (1 Cor. 7.14).

If baptism is taken to symbolize unity, and if a unity in holiness is accomplished through a single believer in the household, then one could argue for baptism of the children.  However, this is only one symbolism of baptism, and Christian unity is more focussed on faith and salvation than on association with those of faith.

Baptism as a Practice

Much of the discussion of baptism is focused on the question of what the right theology of baptism is.  In this analysis, the evidence from Scripture is so far pointing rather strongly in favour of believer’s baptism.  I would, however, suggest that, if baptism is symbolic and not something that accomplishes something in itself, that there is some room for diversity.

Consider the difference between a marriage vow and baptism.  When someone says, ‘I do’ in response to a minister’s question, ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’, the woman’s words are not just words.  Nor are they symbolic.  They are a vow that accomplishes the marriage.  The ring is the symbol; the words are a ‘speech-act’ of marriage.  The New Testament texts emphasize that Jesus’ death on the cross is the act that accomplishes our salvation.  Baptism, then, can only be symbolic—like the ring—of this.

In this, Protestants have been right to insist that baptism is not itself salvific—we do not believe in baptismal regeneration.  However, if this is so, then we might look at baptism not simply in terms of what is the right theology of baptism but in terms of what constitutes a good, symbolic practice of baptism?

Consider, first, the practice of the Lord’s Supper.  This symbolic meal can be practiced in different ways.  We can sit in our pews and pass the elements.  We can walk forward and receive the elements from a priest.  We can eat crackers or bread.  We can drink from one cup or little cups.  We can sit silently and repentantly or sing worshipfully or experience joyful fellowship around a table.  We can open the table to children (and why not?—children sat at the Passover meal, and families don’t exclude children from the table) or hold children back from partaking until they are confirmed.  There are different ways to practice the Lord’s Table.  Moreover, we can go through a practice poorly or well: there are good and bad performances of the same practice.

Similarly, baptism can be spoken of in terms of practices and performances.  We can identify various practices with baptism.  We can immerse someone in deep water or sprinkle the person.  We can use running or still water.  The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) offers such alternatives and states that the best practice would be running water.  Importantly, however, it states that alternatives are acceptable.

I recall an incident of my uncle preparing for communion.  He discovered too late (the shops used to be closed on Sundays in South Africa) that he did not have grape juice.  So, he mixed some strawberry or raspberry jelly into a liquid and drove off to the service.  By the end of the service, the mixture had hardened—speaking symbolically, it had coagulated.  We might say that this was not ‘best practice.’  Nor, for that matter, is the practice of passing around small crackers instead of breaking bread from a single loaf (cf. 1 Cor. 10.22: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’).

With such distinctions in mind, we might note that believer’s baptism can have better or worse practices, and such practices might be performed poorly or well.  Similarly, infant baptism can be examined in terms of its practices and performances.  Too much would have to be said to go over all of the options this raises.  I will, however, point out a few things.

First, believer’s baptism is more powerfully symbolic when performed at the time someone comes to faith.  As such, it strongly symbolizes the person’s faith.  Moreover, it is better practiced, as the Didache suggests, in flowing water.  Many baptistic Christians, however, hold off baptism too long for their children, who grow up in the faith more than they come to faith on a certain day.  Also, many baptistic Christian baptize people in a baptismal pool, whereas a flowing river might carry much more symbolism.  However, some baptistic believers fly all the way to the Jordan River to be baptized in the ‘Holy Land’ and in the river where John the Baptist baptized people.  In so doing, though, they are often baptized away from the Christian church of which they are a part—some of the symbolism of unity is lost.

Second, infant baptism can be very poorly practiced if it fails to convey faith, purity because of Christ, repentance and holiness, and so forth.  The infant in a white baptismal gown almost suggests the infant’s purity more than the purity through Christ’s blood.  A European country that has experience mass baptism in the era of Christendom has come to practice baptism very poorly.  What good is a nation of baptized pagans?  In such a context, believer’s baptism is a strong challenge to a failed faith in a post-Christian country.  Yet one might argue that infant baptism could symbolize something powerful: that, on the basis of the faith of a believing parent, the children, too, are made holy.

