Sacro-Egoism in Pacific Northwest Blogs

November 12, 2014

I wonder what Apostle Paul would think of the modern Christian world.  In 1 Corinthians 9, the great evangelical innovator states, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”  For Paul, nothing mattered more than reaching people for Christ, and he did not let social conventions get in the way.

Still, the advancements of the past decade have brought technological innovations never before dreamt of by the ancient Christian saints.  What used to take months to share across the globe now can be transmitted in milliseconds.  The limitation of paper and pen has been swept away with the availability of electronic media in all its amazing, creative formats. More and more, the “People of the Book” have become the people of the E-book and the Internet.

Blogging, which was once the solitary voice of youthful hipster dudes and dudettes, is now accepted by most pastors and Christian laypeople as a viable and effective way to discuss religious thought. In fact, blogging is a hallmark of Pacific Northwest culture, and these online authors embrace the medium with enthusiasm and purpose that in many ways echoes the sociological voice of modernity.

In my PhD study of religiosity in the West (U. of Birmingham, 2009), I discovered that most believers in Oregon (at least) approach faith and religion as radical individualists—what I termed, “Sacro-Egoism” (Implicit Religion, 2008).  There definitely are other methods to religion countering this extreme individualism--Institutional (Sacro-Clericalism), Communal (Sacro-Communalism), and Mystical (Sacro-Theism)—but the Sacro-Egoistical voice is evidentially the most prevalent in blogs from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. Reading through many blogs from the Pacific Northwest reveals not only an enhanced religious authority of the individual, but also a personal embrace of spirituality and mystery, a negative approach to the institution of church, and a radical look at communal structure of religion.

Regarding other blogging types, a Sacro-Clerical blog would take a traditional approach to religion and give the ultimate authority to the church institution, a Sacro-Communal blog would suggest that ultimate authority of thought and interpretation rests within the local group of believers, and a Sacro-Theistic blog would focus on mystical encounters and direct divine communication in religious matters. For sure, blogs of these types exist, but they are more the exception than the norm, currently.

Perusing through popular blogging sites such as christandcascadia.com, patheos.com, and relevantmagazine.com, one can easily and repeatedly find examples of Sacro-Egoism within the various blogs.  In these online communities, both language and topics demonstrate a radical, personalized approach to faith and interpretation.  Bloggers consistently utilize words such as “I,” me,” etc. to present their own authoritative take on matters of doctrine, scripture, and praxis.   Moreover, the authors are unabashedly willing to share their unique voices and understandings on religiosity, and they invite discussion on such matters, creating a milieu of accessibility and theological conversation.

For example, one blogger from relevantmagazine.com writes, “If God gave you a dream, you should pursue it. You should fight for it. Don’t ignore a dream God has given you. Your dream matters.”  Another states, “I want to be a part of finding a way to live together with deep differences in a pluralistic society. And I want to do it in ways that allow me to reflect into the world the deep sense of divine love and grace I’ve experienced and on which I am entirely dependent.”

Still, the blogs can be edgy and provocative, and easily demonstrate the key characteristics of Sacro-Egoism: “Believers” pick and choose their avenues of faith rationally in line with their personal vision for an inclusive society; they are more open to religious options, but more closed to religious institutionalism; and they uphold their personal authority and rights of religious expression and belief above all else.

From patheos.com, one blogger writes, “Every time I see some smiley TV preacher talk about God’s plan for me or hear Sara Palin say something irretrievably mean and stupid about poor people, every time I pass an embarrassing billboard featuring Jesus and a fetus, I totally get why reasonable people steer clear.” Still another proclaims, “But the church is changing. Because I AM the church. And I know many, many, many parents just like me. The church is shifting. I’m beyond grateful that God is ushering in a new day and age. Legalism, fundamentalism, literalism – all of it – is on its way out. The next generation will not tolerate it. God is refreshing the truth of unconditional love to all people.”

