Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Most Pleasant Life

When he was on his deathbed, Matthew Henry said to a friend, "You have been asked to take notice of the sayings of dying men - this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God and communion with Him is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world."
 -- Location 131, from 10 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Recognising a true church

To summarize: a true church will be recognized by its unity in relationships, its holiness of life, its openness to all, its submission to the rule of the apostolic scriptures, its preaching of Christ in word and sacrament, and its commitment to mission. 
  -- p. 272, from Know The Truth by Bruce Milne (2nd edition)

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Escaping the fine when caught without a ticket

There was a ticket checking on the train.
A lady behind me was caught for not having her student card on her, but was let off. The policeman who was checking the tickets was kind. He explained to her the rule about carrying the student card when traveling on a student fare, even though she probably knew that anyway, and he said he would let her off this time. He was not speaking in a manner that was disrespectful or condescending. He was serious but not overbearing. I was slightly impressed with his dealings and quite pleased with the outcome.

And then I thought, "hey, this is a good illustration of grace. She was caught for breaking the law, but was forgiven and was let off from bearing the consequences of her crime." But soon I realised it wasn't. This wasn't a good illustration of God's grace. Several reasons could be laid out, but I list just two.

Firstly, the breaking of the law was not committed against the policeman. He was only an enforcer, not the offended. This is a huge difference. God is not simply a law-enforcer. He is the "victim" of every sin we commit. All sin is primarily against God. Hence, the grace of God we receive as sinners is forgiveness, not just "being let off." Only the offended can forgive, an enforcer can only let off.

Another big difference is "how" the offender was spared of the punishment. The policeman let her off at no cost to himself. It cost him practically nothing to let her off. I am no law expert, but I'm pretty sure that, as a policeman, it was his prerogative to issue a warning instead of a fine. So he was not risking anything. When God forgave us, it cost Him. It's hard to imagine how anything could cost God, the Almighty being. But the bible tells us clearly how costly God's forgiveness was. It cost Jesus. His suffering and death. It may remain as mystery how God could suffer, but the fact that He did suffer is no mystery. Our God did not dispense His forgiveness in a cool, distant way. He clothed Himself in human flesh and hung on the cross. If the policeman's action were to be any closer to the real meaning of God's grace, he would have had to issue the fine and then pay it for her himself. It still doesn't come much closer (of course not!), but it would be closer than just letting one off the hook.

If a policeman caught you for not having a train ticket, or speeding on the road, and he let you go with just a warning, you'd be quite happy. I'd be very happy and even feel somewhat thankful towards that policeman. Now, then, hear this. Because of our sins, our rejection and rebellion against God, we are headed for judgment. But God has given us His Son, Jesus, so whoever trusts Him for safety and forgiveness would be spared of His judgment. That's what makes my heart sing. This is why I can look forward to the future. How about you?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Is this what happens at an ordination?

There are some things Eugene Peterson says or writes that I disagree with. But he writes many things that I found helpful too.
I think the following quote (a bit lengthy I know) from one of his books is worth pondering on, especially for those who are or plan to be ordained for the Christian ministry.

  The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of Word and sacrament.
  Word. But in the wreckage, all words sound like 'mere words'.
  Sacrament. But in the wreckage, what difference can water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?
  Yet century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, 'You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.'
  Yes, their actions will often speak different expectations, but in the deeper regions of the soul, the unspoken desire is for more than someone doing a religious job. If the unspoken were uttered, it would sound like this:
  'We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God's Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world's evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant.
  'We believe that the invisible is more important than the visible at any one single moment and in any single event that we choose to examine. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material God is using to make a praising life.
  'We believe all this, but we don't see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, adults who once aired their doubts and sang their praises in church - and sinned. We don't see the dancers or the lovers or the singers - or at best catch only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and brain to think; and it looks that way to us.
  'But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe it happened the way Ezekiel preached it, and we believe it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in church. We believe we are a part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God's Word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.
  'We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don't trust ourselves; our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to give us help. Be our pastor, a minister of Word and sacrament in the middle of this world's life. Minister with Word and sacrament in all the different parts and stages of our lives - in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn't the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: Word and sacrament.
  'One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know your emotions are as fickle as ours, and your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won't feel like believing anything and won't want to hear it from you. And we know there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won't feel like saying it. It doesn't matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.
  'There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won't give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something btter. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.
  'There are many other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don't know the foundational realities with which we are dealing - God, kingdom, gospel - we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.'
  That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say - even when the people cannot articulate it - to the individuals it ordains to be its pastors.
  - pp. 502-505, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson, italics original (or from the book, The Gift: Reflections on Christian Ministry)

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Star

At the end of the book I just finished, Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson, come several poems written by him as he meditated on the Incarnation of Jesus. I didn't get most of them, and there were two or three that I kinda liked, but the one below is so far my favourite poem among them.
A long wait before the faithful, sovereign, and all-wise God, I will not fear.

The Star

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh;
a star shall come forth out of Jacob.
                Numbers 24:17

No star is visible except at night,
Until the sun goes down, no accurate north.
Day's brightness hides what darkness shows to sight,
The hour I go to sleep the bear strides forth.

    I open my eyes to the cursed but requisite dark,
    The black sink that drains my cistern dry,
    And see, not nigh, not now, the heavenly mark
    Exploding in the quasar-messaged sky.

Out of the dark, behind my back, a sun
Launched light-years ago, completes its run;

    The undeciphered skies of myth and story
    Now narrate the cadenced runes of glory.

Lost pilots wait for night to plot their flight,
Just so diurnal pilgrims praise the midnight.

Friday, 13 September 2013

As the Father has love me...

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (John 15:9 ESV)
If only you knew how great His love is. If only.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Preaching on Genesis 4:1-16

I had a privilege of preaching on Genesis 4:1-16 the other day. Wordle is a fun way to see how I used words in my sermon. See below.

Wordle: God, Cain, and Abel

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Does Kevin Rudd have a pastor?

Recently, Kevin Rudd had made statements that displayed more than anything his own ignorance of the bible at best, and willful disobedience to God at worst. And this was from a very smart man who publicly and repeatedly claim to be Christian. There have been several useful writings on how Kevin Rudd misread the bible and got its meaning wrong. Here are two I found particularly note-worthy: from Sandy Grant (the senior minister at St Michael’s Anglican Cathedral) and from Glenn Davies (the newly elected Anglican Archbishop of Sydney).

I hope he would read one or two of those writings done as response to him, and seriously consider his own relationship with God, where he is standing with Jesus. Now that the election campaign is over, and he is almost certain to step down from the role of Prime Ministership, perhaps it's a ripe time for him to consider what it is that he actually believes in. It might be God's most gracious hand at work for him right now as he loses 2013 Federal Election.