Far more needs to be stated here.  I would suggest that the best practice is believer’s baptism—of children and adults but not infants.  I can appreciate baptizing an infant or child of a believing parent when the child is facing an early death.  I would, however, suggest that the symbolism of baptism allows for different practices, and perhaps in this we might find more charity for the diversity we experience among ourselves as Evangelicals.  The infant baptism practiced among Protestants is a form of infant baptism crafted in the 16th century—it was never understood in the history of the Church as it was stated in the Reformation.  Tertullian, for example, argues to hold off on baptism rather than baptize children too young because, he already believes at the beginning of the 3rd century, that it cleanses people from their sins: better wait till someone gets through the wilder years of youth (On Baptism).  But Protestants in the 16th century rightly insisted that baptism does not save us, and so the notion that it is a sacrament of promise came about for those continuing to practice infant baptism: the child will come to faith.  This is powerfully symbolic if the child does come to faith.  It is a terribly sad, even contradictory, practice if this does not happen.  Far stronger a testimony is the practice of believer’s baptism in a pseudo-Christian country in which many have been baptized as infants.

I would even suggest rebaptism would convey the faith better than simply accepting the baptism performed at infancy—but if baptism is a matter of symbols, this is not to be considered a requirement.  However, consider the case of someone who came to faith but who was raised in a faithless church that practiced infant baptism.  Or consider the case of someone baptized as an infant who lived a profligate life and denied the faith but who then came to faith.  In such cases, baptism on the grounds of the person’s faith, even though he or she had been baptized as an infant, would prove to be a strong testimony of faith.  It would be a good opportunity to confess the faith out of a good conscience before God, and it would be a strong testimony to the nominal Christians around the person.  (If a sacrament is an outward symbol of an inward event, I see no reason to insist that this symbol can only be practiced once in a person’s life—even a sacramental view of baptism should be open to rebaptism—or, rather, two different types of baptism.)  On the other hand, a child who was baptized as an infant in a believing family who grew up in his or her faith would have no need for rebaptism.  If we think in terms of what makes best practice and good performance, we might think more clearly about this matter than if we simply ask, ‘What is the Biblical teaching?’  Symbols, practices, and performances allow for more diversity than the question supposes.


The thrust of this argument is toward believer’s baptism.  However, it also suggests that there might be different practices and performances, even if some are better than others.  Just what the limits of these are, and which are better than others, would need more space to explore, and a process of discernment rather than a final decision is the more likely outcome.  The greatest challenge for believer’s baptism is when children have believed in Jesus since their early years and have held off on baptism too long.  The greatest challenge for infant baptism is when the children grow up to deny the faith.  The best practice of any sort of baptism is in the extent to which it captures the meaning of baptism discussed in this essay.

[1] I am not here coming down on one side or the other about whether Christian baptism is more linked to Jewish ritual baths (mikvoth) or proselyte baptism (Gentiles joining the Jewish synagogue).  I think the point is overly debated: both symbolize moral purity, whether practiced as an entry point or as a recommitment.
[2] The Greek can read ‘from’—an appeal from a good conscience to God (reading the Genitive as carrying the idea of the source of something).  The NIV has ‘the pledge of a good conscience toward God,’ reading the Genitive as objective by translating ‘eperōtēma not as ‘appeal’ but as ‘pledge.’  It might also be translated as ‘request.’  Unfortunately, there is not much else to say to resolve the matter: we simply have an ambiguous text.
[3] This word might be translated, ‘made righteous,’ despite the preference of English translations (wrongly, in my view) for ‘justified.’