Regarding the future, Anastasia Karaflogka’s essay, “Religion on – Religion in Cyberspace” (Predicting Religion, 2003), suggests that the evolution and nature of spiritual quests and religious knowledge will only increase in this technological age, and that it could have both a corrosive and a creative effect on society. She states that religion on the Internet will continue to cultivate arenas “. . . where people can ‘meet’ to interact; to exchange ideas, knowledge, information and experience; to give substance to creative, imaginative and innovative new concepts and ideas; and to relocate, re-evaluate and deconstruct old concepts and ideas in a new setting.”   Blogs are an effective medium to accomplish this notion.

Still, there are some dangers to blogging. In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul spoke of the freedoms and rights of the Christian; however, he also spoke of the dangers of self-reliance and self-delusion. As he explained,  Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. . . but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

As technology continues to provide a worldwide platform for all people of faith to voice their personal opinions, the power of cyberspace and blogging will continue to grow and influence religious thought, church philosophy, and accepted doctrine.  Blogs can be a wonderfully innovative way to open up discussions of God, but they can also be vain and vacuous soapboxes of empty value without proper humility and purposefulness. 

The Apostle Paul admonished readers to “run in such a way, as not without aim;” blog authors and readers alike should heed his advice regarding this powerful and personal avenue of evangelism in the twenty-first century.

John S. Knox, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Apologetics

and Heather Harney (Student, GFU)

Are Seminaries Really Necessary?

July 15, 2014

Let’s consider here for a moment a proposal that, at first looks very attractive:  to turn the training of ministers over to the churches rather than to the seminaries (John Frame proposed something very much like this in 1972, though he admits some seminaries are doing a much better job than his analysis at the time indicated.  See http://www.frame-poythress.org/proposal-for-a-new-seminary/  accessed 1/25/2014.).  After all, we are training ministers, not academic theologians.  The traditional seminary setting is too bound up with concerns about grades, attendance reports, accreditation, and academic parity to focus on the really important matters that a minister needs, especially in a rapidly changing world.  Let pastors mentor young ministerial candidates and give them “on the job training.”  The result will be better prepared ministers, who are more aware of the real challenges of church life, something you can never get in the classroom.

That sounds very good, but the reasoning is flawed on several points.  For one thing, many seminaries now include some kind of field education requirement. Seminary professors these days are often involved in church ministries and are acutely aware of the need to encourage students to gain hands-on experience while in seminary.  In addition, there are essential aspects of ministry training that can best be gained in an academic, seminary type setting.  Without these, the minister who has had on the job training only will be ill prepared for many of the challenges offered in today’s secular and pluralistic world.  Seminaries offer a place where the ministerial candidate can be well prepared to meet those challenges. Here is why:

Seminaries offer a “safe place” where important biblical truths can be discussed, where ideas can be considered, adopted, and abandoned, and where (in general) no one’s spiritual life is in danger.  Consider, for example, the question of the existence of evil.  This “philosophical” and doctrinal problem becomes a very real question in our churches when a young couple loses their baby; when someone in the church dies in an accident, when the church bus crashes, or when a beloved church member is a victim of murder.  Every pastor will face one or more of these circumstances in his lifetime.  How much better, if he has worked through, in his own mind, a deep and settled conviction of the goodness of God, even in the face of tragedy.  His tone of voice and demeanor will communicate that reality to those who are grieving.  The minister who is faced with working out his beliefs on this matter at the time that a grieving young couple is sitting before him is in trouble, but so is the couple.  If he can say nothing that comforts, and in fact is clearly floundering, he may damage the spiritual life of a young family for decades to come.  It is well then that young ministers in training should “hack out” this issue in systematic theology, and apologetic classes, and even in the student lounge. These are places where all kinds of ideas can be tried out, rejected, refined, and replaced—and nobody is going to walk away from God because of it. 

A second reason for Seminaries as a place for preparing ministers is that they offer a diversity of mentors, in the persons of the faculty. The Seminary at Liberty University, for example, has graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Baylor University, Wayne State University, Denver Seminary, University of Virginia, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Michigan State University among its faculty including those with degrees from Liberty University itself. These men come from a variety of pastoral and ministry experiences in large churches and small ones, and from various states across the US.  The ministry candidate whose training consists of mentoring by one older pastor draws from a narrower vein of experience, and from the ministry of only one church.  Seminaries bring together a community of people who have helped plant churches, revive churches, build youth groups, and who have served overseas short and long term in a variety of mission settings. Rather than being mentored by a single pastor (who may have a passion for theology, but little else, or a passion for evangelism but little interest in discipleship) the student is exposed to a broad variety of passions, emphases, philosophies of ministry, and interests.  The experience gained from such a cloud of mentors cannot be replaced in any single local church setting.