But, I also have something I never heard asked yet. If Kevin Rudd is a Christian as he claims to be, does he belong to a church? Even if he couldn't consistently attend one church because of his busy schedule, if he is a Christian, he would have a church that he would call home, wouldn't he? And if that's the case, my question really is, who is the pastor to Kevin Rudd? For his misunderstandings of the bible and his misguided ethical choices, has anything been said to him by a pastor? Or what about elders in Kevin Rudd's church? Have they taken an action on his gross misunderstanding of God's Word and his disobedience to it? I hope there have been, and if not, I hope it will happen at the first possible opportunity. That is what I would expect from a pastor and elders in the church I belong. If I am going off the track in terms of my understanding and obedience to God's Word, please, God help our church(es), pastors and elders rebuke and correct me.

I suppose, in some ways, this isn't a job exclusively for a pastor or an elder in the church. To a little lesser degree, it's a job for every Christian. So, what about me?
If I saw someone from my church who is going off the track in terms of their faith in Jesus, love for Jesus, obedience to His Word, and if I am in a position and relationship with that person to speak to him, will I do that? Or will I ignore it and hide behind my politeness? Will I, with patience, plead with him to reconsider what God has said and who Jesus is, or will I grieve inside, but not enough to actually do something about it? Will I pray like crazy for this drowning brother or sister, whom Christ died for? Do I?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Single Greatest Issue Of Our Lives

The single greatest issue of our lives is this: revealing the glory of God to a sin-darkened world so that He will be praised and that lost sinners will be saved by coming to know the Lord. The great purpose of our lives is to reveal the glory and grace of God both by what we do and by who we are. 
  - from chp4 of The Masculine Mandate by Richard Phillips

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Giving Your 100%

    I once knew a man who had come to this country after World War II as a displaced person. He had been a skilled cabinetmaker in his home country but after the war had to settle for a job as sexton in a church. Not long after I became a pastor in that same church I also became a father. Toys began to accumulate around the house. Knowing of his dexterity with tools and lumber, I asked Gus if he would throw together a toy box for me when he had a few minutes. I wanted a storage bin for the toys; I knew Gus could do it in an hour or so. Weeks later he presented our family with a carefully designed and skilfully crafted toy box. My casual request had not been treated casually. All I had wanted was a box; what I got was a piece of furniture. I was pleased, but also embarrassed. I was embarrassed because what I thought would be done in an off hour had taken many hours of work. I expressed my embarrassment  I laced my gratitude with apologies. His wife reproached me: 'But you must understand that Gus is a cabinetmaker. He could never, as you say, "throw" a box together. His pride would not permit it.' That toy box has been in our family for over twenty years now and rebukes me whenever I am tempted to do hasty or shoddy work of any kind. 
  -p. 349, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Word of God and Being Practical

I find it bordering on the incomprehensible when someone says, 'Well, the Bible is all well and good in its place, but after all, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, we have to get practical, don't we? Jeremiah, after all, never had to meet a payroll.' [...]
    We have to get practical. Really practical. The most practical thing we can do is hear what God says and act in appropriate response to it.
  -p. 341, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson

Living in Hope

Buying that field in Anathoth was a deliberate act of hope. All acts of hope expose themselves to ridicule because they seem impractical, failing to conform to visible reality. But in fact they are the reality that is being constructed but is not yet visible. Hope commits us to actions that connect with God's promises.
    What we call hoping is often only wishing. We want things we think are impossible, but we have better sense than to spend any money or commit our lives to them. Biblical hope, though, is an act - like buying a field in Anathoth. Hope acts on the conviction that God will complete the work that he has begun even when the appearances, especially when the appearances, oppose it.
    William Stringfellow, who has extensive personal experience with 'Babylon', agrees with Jeremiah: 'Hope is reliance upon grace in the face of death: the issue is that of receiving life as a gift, not as a reward and not as a punishment; hope is living constantly, patiently, expectantly, resiliently, joyously in the efficacy of the word of God.' Every person we meet must be drawn into that expectation. Every situation in which we find ourselves must be included in the kingdom that we are convinced God is brining into being. Hope is buying into what we believe. We don't turn away in despair. We don't throw up our hands in disgust. We don't write this person off as incorrigible. We don't withdraw from a complex world that is too much for us.
    It is, of course, far easier to languish in despair than to live in hope, for when we live in despair we don't have to do anything or risk anything. We can live lazily and shiftlessly with an untarnished reputation for practicality, current with the way things appear. It is fashionable to espouse the latest cynicism. If we live in hope, we go against the stream. 
  - pp. 340-341, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson

(See Jeremiah 32 about Anathoth)

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The news of Jesus's death and resurrection: it's a good news.

The good news we Christians proclaim is this: that Jesus died for our sins and afterwards was raised from the death.

You might not believe this news to be true, or perhaps you don't really care. You may wonder, even if it was true that Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day, why is it a good news? Is it a good news for me, you might wonder.

I don't want you to think that the ultimate reason for you to believe in Jesus is what's in it for you, but for now, let me list a few reasons why this news of death and resurrection of Jesus is good for you.

1) It's a good news because it means God is real and consequently your life has a meaning.
Jesus preached about His Father God, was raised up from death by the Holy Spirit, and was declared to be God Himself. If this news about Jesus is real, then, God is real. It means we, you and I are all made by Him. We didn't come about accidentally. We are not merely a transient collection of atoms. We didn't happen by a purely mechanical process. No, we are made by an eternal God and He gave us purpose and meaning that is beyond 100 years of life span. We are made for eternity. What you do today has an eternal consequences.

2) It's a good news because it means that God is merciful.
God's justice wouldn't have been tarnished if He did not send Jesus to die for us. But He did. It means God did not only create us, but He is committed and involved intimately with us. And He chose to be merciful and provide a way for us to be forgiven and be with Him forever.

3) It's a good news because it means God is just.
God's mercy did not come at a cost of His justice, and this is a good news for us. Had He compromised on His justice when He forgave us, we wouldn't be able to trust God to rule us justly afterwards. But He didn't simply let us off the hook and looked the other way. He dealt the death blow to injustice and all immorality by the death and resurrection of Jesus. God's rule can be trusted. He will not run His world like a corrupt government we are all too familiar with. Expecting with full assurance that we will one day live in a just society of the redeemed is a good news.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Again, there is no right not to be offended.

I've mentioned this before, but it's worth mentioning again. There simply is no right not to be offended. Jim Spigelman said it, and Lionel quotes it.

We might not enjoy being offended. We are rightly upset if Jesus Christ whom we worship is insulted. But I agree with ABC chairman and former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court, Jim Spigelman, who said last month: “The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended.”

Read Lionel's article here: The Edict of Milan and religious liberty

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Christianity vs science?

Listening to the outspoken atheists of our days is not a pleasant experience. Of course, as a Christian myself, hearing their misrepresentations and belittling of God, whom I know and love, is never going to be a jolly occasion. But that's ok, I have to accept that as part of life. What I want to talk about in this post is, however, a trend I noticed in their arguments against religion. The atheists seem to be creating a false dichotomy between science and religion. They force people to choose between science and a belief in God. To narrow my argument (because there are in fact many religions, and I am not going to defend any religion other than Christianity), they force their hearers to choose between science and Christianity. I think this pitting of science and Christianity against each other is not a very recent innovation, but must have been going on for some time, because people seem to assume it. The recent atheists are using that false presumption as their advantage and enforcing it further.

