Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 4

December 19, 2011

This is the last of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
In this series, I’ve presented practical arguments for some churches not to hold Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday. I then presented a number of points that seem to be assumed in arguing that services must be held, points that cannot be substantiated Biblically. After that, I argued that effectively reaching and growing people is more important than meeting 52 Sundays a year. I’d like to finish this series by talking more generally about extrabiblical commands. 
Although my opinion is clear, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being dogmatic on this question. If anyone is aware of Biblical passages that shed a different light on this topic, especially my points in part 2, I would be very grateful to hear them and will give them serious consideration. 
What I am emphatically speaking against is anyone who insists that it is a sin or wrong not to hold Christmas Sunday services without Biblical support for such a claim. To insist on something extra-Biblical (such as Christmas Sunday services) in such a way that it hinders obedience to a command that is Biblical (for example, loving your family and prioritizing them over professional or lay ministry, 1 Tim 3:4) is the essence of Pharisaism, and is one of the things that Jesus vocally opposed more than anything else. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples broke traditions, he retorted, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mat 15:3).  
Legalism is a danger and a temptation to every Christian. Following it destroys your own obedience to God, and imposing it upon others leads them astray. Whether you hold a Christmas Sunday service is not a big deal, but whether or not you’re a legalist is absolutely vital. We need to challenge ourselves to hold with an open hand everything that isn’t Biblically commanded. If that ends up risking our traditions, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe God is testing us to make sure we’re willing to choose him over the traditions we’ve set up for ourselves over the years. 
So let’s celebrate Christmas, let’s talk about this issue, let’s respect one another, let’s get Biblical in our reasoning, and let’s refuse to elevate tradition where it competes with the word of God. Sunday services don’t give life; Jesus gives life. Sunday services aren’t worship: your whole life is worship. 

Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 3

December 15, 2011

This is the third of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical 
In the first two parts of this series, I gave the practical reasoning some churches give for not holding Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday but moving them to Saturday instead. Then, I argued that there is no Biblical command on several questions related to the topic, and therefore churches are free to hold services or not, whichever they decide is most strategic for them. I’d like to continue this series by discussing a bit about church mission and the role of the church service.  
Insisting on Sunday morning worship more strongly than the Bible does may betray a deeper problem: subtle idolization of the church service. As my wife recently wrote on her blog, the church is not a building, and it is not an organization: the church is a collection of people. It’s good for us to gather, but we do not cease to be the church when we leave. In fact, many of God’s commands to the church can only be obeyed in the context of relating to one another, not when sitting in rows.  
Also, if the only time you worship is on Sunday morning, you may be missing the point of worship. Worship involves the whole person relating to God, loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mat 22:37), and this is a command that cannot be obeyed one morning a week alone. Can you genuinely love your spouse for two hours a week, and then stop? Meeting with other believers does play an important role for the church, whether in worship services or in small groups. But the Bible never describes it as so vital that we’re cut off from worship or from God if we don’t meet a certain morning.  
If the Bible doesn’t command us to hold services every Sunday, might there still be practical reasons to do so? Maybe some people have in mind the “Christmas and Easter” crowd; they might think that we shouldn’t lose one of only two annual chances to reach them with the gospel. But how many of that demographic would really give up Christmas morning around the tree to show up at church? I’d love to see some statistics on this, but in my mind it seems like not many. As for the committed crowd, will they be any less likely to come Christmas Eve day than Christmas day? More likely, it would seem to me. Will they be any less edified? Of course not. Worship is worship and preaching is preaching.  
Some might say that, while this is true, gathering is still better than not gathering, no matter how few people come. Even the act of meeting is a witness to the world who see us committed to our faith even when it’s inconvenient for us. If anyone knows of someone who has come to faith because their friend attended church on Christmas day, I’d love to hear it, but I can’t imagine it’s too common.  
By contrast, God has used North Point’s church model to lead hundreds or thousands of people to Christ over the years, and I’ve gotten to see hundreds of them give their testimonies and be baptized. Our church tries to make every decision in light of what most effectively leads people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. And we’ve found that we do that best with hundreds of staff and volunteers to put on a service: parking attendants, greeters, production team, care ministry, preschool leaders, etc. If we can manage to have this great of an impact on 50 Sundays per year, then I don’t think God will say at the judgment that we should have given all that up in order to be able to meet 52 Sundays instead.  
This is not to say that all churches that meet for 52 days per year aren’t fulfilling their mission, but only to say that the focus needs to be on doing whatever it takes to reach and grow people. If, for any given church, that means breaking the tradition of meeting every single Sunday, then it seems that this is what God would want them to do.  
This is also not to say that it’s categorically wrong to hold services on Christmas Sunday. If you have a demographic that is demonstrably interested in meeting that morning, and you can get enough staff and volunteers without having to resort to pressure, guilt, or begging, then it’s certainly a fine thing to do. And it would be a tremendously Christlike thing for churches to set up, for example, an optional Christmas morning program for families to volunteer to serve the homeless or bedridden: giving up their own Christmas morning to bring a happier one to those who would otherwise be alone and in need. But none of that amounts to proof that churches are morally obligated to hold normal services on every Sunday including Christmas.  
In the final part of this series, I’ll address a general issue that this topic brings up: insisting on something extra-Biblical in such a way as to hinder obedience to a command that is Biblical.

Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 2

December 12, 2011

This is the second of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
In the previous post, I gave the practical reasons some churches give for not holding Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday but holding Saturday services instead. I said that those reasons will convince some readers, but others will maintain that it’s always wrong to not meet on a Sunday. How can we determine whether this is the case?  
For those who claim the Bible as their sole source of authority, the only way to answer a question about right and wrong is, what does the Bible command and forbid? Regardless of traditions, church declarations, or the opinions of theologians and professors, if the Bible doesn’t speak to the issue, it may be a matter of wisdom or effectiveness, but it’s not a matter of right or wrong. And I’d like to argue precisely that: that the Bible does not clearly address this issue. I’m certainly not a scholar, but I have taken some seminary courses, including one on the church. And, as far as I know:  

  • The Bible never commands Christians to meet weekly. All we have is descriptive statements that some Christians met on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). But it’s not a command, such that missing a Sunday is a sin.  
  • The Bible never commands Christians that the day they must meet is on Sunday. Again, that’s certainly the example, and it makes sense considering the day Jesus was resurrected (Mat 28:1). But it’s not stated to be a sin to shift services to a Saturday occasionally. Or another day if it helps your underground church avoid the authorities, for example.  
  • The Bible never commands Christians to celebrate any specific days or seasons, such as Christmas or Lent. Some passages could be construed to oppose such celebration altogether (Gal 4:10), and other passages seem to state that celebrating or not is to the person’s own discretion (Col 2:16). But there are no New Testament passages that command the celebration of specific days.  
  • The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was born on December 25th, such that that day should receive special importance. I’ve heard that many scholars believe that Jesus was likely born at a different time of the year, and that they are divided over which came first, Christmas or the pagan winter solstice festival (if anyone has details on these, I’d love to read them). If the winter solstice came first, opinions are also divided as to whether that serves as a reason to not celebrate at this time. All this goes to show that the importance of celebrating on December 25th is not at all clear cut.  

I may have gotten some of these wrong or missed another point the Bible does make that specifically commands this schedule of worship. If I have, I would love your input in the comments; I’m just trying to get at what’s Biblical, whichever position it leads to. But if all these statements are correct, then there is nothing in God’s word that makes it essential to gather on every Sunday or on December 25th. If that is true, then the burden of proof lies on those who would insist that it is wrong to not hold services. And if they would in fact say that it is morally wrong, not just inadvisable, then that proof must be furnished on Biblical grounds, because nothing is authoritative on the believer other than the Word of God as contained in scripture.  
And if there is no such clear command, then it’s to the church’s own discretion as to what the church service is for, and what will help its ministry to be most effective. I’ll discuss these topics in the final post in this series.

Dangerous Duty of Delight Study Guide

October 23, 2011

This post has been moved to my new theology blog.

How Does Adam Make Us Sinners?

June 19, 2011

I ran across Romans 5:19 today, and I think it may be one of the clearest verses for understanding the doctrine of original sin.

Romans 5:19—”For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The context is that Paul is contrasting Adam’s disobedience, along with the condemnation and death that resulted, with Christ’s obedience, along with the justification and life that resulted. But this verse says something even more specific. The word translated “so” in the ESV is two words in the Greek: οὕτως καὶ. The latter simply means “and,” and the former means “in the same way.” So a more literal rendering could be:

“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, IN THE SAME WAY by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The point is that the means by which we are made sinners by Adam is the same as the means by which we are made righteous by Christ.

