Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Non-Confessional Movement

"Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16)

Some people don't like doctrinal statements, viewing them as a tool of oppression and exclusion. They would much rather be "non-confessional" (meaning: doctrinal agreement is optional, as long as people play nice).

Unfortunately, non-confessional movements usually end up looking like the picture at left.

What makes a doctrinal statement useful is its objectivity. It serves as an impartial standard, a measuring stick by which all parties can evaluate their own doctrinal health.

Throughout church history, statements like the Apostles' Creed, and the Nicene Creed (among others), have served in similar ways, providing a much-needed litmus test so that movements could obey the Scriptural admonition to safeguard the church from doctrinal "alternative facts".

For example, St. Paul's warnings and instructions:
  • "I know that after I leave [Ephesus], savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20:29-30)
  • "As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer." (1 Timothy 1:3)
  • "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3)

A "Statement of Faith" is vital for straining out doctrinal error, and the New Testament is replete with admonitions to be on guard against false teachings. St. Paul was not the only one to sound the alarm. Similar warnings were voiced by St. John (1 John 4:1), St. Peter (2 Peter 2:1-3), and also Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:10-11).

When a movement eschews a statement of faith, preferring instead to be non-confessional, they create an ethos where no teaching can be objectively evaluated, and where "alternative (doctrinal) facts" cannot be challenged.

However, something far more insidious results from a non-confessional approach, which inspired my choice of picture at the top of this post:
A non-confessional movement will always be controlled by the biggest bullies. It is inherently power-based and political in nature.
Without the objective standard of a Statement of Faith, the direction of such a movement will rest in the hands of those with the most political power. Appeals to Scripture or the history of Christian orthodoxy will fall on deaf ears. "Alternative (doctrinal) facts" can now flourish freely.

Anyone holding to a confessional approach can then be effectively ridiculed and silenced, usually by caricatures, shout-downs, and zinger-ology (I've written about these tactics before). Doctrinal questions and debates are settled by whomever can generate the loudest echo chamber, bolstered by the largest number of "likes" and retweets.

No, thanks. I'll take the (confessional) antidote St. Paul gave to Timothy:
"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Words Words Words

Fake news.
Yellow journalism.
Agenda-driven "alternative facts".
(Anti)-Social Media.

I know the end of January is an odd time to settle on a "New Year's Resolution", but as the shrill rhetoric from all sides continues to escalate -- showing no signs of letting up anywhere in the near future -- I want to contemplate and emulate the following:

Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.
- Prov. 10:19
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
- Prov. 12:18
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
- Prov. 17:27
Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.
- Eccl. 10:12
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
- Col. 4:6

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Non-Hysterical Conversation

"I've decided to stay out of those discussions, until I'm sure that we can have a non-hysterical conversation about it."

A "non-hysterical conversation"... 

The moment my friend casually uttered that phrase, I was immediately struck by its simple and profound wisdom.

It's become increasingly difficult to have a good, old-fashioned conversation these days. Much more so, a debate. I recall with fondness all the late-night theological discussions during my Bible college days. In a non-denominational school, my friends represented a wide variety of viewpoints, and we enjoyed (a) our spirited discussions, and (b) the ability to go out for coffee the next day, because friendship/fellowship was not mandated on 100% agreement.

Discussions about politics and religion have always been meme-worthy in their ability to devolve into polarized shout-down matches. That was true when I was a kid, and it appears to be -- if anything -- even more vociferous today, thanks to anti-social media platforms that reduce dialogue to soundbytes or less.

"Theology by zinger" is a fairly predictable byproduct in a culture that prizes the ability to cram complex ideas into a bumper sticker or a tweet.

I could go on to suggest that the casualties of the zinger approach would include things like: nuance, context, and understanding. You can't even legitimately arrive at the old adage "agree to disagree" if all conversations degenerate into zinger-ology.