I think it would be helpful to remember that, as Christians, we are not against science. Science, as a method of exploring and the accumulated-but-nevertheless-transient knowledge about the natural world is just what it is, science. A Christian can do science, a hindu can do science, a muslim can do science, just as an atheist can do science. They just have to do science when they do science. When someone comes along and says to you that you can't believe in God and be a scientist at the same time, don't believe him. He's either trying to trick you, or he hasn't thought it through well enough.

It's important to remember what the real two opponents are. It's atheism (not science) and Christianity. It's the belief or a wilful commitment to the idea that there is no God vs. believing God as revealed in Jesus and trusting Him as we live out our lives.

Atheists often protest: well, you can't prove God exists, so why should I believe in God? When there's no proof for existence of something, it's only rational not to believe that it exists.

Well, I can't prove God exists, at least the way atheists want me to. Nor should you try to prove God exists in the way atheists want you to, because that's always bound to fail. The problem is, most (if not all) atheists I've come across would accept only the scientific proof. They will not accept God that cannot be seen through the telescope or microscope. They will not accept God that cannot be predicted  in some kind of a mathematical paragraph and proven through observations. In other words, they are requiring a naturalistic proof for something supernatural. Of course, having committed to the rejection of the supernatural, they're trying to find a God who is natural, not supernatural, and so, ironically, they are right in affirming there is no God (who is natural).

Again, it's helpful to remember (and remind your atheist friends) that the two opposing sides are not science vs. Christianity, but atheism vs. Christianity. It's a naturalistic worldview vs. supernatural worldview. And, if you think about it, you can have a supernatural worldview and work on something that requires you to focus only on the naturalistic phenomenon and causes, namely, science. So you can be a Christian and be quite good at science. Yet, if you have a naturalistic worldview, you cannot (or would not) have a legitimate method of thinking about and explaining the supernatural because, well, you've excluded it yourself. So for example, an atheist cannot be a theologian. You can be a scientist, but you have removed from yourself a right to comment on anything supernatural. The atheists still do make supernatural claims though by saying that there is no God.

Now, I cannot scientifically prove God's existence, but that does not mean that there is no evidence. God has left His mark both in creation, in history, and in human nature, so there are plenty of evidence for Him. In Psalm 19:1 it says: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork." (also see Psalm 50:6 and Rom 1:20) There have been and still are powerful arguments for God's existence on the basis of what we see in the world (eg. the cosmological arguments and teleological arguments). And you also mustn't ignore Jesus who came into our world (John 1:14), yes, the natural world, and lived, died, resurrected, and ascended (Try John or Mark if you haven't read the gospels before). You can investigate into history to find strong evidence for Jesus and the credibility and reasonableness of Christian faith. There are other arguments for God's existence as well, such as the moral arguments, which basically says, since we all believe in the reality of an objective morality, God must exist. There are multitudes of evidence, or clues, if you like, and many powerful arguments for God's existence, especially if you are seeking evidence for God of Christianity. Only, make sure you are not wholly committed to naturalistic worldview but more open. Atheists like saying science is more open than religion because when new evidence comes in, they are happy to review their current theory and make adjustments. But they are only talking about naturalistic or scientific evidence, and rightly so, since they are talking about science. You and I must be more open than that, however, when investigating the claims of Christianity. More open than atheists by being open to the possibility of something supernatural when you look around you and ponder on the implications of all sorts of evidence and theories of the world. When you do that, with God's grace, you will see how reasonable Christianity really is.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Generosity of the Exclusive Faith

  One of the paradoxes of history is the relationship between the beliefs and the practices of the early Christians as compared to those of the culture around them.
  The Greco-Roman world's religious views were open and seemingly tolerant - everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however. The Greco-Roman would was highly stratified economically, with a huge distance between the rich and poor. By contrast, Christians insisted that there was only one true God, the dying Savior Jesus Christ. Their lives and practices were, however, remarkably welcoming to those that the culture marginalized. The early Christians mixed with people from different races and classes in ways that seemed scandalous to those around them. The Greco-Roman world tended to despise the poor, but Christians gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths. In broader society, women had very low status, being subjected to high levels of female infanticide, forced marriages, and lack of economic equality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world. During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.
  Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behaviour that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them.
  -- p. 20, The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A thought on Christian Suffering

“Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
  -- Job's wife (Job 2:9)

It isn't just Christians who experience suffering in this world. Most definitely not. But what makes the Christian suffering different from the sufferings of others, of other religions or atheists?

Taking a superficial look at the Christians in suffering, you may suggest that Christians suffer "better" than the non-Christians. That is to say, Christians will (or should) do the good and decent thing even when personal tragedies strike them. We are told and expected, as Christians, to do the right thing even when bad things happen to us. Of course, we as Christians strive for that, and we do have countless amazing examples. But, just doing the right thing, doing the moral, courageous, and loving thing isn't necessarily what makes the suffering distinctly Christian. After all, many non-Christian parents live sacrificially and lovingly towards their disabled child. Many non-Christians remain married and be faithful to their quite unlovable spouse. Many non-Christians, stricken with terrible injuries or diseases, live a strong life, not filled with bitterness, and become quite an inspiration for many others.

No, simply "suffering well", however heroic it may be, cannot make it Christian. The most basic and essential ingredient of "Christian suffering" has to do with Who, rather than What or How. When we go through suffering, who exactly do we suffer it with? Is it just by yourself, or mere human beings you share it with? Or are you going through your suffering with God? We don't have to look so strong and be stoic about our suffering. We don't have to have all the right words to say and know the best thing to do when we suffer. We don't have to somehow leave a large biography inspiring millions after we overcome suffering. Most important factor is that we remain relient to our Heavenly Father who knows what He is doing.

