The Decline of Christianity in the West: An Observation

Originally posted on Zwinglius Redivivus:

The decline of Christianity in the West is directly proportional to its willingness to embrace the world’s notions of it and forsake its essential nature.

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Every pastor should have a story like this: Beware church visitors bearing gifts

I still chuckle every time I think about this.

Several years ago, two sisters visited the church where I serve as pastor. After the service they spent twenty minutes telling me how I should have preached the text and pointed out everything they thought was wrong with my sermon. (Mind you, neither of them has, by their own admission, ever preached a sermon, taught a Bible lesson, or received any biblical, theological, or homiletical training at all.)

A few months later, as I was calling people who had visited our church to invite them back, I called one of the sisters, not realizing this was who I was calling. This time she spent fifteen minutes on the phone telling me all the stuff I did wrong that she presumably either hadn’t gotten to when they visited before or simply had thought of since then. I tried to be gracious and I invited them to worship with us again since they still had not found a church home (I can’t help but wonder why).

She and her sister returned a couple of weeks later. Since it was around Christmastime they brought me a “gift.” Their gift was…

(and I am not joking here)

a book about how to preach.

They have not returned. And that’s okay. I really do hope they found a pastor who was up to their standards.

The book, however, is a good one. But while I didn’t pay any money for it, I wouldn’t exactly say I got it for free.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

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A Prayer to Let Go the Earthly and Cling to the Eternal

I’ve been meditating all week on this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that seeks God’s help in letting go of worry and worldliness and clinging to things eternal:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to
love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among
things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall
endure.

-BCP Proper 20 (Contemporary)

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A Prayer of St. Basil the Great

We bless thee, O God most high and Lord of mercies, who ever workest great and mysterious deeds for us, glorious, wonderful, and numberless; who providest us with sleep as a rest from our infirmities and as a repose for our bodies tired by labor. We thank thee that thou hast not destroyed us in our transgressions, but in thy love toward mankind thou hast raised us up, as we lay in despair, that we may glorify thy Majesty. We entreat thine infinite goodness, enlighten the eyes of our understanding and raise up our minds from the heavy sleep of indolence; open our mouths and fill them with thy praise, that we may unceasingly sing and confess thee, who art God glorified in all and by all, the eternal Father, the Only-Begotten Son, and the all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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What the text means versus what the text meant

What the text means has to come from what the text meant.

Sometimes we are too quick to jump to application in our preaching without even understanding what the text even meant in its original context. What the text means for us today is contingent upon understanding what the text meant in its original context. When we bypass this, or give it only cursory attention, we not only do an injustice to the text, we fail our people by failing to explain adequately the meaning of the text.

For example, I am preaching through Paul’s Epistle to Philemon right now. In the opening verses (1-7, but especially 4-7), Paul talks about Philemon’s dynamic and exemplary Christian character. He explains how Philemon had faith in Christ that influenced how he lives and that Philemon’s faith brought joy and encouragement to the saints, especially Paul.

I anticipated a possible objection from the congregation, namely, how could someone be such a good Christian and own slaves? This is a reasonable question and one that must be address.

Without going into detail, I explained the differences between slavery in the Greco-Roman world and the antebellum American South. But then I let this lead me to my point about this conundrum: Philemon has an opportunity to be counter-cultural in the best sense. I didn’t excuse Philemon but I tried to put the hearers in Philemon’s situation. Philemon has every right in light of his culture and under the law to demand the return of Onesimus and to exact punishment for Onesimus’ wrongs against him. But Paul wants Philemon to demonstrate the love and grace of the Kingdom by exercising forgiveness, the same “good things” that Philemon has himself received from God (v. 6). This is what the text meant.

My application (what the text means) was that we, too live counter-culturally when we live out lives of grace, love, and forgiveness when the world has different standards of behavior. I spelled this out using several examples drawn from everyday life.

Notice three results of preaching the text this way.

(1) By exploring the original context, I was not only true to the text, I was able to explain the background of the NT, information that will be helpful for the congregation in understanding other NT texts.

(2) My application was more grace-driven and Christ-centered than if I had simply preached against slavery or talked about human trafficking or something similar.

(3) I am able to demonstrate clearly how the application came from the text. I drew a line directly from the situation of the text to the situation of the hearer. This means that I avoid any challenge that I have read into the text or placed a legalistic burden on those who heard.

One of my foundational rules for preaching is “Preach the text.” If you don’t do the work to understand and explain the text, then if you manage to properly apply the text, it will only be by accident.

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Preaching the text versus preaching from the text

I’ve heard many sermons in my day that made important, truthful, relevant points from the text of Scripture but that I would still say fell short of actually preaching the text.

What I mean is that the text was the starting point or the jumping off point for thoughts that, as truthful, relevant, and necessary as they were, had little relation to what the text was actually saying. I don’t think that Paul, or Peter, or John, or Luke would have recognized the logical connection between these points and the text.

Mark Dever has defined expository preaching as preaching where the main point of the text is the main point of the message. (See Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, p. 40-42.)

These sermons I’ve mentioned failed to do this. These same sermons could have been preached from the writings of a philosopher, or from a novel, or from an episode of a television program, or a movie, or a joke, or anything because they were really a loosely connected collection of thoughts.

