Monday, December 23, 2013

Pageantry In Church?

Being very interested in history, I have long intended to watch the classic 1934 movie directed by the great Leni Riefenstahl depicting the annual Nuremberg NAZI Party convention, considered by many to be the greatest (and most notorious) propaganda film ever made. Today I had time to sit down and watch that enthralling work, and greatly enjoyed the narration provided in the digitized 2000 edition by Anthony R. Santoro, Ph.D., at that time Distinguished Professor of History and President Emeritus of Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
In was while watching “Triumph Of The Will” that Dr. Santoro made mention of the NAZI Party’s frequent use of flags and standards, remarking about facts that were new to me.  For example, I had not known that the famous architect for Adolph Hitler, a man named Albert Speer, took a leading role in producing the party rallies in Nuremberg, and created the concept that he termed “the sea of flags,” with thousands of swastika flags carried to great effect.  However, it was a second remark he made that intrigued me and dredged up old memories, when he pointed out that Hitler’s use of standards was copied from Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been in power since 1922, and who himself had copied the use of standards from the legions of the Imperial Roman Army.
I think it was 1999 that I attended a meeting of pastors in Southern California where I observed for the first time that I remember in a church the presentation of a pageant of some kind by the host church, featuring standards of the type I had only previously observed in Greek Orthodox churches.  Several months later I attended another meeting of pastors in the state of Colorado, where I once more saw a pageant that made prominent a number of standards.  Finally, when several months had once more passed, I attended yet another meeting of church pastors in the state of Tennessee, where I observed a pageant and display of standards.  This provoked me to approach the director of the program to ask him about the pageant and the standards. He was effusive about the entire subject, volunteering that his idea for the pageant and standards came from a large conference he had attended in Virginia, but that the original concept had come from an Assembly of God church in Brooklyn, whose music director had copied it from a Greek Orthodox church.
Pageantry.  What role does pageantry play in most contemporary churches?  I am afraid pageantry plays an ever increasing role in churches in American culture.  However, questions need to be asked about the proper place of pageantry in Christian worship.  We can understand the importance of pageantry to Imperial Rome, to Mussolini’s Fascist state in Italy, to Hitler’s NAZI Germany, and even to our own military and political arenas.  Pageantry is how you impress people, rally people, motivate the masses, and generate enthusiasm for a team, be it a baseball or football team, a rifle platoon, or a construction crew.
The issue raised in my own mind and heart, however, is the place of pageantry in Christian worship.  After all, we see no pageantry associated with any aspect of the Virgin Birth of Christ, an important point to make at this Christmas time of year.  To be sure, the angels burst forth in a paean of praise, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” but their only audience were the shepherds who had been keeping watch over their flocks by night. It was hardly anything like pageantry.  How about when the wise men from the East arrived? No pageantry there, either.  As a matter of fact, throughout the entire life of the Lord Jesus Christ here on earth, from His birth to His resurrection, the only pageantry on display was the pageantry associated with Roman occupation and the muted pageantry the Romans allowed in connection with Temple worship.
The point that I make is that pageantry occupied no place in anything remotely Christian until Constantine merged state and church and the pageantry of Imperial Rome was adopted by what came to be the Roman Catholic Church, and which is presently seen in the ritualized worship of the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian, Greek, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church in Africa, and those Protestant churches that are so much wed to formalism.  Sadly, however, pageantry is flooding back into gospel preaching congregations and wreaking havoc.
How so?  Though there will someday be great pageantry associated with proper worship of the Savior, beginning with the majestic procession of His magnificent return in power and great glory (Revelation 19.11 ff), pageantry in Christian worship is not at present sanctioned in scripture, for a significant reason.  The just live by faith.  Pageantry, however, exposes people to a sensory assault that greatly distracts from any possibility of communicating or receiving a faith-based message.  Therefore, whenever a ministry becomes devoted to pageantry, there will be a corresponding diminishing of its focus on those doctrines and proclamations that foster faith.
          After all, if Imperial Rome did it, if Mussolini did it, if Hitler did it, and if the Roman church, the Orthodox churches, and the Coptic churches do it, how spiritual can it be?  Methinks we should be so jealous for the Lord that we seek those encouragements and blessings that derive from the preaching of God’s Word, the singing of God’s praise, the testimonies of God’s people, and the fruit that real ministry produces.  Let us not settle for being emotionally moved by pageantry.  It is a poor substitute for the blessings of God.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Telephone Etiquette For Pastors

Does God give a man a pass so that he has a right to be intrusive or inconvenient to others just because he is a preacher of the gospel? I have been around enough pastors to know that most pastors recognize the importance of etiquette when communicating with others on the telephone, to show courtesy and respect. Yet there are some in the gospel ministry who seem to think, as evidenced by their conduct, that the accepted social rules of courtesy and kindness apply to everyone else but them.

