Category Archives: Church

What would the Apostle Paul say to us?

I gave my Pauline Epistles class this exercise on the final day of class: in 20 minutes write a brief letter in which you imagine what Paul would say to the community of believers at Taylor University. Here were the instructions:

  • Write a theologically rich greeting/intro.
  • Give thanks for something good Paul sees at Taylor.
  • Address a problem Paul observes at Taylor.
  • Conclude with a brief benediction.

After each group read its letter to the class, we voted for our favorites (the ones that reflected both Paul’s heart and the needs at Taylor the best). The following two letters tied for the most votes. Students in these two groups gave me their permission to post the letters, along with their first names.

Apostle Paul

First group: Katie, Jessica, Vivi

This letter is from Paul, an apostle appointed by God and Jesus Christ. To the saints of Taylor University. Grace and peace to you! I long to see you soon, but these chains hold me back.

We thank God whenever we remember your unity in Christ and community with one another. We know you Gentiles have come from diverse backgrounds with various traditions and yet you remain faithful to Christ and one another. When I heard that you had established a communal time three times a week to worship God and spend time as the body of Christ I was greatly pleased. I pray that you will remain faithful to God and each other during those times.

I want you to know that I have agonized deeply concerning your commitment to academics and activities. I do not mean to say these things are bad – on the contrary! You have come to this institution to study and make friendships. What concerns me is the devotion you have for these things. When given a choice to pray or spend a whole day studying, why do many of you choose the latter? It is to your advantage to place God at the forefront of your life to ensure the salvation of your souls. You must not forget, brothers and sisters, that these four years are still a part of the race for the prize, so stay strong!

Greet our fellow brothers and sisters, including Dr. Habecker and Dr. MaGee, for me. Grace and peace to you all. Amen.

(Editorial notes: the letter refers to Taylor’s chapel services, which are held three times a week, and Taylor’s president, Dr. Habecker).

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Second group: TJ, Ryan, Erin, Andrea, Kamra

Paul, an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ; grace and peace to all the brothers and sisters at Taylor University. I am able to write to you because of the mercy of Christ Jesus, who was resurrected by the Father and also brings us eternal life.

I have not stopped giving thanks for your continual fellowship. The household of MaGee has reported to me your intentional community as well as your integration of faith and learning. Others use knowledge to build themselves up, but you, my brothers, show genuine concern for using your knowledge for the edification of the ekklesia.

However, it is said among you, “ring by Spring,” but do you not realize that some of you pursue this desire at the expense of practicing full devotion to God? I tell you it is better for you to be single when you graduate than to wed before you attain a maturity that comes from knowing Christ only.

Give my greetings to Randy, Eugene, and Bill, who are the very reason I was able to preach among you. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you forever.

(Editorial notes: “ring by Spring” describes the urgency some Taylor students feel about getting engaged while they are at Taylor. Randy, Eugene, and Bill are beloved leaders at Taylor University. Ekklesia is the Greek term used to describe the church or gathering of believers in the New Testament).

It seemed like everyone enjoyed this assignment, and all groups did a great job with the 20 minutes they were given for the exercise.

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Nothing new under the sun?

Burning sky sunset

The other day when I was reading George Eldon Ladd’s New Testament Theology (published in 1974) I came across his description of “the old liberal view” of Christianity, represented by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930).

Ladd begins with a quote from Harnack (page 55): “In the combination of these ideas – God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul – the whole Gospel is expressed.”

Ladd then describes Harnack’s understanding of the kingdom of God as “the pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the infinite value of the individual soul, and the ethic of love” (page 58).

Observations:

1. From my work with Christian college students, I suspect that a number of today’s young evangelical Christians would summarize Christianity similarly and would find this vision of Christianity to be quite appealing.

2. Harnack highlights some important biblical ideas here. God is called Father in a number of places in the Bible, and people are called children of God in certain passages. We do share a common humanity as individuals, and we all have been created in the image of God. Love is central to Christian living.