So does this teach original sin? One could propose that the way Adam makes us sinners is by his bad example that we follow. If that was the case, then Romans 5:19 would say that Christ makes us righteous in the same way: by giving us a good example to follow. And this is more or less what Pelagians have taught. But Romans is absolutely clear that the means by which Christ makes us righteous is not his good example, in many places, but particularly in 4:3-5:

Romans 4:3-5—”what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness”

Righteousness is not first produced in believers. First, it is credited/accounted/imputed to them. They don’t have it inherently to themselves, but it is credited to their account.

So if Romans 4:3-5 teaches that Christ makes believers righteous by crediting them righteousness, and Romans 5:19 teaches that Christ makes righteous the same way Adam makes sinner, then Adam must also credit people sin. The means by which Adam makes people sinners is by crediting them the sin that they don’t yet have, but that he has.

What if someone objects that they don’t accept that Romans 4:3-5 teaches imputation, and that they still insist on taking the verse to mean that Adam makes sinners only by example? If that was the case, then by Romans 5:19 Christ would make people righteous only insofar as being a good example for them. But is that enough? God is a holy God, and he cannot accept sinners. Even if we reject Adam’s imputation of sin to us, we have all sinned ourselves, and stand guilty before God for it. And even if a person was to turn from their sin and live sinlessly for the rest of their life, they would still be guilty of the sins in their past. The only hope for sinners is that Christ would be able to impute his righteousness to us: but the person who rejects imputation in order to avoid original sin can’t then have Christ’s imputation of righteousness.

So, for sinners to have any hope, we need the doctrine of imputation, by which we’re rescued from both our original sin and our own sinful acts by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Doctrine and Treasure

April 15, 2010

“Gospel doctrine matters because the good news is so full and rich and wonderful that it must be opened like a treasure chest, and all its treasures brought out for the enjoyment of the world. Doctrine is the description of these treasures. Doctrine describes their true value and why they are so valuable. Doctrine guards the diamonds of the gospel from being discarded as mere crystals. Doctrine protects the treasures of the gospel from the pirates who don’t like the diamonds but who make their living trading them for other stones. Doctrine polishes the old gems buried at the bottom of the chest. It puts the jewels of gospel truth in order on the scarlet tapestry of history so each is seen in its most beautiful place. And all the while, doctrine does this with its head bowed in wonder that it should be allowed to touch the things of God.”

God is the Gospel, p. 22 (free download)

Top 4 Takeaways from J.I. Packer’s Puritan Course

April 8, 2010

I just finished listening to an iTunes U Course by J.I. Packer titled History and Theology of the Puritans (iTunes link). It’s one of the best and most impactful courses I’ve ever taken, as you might imagine, given the topic and the presenter. I can’t believe it’s available for free! I recommend it without reservation.

Here are my top takeaways from it. These aren’t necessarily the most important points, but they’re the ones that had the most impact on me personally. (Incidentally, my full notes on the course are available on my theology wiki.)