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Issues Facing Missions Today: 45. The Misnomer ‘Homophobia’ and its Theological Implications

Issues Facing Missions Today: 45. The Misnomer ‘Homophobia’ and its Theological Implications

In his opening speech at the Lambeth gathering of Anglican Archbishops this week (11-15 January, 2016), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, allegedly stated,[1]

We can also paint a gloomy picture of the moral and spiritual state of Anglicanism. In all Provinces there are forms of corruption, none of us is without sin. There is litigation, the use of civil courts for church matters in some places. Sexual morality divides us over same sex issues, where we are seen as either compromising or homophobic. 

Indeed, the newly invented term, ‘homophobia,’ has become a standard term in Western society in reference to persons opposed, for whatever reason, to homosexuality.  It is a profoundly inappropriate term, behind which lie numerous errors with serious consequences.  The term is not only a linguistic game played by those wishing to put their own viewpoints forward by shaming others, it is also an intellectual error of the first order.  It disrupts the halls of rational discourse and entertains a number of theological errors.  Christian witness, therefore, needs to confront this language and its erroneous, theological implications.

1. A phobia is a fear.  A sin is the opposite of what is holy, and to call a phobia what someone understands to be a sin is to deny that this is a matter of holiness.  Neither the call to holiness nor an understanding of a holy God whose commands must be followed are brought into view.

2. A phobia is an irrational fear.  It does not submit to reasonable discourse.  It lacks intelligible argument as it is, after all, a matter of psychology, not philosophy, theology, or science.

3. A phobia is not held in relation to a moral issue.  It is not a sin, and the object it fears is equally not a sin.  To call something a phobia is to deny the legitimacy of any discussion of sin to the matter.  Open spaces are not a sin, and fear of them is not a sin.

4. One cannot repent of the thing that a phobic fears.  One can repent of sinful desires and acts.

5. When one is diagnosed as having a phobia, it is the phobic, not the object of a phobic’s fear, who needs to be transformed.

6. Any notion of transformation, when speaking of phobias, is relegated to psychology and not to God’s transforming power.

7. A phobia is personal, a matter for someone to sort out without allowing his or her fears to settle upon others as well.  It is, therefore, not about a person’s serious and real concern for a community but about a private matter that needs to be kept separate from a community.

8. A phobia is about things and places, such as spiders and mice and open or closed spaces.  It is not about behaviour.

9. A phobia is acquired.  Some treat religion as an acquired taste, a matter of aesthetic pleasure, or a sentiment, or a nostalgia, or a cultural expression.  For such persons, the Church’s ethics easily falls into the same category of something acquired, adopted, or embraced for reasons of taste.  It is a short step to suggest that someone’s tastes are, in fact, phobias.

10. A phobia is dismissible from the high and deep matters of religion.  It is a person’s own, closeted quirk.  It should not and cannot touch the rafters of religion, reaching to the heights of God.  Someone trying to drop his or her phobia on all society is like a poor painter turning from the canvas and trying to use the paintbrush to change the world, to paint the sky a different colour.  But if the alleged phobia is really a sin against the good creation God has made, then the world as God made it is the critic of the painter’s poor painting.

11. A phobia is something friends and family tolerate, not a matter for divorce or ostracism.  As irritating as the phobia is for a family, the family shows its love by including the weaker member.  If the phobia reaches psychotic proportions, the family may, regrettably, have to hospitalize the individual.  The psychotic level is reached when the family can no longer conduct its life tolerably or when the psychotic person becomes dangerous.  Imagine, however, a society that turns everything upside down, labelling the normal as phobic, even psychotic—well, we needn’t have to use our imaginations anymore.

Given the significant errors wrapped into the language of ‘homophobia,’ any serious and intelligent dialogue needs to avoid the misnomer altogether.  More significantly, any lingering inclination to see the historic, Christian teaching about homosexuality and the pastoral care given to persons internally disordered in their sexuality as a matter of phobia in any sense of the term implies heretical perspectives.  It betrays not only confused thinking but also theological error.  Such errors include misunderstandings about holiness, sin, repentance, transformation, pastoral care—indeed, about the Christian faith.