Are you in pain or turmoil at the moment? Do you feel like you won't make it through today? This hour? Have you had enough of being nice about everything? Remain in God. Tell Him all your frustrations and fears. Voice your anger and despair to Him. And stay with Him. God will repay for all your suffering one day. He will vindicate you on that Great Day.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Practical Impact of the Doctrine of the Authority of the Scriptures

The Need to be Obedient to ScriptureIf God has revealed himself and his purposes to us in Jesus Christ as he is known to us through all the Scriptures, then clearly we are under a total obligation to submit our lives to the teaching of the Bible. It is a particular temptation of student life to imagine that truth is for the mind alone; but for Scripture 'knowing the truth' implies living it out in particular situations. In the OT, truth is primarily a moral quality implying the characteristic of dependability or faithfulness in action (e.g. Ps. 51:6). This understanding is expressed also in John's concern for doing the truth (Jn. 3:21, 1 Jn. 1:6). So this final section is integral to the exposition of the Christian doctrine of authority, for Christian truth in the deepest sense exists only where there is a mind which is set both to understand it and to obey it. If our passion for truth does not imply a passion for obedience to truth, then we are not really serious about it.
  In the end the doctrine of the authority is eminently practical. It confronts us with a specific challenge: to obey all that the Bible teaches, all of the time. Nothing could be more searching or down to earth than that.
  - p. 66, Know the Truth by Bruce Milne (italics original)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Reading the Bible with our hearts

Scripture can be interpreted only by the Holy SpiritTrue understanding is not natural to us; it is God's gift (Mt11:25, 16:17) through the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:13f.). This neither absolves us from hard work, nor implies that we can isolate ourselves from other Christians in our understanding of the Bible.
This [third] hermeneutical principle carries a profound spiritual challenge. God's Spirit is holy; therefore what we understand of his truth is related less to the capacity of our brains than to the extent of our obedience. How far one can see depends on how high one has climbed rather than on how elaborately one is equipped. 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.' (Mt. 5:8)
  -- pp. 61-62, Know the Truth by Bruce Milne (italics original)

We need to engage our mind as we read the bible, but  the understanding will be given to those who obey God, those with the pure heart.

Trusting and submitting to the Word of God

We need to remember that this doctrine of biblical authority is one of the teachings of the Christian faith. As such it calls for faith, i.e. a believing commitment on our part, an attitude continuos with that of our Lord himself and his apostles, and with the historic view of the churches. This helps us to keep the doctrine of Scripture in perspective. We do not wait for a moment-by-moment account of our Lord's thoughts, words and actions before we trust ourselves to his sinlessness and hence his fitness to act as our Saviour, nor for signed statements of impartial eye-witnesses before believing and rejoicing in his resurrections; so we need not demand the resolution of every possible question before trusting ourselves to the infallible truth of Scripture and submitting to its authority.
  -- p. 59, Know the Truth by Bruce Milne

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The most Scriptural church government

This is a direct copy from Ray Ortlund's blog post:
“It seems to me that the most Scriptural system of church government is that which requires the most prayer, the most faith, and the most piety to keep it going.  The church of God was never meant to be an automaton.  If it were, the wheels would all act of themselves.  The church was meant to be a living thing, a living person, and as the person cannot be supported if life is absent, or if food is kept back, or if breath is suspended, so should it be with the church.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, preaching on 1 Timothy 3:1519 May 1861.  Italics original.

Here Spurgeon is speaking of it in a context of his whole sermon and he's no doubt trying to pack a punch in what he's saying, so take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, this is a good reminder whenever we think about church structure.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Fire in my heart

If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
(Jeremiah 20:9 ESV)

I wish, I hope, like Jeremiah, I would be given such a deep and unstoppable passion for preaching of His Word. Perhaps, then, I won't be so timid.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Church Government: Epilogue

I said last time that it was the final post on the Church Government series. Well, let me just say I wasn't quite done, even after that long post. I wanted to give a little lighter note at the end, and at the same time, make sure that I have not missed the main thing.

After drawing on my conclusion, I couldn't help but wonder if the church polity has become a little bit of luxury in the western society. I don't mean that it's unimportant, but, with the advance in technology and transport in particular, we are much more free to choose a church than our ancestors or our brothers in less developed countries are able to (or perhaps they didn't even imagine it!). Although many Christians left (or were ejected from) an established church to found a different church at the height of the Reformation period and during the Religious Freedom movements, and many with good intentions and reasons, the choice most of us in the west are faced with is quite different to what they were faced with. I mean, if I lived in a place and time where the transport was difficult and there was only one Christian church nearby, I will not hesitate to join that church, so long as it were Protestant, Reformed, and Evangelical. (Ok, I'm still unable to let go of some boundaries here, but see, they aren't church polity!) Or, let me put it this way. The church's structure won't be stopping me from joining it, may that be Anglican, Presbyterian, single-elder congregational, multi-elder congregational, or whatever else form, the church polity isn't going to affect my decision.

All this is to say this final, yes, the real final point. As I consider the church polity, it is important to remember that the gospel is the main thing. I won't say that the church polity is not important or inconsequential, no, it is important, but it is crucial that the church polity is viewed in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To read the earlier posts in this series, see below:

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism
  6. Reality-check
  7. Conclusion

Monday, 18 February 2013

Church Government: Conclusion

Note: This is the seventh and final post of the series on church governments, which began as I sought to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first six as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism
  6. Reality-check
So, I've finished the book. I found the book to be helpful not because it was an exhaustive study on the church government, but because it highlighted various differing points, and they in the end sharpened my own approach to the issue of the church government.

As I was getting closer to finishing the book, however, I had to resist the temptation to give up on thinking further and coming to a conclusion of my own. I thought, "hey, these great Christian theologians can't agree, and so, how can I hope to get the right answer? Perhaps I shouldn't treat the church government as an important issue. Maybe whatever works is ok for a church? After all, my heroes in the faith come from various denominations, not just one!" Thankfully, I managed to resist that temptation.

So, have I come to a conclusion? I believe I have, but it doesn't mean that I am final on this. Like everything in our lives, I leave a door open for the bible to further correct my view. With the conclusion I came down to, at least for now, I can happily say that my conscience is clear. I hope no one reads what I below and simply take it as their own, but at the same time, I will be glad if they are helped in thinking this issue through, as I had been through the book.

Before I start on the main points, let me briefly list the three contentious issues which seemed to divide the four views.

1) Bishops "above" church elders (pro bishop? Anglicans. anti bishops? the other three)
2) Independence of a local church (totally independent? Congregationalists. not completely independent? Presbyterians or Anglicans)
3) Number of elders in a local church (single elder is norm? Single-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans, plural elder is norm? Presbyterians, Plural-elder congregationalists, and possibly Anglicans)

As I closed the book, I was once again reminded that the most important question we need to ask was this: "What does the bible say?" That's the most crucial question.
One thing that struck me was the congregationalists' criticism on Anglican's low view of scripture. I don't believe Peter Toon has a low view of scripture, but he was criticised as by others. I think that is a misunderstanding on congregationalists part. The congregationalists were emphasising what is called the regulative principle. Simply put, it means that Christians must only worship God as the bible prescribes and no other way. This contrasts with the normative principle which says, we can worship God in many different ways as long as we do not commit what the bible forbids. I quite like the regulative principle and would choose that over the normative principle if I had to pick one. It seems the safer option for me. But I believe we need to be careful with it. You see, the question again, is "what does the bible say?" What does the bible say about the church government? This is before you decide on whatever principle you like and coming to the bible to find out what the bible says. If you like, you could ask, no you must ask, "what does the bible say about the regulative principle?", except you might be already putting to the bible a question that it's not interested in answering. I believe that the bible affirms the regulative principle some areas of Christian worship, but it is not a be-all-end-all kind of thing. The bible is the final authority, and if you are going to apply the regulative principle on the church government, you'll have to first find that the bible tells us to use the regulative principle on how to structure the church.