3. Harnack also leaves out crucial clarifications of these topics. For instance, the Bible reserves the “Father-child” (or “Father-son”) language specifically for believers – those who have been adopted into a new relationship with God through the sacrificial and saving work of Christ on the cross, and by the life-giving and transforming action of the Spirit (see John 1:12-13, Galatians 4:4-6, for instance). In addition, to limit Christianity to the teachings of Jesus (the “pure prophetic religion taught by Jesus”) ignores the purposeful, saving work of Jesus (namely, his sufferings, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return).

4. Harnack’s summary of Christianity basically amounts to an incomplete picture of biblical love: God’s universal love as Father of all and our need to love others by affirming their worth as a valuable part of God’s creation.

5. Once Harnack’s vision of Christianity is embraced (either explicitly or inadvertently), topics such as a final judgment, the distinction between the church and the world, Jesus Christ being the only way to God, the experience of conversion and new birth, and the need for evangelism and church planting seem more and more foreign and unnecessary. How does judgment fit into the picture if all people are children of God? What makes people within the church any different from people outside the church? If Jesus simply teaches about God, couldn’t others fill that role adequately as well? Why do I need to believe in Jesus and be “born again” if I am already a child of God? Isn’t it more loving simply to affirm others as valuable rather than to challenge them to repent and believe?

6. Back to my work with Christian college students, the topics mentioned in point #5 (judgment, church/world distinction, Jesus as the only way to God, conversion/new birth, evangelism/church planting) are the very topics that I find young Christians expressing misgivings about. There may be a cause and effect relationship here. Love can be defined so generically, apart from the broader biblical story, that the resulting definition no longer leaves room for these other biblical topics.

Evangelicals – those who value the evangel or euaggelion proclaimed by Christ and explained by the apostles – will notice the gospel being flattened or distorted in various ways in the culture around them. As currency specialists point out, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be well-studied in the real thing. The full, rich gospel of Jesus Christ (regarding his person, teaching, and works) is presented clearly in the Scriptures for those who have ears to hear.

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Adding Books to the New Testament

16th Street Baptist Church stained glass

A group of scholars is publishing a book called the New New Testament (that’s right, that extra New is meant to be there). The work consists of the typical 27 New Testament books plus another 13 works selected by the committee.

Dan Wallace has a thorough response to the recent project here. He points out the blatant historical and theological problems with the project, along with the arbitrary nature of the results. In particular, the 13 new works would have failed the classic criteria used to identify New Testament Scripture: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity.

We could look at these criteria in the form of questions that the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century churches would have asked about any religious work circulating in the name of Jesus or another well-known Christian figure:

1) Who wrote it? The question is who really wrote it, not just what name was attached to it. Obviously, if a respected eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry (or an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrected glory – see Paul) wrote the work, it would stand to be valued as a credible and authoritative representation of Jesus’ ministry.

2) When was it written? Was it written during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry were still alive, so that the testimony could be affirmed by those who knew Jesus? These first two questions touch on the criteria of apostolicity.

3) Who else is using it? This question reflects the standard of catholicity. The early churches communicated with one another and were able to help each other evaluate the trustworthiness of the different religious writings they encountered. Some of these churches had Christian leaders who were known to have been disciples of the original disciples, or at least disciples of the disciples of those disciples. (OK, that was a mouthful!)

4) What does it teach? This question gets at the idea of orthodoxy.  The memory of Jesus was well-preserved in the early Christian communities. The early believers proclaimed Jesus to both “insiders” and “outsiders,” and they exalted him in regular gatherings for worship. Aberrant pictures of Jesus in later writings were easily recognized and dismissed by those who knew Jesus in spirit and in truth.

5) How did it originate – publicly, or secretly? As seen in the book of Acts, the early Christians spoke about Jesus in public. Their message about Jesus (the “gospel”) became widely known. Later writers who wanted to enlist the name of Jesus or his disciples for their religious agendas were forced to get creative by presenting their doctrines as secret teachings from Jesus (when these texts “surfaced” generations after the life of Jesus, Christian truth was widely known to be something other than what these documents were promoting).

Why would people both in ancient times and today want to embrace and advance ideologies that are so clearly non-Christian and yet still use the name of Jesus for these doctrines? Perhaps there is something about the power and beauty of Jesus and all that he represents that makes it difficult to discard him altogether, even when he is redefined beyond recognition.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

 

 

 

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Off to Turkey

Today I leave for Turkey today with 27 students, a colleague, and his wife.  I hope to post some photos and brief updates from time to time while we are there.

