Words Can Be Slippery Things

It’s happened many times in church history.  The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection.  But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history.  Another theologian insists that he believes in election.  But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.

In his book Revival and Revivalism Iain Murray discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening.  Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place.  But Finney believed nothing of the sort.  His language was deceptive.  He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.

This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too.  People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God.  It sounds orthodox on the surface.  But we need to dig deeper:  what do you mean by human being?  Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast?  Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life?  Did she have grandparents?  What do you mean “created in the image of God”?  What does “created” mean in that sentence?  You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth.  Great!  But what do you mean when you say that?  Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem.  In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions.  It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words.  Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.

It’s all in the definition

Reblogged from Keep Ablaze, the website of Pastor Rob Schouten

A person mentioned in an overture recently adopted by Classis Ontario West feels that he has been grossly misrepresented in this decision. I am genuinely open to that possibility but so far have not been convinced. Central to this feeling of being misrepresented is the question of the meaning of “theistic evolution.” One of the persons mentioned in this overture states forcefully that he is not a “theistic evolutionist.” While there is no universally accepted definition of theistic evolution, here are a couple from credible Christian proponents of this idea:

  • “Theistic evolution is the proposition that God is in charge of the biological process called evolution. God directs and guides the unfolding of life forms over millions of years. Theistic evolution contends that there is no conflict between science and the Biblical book of Genesis.”
  • “The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, “theistic evolution,” so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans.”

I think the above definitions capture what most people mean by “theistic evolution.” The main idea is that evolution is God’s way of creating new life forms in the history of the world. Typically, theistic evolution advocates acknowledge that God directly created some original form of life and also that at some point in history, God created human beings by placing his image upon some pre-existing creature.

Do we have reason to think that the persons mentioned in the overture of Classis Ontario West embrace or want to make room for theistic evolution as a way of understanding the origin of species, including homo sapiens?

First of all, should it be difficult to ascertain a person’s belief in this regard? I have read a lot over the years in relation to this topic and it’s usually not hard to figure out an author’s orientation.

Secondly, have the persons in question sufficiently profiled themselves for readers to formulate an opinion about their orientation and direction in regard to the issue of evolution? I think they have. In their writings at Reformed Academic and elsewhere, these men have indicated that evolution is, at the very least, a highly credible theory that deserves the utmost respect from all serious-minded people. It’s just as credible as the prevailing theory of gravity, one of them writes.

A reader would therefore be within his rights to consider that these brothers accept  that life probably began about 4 billion years ago and from that point developed through mutations and natural selection into the millions of species we see on planet earth today. At the same time, they are members of Christian churches which confess “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

In short, evolution happened and yet God created. Putting those two ideas together in the same mind and on the same page understandably leads readers to the term “theistic evolution.” This is a term with a considerable history and has been freely used by Christian scholars who seem to have the same view of creation as do the brothers mentioned in this overture. Is it slander to use this term in regard to these men? I don’t think that would be a fair ethical assessment of the overture adopted in Classis Ontario West.

Naturally, the next big question is: what about human beings? Are we also the result of a process of evolution? Are we biologically related to prehistoric hominoids and presently-living primates? Do Adam and Eve have a pre-history? Like many other proponents of theistic evolution, the brothers mentioned in the overture adopted by Classis Ontario West clearly and repeatedly affirm that human beings are the result of a special act of creation by God.

I’m very happy for that affirmation. However, the questions remain: did God create Adam as Genesis records that he did? Did God make Adam from the “dust of the ground,” that is, from inanimate matter?  To ask the same question differently, was Adam biologically related to pre-existing creatures? Was he made directly or was he born from pre-existing hominoids only to be subsequently and supernaturally endowed with the image of God? Was Eve made directly form his side? Are Adam and Eve the ancestors of all presently living human beings?

If those who are named in the overture of Classis Ontario West seek to dissociate themselves from the label “theistic evolution” and thus quell the sort of concerns evident in this overture, they could do so quite readily by answering questions such as these, as they have been invited to do in another blog by a concerned and well-informed author.

The other side of the ninth commandment

re-blogged from Keep Ablaze, the website of Pastor Rob Schouten

When Christians disagree with each other or when tensions arise in the life of the church, it’s important to take the time to hear each other carefully. Misrepresenting people is a serious sin and so due diligence is required of us in analyzing what others say and write. Processing what others say and write can be hard work but it’s a task we can’t avoid if we want to be part of the discussion.