But I think something far more basic has been lost, and if there's any value in making a New Year's Resolution for 2017, it might be this:
We need a revolution of listening.
The art of conversation, and respectful "help me understand" dialogue. Where the end goal is not to gather ammunition for the next zinger, but to understand. "Agree to disagree" may still be the result at times, but relationships will be greatly improved.

And "non-hysterical conversations" will look (and sound, and feel) a lot more Christ-like.
"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Savior Is Born

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord...”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
(Luke 2)

Now, if this was the classic scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas", the next line come from Linus VanPelt, blanket in hand: "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

A Savior is born.

In order for the birth of a Savior to be "good news that will bring great joy", there must have been a felt need to be saved from something. For example, the helpless swimmer caught in the rushing water leading to Niagara Falls understands his/her need for a "savior" in ways most of us can only imagine.

The Israelites believed the promised Messiah would save them -- from the occupying army of Romans. The Sadducees, who had largely adopted a civil religion approach to their faith, would have felt the same. A savior would be political, to deal with their enemies.

The Pharisees, confident in their own righteousness based on their scrupulous observance of rules & regulations, would also have assumed that a Savior would save them from external enemies.

And that would have been good news, politically speaking, to a people oppressed by a foreign government.

But Jesus, the Savior and promised Messiah, had another Kingdom in mind, and his earliest message was simply, "repent." He left little doubt in the minds of his hearers that He considered the real enemy of His Kingdom to be sin, a problem that only He could deal with.

Both Sadducees and Pharisees were deeply offended by the idea that they needed saving. Their pride blinded them from seeing their own sin, while the average Israelite -- often more aware of their spiritual condition -- seemed more receptive and willing to respond.

And the various writers of the epistles echoed the same theme, over and over: Jesus came as Savior to save people from their own sinfulness. They were powerless to fix the problem; they needed outside help.

Just like helpless swimmers nearing the brink of Niagara, they needed a Savior.

Fast forward to the tail end of 2016, and nothing in human nature has changed. We are still a collection of human beings with a sin problem, expressed in various and sundry ways across many countries and cultures, but just as real today as it was in Jesus' time.

We are still powerless to fix our sin-sickness, and all 'religious' attempts at hiding the symptoms under fig leaves of denial does us no good whatsoever.

We (still) need a Savior.

And that's why we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That's why, even two millennia later, the story of His birth is good news that brings great joy.

Unto us, a Savior is born.

That's what Christmas is all about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Personal Savior

Every now and then, I hear (or read) something that mocks the idea of Jesus as a "personal Savior".

The rationale is usually along the lines of: "What? You think you own Jesus, or something? Like, He's your personal Savior -- what a narcissist you must be, to think you're that important!"

Sometimes, as I'm well aware, the person uttering the comment actually does know what the phrase means, and is only pretending to be confused because they want to mock. But even so, when I pause to think about the phrase "personal Savior", I think it's worth the time to explain. You never know -- behind the mocking might lurk a genuine desire to understand.
(Of course, my facetious nature is at times tempted to respond with something like: "Well, what's the alternative? An 'impersonal' savior, who can't be known or experienced? Just some vague cosmic liver shiver -- how is that an improvement?")
But then, just in case there is a legitimate question buried somewhere, I realize that a facetious, bumper-sticker-level 'zinger' is exactly the wrong way to respond. So, I hereby bite my facetious tongue and would like to submit the following:

The idea of a "personal Savior" is very similar to another well-known phrase: "born-again Christian". Both find their roots in the evangelical belief often referred to as "conversionism" (á la Bebbington's Quadrilateral).

Simply put, "conversionism" means that nobody is born a Christian. Christian parents don't beget automatically Christian children. Going to church, getting attendance awards or Bible memorization ribbons, or attending every high school youth retreat ever held doesn't make you a Christian. Being born in a supposedly "Christian" nation counts for absolutely diddly-squat.

Conversionism is the assertion that each individual must make a conscious decision, at some point in their life, to surrender to Jesus. He is the Savior of the world, yes, but each individual in the "world" needs to decide whether or not they will follow Him. Literally, a "come to Jesus" moment of decision.

In other words, it's personal.

