Category Archives: Theology

Christianity is Not a Contract!

Diablo 3 - Tyrael

Tyrael of Diablo fame.

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” — C.S. Lewis

A fairly common question I see asked regarding Christianity is, “Is it okay to do _________?” I recently saw such a question posed again and I thought to myself, “Why is this question even being asked? What theological framework allows for such a question to even be asked in the first place?” As I thought about the answer to these questions I realized that to ask if a certain behavior is “okay” is to approach Christianity with the assumption that it is a contract entered into between a person and God, an assumption I believe is invalid.

In a contract two parties agree to fulfill certain responsibilities and it remains in effect as long as the terms of the contract are not breached. Such an approach sets up the expectation that as long as we do not breach the “contract” God will still fulfill His side of the deal and give us a place in heaven. And since we are by nature sinful and evil beings we then try to seek out what the bounds of this contract are; we ask ourselves, “How far can I go? What sort of loopholes can I find that will allow me to do what I want and fulfill my desires without breaching this contract?” It is this mindset I believe that leads to the question, “Is it okay for a Christian to do _________?”

Such a mindset is, I believe, taught nowhere in Scripture. We are taught that we were created by God, in His image, and were commanded to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1.26-28). In order to sustain us He gave us the plants and the trees and their fruits (Gen. 1.29) and of the trees the only prohibition was from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and if we did so we would die (Gen. 2.17). So we see that one tree leads to death, while all the others (including the tree of life [Gen. 3.22]) lead to life. Thus we had two ways set before us, one of life and another of death, and we had to walk in one or the other, there were no alternatives. For if we ate of the trees that were allowed, we would live and fill the earth and subdue it; and if we ate of the tree of which eating was prohibited, we would die; and if we had tried to be “neutral” and not eaten of any of the trees we also would have died as we require sustenance by our nature.

Even though we chose the way leading to death, the way to life was not thereby made unavailable to us, for we were prevented from eating from the tree of life, which would have resulted in us living forever in our fallen state (Gen. 3.22). Thus God cast us out of the Garden in order to work the ground from which we were taken (Gen. 3.23-24) in order that we might learn that the way of life was now through repentance and trust (Isa. 30.15).

The Commandments given through Moses were given in order that we might know more clearly which way leads to life and which leads to death. For at the beginning of the list of blessings for following the commandments it is written, “Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28.1. Or in other words, they would subdue the earth. But concerning the curses it is written, “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you.” – Deuteronomy 28.45. Or in other words they would die.

The New Testament also presents two ways, one of death and another of life, and these two ways are opposed to each other. Representative of this are the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians 5.16-26:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Thus Scripture does not present us with a contract, but with a choice, a choice between two ways, one which leads to life and another which leads to death. In Advent we are called to recognize our sinfulness and repent as we await the coming of our Lord. Let us do this so that when He comes we will be found working as the wise servant and serving others (Matt. 24.45-47) and not as the unwise one and be found exploiting and beating them (Μatt. 24.48-51). Let us continue on the way of life. Let our prayer throughout this Advent season truly be:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

 

What’s At Stake in Creation

There was a debate recently between Bill Nye and Ken Ham regarding creation. I didn’t watch it. I have no plans to. Because frankly I just don’t care what either one has to say. However this debate will probably generate discussion amongst people, so I figured I would at the very least contribute my thoughts on the matter of origins as a Christian.

Everything you need to know regarding the Christian position on origins can be found in the first verse of the first book of the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
(Genesis 1.1 ESV)

Specifically it’s the words “God created” that are the position. They tell us two important things, 1) the universe was created and had a beginning, and 2) God brought about the beginning. If you put this in the form of a doctrinal statement it would look something like, “We believe that all things were created and God is the creator.”