The third reason has to do with the library resources available to students.  In the course of a Seminary master’s degree, students will use a variety of Bible commentaries, as well as resources related to youth ministry, pastoral ministries, missions, and issues in church life. By the time the student graduates, there is a deeper awareness of what kinds of resources are most helpful for the student’s specific calling and gifts in ministry.  Commentaries and other resources are expensive. By the time the student graduates, he has a mental list of favorite writers, and publishers and styles that will prevent much waste of money in the decades ahead.

And so, while it sounds attractive to train ministers “on the front lines” the fact is, Seminaries offer the best opportunity for upcoming candidates to try their gifts, develop their understanding of the things of God, and to gain knowledge and tools that will go with them through a lifetime of effective ministry.  Pastors and churches should encourage young people called to ministry to attend seminary, and should educate themselves as to what seminaries such as Liberty University’s have to offer in terms of degree programs and opportunities.  Churches should forge an alliance with seminaries in expectation of sending young people there, and should invite the Seminary to supply them with part time ministers, volunteer help and pulpit supply in an intentional effort to come to know the Seminary better.  The Seminary will benefit, as will the churches, and especially those churches that receive well trained and ready leadership, able to maintain a steady hand while guiding the spiritual growth of the congregation.

 

- C. Fred Smith, PhD

Associate Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies

The Cup Just for You

May 21, 2014

The Christian Church is a miracle. 

Not many people in the world fully grasp the dark, toxic environment in which the first believers stepped into to share the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Not many people today understand just how many people died for the faith in the first three centuries of the faith, so that we can worship the one who died and rose again to set us free.

But the historical truth is that the first followers of Jesus shocked the Mediterranean world with their crazy notions of kindness, and purity, and truth, and sacrifice.

Acts 2 tells us that “All the believers were together and had everything in common…Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Many embraced these new loving ideas, and pockets of Christianity began to pop up first near Jerusalem, then into Galatia and Antioch, Thessaly, Greece, and into Rome herself. But others found the new followers’ views troubling, vexing, and made it their life’s purpose to exterminate this new Christian sect.

The leaders were the first to be attacked—Stephen, James, Paul, Peter, Luke--and these Disciples and Apostles suffered too often from religious leaders threatened by the challenge of Christianity, and political leaders irritated by any social disorder that might interfere with the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace that brought so much wealth and power to the Empire.

Sadly, the Christians had little friends in political circles, and whatever money that they had was frequently distributed to the poor—“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”  Thus, while others could buy or bribe their way out of trouble, the first followers could only suffer for their faith, just like Jesus. 

In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul states, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

Remarkably, the Jesus movement grew despite this intense hostility and persecution.  The first Christians’ message of love and hope echoed in the hearts of needy men, women, and children oppressed by the greediness and violence of Roman tyranny. And they saw in Jesus Christ a leader with whom they admired and respected—unlike the Emperors who operated mainly on terror, vanity, and too often insanity.

The entire New Testament was composed and recorded during this fiery, bloody era of martyrdom and executions of the faithful.  Reading through the epistles, it is easy to hear about standing strong despite turmoil, holding fast to the faith, remembering the reward in store for those who hunger after righteousness, and courageously refuse to abandon Him who saved them from the “rewards” of the World--neglect, immorality, paganism, and even death.

The author of Jude writes,

“But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”

The message rings strong throughout the New Testament—God sees you. God wants to call you friend. God has made a way just for you. He doesn’t care about your social status. He doesn’t care about your gender. He opens His arms of forgiveness to you, no matter what their transgressions or sins.  He wants to walk with you once again.  Because you matter to God. He loves you, ultimately and unconditionally.

Affirming this, Galatians 3 states, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Mediterranean was a dry desert--religiously and morally—and the people had been dying of thirst for so long, so very long.  The first group of Christians should have been too small to change the world, logically. But these believers opened the floodgates of living water to all they encountered, and the people drank deep the loving waters of redemption and renewal, and they felt the fullness of Christ fill their hearts and souls, which had been so empty before.

