Posts tagged with: christianity

This weekend’s Midwest Emergent Gathering, held July 20-21 in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was an event that I enjoyed participating in immensely. I was invited, by my friend Mike Clawson of up/rooted (Chicago), to answer several questions in a plenary session. I was billed as a friendly “outsider.” We laughed about this designation since many of my critics now assume that I am a “heretical insider” to Emergent. The truth is that neither is totally true. I am not so much a part of this movement, at least not in any recognizable or formal way, as I am a real friend of all things missional that sincerely address the basic questions that I feel very strongly must be faced by Christians within Western culture.

It is a basic fact that the church regularly reduces the gospel, to something less or other than than the gospel, in its various attempts to translate the good news into a faithful witness within any culture. This is true in Asia, Latin America and Africa as well. (Witness the cover story of the current Christianity Today on the impact of the prosperity gospel in Africa, where the greatest church growth is also taking place.) This does not mean the church is no longer the church. It does mean reformation is always necessary, thus the faithful church must be semper reformanda, always reforming. This realization grows out of a sober view of the humanity of the church. (The church is a divine organism with the life of Christ in it but it is also very human at the same time.) But many conservative Christians, especially if they are over forty, tend to think serious criticism of the church, or questioning the ways Christians think and believe (epistemology), is tantamount to arrogance and undermining the faith itself. Because I want to open a wide discussion of epistemology (i.e., the ways that we know what is true and not true) I am routinely questioned about whether I still believe in truth at all. When I say that I clearly and strongly do believe in the truth then I am then called a liar, or given some similar flattering insightful response.

(Continue reading the rest of the article at the John H. Armstrong blog…)

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 17, 2007

It’s a recurring bit of guidance throughout the Christian tradition, that if Christians will only do what is right, they will make the best citizens and be respected, perhaps even celebrated, by the society and the government. This wisdom is an expansion of Paul’s note in Romans 13 that if you “do what is right” then the civil magistrate “will commend you.”

It seems this isn’t quite true these days, at least as it relates to the Christian virtue of chastity. Take the case of Lydia Playfoot, “a 16-year-old who has taken her school to court over its decision to ban her from wearing her silver ring symbolizing her chastity pledge.”

Lydia is participating in the UK version of the purity ministry named the Silver Ring Thing. Youth take a pledge of sexual purity and abstinence and signify this pledge by wearing a small silver ring. School officials deemed that this decoration violated the school’s dress code policy.

According to reports, “The school, which allows Muslim and Sikh students to wear headscarves and religious bracelets, argued that the ring was not an integral part of the Christian faith and broke its uniform policy.”

I guess government educrats have taken it upon themselves to determine what is and is not adiaphora. Far from commending the voluntary commitment to chastity, the British school system disrespected Playfoot’s virtuous expression of faith.

This case seems to be part of a larger social campaign against chastity. For instance, see the NYT review of More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven Landsburg (HT: NewsBusters), a book which claims:

It’s true: AIDS is nature’s awful retribution for our tolerance of immoderate and socially irresponsible sexual behavior. The epidemic is the price of our permissive attitudes toward monogamy, chastity, and other forms of extreme sexual conservatism. You’ve read elsewhere about the sin of promiscuity. Let me tell you about the sin of self-restraint.

Is the government living up to its responsibilities when it actively discourages chastity?

Update (and bumped): ‘Schoolgirl loses “purity ring” battle’ (HT: Religion Clause)

Says Playfoot: “I believe that the judge’s decision will mean that slowly, over time, people such as school governors, employers, political organisations and others will be allowed to stop Christians from publicly expressing and practising their faith.”

My review of John W. de Gruchy’s Confessions of a Christian Humanist appears in the latest issue of Christian Scholar’s Review 36, no. 3 (Spring 2007).

A taste: “At the conclusion of de Gruchy’s confession, the reader is left with a suspicion that the facile opposition between secularism and religious fundamentalism on the one side and humanism (secular and Christian) on the other obscures linkages that ought to unite Christians of whatever persuasion.”