As far as Christians are concerned there isn’t much dispute over what I’ve said so far. Where things start getting testy are the verses that follow after Genesis 1.1. Some hold the position that the “days” described are literal 24 hour days (this is Ham’s position). Others hold that the “days” described are long periods of time, more like ages than 24 hour days. Still others hold that the rest of chapter 1 is simply praising God for His creative work in creation and that the “days” are simply serving a literary or poetic function.

At first glance it seems as though there could be no real issue here since they all affirm “God created,” even though they have different understandings as to how “God created.” Issues arise though when details are so focused on and disputed that sight is lost of the big picture. This is, I think, what has happened regarding the origins question in Christianity. Certain Christian groups (most of the time it seems to be the literal 24-hour day types based on my experience) have so forced their particular view of creation that they have caused people to believe that their view is the only valid view and unless you agree with them you are deceived or a heretic.

There’s been such a focus on the details of creation that we’ve forgotten how they fit into the big picture and so instead have made the details the big picture. This mindset of making the details the big picture is not only problematic for the creation debate, but also for all of Western Christianity. We need to begin to recognize again the big picture that unites all of us as Christians, not just in regards to origins, but in other areas of doctrine as well.

As Christians we need to clearly recognize that the only thing at stake in the creation debate is whether or not God created. We should only be arguing with those who say God did not create, and even then we should only be arguing for “God created,” not how “God created.”

Additionally, John H. Walton has a rather interesting perspective on interpreting Genesis 1 in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. The book is written at the popular level and anyone should be able to understand his basic argument. I have not read the second part where he discusses science education in schools, but the first was quite interesting and thought provoking. Anyone interested in what the Bible says about origins would do well to seriously consider his argument, I think. And just to be clear, I am not endorsing Walton’s view, just saying that it was interesting, thought provoking, and bears consideration.

There is certainly much more that could be said regarding origins. However I will stop here for now as I have made my point.

Salvation, Baptism, and the Church

In the previous post the passage of Acts that we were looking at ended with this sentence:

And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Salvation is the most important aspect of the Christian life. In fact it is what the Christian life is all about. Yet in my Evangelical Protestant upbringing I noticed that it was also one of the least understood aspects of the Christian life and one of the least appreciated. This was quite alarming to me, especially since our salvation was the reason that Christ came to earth. As the Nicene Creed says:

We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…

At least part of the lack of understanding concerning salvation I believe can be attributed to two factors: 1)The Western proclivity for concrete definitions, and 2)The fact that salvation is, in the end, a mystery and a personal experience between an individual and God. In an effort to define salvation the West has articulated various and conflicting positions on salvation. In my native Evangelical Protestantism the end result of these varying positions has been not only divisions, but also seems to have led to salvation being primarily associated with getting into heaven. Thus to the Evangelical Protestant mind salvation is associated primarily with a completed past action: the moment they “accepted Christ,” became indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and were assured entrance into heaven upon death.* The downside to this association is that it can easily minimize, or even completely remove, the necessity and importance of following the commands of Christ and seeking to live more like him everyday.

Now to be fair Evangelical Protestants certainly agree that one must follow the commands of Christ, and if they aren’t then they have either abandoned their faith or were never really a Christian in the first place. However this is not called salvation in Evangelical Protestantism, but rather sanctification (becoming more like Christ). And while, technically speaking, sanctification may be included in the salvation process, dividing the process into different parts and defining different terms for each of the parts puts one at a significant disadvantage when reading Scripture because there does not seem to be such a distinction in terms made in Scripture. It is simply a form of “save” and could refer to the getting into heaven aspect, the sanctification aspect, the future glorification aspect (not discussed here), or could refer to someone being in physical danger, such as drowning, and in need of rescue.

Salvation is a personal experience between an individual and God and thus does not readily lend itself to definitions precisely because it involves multiple personal beings (i.e. a human and God). It also does not seem to be clearly defined and articulated in Scripture or in Christian tradition. It does involve coming to a recognition that Jesus is God and reconciled us to the Father through his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection; and following Christ’s commands and becoming more like him; and being glorified in the future. Thus I propose that when we think of salvation, or being saved, we do not think of “accepting Christ” and being guaranteed a ticket to heaven when we die, but rather the following:

The process of being restored to our original, perfect state of being from our current evil and depraved state of being.