Of course, some of the same people who mock the phrase personal Savior also look down their noses at the entire concept of conversionism, usually with statements like: "we're called to make disciples, not converts," (in a tone of voice that subliminally includes the addendum, "you drooling theological moron").

Nine times out of ten, they are fully aware that discipleship is always predicated by coming to faith in Jesus (conversion) in the first place. Unconverted people, typically, make poor disciples (some converted people also make poor disciples, but that's a topic for another time).

For example, after Peter preached a passionate sermon on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 people had their own personal "come to Jesus" moment, and were converted to faith in Christ. After which, they were discipled as they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer (Acts 2).

But it all started with them making it personal with Jesus. Not relying on their Jewish heritage or synagogue attendance or bar mitzvah, any more than we can today rely on the country we were born in, the church we attend, or how many worship songs we know by heart.

With Jesus, it's always personal.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Release: Scorpion

An ancient story found in Aesop’s Fables:

A scorpion and a frog met on the bank of a stream. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the stream on its back.

“How do I know you won’t sting me?” asked the wary frog. The scorpion replied, “Because if I do, we will both drown.”

This seemed reasonable to the frog, and they set out together. But midstream, the scorpion stung the frog. The frog began to sink as paralysis set in, but with his last breath he gasped, “Why? Now we will both die!”

The scorpion replied, “It’s my nature; I can’t help it. I am a scorpion.”

The final book in the Tracker Trilogy is now available!
The Runners are preparing for a last-ditch, all-or-nothing assault on the stronghold of their deadliest enemies: the Givers. In order to gain entrance into the heavily-fortified Enclave, they are forced to rely on their new-found Hoarder ‘allies’, who harbour a hidden agenda of their own.
The true allegiance of the cryptic Mateo is impossible to prove, yet Runners and Hoarders alike have no choice but to risk trusting him.
Even as the Runners prepare to infiltrate the Enclave for the inevitable confrontation with the Givers, they must battle their own demons of anger, prejudice, and the thirst for revenge. The “Judas Card” – betrayal – has already been dealt, but which one them is holding it?
A cunning trap has been laid to ensnare them, and the Runners must learn what it means to “dance with the scorpion”, if they are to have any hope of surviving.
And what if there is more than one Scorpion?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Evangelicals, Repent

If it hasn't been obvious before, it's obvious now -- as in: 'how could you possibly miss it?' -- that evangelicals need to do some serious soul-searching, humble themselves, and REPENT.

And no, actually, this isn't just a cheap shot at the president-elect of the country south of Canada. If anything, their POTUS-to-be is a warning, or maybe a symptom, of a problem that goes back for years. In some ways, 'Bigley Orangelid' is the inevitable present outcome of sinful decisions made in the past.

And while it's fairly easy to see the detrimental effects in the most recent American election, evangelicals in general have oft-times been guilty of the same blind capitulation to error.

In just under two months, a man who has been variously called bully, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, vulgar, crass, manipulative and immoral (plus a few additional epithets that you wouldn't say even to a cockroach), will be known by a new nick-name: "Mr. President".
And white evangelical Christians voted in massive numbers for him, and in all likelihood, were the deciding factor in the election.
But even if "Crooked Hillary" had won instead, evangelicals would still need to repent. And no, not because of Clinton's position on the abortion issue.
Evangelicals need to repent for something far more insidious.
In more countries than just America, evangelicals have long been guilty of pursuing political power in the name of advancing the Kingdom of God. From somewhere came the idea that worldly power is necessary, or at least an advantage, for accomplishing God's purposes.

In contrast, Jesus told the political powers of His day: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

Much has been made about the long-reaching negative consequences that befell the Church when Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion as he sought to consolidate his Roman Empire.

Many have also noted, throughout church history, the detrimental long-term effects that resulted when the church was controlled by the State.

Conversely, what many Christians seem to be pursuing in recent years is a State controlled by the Church. This isn't surprising, if one has embraced a "Kingdom Now" (Latter Rain) paradigm, where believers think they will usher in the Kingdom and then turn it over to Jesus later. But it's not just charismatic extremists who need to repent.