The trip is the second half of a modified Historic Christian Belief class that I taught for the past week and a half on campus. In the class we covered historic theology, with a focus on Western Turkey. A lot has happened in the land that is now know as Turkey:

1) A first wave of Christian ministry was led by the Apostle Paul (and friends – Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, Timothy), with Ephesus as the hub city for ministry throughout what is known in the Bible as the region of “Asia” (as seen in Acts 16-20). Paul also wrote many letters to Asian churches (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) later in his ministry.

2) A second wave of ministry was spearheaded by the Apostle John. He probably relocated there in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Ephesus was his base of operations as well, according to church tradition. He likely wrote 1,2, and 3 John from there, and maybe the Gospel of John too. Then, from the island of Patmos off of the coast of Asia, he wrote to seven churches in Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea), as seen in Revelation 2-3.

3) In the second century, some notable bishops left their marks in Christian history and in Asia – Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna (whose inspiring martyrdom is recounted in The Martyrdom of Polycarp), and Melito of Sardis. Also, bishop Ignatius of Antioch (Syria) wrote letters to several churches in Asia, on his way to martyrdom in Rome.

4) The first seven ecumenical councils (not including the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15) were held in Asia, in the cities of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Trinitarian and Christological confessions from those councils are still held by churches around the world today (particularly the Nicene Creed, which was written in Nicaea in 325 and revised in Constantinople in 381).

5) In the early 4th century the newly professing Christian emperor Constantine relocated the capital of the empire to what became Constantinople. Christianity now enjoyed favored status in powerful places, which was in stark contrast to Christians’ experience in the first three centuries of the church. Bishop John Chrysostom (the “golden mouth”) warned Christians against becoming too comfortable with wealth, entertainment, and power, but also blessed his flock with sermons such as his famous “Paschal homily,” in which he proclaimed the wide riches of God’s grace to all believers, weak and strong in faith, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

6) As time went on, Constantinople became an impressive city, under Constantine, Justinian the Great, and other powerful emperors, who adorned the city with buildings such as the Hagia Sophia. The city was eventually overtaken by the Ottoman Turks in 1452. Today, Muslims make up as much as 99% of the population of Turkey.  Some of these Muslims are devout, while others are considered nominal Muslims.

Our group is excited about the trip. I hope to have some good photos to share in the coming days –

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Results of Christian Unity

The pursuit of Christian unity (ecumenism) is a noble quest, but it doesn’t end with a unified church alone. The unity of Ephesians 4:1-6 leads to the maturity of Ephesians 4:7-16. The result of Christian unity ought to lead to authentic discipleship and conformity to the image of Christ for all involved. If not, then the unity we are pursuing might have lost its moorings.

The unity we embrace has substance – it is a unity of “faith” and “knowledge of God’s Son” (Eph 4:13). As a unified church we fix our gaze on our God and Savior, delighting in him as we grow to know and love him more and more.

Ours is a unity focused on the truth of Christ, with false portrayals of him being rejected (Eph 4:14). Our unity and growth brings theological maturity in the form of discernment and love for God’s truth.

The maturity we grow into is the maturity of Christ – “let us grow in every way into Him who is the head – Christ” (Eph 4:15 – HCSB). As a unified church, our experience begins to reflect more and more the divine character and fullness of Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

God has designed us to grow into maturity as a body, with each member contributing to growth – “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:16).

Christian unity centered in Christ needs to be a top priority for the church. Without it, we can’t become who we were called to be.

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The Beliefs of Christian Unity

One. Paul repeats this adjective over and over in Ephesians 4:4-6.

Christians of all stripes are joined together as one body. As was mentioned last time in our discussion of the virtues of Christian unity, this is something that Christ brings about, through his death for us on the cross (Eph 2:14-16). Today, the focus shifts to what we believe as one body.

Trinity fellowship window

We are one body, no matter what our backgrounds.

One Spirit gives us life and makes us the holy temple where God dwells (see also Eph 2:20-22). We are more than a voluntary association of like-minded people. We are a dwelling of God, by the Spirit.