However, there’s another side to all of this. It’s what I call the obligation to speak clearly. Sometimes, those who feel that others have sinned against them by misrepresenting their view have only themselves to blame because they did not communicate clearly or did so evasively. The 9th commandment, however, obliges us to speak clearly and forthrightly in personal relationships and in the life of the church. When issues arise, we should strive to make our position clear. If our position is not clear, perhaps we should simply be silent. If we do speak unclearly, we should not complain when people give our words an interpretation we did not intend. Instead of complaining, we should be ready to give more clarity by answering questions posed or by responding to criticisms offered.

History shows that when false doctrine arises in the church, it often does so in a subtle manner. Those who introduce  ideas foreign to the confession of the church frequently cloak their thoughts in orthodox language while closer inspection reveals that there is a new content and a new direction. For this reason, the Forms of Subscription used in the Reformed Churches contain the following provision: “If at any time the consistory, classis or regional synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and in order to maintain the unity and purity of teaching, would decide to require of us a further explanation of our views, we do promise that we are always ready and willing to comply under penalty of suspension.”

So if we feel that members of the church or even church leaders have sinned against the 9th commandment in their evaluation of our views, shall we say about the issue of evolution, perhaps we should stop and ask: “Have I been speaking clearly?” Perhaps the issue is not an uncharitable interpretation of our words by others but a somewhat obscure communication on our part. The ninth commandment obliges us to speak clearly so that everyone can know where we stand on the issues of the day. Similarly, this same commandment obliges every Christian to “speak the truth in love” when we perceive that the “unity and purity of teaching” in the church is in danger.

Matthew 18:15-20 Does Not Always Apply

Today we’re adding to our collection a pertinent blog entry from One Christian Dad (Ryan Smith). In it he corrects a misconception about the use of Matthew 18. He’s Given us permission to re-host it.

Posted: January 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

disciplineWhen one is struggling with depression, negative comments and emails really suck. They tend to stick in your head and the other ‘positive’ emails get forgotten as the negative ones take over. But that it is one of the things about being a publicly outspoken Christian… I have to take the knocks as well as the praise. 🙂

accusation-2-660x350Recently I was accused of sin by posting publicly my article, “I Just Broke up With Matt Walsh.” It was met with some praise, but there was also some criticism. The main accusation was that I had not followed Matthew 18 in dealing with Matt Walsh. The accusation was made privately, by a couple different people across the Canadian Reformed Denomination – the church I am a member of. As with any accusation of sin, it is good to examine oneself in light of scripture and not simply brush it off. Especially when it comes from more than one person.

So I spent some time reading what I had written. I asked some people in the Church to examine it and I spent some time in the Word. One of the blessings I have is that there are a number of pastors and others who are more spiritually mature than I who read the blog, and believe me, they don’t let me get away with much. If I stray off the path a bit too far, I get a sharp tug on the leash.

And I really appreciate that.

A Personal Lesson on Using Matthew 18

images-1A few years ago, I got mad at some online churchy stuff. I pointed an accusing finger at one side of the battle and declared that they were not following Matthew 18 because they called out the other side and made a public rebuttal on a website rather than going to the other person privately. This person was a minister, (yeah, I need to learn who I am pointing fingers at…) who swiftly put me in my place by showing me how Matthew 18 does not apply in all situations, even when it involves fellow church folk… and he had a duty to protect his flock from the public sin of the other person.

So as I ran away with my tail tucked between my legs, I did some research. I thought that Matthew 18 applied whenever we had a beef with a fellow believer. So when do we follow Matthew 18? Does it apply to unbelievers? Do we use it “all the time” when someone sins? What about public sins? Etc.

Matthew 18 is for private sin.

OK, the easiest way to put this is that the principle of discipline that Jesus gave us, as set out in Matthew 18, is specific to situations of private, personal sin. Let’s say that we go to the same church, and I spread gossip about you to some people in the congregation. You are not to go to my elder or my pastor and say, “Hey deal with this guy! He is sinning!” Or post it on social media and say, “Whatta jerk! This guy is lying about me.” That would not be acting according to scripture. The rule for sin against you is always to first go to your brother or sister alone, leave others out of it. But if I don’t repent when you come to me, then take someone who witnessed me gossipping – someone who I told the gossip to – along with you. If I still do not repent, then you are free to either drop it, or bring your complaint to the elders of the church. In this situation, you keep my sin quiet between just you and the other witnesses. Then escalate to the Church leaders, who will begin a similar process of private admonition, and escalate up to excommunication.