This week’s ACT 3 weekly essay, “Why Christians Ought to Make a Difference in the Marketplace,” by David L. Bahnsen:

I have heard it said in my life on more than one occasion that God sent his Son to save souls. Indeed, for evangelicals, that is certainly true. However, for the professing believer who talks of a deep concern for individual souls my question and answer will either be a gigantic disappointment or it may be a true experience of edification. While all Christian men and women ought to be interested in the salvation of individual souls—God is truly in the redemption business—I contend that, as Leslie Newbigin masterfully argues in his gem of a book, Foolishness to the Greeks, the souls of individuals have been spiritually ravaged as a result of our complete surrender of the key institutions and spheres within our society. Newbigin wrote this a generation ago in reference to the inexplicable surrender of modern science and advanced analytical philosophy to secular humanists. His argument actually simple—in a short-term effort to prioritize souls over spheres and people over institutions, we actually lost both. My belief is that where Newbigin was astutely right decades ago, today’s sphere of surrender from the covenant community of God has actually taken place in the marketplace of our day.

Read the whole article at the ACT 3 website here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, May 9, 2007

This morning Karen Weber and I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of pastors and church leaders organized by a local ministry, Project Hope Annetta Jansen Ministries, based in Dorr, Michigan. We were hosted in the group’s new building, which opened late last month.

I outlined and summarized some of the basic theological insights and implications for effective compassion, focusing especially on the relationship between and the relative priority of the spiritual over the material. Karen Weber, who is Acton’s Samaritan Award Coordinator, talked about the Samaritan Award program and the Samaritan Guide, and how Acton recognizes programs that implement the principles of effective compassion.

The talks seemed well received and we got some engaging feedback and questions. It was good to see a commitment among the people who attended to the concrete demands of the Gospel. Thanks to Teresa M. Janzen, Project Hope’s executive director, for the invitation and the hospitality.

Be sure to pass along the word about the Samaritan Award to your favorite non-profit. Applications are open through the end of May.

A new initiative pioneered by Sojourners/Call to Renewal is called “Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Included in the platform are “calls for bills that would push for border enforcement while improving guest worker programs and offering chances for illegal immigrants to obtain legal status,” according to the NYT.

The NYT piece points out the potential for this to be a unifying issue for evangelicals, even though few if any prominent politically conservative evangelicals are overtly associated with Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. “The concerns of the coalition mirror those of many evangelical leaders who have often staked out conservative positions on other social issues or who have avoided politics entirely,” writes Neela Banerjee as she points to the cases of Dr. Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Rev. Joel Osteen.

The signatories to the group’s open letter include the executive director of my denomination, Rev. Jerry Dykstra of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Some of the language in the letter is a bit mealy-mouthed, as might be expected, but I think the statement does capture the spirit of some of the most relevant scriptural principles.

Perhaps the section that some conservatives will find most problematic is the fourth principle: “We believe in the rule of law, but we also believe that we are to oppose unjust laws and systems that harm and oppress people made in God’s image, especially the vulnerable (Isaiah 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:1-7, Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7).”

Many argue that the rule of law regarding illegal immigration needs to be reinforced and respected first, before any of the proposed guest worker or amnesty programs can be effective, no ifs, ands, or buts. And it might also be debatable precisely how a shared “set of common moral and theological principles” ought to be translated into public policy. This raises the question of what is the intent or purpose of law.

The letter says that immigration reform must be “fair and compassionate.” Is the end of the law justice? Love? Mercy? Peace? All of the above? I’ve been trained to understand the normative principle for social ethics, and the behavior of supra-personal entities or institutions, to be justice, as distinguished from (although not opposed to) love. It seems to me that Christians working out of a shared and common sense of obligation to love our neighbors can have legitimate and valid disagreements over precisely these sorts of questions.

With all that said, I think the letter gets it mostly right, at least on this point:

“The current U.S. immigration system is broken and now is the time for a fair and compassionate solution. We think it is entirely possible to protect our borders while establishing a viable, humane, and realistic immigration system, one that is consistent with our American values and increases national security while protecting the livelihood of Americans.”

Every single day courageous and faithful Christians in Zimbabwe are suffering and dying through their resistance of the brutal reign of president Robert Mugabe. You would never know this is true from the lack of interest or response of conservative Christians in America. Of all the causes that are taken up by the Christian Right I have not heard a single voice lifted on behalf of the church in Zimbabwe and their struggle to resist the reign of terror led by President Mugabe.