[1] As reported in the Vanguard.  ‘Primates 2016: Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address,’ Vanguard (January 11, 2016).  Accessed online 14 January, 2016:

Monday, 28 December 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.4 ‘Are We All Missionaries?’

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.4 ‘Are We All Missionaries?’

The fourth, questionable point we want to consider in our hypothetical ‘Mission 101’ course is one that is often heard from Evangelical pulpits.  There is also an anti-clericalism about it as it relates to both missions and ministry.  It is this:

Point 4: ‘We are all missionaries.  Missions is not just for a select group of professional missionaries.’

Such a way of thinking is the product of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ theology, an appropriate theological conviction from the Reformation period so long as it is not overdrawn to the point of undermining serious ministerial training and a distinction of roles in a body of believers with different but complementary gifts of the Spirit.  Indeed, in language slightly altered from the previous post, which tackled the question of broadening ‘missions’ into everything, if everyone is a missionary, then nobody is a missionary.

Not everyone is gifted to be a missionary, however we define missions.  If it is a matter of cross-cultural ministry, we need to stress that some persons who are highly capable and accomplished in certain ministries in their own culture may well function poorly in another culture.  For example, some who are highly effective speakers in their own culture are inadequate communicators in another culture.  If missions is a matter of active engagement, grass-roots involvement, or physically demanding ministry, not everyone is going to be able to do it.  If it is a matter of going into dangerous contexts, thinking quickly in tense situations, and facing persecution, or if it is a matter of having linguistic or interpersonal skills or being able to get things started from scratch, not everyone is cut out for such challenges in missions.

Of course, there are different sorts of missionaries, too.  And missionaries can learn certain skills even if they are not so good at them.  And, especially, God can equip people to accomplish tasks beyond their natural abilities—this is, after all, the concept of being gifted by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12).  Yet we must realize that, just as everything we do is not automatically the Church’s mission, so too not everyone doing something is a missionary—what the early Church would have called an ‘apostle’ (lower case ‘a’) or a ‘co-worker.’

All this relates very practically to several concerns.  It relates to having discernment when assessing a call to missionary work—not just seeing if someone can raise the support needed to live overseas.  It relates to others being willing to support the properly vetted personnel for missions—not just support friends or slick fund raisers.  It relates to defining clear, long-term goals in fulfillment of the Great Commission and raising up missionaries to accomplish these goals—not just some large church flitting around from project to project to keep the exotic interest in missions hot for the congregation.  It relates to skilled training for missionary work—not just fielding anyone with a few weeks of mission training.  It relates to making changes in churches and mission agencies in their current approaches to missions in order to encourage and enable long-term, specialized missionary work (as opposed to costly short-term mission excursions).

I would turn around the present point being explored in our topics for the proposed Missions 101 course.  I would suggest that one of the primary concerns in missions today is not the democratization of missions as, for example, when everyone and anyone signs up for a two week ‘mission trip’ from their local church.  Indeed, a mission agency’s recruiter recently confided that their approach in recruitment was to sign up as many persons as possible.  The need to keep funds coming through the mission (as sometimes happens with colleges and seminaries), a lack of clearly defined goals for missionary work, and a belief that anyone can be fitted out for missionary service makes fund raising the primary requirement for missionary service, broadens mission activities to virtually anything, and lowers admission standards.
Rather, the pressing need in much of what we call ‘missions’ today is for specialization to accomplish clearly defined (even if large) tasks related to the mission of the Church and the special training, equipping, and support of a long-term missionary force.  In particular, a gifted and skilled missionary force in Great Commission missions—evangelism, church planting, Bible translation, and ministerial training and theological education—needs to be fielded for long-term work in strategic places in the world.[1]

[1] A caveat to this statement is that a mission agency needs to develop teams that accomplish this sort of work.  That is, a mission agency focussed on Bible translation, e.g., will field missionaries with a variety of gifts to accomplish this goal—not just Bible translators.  SIL, or Wycliffe, recruits a variety of personnel from computer specialists and pilots to teachers and mechanics as it pursues the goal of Bible translation.  Every mission also needs administrators, and some will work from the sending country.  Thus, there are a number of positions that need to be filled in a mission society.  Yet this does not mean that everyone is or can be fitted out for missions—even if they can raise the support needed!  The pressure here falls on local churches being wise in their support of missionaries and—perhaps especially—many mission agencies having clearer goals and greater wisdom in recruitment.  Not everyone is cut out for missionary service, even if everyone can be involved in supporting the Church's mission.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Issues in Missions Today: 39.3 ‘Mission is Everything?’

