When and How to Criticize an Elder

A few recent controversies have caused me to reconsider when and how we should criticize church elders – that is, pastors or overseers. As someone who often writes about theological topics, I am particularly concerned with how bloggers and other Christian authors choose to respond to well-known elders in the Church. This is certainly a sensitive subject and one that calls for wisdom based on the Word of God.

I myself have made occasional criticisms of various elders on this blog, particularly over the course of the past year. These experiences have taught me some things about how we ought to engage with one another for the good of the Church and in line with God’s commands. I know that I have not always met the high standard that I set for myself, and there are some things that I would change if I was offered a redo. Nevertheless, I hope that what I have to say today will be helpful to both myself and others in the future. Continue reading

The Reformation was a Tragedy

“Martin Luther in the Circle of Reformers” by the German School, circa 1625-50

We haven’t hit the month of October yet, and already I have read so much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that I would just assume be done with it. Actually, that’s a lie. I could probably read articles about the Reformation until kingdom come. I am what is popularly called a history geek. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that this year has been so full of solas, beer steins, and papal anathemas that I hesitated to add to the deluge unless I had something to say that was rather different from what had already been said.

Well, here’s something you may not have heard from many Protestants this year: the Reformation was a tragedy. Yes, you read that correctly. In the midst of all this celebrating, I think we ought to take some time to mourn what we have lost. Great damage has been done to the cause of Christian unity, and 500 years later we have yet to recover.

“Hold on a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you suggesting that the Protestants were wrong to break away from Rome? Do you really believe we should ignore major doctrinal errors in order to maintain a superficial unity?” No, that is not what I am saying at all. There are certainly aspects of the Reformation that we should be celebrating. The recovery of the doctrines known as the Five Solas (scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone) was an absolutely essential development in the history of Christianity. Many of today’s doctrinal errors occur when we fail to cling to those biblical principles. Even so, I think we must celebrate with a twinge of sadness. Continue reading

Treating People as more than Just Bodies

Photo by Laurin Guadiana

A couple days ago, I talked about the biblical basis for defining a person as both body and soul, and how our ultimate hope is not to become a disembodied spirit, but rather to spend eternity in a glorified body. We are not only our bodies, but our bodies are certainly an integral part of who we are. Having laid down that scriptural foundation, I would like to now discuss how human relationships can break apart when we fail to properly apply these principles.

If the ancient Greeks tended to view people as souls trapped in a shell, the modern world has a tendency to view everything as material. If you are a true materialist (in the philosophical sense), you do not believe that souls exist. Therefore, a human being really is nothing more than their body, and all of their thoughts and feelings are the result of electrical signals that they cannot truly control. This has led some atheists, such as Sam Harris, to write treatises declaring that free will does not exist.

This is not the Christian view. We believe that the human will is under the influence of the sinful nature, and that without the power of the Spirit, humans are unable to perform true acts of righteousness or choose to follow God. However, we certainly do believe that all humans have a soul…even if that soul is dead in sin. No human being is only a body. We affirm the real nature of the physical world while also acknowledging the existence of the supernatural.

Despite this belief, many Christians join right in with non-Christians in acting as if people do not have souls. What do I mean by this? Just look at how we tend to treat people whom we look down on for any number of reasons: we often deemphasize their mental and spiritual nature and view them only in terms of their body. Continue reading

Those Who Live By Faith Are Just

“The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, circa 1886-69

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In the last essay, I discussed how Christians are meant to live as humble rebels in a hostile world, serving as ambassadors for Christ. The first and most obvious way we do this is by proclaiming the gospel message and making disciples, which is the only true hope for reconciliation. That is the end to which everything else is a means. However, there is another aspect of our mission that I have previously hinted at and would like to dive into now: a humble rebel is committed to social justice.

Oddly, the concept of social justice makes some Christians uncomfortable. I believe this is because they are typically associating it with what is known as the “Social Gospel”, a theological movement that rose to prominence in the early days of the 20th century and was associated not only with a desire to help the poor and vulnerable, but also with theological liberalism and a de-emphasis on doctrine. I can understand why people would have serious reservations about that.