I cannot make this point strong enough in fact. Many Christians confess that the bible is the final authority in regards to the faith and that it is sufficient for believers to live God's way. Yet, we bring so many different ideas to the bible, and knowingly and unknowingly distort what the bible plainly teaches. Sure, we cannot understand the bible in a vacuum. We all bring certain presuppositions to the task of understanding the bible. What I am trying to guard myself against and warn others about is that these presuppositions should not be so strong that your bible actually depends on it. If you do that, you're inadvertently making your presuppositions the final authority, not the bible. So, what am I proposing here? Bring your presuppositions, your regulative principle even, if you like, but bring them soft, malleable, so that the bible will speak the final word. Your presuppositions, your principles, your rules and tools will be strengthened by the bible when they are in line with what the bible says, they will be weakened and even broken when they are opposed to what the bible says.

The biggest mistake with the congregationalists, I think, is that they already believe that they must only organise their church in the exact way the bible teaches. I am now convinced that the bible does not give a full, detailed picture of how to structure the church. So, if the congregationalists were to be truly consistent with their application of the regulative principle, they won't be able to structure the church at all. But they do! What they have done is that they went to the bible to find what they were looking for. When the bible does not give a detailed instructions on how to structure the church, to claim that the bible does is nothing less than adding to the bible.

I don't know enough to make a clear case for this, but my suspicion is that the profound disagreement between Anglicans and the rest (Presbyterians and Congregationalists alike, but particularly Congregationalists) actually stems from the historical relationship between the church and the state. Because the Anglican churches, through their bishops mainly, had a strong ties with the state, the dissenters had to work for the independence of the church from the state. That was a marvellous work. I am grateful for their work and sacrifices. However, now that the separation of the church and state and the religious freedom has been achieved (although some atheists will not rest until the government becomes anti-religion), I believe you do not need to reject bishops any longer. So long as they aren't domineering over local churches, and are faithful to the historic gospel of Jesus and working to further the gospel growth, they can be of good use for the churches. So, yes, I am not against the bishops. What if I was part of Presbyterian church or a Baptist? Will I demand a bishop? I don't think so. It is helpful to have bishops, but not so necessary to start instituting them when your denomination doesn't have them. There are other ways to fulfil similar roles I'm sure, even if not exactly the same.

So that's the first point of conclusion I've come to. Bishops are good, but don't fight to institute one if you don't have them. If you have them, make sure they are keeping with the gospel work.

The second point is whether to have a clear, structurally formal independence of local churches as congregationalists demand. All four views held that the local churches need to be in partnership with other churches. I think that's clear from the bible. The congregationalists, however, maintain that they need to be clearly, structurally independent of any other governing body, so that while freely partnering with other churches, they are not under some kind of obligations to submit to some higher church hierarchy. I am not convinced that this is necessary or better than the alternatives (Anglican or Presbyterian way). It seems to appeal to the independent, individualistic mindset of modern western culture, but I don't think the bible is so strong on the "complete-ness" of a local church that you should not bind yourself with some other churches. The local churches in Anglican and Presbyterian denominations run quite independently at the local level. The congregationalists argued in the book that in Anglican or Presbyterian structures, when one bishop or governing body makes a bad decision, the whole group of churches suffer. I understand that point with sadness in my heart (I think of liberal Anglicans and Uniting churches). However, the reversal isn't so much better as they seem to claim. In the absence of a bishop, or a trusted ruling body, I found independent churches (congregational, baptists, non-denominational, etc) to be a bit of hit-and-miss when it came to their teaching and practice. I found it more difficult to recommend an independent church to a friend because I can't have much confidence unless I've attended it or know someone personally there, while with the Presbyterian or Anglican churches, I could be reasonably confident that at least their theological convictions fall within certain boundaries I have. Not all baptists or congregationalists churches are not-recommendable, of course! But it's harder to confidently recommend one for friends when I don't know much about them. They are, after all, independent.

So, this is my second point of conclusion. The local church does not necessarily need to be independent and having a higher church governing body over local churches is a good thing. Here, a kind of footnote might be necessary. Does this mean that the Roman Catholic way of church structure is a good thing, where the bishop of Rome is supreme over all the churches globally? No. The bishop, to be engaged in a gospel ministry at a local level, they should have a limited geographical boundary. Without that, a bishop will be abstracted away from the local needs, and will eventually be less useful to the church and be at risk of working to simply increase his influence over more churches and greater area. 

Thirdly, I considered the number of elders in a local church. Before I read this book, I had been convinced that the most important issue in a local church government was the presence of multiple elders. If a church didn't have, or affirm as the norm, the multiple elders, I thought it was clearly going against the scriptures. This was what made me uncomfortable to go into ministry in the Anglican church, as opposed to the Presbyterian church. However, I seem to have been too concerned with the exact terminology, rather than the actual role they were meant to fill. I still think it is important to have multiple elders in a church, but I now think that the exact term elder is not necessary. It's not the terminology that's most important here, but the role they fulfil. As long as there are people leading the church alongside the pastor and they fit the biblical descriptions of their character (eg. 1 Tim 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9), I can work with that. They don't need to have them right now even, but so long as there is a possibility for that to change, I'll be content. I also think it is important that the pastor should work with "elders" in a way that is not domineering or independent, but with a posture of submission, as is the norm (ideal?) in the Presbyterianism. But this has more to do with the maturity of the church and the character of the pastor and less to do with the formal structure.

So, that's my third and final point in conclusion. A local church should strive to have a group of mature Christians working alongside the minister, and the minister himself, more than anyone else, should empower and recognise their authority in the church, so that the leadership of the church will not fall to a single man.

Speaking on what the bible says can be a difficult thing sometimes and may require courage and discipline. But keeping mouth shut on the things that the bible is silent on also requires as much courage and discipline. The great reformation motto, Sola Scriptura itself isn't a rule that you just bring to the bible. That itself requires verification by the bible (and thankfully the bible does teach that!). And the bible does not give minute details on how we ought to structure the church. In this light, I came to the above three points. Because the bible did not prescribe an exact and detailed church structure, I don't think it is necessarily a sin to commit to one of the four ways of church government (interestingly, all four proponents seem to agree on this, even the congregationalists who invest heavily on the regulative principle!). This means that, in our societies where the separation of the church and the state and the religious freedom is achieved, we do not need to split over the structure of the church, as they did few centuries ago. I don't think anyone needs to change their denomination purely because of its standard church polity. So I am content, having moved a year ago from a Presbyterian church to an evangelical Anglican church, I see no need for me to move back to the Presbyterian church. Of course, it would have been fine to stay as a Presbyterian too! If I were a Baptist, I wouldn't (or shouldn't) have moved to a different denomination either if the only issue I had were the church structure. I would most uncomfortable working in the single-elder congregational church, but being a congregational church, if I were to be a pastor, I can, in theory, teach on the matter and persuade the congregation to institute multiple elders. This is exactly what had happened under the leadership of John Piper at his church and there are many other examples.
It seems that while the regulative principle sounds restricting, and the normative principle mischievous, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, when applied correctly is most liberating for Christians.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

These short, precious, eternity-charged years

[Jeremiah] feared getting what he wanted and missing what God wanted. It is still the only thing worthy of our fear.
What a waste it would be to take these short, precious, eternity-charged years that we are given and squander them in cocktail chatter when we can be, like Jeremiah, vehemently human and passionate with God.
  - p. 263, from Life At Its Best by Eugene Peterson (also in the 7th chapter of the book, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life At Its Best)

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs / / CC BY-NC-SA

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Church Government: Reality-check

Note: This is the sixth post of the series on church governments, which began as I sought to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first five as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism
  5. Plural-elder Congregationalism

Somewhat unexpectedly, this book felt heavy on my heart today. On my train trip back home from work, I pulled it out of my bag to read it, but I just sat there with the book in my hand, feeling hesitant to read on.