For an adult this process begins first with the recognition that Jesus is God and reconciled us to the Father, from whom we were separated at the Fall, through his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. Then as soon as possible baptism should follow. This is the pattern that we have seen so far in the Act of the Apostles. First the “men of Judea” recognized who Jesus was, then they were baptized.

Baptism, I think, is best viewed as the initiation rite into the Church, regardless of what one believes happens during baptism. As such I do not have an issue with baptizing infants since I do not see any good reason why a child of Christian parents should not be initiated into the Church. In fact, for a child of Christian parents, salvation begins as soon as they are born and thus they should be initiated into the community that will guide them through the salvation process. Later on these children who were baptized do make their own decision concerning Christ as they learn for themselves who he is and what he has done.

Baptism will be featured multiple times as we continue through the Acts of the Apostles and is certainly an important part of the Christian life. If someone claims to be a Christian they should have either already been baptized, or be waiting to be baptized. I do not believe anything else to be acceptable for someone claiming to be a Christian.

The Church, what the baptized are initiated into, is in general terms the worldwide body of people who have been baptized and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (called “believers” in Christian circles). The Church is such an essential part of salvation that Jesus himself personally trained and appointed those who would lead it during its initial phases. These were the Apostles, whose acts, words, and deeds we are currently reading about. And not only were Apostles appointed, but the Holy Spirit was, and still is, given to all who are members of the Church in order to guide the Church and protect it. The Church is not a man-made institution, but a divinely appointed institution whose main purpose is to guide people along the way of salvation and help them avoid the snares the devil has laid with the purpose of leading people off the path of salvation.

Summary

In order to be restored to their perfect, original state of being from their evil and depraved state of being a person must be initiated into the worldwide community of believers by being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit. Then they should learn from others in the community of believers so that they will be able to discern where God is leading them and avoid the snares the devil has laid for them.

Next up will be chapter 3.

* Protestantism disagrees as to whether or not one can lose their “salvation,” i.e. their admittance into heaven.

The Useless(?) Doctrine of Inerrancy

Disclaimer: This is still an issue that I am thinking through, so I reserve the right to flip-flop on my position laid out in this post as I study it more since I may indeed discover that some of my reasoning is based on faulty information and/or assumptions.

There has been a question floating around in my head for the past few weeks that I have been pondering and trying to answer: “Why is Inerrancy even a doctrine in the first place? It just seems a bit redundant if we believe that all scripture is “God-breathed” to say that it is also Inerrant since we believe that God does not make errors. Over the course of thinking about this I discovered a few things and would like to share them with you. Some of these I knew before and they became clearer to me as I was thinking about this, others I had not realized prior to this.

Initially my thoughts centered on trying to figure out why in the world there even exists what seems to be a redundant doctrine with Inspiration (Scripture is “God-breathed”). Isn’t it enough to say that Scripture was “breathed” out by God so that the words He intended to be part of Scripture came to be Scripture, and since God is perfect that it would therefore be without error? Why add this doctrine of Inerrancy to specify that Scripture is without errors in all areas upon which it touches? Isn’t that implied with it being “God-breathed?”

The first thing I realized is that Inerrancy seems to be in place because of a deficiency in understanding of the doctrine of Inspiration. In our times it seems quite likely for someone to take the inspiration of the Bible to be the same as the inspiration that an artist has before creating something. There may indeed be something “divine” behind the inspiration, but it is also combined with the thoughts of the artists and thus is subject to error.

In this case the solution to the problem is not Inerrancy, but to make sure people have a proper understanding of Inspiration (which may also include making sure people have a proper understanding of God). A deficient understanding of the doctrine of Inspiration is not going to be corrected by adding the doctrine of Inerrancy.