In January, eight high-profile Christian leaders were arrested by security forces as they, and hundreds of supporters, opened a new office of the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, an international agency that promotes non-violent resistance to Mugabe’s rule. But Mugabe’s government continues to crack down on this resistance as the nation faces total economic and social collapse. Zimbabweans struggle to survive with an inflationary rate of 1,700% as well as widespread unemployment and profound poverty. More than 3/4ths of the people live in poverty, unemployment is at 80%, and hordes of people are escaping to South Africa as refugees. Mugabe has led the nation since 1980 and every call for political and social reform has been met with more force and resistance. Other African leaders are complicit in allowing this to happen, including the president of neighboring South Africa.

Thankfully, the Lutheran World Federation has called on the international community to respond. And the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, with 75 million members in 216 countries, has also urged action by a pan-African Union to act to end this oppression. I support the actions of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches as a Reformed Christian.

While the Christian Right struggles to "rescue" America it almost universally ignores the plight of the poor and oppressed around the world, as well as in our own country. Evangelicals are rarely heard from when issues like Mugabe and Zimbabwe rise to international attention. Why? Could it be that what I have called our "America-centric" mindset is in fact a form of worldliness? Could it be that we simply don’t care about profoundly Christian concerns beyond our own land unless they represent efforts to win individual souls to Christ through our flawed approaches to mission?

Look, I believe the free-market is needed to help Africa lift itself up economically and to experience and practice real freedom. But the free-market will not work when the leadership is corrupt and the economy is a disaster because of oppressive governments. The problem is simple–most of the world doesn’t care enough to do anything about Zimbabwe. While we fight a war in Iraq, ostensibly to build freedom and to protect our own national interests and what we believe to be peace in the Middle East, we treat places like Zimbabwe as unimportant at the very best. To my mind, something is very wrong with this picture. Evangelicals need to join their Catholic and mainline Lutheran and Reformed brothers and sisters in resisting Mugabe and fighting for true reform in Zimbabwe. If we will not defend the helpless and the weakest then our witness will be blunted and our prophetic edge, if we still have one left, will be lost entirely.

Pray for Zimbabwean Christians. Better yet, do something about Zimbabwe if you have an opportunity. Your brothers and sisters need you to truly love them. Talking about politics is easy, doing something that saves lives and cultures is what really matters. Consider James 2:12-26. I don’t hear much serious preaching on James in our conservative churches. I fear that I know why. We are American Christians first, and kingdom Christians second, if at all. We love the message of faith, but we shun works of mercy and compassion when it costs us something. Something is very wrong with this picture.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

On this Good Friday, CNN commentator Roland Martin delivers a well-needed corrective to the errors of both the religious Right and Left.

It’s good to see that he doesn’t confuse action on poverty and divorce as primarily political but rather a social issues. Just because you aren’t explicitly partisan doesn’t mean that you cannot be as much or more political than some of the figures that are typically derided in these kinds of calls to action. It doesn’t look to me like Martin falls into that trap in this piece.

And although Martin rightly says that abortion and homosexuality are not the only issues on which Christian morality has important words to say, he needs similarly to be careful not to confuse Christian political action with the whole compass of Christian social action. That is, just because a person or group engages in political activism on one or another of these issues doesn’t mean that they don’t think these other issues are not important…it may just reflect their judgment that they are not primarily problems that government needs to be lobbied about.

Here’s one other aspect of the problem: the media decides which personalities from the Christian community to cover, and these choices aren’t always attuned to those who are really the most influential, but instead those who will fit easily into the desired stereotype of evangelicalism. So, when Martin says “it’s time to stop allowing a chosen few to speak for the masses. Quit letting them define the agenda,” his message needs to be heard as much by the mainstream media as it does by lay Christians.

Politics tends to be of the most public interest, so it’s Christian political activism that tends to get the most coverage. This doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t at the same time active on other social fronts.

St. Ephrem the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience,
and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Discourse “On Love” by St. Ephrem (+373):

So then, my beloved brethren, let us not prefer anything, let us not hasten to obtain anything more than love. Let no one have anything against anyone, let no one repay evil for evil. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, but let us forgive our debtors everything and let us welcome love, because love covers a multitude of sins.