Issues in Missions Today: 39.3 ‘Mission is Everything?’

We come to Point 3 in my list of 20 questionable statements needing clarification in our imaginary ‘Missions 101’ class:

Point 3: ‘Mission is really everything the Church does in ministry.  It is preaching, translating, teaching, church planting, compassion ministries, development work--everything.’

Mission work does, unquestionably, ‘creep’; it easily expands into everything.  In this point, the error appears more immediately obvious than in the previous two points in this basic introduction to themes in missions.  Yet the inability of so many to distinguish between a mission and the mission of the Church is a common problem.  We can turn most anything into a mission, including cleaning out the gutters on an autumn afternoon.  Missionaries, too, get involved in virtually every activity under every name, sometimes so remotely related to the spread of the Church and the Gospel that one wonders how we ever got to this point.

What the mission of the Church is, however, is a different matter.  Just as one tries to bring some clarity to the matter at the congregational level, mission theologians, speaking loosely, sometimes join the debate to confuse matters all the more.  The pressures on everyone are (1) to appreciate everyone’s gifts and contributions to ministry; (2) to encourage good works among and by God’s people; (3) to affirm a holistic mission; and (4) not to let all this distort the original focus in missions as understood from Scripture.  The phrase ‘holistic mission’ is meant to convey what ‘holistic medicine’ does: aid that meets physical, psychological, and spiritual needs.

On the positive side, we might give some attention (in our Missions 101 course) to considerations of (1) ‘calling’ to ministries; (2) ‘gifting’—the church as a body with its Spirit-gifted members; (3) a Biblical definition of ‘the Gospel’; and (4) an historical and theological discussion of mission activities, especially in the Evangelical tradition.  Such topics in the Missions course will have to rely on previous work done by the students in the prerequisite courses already identified: Biblical Theology and two courses in Church History.

A common and accurate response to this third point for the missions course is the statement by Stephen Neill that ‘If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.’[1]  Michael Goheen reminds us of Leslie Newbigin’’s distinction between ‘dimension’ and ‘intention’ in missions in this regard:

Because the Church is the mission there is a missionary dimension of everything that the Church does.  But not everything the Church does has a missionary intention…. An action of the Church in going out beyond the frontiers of its own life to bear witness to Christ as Lord among those who do not know Him, and when the overall intention of that action is that they should be brought from unbelief to faith.[2]

Goheen explains further with an example: worship may have a missional dimension, but witness to unbelievers is not the intention of worship (otherwise, I might add, it fails to be worship and becomes manipulative entertainment—a criticism that might be raised of the seeker-sensitive movement from which Evangelical churches are still recovering).  We might, incidentally, note with this example that an important discussion to have is whether the local church should be missional in ‘dimension’ only or also in ‘intention’—and what that would mean.  I fear that the Anglican Church in North America, formed in response to heresies in the Episcopal Church, is so concerned about right worship, doctrine, and ethics and for establishing itself through church planting in North America that it’s vision for intentional mission in fulfillment of the Great Commission is taking a back seat to the formation of its Evangelical identity.

Newbigin’s explanation entails some further points that need to be drawn out.  One distinction often made in mission circles is that between centripetal (pulling inward) and centrifugal (pushing outward) mission.  The Orthodox Church emphasizes the unity of the Church and the worship of the Church, thus placing an emphasis on centripetal missions.  Israel’s mission among the nations in the Old Testament is often depicted as centripetal.  The book of Acts, on the other hand, tells the story of the early Church in terms of centrifugal missionary activity.  Newbigin’s definition favours a centrifugal understanding: going ‘beyond the frontiers of its own life.’