The second thing I realized was that Inerrancy seems to be used by people to support their own viewpoints, and if you disagree with them then you are accused of violating Inerrancy. As I thought about this second point I realized that this behavior likely stems from a misunderstanding of where theological authority comes from. As Protestants when asked about this we are quick to respond with “the Bible!” and nothing else, which displays an insufficient understanding of authority. In Family Biblereality many (if not all) Evangelical Protestants actually accept two sources of authority in spiritual matters: the Bible and Tradition. Or at least you do if you accept the doctrines of the Trinity, the full humanity and deity of Christ, and the New Testament canon, among others because these things are not spelled out in the Bible, but were determined by the church (in response to heresies that were also based on the Scriptures) after the documents that would eventually become the New Testament were written.

Conclusion
This leads me into what I find to be the reason that Inerrancy exists in the first place: Evangelical Protestants need a way to preserve the orthodox teachings of Scripture (what everyone has always believed about them) without appealing to Tradition as a source of authority (we wouldn’t want to be like those crazy Roman Catholics now would we?).

The problem with doing things this way is that I don’t see how it actually accomplishes preserving the orthodox teachings of Scripture because it sets up a subjective basis for determining whether or not something is “orthodox.” In order to determine whether or not something violates Inerrancy the first thing that has to be determined is what the passage is talking about and touching on (e.g. is it talking about an actual historical event, or is it meant to be taken metaphorically or allegorically), which means that we have to engage in interpretation, which leads to a subjective conclusion that may or may not be in line with what has always been believed. Basically it seems to turn something that is indeed objective (what has always been believed) and turned it into something subjective (an interpretation).

So, to conclude this analysis, my basic question is: “Why are defending something that can be determined objectively with something that has to be determined subjectively?” Why not just simply point to the objective evidence and say that this is what has always been believed about this passage, so this is what we believe about it, nothing more and nothing less? Or in other words, instead of adding a doctrine which doesn’t seem to really accomplish anything, why not simply acknowledge Tradition as a source of authority?

I could say much more about this topic, but I think this captures the essence of my thoughts accurately. I am not trying to deny Inerrancy. I do not think that there are any errors in the Bible. I just think that this doctrine seems to add an unnecessary layer of theological complexity, and I all for avoiding making things more complicated than they need to be.

If you have an opinion on this matter by all means share it. I just ask that you be nice, constructive, and respectful with your comment.

Christianese for Dummies

It has occurred to me that I may use terms on this blog that may not be sufficiently understood by those who are outside the Christian faith. And while my posts are primarily written for Christians I want them to be of benefit to all people, regardless of whether or not they are Christians. So with that goal in mind I have decided to define a few terms that will hopefully assist those who might be confused by, or not understand, some of the terms I may use.

God (The Trinity)
Christians believe in one God who is comprised of three separate and distinct persons, the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. Thus since both the Son and the Spirit are from the Father they are of the same substance as the Father, are distinct from the Father, and are worshiped and glorified with the Father there is one God who is comprised of three separate and distinct persons.

If you don’t completely understand this it’s fine; in the end the Trinity is rather hard to explain. Perhaps this will clear some things up a bit though: St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.

Sin
Sin primarily refers to one of two situations: In the first situation sin is used to describe individual actions or practices that are contrary to God’s standard of righteousness. An example of this is James 4.17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” In this verse sin is used to refer an individual act, failing to do the right thing despite knowing what the right thing to do was; this is contrary to God’s standard. Thus anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits a sin.

The second situation sin is used to describe is the power that produces sins (described in the first situation) and rules over those who are not in Jesus Christ. An example of sin used this way is found in Romans 6.1-14; the “sin” that Paul is referring to in this passage is the power that produces sins and rules over those who have not been baptized into Christ Jesus, not individual acts or practices.

