Monday, June 30, 2008

The Mythical Book of Genesis?

There are many Christians who would like to interpret the book of Genesis in light of modern science. Maintaining that the theory of evolution is more reliable than the biblical account, they propose that the author of Genesis (who I believe was Moses) simply used mythical language to explain the creation account, as well as the story of the flood. They would like to take the first 11 chapters of Genesis and totally mythologize these stories.

They essentially want to have their cake and eat it, too.

For some time, though, I have insisted that a person can believe in evolution all they want, but they cannot support it from the Bible, or even attempt to justify their beliefs in light of what was written in Genesis. The average layperson can plainly see that the insistence that somehow Genesis 1-11 is nothing but myth, yet the other 39 chapters are to be taken literally, is very problematic.

Nothing in the text of Genesis 1-11 implies that it should be interpreted differently than the rest of Genesis (or the rest of the Pentateuch). There is nothing that says, "I'm an allegory, don't interpret me literally. But you can interpret the rest of the book literally." So, unless a person wants to start saying that all of Genesis is allegorical (which some may be prepared to do), they are stuck with the reality that Genesis 1-11 is to be taken literally.

Although there are a number of reasons for insisting that Genesis 1-11 is part of a totally unified - and literal - book, one word, in particular, stands out that indicates the book is completely unified in its genre. The word first appears in Genesis 2:4 when Moses writes, "This is the history of the heavens and the earth." The word for "history" is toledoth and it literally means "account" or "generations." This word pops up again and again throughout the entire book, talking about the "generations/account of Noah" (6:9), the "generations/account of Ishmael" (25:12), the "generations/account of Esau" (36:1), the "generations/account of Jacob" (37:2). Exodus even goes on to use the word in reference to the generations of Levi and Merari (6:16, 19). All in all, the word is used 16 times throughout Genesis and Exodus.

Thus, if we are to take seriously the historicity of Ishmael's genealogy, or Esau's genealogy, or Levi's genealogy, then we need to accept Noah's genealogy and creation's genealogy. In other words, Moses wants to clearly show that the explanation of the creation week is every bit as valid - and historical - as his explanation of the subsequent literal and historical figures.

This is not to imply that Moses' explanation of creation is exhaustive, or that it can answer every little question of our 21st century scientific minds. But, at the very least, Moses' explanation is the bare bones of what took place in the beginning and any type of explanation that contradicts (as opposed to complements) Genesis 1-11, cannot be accepted.

Monday, June 16, 2008

No Longer Seeking the Seekers

Willow Creek has realized that its "seeker-sensitive" model of "doing" church has not produced the results it was looking for. Although I came across this admission a few weeks ago, I am just now getting around to commenting on it.

The megachurch in Illinois recently conducted a four-year research effort to determine how effective their methods of church growth were. I guess they came to the conclusion that they had to change things up a bit and get a little deeper.

I'll be interested in hearing what the response is among my colleagues and fellow pastors who have bought whole-heartedly into their methods. Thousands upon thousands of pastors, as well as interested laypersons, across all denominations, flock to this Mecca of church growth. I, myself, am not against studying what has worked for others, per se. Yet I have always maintained - even if only to myself - that popular methods of "church growth" should have us all a little hesitant. The Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks of this world may be effective for what their mission is, but that doesn't necessarily translate into every church around the world - and it certainly isn't the most effective model for Seventh-day Adventists, who feel as though we have been called to herald a different message than the rest of the evangelical world.

And at the heart of that message is a depth that is often lacking at "seeker-sensitive" services.

I freely admit that we should probably be a little me sympathetic to the visitor that sits in our pews from week to week. I am very uncomfortable many times on a Sabbath morning when I look up and see a face I don't recognize, realizing the message I have prepared for that morning may not scratch where he or she itches, or perhaps even be a complete turn-off to a person who is looking for a more generic sermon than I was hoping to give.

Yet, it seems to me that when visitors do come, they have an expectation that a church will talk about "churchy" things. This is not to say that we should present things that are always over a visitor's head, but there should be a way of having a healthy mix of "generic" Christianity and "deeper" Christianity. If it is always generic Christianity and "milk," then how do we expect our attendees to grow?

Of course, I understand completely that our church members should feed themselves during the week, and not rely so much on the pastor to feed them during the sermon. But there is still a power in the oral and spoken word, presented in the context of corporate worship, that can be missed if we are just gearing our services and sermons towards "seekers."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What's so "grace-oriented" about your church?

