Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The church and the police shootings of black men

Once again, the shooting deaths of black men by police -- available for all to see in videos online -- and ensuing protests against law enforcement have brought to the surface the longstanding divisiveness that marks black-white relations in the United States.

As the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are uniquely qualified to respond to this issue and promote both healing and unity. We should not miss this opportunity.

As His followers, we know a reality many others do not. We not only know from God's Word we -- and all other human beings -- are alike in being image bearers of God, but, as God's redeemed people, we also know we are united eternally to one another by the gospel of Jesus. Our paramount identity is in Him, not in anything else that characterizes us.

How should we respond to these ongoing shooting deaths of black men -- the latest being Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott and a man in El Cajon, Calif., who is so far unnamed? There are a number of ways we should respond, including seeking justice, but here are only four based on Rom. 12:

(1) We should lament their deaths, and we should lament with those who lament.

The taking of the life of any person made in God's image is a sobering act, especially when there is a question about whether it is done in self-defense. "[W]eep with those who weep," the apostle Paul wrote (Rom. 12:15). And as Southern Baptist, African-American pastor H.B. Charles has said, "The Bible exhorts us to weep with those who weep. It doesn't tell us to judge whether they should be weeping."

2. We should listen.

Paul wrote, "Do not be wise in your own estimation" (Rom. 12:16). Earlier in the verse, he instructed the Christians in Rome to "not be haughty in mind."

The perspectives on police shootings of African Americans can be vastly different between blacks and whites. We should not assume we have full knowledge. We should not presume our experience is normative. We should realize we likely have much to learn.

As white disciples of Jesus, we should recognize the experiences of our black brothers and sisters in this society can be starkly divergent from ours, especially in their interactions with police. We should ask them to share their perspectives. We should ask them to help us understand. We should be willing to have our judgments transformed.

3. We should love.

Our love for one another -- including across color and ethnic differences -- should be genuine. In Rom. 12:9, Paul calls for the church to love "without hypocrisy," then explains in the following verses what authentic love looks like:

-- Genuine love is holy. It hates evil, including racism at an individual or corporate level.

-- Genuine love is brotherly. It is like the love of family members for one another, because we are the eternal family of God.

-- Genuine love is honoring. It gives "preference to one another in honor," which means we lead the way in showing another's honor is more important than ours.

-- Genuine love is diligent. It does not delay in loving another but serves as our vocation, because it is.

-- Genuine love is trusting. It demonstrates faith in God, even while "persevering in tribulation."

-- Genuine love is serving. It humbly serves others as if their needs are ours.

4. We should leave revenge to God.

We should not seek to gain revenge -- against police or anyone else. Vengeance belongs only to God.

In not being "overcome with evil" (Rom. 12:21), we must not only avoid being overwhelmed by the evil of others, but as pastor John MacArthur says: "[W]e must not allow ourselves to be overcome by our own evil responses. Our own evil is infinitely more detrimental to us than is the evil done to us by others.”

As the church, may we live as a diverse community that resembles increasingly the humble, loving Lord who unites us.

Photo credit: Paul Taylor

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

'Bible-less Christianity' in America's churches

Kenneth Briggs, a longtime religion reporter and former religion editor of The New York Times, went on a two-year pilgrimage across America to track the Bible's status in public life. The result was his book The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America, which was released earlier this month.

He recently did an interview with Religion News Service in which he offered some insights that should be of interest to evangelical Christians. They certainly were to me. Here are the questions and answers that I consider particularly important, even foreboding, for those of us who count ourselves in the evangelical camp:

Q: In all your travels and all the the different places you went looking for the Bible, was there any place where you were expecting to see the Bible where it wasn’t?

A: In the mega-type churches – the churches that were really heavily loaded with the visual and the audio and the rest of the electronic stuff, the music – I was really stunned by what I saw as that alternative verson of Christianity being delivered through those means. I didn’t consider it biblical in the fullest sense. I thought it was highly stylized – the versions of Jesus, who Jesus was, being filtered through these videos – and, in some way, I found almost shocking in how they seemed to vary from the much fuller picture that exists in the New Testament. So I was surprised by that.

Q: You write in the book about the emergence of “Bible-less Christianity.” Can you talk about how you see that play out in American culture?

A: The background, of course, is that the Reformation gave at least a segment of Christians access to the Bible in a way that hadn’t happened before. Most of our history has been a rather Bible-less Christianity that was dictated or defined mostly by the hierarchical church, not by people who read the Bible. . . . We gained the freedom to approach it, and then in the current age, we have ceded that exploration to media, to entertainment forms, to prepackaged interpretations that are delivered in video, audio and pulpit forms so that there’s a substitute Bible that isn’t the Bible, per se, at the same time that people aren’t reading.

If it is true there is what Briggs describes as "Bible-less Christianity," we probably can expect Bible-less Christians. In essence, what his observation seems to indicate is: Bible-less churches are producing Bible-less Christianity and Bible-less Christians.