By what right does a pastor routinely interrupt a church member’s work day just so he doesn’t have to write his questions down to obtain answers at a more appropriate time, when he is not robbing from his church member’s employer? By what right does a pastor make contact with another gospel preacher about a matter that is not terribly important, but is sure to trouble or distress the preacher who is being called, shortly before the man is scheduled to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ? One would think that as a pastor would not want to be disturbed himself before he preached, he would recognize the impropriety of doing precisely that to a colleague.

Twice in Solomon’s Proverbs we are reminded that before honor is humility. Granting that every human being desires to be honored, it is well-established in Scripture that the path to being honored leads through the field of personal humility. Therefore, as the Savior came not to be served but to serve, so it seems to me that every opportunity the man of God has to serve others is a God-given opportunity that should not be passed up if at all possible. A practical way of doing this when placing a telephone call is to ask a very simple question of the person you desire to speak to on the telephone: “Is this a convenient time to talk for a few minutes?” “Is this an appropriate time to speak to you about something that might be disturbing?”

Each is a very simple question. Each takes only moments to ask. Each ascertains in a matter of seconds if it is convenient for the other person to speak to you for a few minutes. Busy professionals who speak to other busy professionals routinely ask this type of question when the telephone call that is placed is unscheduled. Could it possibly be that pastors who do not ask such a question when placing unscheduled phone calls, or who will not ask such a question when placing unscheduled phone calls, see their church members as subordinates? If that is the case, it is sad. Such is not the kind of servant leadership that is portrayed in God’s Word. Could also possibly be that pastors do not ask such questions of other gospel ministers see them as somehow less important, and therefore less deserving of the respect that is due all men?

It is a small man who treats service personnel, such as attendants, valet staff, and those who work in restaurants roughly and rudely. A minister of the gospel is almost as small who presumes upon others when their duties and occupations demand their attention. Of course, some gospel ministers will disagree with me. However, those who do not hold to the ivory tower view of church pastors can surely be expected to agree with me on this one.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Finishing Well

   I am approaching the time in life when many of my colleagues leave the gospel ministry. The reasons for leaving the ministry are varied, with some of them being understandable and others being very sad indeed. Of course, there are some who leave the gospel ministry because of poor health, with some friends having been promoted to glory. A while back a fellow who was in school with me announced to the world that he and his wife were leaving the gospel ministry after thirty years to make a pile of money. They figured they had scrimped and gotten by on little for long enough, so it was time (they reasoned) to unburden themselves from the ministry to make some real dough. I am not quite sure how their actions fit in with Luke 14.33, but I am sure I would find their rational amusing ("So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.") Along the way, some have ended up out of the ministry after faithfully serving in small churches or as bi-vocational ministers, reaching the point where financial demands to support the family made it necessary. God bless those men who struggled to pay the bills for such a long time. They remind me of John Bunyan and the countless faithful men of God down through the centuries whose stories of sacrifice and dedication to the cause of Christ will only fully be revealed in glory.
   Others who retired from the gospel ministry have done some interesting things that seem to me to explain much of the spiritual lethargy and lack of commitment to important things seen practiced in so many church member's lives. I know one guy who pulled some shenanigans so that a large number of his church members would not be able to vote in consideration of selling the church property to a large Arminian (not Armenian!) church with denominational affiliation that was markedly different from the Baptist church he had led for years, ending up as a staff member of that church that stood for much of what he had preached against in years gone by. Needless to say, many former members have concluded that their "shepherd" betrayed them for personal financial gain to ensure for himself a good income in his old age. Another guy retired from the gospel ministry and joined a denominational Protestant church that stands for easy things and seems opposed to nothing that is difficult to take a stand for.
   Such things confuse and trouble me. I was converted as an adult and did not grow up in a Christian home. I was subsequently exposed to Baptist views and embraced those views as personal convictions and as non-optional reflections of Biblical Christianity. I do not think I could quit the ministry to make a last grab for money before it was too late. I do not think I could sell out my congregation as a way of working out a back door deal for employment in a large church to whom a land sale of my former church's property had been arranged. I do not think I could join a church in retirement that took a view of believer baptism that was contrary to the position I had espoused and defended (or should have espoused and defended) as a Baptist pastor.
   The Lord knows that I am not (who is?) completely consistent in the exercise of my beliefs. However, I will be profoundly disappointed if I do not finish well. It matters how you finish. Few will remember how well a race has been run if the finish goes poorly. By God's grace, I want to finish strong.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Some Thoughts About Assurance Of Salvation