Salvation
Salvation primarily refers to one of four situations. The first is a situation where someone is in physical need of saving, such as Peter in Matthew 14.30.

The second situation is the moment of justification, when we receive Jesus’ righteousness and are thus declared righteous because God sees Jesus’ perfect righteousness rather than our sinful selves. When you hear someone ask someone else, “Are you saved?” this aspect of salvation is what they are asking about; they are asking if the person believes themselves to have been declared righteous by God. Exactly when this moment occurs, and how it occurs, is not agreed upon within Christianity.

The third situation is the process of sanctification. Salvation is more than being declared righteous and going to heaven when you die, it is also the process of being transformed to be more and more like Christ by living everyday in communion with God. This process of transformation has been dubbed sanctification, but in Scripture the word salvation is often (always?) used to refer to this.

The fourth situation is glorification. This occurs when we die and the final removal of sin occurs from the life of those who are in Christ (i.e. the saints) and we commune directly with God throughout eternity. This will also occur when Jesus returns at the second coming, the Earth is restored, and we receive our glorified bodies.

My opinion is that it is best to conceive of salvation as referring collectively to situations 2, 3, and 4. We are justified in order to be sanctified, and sanctified in order to be glorified and restored to what we were originally before sin entered the picture. Salvation is really this entire process, not just a one time event.

So hopefully this clears a few things up for some people. I’ve tried to be real basic here and not go in to great details so as not to overwhelm people. If you think something else should be on this list let me know and I will add it.

Answering the Question of Authority

One of the questions that I have had to deal with in my search for a tradition is the question of authority. Where does it come from? Why is something authoritative? Up until recently I thought that there was a great discrepancy between the 3 main Christian traditions, but now I realize that there really isn’t much difference at all.

– Roman Catholicism says the Pope is infallible with regards to teaching because he is prevented from teaching errors by the Holy Spirit.

– Eastern Orthodoxy says the seven ecumenical councils are infallible because they were guided by the Holy Spirit and thus prevented from proclaiming error.

– Protestantism says that the Scriptures are the only infallible source because they alone were breathed out by God and that the teachings of the Roman and Eastern Churches are thus subject to error (though not necessarily wrong).

Though it appears that these 3 traditions locate infallibility in different places they in fact locate it in the same place: God, specifically the Holy Spirit. So the question for me now is not: “Is the Pope, the councils, or the Bible alone infallible?” Instead the question is: “What has been the extent of the Holy Spirit in protecting the Church from error?” Certainly none of these traditions doubts that the Holy Spirit has been active in guiding and protecting the church since the Resurrection, but they cannot agree on how far He has gone in guiding and protecting the church.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views are tough for me to accept, but I think they are certainly valid. Growing up Protestant I felt that I was taught that the church (specifically the Roman Church) could not be trusted and that the Bible alone was to be trusted. The decisions of the early ecumenical councils were accepted, but only because they agreed with Scripture. However, now being aware of all that has transpired over the course of Christian history and seeing what an absolute mess ALL the traditions have made over the course of their existence, but yet seeing that there is still an active Church where the Gospel is proclaimed and people are saved I cannot deny that the Holy Spirit is indeed active in preserving the Church.

So for now this question is of much less significance for me, since I know that wherever I go I know that the Church is being protected by the Holy Spirit. If I had to accept the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox position I could, because I know, at least to a certain extent, that it is true.

How I Deal With Doubt

Seminary has been a strange place for me thus far. For most it seems to be a place where they are encouraged and their faith is strengthened as they pursue whatever ministry God has called them to, but this has not been my experience thus far. It seems as though I’ve spent the majority of my time being tempted in the wilderness rather than receiving or honing a ministry vision. That is, I’ve spent so much time resisting Satan and his attempts to pull me away from seminary that I haven’t had any time left to devote to discerning where God is calling me to serve once I am done with seminary.