How can we expect Bible-less churches and Bible-less Christians to stand amidst the torrent of cultural pressure that is likely in the future to engulf all of us who claim the name of Jesus? Without Scripture, how will we have the solid foundation to fortify us? "Bible-less Christianity" is setting up many confessing saints for a disaster.

May God graciously grant a renewal in keeping with the church-transforming, world-changing Reformation of nearly 500 years ago. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of evangelical churches committed to basing their worship, preaching, teaching and the rest of church life on the Bible. That is the intention of Covenant Community Church. May we remain faithful by God's grace.

Photo from WELS net.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The church and the 2016 election

Americans will go to the polls two months from today. This will be the 17th presidential election in my lifetime, and none has seemed as vexing as this one.

Like most people, I have opinions on the election. I also have a plan for what I expect to do on Nov. 8. As a pastor, however, I don't believe there is any calling from God or wisdom in ministry that would lead me to believe I should endorse any candidate for any office. That would not be a wise use of the privilege God has given me in helping shepherd His people, and it could lead to the undermining of the gospel ministry that is most important to our church and me.

I don't believe, however, that means I should say nothing to the saints of Covenant Community Church in Fredericksburg, Va. My responsibility as a shepherd leads me to offer some thoughts on how we should think about this election. So what I say next is primarily for the people in our church, though I hope it will help others.

Here are three recommendations I offer:

1. Let's be honest with ourselves.

It seems to me evangelical Christians should acknowledge at least this: Neither of the major party nominees would be an acceptable option in a previous election in our lifetimes. The Democrats and Republicans have offered candidates who are deeply flawed in character and policy, if we can even discern what their ultimate policy will be. In addition, the Libertarian and Green parties have failed to offer evangelicals any meaningful encouragement in their nominees, especially when it comes to the issue of the sanctity of human life.

As a result, many evangelicals are dismayed about their choices. And they are expressing that dismay by voicing some unprecedented plans -- including not voting, writing in a name or voting for what they may describe as "the lesser of two evils" or maybe three or four. It seems many evangelicals have determined their vote will be based on whom they most strongly oppose. That's understandable. But before any of us go any further in publicly promoting a candidate, we should make sure we don't have blinders on regarding his or her faults -- faults that typically would disqualify a candidate in the eyes of many, if not most, evangelicals.

Let's be honest with ourselves.

2. Let's be sensitive to and gracious with one another.

I think I understand the dilemma many people will face when they enter the polling booth in November. My primary concern is how we handle the next two months, as well as those that follow the election. Will we think of the interests of others in the body of Christ and not just our own (Phil. 2:4)? Will we extend grace to our brothers and sisters who make different decisions than our own?

The name of Jesus, the integrity of the gospel message and the health of the church are far more important than who next fills the White House. It appears to me one of the most significant issues for white evangelicals in this election campaign is whether we will seek to look at it from the perspectives of our minority brothers and sisters. It appears some white evangelicals have made progress in recent years in learning from African-American saints about their experience. Yet, that progress might suffer a setback if white evangelicals aren't sensitive to their fellow saints regarding this election.

For instance, one major presidential candidate supports full abortion rights and government funding of abortion in a country in which black and Hispanic women have a disproportionately high number of abortions. The United States' population is 13 percent African American, but black women have 28 percent of the abortions. The American population is 18 percent Hispanic, but Hispanic women have 25 percent of the abortions. Another major nominee has retweeted during this campaign the messages of white supremacists and complained about a supposed inability to receive a fair trial from a judge with Mexican heritage.

Will white evangelicals decry the policies of the first candidate while ignoring the actions of the second? Will white evangelicals seek to understand how the latter candidate's rhetoric and actions affect black and Hispanic Americans, especially those who are their brothers and sisters?

Let's be sensitive to and gracious with those to whom we are united eternally through the blood of Jesus.

3. Let's be gospel aware with all others.

We should consider what our words -- often shared in social media -- and actions convey to those who are outside the family of God but are watching His children to see how they will live during this stressful time. Will our support of or opposition to a particular candidate reflect both the truth and grace of Christ? Will the way we express our support or opposition demonstrate our trust in the power of the gospel and the sovereignty of God?

For instance, what will the words and actions of evangelicals say to millennials and others about how we believe a society should treat the vulnerable, whether they are the unborn, the immigrant, the disabled, the ethnic minority or the religiously disenfranchised? How will we show we are concerned about both the policies and character of all candidates?

In all that we do, may we be aware of what the gospel effect on others might be. To gain a president of our choosing while losing the platform to share the gospel of Jesus would be a sorrowful tradeoff indeed.

May God graciously grant us humility, compassion and wisdom that the church of Jesus might come out of this time of testing more united than ever and more prepared than ever to be a faithful embassy of ambassadors for our one true King.

Photo by DonkeyHotey.