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A-Cappella Singing and Baptism

Thursday, June 06, 2019

 

We’re talking apples and elephants here, right?  Sure, most of the denominational world disagrees with the churches of Christ about both of these things, but they’re very different kinds of issues.  There are a dozen passages in the New Testament that explicitly say that we have to be baptized to be saved.  There aren’t any passages in the New Testament that explicitly say we had better not use musical instruments in worship, or else.

And yet, I’ve noticed something funny about the progressive churches that end up taking “of Christ” off the sign.  They’re going to bring in the instrument.  That’s a given.  They’re going to engage the community church down the street in the battle of the bands.  To the most skilled go the visitors!

Along with that, though, they start getting awfully mushy about baptism.  Consider, for instance, this video  produced by The Hills Church, formerly the Richland Hills Church of Christ.  The men in the video say that baptism is commanded.  True.  They say that baptism is an expression of our commitment to Christ.  Also true. 

Notice what they’re not saying, though.  They’re not saying that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins.  At one point, Rick Atchley scoffs at the notion that water washes away sins, never mind Acts 22:16.  He says we’re saved by the blood of Jesus instead, making a distinction that the Bible never makes. 

Additionally, if someone starts attending The Hills who was sprinkled as an infant, they say they will encourage them to get baptized as an adult.  Why?  Because they need to make that commitment for themselves rather than having their parents make it for them.  They do not say that such people need to be baptized in order to be saved from their sins.

What in the world?  As I noted above, the Scriptural witness on baptism is manifold.  It doesn’t talk about commitment.  It talks about salvation.  Forgiveness of sins.  New life.  I’m pretty sure Rick Atchley owns a Bible.  I suspect he’s even read it some.  However, his teaching on baptism isn’t coming from the Bible.

Instead, it appears to be constructed to be as inoffensive to as many people as possible.  You’ve got the old guard at The Hills, the people who were “raised in the church” and have a traditional understanding that baptism is important, even though they don’t know why.  They hear these men saying “Baptism is necessary,” and they’re satisfied.  No stumbling block for them.

No stumbling block for denominational visitors either, whatever their religious background might be.  Somebody who has been baptized into the Baptist Church will hear this and say, “I’m good!”  Somebody who is sprinkled as an infant will understand that they need to get baptized someday, but until then, they still have been saved by faith. 

Baptism at the Hills ends up being like changing your furnace filter.  You know you should, but it’s easy to put off.  They have adopted this position not because of faithfulness to the word, but because it will be the most popular.

In practice, it is awfully hard to draw a bright line separating the adoption of the instrument and The Hills’ position on baptism.  Even though the Scriptural evidence is different, the thought process is the same. 

Nobody studies the New Testament and says, “Here’s the passage that plainly teaches that instrumental music is fine!”  Instead, they look around, realize that instrumental worship is popular (with “the young people”, with outsiders, etc.), and then go hunting for Biblical justification.  Once you start down that road with worship, you keep going with salvation.

Every congregation must decide who its lord is going to be.  Is it going to be the children we hope to retain, the visitors we want to become members?  Or is it going to be the One who died and was raised for us?  Our approach to the word in all things will reveal the truth.

Abortion, Sin, and Fear

Friday, May 31, 2019

 

A week or so ago, I ran across this post, written by a pro-life volunteer at a pregnancy-crisis center.  The author noted that in her experience, women seeking abortions are not driven by heartlessness, but by fear.  They may well acknowledge that the baby inside them is alive, but they are doing what they believe they must to preserve their own lives.

We must understand and acknowledge this first because it humanizes the woman who chooses to have an abortion, and that’s important.  Even if we don’t share her fears (angry boyfriend, angry employer, difficult pregnancy), we understand what it is like to be afraid, to feel helpless.

Additionally, it is a testimony to the power and pervasiveness of fear.  Because of James 1, we tend to view sin as the result of lust, of desire.  This is responsible, I think, for the caricature of the heartless woman who murders her young because she doesn’t want to handle the inconvenience.  That’s lust-based abortion.