Because what gain is there, my children, if someone has everything, but does not have love which saves? For just as if someone were to make a great dinner in order to invite the King and the rulers, and were to prepare everything sumptuously, so that nothing might be lacking, but had no salt, would anyone be able to eat that dinner? Certainly not. But he would have lost everything he had spent and wasted all his hard work, and brought ridicule on himself from those he had invited. So it is in the present instance. For what advantage is there in toiling against winds, without love? For without it every deed, every action is unclean. Even if someone has attained complete chastity, or fasts, or keeps vigil; whether they pray or give banquets for the poor; even if they think of offering gifts, or first fruits, or offering; whether they build churches, or do anything else, without love all those things will be reckoned as nothing by God. For the Lord is not pleased by them. Listen to the Apostle when he says, ‘If I speak with the tongues of Angels and of humans; if I have prophecy and know all mysteries, and have complete knowledge, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I gain nothing’. For one who has enmity against their brother and thinks they offer something to God, will be as though they sacrificed a dog, and their offering will be reckoned as the wages of prostitution.

Those who know me are not surprised to learn that I sincerely admired Pope John Paul II for many years. At first, like many Protestants, I saw him only as the pope, thus as a person standing in some kind of opposition to my own Christian faith. After I began to grasp what I believed about the Creed’s affirmation regarding "one, holy, catholic church" I found my heart melted to love all Christians everywhere. It was not hard for me to love John Paul II when I spent time getting to know more about him and spoke with some who knew him. The real clincher was George Weigel’s masterful biography, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999). Karol Wojtyla loved Christ very deeply and was a monumental figure in the twentieth century. He also genuinely inspired people to live better lives.

John Paul II made his final public appearance two years ago last week, March 30, sitting in complete weakness on the balcony overlooking Vatican Square where thousands expressed their deep love for him. A few days later, on today’s date April 2, he passed into the presence of Christ his Lord. So, this weekend marks the second anniversary of those final momentous hours of this great man’s life. He died, as he had lived, in dependence upon Christ for his hope. (Anti-Catholics will insist that the pope can not be a Christian. My saying that he was a great Christian will invite their opposition. I believe that any fair-minded Christian, who carefully reads the witness that he faithfully bore to Christ throughout his long life, will draw the conclusion that this was a man of true faith.)

I decided to mark this weekend by viewing the superb video: Pope John Paul II. This three-hour feature-length film first aired on television in 2005. It is now available on DVD. It stars Cary Elwes (as a young  Karol Wojtyla in Poland) and Jon Voight (as Pope John Paul II). Voight, who is an Academy Award recipient for a previous film, could actually pass for John Paul II in his features. He also mastered the late pope’s mannerisms well. Both men, in my judgment, do a superb job of portraying John Paul II faithfully in the film. (This film was made with the full cooperation of the Vatican.) It covers the whole life of John Paul II, from his early childhood, through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the the Communist takeover, right down to his final moments on earth.

John Paul was a courageous man, comfortable in himself and calmly assured of his faith. He was a true intellectual and a shepherd who loved people deeply. He often touched the lives of ordinary people with profound humility, as the film magnificently shows, especially in one deleted scene that I wish had been preserved. As I thought again about John Paul II I realized his true power lay in the two things marked his life: His sense of humor and genuine self-effacing manner and his profound intellect joined with a deep and real personal piety. These two qualities are often missing in the role-models evangelicals have provided for their own flocks. This is one reason for John Paul’s universal appeal, as it is with Billy Graham among evangelicals. John Paul lived well and suffered well, providing to many of us a faithful witness to Christ that brings us real hope that God can transform a powerful and prominent man into a truly humble Christian. (Perhaps it would be better to say that he was a truly humble man who happened to become the pope, much to his surprise, and the office never altered who he really was before God.)

Just this weekend a nun in France has reported that she was healed by praying to the deceased John Paul II. This miracle will now be investigated by the Vatican, through a rigorous process of study. Such a miracle becomes necessary in order to beatify John Paul II. This whole process is one that Protestant evangelicals rightly question given the lack of obvious biblical reasons for such a process. This remains one of those aspects of Catholicism that I find unnecessary at the very best.

Regardless of how you disagree with the idea of the papacy, and the present process of beatification, you can not deny the importance of this man to world affairs and religion in the late twentieth century. Whether you know a lot about John Paul II, or very little, you would also do well to see this film. The DVD edition includes some wonderful memories of John Paul II as well as four or five deleted scenes and some excellent cast interviews. (These clips were also worth seeing.) I commend this lavishly produced film to all. It presents John Paul II in a personal and most human way.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."