Allow me to rehearse to you a few random thoughts on the subject of assurance of salvation. From the time of the Reformation assurance of salvation has always been properly understood to be distinct from salvation. It is one thing to know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through faith in Him. It is another thing to have the assurance of your salvation that you know Christ as your personal savior.
I came to Christ on March 31, 1974 in my apartment, in Torrance, California. When I retired for the evening, I was not at all sure what had happened to me. When I woke up the next morning, I still was not sure what had happened to me the night before. I recall thinking to myself while preparing for work the next morning, “If this is real, it will somehow reveal itself.” Little did I know that God had already planned for two separate occasions in which I would be suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to speak of things I had never before in my life been called upon to speak of. First, in the presence of professing believers, and then in the presence of belligerent anti-Christian men, I found myself called upon to declare if I had any interest in Christ. On both occasions, without advance notice or preparation that I was conscious of, I declared in no uncertain terms that I was a Christian. I somehow knew this to be true. From the perspective of decades, I realize now that I then had but a bud of the flower of assurance.
Not having come to Christ as the result of any church ministry, or the conscious efforts of any believer in Jesus Christ, I was somehow left to my own devices with respect to understanding the Spirit’s development in me of the assurance of my salvation. When I was finally invited to church, and subsequent to my baptism in that same church, I unconsciously accepted as appropriate the practice of supposedly bringing a sinner to Christ by leading him to repeat something called the sinner’s prayer, after which time that supposedly newly converted person was taken to First John 5.13 and given something called assurance based upon the statement of that single verse. It did not dawn on me until many years later that what the Apostle John took almost 5 chapters in his brief letter to establish in the heart and mind of the genuinely converted person should not be, could not be, accomplished by going directly to his conclusion and ignoring by overlooking his Spirit-inspired reasoning.
I now understand that there are several kinds of what is thought to be assurance of salvation. There is assurance of salvation that is scriptural, that is fostered only in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit of God, and that quite frankly comes and goes as the believer yields to and also resists and grieves the Spirit who provides the inner witness of adoption and well-being. Next, there is assurance of salvation that is not scriptural, that is not fostered in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit of God, and that quite frankly does not come and go as the person (who may or may not be genuinely converted) lives his life. This erroneous personal conviction that so frequently passes for assurance of salvation can be the result of two entirely different causes. Most usually it is caused by the professing Christian remaining convinced from the time he was taken to First John 5.13 by the well-intentioned personal evangelist who led him in praying the so-called sinner’s prayer. However, the other cause of this erroneous type of assurance of salvation can frequently be found in congregations whose pastors rarely, if ever, address the issue of assurance of salvation. In such cases, the church members acquire their faulty assurance of salvation entirely from their understanding of their pastor’s conviction regarding their relationship with Christ. Without anyone in the congregation understanding the dynamic at work, the church members derive their assurance of salvation, not from the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit who may or may not indwell them, but from their admired pastor. What a travesty!
A third kind of assurance of salvation, which I will only lightly touch on now, is the assurance that other church members have concerning a person’s relationship with Christ. There is no scriptural warrant for anyone to accept as true someone’s claim to be a believer in Jesus Christ without persuasive corroborating evidence. This is why the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthian congregation to examine themselves in Second Corinthians 13.5. This is also why the Apostle Peter insisted that every professing Christian be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within him, First Peter 3.15.
I wrap up my thoughts by rehearsing to you my concern that there are many who are not Christians whose counterfeit assurance comes not from the Holy Spirit, but from a misused verse improperly handled by a sincere but mistaken personal evangelist, or by others who are wrongly led to rely on their pastor’s confidence that they are born again. Assurance of salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit alone, and is a distinct and separate work from regeneration. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s provides assurance quickly. At other times the Holy Spirit brings assurance slowly. Assurance that is fostered in the believer’s bosom by the Holy Spirit is a delightful and comforting confidence that arises from the Holy Spirit working in the heart of the child of God. When the Spirit is grieved or quenched by sin, He sometimes chooses to withhold the assurance which properly comes only from him.
Ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ must to be very careful to make sure they are people do not inappropriately seek to give assurance to anyone. That ministry is reserved for the Holy Spirit alone. I call upon gospel ministers to also be very careful that they do not unconsciously or inadvertently lead their congregants to base their personal assurance of salvation on the preacher’s opinion or convictions about them.