However, when we consider sin only as a byproduct of lust, we miss everything the Scriptures have to say about the spiritual dangers of fear.  The servant who buried his one talent wasn’t lustful.  The Jewish leaders who believed in Jesus but refused to admit it weren’t lustful.  The early Christians who fell away because of persecution weren’t lustful.  They were afraid, and their fear led to failure.

Fear, rather than being spiritually irrelevant, is a dire problem.  Unchecked fear is deadly, both in its power and in its consequences.  People who are ruled by their fears are people at their worst.

Why did the Holocaust happen?  The one-word answer is, “Fear.”  Enough Germans were afraid of the perceived power and malignity of the Jewish race that they were willing to endorse slaughtering Jews by the millions.  Why did the Civil War happen?  Because the antebellum Southern elites were afraid of losing their political power. 

Indeed, most of the great atrocities of human history are about fear.  If abortion is no different, this is hardly surprising.

Also, even while we sympathize with those who are afraid, we must remember that God doesn’t give partial credit to fearful sinners.  The opposite is true.  Those who shrink back, shrink back to destruction.  Scripturally speaking, it is infinitely better to do right and suffer for it than to be led by fear to do wrong.  That’s what He expects.

I regret deeply that we live in a world that makes women afraid to carry their young to term.  However, such things are inevitable when the world is under the sway of the evil one.   When a woman sleeps with her boyfriend because she is afraid of losing him, then terminates the resultant pregnancy for the same reason, that is the devil’s handiwork. 

I pity her, as I do all of Satan’s miserable slaves.  However, while pity should lead us to treat her mercifully, it must never lead us to treat her choice as acceptable.  Fear-provoked abortion is no better than lust-provoked abortion.  The baby involved is no less dead, and the soul of the woman involved no less stained with guilt.  If, conversely, we choose to overlook the sin that is caused by fear, there is no end to the evils we will accept.

The Problem with Happy-Face Christianity

Thursday, May 30, 2019

 

The other day, a friend of mine unburdened himself on Facebook about his struggles with depression.  He talked about his confusion and fear and self-hatred.  I came away from his post feeling deeply saddened and troubled, not only because of his plight, but because of my conviction that as a brotherhood, we have failed him and those like him.

I agree with Steve Wolfgang that the greatest failure of the Lord’s church in the past 50 years has been the failure to raise up men who will be spiritual leaders.  Right behind that one, though, is surely our failure to meet the needs of and give a voice to Christians who wrestle with depression, grief, and suffering.

Indeed, there exists in our teaching and especially in our singing the presumption that Christians ought to be happy people.  I think this is driven by salesmanship.  We want the lost to come to Christ, so we feel the need to make Christianity as attractive as possible by pretending that everything is A-OK with us.  “Look how wonderful my life is!!!  Don’t you want to have a life as wonderful as mine???”

This is problematic for several reasons.  First, it’s fundamentally dishonest.  You can be a faithful Christian and still, for reasons beyond your control, have a miserable life.  To argue otherwise is quite literally to adopt the position of Job’s friends. 

Nonetheless, Christians who are suffering intensely often are expected to paste a smile on and act like nothing’s wrong.  I’ve seen a sister who had lost her child six weeks beforehand get rebuked on Facebook for dwelling on her grief.  If we believe that Christians ought to be happy all the time, then Christians who are obviously unhappy introduce cognitive dissonance that we’re not prepared to handle.  Clearly, even though they have every reason to be unhappy, they must be doing something wrong!  Lack of faith, probably.

Second, it’s not faithful to the witness of Scripture.  One would never guess it from much of our teaching and preaching, but the Bible reflects more deeply on human suffering than any other book ever written.  Many of the great heroes of faith were men and women of intense suffering. 

Job was one such, obviously, but there are many more.  David wrote that he felt like God was drowning him.  Elijah pleaded with God to kill him.  Paul despaired even of life.  Even Christ Himself was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. 