Social justice, on the other hand, is a very biblical concept. Indeed, it is one of the main themes of scripture, and it is inextricably linked with doctrine. The Bible actually has far more to say about social justice than any number of issues to which we devote more attention. It is part and parcel of reconciliation, for if you are not pursuing social justice, you are not only making reconciliation more difficult, but you are actively increasing discord.

Martin Luther is often said to have had his theological breakthrough when he read the Apostle Paul’s quotation of a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, KJV) Luther’s story is a bit more complicated than that, but the importance of this verse is clearly evident. What I am about to suggest to you is that this phrase can also be reversed: not only do the just live by faith, but those who live by faith are just.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not challenging the traditional view of justification by grace alone through faith alone.)

Continue reading

Humble Rebellion: Living as Ambassadors of Christ

“The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer” by Jean Léon Gérôme, circa 1863-83

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

How can we expect to reconcile with a world that hates us, or what are we in relation to that great mass of humanity? Should we simply abandon the world to its fate? We are fools if we think we can do so, for the world will always find us in the end. More to the point, we would be rather poor disciples of Jesus Christ, who commanded us to go out into the world making disciples (Matthew 28:19), serving as witnesses to the gospel (Acts 1:8), and living as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).

Sometimes we labor under the mistaken assumption that God is only seeking to reconcile with the Church. On the contrary, God is looking to restore all of creation. (Romans 8:18-25) This entire universe was His good work, and though it has been tainted by sin, it still belongs to Him. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, it was in effect a massive restoration project. However, it was also a rebellion, because in the present age, the earth is under the reign of evil. Therefore, to side with the kingdom of God is to stand against the kingdom of Satan. To live for righteousness is to live in opposition to sin.

When I say God is not looking to reconcile merely with the Church, I am not suggesting that there is some path to lasting reconciliation and salvation outside of the Church or the work of Jesus Christ. I am not advocating something akin to universalism, where every person will have their sins forgiven whether they believe in Christ or not. Rather, I refer to the Church’s role as a witness to the nations. Continue reading

Another Path to Reconciliation?

“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix, circa 1830

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I am about to transition from speaking about reconciliation within the Christian Church to speaking about reconciliation in the world as a whole. In doing so, I am taking not a small step but a massive philosophical leap. Up to this point, I have been arguing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true path to lasting reconciliation. More than that, it places upon us an imperative of reconciliation. Such an argument is easy to make when the majority of people in question agree that the gospel message is both true and important (at least in principle). Once you move into the wider world, where there is no agreement as to the truth of the gospel and few common beliefs of any kind, appealing to Christian principles does not have the same effect.

The world is never going to want to solve problems the gospel way. Why? Because it is really, really hard. Now, when I say “really, really hard”, I don’t mean it in the sense that solving a Rubik’s Cube is hard, or staying upright on skis is hard, or even completing a PhD is hard. I am referring not to complexity, but to gut wrenching sacrifice. The gospel is hard because it requires everything we are. To follow Jesus Christ is to die to self that we might be raised with Him, and when that happens, we cease to be the same person we were previously. The life of a Christian, lived according to the gospel message, is one of continual dying to self. This is the grace of God, but it is costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. Continue reading

Awaken!

A plaque with saints rising from the dead made in Limoges, France circa 1250. Photo by Marie Lan Nguyen

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

The year was 1971 and the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. was about to have its grand opening celebration. The late president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, commissioned the famed composer Leonard Bernstein to create a new work that would be performed as part of the dedication festivities. Bernstein had already established himself as one of the greatest American musicians of all time, heading up the New York Philharmonic and writing the music for West Side Story and On the Waterfront. However, for this particular occasion, he chose to do something rather unconventional: he wanted to create a Catholic Mass.

Masses intended for performance were nothing new. Both Mozart and Verdi had reached the pinnacles of their careers by writing a Requiem Mass, though Mozart was famously unable to complete his before dying young. Those who went for a more general Mass, as opposed to one for the dead, included Puccini, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvořák. The reason for this is obvious: the Mass was always meant to be sung, and it serves as the focal point of Catholic life. Even some Protestants have gotten in on the fun, including a few of the names on that list.