A certain phrase is sweeping the land of late, that is a bit intriguing. I have heard a number of fellow pastors in the last few years celebrating the fact that they are privileged to pastor a church that is "grace-oriented." Or someone else is excited because a new pastor, who is coming to the conference, is "grace-oriented." Or perhaps even a new president has shifted the focus of the whole conference because he, too, is "grace-oriented."

What, exactly, do they mean by this?

Well, I'm pretty sure I think I know what they mean. From my reflections, I believe these individuals are comparing a shift from the old paradigm of judgmentalism and legalism, to acceptance and forgiveness. When a church, pastor, president, teacher - or whomever - is labeled as "grace-oriented," this person or institution is creating a culture of a "come, as you are - warts and all" mentality.

And such a culture is refreshing. There is no doubt that, to a large degree, many churches in the past have been plagued by legalistic and judgmental attitudes (especially here in New England). To say that anyone can come to church - no matter how they're dressed, what they're drinking, who they're sleeping with - is a true representation and reflection of the gospel. It's a true representation of the God who said, "Neither do I condemn you. . . "

But it is not "grace." At least not it its totality.

From my observations, pastors or churches that are labeled as "grace-oriented" are labeled as such because they overemphasize one component of grace - the "acceptance" part. And when there is an imbalance in one's emphasis on grace, it turns into what many have labeled "cheap grace" (I do not particularly like this term because it is implicitly redundant. Grace, by definition, is cheap - at least to the one who receives it. Perhaps a better term to use, instead, would be something to the effect of "unappreciated grace." I don't know. Maybe you have a better suggestion if you understand the concept I'm getting at. It is still a work in progress).

The reality is, grace is more than just acceptance and pardon. It is more than simply saying, "I'm okay; you're okay; we're all okay. Just come to church as you are and we will 'love you up.' " Paul, quite explicitly states, in Titus 2:11, 12, that "the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (NIV).

This is the same Paul who was so "grace-oriented" that he told the believers in Corinth "not to keep company with with anyone named a brother [what we would call a "church member" today], who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner - not even to eat with such a person" (1 Cor 5:11). Furthermore, the people in Corinth were to "deliver such [individuals] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (v. 5). In other words, Paul told the people in Corinth to kick such persons out of the church, in an attempt to save them "in the day of the Lord."

How's that for grace?

And yet, that's the reality of grace. It goes beyond simple acceptance, to proclaiming the beautiful reality that grace is powerful enough to make sinners into saints. It is powerful enough to keep a person from stumbling ever again (see Jude 24).

As my pal Herbert Douglass writes:
When God goes about providing grace to men and women of faith, it is an ethical matter and not merely a judicial act leading to legal fiction. The gospel is concerned about redemption, not legal transactions. Grace liberates men and women of faith from their sins by helping them to overcome them, not cover them by some kind of theological magic or legal fiction - and then call all this "righteousness by faith." (Herbert Douglass, Should We Ever Say "I Am Saved"?, p. 71)
Of course, any type of overcoming does not merit us salvation. It is not the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness where our good works earn our title to heaven. But it is a full understanding of the gospel, correlating beautifully with the Most Holy Place message of the heavenly sanctuary; that as God cleanses the heavenly sanctuary, the Holy Spirit is trying to cleanse - completely and totally - His people here on earth.

Such an understanding is the totality of what it means to truly be "grace-oriented."

Now, I know that most people who subscribe to the "traditional" (if I may call it that) understanding of what it means to be "grace-oriented" would never say that they only emphasize the "pardon" aspect of grace (as opposed to also emphasizing the "power" part of it as well). I know that somewhere, deep down inside, they have this understanding that, yeah, we're supposed to be overcomers by God's grace. But I think, far too often, such individuals and churches get so swept up in the thought that "God loves me just the way I am," that they figure they may as well stay that way.

That's the natural result of an overemphasis on that component of God's grace. If we emphasized the second part of Jesus' wonderful statement to the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more," as much as we did the first, then we would truly see the heights to which grace can take us. And if we understood, as well, that, just as Ellen White has told us that all of God's biddings are His enablings, then we would see that the "go and sin no more" part is awesome news, and that God has already accomplished that victory for us on Calvary. Such a concept is a glorious thought.

Thus, there is power in the pardon, if one truly appreciates the pardon.