We need to talk about these things because they are written for us to talk about.  The book of Job (the whole thing, not just the first two and final chapters) exists for a reason.  Half the psalms in Psalms exist for a reason.  1 Peter exists for a reason.  All those stories about the suffering of the godly exist for a reason.  I don’t think it’s so we can ignore them and talk about upbeat passages that we’re comfortable with (“Do not be anxious!”) instead. 

Finally, it’s not helpful.  Here, I want to focus particularly upon our singing.  In contrast to the Psalms, which offer the mourning consolation and sometimes simply self-expression (see Psalm 89, which contains nothing resembling a resolution), our hymn repertoire is overwhelmingly, relentlessly, bouncy and cheerful.  The help we offer to suffering brethren sounds like “Sing and Be Happy”, which admittedly is fun to sing but seems to have learned compassion from Dolores Umbridge. 

We can do better than this.  Indeed, we must.  We can be open about our own griefs and understanding toward Christians who can’t get over theirs.  We can be honest with the word and grapple with the hard questions about suffering that it presents.  We can weep with those who weep in our singing as fully as we rejoice with those who rejoice.

Will all this sadness and suffering deter seekers?  I think the opposite is true.  When we act like we don’t have any problems, we aren’t being genuine, and insincerity is always repellent.  If, on the other hand, we are willing to be vulnerable and honest, if we offer consolation and meaning to those who mourn, it’s more than likely that mourners will start showing up.

Marriage Isn't That Different

Thursday, May 02, 2019

 

Through the years, I’ve noticed that when churches offer meetings, Bible classes, and seminars on marriage, they tend to be a species unto themselves.  Much of the time, the presenter will offer a few passages at the beginning as “cover” and proceed to spend the rest of his time working through the advice of various marriage gurus under the guise of “application”.

This is not necessarily bad.  In Ecclesiastes 12:9-11, the Preacher commends the study and examination even of human wisdom.  God is the Author of wisdom, and nothing that is truly wise can be very far from Him.  However, there is still a vast difference between the words of men and the word of God.  Presentations on marriage that are 5 percent Bible and 95 percent human application put an awfully long tail on an awfully small kite!

In addition to not being ideal, this kind of analysis is not necessary.  For some reason, brethren seem to think that only New-Testament texts that contain the words “husband” and “wife” are about marriage.  The underlying logic, I suppose, must be that marriage is so different from the other areas of our lives that only passages that explicitly mention marriage are applicable to it.

I think this is exactly wrong.  In order to be true disciples of Christ, we must be disciples first in every relationship of our lives:  as brethren, as workers, as parents, and, yes, as spouses.  In marriages where both spouses are Christians, marriage problems are always discipleship problems.  Always.  Conversely, if I want to be the best husband I can be, I first must strive to be the best disciple I can be. 

Take, for instance, the husband’s role as head of the family.  Certainly, that role is defined by the texts in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 that specifically address it, but it also is defined by everything that the Bible has to say about leadership.  The husband’s role is much more like the role of the father, the employer, and the elder than it is different.  If this were not so, how could the Scriptures hold up Christ, an unmarried man, as the perfect example for every man who is married?  Every godly leader, husbands included, first must learn servant-leadership from Him.

I would never in a million years criticize a congregation for studying Ephesians 5:22-33.  However, that study ought to begin at least with Ephesians 5:18.  Contextually, loving our wives and submitting to our husbands are every bit as much expressions of being filled with the Spirit as singing praises to God is. 

Love and submission don’t instantaneously spring up in our marriages like mushrooms in a flowerbed.  Instead, they must originate from a heart that we have diligently filled with God.  Cheap fixes don’t work.  If we want our marriages to improve, we have to do the hard work of seeking God first.

However, Ephesians 5:18 is no place to stop.  We ought to consider the first part of Ephesians 5 and ask how godly speech and walking in the light should appear in our marriages.  Now there’s an application worth making! 