I note that these types of sermons never seem to have a big idea or main point or homiletical proposition or whatever you call the theme that binds the sermon together and brings it to its logical conclusion. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The proposition (as I was taught to call it years ago) is supposed to be driven by what the text is actually saying. The main theme of the text leads us in our development of the big idea or proposition which in turn drives the rest of the sermon.

This ensures that our sermon is not a disjointed collection of thoughts (remember, a sermon is a rifle not a shotgun) but it also keeps us true to the meaning of the text.

This has the added benefit of helping us transition between the movements of the sermon by connecting the point back to the main point and also lets us repeat the main point several times which in turn impresses the main point of the sermon (and the text!) upon the hearers. When they read that text later they won’t remember all the details, but if you’ve repeated that big idea several times during the sermon they will remember that and they will be able to recall more than they would have otherwise.

So spend some of your sermon preparation thinking about the main point of the text and then “Keep the main thing the main thing” so that when you’re done you are confident that you’ve actually preached the text and haven’t simply preached from the text.

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Coptic Fragment Says Jesus had a Wife, Everyone Yawns

If you have a few minutes to waste, go over to the Huffington Post and read this article. I’ll wait.

Admittedly, HuffPo does a better job with this than the sensationalistic CNN piece I read earlier today. Several things stand out about this that I think are important.

1. This fragment is dated to the 6th to 9th C of this era, which is a fancy way of saying it dates to between 600 and 900 years after Christ and the apostles. Even if it was as early as the 4th C, it can hardly be considered a reliable historical document. We wouldn’t accept a biography of George Washington written in the present day with no research and based solely on oral tradition and that’s half this time (if we accept the earliest possible dating. The date of 6th to 9th C would be 3 to 4 ½ times that long. So again, it’s not reliable as a source for the historical Jesus. (Note also Karen King’s quote at the beginning of the third paragraph in this regard.)

2. It’s written in Coptic, which is notoriously difficult to translate and, on top of that, it’s a fragment, so we have no idea of what we’re missing and no way to reliably figure out what may be missing. In New Testament textual criticism, when we’re missing a piece of a manuscript, we can usually find the missing piece in another manuscript. In this case, there are so few documents written in Coptic that the chance of filling in the blanks are slim if there is a chance at all.

(Incidentally, we have around 6,000 manuscripts of the NT, and the earliest ones date to within a generation of the deaths of the apostles, so it’s pretty easy to know what the text originally said (if you can read Greek and read what’s called a “critical apparatus”), which, incidentally, is why I get irritated when people say things like, “The Bible has changed over the centuries,” because (a) we know, for a fact, that such is not true, and (b) when I hear that I know that the person saying it doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They may not like what it says, and they don’t have to believe what it says, but it says what it says and we can know what it says with a pretty high degree of certainty based on the manuscript tradition alone.)

In addition, while there are many scholars who can read Greek (for example, I had 13 Greek classes, 8 undergrad, 5 grad-level, won a Greek scholar’s award, and am about to be published in a biblical original language project, and I’m not even considered a scholar) so there are many people who can look at a translation, compare it to the original, and say whether it’s accurate or just plain ridiculous (even I am competent enough to do that and I’m just a dumb redneck). With Coptic, however, so few people can actually translate it, and even fewer who can actually read it, that we’re pretty much at the mercy of those few who can. Who is to say that someone else wouldn’t take issue with certain crucial elements of the translation?

And I note that the article itself points out the lack of scholarly consensus with regard to the fragment.

3. If indeed this takes from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas we have even more reason (as if we don’t have enough already) to doubt what it says precisely because Thomas is a Gnostic Gospel. The Gnostics believed that they received special, secret knowledge directly from God. The Gnostics themselves would not have believed that what they wrote was an accurate historical account. The Gnostics took pride in receiving “revelation” that no one else had.

4. Even if this document is dated properly and is authentic, it still doesn’t mean much for the historical Jesus. One key fact that many non-Christians, and even nominal Christians who are non-theologians, overlook in evaluating these texts is that the New Testament repeatedly refers to the church as “the bride of Christ” (just as the Old Testament referred to Yahweh as Israel’s “husband”). So even if we assume that this fragment is authentic, since we don’t have any other reliable extant document at all anywhere, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic to Christianity, that even implies that the historical Jesus had a wife, our default interpretive position would have to be that Jesus was talking about the church rather than a historical wife.

5. Having said that, the Catholic Church’s claims that Jesus did not have a wife and therefore priests should not have wives is merely dogma based on medieval tradition. We know for a fact that Peter (supposedly the first pope) had a wife because he had a mother-in-law. Other apostles had wives and Paul refers to them. If Jesus had actually had a wife, so what? We know that he had no descendants (despite all the nonsense conspiracy theories in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) because, while Jesus’ mother is mentioned in early Christian writings (including the NT), as well as his brothers (one of whom wrote an epistle in the New Testament), there is no mention of any children. If this were authentic we still have to remember that it dates from a time when Christian theology was rife with superstition and where some church leaders used less-than-honorable means to defend their theological positions. King’s comment in paragraph four alludes to as much.

But this may be more than you wanted to know. You may go back to YouTube now.

 

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