Why am I reading this book? Why did I start? What am I looking to achieve? How am I going with it?
Finding out what's the best model for the church government cannot simply be a hobby. Whether the church polity is an important topic or not is a secondary question. Even if it were a very small issue, the fact that it is so is important and not to be regarded lightly. Have I been too casual about my exploration? Am I truly seeking to settle my mind on the church government issue so I can obey God's word? Or am I just trying to arm myself with more excuses and arguments to justify my disobedience? Will I, in the end, be willing to abandon my pursuit of ordained ministry within the Anglican or Presbyterian denominations (or any other), if it comes to that?

I had to pause to pray. I had to ask that God would grant me understanding and discernment in this issue so I may not be misled. I had to ask that God would make me faithful to His word in this issue as well as any other. I could sense my sin-ridden heart trying to use this newly gained knowledge only to serve my comfortable life-style. I had to ask God to keep my heart in check so I may not pour contempt on His word and the cross of Jesus. May God lead me on and make me obedient to Him.

Church Government: Plural-elder Congregationalism

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: Worship of the Lamb with multitude of believers and elders!
Note: This is the fifth post of a series on church governments, which began as I seek to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first four as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Single-elder Congregationalism

Samuel E. Waldron presents Plural-Elder Congregationalism.
I found his presentation clear, well-structured, and persuasive. Here's what I gleaned from it:
1) Congregational church is independent and democratic. A plural-elder congregational church is both that and has multiple elders.
2) There are 4 principles involved in declaring the plural-elder congregationalism as the most biblical model for a church, and they are: the Puritan, the Independent, the Democratic, and the Plural-elder principles.
3) The Puritan principle is what really seems to drive the rest of the principles and what the plural-elder congregationalists are trying to hold on to at their core. It is a conviction that the bible has given us a church model that we are to follow without adding or subtracting from it. I believe the bible has given us all things that we need to know about God for salvation and to worship Him to His pleasure. I believe we must not add or subtract from it, but I am not quite sure if the bible has given us a clearly fixed model of church structure that we must follow. I like the idea, or the impulse these plural-elder congregationalists seem to have and to be faithful to, namely, obeying God's word, but at this point, I am left to wonder if they are actually the ones who have (unwittingly as it may be) added to what God has given us regarding the church government.
4) The Independent principle means that they believe each local church is independent from any kind of outside authority, and this they base on the fact that Christ is the only King and the Authority over His church, and each church must not be forced to be under some kind of earthly organisations, committees, or councils. I might just add that, having been part of a Presbyterian church for over 30 years, a Presbyterian church, at a local church level, doesn't experience much interference from the "upper" church government. They enjoy quite a lot of freedom in the way they operate, and I suspect that a moderate baptist church won't be too different in this regard, at least in the daily-ministry-work kind of ways.
5) The Democratic principle means that while Christ is King and the Head over the church, we, as collective body in a local church, have the responsibility and privilege of discerning and implementing His will together. No committee (or session in the Presbyterian case) or a pastor (or a bishop) makes the decision on behalf of the church.
6) The plural-elder principle is a conviction that the bible speaks clearly that we are to have multiple elders in a local church. Of course they admit there are special cases where a church cannot (yet?) have multiple elders, but the bible teaches (they say) to have them. It's not a matter of whether to have several elders in a church, it is more a question of when.
7) The role of elders play in the congregational church ranges somewhat, but in Samuel Waldron's estimation, the bible teaches the plurality of elders in a church, parity (equality) of elders in terms of their offices, and diversity of elders in terms of their ministries according to their gifts. This is one aspect that is different from Presbyterianism which divides elders into teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders (lay-elders).

So, what are my thoughts?
Most helpful and convincing part about this is the fact that a church should have a group of elders. I think that's what the bible tells us to do at a local church level. We are still a church of Jesus when we don't have several elders, but it's something we should work towards to implement.
Earlier, in the first chapter, Peter Toon has argued that the presence of bishops is of the plene esse (fullness of being). I'm not completely persuaded about that. I'm rather still inclined to see the presence of bishops as of the bene esse (well-being), which Toon rejected as a little too low or weak view of episcopalianism. I think the plural-eldership (but not the congregationalism bit) is of the plene esse. A church in the end of times, in the book of Revelation is a church with many elders, praising God together.

I will now turn to the responses each view had received by other proponents and see where they lead me.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Church Government: Single-elder Congregationalism

Note: This is the fourth post of a series on church governments, which began as I seek to understand the distinctives and issues of various church government systems. You can read the first three as listed below.

  1. Introduction and Anglicanism
  2. Presbyterianism
  3. Breakthrough

There can be only one elder in a local church?

Paige Patterson presents the single-elder congregationalism. I found this chapter a bit difficult to follow and of the arguments I think I understood rather unconvincing, but here's what I gleaned from it.

1) Every Christian is a priest, hence there needs no distinct/higher office in a church. Every member can and must take the responsibility together regarding decisions in the church.
2) The models in the New Testament regarding church structure shows single-elder congregational structures while there are some counter models as well.
3) Even in plural-elder congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, at the local church level, there usually one senior pastor who is at the front of the leadership in the church because of the very nature of the leadership.
4) Although there's no clear command from the bible whether to have one elder or multiple elders in a church, from seeing how the leadership panned out throughout the scriptures, single-elder congregationalism is the most appropriate form of the church government.
5) Patterson seems to give allowance for having multiple elders in a church as long as there is one definite leader/pastor among them (single-elder), and that no authority outside the church is enforced over the church and all members take part in decision making (congregationalism).

Ok, I don't feel I've summed up this chapter very well, but I think it's because the case was not made very well, or maybe it's the limitations of the single-elder congregationalism.

I am not convinced by this model and I'll move on to the plural-elder congregationalism in the next post.

(Photo credit: Memegenerator)

Systematic Theology or Biblical Theology. Must we choose?

I was doing some random googling and somehow it landed me on the following page.