While there is certainly much that I could say about my experience thus far in seminary in this post I thought that I would share one of the things that I have learned during my spiritual battles this semester. Or more accurately, share one of the things that the Holy Spirit has shown me that has proven to be effective for me against the attacks of Satan.

Don’t Overlook the Obvious.

Don’t get so lost in all the details and technicalities of life (and explanations or philosophical systems about life) that you forget what is right in front of your face all the time.There are two obvious things that I keep coming back to:

The existence of males and females. That there are two separate and distinct genders and yet each one needs the other not only for reproductive purposes, but also for relational purposes as well (generally speaking). For me there is a mystery here that just absolutely fascinates me and suggests a Designer of life.

You didn’t choose to be born. No one brought themselves into existence. Someone (or at the very least something) brought you into existence; you didn’t have a choice in the matter. This suggests to me that whoever, or whatever, is responsible for my existence has a claim on my life and how I choose to live it.

These two things certainly don’t require Christianity as an answer to them, but I think they do at least require Theism, which keeps me from embracing Atheism. But how do these things keep me aligned to Christianity instead of some other form of theism? Well, to put it simply, I am convinced of the truthfulness of the Bible, the God it portrays, and the teaching of the catholic (universal) church concerning the previous two matters. Thus being convinced of theism naturally leads me to being convinced of Christianity.

Doubt is a serious and complex matter and I can hardly hope to cover it completely in a blog post since each situation is different, but hopefully this will be at least a little helpful to those who may be struggling with doubt.

Two Great Spiritual Weapons: Chocolate and Popcorn

I was doing some thinking (big surprise) lately on one of the ironies of life as a seminarian: how you can be in a place where you are constantly learning about God and studying the Bible, but yet can (potentially) grow further apart from God rather than closer. How is it possible that seminary could potentially kill your spiritual life rather than strengthen it? Surely if God founded a seminary his students would not have to balance working, studies, relationships (including family), local church commitments, and their spiritual life! They would have all their needs provided for without having to work for them; would be able to handle their assignments with relative ease; their relationships would be supportive and spiritually beneficial; and since the rest of their life would be stress free their local church commitments and spiritual life would seem like blessings rather than burdens! This would no doubt be a better way to strengthen their faith and prepare them for ministry rather than the way our present seminaries do.

As I thought about this more though I realized that God would not run his seminary in the way I would have expected (see above paragraph). First of all, God does give his followers easy lives. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and many other devoted followers did not live easy lives. Furthermore, many present day Christians do not live easy lives either (e.g. those living in Islamic countries in the Middle East). Secondly, trials refine us and strengthen our faith (James 1.2-4; 1 Peter 4.12-13), not comfort.

If God is indeed sovereign over all creation and more powerful than any heavenly being then why does he seemingly punish those who follow him rather than reward them? What is the point of doing things in this manner? How does having to balance a million different things help prepare someone for ministry?

While I do not know the full answer to these questions recently I have realized part of it. Seminary is preparation for ministry in our crazy, messed up and Fallen world. And in this world we will have to balance our family obligations, ministry work, and studies all while maintaining a close walk with God so that we can be faithful ministers to the people whom God has given us, just like we are doing now at seminary. I think of seminary as preparation for the front lines of war. In order to survive we must know how to overcome and manage the obstacles and hardships that we will encounter there.

While the classic (and certainly essential) tactics for negotiating the spiritual battlefield are probably well known to most seminarians (prayer, bible reading/devotions, fasting, etc) there is a new tactic that I’ve encountered recently. Not new in the sense that it is innovative and has never been used previously, but new in the sense that it is so under utilized human forgetfulness erases all memory of it before it is encountered a second time.