The root goes much further back. Remember the "Moral Majority" movement of the early 1980s? When Fundamentalists decided to use political power to force Christianity -- or at least Judeo-Christian morality -- on the masses? And then evangelicals jumped on the Moral Majority bandwagon as well, just in case it might work?
(Ironic parenthetical question: Why is it so horrifying to think that Sharia Law might be imposed on the populace, but it's perfectly acceptable for fundamentalist Christians to do exactly the same thing? Just wondering.)
No, if there's anything evangelicals around the world need to repent of, it's for embracing the seductive and idolatrous lie that the Kingdom of God will be advanced through political power. The pursuit of worldly power has resulted in evangelicals supporting worldly politicians, and becoming worldly themselves in the process. As evangelicals, if the shoe fits, it's time to repent.

All evangelicals, not just white males in America.

"My Kingdom is not of this world," said Jesus, the One we claim to be following, who calls us to be "in the world, but not of the world" (John 17:14-19).

The first disciples had the same problem; we're still learning the same lessons they had to learn:
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (political power for their people)

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (spiritual power for the advancing of a different Kingdom) (Acts 1:6-8)
Yes, it's time for evangelical Christians to repent. We serve a different King, and we are called to partner with Him to advance a very different Kingdom.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Foreshadow: Scorpion (Tracker Book 3)

The release of Scorpion, the final installment in the Tracker Trilogy, is imminent.

nemesis; [nem-uh-sis]
  1. A long-standing rival; an archenemy
  2. An opponent that is very difficult to defeat
Time is running out: 

A mysterious antagonist is operating behind the scenes, manipulating both Runners and Hoarders alike, accelerating them towards a fiery confrontation with their ultimate and deadly nemesis: the Givers.

- from the inside cover -
A battery-powered torch snapped on, its warm glow illuminating the confined area. The air was heavy with the reek of many years’ worth of sea-borne flotsam. The howl of the wind was muted, and even the pounding surf seemed lessened. Don’t kid yourself, Aubs, the tide is already coming in. The ocean is not your friend.
Mateo stood with his back to them, facing a barnacle-encrusted wall. In the shadows beyond him, Aubrey could make out the oblong shape of a doorway. A circular handle, with four spokes, was located in the center of the hatch. The torch cast the portal into sharp relief as Amos directed his light at it.
The outside rim of the door was discolored, blackened, as if it had been burned in a fire. The metal was puckered in places, the bubbles of molten metal now hardened into one solid mass.
“It’s been welded shut,” Mateo informed them bleakly, retreating to his instructor’s voice. Aubrey felt her throat constrict as she stared at him. I’ve never seen that look on his face before.
“We’ve been cut off,” said Amos, staring at the fused portal in disbelief.
“They knew we were coming.”

- Scorpion (Tracker Book 3): coming November 2016 -

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Teaser: Scorpion (Tracker Book 3)

Almost exactly one year after the release of Tracker: Book One, the final novel in the Tracker Trilogy, Scorpion, is almost ready for publication!

The stakes keep getting higher for the small band of Runners, and only the direst of circumstances could persuade them to join forces with their most despised enemies, the duplicitous Hoarders. Win or lose, they are out of options.

- from the back cover -
The troubled alliance between the Runners and a small cadre of renegade Hoarders teeters on a razor’s edge. Years of suspicion and prejudice – on both sides – wars against their need to present a united front against a common enemy.
Neither side trusts the evasive Mateo, yet both are reluctantly dependent on him.
The situation inside the Enclave continues to deteriorate, manipulated by unscrupulous forces behind the scenes. The Judas Card – betrayal – has already been dealt. But which one of them is holding it?
A trap laid by unseen hands is about to close, leaving the Runners with one last, desperate chance to complete their mission.
They have no choice but to learn what it means to ‘dance with the scorpion’.

- Scorpion (Tracker Book 3): coming November 2016 -