At least since Lausanne I, an understanding of missions as holistic has dominated.  Holistic missions may be correct (after all, the word is ‘missions,’ not ‘mission’), but those analyzing the matter need to begin by realizing that there is great pressure to assume and affirm it.  In our Missions 101 course, we would want to examine its history and Biblical and theological arguments.  In fact, no student should graduate from any programme of study in an Evangelical college or seminary without an understanding of the remarkable history of the missionary movements in the Evangelical tradition.  In the prerequisite course of Church History 102 in the curriculum developed in these posts, students would have studied holistic, Evangelical mission alongside mass Evangelism movements in different periods from the Clapham community in England to the anti-slavery and prohibition movements in America to Neo-Evangelicalism and the Lausanne statements.  In Missions 101, they could study examples of holistic missions (e.g., the Salvation Army, mission agencies with long-standing, holistic emphases, such as SIM).[3] 

The mission course might also, however, critically examine whether holistic missionary emphases in Evangelicalism also place pressure on the Church to see everything as mission—and therefore nothing as uniquely mission.  The course might further engage questions of Church and society, exploring where the Church’s activism in holistic concerns simply becomes social activism per se.  And the course might valuably explore all this in terms of mission that seeks to make social change through institutions, operations (getting the task done apart from institutions), and intentional communities.[4]

I do not want to dispute this emphasis on holistic missions—or mission as transformation.  The Gospel is ‘good news’ not only because of the message but also because this message has to do with everything.  It is life-transforming.  It cannot be limited to proclamation: evangelism, teaching, and Bible translation.  The new community of God in Christ, the church, is more than a ‘preaching post,’ as someone once described a large, international church in Addis Ababa to me where I, too, used to preach on occasion.  (I had never heard that phrase before, but I have since seen it everywhere as churches understand themselves as a Sunday service first and a community second.)

Yet we must realize that holistic mission cannot—must not—undercut the proclamation of the Gospel that leads to transformed lives and established, mature churches in community after community.  Compassion ministries need to be Christ focussed (and not merely be acts of love without a witness—a point a ministry like Samaritan’s Purse tries to take seriously), and they must not replace or undermine efforts at mobilizing a force of disciple makers (‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,’ Mt. 28.19-20).

True, to use Newbigin’s distinctions, certain activities with a missional dimension, such as compassion ministries, should not become manipulative, exercises of power serving a missional intention.  It is possible to give water in the name of Jesus or an apostle without forcing the faith down someone’s throat as well.  (And true Christian missionary activity is always a matter of witness and winsomeness and never coercive or manipulative behaviour.)  Conversion is never forced, and love is not love if it comes with strings attached.  That said, our various missions, our various activities with missional dimensions, need to cohere with the mission of the Church.  The Church’s missional intention is to bring the Gospel to the nations (Mk. 13.10; Mt. 24.10) that they may know Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2.2), the power of the resurrection (Phl. 3.10), confessing Him as LORD (Rom. 10.9), becoming like Him in their death that they might attain to the resurrection of the dead (Phl. 3.11).[5]

[1] Stephen Neill, Creative Tension (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1959), p. 81.
[2] Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: History and Issues (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p. 82.
[3] In particular, students could read articles from the journal Transformation, an Evangelical-leaning journal for holistic mission published by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
[4] For these categories, see my ‘Issues Facing Missions Today: 28. Three Models for Ministy.’
[5] A balance in our understanding of missions is important.  As Michael Goheen says, ‘A church that is not evangelizing and is unconcerned about missions to people who have never heard betrays the gospel.  A church that reduces mission to evangelistic activities narrows the scope of the gospel.  And at the same time it removes the full context in which witnessing words should find their place.  Each aspect needs the other.’  Ibid., p. 85.