  1. The important thing in ministry is faithfulness, not measurable success. Packer describes Richard Greenham, a Puritan pastor whose model for counseling and personal ministry was very influential. Ministerial candidates came from all over England to learn from him. All of the visitors who came to learn from him were deeply impacted – but almost nobody in the church he pastored was impacted themselves. This hit home for me because I’ve always had a desire to pass on leadership skills I learn to others. I assumed, why would anyone want to learn from me if I’m not having measurable success in my own ministry? So this reinforced my tendency to see myself as a failure if I didn’t have measurable success. But, now, I realize that God can still use me to impact others’ ministries even if the people I’m ministering to aren’t affected. Now, it’s true that people can be impacted without my knowing about it – but this is more deeply encouraging to my fears. Even if the people aren’t impacted at all, God can still use me to help other ministers. And, realizing this, I also realized that, even if God doesn’t use me to help other ministers either, there is still value in doing ministry in a Godly way in and of itself – God enjoys it and is glorified by it.
  2. “Ripping up the conscience.” In the Puritan view, the conscience is a part of your own reason (not some mystical being or anything) – but the strange thing about it is that it seems to operate independently of you. It stands as judge over you. They believed that it was appointed by God, and that you needed to obey it. The problem is that a wrongly instructed conscience will make wrong judgments. So obeying a wrong conscience is sin, because you disobey God’s Word, but disobeying a wrong conscience is also sin, because God appointed your conscience for you to obey it. The only way out of this catch-22 is to train your conscience by the Word, so that it will make right judgments. So, in other words, sanctification is not just about forcing yourself to not do the sins your conscience says is OK, but also training your conscience so that it will start saying they’re wrong! The way you do this, in Puritan thinking, is by what they call “ripping up the conscience:” by studying and meditating and thinking through applications, increasing your conviction of the sin you approve, to sensitize your conscience to the truth of scripture. This is incredibly helpful to me because, as a Christian hedonist, I don’t want to just obey God’s commands – I want to love them (and to love all the things of God). Ripping up the conscience gives me a practical way to move beyond willpower in obeying, in order to really work on my heart (and ask God to work on it).
  3. Supralapsarianism did not cause the Puritans’ problematic views on salvation. Packer listed a number of problems with the Puritans’ view of salvation, including a denial of the “whosoever will” promises, no assurance upon believing but only upon seeing fruit, a denial of the fact that God is essentially love, and a sense of God’s election as arbitrary, frightening, and chilling. He attributed these problems to the fact that most Puritans were supralapsarian, and he asserted that infralapsarianism addresses all of them. However, I wasn’t convinced by this. Having come from a non-Calvinist background, I’d come across most of these issues as difficulties with Calvinism as a whole, regardless of your lapsarian view – and the solutions (whether the ones I found myself, or the ones Packer suggested) seem to apply equally well to supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. So I can be confident that, whatever problems I see with the Puritans’ view of salvation, changing my lapsarian view does not seem necessary or helpful.
  4. The Puritans were a unified movement that included views we now call Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist. This is helpful for me to understand my heritage as an English-speaking Christian who is both Reformed and Baptist. The Puritans had remarkable unity on most points of theology, and some of the only few they differed on are church structure and baptism. That’s why, after the Westminster Standards (confession, catechism, and directory) were written to try to encompass as many Puritan views as possible, the Congregationalists happily took the majority of the confession and only changed a few parts to create the Savoy Declaration, and the Baptists did the same to create the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Although I don’t agree with everything in these documents, I find the 1689 Confession to be probably the confession to which I can find the most agreement. It’s exciting to learn just how much Presbyterians share with that, and the unity the Puritans felt despite these real differences is a challenge to me to do the same.

Should you question your salvation?

May 14, 2009

The topic of fruit as evidence of salvation has recently been brought to my attention again, and I thought it would be good to take some time to write out some of my study on this topic from a while back. I’ll be doing so in a series of blog posts, then collecting the results together at the end.

The crux of the question is this: if a person sincerely trusts in Christ for salvation, but then sees some degree of a lack of fruit in their lives, should they at some point question whether they were saved in the first place?

As an answer, I propose the following:

  1. Biblical theology is based on a person having absolute assurance that they are saved. To demonstrate this fact, I will show that the logical flow of all of Paul’s general letters requires absolute assurance, and fails entirely if such assurance is not possible.
  2. The theology of questioning salvation on the basis of fruit, is based on the impossibility of ever having absolute assurance that you are saved, but, rather, always having only a relative assurance. I will show this from the clear statements of salvation-questioning teachers, and from logical necessity. I’ll then handle common objections to this conclusion, showing that although some claim that absolute assurance and questioning salvation can coexist, they cannot.
  3. Therefore, since Biblical theology requires absolute assurance, and salvation-questioning theology makes absolute assurance impossible, it will be demonstrated that salvation-questioning theology is inconsistent with the Bible.

For this post, I’ll simply state my arguments in support of point 1, then in future posts defend them one at a time.

1. Biblical theology is based on a person having absolute assurance that they are saved.

Arguments for this point:

  1. Paul addresses all of his letters to a group of people he calls “saints” and “brethren.” This sounds as though he knows that they are saved. And if he (and they) could not know for sure, it would be misleading for him to refer to them as such, because some of them would not be saints and brethren.
  2. Many of Paul’s declarations of what is true about the redeemed, are stated not in the abstract, but in the second person. He says “you are all sons of God” (Gal 3:26). This sounds as though he knows that these truths apply to his readers. And if he (and they) could not know for sure, it would be misleading for him to say so. He would have to say “Christians are all sons of God – are you one of them?” as many salvation-questioning teachers say.
  3. Paul exhorts Christian living on the basis of assurance of salvation. He says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you” (Phi 2:12-13). This sounds as though the basis for their work should be their assurance that God is at work in them. And if this could not be surely known, Paul would have to say “work, because if you do not then God must not be at work in you” – as many salvation-questioning teachers say.