The Trueman-Goldsworthy Debate: A Revolutionary Balancing Act

Having read a couple of Goldsworthy books, and having been enjoying Carl Trueman's posts on Reformation21 site, I was interested in what this was about. I read on.

I glad to hear Trueman's critique that Christians might have gone to emphasise too much on the biblical theology and neglecting the systematic theology. This article was written and published just over ten years ago, but I felt he was right in his analysis, even now. Having been happy to hear what he had to say, I was curious what Goldsworthy might have said in response. So I read his response as well.

The Trueman-Goldsworthy Debate: Ontology and Biblical Theology

I was at first struck by his strong language in his critique of Trueman's article. After a brief affirmation on some of what Trueman said, Goldsworthy came out in full force to break down Trueman's arguments that the emphasis on the biblical theology is overwhelming in churches worldwide, and it was the cause of the neglect and, what he called, "crisis" of the systematic theology in many Christians. I was at first taken aback a little by his strong languages. However, as I read on and thought about it, I had to admit Goldsworthy was mostly right in his assertions. His main stress was that while he agrees with Trueman on the fact that the systematic theology is being neglected in churches, the remedy is not in balancing the systematic theology and the biblical theology, as Trueman suggested, but rather, we must take on the biblical theology more whole heartedly as well as the systematic theology as they are inseparable. They are two different disciplines of theology, yet, neither can stand on its own and hence somehow we need to balance them in our thinking, but rather, as we pursue to know God through the bible, we must and cannot help but to employ both, which complements each other.

I had heard this before at a Preaching Conference held at SMBC a few years ago when Don Carson came to teach on this very subject, but I guess I still have a lot to learn and need a constant reminder.

I'd like to quote a few paragraphs from Goldsworthy's article.
My real problem with this negative assessment of biblical theology is that it makes it sound as if biblical theology is only about an economic view of salvation and God, and systematics is only about ontology. This simply is not so. Both are about both. Furthermore they are interdependent (maybe that’s what Carl means by balance!). 
In 1986, I contributed to the Festschrift for Broughton Knox with an essay entitled, “ ‘Thus says the Lord!’ – The Dogmatic Basis of Biblical Theology.” My argument was much the same as Jensen’s: we cannot formulate dogma without biblical theology, but we cannot do biblical theology without dogmatic constructs. This is not balance, it is rather (to use a more ontological term) perichoresis. 
To return to the Trinity, perichoresis is a term used to describe the fact that we cannot assert the unity of God without also asserting the distinctions of the persons of the Godhead. Thus, Christian theism is neither a modalistic-monistic theism, nor a co-operative tritheism. In the words of Cornelius Van Til, unity and distinction are equally ultimate. I would add that to assert equal ultimacy is not served by balance as well as it is by coinherence or perichoresis. 
The Christian theistic understanding of the ontological Trinity, then, directs us to the way ahead in the question of all relationships. Everything in existence has some point of unity with every thing else. Every thing in existence has some point of distinction from everything else. Unity and distinction form the structure of reality, and it is so because that is the ontological essence of God and the way he has made all things. This informs us in all aspects of reality as we try to understand relationships.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Church Government: Breakthrough

I've never heard of Mark Ashton until I read this story.

When Elders Say No.

It's great. It's short and easy to read. You will find excellent examples of a godly pastor and a church there.

After reading it, I went back to skim it through and googled around a little to find the St. Andrew the Great church in Cambridge where Mark Ashton was the pastor. And then, I was joyfully surprised that this story of submission to the church elders was actually from an Anglican church! So, an Anglican church can have "elders" in the form of church wardens! This is a breakthrough for me!

As I've expressed before, my biggest concern regarding the Anglican church structure was the absence of plural eldership in a local church. Since I'm ok with the existence of bishops in churches, and I must have mistaken to think a local Anglican church cannot have an official body of "elders" (although the term used is still not the biblical term, elder/presbyter), I should no longer have any issues with the Anglican church system. Of course there may still be things to improve upon and minor tweaking to do in a church since no church structure is perfect and all churches need continually be reformed, but I don't think I can have any more issues with the Anglican church structure itself.

Now, I will continue to read the book, Who Runs the Church to know more and learn from it and will finally, with God's help, come to my final conclusion.

This wonderful man of God, Mark Ashton had passed away few years ago, but a blog post pointed me to this short video of him talking about the gospel using his terminal illness as a platform. I'm struck with his joy in impending death, and it makes me want to know the greatness of Jesus as well as this man did.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Church Government: Presbyterianism

To see the introduction and what I gathered from the Anglican view, see here.

Presbyterianism was presented by L. Roy Taylor. Here's what I got out of it:
1) A local Presbyterian church is governed by a group of elders, called the session, which consists of some teaching elders (generally ministers who preach on Sundays) and some ruling elders (who errmm... don't preach on Sundays usually).
2) A local Presbyterian church is connected with other Presbyterian churches in the region through Presbytery, which consists of members of sessions from those churches.
3) Then, at least one member from each Presbytery join together in a bigger region, possibly at the national level, to form the General Assembly.
4) Each of these are meant to be representative ruling body, which means the voices from both above and below are heard by the ruling body. Discipline is possible while tyranny is preventable. Also, because Elders from different churches get together to form Presbytery and the General Assembly, there is a natural cooperative connection amongst churches.
5) The reason for doing church this way, they claim, is from the bible, both the OT and NT. They trace the origin of plural elder-leadership in the community of God from the Moses's time in the OT and assumed and endorsed by the Apostles in the NT.
6) The strengths are mentioned already above, but the weakness is the fact that ministry decision making can be quite cumbersome and inefficient. This can, in my view, cut both ways. It sometimes is a good thing that decisions don't get made in haste when it comes to theology and doctrines. At the same time, overhead of convincing and getting approval from a number of elders can be a slow process and almost impractical at times. (I might point out here though, that the Presbyterian churches world wide are not free from liberalism or heresies. It's good to remember that there's no perfect church on earth!)
7) Deacons, differing from Anglicanism, are lay-positions.
8) Presbyterians also recognise that the bible is not prescribing a form of church structure. However, the Presbyterianism is, as in point 5 above, endorsed by the whole of the bible.
9) There is a distinction between a teaching elder and a ruling elder as seen in point 1 above, but, while I am ok with it, the biblical basis for it seems rather weak and almost arbitrary.

So, I am very much comfortable with the Presbyterian way of structuring churches. I don't think I am naive about it. I grew up in the Presbyterian church for over 30 years, and have seen its own abuse of authorities and I have tried to encourage the pastors who were given the difficult job of persuading a group of elders to get anything significant done. But I trust that God's wisdom is greater than ours and in His wisdom, the Presbyterianism is endorsed in the bible for a good reason and purpose.

I've just started reading the single-elder congregationalism. Where am I now in terms of church government persuasion so far?