 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

(James 2:15-16 ESV)

I’m going to call this “new” tactic Tangible Acts of Encouragement. With this tactic instead of saying something merely along the lines of “I’ll pray for you” you actually do something tangible to encourage the person. This can be done regardless of whether or not the person displays a need for encouragement. If they like a certain restaurant buy them dinner there (or a gift card). If they like a certain movie watch it with them. If they need a break at work give it to them. If they need someone to talk to listen to them (I mean really listen and remember what they said, not just nod your head and say “yes”). If they need a coat to stay warm give them one. If they need food to eat give them some. With this tactic you go beyond mere encouraging words (though they should definitely be there), which too often seem like a cop-out to someone who is feeling down, and into acting on those words.

You’d be surprised how often you can employ this tactic. Even in a situation where words and prayers seem like the only thing you can offer for encouragement, such as when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, you can do something tangible for them. A cup of coffee, an attentive ear, and an encouraging tongue can do more to encourage that person that a million prayers they never hear you pray.

Don’t over or under utilize this tactic though, otherwise your recipient will be inclined to doubt your sincerity.

I was recently the recipient of a Tangible Act of Encouragement from my mother. Two of my favorite foods are chocolate and popcorn and my mom recently sent me a package filled with them. It was one of the best encouragements I’ve received so far in seminary and it didn’t require a single word. Thanks mom!

Picture of care package from my mother containing chcolate and popcorn

These are a few of my favorite things…

So don’t forget to encourage your local clergy (and seminarians) in tangible and appropriate ways. If you are a layman in your local church they are the ones who are (or will be) shepherding you on the front lines of the spiritual war raging all around us. They are human just like you are and need encouragement just like you do, though it may not obvious when they are struggling and need it. It is to your benefit and theirs that they remain spiritually strong and Tangible Acts of Encouragement are highly effective in this endeavor.

Now I had not been busy and frustrated with trying to balance all the things in my life I would not have realized just how effective this tactic could be. Thus I would not have been able to share it with all of you, nor would I have been able to use it myself in order to encourage my brothers and sisters who are struggling with me for the cause of Christ. The stress that comes with seminary is indeed an essential part of ministry preparation.

What is the Church?

I am the vine; you are the branches.
(John 15:5)

One of the tasks during my first semester here in Dallas has been to find a church home. Since I wasn’t raised in any particular Christian tradition or denomination I’ve also taken this opportunity to evaluate various traditions and denominations with the goal of possibly joining one of them.

Background Info: I grew up in independent churches, all of which were orthodox and Protestant. I have no doctrinal dispute of any significance with any of the churches I attended during my childhood and adolescence. Over time however I became increasingly dissatisfied with these churches. Or to state it metaphorically: I began to feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole (the specific reasons for this are another subject entirely and I won’t go into them in this post).

What is the Church? One of the books I have (finally) started reading as a part of my evaluation of the various Christian traditions and denominations is An Outline of an Anglican Life by Louis Tarsitano (McGrath’s Christian Theology has also been very helpful). In the first chapter Tarsitano presents a view of the Church that I agree with very much and think the rest of Christendom would do well to not merely intellectually assent to, but to actually live their lives, conduct their worship services in light of, and guide their flocks by.

One of the things that breaks my heart about modern Christianity are the divisions that exist within it. While I think that distinct styles of worship and disagreements are inevitable I do not think that these differences should lead to divisions within the Body of Christ so that certain denominations/churches absolutely refuse to work with other denominations/churches in spreading the Gospel.

When divisions go this deep I think the leader of the church has been forgotten, if he was ever acknowledged in the first place. Christ is the head of the church, not a man or a council of men (Ephesians 1.22; 4.15; 5.23; Colossians 1.18). Furthermore Christ is the one who chooses who constitutes the church, not us (John 13.18; 15.16, 19). While most Christians would agree with these statements it seems to me that these statements have little effect on relations between different churches and denominations.

Christ is the vine and we are the branches. There are not multiple vines, but only one: Christ. The branches are connected to the vine and are to bear fruit. If we could truly recognize that this, that Christ is the only vine and the different denominations/traditions are merely branches connected to the vine I think it would go a long way towards achieving the unity that has been lacking for so long within Christendom.