I hope, from this brief summary, it is clear that Paul’s train of thought in all of his letters requires an absolute assurance of salvation. He writes to people he calls saints, tells them what is true about them in Christ, then exhorts them to act on the basis of that knowledge. He does not address a mixed multitude, telling them what is true about Christians and asking them to see if they fit the criteria, then telling them to work so that they will discover whether or not they are Christians. To force Paul into such a theology is to take isolated statements and elevate them above the overall logic of Paul’s writing. And this is no purely intellectual matter – this assurance is God’s intended basis for peace and Christian living, free from fearful, servile duty.

Obama, Piper, and Allegorical Interpretation

April 17, 2009

John Piper highlights how President Obama exegetes and applies the Sermon on the Mount:

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It’s clear how this interpretation misses the point Jesus makes of the parable: the rock is Jesus’ words.

What’s not so clear is that the same error is made by conservative pastors who use allegorical interpretation. The classic example is Origen saying that every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan refers to something in Christian theology. No: as Jesus interprets it, the point of the parable is to love others in need.

Common allegorical errors today: the Song of Songs refers to Jesus (not, as it would seem, romantic love), many OT prophecies refer to Jesus (not, as it would seem, the land of Israel).

Mark Driscoll’s Marriage Sermon: The Flip Side

April 4, 2009

I just finished listening to Mark Driscoll’s sermon on marriage for men, from 1 Peter. I did find it quite powerful and helpful: it described ways of failing to be a man that I hadn’t considered before.

But I’m a bit concerned by Driscoll’s injunction not to criticize him, but, instead, to direct that energy toward changing myself. It’s true that God will hold me accountable for my life – but he will also hold Driscoll accountable for his teaching. And any applications I do in my life on the basis of incorrect teaching will fail to be what God desires. Yes, I need to change my life; but no, I must not refrain from correcting theological errors in the meantime.

When someone teaches on a hot moral topic like domestic abuse, it’s tempting to think that you can’t criticize their message, because that would be endorsing domestic abuse. That’s a logical fallacy. Yes, Driscoll was correct that domestic abuse is a huge problem that isn’t talked about enough; but no, he was not correct about other emphases. So here are my concerns:

First and foremost, Driscoll asserted that some men mistreating their wives may not be Christians (the idea of fruit-as-evidence-of-salvation has significant problems, but I won’t address those here). Assuming, then, that they are not Christians, what is the gospel they hear?

  1. You’re acting wickedly.
  2. You should feel shame.
  3. Jesus died for you – how could you act like this?
  4. In response, you should start acting better, right now.

I don’t remember anything being mentioned about Christ’s offering his righteous and life-transforming power to anyone who believes in him. The call-to-action is simply to change your life right now. It’s difficult for me to see how this isn’t works-righteousness. I know that Driscoll believes and teaches justification by faith – but the message any nonbelievers would have received from him in this message is quite the opposite.

If you add Calvinism into the mix, the problem gets worse. Just last week, Mars Hill Church was highlighted in the press as a stronghold of “the New Calvinism.” But where is the reference to the Holy Spirit’s enabling work? Where are the prayers for enabling power, in order to be able to change one’s life? It’s not that Calvinists shouldn’t tell Christians to change their lives, but it’s that such a strong teaching of your responsibility, with so little mention of God’s sovereignty and enabling power, is not what you’d expect from the New Calvinism.

Humility. I believer Driscoll probably is a great dad, so there’s no need for him to pretend to be a poor one. But even just one statement of humility would have gone a long way. He said to the husbands in the audience who considered themselves great, that they might not be, and certainly have something to work on. But I don’t remember any instance of him acknowledging his own needs to grow. Paul considered himself the worst of all sinners, who constantly did what he did not want to do – and Driscoll is able to preach angrily about poor dads without any admission of his own wrongdoing?

Finally, swearing. I’m not here to judge – I have a swearing problem, especially when I’m alone, and it’s sin, and I hate it. But I’m not helped in this when pastors swear on the most popular Christianity podcast on iTunes. It’s now a common rhetorical device for pastors to swear, and then say to the congregation “you’re more concerned with my swearing than with the injustice I’m talking about” – a great rhetorical device, but horrible theology. On those grounds, I could preach about murder, steal someone’s wallet, then say “you’re more concerned about me stealing that wallet than about murder!” It doesn’t work. Murder is a sin, and theft is a sin. Don’t use your preaching about one sin to excuse another.

As always, if any of the details I’ve written about above are incorrect, please comment and I’ll correct them.