The Prophet Zephaniah spoke of this human need centuries earlier:

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.?He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor?in every land where they have suffered shame.

At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth?when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes, says the Lord.”

That promise, that miracle is still available today for all who are thirsty and hungry for healing and wholeness, for those craving an eternal relationship that they can count on despite the turmoil in their lives.

Wonderfully, 2,000 years later, God still reaches out His holy hands and says, “Come and drink the living water, my friends.

I have poured out a cup just for you.”

 

-John S. Knox, PhD

Adjunct Professor of Apologetics

Three Reasons to Marry for Love

March 24, 2014

In the post-modern world, societal mores are changing in all aspects of life —not least of which is that of marriage, perhaps the oldest social institution of them all. Some sources (www.prb.org) suggest that close to 108 billion people have lived on the earth since life began, and no one would doubt that marriage was an important event for the majority of those people, regardless of their cultures.

Unfortunately, historians and sociologists do not have an exhaustive reservoir of cultural data to examine regarding marriage throughout history. We know about the lives of the rich and the famous, but scant about the commoners in their society. Yet, often without any evidence to back it up, one can read in the media assertions like, “For most of human history, marriage wasn’t a very romantic institution. It was more akin to a business deal between men, the bride in question had very few rights or other options” (people.howstuffworks.com), and “When love entered the picture as the reason to marry, dissolutions became more commonplace” (www.psychologytoday.com).  Proclamations like these only add darkness to the matter and provide an ulterior, but not necessarily helpful explanation for the presence of divorce and annulment.

Reading the article in Psychology Today entitled, “Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Marry for Love” (Gadoua 2013), it is evident that modern thinking discards traditional understanding and incentives for marriage, opting for a more self-serving agenda. Considering the individualistic spirit of the age, it is not surprising; however, shallow argumentation is evident, especially concerning marriage in the context of Christianity.

The article begins with the (incorrect) axiom of “But if you really think about it, love is a luxury.”   The dictionary defines a luxury as “an inessential, desirable item that is expensive or difficult to obtain,” but if love comes from within a person’s heart and mind, then its expression and application costs nothing, materially.  

The author, Gadoua, continues, “When you marry for love, it generally means you have all—or at least most—of your other needs met (like food, shelter, warmth, etc).” Few young adults have luxurious riches when they decide to wed; typically, it is the opposite—couples with no steady job or abundant income for either, with more bills than money, but still with a long-term expectation of loving and working and struggling to survive. 

According to the article, however, “in our attempt to make marriage stronger by raising the bar to meet our higher love and romance needs, we have seriously weakened the institution. These are both highly changeable emotions: When love wanes, the marriage gets shaky; when the romance stops, the nuptials die.”  The mistake in this evaluation is the author’s separation of “love” and “romance.”

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, Lewis presents the basic types of love demonstrated in humanity: Storge or natural affection, Philia or friendship, Eros or romance, and Agape or charity, which is the highest, selfless form of all loves. Each one of these kinds of love has a different goal and implementation, and working together can bring harmony and health to any relationship.  The problem is if one embraces or exhibits only one of these in a marriage or intimate relationship; then, the union will be strained, which the article misses in its conclusions on marriage.

Instead, Gadoua offers, “People whose primary reason to marry is other than love — such as to have children with someone they believed would be a good co-parent, to have financial security, or for companionship — generally have longer and perhaps better marriages because their choices are made for a defined purpose.”  Of course, the author offers no evidence or statistics to back up this jaw-dropping advice. She concludes, “I’m not saying love shouldn’t be on the list of things that need to be in your relationship, but it doesn’t need to be number one (and perhaps shouldn’t be).”

For the Christian, though, love must begin all life choices.  In Matthew 22 (ESV), Jesus commands, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Such advice negates the self-focused, problematic guidance in Gadous’ article.