What about very public problems, sins, and errors?

article-2306193-19300112000005DC-370_306x423Now, what if I were to gossip about you, but this time I used my blog? Perhaps I blogged about how I caught you looking at porn or something? That would be atrocious, grievous, and a public sin on my part. It would probably significantly hurt your reputation. Since I know that lots of church people are going to read about your sin, this is a very public abuse of my blog, and it is definitely sin against you. Should you come to me privately? You could, but you are now quite within your rights to bypass me and go to our elders. I would expect that the elders would also immediately demand a public apology and I would probably be removed from attending the Lord’s Supper for a while until genuine fruit of repentance was shown.

Another example is when someone purporting to be an evangelical minister, like Joel Osteen, preaches heresy, like the prosperity message. We do not simply send him an email and hope that he reads the email and changes. No we publicly denounce what he has publicly stated. We state his error clearly, to protect others from him. We call him to repentance publicly. What we don’t do is try to discredit him by prying into his personal life and publicly ruining him if we find private sins. We don’t make ad hominem attacks about his character. We simply name the sin and call to repentance.

Similarly, if the pastor of the neighbouring Canref Church starts preaching heresy, we don’t go to him privately – you could I suppose – but we should go to the elders of his church. Matthew 18 does not apply here because the sin is very public.

Does it apply to those outside the Church?

According to Pastor Keith Davis (URC),

It is practiced among people who share the same faith, who confess the same Lord, who share in all Christ’s benefits and blessings, who by Christ’s Spirit have been united together in the bond of peace, and who strive after a common goal and purpose.

Well, what about Matt Walsh? Did I sin by not following Matthew 18 and posting this article publicly?

Well…no.

OigI1k0R-1024x1024I did not write anything that is not public knowledge, that he himself has not written and is not proud of. That said, I have sent him emails of admonition on a few occasions, but with no response – and his writing has only become more negative and more inflammatory. Second, he is not a member of my church, nor a member of my denomination, nor is he a member of the protestant Church. He is Roman Catholic, and as such we are not technically brothers, since our confession of faith is incompatible. (This was something a pastor tugged on my leash about.) We have similar political views, we are both religious, but when it comes to our faith, we are not the same. Let me ask, how would I go about applying Matthew 18 in this situation? Sure, I emailed him. I know others have emailed him. Should we then escalate to our elders? To his Priest or Bishop? To his editor? Where does it go from there? As you can see, Matthew 18 will not work in this situation.

Is Matthew 18:15-20 most abused/misused Text in the Bible?
William B. Evans, a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, believes that Matthew 18:15-20 may be the most abused text in the Bible, stating,

“In recent years I have noticed an upsurge of appeals to Matthew 18. This likely has something to do with the way the Internet has changed the dynamic of public conflict in the church. With controversies unfolding in real time over the course of hours and days as opposed to months and years, it is much more difficult for those in power to manage such episodes, and Matthew 18 is attractive in that it seems to provide such people with leverage by which to stifle dissent.”

Evans goes on to say,

“Why do these wrong headed appeals to Matthew 18:15-20 gain so much traction in Evangelical circles? It probably has something to do with a naïve Biblicism that values simplistic proof-texting over the careful exegesis and application of Scripture. It probably has something to do, as Carson suggests, with an exaltation of tolerance as the “greatest virtue.” But most of all, it likely has to do with a simple failure to take biblical truth seriously.”

Is it because tolerance is espoused by the world, and it is leaking into the church?  Is it the ease of proof-texting out of context in an age of google-theologians? Is this what is happening?  It seems that every time I write an article that takes a stand on something, I get at least one message accusing me of not following Matthew 18.  I don’t know.

matthew

Conclusion.

Matthew 18:15-20 is specifically for sin between brothers and sisters in Christ. Our Lord designed the practice of discipline to be exercised and applied by every member of His Church. It’s because as Christ’s church, we are the family of God, the ones God loves.  Christ shed His blood and gave His body to die upon the cross for us. We are the Ones whom our Triune God has made to be holy. So, all sin must be taken seriously. I appreciate my brethren looking out for me, and taking me to task, and holding me accountable.

We ought to look out for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should admonish in love, and seek the others good. Discipline should be done with wisdom and in love.  Avoid accusing in anger. Avoid speculating on hypocrisy, or hidden sins. Wisdom should be sought through prayer and meditation on the Word. Don’t let ego, or pride, get in the way of Love.  Because that is the whole point of discipline – to love on each other.

Keep it up.

Keep loving each other.