One hope keeps us waking up each day with a sense of purpose and confidence. We are part of a story that is heading somewhere.

One Lord is our master. Christians proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” declaring our allegiance to the King of Kings.

One faith is our experience (“it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” – Eph 2:8), a faith whose object is the King who died for us.

One baptism forges our identity. This baptism reminds us that we left our old lives behind and we now walk in the newness of life (see Rom 6). What matters most about us is that we are “in Christ,” or united in his death and resurrection.

One God and Father of all. He is a God to those who once were “without God in this world” (Eph 2:12), and He is our Father, who has adopted us and blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3).

God, the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are united in our worship.  True Christian ecumenism draws a line in the sand about God. From the earliest centuries of the church, Christians were stubborn about defending how God should be understood, talked about, and worshiped. The great creeds confess, “we believe in one God . . . be believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . we believe in the Holy Spirit.” Christians said, “This is what we believe about Father, Son, and Spirit, this is what we don’t believe, and our view of God matters more than anything.”

Faith, baptism, hope. We are united in our experience. We have cast our lot with the Christian God, the Christian story. Our hearts have been converted, and our lives are being transformed. Leaving behind the old life, we walk towards the bright future that Christ has prepared for us.

One body. Being one body makes sense only in this context. Ecumenism is pursued not at the expense of truth, but guided and enriched by it. Next time we will see the results of unity that we as one body can anticipate.

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The Virtues of Christian Unity

Christians are brothers and sisters with other believers across time and space. We are joined together by the Holy Spirit into one Body (1 Corinthians 12:13). “Ecumenism” comes from the Greek word οἰκουμένη (meaning the entire inhabited world). Those who are involved in the ecumenical movement desire to see Christians around the entire world living together in unity. Healthy ecumenism aims for a Christian unity that is still distinctively Christian. In other words, it recognizes the threats of both divisiveness (disregarding unity) and false teaching (disregarding truth) to Christian community and ministry. Ephesians 4:1-16 is a great passage that describes our oneness as Christians.

Ephesians 4:1-16 emphasizes the virtues and beliefs that make Christian unity possible, along with the results of that unity. Today we will look at the virtues presented in the passage.

We don’t start from scratch with our growth towards unity. Paul introduces the whole passage by referring  back to the great blessings of Christianity that are described in chapters 1-3, saying “walk worthily of the calling that you have received” (Eph 4:1). The virtues we need for unity are an overflow of the work that God has done for us in Christ. In fact, ecumenism is about “keeping” (Eph 4:3) the unity that Christ has already forged, rather than creating that unity on our own. It is God who in Christ has created us as “one new man” (Eph 2:15). We simply attempt to maintain and reflect the oneness that is ours in Christ.

Unity is experienced through relationships among believers. The unity we cultivate is not meant to remain an abstract concept. It is meant to be lived out in real relationships. The postures of humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance need to characterize these relationships (Eph 4:2). In this combination, the virtues describe people who recognize their own limitations and accept the limitations of others. The road to Christian maturity is a process. We need to present ourselves authentically to others and be ready to engage with others in their frailties and imperfections. Christ’s forgiveness covers us all.

Finally, Paul tells his readers that they must “make every effort” to keep unity (4:3). The pursuit of Christian unity ought to be a priority for believers. This reflects the heart of Jesus, who prayed for unity among believers (John 17), and made that unity possible through his sacrificial death. Just a chapter earlier in Ephesians, Paul notes that God intends to display his great wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph 3:10). How would God do this? Through his magnificent creation? Through mighty miracles? Through his awe-inspiring presence? Paul says that God has chosen to reveal his great wisdom through the church (Eph 3:10), a people God has made alive in Christ and has brought together as one. Our oneness as Christians helps testify to God’s great wisdom and power, even to heavenly beings.

Evangelical Christians often place such a high value on truth that we overlook the urgent call to preserve unity in Christ. This can create devastating consequences for our churches (church splits) and our mission as believers (blemished testimonies).

Equally devastating is to dilute Christianity through misguided attempts at unity. The beliefs upon which Christian unity is founded will be our next stop with this topic, in the coming days.

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