But why should Bernstein wish to compose a Mass? He was, it must be noted, not a Catholic. If anything, he seems to have been a rather secular Jew. He was also homosexual (despite not revealing that publicly and being married for many years) and held some views that were not in complete harmony with Catholic teaching. Yet, the Kennedys were well-known for their Catholicism. Bernstein no doubt wanted to honor this aspect of his friends’ lives, and according to his daughter, Nina Bernstein, he “had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical.”[1] Continue reading

Christ is All in All

Mosaic of Jesus Christ at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, photographed by Edal Lefterov

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles below.

As I noted in the previous essay, there are two major sources of discord between Christians. The first, doctrinal issues, we have already addressed and noted that in the case of a person who forsakes the gospel, there may be little we can do but to stand firm upon the Word of God, in all humility and with hearts full of love and compassion. The second major source of discord is what I will call political/personality issues, and here there may be more we can do. Yet, that does not imply that there is anything easy about it, for here we find not the nice black and white of some doctrinal debates, but the infinite grays of human emotion.

By “political” issues, I do not mean debates about secular politics, but rather the politics that exist within the Church. Essentially, this is all about who has the power, who is in charge, or who gets their own way. Personality issues are closely linked, and can usually be boiled down to phrases like, “I don’t like so and so because…”, “It really annoys me when they…”, “I just hate it when they do…”, “Why can they not see how selfish, ridiculous, etc…”, or “They really get on my nerves!”

Now, I have never conducted a scientific study on this topic, but from my own personal experience and the numerous anecdotes I have heard from others, I would have to say that it is political/personality issues and not doctrinal issues that cause more discord within the Church. In fact, many of the apparent doctrinal issues begin as political/personality issues or have such things at their heart. Therefore, it will not do to focus on doctrine alone. We must get down to the root of our malaise: the ugliness of our hearts. Continue reading

Truth with a Capital ‘T’

Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

When I finally had the chance to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the largest and arguably most important church in the world, there were three things in particular that I wanted to do: 1) I wanted to gaze in wonder at Michelangelo’s Pietà. 2) I wanted to stand on the same red porphyry tile on which my distant ancestor Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. 3) I wanted to pray for the reconciliation of the Church.

The basilica did not disappoint. We got there early enough in the morning that it was not yet packed with tourists, so the place was quite peaceful. I was unfortunately not able to get close to the Pietà as the chapel was blocked off, but I did see it from a distance. I confused my husband thoroughly by making him take my picture standing on the porphyry. I tried to explain in whispered tones the significance of this rare holdover from the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, but in the end I suppose it was just a reddish piece of stone.

We had made our way through much of the sanctuary (no small task, especially when you are stopping constantly to take pictures) and were about to head down to the grottoes when I chose my moment to pray. I had many altars to pick from, but all featured relics or icons of some saint or another to which Catholic pilgrims were praying, and I would have felt somewhat of a fraud kneeling there. Therefore, I picked an obliging spot near the Altar of the Transfiguration – roughly halfway between the bones of Saint Peter and Saint Gregory – and squatted down to say my prayer. Continue reading

A New (Old) Commandment

Depiction of Christ washing Peter's feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

Depiction of Christ washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

This is the ninth in a series of article on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I sincerely hope by this point that the biblical imperative regarding reconciliation has been well established and that it has been made clear just how vital of an issue this is: the most vital, really, for within the concept of reconciliation all the things that pertain to salvation are encompassed along with our purpose on this earth. We have also taken a look at the underlying heart attitudes that can make or break reconciliation. The conversation has for the most part centered on relationships between two individuals, or between the individual and God. By focusing on big concepts rather than specific circumstances, it is possible that I have even made it this far without seriously offending you. Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

It is necessary that we move beyond this limited scope and begin to examine reconciliation on a corporate level. Here it is worth noting that every Christian has relationships with two kinds of people: those who are Christians and those who are not. Reconciliation is needed in both areas, but I am going to begin by examining reconciliation among Christians themselves, for if we cannot get our own house in order, we have little hope outside the walls, so to speak. Continue reading