I definitely prefer Presbyterianism. But having been pointed out by a Presbyterian that its way is not the one and true way of doing church that the bible prescribes but only endorsed (for me this distinction is crucial), I think I can be open to the Anglican way (a low church variety only please). The biggest hurdle for me, however, remains as the lack of plural eldership in a local church. I couldn't help imagining a merge of the Presbyterian way with the Anglican way where ministers are ordained by bishops as Anglicans do, but each church officially selects people from its own congregation to be the elders and lead together with the minister. Wouldn't that be chaotic? Inefficiency and bishops both maintained? I'm sure somebody would have thought of this before, no? Plural-elder church with bishops? No? Nobody?

Church Government: Anglicanism

I'm trying to get a clearer understanding on the distinctives of different church structures/governments and which is most biblical if there can be argued one. So I borrowed a book, Who Runs The Church: 4 views on church government.

It presents 4 models, Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, Single-Elder Congregationalism, and Plural-Elder Congregationalism. The book is part of the Counterpoints series by Zondervan where on a particular theological point or doctrine, various different views are presented by different people, and each presenter also responds to other's views.

Of these 4 views, I am most interested in the Anglican way (Episcopalianism) and the Presbyterianism. I am hoping that reading this book will help me to get a better understanding of the two and that I can know whether my conscience would be clear to, well, pursue ordained ministry in the future.

I decided to read the 4 views as the proponents present them first, and go back to read their responses to each view. I'll try to record some of the learnings and summaries I get from the book here, and this is the first of several that may come.

So far, I've read the introduction by the editor Steven Cowan, and the Episcopalianism presented by the late Peter Toon. One thing that struck me was the fact that more than anything else, the most distinctive thing they proposed regarding the Anglicanism was the presence of bishops. I knew they existed in the Anglican church, but did not know what they did and what they signified, so it was a good learning for me. So here's my summary of Anglican church structure, what they do and why they do that way:
1) The English term may vary, but basically, a Presbyter/Elder/Rector leads a local church/parish.
2) While bishop may not interfere directly with the local ministry of a church he is not the direct member of, only a bishop(s) can ordain others to become a presbyter in the diocese(region) and have certain authority within it. (The Roman Catholic Pope's authority over all churches is rejected as a groundless claim both in history as well as in the bible.)
3) This allowed them to claim that they maintained the apostolic succession through ordination of bishops. In today's society where history isn't regarded so important, this might seem trivial, but I can see that this connection with the ancient church is somehow important.
4) A diocese makes major decisions in synod which comprises of three houses, bishops, clergymen (presbyters and deacons), and laymen. All three need to agree to make major decisions, while bishops or the archbishop have certain higher authority because of the nature of the offices they hold.
5) Still, archbishop is not the head of a local church.
6) The most important reasons for this structure seems to stem from two convictions Anglicans hold, a) the bible does NOT prescribe a church structure, and b) this structure is the way the church developed into for the first 5 centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
7) Since the Anglicans do not insist that there is one true church structure that the bible prescribes, they seem to be more open to other forms of doing church compared to other denominations.
8) However, there are 2 main advantages of doing church this way: a) through hierarchy and singular leadership of a local church, they achieve ministry efficiency, while at the same time, b) they can combat heresies effectively. (Although, seeing how much of Anglicanism worldwide are plagued with liberalism, I am not so sure of the second point.)

After reading this chapter, I found it so persuasive, I felt I was ready to be an Anglican (oh, wait, wasn't I already one anyway?)

But then I started reading the Presbyterianism chapter, and before I got through first 5 pages, I felt this was IT. Presbyterianism all the way! Oh, dear, this isn't going to be easy. I hope I don't become a Plural-Elder Congregationalist just because that's the last chapter of the book!

Anyway, one note to myself at this stage.
The biggest issue that I have with the Anglican church is the fact that they do not have an official plural-elder leadership in a local church. It's not that the senior minister runs the church by himself, it doesn't work that way anyway. Any churches big enough all have "elder-like" people helping the senior minister in running of the church. But lacking the official recognition and appointments, the decision making power still solely rests on one minister in a local church in the end. I hoped Peter Toon would defend the Anglicanism regarding the plural-elder leadership in a local church, but it didn't touch that issue. I wonder if this would be addressed in other parts of the book.

Monday, 14 January 2013

5700 NT Manuscripts

  Finally, conspicuous by its absence in Misquoting Jesus is any comparison between the copies of the New Testament and other ancient Greek or Latin literature. Whatever doubts we cast on the text of the New Testament must be cast a hundredfold on virtually any other ancient book. The New Testament manuscripts stand closer to the original and are more plentiful than probably any other literature of that era. The New Testament is far and away the best-attested work of Greek or Latin literature from the ancient world.
  Approximately five thousand seven hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts are known to exist. The number of sources is growing. Every decade and virtually every year, new manuscripts are discovered. Meanwhile, the average classical author's writings are found in about twenty manuscripts. The New Testament - in the Greek manuscripts alone - exceeds this figure by almost three hundred times. Besides the Greek manuscripts, there are Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, and many other versions of the New Testament. The Latin manuscripts number more than ten thousand. All told, the New Testament is represented by approximately one thousand times as many manuscripts as the average classical author's writings. Even the well-known authors - such as Homer and Herodotus - simply can't compare to the quantity of copies enjoyed by the New Testament. Homer, in fact, is a distant second in terms of manuscripts, yet there are fewer than two thousand five hundred copies of Homer remaining today. What this means is that New Testament textual critics don't lack for materials!
  [...] We have between ten and fifteen manuscripts within one hundred years of the completion of the New Testament, and more than four dozen within two centuries. Of manuscripts produced before AD 400, an astounding ninety-nine still exist - including the oldest complete New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus. [...] Meanwhile, the earliest copies of the average classical Greek or Latin author come from more than five hundred years after the date of composition.
  -- p. 48-50, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest To Unseat The Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock & Daniel B. Wallace (bold mine)

I hope this helps you.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

There is NO right NOT to be offended.

  Without doubt, many Christians manage to be offensive for reasons other than the offense of the gospel. This is to our shame and to the injury of our gospel witness. Nevertheless, there is no way for a faithful Christian to avoid offending those who are offended by Jesus Christ and His cross. The truth claims of Christianity, by their very particularity and exclusivity, are inherently offensive to those who would demand some other gospel.
  Christians must not only contend for the preservation and protection of free speech - essential for the cause of the gospel - we must also make certain that we do not fall into the trap of claiming offendedness for ourselves. We must not claim a right not to be offended, even as we must insist that there is no such right and that the social construction of such a right will mean the death of individual liberty, free speech, and the free exchange of ideas.
  Once we begin playing the game of offendedness, there is no end to the matter. There simply is no right not to be offended, and we should be offended by the very notion that such a right could exist.
 -- p. 35-36, Chapter 5: The Culture of Offendedness from Culture Shift by Albert Mohler (italics original)

Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a wonderful insight and guidance for Christians who must face the world which is opposed to Jesus and His teachings. This excerpt comes from just one of the twenty short chapters in the book, Culture Shift. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to think more clearly about how to live in this world. He also writes regularly on his own website: It's worth a visit every now and then.