Wisdom and love comes from someone outside of us—God, whose amazing love for us, once embraced, covers and flows through us to everyone else, spouses included. This good counsel is seen in other Biblical passages. 1 John 4 (ESV) states,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

In simplifying marriage to a mere social contract present to provide mental peace and physical comfort alone, Gadoua has missed the holistic nature and divine origins of love, which begins in and is sustained through productive, charitable actions without absolute certainty of reaping benefits for oneself.  It is hard to see the big picture when you only stare into a mirror.

Marriages don’t fold because spouses are kind, affectionate, self-sacrificing, and understanding. Unions end because of self-absorption and hatred, because of an unwillingness to submit to God’s ethical design for relationships.  Gadoua places the focus on what one can get from the marriage; God places the focus on what one can give to the marriage. It is doubtful that any marriage would end if spouses simply and devotedly followed Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 13 (ESV):

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In contrast, Gadoua’s article reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes, with its emphasis on human pursuits without God (and His love) in the center—vanity, vanity--a chasing after the wind.  Instead, let us follow God’s lead in our relationships and in marriage, which, after all, is just a glimpse of the joy to be had for eternity in Heaven.

Thus, I end with my own three reasons why you must marry for love.

  1. God is love and expects us to be loving if we are His followers.
  2. Love is the only power that can truly heal emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds.
  3. Love is the only force that is eternal, leaving behind a legacy influencing others for good.

 

- John S. Knox, PhD

Adjunct Professor of Apologetics

What Every Pastor Needs from His Flock

March 5, 2014

     I have often heard what churches need from their pastor. Usually the expectations are set extremely high. Today, I would like to reverse the equation and provide a glimpse of what a pastor needs from his flock. Here are my thoughts.

  1. He needs for you to embrace a biblical understanding of his role and responsibility. God has called him to shepherd the flock of which you are a part. God holds him accountable to lead, feed, and intercede. That comes from Acts 6 where Deacons are appointed to assist the pastors with the work of the ministry. You must understand that for your pastor, it is not just a job. It is a calling from God.

  2. He needs your prayers. In Ephesians, Paul asked the congregation to pray for him. During the crisis time leading up to Jesus' crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus told Peter that Satan had requested to "sift you like wheat." Then Jesus states, "but I have prayed for you." If Paul and Peter needed prayer on their behalf, certainly your pastor does as well. Every pastor trying to accomplish God's work faces tremendous opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Please pray for him. You have no idea what he is dealing with on a daily basis and it is difficult to understand the burden he carries as God's shepherd of your flock.

  3. He needs your loyalty. By this, I mean loyalty to the Lord, to him, and to your local church family. When you become a member of a congregation, certain obligations come and one of those is your support. Let me suggest that you talk with your pastor to see if disagreements, disappointments or differences of opinion can be worked out. No doubt, expectations clearly understood and clarifications should be made if possible. If you cannot be supportive of your pastor and you find yourself at an impasse, that may well be an indicator that you need to be in another church.

  4. He needs your commitment to a biblical vision. This means that you embrace the biblical mandates that the church exists to fulfill the Great Commission, to impact your community and the world with the gospel, and to equip believers to accomplish the work of the ministry. Way too many churches seem to have lost that biblical vision of why they exist. Some even go so far as to question whether or not a church which has become completely inward focused instead of outward focused is even a church in the biblical sense. Perhaps that needs to be studied further.

  5. He needs for you to give him the benefit of the doubt. Every pastor is human and makes mistakes. I challenge you to give him the benefit of the doubt that his heart is in the right place. It amazes me how many church members are quick to be critical and quick to speak. Perhaps we need to be reminded of James' words that we are be swift to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Before you make a snap judgment or listen to gossip, it would be wise to exercise caution. Way too many pastors have been hurt by carnal gossip, and unquestioned and distorted perceptions of reality. If there is a problem, talk to him not about him.

  6. He needs for you to be present and participating. No one can be present every time the church doors are open, but every member of a church family should be present on a consistent basis. Does not the Scripture admonish us "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together?"

  7. He needs for you to love him and his family. This includes encouragement, making sure he is provided for, that he has adequate time off, and that he has necessary tools to work with. He needs books, resources, time to learn and appropriate help.

     As a member of the flock, you can help your pastor be the man God has called him to be.

-Jerry Sutton, PhD
Adjunct Professor of Practical Studies
 

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