We ought to go back to Ephesians 4 and forward to Ephesians 6.  Is the new self that we have put on evident in our marriages?  Do we employ the whole armor of God in warding off the devil’s assaults on our marriages?  For that matter, how does Paul’s great account of the grace of God in Ephesians 1-3 shape our understanding of our responsibilities in marriage?  Those who have been forgiven so much ought to be ready to forgive, for one thing!

Indeed, every spiritual principle and precept in the New Testament can be applied usefully to our marriages.  There are many wonderful lessons here that we too often overlook because the Bible passage doesn’t say “marriage” and that book on the shelf over there does. 

There’s little harm in The Five Love Languages or any other such book, nor do I think brethren should shun marriage seminars and marriage counselors.  However, if we’re getting more of our instruction on marriage from them than from the word of God, we’re making a grave mistake.

The Irony of the Sex Recession

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

 

At the end of 2018, The Atlantic ran an article (I’m not going to link to it; it’s pretty salty stuff) proclaiming a surprising fact.  In modern America, people are having less sex than they have for decades.  Porn use, along with everything that goes with it, is booming.  Actual sex, not so much.

Since then, I’ve read several articles bemoaning this trend.  After all, if our nation stands for anything these days, it stands for sexual autonomy.  It stands for the notion that people should be able to do whatever they want with whomever they want.  We are willing to legalize and support abortion, even, to remove the consequences from sex.  And yet, it all seems to be having the opposite effect.  We have stepped on the accelerator, but the car has slowed down.

To the worldly, this is baffling.  To the spiritually minded, though, it makes a bleak kind of sense.  Sex was created by God.  Like all of His other creations, though it can be perverted and abused, sex is inherently good.  It is creative and connective.  It unites us with our spouses in any number of dimensions, and it connects us to the future through the children we conceive.  As is characteristic of the designs of God, sex in marriage elegantly achieves many positive ends.

Now, imagine for a moment that you’re the devil, and you see this beautiful thing that God has ordained for husbands and wives to share in.  What are you going to do? 

First, you’re going to lie about it.  You’re going to use human desires to persuade the foolish that the marriage bed truly is not the best place to satisfy those desires. 
“Why wait until you’re married?”  “Why confine your sexual interests to your spouse?”  Sexual immorality is evil because it frustrates the good design of God.

Second, you’re going to make it about pleasure rather than connection and creation.  In our hookup culture, sex is intimacy only in a physical sense.  It does not unite souls.  It does not join hearts.  It does not express and deepen a marital relationship. 

Similarly, you will want to remove sex from procreation as far as possible.  Abortion does this, as does homosexual sex.  Thus, rather than being about somebody else, sex becomes about the self.

Once you’ve gotten things that far, the final step is to abolish sex.  After all, Satan always wants to destroy the works of God.  If sex is about pleasure, you can find that pleasure by yourself.  You don’t need anybody else. 

Besides, relationships are hard.  You don’t get whatever you want whenever you want it.  You have to be nice to somebody else, live with them in an understanding way, and work through difficulties and struggles.  Why go through all that trouble when you can get your satisfaction with no strings attached?

Thus, the effect of sexual license is ultimately to do away with sex.  As always with sin, once people get what they want, they find out that they don’t want it after all.  The end result of selfish pleasure-seeking is not happiness but loneliness, misery, and despair.  Porn never made anybody’s life better.  The passing pleasures of sin are no substitute for the enduring joys of godliness.

By contrast, if we want sexual fulfillment (and indeed life fulfillment), the recipe is simple.  Be holy.  Find one person of the opposite sex.  Marry them.  Stay married until one of you is dead.  Love and serve them wholeheartedly.  Hate sin in your marriage and in your hearts.  Stamp it out.

If we will do this, we will discover the sexual blessings that God has prepared for us.  If we will not, though, we will encounter not the goodness of God but the malice of the devil.  As the sex recession reveals, this is precisely what our poor deluded sex-worshiping society is learning.

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